Karma Chamaleon: Interview with Donelle Woolford

This interview was originally published in ‘An Art Newspaper: Special DECADE Issue, April 1, 2011’.

Donelle Woolford

Lorena Muñoz-Alonso: I was reading David Joselit’s piece on you, in which he describes you as a quasi-mythical character and as an “avatar”, which allows “for an imaginary/real mobility” that a regular artist lacks. I am wondering: How do you interpret this concept of mobility, and why does it symbolise something positive or desirable?

Donelle Woolford: The dichotomy of “real” and “imaginary” reminds me of the three kinds of beds in Plato’s Republic: the idea of a bed (“bedhood,” if you will); the object that is made by a carpenter (the bed itself); and the representation that is made by an artist (a likeness or imitation of a bed). Though Plato was quite confident about the distinctions he drew between ideas, objects, and representations, in our time we’re no longer committed to such utilitarian hierarchies. So, what are these paradigms of “real” and “imaginary?” Am I, Donelle, a “god-made” idea, and if so, are ideas real or imaginary? If I’m an object—and as such, useful—does that make me more real? Or am I an imitation of something—an artist, perhaps—that relegates me to the realm of the imaginary? If I’m enjoying some kind of mobility it’s between these levels of being (or not). This chimerical quality is key to myth. Being a character-driven myth, a kind of shared theatrical figure, allows me to be fixed and flexible simultaneously. There is the underlying, common notion of Donelle Woolford as a young artist—my character, so to speak—and then there are the particular embodiments of that character by the different actors who interpret it. Myth allows me to be in several places at once, or to be instantly fluent in German, or tall, or somber, or handsome. Every version of me is different, and yet every version is still me.

In your artist statement you define yourself as the “quintessential market artist”. Could you explain what you mean by that and how it relates to your political agenda?

I’m just trying to claim some valuable intellectual territory for the left. I’ve never understood why so-called political artists almost completely cede the power of commerce to conservatives. The belief that refusing to make saleable art objects for a market economy somehow symbolizes a critique of that market is dubious and shortsighted. Eliminating the object of exchange only turns the artist herself, or the public event, or the community involved, into commodities that get bought and sold in an institutional marketplace of museums, biennials, and state-funded public art. So what we somewhat lazily refer to as commodity critique is really only a transformation—an exploitation, really—of systems and networks of people into art objects. That doesn’t sound very liberating to me, in fact it sounds quite corporate and repressive. If one of my desires is to empower myself within a system like the art world, it seems more resistant and effective to collect free material, use my skills to organize it into meaningful images, and try to control the flow (and value) of those images as my sustenance.

Your narrative as a working-class black female is written by Joe Scanlan, a middle- class white man. Do you have any idea why Joe decided you should fit this description, what were his most intrinsic reasons and thoughts to engage in a race and gender conflict that doesn’t really affect him that much?

Actually you have it backwards. Joe is the working-class artist, I’m the privileged one. My father was a real estate lawyer who made a successful transition into entertainment law. My mom is a natural healer and author. And I graduated from Yale. If I were to say anything about Joe’s characterization of me it would be that he wrote me to be everything that he is not. That counts in the basic, white / black, male / female way, but it also counts in terms of class and education and family history. I’m everything he is not in those ways, too, and I think those are the ways that really matter. I also question your assuming that race and gender don’t really affect him. Aren’t we all equally affected by this conflict? I think a working-class white male is just as bound to a stifling categorization as a bourgie black woman is, or a queer Arabian monarch. We’re all trapped in overlapping sandboxes, and in that sense Joe and I play well together.

'Osaka'. Wood scraps, enamel paint, latex paint, wood glue, screws.

So far, you have been played by many different actresses. I am wondering, if you could choose to be embodied by a really famous actress, who would it be?

Salma Hayek is always a good answer to any question regarding celebrity embodiment. I could say Tilda Swinton but I think she’s too tall—even though I love her body language, her screen temperature. Does Patti Smith count? She would be the exact opposite of both Swinton and Hayek, so you kinda get my drift. If Johnny Depp’s turn as a drag queen in Before Night Falls qualifies, he’d be great, too. However, Viola Davis would be my top choice, even though she might be too perfect for the part.

I like very much the idea of you being a ghost, which you also say on your statement. However, a ghost is someone ‘present in absence’, in the form of a memory or a supernatural force. But you are, if you will, ‘absent in presence’. You are there but you are not you, —but the actress that plays you. What kind of ghost are you?

