From the series novoa, 5 medium size analog portrait photos made with a Rolleiflex 3.5. Photos are taken by Lucciana Bolivar. Image credit: Lucciana Bolivar and lucie draai.

‘What is the caring thing to do now?’ – a conversation with artist lucie draai

Issue no5
Oct - Nov 2022
Neo-90s

Born in 1979 in Bogotá, Colombia, lucie draai was adopted by a Dutch couple when she was just a couple of weeks old. Growing up in the Netherlands as an adoptee of colour has made her aware of different aspects of care – differences she further explored during her eight months of living with and caring for the living matter of slime mould (‘Physarum polycephalum’). Currently, her exhibition from yellow to brown (un)measured against a white background is on view at Daily Practice in Rotterdam.

—Nele I had not heard about slime mould before I dived into your practice. How did you get introduced to it?

—lucie ‘I got introduced to it by chance. In my second year at DAI I was part of Banquet X, the COOP study group curated by Bassam El Baroni which dealt with climate change and speculative gastronomy. One of the guest tutors, Jenna Sutela – a Finnish artist, came over to PAF (Performing Arts Forum) in St Erme Outre et Ramecourt, France where we resided for a week. Sutela is working with living organisms and she showed us how to work with this particular living material. For the slime mould to live you need to establish the right climatic conditions, for instance when it comes to temperature and oxygen levels. In this sense those beings are just like us. In PAF it was very cold and humid. Humid is good, because that is what these organisms like, but cold is not. That is why we did not manage to work with slime mould back then.’

—Nele How did your process of working with slime mould start, if not during that week, since you lived with it for eight months?

—lucie ‘It is important to note first of all that the organism has a specific life-cycle: it transforms from crusty dormant matter into a plasmodium, which is the slime matter. Its crusty form can be activated to start its life cycle. Sutela offered us some of that crusty matter to bring home, which a fellow student and me were particularly interested in. One of the first things I did after bringing it home was to name it, my partner suggested to call it “Indonesian rice” = Ketan. I took caring for it very seriously and I meticulously followed Sutela’s instructions. I made agar-agar in order to build a “house” for the organism to live in and looked for a suitable environment for it, which ended up to be our smelly basement. Thirty-six hours after I took it down there something happened!’

'Thirty-six hours after I took ketan down to our basement something happened!'

when lucie meets ketan, 2 channel video work, loop, 2021 (close up), from to (dis)appear ~ the performance of everyday life as part of the group show The Brain Mixologist at A Tale of A Tub, Rotterdam, 21.08.2021 - 31.10.2021. Image credit: LNDW Studio.

—Nele Do you mean that it actually came to life?

—lucie ‘Yes, it looked like its tentacles were branching out. I could see it had moved every time I checked in on it. Sutela told us that it likes to eat bacteria, especially when the bacteria from our hands get upon oat-flakes. So I placed some on the agar-agar and the next morning it had multiplied! I was struck because I could see that it was living matter, which made me beyond ecstatic.’

—Nele And from that point on you lived with it for eight months?

—lucie ‘Yes! But bringing this sleeping matter back to life I was also faced with an ethical dilemma. I was wondering: What is the caring thing to do now? So I decided to learn how to take care of this organism. I knew from Sutela that vibrant colours and branching out meant it was happily thriving, but the agar-agar environment it was exploring was decaying. This meant that apart from providing new bacteria every day, I had to make new agar-agar once a week to provide an option for Ketan to continue living. The environment it leaves behind turns black, brown, yellow – all the decaying colours. I just felt that I needed to take care of it, back then I did not know why I was so obsessed about it, but now I do.’

—Nele Would you say that your work is mainly about care?

—lucie ‘Yes, care in relation to sharing and connecting. Ketan was a really good research subject in that sense. Ultimately however, it was when I introduced the audience to my project and was able to share the awareness I gained from it, that I knew: this is the reason why I enjoy making work. I always try to minimize the distance between the audience and me as an artist. I am still a minority, you know. As an adoptee of colour it is very important to me that what I share is honest, it has to be personal!’

Botanic_X by Banquet X, DAI, COOP SUMMIT 2019, Cagliari (Sardinia). A performative eating ritual of Physarum polycephalum (Ketan) assisted by Assem Hendawi, Aslak Aamot Kjaerulff and Bjarke Hvass Kure in the Roman Cistern of the Botanical Gardens in Cagliari. Image credit: Nikos Doulos. 

draai’s graduation performance at DAI took place in an Italian botanical garden in which she discovered a historical Roman cistern. The Ketan eating-ritual that was performed in there took place four times for twenty participants each. Before going ahead by taking an oat-flake scoop of Ketan to eat, draai recited a text she wrote on becoming a garden.

—Nele What story did you tell with your graduation performance?

