All Light’s Fragments: A Conversation with the artist MPA | Katherine Brewer Ball

The artist MPA uses her body to explore the aesthetics and tactics of resistance. Her work has shown internationally, from New York to Stockholm to Oaxaca, and she has collaborated with artists including Sadie Benning, Leidy Churchman, Katherine Hubbard, and Emily Roysdon. MPA’s performances often trace political activism; queer, gender non-conforming and anarchist histories of revolt; and the role of the sometimes-kinky and usually naked body. I first met MPA while sitting on my back porch in Brooklyn. I couldn’t see her very well in the dark, but her presence was unmistakable. A mutual friend had invited her over just days after her return from a long trip abroad. She spoke to us about care economies and sharing resources, or a haircut she had gotten while traveling in China not having spoken the language. I can’t quite remember. Since our first meeting I have seen her perform a number of times and each time it reminds me of what it is like to talk to her. MPA looks at you when you are speaking. It is as if she is expecting you to contribute something important in that moment, in that space. She looks at everyone this way, with an even sense of care and expectation. She commands a space and expects you to do the same, like you are both repossessing something which was previously forbidden or above your price range.

I have heard people compare MPA to a young Marina Abromovic and I imagine the comparison is intended to mark a certain strain of performance or body art that orbits around the female-presenting body. Like Abromovic, MPA’s performances emphasize the vulnerability and volatility of the body, yet MPA’s body in solitary performance is usually one of instigation. Her actions treat the audience as social actors. She is waiting for us to experiment with her in practices of resistance and agitation. I often leave her performances with the vision of her solemn expectant face and bodily stance hot in my mind. MPA’s pieces are alternately silent and raucous manifestos.

Her solo show at Leo Koenig Gallery, Directing Light onto Fist of Father, took place in the fall of 2011, by chance coinciding almost to the date, with the eruption of the Occupy Wall Street Movement at New York’s Zuccotti Park. The show was divided into three sections. In Part One: Initiation MPA stood in the middle of her own overflowing Chelsea gallery opening, eyes closed, silently holding the space of her own body and grasping in front of her stomach a large plaster cast fist of her father. Part Two: The Act, Directing Light onto Fist of Father, found MPA at the gallery almost daily, standing with a mirror on the sidewalk, catching reflecting fragments of sun through the gallery window and onto the installed fist. Part Three: Revolution, Two Marks in Rotation was an hour-long performance collaboration with artist Amapola Prada. The audience sat confined inside a white taped-off square that took up most of the gallery floor while Prada and MPA marched, tracing the room’s edges while wielding and twirling 9-foot scaffolding pipes like batons.

In the early winter of 2012, after Directing Light had closed and Occupy Wall Street had left Zuccotti Park to hibernate and organize elsewhere, MPA and I sat down at my kitchen table to talk.

KBB: How did you conceive of Directing Light onto Fist of Father?

MPA: I took the cast of the fist of my father about three-and-a-half years ago in New Mexico. I brought it back to New York and had it in my studio for a while, and my intention at the time had been to let light pour onto this object from the window.  It was an act that I wanted to do to help shed light into that relationship. When curators Dean Daderko and Alhena Katsof approached me for the show at Leo Koenig, I was interested in working with the fist in a series of photographs positioned with my body. They both encouraged me to make a performance. So then I had to ask myself why take this private act that was happening in my studio—shedding light onto a plaster cast fist of my father—and make it public?  I dropped “my” in the relationship with the fist and arrived at the title for the piece as “Directing Light onto Fist of Father.” As the hand of a father, the fist is a symbol of patriarchy. As a fist, the object is associated with the state and rule of law. As an art object in a commercial gallery, the fist of father recalls an art economy that negotiates value through the creation of exceptionalism, a speculative practice that is the consequence of the union between patriarchy and capitalism. So under this umbrella I approached the piece, which developed into a series of three acts.

KBB: And the three acts became different modes of critiquing power?

