By Courtney Lynne Carter
Storefronts, targeted advertisements, and online shopping comprise our daily transactional landscape. In the exhibition, We’re sorry, this item is no longer available, artists Maia Chao, Ilana Harris-Babou, and Korallia Stergides assume the guise of a salesperson to consider how we make meaning and ascribe value in such commercial spaces. Working across video and sculpture, they variously employ abject play, affective labor, and hyper-gendered performance to reveal the interplay between object and identity. These familiar spaces then become sites of material desire and messy self-discovery. What comes to the fore in the clamorous solicitation of attention is the absurdity and laboriousness of performing ourselves, and the very aspirations that make us feel valuable. This exhibition is curated by Courtney Lynne Carter, and on view at Haverford College.
Before the exhibition was even titled, I invited the artists to watch each other’s videos for the first time and then join me in a conversation about their practices, their works in the show, and the points of thematic connection among them. Skyping in from three different time zones and two countries, we shared a meandering and insightful conversation in two parts. In part one, we talk about disparate yet related topics such as salesperson characters, feminist filmmaking practices, humor as a tool for satire and self-discovery, collaborating with family, and the basement as an art studio. In part two, we discuss affective labor in performance, making art in a capitalist society, and the relationship between worth and value when talking about race and gender.
Courtney Lynne Carter (CLC): Could you please begin by introducing your video work?
Ilana Harris-Babou (IHB): In my video, Human Design, I pose as the CEO of a Restoration Hardware-style company and scour the globe looking for the most original, authentic objets d’art in a satirical advertorial style. I travel to Senegal to find new sources of inspiration and new pieces for display in the furnishings gallery, but I’m also poking fun at the colonizing appropriation normalized by high-end showrooms that place “tribal objects” amid expansive beige sofas. In the process of searching for the source of so-called “good design,” I realize that I’m also searching for my own personal, family, and cultural history. This video was initially created for the 2019 Whitney Biennial.
Maia Chao (MC): Recorded in the basement of our childhood home, my video, Gently Used, is based off television shopping networks. In it, my sister and I sell hoarded family belongings, interviewing my parents and recounting the social histories of each item. The items are listed for purchase on eBay, making transparent the economy of the artwork. As a mechanism of decluttering, the work was not entirely successful: a few items sold to strangers on eBay while several others were re-purchased through the online bidding system by my parents, who found that the work renewed their interest in these forgotten objects. In fact, during the first exhibition of this work, my father managed to acquire a new table that was property of the gallery and used for the installation. I paid my parents back for the cost of their bids and did not make a profit. The remaining unsold items will be periodically re-listed for sale on eBay. This video first aired on Provincetown TV in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in April 2018.
Korallia Stergides (KS): My video, Deep Love Sales: Drop A Winner X Bubbles Of Time TV Tutorial Special, was first presented as part of a video and performance installation in my first solo exhibition, I’M IN THE BATH ON ALL FOURS, TOWARDS BLUE WATER (MY NOSE IS BLEEDING), I’M AN EPHEMERAL BUBBLE OF TIME WAITING TO BE POPPED, at Well Projects in Margate, Kent, U.K., in June 2019. This project was part of a larger series in which the gallery would invite a pair of artists, artist-groups or researchers to collaborate and expand upon notions of the sub-aqueous, engaging with the nature of water, embodied experience and the deep dark in relation to community and commonality. With my artistic partner Raphael Schulenburg, I developed a site-specific installation that included this video, an interactive performance, and some sculpture, all produced under the guise of my fictional character “Deep Love.” Deep Love has been a recurring character in my live performance practice for a little over a year, now. In this video performance, she gives a tour of a renovated arcade game, which she interprets using the storytelling devices of astrological, planetary, apocalyptic, and self-help lingo.
CLC: In your videos, you each take on the guise of a salesperson. What or who is that character and what role do they play in each of your projects?
