Interview: printmaker Lauren Banka on text art, laughter, and her fight against comfort

I want to produce discomfort because there’s a type of discomfort that doesn’t have a name, and is not treated as a common experience, and is not treated as a normal, ok experience, and I basically want to take that experience and put it in a frame, and put it in people’s faces.

– Lauren Banka

This week, Arched Art Now did an in-studio interview with Lauren Banka, a senior art student at Washington University in printmaking, a competitive poet, and a passionate inhabitor of old industrial cities.  Lauren, originally from Michigan, generously spoke about her use of text in art, the experience of having people laugh at her work, and how what makes her angry makes her best work. Meet Lauren!

The first thing that attracted me to your work was words. Do you see your poetry and your visual art as separate or overlapping?

Well, right now they are more separate then I would really like them to be. And I worked a lot last year trying to sort of integrate them
and having pieces that really integrated both images and text. And they always ended up kind of feeling like illustrations which frustrated me. And I felt like I didn’t know how to really create that synthesis outside of saying, here are some words and here are some pictures that are kind of saying the same thing. And so the text pieces that I had in the fair [that AAN blogged about here] were kind of a breakthrough for me. And I’m definitely still trying to find that balance. And I don’t think I’ve really found that yet.

The other thing that’s happening lately is that there’s stuff that I was explicitly addressing in my poetry, that I was using the poetry to talk through and to intellectually rationalize it, but that whole time, I didn’t know that I was making my visual art about it. But, I was and it was very tense, unhappy, scared work, that I wasn’t able to even consciously say or make it about that until now. And now I feel like I’m just learning how to do the things in terms of content in my visual artwork that I had been doing in my poetry.

And when you do combine it, does the poetry come first? Is that your way to work something out?

I think when there’s something on my mind that I really need to think through it’s easier to go to words first because we communicate in words on a day-to-day basis. And what visual art has always been to me is an emotional release valve, almost dreamy, where you make these images and you don’t know why you’re making them and then you go to therapy and then like two years later you figure it out. So that’s pretty much what I was doing. And a lot of work that I’m doing now is actually mining all the work I was doing last year for imagery and symbolism and going back to a lot of very, very similar themes and settings and images – but now I’m able to do it while knowing what I’m talking about, whereas last year I was kind of blind to it

…This whole poetry side of my practice would probably have never happened if I had not come here [to WashU]. I had written for a couple of
years at the beginning of high school and then stopped. And it was just because there was an amazing community here that I started writing again but now it’s a huge part of my practice and potentially a huge part of my career. I’ve competed nationally three times in the last two years…and its become a big part of the way I see the world and the way I approach my practice, not just visually, not just poetically, but sort of like the conglomerate.… I’m feeling like I’m on a cyclical basis with [visual art and poetry], at least I hope so because it feels like that’s the only way to give both time. In some ways it seems almost impossible to actually be able to focus on both at the same time.

…Doing feminist text art, it’s hard to get away from Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer…and I love them, but I don’t want to do their work. And that’s one of the things that has been really hard. Because, I know how to write a poem, and I know how much I have to give to a listener and how I have to construct it for it to just sit right, and some of those rules are the same and some of them are so different when doing text pieces. And it’s something that’s kind of made me crazy.

How have you found it being in St. Louis?

So I grew up in Ann Arbor, which is about 45 minutes away from Detroit. And my mom never let me go to Detroit unless I was going to a concert with my Dad. And my Dad’s really cool, so I went to a couple of concerts with him. So that was very strange to me and very frustrating for me. But even despite that, there was a really strong sense, and having family with union backgrounds and everything, the way that Michigan is falling apart, and it’s so painful, and it almost makes you love it more. Kind of in the stereotypical way of if someone insults your family member, you’re like, ‘Hey! You need to step off them.” So there’s something about the manufacturing city that has fallen apart that has been devastated by white
flight, that has all of these deep structural problems that has been created by people feeling like the city would always be on top and not creating any type of infrastructure and then it falls apart…You can put me anywhere that’s like that -well, first of all, there’s a feeling. If there’s a city like that you can feel it. And I just fall in love, almost immediately. Which could be pathological…

…I’m thinking about two years ago I was down at the waterfront for the Blues Festival and it was very, very interesting – kind of the art fair vibe but definitely a different cross section of St. Louis. And, outside the restaurant where I got lunch…as we were leaving, I saw there was one of those signs that said, “no baggy pants, no long white tees, no backwards baseball caps, no do-rags, no bandannas, no big jewelry.” It was a quote-un- quote dress code that was like very clearly, a thinly veiled racist entry policy, which I had never seen before. I had never seen that instance of it before. Talk about a text piece.

