Beverly Naidus exhibition ‘We Almost Didn’t Make it‘ explores ways to negotiate the barrage of daily assaults on our psyches by imagining the lives of our descendants and what we might do to improve their lives.
Host: Nick Wurr, ONCA Volunteer
Guest: Beverly Naidus
Nick: Today, I am talking to Beverly Naidus whose exhibition ‘We Almost Didn’t Make it’ is currently on display at ONCA gallery. Before we talk about the actual exhibition, I wanted to just get a little bit of a background about you, and your artistic endeavours and your activism. Maybe you could just give a little bit of a background.
Beverly: Sure. I grew up in New England and in New Jersey. My parents were from New York City, my father was an activist and both of my parents were, you know, very concerned about anti-war stuff. So, learning to think critically about the world was something just normal, it was dinner table.
Nick: So, sort of embedded from an early age.
Beverly: Yeah… and I you know, I was encouraged, anything was free in the Arts, was something our family did, weather was going to performances or museums, and back then museums were mostly free. So, early on, I learned to appreciate art as a way of expressing things, and I started particularly… maybe it was in this earliest elementary school, great school, when I was taking lessons and just… by the time I was a teenager, it was really therapeutic for me, I was writing poetry, I was performing in place, I was dancing, I was singing, any form of art was fine. You know, drawing my pain, painting my dreams, all of it was very much part of the way that I grew up.
Nick: So, that was… was that part of the kind of cultural background at the time, will you say that was coming, start to come through?
Beverly: No, I think it was because my parents were New Yorkers, and they were children of immigrants and they felt that those things needed to be… those privileges which were typically upper-class privileges, they were claiming space for themselves within that. It was kind of unique to them and in our town, there weren’t many people like them, they found their cohort but they weren’t that many. It was a very conservative town and my mother taught me to take the bus into New York City when I was eleven so that I could…
Nick: Fair amount of independence?
Beverly: I had a lot of independence! And kids will see me on the bus and they were on their way to the mall. And they said: are not you getting off? And I said: No, I am going to the city, and they were like: your parents let you do that!? And this was by the time I was sixteen, and their parent will not let them go into the evil city, but the city became also a place where I could feel safe because I was a darker skin person growing up in a very pale town, and in the city I was just part of a spectrum of colour. So, I never felt like I was different, I appreciated that and it was also the late sixties when this was happening, so I will go to the Art Students League in New York City and study how to draw the figure and then I would go and get you know falafel at the falafel stand down in the West Village and sit in Washington square park, listening to speeches and folks signing and just watch the colours of the crowd around me, and that was part of my education.
Nick: So was that when you started to think that you wanted to become, so both an activist and an artist?
Beverly: No, that did not happen until later. Even though, I was an activist in high school, my activism was mostly anti-war activism and dress code. So I got all the girls to wear slacks and jeans on the same day and the vice-principal wanted to suspend us but we were all the good students so instead the changed the dress code. So, that was the first successful activism I had, and I was also writing a lot of poetry that had some political content but I never imagine myself to be a poet. It was not until I was in college, and I connected with other women artists so were pissed off that we were not learning about women artists. We did not have any female teachers.
Nick: So, kind of patriarchal art world and teaching and pedagogy?
Beverly: Yes, all that made me kind of ill so we organized ourselves, and we did a sit-down strike in that chair’s office so we want women artists visiting artists in the lectures coming to work with us. We want space in the gallery, we want things to change… and they gave us a budget. Again, we were successful! So, I had two positive successful experiences.
Nick: So, these were quite small-scale pieces of activism that had an impact. Do you think that’s shaped your activism in future years?
Beverly: Yes, I think so, always really trusted grassroots small-scale stuff when you really know who your cohorts are, you have a clear mission, a clear intention. When I went to graduate school I started making work that dealt with women issues and my first installation was about… basically what’s propriety in relation to growing female and it was kind of sticking my tongue out of those notions of propriety.
Nick: So, when will these have been?
Beverly: It was the mid- 70’s, 76 to 78 and then my second installation was about nuclear nightmares because I was having dreams that were based on the air raid drills we had when I was in grade school and they have terrified me. You know, we were told that one siren meant we had enough time to run home and the other meant that the missiles already been launched and we had to stay at school. So, I created an audio installation about those nightmares and what was extraordinary to me was that people came after seeing the piece up to me to tell me their own story.
Nick: I do, I really remember about that time because that sort of idea that nuclear war was imminent.
Beverly: That’s right!
Nick: A lot of kind of writing at that time was about television programs were about some kind of catastrophe. But at the same time, this is more in relation to your first installation, you had the whole kind of punk movement which is breaking apart all of those ideas and challenging everything and everything is up for grabs and maybe that is… maybe there is something quite important about that. How? Let’s move forward to quite a few decades to 2018 and the current exhibition here at ONCA. How did that take shape… and maybe you can say something about what you feel you are trying to achieve with it as sort of installation?
Beverly: One of the things I have noticed, among my students, was this sense that we did not have much time left as a species. One of the things I have noticed was this short-term thinking, and it was not just among my students, but I will run into it in daily life, you know, we are not going to live dystopic mind-set and the sense that we’re… we may be the last generation or that our children’s generation may be the last generation, it so pervasive, and I was like… that is not necessarily true! And it’s the way… the fear has kind of corrupted or aroused our sense of everything, and I have been reading a lot of speculative fiction for the past few decades so I had seen other options that were available if people believed in their future, if people believed in their ability to organise with each other and those options have been there and there has been threats since the 30s, you know, that social change is possible and in the 60s those people have… are getting very old now, but they initiated all kind of alternative projects that still exist.
