by Tara Miller and Gray Wielebinski
Gray (Grace) Wielebinski is a Los Angeles based artist working in illustration, mixed media, collage, video, sound, and installation art. Her work explores how gender and sexuality interact with structures of power, construction of identity, mass media, and representation.
Tara Miller: What are your experiences with feminism? Do you identify as a feminist? What does feminism mean to you?
Gray Wielebinski: Yes, I do identify as a feminist. But I also identify with not wanting to be a feminist. Historically, feminism was very much for and by white, upper middle class women who were not only centralizing their own voices but were also actively silencing other voices. So because of that history, I totally identify with people who don’t find space for themselves within feminism. I do identify as one, but I identify exclusively with intersectional feminism. I have found a lot of power and friendship in intersectional feminism and I appreciate the generosity of people who are willing to share themselves and then listen to my perspective. I have a very positive relationship with feminism but that has also changed tremendously and my understanding of it has changed. I don’t think it’s a fixed relationship. I think it’s always going to be changing and being challenged. That includes my own views and I hope that they keep changing and moving in positive directions. I think there’s an interesting question here of well then do we start over and do we start a new movement, should it be totally separate? I think that there is something to be said for taking accountability and continuing to admit our faults and not silence voices within it but to just keep realizing oh shit, we fucked up. We need to be constantly centering the voices with the least amount of power, because that’s how everyone else is going to get their voices heard, is if you’re focusing on the people who aren’t being heard at all. And I think that we get caught up in that a lot and we’re going to keep fucking up, but that doesn’t mean that you scrap it, it means that you just keep working on it.
TM: How would you describe your art to someone who is new to your work?
GW: Medium wise, I do everything from collage, digital collage, illustration, painting, drawing, installation, video, to sound stuff. They all have the theme of being mixed media to some extent. I like to explore ideas of gender, sexuality and identity politics and especially how they intersect with other systems of power. I also like to explore how these systems deal with the body and how the body symbolizes power and identity. And then also structures of power through the body and understanding your own body in specific spaces. I draw into question our own bodies and experiences and identities and then therefore how we read people through those lenses. It’s very much in conversation with mass media, American mass media specifically. My work is also very feminist and in conversation with feminism. A big part of that is the idea of questioning and challenging it and being open for change and interpretation and different biases and perspectives. I’ve become more and more interested in experimenting with the idea of queering the work itself, from the process. It plays on this idea of seeing things in your own way depending on your myriad experiences and perspective of the world. I’m interested in the idea of communication and how people misunderstand one another but also where we can forge connections. When you present art to anyone, when you present yourself in any social context and share yourself with someone, it’s a very vulnerable position and you’re putting yourself out there to be misunderstood. People might not know where you’re coming from or they’ll misinterpret it or they won’t understand exactly what you're trying to say. Dealing with powerful imagery, that can be harmful and dangerous without context, so I never like to send my work out without any context. I think that’s really dangerous to do.
TM: How did you learn to do digital art?
GW: I took a course when I was in high school with an influential teacher who encouraged me and in retrospect had some really radical ideas. He had us push the box outside of just “this is how you use the programs” and “this is how you make it.” It was very much about the experience of creating and the process. But at the same time, these are all things that have simple origins but they’ve become complex tools that have been with me throughout the past however many years but have changed a lot. Part of that has to do with the creating something that is part of the specific time in my life. When I make a piece of work it reflects who I am or what I’m thinking about at a certain time. I’ve changed a lot already and I’m also realizing how much experiencing other people and their world views can change you. I’m hopefully going to continue to change and my work won’t be stagnant. I have an interesting relationship with digital art and digital media. It’s an exciting time for digital media and art, because it’s a medium that’s so much a product of our time. It’s this new frontier because there are so many new ways you can make images, you can show images, you can share them. And then it’s also this weird space that we don’t know all that much about yet. We’re the guinea pig generation in how we’re experiencing it and showing ourselves. I think queerness and feminism and race have an interesting relationship to the internet because on the one hand there is a lot of trepidation among dominant or majority groups about the internet and about all these voices being heard and this anxiety about the fragmented self. But as I see it, a whole bunch of new voices are now able to have their voices heard and able to disseminate their ideas and make connections with each other. Literally, new worlds are being built. I see digital media and art as a way to challenge the systems and the canons that have existed before. You can create this other world. You can be anyone in some ways, but still connected to the physical world.
