An Interview Between Kaeley Boyle and Linda Mary Montano
A couple of months back, I participated in a zoom Performance-Art-Biennial. The festival was titled, “Live Artists Live III: Despair/Repair”. It was hosted by The USC Roski School of Art and Design, and co-curated by Andy Campbell and Patty Chang. “Despair/Repair” showcased “Performance as a poignant reflection and powerful rebuttal to the world’s challenges, addressing concerns around the ‘live’ body of the artist, structures of feeling/effect, and performance-based action and/or inaction.”
In layman’s terms, the festival was addressing artists bodies and power structures that mold our perceptions. The performers cultivated personas in order to dissect complex emotions and different societal implications.
The question of the “live” body carries a loaded double meaning in the video-conferencing era.
After reading through the programming, I decided to attend Linda Mary Montano’s performance. The question of what a durational zoom performance would look like piqued my interest.
Linda Mary Montano is a seminal figure in performance art history. She’s most known for her 14 years of living art, an endurance piece based on the seven chakra energy centers of the body.
For “Despair/Repair“, Linda (a former nun for two years), was performing as Mother Teresa singing for a cure for seven hours. And intrigued I tuned into Linda Mary Montano’s seven hour performance with Dulce Soledad Ibarra and in collaboration with all who wished to join on zoom.
The performance proved to be a stark difference from the zoom meetings and other video conferences I’d been privy to for the last ten months. The stuffy, stilted, and often awkward nature of video conferencing was not present. The performance elicited a sense of intimacy and connection that I hadn’t yet experienced during Covid video experiences. In retrospect, this isn’t surprising when you look at Linda’s artwork. She’s spent her life addressing difference//improvisation and breaking the art-life glass ceiling. And as a result she analyzes human emotion with a keen eye and extreme empathy.
Linda and Dulce developed a space that championed all the positive aspects of community engagement. A strong sense of empathy, hope, and understanding came through the screen from the performers and audience alike.
And I was transfixed.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Linda recently via phone about zoom, mothering, and sensory deprivation.
Below is the transcript of the conversation.
AF: Can you talk to me about your recent durational performance? What was the genesis of the idea? Is this a new character or is it someone that you have visited before?
Linda Mary Montano: We’re talking about a piece I did for USC Roski curated by Andy Campbell and performed with Dulce Soledad Ibarra. The performance was originally supposed to be a show at USC where I was to be dressed as Mother Teresa of Calcutta doing a seven hour Chakra performance with Dulce and seven other performers. But because of COVID, it was rescheduled to be a zoom performance. But I kept the idea of seven hours, and I kept the idea of Mother Teresa, which is one of the characters that I play. One of the personas that I imbibe. And Dulce was also dressed as a nun and was the M.C. for the seven hour event.
The lullabies I sang for the zoom participants came out of that need to not only mother myself, but to mother everyone who would wish to participate. We’re so bombarded with fear. We’re so bombarded with tragedy and death these Covid days. So bombarded with the idea that there is no future. And we are bombarded with the death of the trees, animals, and the earth. We’re so bombarded with this idea that these little, teeny, tiny little atom bomb germs coming into our nose and our mouth will kill us.
So my solution was to make it easy for me and make it easy for everyone. Not screaming and yelling at them about the news, but rather setting up a situation where I would be relaxed because I would tenderly sing lullabies dressed as Mother Teresa. So what could go wrong? Nothing could go wrong? We need situations of comfort and situations of mothering ourselves and being mothered. We need situations of regressing into comfort and being comforted.
AF: How did you go about choosing the specific lullabies? I remember there being 25. I grew up Catholic. Is that number significant?
Linda Mary Montano: Yeah. I should have done 24 or 21. Three sevens to make 21, but I didn’t follow my own Catholic rule there (laughter). I make art about my life. And my life right now is neurologically compromised with a medical condition called dystonia where I’m kind of bent and twisted. And looking at myself in the mirror one day, I said, Oh my God, I look just like Mother Teresa. So I became Mother Teresa. That’s how I do my art. My art is my medicine. Anything goes wrong, I fix it with art. And anything goes right, I celebrate it with art. So those are my fixes. That was a big fix, that piece. (Mother Teresa Singing for a Cure for Seven Hours).
