L^2 (Lee Blalock)
"...I can feel my body extended into another kind of space, or I feel like I'm getting bigger because I'm building another version of myself."
L^2 (Lee Blalock) was one of the first people I thought of when I first envisioned this project. She's always seemed to me to be the type of person who might actually be telekinetic. Maybe it's because she lives in a realm of science fiction, or because she wears a space helmet from time to time, or because the words "otherwordly" and "post-human" follow Lee and her art around. But when we met to start planning the portrait, what seemed the most remarkable to me was how actual, functional, tangible, and scientific her world was as well. Transcendence is available through her compositions of pixels and sound waves, she is capable of disappearing simply by sitting inside of a wooden box in her studio, and I'm pretty sure can see into other dimensions by putting on her glasses.
Lori: Who are you?
Lee: Geez. Can I answer this however I want?
Okay, so if I were going to answer this honestly, I would say that I am multiple people on any given day, as if I was thrown and strewn across the room.
That's a very good answer. I know that what you do for money, is that you are a teacher and an artist. But, that's not necessarily who you are.
No, no. But it is a really important part of my practice, I suppose. I'm fortunate enough to teach topics that I'm really interested in. And so, if I weren't teaching those classes, I'd have my head in books in my studio just learning these things on my own. I don't know if it's an aside, it's more integrated than I thought it was originally, actually.
Earlier you mentioned that there was a class you're teaching called "The Post-Human." How does that fit in with multiplicities? Is that part of it? Is the post-human many humans?
For sure. I think that when I think of a future self, especially one that's mediated by computational media or anything like that, that I think of a modular identity or an identity that can be switched out for different purposes at different times. One that could be repeated and be in multiple places at one time, sort of like a virtual self. I'm also a prosthesis fetishist, so I bring that into the class as well. Is that the right way to say it? Prosthetics fetishist, not prosthesis fetishist.
There should be one word for that.
There should be.
Prosthishist? That sounds illegal.
Could you talk a little bit about what you are working on inside this box, how it operates, and what it's called?
I don't have a name for the piece yet. The box and the piece I was working on inside the box are two separate things. I built the box in the studio maybe four or five months ago as a little habitat for me, where I would perform everything this year, remotely from this little capsule. I think I did that because I'm trying to build safe spaces and I'm also really fascinated with the international space station and small, tight spaces that can double as a habitat in a laboratory. The piece that I'm working on in there is sort of a simulation piece where you type in different ... I guess you can type in whatever you are thinking. You can type in a description of an environment and then you get a simulation of that environment, both in sound and in image. Everything on the screen is a synthetic image, something that's just built from numbers, and the samples are created prior to that and loaded in. It's just a world building experiment, but I can't say more than that yet because it keeps evolving and it's bigger than I thought it was going to be. I will say that it's three-quarters done.
When we were planning this portrait and this specific shot, I came to visit your studio and I saw this little box, and I just loved the image of the artist working in their own world, or habitat, I like that, that's a better word. It seems like you are in control of quite a lot in that box and in that world. But it was just today that you came up with the idea of having your glasses fly in, which I really liked. The first thing you said was that they're cheap, you needed to get new glasses anyway, and that it wouldn't matter if we dropped them.
Yeah. I have a Where's Waldo situation here in the studio, where there are three pairs of glasses all around the studio. Oftentimes I will be in there, tightly, the way I was right then, with all the equipment, and I'm a tall lady, so my legs are all cramped up and I will forget that my glasses are outside of the box and I have to crawl over everything to get them. My eyes don't really notice until fifteen minutes after staring at the screen, so it was really appropriate to have them fly in, because that's how it happens in here all the time.
I kept envisioning that it would be a tool that comes to you. Then you said glasses and I'm thought that's the best tool of all!
That's the only tool!
Right, because they're so necessary. You can't use any of the tools without glasses for the most part.
You can try.
You can try. You can hurt yourself like I did last week with a dremel tool. It's healed up pretty nicely, actually.
I also like how they are an addition to the body. Not that they are turning you into a robot, per se, because they are not mechanized, but they are an enhancement.
I would still say that they are considered a prosthetic, so are these three-and-a-half-inch heels I'm wearing. But, for sure, my eyes don't work well organically, so I would say I've been a cyborg since I've had glasses.
I want to say that too. Since third grade.
My students say it. We all say it.
Now I wanted to ask you a question about power. When I was looking at you in that little box, all these wires everywhere, it's obvious that power is needed for a lot of the work that you do. But, I'm curious, in what moments in your life do you feel the most powerful?
Huh. Normally when things are happening like they were in the box, where I'm surrounded by stuff and I'm experimenting and I'm seeing what can happen in real time based on what is being translated from my brain to my fingers. Whenever I'm in a mode where I'm making and I can see it, I feel like that's empowerment to me.
Or when, in certain cases, especially this one, when I'm making something and I can feel my body extended into another kind of space, or I feel like I'm getting bigger because I'm building another version of myself. I think that's the reason I make the kind of work I make in the spaces that I make them.
What makes you feel not so powerful.