I think ghosts are a manifestation of our desire to see what we want to see. The Donelle with whom you’re interacting and the Donelle with whom someone else might interact are different. I don’t think I’m “absent in presence,” if I understand what you mean by that statement. But perhaps others do feel that way. I often have to contend with invisibility, even though I’m always sure I’m there.

Donelle Woolford

How necessary are you for the art world?

 I think we’re all only just beginning to learn the language of perception as it relates to social space. Our vocabulary is quite narrow, actually. For a recent show at White Flags Projects in Saint Louis I created a piece based on Piaget’s theory of the conservation of volume. This theory deals with development and perception: at a young age, people associate volume (size) with shape, regardless of what they might have previously known or seen to the contrary. At the opening, I got to experience (and experiment with) reactions that I attributed to shifting perceptions of my portrayal. Throughout the opening, I would periodically change out of character whenever I climbed onto one of four risers built for the occasion that were of slightly different heights. Although my portrayal changed back and forth throughout the opening, my physical form remained unchanged. Some people had a hard time dealing with that because, like the Piaget experiment, they were not able to apply knowledge from previous perceptions of Donelle to the situation of Donelle in the present. Others just rolled with it and played along. It felt pretty important. The performance challenged notions of provenance. It challenged my audience to reckon with what they think I am and what they’d like me to be. If that’s an experience we need to have as an audience, then I guess I’m necessary for the art world.

I remember I went to see ‘Double Agent’ at the ICA almost three years ago but I completely missed the point of your work. You were not in the gallery in that particular moment and I didn’t even know you were an ‘avatar’,  so my experience was reduced to the sight of an empty studio. What happens with Donelle’s agency when the viewers fail to grasp her true essence? Is it diminished or, on the contrary, multiplied?

The unknown is always more promising than the known. My agency is quite vast when you don’t know anything about me, but the more you learn the tighter and smaller my realm gets. However, just when you think what you know about me will annihilate your curiosity, the fact that I am portrayed by many actors who are empowered by their portrayals flips the whole premise on a point, like light passing through a pinhole, and my agency expands again. My existence is kind of like a solar eclipse. I’m best seen inverted, projected, indirectly.

Donelle Woolford's 'Return' exhibition, at Wallspace, New York

‘Double Agent’ was a very interesting show in that it addressed situations wherein artists use others to make their work. Have you ever felt exploited in an artistic working relationship, like for example with Joe? And, have you ever felt guilty of exploiting someone yourself?

I’d like to point out that exploitation has two meanings: to make productive use of something generally, like a skill or a natural resource; and to make productive use of something specifically, for one’s own advantage. I can’t name an artist who doesn’t want to be exploited in the first sense, and I can’t name an artist who hasn’t been exploited in the second. It’s funny that people are so fixated on my exploitation, but I think that’s more a function of their politicized perceptions of me (and of Joe) than it is of the work. It’s also disrespectful, somehow, to assume that I would wittingly allow myself to be used. After all, the show was called ‘Double Agent’, not ‘Agent and Sub-Agent’.

Donelle Woolford with Claire Bishop and Mark Sladen, curators of 'Double Agent'.

At the end of the day, what is more important to you: your work in itself or the debate around the questions of gender, race, and authorship that it generates?

The work.

I was thinking about African-American art institutions and museums and wondering if your work has ever been included in any show in that kind of context. What do you think of these institutions and in what way do you feel they open up or narrow the dialogue around an artist’s work?

Joe told me something that happened at the opening of a show he had recently in New York City, where he displayed his archival recreation of David Hammons’ Blizzard Ball Sale. That’s the performance where Hammons sold snowballs on St. Mark’s Place in 1983, alongside all the other Sunday morning flea market participants. Anyway, a curator from MoMA asked him if he was particularly interested in black artists. And Joe thought, you know, I’ve made works derived from Bruce Nauman, Robert Gober, Rachel Whiteread, Mike Kelley, and a whole museum exhibition that was an hommage to Sol LeWitt. Not once did someone ask me if I was particularly interested in white artists in response to any of those works. But with David Hammons it was different. The question wasn’t asked in a malicious way at all, it was just a normal, rote thing to say by someone working at one of the most prominent museums in the world. If we weren’t all racially affected in some way, institutions like The Studio Museum or El Museo del Barrio in New York, to name two, would not need to exist. I think the commonly held notion is these places are exclusionary and narrowing. However, they exist to achieve exactly the opposite goal: to overturn the narrow question that Joe heard at his opening. We have yet to reckon fully with our perception of “the norm,” and until we do, we have to have institutions for the rest of us.

Detail of Donelle Woolford's studio

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About Lorena Muñoz-Alonso

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