Between the Gallery and the Street: An Interview with Vanessa Thill

Vanessa Thill, "Arise (Underfoot)" (detail), 2020. Courtesy Vanessa Thill and Deli Gallery.

I first met Vanessa through mutual friends on the streets of New York City’s Chinatown. I felt connected to the neighborhood given that, pre-pandemic, I used to work in an office in the area, but I didn’t know how to key in. Vanessa invited me to some meetings, and we began to work together on the local housing crisis. Along the way, we spent a lot of time thinking about the possibilities for organizing cultural workers into these prevalent struggles, especially given artists and galleries’ sometimes-contested presence in the area. While in lockdown, we’ve spoken about how disconnected we feel, and how we’ve both been looking for other ways to assemble.

Which is all to say that, before the uprising, I ran into Vanessa most often in contexts that ostensibly sit “outside” of art: at a cancel-rent caravan protest, at a demonstration circling the housing court. However, the very premise that these demos were distinct from the cultural sector – when art-washing is a key tactic in policies of displacement and gentrification – is something we’ve long been interrogating in conversation. Last year, Vanessa and I published a conversation on the Art Against Displacement blog in which we analyzed the fights against Amazon in New York City, and Warren Kanders at the Whitney Museum, from the perspective of how cultural workers needed to operate against claims by art institutions that they are separate from material political conditions. And then, after months of lockdown, I had the chance to see Vanessa’s show at Deli Gallery, which provided us an IRL opportunity to continue some of these conversations. Standing in the gallery and touring the art felt incongruous for the same reason that so much of what was once quotidian now feels uncanny; the muscle memory was missing. But this uncanniness also led us to discuss the work differently, with regards to the police cars parked outside, in the context of Covid-19, in the midst of the anti-racist uprising, and with an eye to how the mysticism in the books she was reading inflected her work. Here, we pick up our discussion, emphasizing that the border between the gallery and the street is not only porous, but practically non-existent.

  • Andreas Petrossiants

Vanessa Thill, “Balsam” (installation view), 2020. Courtesy Vanessa Thill and Deli Gallery.

Your exhibition is the only one I’ve seen since February. The welcome break aside, I was happy to return to the gallery to see your work, particularly your large sculptures made from resin, suspended in frames made from branches: the “portals,” as you call them. To situate the show temporally, we should mention that it was postponed twice, firstly due to the pandemic, and then because of the uprising – the latter now at continuous risk of being recuperated and self-policed by liberals, nonprofits, and elected officials as the state’s counterrevolutionary violence only intensifies. Let’s start from what is only deceptively a simple question: what was it like to have made art and put it into a space in June 2020?

It’s been a strange time to exhibit work. The show was seventy-five percent completed as we went into lockdown. With all of the unknowns of the past few months, from the sudden social and financial upheaval to the emotional trauma of the pandemic, to the inspiring yet painful energy of the uprisings, and for me, the harsh internal reckonings that have resulted – I appreciate the shifting context as an opportunity to think about the work from different angles.

For instance, I’ve been thinking about contamination and anxieties around toxicity and environment in my work for several years, but the pandemic really highlighted some of those things. I’m interested in breaking down delineations between humans and nature, or those between flesh and earth. Even our semiotic understanding of nature is based in the supremacist idea that humans can, and should, dominate it, or that nature is defined in opposition to “us.” Furthermore, how are logics of supremacy and terror latent around us and made manifest? Meanwhile, how do we access awe and beauty? With these works, I’m thinking about vulnerability and violence, abuse, and possibilities for transcendence.

The show has been a tool for me to consider abolition in terms of a portal to a place that doesn’t yet exist but is constituting itself through building up a new language. I see now that abolitionist work is creative and spiritual work.

The “portals” first developed out of a consideration of material. I wanted to make a device that would allow the resin panels to gently levitate, while also piercing and stretching them like a hide. It wasn’t really until the sculptures were in the space that I realized how they worked. One by one I met friends I hadn’t seen in half a year. We talked about defunding police, the protests, who got arrested. Then we would talk about wanting to create a free school, or an artist union, or an artworld without capitalism and white supremacy. Something about these sculptures standing around us seem to “catch” our desires for a radically different world and make intangible things feel present in the room.

Vanessa Thill, “Portal I” (detail), 2020. Courtesy Vanessa Thill and Deli Gallery.

I was happy to see the commitment Deli Gallery showed to begin thinking about abolition and reparations from the perspective of an art space. They matched contributions for Brooklyn and Minneapolis bail funds during the first week of the uprising. Aside from mostly superficial statements of “solidarity,” there has been little effort by medium and large institutions. One of few exceptions I can think of is the Yale Union, a contemporary art center in Portland that announced it would transfer ownership of its land and building to the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation (NACF), a Native-led nonprofit organization that works with Indigenous artists. How have you been thinking about accountability and the artworld?

