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Interview with Lise Haller Baggesen

March 17, 2021

Lise Haller Baggesen talks about her exhibition, Museums of Future Past Times Present: Hatorade Retrograde the Musical with Community Engagement and Public Programs Manager Li-Ming Hu & Community Engagement and Public Programs Graduate Assistant Abby Foss.

Museums of Future Past Times Present: Hatorade Retrograde The Musical, 2021 (installation view). Center, foreground: MINIMAXI (costume), 2019, reconstructed tie-dye sweatshirts/pants, buttons. Left, background: MINIMAXI, 2019, inkjet print on LED lightbox. Right, background: LIPSTICK BRUTALISM NO. 11 [QUARANTINE SUNSHINE], 2020, found and hand-dyed/bleached fabrics.

Li-Ming Hu: Hatorade Retrograde:The Musical (HRTM) is presented both as an exhibition at Gallery 400 and as a performance, now delayed due to COVID-19 restrictions. How hard was it to transition between the two? What do you think can get lost in between the mediums that you want audiences to know?

Lise Haller Baggesen: The exhibition at Gallery 400 is an event in its own right, bookended by the two live performances: the 2019 premiere in San Francisco, and the Chicago iteration, which will hopefully happen later this year. Like the live performances, the constants in the exhibition are the costumes and the soundtrack, which are presented alongside portraits of the main characters, props, research, and ephemera, against a backdrop of LIPSTICK BRUTALISM textile works. Central to the show, is the video from the San Francisco shows. Since UIC COVID restrictions require the gallery to remain closed to the public, the show has the added layer of being available only virtually. I initially struggled with this, being the “material girl” that I am. But I have come to see it as an asset; committed to digital memory, the exhibition is frozen in time, like a time capsule or an archeological site. I am quite into the idea of “the museum” as medium, and the idea of historicizing a fictive moment in the future, by fast forwarding another 50-1000 years and looking back at it—hence the title Museums of Future Past Times Present: Hatorade Retrograde The Musical.”

LH: How will the Chicago performance be different from what was presented in San Francisco?   In its current form how integral is the live part of HRTM to the performance? How do you think it may change or progress?

LHB: The live performance consists of a set of variables and constants. One constant is the soundtrack,a 40 min sound piece to be listened to on “silent disco” headphones. It really is about trying to convey this hi-tech fable on a low-tech budget. The headsets assure that the audience and performers are in the same “bubble,” in which the story unfolds.

The other constant is the costumes which contain so much information on each character’s backstory they almost become the wearer’s “uniform” or “exoskeleton.” The variables are the cast and the site. Each iteration has a site specific choreography, created in collaboration with the performers. I am really stoked about our Chicago cast and choreographer Aaliyah Christina. How this show will differ from the San Francisco performance depends on them in great part.

In San Francisco, we had a very beautiful backdrop: a dilapidated brutalist watchtower with views over the bay and the city. It didn’t need much “pimping.” Because the park was remote, with no power outlets, storage space, etc., I had to think of the sets and props as “camping” easy to set up and dismantle.

Here in Chicago, we found a site in Steelworker’s Park, with many of those same qualities, most notably some very impressive ruins from US Steel. However, now that our timeline is up in the air because of COVID, we may start looking for alternative venues. It would be fun to imagine it in an empty mall or something similar—one of those cathedrals to late capitalism. 

avery r young and Lise Haller Baggesen in San Francisco.

LH: How did you connect to avery r young and get him on board as a composer?

LHB: avery is one of my favorite artists, poets, and performers, an incredible Black Renaissance Man! We met through Louder Than A Bomb poetry slam and Rebirth Poetry Ensemble. My son Adam joined the team back in 2013 and slammed with them throughout high school; my daughter Eleanor joined a couple years ago and still writes and performs with them. Together with Emily Lansana, avery coached the team for as long as I can remember, so he is really part of our Chicago family.  Coming back from SF I told him about my idea to make a musical on a shoestring budget;  he agreed to come on board, and really delivered!   

LH: HATORADE RETROGRADE originally debuted at Threewalls in 2016 with an iteration set in 2033. There you had mannequins set up with headphones featuring monologues for each character. How did the shift to a live performance come about?

