Sow Queer: A Conversation Between HATLO and Fox Whitney

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On the evening of September 12 Town Hall will open up for a public showcase of works-in-progress by queer performance makers, facilitated by HATLO, Town Hall’s Artist-in-Residence. HATLO’s new project, Sow Queer, brings a diverse group of performance-makers to Town Hall for a 6-week process-focused, co-working community residency to develop new works and ideas with the option to participate in a public sharing. The September 12th public showcase will have a soft start time between 5 – 5:30 with the audience invited in to join artists in a co-working practice space, followed by a few hours of performance experiments that are improvisational, durational, iterative, and installed throughout the space. The evening will culminate with some of the artists sharing work on the Great Hall stage at 8pm. Tickets are FREE. Audiences are invited into a soft relationship to time and curiosity-focused awareness as they witness the growing seeds of projects that have been cultivated at Sow Queer. 
Recently, HATLO sat down with artist Fox Whitney to discuss the project, the creative process, and more. Their interview, unedited and in full, is below:
HATLO: For me the most succinct way of summarizing what Sow Queer is about is queer centered-process space in community, and I’m wondering if that feels important to you and if so, why you think it’s important. And maybe what is curious for you about this specific project.

Fox Whitney: I guess what was interesting to me about this project was I actually haven’t been thinking of that experiment. I’ve been really committed to creating terrain for my own process that could be a rich and rigorous space for artists to work with me in a way that feels queer-centered, in that it would be our priorities, our care, in a very functional way being centered. As opposed to like thinking people would need to be adapting and changing their kind of way they function in artistic process. Which is my experience, I think on the QT (queer, & trans) side of things. Like, ‘oh I have to leave that.’ That being a kind of respect for adaptability or like identity nuance. So when you were talking to me about this, I thought it was very exciting and risky. 

I don’t often consider myself collaborative, or find that I get opportunities to even experiment with the idea of what a queer, collaborative, non-product focused space could or would be. With the exception of my experience with queer punks in living situations, which I’ve been quite fond of, specifically the transparency around what it is we, or a person who has a desire to, is trying to build. There’s a trust that can be assumed to engage in a deeper way pretty quickly – which is a thing I’m very much a fan of about queer culture. And so I’m excited to talk with you because it’s a few weeks in, and I’m not thinking all sunshine and roses, not that there’s not that, but that part of this experiment for me in the facilitation and wanting to collaborate with you, is wondering what’s possible or what happens when you open up that space? And in such a charged site that’s meant to be for the community, which is not anything I’ve ever dealt with beyond a kind of classroom space. 

H: Yeah. A whole community-focused building take over is an interesting proposition. That is a way so far where Sow Queer is aligning with my intention, especially on Sundays, because I feel a fair amount of ownership of the building by this group of artists. And I like wandering around and stumbling across people that are using the building in different ways, and in ways that are not maybe immediately clear to me and that’s exactly right. That it’s not about legibility or about anything product related, it’s not about anything that’s policing, ‘this is acceptable, this is unacceptable.’ That’s it’s just about people being and having freedom in the space for their process or anti-process, whatever that looks like on a given day. I think the community aspect of it is a curious thing that I am continually navigating. Trying to figure out how to set-up a container…I think I have a desire to make it really attractive, and I keep getting distracted by this idea of high attendance or retention across the 6 weeks, even though neither is actually part of my intention or how I’m interested in measuring success. But in the moment I’ll find myself thinking, ‘oh, how is it the best place anyone’s ever been and the right fit for everyone?’ Which is impossible and not very interesting to me really. 

What I actually want and intended, particularly from the outside, like if I wasn’t the leader, is to have somewhere that folks can go if that’s what feels right for them and for their process. This space is here and available to them, and there will always be other folks to share space with who are also endeavoring in this way. And Sow Queer has been able to function like that so far, which is anti-capitalist expression that feels new for me. Like when you talk about queer punks spaces or queer shared housing and things like that, I think, yes! This is like that, of course it is manifesting that way, even though it wasn’t set-up with that intention exactly. Perhaps that points to a larger need, or a root of my intention. So it’s more like, ‘oh this is an option.’ And some folks are using it a lot, cause that’s what they need. And some folks think they’re gonna use it a lot and then aren’t able to make it out here. And some folks are coming through maybe only once or twice. And this is here for all of that. Because we need spaces that can support all of that. 