IHB: Well, I don’t think I’m just one character in Human Design. When I’m deciding what to say, the language comes from a whole bunch of different sources, that are often contradictory to one another, for example, Marcus Garvey, Restoration Hardware marketing, and the television show Roots. In terms of the mode of delivery, I wasn’t so sure where my voice was coming from starting out. As I made the work, it became clearer that it comes from this everyday habit of code-switching or inhabiting other spaces. I went to this liberal-ish private school in Brooklyn growing up, K through 12. I knew this was a place where people had expensive tastes, but also wanted to think of themselves as progressive. It felt like they were trying to buy their way into morality or something. I almost knew them better than they knew themselves, because I was always in it but acutely feeling outside of it, aware of the strangeness of the performance that we were all kind of doing. One thing I noticed across the videos was a kind of bourgeois-white-lady drag that everyone adopted in their performances. It’s the most baroque version of being the kind of polite, East Coast, super-educated, white person that one is always kind of around.
KS: That’s true, actually. I noticed that as well. It’s funny because it’s almost a mix of bourgeois and kitsch. In all my performances, including Deep Love Sales: Drop A Winner X Bubbles Of Time TV Tutorial Special, I refer to my character, Deep Love, as a “her,” as another person. She’s trying to be like a human, but she’s not really human. She started as a tour guide, actually. Growing up, my family had a hotel named Anonymous in a very touristy area in Cyprus. The clothes Deep Love wears are actually my mom’s clothes from when she worked in the hotel. My family are refugees from the north of Cyprus, and we originally built Anonymous to be our home. But then culture and capitalism and people wanting to make it a tourist destination forced us to open it as a hotel. So, in my creation of Deep Love, I’m asking, “How have all these things that are sort of displaced made a single person?”
MC: For me, I actually grew up with an alter ego named Eveny Chefa. As an eight-year-old, my dream was to be a cashier. I think it was because I was really really shy as a kid. I liked the scriptedness of the transaction—how you could sort of be smooth even if you weren’t socially smooth. Eveny had this elaborate store called Harland’s in my parent’s basement. She was very basic, but in a way I was obsessed with her normalcy. Now, as someone who identifies as queer (and it took a while to figure that out), I think that if we were to psychoanalyze it, Eveny was probably white and straight. And so she was, I think, this funny way of me as a child striving for or locating that desire for normalcy. I would practice really particular gestures that I watched cashiers do. For instance, Eveny had long acrylic nails and would tap them on the cash register as the receipt printed. All of these little things inflect the performances I do today in this vein, including Gently Used.
CLC: I see in all of your works how these characters or personas emit a certain strangeness and enable each of you to think critically about the things we take for granted in the everyday. Maybe especially the things that are intentionally made to be invisible or taken to be normal.
KS: Yeah, definitely. Growing up, I always saw female tour guides introducing Cyprus. They were always from another country, like Sweden, Russia, or England, mainly for translation purposes. As someone who has dual nationality (Bulgarian and Greek-Cypriot), I relate to being local and “foreign” in both Cyprus and England, where I’m currently based. It’s the perception of this duality that I’m interested in exploring and embodying. “Deep Love” is a tour guide, after all.
MC: I’m interested in this idea of “knowing” someone else, like how Ilana says she knew the white, educated, progressive parents and peers better than they knew themselves in a way. Korallia, you’re similarly talking about observing the foreign female tour guide, and having that perspective on their simultaneous out-of-placeness as foreigners and the ways they were centered in the industry as storytellers of Cyprus.
CLC: Yes, there’s also this interesting tension happening between didacticism and narrative contradiction across all of your works. Most of the narrative direction in your videos comes from your character saying, “This is this, that is that, let’s go here, let’s see this.” But then when you try to follow those seemingly linear narratives, gaps emerge where the same thing is referred to as two different things, and you’re left questioning the process of storytelling itself. I’m interested in these embedded contradictions and how your sales voices make these contradictions seem so legible yet also illegible.
