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Disability Arts Online

Interview with Michelle Lisa Herman

Anne Teahan:  My first question is how do you see disability in relation to your art?
Michelle Lisa Herman:  My disability and disability in general is a primary source of motivation in my work.  Every piece I do always stems from some sort of abstract idea about my own experience, though this may not come across immediately in looking at my work.

Michelle talks about her A.R.T. (Applied Research & Technology) and how the experience of disability is deeply embedded in this process.

MH:  My installation entitled A.R.T. (Applied Research & Technology) began after creating several 16mm stop-motion films, which studied the behaviour of ink and water on a porcelain plate and the fractal-like patterns that resulted.

A fractal, by definition is a shape that is self-similar, or the part resembles the whole. Many things in nature are composed of fractals; trees, nerve cells, coral, etc. My interest in these fractal forms grows out of a technique in painting that I have used for some time called ‘Decalcomania’ (as coined by Max Ernst).

In creating these films, I began to think of the forms as growing, living organisms that abstractly represented the essence or force of chance, as each ink-blot grew and behaved unexpectedly each time I repeated the ‘experiment.’ Every fractal was completely different from another – just the slightest mutation could change it completely.

And so I applied that idea to my own art.  I was born with a syndrome, EEC or Ectrodactyl Ectodermal Dysplasia and Cleft palate syndrome. EEC is caused by rare genetic mutation and usually affects the hands, feet, and teeth.  In my mind, these fractals have come to represent those genetic mutations. 

AT:  So EEC happens by chance - just like the ink droplets in water?
MH:  Yes, while it can be passed down genetically from one parent, it has also been found to occur sporadically in children of unaffected parents.
AT:  So for you, the EEC just happened - nature did what she did at random, and with art you're making sense of it, finding metaphors –  it’s just nature.
MH:  Yes – I guess you could say it’s Nature showing her power. I think my work deals a lot with chance because it brings me a sort of comfort knowing things can happen at random.
AT:  With the laboratory and testtubes there are many scientific references in your work.  It’s as though you’re applying a kind of order to chance events.  Do you have a scientific, technological mind?
MH:  Yes, it might be that I am trying to impart order to chaos, or that I am trying to understand it because knowing brings us comfort.

As for having a scientific mind, I guess I must have gained some influence from my parents; my Mom has a masters in Math and my Father is an electrical engineer.  When I was little, I ‘tinkered’ a lot in my dad’s workshop: making things and fixing things.

Michelle talks about an early video, which was a meditation on early experience. The film shows a woman (Michelle’s mother) wrapping her own hands (almost obsessively) while narrating her recollection of having to perform the procedure following the first of many of Michelle’s hand surgeries.

MH: The wrapping series really dealt with some of the more personal aspects of my experience.  I was talking to my mom on the phone about the wrapping procedure she had to perform after my first hand surgery (when I was 8 months old).  As I listened to her describe this repetitive almost ritualistic act, I started thinking about the idea of healing as a ritual. 

I thought about how I could relate my own experience to our culture as a whole. How we constantly try to fix ourselves; by buying and consuming ‘things’, medication (prescribed and self-medicating) and even cosmetic surgery.

AT:  That takes us to the question I’m asking every artist  - especially where disability is central to the art.   Would you be without it? 
MH:  I think if I was without my disability I wouldn’t be doing the things that I'm doing  now, or perhaps I would be creating in a different art form.  Art is my passion; that’s what I want to do - I want to be a famous artist (laughs)…I want to be a household name. 

One of my main driving forces behind my desire to make art comes from the ridicule I received from peers in school, like name calling or telling me “You can't draw.  You can't even hold the pen”.

Michelle explains how this discrimination made her more determined that she would make art.

MH:   …. It was like a spiteful ‘I’ll show you!’
AT:  The other related question is: -  Would you have the experience, and the drive, but be without the impairment from now on?
MH:  No, without my disability, I don’t think the concepts behind my work would be there.  Without having these experiences and seeing the experiences of others, I don’t think my work would be as strong.  I don’t think I would be tackling some of the issues that I'm trying to.

I feel my disability is my whole self, even though the most predominant place it effects me is my hand.   Because growing up, it affected how people treated me.  My whole personality, my whole mentality, in many ways is built by that experience.

AT:  I’m also asking each artist  about the notion of a disability culture as opposed to the mainstream.  Are you happy to exhibit under a disability banner?
MH:  I am so appreciative of VSA (the US organisation for Arts & Disability) and all the opportunities they have given me.  They have really exposed my work in places that I probably at this point in my life wouldn't have been able to get into.

At the same time though, I sometimes think there’s a bit of a stigma attached to the idea of ‘disability art’ and ‘disability artists’.  For example, before the (Revealing Cultures) show started, I wrote to several art critics in the DC and Baltimore area in order to ask them to see the show in hopes they would cover it.

In the last VSA show I was in, there were no significant art reviews of the exhibition (that I know of) in any of the ‘art world’ sources like ‘ArtForum’, ‘Art in America’, or even just the local newspaper art section.  As artists, I feel like we deserve that. I wonder if art writers/critics look at the word ‘Disabilty Arts’ and think “I can’t touch that, I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings”.

