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by Dorothee Richter

Interview with Marta Rodriguez Maleck

I met Marta Rodriguez Maleck in New Orleans, during an ASAP [Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present] conference. At the beginning, I felt quite sceptical about the project Take an Apology, Leave an Apology (read more about the project below) and thought: is this not a rather bourgeois concept of creating and dealing with guilt? But when Marta spoke about the project, I got interested, excited, and convinced. She handed around some of the letters, and I remember two of them: the first one I opened said: “I am sorry that I made fun of your artwork”—which, of course, probably everyone in the arts could say as well—and the other one was, “I am sorry that I did not fully realize what happened to you by our father, I wish I had helped you in that situation.” I am sure, all of you, dear readers, have experienced moments of deep regret, that spoke out of this. As this was, of course, not made up, the encounter with concerns of other human beings came in a way as a shock. In the workshop with Marta, we were also asked to write one of these letters, and astonishingly—it really took me by surprise—I also wrote a very long letter to my mother. This worked like an exercise from Psychodrama,[1] but it definitely worked, and I felt very relieved after this. The images she showed in her presentation were enticing. The experience made me very curious about Marta’s practice and approaches, which I wanted to find out more about and make her interesting, unafraid projects publicly available.

Dorothee Richter: Tell us about your background. What does or has inspired you in your work?

Marta Rodriguez Maleck: I am a New Orleans-based painter, sculptor, filmmaker, and installation artist. My work strives to break down barriers to communication by sharing my own vulnerable personal stories as well as those of my extended network. These stories explore self-care, trauma, womanhood, queerness, generational differences, family, and Hispanic identity.

This past year, I’ve mounted several shows and projects including a solo show called Not Nothing in October, a collaboration with Ashley Teamer called But I Didn’t Mean it Like That, and a collaboration with Kevin Brisco Jr. called Take an Apology, Leave an Apology, which was an aspect of Carlos Rolón’s show, Outside/In.

Whether my work is exploring the memory of a place, a time, or a person, it always seeks to show them in multifaceted ways. This approach allows me to honour multiple truths at once, dismantle assumptions based on perceived identity, and encourage communication between groups of people who come from different backgrounds with their own set of expectations.

DR: How do your previous projects relate to the more recent projects?

MRM: My most recent projects include Not Nothing, a solo project about childhood development, trauma, and education and But I Didn’t Mean it Like That, a collaboration that was created in order to promote communication between people who come from different backgrounds.

Not Nothing was a show that considered both the ways the educational systems create trauma in children and how early childhood trauma can create problems for students in school. In New Orleans, I recognised students being negatively stereotyped based on race and social class. This form of institutional racism caused trauma in the students at school. Beyond that, children are already dealing with their own struggles, whether it is poverty, violence, or otherwise outside of the school day. This contributes to their ability to feel safe, focused, and successful in any setting. These concepts were illuminated to me by the work I do with a non-profit that partners with Charter Schools in New Orleans to bring arts education to students after school.

The idea for Take an Apology, Leave an Apology was originally sparked by an aspect of my job. Part of what I do is help students struggling in their classes to figure out why and develop a plan going forward to avoid ongoing issues. Sometimes they would be sent to me for getting into fights, being disrespectful, or being disruptive. Part of the process was to write an apology letter if they were disrespectful to whomever they offended. These letters were my first insight into the array of what an apology could look like.

But I Didn't Mean it Like That, installation view, performance at Prospect.4, Photo: M. Rodriguez Maleck

But I Didn't Mean it Like That, Family Perspective, Multimedia installation, Photo: M. Rodriguez Maleck

The project But I Didn’t Mean It Like That takes people’s stories of miscommunication and puts them side-by-side, so the viewers are able to see multiple perspectives at once. We have a very diverse group of voices with the intention of highlighting underrepresented and often misrepresented viewpoints. Take an Apology, Leave an Apology relates to this work in that it ultimately strives for the goal of bringing about an understanding of someone else’s feelings and experiences.

DR: Is the choice of the location/context important to your projects? If so, how did you choose the location of your project?