When I don't have the freedom to do what I want.
Has there been a time in your life when that's been an issue?
That's always sort of there. It's unfair to say this, but it's always the case when you're younger and you don't have the means or the resources or, let's say, the legal age, to do and go and express all the things that you want to express. I would say that not being able to express my thoughts and feelings the way that I really want to will get me in a lot of trouble because that's the only time I actually get riled up.
(Sarcastically) What do you think about women? [laughter] I keep questioning myself as to how to ask a question about women, or if someone wanted to interpret it as femininity or just the question of gender even. Not just "What's it like to be a woman?", but do you consider your gender? Are you forced to? Do you want to? Does it play an active role?
I think part of my not being able to do what I want... If people see me and see the package and then expect less than I would normally be able to do, or anybody else would be able to do, that kind of strips me of power. My reaction to that has always been to be faceless and to be bodyless, be genderless and be raceless and all that stuff. I know that's a political statement to make, but I think it's also a really nice option to have, if you can have it, if you just want to get stuff done. I don't know. It's hard to say when you try to build bodies that aren't encased in viscera or whatever. It's sort of hard to put a gender assignment on that. I think it's a great idea to do projects that give voice to people who don't have them. At the same time, I know that I've turned away from stuff that emphasizes what I look like, what genitalia I have, just because it reduces me to maybe two or three descriptors. I'm fluid. I'll do the things that feel right for me and I'll turn away from the things that feel reductive. I don't know how else to say that.
Yeah, it's complicated. I'm making a project about women. I'm chose to use that label as a focusing point. Some of the desire to do this comes from a deficiency in that I don't meet enough new people, women from outside my sphere. I also noticed that I don't see the lists that I want to see. I did a somewhat lame Google search for “Chicago + women + lists.” I got a lot of mostly best-of the business world lists. It's like if the woman can perform in the patriarchal, normal, capitalist way, she gets on one of these lists. A lot of the lists were job related. I wanted something broader, more about personality and drive. I realized I want take away the hierarchy and find twelve really different women, put them in a cluster and take a look at who they might be through comparison and connection.
I think the thing about this is that being in the box and being recorded had nothing to do with my gender. It was like "Hey, do what you do," and so it doesn't reduce me in any way to being an artist or woman of color. It's just "You are a person that makes this stuff and you'll be in this project," which is a lot more comfortable for me. Like I said, I pick and choose the ones... and I trust you, your work. You know the stuff I'm not going to be crazy about.
Let's delete all the art stuff for a minute. Who else are you? What are the other big components of you? It's so hard to define yourself without listing. Lists, I just can't help but keep coming back to gathering things, collecting things, and looking at that list. There's lists on the wall in front of me and notes and stuff and... what are other parts of you that you don't often get to talk about?
Oh, that's difficult.
You are probably mostly interviewed as an artist.
Yeah, but I think they way I got here, I got here slowly. I came from science, and then I moved into design, and finally I ended up in art. It's like they are not even separate anymore. All the music stuff and all the designer stuff, all the stuff where I'm a little bit of a behaviorist, I guess. I don't want to say performer, because I resent that. I hate the fact that when I walk out of the room, I have to perform if I'm not by myself, so I like to create behaviors instead. I don't know. All of it is kind of wrapped together now, so I feel like now that I have a better picture of who I am post-grad school, post-academic, I feel like it's more holistic than it's ever been, so it's hard to separate who I am. I go home and I read a bunch of science fiction, but it always ends up in my work, or anything I'm making with the rest of these instruments ends up in some sound piece. Everything is sort of encased in this art thing.
I like how the idea of the Behaviorist applies to everything.
Yeah. I like to create behaviors as opposed to make performances, for sure.
And study behaviors too.
Oh my gosh, yeah. I don't understand behavior. I spend a lot of time thinking about what people do and why they do it.
Does place have anything to do with it? Because you are from Philadelphia...(and I'm from near Philadelphia)
I'm from a place called Chester, Pennsylvania, which is near Philadelphia, and I spent an equal amount of time in Atlanta after undergrad, and then I moved here about...Wow, six years ago? Six years ago. Place. Yeah, I suppose because Chester didn't feel safe when I was there and I think I carry that around with me. I think I'm always walking around expecting bad things to happen, so I know I build spaces, literally, that people don't have access to easily, or that are protective. Whether it's in a screen or in a little four foot box. Nobody's ever asked me that before, but yes, I suppose it does have a lot to do with this sort of, not escapist, but sort of otherness, otherworldliness that I like to dwell in.
Do you feel comfortable in Chicago?
Yeah, but it may not...Yes and...N-Yes. Okay, so yes, because it's a metropolis and there's people all around and you can kind of be anonymous and you're shielded with all the people, and no because there's people all around. I also have age a little bit on my side now. I don't have faith in anything except for the fact that we, as humans, adapt very quickly when we are faced with chaos. I feel like I've lived long enough to be able to adapt to different places. I like Chicago. I think I'll be here for a while, knock on wood.
Chicago likes you, Lee. I'm Chicago and I like you.