EM: Monica Bock says the title "Maternal Exposure" refers to her "interest in examining, exposing aspects of family life and maternal experiences in particular that are not normally looked at or exposed." For you, what else does the title refer to?
ZB: My first take on the title, "Maternal Exposure," was to think about how we could also play off it to evoke and unsettle some of the ways women are "exposed" in relation to the idea of mothering. By that I mean no matter what choices we make, or what conditions of possibility we make them under, we're relentlessly understood and defined by whether we are or aren't mothers. So I wanted our work on this installation to speak back to this pressure. But right now, being eight months pregnant, I'm experiencing maternal exposure from a whole new perspective.
EM: What varying perspectives on the maternal do you think you and Monica bring together in this work?
ZB: Nickie approached the maternal as a mother, out of her interest in exposing the labor of mothering, and out of wanting to call attention to the intense scrutiny mothers are under to perform as nurturers. But for a few reasons, I wanted to address "nurturing" more generally, beyond the relationship of mother and child. This is in part because of the ways the significance of nurturing has come up for me outside the relationship of mother and childin particular as Ive cared for dear friends and family as they were ill and dying, but also as Ive experienced certain kinds of nurturing as part of friendship in the day to day. So I wanted to focus on the way in the process of nurturing there is a fundamental emptying out or letting go that is both life-preservingin the way it can connect you to another person at such a deep and fundamental leveland life-draining, because what is preserved of the process so minimally represents what has gone into it. For both of us, then, the installation always was about making palpable a kind of labor that usually is quite ephemeral. But even though I started with this more general interest, as it happened in the process of talking about the work, Nickie and I ended up talking a lot about our own mothers, and my writing got more and more focused on women in the generation who raised us who didnt have the same choices (as those of us who have other kinds of work have) about how to preserve or hold on to anything for themselves in the process of mothering. (And this is how the idea of the good "bad mother" who preserves herself emerges.) Then, right after Id written "Dedication," my own mother got very ill, and I started thinking more about my father in the nurturing role as he cared for my mother, and about the ways he had and hadnt been prepared for this kind of labor. This part of the story isnt in the text, per se, but it certainly has become part of what it means to me.
EM: How did the collaborative work of "Maternal Exposure" take place? Monica Bock says in her interview with ArtWorks! that ME was inspired by daily rituals of the maternal experience, which led to an interest in examining and exposing certain aspects of family life. How were you involved in bringing out these ideas?
ZB: In describing this particular collaboration, it might be useful to say how we got started working together in the first place. The year I was first getting to know Nickie, I went with her to an opening where I saw the piece, "Shadow Wrestling." A little while afterwards, I wrote a poem in response to both the piece itself, and to my sense of Nickies process and interests. My poem brought some things to Nickies attention that she went on to develop in later work. As she said, "It was in part through Zofias poem that I came to understand the piece as a contemplation of the impermanence thats felt acutely in the context of family, and specifically in looking at ones children." Since then my writing has directly been part of two of Nickies installations (Humours & Maternal Exposure), and our conversations have been started at an earlier stage in the process, but in some ways, my role remains the same: to further (or differently) articulate the multiple levels of resonance and possibility that I see in her images, objects, and materials, and that emerge in our conversations. Frequently, my contribution includes some resistance, as, for instance, in the way I didnt want my part of Maternal Exposure to be focused on mothers in a way that shut out the non-mothers among us.
EM: O.K., so what was your process of working together on Maternal Exposure?
ZB: Since we work together at a distance, most of the collaboration happened through conversations on the telephone, and by email. (When were on the telephone, I often take notes, and there are a few things in "Dedication" that come directly from those conversations.) We did some work together in person. I made a trip up to Connecticut to work with her in her studio for a few days, helping at the most unskilled/basic levels of taking glycerin bags out of their molds and cleaning them up. But just doing this opened up my understanding of Nickies work. I also did some writing on the walls of her studio. A few times, we also went to ARTWORKS together to figure out how we were going to use the space. I was writing "Dedication" all the way through this process, and got it mostly finished for our first joint conference presentation (at Barnard, late October 1999). The year leading up to the installation, we collaborated on a couple of conference presentations, and we used that process to develop our ideas about the shape of the project further.
