Tag Archives: Dee Hibbert-Jones

Dee Hibbert-Jones: Living Condition

19 Oct

 

 

Dee Hibbert-Jones‘s first conception of the project now known as Living Condition was relatively simple–or so she says by phone, during a pre-lunch break from drawing. “We thought we would produce an animated clip that dealt with the manifestations of trauma. Stuttering, hesitations, those kind of things.” It’s a subject—call it the outward and visible signs of inward denial and turmoil–that Hibbert-Jones, Associate Professor of Art and co-director of UCSC‘s Social Practice Research Center, has been investigating for the past decade.

 

But stories, as journalists and novelists often discover, develop a life of their own. In choosing relatives of prisoners on death row as their subject, Hibbert-Jones and her collaborative partner Nomi Talisman, found themselves in a crosscurrent of intersecting narratives and unheard voices. Facts in the cases were sometimes in dispute or unknown; testimony changed over time. And while some family members had spoken publicly about their relative’s case, their own experience of events before and after the sentence often went unmentioned

 

“It became clear,” Hibbert-Jones says, “that we needed a more narrative version. These stories needed telling. We couldn’t just extract the emotional content from them.“ Seven years, dozens of hours of interviews, and thousands of drawings later, Living Condition, intended as one project, is on its way to becoming three: a thirty minute animated film, a series of politically focused webisodes, and an installation highlighting the expressive manifestations of trauma.

 

Animation is notoriously time-consuming. The 5-minute clip that’s posted at http://deehibbert-jones.ucsc.edu/Impact_03.html took Hibbert -Jones and Talisman 3 months to draw. Its final section–from an interview with Bill Babbitt, whose brother, a Viet Nam veteran, was executed in 1999–consists of about 2000 drawings. Hibbert-Jones says that her own morning’s work has yielded about 25 drawings, though there is an advantage to the repetitious frame-by-frame process. “If it’s something I’ve drawn before, I can actually talk to friends and family while doing it.”

 

In its expanded version, Living Condition will relate the experiences of three people whose relatives—a son in one case, a sibling in two others—faced the death penalty. Visually, the film’s focus moves from black and white headshots—line-drawn in a tight frame-by frame sequence that follows the speakers’ mouth movements—to more distant, views of crowds, neighborhoods, and events. These—sometimes fragmented or almost dream-like—are accented with washes of color. There’s an unreal quality to some sections, Hibbert-Jones says, “because elements of the story are being told second-hand, or they’re telling how they reacted. We’re still experimenting with animating those sections in very different ways to create these surrealistic moods.”

 

They plan to weave the participants’ narratives around a linear chronology: childhood, to sentencing to execution or release. The cases are all different, she notes, but everybody says the same things. “Everyone says ‘it was one thing after another.’ Everybody says ‘I couldn’t think about that. Death. How could it be death?’ There are these utterances, these phrases and denials, these accepting of responsibilities that we want to echo through the film.”

 

For Hibbert-Jones who grew up in England—a country that doesn’t have capital punishment—the notion itself is “almost unbelievable.” What, she wonders, are “the implications of a decision made democratically to execute someone?” The question looms larger after Troy Davis’s recent execution. Davis’s sister, Martina Correia, who actively fought for a reconsideration of his case in Georgia and federal courts, is one of their three voices. Her narrative, which once occupied a hopeful middle ground in the film’s structure, with the prisoner’s fate still undecided, has turned into another with a grim outcome. The artists now must go back and re-interview her. The story has grown again.

 

There is another similarity between the speakers. Although it wasn’t the artists’ intention, all of the families in the film are African American. Hibbert-Jones says she and Talisman chose to present the stories as animation, “partly for anonymity for some of the people involved,” and partly because animation makes it easier for people to identify with what they’re watching. Rather than making physical details of race or, class explicit, a drawing creates the opportunity for viewers to see themselves in the character. It’s as though the space inside the animator’s frame becomes a kind of hologram—multidimensional, but always clearly elsewhere.

 

An illustration of that power to confer both perspective and intimacy came when Hibbert-Jones showed the clip of Bill Babbitt to audiences in its video version, before it was animated. In it, he describes in wrenching detail the guilt he continues to feel over his brother Manny’s death. (Bill turned him in to the police hoping he would get treatment for his obvious psychological and stress-related disorders. The rest of his family has not forgiven him.).