MRM: This past year I worked with collaborator, Kevin Brisco Jr., to create an installation at the New Orleans Museum of Fine Art as an activation of Carlos Rolón’s Hustleman Cart. Carlos created the cart to show nationally, inviting different people to activate it. It was an exciting opportunity because Kevin and I recognized the ways we could tap into a new audience.

I normally show my work in smaller, more experimental venues, galleries, and the collective I am a member of, called Good Children Gallery, here in New Orleans, LA. At the NOMA, we had over 700 people come participate in just one week.

It was interesting to give control to the viewers to create the work. Our original 2,500 letters on the cart were sourced from students, friends, family, other artists, famous political public statements, and anonymous responses to our Craigslist ad. As time went on, more and more were replaced by the handwritten words of museum-goers. The museum is an institution that likes to have control over the words and works people see there. At first, the curators tried to remove the letters written by museum-goers, in case there was inappropriate language or subject matter. Over time, however, possibly because they recognised it was impossible to keep track of them all, they gave up that control.

Although the location was originally necessary to prompt the concept, now that the idea has been conceived, I can see it living in other locations, continuing its evolution.

DR: What was the scope of the work Take an Apology Leave an Apology?

MRM: The installation of Take an Apology Leave an Apology that Kevin Brisco Jr. and I created examined the emotional currency of an apology through recognising the imbalance of what you give versus what you receive. Each participant was invited to write an apology letter in exchange for one they select at random from the Nomadic Habitat cart, a component created by Carlos Rolón for his show Outside/In at the New Orleans Museum of Art. It was up to the participants to decide the sincerity of their offering. They could take the opportunity to ask for forgiveness for a deep regret from their past, or offer a justification and defence for a transgression they were truly not sorry for. The stock apologies they chose from were personal letters of atonement written by the museum patrons and artists themselves, childish false apologies penned by New Orleans elementary and middle school students, or even well-known statements delivered by US politicians and celebrities. The participant selected an envelope containing an apology at random and exchanged the one they wrote in its place, left to contemplate the imbalance between their own offering and what they received.

With this project, we were able to facilitate a discussion about the weight/worth of apologies. Often the act of apologizing is treated as an exchange, with certain expectations divorced from any true sincerity. What happens when personal anguish is met with false sincerity, or worse, thinly veiled combativeness? How does one react when their own cynicism is met with a vulnerable plea for forgiveness? When is this apology game unfit for the crime committed? We were excited to present this project on Rolón’s Nomadic Habitat (Hustleman) because we felt it was directly linked to the concept of informal commerce, as everyday emotional exchanges hold value and create a market of their own.

But I Didn't Mean it Like That, Insider's Perspective, Multimedia installation, Photo: M. Rodriguez Maleck

DR: What motivated the project initially? Do you have an urge to make things differently?

MRM: Katie Pfohl, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the New Orleans Museum of Art, and Allison Young, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellow for Modern and Contemporary Art, invited New Orleans artists to propose collaboration ideas for Carlos Rolón’s Hustleman Cart.

In considering the cart, Kevin Brisco Jr. and I realized we needed to do something transactional, in order to draw parallels to the theme of currency that Carlos was going after. At the time, I had been collecting apology letters that my students wrote to each other and to their teachers. Whenever they did something disruptive or disrespectful, these letters were a way of getting them to reflect and come up with a new plan for next time. Although this activity was originally planned for kids, I recognized more and more how awful some adults were at apologizing as well.

When we say we are sorry for something, and mean it, we hope to receive the same amount of closure from the person we are communicating with. The reality is that the emotional labour we give isn't usually reciprocal to what we receive. The hope with this project was to prompt people to recognize the imbalances within their own relationships, leading them to demand more or give more depending on their needs.

Not Nothing, Parent Teacher Conference, Sound Installation, Corded phones, Children's table and chairs, Voices of parents and teachers, Photo: M. Rodriguez Maleck

Not Nothing, Installation view, Multimedia installation, Photo: M. Rodriguez Maleck

DR: How do you position yourself and your work within the global contemporary art discourse?

