Bogren Swift: Dorothy Call Home... a Midwestern Artists
Story of Shoes, Figments, and Maps
I left a couple of days ago from Minnesota, there were tornado
warnings and I was spending a lot of time in the cellar. So, it
was nice to come away from there. You know, hair is what is used
as a device for barometers, isnt it? When the hair curls,
you know somethings up with the weather. Thats always
fascinated me, because I really think that we know of changes
through our skin, not just weather, but all kinds of changes.
I was thinking of a tree that lives in the Midwest that must be
a relative of the locust tree you find all along the avenues here.
I think its a thorn locust. When you just barely touch the
edges of the leaves, the whole thing curls up on itself, it retracts.
Ive noted that when dogs know that weathers coming,
the hair on their back. Of course, they lift it a lot because
theyre nervous about the weather. We have one crazy dog
in our neighborhood, who, every time the weather becomes stormy,
crashes through screens. If hes inside, he crashes outside;
if hes outside, he crashes in. Theres something about
the screen he feels he must penetrate. Thats sort of a barometric
indicator for us, too. Chickens, of course, dont do anything
during a storm except go inside and sleep, because they think
its nighttime. Last spring, I interviewed Jill for Community
Public Radio. I said, Jill, what are people wearing in New
York these days? And she said, Well, theyre wearing
high loft, down coats, because its still chilly, but theres
also the comfort of having some loft between oneself and others.
It just gives some distancing. I thought, what a great idea,
to wear a chicken-feathered coat for the purpose of loft. I was
thinking about the chicken and how, when its threatened,
it puts all of its feathers out. Thats kind of the same
idea as the coat.
are we talking about these things? The reason is that I wanted
to talk about skin, anybodys skin. We dont have to
stay in the same species. I want to talk about skin as a system
of intelligence. Then, I want to cover skin with shelter, because
it is that way. Finally, I want to take that sheltered skin, and
anchor it in place, some way. That will take us back to the Midwest
and after that I will stop.
this ones for you. This is about the idea of wearing somebody
elses skin shelter as your own, which is kind of a way of
talking about intelligence. I want to tell you, from the start,
that I think that we do create desire. When we create desire,
when we take on, for instance, the feathers of a bird for our
clothing, I believe we take on the desire to have that lightness
and warmth. We dont settle for just what we have on, we
want even more of it. For instance, what I mean by that, is Ive
had different odd jobs in my life. One of them was planting trees.
I found that after a day of helping to plant around 2,500 little
tiny one-inch seedlings, I would fill my pockets with seedlings
to take home and plant. When I worked in salmon canneries, packing
salmon, I would find at the end of the season, I was always tempted
to take home a case of canned salmon, or to buy salmon frozen
and send it home. Ive been really interested in why would
I want more of what we take on? It makes me think that thats
just the way it is, that place and movement create the desire
for more movement in that place. You know, when chickens are out
in the chicken yard and wild geese fly over, the chickens, who
have forgotten how to fly, see the geese, with their one eye to
the sky. And the chickens take off and try to fly, and look quite
excited about this for a good twenty minutes afterward, but they
dont try to fly again, because they cant lift off.
But theyll always lift off, when the wild birds fly over.
several years, I was a swimmer. The reason I was a swimmer was
that I was working in the south Pacific, learning how to do commercial
fishing, how to catch sharks and deal with their meat. I learned
to do long distance swimming because I had a real dread of being
attacked while I was unwrapping net from motors, or trying to
free fish weirs. I thought that something might get me, and I
believed that if I could be more like a fish and swim strongly,
maybe I would be safe. Incidentally, most of the slides I am going
to show you will be from my own work as a batik maker. I found
that I often couldnt finish the distance that I wanted to
swim, because I had to get out of the pool to urinate. I thought
that was odd. Because I was a fishery student, I did an experiment.
I began weighing myself before and after each swim, to see if
it was the increased cardiovascular activity that was affecting
my kidneys and filling my bladder, or if I was taking in water
through my body, the way fish do. I found that I gained a half
a pound for every hour that I swam. I didnt keep the weight;
I just gained it, and over the period of the next four hours,
I would lose it again. How odd, because this is what fish do.
They have to cleanse their bodies and they have enormously intelligent
bodies. They can be, for instance, in sea water, and when they
have to be in fresh water, their bodies will adapt themselves
morphologically to take in water, make the necessary changes inside
their bodies, and then excrete the water through their bladder,
just as we do. Fish have extremely intelligent skin. They have
a complicated integument system thats called a lateral line.
You can see this line running down some fish, like salmon and
tuna, and its not that it navigates by orientation to north,
but rather that it allows the fish to have an enormous sense of
place through its ability to discern temperature, depth, salinity,
and even water quality. This means that a fish--lets say
a salmon--will be born and raised in a couple of inches of fresh
stream water, leave that water to live for years in ocean salt
water, hundreds of miles from home (just as we leave our homes
and travel outward), and then when its time to spawn and
die, the salmon, through their skin memory, are able to get home
again to a specific two inches of fresh water.
