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Interview with Gwynneth VanLaven

Anne Teahan:  The first questions are about connections between art & disability.  How do you see disability in relation to your work?

Gwynneth VanLaven:  I respond to what I see and do in my everyday life and a lot of what I spend my time at is for example, waiting in a waiting room.  It’s not so much that I set out to do work about illness or disability per se – it’s just my response to my reality, to what I face on a daily basis.
AT:  How do you feel about exhibiting under a disability banner?  Is it liberating or restricting - are there mixed feelings?
GV:  I have an anecdote: I was having lunch with a friend and we were talking. I had just written an article for the Washington Post, it deals with how people interact with me as someone with a disability; people will offer me unsolicited advice, and they'll tell me to try this herb or this acupuncturist. They offer cures. And I think it's well-meaning but it's not necessarily what you are welcoming. I wrote what I felt about the psychology, about the interpersonal dynamics, where I wish people would be listening rather than telling.

So my friend was going over this article and other recent successes including my MFA show which was a large scale hospital waiting room installation.  And she said, “So what are you going to be, ‘The Disabled Artist’ or an artist with a disability?” and the question was shocking.  It didn't even occur to me that it was a question to be had.

This was the opening up for me of this whole idea that I was to choose a label or a path.  My first response was nobody asks me if I’m going to be a Woman-Artist, or an artist who's a woman and I’ve been in lots of feminist shows. 

I feel that I can be in a feminist show and I’ll write a statement about my feminist beliefs……and maybe the same work can be in a disability show, with a statement about how that reflects my issues of disability. And I don't think that's shape-shifting.  It is just the nature of who we are:  the work is multi-faceted, my experience is multi-faceted... if I choose to look at it through this or that lens, or from one angle or another I don't think that's invalid in any way.  One of the goals of my art is to open up the notion of Identity. 

AT:  So art can be about the self through the experience of disability, or gender,  or any other experience – they all add up to who you are?
GV:  Yes, and then how it impacts or connects to an audience is the same – through themselves, as they are facet-fluxing too.
AT:  They see your art through their own particular lens and hopefully there is some empathy or recognition?
GV:  Yes.
AT:  So in relation to the disability heading, would you rather not have a label at all?
GV:  If somebody's going to see it better or have access to it because it's labeled with 'disability' then I think that's fine - whatever makes the entry to the work.

If it’s going to be dismissed, I would be concerned.  But if somebody's going to dismiss it because it's labeled with disability then they may not be the people I want as my audience!

We discuss the theme of ‘Waiting Rooms’ in my DAO blog which have been part of Gwynneth’s life and art since early childhood.  She had investigations and endured pain from undiagnosed illness from four years old.

GV:  Being a young person with a health impairment, I spent a lot of time in hospitals, in waiting rooms. When I was 12 or so they brought art therapists into the hospital, gave me crayons and said “Draw your pain”.  I remember drawing a guardian angel and the fiery pit of hell - and it was just like the whole world opened up! The pain was finally diagnosed at 17. (They found out that my appendix was infected & smoldering for many years.)  And so I was feeling particularly lost. It's the frustration of looking for a diagnosis -  it's one of the most gut-wrenching experiences.  You are even willing for it to be terminal if it gives you a name for it.

AT:  Instead of waiting in this kind of vaccum where you're guessing.
GV:  And people start asking questions about your psychology  - ask if it’s just in your head…

Gwynneth's ‘Waiting Room’ installation in 'Revealing Culture' includes a mysterious plant decorated with tiny pill bottles. Each one has a printed label with variations on Gwynneth's surname.

You can see a selection of images from this installation in DAO's gallery

AT:  May I ask you about pills and pill-bottles, which crop up throughout  your art? Tell me about the many names on them.
GV:  The waiting room plant is like a family tree; each character has my last name to show that I’m invested in it.  I’m connected to my name in a way that many other people aren't - because my parents invented it - they amalgamated their last names to make mine.
AT:  As an equality statement?
GV:  Yes. 

