Dialogue with Heather M. O'Brien

Los Angeles-based artist, educator and organizer Heather M. O'Brien, who curated the exhibition I see in the sea nothing except the sea. I don't see a shore. I don't see a dove. at the Camera Club of New York (CCNY) last spring, has re-imagined her exhibition and its surrounding programming as a publication.
Liz Sales
Mar 18, 2015
Exhibition still from: I see in the sea nothing except the sea. I don't see a shore. 2014
Exhibition still from: I see in the sea nothing except the sea. I don't see a shore. I don’t see a dove. 2014

Liz Sales: Hi, Heather. Congratulations on your book! Tell me about the title: I see in the sea nothing except the sea. I don't see a shore. I don't see a dove

Heather M. O'Brien: Thank you. The title is a line from a poem in Memory for Forgetfulness by Mahmoud Darwish, a Palestinian poet and author. “Nothing in the sea except the sea” evokes a duality in the word “sea/see” and the actual, physical sea (with water). Darwish’s aim is to revitalize language by bringing meaning back to the words or by infusing them with new importance. He talks about how the invasion of Palestine will mean yet another journey for the Palestinian people, a journey across the sea—al-baHr, in Arabic. But al-baHr is also the word used for the meter, or poetic measure, of Arabic prosody. So in this case, there is no separation between text and meaning.

I like this idea of blurring the line of representation and language, particularly since I am a photographer who thinks a lot about visuality. When I first read this poem, I was also thinking about current wars happening in the U.S., such as poverty and mass incarceration, and how we as a nation and as individuals are complicit in these wars. The words “I don’t see a shore. I don’t see a dove” made me think about the overwhelming power of the war on terror and its endlessness; it's difficult to imagine the shoreline. Where does our involvement begin, and where does it end, so to speak?

LS: You seem interested in participation in general, politically and artistically. In Allen Frame’s essay, The Empty Swimming Pool, he recounts you asking the audience to sit in a circle and "ask a question we might have about the terms ‘art’ and ‘war’ based on what we are seeing in the exhibition." Do you see artistic participation and political/societal participation as analogous?

HMO: Absolutely. We are in a particular political moment where we cannot separate art and the way we choose to live. I often find myself at odds with artists who are making and selling "political art" but are not in dialogue with folks who are in struggle or organizing on the ground. The days of the romanticized individual artist who makes work alone in [his/her] studio feels distant to me, it’s a practice that’s detached from from what's happening in the streets. Position and place are vital, and therein lies participation. Participation in politics can be unconformable because it places us alongside those who are different from us; it challenges our class and racial positions and asks us how we are complicit. But if we aren't uncomfortable, something is wrong.

Adam Golfer, Lynn Collage.  2014
Adam Golfer. We’ll do the rest, 2014.

LS: Your curating style seems to fall in line with this schema. How did you choose the artists you included in the CCNY show that the book is based on?

HMO: A main focus of my work is the relationship between war and representation. In this project, I’m creating a connection between the endlessness of the war on terror and the way in which that limitless project has affected mass incarceration in the US and this nation’s extensive surveillance around the world. I met Carlos Motta and Adam Golfer when I lived in New York and was attending the International Center of Photography (ICP). Carlos’ Public Domain series consists of photographs of tourists looking at Ground Zero through the fence, during the construction of the WTC memorial. Adam’s We’ll Do the Rest video recalls a female drone pilot’s dream narrative and her fragmented memories about war. I met Ashley Hunt while attending CalArts and recently worked with him on research for his project Degrees of Visibility. The work is made up of photographs, texts, and documents about prisons as they are situated within different landscapes, with varying concealment, and asks what can be learned by looking. Samira Yamin was my studiomate after grad school; I was particularly interested in her series We Will Not Fail, where she cuts Islamic sacred geometries into the TIME magazine issues released after the planes hit the towers.

