Stories from the Inside

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An Interview with MFA Student Macon Reed

MFA candidate Macon Reed is a self-proclaimed feminist artist and aptly so. Reed explores social themes via intricate sculptures that manifest notions of trauma, healing, gender, and spectacle. Her sculptures are in conversation with broad social issues, demanding attention and interpretation, and ultimately creating a powerful dialogue between object and audience. In this conversation Reed shares her artistic inclinations, which include works in a variety of media and an emphasis on social practice. She also discusses her sculptures in great detail, and explains how and why they might be read as spectacle. Art History student Adriana Magnolia Ruvalcaba interviewed Reed earlier this semester.

Adriana Magnolia Ruvalcaba: So, I don’t know much about your work. Tell me, what medium do you work in the most?

Macon Reed: The most? It really switches, it’s funny because I’ve joked that during grad school it’s been seasonal. But, in the fall, I have both years in a row, made a sculpture that then I have in one way or another set on fire, and then shown, then videotaped and photographed. Then I notice after that, I try to make a video, which I haven’t made many videos. So fall is burning sculpture time, and then winter seems to be when I start making videos, and then towards summer I start doing more social practice stuff. I started a summer camp last year. So, it’s really been all over the place in terms of medium; it almost feels like it’s less about "what do I work with," as opposed to what season is it...which is hilarious, and it’s not on purpose, it’s just happened twice in a row now. Maybe that’s a thing. We’ll be doing the camp again this summer.

AMR: Where is the camp?

MR: It’s in Rochester, Washington, on a friend’s farm. I can geek-out about all that stuff.

I don’t know if I should start at the beginning of the season? Like the year?

(Collective laugh)

AMR: So, how do you define seasons then? Do you define them academically, or the way they work in nature, like: spring …fall …winter?

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Image: Macon Reed, Invocation, photograph, 41 x 61 in.

MR: That’s the thing—it should be how they work in nature. And its really not an intentional part of my practice, it’s just an ongoing joke with my friends, where we realized it was fall again and I was lighting a sculpture on fire, and I needed them to come help me again, and I then needed help with the video editing.

The thing about me is that I’m always learning a new medium, and that’s something I’m trying to learn to have be useful instead of a problem, where I feel like I’m constantly at the beginning of something and it’s more where the idea goes as opposed to being medium specific at all...which is exciting, but also means I don’t have the skill-set of just being a really good sculptor or something, because that’s what I’ve been doing mostly. So I end up having to pull friends in to help…I end up being really community oriented in a way that I don’t necessarily mean to.

…I can tell you about things that I’ve been thinking recently, and maybe how that’s popped up in my work…

AMR: Great!

MR: …the piece I did in the fall was a set of megaphone sculptures that I made. I like everything to look like it’s made by hand and not look too slick and polished. It’s that classic critique of going into galleries and having everything be so pristine and perfect. So I made these megaphones and they were made out of woven cardboard that was then covered with plaster and joint compound, so they almost look ceramic, and I had them all pointing down at a giant pile of pompoms that I had made—this is really funny because I was never a cheerleader, never [was involved] in sports, and suddenly I’m thinking a lot about sports and P.E., which is so weird. So there was a pile of pompoms and then basically I had a backdrop and I went and got a bunch of fireworks and set them off out of the megaphones into the pile of pompoms until they caught on fire.

And what I was thinking about with that was just sort of…the point at which being cheery or positive can become self-destructive, specifically with being socialized as being female, but also in general. Because a lot of my work is thinking about feminist and queer topics, but I try to not make it super obvious in the work. I like for it to be a bit sneaky in the way that it comes around. So I was thinking about that. I guess I can tell you why I was thinking about cheerleaders at first, but that was that project. What happened was then I had the megaphones, which I liked because they were totally scarred from it: the color smoke bombs had changed the insides, so they were colorful, but then they’re burned, and then they smell like fireworks, and the pompoms were almost all burned up. But then, that’s the thing that I keep having with my sculptures, is all of them seem like —even if they’re not all on fire—they’re like a prop at one point, in order to make photographs or a video. So I have these photos in the end of the fireworks shooting out. And that’s the moment that I really was thinking about catching, but then I also have the objects….

Everyone says, “There’s a redundancy between those two things.” It’s true. There’s them burning, there’s them having been burnt. But I kind of like that you’re “not supposed to do that,” where it’s redundant, so I kind of like that it’s all in there.

Last year I made a hot air balloon also out of papier-mâché and cardboard and things like that. I hung it up and lit that on fire. That was a reenactment from something that happened. Some people had actually died in a hot air balloon that had caught on fire and I was really depressed and working one of my manual labor jobs that summer and saw this image one day at work and it just stuck with me for a long time.

AMR: What did you make the hot air balloon from?