Each pill label names a character to be found on Gwynneth’s 'Idylify' website, which she has designed to mimic a real drug company's website. Unlike the UK, drugs in the US can be marketed directly to the public.

GV:  I created this website for the drug 'Idylify' which is a play on names: -  'Abilify' is a (real) anti-psychotic medicine, used in treating bipolar disorder.
AT:  So taking the drug 'Idylify' brings idylic health?
GV:  Yes. Every character is on the website as a person taking the drug, who has a personal story, so their testimonials are there.... taken almost directly from the pattern I observed in the actual (drug) websites.   Each of them has their own pill bottles.
AT:  Could they all be you?  Are they all aspects of your own experience?
GV:  They are, visually. I dressed up as different characters.  I did it so well people didn’t realize it was me!  It's one reason the last name has to be me.
AT:  Are the pills about pain reduction?
GV: Some of them (I’m allergic to most pain medicines, so I can't take much)  but I do take medicines to support my physical and mental health, so pills have always been part of my life.
AT:  Is this artistically productive, or an obstacle to art?
GV:  I don’t have symptoms so it doesn't really factor in the mix. But having to take pills for the rest of my life is something to cope with. That becomes a source of tension that I make art about.

Gwynneth’s film ’13 Swallows’ shows the daily ritual of taking tablets.

We talk about American drug company adverts selling images of perfect health & happiness, which she makes fun of in her work.

GV: They have an advert where it's a woman walking in a field and she’s depressed.  Storm clouds are there, she’s walking alone.  As they announce the drug the weather changes, it becomes bright and sunny, and it’s wonderful!   She then walks onto a cliff -  ends up right at the edge. And of course for many who’ve had a psychiatric problem, cliffs may not be the best place to end up.  It’s so naïve! (laughter).

Gwynneth has made her own versions of ‘Wellness’ adverts on her website.

GV:  I wanted to challenge myself to see “What does Wellness look like?” I got stuck with exuberant images from advertising, like clicking your heels in the air; running with your hair down - or this notion that we’re going to run in a field of flowers and be free. 

I’m poking a little fun, and just pushing the issue of how we make ideal, and ridiculous and supreme and wonderful, the (state of) 'Wellness'.   

AT:  So your work asks the question: Do these adverts using wonderful, cheesy images make our daily struggles even harder?
GV:  That's one of the things that has fueled my political ideological beliefs;  these can be damaging images for people who are living with any kind of disability, or any kind of challenge - which is everyone -  so my art's not necessarily targeted to a single audience. 

The idea of 'Wellness' is an elusive and dangerous notion in our (American) culture – I don't know how it is in the UK?

AT:  Yes we’ve many idealized images and promises of perfection in our UK adverts.

Gwynneth explains how art exploring ideas of ‘Wellness’ may sometimes be harder to make than art which dwells on Illness.

GV:  … the pathos of ‘Illness’ has a drama.  Wellness doesn’t necessarily have that same dark compelling nature. It's harder to make work about happy healthy things.

In 2007 Gwynneth experienced a life-changing event.  She suffered injuries and trauma from a terrible accident when a motorist lost control of his car.

GV:  I wasn’t even crossing a street … I was just walking along the sidewalk. There’s a real sense of fragility.

Gwynneth has made powerful images at the site of the accident using a pinhole camera.  This haunting body of work  ‘The Visibility Color’ was chosen and curated for ‘Shift’ - VSA’s prestigious exhibition at the John F. Kennedy Centre Washington. 

AT:  May I ask you to talk about your experience of disability since the accident?    (a key theme in Gwynneth’s work is ‘Stigma’).
GV: I feel like stigma is a big problem for people with disabilities.  I’ve always been forthcoming, wanting to share my stories and experiences. It’s one thing to have a hidden disability. For example, in everyday interactions with the grocery store clerk, someone at the metro, you wouldn’t have a psychiatric diagnosis on your forehead.