IHB: I definitely felt Korallia’s character “Deep Love” as alien or fragmented. There were moments where she felt like she was almost glitching or trying to catch up with whatever thought she was trying to formulate. It made us acutely aware of how these things come together then fall apart again.
MC: Like she is trying to remember something or trying to perform a thought, and having that be made visible.
KS: I’m interested in the moment when fiction just becomes fact.
IHB: For me, I’m really just reading things aloud. The question is, “What is one’s own voice?”
CLC: Your tone is very dry, though, and I found it pretty hilarious. We could actually talk about humor in all of your works. How do you see humor working in each of your practices?
MC: I think humor can offer a point of entry into something that is hard to talk about. Gently Used is very absurd and funny and goofy, but it’s also addressing very serious family topics of hoarding and excess and taboo material things, which intersects with our immigrant identity, too. I feel fortunate that I can engage my family through play to address some of these very intense questions, like, “Why do you still have this junk item? What is your attachment to it? What is keeping you from parting with it?” Asking in this more playful format allows us to step outside ourselves and look closely at something that we otherwise might not want to or might not know how to. There’s also a certain utilitarian aspect of it, too, of just needing to go through this stuff with my family and wanting to try to create space to reflect at the same time.
IHB: Humor can be a tool to digest painful realities. We’re all taking a lot of Tylenol right now. When you get the one that has the sugar coating outside the medicine, it goes down well. But it’s still the medicine you need to take.
CLC: I’ve been thinking about how to describe humor in your works, whether it’s a strategy or something else. When I first watched your videos and gave them an introductory glance, I might have said something I now find fairly reductive like, “These videos use humor as a way of saying something critical about culture and society.” That supposes a certain kind of pragmatic externalization of these things that you’re talking about. But I’m realizing upon hearing your reflections right now that it’s both an externalization and an internalization, and that the power of what you’re doing comes from creating space for yourselves to think through these materials. And that maybe those two things can’t exist separately from one another.
MC: I agree. I think jumping to the conclusion that we are trying to “make people aware of this thing” is not accurate. Maybe instead it’s realizing that it’s more of an internal reckoning.
KS: It feels like it’s about revealing an internal play, which also seems related to how we all engage with our families. How we create distance from reality in order to understand the way in which our own upbringing has been constructed without our control. For me, my dad started to buy things that Deep Love might like, so my work similarly developed through play with family.
IHB: Yeah, I’m interested in how we all work with our families. I work with my family because in the screen or in the space of making we can invent another kind of a relationship than the kind of familial relationships you just naturally fall into away from the camera. In front of the camera you can act out these other dynamics or possibilities. The video that I made with my mother called Finishing Raw Basement is a home basement demo tutorial kind of thing. I initially conceptualized it in my mom’s actual basement. Her basement looks kind of just like your parent’s basement, Maia. But I found it was just too intense for me emotionally to be able to do it in that space. That’s why I shifted to shooting in the studio. So, it was really cool to see you just go for it. It made me think a lot about mortality and death in a lot of ways. I feel like the home shopping network is something that people watch late at night when it feels like the world has almost died or something. You watch it when you can’t get up and change the channel on the TV. But you’re also acting out this thing that most of us end up having to do: when our parents die, we have to go through their things. You’re able to do a rehearsal of that ahead of time in a way that can be more joyful.
MC: It’s really interesting that you say that. When I was growing up, my mom would watch a lot of QVC. In fact, I think that some of those items for sale in the video were things she ordered on a home shopping network. What you said about mortality was definitely on my mind, as well. When I was making the video, I was also interviewing people about items for sale on Craigslist. A lot of folks would tell me about the story behind the object, and oftentimes the original owner was deceased. So, I was very aware of how emotionally loaded your family’s material accumulation can be. There’s just something so heavy about it.