MRM: When we talk about global contemporary art, we must consider inclusivity—who is invited to participate and who can see themselves in the work. I think what’s relevant about this work is its vulnerability, universality, and necessity for participation. Although not all cultures have the same relationship to regret, many people do have a relationship to emotional currency and emotional labour. Moreover, it’s a project that encourages individuals to reflect on themselves and share those reflections as a means to better understand each other. By creating work that evolves as participants take from and give to it, we reflect all who chose to engage.

DR: How important is it to engage with the general public in your work?

MRM: With an interest in engaging a wide audience, I show my work in many contexts: from white-walled galleries, to museums, online venues, magazines, conferences, DIY house shows, and everything in between. I invite not only the standard contemporary art viewers, but also the students and families I work with daily. Currently, I am involved in a collaborative project that has us positioned to do interviews in the shopping mall. By working in very accessible places, and working with people who do not normally see themselves as artists, I strive to make my work approachable.

Beyond venue, my work strives to have easily understandable content. Regardless of age, background, education, or experience with art, I want the work to have something for everyone. There are often second meanings, inside jokes, or secret messages in my work that would take additional time to find, but on the surface I like to have something easy to grab onto conceptually and visually.

DR: How has the community/or audience responded to the project?

MRM: I am honoured to feel such a positive response to the work I’ve made. Over the past couple years, I’ve seen people cry, laugh, and talk about the work. For people to care that much feels like a great accomplishment.

The responses to Take and Apology, Leave an Apology amazed me. Some people wrote long heartfelt regrets for transgressions decades old. Some people simply and snarkily wrote that they had nothing to be sorry for. Some people apologized for who they were; others, for what they had asked for from their family, friends, or loved ones. Some letters were pictures, some concrete poetry, and one was actually totally blank—the envelope just simply said, “Sorry this is empty :( .”

On social media, people posted some amazing letters that really spoke to them. I recall one woman who was a sex worker received a letter saying, “I'm sorry I just see your body as an object.” It was strange how some of the letters felt so personal to the people who received them.

My hope is that over time, participants will see the relevance of this action in their own lives and be prompted to reflect on their actions in moments of making amends.

DR: How do you see your work Take an Apology, Leave an Apology evolving in the future?

MRM: For me, the strength of Take an Apology, Leave an Apology is in how the piece evolved based on participation. It’s a strategy I will continue to use in my future projects. I want my work to change based on the process of how it’s made. With Take an Apology, Leave an Apology, it will mean installing the work in a new place, making a publication of some of the responses and hopefully making smaller personalised boxes that individuals can have and pull from when they want to revisit the experience on their own time. For the installation work, such as an evolution of Not Nothing, I am interested in having more voices be a part of the creation of the work.

When I was installing Not Nothing, a friend’s son came to visit my studio. He was looking at one of the papier mâché pieces and asking if it was a tunnel he could crawl through. Immediately I thought to myself, “No, but it should be!” By inviting the ideas and opinions of people who the work is for, the work will gain more relevance to its audience.

Take an Apology Leave an Apology, Installation view, with Artists Kevin Brisco Jr. and Marta Rodriguez Maleck, Photographer M. Rodriguez Maleck

DR: How do you feel about the umbrella notions of the centre-periphery in your work—or in general?

One of the exciting things about making work for peripheral locations is that the art feels very unique and specific to the place and audience it’s being made for. All peripheral locations feel central to someone. For certain projects, the voices and stories of the people that make up the work are familiar enough to feel impactful. For instance, in the project Not Nothing, individual voices were heard through corded phones, headphones, and on screen explaining the Charter School takeover, the mass firing of teachers, and the subsequent institutional racism within the educational system in post-Katrina New Orleans. This body of work has the potential to be impactful anywhere, in that it would communicate the struggles of recovery, even thirteen years after Hurricane Katrina. What makes it especially relevant to show it here is the way it speaks on a personal level to those who have lived that experience.

