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Black Mountain Project: Constant Escape Interview

By Phillip Townsend, Neon Queen Collective

Phillip: I’ll start out with a very basic question. What is Black Mountain Project?

Betelhem: Black Mountain Project is a platform that attempts to create conversations that the three of us, as artists living and working in Austin, felt were missing in the general conversation that is happening here within the contemporary art scene –– but that we found ourselves having privately all the time.

Adrian: It’s a platform definitely, but it also functions as a point of encounter. A point of encounter for thoughtful conversations. A point of encounter for these dialogues and possibilities–possibilities for creating space, generative ideas, and meaningful projects. We don’t think about it as a gallery or a necessary collective.

Betelhem: We realized that there were missing tones in the song … experiences, backgrounds, and outlooks and concerns that are not apart of our counterparts’ imagination.

I think that our opening at the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center (The Carver) is a great example ––  the fact that a substantial number of the people that were there, that usually are together with in our arts community, had never been there … but that for the three of us, the Carver has been an active site of our local arts ecosystem.

So our thought was to create a public space that brings these conversations into the larger scene. And the artists that we would invite to show or to share their work in this space would also expand the exchange beyond where it is now. And, I’m specifically not using signifying terms because that is also part of our intention, not to get into monolithic thinking. Ultimately we are trying to activate encounters that we have not been thinking about or making space for in our city’s arts community.

Phillip: It’s beautiful. The example you gave describing your collaboration included a meditation on the space that is The Carver. You initially said “a platform” and Adrian said “point of encounter,” and it’s ironic that your exhibition constant escape is at The Carver which is an institution that functions as both of those things –– a platform and a point of encounter.

Betelhem: Yes. Because the Carver is a museum and a cultural center and now also a gallery that is positioning itself as a contemporary art space, to not only work with preservation or memory, you know? And, we wanted constant escape to be part of this new vision.

Phillip: So, how did you all come together? I know you all are practicing individual artists. How did you come together to form this pact not a collective but a pact?

Tammie: Well, it kind of came from a series of conversations and also just seeing artists who were in the room who are noticeable from the rest of the room. Bete and I became close at first and then Adrian and Bete also collaborate. They were part of ICOSA together. So basically through a series of conversations and trying to figure out how to formalize these important conversations. As you know, Phillip, the art world or the arts community works in such that everyone is extremely busy right now, they’re teaching, may have multiple jobs, they’re putting up exhibitions, everyone is working. Everyone’s doing all these other things and you ask yourself, “how do you make space?” This is a way to formalize that.

Phillip: At first I wrote, oh, it seems like they are morphing their private conversation into a public conversation, but in reality it’s been a public conversation, amongst the few. This is a way to expand the conversation and make it visible in an attempt get more people engaged in thinking outside their box. It seems to me that you all are attempting to change the norm amongst the creatives in Austin.

Tammie: And you can even see that through our name. We are purposely referencing other iterations of things with Black Mountain in it.

Phillip: So you mentioned earlier about, aligning with The Carver’s ‘new’ mission. And that’s a curious thing for me because it seems like a paradox in a way. Hopefully, you can help me to understand because it seems like The Carver is thinking about, genealogies, linkages, and heritage, which is sort of rooted in something that’s constant. How do you see what you’re thinking about as a group intersecting with The Carver’s mission or objectives?

Betelhem: That’s such a great question. Think of the title of show, ‘constant escape.’ Neither of us makes representational work in our independent practices. Though we are working in abstraction, the idea of abstraction just for abstraction’s sake doesn’t interest us or resonate with us. We work with abstraction that acknowledges context, grounded and informed by experiences in the body through history and memory. There is no vacuum! The vacuum only exists if it’s your air. We are always thinking about how to identify and disidentify, acknowledge yet question –– again not making work that relies on absolute definition or monolithic thinking. As a black american artist, this is the kind of work that she makes or he is of Mexican descent, so this is the work that he makes. You know what I mean? It’s leaving room for that in between space that allows for us to escape definition, to escape the burden of representation, being a spokesperson for one’s people .