KS: It is funny how you both worked with the basement in that way because when I started to devise the character Deep Love, I imagined her in an American basement. In her origin myth, we said she was born in a cave and hoards lots of things. Though it’s not a basement, the basement did come up as an idea because we knew that she came from some underground place with hoarded objects. In Cyprus we don’t have basements, like those huge ones, you know? So, my house is just full of things that I have to constantly engage with because they’re out in the open. There’s no hiding from anything. So, I find it amazing that you can just go underneath to the basement. It’s like you’re excavating it, you know?
CLC: Also, a lot of the elements that compose Deep Love—her costume, clothing, or her nose, which is like a doughy prosthetic nose—have changed and evolved over the years and the months that she has existed. Even her accent. She originally started off with a British cockney accent, and then it changed into this American Southern accent. Trying things on and taking them off as a way to play with identity, which is maybe one reason why you were thinking of a basement, since it is a space with these objects to pick up and put back down again.
MC: Actually, my sister and I shot some of the Gently Used scenes in our parents’ basement at 2 am. We were going and going, but we only had one day to shoot it all. You can see moments where we start to get tired and where it picks back up. The ways in which we try to revitalize ourselves with different costumes and different locations and all of these things. It’s interesting to think through mentally where we were at and what we needed, and how that’s being reflected in the trajectory of the piece. So, I’m also interested in the backstories to these pieces and the process of making them.
IHB: Yeah, oh god! In the first shot at the House of Slaves [in Human Design], I trip and fall out of the Door of No Return and sprain my ankle. So much of the editing process of that video was just editing out the fact that I’m limping. For a lot of that, I was in literal excruciating pain. And I thought to myself, my ancestors are not pleased with this turn of developments.
MC: That’s so interesting. I feel like that lends some authenticity or layer of meaning to it—that underneath this sugary veneer you were dealing with physical pain. When Zoe and I were filming, I had just beforehand been crying, like so stressed out. But I had to come through with this smiling face. That was a strange part of it all.
CLC: You can see how painful it is sometimes to maintain that smile—the salesperson smile—
KS: —Or the attention. I found that very hard. That was the first time I performed for a camera. Talking to a camera instead of a person means having to remember everything because you’re going to have to repeat it about six times if you don’t get it the first time. I had my friend holding up signs at one point with things I could say to help keep improvising. My boyfriend was filming it and he hadn’t seen any of my work. But you’re meant to be seductive and keep the attention, so I was nervous the whole time.
IHB: I remember when I was in grad school we talked to Dara Birnbaum, and she said what was so exciting to her about the Sony Portapak and video cameras when they first became available to her as an artist is that you could do a performance for which you were the primary audience. Alone in the studio with the camera, you could play it back and you’d be the first one to see the performance that you just did. That kind of circular gaze is a sort of feminist tool.
MC: I also wonder about these videos’ primary function or primary audience. Do we do this for other people? Or, are we using it for ourselves, and then secondary to that, you can watch us using it for ourselves? But I’m impressed by how you perform solo. I don’t know how to improvise by myself. The only way that I really enjoy performing is with my sister. I feel stewarded into the performance by her because she is an actor, so she’s very trained in turning it on. For every object we came up in advance with a list of points that we wanted to touch on, but then we just had the cameras rolling for however long. I haven’t necessarily done a work without scripts before, but I think it was really fun to do this one without a script and just lean into the shared energy between my sister and me. But there is an inherent risk that you’re not going to generate interesting stuff without a script.
KS: Yeah, it’s so scary. In my experience, I really have to trust that I’m going to entertain myself first, before the camera. I don’t know about you but if I don’t find something funny I get bored of hearing myself.
We’re sorry, this item is no longer available is on view and open to the public from February 6 – March 6, 2020. There will be a Curator Talk and Skype Tour Performance by Deep Love (Korallia Stergides) at 4 pm on Saturday, February 15, 2020. To learn more about the show, gallery location, and hours at weresorryexhibition.wordpress.com.
