Michelle Levy, Scenes from an Apartment. 2021. Still from video. 9:57

The Whole Plant: an interview with Michelle Levy by Emily Brandt

Michelle Levy is an interdisciplinary artist, storyteller, performer, and cultural organizer. When discussing her work, she weaves in explanations of rigorous artistic practice alongside charming and fraught family stories, multiple ethical dilemmas, and a bit of witchcraft. Michelle consistently pushes limits when investigating her subjects, inviting her audiences to explore the nature of personal belief. Through the process, she pushes her own limits and beliefs. In this interview, Michelle reflects on documentary film-making, religion, and what happens when the responsibility of the artist evolves into something even bigger.

A PDF of the interview is available here.

Michelle Levy, Scenes from an Apartment, 2021, still from video, 10 min

EB: I had such a good time watching your videos. I loved spending time in Michelle Levy land—a wonderful combination of smart, personable, and funny. And really idea-driven, through narratives. There was a lot that kept me engaged.

Thank you! Yes, storytelling and narrative play a huge role in my work, and a lot of the videos on my website are smaller components of larger universes that I build over time. The larger projects can be quite complex, and some of the most significant ones are intentionally left cryptic in their online presentation. This is because having audiences feel like they are in on a secret, or that they are part of a developing story, is important to me. But also because in some cases, there are really personal or emotionally difficult things to just leave streaming out there. Like the current iterative work that I’ve been doing inspired by my family’s connection to Poland and before that, “The Comeback” about my father.

EB: What is that work, “The Comeback,” like? What does it focus on, in terms of your relationship?

“The Comeback” was a very messy performance-in-life project. My father’s role in my life and connection to me is something that I am always trying to work out. In this project, I used focus groups to help me develop and understand the story.  My father, at one time, had been a successful motivational speaking salesman—they called him “Lucky Levy”—but, well, due to a variety of things he has struggled with, he has since fallen down on his luck. He is basically a modern day Willy Loman, holding onto the vision of the man he was. In the nineties, he made these very unique show-biz-like instructional presentations and videos to motivate sales-teams. In this spirit, and exploring my own performance  and creative drives in relationship to my father, I devised an instructional video, the “5-Stage Approach to Creating an Effective Artistic Experience,” to be used in the focus-groups. This was a strategy to create distance and grant structure and multiple entry-points for a very complicated, personal process. “The Comeback,” during its focus group phase, involved all kinds of audience participation, people acting out scenes, sing-alongs, and themed meet-ups out in the world, but I eventually realized that my meta meta approach made things too feel-good. And separated me from facing the hardest parts of the story—the parts that I am still very much living and working through.

Comeback (Phase 3), 2016, performance, 30 min, Magnet Theater, New York, NY

EB: Wow. Where did the idea for the focus group come from?

My dad, long after his days of functioning, has, in between extended down periods, continued to have momentary ups, where a new project idea pops up that he focuses on for a while. They are typically quite unusual. For example, a number of them have revolved around volunteer work with a karaoke machine! One day he came up with a new idea for dating, in which he would essentially turn himself into a walking advertisement (available to rent, lease, or buy). When I expressed concern, he said,  “Well the focus group thought it was a great idea.” Who was that focus group? This idea of bringing together a bunch of random people as captive audience/participants in a crazy and very kind of self-centered scheme—totally fascinated me.

EB: So, in your five part theory, the central step is engagement which includes risk-taking. For “The Comeback,” it’s pretty clear what the risks are, and what’s personally at stake. Where do you see the risks in your current project, “Scenes from an Apartment”?

Yes, that step includes risk-taking and embarrassment as well. For me, the main risk is that I am publicly exposing a very real, vulnerable side of my private life. It’s hard to admit to the world that I am alone at this point in my life. But I know I am not alone in feeling this way, so I am airing it out rather than hiding it. I am putting something so intimate and weird out there in digital space so that anyone can access it at any time. And this openness to expose and potentially embarrass myself is what I believe gives it a lot of its power.

EB: “Pandemic Solutions” feels very private also. But there’s a way that in both pieces, you maintain a sort of deadpan tone, which I really love about your work. It allows a lot of grief, as well as a lot of humor to come through. I’m wondering about how you think about your tone and your facial expression when you’re performing these very private works.