AT:  Can you tell me more about your relationship with VSA (America’s largest organization for arts and disability) and how it developed?
MH:  I had not heard of VSA until my senior year at college.  I saw a ‘Call for Entry’ posting for the VSA Greenlight exhibition.

This prestigious award and exhibition is the result of a partnership between VSA and Volkswagen.  It showcases and supports emerging artists with disabilities and in 2008 awarded a total of $60,000 between 15 award recipients.  It has the support of the Smithsonian and tours universities for two years.

MH:  This is when the relationship started and it has just gotten better over time. The support they provide artists with disabilities is so valuable at any stage in an artists’ career, for example Stephanie Moore (Director of VSA) nominated me for the 2010 DC Mayors Arts Award.

The DC Mayors Arts Award is a long-standing and prestigious arts award held in Washington, DC.  Performing and visual artists are nominated in a range of categories, including ‘Oustanding Emerging Artist’.

MH:  I was actually was one of 5 finalists for “Outstanding Emerging Artist”.   While I didn't win, it was really a great honor just to be recognised for my work. Also, being one of the ‘Award of Excellence’ recipients really helped me after graduation, as I transitioned from college life to the ‘real world’.
AT:  So it has been totally positive.
MH:  Yes  they have done so much for me!

I ask Michelle about work and her management of Disability.  While she considers herself an artist first and foremost, she also holds a full-time design position at an arts-education organisation.

AT:  You have the classic artist’s  dilemma – how to earn enough to survive and find time & energy to make the art – but you also have the added problem of managing impairment.

Michelle explains that EEC itself doesn’t require much physical management, but she often has to manage social situations which carry the emotional legacy of childhood experiences of discrimination.

MH:  I was made fun of a lot because of my hand when I was younger. So, the most significant area of managing my disability is emotional and mental. It often impairs my ability to be comfortable in social situations or even prevents me from interracting at all. For  example, when I meet someone, I internally obsess about how should I shake this person’s hand, or where I should sit so that when I'm eating or writing they won't see my hand.

A lot of the times I don't even realise I'm doing it, l just go into auto pilot  - I can’t untrain myself from thinking that way even though I know it's wrong -  it's ingrained in me.

Michelle also has had to manage A.D.D. and describes the complex effect it had on her tackling and thinking about tasks, especially within a working environment.

MH:  For a while, when I was un-medicated, the ADD really got in the way of me being able to perform my job to the best of my ability; I’d put off projects because I ‘wasn't in the right mind-set’ or forget things I was told to do.  I would say in terms of percentage, maybe 30-50% of the time was disability management.
AT:  Does this take energy from your art?
MH:  Yes I think so. I think that I tend to avoid certain things in my work, in order to prevent myself from getting into uncomfortable social situations and that's something I know I need to conquer.   
AT:  Is that a performance thing?
MH:  Yes  I think that's part of it - a lot of my video work has a performative aspect to it.  I’ve thought about performing live, but because of my hand I think I would be too self-conscious to really do it.
AT:  So the Decalcomania painting technique is a kind of intermediary or a distancing device?
MH:  Maybe. I am really fascinated with the idea of removing the artist’s hand from the material that compels it.  There’s no direct fingertip or tool brought to the canvas.  It’s like a stand in - maybe its a way to distance myself.
AT:  So does your art have to be about the subject of disability?
MH:  No, I think that the subject matter of Disability is not immediately apparent, so it can take on more universal ideas.
AT:  So it's in the process; it’s not illustrative, but metaphorical.
MH:  I think it's just a different way of dealing with the same thing; I just choose to make the connections more subtle.

Michelle tells me that even her Dad on seeing her ‘ART’ installation, needed to have the disability connection explained.

MH:  I explained to him how these fractals are my metaphor for myself and the chance of me being born with my disability.  Then he was like “Oh I've never thought of it that way!”
AT:  What are your plans for future art?
MH:  I am working on a few new multi-media installations.  

Love Letters (Language is a Virus) is a sound/sculpture installation inspired by spam emails I received. Some of these messages often contained long passages of text that seemed coherent at first, but then I realised they were composed of random internet facts strung together into paragraphs.

I imagined these emails as love letters sent specifically to me in some kind of secret language. From there I thought about a fictional relationship in which the couple communicated exclusively in the language of spam.

AT:  A collage of empty phrases?
MH:  Like communicating a lack of communication … talking without saying anything. 'Sensing'  will be a sound installation made up of 10 hanging spheres that each contain a set of speakers and a motion sensor.  When a device is triggered, the orb will seem to speak “I’m here, are you there?”

The inspiration for the work came from Quorum sensing (the decision-making process in which bacteria and many other organisms communicate). In this process, bacteria send out chemicals to detect the presence of others in the colony and then perform an action when there are enough together. I thought about how it related to our own desire to connect with others.

AT:  So in a way are you always finding ways of saying “I’m here”?
MH:  I guess so – me trying to make myself known  - me saying “I'm here!”  But it's also looking at human behaviour as a whole, how everything we do is - in a sense - our way of saying “I’m here!”

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