 

“People couldn’t deal with it,” Hibbert-Jones says of the un-animated version. “It’s hard to witness his pain.” She links the audience’s response to Eve Sedgwick’s studies of shame and the overwhelming urge to look away it produces. Animated, Babbitt’s testimony remains anguishing, but it’s also riveting. The illusory wall created by the moving screen becomes a kind of shared ground, like the psychological territory that Sedgwick sees shame creating.

 

“Bill bangs the microphone at one point,” Hibbert-Jones says, ”and it becomes really real. His hand comes up and somehow breaks the flat wall of animation, and part of you is going, Wow! You have a relationship. You can connect to the experience without feeling implicated too much. That’s our hope, at least.” The idea, in other words, is that Living Condition will construct, for both speaker and audience, a safe space to inhabit together.

 

Unfinished stories and unattended voices are a constant in HIbbert-Jones’ work. Her first degree was in literature and she went on to do masters degrees in women’s studies and teaching. “Part of my investment in teaching,” she says “is allowing people these voices that they don’t get to hear.” The turn toward images– and an MFA –came later, inspired by her father’s stroke. In wiping out his ability to speak or write, it abruptly halted their weekly letters. In their absence, Hibbert-Jones found herself relying more and more on artwork to express her feelings.

 

Her first collaboration with Talisman, Letter to an Unknown Friend (2004), was inspired by correspondence Hibbert-Jones salvaged from the San Francisco Landfill. Visitors were invited to sit at a desk with a manipulated typewriter equipped with an LCD screen (Talisman is a new media specialist) and reply to letters that dated from almost every decade in the 20th century

 

Some of the unheard voices she investigates are those enshrined in language. In “Metaphors We Live By” (2006) the physical implications usually ignored in common synonyms like “help” and “support” or “similarity” and “closeness” become the subject of iconic line drawings. In I-140 the voices are more personal. The 2009 video shows Talisman and Hibbert-Jones–life as well as artistic partners– holding signs by the highway chronicling Talisman’s struggle with the US Immigration Service. “It was extremely difficult to do the piece. We were both shocked at how abject and pathetically middle-aged and worn we looked, standing on the side of streets. But we wanted it to have that rawness to it,” Hibbert-Jones says. That sense of rawness and openness to emotion has become increasingly important to them in Living Condition.

 

Pursuing it, they’ve become willing to go where the story leads—even when it heads in an unplanned direction. When Community Resource Initiative, the San Francisco capital defense office they worked with on the project, recommended Bill Babbitt as an interview subject, Hibbert- Jones declined, fearing the fact that his brother was a Viet Nam veteran would add too many extra elements and distract their focus. But, she recalls, one of the women in the office kept telling them “you know, you want to interview Bill.” Eventually, Hibbert-Jones heard what the woman was saying: “You want to interview Bill.” “And,” the artist says, “she was right.”

 

Getting a story is one thing; listening to it is another.

 

 

Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

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What Counts with Hibbert-Jones (UCSC) and Hebdige (UCSB)

18 May
Interview with Dee Hibbert-Jones (UCSC) and Dick Hebdige (UCSB)

Dee Hibbert-Jones is Co-Director of the Social Practice Research Center and Associate Professor of Art at UCSC. A cultural critic and theorist, Dick Hebdige has published widely on youth subculture, contemporary music, art and design, and consumer and media culture and is Professor of Film & Media Studies and Art Studio at UCSB as well as Ex-officio Director at the UCIRA. Both Hibbert-Jones and Hebdige are British expatriates and board members of the UCIRA and agreed to be interviewed together via email.

Q: The UC system charges faculty with producing research, teaching and public service. How do professors in the arts have to approach this directive in a unique way and do you see the balance tipping towards one area more strongly?

Dee: To be an artist in a research institution is already to be the odd duck in the room, no one is quite sure what we do or how studio art fits definitions of research. We are often seen as either decorative or irrelevant, coupled with this we don’t even bring in the big grants! I do spend time framing my work as research for the university, explaining and defining it for promotion and among some non-arts colleagues. At least you produce publications, Dick, a form that the University recognizes as “research”. A small example: the bio bibliography forms used to evaluate professors aren’t tailored to exhibitions or screenings, I manage to squeeze in my exhibition record on about page ten of the form after navigating through a host of other sections which are either irrelevant or secondary to my practice.