I’ve been thinking about it a lot since the early days of the pandemic. Institutions that have made it their business to promote the value of “community” ran for the hills with their executive staff and left basically everyone I know furloughed or laid off. I have really strong feelings of disgust for the artworld. It’s useful to pull back the veil and ask, who has been doing more harm than good this whole time?

Artists and cultural workers need to reconsider art’s relationship to liberation because we know they are connected, but as it stands, art often makes us feel more trapped in a market that upholds deeply racist values and consolidates wealth and power. I appreciated Deli Gallery’s instant action on this, raising money for bail, encouraging collectors and other galleries to match funds, and offering several small works for sale to fundraise further. That’s one way that art can be connected to literal liberation of people from jail. So I’m hoping that this time is awakening us as individuals with many tools available to us. We can’t keep “addressing” topics of injustice within the content of a show and expect power dynamics to change without building power among people.

Right. But as you and I have talked about before, the art system and systems of incarceration are so deeply connected – I think of the 2019 jails plan in New York City that includes cultural funding as one example. One problem is the expansive belief that art and politics are separate spheres, at the core of the myth of autonomy – in short, that art work is not labor. This is what I think permits artists and museums to claim political intent through superficial appeals to “representation” while avoiding engaging in the struggles around them, most often because they have a stake in maintaining the status quo. I was also thinking of a statement you shared online, something along the lines of “bail funds are necessary and comradely, but we must do away with the need for them.” In New York City, this is fresh in our minds when one slight legislative victory – an end to bail for misdemeanors in 2019 – was taken back by Governor Cuomo just three months later.

Totally. We need to be ready to propose radically different alternatives for the long term, while also understanding that small victories and struggles have to be folded in as we go. The workplace mistreatment that’s so common in our industry often manifests against marginalized people holding low-wage positions. We need to organize as workers in order to challenge these conditions. The Yale Union ceding their power to a Native-led organization shows that decolonial ideas can and should become tangible actions.

You mentioned the materials briefly, but can you talk more about the process of constructing the “portals”? What does “scavenging” or “gleaning” mean for your practice right now?

I have been making these resin-coated sculptural works on paper since my first solo show at Hood Gallery in 2016. I made a piece to fit over the gallery window, which was in this alley of shipping containers. My studio was in a basement across from a toxic demolition site of the former Cascade Soap factory. I was in the midst of an abusive relationship and work environment, and I remember being scared and full of rage. Making art was how I felt powerful, yet there was something cruel about it. I wanted to be in control. But I would cure the resin on the sidewalk and bugs and detritus would blow into the work and get caught. Things would never go as planned. It influenced my approach to materials, which continue to include things like colorful cleaning fluids, makeup, spices, fabric dye, house paint, spray paint, glue. Imagine running through the house and repurposing everything as a pigment.

And I’m glad you brought up “gleaning,” which I hadn’t thought of in relation to my practice, but the work is a kind of anti-capitalist scavenging. I think of the Agnes Varda film [The Gleaners and I, 2000], which I know you love. Ditto Anna L. Tsing’s theory of salvage economies: non-capitalist forms that exist all around us but are submerged into a capitalist framework, hopefully temporarily. As a young artist I was disturbed by art materials. I felt no connection to tubes of paint, let alone choosing one color over another. I wanted there to be criteria for making decisions that somehow had internal coherence or arose from the work itself. I still think that way as far as questioning the how and why of production, so I frequently scavenge or repurpose materials. With the branches, a lot of them were found from the green area of NYCHA [New York City Housing Authority] housing, which historically are some of the few places with large trees in poor neighborhoods. Developers are trying to encroach into these green spaces too, but they’re because they’re also chronically neglected, that’s often where fallen branches pile up.

Vanessa Thill, “Portal V” (detail), 2020. Courtesy Vanessa Thill and Deli Gallery.

That’s a really interesting point. Branches are a material reflection of the disinvestment and racialized reinvestment in poor neighborhoods of color that guarantee gentrification. I think here of the way critical urban planner Sam Stein applies the historical term “beautification” to the green displacement that underlies contemporary urban planning. On that note, you and I met doing anti-displacement work. The pandemic has thrown a lot of that work into disarray, while also opening up new possibilities like the return of eviction defense networks. At the beginning of this, a lot of people wondered whether mass unemployment and the inability to pay rent would bring up legitimation crises of work and property. In many ways those crises have erupted, but the pandemic has also revealed the plasticity and recuperability of global capital, particularly real-estate capital. In the most recent surveys, almost 50% of New York State renters may be unable to pay rent in September. Policing, as always, has served to protect property and to brutalize the poor and people of color, and this violence has become yet more stark. I think here of Charles Mudede’s recent text “White Knee, Black Neck” in e-flux journal about the murder of George Floyd. Just outside Deli, there’s a depot with dozens of parked cop cars in a part of Brooklyn still at risk of rapid gentrification, pandemic or not. How have you been thinking through these things – the confluence of them all?