Nick: Well, I think what is interesting is that the exhibition is called “We Almost Didn’t Make It”, so there is… sort of… it is not that apocalyptic dystopia but no that sense of everything is going to be alright, positivist, polyamorish future, so there is this idea of a danger, a threat something about not quite making it, or just about making it, which I think, it keeps still gritty if you like, and I think maybe you would like to talk a little bit more about this idea of you think people might be able to become more active and shape their own futures.
Beverly: Right. So the notion that we have to accept that this moment is uncertain is something that I think helps, some people who are cynical to step into this and recognize you can feel the despair, you can feel the grief, but it can also function as fuel for activism, and there is so many different ways that we can manifest that fuel. So, some people, for some people is very simple, they are teaching their kids how to be ethical people, or they are growing food in their backyard and sharing it with their neighbours. Other people really see the project as educational, that we need to provide resources for communities that don’t have those resources in terms of thinking differently about how to be a human being, so it might be, you know, our focus has been in our culture, in capitalism on how to make money. But another way to think about it is how to share our abundance with each other, and what does that look like and how do we resolve conflict, because conflict is part of what life is about and what does that look like? how do we do that in… peaceful way instead of? you know, raising fists and shedding blood?
So, being able to educate people about those possibilities and also to do a lot of healing around the wounds most of us have… growing up in a very alienated society, those kinds of projects need to be wide-spread. So, this project is hopefully making people imagine that they have a contribution to make. They have to create an object that, I called it an ArtiFact that might be discovered by future generations that represents something precious to them, that may not exist in 150 years. So, it may be a food that they like, avocados, or might be an animal that they really appreciate or might be a sensation.
Nick: It’s funny actually if you are going to back the 70s there was a children programmes that used to bury things in gardens or I think there were a couple of space missions where, you know, there were those sort of pods and things from earth, and there was something very optimistic about that, and it seems that we slightly slip back into a mind-set that… of misery maybe or that things can’t change. I am struck by the entrance to the current exhibition when you come through there are some sort of blinds… these plastic blinds which suggest something that is in keeping with that dystopian sense of things but then when you come in there are these welcome mats that there are arranged in a circle so there’s something very… primal maybe about that, prime evil and there is a sense of these artifacts being produced. So, you go through something, there are stages to that. I wonder if that was something that you thought of consciously.
Beverly: Oh, very much so! I wanted people to be swimming through the plastic because it creates a kind of…it is almost claustrophobic for some people to see all of these traumas, and you know, kind of brutal assault on our daily lives. You know, more people being murdered, more plastic in the ocean, iceberg melting… all of these are things really intense, and to be able to go through that somehow, the trauma curtains, and arrive at this place where there is a portal of possibilities, and then to decide do I have time to engage with that? And… Am I curious about what it feels like to be an ancestor? Someone asks me today, he said what does it mean to be an ancestor? I said it means to think in deep time. Deep time is a concept that Joana Macy talks about, in her work, the work that reconnects, is trying to think like the indigenous do, that it might be seven generations that we need to be acting responsibly for that child that’s born.
Nick: That sense of… History is something that is in the past, I mean, first of all, history has a single singular narrative but also that history is in the past that somehow we are outside of history and not part of history, that we cannot shape history that is all about looking back. I mean I think that is really interesting about coming in here and thinking about and creating an artifact for the future, to think about that, I think that that is a very changing thing. In relation to your current installation, where are you going next with that?
Beverly: Well, I have a number of projects I am working on right now. One of them is about re-imagining the Port of Tacoma where I live, which is Superfund, multi-Superfund site, it is very contaminated, and since I have studied permaculture design I have done an eco-art project that incorporate that, the idea of remedying something that it is really damage is quite important to me, and it is something that I think people do in relation to themselves, because we are getting toxified every day, so there are people who are on fast to heal themselves, or because they grew up in dysfunctional families, they have to do therapy in order to heal those wounds. So, we need to be doing that with the environment, and help people imagine that something can be healed instead of just throwing more fossil fuel, crap and poison into the same spot, thinking well…it is already damaged or we might well be, just keep damaging at.
Nick: I think there is sort of idea that big business and corporations and the market created these problems, and obviously, the kind of the neo-liberal thinking is that they will be able to deal with it, that the market will solve it all out. Clearly, that is not happening. So, there is another alternative. So, just finally, you got some more installations in the pipe line. Maybe you would like just to explain some of the things you will be doing next and maybe you whether might be bringing it to ONCA.
Beverly: Ha ha. Well, the work I am doing around the port is called ‘Extreme Makeover’, the creative remediation of the Superfund site. It is not an installation per se, is a series of workshops. And so, part of the reason I am doing that is because there is no funding in the States for installations anymore, and so makes sense for me to do workshop people will pay for. So, I can sit down with the group and the community whether is intergenerational or a particular church group, or whomever, and say to me we are going to do a collage to reimagine what the port could be, what will it look like if become organic farms or if we have green energy and no more fossil fuels…? So, that is one project.
Another, it is one that I am doing artist books again. My husband has written poems every year to me, he is turning 70, and so I am creating images for all his poems, and I am doing an artist book called ‘Poems of love and Resistance’ to honour his work. He is also an activist and a lot of his poetry deals with activist issues, and so that will be done at this fall.
And after that, I am not sure what will happen, you know, there is so many different opportunities, you know, I am working with students on eco-art projects, working on projects dealing with race, working on projects dealing with student debt and work problems that they have and what it means to be in a gig-economy. So, a lot of what will happen starting this fall, it is going to be facilitating those kinds of projects.
Nick: So, still a lot of material out there for you to work on.
Beverly: There is never a shortage.
Nick: Thank you very much Beverly for that and it is great to have you here, the exhibition is wonderful, and hopefully we will see you again here before too long.
Beverly: I’d love it, thank you so much Nick.