The international artist collective's politically charged "et.alia/1" exhibition challenges digital representations of women
Photo above shows ‘et.alia/1’ exhibit. All photos courtesy of the artists.
Who are our role models for artist collectives dedicated to political work? While discussing this question with the et.alia collective, it was hard to find inspiring examples in mainstream culture. They emphasized their discontent with media that reduces solidarity between women to the devotional adolescent girls of K-Pop, or the sexualized band of blonds in Mad Max. et.alia – which means “and others” – is a group of international female artists from varying cultural backgrounds dedicated to the transformative potential of collective artistic and political work. They operate together to create an open dialogue about the current global state of women’s affairs and what it means to be a female artist in a world dominated by men. They find power together through performance, visual art, and installation. Currently based in New York, all five of et.alia’s founders – Ala d’Amico, Jiwon Choi, Kelsey Lynn, Sara Meghdari, and Netta Laufer – emphasize their political and personal perspectives as artists from Italy/Brazil, Korea, the United States, Iran, and Israel, respectively. Through their work, they simultaneously connect their shared experiences as women and expose the tensions between them.
Their exhibition, et.alia /1, at Sleep Center in New York, featured performance and visual art that radically asserted their collective voice and the crosscurrents of feelings within their creativity. The works in the exhibition seemed to flow at once with and against one another, translating each artist’s experience around the representation and physicality of women’s bodies. Kelsey’s high heels roped together in bondage knots in her work Fash-och-ism were strung in front of Jiwon’s piece Generation’s Girl, which features photos of the artist’s body within the image of the most famous K-pop girl group, Girls’ Generation. Netta’s photographs, Pills, appear as tiled sun or moon eclipses, questioning the norms around medicine in industrial society. “These chemicals [the titular “Pills”] are additives that are suppose to regulate you,” she explains, “your chemistry and mental operation, and refit you into a mythical “normal” that society agreed upon.” Ala d’Amico’s adjacent printed images vividly explore remembering and forgetting through the use of masking tape over reused personal and appropriated images. Jiwon Choi described the premise of their exhibition: “I do believe the personal is political, whether you are saying something about it or not.” She continued with a quote from Hannah Wilke that inspired the group: “If women have failed to make ‘universal’ art because we’re trapped within the ‘personal,’ why not universalize the ‘personal’ and make it the subject of our art?”
“I do believe the personal is political, whether you are saying something about it or not.”
This question of difference resonates throughout the et.alia /1 exhibition. Netta remarked, “In our first show, we wanted to talk about how to represent ourselves. It made it clear that we are not as different as we thought. We looked at our work and noticed the connections.” Embracing the challenge of threading their work together, they decided to make their debut as a collective through a zine. The interactive nature of a group zine, they said, “allowed us to really learn from each other.”
Kelsey Lynn grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, where she says women’s rights are constantly under attack. Kelsey stated that moving to New York intensified her exposure to harassment of women, and the unwanted attention she receives greatly impacts her work. She spoke on how the collective acts as a support system, saying, “It led me to realize that it is not just me feeling this way, not even women just local to me, but women all over the world, from all walks, all corners of life.” There’s an uncomfortable familiarity in her performance, Venus Incarnate, in which Kelsey kneads her naked flesh on a live feed streaming from a closet offstage. Her hands crawl over her body, marking her skin in red, twisted imprints. Like many of the pieces in et.alia/1, the performance channels both power and vulnerability, as the artists expose their bodies in both physical and virtual performance spaces.
In her work, Jiwon Choi seeks to communicate what new, online representations mean for women. She acts as a translator for the audience, guiding the interaction between digital images and emotional experience. Generation’s Girl is a performance and photographic work where Jiwon explores the meaning of the most famous K-Pop group, Girl Generation. She re-enacts the group’s moving images and combines her movements with reproductions of photographs of the group, made by dressing herself in the same costumes. For Jiwon, Girls’ Generation represents adolescent female figures armed with unconditional devotion and promising faithfulness towards older, empowered male figures.
In Jiwon’s other performance at the exhibition, A Vestige of Remains, she kneeled into a corner and recounted unrevealed traumatic memories into a voice recognition based word processor. As she buried her face in the corner, the audience could see a projection enveloping her folded body. I kept looking to the projected words to clarify what Jiwon was murmuring into the walls, but the technology at once devastatingly and somewhat humorously further distorted the translation of her experience. The traces of makeup on her face smudged by her tears and sweat during the performance left a vague representation of the memory, the performance, and the projected text.
In explaing et.alia‘s formation, Netta Laufer emphasized the shared experience as women from different countries and “not feeling completely a part of New York.” All five women lit up as she said, “I think we all felt this urge to create a much more open and dynamic group in which we could just create work and support each other through the art each one of us is doing.” She further reflected that New York made her focus on herself as an individual: “once I could see how easily it is to lose your identity in New York, it brought me back to my roots.”
The space of New York gives the collective a chance to make work that transcends geopolitical boundaries.. Sara Meghdari pointed out that New York allowed for each of them to meet whereas in their own countries it would have been more difficult: “I am from Iran and Netta is from Israel, and in our own countries, they breed us to hate each other. Even America and the Middle East are supposed to be enemies. New York City gives us that space to really get to know each other on a one-on-one basis and to leave all that political tension created by the media aside and to give us a space to be together and have relationships when there is so much being done to prevent these relationships from happening. I think that is important about the city.”
et.alia’s art and performance engages both physical and online space to form relationships. I participated in Sara’s current project that connects people in the U.S. and people in Iran via Skype through conversations that she mediates. The virtual space of the online chat provides a common ground for two people to have a conversation who otherwise would never be able to meet. I still keep in touch with the woman I met in Tehran in Sara’s project. Sara’s last question to us, “what is the real difference between you two?” charged a two-hour discussion on our femininity, sexuality, family histories, and artistic practice. “Technology gives me access to so much,” Sara says, explaining how personal connections created through online interaction could shrink the distances created by global politics and media, especially between the United States and Iran.
Netta’s work, 25FT, appropriates Israeli army footage monitoring activity along Israel’s separation wall. She examines the impact of the wall on the wild life around it, simulating the position of the soldier controlling the camera, focusing only on animals and the landscape in occupied West Bank. Netta hopes for her work to lend expression to hierarchies and violence. For et.alia, power relations and violations of human rights are particularly central.
The collective consciously choreographs the relationships of bodies in physical space, so that the body becomes another medium in their artwork. Ala D’Amico says her work “is a search to go back to interactivity and sense.” Even when her initial intention was not to talk about the body, the materials always resonate at a physical level. “I realized the materiality of the masking tape echoed the surface of the skin. I was searching for tactility.” She added, “At the same time I used the masking tape to juxtapose different images while addressing ideas of censorship.”
Kelsey continued stressing the importance of preserving the individual differences through collaborative work: “The dynamic of the group coming together, just the idea of an international art collective, and people being able to relate, overcome, and discuss these issues, allows people to connect to us as individuals and as a group.”
What is next for et.alia? Most of the founders are planning to leave New York and expand the collective across the globe. They made the mission very clear: “We all have a voice and we all have a different voice. And they can exist together. And that is okay.”