You were talking about political art. Do you watch the news and make a piece, or is it more veiled?

It’s definitely not news-based. My work is political it’s also really, really personal. Which, in the tradition of feminist thought,

the political is personal.

Right, right. So, what I’ve been making work on, which I’ve only just realized I was making work on, was instances of sexual assault perpetrated by friends and partners. And I’m really, really interested in the “gray zone,” “ambiguous event.” From a statistical perspective, far and away, the
most likely thing is that it will be something deemed ambiguous by an unsympathetic listener and it will probably a friend. Which is, A, not in line with the comfortable narrative about rape and assault, and which is, B, completely in line with my experiences and the experiences of my friends.
Obviously it happens [assault by people you don’t know]…and I would never want to call any of that into question. But I think that, for me, in what I’ve seen of the media and when I’ve talked to people, that is something that people understand, and that is something that people are ready to say, “If someone grabs you off the street, I am willing to call that bad.” You know? And there’s a lot of this other stuff that people are not really willing to call bad. Or they’re willing to say, like, ‘Oh yeah that sounds like a misunderstanding,” or
“Oh, yeah, that’s too bad that that happened.” Which, I think comes from a lack of understanding of the way emotional spaces get created, what choices seem possible, versus what choices are intellectually “possible.”  Which is something that’s been really kind of
hard for me because I’m the kind of person that can’t leave something alone. So I’ve had a lot of arguments with people where they’ll just say something thoughtless, and then in arguing with them it becomes very clear that there is a certain kind of emotional space…it’s a state of mind that they don’t understand and aren’t willing to really believe exists. Because if you believe it exists, then you have to question a lot more. And a lot of things that were safe become dangerous. And you have to know it, and if you can get away with not knowing it, than that is what you want to do.

Lauren Banka, courtesy of the artist

Lauren Banka, courtesy of the artist

What other feminist issues or themes do you work with?

A lot of my work last year and this year has very much been revolving around this topic, and so a lot of it has been offshoots. I don’t know if you saw the books that I had at the art fair [pictured above] but a lot of those were sort of revolving around different facets of the different vulnerabilities that exist in the female experience, from sexual vulnerability to physical vulnerability…There was one about, well everyone laughed at this, it was being afraid that I was going to become an alcoholic, and I was like, no, that’s not a joke! That’s real.

Why do you think people laugh at that?

I don’t know. People laugh at a lot of them [fears described in the book]. There was this woman who was turning the pages and just dying
laughing at every single one. And I was like, “Hey, what’s up?” And she was like, “I’m afraid of the same things.” And it was like that recognition, why she was just cracking up.

Maybe the recognition that, ok maybe this is a little irrational and it’s all going to be ok.

 Maybe that too!

I had a series of work that was about my relationships with black male friends of mine. And I was working with a process that was a lot about facial recognition. So I had these plastic Sintra plates. I drew a portrait and then cut the faces into square tiles, and with each print, re-arranged them, so there was this sense of almost recognizing [the subject] that was sort of about having been trained as a white woman to automatically
distrust black men and then the journey of getting to know them and working past that. I was sort of trying to acknowledge that process in myself and that it’s not as easy as, “Oh I don’t see color,”…because it was a process . I think it’s really important for allies to acknowledge that they struggle with the -isms that they are fighting against. And that’s something that I’m really into – being very upfront with the places that I fall short, almost as a forewarning to let people know that it’s not something that I’m done working on.