These four artists are all in direct conversation with the post-9/11 image landscape. Samira and Carlos’ pieces reflect on how the U.S. portrayed the Middle East directly after 9/11 and how we as a nation make a spectacle of memorializing tragedy. Ashley and Adam’s works interrogate current sites of war through psychological and visual questions about drones and imprisonment. In showing these pieces alongside one another my hope was that the viewer would draw parallels between the seemingly disparate issues––that one might consider the continuum of 13 years since 9/11 and how the wars exist, not overseas in some faraway land, but on U.S. soil. These wars are possible in part because of our actions and desires.

But I quickly realized that putting these four works together in one room wouldn’t be enough. I wanted to talk through the issues with people who were in the fields of organizing and journalism––to create a dialogue across a range of disciples about how the show related or didn't to what’s been happening in the streets.

Yamin Samira, October 1 2001, TIME Magazine. 2012
Samira Yamin. October 1, 2001, 2012.

LS: What did you learn? How do you feel the work did or didn't relate to what organizers and activists were doing?

HMO: I put together two roundtable discussions in conjunction with the show. The first one included video screenings and presentations by the four artists, and in the second a small group of people talked in the gallery for almost four hours. The artworks on the walls definitely put everyone into a certain type of focus; it gave us a place to situate ourselves. Artist Gabriela Salazar said of the second discussion, "Coming here, I felt a lot of discomfort because I thought I was going to be more of an observer. And yet having the work on the walls, and having the sense that we were all here for this purpose [to converse] didn’t allow me to be passive with my discomfort."

Artist Marina Berio (Chair of ICP's General Studies program) chimed in, “maybe being in this space here and now helps us feel empowered to have this conversation.” So the artwork, coupled with my facilitation, ended up being important. Perhaps my insistence for participation allowed people to have more agency, not just as "lookers" in a gallery, but a platform from which to speak about art and war. Yet there was a disconnect between some of the artists in the show and the politics of certain activists—a serious question arose about the artist who makes work about 9/11 for sale and doesn’t want to have a conversation about or participate in activism.

Ashley Hunt, Degrees of Visibility, 2014
Ashley Hunt, Degrees of Visibility, 2014.

LS: You described the publication as a reconsideration of the exhibition and its programming. What did you learn from reconsidering these conversations? What do you hope the reader will take away that the viewer may have missed?

HMO: I learned that it’s essential to slow down. We live in a swift and capitalistic world where artists are constantly encouraged to make more, to do more. But seldom do we pause to consider why we are doing or making. In this process of slowing down, I was able to get a sense of how much we have to unpack, undo, and unlearn in terms of our relationship to nationalistic power. We have been conditioned by fear and live in a very alienated, surveilled society. This publication was a beautiful and collaborative process by which I was able to take the time to reexamine what we have participated in as a nation since 9/11. I hope the reader will find time to do the same.

Carlos Motta, Public Domain, 2004
Carlos Motta. Public Domain, 2004.

LS: There is work in the publication that was not in the exhibition. How did you select the additional work for the publication?

HMO: I wanted to work with a different set of people on the publication versus making an exhibition catalog that would simply feature the artists in the show; my intention was to include a plurality of voices. I had worked with Allen Frame while at ICP; it was lovely to reconnect with him. His perception around sociality and theatrical tropes was pivotal to unpacking the dynamics of the first roundtable discussion. Malene Dam and I went to CalArts together and took a course called The Work of War in Times of Art, which asked, “What is the role of the artist in times of war?” Nicole Salazar is a journalist with Al Jazeera; her position is unique in relationship to that of an artist. I also knew Amin Husain and Nitasha Dhillon of MTL from ICP and had followed their organizing of protests at the Guggenheim and work with Strike Debt and Occupy Sandy. Their work is the realization of what Gayatri Spivak calls “training in the practice of freedom.” I’ve been doing grassroots organizing around prison issues here in Los Angeles with Critical Resistance. It’s easy to hit burn-out due to the urgency and vastness of the work. I find it hopeful that there are artists like Amin and Nitasha who are committed not only to an art practice, but also to exposing how our everyday lives and desires relate to activism. I appreciate their practice of “training”––the idea that developing one’s political self is an ongoing process.