pretty interested in water and the changes that can happen to
a person in water. I pay attention to whats happening to
me when Im in the pool. I try to put my body into the trust
of the water. When Im in the pool for a long time, however,
the quality of my thinking changes. Although I may have gone in
the pool with the intention to be like a dolphin, as my eyes cloud
with chlorine, I stop paying attention to seeing. I hear my own
breathing, I feel the pull of my muscles, I can hear sound under
water, I can feel that Im in less gravity and in a way I
begin to go into a daydream mode. Im comfortable, awake
and relaxed, and when I turn on my back to float like a resting
fish, there can be a calling to mind of visual sensations. I have
to call them sensations because they are evocative. Like the memory
of, say, a certain side street; the sense that I am, right now,
where I was some time before; or where I go into a patch of pool
water that is being hit by sunlight and I have a memory sensation
of green shutters on a window I passed that was hit by sun. You
know that shimmering, warm sensation. These are skin memories
from a place that I perhaps was or, because theyre so fleeting
and evocative and cant be tied down, perhaps these arent
my memories at all. Perhaps theyre your memories, perhaps
I have your memories because I, with my body of water, am in a
larger body of water, and because the water may be carrying the
memories for all of us, and were the same species, perhaps
what I remember is what you experienced. I dont know, because
its the kind of memory that one doesnt remember as
soon as one changes the bodys position. When the movement
changes--say, one turns the head to look at the clock, or flips
from the back onto the front--the memorys gone. You know
this experience. So, here I am swimming in water, and my skin
is this thin, thin barrier between intimate waters, my waters
inside, and the impersonal body of water outside. I think that
memory morphs as my and your arm muscle completes its pulling
curve, and the head comes up for air. And the head down again,
this time with the memory of the smell of diesel fuel or of old
blood. Im not the only person to have observed this, by
any means. Jean Baudrillard asks, How are we to explain that
we have in our heads the echo of haunting precise music, but are
unable to recall the slightest note or word of it? Or even the
timbre of a voice, but not the voice?
think these are kinesthetic memories. Theyre like dream
images, but they dissolve with movement. They are connected with
physical movement and that is why they are kinesthetic, they are
muscle memories, skin memory, experienced in waking time as if
they are the dreams from night. But how funny, those of you who
know your psychology of dreams know that in order to dream deeply,
one has to be, essentially, paralyzed in the neck. One cannot
sleep if ones neck is not totally relaxed, which is why
the head falls forward when you fall asleep in class. We only
dream when our necks have gone to sleep and when we reach a state
of temporary but full paralysis. Whats the connection between
a vivid, full dream in somatic paralysis and a memory dream connected
with skin, with the integumentary system? Its a question.
I do know that when the body moves again, the kinesthetic memory
moves, too. If there is no movement, there is no memory. That
is, there is no daydream. Daydream comes, I think, with movement.
You check it out.
physical memories are not about the past, which is what we usually
associate memory with. These old memories are actually meant to
be a wet vitality held in parchment skin, mapped language deep
in skin and at the roots of hairs, not at all for the purpose
of getting back to something. Not at all, but rather for the purpose
of apprehending the aesthetics of the present moment, to be oriented
right now. The aesthetic flavor of what is right now present jumping
in front of ones face is understood in part right through
the skin. This must be a kind of navigational memory, the kind
the fish has. For example, Im in New York now, and I was
telling Cheryl, Allan and Merce that I had the feeling that I
was in London, and they said, "Give it a break!" I thought,
well, now, all right! But why would I think that, since this isnt
like London. You know whats the same? My skin remembers
a time of being in London when the temperature was like this.
There was a body proximity that seemed similar to me. Its
a gross connection, but its the best this little skin can
do. The heights of buildings are relational, so that my skin makes
sense of where it is now and apprehends the safety and flavor
based on something it experienced before. I may think the way
that I do because of the work that I do. I said earlier that the
more we do a certain kind of work, the more we want to do it,
which is why its a very good idea to watch out what youre
doing! My craft is batik, its a very slow work that needs
a steady, patient hand and an eye that can read layers of form
dormant under wax. I think that everybody has aspects in their
jobs that are like this, where you make small movements like lifting,
pulling, and placing repeatedly and quietly. I believe these movements
call up poetic notations from the imaginary pages of these travel
atlases. In summary of this particular theme, one may lose track
of time, but never place. One does not forget where one has been,
though centrifugal spins and wobbles dislocate this kinesthetic
memory from logic, from the logic of linear place and time. Anne
Sexton has said it in a way that I like. She said, Your feet
thump thump against my back and you whisper to yourself, child,
what are you wishing? What pact are you making? What mouse runs
between your eyes? What arc can I fill for you when the world
goes wild? The woods are under water, their weeds are shaking
in the tide. Birches, like zebra-fish, flash by in a pack. Child,
I cannot promise that you will get your wish, that lie in your
feet thump thump against my back. I think that Sexton has
caught an interesting thing here. This ability to thump, this
freedom of movement. I had thought that she was talking about
pregnancy when she talks about this thumping. I have come to realize
that it is probably not about pregnancy but about the fact that
we didnt always have the agility to thump our feet against
any back. Because if biology is right on this, human morphology
has developed, from the beginnings, as starfish. You know that
a starfish is a thing that is covered with its own skeleton. Its
brittle, its bird beak, its insect shell, its
backbone, its fingernail, its toenail. At one time,
we were not "softies" as we are now, we were hardies.
I dont think we consciously remember our hardness, but I
am very intrigued by the fact that we seem to have formed stories
to make ourselves feel better about the fact that we are soft
and cuddly, like puppies and kittens. The way we admire soft things
is interesting, and the way we want a change for hard things.
You know the old story of Pinocchio, the wooden boy? His woodenness
turns to real skin, to softness, when he learns to tell the truth,
as if one cant have a soft heart with hard skin. We project
what we are, and we want more of just what we are. We cant
think beyond whatever it is that we are doing, and if what we
are doing is being soft, then thats what we want more of
and thats what we form our mythology around. Were
soft flesh wrapped around bone, like a carnival coney dog on a
stick. This carnival coney dog has a seam, right down the face,
down the nose, you know that cleft in the lip and the chin--thats
not to make us pretty, thats because were seamed right
there, thats where were sewn together. And right down
the belly button and down that scar where the hair grows. Thats
our seam, all the way down, from the back to the front. If we
were starfish, then we wouldnt have to deal with a seam
anywhere, holding all that softness together. If we were starfish,
then we would just settle in there. We wouldnt be kicking
or thumping, wed just be settled in there. Wed sleep
inside the safety of our own self.