EM: Much has been said of the contradictory materialslead and soapthe visual artist uses in this project and the way in which the overwhelming documentation of a mother's daily labor fills the space. Could you talk about the poet's use of materials and space in this project? How did you decide to write the text on the walls surrounding the exhibit? How did you decide to break (or not to break) the text? What is the relationship of your text to the visuals and to other text in the exhibit, for instance the relentless catalog of contents on each lunch bag?
ZB: My writing on the walls probably speaks most directly to a part of the installation we dont see represented here: Nickies childrens drawing on the walls of the gallery (and a little shelf with lead writing sticks on it). This kind of violationand invitation to violatethe gallery space is important to Nickies project. For me, deciding to write directly on the walls was a bit loaded at first. While the installation itself comments on the exposure and scrutiny that women are subject to as mothers and as non-mothers, this was a moment in which I felt exposed by my writingnot so much for what it was saying, but for my handwriting. There was something loaded about writing large and in this public spacenot just exposing my words (in the way that a typescript would), but also exposing my self, in the way that people say handwriting reveals a person, and marks a kind of intimacy. Anyway, it was about a month before the installation, and we were at the gallery working out the details with Kerrie, the gallery director. Though my writing on the walls had always been part of the plan, when Kerrie actually saw my handwriting she was concerned that the poem wouldnt be legible enough. So we talked about doing something tidiermore readily visible but also formallike using letterpress. But as the three of us talked about this, that kind of tidiness seemed more and more out of sync with the larger project. We finally just experimented a bit with writing in a corner of the gallery, and decided to take the risk. Its interesting what a big deal this was leading up to it. I think that both Nickie and Kerrie wrote on the wall before I did. (And then when our little experiment was over, I was given the task of making my handwriting a bit more legible.) I also used that visit to measure the wall space I had, and plan how I would be breaking up the lines and the stanzas to fill the gallery. I very much adjusted the lineation of the poem to make use of the spaceespecially in how I used a long wall to run the stanza that begins "If you want to run away " as one long line. And though Id wanted to use lead to echo the lead in the lunch bags, because it didnt show up darkly enough, I used really soft graphite pencil. When it came time to write on the walls for the next version of the installation at Mobius, both the process and the materials were a little different. Since the space at Mobius was a black box theatre, I wrote in white chalk, and as Mobius is a much less formal kind of space, tidiness didnt seem like such a big issue.
EM: One striking feature of the exhibit is a looped recording of your reading text from the exhibit that plays while viewers encounter the seemingly endless rows of lunch bags. Could you talk about the decision to fill the silence of the gallery with voicefrom a speaker that we cannot see?
ZB: We decided to use a recording after Nickie and I had done a presentation together, and she mentioned how much of a difference it made to her understanding of my work to hear me read it. And since I always compose for the ear, it made sense to me to have the poetry there in that form. In terms of the spoken poems relation to the installation as a whole, we wanted the sound there to fill out some of what were saying about embodiment and ephemerality. You point out that the voice is coming from a speaker we cant see, and in that way, perhaps, registers an absenceand that kind of marked absence is certainly part of what we mean for the installation to evokebut it also seems to me that a voice evokes a persons (embodied) presence like nothing else can. (I guess theres kind of a connection here to what I was saying about handwriting.) One thing, also, is that the recording of the poem that played at ARTWORKS is a slightly different version of the poem than the version written on the walls there.
EM: Can you tell us something about what kinds of responses youve gotten to the installation?
my favorite review was meant to be somewhat critical. In response to the
version of Maternal Exposure that showed at Mobius (Boston, January 2001),
the reviewer for The Boston Phoenix calls the installation "macabre,"
and "a harrowing exhibit that dares to puncture the sanctity of motherhood."
And the reviewer puts a "gothic deadly" spin on a part of the
poem that my audiences usually laugh at: "If you plan to run away,
let me know and Ill pack you a lunch
." But for some theres
clearly something disturbing about seeing the labor of nurturing made
palpable in this way. Frequently in presenting the work weve gotten
a question about whether we mean this "with love" or "anger."
Probably the response that made me most feel like Id done the work
I meant to on this installation came from a woman who had many years earlier
relinquished a child for adoption. She told me that the poem, and what
I had said about writing it, gave her a way to think of that excruciating
decision as the best thing she could do at that time to be a "good