Tell me about some of these things you’ve been working on, all of these drawings of empty rooms and spaces

…There’s this way that, in that kind of landscape [pointing to a drawing], perspective becomes so soft and malleable, just because everything is just sort of lumpy, and doesn’t mean anything. And, what I really love is when you come into a city and there are all these sort of like swooping curves [of highways], tilted shapes and you are moving in them on a curve and a tilt and there’s this moment when, actually, perspective has no meaning – you have no idea what’s going on, and there’s total freedom in that sense. Anyway, I’m not into [traditional] perspective. So, yeah so messing with perspective, messing with color, messing with pattern, messing with texture…

One of things I’ve been doing a lot is…I’m sugaring my ink. I haven’t really perfected how to do it. But I want to make drawings that are
sticky.  And it alters the drawing experience, too… I want to make pieces that make you uncomfortable

And that changes the object experience, if you can touch it.

Exactly. Yeah, that too. Yeah there’s a set of pieces I want to do involving having clear sugar water, like syrup caked on pieces on
portraits and then putting them up and saying, ‘Please Touch,’ and then touching someone’s face and it’s sticky. And what I’m imagining is overtime it becomes discolored where someone’s touched it. I want that sort of gross aspect, where you touch it and want to pull back. Yeah, I kind of want to mess people up.

Why?

I want to produce discomfort because there’s a type of discomfort that doesn’t have a name, and is not treated as a common experience, and is not treated as a normal, ok experience, and I basically want to take that experience and put it in a frame, and put it in people’s faces.

Lauren Banka, courtesy of the artist

Have you done a piece that you feel really does that yet? Or is that something you’re still working to?

I think that text piece [pictured above] did it, that I had framed, hanging up [at the St Louis Art Fair].  Very interesting to see reactions to that piece. A lot of people, well, everyone looked at because it was a big text piece; a lot of people would immediately turn away. But, then a lot of people would laugh, as soon as they saw it they would want to look at everything else that I had. A lot of people laughed, which is always the coolest thing to me because, I’m really into normalizing fucked up experiences, as saying that, ‘this happens,’ it’s ok that this happened. I mean, it’s not ok that this happened, but its ok that you are in this place. And, so to laugh at that is like the most normalizing thing, and totally validates me having felt that way and needing to make that piece, which is, in a lot of ways, very affirming.

Is there anything that you really enjoy about this place, St. Louis?

I love driving and I love highways, and I love… I don’t know, there’s this terrible, terrible irony to St. Louis. Like when they set the city limits at Skinker so they didn’t have to pay for roads to go out. Or when they built all their roads really wide and their sidewalks really narrow because they thought that cars were the future forever. And, I think, I’m actually just making this connection right now so thank you for asking me the question, one of the things that I really love about St. Louis and Detroit is that it’s the same thing that I’m talking about. It’s an uncomfortable place to be, and it’s a place that, if you live there, you become consumed with these, almost non-sensible obsessions, and you get fixated on things that, maybe to someone that isn’t there, don’t matter. But, it’s so real, and nobody understands that it’s so real except for the people that live
there, and nobody listens to the people that live here.

And you seem to thrive off of this? You can’t be somewhere easy, is what it seems.

I think that’s true. And I think that also that, in my person and in the amount of work that I make, and in everything, I’m so loud, and there’s a way for me, I’m almost obsessed with these situations or these places that are dismissed, are not understood, that are not legitimized, because I’m like, well, ok I can be loud for that. I can be the person that’s really loud about this. Because nobody’s going to listen unless somebody’s really loud. I can be really loud. I can be that person. I hate feeling like I’m wasting my time, and I hate feeling like I’m wasting my ability. So, I guess I do thrive off of it. I really need places like this. I need my friends to keep telling me, ‘Lauren, I was raped,’ because there’s a way in which the fury kind of, in a fucked up way, I make more work. I wouldn’t care about the work I was making if it was just bullshit.

Lauren Banka, Untitled (Family Portrait)

Even this piece here [pictured above], I was like, I want to do a family portrait, because that’s a nice thing to do, you know, because then I’ll give it to my parents. Which is bullshit. From an artistic point of view is not meaningful. So I’m drawing and drawing and I’m like, oh, I have all of this wood left over at the bottom, maybe I should just cut it off, and was like, no, I don’t want to cut it off. And so I started drawing water, and now, it’s me and family chest-deep in water, and I’m thinking about Michigan and the economy and the fact that my parents have plenty of money, and in Michigan that’s not normal. And this sense of like impending doom that comes from growing up in Michigan. And it feels like I just can’t not make work about that…

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