LHB: The idea for a live performance was born out of one of those “careful what you wish for” moments. Writer, publisher, and curator Caroline Picard came to visit HATORADE RETROGRADE at Threewalls. We were talking about the relationship between the characters, the costumes, and the audio, and I was wishing out loud: “wouldn’t it be great if it was a musical?” Caroline suggested I should get in touch with Nick Wylie, then deputy director at Southern Exposure  in San Francisco. I knew Nick—who is now back in Chicago as director of CoProsperity—from ACRE, so I cold-called him and asked, “I have this idea for a musical. Are you interested?” And he said, “let me ask my curatorial council.” To my astonishment, they enthusiastically said yes!

You must realize that one of the great motivators of this process was Trump’s election victory in 2016. I put the kids to bed on election night with the lesson that, “Okay, so the Weimar republic had Bertold Brecht’s political theater, and Thatcher’s Britain had punk, so we will see some amazingly radical and critical cultural production as a result of this!” The morning after, I woke up sobbing so hard it woke up my daughter Eleanor, who was sleeping next to me. She looked me in the eye and said, “Mom, there is going to be so much good poetry!” It felt like all bets were off, so when presented with the opportunity, I was like “F*ck it. If he gets to be president, I get to make a musical!” Something, admittedly, I was entirely unqualified for. But that wasn’t a concern anymore.


LH: What prompted the move from 2033 to 2069?

LHB: Southern Exposure (SoEx) wanted to develop a new, and site specific, piece, which I imagined as an autonomous sequel to the Threewalls show. I went out to San Francisco for my first site visit in 2017, the 50th anniversary for the “Summer of Love.” While there, I visited the exhibition  Hippie Modernism at Berkeley Art Museum and also Summer of Love: Art, Fashion and Rock’n’Roll at the deYoung Museum. It seemed like an opportune moment to reflect on that legacy of West Coast counterculture, while also projecting 50 years into the future. The show premiered in San Francisco in 2019,  hence 2069. 

LH: You developed the storyline and characters in collaboration with the Southern Exposure Youth Advisory Board. Can you tell us a bit about this process?

LHB: The Youth Advisory Board (YAB) is a group of teen artists from Mission District high schools, who meet for weekly sessions at SoEx. As a core program of SoEx, it was important to bring in this cohort to inform the project early on.

In my first meeting with YAB, I had framed the project through an ecofeminist lens, asking about the effects of climate change, rising sea levels, forest fires, and dwindling biodiversity, on the Bay Area. However, many of their own primary concerns were centered around technology.  On a micro level, they were ambivalent about how social media pervaded their (inter-)personal spheres. On a macro level, the tech industry was experienced as a great gentrifier. To many of them, it meant that they were doubtful they could afford to stay in the city they grew up in. 

Over the course of the 2017/18 academic year, we did multiple workshops envisioning San Francisco and the Bay Area anno 2069. Collectively, they were quite clear about a few things: “we are totally going to live in a big omniscient tech bubble, California is totally going to secede from the nation, and we are totally going to go to Mars!”  Those predictions became some of the premises for the narrative.

Originally, the premiere was scheduled for fall 2018, and I was supposed to come out to work with SoEx’ summer art camp “Mission Voices” to build props and sets on site. Unfortunately  some internal reorganization at SoEx meant that their summer programs were cancelled, and the show postponed to 2019. Because the YAB artists I worked with graduated from high school, it didn’t make sense to continue the collaboration, and it was instead decided to give SoEx YAB the title of “research fellows.” Their collages and dioramas were integral to my “mood board” for the play. The costumes, characters, and narratives I later developed, all have elements from the workshops we conducted. 

Workshop Southern Exposure Youth Advisory Board, 2018.

Abby Foss: Out of pure curiosity, who is your favorite character? What is your favorite character design?

