Free Your Mind. Death Will Come

For the Web Residency on »Post-Doom,« Uma Breakdown presented the project The Endless Hallucinatory Love of the Riders at The Long Point of Death. Here, Uma Breakdown speaks to curator Johanna Hedva about the project, favorite books, TV series and metal music, horror, and making art.

Uma Breakdown in conversation with Johanna Hedva — Jun 10, 2021

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Free Your Mind. Death Will Come

Detail from The Endless Hallucinatory Love of the Riders at The Long Point of Death by Uma Breakdown, 2021.

»It might be that post-doom for me is the feedback at the beginning of Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow.«

Johanna Hedva: Hi Uma! I’m so glad we get to do this conversation, I just adore your mind. Before we get to your project for this web residency, can you tell me what you’ve been devoted to, or obsessed with, or fed by, in these past few months? I’m curious about the general universe you’ve been living in of late.

Uma Breakdown: Hi Johanna! I’m super happy about this, about the residency, what it’s about, being accepted, and getting to work alongside such amazing people! I’m going to try and split my answers to this and the next question carefully, but there is a big overlap between what feeds and obsesses me (very specifically accurate phrasing for the way I work with things I think) on the medium- and long-term, and how I work day to day. So the list of the big things that have been producing all kinds of desire in me would definitely include Leila Taylor’s article from Horror Studies Journal in 2019, with the gloriously innuendo-ed title, »The amorous annihilation of will: An examination of Georges Bataille’s Death & Sensuality through Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal

Omg I LIVE for Leila Taylor! This sounds amazing!

This is a paper that I heard about before it was published, and was just full-on beaming at my computer screen thinking about how perfect this was going to be. In the midst of my Ph.D., it slipped off the pile of things I could allocate energy to reading, and there it waited, out of sight. Then last week it came back into my mind, with the perfect timing of animal back-brain processes, and it’s just the radiating stone that is pulling all these other things out of the muck of my studio and making them hover and spark.

A longer-term planet orbiting around me is Hélène Cixous’s book, Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, particularly its first chapter, »The School of The Dead.« I’ve sat with this text for more than a year now, a text that loops around the relationships between writing and dying. It isn’t really a didactic book, it’s really gentle and funny and joyful, and it’s clear that for Cixous the learning in school isn’t that of the teacher instructing the student, but a series of situations that we put ourselves in, so we can learn. We learn from the journey to school, the threats, the architecture, the mythology, and so on. I have a kind of mirror text to this, which is a translation of Jean Genet’s radio address »The Criminal Child,« and an accompanying essay by the anonymous anarchist collective that translated and published it a few years back.

All of this sounds so fascinating. What I always enjoy about our conversations is that I come away with a long list of things to read and watch. I think of your practice as a kind of whirligig of elements, references, questions, and provocations that range widely: pop culture, horror, TV, video games, theory, criticism, philosophy. You somehow manage to make all of these seemingly disparate sources enmesh with each other in really vibrant and generative ways. I’m curious about what your daily practice looks like: is it daily? What do you practice? What do the muses look like for you? What libations do you keep close while making stuff? Or do you fast? Do you listen to music while you work? Do you dance often?

There’s a lot of other stuff that has been making me happy and excited to do things and keep that serotonin level up to a point where I can risk it with making art. This includes the TV series The Kingdom by Kim Eun-hee, Octavia Butler’s vampire novel, The Fledgling, the video game Dark Souls, and the Ohio anarchist radio show Street Fight Radio.

»Yes! Laughter and dancing feel like things not separate from doom and horror.«

While working on a project it’s a usual tactic of mine to establish a soundtrack. For this residency, I made up a playlist of my favorite doom metal and doom-adjacent music. From recent things from Thou and The Body, back to bands like Acid Bath, Charger, Swans, and Electric Wizard that I would have filled my minidisk player with at college.

Oh wow, I want this soundtrack. I’m wearing my The Body sweatshirt right now as I type.

UB: I actually had a revelatory moment about this last week. This music is not material that meshes with either my process of making art, or with the jumbled worlds I make art about. I don’t know whether it’s about how cathartic that stuff is, or whether it’s just depressive, but it wasn’t letting anything move. I started listening solely to George Clinton and Funkadelic instead, and everything snapped into place.

It might be that post-doom for me is the feedback at the beginning of Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow. It might just be the way all my creative practice is dictated by my erratic energy levels. I think that the latter is probably more likely. My chemical/cognitive/affective strangeness is really volatile. I’m aware of how ridiculous it might sound, but the real core work of my practice as an artist, writer, researcher, or whatever is an economy of joy and happiness. In my experience, putting anything down, like a line on drawing, or the opening of a story, involves an investment of joy. If I don’t have enough in the tank, then the cost of doubt and uncertainty will just bring it down to empty. So a lot of day-to-day is managing those slippery ghosts of things in the world that I find exciting, and the brain-gut-body-world resources of joy needed to pursue them.