I think about the comfort of a skeleton around all of this soft
flesh. I think about being thick-skinned and horny, about being
ambient to temperature. I think about it. I was going through
a mail order catalog, Camponors Summer 99 issue, and
I found a nice variant on the external skeleton. I found an area
on tents, and I thought how when we go outside and were
so soft, we have to find some shelter for our softness, even if
its a tent. But it has to be a tent that is rigid. Heres
a Quick Draw Beachcomber Cabana. You set it up in ten seconds.
You simply toss it in the air, and the coiled steel frame opens.
Then you fill the four attached sandbags, for stability, so you
cant go anywhere, and youre ready to use it. Doesnt
it feel safe and good, when youre all soft and outside,
to climb into some little shelter and stay there? Thats
what we call camping! Because, ordinarily, we cant even
take the minimal shelter of a camping trip. We have to stay inside
bigger and stronger structures. Most of the time, we have to stay
inside and disguised, among our objects, because its safer.
his Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard wrote of a poet
called Bernard Pallassey and Pallasseys imagining of a snail
shell as the prototype for the perfect house to live in. The poet
imagined this snail shell as morphed from tiny up to a size that
would be as big as a house, or at least as big as a tent. And
guess who wanted to take the place of the snail inside that shelter?
Well, of course, it was the poet. What he said was, This is
a wonderful house, that I imagine. When the masonry is finished,
I want to cover it with several layers of enameling, from the
top of the vaulted ceiling down to the floor. When this is done,
Id like to build a really big fire in it, until the aforesaid
enameling has melted and covered the aforesaid masonry. When this
happens, then the inside of this chamber, the inside of my house,
will seem to be made of one piece, and will be so highly polished
that the lizards and earthworms that come in to visit it will
see themselves, as if theyre in a mirror. This is a
strange idea. This is a man who wants to live in a shell and not
come out. He wants the walls that protect him, that wrap around
him, to be as smoothly polished, as if his sensitive skin really
had to come in direct contact with them. I decided to assume that
this mans idea of a perfect shelter is not a house, where
he can be in disguise among his objects, but a spiral place, a
retreat deep into a place where sound and vibration are magnified
around one. He wants to return to mother--of pearl.
cant deny that it is comfortable to be sheltered. We cannot
deny that we are so soft-skinned that we get our feelings hurt
easily. We are so thin-skinned that we must find shelter, that
we must protect ourselves. We have to find the shelter safe. In
this way, shelter is extrusion of the dweller. We dont live
in or among that which we cannot tolerate. This is very interesting,
then, because that with which we surround ourselves, that we are
sheltered by, gives a lot of information about the dweller. It
gives information about our houses--what we put in them, how big
or small they have to be--about our offices, our jails, our hospitals,
and our art museums, too.
been really sweet to my sensibility, these few days that Ive
been in New York this time, to live among the permanent buildings.
In the Midwest, where I live, there is so much that is plastic
and temporary. Its an aspect of what we call urban sprawl
or rural turning urban. Much of Midwest America is low, squat,
and temporary. We call these places our shelters and our institutions.
But they dont feel good. Its been so pleasing to me
in New York to see the permanent buildings, that are meant to
last a long time. I note, as I look on to this beauty of the permanent
buildings around me, that many of the facades are decorated in
a manner that has the relief of leaves, tree branches, flowers,
wild animals. I think, isnt that dear of us? Isnt
that just the dearest thing in the world, that if were not
going to live in the country, then we bring the country to the
facades of our shelters and say, Be here with us. Help to keep
us safe, and help us to enjoy beauty. Because our shelters
are extrusions of ourselves. So I congratulate you New Yorkers
on permanency. I know there was a time in your past when permanency
seemed almost out of the question. But, congratulations! It looks
permanent, which is more than I can say for where I come from.
was saying that its possible that the permanent shelters
are the ones that we unconsciously build because, whether we think
about it or not, we really intend them to last. It would be interesting,
as a little personal check while walking, to see if permanent
buildings reflect our truest values. Lets check, for instance,
churches? Banks? Well, banks where I come from are plastic, now,
with big yellow arrows saying, here, drive here. Police
stations? Gas stations? Did you ever see a brick gas station?
Only the one in Wisconsin, that Frank Lloyd Wright built. Art
museums? I think its an interesting, if not particularly
intelligent, hobby to look at what makes a permanent shelter,
if we identify permanence with shelters that are meant to last.
And we identify shelters with our values. Its interesting
to look at what looks like it will be around for a few years.
Art institutes are such places. When I go to an art institute,
I always go right to the 13th century icons, because I like the
way those painters saw things. I like those eyes rolled back in
rapture. I like those perfect bird feather wings, joined perfectly
and symmetrically to the scapula, left and right of the backbone.
I like all the hair--in fact, best for me, is the hair. I like
the feet and feet of hair. Mary Magdelene hair, that God gave
her to cover herself when she went to live on the island after
Jesus left. And Saint Lucy, with hair all over her body, except
for the nipples of her breasts and her pink, tender knees, where
the hair is probably missing--on her knees, that is--because of
the hours spent on them in prayer. These 13th century artists
made work, lovely pictures, that they figured would last a really
long time, and they are lasting. We are interested in the
ideas contained in the artwork that we hold in our permanent structures
were on the topic of hair--do you know the story of Rapunzel?
Can I give you a little review? Maybe you dont know the
same stories I know. I cant assume that, right? Heres
a review of the story: a woman is pregnant and her husband is
sent out to steal some special lettuce from the neighbors
garden. But this becomes a habit, which is bad, because the neighbor
is a witch. The unborn baby is promised in exchange for lettuce,
and, when she is born, the witch names her Rapunzel and puts her
into a very, very tall tower, from which she cannot get down.
Rapunzel lets her hair grow, and it grows so long that the witch
is able to use it as a ladder to visit her adopted prisoner-daughter.
There isnt much for Rapunzel to do in the tower, so she
doesnt do much. A prince comes by, one day, and, in a falsetto
voice, disguises himself as the witch and because Rapunzel isnt
all that keen on making distinctions between one voice and another,
she allows the prince to climb her hair. When the witch finds
out, she is furious and she cuts off the braids and throws the
girl out the window, leaving Rapunzel extremely light-headed.