MPA: It became a way to elaborate on that position of power because I was playing on these tropes of the fist as familial—it was literally a cast fist of my father. So how do we inherit power constructions and in critiquing them who might we become? Power is something that replays itself through the critique and at some point all of us are in performance to these plays. I am trying to locate that relationship or put it on display, to direct light onto it, because systemically we are fighting for liberation from many of these influences. Our survival right now is so dependent on systems of capitalist market. Capitalism itself does such a good job at implementing us, and our liberties, into its own ploys of commodity, exploitation, and domination. The space of negotiation before commodity, before property, before being owned, is what I am after in my work. This is a space where power can be known abstractly, not as something that is always imposed as coming from above, but present in the very manner and condition in which we socially engage and exchange.

KBB: Did you stop the daily act of directing light into the gallery when Occupy Wall Street started?

MPA: The show opened September 15th and Occupy Wall Street had its first general assembly in Zuccotti Park on September 17th. On sunny days I would go to the gallery and head to the park after. But by the first week of October I was feeling really torn. I had talked to a few friends about the difficulty in feeling that one action wasn’t visible to the other and the considerations around that. And if they were present to each other, what were the contradictions that were inherent in their differences? One is an art exhibition in a commercial gallery dependent on market, specifically a capitalist mode of exchange, and the other is a mass protest near Wall Street taking down market. This beautiful synchronicity was happening where the action of having to point at power and shed light on it—both as a way of healing it, but also to call it out, highlight it, and address it—was what Occupy Wall Street was to me. A group of people, a mass of people, were meeting daily, some sleeping overnight, to direct light onto the problems of capitalism and the hypocrisy of our government’s participation and collaboration with corporations. Occupy Wall Street was directing light onto fist of father.

But my body couldn’t be in two places at the same time and I felt some guilt in that. I put a sign on the door of the gallery that said, “The Act, Directing Light Onto Fist of the Father, is at Occupy Wall Street (Zuccotti Park), Sincerely, The Artist, MPA.” And that way I felt like there was a “body” present when I wasn’t there, which was the sign. It implied that my body had been there, but my body wasn’t there. It also told the story of where my body was and where to go. And I think there were a few weeks that I wasn’t at the gallery at all. Then at the end of October I found myself really cherishing going to the gallery to stand with the light and the mirror, which offered a lot of peace and pause after some of the tumultuous moments that the protests had called up. I found some balance in the fluctuation of going uptown and downtown between those two spaces.

KBB: And in the final part of the performance triptych, Act III, Revolution Two Marks in Rotation, your audience reacted strongly.

MPA: Yes, they did. The audience was not made to be comfortable, and some people were angry at this and many others I think were relieved by having felt so present in the piece. In the performance, Amapola and I use two metal poles that are the same poles from the construction scaffolding outside of the gallery. The poles had replaced the fist in the space, and the piece became about wielding power. The poles acted as appendages of power. And in our hands they became implements to direct the audience. The piece built slowly and at one point audience members were pushed from where they had been sitting in the middle of the room. Some resisted, others left the space and joined the crowd watching from outside, and many let themselves be pushed to the perimeter of the space. Many people experienced what happened in the performance as a reiteration of what had been happening in the streets with OWS protests and police brutality. And of course the two are not separate, but the piece was not a direct call and response to the protests. Amapola and I had been working on the idea of resistance as a magnetic relationship that circulates and we had titled the piece months before OWS started. The performance confronted that divisive moment in which we separate art from life. At the time of a performance, my body arrives as it is in the knowledge of the experiences it has accumulated. My body had this fresher knowledge of being in the streets protesting at the time of the performance. And OWS was an experience that many people were starting to share.

KBB:  So the conversations you and Amapola were having about art and resistance expanded beyond the experience of OWS andthe Chelsea art world?

MPA: I was working in collaboration with Amapola—who was born, raised and lives in Peru— and who had a very a less enthusiastic view on Occupy Wall Street. The two times she went to Zuccotti she was quite skeptical. She said, “Hmmm, it just seems like a bunch of people talking.” Partly for Amapola what had happened in Peru in the 80’s had led her to witness revolutionaries getting positions of power. So she brought that lens to OWS. But also really important for her was, “What is this quotidian violence that exists in urban bodies, and what can be the moment of surrender and outburst?” That is the conversation we were having making the piece.