Tammie: But also think about when you go into those rooms for the genealogy, these aren’t things that are simply about the past, they are about the future, right? So it’s a not an archive or genealogy that is dead, it’s living, it’s going forward. And it speaks to the idea of people who took autonomy over their lives, staked their claim, in this place called Austin and their lineage continues. And so I really do feel like it’s a conversation between those two things. It is not an opposite. It’s not in the past, we’re talking about the present and the future. It’s all of those things. And that these conversations, like the stories you encounter when you go through The Carver’s archives are extraordinary. And then what does that look like now? What does that look like later? Living! And those conversations are speaking to each other. It’s not just about a tale that was told it’s the tale that’s coming.

Phillip: So the title of the exhibition, comes from this wonderful Fred Moten text, “Black and Blur,” how does that resonate with you all specifically?

Adrian: We were having a series of conversations and then Bete threw in one of Moten’s readings into the mix. And then Bete and Tammie starting figuring out that this text might be a thing that we can use as a platform for our thinking. He gave a definition that we unpacked and we thought, maybe this can be a title and if not it could just be the vibe that we would choose to galvanize the conceptual idea behind and how we will develop ideas around it.

Betelhem: You know, Moten is always talking about how things aren’t easily reducible to one relationship,  Tammie said, opposites, or some binary relationship. It’s a lot more difficult than that. This idea of the vacuum, or more specifically White supremacy. It’s sinister. It’s in the air and there is no way you can confront it by just flipping it or doing the one to one ratio, you know, and you can’t just say,  “We’re just going to get over our differences and you know, everything’s gonna be okay.” That’s the goal, you know, and who wants that? Moten emphasizes working through the difference. He says you have to go through this site. There is no overstepping. There’s no overcoming, there’s not another side, you know, it’s just the tension that’s in the middle. And that’s a difficult path. You have to stay with the trouble and what are you going to do in that space? And it’s a constant thing, right? It doesn’t have an ending, in the sense that there is always more we can do to evolve as beings. There is not just one thing to get over, like people thinking that having a black US president meant racism in this country was suddenly over.

Phillip: These overwhelming notions of ‘post’.

Betelhem: Yeah, there is no ‘post.’ I always like to think, the only one “post” that we can definitely say as human beings we have accomplished …  we are post fire. Everything else is up for question. Just when you think you’ve gotten over the horizon there’s a thousand other plateaus visible, right? You see there’s something else coming. Right? And that’s as an individual and also as a society, collectively.  This is was our thinking even when we were creating the wall vinyl for the show’s title. We put it at this odd perspective, right? So that it’s not a fixed reading. It changes depending on where you are standing, in response to shifts in perspective. I think this is how we all three approach our life and our practice and how we see everything.

Tammie: Yeah. I think you’re right. This idea that you can erase the past. You know, we live in a country that is constantly trying to forget itself and we keep butting up against the fact that you can’t do that. It doesn’t work and we keep repeating the same cycle, the same violence, the same oppression, over and over again, the same thing over and over and over again. Not just knowing about it because that doesn’t do anything, right, but you have to have self-awareness. You have to be able to take a deep dive into it. You can’t get stuck there. You have to move forward. But you can’t do it by erasing everything that has gone before. And so this, idea of constant escapes too is that this constant state of trying to think that, ‘oh, it’s better now so then I don’t have to think about the past.’ And then being confused or being like surprised when you get slapped with the same thing that just happens. And it’s because you have tried to escape from the reality of where we exist. Right? And so thinking about the fact that we don’t have to be paralyzed by it, but we do have to not only recognize it, but also recognize our own responsibility. We all have a part to play. And all that comes through this idea of taking those steps. You have to be vulnerable, but you also have to be brave. And it’s those two things, it’s not just you’re just brave or angry. You have to do all of those things to keep moving forward. To keep, escaping these paradigms that we set up for ourselves that are trapping us.

Phillip: I remembered this text by the father of modern-day cultural theory, James Clifford while I was reflecting on Moten and I was like, “constantly escape? what the hell!” So, I started reading this Fred Moten quote over and over and over again and I was still having a hard time with it and it compelled me to go back and read Clifford. Let me read this excerpt for you really quickly. It’s from ‘The Predicament of Culture’ its the opening paragraph to chapter three (3): ‘On the Ethnographic Self-Fashioning.’ Clifford writes, “To say that the individual is culturally constituted, has become a truism. We are accustomed to hearing that the person in Bali or among the Hopi or in medieval society is different–with different experiences of time, space, kinship, bodily identity–from the individual and bourgeois England or modern America. We assume, almost without question, that a self belongs to a specific cultural world much as it speaks a native language: oneself, one culture, one language.” After reading that, I was like, oh, is this what they’re trying to do? And of course I answered myself and was like, “No!” What Clifford is speaking about is the beginning of what has now evolved because you guys are looking at culture as something that is constantly evolving with people’s experiences. The more you engage with this thing that we call culture, the more it changes. And it’s not this static thing because the tenants that equate culture are constantly changing.