Being invited to show in larger, more central locations can be challenging, in that the work needs to feel more universally relevant if you want people to continue to deeply engage and understand it. It’s one of the reasons I make work that touches on the emotional, which can be understood universally. In the project, Take an Apology, Leave an Apology, we collected our original 2,500 letters by asking for submissions. We used Craigslist, an American classified advertisements website, and posted requests for apologies of any kind to the top 20 most populated cities nationwide. What was consistent was that people shared the same array of feelings, regardless of location, age, race, class, etc. Although created on a peripheral prompt, this project has the potential to travel and feel relevant beyond its original installation.

Take an Apology Leave an Apology, Detail of cart, Photographer M. Rodriguez Maleck

DR: Tell us a bit more about the different collaborators and actors who played an important role in shaping your work?

MRM: When the curators from the NOMA asked the artists in the collective I am a part of to propose projects, it was natural for Kevin and I to look to each other to collaborate. We have been friends for a long time and worked to produce a couple other successful shows together in years past. For Take an Apology, Leave an Apology, artistically and intellectually we had similar goals based on what we wanted to communicate and who we wanted to communicate to.

Identity plays into how people participate and understand this piece. For me, it was interesting to see how people confessed their truths in the form of never-before-said apologies. Kevin was more interested in how rare it was for men to apologize compared to women. He pointed out the way that apologizing for a man can feel like a form of weakness and how that was reflected in our responses.

A few of the most sincere and deep apologies came from us, the original contributors. Among many topics, I chose to highlight women’s issues, violence perpetrated by men, and how religion plays into that. Kevin dug into moments of regret that happened throughout his life within mostly white institutions as a black man. These documented cross-cultural encounters meant there was a variety of outcomes for the viewers.

My other main collaboration is with my best friend, Ashley Teamer, with a project called But I Didn’t Mean it Like That. She and I started exhibiting together about six years ago and soon started performing in drag shows, curating art exhibitions together, and eventually made work collaboratively. Initially we were inspired by conversations we had about our relationships with friends, family, and romantic partners. At the time, we were both in biracial relationships, and the two of us wanted to explore our intersectional identities with each other and our partners. We kept hearing this phrase meant as an excuse for a misunderstanding, “I didn’t mean it like that…”. What was felt and understood, however, seemed more relevant to us than intention. To me, this feels like an important thing to remember when making work as well. The project manifested as an installation in which people on screen shared their stories of times when they said one thing but really meant another and how they overcame this boundary of miscommunication. Based on the positive response to the work and need to bring people from different backgrounds together, Ashley and I are continuing this project, with its second iteration debuting in March 2019.

In both these projects, the voices of the interviewees or the letter writers is what makes the work, and therefore they are also considered collaborators. The strength of the work is that it is so multifaceted. We invite people across racial, generational, and economic lines. Since many perspectives are represented, there are always voices to relate to, and to learn from.

Take an Apology Leave an Apology, Detail of side table, Photographer M. Rodriguez Maleck

DR: How do you relate to art institutions and how has your experience been working with institutions on the project?

MRM: I think there is an opportunity for art to make people question themselves, their intentions, and their actual impact on a large scale. With Take an Apology, Leave an Apology, the hope was to get people to reflect on how we communicate to each other, the levels of support and respect we give one another, and to promote self-respect in regards to the level of integrity we hold ourselves to and demand for ourselves. When installing the Take an Apology, Leave an Apology project at the New Orleans Museum of Art, we were upset to find out that the letters we intended on installing had been censored by the curatorial staff. Language was the main concern, although subject matter also kept some of the letters out of view. We did argue for and ultimately get certain apologies to remain in the installation, specifically those that we felt people could really learn from. Originally the institution wanted to keep out anything related to racial tension and violence against women. Ultimately what ended up happening is that we have a more powerful and emotionally charged version of this project that could still use a home.

With Not Nothing, the gallery I showed in was in a gentrifying neighbourhood, and there were tensions between the black community, specifically the kids, and the white gallery sitters and art purveyors. I pulled from recognisable and fun imagery to create a space where kids felt excited and welcomed. I used interviews and archival footage of teachers, parents, students, educational activists, and politicians to get white transplants to recognize their culpability in the criminalisation of New Orleans youth, as well as a better understanding of what kinds of struggles kids are facing. In terms of But I Didn’t Mean it Like That, we wanted to break down assumptions people had of one another by presenting new perspectives on common miscommunications. These projects evolve as the issues of our time evolve. Opinions change, struggles change, and solutions change. I believe art has the capacity to push that progress forward.