She has not only lost several pounds of hair but has, also, lost
her shelter. This is a shelter-less, soft, morphing creature.
Imagine the distress for the girl. She runs around, crying, trembling
and stumbling, very off-balance, until she finds the prince and,
together, they go away to the castle. But I dont think thats
the real story. I dont think thats the way the story
really ended, because, according to my calculations about our
softness and our need for shelter, the castle is out of scale
with what Rapunzel has known. And what has Rapunzel known? She
has known hair. Who would ever have told Rapunzel that this soft,
glossy, warm creature--that turned when she turned, that was comfort
to her, that lifted and snapped and spoke to her when she brushed
it--who would have told her that the hair belonged to her? Why
would she not have thought that the hair was a gift from God,
as the 13th century special people had thought? Why
would she not guard her hair very, very carefully as a sacred
creature, and as a comfort and a shelter, a very responsive shelter?
It was something to stand between her and any other, something,
in fact, that became a ladder from that without to that within.
Its the way that we ourselves greet silky dogs on leashes
while paying no attention to the master at the end of the line.
There is something in us that has warmth and respect for hairy
objects. I think that Rapunzel will be dithered, absolutely dithered,
in the castle. When she reaches out with her arms and her hair
brush and is unable to find her creature, or even to touch the
walls of the castle, which are too far apart, and a ceiling that
is too tall--I think that she will not accept the prince. We have
to look at Rapunzel in a different way. I want to know if you
are going to dispute this. I dont think that I am over-stressing
how important it seems to be to us to shelter ourselves. We come
into the world in our skin and, within moments, we are wrapped,
swaddled and cradled. It isnt long before we are carried
in hard shells, that revert to car seats. The infant, in the season
that we know him or her now, is made safe through hard packaging.
Were on our way back to exoskeletal life. When we are dead
and gone, its customary to wrap the body in best clothes
and put the whole thing into a cradle that is a mobile home, a
boat, a shell, of some kind, and to put that shell into the earth,
into a cement vault and cover the whole thing with a lid. We compete
with the ancient Egyptians in our desire to, somehow, stave off
the softness of rot. The appearances that surround death are even
more important than the reality of it. I know that the appearances
are worth more than the fact, because when my father died, his
body was too long for the coffins in stock. It was in a small
town and there just werent that many choices. So my mother
chose a casket and the mortician solved the problem of too long
a body for the space paid for by doubling back my fathers
legs at the knees and stowing the extra in a hidden chamber at
the base of the casket. Thats why the caskets are so deep,
just in case. I found it very eerie, viewing a tall memory of
a father shorter by several inches than yesterday, as if the magician
with the box and saws had come in the night. I am my fathers
daughter, and now my legs ache when I cant stretch out.
At the end, though we try to shelter the form of the body in structures
that compete with the Egyptians, because we want a permanency
similar to that in New York, the belief is there that there will
be a risen body, so we want it intact. We fear the softness of
the body and we also fear the loss of movement, because if there
is no movement, there is no memory. Because the body is not asleep,
there cant even be dreams. This is frightening, and I think,
as an artist with creative license, we do these things, these
extrusions of ourselves because of our deep memories of how it
was a lot safer and simpler when we were just covered with shell
ourselves. At any rate, its a curious idea.
I think about these things, about the movement and the morphology.
It takes me back to the salmon. Remember the salmon in those shallow
beginnings? I ask myself, what is it that makes the salmon able
to go home again? I never intend to go home again, myself. I know
that its a very hard task for salmon to go home. I worked
a lot of summers in salmon canneries, and I can tell you that
the salmon looked like hell if they had too hard a time getting
home. Heres what happens: theyre in sea water and
they get the call to go back to fresh water. Theyve already
made the adaptation to the sea water by taking in water through
their bodies, and now theyve got to do it in return. But
theyre several pounds heavier and many years older. You
cant really do what they have to do without tearing up your
body. The fish get possessed and they orient to home. Theyre
like movie stars on the trip home. I saw the movie Episode
I and I was intrigued by how they dont eat, they dont
stop to go to the bathroom, they dont sleep, they just move.
They are in motion. As they move, without eating, they begin to
age rather quickly and horridly, because of the salinity changes.
Silver skin turns a khaki color, like cheap duck-hunting jackets,
and a large lump grows on their upper side, like a hunchback.
To cement the effect, salmon grow a lot of real teeth on their
tongues, lips, on the outside of their cheeks and on the tops
of their bodies. They turn into real frightening monsters. This
is what is in your can, unless you eat an expensive kind of salmon.
The reason this happens is that you cannot combine a trip of hundreds
of miles with starvation due to glycogen depletion and come out
with anything other than a morphologically changed creature. You
cant stay the same if you keep moving. Yet, thats
what we ask of ourselves in our lives, is to keep moving.
are the ways we have for doing the right thing? Ive talked
about the intelligence of the skin in these fish. These are intelligent
fish that we call not intelligent, and why do we say this? Because
their skin is a little harder than ours, and its not warm
and soft, right? This fish skin is like human skin in that there
is an ability for discernment of aesthetic features through the
quality of experience of the movement of our lives. I deny that
it comes in through the brain, on the top of the head. It comes
as an aesthetic sensibility through skin. Skin needs movement
in order to have the memory that lets us ascertain the present.
Otherwise, were dreaming. Were asleep. But if this
is true, I ask, what has the salmon got that I am missing? Everything
Ive said to you up to now I really believe. Its a
paradigm, and my work is based on this paradigm. The problem in
the paradigm, for me, is that I personally have got no ability
to find home, myself. I lack the sense of orientation that Ive
been accolading. I certainly can take things in through my skin
and appreciate where I am and have that orientation that comes
from my past experience, but I cant actually get home again.
I cant even get back to the apartment, today, without help.