LHB: Moms don’t pick favorites! That said, I do have a soft spot for DARWIINA (aka Mistress of the Universe) with her disco delusions of grandeur—she has so much voluptuous self-esteem it is contagious. Her costume is constructed out of three graduation gowns, because she has three terminal degrees, but she still gets fucked. XOCHILL (aka Our Working Class Shero) is such a bad-ass and I love her feminist stripes and her grunge reveal. MINIMAXI (aka Union of Curious Scientists) are some smart cookies, who know what’s up—but no-one believes them or listens to them because they are “just kids!” XIMIX (aka Glam Rocket Man) is a homeless trans vet and the self appointed guardian of MINIMAXI. His uniform is that of a American rock stars with their army jackets, fringe, glitz, and air guitar. PALOMA (aka The Hawk) is a true nature romantic and a conservationist—a tree hugger fire fighter decked out tie-dye forest fire camo. She is also rather militant. MØRMØR (aka Leda Lovelace) is a black swan with a complicated past—she got too deeply involved with ZEUS INC—who is also a female genius, and SAM’s creatrix. 

On some level, I identify with all the characters in the show—each of them trying to develop a strategy (denial, anger, compliance, defiance, preservation, distortion, etc.) to cope with the situation at hand, but not really “getting it” before putting the pieces together. The plot becomes one of collaboration, about how you never do it on your own.

AF: Which character do you think people have the hardest time understanding? Easiest?

LHB: Probably SAM_SAR_AI (aka SAM_AI_AM). SAM is a narrative sleight of hand, and the disembodied narrator of the play. We first meet SAM as XOCHILL’s PEC (Personal Electronic Companion), her conscience, confidante, and next of kin. In the end they are reunited with  their “birth-mom”—SAM  turns out to be one of MØRMØR’s brilliant brain children — but no sooner than that, they are sent on a diplomatic interplanetary mission. They relay the events leading up to the BATTLE OF OVUM from the perspective of being lost in space and pining for the human touch. 

I thought it would be interesting to have this voice be the intermediary between human and machine. The singularity is predicted to happen in 2045, so I just went with that and imagined SAM as some super advanced tamagotchi of MØRMØR’s invention; kinda like if your iPhone was your *actual* exobrain. But I also wanted SAM to have something a little subversive, like a stowaway, and to grapple with the idea of “soul.” They introduce themselves: “I’m non-human, and I need to be loved, just like everybody else does.” What ultimately makes SAM human, though, is that although they exist entirely as memory, they don’t have total recall. So, the story is also about memory and loss.

The rest of the folks, by comparison, I think are pretty straight up. Who is most relatable probably depends where your interests are aligned.

Christan Thompson as DARWIINA, San Francisco, 2019.

AF: What sort of research went into HRTM?

LHB: I watched every episode of every season of RuPaul’s Drag Race! Camp is integral to my work: the pop-cultural cross referencing and glam(our), as well as  the notion of femininity as something that is being produced. RuPaul’s credo that “were all born naked and the rest is drag!” holds up a funhouse mirror to Simone de Beauvoir’s tenet of “becoming female.”  

It was important that the script would pass the Bechdel Test. So much sci-fi is your typical “Brotopian Enterprise.” Also, I wanted to write a story about overcoming individual (unconscious) bias and focus on the collective; although a lot of people might read this shero’s tale as the story of XOCHILLs consciousness-raising, which is also true. (The caveat of course is, that you don’t raise consciousness on your own.)

To that end, I read a fair deal of classic (femi-)sci-fi for inspiration, including Ursula K. LeGuin, Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, James Tiptree Jr. Monique Wittig’s Les Guerilleres and The Female Man by Joanna Russ. A personal childhood  favorite, Undskyld Hr. Hvor ligger naturen? (Translation: Excuse me Sir? Where is Nature?) is a short tale about two children concerned with planetary ecocide. Danish author Benny Andersen developed this participatory writing project for DR (the Danish State Broadcasting Service) children’s radio and would write the weekly chapter of the chronicle based on input from his young listeners. It informed how in the end I took authorship of the material we had accumulated in the SoEx YAB workshops, as well as directly inspired the character of MINMAXI. 

But the most “sci-fi” part of my research went into developing SAM_SAR_AI.