Art as Medicine
AF: That’s something I’ve been thinking about, art as medicine. Right now no one has a moment to really express or live in the grief of it (Covid). It’s so overwhelming that we can’t really comprehend what’s going on. And if we were to, it would be almost paralyzing. The sense of grief compounded with what’s happening with our society. It’s just too much. And that’s why I was so interested in the space that you were able to create during the zoom performance. It wasn’t like anything I’ve seen before. I didn’t know the majority of the people in performance room. But there was such a loving vibe. It was palpable through the screen. It felt like people were able to address and talk about their problems in a safe space.
Linda Mary Montano: I’m an artist. And my art is like a dentist. I’m a dental surgeon. I’m able to surgically create an atmosphere like Kandinsky’s idea of art as enlightenment or mysticism or shamanic presence. That’s one of my specialties. If I were to put my shingle out, it would be the shingle that I create atmosphere. It’s like prayer. My art should be prayer and meditation and consciousness-raising. And relief from the present fear-consciousness.
AF: How would you compare this (zoom performance) to performance in person? Was it more or less draining physically or emotionally?
Linda Mary Montano: Just a little bit physically, not so much emotionally. I was a little bit physically cramped. I love working with time and I love working with endurance. But you Catholic girls know what I’m talking about, which is that in my early career, I married myself to suffering and punishment and penance. And then after I grew up to be a big girl, I started doing transfiguration. Now it’s more about light and God is love. Now, He’s not going to kill me for sinning, for being a horrible person. So the transformations via endurance were about my ability to stop taking such a punishing aspect to my life and let life-art become spacious. For me, I allow my art to become compassionately spacious. That is the dream.
AF: Was it similar to in person performances in terms of audience involvement?
Linda Mary Montano: I could feel them, you know, I could feel them. Even on zoom!!! What I loved was the coming and going. They came, they went, they appeared, they disappeared from their zoom windows!!! It had this beautiful freedom about it. It felt so wonderfully free. Zoom to me is a prison. It’s a real prison. You get these people, put them in their box, and then the whole time you’re looking at yourself. How’s my hair? Look at those wrinkles. Oh my God, my teeth look so yellow. You know what I mean? I find this horrible.
AF: I agree. That’s the joke, right? Is that typically no one’s looking at anyone else in these spaces. We’re looking at ourselves. That said, there’s something really engaging about performance in this space. And how great would it be to infuse performance into these streaming platforms? Because there’s so much saccharin, mindless content that’s being put out. And sometimes mindlessness is good. You know, you need that. But I think that there’s an opportunity for performance. It’s a medium that’s often relegated into this silo. Therefore only a certain audience gets to see it. And there’s such a lack of understanding of it. People don’t think that they belong in that space and it turns them off. I’m interested in how video conferencing and streaming is going to affect how performance art gets out to a wider public.
Linda Mary Montano: Amelia Jones, who interviewed me the day after the performance, made a comment about my use of zoom. She noted that because I was a newcomer, how exciting it was to think about zoom and freedom given the way I was using it, that I moved around, came close to the camera, left the camera, faced it, covered my face with it. I was told that students are now making photo images of themselves so the teacher thinks they’re there. But they’re not. And they’re texting or they’re doing something else or they’re reading while on zoom.
Really, there’s a new level of theft, of disappearance, of morphing, of leaving the scene, of dissociating. I’m going to use the word theft. Zoom is stealing another part of us. A new part of us. And all I know is that I don’t want to give life to it. I don’t want to play the way I’m being asked to play. I want to perform zoom, not use it to communicate when I’m supposed to.
It could be because I’m old and wrinkled?? I’m not used to my old face. And when I use zoom, I play with my screen so that they don’t see my face. I bring it up to my mouth or I play with it. It’s so insistent, and I didn’t grow up talking at home as a child. Zoom makes you talk in a way that’s extremely problematic to me. I am left with the question, what is communication? These young ones zooming for months will have a whole new language because zoom is a language that I do not speak!
AF: Would you be interested in doing another performance on a platform like that? Or is it as a matter of everyday communication or teaching you don’t like?