DR: Would you say that there a decolonising impetus within your project?

MRM: One of the main things we recognised with this project is that certain things have never and will never be apologized for. Originally, we wanted there to be a receipt printer that you could press when you finalised your transaction, i.e., exchanged your letter for one on the cart. In pop culture, receipts have become synonymous with keeping track of all the problematic occurrences over time. The printed receipt in our installation would type out some of the larger historical atrocities that still have rippling effects. Ultimately, we weren’t able to include the receipt printer, because the museum felt it would be too easily broken by the museum-goers. The idea of cataloguing the global geopolitical crimes that have been committed, however, was still the impetus for our project; it was a response to the way that larger structures don’t have to apologize, even though everyone has something to apologize for.

Ultimately, though, our project did allow everyone, including the most marginalised people, to have a voice within the work. By having such a varied group of participants and creating such an inclusive way for the piece to evolve, we were able to go beyond a single culture’s set of imposed ideas.

When it comes to apologising, usually people in power don’t have to because they can use their privilege to ignore their wrongdoings. Take an Apology, Leave an Apology demands reciprocity. Leaving the letter you receive and opinion you read up to chance is a form of decolonising in that it breaks the norm of certain voices (traditionally those in power) taking up more space and making more demands in a conversation. By seeing how others apologise, we can analyse different levels of ownership over our own actions and therefore promote saying, “I’m sorry,” as an act of healing.

Take an Apology Leave an Apology, Installation view, with Artists Kevin Brisco Jr. and Marta Rodriguez Maleck, Photo: M. Rodriguez Maleck

Marta Rodriguez Maleck is an artist, filmmaker, and organizer whose work explores both social and political subjects including education, access, trauma, self-care, communication, and Hispanic identity. This past year, her work was published in New American Paintings and HISS Magazine and most recently shown at Ground Floor Gallery in Brooklyn, NY, and Good Children Gallery in New Orleans, LA. Marta currently works as a Site Director with a nonprofit called Community Works, an arts enrichment program partnering with New Orleans schools. In the past, she founded an arts mentorship program for New Orleans high schoolers called AccomplishArts, and currently she focuses her organising efforts on a gathering called “The Ark,” a party that celebrates cherished chosen family, friends, and New Orleans memories. Marta has exhibited at the NOMA, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, and the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. She was a resident at FUTURA, the Center for Contemporary Art in Prague, Czech Republic, the Ace Hotel (New Orleans, LA) the Vermont Studio Center (Johnson, VT), Popps Packing (Detroit, MI), and at ACRE (Steuben, WI). Together with collaborator Ashley Teamer, Marta founded Double Diamond Collective and Exhibition Space, which prioritizes highlighting the stories of underrepresented and misrepresented minority groups. Their personal project, But I Didn't Mean it Like That is a film-based installation that strives to bring people from different backgrounds together to overcome barriers of miscommunication. In November 2018, Double Diamond mounted their first iteration of this project, a multimedia installation and Satellite of Prospect.4. They received a Platforms Grant through the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and a New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation Grant for this work. Marta will mount her 3rd solo show in May 2019 at Baby Blue Gallery in Chicago, IL.

[1] Jacob Levy Moreno (born Iacob Levy; May 18, 1889 – May 14, 1974) was a Romanian-American psychiatrist, psychosociologist, and educator, the founder of psychodrama, and the foremost pioneer of group psychotherapy. During his lifetime, he was recognized as one of the leading social scientists. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacob_L._Moreno and see about psychodrama also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychodrama, accessed Nov 2018.

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Issue 41

Centres⁄Peripheries – Complex Constellations

by Ronald Kolb, Camille Regli, Dorothee Richter

by Heike Biechteler

by Ella Krivanek

by Giovanna Bragaglia

by Francesca Ceccherini and Noriko Yamakoshi

by Paola Granati & Ronny Koren

by Domenico Ermanno Roberti