FW: A challenge for you that I find interesting, as you were in the dreaming stages of this, you also had to contain this residency to 6 weeks, which is not a lot of time. I feel like that can generate almost just a microcosm of a plan. I wonder, if I was the person who could give this residency or this building for this kind of project, I’d almost just want to give you something like 2 years. Because this feels like maybe something that is only in a prototype stage. And I’ve had questions related to your own practice as an artist: do these ideas and themes and relationships and things live in a more creative zone for you, as opposed to the like leadership structural administrator zone? Because I didn’t really ask you when we were first starting. I just kind of made this assumption I guess because you were like, oh I have this residency opportunity. Because I am interested in the relational aesthetics tangent of contemporary art, so for me it’s super exciting even though I don’t do that as an author or maker, like I really like being an artist and performer as a part of those kinds of ideas. I don’t know because I haven’t yet had a chance to talk much to the other artists, but I think it’s very curious to have an array of perceptions happening and that they can co-exist. That’s inspiring to me in a creative way to have that coexistence and layering happening. 

H: I do think that is happening. I think the thing I have been struck by the most about how this process has rolled out, because once you unmoor the ship and let it free – it’s journey is its own thing. I went to Cauleen Smith’s talk at the Frye yesterday about her show Give It or Leave It, which is a really interesting piece that looks at ‘successful’ experiments with Utopia in this country and she talked a lot about ideas of radical generosity. And there’s a way that this residency feels both generous and very selfish to me. It’s selfish in that it is a creation of something I really want and long for all the time, which is more of that coexisting in space, everyone each on their own terms and opportunities to connect across layers of that without requiring that we have bearing on each other even though necessarily there’s an understanding that there’s an impact just from sharing space. And that to me is rich for community and for me community is rich for my process and my understanding of myself. The way that the invitation has manifested for folks; some folks know exactly what they wanna do, for other folks this proposition is scary – that much unstructured possibility in a building feels overwhelming for them in their process. And I’ve encouraged folks to just come try and see, but also, if that’s their first impulse, that they don’t want to come through, I also trust that. It does feel kind of open-ended. And once you get here it’s very self directed. It’s about what’s interesting to you and your agency, where you are and what you want to do. And for me that’s something I’m trying to pay attention to all the time. And here I’m often like, well I could send a bunch of emails, and I could check in with everybody and see how they’re doing, and I like helming the organization of the space as part of my process, so both of those things need to happen. But also, what am I doing? where am I tending to my own artistic process inside of this? And how am I carving out that time? What am I prioritizing? And I’ve been able to find some pockets to do my work. 

In the larger sense in terms of process I’ve been thinking a lot about what comes next in my what mountains end series, or I’m beginning to work out what comes next, and a few of the research layers look at the ecological factors that support an environment rebounding after natural disasters. You said 6 weeks is just enough time to build a prototype, but that feels right for where I’m at. Like, this is a good space to begin to ask my questions about queer survival strategies in community – and specific to Sow Queer how to create an artistically sustaining culture for folks that I see as needing more resources and opportunity. 

FW: Part of why I was excited to contribute more on the facilitation end when you were first talking about it with me is because it really reminded me of the most invaluable thing I got at graduate school in a studio program, maybe that’s why I think maybe 2 – 3 years for something like this. I think it’s specifically why I hold onto a lot of the tenets of a visual art studio practice, because when I talk with other artists with more of a background in writing or other very structured performance training, there’s none of that being pushed off the cliff. It was really different for everybody, but that first time you’re confronted with the space and the site and nobody telling you what it is you’re gonna fill it with is actually such an intense learning experience. When I first encountered it I realized, ‘you know what, a lot of this is queer community building’. But also my experience was very product-driven in Chicago – the idea that I’d go into this program and be a very product-driven artist. Where I was like, what I like about this I didn’t have to pay for at all. Just this idea that you are the captain of your own destiny as an artist and that’s actually not as intuitive as people think. I’ve had a lot of help and encouragement or problems or failures due to that kind of thinking of filling the blank space. Which has been more culturally encouraged, especially in conceptual or abstract zones, of being crazy or risky, or just assuming you’re gonna fuck it up, and that’s maybe what people are wanting to see. Which is a tension for me in that site of academia, but in this site it’s really different. Where its blurry for me in a way, which was my first panic. I was like, ‘oh it blurry, Fox, I don’t know? Is it a mentorship? Or is it like you’re an artist?’ When obviously if I’m asking myself these things or you’re saying these things, it’s because it’s a complex interrelationship of those things. And not just for us, but for everybody, wherever they’re coming from. Which I think is a super queer lens. As opposed to this very ivory tower, institutional idea that somewhere above me there are people knowing better how to do it. And that there’s some kind of hazing process. Which I don’t think is necessary. I feel that actually really kills the spark of the kind of art I love. Or that has no basis in the kind of training that creates the kind of art I love. 