I’ve gone much deeper in my interest in local issues. I feel like I’ve developed a way to live that keeps these problems you describe very close, and that is really intentional. It took me the better part of a decade living in New York to see the mechanisms and learn how to ask the right questions. To be able to “read” the city for the dynamics that we are fighting: the marshalling of public resources for private gains, the war on poor people that is going on especially when it comes to the real estate industry, and how policing is tied into that. It’s endlessly disappointing to be let down by a city government that promises to value justice, equality, and whatnot. I still get heartbroken over that because I want it to be so much better than it is.

The new thing that is really coming to the fore for me now is an attention to the spiritual work of existing within these contradictions, and how crucial this internal leap of faith is for justice movements. As far as policing, there is room to interrogate how punitive logic operates at even the most micro scale, so this isn’t beyond the scope of studio work. It feels almost distant now but during the first month of the show all I thought about was the city budget and defunding the police. I want to acknowledge the work that so many New Yorkers did, of internalizing the belief that we could achieve the goals of defunding with a mindset oriented to abolition. Even tentatively, we believed it, and each person clanging on a pan from a window strengthened that feeling. And I also want to acknowledge the very hard work of continuing to exist and fight after the repeated blow of disappointment. Where does that persistence, that power come from? Dare I say it feels almost not of this world. It feels heavenly, in the sense of bigger than human, awesome.

That feeling makes me think of Justa Barrios, a home attendant I met through NMASS (National Mobilization Against Sweatshops) who recently passed away due to Covid-19. I remember her voice shouting Cuomo’s name up into the air outside his midtown office. She was resilient, even joyful in the face of seemingly impossible odds. Her message to other workers was, don’t be afraid to stand up for justice.

A campaign like Ain’t I A Woman, that Justa was a part of, continues to be so amazing to me. That homecare workers could organize notwithstanding the overwhelming atomization and individualization of the profession gives me hope for the possibility of organizing in other spaces, cultural production among them. As regards hope, can you talk more about the influence of magic and mysticism for your work? 

I’ve recently discovered a set of practices some call “witchcraft” which is something that I guarantee a lot of us are already doing. For instance, I have been doing a kind of somatic exercise around activism, which is quite helpful, and you could call it a kind of portal. Beyond imagining a better world, try to slip into the feeling of what that better world would be: how it feels in the body and the mind’s eye. There’s something about this that helps me commit more deeply. I remember vividly doing this with Cancel Rent, where I was thinking about what life would be like if we didn’t have to pay rent ever again, and I just got obsessed with it. If land was just land, and not property. It’s sometimes really hard to access these “thought experiments” in daily life and frankly it requires faith to even trust your brain to daydream like this.

For a long time I was nervous about talking overtly about spirituality, because the earnestness was embarrassing. I remember my first studio visit with Deli in 2018, the gallerist was like, “wait, so your work is about religion?” and I was like oh shit I’m screwing this up! We ended up having a many-hour conversation.

Vanessa Thill, “Balsam” (installation view), 2020. Courtesy Vanessa Thill and Deli Gallery.

Religion, whether organized or whatever else, was not a part of my upbringing. My grandmother’s family was Jewish, but the traditions weren’t preserved. I remember my mom apologetically got me the Hebrew Bible when I was in middle school. At the same time, her life’s work is scholarship on music history and the dispossession of Jewish culture. She showed me by example that in order to lead a fulfilling life, you have to forge your own relationships with the things that you find important.

So it was earth-shattering for me to read Gershom Scholem’s On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead and discover Kabbalah, the medieval tradition of Jewish mysticism and the rich metaphor clusters used to try to describe divinity in concrete terms. I learned about the idea of sephiroth, which are the manifestations of divinity that mysteriously power the world. These emanations are described as glowing lamps, flowing streams, rungs of a ladder, spokes of a wheel, tendrils of fire, interconnected body parts; it was this whole strange and juicy cosmology. The writing is breathtaking. And it offered me a kind of feminist, polytheistic understanding of holiness as being manifold, abundant, and structured not by domination, but by interconnectedness.

One more thing I’ll say about this is that some strains of messianic Kabbalah talk about telescoping future worlds, an imminent utopia of ultimate Shabbat. But it feels quite different from an understanding of a hereafter, partly because a temporary Shabbat happens every week. So every week as we near sundown Friday, a kind of sanctuary in time opens up. The importance of this cannot be underestimated in my mind because it is really about a kind of radical potential that is available to us within this lifetime, right here, right now.

1 Comment

  • David Nieves says:

    Great to see inspired creations come from troubled times. Art that can address social causes is a true means of disseminating issues of truth.

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