I want you to remember this, because I want to talk about it in
just a couple of minutes, that I dont know how to get home.
I was in the woods a couple of years ago, in my own back forty,
and I never should have been lost because its just a forty.
But the canopy was out and I somehow got lost. I knew that I was
lost when, right through my skin, came a clammy kind of panic.
I saw the sun shining on my left shoulder and I asked, now, whats
that supposed to mean? I realized that I didnt know what
that meant. I was aware, even while the panic was rising, that
this was very interesting. I said to myself, here you are, physically
lost, and you are now lost, mentally. Now that you dont
know where you are, you dont know who you
are. In a real way, I was not existing, because I couldnt
identify a place to exist in. Its like Rapunzel out of her
tower, stumbling around, disoriented, without place or shelter--not
knowing where you are because youve lost your shelter and
your grounding. I did get back again, because, at some point,
I recognized a landmark, but I dont forget what it was to
be lost. It makes me think about being lost a lot. I dont
know if youve ever had a relative who walked away from the
place where he or she was supposed to be staying. There are all
these stories of these. I had an old uncle who used to leave my
grandmothers house every time he could escape, and get out
on the road to head, unerringly, for home. This uncle didnt
know his own name, but he could get home if he didnt get
run down on the way by a car. An old bachelor uncle with an addled
mind--have you ever known anybody like that? They always say,
no matter what, Take me home. They want to get out of there.
It makes one wonder if what we call Alzheimers disease is,
rather than being a mental dysfunction, is perhaps a breakup of
a personal orientation. Perhaps it is a hardening of something
physical in the integumentary system that disrupts kinesthetic
memory. You feel if perhaps you could get out and head home, you
might remember who you are. But your skin cant handle the
problem. Its another way to think of disease. Were
such a brain-oriented group and, yet, thats not the way
riddle is how, if you can find your way home, then I suggest that
says something about the fact that you like that shelter. You
want to be there. For persons like myself, who cannot find their
way home, I would ask, is that because home is a paradigm or structure
that was not a safe or pleasing shelter? Perhaps the extrusion
didnt fit. So, since I have no homing instinct, maybe I
cant even go around the neighborhood. Instead, what becomes
home is a temporary, present shelter, or a creation. Perhaps creative
thinking or thought comes to the homeless. There is a possibility
that, if home as a hard fact cannot be gained, maybe one extrudes
a new, fresh one in the present, as soon as possible.
can imagine that each of us is homeless a part of the time. Were
surrounded by these computers and electrifying gadgets. Its
not easy to think of skin as the pre-electric communication system
that it actually is. Id like to suggest, in ending, that
if we do, then the skin and our thin-skinnedness, may foster a
self-sufficiency. If we pay attention to our movements and only
move in the direction its right to go, then the experience
will flavor the experience of tomorrow in a positive way. Paying
attention to movement and the visual images that come from the
repetitive movements in life may be a genesis for creative work.
I could imagine each of us on a road to the creative home, if
not the real home. Even paced, comfortably jogging, or in a steady
walk, and thinking about nothing at all. Not being intelligent,
and letting the ancient skin-based systems of morphological navigation
and map-reading jiggle out pieces of the morphing puzzle of our
creative selves. Thats it.
you start on the questions and answers, could you go back and
talk about the dogfish story?
me take it one story at a time. I feature dogs often in the work
that I do, because, in fact, I live with a dog and some other
people. All that hair! Im interested in the idea of, since
were soft-skinned anyway, letting that soft skin let loose
of all of its barriers and merge with other species of soft-skinned
creatures. Why not try, in that kinesthetic behavior of, in my
case, slow waxing and repetitive work, to see what can happen
by paying attention to the images that come up while spending
time with other soft-skinned hairy creatures? What is going to
be the genesis of your work? Are you always going to be intellectual?
Are you always going to be looking at concepts? Sometimes, isnt
the body itself there for its own exploitation? The body doesnt
have to be exploited sexually or psychologically, but it can be
through merging. When we talked about this before, we talked in
context of a then time. What I answer your question
now with is whats on the mind now. My work is about physical
morphology and physical memory. I like to take cloth outside and
let rust and dirt and ice affect it first. I bring it in and live
with it for a while, then begin to dialogue with it. I know that
bleached cotton, which is what I work with, is actually a ghost
of a live, green plant. I think that the cotton morphologically
remembers when it was green and alive. I say to the cotton--not
out loud--OK, remember? Remember when you were alive and moving
in the soil? I say to the beeswax, remember where you came from?
Remember, beeswax, when you were pollen, and the live, furry things
came for you, carried you away and did things with you? Now youre
all mine and were all three together. We add some heat and
we do some creative alchemy. I love the opportunity for the most
outrageous creative thinking possible, and then to put that thinking
physically down on the cloth as best Im able, which isnt
very able. Most of us, as professional artists, are mediocre,
as artists go. Theres a median for what is good enough and
thats where we get. Its not like theres anything
outside of normal to do what we do. Its just a paradigm
that we choose to follow. What was the third question?
you didnt answer them!
cant. That was then!
Could you talk about the iron range work you were doing when you
were making that grant proposal?
course. In New York, you have got a diversity of persons to the
nth degree. You cant walk a half a block without seeing
all of the world walking around with you. It is fantastic and
so exciting. Its all above ground. You have the variety
of foods. And as I said, youve got these stiff buildings,
made of rock, with the extrusions of the floral patterns, the
tree branches and the wild animals, all staying very still, as
they should. You dont want them animated. You are animated!