I had another question for you. In your thinking, how does the idea of sharing live within the idea of wanting to make an artistic culture? Or, and I totally understand this, too, is it just about ‘I have this residency and I have this requirement for sharing? So I want it to feel as good for us as I can?’ 

H: For the sharing on the 12th? Y’know one of the phrases that I employed in the communication around this residency is “lifelines over deadlines.” 

FW: Which I love. 

H: Yeah, TM! I googled it and it didn’t come up really, though I’m sure I’m not the first person whose said it. Anyway, I was thinking about that and as I’ve had all these coffee conversations with artists about Sow Queer over the last month, one of the things that has come up a lot is that for many folks it’s helpful to have a deadline in their process. And the sharing is like a deadline and that’s helpful because they don’t make work without a deadline. So gradually I’ve been thinking what is the way to recontextualize that sharing as a lifeline instead of a deadline? Because I work similarly – I use that language all the time. So I’m wondering what would change if the way I’m talking about what the sharing is, or an invitation for folks of how they might use that date and what they’re going to share as a lifeline? And I absolutely want folks to define what that means for themselves, but as I’ve been thinking about it for me, how can sharing where I’m at with an audience in this moment breathe into what I’m working on in a way that allows it to continue? To continue the metaphor of the sower for this whole residency, how can I treat that like sunlight for a seed? And also, something that was important to me in the sort of non-hierarchical space inside of the culture building is to allow everything to be elective or optional. So I feel like that becomes its own lifeline. Like if it’s stressful for you or not helpful to you to think about this as something where you have to share, then you don’t have to do that part. Another thing that was interesting to me, was if you’re working without the pressure of a deadline, or pressure for output, as we get closer to when this is finished, does sharing where are you now – and in maybe a different relationship than you’ve had to sharing – become more interesting to you? Or does it change the thing you’d want to share? I think that’s ultimately more interesting to me than the people who day one, when invited to the residency, knew exactly what they were going to share on the Great Hall mainstage. But, honestly, that’s also great. 

FW: Right, but that’s not as related to the process. 

H: Right. Totally. And that’s gonna be a swath of what we share and all the folks I invited are people who, at the end of the day, I feel like them being in this city and making their work in this city makes it more possible for me to continue to be and make my work here. So, however they want to share I am interested in supporting and making space for. But also, for me and my own process, I don’t know if I’m going to know what or if I’m going to share until probably two weeks from now. Which is fine. And there’s space for that built into this for artists to be in that space, too. 

FW: When you were first talking about this I related it to our experience working together on Melted Riot for the Gender Tender project, and that is not actually an action for community building, but it’s a way I’ve found as an artist who has a practice that is quite purposefully either extremely for an audience or extremely not for any audience. In some ways my thinking in my practice is about the experience of the performance from the side of the performance and therefore maybe doesn’t need an audience, or the audience is there even if it’s just me. But I wonder about this idea of being neutral, because I actually favor the output of these kinds of processes in the end because of an interest I have in concept. 

Because already, even though I haven’t participated much yet, what I find curious in talking to you, is this idea of this thing I say in class a lot, ‘what if we just notice what happens before we think we need to do something/’ And I do it, too, that’s why I say it all the time. But, what if I notice what happens before I think there’s something I need to do about it. So in this mix of people, and we’re talking about the artistic culture of Seattle, you have some people who have reacted to the part of the call that’s about an opportunity to share which to me highlights a need in our city. We have so many amazing artists here and they’re responding to the call, notice that. They may not want so much the process time. And also there’s some of us who do, who are prioritizing that. 

