The final thematic section of The Body Electric, a Walker-organized exhibition now on view at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, brings together artists who explore the body as fluid and subject to change, revealing transformations through internal or external forces. Dubbed “The Malleable Body,” it features three works by Carolyn Lazard, Candice Lin and Patrick Staff, and Marianna Simnett that address complex issues on so many minds these days: health, care, and treatment. While some of the works focus on the complexities of gender identity, others examine physical changes by documenting personal journeys through illness and healing. To bring these issues into sharper focus, we invited each artist to consider their works in relation to these themes, as well as the role of technology in their respective practices. Here, Carolyn Lazard discusses In Sickness and Study (2015–present), a series of Instagram screengrabs showing books held out by the artist during medical procedures, with exhibition curator Pavel Pyś.
PAVEL PYŚ (PP)
Can you talk about how your experience of living with autoimmune diseases has informed your practice and your approach to making art?
CAROLYN LAZARD (CL)
It’s important for me to acknowledge that my work is constantly changing in the same way that one’s experience of illness is constantly changing. I’ve been moving away from making work that documents or communicates my specific experience of illness to grappling with medicalization and crip frameworks more broadly. Often mainstream rhetoric about disability insists that disabled people can do things just as well as abled people can too. I think there is a pretty pervasive expectation that people should push themselves to work hard. And my retort is, “What if we can’t?” And, “What if we don’t even want to?” And, “What if we wholesale reject your narrow frame of production anyway?” I don’t try to make work that apes the capacity of non-disabled artists; I try to dig deeper into my crip positionality instead of projected expectations of standardized capacity. Illness has affected my practice in deeply profound ways. Instead of trying to make art about sick people, I’m trying to make art that is sick in all of its material and formal qualities.
Let me first start with the first question which is how did you start the series In Sickness And Study and why did you choose Instagram as its platform?
In Sickness and Study began in 2015, but I wasn’t immediately aware that it would become a series. A lot of artists have works that develop adjacent to what they think of as their practice proper, and then those turn out to be actual artworks, which is how I would describe In Sickness and Study. It came out of something quite sincere, which was a need and desire to find ways of making visible the experiences that I was having inside of hospitals that were not normally communicated in visual culture. While it is deeply personal, I definitely wouldn’t describe the series as confessional, as the images don’t confess much. Rather, they add to the mundane stream of Instagram, adding my sense of the “mundane,” which felt very different from healthy peoples’ “mundane.” Especially when you’re in the height of treatment, a flare, a particular instance if illness, or a sustained experience of illness, the things that seem mundane to you might seem otherwise to somebody else. Posting a silly Instagram photo of the book that you’re reading takes on a different meaning in the context of the site you’re in, especially if it’s an infusion suite. Anytime I went to get an infusion, I continued to photograph and post an image of whatever book I was reading at the time. This formal framework self-generated In Sickness and Study as a whole series.
The work has now circulated in a few different forms, ranging from its presentation in The Body Electric to previous installations at a larger scale and also in print publications. Shifting the series from Instagram to gallery spaces has been an interesting challenge. On the social media platform, the work is interpellated through all of the other images that you scroll through. You could also search for the hashtag on Instagram to see the images together, but the phone’s orientation is very different than being able to actually have every image in view at the same time. The gallery affords a more expansive view in ways. It allows the accumulation of images to be seen all at once.
Can you address the structures of care and treatment: you see the hospital interior room, the needle, the architecture of care is referenced in this work as well as in your work in the Whitney Biennial. Can you talk a little bit about the presence of those architectures and those spaces in your work?
In Sickness and Study, as well as Extended Stay (2019), on view in this year’s Whitney Biennial, are attempts to illuminate the time-space of disability and attend to infrastructures of care. For Extended Stay especially, I was interested in the inhospitality of spaces of art and how architectures of care might better facilitate the experience of art in some way. I was interested in how the lens of disability could be a way to question everything that I understand about how we experience video art. While you might be expected to stand on your feet to view a video work, here you are asked to view a hospital TV monitor which extends out from the wall into the space of the gallery. It requires sitting against the wall to view the work. This orientation frames the monitor as an interface between you and the rest of the exhibition space. In this piece, these very simple architectural and spatial relationships are inverted between the space of art and the hospital. This work is meant to slow you down, to let you relax a bit, and to provide an awareness of different ways of relating to media, to viewership, and to time.
How does your visual work relate to your publishing?
I write as well as make art, and art and writing can serve very different purposes inside of my practice. Sometimes they overlap, but often writing and art remain in their respective separate spheres. Art can do things that writing can’t and vice versa. Art works are not easily distributable but they retain something in their singular presence. Whereas writing is so easy to distribute. And that ease of access is something that feels important which is why my writing may seem more expository than my art work.
One of the primary reasons why I started writing my own experiences of chronic illness was because of the social, architectural, and economic barriers that disabled people face. It’s common to be chronically ill and to have never met other chronically ill people. Outside of the crip community, chronic illness can be difficult to navigate socially. This issue of isolation can be met through writing in some ways, it’s a way to extend out to an imagined community of people. I also write to create a context within which my art work can be legible. It’s important for me to frame my own work because I don’t necessarily trust that non-disabled people or people who aren’t ensconced in a political understanding of disability will be able to read it. I’m setting the groundwork. It’s slow but necessary work.
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