[ALIVE PODCAST] Interview With Renee Piechocki - A Discussion on A Liberation Abecedary
Interview with Renee Piechocki
Performance is Alive Director, Quinn Dukes, interviews Renee Piechocki about her latest video collaboration, A Liberation Abecedary, inspired by Martha Rosler's Semiotics of the Kitchen. Both Piechocki and Rosler's videos screen on May 13th via Franklin Furnace Loft. Piechocki is calling for participation with the project, and invites our listeners to submit a performance response. Contact Franklin Furnace to become involved!
This podcast is presented in collaboration with Franklin Furnace.
Quinn Dukes: Hello out there world! My name is Quinn Dukes and I am the Director of Performance is Alive. I am so delighted to be here today with Renee (Piechocki). Could you please introduce your piece and your name?
Renee Piechocki: The name of my piece is A Liberation Abecedary and my name is Renee Piechocki.
Quinn Dukes: So today we are going to be talking about Renee's new project, which is scheduled to premiere virtually on Thursday, May 13th at 7pm (EST) via the Franklin Furnace Loft.org website.
We're coming at you from our separate zoom worlds. I am in Brooklyn right now and Renee, where are you coming from?
Renee Piechocki: I am tuning in from the beautiful city of Laramie, Wyoming.
Quinn Dukes: Before we get started I'd like to pose a little surprise prompt. Do you have access to a kitchen where you are right now, Renee?
Renee Piechocki: I do.
Quinn Dukes: Wonderful. I would like to ask you to go into the kitchen and identify three objects that you think are power objects for you. I'm going to do the same. I'm going to go into my kitchen and see what I can find. Just three objects, don't overthink it and we'll be right back.
Renee Piechocki: Okay, this is not my kitchen. It's an Airbnb kitchen, so this is an extra challenge. I love it, okay let's go.
Renee Piechocki: Okay, I’m back. That was a challenge!
Quinn Dukes: Amazing, so tell us what you are coming back with.
Renee Piechocki: This is good, I like this challenge Quinn, I immediately know that you are funny. I like this question. All right, so what I came back with are three items, one is a scissor. Do you want to know why I chose it or you just want me to show it?
Okay, I thought, what would make me feel super liberated about a scissor is you can cut ties with things that do not work for you anymore. You can also reshape things which is really good.
So, this is not mine (the scissors), this is in the place I'm staying. But I do travel with my own tea ball all the time because I have lots of funny eating habits, but also, I thought, it can kind of go anywhere and it did. I went on a big trip in 2019, I traveled around the world for a whole year and this was in my luggage as an essential item, because I'm not a big coffee drinker. So this for me was like a super important tool to get what I needed. And it just fits in your pocket if you need it to.
But then the other thing is tongs - which I really loved. I think it's similar to the scissor. It's like a tool of being particular and selecting what you want. It's an extension of your body, this tong. You become a foot longer in all directions with this tong.
Quinn Dukes: Those are wonderful items. I enjoy this prompt also. I ran to this lemon squeezer. I mean, there is just so much that is satisfying about getting every last possible drop of juice, whether it's lemon juice or any sort of citrus. A peeler! Precision. I was totally relating to you talking about precision earlier and shaving the outer layer of something off then having that underlayer revealed and watching that change. Pretty amazing. And it doesn't need a champagne flute?
Renee Piechocki: Can’t think of anyone.
Quinn Dukes: Great funny shape, pretty delicate, but also full of fun. Potential fun. All right, well, thank you for humoring me.
Renee Piechocki: I love that prompt, that was awesome.
Quinn Dukes: I'm really excited to hear you share, what led you to wanting to create this piece that you'll be presenting and was it inspired directly by Martha Rosler's Semiotics of the Kitchen piece?
Renee Piechocki: Great question. The foundation story of why I wanted to make A Liberation Abecedary is kind of a 10 year plus meditation on Semiotics of the Kitchen. Not actively every day. Her video is one that was part of my own kind of feminist awakening in my 20s. First seeing it in college, I went to Hunter College in the early 90s, and you know, seeing that piece, for the first time was really important for me.
It showed me a new way of looking at kitchens and tools and was a window into this concept. Even though it's like a young teenager in high school, like, I was very much about being as strong a person as I could be for human rights, and all those things I had never really thought about the systems that might be limiting me.