Where I come from, in northern Minnesota, were pretty much
all the same, above the ground. All of us walk around, pretty
much looking and saying the same things. We wear the same clothes
and we dont talk out loud our imagination. Thats not
what we do over there. But, underground, northern Minnesota and
the Lake Superior region is one of the worlds richest, most
diverse and most ancient land cultures in the whole world. What
I mean by that is any time you have an iron range, you have old
land, because iron is formed from the old seas. It is the precipitation
of green plants with ore to, symbiotically, form something that
becomes, later, iron for mining. Its formed when where we
are now was south in a sea. Because the earth has moved around,
the iron has moved around. Anywhere there is iron in the world,
you have old land. Old land is diverse because it has caught the
life in its strata from before Precambrian days. Whats that
story, Precambrian Dreams? What a beautiful idea. In iron country,
the land holds the diversity, the magic and the morphology, so
that those of us on top of the land can be the same. You dont
live on iron country, so you cant afford the luxury of being
all alike. Were a yin-yang. The country compensates in land
diversity where the people are similar. Where the land is kind
of boring, people are diverse. It is quite lovely. When I make
work, I start with the rust, as I told you, and with the ghost
of cotton. I say, lets start with the thing perceived in
the cloth, and with each panel or additional work, lets
see how that work morphologically changes. So, if there were fish
teeth up here, what do dog teeth look like, down here? Memory
forgets to do today what it did yesterday. It morphologically
changes, so work changes, too.
about the iron breathing?
iron breathing! You know that? You know that iron breathes. I
thought everybody knew that, of course. In the hemoglobin, it
is the iron, carried lightly in globin, or protein, that makes
a red blood cell. The red blood cell goes into the lungs, and
it is the magnet of the iron that attracts the oxygen. We are
iron people. In rocks, it is no different. Hematite, which is
rust or iron ore, attracts oxygen and it is the oxygen being released
that creates rust. When iron ore is taken from northern Minnesota
and the Lake Superior region and brought over to Detroit and other
places, and put in the foundry, the heat knocks the oxygen, the
breath, out of the iron ore for a little bit. But have you noticed
how, after about eight years or so, that any car you ever had
takes a deep breath and begins to remember what it was, which
was hematite. It begins to breathe and, as it breathes, it rusts.
So that, knowing this, I know that rocks have memory. I know it
isnt just iron ore, but most rocks hold oxygen, so that
which is beneath us is full of oxygen, as well as that which is
above us. Except that, while we hold a breath for a lifetime,
rocks are holding their breath, breathing and changing very slowly.
But its a good thing to drop the barriers and identify the
physicality of the self with the world, with the rocks even. Its
not just the plants that are breathing! Thats what we learned
in school, but rocks breathe, too. Everything is breathing.
liked your idea about skin and how all of us gravitate toward
skin, but I cant help noticing that skin has holes in it.
Its in those holes that we have eyes, ears and mouths. Its
those holes that, in some way, become the senses. I was wondering
how to reconcile the skin and the holes in the skin.
a pretty question. I dont think there needs to be a reconciliation
so much as there needs to be a dance. To say, I smell something--thats
olfactory. Ive gained water weight--thats integumentary.
Biologically, theyre different systems. Theyre friends,
but its a fact that we can forget about the old paradigm,
if we choose, that our sensibility is through our senses, excluding
our skin. We now know that we absorb chemicals through our skin,
that we absorb everything through our skin. According to Rupert
Sheldrake, we resonate with one another through our skin. I think
theres a new paradigm coming in and we may as well begin
to think about that.
dont know if this is relevant or not, but do you believe
in reincarnation? And, are you a vegetarian? Because your paradigm
is such a belief system. I think its beautiful, and its
beautiful to hear you talk. Your work is gorgeous. But these are
the things I was curious about.
I try not to think about reincarnation because I have a fear that
I would be the one to come back as chemical sludge. I mean, do
you get to choose? So, I dont think about that. And, I dont
eat anything thats bigger than I am.
really attracted to what you said, and Im sure I need to
think about it--or, not think about it, perhaps! --a little while
longer. But, I feel like youre maintaining a split, a sort
of mind/body, exterior/interior. I think youre absolutely
right that we experience things through the skin, but we need
to process them with our mind. Im wondering if maybe you
can convince me otherwise.
Youre right. Also, I was thoughtful enough to say, in the
beginning, that this is not intelligent. That lets me off the
hook of having to justify it. Its a hunch, and it is, as
you say, a belief system. I believe what I say but Im hard
pressed if you put me in a corner, except to evaluate your own
also kind of floored by your talk. I hope that I can talk intelligent.
Ive always been intrigued by scars on peoples skin,
and by the fact that so many people have scars but they cant
remember how they got them. To me, thats about the body
having a memory that the brain has forgotten. When I say that
to people, they kind of look at me like Im crazy. I want
to know your thoughts about it, because it seems like you might
not think Im crazy. The second part is sort of a comment.
Theres an Aztec god, whose name I cant remember, who,
according to legend, takes the skin of all of his ancestors and
sews them together into a cape and wears the cape during religious
very beautiful. I havent heard about that. Regarding the
scars, Ive been discovering as I age that scars from my
brothers fingernails in my forearm when I was a kid are
becoming apparent again. Scars that were hidden when my skin was
young are showing up again as my skin wears. I think that both
of those things are wonderful, because theyre related.
talked about how we can lose track of time but we never lose track
of place. I was wondering if you could talk about that connecting
to memory and what you were saying about your uncle being able
to find his way home, even though he couldnt go to the bathroom
also said that I cant find place, myself. So, it is a poetic
notation, a poetic concept, what home is. I think that home is
an extrusion. Home, and experience lived, becomes a poetic shelter
that we are always oriented to, if it was good. If it wasnt,
then we extrude to new homes, new shelters. In the case of my
uncle, I believe that home was good. Whatever the present was
giving him, it wasnt giving him home. So he extruded the
idea of home and headed for the real home, because hes a
physical person. A creative person might head to a play, or a
book, or a good cup of coffee, for home. Home is an extrusion,
the way a spider extrudes something or bees extrude wax, or the
way we extrude stories. Its poetic. But, because were
physical, its also real.
just wonder if we can have more than one home.
hope so, because it has to be. But I wonder what you mean?
you have more than one good home, its a good thing. But
for you, is your work your home? Is that what you think of?
think that youre right in that you can have a lot of homes.