—lucie ‘While utilising Ketan, this living and obviously intelligent living matter, for my artistic research, I thought it was important to make sense of what I was doing. In this process, my guiding question was: how can I ethically care for Ketan through learning? With our graduation approaching I knew that my process with Ketan was ending. To celebrate this, I developed a ten-minute Ketan eating ritual addressing the tension between how we humans affect the environment and how we are failing at caringly sustaining it. Very symbolically, our presentations took place in a botanical garden in Italy, which had a beautiful historical Roman cistern. The cistern, where my performance took place, was basically an echo-chamber of my research, filled with green and yellow colours, smelling like fungi – perfect for my work with Ketan!

—Nele Why is the botanical garden symbolic to you and what layers did it add to your work?

—lucie ‘A botanical garden is a space usually created by, and for, high society members. Often, a lot of exotic plant species are brought together for (us) humans to enjoy – extremely problematic! I tried to flip this mechanism around and developed a ritual in which everyone partaking would become a garden for Ketan. To be honest, I was more concerned about what would happen to Ketan’s life-cycle than about what would happen to the humans eating it. Humans anyway continuously choose to do things that harm their health, such as smoking or living in cities such as Rotterdam. As the people of DAI entered the cistern, I handed them petri-dishes with a piece of Ketan saying: “Welcome to Botanic X. Especially for you I made a living compass. It loves the dark, it does not appreciate the light. Please take good care of it.”’

—Nele What were you alluding to by calling Ketan a living compass?

—lucie ‘Based on how Ketan grows I conceptually called it a (dis-)orientation device to caringly disturb our quite goal-oriented way of moving in the domains of society. I find it fascinating that slime mould has about 700 type of sexes, and Physarum polycephalum is just one of many formless growing masses able to merge, divide and merge again. Apart from that, the scientists still don’t know what kind of species or taxonomic group it belongs to, so they have not been able to classify it in detail!’

'I always try to minimize the distance between the audience and me as an artist'

from yellow to brown (un)measured against a white background a performative work in collaboration with Ellen Mary Rooijakkers and Lucciana Bolivar at Daily Practice (Rotterdam, NL) from August 28 until October 9, 2022. Image credit: jhoeko.

At Daily Practice, a non-profit art and practice space in Rotterdam, draai positioned five pieces of fabric in the centre of the space. Hanging from the ceiling, the meshed fabric looks fragile. When walking around them the colours, hung up in the gradient order from yellow to brown, merge with each other. The light falling in through the window increases this effect and the five photos on the wall next to it seem to play with different layers of light as well.

—Nele Is performing a way for you to embody and enter into a dialogue with something that you cannot fully understand?

—lucie ‘Yes, and I think my performance at Daily Practice, is a good example for that. In the space, pieces of fabric are hanging from the ceiling. One by one I put them onto my body, gradually moving from yellow to brown. From being Ketan (yellow), I passed through all other kinds of colours until arriving at my own. I think those eight months with Ketan will always be influencing my process, just as much as the writings by Octavia Butler and other black sci-fi. Already decades ago they created these non-human life forces in their stories, in order for them to critically enter into the worldly political affairs.’

—Nele This reminds me of your thesis Caring Together in Decolonial Healing, in which you discuss the implications of adoptees of colour and their context in colonial history. Even though it is a heavy and serious topic, I feel there is a lot of joy in your writing. I was wondering: did your experiences with Ketan and your time at DAI give you the space to find this joy?

—lucie ‘Totally! We constantly talked about joy in our theory group at DAI. However marginalized you are in the eyes of society, in terms of "success" or "poverty" for example, nobody can take away your urgent desire for joy and celebratory feelings. That idea pretty much forms the core of my research, and is actually also extremely important in Black philosophy. For me, growing up, I do not specifically recall my white environment as joyful. I think my current partner was the first one to show me joy in myself. Having a Dutch East Indies colonial background, she knows mixed backgrounds and what it means to live in different worlds simultaneously. She recognized that in me before I even did so myself, because before, I had never even seen myself as non-white.’

'For me, both as an artist and as a person, it is really important to try not to other and not to value, which obviously is impossible. Of course I mess up, all the time, but I am trying!’

From the series novoa, 5 medium size analog portrait photos made with a Rolleiflex 3.5. Photos are taken by Lucciana Bolivar. Image credit: Lucciana Bolivar and lucie draai.

—Nele Did that influence your practice?

—lucie ‘Yes, it made me allow joy and accept making mistakes as part of the process of being an artist but also being a human. The other side of being adopted from Colombia to the Netherlands is that I am seen as super privileged. This simultaneous way of existing ­plays an important part in my practice. That is why I put on all the different colours in the performance; to express that I am containing all of them, along with all their complexities.’

—Nele You also had a quote on that in your thesis from Sylvia Wynter: “[…] every mode of being human, every form of life that has ever been enacted is part of us”[1]. Now that we are talking about it, I can really see that being enacted in your performances.