“Pandemic Solutions” (a kitchen instructional on making a baby using household ingredients) is the precursor to this video for sure. I’m not a trained performer. I just kind of figured out that “my thing” is being in this space where there is awkward tension from real vulnerability, and the deadpan quality is part of that. It adds a distance and humor. When I am dealing with a difficult or uncomfortable subject, I want to give people space to enter with some lightness. It’s part of my heritage! My grandparents were Eastern European Jewish immigrants, and I was exposed to a lot of making light of darkness, truthful humor, growing up. I always thought this is how people who have lived through everything cope, and I found it really wise and powerful. My performance mode is an extension of that, and when I’m really present and true to myself, that’s when I’m conveying what I want to convey. I’ve tried acting classes to get rid of my “quirkiness” and be a better actor, but it just loses something. The only acting classes that have worked for me have been improv comedy! Because it’s about the moments when my facial expression could slip from one emotion to the next in very subtle ways, which happen when I am taking what I am doing very seriously, no matter how absurd. It helps to know I am doing this for someone who is watching–that I am pushing a normal situation a little bit too far, and the watcher is somehow complicit in this as well.

Ruins of Achelach (Restaged), 2017, performance, directed by Sarah Cameron Sunde, Theaterlab, New York, NY

EB: It definitely creates a relationship with your audience. I’m interested that your family are Jewish Eastern European immigrants, and there seems to be such a presence of the occult in your work. From automatic writing to a pseudo- witch’s cauldron in “Pandemic Solutions,” to talking about Atlantis and L. Ron Hubbard, and more. What is your relationship to these new age or occult spiritual practices, especially in relation to your family history of Eastern European Judaism? And do you practice Judaism as well?

I was raised Reform Jewish. We went to temple on holidays and I had a bat mitzvah, but my parents were not religious at all, they were doing it for us (the kids). But I was definitely taken in–I was very moved by all of the ritual and the collectivity, and this grand feeling around the wisdom of the rabbi (we had a very renowned, very inspiring rabbi). There was an intellectual side of Judaism too that I really really connected with. But because my parents didn’t have a real conviction about it, when I got to a certain age in high school, I kind of just let it go and did teenager things. But I do think that from that point, I really felt a loss, and have always been searching for my own relationship to modes of meaning-making and belief. And, in many ways, that is what my art practice has become for me.

I’d say my interest in the occult began in my teens—Ouija board, tarot cards, astrology, spells, the whole deal! It's hard to pinpoint exactly where that came from, but my friends and I were all just kind of witchy, you know! I have always been torn between having a very rational, critical mind, and believing there are other levels of reality out there. I live very intuitively and have had my share of experiences that keep me open to such possibilities. I am definitely a “searcher” and find that various spiritual practices can be tools for accessing information we can’t access by normal means. A lot of that is information we already know, but need to see it differently to recognize it. However, obviously, depending on who is using or creating these methods, they are not all equal and obviously many, many, many are quite dubious. We are all so easily manipulated and misguided when we are vulnerable and want to believe. Definitely my wavering between believing in certain practices because my heart tells me to, while being really skeptical because my mind tells me to, has pushed me to continue to investigate their uses and, also, their dangers. That is a huge part of what my work is about, finding your footing within that space. Seeing what happens to you and the people around you when you choose to believe.

EB: Is that what’s happening with your use of automatic writing in “Scenes from an Apartment”?

I wanted this video to express some internal processes I have been going through this past year. Being faced with myself all of the time, really forced me to work through a lot of things that I hadn’t dealt with. I decided to approach my life the way I approach my art practice: to commit myself fully to processes that typically require suspension of disbelief and see what happens. I really have succeeded in generating magical results when committed to an art investigation, but it is much harder to do that when I am addressing my life. I started automatic writing to connect with my “higher self,” and to anyone else out there who may want to say something! Wherever it comes from, it has been extremely fruitful. So yes, since this was something I was exploring, I decided to try writing directly to the plant.

EB: What have you learned through your relationship with the plant, and through making this video about that relationship?

