Relevant Permission A Conversation between Michèle Pearson Clarke and Lou Sheppard
by Michèle Pearson Clarke and Lou Sheppard
“When I first encountered his work, I immediately thought that we must be thinking about some of the same things,” Michèle Pearson Clarke remarked of Lou Sheppard. “And I always found it interesting that his work was rarely contextualized as addressing grief (even by him), because to me it is so viscerally present in his practice.”
Here, the two artists engage in a lively repartee about their works that sometimes, but often don’t, position grief as an immediately legible central subject—in either case, seeing grief as a kind of inextricable lens. Sheppard articulates a parallel to queerness, writing “I don’t really think of my work as ‘queer’ but I do see queerly.” They go on to discuss navigating the spectacle of queer pain, dispensing with vulnerability as a kind of “generosity,” and understanding play as a sign of maturation—the other side of exhaustively strategic attempts to represent marginalized experience according to someone else’s criteria. Clarke and Sheppard bring their own experiences, vernaculars, and motivations to muse about coaxing grief from private space, cultivating subtle, sincere, shared arenas.
Lou Sheppard: Grief feels very familiar, but also vast and amorphous, and thinking about it has made me realize that I’m not that sure what it is. In a Euro-, Ameri-, and colonio-centric world it feels like experiences of grief are tightly scripted—grief is an emotional state that follows a linear trajectory of healing, a response to loss or trauma. But in my experience, grief feels more like a presence, or like a timescale, or even a lens that I see the world from. I have felt that grief has its own temporality, its own dimensional qualities, and that you become entangled in it, or maybe it in you. What is grief to you, Michèle? And what does it mean to bring the dimension of grief into your work?
Michèle Pearson Clarke: I’ve never thought of it that way, but yes to all of that. Particularly the notion of it possibly being a lens or a way of seeing, that really makes sense to me. It’s both a way that I see and understand myself, my reactions, and my choices, and also a way that I try to see and understand other people, especially people that I don’t know. Because I do think that everyone is living with grief, everywhere, all the time. That’s yet another thing that has been “revealed” by the pandemic, even though it was always already there.
But also, the way I think about grief is divided into before my mother died and after my mother died. That cleavage produced the staggering grief that has shaped everything since, including the decision to go back to school and become an artist whose practice explores grief and loss. And I do that to honour her memory, and to try and make sense of my own griefs, and to hopefully hold space for other people’s griefs.
LS: Yes. It makes me think: I don’t really think of my work as “queer” but I do see queerly and make through a queer lens. And this idea of grief being a way of seeing resonates with the ways queerness can ask us to see differently. What does it mean to see through grief? What can grief show us?
Memory, vulnerability, and grief— maybe these feel like three strands of a braid?
MPC: Oh, and I would weave queerness directly into that braid as well. It was Heather Love and José Esteban Muñoz who first showed me the ways in which being queer means accepting that triangular relationship between social exclusion, failure, and grief. Or at least learning to contend with it. Similarly, Anne Anlin Cheng’s conceptualization of “racial melancholia” is a sort of parallel formulation that describes the everyday mourning of racialized subjects in the grinding face of white supremacy. I carry both of these losses with me, and in my work I’m interested in thinking about how I can situate these griefs as sites of possibility for social engagement and political connection. This is partly why queerness can ask us to see differently, as you put it, but don’t you think it’s also asking us to do differently? Even though you don’t see your work as queer, I think the ways that you are addressing the griefs that systems of power enact upon us are queer invitations to do otherwise.
Would you say that’s a deliberate gesture on your part?
LS: Yeah—I like that… “doing differently.” I think this touches on a shift in my work, where I have moved from a space of representation and asking to be seen, or asking people to see, to positioning my work as a time and space that I invite people into. In my work, grief has become a way to hold people in a present tense, to hold attention. Some earlier works, like A Strong Desire (2018), directed attention to the marginalization of trans identity within the medical establishment, by reading the textual margins of the diagnostic criteria used by psychiatrists to diagnose gender dysphoria as a dance score. I wanted the audience to bear witness to the frustrations and griefs of encountering the medical system as a trans person. Later works, like Murmurations (2020), or Rights of Passage (2020), implicated the bodies of the audience members in the production of the work. In Murmurations people followed familiar social-distance markings painted on pavement to perform a collective, but socially distanced, dance. In Rights of Passage the audience followed pathways of buried and lost rivers in the Richmond-Delta region of BC. The movement of their bodies along these pathways reinscribed the movement of water along these historic waterways. I am asking the audience to enter a space of loss and grieving together.