TM: What power and freedom do you find in creating things digitally?
GW: On the one hand it’s the power and freedom to literally have a voice that disseminates myself and my identity online. To some extent that’s available to everyone when they have any kind of social media. I do think there is a lot of power in that. I think it’s downplayed, but that’s actually such a revolutionary thing. (So agree!) There’s a hierarchy of identities in Western cultures. With the creation of the Internet, you all of a sudden open up this world where that hierarchy is being challenged and that influences the work that I make. For example, the paper dolls that I make are representing a queer utopia in some ways. On the one hand it’s imagining a potential combination of identities in the form of these otherworldly creatures that are potentially outside of the existing system, but at the same time not ignoring the fact that we are still living in a physical world where systems of power and identity exist in a way that’s problematic and dangerous. I’ve done some more recent glitching work, it’s an interesting medium. Conceptually, it has to do with this idea of playing with what we societally think of as fixed ideas of identity and then glitching them and showing the possibilities of alternatives or different modes. It’s challenging the binary and playing with the idea of other potentials.
TM: What kind of representations are you exploring?
GW: First of all gender—the gender binary, gender dynamics, and roles that are played out within that. How race interplays with gender and ways that different femininities are represented. It’s not just the representations that I want to challenge or re-contextualize, it’s also the lack of representation. Working within mass media is bizarre territory, because I’m trying to use the same images to critique them. They’re familiar. There’s a reason that mass media is so successful because of the ways that, for example, fashion magazines recreate this iconography and imagery, this slick production value. They use all of these tiny tools that we think we’re really keen to, but after a while they become second nature to us and we succumb to them in a way that we aren’t really that aware of. So, by using those same images and flipping them on their heads, I want to re-contextualize them and have you recognize them and then from there realize the bizarreness or the queerness or the grotesqueness and in that find a different kind of beauty. I’m questioning beauty itself and where it comes from and how it’s created, showing that it’s created for us. It’s difficult using the same images and imagery to critique them. It’s a very delicate balance but it can be really powerful, if and when it’s successful.
TM: What are some risks you’ve taken in your art that went really well or really badly?
GW: I think the riskiest thing I’ve done to date is my thesis video, my hunky dory video. The whole thing was quite risky for me in a lot of ways and that was really exciting. I was getting at a lot of ideas that I was struggling with and the video was also a culmination of a lot of the amazing and also shitty things I learned throughout school, throughout my classes and also through my friends, living, and growing up. I wanted to be able to represent those ideas and challenge them and make something I was proud of. So it was about an 8 month process from start to finish. It took hours and hours and hours to make these dolls. A 20 second scene might take a week or more. And I didn’t use every piece that took me hours and hours. I would get feedback on certain scenes or characters that was invaluable. It would be hard to hear but I had not only trust someone’s opinion and that they cared about me and my work, but also that they were speaking from their identity or their experience. And then changing it because the whole point of this project was that I wanted it to be a dialogue. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a positive video if you watch it… but I wanted it to be progressive in that I wanted it to ask the right questions and not be hurtful or dangerous to people, especially those that I was trying to represent or be in discussion with. One of the biggest struggles is that I am interested in the grotesque and also influenced by sci-fi and the idea of potential utopian or dystopian societies. So I’ve created this iconography that includes painting over bodies, which is reference to policing identities and also police as a governmental or national system of identity. But also of corralling and controlling people, subjects, and identities—especially specific identities, such as transpeople or Black people in the United States and people of color in general. But then at the same time I had to be aware of what it means to cut up, draw or paint on certain identities over others. I think that is one of the most important things for me. Being aware constantly that there are so many references that can be made and that not knowing about something or not understanding where it’s coming from is not an appropriate response to critique. And the importance of not being cavalier with these little dolls, that ultimately I found are very powerful.