We are in a crucial moment in terms of construction of the real and the individual —  the “hive-mind” algorithms selling our selves back to ourselves (such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter.) We are well aware how easily these channels are manipulated, and the pollution of fake news that runs through that deluge of information. Similarly, we are accustomed with the ways imagery can be forged electronically, deep fakes, etc. Any troll can do it. More recently voice recognition software has been added to this list. You can now build, or train, a voice avatar to sound like yourself, which I did. SAM sounds like me right down to (a slightly Americanized version of) my Euro accent and deadpan intonation; It is quite uncanny really, the first time you hear yourself rendered like that.

On the upside, this technology made the recording of SAMs voiceover super easy. With every edit we just ran the script again, and they never fumbled. On the downside, when I recently checked in on, they had discontinued their services. I don’t know what happened — if they got bought by some tech giant, or if some Russian troll owns my voice now — but I would be curious to find out!

AF: If you were to write this again after COVID, do you think you would write a different story? How much would change? Be the same?

LHB: I believe all sci-fi worth its salt would imagine itself to be at least a trilogy. So, rather than re-writing the script I have, I would prefer to write the sequel. But to your question: While I had not predicted COVID to happen in 2020, the way events unfolded, once the pathogen emerged, was in so many ways entirely predictable. The intro of HRTM, written in 2019, does mention that “pandemics of curable diseases ravaged an unvaccinated population” and goes on to describe a “Divided States of America” in the thralls of a “War on Science.”

These themes could have played out in different ways. In the end, I guess, I did write an ecofeminist parable, and a critique of trans-humanism. Although Mars colonization is integral to the plot, I wasn’t so interested in Space Opera. Instead, I wrote a kind of “Earth Opera” with the punch-line, “if we can’t solve our problems down here, how will we solve them elsewhere?” I still stand by that.

Threewalls’ HATORADE RETROGRADE was inspired by the fear and loathing of the 2016 election cycle, and the accompanying backstory was very dark and angry, a sinister satire, with a sliver of hope. Since then, things went from bad to worse in so many ways, but when I started plotting the script for HRTM in 2018, I realized that being cynical just wouldn’t cut it any more. 

One of the primary texts which inspired me, was Isabelle Strengers’ prescient book In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism from 2008. Her conclusion, and I am paraphrasing, is that in times like these you must meet despair with joy, because otherwise you’re done for. It very much resonates in the “moral” of  HRTM: “Don’t look to the heavens for redemption. Fight ignorance with bliss. Redeem yourselves.” I still very much stand by that.

A happy ending is traditionally sneezed at by the conservative avant-garde. (And I say the “conservative avant-garde” on purpose.) Happy endings are supposedly “fairy tales,” are “Disneyfied,” are “bourgeois.” But I think a happy ending is the most radical proposition we can imagine right now. So, I guess the inquiry question therefore must be: How do we imagine a future that is not foreclosed?

Museums of Future Past Times Present: Hatorade Retrograde The Musical, 2021 (installation view).

LH: Feminism is foundational to your practice. How do you see the role of feminism in a  cultural moment that seems very much about breaking gender binaries? And how would you define an ecofeminist approach?

LHB: Intergenerational feminism is not only a question of legacy, of passing down “grandmother’s battle axe,” but also of adaptability. On this question, I think, the kids are alright—and taking a way more radical approach to gender than ours or previous generations. Maybe we don’t have to be front and center of this conversation, and maybe we don’t have to reinvent the wheel? Lots of cultures, including Indigenous American peoples, have looked at gender in ways that are way more fluid than how it is perceived inside most monotheistic religions, patriarchy, and capitalism. 

Where I do think second wave feminism can contribute is with their tenets on reproductive sovereignty. That has been interpreted narrowly along the lines of pro-choice/pro-life, Roe vs Wade, etc.; but really means that you and you alone have authority over your body, including reproductive and sexual organs; whether to reproduce with them (or not); how to derive pleasure from them (or not); to work with what you have or improve on it (surgically or otherwise); and how (you let) they/them define you. I think essentialist feminists, whomever they may be, would do well to keep that in mind when policing who may join the club. I am not a big fan of the “born this way” argument, because it indicates that given the choice you wouldn’t. I wasn’t born a mother. Yet, it rocked my world. I guess that leads into the second question, about an ecofeminist approach?

