Master of Puppets

04/11/2012 4:00 AM |

I just wonder for you, what was the thing that got you over the hump, so to speak?

Well, you know, I really think that part of it was that I was comfortable living on very little. Well, comfortable is not the right word—it was acceptable to me. I didn’t think about it. And I think, also, I was a loner. I eventually moved toward working with other people because I needed that and wanted that, but I was a loner. I was a person who worked in her studio happily for hours and hours. And again, the thing is, when you make things you have an edge, you can make things happen. It’s exhausting after awhile to always work on a small budget, but I think that’s what kept me going.

And here’s another thing that’s contributed to my longevity, I believe. I lived around the corner from La MaMA for a very, very long time and Ellen Stewart used to walk her dog around the block and I always knew about the theater and loved that theater. It took me a very long time to connect with Ellen—I think my first piece there was in 1992. In an unconventional way she provided an artistic home for a whole group of artists. It was unconventional in that you were not going to have your piece produced and there was not going to be money coming in to pay your actors, nothing like that, but it was actually an emotional, supportive, artistic home. And that mattered to me. So, that’s a really big feature of my longevity—the fact that from ’92 to now I get a show there every year, except for 2010 or something.

There are so many artists that Ellen supported throughout their career, and it seems like there’s so little of that available to a younger generation, in terms of any kind of enduring commitment.
It’s true, it’s true.

Over the years of your career you’ve clearly engaged in a lot of research, on the subjects of each show, as well as puppetry and theater. I would assume that you’ve built up a large base of knowledge in all that work. Do you feel like there are certain interests or questions that have focused your research, so to speak?
You know, I think that goes back to when I first hit on the idea of puppets. What interested me was my notion, erroneous or not, that the puppet could be a Brechtian actor—that the puppet would transmit information faithfully. When I first started out, I was also interested in having the puppeteer be fully visible because I liked the idea that you would go back and forth between looking at the puppet and looking at what was making the puppet move. I’ve since moved to a more illusionistic kind of approach, but I think that notion of a dialectic always interested me—oppositional things. So, the contradictions and the paradoxes of history or of science, or of power, really, have always interested me.

I want to talk for a minute about your interest in the sciences and medicine, in terms of Prometheus Within, and in some of your earlier work.

I was always interested in science. I was a Pre-Med major, so I shifted to art. I think the creativity of science, the creativity that scientists experience, has always interested me, as well as the dark side of the power of science. Recently I became interested in the scientist Doris Taylor, who I mentioned earlier. One afternoon I was in my studio and I was listening to NPR and there was an interview with her, and she was describing how she had taken a heart from a rat and she had washed it with some kind of shampoo until it was a white scaffold—it was just the architecture of a heart, and she had put stem cells into it. 6-8 weeks later, one night, in the middle of the night, her lab assistants called her to tell her, “Doris, it’s beating.” And, you know, I was captivated by her, and so she had to be in the next show. And for some reason she lined herself up right next to Prometheus, who was also an inventor and a scientist. And then other things just started to sort of attract themselves to the core of the play. Dolly the Sheep is in it—there’s a giant puppet of Dolly. I’m also interested in the fact that the military right now has been given a lot of money to develop devices, technologies, that are treating injured soldiers—research into regenerative medicine to regenerate limbs.

You’ve engaged with subjects around war in a lot of your work, so it’s interesting to see that you, like the military, are looking at how war plays out on the body, particularly given the relationship between your use of puppetry and medicine and your own body as a model for many of your early puppets. When you were doing your autobiographical work, you were literally deconstructing your own body, in puppet form.

That didn’t come out of nowhere. That was because I was seeing amazing women artists using their body for the first time, or maybe not for the first time, but again in this wave and this movement—using their bodies in very explicit and amazing ways.

I like thinking about that in terms of what you said about the potential for puppets providing a kind of distance that allows for truth-telling to take place. It’s certainly an interesting link between puppet work and Body Art—not a link that many people would think of immediately, but it’s kind of a rich idea to work around.
Yeah, I think that must be one of the major connections for me, because, again, I’m a maker of things, figurative things.