Kerry Downey, 2022, Still from Wormholes

Ghosts of transformation.
Interview by Tusia Dabrowska

Kerry Downey’s interdisciplinary practice explores embodied forms of resistance and transformation. They use experimental strategies to locate our entanglements, drawing connections between interior worlds and sociopolitical landscapes. For temp.files, Kerry used eight early videos as raw material— all of which picture the artist performing alone with materials in mostly empty spaces. In this new work, “Wormholes”, versions of the artist are fractured and collaged, connecting across time and space. “Wormholes” presents queer embodiment as visceral and entropic, where breakdown is also breakthrough.

In your most recent work, the archive is the site of undoing time, of chopping, reconfiguring, and looping it. What prompted this process of looking back, and what is the importance of reimagining time in your practice?

At the beginning of the pandemic, time got really weird. Being at home so much, the boundaries of work and life blurred and spacetime got fuzzy. Time felt constricted and surreal, loopy and non-linear.  While many of NYC’s crushing demands fell to the wayside, mundane life lost many of the distinctins that help us demarcate time.  I was living in Hell's Kitchen with my partner and dog, and for a while, much of midtown Manhattan felt desolate. It felt like we dropped into another dimension.

I was sorting through my archive, looking back on artworks and materials I’ve kept over the years. I started watching a bunch of my old videos and was kind of stunned to notice that, for over a decade, I basically made the same video over and over. It was always me in some kind of getup, playing with these very particular props, and always in a liminal space (a factory, a museum, an office building, an old convent, a hotel room, a beach’s shoreline). In all the videos I’m performing a series of mundane actions, many of which were very material and physical, like dragging debris. They resonated with me and also kind of disgusted me. These videos felt formative, but they also felt like rejects. It’s hard to watch oneself on film.  They felt abject, riddled with themes of otherness. It was this attraction-repulsion that often drives my work.

I suddenly got the idea of combining them all into one mega-video. As I started reconfiguring these videos, I was playing with different experiences of time and cutting up images of myself, past versions of me. I was processing what these performances were all about with my therapist, who is also an artist.  She had seen my recent prints and collages, and we were talking about how digestive and worm-like the imagery and my process is, with lots of decomposition and tunneling. This composting worm feels very queer to me, my trying to find my way in the world and feeling disoriented, but doing a kind of creative labor that sustains me. I have no idea if it’ll provide rich soil for anyone else, but it makes my own life livable.

Kerry Downey, 2022, Still from Wormholes

To borrow Munoz’s terminology, in what sense the insistence on undoing sequentiality (or establishing queer temporalities) while engaging with your own past also have a future or even utopian orientation in your work?

I got the idea that, in making these disparate videos touch one another, I was tunneling across time and space. Maybe they were always already touching across time and space - so much of my life requires that we speak to future and past selves. I think most people experience distortions in time, but some of us are less able to conform - we fail to progress, we are not linear, we do not satisfy social demands to be useful or coherent, we feel fractured. We then have to improvise with these fragmented selves until we animate and potentiate new connections, so that the multiple selves of past, present, and future create more ways of being.  I think of this as a kind of trans time. Maybe this is utopian, but it feels more like trans and queer improvisation, an embodied knowledge that is highly performative. In editing together these older videos, I wonder what kind of past, present, and futures they produced/are still producing for me? A lot of the footage feels post-apocalyptic, apropos for COVID.  Making this work has been powerful for me, digging worm holes and composting something that has helped me live and could be fodder for future (and past?) selves.

In Wormholes, there are recurring metaphors of dispersion, such as light reflections, smoke flare, or flies, that are then repeated in multiplied selves. There are also masks and wigs, fun costumes and strong colors/patterns. Your viewers encounter a lot of beauty and humor in your embrace of the fractured nature of self, in the performative, “inauthentic”, nonlinear, nonbinary selves that you share with us. How do you construct your personas and/or how your thinking about gendered performativity influences your practice?

I made all these videos after having had top surgery, so this is an important framework for reading these personas and metaphors. Looking back, I can see I was really working something out. These moving paintings materially and performatively tried to represent, process, or contain something about my experience of my body that exceeded me, something primary - outside of language. I think this is why I’m drawn to the tension between the video frame and something that clearly exceeds the frame, like smoke or entropy.  I see myself trying to create space to feel with my new boobless body, to discover new kinds of knowing.  Maybe I am learning to trust my bodily experiences as intuitions. The videos become a place where I can feel a synergy between mind and body, and where physical and psychological transformations can sync up. For me, making art is also the making and unmaking of parts of myself. Un/learning is kinesthetic, requiring an embodied approach to play, a certain amount of trust in the nonsense. It’s almost a strategy of “fake it til you make it.” Pretend you know what you’re doing, pretend you trust yourself. Grab this prop, work inside this setting. But in every seemingly arbitrary symbol or prop or action, there I was working out queerness and trans-ness and nonbinary-ness and whiteness and what it means to be an artist - what masculinist masteries, feats or forms of labor are expected to be performed to gain recognition. And is recognition even the goal? What do I have to “pay to play” in cis, male dominated, white supremacist, racist capitalism? I was un/learning what the art world taught me about how to make meaning in recognizable ways, what I was told it looked like to be a queer artist, or a feminist, or anti-racist. I was wondering, am still wondering, is “camp” even a tool for me? What about lesbian or genderqueer camp?