Courtney Lynne Carter is a curator, writer, and educator based in Philadelphia. She is currently the Post-Baccalaureate Fellow for the Hurford Center for the Arts and Humanities at Haverford College, where she is the key coordinator for student and course-related exhibitions, and works on the exhibition team that manages Haverford’s four contemporary art galleries. Her recent curatorial projects include Your Special Island, featuring Andrea Chung, Rachelle Dang, and Ming Wong; and Consent to Be Seen, a solo show of Riva Lehrer’s work. She has previously worked at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Smithsonian American Art Museum; Yale-NUS College in Singapore; Oh! Open House in Singapore; and Amazement Square Children’s Museum. In March 2019, she attended the Independent Curators International Curatorial Intensive in New Orleans. She graduated from Haverford College with a BA in English.
Maia Chao is an interdisciplinary artist from Providence, RI who works in video, performance, sculpture, and social practice. Guided by an abiding obsession with social norms, Chao’s work explores play and absurdity as subversive and emancipatory tools for collaboration and collective imagining. She is co-founder of Look at Art. Get Paid. (LAAGP), a socially engaged artwork that pays people who don’t visit art museums to visit one as a guest critic. In partnership with the Massachusetts Cultural Council, LAAGP is set to launch across a cohort of art museums in Massachusetts in 2019–2021. Chao has shown at the Hudson D. Walker Gallery, Provincetown Art Museum, Brown University, RISD Museum, Tufts University, Parsons School of Design, and The Shed. In 2018, she completed a fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center, served as Andrew W. Mellon Artist in Residence at Haverford College, and received a Van Lier Fellowship from the Asian American Arts Alliance of NYC. A Fulbright grantee and Creative Capital finalist, Chao holds a BA from Brown University and an MFA from RISD. Currently, she is an artist in residence at Pioneer Works and teaches sculpture at RISD.
Ilana Harris-Babou is an interdisciplinary artist from New York, NY, and currently based in Williamstown, MA. Her work spans sculpture and installation, but is grounded in the practice of video. She references the language of cooking shows, music videos and home improvement television, using the aspirational tropes of popular culture as a trojan horse to get into the viewer’s line of sight. Once seen, the work distorts and distends the abject failures of material desire. Her videos reference these genres to confront the expectations of the American Dream, mining the ever-unreliable notion that hard work will lead to upward mobility and economic freedom. She has exhibited throughout the U.S. and Europe, with solo exhibitions at The Museum of Arts & Design (New York) and Vox Populi Gallery (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania). Other venues include: the de Young museum (San Francisco); Abrons Art Center (New York); the Zuckerman Museum of Art (Kennesaw, Georgia); Le Doc (Paris, France); the Jewish Museum (New York); Larrie (New York); Recess Art (New York); and SculptureCenter (Long Island City). Harris-Babou has received awards from the Rema Hort Mann Foundation, The New York Community Trust Van Lier Fellowship Program, the Yale University Art Gallery, and the Siragusa Family Foundation, and recently received the National YoungArts Foundation’s Jorge M. Pérez Award. She previously taught in the Sculpture + Extended Media department at Virginia Commonwealth University as a Fountainhead Fellow and is currently a Visiting Artist at Williams College in Massachusetts. She received an MFA in Visual Art, New Genres from Columbia University.
Korallia Stergides is an interdisciplinary artist based in London and Cyprus. Her work is process-led, using choreographic and spatial processes to interweave experimental film, voice, poetry, performance, and installation. By doing so, she creates fiction out of fragments to make playful discoveries in live and mediated spaces. She collates improvisations and serendipitous experiments into an archive of content and memory that she can recycle in eventual works—a trace of process as well as a product in its own right. She has exhibited her video and live performance internationally in galleries and festivals in the U.K., Cyprus, U.S.A., Greece, and Iceland. She has completed residencies at The Institute of Contemporary Art, Chisenhale Gallery & Channel (London); Arts Catalyst Digital Residency (London); The Natural History Museum (London); The Watermill Centre (New York); and The Old Vinegar Factory Mitos (Cyprus); among others. She is currently a student in the MA Fine Art Media graduate program at the Slade School of Art, University College London.