Because its a poetic notation and its a powerful,
and real, one, its an idea or a paradigm that can be kicked
about. Where I take it is into skin. Where you take home, would
be your extrusion. Its a creative idea for each of us who
have interest in it to take it somewhere else. Just as skin is
a creative idea that doesnt belong to anyone. I think that
it is so important, as artists, that we claim hold on poetic language.
Who is it that said yesterday, art is the artificial, art is the
virtual. Its physical and real, but its also an idea.
Im tired to the teeth of thinking that I should use words,
when Im speaking about the creative process, that are linear,
logical and of seventh grade English literature. Im a creative
person, as you are creative persons, and we can lay hold onto
poetic language. Its an effort. It takes study. It is the
poetic language that lets us speak creativity. Its at least
as valid as the literal.
have a lot of different strands running around. I was wondering
if you could talk a little bit about the personal self and the
home, and the energies that are in the self. I think thats
one thing were sort of missing here. Were talking
about being sensory beings, having these holes, and needing to
run to shelter, which is a home of some place. But what about
our shelters within ourselves, and what about our own auras, our
own selves, our own energy fields and how we connect with other
thats your interest. Im not interested, so much, in
that. Im interested in poetic language to think. Regarding
ones own auras or energies, Im just glad if, when
I wake up in the morning, I still want to be a creative person.
Because being a creative person is the hardest work that I know.
There is not a common support for being creative. There is not
a common support for speaking poetically. The more we do a thing,
the more we do a thing. So, the more we speak poetically and the
more we allow our barriers of our physicality merge with other
species, the stranger we become. The stranger we become, the more
we have to remember to use the linear logic when we are with non-strange
people. Its like living a divided life. I just give you
warning that, as creative persons needing to speak poetically
so as to understand your own world, your own gift, and to allow
the gift to flower, when youre with the other guys, you
have to say, "So! Hows it going?" Thats
what interests me. I think its different for you. Besides,
I am the one who has a hard time finding home, because Im
out here somewhere!
talk was very poetic and provocative, but Im not sure I
followed you. You said that skin has intelligence? And you also
said that skin is a shelter. Along the way, you mentioned a lot
about dreams, about rocks and fish. I actually have two questions.
I was wondering if you think of skin as a site of imagination?
The second question is, even though you talked about a collective
memory or imagination, accumulated imagery that runs through us,
skin also is a site of separation. You can never get out of your
skin. Whats your comment about this?
think what you said about the skin carrying imagination is wonderful,
and I intend to say that myself in the future. And I will credit
you with it! I hadnt thought about that, specifically, but
it makes sense to me. About the other, I remember passing a roadkill
of a dead dog. The dog was so dead that only its envelope was
left. I said, ha! An envelope whose letter has already been sent.
The letter was, of course, the water inside and all the vitality--the
electrical fields and the iron--was all gone. The letter went
back to the big post office in the world, the physical world,
leaving its envelope. Were just envelopes, all of us. Dogs,
fishes--were all carrying the same material. Squeeze the
envelope shut, and the bodys gone. That isnt answering
your question, but thats what I think about skin. Its
easy to think about different species, because whats inside
the skin is the same. Its the physical world. I live in
this world, Im not living in the sky. This is physical.
The skin is just a thin barrier that doesnt have to keep
me in here, because I leak. I have the opportunity to visit the
other species, as long as Im in the physical world, in a
have to end this. I dont know if I can get you to do this
or not, but can you tell the story of the dogfish?
dont know this story... Oh, that one. Why didnt you
say so before? If you spend any time in any part of the world
outside of the United States, you get to be animistic. You get
to understand that things have got life, and you dont even
have to try. I learned a story when I was in Alaska. I think its
an Eskimo story. Its a common story of Sedna. Sedna was
an attractive young woman, and it was time for her to marry. Her
father was a little greedy and hasty, and he married her off to
a dog. The dog took Sedna to an island and put a leash around
her neck. The leash was told to let her out to pee, but otherwise
Sedna was supposed to stay in the house. Sedna was not happy about
being married to a dog and made friends with the leash, so that
when she went out to pee, the leash released her, and she jumped
into the sea. She tried to swim to the boat where her mother and
father were fishing. She got there and tried to climb into the
boat, but her father, being who he was, started hitting her to
keep her out of the boat. She tried with all her might to get
inside, so he took a knife and cut her fingers off. Her fingers
bled and went into the sea, and it became all the fishes and the
sea animals. She put her elbow over the edge of the boat and he
said, no! And he cut her arm off, which sank into the sea and
became monsters of the sea. She was left without fingers, hands
or arms, and she sank to the bottom of the sea, furious. She was
free of the dog, but she was at the bottom of the sea. In her
anger, she built herself a shelter. In the house were all the
bones of all the people who had wronged her. When people, like
her mother and father, went out fishing, she sent storms to them
or she sent the monsters up to kill them. Then their bones floated
down and she collected them in her room. But, she had a heart,
and as the story goes, if you go out on the sea and you behave
yourself, if you are good in your transactions, then Sedna will
not take you. Your bones wont float to the bottom. She will
feed you, instead.
by Ann Mansolino
the midst of an age dominated by rapidly proliferating technologies
and digital communication, the ideas of home, memory, and the
self are increasingly being defined by the electronic information
technologies that surround us. In contrast to this, the artist
Vernal Bogren presented a pre-electric approach to informationin
particular, a system of intelligence based on skin.
to Bogren, skin possesses a form of memory. This memory consists
of sensations; it is evocative and fleeting. It morphs as the
body changes position, and can thus be thought of as kinesthetic
memory. Like a fish that can sense changes in water temperature,
depth, and salinity, like the salmon who swim upstream to return
to the conditions of their births at the time of their deaths,
so do we sense our surroundings through our skin. It is through
these physical dreams of skin memory that we are able
to apprehend the aesthetics of the present moment and to make
sense of where we are now based on where we've been. These memories
held in the skin and hair account for why one place resembles
or feels like another. It is thus that we may lose track of time,
but not place.
of the defining characteristics of human skin is softness. Bogren
explored the connection between this softness and the hard structures
we build to shelter ourselves. She spoke of the return to an exoskeletal
life: of our need to be disguised among the hard shells of our
objects (such as cars, buildings, and eventually coffins) for
safety and shelter. She posited that shelter is an extrusion of
its dweller, and that the structures we surround ourselves with
therefore function as a reflection of our values.
her presentation, Bogren showed slides of her own batik work,
an art whose process mirrors her ideas about skin and physical
memory. She says her work is about physical morphology, and that
the bleached cotton which forms the surface for her batik pieces
is the ghost of a large green plant that remembers what it was.