I guess to me it shows waves of the city, which I wonder about, how will it play out over the next few weeks because there’s a lot of people coming through and it’s not like 30 different things coming up. That’s what I find very curious, like a kind of tuning of the needs of an artistic culture which is part of what I love about being an artist. Where you realize you’re not this individual voice, you’re this kind of ray in a sphere of awesomeness that is relating to itself. Which to me is a totally beautiful poetic concept – before the content of work to notice where people show up, what they show up for, what they say – to trust people right in this way I work with which is like, ‘Oh, you said you could come but obviously things came up, obviously, so what’s that mean though? I’m an artist but I’m also this person, I’m also in a relationship, I also have children’ . . . that it’s like actually these things are happening all at the same time. 

My question, and maybe it’s a thinly veiled suggestion, for when you’re talking about these different states of sharing and using the site in the kind of way it’s speaking to you, right because it spoke to you in this way to have these three different kinds of ideas happening? But like is it because in this improvisational terrain, which it seems like is maybe not the focus right now, but what happens with artists who are drawn to that who may actually feel like, even for me, it feels really restrictive, Hatlo, that you’re just like, ‘durational things happen here.’ And I’m like, ‘but can’t I just wait until the day?’ Or I think there’s that navigation for folks, maybe for people in this space currently who are more in that terrain of, ‘wait, I just gotta feel it out, I may change my mind, is that ok? And whose it for?’ But what I love actually is that being the final state – representative of a kind of non-binary state or questioning state as a super valid definitive state. I think I have a desire for that in art-making and artistic terrain, and not in a way that I’m saying I think people don’t want it. It’s more like the structures and the sites and the timelines don’t make space for that kind of process. 

H: Right and inside of this sharing, whatever ends up happening on the 12th, I think part of it is I’m interested in performance spaces where my questions about, you know it’s so inculcated to be like this is good or this is bad and I just think as I get older I’m just like . . . how useless. Of course this still comes up and I’m like – valid! Sometimes it’s really important to be able gush non-critically, or to free up the mental space of writing something off. And also, I think what really excites me about work-in-process, work-in-progress, which this will be, even with people who knew since day one 100% exactly what they were going to be sharing on the mainstage – that even inside of that, for me it’s still works in progress. Nothing is being built to be shared at Town Hall, everything is being built as part of larger artistic processes however that extends out. Because on the other side of that certainty, for some people this invitation is them kickstarting the conception of a process, like Emily piece is going through notebooks from the 90s and going through video and photo documentation that she hasn’t looked at it in years. 

FW: That’s cool. 

H: Yeah, you know, and has no idea what she’ll share. And it’s like great, awesome! You know, it’s not about anybody being invited in to have a qualitative judgment about what’s happening. It’s just an opportunity to come in and witness. And to trust, based on language that I put together, that you support, that I glean and gather from this whole group, that this is important. To be witnessing. Just to be available. 

FW: It makes me wonder too about a frustration I had, right cause these ideas really speak to visual art, visual culture ideas. Like I hate museums and in a way this site feels like a museum, right? Where you want to be like, but we’re alive! Like when I hear you talk like that it inspires me, cause I’m like, well can’t the way we go in and look at archived experiences of passed and exterminated existences, isn’t there a way to like be . . y’know I don’t think audience so much, I don’t know, I think more like living museum goer. Which to me is super exciting and what I always desire in those spaces, instead of a mausoleum. Cause there’s a bunch of living people around me – I want to know what’s alive. 

H: Right! And an invitation for an audience to show up and be like, and I can’t control this communication going out exactly, although maybe this helps, but just the idea of coming in and being like, ‘Oh, my presence is more about functioning like sunlight than it is about being a consumer.’ Which is a relationship I’m always interested in shaping and changing and challenging for myself, who ‘consumes’ a ton of art of all the time and that’s a perception shift I want to make and to be thinking about more. That’ll be a long process, I doubt it’ll ever be like, ‘100% I am sunlight! I am stardust!’ 

FW: You never know! I’m an Aquarian. I’m optimistic. 

H – Right, it is possible! But it is something I’m paying attention to. And if I’m having a particularly rageful response to something I’m watching and it’s not good for me to stay in the room then I can remember my own agency to take a walk. I can take care of myself and I can decide this art isn’t for me right now. Or also if I’m loving something, that I have the capacity to notice that inside of myself without making it about me or making the performance for me, that I just turn my focus on it and understand collectively that maybe my witness is growing the work and that’s productive for the artist. Anyway, that’s the way I’m interested in organizing and orienting this event for a Town Hall audience. 

Reserve your tickets for the Sow Queer event here. And for information about all of Town Hall’s Homecoming Festival, go here.

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