TM: There are just so many images and so many connections that you’re making in that video. Guns and the militarization, patched together painted bodies, which are the dolls you were talking about, leaves and flowers, the slowed down voice. What is your vision for the Hunky Dory film?
GW: I mean there are a whole bunch of them. I had a lot of trepidation getting started. I decided I wanted to make a video so I needed characters and then I also knew I wanted to talk about race and gender and class in relation to power and history. So tracing these histories through art history and mass media I would say are two of the main focuses in terms of visual themes. But I was nervous to get started because it felt like too much in my head. It was for school so I had a deadline looming which was helpful because I felt like I needed to just get started and see what my voice had to say. It’s interesting to see what my style becomes. It’s an amalgamation of lots and lots of imagery and especially seemingly disparate images. For me, it’s contrasting images or references and seeing how you can put them together into this beautiful mess. I liked the lo-fi aspect of it. It very much looks like I made it in the backroom of a studio, which is what I did. I basically lived in a mess for a long time and did everything by hand. That was also part of the aesthetic I wanted. I would say it’s sci-fi influenced and also it is in a very small way epic based. But then I wanted to “feminize” that—feminizing using quotes. This idea of DIY, handmade, kitschy. They’re paper dolls. I never even played with dolls as a kid but it’s this idea that they’re in a feminine sphere, especially combined with the flowers, for example, and the bright pastel colors and the bright color palettes that seem kind of like collage, scrapbook, low art type vibe. So it’s that, mixed with very intense imagery. There are a lot of muscles and there’s a lot of violence, guns and military. But even the military characters are covered in pastel camouflage. It’s consciously mixing a lot of seemingly different things. On the one hand it’s hopefully visually interesting and on the other hand I wanted it to be uncomfortable enough that you’re questioning every choice made. And maybe not every choice is going to stick out to everyone but I hope that some things will reach out to someone and make them wonder like why the hell did she do that or that’s weird. Another thing was some people would point out little things that I maybe didn’t think of exactly and make these amazing connections. I felt lucky afterwards and I was nervous for some people to see it but afterwards I had some really interesting feedback. It was just super super helpful and made me realize how much I’m afraid of but also ultimately how important the collaborative experience is to my work.
TM: What artists have you admired for a long time and what kind of art is feeding you lately?
GW: Kara Walker is one artist that I’ve been interested in for a long time and her cutouts series was really influential because it was this genius way of…I mean it’s exactly what I’m interested in and she does it beautifully. She is re-contextualizing a historical medium and making it her own, turning it on it’s head completely. Her work is beautiful but that lures you into this grotesque pit of your stomach experience. It’s an experiential thing to look at her work. You can’t look at her work passively. But she is also very generous with the viewer. You’re going into this experience with her and she’s not going to make it easy for you in a way that you also feel better for afterwards and makes you think about your relationship to her work and to these histories and question where they come from and who had the say and what it means for the future that they can be re-contextualized. And she has the power in the situation. So Kara Walker for sure.
Martha Colburn, is a video artist that was extremely influential in this project. Her work is amazing and beautiful and detailed and grotesque and gorgeous. I was also interested in how she tells stories and narratives and that was influential. There are so many…
You can see more of Gray’s inspiration on her blog here.
Thank you, Gray, for sharing your perspectives on art and intersectional feminism, your creative process, and the passion that drives your work. I draw inspiration from your creativity, fearlessness, and conviction to continue growing in your ideas and your work.
To see more of Gray’s work, check out her website here.
This interview was conducted by Tara Miller on October 20, 2015.