Suzanne Bocanegra

Suzanne Bocanegra talks about her “Artist Lectures”

Suzanne Bocanegra, Farmhouse/Whorehouse, 2017. Performance view, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, December 13, 2017. Suzanne Bocanegra and Lili Taylor. Photo: Richard Termine.

Known for her paintings, costume designs, installations, and solo performances, Suzanne Bocanegra has more recently ventured into the world of theater with her “Artist Lectures,” 2011–16, a series of three meandering, memoiristic essays that are performed by professional actors. On May 5, 2018, all three talks will be presented together at Bard College’s Fisher Center for the Performing Arts in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. Here, Bocanegra discusses her creative process, which involves gleaning, collaging, and plenty of collaborating. A solo show of her work will open at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia this fall.

MY “ARTIST LECTURES” came about completely by accident. In 2010, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, Laurence Kardish, asked me to do a slide talk on my work. I’d always wanted to tell the story of how I became an artist, so I did a lot of research, looked for documents, interviewed artists, and then realized it really was a story. I wanted to make the presentation as good as I could, and I was thinking about how actors are professional communicators. So I called up Paul Lazar, a downtown actor I knew, and he agreed to give the talk as me. That piece, the first of my “Artist Lectures,” was titled When a Priest Marries a Witch, and we took it around to theater festivals and other places. I became fascinated by how actors can deliver lines that would be flat if I performed them and how they are able to engage with the audience.

The earpiece was Paul’s idea. He didn’t have time to memorize the text for the MoMA talk, and he was used to the earpiece from working with the Wooster Group. One day we were rehearsing with some of my friends there, and John Haskell said that maybe it would be interesting to use both of our voices, not just one, and it was. I prerecorded my voice; Paul would listen to it on an iPod and repeat it back to the audience, while my voice was also on the house speakers, dimmed. These days we do it differently: I read the text live, and I’m visible on the stage so the audience understands the dynamic. (Paul is in a play this month, so he will be replaced at Bard by Anne Gridley, another excellent downtown actor.)

When a Priest Marries a Witch looks back to when I was eight years old. I grew up in a working-class neighborhood outside of Houston where all the oil refineries are. I wanted to be an artist, but I didn’t really know what that was. The great thing about the Catholic Church is that art is a big part of their history, and their calendars were kind of my introduction to art history. And there was a scandal in our parish between the priest and the artist he commissioned a work from, so I got to see an artist up close.

Frances McDormand saw the piece and took us out for beer afterward, and I had the chutzpah to say, “Fran, there’s Part 2, would you like to do it?” She just said, “Yeah!” and looked at Paul and said, “and you’ll direct it.” That second lecture, Bodycast, is about my teenage years, when I was in a body cast. They don’t treat scoliosis like that anymore, but that’s how they treated it then. Bodycast is a meditation on what your body should look like. Early on in my quest to become an artist, I got very interested in the plaster replicas of Greek and Roman sculptures that I stumbled upon when I was an undergrad at the University of Texas, and I had been in a plaster cast, so I empathized.

I digress, I meander—this reminds me of that, and that reminds me of something else. One of the great things about having a director and actors is that they help determine which meanderings are interesting and which ones are way too off topic. For instance, Fran and Paul went through the script very carefully, like editors. They would say the lines, hear how they sounded, suggest things, and change things. I had never had that before.

Lili Taylor and I were match-made in Houston by Karen Farber, the director of the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, who commissioned the third of my “Artist Lectures,” Farmhouse/Whorehouse. It is about my grandparents’ farm in La Grange, Texas. Across the street was a whorehouse, the Chicken Ranch, which became famous because of a Broadway show and a film. My work is a meditation on the pastoral in art, hippie communes, and prostitution. I talk about what went on in France at the time of the Impressionists, who used prostitutes in their paintings, and what went on at the Chicken Ranch, and what that life was really like: a hardscrabble existence, as opposed to how it was romanticized in the movie and in the play. Again, I go all over the place.