There was a period of time during the pandemic where I was not interacting with any living being. I decided to start cultivating plants because I wanted to bring life into my apartment. I’ve always had plants but they would often be half-living, half-dying. I’d just kind of water them when I remembered. So now I started to pay attention to the plants, and could feel their presence. Plants have a special wisdom because they’re multitudinous. The plant that you have in your house isn’t the whole being, it’s just a piece of it. If you think about when someone takes a clipping of a plant, then the new version of the plant grows, and then people take clippings of that plant, and of that plant, and it’s living all over the place. I became more conscious of this multitudinous quality thanks to the plant that stars in my video. I saw it in my local grocer and had to buy it because it appeared like it was reaching out for a hug. From the first moment that we were having a vibe together {laughs}. Maybe it’s all projection, like this is what people do when we’re in solitude. But maybe there is something more going on. For months, I kept wanting to make this video about the plant and me and our life together in my apartment, like a version of “Scenes from a Marriage.” But the video was just never coming together. Sometimes I think that the plant knew I needed more material and started withering to collaborate with me {laughs}. That can’t be possible, right? This is how my brain works—considering that as an option allows the story to continue. What I love is that working with the plant as my subject is making me more accountable to it. This is how I approach much of my art practice, so that the story I am following directly impacts my life and changes my behavior in some way. I am performing  a version of myself, but I am also really myself, and truly affected. I see myself as the fool in the story and that my role is to commit to keep listening to it and moving it along, and as a result, I am always surprised and humbled by what I learn. And in this process, I hope others can find resonance too.

EB: We do! So you are one of the founders of Temp Files. Of the following things, which most is Temp Files and which most is not: focus group, congregation, coven, chosen family, accountability partner?

Ok, so I would say most is coven.

EB: Why?

It has something to do with how we are enabling each other to concoct something. I’ve been thinking about it a lot–it’s very different than, for example, a focus group situation {laughs} or a crit group even, because it feels like there is this alchemy going on with each person. We are all influencing each other and also empowering each other to do things that we didn’t expect, so it feels like there are spells being cast.

EB: I feel that too. I’m curious about your position in the group because this is, in part, your brain child, so how do you feel like this particular coven is buoying you as an artist?

Even though I feel part of an art community, I’m often working very much on my own. Not in this case. The experience of making this video has been amazing because I’m making it knowing I’m making it with all of you. Even while I’m working on whatever I’m preparing, I’m preparing it in conversation with each of you. I don’t overthink it in a way that I overthink and struggle with a lot of my work when I’m developing it by myself.

EB: It reminds me of what you said: that the plant you have in your house is just one piece of the whole. It’s similar to this idea of the energies of all of the people involved peripherally in the making of the video. There’s this invisible connection happening. Is there anything else on your mind that you’d want to share that we didn’t get to already?

Yes, there is something! This video is very much in the spirit of how I approach my evolving live performances, but it is a new step because I approached it like a mini narrative film, or mini documentary. I am thinking more “filmically” lately because I am actually in the early process of planning a nonfiction film related to the project I have been doing in Poland in collaboration with a Polish artist, Patrycja Dołowy. Compared to the small universe of the plant video, this story in Poland is massive. Patrycja and I, through our work together, have become responsible for a buried Jewish archive that, if properly saved, could provide answers for many people.

Paulina (Performance-in-process), 2020, hybrid live/streaming performance with Patrycja Dołowy, directed by Kathleen Amshoff, Kana Theater, Szczecin, PL

EB: Oh my god.

Yes, it is a story that I cannot do justice to here, but essentially, Patrycja and I are an ocean apart; Poland is still in lock down, and we are facing an authoritarian government and sanctioned anti-Semitism. So, as impossible as it all seems, we agreed to make a film about the process of saving the archive because making this film could help save it for real. It is an overwhelming project, and I often feel very powerless and a lot of anxiety around it.  I approached this new video as a counterpoint, a way to start very small, to explore levels of accountability, care, and deep listening to a situation. But also to reconnect to magic, and to lightness.  So I started out thinking of it as an exercise to prepare me for this much larger, much harder thing, and it turned into its own expansive universe, really. One that now also continues on in life, out in the world. I was truly surprised by how much I learned, and continue to learn, through this journey with my little tree in my apartment.

EB: That’s a completely amazing shift.


May 2021

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