Her video is the video that gave me that window. More than any other artwork. It's like, oh wow. There's something going on with kitchens and femininity, that I wasn't clued into yet and I'm really grateful to that video and her for making it. But the other thing about that video that has always stayed with me is that her sense of humor in that video. To me it's very, very funny and also the use of sound is terrific.
But the humor and the shrug at the camera at the end. So the piece stayed in my mind.
My first encounters were still images and I was like okay, that's really interesting, it's always her with the knife and with her arms folded. So the first time that I saw the actual video, it really blew my mind.
And so you know I'd see it - I remember seeing it in museums in New York. I'm one of those persons who goes to the College Art Association just for fun. To see what people are doing. I would go to the feminist tracks of the CAA and a lot of people talk about that video and write about it. It really got me thinking for a long time, like okay, that video is in my guts. It has meant a lot to me. It'd be really interesting to do a response. If that video was calling me, what is my response?
Yeah, that's the story, it took me a long time to come up with the right idea. You can go online and a lot of people have recreated that video. There's a lot of different experiments that people have used, and I wanted to look at some of the frameworks of it. But then also not try to replicate it, it doesn't need to be replicated. In my mind when I finally came to the idea of the framework that I wanted to use, I kind of wanted to be like “Martha, I heard you”, you know, “I loved your video, thank you so much.” This is how I'm feeling now, or this is what I want to do with this concept of tools.
Quinn Dukes: So how in the world did you select 28 collaborators to work with you on this piece? I mean that's a significant part of this video project.
Renee Piechocki: It is a significant part. Maybe that gets to a little bit about the framework behind it, because I've had so many bad ideas connected to this in the past, and I think they're hidden deep. Although I've come across notes for some of them recently and they really cracked me up. It's great to look through your old notebooks sometimes.
But when I finally came to the idea that the video is not about me, although I am in it and I'll talk about why in a second. For me, it was part of the shift away from Martha Rosler’s video. That video is about her but it's a universal woman who's in this kitchen. And I thought Oh, if I could take the concept of a universal person and then actually expand it to be more people, it fits in a little bit with my thinking about how to engage.
So, how did I do it? I really wrote people slowly. I started to invite people to participate, I came up with a draft letter. And I started inviting people one at a time, two at a time, three at a time, waiting to hear back from them. Then based on whether or not people wanted to do it, I kind of broadened the list.
There's a couple different ways that I was thinking about inviting people. First it was other artists that I admire and people that I knew would have a relationship to Martha Rosler’s video as well. They would get it, you know they would understand what I was trying to do. Not recreate it, make a response to it.
And so artists who are in the video who fall under that category, or like Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Janet Zweig, two artists I just think the world of. And then other people were other artists that I knew in Pittsburgh nationally. One artist lives internationally that I just thought, oh yeah, let's see what they would want to do. I know, most of the people in the video there's a couple of people I don't know, but they were recommended by other folks in it.
My colleague and friend in Pittsburgh, Diane Samuels, who is in the video as “time” is her tool, she helped me connect to a couple artists. Because I wanted to make sure it was a diverse representation of people.
It started before pandemic and so you'll see in the video, there're some people with masks and some people without masks. When I knew I was going to make it, my dream was to travel across the country and shoot everyone's video in person. I did get to physically make the videos for at least 20, maybe 22 of the people, and then there's a couple that people sent in phone videos.
Quinn Dukes: Okay, I was wondering about that element, too, because I recently listened to an interview with Martha Rosler talking about the creation and the production of Semiotics of the Kitchen and there was a deliberate choice for it to be on film. For it to be black and white. So I was really curious how your editing process works. Tell me about the difference between being in control of the product and then receiving home shot videos.
Renee Piechocki: That's a great question actually, I had to just be willing to give up some control. For most of the people who were in it, there was a conversation about their setup. What are you going to do? Where is the camera going to be? Whether or not I was filming them or not, and sometimes that was elaborate. It wasn't about filming my vision of what I wanted them to look like. It was about me, I tried anyway, for it to be me fulfilling their vision of how they want it to look.
For some of the folks you know thinking about, where is the camera? Where is the viewer? It was a different relationship with all 28 people.
Quinn Dukes: Wow! That's a lot of different visioning.
Renee Piechocki: It was a lot of different visioning!
