#2 EMILY ROYSDON
Artist and writer Emily Roysdon is on fire. Over the course of the last three years she’s been included in 2010’s Whitney Biennial, Greater New York at MoMA PS1, and The Generational: Younger Than Jesus at The New Museum. She curated the exhibition Ecstatic Resistance at X Initiative in December 2009, garnering a rave review from the Times‘ Holland Cotter, and co-founded the feminist genderqueer artist collective LTTR (Lesbians to the Rescue) with Ginger Brooks Takahashi and K8 Hardy, in 2001. She has her first solo show in New York, titled Positions, at Art in General through May 7.
It’s an impressive record of success, especially given that Roysdon lacks the dedicated promotional team a gallery would offer. That’s a testament to the harsh reality of New York—shows are easy to come by, but gallery representation is a rarity—but we predict the commercial tide will soon turn for Roysdon. The power of her work and her growing institutional accreditation suggest as much.
And just what kind of art does she make? The medium varies, but perhaps Roysdon’s most successful work, exhibited at the 2010 Whitney Biennial, engages a concept the curators dubbed “Ecstatic Resistance”: imagining the impossible and imaginary in politics. One set of black and white photographs, “The Piers Untitled,” documents the Christopher Street Piers, a site of social and political action for the gay rights movement since the 1970s. The scene is overcast, the images bleak. On an opposite wall, color images of chairs in “Impossible Always Arrives” suggest a future or possible audience. The juxtaposition of the works enriches readings of both.
For her current show at Art in General, Roysdon works to create a vocabulary of movement largely through improvisation. The physical components of the show include a series of three posters, screen printed dancing figures in black behind sloped boards, and aerial photographs of a dancer in Sergels Torg, a public square in Stockholm. These are displayed as though the photographs together would create a new, larger architectural form with which viewers could interact.
Where this work will take her next is unknown, but that’s part of the excitement. We can’t wait to see what she does, and it seems like we’re not the only ones: she’s creating new performances at The Kitchen on May 6 and 7.
The L: How do you start a new piece/project? Do you have an idea or goal in mind that you work towards? Is there an image or gesture that sparks your process and you follow it through until you're satisfied?
Emily Roysdon: I have done 5 new commissions in the last 6 months. So to speak of my process now is very different than I would have a year ago, and will next season. That said, there is definitely continuity in beginnings. Which for me is often in language, a project can begin between two words, or a set of terms. I also think a lot about collaborations, and what I want to try to figure out with another person, what would be fun to do together. And images, yes, I see things in my head and can begin there.
My most recent project for example began with the condensation from previous months of work. I had six weeks to make my first solo show—so I went into the project carrying 4 words: use, regulation, structure, and frame. These four words became a square, and I thought, "A square, nothing so stable makes for a good beginning." To which I added a gesture: "So, I pushed it." This brought me into a project that thought about the formal square and the public square. And from here my 3 solo projects began. Each time trying to learn quickly from the prior experiment and taking some elements to move forward. An important thing to say about my practice now is that i don't have a studio. I work on things in my head, ask every question possible in a notebook, and then just do it. This year when I am presenting a new work, you are seeing it at the same time I am.
I used to be slow, but having to work faster has been great because I have to let myself do new things, to trust in the initial impulse and follow through. Also this year, with the new commissions, I am able to make new kinds of work that I couldn't afford before and needed support to do.
Is there an artist/exhibition/artwork that's had an especially significant impact on your development either recently or at the beginning of your career?
It wasn't until I found the work of David Wojnarowicz that I could imagine a place for myself in the arts. At that point I was still studying international politics, critical race studies, and history of social movements. And an important turn-on for me has also been images of dance—the documents of Judson Church, etc. These are two early triggers. And 10 years later they still resonate.
Is there a show or work you consider pivotal to both your work and your career?
I can look at each project and see its significance in the development of my thinking and process. But if I must choose, I would take the months between November 2009 and February 2010 when I installed Ecstatic Resistance at Grand Arts in Kansas City and then 1 week later at X Initiative and then the day after the opening went out on a boat to shoot some of the photographs that I included in the Whitney Biennial. I had been thinking about 'ecstatic resistance' for a few years, and using the term, so when Grand Arts gave me the opportunity to organize an exhibition and then it got picked up at X Initiative and I got the Biennial call, those months were packed and pivotal. And a great way to return to NY after being out of town for the better part of a year.
I also choose these two projects to emphasize the complimentary nature of both identifying as a writer, organizer, and artist—moving between ecstatic resistance and the photo-based work in the Biennial. But also because with the Biennial I made a kind of image that I had been wanting to for a long time—print-making on top of photographs and this kind of experimental score for movement.
And in the longer perspective, my life as an artist in NY is indebted to LTTR—working in a collective for 6 years and the extended community of that project. It has affected my life, my practice, my thinking, theorizing, ambitions, decisions, and inspiration.
Your website says you recently developed the concept "ecstatic resistance". Can you describe what this is?
The two-liner on ecstatic resistance is that it is a concept about the impossible and imaginary in politics and political representation. And a way to think through all that is unthinkable and unspeakable in the Eurocentric, phallocentric world order.
I developed ecstatic resistance to theorize and engage the practices of my peers, and then I reached into the past to look at examples in other eras and locales. The vocabulary of ecstatic resistance revolves around struggle, improvisation, movement, strategy, communicability, and pleasure… I wrote an essay and also made a diagram of the concept.
Is there another medium or style of work that you'd like to explore, or have started to experiment with?
I've had the extreme pleasure of working with Marina Ancona at 10 Grand Press a few times in the last 2 years and being able to explore print-making with her. So print-making for sure. And also theatre—I'd love to work on sets and art-direction related to a central text. And I'd like to try to take a more traditional role as a director. When I've had these thoughts in the past, theatrical impulses, I always end up perverting the structure somehow and can't keep to the rules, but I think one day I will.
How do you describe your work to your parents?
My "parents" consist of three women—my mom, her best friend/ my second mom, and my grand mother. This is who I am responsible to and explain myself to, if this is what you mean. With them I am still explaining the idea of being an artist. And the work itself is on a case by case basis. There is no intellectual or aesthetic tradition in my family in any direction in any age, and no gays either. They think it's really funny when I say I'm busy, because they think I 'do what I want everyday.' But they do respect that I am independent and making my own way.
I haven't seen my father in ten years but I got an email from him a few months ago that said: "happy and good new year. hope you had nice Christmas.Full time job with benes this year??" Talking about the concepts of the work is far away from that conversation.
"I can't stop thinking about the need to improvise free movement" is printed on the poster for your show Positions at Art in General. How do you define free movement? What drives you to consider improvisation in this form?
For the last few years I have been thinking about an expanded field of choreography. Movement in time and space, and intersections with political movement and movements. But the text on the poster is not meant to be linear, it is in four pieces and can be read in any order. These phrases first appeared on the poster for my show in Stockholm, Sense and Sense, where 'free movement' was questioning a real life public space and the vernacular use of the space. 'I can't stop thinking about' was a way to ground the reader and to bring a questioning into the phrases. The words were the frame of the poster, pushed to the edges. For Positions, I wanted to re-articulate the frame, and added another phrase—'abstract like a function'. Represented as an abstraction like a function. This brings us back to earlier to points in the interview—my process in language, and working in new ways. Abstraction has been a central term these last few months which I wouldn't have spoken of a year ago (not that it wasn't present). But also the core relationship in my work between struggle and improvisation—a framing I carry on from my investment in ecstatic resistance.