MR: It was cardboard and canvas. The paper mache was fancy papier-mâché, but I didn’t make it right exactly—it’s funny because it was a piece kind of about failure and I failed at making it, too. It didn’t burn well enough, so it only burned some. But we got the image of it burning okay. But then after that it’s the weird burnt sculpture and the weird photograph, and that’s something I just kind of have to resolve.

AMR: How big are your pieces?

MR: The hot air balloon is maybe that big (motions a 3D size proportion by spreading arms out and up-down), I can give you specific measurement too, if you want. The megaphones were on stands, so on the stands they roughly took that amount of space (again motions with arms).

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Image: Macon Reed, UIC MFA Open Studios, 2012 (installation view).  

AMR: When you fire them, is this outdoors?

MR: Yeah, and it’s in front of a backdrop...at least with the megaphones it was. With the installation in the gallery I had the photographs of the megaphones on the walls and then the [actual] megaphones. I didn’t want them to be set the same way they were in the photos, so I shaped them out so they were pointing more aggressively, defending the pompons, and I had three gymnasts come into the room and they were in uniform. At that point I started thinking about cheerleading, military, and nationalism and stuff that had happened. I had them standing facing the megaphones, so they were three-on-three. They were sort of facing off. I love gymnasts because they are super tough, and also really high femme at the same time. I like how they’re fucking with gender without necessarily knowing or doing it on purpose.

AMR: Right.

MR: Those little gestures are so funny to me when they’re doing all these badass flips and things and then still have to add that in. So they were just doing those gestures and sort of facing down the megaphones.

AMR: Did you choreograph the gymnasts’ movement?

MR: Very minimally. But they all have little gestures that they do as part of their routines...they are all slightly different...so I just said, “can you guys just do those little things occasionally, as you feel?" The tension was really nice because they never did anything “gymnastic-y”—they have this super intense presence, it was really interesting. They kind of stand in for different ideas of different feminists waves of thought for me, but I’m still working on that.

AMR: Can you talk about that a little bit?

MR: Yeah, I definitely call myself a feminist. I feel like that word is really loaded, and historically when I look at a lot of feminist work I kind of cringe, because even though I feel I benefited from the heritage of that work, and I want to like it, it’s like, now it’s a little bit embarrassing. And that’s really confusing. Because I’m like “Yes! Feminist stuff! And I love female artists, and that’s awesome!” So, I’ve been thinking about ways to make that conversation and conversations around gender in general a little bit more accessible and relevant to now, and get people thinking and talking about them again…also adding a queer element…the whole conversation is something that I would like to see updated a little bit more. I’ve been thinking about ways to do that, and humor is a big part of that for me.

The gymnasts and the cheerleaders were interesting, because I originally started looking at the cheerleaders because there had been this awful rape that happened in Texas by a bunch of football players to this cheerleader, in Silsbee. Did you hear about that, by chance?

AMR: Sounds vaguely familiar, how long ago was that?

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Image: Macon Reed, Landscape, 2012, gouache on paper, 49 x 42 in. 

MR: It was three or four years ago…yeah, Silsbee, Texas. Basically, she was a cheerleader and [during the game] she was forced to cheer for the guy who raped her. The cheer that she was supposed to say was, “Two, four, six-eight-ten! Come on, Rakheem, [put] it in!” or something like that… And so she, in front of everybody in this small town where football is huge, stood aside quietly and didn’t participate. She just didn’t say anything. She was chastised for it in front of the whole town, for these events, and then she was kicked off the cheerleading team, because she wouldn’t cheer for him.

Then later, when she sued for her first amendment right to free speech the court said that when she became a cheerleader she lost her first amendment rights, that she was speaking through the school, not for herself, and that she suspended the ability to do that. She lost the lawsuit. It's a small town, and the lawyers are connected to the football players. They are charging her family something like forty-grand for legal expenses for a frivolous lawsuit. It's horrible. So this girl got raped, got humiliated for trying to stand up for herself, and then whatever college education money her parents might have set aside has now gone towards this lawsuit. So that’s what originally interested me in cheerleading.

AMR: So you saw this in a newspaper, online, how did you stumble on it?

MR: I think it was on Change.org, a petition to support her, and try to reverse the court's decision. What I wanted to do was assemble a group of cheerleaders and work with them, to create a cheer for her, and then do a video that would go simultaneously in a gallery and be sent to her, without having her name mentioned specifically in it.

But I wanted to both bring it into the gallery as something that had happened—I was just really angry about it—and also send her a supportive thing. But I didn’t end up doing that project because that’s her story; even though it’s a public media thing it started to feel hard to know if that’s something she would want or not. I also had a really hard time finding cheerleaders. Cheerleaders and artists do not work together historically. They’re kind of in separate camps. So I just started thinking about the spectacle of cheerleading in that process and it has gone a lot of different directions from there.

Adriana Magnolia Ruvalcaba is a student in the Art History program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.