Kerry Downey, 2022, Still from Wormholes

Your approach to performance seems site-responsive. Your personas, whether vulnerable, fierce, or multiplied are alone in spaces that seem frozen in time. How they exist in the space—how they appear and disappear, or dig into or out of it is an important element of your performance work. What is the role of space in your work? What is your approach to movement design and site-responsive choreography?

I’m excited by what happens between things - between my interior self and exterior reality, between myself and others, between my body and environment, my unconscious and the camera, etc. My therapist also talks about this as “a radical openness to the more-than-human. To materials, sites, elements, to one's own bodily and artistic production.”  My choreography is rarely driven by clear concepts, instead I’m propelled by desire, and eros are a hard thing to describe. It’s always changing, and I think this is why there is so much movement in my work.

The videos were improvised, but as many dancers and performers name, improv actions are based on prior repetitions, the body as archive, forms of labor that have become invisibilized. I try to give myself permission to follow a hunch, work with a desire, seek an image. I am sensitive to a space’s limitations and possibilities and to its histories of use. Because I choose spaces that are liminal or transitional, I look to thresholds or places of tension. And of course, like most artists, I tend to tune in to changes in light, sounds, textures, movements.  Some spaces activate my mirror neurons, I want to rhyme with them. Other spaces inspire resistance, to act against or on them rather than with them.  I think of this in painting terms, where figure/ground relations invoke a politics of power. How can I move through space while having a non-colonial, non-dominant relationship to it? The versions of me that performatively arise out of certain sites or conditions can feel like confronting ghosts. What is me, what is that which I have inherited? It’s like the idea of turning ghosts into ancestors, the movement between a totally abstracted unknown to then being implicated and accountable. A lot of unconscious material is made visible and palpable, something I can work with.

Of course, your work also questions our ideas of a legible body, contesting narratives of pathologization. Can you talk more about that?

I am interested in how the terms of legibility, visibility, and vulnerability are not fixed categories, but shifting power relations, and communicated not only through overt signs/signifiers, but unconsciously. Codes and symbols are perpetually multiplying, changing and dissolving, refusing any single signification. What of my content is available or legible to whom has to do with context - like how queer people read my gestures through shared culture or experience - but it’s also about who is open, and what makes openness possible.

When we reach the limits of our vulnerability, are we also reaching the limits of who we will accept, acknowledge or care for?  The limits of our vulnerability also activate our desires, hungers. This can make us greedy, the hole is so goddamn big and just keeps getting bigger.  And we humans have a violent history of dehumanizing and oppressing those who we feel threatened or disgusted by, those who incite our insecurities, discomforts and fears. Here I’m thinking of Julia Kristeva’s writings on abjection, Franz Fanon’s writings on mental health and institutionalized care, Saidiya Hartman’s writing on racial subjugation, and basically everything by Foucault.

Kerry Downey, 2022, Still from Wormholes

Solitude is another recurring theme in your work, but it is also clearly designed for the camera. I’m interested in your relationship to the camera in terms of your process, including the labor that goes into a solo mediated performance and the intimacy of documentation of the real and the potential. I'm also curious about the audience's gaze. How does your relationship with your viewers play a role in your performance?

Actually, all the videos were made with collaborators, so you’re right that solitude is designed for the camera (and further designed through the editing process). There is a lot of intimacy, vulnerability, risk, and trust in collaborating. My work is heavily influenced by this affective labor.

I spent much of COVID recovering from an intense 15 year period where I was living and working cooperatively.  I was surrounded by and entrenched in so many peoples’ lives, so many creative projects. I often make work about being alone because I actually need more alone time. And even though I was surrounded by people, I've experienced really intense loneliness. My idea to make these videos explicitly about solitude has been about working with these tensions.

There’s so much fantasy wrapped up in “the gaze.” To my therapist’s point about  “other-than-human” relations, I think of the camera as a kind of extension of my body, another way to access myself and the world. The lens invokes the imaginary other, and all the complicated desires about what it means to be seen or witnessed.  Some of this is a kind of repetition compulsion around the violences of being looked at but not seen, being raised female but identifying as genderqueer, for example. Part of the fantasy is that someone’s witnessing me will help produce me more fully, make me more viable, maybe contain or complete me. It’s an impossible but productive fantasy.

I also want the act of looking to un/make my audience, to invite an awareness of our co-determination. Like, we are in this together and intricately enmeshed.   

Acknowledgements: I made these past videos with Joanna Seitz, Claudia Pena Salinas, Douglas Paulson and Action Club, David Felix Sutcliffe, Alan Resnick, Rhea Bundrant, and Jeremy Willis. Ideas for this project are in dialogue with temp.files, Erika Bernabei, and Kat Cheairs. My work has been deeply inspired by my collaborative practice with therapist KDM.


January, 2022

© temp files