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Free Your Mind. Death Will Come

»You move away from the campfire into the darkness, aware that there isn’t much time.« Detail from The Endless Hallucinatory Love of the Riders at The Long Point of Death by Uma Breakdown, 2021.

I love that and I think I relate. Although of course I love doom and metal and hardcore music maybe more than anything else, and my primary constitutional condition would tend toward the dark and dank, I regularly have to dance, like very regularly, and I’m laughing all the time. My teachers used to get mad at me in class because I was out of control laughing. In an interview I did recently, the interviewer commented that I laugh way more than he would have expected, and that struck me. I think that the reason I have such a capacity, maybe even a super stamina and resilience, for the most dark and difficult parts of life is precisely because I can laugh and dance about it all. I really do think that laughter is the best way to cope with doom.

Yes! Laughter and dancing feel like things not separate from doom and horror. »10,000 Years« by High on Fire is one of the most euphoric pieces of music I can think of, and everything about it is bodily in its laughter. This is probably the kind of metal I like the most, the camp bodily-beyond of »Don’t Burn The Witch,« »Dragonaut,« »Holy Diver,« and anything by the eternal eight-year-old of rock, Glenn Danzig.

Oooh, bitch, yes, camp is my other primary coping mechanism. Like, when it hurts, camp it the fuck up! Maybe that’s another note your work hits that always chimes with me. There’s a sense of play and joy interwoven through the sad and heavy.

Listening to my brain chemistry and current lack of energy, the right kind of affective state for me to deal with this doomed cowboy story artwork is the joyful-sad cowboy song »Biological Speculation« from Funkadelic’s America Eats its Young, rather than say the howling-sad cowboy song of Dead Moon’s »Dagger Moon.«

My day-to-day practice is about efficiently using my joy. I can’t work when I’m sad. I enjoy being sad, I like a lot of things that make me really sad, but I can’t work in that condition. The machine of myself mostly produces garbage when it’s sad, and worse, it doesn’t have the resources to perceive whether what it was produced is garbage or not. So even when I write something that is about annihilating doom, it has to be from a position of joy.

I think this is probably why I work with that whirligig of bits and pieces: there’s secret potential resources of euphoria in a bunch of things and their interrelationships at a given time.

Mmm, that’s deep. It reminds me of how almost every time I read my tarot, I pull a card for the position of what would be »my special, secret skill,« like a resource that will help me in the situation—and I always get the quote-unquote worst cards there: Death, The Tower. Like, these are actually skills that I can cultivate in myself.

For whatever reason, this makes me think of how much of your practice involves drawing, and specifically diagrams. Can you talk about that?

My working practice is diagrammatic, quite literally. I produce diagrams as not so much planning, but as a kind of unstable creature to collaborate with. For various reasons, my medium-term memory and working memory are both shot, so I write everything down or draw something to mark it in space as best I can if it’s resistant to translation to language. I collect these things together; a bit of a film, an affective register of a piece of music, an event, a word because I’m excited by them, filled with joy by them, and feel there is something about their relationship to each other that could go somewhere. I don’t question why, I put them down in the diagram. The act of drawing the diagram pulls in or creates new elements – i.e., there was only room on the page to note that piece down in that top right corner there, which puts it next to this other thing that I hadn’t considered it in relation to. So this constellation of joy and desire gets built and edited, and that’s basically my collaborator for the given project I’m working on. The diagram’s power is that it’s unstable. It isn’t a hard mnemonic trigger, or a clean translation. It’s volatile and active, it’s different every time you look at it, but it retains some kind of coherence as a mob. It’s a thing to be divined from, which is why I wanted to talk about it specifically with you, because I know this is something you have a strong relationship to as well.

Yeah, I like to think of my practice in terms of divination, because I like to think of any kind of language as divination. And it’s the instability and failure of language that is most exciting to me about this proposal. Like, the propensity for incoherence is, to me, the part that gets us into the mystical.

Do you want to introduce us to the project you made for this web residency?

Okay, so like with the diagrams and tactics of joy, I have a system, or habit, or superstition around discussing artworks. I can’t describe things I’m working on or have just completed. I have to have a »one work buffer« – there needs to be a full completed artwork between what I’m working on right now, and the most recent artwork I can talk about. The reason is things that are too recent and too vulnerable can fall apart if I mess with them before they get a bit alienated from me (I need that aforementioned poor-resolution memory of mine to completely lose grip so I can look at this properly and say, hey, that’s what it is). I’ll scrub all that joy out of anything still being worked on right now.

What I can say is, what I proposed for this residency as the end result (a story, that was rearticulated as a diagram, that was then rearticulated as a story, on and on) clicked when I understood it instead as a process. What I’m producing is a video game of text, speech audio, and images, that loops and branches and repeats. It is concerned with orbits of moons, and hiding from the sun, Sedgwick’s Gothic image of men engaged in homophobic pursuit rearticulated as healing, reparative, generous love. Hannibal and Will’s mutual euphoric care.