Relatedly—and we’ve talked about this before—for the first few years of my return to my practice, I felt that I had to be so deliberate in my positioning of queerness, of transness, and precise in my strategies of representation. Now, with a more established practice and with a broader social queer literacy, I am able to be more oblique and poetic in my work, and hopefully also more playful. It feels more complex, and it allows me to be present with my own grief, when in the past I may have been more strategic. Grief feels more like a wildness in my work. Which feels exciting and heightens my awareness of how narratives of marginalization are often constructed: that we ask people to fit their stories into a metanarrative of marginalization instead of attending to the nuances of these experiences.
From what we have talked about, it seems like your forthcoming work Quantum Choir (2022) also invites this element of play, through the negotiation of the failure and vulnerability of singing in public. The grief in this work feels so nuanced, because it is entwined with that vulnerability and queerness and Blackness and masculinity, and so it resonates in surprising, uncomfortable, and compelling ways. Does that ring true? And I wonder: are you holding grief and joy in the same hand?
MPC: Maybe, finally, yes? I mean, after 10 years, I’ve certainly gotten there with my own grief, and yes, like you, I’m now allowing myself to include play explicitly in my work. But maybe I’m less interested in joy, and rather more interested in conveying pleasure in my work? I’ve been thinking a lot about the differences between the two, and somehow pleasure holds a more complicated and familiar relationship with grief than joy does to me. There can be a melancholy in pleasure and a pettiness in pleasure—perhaps that wildness that you named—that’s hopefully more present in everything I’m working on these days.
LS: Oh, pleasure. Yes. The wildness is also a kind of pleasure, or vice versa.
MPC: For sure. And you’re right, with Quantum Choir, even though I’m using the vulnerability of learning to sing as a way of exploring the failure of contemporary queer female masculinity, I’m really trying to balance our shame and hurt with how fun it was to kinda feel like a boy band, even for the briefest of moments. It was tremendously hard for all of us to sing publicly for the first time—I think even more than most people will realize—in the same way that it can be tremendously hard to be queer and masculine and female bodied. I wanted to share that but I didn’t want to foreground it, if that makes sense? Our pain has too often been a spectacle for public consumption, and I’m always navigating that terrible visual history. I guess bringing play and pleasure into the work is my most current coping mechanism.
Permission is relevant here too, and I’m curious to hear more about your arrival at a more oblique and poetic approach in your practice. I can relate to feeling like you have to be measured and intentional in your work, that you have to be able to credibly justify every creative choice, and that you don’t have the luxury or privilege of being more instinctual or esoteric. There’s a professional grief there that is difficult to articulate.
LS: I have to work so hard against my own internalized phobias to feel both grief and pleasure. Because both of these feelings require centring my body and experiences rather than just seeing my body as a kind of abstracted political construction. Have you read Jonny Appleseed (2018) by Joshua Whitehead? The whole novel is centred in Jonny’s body in such a beautiful way; it was stunning to me.
Permission is relevant here. To me because I think grief and pleasure are not really permitted. If something feels too raw, too unprocessed, it risks being seen as dangerous. And maybe it is dangerous. I don’t know. When trans artists talk to me about some of the difficulties of sharing their work, there is a protective instinct in me. I caught myself telling an artist that they should have personally processed what they were sharing before they shared it, so that they couldn’t be hurt by people’s responses. And I felt so defeated by that— as if we have to do that labour too, as if we can’t be surprised by our own work. Maybe I’m getting off-topic; what I mean to say is: moving into work that is more oblique and poetic has come from actually just wanting to think about and respond to my world, to navigate these slippery terrains, to see instead of asking permission to be seen.
MPC: No, I haven’t read that novel, but I most certainly will. The way you contrasted its centring of a queer body versus seeing it as a kind of “abstracted political construction” is a gut punch by the way. Because one of the things I love most about your work is how present and centred the body is through movement, notation, translation, and score—your body, sometimes your performers’ bodies, and always my body as the viewer.