Quinn Dukes: It requires a significant amount of patience and trust in the people that you were working with, so I think that really shares insight just about you and in the way that you really wanted to evolve this project. I'm interested in how the words were identified. Did the performers choose the words? Did you choose the words?
Renee Piechocki: All of the performers chose their words. The only person, who I am very grateful to who was up for a suggestion of a letter was Carin Mincemoyer, because I didn't have "Q". So, when I was like Carin, I don't have a “Q”. If you can come up with a “Q,” it would be great. And she's like, yeah my word was going to be quiet anyway. I was really grateful for her.
So they chose the words and that's part of the reason why I invited people slowly. Because, if I had sent out 30 invitations at once and everybody came back with an “A” or a “B.” I wanted to, I think the alphabet of Semiotics of the Kitchen - you can't be making a response to that without having an alphabet. You would be responding to a different work. So I was really glad about that, I was glad that it was slow. If people asked, I would tell them what I already had. Some of the people really wanted to know, what are the words that already exist. And what am I going to say, no? Just come up with your own thing? I mean it's interesting, Quinn, because you just talked about me trusting them, but I think even more important is them trusting me.
That I'm not going to make them look bad, not just bad, but that I'm not trying to make fun of anybody. I'm not putting my vision on them, and that’s serious. That level of trust is really serious and important for me.
And that's how the words worked. Most people picked their own words. That's why for some letters, there are more than one representation of that letter. Because how am I going to pick between “motorcycle” and “motherhood”? That's a choice that I don't want to have to make. And it's also why I'm in the video three times because, even after inviting everyone, it was like okay, I don't have, “U”, “N” “O” and “Y.” I was like all right, I will think about my own answer to this question and come up with those performances.
Quinn Dukes: Wonderful. Oh it's so great to hear you talk about behind the scenes after viewing it and I have to say that, in the first few minutes of watching it, your video, I was trying to memorize what the different words were. And then I paused, started over, and then I started writing them all down because I just thought Oh, this is such an interesting combination of words that are being selected and highlighted by this community of artists that are coming together.
It is a very tricky balance to work with performers, to work with collaborators and to present them with all sincerity, and for them to feel comfortable. And also to honor a piece that has such a root and humor. So how do you feel about presenting humor and also being sincere in the work that you have. Because I think that you really do. But what are your thoughts on those two paradigms?
Renee Piechocki: That's an intense question because humor is so personal. What you think is funny and what other people think is funny is completely different. I think one of the reasons why Martha Rosler’s video stayed with me so deeply is because of the humor aspect. Because it was for me, it was an entry point.
I don't know that everyone looks at that video and thinks it's so funny. Maybe you just need to line up all those tools in the kitchen and be pretending to use them. Acting out and then you get it.
I imagine myself in that place. So giving the contributors to my project the freedom to be funny if they wanted to was really important to me. There's a couple of places in the video where the universe brings you very funny moments, and for me one of those key moments is between Rachel Klipa beating her phone with such intense focus and then the second the next section is Norie Sato going “glass cutter.”
In showing the video, the draft, to know a couple of close artist friends. One of the comments back, which I’m not sure if she meant this as a compliment. She's like, there's none of the cynicism that I was expecting in this video. Everyone's having a great time. And I'll tell you, for me, one of the things I love about this video is watching people do things that makes them feel liberated. There's a lot of joy in the video. A lot of people were smiling at the end. I needed that last year.
Quinn Dukes: It seems like they did also.
I was wondering about the decision to keep in the edit where the performers were smiling. Or they would look to the camera and they would be aware of themselves and what they had just done and kind of laugh. Everyone has a different response and I don't want to give it all away because it's premiering and we want people to watch the premiere! Tell me what some of your thoughts are on leaving those edits in.
Renee Piechocki: Definitely it is one of those moments where it's a response to Rosler’s work because, for me, her shrug to the camera at the end and acknowledging that she is performing. There is a viewer. There is a recorder going. That moment is so human and accessible.
Quinn Dukes: Earlier, you mentioned your relationship to feminism and, this being an entry point, perhaps to performance and feminism. So I have two questions that come to mind. How do you think the evolution of feminism over the past, well, I mean, since this was made the original was made in ‘75, how do you think the woman being perceived in the kitchen has involved? Or has it?