Tammie: Yeah, they are shared, but we aren’t limited to that. There are all these other things that make you, you beyond that, right?

Phillip: Yeah, of course, because that thing we call culture is living. Yes? It changes.

Betelhem: Yes! It’s not done!

Phillip: Done it earlier. Yeah. These things aren’t static. They’re forever changing. With experience comes change. So I want to talk about the work now. I want you to talk about how your work best articulates constant escape.

Betelhem: I guess I’ll just talk about like the whole body of work that I have there. It is, it’s the fruition of, I mean, my process is glacial.

Phillip: I love that! Can you say a little bit more about glacial?

Betelhem: My time signature is more related to rocks, than to a wristwatch. I am always looking for an expanded perception and experience of time, a conjugated present that acknowledges the past and the future are also present in the present. I think it’s a means of psychic survival that I have developed, not rooting myself in just this specific present time, and also the influence of my diasporic life. You know? So, my process is like that too, very slow, involving what’s already in my subconscious and through intuition and research becomes visible.

Thinking about self-portraiture and also selfie culture, I have been developing this specific body of work over the last four years and it finally took form in a residency that I was doing in Chicago this last summer. My works are always in conversation with the history of photography. I really don’t know how to use photography without dealing with its history. So thinking about photography and the notion of the capture, that moment, that present, that’s frozen forever, right? And photography’s history with bodies that look like mine, and photography’s complicity in the building of white supremacy, taxonomy. What’s human and quasi human, what’s subhuman? You know, it’s played a complicit role in imperialism, considering when it came into existence.

I am interested in self-portraiture that embodies non-fixity and non-identification. How do I image mobility and movement, a self-representation that is in constant evolution, that it’s not this or that? A both? I have been working with reflective surfaces in my practice and but the clear film medium is new. It works so well as a material to create portraiture that is not fixed. It helps me defy Barthes’ punctum, you know? Rather than a fixed present, I was trying to make a self-portraiture that is operating in multiple times, meaning past, present, future happening simultaneously. Because of the transparent clear film you could see right through me. But what do you see? What is communicated? And the addition of the reflective surface confuses the idea of who’s looking and who’s being looked at. I wanted to play with all those assumptions that we have when we are dealing with portrait photography and through that identity and personhood.