LS: And what about generosity? People often say that my work is “generous,” and I feel like I could apply it to your work too. I think because sharing vulnerability is seen as generous, like sharing our grief or our pain is generous. (I don’t think we so much think of sharing pleasure as generous—hah!) But something about it rubs me the wrong way when people say it, and when I say it about other people’s work, and I wonder how you feel about it? When you talk about navigating the spectacle of queer pain (in all of its intersections), are you being generous with your audience?
MPC: People definitely think of sharing vulnerability as generous, but for some reason, it’s always come naturally to me, so I don’t see it as going above or beyond. There are times where it has made me uncomfortable because of the implication that I’m giving more of something than most people would or most artists would, and that demarcation doesn’t sit right. But as far as my audiences are concerned, what I can say is that I am always thinking about queer collectivity and connection and, at the risk of everyone rolling their eyes as they read this, care. Before I was an artist, I was a social worker, and that has strongly shaped how I think about my professional responsibilities and how I want to communicate my ideas in a photograph or a video. For a long time, it seemed like I had made a radical career shift, but really, I’ve been working with grief and loss and community from day one.
LS: I mean, isn’t care kind of the point? Especially now? I wrote this piece called “Family Matter” (2021), based on this idea that ecology and economy both draw from the root word oikos (family). Ecology is the functional logic of the family, and economy is the management of this function. Two ideas so often placed at odds, but both describe how we live in relation to each other. In this way, the action of caring could be seen as a function of the economy, an investment into our ecological networks. (And, I would say, as we see the pandemic wear on and on, collective care has become central to our economics.)
MPC: Completely. The pandemic has also heightened the dynamics of care in relation to public space, and so I’m very excited by your more recent public artworks like Murmurations: Scores for Social Distancing and Colour Guard, Atlantic Flyway (2020). Both works bring the grieving body out from private space where we’re told it should stay. How has that shift been for you, and where do you go from here?
LS: I think “caring about” something can feel like a kind of grief. So, for me, grief is a means to attention and presence, an act of care for our relations. And that’s what I’m asking people to do in those two pieces: Murmurations engages bodies in public structures of collective care, and Colour Guard acknowledges the loss of migratory birds through a military colour-guard ceremony. Both works provide rituals and structures for paying attention—a means with which to disrupt some of the dissociation that we all need to survive—and a space where we can attend to loss.
When you ask where I go from here, I come back to that point you made earlier, about “doing differently.” The last piece I made, The Exquisite Corpse (2021), holds two performers (Seamus Gallagher and Marley O’Brien) in a liminal flickering space between human and post-human—a space that I feel like we are collectively navigating, and a space where queerness could be a guide. In the video, I ask Marley and Seamus to share some of their personal losses and talk about how those losses inform their present. At the end of the video, I ask them to imagine the future. The futures they describe are both incredibly grim and incredibly hopeful. Crisis and suffering met with queer community and collective care. As she walks into the sunset Marley says, “I think there is a lot of love in the future, and that the future… is going to be unbelievably vast…” This felt like the first time that grief became transformative in my work, and I am carrying that idea into the work I am making now.
What about you? You’ve engaged in some very public-facing projects, like I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2017), which details General Motors job losses as an ongoing collective experience of Oshawa residents, and your upcoming Photo Laureate project that will invite families to have free portraits taken in Toronto parks. I love these projects because they’re both so socially oriented and deeply personal at the same time. Reflecting on the parallels you draw between your career as a social worker and career as an artist, I find these works feel like deep and loving acts of service to the community. Is that what you mean when you say professional responsibilities? Quantum Choir feels intimate, like you’re inviting us into your own process, your own experiences, and your own world. Is this a shift too or are Quantum Choir and I’m Thinking of Ending Things two sides of the same coin?
MPC: Probably less of a shift and more of a leaning in. As much as grief has taken from me, it’s also given me so much that I carry, and so I’m slowly working my way through when and how to share that in my work. And because I’m always asking other folks to be deeply vulnerable, with this piece, I really wanted to put myself in that place, on the other side of the camera. But I didn’t want to be there alone. The choir is a collective gesture in both a musical sense and as a way to create queer kinship as we did this hard thing. Because if there’s one thing I return to again and again, grief needs company.