—lucie ‘I am also a huge fan of Denise Ferreira da Silva. She wrote an article on difference without separability and that text[2] really is fundamental for me! How do we even perceive difference? Ferreira Da Silva writes that it is the process of “othering” that creates distance, and that this is where the problem arises. Othering causes devaluation and disqualification, and everything else comes out of that. For me, both as an artist and as a person, it is really important to try not to other and not to value, which obviously is impossible. Of course I mess up, all the time, but I am trying!’

—Nele I have the feeling that this way of being can be connected to your artistic process. First, you improvise and just go for it. Reflection enters at a later stage, deepening your process. Would you agree?

—lucie ‘Yes, I really am jumping head first into things, trusting that if my actions are motivated by love and urgency, the work will come together eventually. I mean, nothing develops in clear straight lines, just take a look at my art career –which I do not even consider a career yet. Everything moves in weird movements, trying to find its own way. This is how I perceive any kind of relationship and definitely also my artistic process. This is life! It is not a profession, it is just the way it is and I cannot do it differently. So now, after the DAI, the only responsibility I have is to engage with it intentionally, like I do in my performances; really being there, making contact and honestly sharing my story with the audience.’

Still from the videodocumentation of the performance to (dis)appear ~ the performance of everyday life as part of the group show The Brain Mixologist at A Tale of A Tub, Rotterdam, 21.08.2021 - 31.10.2021. Image credit: Areumnari Ee.

draai’s performance to (dis)appear ~ the performance of everyday life at A Tale of a Tub in Rotterdam had her friendship with Ketan and its needs as a guide to how to move together with the audience through the space. As the 10 minute performance went on it was explored how the figure of the human adoptee of colour reclaims their imagination and welcomes the viewer in their world with them.

—Nele In what ways do you engage with your audience?

—lucie ‘During the presentation of another work of mine to (dis)appear ~ the performance of everyday life I was guiding people through the space with my voice, inviting them to follow me. The movement became a way of narrating, both for me and for the audience. This way of moving together with the audience was crucial for my practice then and still is now; I am still very interested in how I can move together with the audience. In Daily Practice, however I want to tell a different story during which I interact with the audience in subtle ways. This story is based on my personal displacement as an adoptee of colour in relation to my experience with Ketan. I am still thinking about the direction I’d like to take with my next projects and audiences. In any case, I think my works will always include a search for ways to interact.’

—Nele Sometimes this interaction is indeed very minimal. At Daily Practice, it consists solely of direct eye contact.

—lucie ‘What I am doing at Daily Practice is indeed very minimal, but very crucial. The eating-ritual at DAI was very clearly an open invitation. That way of inviting is something that I think I will always want to continue to explore; I need it for the work to become present! I noticed that physically enacting my own narratives makes them easier to remember. This performative act has a meaning. Only afterwards can I attach words to it, again as with the Ketan process. Now that I am combining movement, gestures and language, as reciting text passages I have written, in my performances, I can imagine that the element of language will become less and less important. It might become more and more about moving together with the audience, about presenting open invitations. Because my interest lies in that question of how bodies move and interact.’

8 Color polaroid photos of the performance from yellow to brown (un)measured against a white background on August 8, 2022 at Daily Practice (Rotterdam, NL). Polaroids taken by Fabiënne van den Ierssel. Image credit: jhoeko.

—Nele With performance being such a crucial element in your work, I wonder how you deal with the fact that not everyone can see the performance?

—lucie ‘I am working on that. During the opening performance at Daily Practice, polaroids were made. To me, this is a direct way of accessing an event at which you were not present. One thing I also find important is that after I wore the textiles during the performance, they have gotten a different shape. That is an important detail, also for every new project. I want to think that through more: How can I fill the space with the ephemeral energy of the passed event? It is exciting to me to see how that energy holds the space together; how the light falls into the space, how the day unfolds, and so on. It is such a sensorial thing.’

—Nele Is this why you changed the opening times of Daily Practice to 10:00–14:00 for your exhibition?

—lucie ‘Yes, exactly, because to me it does not make sense that there is this beautiful space with this beautiful sun and nobody sees it. And for this particular show it is quite relevant, because there is also a photograph of me with a beam of sun entering my new studio. When the sun shines on the textile works it reveals things; it reveals how full of emptiness they are. As I was hinting at during the performance: “What stays hidden and what gets exposed in the light.”’

lucie draai's exhibition (icw Ellen Mary Rooijakkers and Lucciana Bolivar) from yellow to brown (un)measured against a white background is on view at Daily Practice in Rotterdam until the 9th of October, 2022.

 

[1] The Re-Enchantment of Humanism: An interview with Sylvia Wynter, 2000 by Scott David, published in Small Axe no. 8, p. 197

[2] On Difference without Separability, 2016 by Denise Ferreira da Silva, buplished in Incerta viva., pp. 56-65, the catalogue of the 32nd São Paulo Art Biennial

Nele Brökelmann
is a visual artist

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 5 — 2022