The ecofeminist approach would demand that we think in terms of the impact our ideas and actions will have on future generations—as derived from or related to the “Seventh Generations Principle” of the The Great Law of Haudenosaunee Confederacy, which is credited as being one of the inspirations to the American Constitution, and also forms the backbone of Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble

One of the babes that got thrown out with the second wave bath water, was the “kids power” movement, an idea which bears revisiting. My work Mothernism centered around child bearing and rearing, and the politics and poetics of care work. Where it all comes together is in the idea of kinship as an alternative to nuclear family values: a shared responsibility toward care work, including child care, elder care, health care, and the care for our shared environment; to give what you can and get what you need, including proper pronouns.

LH: How do/did your previous works influence you when you created HRTM?

LHB: HATORADE RETROGRADE and later HRTM evolved out of, and in parallel with, a few other long running projects I developed since graduating from SAIC with a MA in visual and critical studies in 2013. A common denominator is that they have a dual textile and textual base, in which text can be understood as footnotes to textile and vice versa. Another is how the work might invite its viewer to interact. In other words, how can my work serve as a stage for the agency of its audience?

Mothernism was an immersive audio installation designed to “stake out the mother shaped hole in contemporary art discourse.” It traveled to various venues and also served as mothership for the symposia The Mothernists I & II in Rotterdam (2015) and Copenhagen (2017). For my show at The Contemporary Austin in 2016, I wrote and recorded The Mothernist’s Audio Guide to Laguna Gloria,  a (self) guided audio tour of the museum’s sculpture garden, which in many ways preceded the roaming performance that is HRTM.

The refuseniks (2017) is a collection of wearables, which materialized during the residency “Body as Site” at the Banff Center in January 2017, coinciding with the inauguration of the 45th president. It is an interspecies garment, part jockey silk and part horse blanket, because I figured we all needed to channel the refusing pony, in that moment. They are constructed as a TAZ (temporary autonomous zones) designed to remove you from the (political) situation at hand. Put them on and just say no.  

Boulevard Dreamers (2013-) is a collaborative project with Kirsten Leenars. It is a variety show aimed at challenging cultural segregation in Chicago, while engaging performers and audiences in what may be called “ ambient performance.”

Each of these projects informed HRTM.  A musical is a synthesis of many different elements, which meant I could incorporate a lot of the media I had been working with in previous projects: the wearables, the audio, the performative aspects. And it’s American as tie-dye!

LH: Could you share a little about where you are headed next in your practice? Has the ongoing pandemic affected how you are working and your attitudes towards art making?

LHB: With lockdown—my daughter’s school closed, my son back from college, and my husband working out of our basement—there was quite a lot of biomass in the house, and because I had a studio to go to, I was voted off the island. And slowly but surely, my studio became my summer house and my wild frontier.  Unable to travel and feeling constricted in the city, nature and landscapes manifested in LIPSTICK BRUTALISMS, the banners and backdrops that now serve as the set for the characters in the exhibition. 

refuseniks at the museum was produced by the MCA as part of The Dreamscape, a virtual component of the current exhibition The Long Dream. The show opened (briefly) in November, and we were fortunate to get to perform and record before the museum closed its doors again. The footage is a tender reminder of all the things we missed during a year of COVID,, like cuddle piles, live music, and sharing breath. 

Video work was not integral to my practice up until now, but my editor Ellie Hall is great at interpreting my low-tech cues. Between editing HRTM and refuseniks at the museum this year, I definitely see more of that going forward.  Missing people and paintings, I have started developing new costumes, a kind of “painting as dress,” which my daughter Eleanor and I have been staging in “costume drama” photo shoots in and around my studio building. Ideally, I would like to see that develop into a silent movie, to be accompanied by live music. I am in the early stages of a show for Malmö Kunstmuseum, beginning with a research fellowship, delving into their archives and collections. To this end, I have been granted a residency at the Danish Art Workshops in Copenhagen, which means I will be living and working in Denmark for the summer of 2021. I am so thrilled about this. Not least, because that means I will be going home to see my family again, for the first time in almost two years.