She describes her artistic process as creative alchemy.
contrast to the fish she discussed at the beginning of her presentation,
the salmon whose skin memory allow them to return home to freshwater
at the end of their lives, Bogren asserts that despite our own
capacity for physical memory, many people have difficulty finding
home. Lacking a sure sense of orientation, we find ourselves unable
to get home again. Bogren sees this as an indication that our
extrusion of shelter doesn't fit. When this is the case, the self
must thus extrude a fresh creative shelter which becomes home.
In response to this, Bogren calls for skin-based mapping
and for an investigation of the repetitive physical movements
in our lives. It is through such things, she believes, that we
will be able to locate both a point of genesis for creative work
and a true sense of home.
by Bennie Flores Ansell
is going to be the genesis of your work?
you always going to be intellectual? Are you always going to be
looking at concepts? Or sometimes isnt the body itself there
for its own exploitation
needs movement in order to have the memory in order to ascertain
skin is like this for the ability for discernment of aesthetic
features, not through the brain, but through the skin.
is so important that we as artists take hold of poetic language,
it is physical, it is real and it is also language. I am tired
to the teeth, thinking that I should use words when I am speaking
of the creative process. To use language that is linear and logical.
Claim poetic language, it is the poetic language that lets us
speak of creativity and it is at least as valid as the literal.
language of Vernal Bogren Swift alludes to a sense of us trying
to ground ourselves in something, to create a home base in which
we feel comfortable. Her argument throughout this lecture was
presented under the surface, in terms of her poetic language.
Her claim being that artists create a barrier around themselves
based in theory and lacking in bodily experience. She proves her
argument using metaphors about our soft-bodied beings
which were once hard-bodied, that are now looking
to shelter our skin. She illustrates this allusion to theory in
artist practices and todays post postmodern art world relentlessly
in her lecture.
her presentation she flashes images of her own work done in the
ancient batik medium, colorfully and intuitively made with the
materials which she knows has a memory of being what they once
were in the living form. Thinking about not being intelligent
and letting the morphological navigation, morphological map
reading giggle out pieces of the morphing puzzle of her creativity.
Bogren Swifts work is about physical morphology and physical
memory. She claims the bleached cotton is a ghost of a large green
plant, and it remembers what it was. She calls this collaboration
with the earthy materials a creative alchemy.
to Bogren Swift, our human bodies are tools to listen to and guide
us in the art making process. Meteorologists use hair in barometers
for measuring change of the atmosphere; when the hair curls there
is something in the weather. We know of changes through our
skin. More specifically, she calls skin a system of intelligence
and memory. The Skin Memory Map, what she calls the
pre-electric system, use it and forget the brain for memory,
use the experience of yourself now in the moment as your guide
in creative works. This is a call to work more intuitively
and less cerebrally, without the need of a protective exoskeletal
system/theory based in education/memory .
Swift used the example of salmon going back to their place of
birth specific to two inches of place to express the need
for us to go back to a place of creating art from our in-skin/bodily
experience. The skin map language, held in memories
is not for the purpose of getting back somewhere, but to apprehend
the aesthetics of the present moment. Her argument is that we
as artists need to be present, to be oriented now, as understood
through the skin, such as a navigational memory that the fish
have. She uses this metaphor as a call to get us back to the place
we once were as artists, pre-theory and all intelligent
in the creative process.
idea of home was also explored in this lecture. Home was illustrated
as being a constructed idea, good for some and not good for others.
A place that some of us want to go back to and find and others
not. The construction of home and self was explained by Bogren
Swift in her words of, Our seam down our nose and down our
chin where we are sewn, to the belly button. We are made,
sewn, constructed, therefore we can make ourselves and our belief
systems anything we choose.
use of the Rapunzel fairy tale in this discourse is very poignant,
for I believe it illustrates Bogren Swifts point of the
predicament of the artist today, who is solely based in the Ivory
Tower of theory and becomes dithered when they are kicked out
of the tower, stripped away from theory and protection. Rapunzel
is dithered. The artist without their locks of theory is
dithered. In this analogy, Vernal claims that we too will be dithered
in the nakedness without the shelter of theory and cerebral management
in the art-making practice.
us back down to earth we can forget about the old paradigm in
this time of technological advances. She claims a new paradigm
is coming in and we may as well begin to think about that/her
Bogren Swift presented it came as a flighty, irritating shift
in our first week into the seminar, yet as I thought of it more
and more, I realized what a refreshing viewpoint it was after
all the talk of theory and art experimental practice.
Vernal Bogren Swift is grounded in her soft-bodied existence,
creating work from a biological viewpoint and her own skin experience.
I dont know if this new paradigm she calls for will happen
on all levels of art practice, for it is a facile utopian idea/plea.
Artists will always work on different echelons of thought and
experience. And all of art is up for critique as prescribed by
the art theoreticians, the art critics, and the art historians.
As refreshing as it was to hear the ideas Vernal Bogren Swift
touches upon, it is unfortunate that the artist who chooses to
work in the way of skin intelligence will be left
out of the continuum of 'popular' discourse in art practice and
find it to be a swim upstream.