Healthy, Complicated Relationships: An Interview with Madelyne Beckles
by Leah Schulli
Madelyne Beckles does not take herself too seriously. In her video work, sincerity and irony work in tandem to deliver a message that lets you in on the joke enough to laugh but, at the same time, delivers a faint punch to the gut. Gendered labour, targeted consumerism, pop culture and a canon of feminist theory are playfully subjected to her low-brow camera and prop work. Beckles doesn’t spare herself when it comes to her firm but fair style of roasting, acknowledging her active participation in every avenue of culture that she aims to debunk; “With today’s brand of feminism, you no longer have to compromise looking cute!” she exclaims while posing in a negligee in Womanism is a Form of Feminism Focused Especially on the Conditions and Concerns of Black Women (2016). Making intersectional feminist art can feel like a trap, because there is always going to be someone who feels excluded from the narrative, or otherwise offended. The two of us had a discussion about the pitfalls of this hypersensitive discursive landscape of intersectionality today, the ever-evolving face of feminism and how these things inform the artist’s creative endeavours.
LEAH SCHULLI: In your 2017 video Theory of a Young Girl, you bring the viewer into this pastel pink, lo-fi dream world filled with nail polish, lipstick and perfume bottles. You’re in a baby doll dress and expelling one-liners such as “When I was 12 years old, I decided to be beautiful!” which is one of many excerpts from Tiqqun’s Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl. What is your relationship to this text, and how did this work come about?
MADELYNE BECKLES: That book kind of epitomized and contextualized what was so enticing yet grotesque about the early aughts as a pop-culture era to me, who was a preteen at the time. That period of time was very sexist in both its infantilizing and over-sexualizing of young women, but still very formative to me—so much so that I have a tattoo that says “2005.” The Playboy, hyperfemme, candy-coloured, Paris Hilton “That’s hot” aesthetic was almost uncanny—synthetic and real at the same time—and Tiqqun’s text also really teeters [on] that line.
When Tiqqun refers to “the young girl,” it’s not actually to a young girl, but to a particularly self-destructive mode of consumerism, almost similar to the way that Eve becomes a symbol for the fall of all women in the Bible. This choice completely takes the humanism out of the critique of the commodification and sexualization of adolescent women, which makes it very explicit, upsetting and almost violent. Ariana Reines, who translated the original text from French to English, became physically ill while working on the translation, and many readers find it extremely contentious.
Womanism is a Form of Feminism playfully uses canonical feminist texts—some by Black feminist authors, and others by second- and third-wave white authors who have been criticized for their politics and seen as alienating in terms of contemporary race and gender discourse, like Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer—as props for a faux infomercial that pokes fun at the commodification of feminism. Can you talk about your decisions to use these particular texts, and your tongue-in-cheek approach to citation, broadly?
It’s funny because that piece has been described as using “the” canon of feminist texts as props, but it’s more specifically my canon because they mostly came from my time in school. De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex was something I had to read in the first “women’s” studies class I ever took, and I never read it. I remember thinking, “I don’t understand how anyone could get through this.” It was so abstract to me because French feminism is so different from how we currently understand feminism in a North American context. Obviously it’s a classic, so I have it, but am I ever going to read it? Probably not.
Greer’s The Whole Woman represents my first ever feminist moment in an academic setting. I was in this creative writing class in high school, and for an assignment, we had to read this essay about genital mutilation. In some roundabout way, the teacher asked, “What type of essay would you say this is?” And I remember being like, “It’s feminist.” So, he gave me this book, and by the time I had made that piece, I had never opened it. The work was intending to poke fun at the canon and how it had become somewhat trendy to possess this knowledge.
Right, so it was more about your personal connections to these titles, and about positioning them as symbols of a particular generation of thought, than about making any commentary on the texts themselves. It’s an interesting artistic decision to take books written in specific historical, geographic, cultural contexts and supplant them in a new context without reading them, making them into a kind of fetish object. Do you think this approach calls for a different conception of “citation”?
I’m not precious about the idea of citation and don’t feel the need to deconstruct it in that way. I’m more interested in the feminist device of auto-theory, and making texts anecdotal, and therefore accessible.
Although I did finally read The Whole Woman in 2018 when I was playing around with this footage that I had shot a few years earlier of me making pancakes topless for an exhibition. I had just moved in with my partner and I was thinking about feminist modes of contemplation surrounding domesticity, and I picked up this book that turned out to be this incredibly gendered, dated and problematic kind of ’90s textbook about being a woman. In spite of its shortcomings, it really spoke to me during this time when I felt I was becoming more domesticized; I welcomed this sort of prescriptive on how to unpack that.
Did having that more sincere experience with the text later change the way you thought about how you had used it in the video?
Not really; if anything, it totally validated my decision to use it. Even though I got something out of the text, it’s very biologically essentialist as a whole, so in the context of teasing out the canon (no pun intended!), it’s very emblematic of the 20th century and second-wave feminist politics. I think it’s healthy to have a complicated relationship with these texts and to not read them dogmatically.