Somewhere in occupied Palestine, documenting the roads and geographies leading to conversation. Photo courtesy of MTL, 2010.
Somewhere in occupied Palestine, documenting the roads and geographies leading to conversation. Photo courtesy of MTL, 2010.

The voices in the roundtable discussions included a mix of friends and collaborators invested in the politics of photography, a large number of whom I know from my time at ICP, such as my collaborator from the Work Progress Collective, Felisia Tandiono, whom I’ve been in extensive conversation with around issues of economy and representation.

My hope is that with the inclusion of these different positions the reader will take away a critical lens toward war imagery and consider [his/her] own complicity in the issues.

LS: Well, I thought about my own (vast) complicity.

HMO: How so?

LS: When you write about "the war at home," which you define as enforced poverty and the U.S. problem of mass incarceration, I am reminded that I live my day-to-day life without meaningfully engaging with the problems around me. For example, I thought it might be interesting to speak to you about your book, so I did. I also think it might be meaningful to do something about police-enforced gentrification in my neighborhood, but I don't. Does that make sense?

Heather M. O'Brien speaking as a member of Critical Resistance against a new women's jail, Board of Supervisors meeting in Los Angeles, 2012. Photo by Linette Park.
Heather M. O'Brien speaking as a member of Critical Resistance against a new women's jail, Board of Supervisors meeting in Los Angeles. Photo by Linette Park, 2012.

HMO: Yes, yet my hope is that the book is not a piece in which we tear each other down or make one another feel bad for not doing a certain thing. But rather, can we admit and come to terms about our complicity on a small group level, and on a larger communal level? It takes time to think about action. The activist Grace Lee Boggs talks about the importance of action but also the importance of reflection. How might we reflect on our socio-political situations in hopes of creating the world we dream of, through action? This is a complicated question that shifts with time, space, and context. I am also suspicious of people who think they are "doing good," constantly patting themselves on the backs. Politics are what you make them. It doesn’t always mean rushing to the streets to protest or supporting a candidate for office. It could mean talking with your neighbors about the changes happening on your block and creating a safe space in which we don't rely on police to solve our problems. 

I think white liberals are a big part of the problem in many instances. There’s this idea that people should “do charity" and "help" others. People in struggle don't need help. We all need allyship, co-struggle. It needs to be a reciprocal relationship, not one that is based on the idea of a victim and a savior. We have to undo a lot of that rhetoric around helping.

Ashely Hunt. Critical Resistance protest against new women's jail at Antelope Valley Mall, 2013.
Ashley Hunt. Critical Resistance protest against new women's jail at Antelope Valley Mall, 2013.

LS: That's very well-put. Your book will be out soon. What's on the agenda for the event on the 30th? Are your plans for the launch event and reading to engage in reciprocal participation?

HMO: Yes, I’m very excited about the launch event. I hope you can make it. There will be a live reading featuring several of the writers and contributors of the book. There will also be two pieces on view, one of my video works and an installation by the designer of the book, Zeynab Izadyar. The hope is that the reading will allow the words on the page to be communally heard aloud, and that we may listen closely for the different places from which we speak. Some of the readings will come directly from the book; others will be new pieces related to the issues. You may come as an observer and end up as a participant, which, as you now know, is something I am very into. It should be an interesting evening.

LS: Great! See you there!

O'Brien's forthcoming book, which is being published by Secretary Press and distributed by Small Press Distribution, contains contributions from Marina Berio, Malene Dam, Nitasha Dhillon, Allen Frame, Bridget de Gersigny, Zee De Gersigny, Adam Golfer, Ashley Hunt, Amin Husain, Carlos Motta, Gabriela Salazar, Nicole Antonia Salazar, Diego Alejandro Sierralta, Felisia Tandiono and Samira Yamin, all of whom have a history of involvement in O’Brien’s open, participatory practice. On March 30, 2015, she returns to CCNY/Baxter St to read from and release the publication.