In UC Santa Cruz tenure and promotion files research is considered primary, followed closely by teaching and then service. Although we all know service and teaching take up physical time and our own research is squeezed in around the rest, but this isn’t specific to the arts. However studio art professors do actually teach more hours than most other professors. This is because studio hours (at least at UCSC) are counted as ‘lab’ not lecture hours. Harking back to the idea, I presume, that art is a skill and that studio classes are technical not conceptual. The presumption is that there is no class prep involved, which is absolutely untrue. In terms of a balance then, teaching takes up more physical time, and with the budget cuts service is greater than ever before as we try desperately to develop entirely new curriculum to manage enlarged class sizes and reduced numbers of classes. The one benefit is that we form amazing relationships with the students – we spend a lot of small class time with them (this may somewhat change with budget cuts) Right now I often times collaborate with students on projects that build my own research, serve their learning needs and kick start their exhibition records. Is the balance tipping? The University still says research first when we being, but there are more and more demands made on us for service and teaching, which simply means less time for research.

Dick: Dee lays out the main issues clearly and succinctly: for the purposes of parity and comparison with colleagues in other fields and in order to secure tenure and salary increases, artists working in the system have to translate their work and achievements into University-speak and that means placing ‘research’ front and center in the self-monitoring UC bio-bibliography. But the reality is that while many of the current Arts and Humanities Deans get it, many University administrators and non-arts faculty still have a hard time identifying the research component in art unless the work is either A) located on some visible techno-scientific ‘frontier’ (where it gets to merge with science) or  B) has explicit documentary/representational value  (where it can serve an illustrative function vis-a-vis agendas already established in the Humanities, Social Sciences, cultural studies etc). This awkwardness with the definition of art-as-research isn’t really surprising as individual arts faculty don’t themselves agree on what constitutes meaningful research for an artist. Plus of course determinations of what constitutes essential skill/knowledge in the making of a work can differ widely from one discipline, medium, tendency or school to the next. In some of the most thoroughly researched artworks, I find that the work that, as it were, went into the [art]work gets subsumed i.e. folded into the work and made to disappear. Artists tend to erase their tracks, preferring to let the piece-whatever it is and irrespective of the medium – speak for itself. Unlike good scholars, good artists don’t provide footnotes. So while I strongly believe art has its own particular research modalities and methodologies it’s hard (possibly even counter-productive) to specify exactly what they might be. Art is all about the unexpected move so the work that goes into making it is hard to codify.

At the same time, the ideas many university administrators and non arts faculty have about arts education tend to be based in the old conservatory model. At the undergraduate level what that means is the transmission of technical skills to large groups of students through repetition, practice, osmosis and mimesis in a process that for all practical purposes is assumed to bypass cognition. Hence the long class-times and the perception on the part of many of our non arts-department colleagues  (and a large part of the student population) that A) art is representational and essentially non-cerebral – mechanical ,intuitive and/or self-expressive, B) that all determinations of quality are subjective (”in the eye of the beholder”) and C) that teaching art to undergrads is tantamount to baby-sitting. The rationale for our continued place on the university curriculum is rooted, on the one hand, in a rapidly eroding communal faith in a humanist pedagogical ethos (‘educate the whole person’) and, on the other, in the corporate investment in creativity as an exploitable innovation-and-revenue-generating asset.

There’s a temptation for the contradiction between these two rationales to be resolved within Universities programatically. Art Studio departments, charged with servicing a large general student population in classes stocked by a steady supply of grad student TA’s threaten to degenerate into undergrad teaching treadmills while programs in ‘new media’ and art/science fusions like Media Art Technology at UCSB or Design/Media Arts at UCLA have limited contact with undergraduates and tend to be identified with the applied sciences, research-driven innovation, the development of marketable applications and the Future. Of course this is an over simplification and I’m not suggesting that faculty affiliated with the technologically ‘advanced’ programs have it any easier than their colleagues elsewhere in the University arts (we’re all under pressure to produce and serve/teach more). And I’m sure that Arts faculty in the new interdisciplinary programs have to fight even harder than the rest of us to be taken seriously by the scientists and engineers with whom they’re meant to be collaborating as the latter may feel discomfited by the cross over (c.f. matter out of place) and vice-versa. However the segregation of the ‘new’ from the not-new, the nearly new and the comparatively recent can have real implications not only conceptually but also in terms of access to resources. Sabbaticals aside (and they’re awarded on the basis of accumulated teaching credits), research time for most Arts faculty is, in general, stolen time (weekends, summer break etc).
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