It's different with the visible effects of the accident.  I use a mobility scooter now and I am starting to work with a service dog, so that puts me even further into the visible ‘Disability’ category.   A lot of curious people ask directly what she does for me – her training is specialized to help mitigate Post Traumatic Stress from the accident (I get flashbacks) so I’ll tell people about having PTSD, but that’s not always easy to talk about….   I could say, “She’s a medical response dog” and try to leave it at that.

It’s interesting how to negotiate those questions. I almost feel a relief in some ways because I don’t have to choose when I identify as someone with a disability... whether to be labeled. There’s a sense of clarity.  It's there to see.

AT:  Just one question about anger and humour. With an event like the accident, something senseless suddenly happens outside of your control. It must make the gap between your daily reality and the advertising you satirise, seem even more absurd.  And yet you use humour so well in your work.  Some people would be enraged too.  Is there anger in your humour?

GV: That’s a good question - I'm working to get more angry. I do diffuse things with humour, but then that becomes an entry point (to the work) for other people.

Gwynneth talks about an idea she has to help manage periods of sadness or anger, when feelings about the accident, pain and that generally “Life Sucks!” become strong.

GV:   I’m actually thinking about sending out invitations to ‘pity parties’ where everyone comes and brings their own moans and problems.
AT:   It might get competitive.
GV:  Yes but the rule is: You can’t solve the problems. You can’t offer solutions.
AT:   You just emote. (laughter)
GV:   Yes it might be my next work!  That's kind of my method – I just have these periods of feeling that way - and then just say “OK let’s move on… “
AT:  So that leads me to a problematic question, I ask myself this a lot, so I must ask other artists.  Would you be without illness and impairments?
GV:  I can’t imagine taking it away; sometimes I fantasise about not having had illness and not having it now… No, I’d just be someone else.
AT:  But would you say, “I’ve had the experience, it's fed my art- I’m glad of that, but now no more illness”. Would you have it be past-tense? 
GV: I think I would be without it now, at this point, with it (already established) as my foundation, or impetus.
AT:  So it's done something creative for you, it's fed your art, but you’d carry on without it?
GV:  I think I would. Yes, and there’s lots of other things to make work about - whatever we perceive in the world. We’re key perceivers. Right now I’m living with pain, which is probably my biggest nemesis.  It’s not so much that I feel like its a part of my identity and I couldn't separate myself from it -  I'd just throw it out the window... I would love to be without pain.
AT: Your work asks very probing questions about who we are and how we exist in the world.  Are you religious in any way, or does that seem like those 'sunny happy valley' sort of adverts that your work pokes fun at?
GV:  I grew up as a Quaker. Creating contemplative space is part of the spiritual aspect of the work and the idea of questioning.  I'm trying to probe things, pull things apart... to find the most essentially human - I suppose that makes me a humanist. I don’t’ think there’s ever only one way to get from here to there.... I don't think I have the corner on any.
AT:  Where will your art go next?
GV:  One possibility is making kits that people could carry with them into waiting rooms.  They could use the contents to shift the conventional expectations of people who must wait there.

We (here in the US) expect tissue boxes and brochures and clipboards that advertise drug products and a certain notion of wellness.   The kits could have stickers, pens and brochures that infuse those spaces with questions about who waits, what we wait for and so on.  Those who employed the kit would gain a sense of agency as they waited and intervened on the space.   And hopefully the tweaks to the waiting room would bring up questions for healthcare providers and patients who discovered them.

I’m really engaged with ‘Relational Aesthetics’ after Nicolas Bourriaud. The whole idea is that you’re not working isolatedly and then creating work for a gallery that people go see.  The medium is the people and the interactions that creates.

So this would be a way to break into real space to intervene in real situations.

AT:  It’s almost like a guerilla activity – you're targeting somewhere and creating a strange ripple in a public space. That takes quite a lot of courage - is that an expression of growing confidence?
GV:  Yes, an extension of myself as I expand into unscripted territory, in a way, sure.