And this is a theme in the pattern of protest. Resistance constantly borders the question, “When and where is violence?” Some people create strategies of passive resistance citing teachings of Ghandi or MLK, and others choose to take up arms and create another line of resistance, like we see in Malcom X, or the Red Army Faction, or Weather Underground. These are examples of extremes, but my point is that the notion of violence informs the strategies of resistance, and each person in the picture of resistance—including the state, cops and protestors—has to confront their position to violence.

KBB: And performance seemed like the right place for these questions of power and violence?

MPA: In performance you practice, because this is art. We weren’t out in the streets doing the same thing, even though in the streets you can see this same negotiation happening. We were here in an art piece, which can be the place to experiment. Everyone’s body in that space felt something from that experimentation. Both performers and audience met an intensity that I associate with meeting a moment of choice. This experimentation led me to behave as the oppressor. I held an iron rod that nobody else in the space except Amapola held. Amapola and I were committed to our objective, that she would stab the white wall of the gallery with her pole. To meet this objective—let’s call it a resistance gesture on the space—we found ourselves arriving in positions that controlled and manipulated the audience. After the performance I felt my heart beating so fast because my body wasn’t at rest, because something had shifted and was revealing itself. I didn’t feel completely right after that performance, all wasn’t well. There had been an unrest, and within that unrest, I think some people were really drawn to and felt excited that the experience had been complicated. While others were angry that their body had been confronted. And maybe even upset that we had used art to do this.

KBB: How do questions of gender and sexuality play into your work?

MPA: I remember strongly something that came from a discussion with Amapola one day when we were talking about our differences. She is from “the global south” and I am from “the liberated north” and how do we include the issues from these territorial differences and broadcast them in this piece? And Amapola said, “The differences will be seen.” In other words, the differences will come from who we are in the performance, just in the way that who we are in life, the difference is present. The choices that she and I make in performance style don’t dismiss who we are as living beings. We don’t do performances where we put on another persona. So in that way, us both being female presenting and queer located and identified, I think comes through in the choices of performative acts.

In Part Two: The Act, I think the subjectivity of my gender as female is a visible player in terms of working off this relationship with father, which is socially gendered as male. As a female presenting person standing outside of the gallery, the act of holding the mirror to the fist and directing light onto it is a feminist act. It was also a meditative act, an anti-authoritarian act, and a public act. People on the sidewalk walked through the projection of light and they saw me holding the mirror and in the mirror they saw themselves looking. And in this moment, it was not my gender that was emphasized but my action that charged the space; it was this disruptive non-aggressive act of steering light onto power.

KBB: Is the work for sale?

MPA: Yes.

When I started to ask, “What do I really need?” I mean, what am I going to sell the fist of my father for? What would I sell that object for? I decided I would trade the entire work for my educational debt. This question coincided with so many conversations that have been going on about debt; that debt is our current currency. For example, now countries are exchanging debt as much as they are exchanging goods.

KBB: What exactly is for sale? Where do the lines get drawn for you around the sale of a gallery show that is also a performance? For example, does the sign “The Act, Directing Light Onto Fist of the Father, is at Occupy Wall Street (Zuccotti Park), Sincerely, The Artist, MPA,” get sold as part of the piece?

MPA: I was paid an artist fee by the gallery. The act itself has already been paid for. But all of the objects in the space are for sale: the original film print, the fist, the chair, the four original yellow paintings, the mirrors, and the turmeric. And the sign, “The Act, Directing Light Onto Fist of the Father, is at Occupy Wall Street (Zuccotti Park), Sincerely, The Artist, MPA” is part of the work for sale, but it would not be included in the instructions for the installation because it puts the works in the past and, if it continues to be exhibited, I want the space to be active.

KBB: Would you re-perform the work as part of the installation?

MPA: I don’t know. I have never done the same piece twice. The event has already happened.