I feel like that whole stage of making work was me trying to figure out how to create and also how to get people to listen. So, I would put a crazy wig on, make a slutty video and then kind of shove something smart in there. It’s a common feminine tactic: dress up and pretend you’re like this so that they’ll listen when you talk about that.
Anne Hirsch is somebody that really inspired me; she would talk in this sexy baby voice about theory, using that particular style of DIY YouTube comedy as an aesthetic or a framework. Jayson Musson in his Hennessy Youngman character would take a principle of art history and just talk about it, performing as this kind of everyday dude talking about formalist aesthetics. In a way, he was sort of the new John Berger. His work was super inspiring to me, just stuff that didn’t totally commit to being one thing. There is also Casey Jane Ellison, with her experimentation of feminine archetypes, and use of the Valley girl affect in her speech while maintaining conceptual rigor.
Do you think that if you make something that’s entertaining and funny, then it’s often read as accessible in a way that threatens to debunk the sort of esoteric nature of contemporary art?
Totally. I think art is so earnest, and therefore so vulnerable, so using parody is a way to make a joke before anybody else can. Maybe it’s sort of a defence— not entirely defensive, but I think that’s part of it. But parody, at least when it’s deployed in the context of art, is just as earnest as art; there still has to be some kind of intention, and maybe that’s where it differs from media and comedy.
What do you think is the efficacy of irony today? Particularly in a contemporary art landscape that, as you say, has tended to use such devices as defence mechanisms?
I think that particular widely shareable and reproduced ironic language—visual, verbal and textual—is largely for the internet now and lives in the territory of memers, edgelords, the “dirtbag left” and trolls.
Considering the use of parody in your work, what’s your relationship to earnestness?
I think the earnestness in my work has come from Black feminist politics; when I was making fun of the so-called canon, that kind of positioned me to have a bit of authority. Black Looks: Race and Representation by bell hooks is one of the most important books to my ideology and practice as an artist. It was the first book I ever read that combined feminism with cultural criticism and race politics in this way that was very legitimizing to me; it did things like use Madonna’s fetishization of Black signifiers and culture as an example of perpetuating or fucking up representation.
Have you ever been afraid of being perceived as “problematic”?
Honestly, I really, really was. But how can you not be problematic? Remember last summer when we were discussing how many things we had to cancel ourselves over and were essentially fighting for the time to share the worst thing we’ve ever done?
I think call-out culture now is just trolling. I’m not super active on “woke Twitter,” but if you’re constantly waiting to poke at somebody’s fuck-up, in terms of intersectional feminist politics specifically, obsessing over that is somewhat contradictory. To me, it’s inherently neoliberal to centre proper politics on an individual: policing the minutiae in regards to the behaviour of our peers distracts us from directing our frustrations and critique onto the larger systemic issues that are put in place by those in power. Most of the feminism that I get down with is about the collective, so I just think that if we’re supposed to change collectively, one-on-one aggression is maybe not the best place to start. If somebody says something really fucked up, by all means go for it. But I’m trying [to] actually think of something I would call out… and I don’t know.
Since diving into podcasting, I feel like the spitfiring and nuanced readings of ideas that lend themselves well to that medium has actually kind of changed the way we call in and out, at least in certain circles. Because you are listening to people speak in a more realistic manner than they would in a polished piece of art or writing, the host’s casualness and delivery allow them to explore ideas (or even contradict themselves) in ways that may not fly in a different context.
Also, I feel like because feminism is on the outs, call-out culture is also on the outs.
We’ve had a lot of conversations about the word “feminism” and how much it has evolved in the last decade, having been co-opted in a social, political and economic sense. Is this what you mean when you say feminism is on the outs?
That is what I mean; it sold itself out by becoming a means to gain capital. When something sells out and becomes so easily consumable, there’s an obvious compromise that happens somewhere, and in this case, it’s inevitably shown up in the politics.
On that note, can you explain what you’ve referred to as “pan-feminism”?
Pan-feminism is the result of this equalizing effect, in which a variety of supposedly meaningful political actions exist under a singular, all-encompassing umbrella. Posting a no-makeup selfie, being involved in a grassroots organization to aid racial justice or scolding a peer online for wording something incorrectly can all be treated as important feminist operations that carry a similar weight. It’s simplified to a point that every action that is performed by a woman is political, largely for various kinds of gain, and I think we can get a bit deeper than that.
Would you still describe yourself as first and foremost a feminist artist?
This is something that’s a very real struggle for me, and it’s a big part of why I haven’t made anything in a while. I wouldn’t say no because feminism is what the aesthetic sensibilities and the content of my work has mostly centred around—theory, texts, pop culture and exploring femininity. However, I feel as if I’m at this turning point in my practice because I don’t feel so attached to these ideas and they’re not inspiring me to make things. I don’t know if I’m that kind of artist anymore.
What forms of feminism still feel right?
To me, bell hooks’s definitions and articulations of feminism stand the test of time: “to be ‘feminist’ in any authentic sense of the term is to want for all people, female and male, liberation from sexist role patterns, domination, and oppression.”