Renee Piechocki: Oh that's a tough question. I think if you asked me that 15 years ago, the answer might be women are out of the kitchen if they want to be. And what I think has changed; definitely amplified this year, starting a few years ago, is recognizing the privilege that's behind that choice. That if you have a choice to be in the kitchen or not that says something about who you are. And that it doesn't necessarily say that you are over privileged and bad. It's just you know, one of these moments where you're like Okay, like, I have a choice about the things I get to do.
That's, I think, where it's really changing. I think it was a really important discussion about privilege, class and race that we've experienced in the year, in 2020 but even before them, but it really came to a head last year. I'm not a fortune teller, I don't know where it's going, but I hope it's going somewhere really good. Where people whose voices have been really loud and in the forefront now see the benefit of being on the periphery to let other people have the stage.
Part of the reason why, it's not just me performing all the tools that have to do with my own liberation and oppression, you know it's inviting other people to participate. That's one of the things that I'm choosing to do. To include other people.
That, for me, is not in a bubble of this project. I work in public art as an administrator. I've worked on collaborative projects for decades with other people. I worked on a project for 10 years called Trappings under the guise of Two Girls Working with another artist named Tiffany Ludwig who is “zip tie” in this video. I'm so glad Tiffany’s in there. That idea of participatory projects is really important to me.
Quinn Dukes: Absolutely, and in looking through your very comprehensive biography that becomes very clear to me. And I think that it's notable that you have a participatory component to the live screening of the piece. Right? Can you talk a little bit about that invitation that you have open for viewers to become a part of it.
Renee Piechocki: Yes, and I would love, if anyone listening out there in podcast land wants to participate next week, please get in touch with Franklin Furnace because we're looking for people. So we're going to screen my video. We're going to screen Martha Rosler’s video and then instead of a Q&A, I thought it would be much more powerful if we had the invitation out for people to perform their own tool. People can think about their source of liberation and a tool that represents that source or symbolizes that source.
Everyone is invited to become part of the vocabulary, so let's add you in on this project. It doesn't end with the words that were chosen by my 28 collaborators, let's bring in some others. Anyone who signs up is very invited. It's not mandatory you're not going to call on people to participate if they don't want to. But anyone who wants to is invited and will turn the focus of the camera on you and you can have your minute.
Quinn Dukes: Great! So do they need to contact you in advance, or can they participate just by being there and connecting in the moment?
Renee Piechocki: If people contact Franklin Furnace in advance it's helpful but if people are inspired in the moment to participate, of course, we're gonna say guess.
Quinn Dukes: Okay. Listeners, we will give the full contact information for Franklin Furnace in the publication for this podcast (on the post). I feel like people will be inspired to participate and it's so exciting that your video and Martha's video will be presented, side by side. How do you feel about that?
Renee Piechocki: I feel so nauseous with anxiety. It's like a dream come true, and also really exciting and scary at the same time. I'm delighted that she said yes. I feel really lucky.
Quinn Dukes: Absolutely, I think that it will reveal the community is really supportive and I think that that's something that is unique to participatory projects, performance. How did you enter video and performance video? How did that, and when did that come into your world?
Renee Piechocki: So what's first coming to mind and I can't say that it's the first is, you know, definitely working on Trappings as part of Two Girls Working. That project, which was a decade long, my collaborator Tiffany Ludwig and I traveled across the United States. We interviewed over 600 women in 15 states about the meaning and presentation of power in their lives. So we asked a question which was “What do you wear that makes you feel powerful?” as a way to access, how women thought about and people identified as women, what you know how they thought about that question.
For that project, in particular, we made a conscious decision in the beginning to stay behind the camera. We never answered that question. What we thought about it was not part of what we wanted to talk about.
We recorded everyone on video. We had a traveling exhibition. There were films that came out of it. So that's one branch like if I'm the tree of my work, that one branch is Trappings. Once that project was over, and I was working more on my own practice, I made a video called Tuning In. That actually started in Wyoming a little further north at a residency program called Jentel, where it's me in a tumbleweed. And thinking about a tumbleweed as a creative creative entity in your life that you take with you, wherever you go and if you tune into that source it's always there for you.
And I think for me, that was my first time appearing on my own camera, as a performer. And it was a little wacky for me. You know it's weird to look at yourself but I love doing it. It involved doing a lot of things in public places, and getting permission to perform in stores and gas stations.