Tammie: So, I really thought about the fact that we had this beautiful space that has been kind of recently opened, we’re not the first show in that space, but there are now two galleries and I’m just coming off of a solo exhibition. And so it just seems like this was an opportunity to really kind of experiment with the kind of work that I’ve been doing and using some of those same elements of thinking about mapping and thinking about data and thinking about migration and thinking about routes and thinking about black bodies in this country moving from point to point, how their change in locations are paired with the modernity of this country as well. So, as you have things like interstates that make travel easier in some sense, there are still some roadblocks but that there are all these paths. And also just thinking about like the of the future with the past and the overlapping can become very hard to see, fraught, exciting, beautiful. But also like kind of like disparate and then always having to take a step forward, even though you don’t know what the certainty, you don’t know what’s going to happen, right. That’s like everyone. Right. And so when we talked about how the space was going to be laid out, that wall became mine, I wanted to see that the information that I was using on these smaller scale sculptures, the carving, the layering pulling it away from the ceramic object and it now becoming the wall. What I was thinking about constant escape was black women escaping through narratives, fictional and nonfiction and tied to the slave narrative. And so I started with an underground railroad map and then another map that looks slightly different. And then another map on top of that which is also was slightly different. And thinking about the one piece is called ‘Alice and Harriet and Emiline and Cathy. And here what we have is two real slave narratives against two fictional. And that both of those stories are so absurd it’s really difficult to pick out which one’s the real one. And Harriet is from ‘Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl’ by Harriet Jacobs where she actually hides in an attic, her mother’s attic because her mother is free and she hides there for seven years. But the space is so confined and small that she can no longer can stand up straight. And by the time she leaves, her body is altered. And so the sculpture that is the physical ceramic sculpture there kind of hearkens to that crouching state that she has to have her body in. And then that tale paired against ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ which, we think about ‘Uncle Tom’ as this kind of phrase that comes out and becomes political and references black people who are against their own “kind” and who perform “coonery” and are betraying their race. But then I was thinking about the fact that when I read that book, because I had heard the phrase but never read the book. And so when I read that book in college, it wasn’t exactly what I thought it was going to be. And it’s also paralleled the issues that I sometimes have with slave narratives and freed slaves who were talking about how they got their freedom. They were written in the style of literature of their time. And so sometimes they have this very kind of Victorian language because that is the audience that it was for. And so then after you dig through that, what else do you see? And so Uncle Tom’s cabin, I always thought it was interesting that Tom is actually beaten to death because he is protecting the identity of two slave women who are, who are escaping. And the way that they escape is that they don’t run out in wee hours of the night. They stay hidden in the walls of the mansion and basically make the slave-owner go crazy. So I’m thinking about physical like markers. Some of them, you know the flags were like pointing to a direction, but that exact direction is confusing about how to get there. But then also there are these elements of memorial and then places of where there are markers of gathering communities and then individuals and then these hanging bodies. And so all of that kind of goes through the work. It’s about these layers and layers and layers. So my work is always about the fact that you have to step back, you’re going to have to step back, but you have to get close too. And so this push and pull and thinking about how scale is immersive. So it’s not all clear, but things in my work are always familiar. I always use objects that are familiar, right. But they’re taken away from their kind of original function. It becomes a chaotic kind of beauty.

Adrian: My practice starts with pushing boundaries with and within materials, with media. And that goes into actually following or reading or having a reference from writings about identity in America, continental America. And that actually is the conceptual basis of how how I approach those black pieces in the show. For example, it’s an idea of identity that includes everyone and not does not exclude. Also they have this kind of emotional quality in a way that they can be read or exist as I conceptualized them to be understood. There are the three sentences and they form this group of work that I’ve been working on since last year. I’ve been studying, working with, and cutting vinyl. Recently, I’ve been applying it on the back of acrylic. Here, I’m using these elements as a form of confrontation or the realization of an idea that when something is ‘behind,’ it gets covered or left behind. It gets protected in a way that makes it seem as though there is no where to go through; however, the transparency of the material allows you to see through it. Also the effects that are created by cutting the texts to the acrylic with the vinyl and then drawing that text on the wall with light that has some poetics to me. In the sense that the light traveling through the material is metaphorical for ideas that move in one or different directions. How the duality of the text glowing on the wall, in the sense that it is for someone, it is for you, it is for the one who is reading and at the same time the material itself allows you to have this reflective moment. You can see yourself and the rest of the work in the show. I feel that this is also an important thing. I am interested in reflection. When you engage with the work you can see a reflection of yourself, looking at yourself, and admiring the way you look, and at the same time looking at history through your own eyes. I also worked with the letter ‘I’ hoping to explore ideas of language. How modifying little things makes huge emphasis on the specifics. For example, when I experimented with the accent on the ‘America’ works it was to convey that I’m not talking about the country; in fact, I’m talking about the continent. But I often meditate on the perspective many people on this continent have about the idea of a country. It is a desire, it’s also a dream, it can change your life, which also makes me think that people think the notion of a country is understood through perception. So those ideas also worked in how I approached printmaking. Like I said, I’m trying to push little boundaries in the sense of how I approach materials, mediums, and my practice itself.

Tammie: Can I say something about all our work?

Phillip: Of course.

Tammie: I think it’s really interesting, the thing about collaborating in the way of thinking about this exhibition and where the work goes, even though they’re all individuals is…I kept thinking about the word ‘witness’. As you walk through the space, all the works are directly talking to or witnessing another work. Adrian’s work in that room is reflecting everything. It’s this black vinyl and it’s taking everything in and it is everything, simply put there are these reflections. In Bete’s work there are also these reflections that are harder to see but you can, you just have to move around. My work which doesn’t necessarily have reflection, but it’s encompassing on one side of that room. So this witnessing I think became very interesting to me as the exhibition was already set up and then looking at it and walking through it and how it really is a journey. Right.

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