Linda Mary Montano: If I’m invited to a zoom event, I’m not comfortable at all. Unless it can be fixed in a way where it’s totally comfortable. And I don’t know what the answer to that is, except that I feel that I always come up with creative zoom solutions.
AF: It’s interesting to hear that you were a newcomer to it (video conferencing). Having watched the performance it didn’t feel like that. The whole performance felt natural. Which goes back to what you were talking about being able to create a safe space.
Linda Mary Montano: But when I say that word, when I say the word theft. What does that feel like to you? What do you think?
AF: My mind goes to a theft of creative thought or conversation. It’s like you said, you are put on the spot, because you’re looking at yourself and someone else is waiting for you to fill the air. You know?
Linda Mary Montano: Uh-huh
AF: It doesn’t allow for that process of figuring it out. The conversation. And it feels like what you’re saying has a period on the end of it instead of a comma. It takes away a lot of the ability to feel a room out. You can still read facial expressions and body language a little bit. But I think it’s a theft of feeling and creative thought. There’s a finality to what you’re saying.
Zoom and The Somatic Experience
Linda Mary Montano: Yeah. And it’s death of the somatic experience. And the psychological experience for the body. It’s like a death of the body. And death of smell. You know, life is so much about vibrational frequency and the kind of air that comes off people and the smell of people. I think about smell a lot.
AF: I never thought of it in terms of the senses. And how it really hyper-focuses on two senses. Visual and auditory.
Linda Mary Montano: Uh-huh
AF: I’m such a kinesthetic person. So this is a very weird time for me. I’m a visual artist, but I learn through touching and feeling things.
Linda Mary Montano: I get a vibrational frequency and smell. There’s something about smell that has always been important to me.
AF: That’s the sense that’s so connected tightly with memory, right?
Linda Mary Montano: (laughing) So we have no memory when we’re with people on zoom.
AF: Yea, so you don’t have to worry about wrinkles because no one is going to remember anything. Right?
Linda Mary Montano: (laughing) Oh, Yeah, yeah, yeah! They’ll say, “I thought she died. She was dead.”
AF: Is there anything that you would like to talk about. Anything that you thought of after the performance?
Linda Mary Montano: The other side (of this), we’re also hungry. We’re so hungry for the other. Like I saw Karen Finley two days ago, on a zoom. I snuck in and she didn’t know I was there. And then right at the end, I said, “Hi, Karen it’s Linda”(laughing). But I felt like, “Oh, she was being watched”. So there’s this whole kind of the birth of the lurker.
AF: I was that lurker in your performance (laughing). I found out about it through a former professor and I felt like, “Oh, should I be here?” I knew it was mostly USC students, faculty, friends and family. It’s a selected group. So, I was one of those lurkers.
Linda Mary Montano: Not a good thing for a Catholic. We don’t want to feel like bad girls. Zoom creates this opportunity for Catholics to feel bad. LURKER GIRLS (laughing)
You know, let’s end with this. There’s a wonderful new Catholic Saint. And his name is Carlos Acutis. He’s an 15 year-old Italian boy, who was a computer genius. I’m in a prayer group every morning. And we meet and I pray to him because, you know, I’m a senior. I’m dealing with computers as a senior. But I pray for these mothers with three kids and one computer. And I pray for the seniors. For instance having to deal with their bank now only available online. And having to remember all these passwords. I pray for what this IT world has now done.
AF: It’s true. It’s all these little anxieties that pile up. And they seem small. But then after a while it fills up that glass. And you only have so much you can fill it before it all spills over. And with COVID now we don’t have that release to empty out the water, to give us some room.
Linda Mary Montano: Yes, we don’t get something to smell (laughing) or someone else to smell. You know, it (video conferencing) is creating a lot of unbathed people, which is wonderful. I mean, it’s okay with me. It’s giving permission for a lot of unkemptness. And a lot of unwashing. And unscenting.
AF: It is, it’s very brain centric and lacks bodily awareness. And there’s only so much brain taxing we can take. But hopefully this (Covid) won’t be the case in six months.
Linda Mary Montano: WE CAN PRAY THAT YOU ARE RIGHT???
Kaeley is a contemporary artist and cultural organizer who loves good espresso and a cold Coke Zero.