And yeah, you could just go do it, but it's actually kind of more interesting to talk to the person running the gas station. Saying hi, can I film myself at the pump with the tumbleweed for the next 20 minutes? And just be part of that conversation with them. To me that's like that's a real fun part of making art.
Quinn Dukes: I love that. I am so intrigued by you wanting to engage directly with the gas station owner or whomever, wherever you're going to perform. That is just further indication of your interest in people and establishing a line of communication with a new person or someone that you've known for a long time and want to interact in a new way.
When I was looking through your work it seems like you also have an interest in deconstructing systems and creating your own systems. I'm wondering if there are any methods, as you're looking at new projects, any methods that you've established for yourself that you think might be really beneficial to our listeners.
Renee Piechocki: Oh that's a good question.
I love that question. Okay, so I'm thinking I've been asked a similar question before and I think this answer applies, which is don't wait.
As an artist, if you are always waiting for an invitation to do something, you might wait a really long time and it might not ever happen.
If you are an artist who’s always wanted to do something with a certain group of people, go build a relationship and see if they want to work with you and then make that project happen. You don't have to wait for an institution to invite you to want to do your work.
You know, I have a day job you know, okay Quinn, this is it! I'm so glad you asked me this because the other day I was talking with two people, Nadine Wasserman who I'm working on a project with now called Compass Roses and Joni Palmer and we were talking about how important it is to stop the shaming about day jobs within the art world.
There is a real thing that happens where, if you have to make money, like everybody has to make money to live and you don't do it teaching or working in an arts institution that your work is somehow shouldn't be talked about, I'm calling for a stop to day job shaming because whatever you need to do to make your work and to give yourself time, space, freedom resources to think and create that's really important. So that's really my advice in terms of deconstructing systems. Do what you need to do to give yourself the time that you need to make your work.
Quinn Dukes: Yes!
Renee Piechocki: Do you see that, with people I mean you enter - your clapping your lemon squeezer that's perfect. I mean do you see that went when you're interviewing people?
You know you're like oh so what do you do, and they kind of skirt around the main thing we're like it's like wait you're a various systems that's fascinating you know or whatever.
Quinn Dukes: Yes, 100%. I think that when artists mentioned their day job if it isn't aligned with their artistic practice in some capacity, they do tend to veer around the specifics. And I am so grateful to hear you vocalize that directly, because the shaming should absolutely stop. Taking license to be your own creative person and I love this visual of the tumbleweed. Become your tumbleweed, become the creative tumbleweed that doesn't need a license to make and you're just doing it on your own that's so beautiful, so thank you for articulating that.
Renee Piechocki: You're welcome. You know, I was thinking when you were saying that when you were saying that you also see artists skirt around, you know what that does to us, I think, as people that's really bad.
If we say that art and artists are only doing these jobs and these things, the harm is that it stops us from recognizing the creativity in every single person around us. And I'm not saying that everyone is an artist, but I am saying that there is the potential for creativity in everyone. When we assume that artists are only doing these jobs it causes a categorization. And siloing that I think is bad, I think is harmful for us.
Quinn Dukes: I think, so I think so, too, my mind was just flooded with so many things as you were saying that and it's almost as if it is another vocabulary thinking about working and what is work and there've been so many conversations about the definition of work and compensation, and there I feel like it is rife with much discussion and controversy, not just within the arts community by any means, but it feels like another video maybe.
Renee Piechocki: Maybe.
Quinn Dukes: Well, Renee, I am so grateful, I really enjoyed our discussion and getting to know you through this conversation and more about the project. Thank you so much.
I am going to also give a special thank you to Arantxa and Harley and Martha. Franklin Furnace you are wonderful and I'm so grateful for all of the work that you do to support artists working in video and live performance.
And to our listeners, a reminder to tune in on May 13th at 7pm via the Franklin Furnace Loft website.
And if you want to participate and submit a video in advance or participate on May 13 then connect with Franklin Furnace. Anything else, that you would like to add Renee before I pause the recording.
Renee Piechocki: Just thanks. I really appreciate the chance to get to know you and to learn more about Performance Is Alive and I just want a second, like where would we all be without Franklin Furnace saying yes to artists, so thank you to them for giving me this amazing opportunity to screen my video. I really appreciate it.
Performance Is Alive is a fiscally sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a 501(c)(3) charity. Contributions made payable to Fractured Atlas for the purposes of Performance Is Alive are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.
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Sarah G. Sharp