So cool. One of the things that I wanted to foreground in this web residency is accessibility, making sure that online works are accessible, and I’m curious to know more about how you approached that. It’s the complexities and questions that accessibility brings up that I think both you and I are both invested in and pleasantly surprised and confused by. For instance, I’m very interested in this conundrum of discussing or describing artworks, and so much of accessibility on the web—like alt-text and open captioning, for example—proposes to be descriptive. Like, “here is a description of the thing.” Like, alt-text describes in words what is happening in an image, but as anyone who’s ever written alt-text knows, you immediately run into a huge mess of questions about how linguistic description totally fails the visual, but also adds all these other points of entry and layers of meaning to it, and this begs the question of the relationship between not only the linguistic and the visual, but of the description and interpretation. And of course, there are all these indications that reveal the position of the writer of the alt-text – are they foregrounding certain elements of the image over others, and if so, why? As a writer, I find all of these complexities to be generative and inspiring; they produce new frames of meaning and interpretation for me in ways that make art start to shimmer, but I think that’s because language for me is always shape-shifting and promiscuous and slippery.

Can you speak to this a little bit? How did questions of accessibility form your project? Did you arrive at any conclusions that could be helpful, even if they are tentative?

I like accounts of art that are themselves art. Writing about a thing not as an attempt to capture it, but seeing art as a provocation to create a new provocation. Something I’ve thought about a lot this last year is how to build accessibility through that approach. So alt-text is a really clear concrete example: I make an image, and that needs a text, but I’m trying to make the text do what the image was trying to do, while being aware that image and text aren’t the same. The alt-text is likely to have something to ground it to the image, perhaps make some reference to its content or colors, but it isn’t primarily a description, it’s a parallel process.

What has been really useful about this process is connecting it to a general approach of doing the same thing again and again from different angles. A habit I picked up a while ago is sometimes when I get in a bind writing something, I try instead to write about the attempt of writing, either as it was (hard, impossible, painful) or some other way (perfect, impossible, bizarre). A frustrating story where I’ve totally lost control of the emotions I’m wrangling with gets reduced to key points, in a much faster punchier form that often becomes an element in something new (the emotion is kept and the object is changed, or the object is kept and the creator speaking is changed). Doing the same thing again but alienating it enough that it can be seen properly.

I do the same thing with non-text artwork, the process of making and exhibiting an installation turns out to be the diagram for something later. Something to be divined from, perhaps repeatedly.

Writing is slippery, so a response to that (a stress-reducing response?) is to be adaptable. We can treat reading, writing, meaning, affect, brain-bits, body-bits, as fragile and finicky collaborators, unknowable but loved. The play of collaboration continuing happily is far more important and delicate than any one partner getting control. (I feel this keenly right now, I have erased and rewritten this reply to you so many times this last week, trying to keep the frame of play alive.)

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Free Your Mind. Death Will Come

Detail from The Endless Hallucinatory Love of the Riders at The Long Point of Death by Uma Breakdown, 2021.

Accounting for the thing in text can become a creative process. Writing the account of an artwork that isn’t present doesn’t have to be tied to that artwork, there doesn’t need to be any loyalty there. The text can be a new thing, something better. I think we can’t help but do that anyway; like you said about foregrounding, we always recompose, so why not use this amazing opportunity? The alt-text could focus entirely on the affective state that the image was concerned with, making the reader the subject and describing their emotions. Equally, the voice of the alt-text doesn’t need to aim at invisibility, perhaps the most effective way to deliver the content is through an unreliable narrator.

I thought about this when we recently did the reading group on Minerva the Miscarriage of the Brain. Your wonderful book is full of text accounts of past artworks. I know you wrote that book over a fairly long period of time, but I don’t feel like these text accounts are attempting to replace those long-gone performances. They read like artworks that are made of words and pictures that are re-approaching some ideas that were previously approached through the medium of some friends in the desert. This is obviously my reading of the book! But the slipperiness is what immediately got me excited about it. Words do something different from things that aren’t words.

That’s exactly what was most exciting to me about the works in Minerva! I think that book is a document of how, for a decade, I was totally mesmerized by the paradox of performance, that a performance is never just this one point in time and space, but that it continues to live and shape-shift: it exists in each audience member who saw it, it exists in the gossip and stories they tell about it, it comes to exist for people who weren’t there at that original moment but who are reading or hearing about it later, and this just keeps going and going, so that, exactly as you say, the accounts of it, the art, the performance, are themselves art and performance.

So this idea of accessibility not as translation but as trying again and accepting difference basically became the core of my artwork for this residency. I tried to produce the artwork in the most lightweight manner possible, entirely in HTML so it will (I really hope) function with whatever mechanisms are used to operate a web browser. Within this lightweight framework, a story plays out over and over, the same story each time, but with slippage between how it is told. There is slippage between iterations, and between image and text, and while that unreliability means the story isn’t fixed or certain, it’s the same story whether you only look at the images, or exclusively use a browser text to speech plug-in, play only one iteration of the story, or twenty of its variations.  

I can’t wait to see it.


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