Editor's Note: In addition to kindly allowing us to use Theotokos as our Summer Edition graphic, featured artist MANDEM also agreed to an interview with Menacing Hedge. You can click the images to get a larger view, and see more of their work at www.mythpunkart.com.
An Interview with MANDEM
What is "Mandem"?
We've been inseparable since Moco was in high school (about two decades ago), and the name was actually given to us as a collective moniker to be used in instances like, "So, when are Mandem getting here?" It started as "M and M," but one quality we find very important in an artist moniker is that it not be easily confused with a popular candy. Fortunately, our friends started pronouncing "M and M" as "MAND-em." And our future artist name was born.
Can you describe how you conceived of the plural (neutral) artistic partnership and/or how did it come about?
We have a very intellectually-based relationship, in that its core is intellectual intimacy more than any other feature. We talk about everything, we tell stories to each other, we discuss the world. Our dates are not "dinner and a movie," they're coffee, movie, and hour-long aesthetic film critique. Subsequently, when Maize began to develop as a visual artist, it was inevitable that Moco would become deeply involved in the conceptual side of what we were – or, at that point Maize was – doing. We would bounce ideas off of each other, and then work together to develop a complete mental image of the piece, and then Moco was also always leaning over Maize's shoulder and making suggestions, giving feedback, and critiquing the final project and being otherwise engaged in it, like a superego. And as it went beyond a pastime, and into something that was taking up a serious chunk of our lives, Moco had an increasingly large role in finding models, setting up photo shoots, preparing materials and costumes, contacting galleries and publications, and otherwise being what most artists would call a studio assistant. A different artist might say that Maize was the artist, and Moco was the muse, the manager, and the assistant, but we both felt that this model of division between artist and non-artist is false for everyone who is working with a collaborator, and particularly destructive for artists who do not acknowledge their spouses. It's part of a long history of the devaluation of women's labor and non-acknowledgment of the contributions of women's voices in art history. (Not to say that all artists are male, by any means, but usually this pattern is played out with male artists and female "muses.") So, very early on, we made the decision that, in as much as the art would not exist without both of us, the artist is both of us.
Each of your pieces seems to tell its own story. How much research and story creating goes into preparing for a project?
About twenty years, give or take.
Maize had a Master's Degree in Interdisciplinary Humanities, with a focus that included many of the same themes that you see in our work. The work you see now is fruit from seeds planted during humanities research. Additionally, much of the imagery that is in the work now is psychologically related to "The Story," which is a ever-growing rhizomic narrative that Moco and Maize have been telling back and forth to each other since they were children. Our paintings are where critical theory, world mythology, and our created universe collide. No one will ever see our St. Sebastian series and know how it ties into the story we've been telling, but in some ways they are scenes from a dream that one of our imagined protagonists once had in a fever. Two out of three ain't bad, as they say – we expect the viewer to bring their own emotional universe into dialogue with the mythology and theory of the public commons.
What are the foundational myths that inspire you/that you are drawn to?
We've studied Greek and Christian mythology most extensively, but we draw from the entire Mediterranean trade region, specifically the way that stories morph moving between places like Egypt, Mesopotamia, Indus Valley, and Greece, and of course from there into Rome and Christianity. In that respect, we're particularly interested in myths that deal with The Other: gods of boundaries, psychopomps, tricksters, travellers, gender fluidity, shape shifting, moments of metamorphosis and apotheosis, and places where the duality of divinity and humanity is recognized. We have always been particularly touched by syncretism, and the way that a myth's emotional resonance can survive even when the original narrative is lost.
For example, part of what drew us to St. Sebastian was that this Christian saint was, in the Medieval era, syncretized with the Greek god Apollo, and in the process became a homoerotic figure, but also at once a healer and a bringer of plague. That's MANDEM's interests in a nutshell!
What is Mythpunk?
It is sometimes hard for us to describe the genre into which our work fits. Sometimes, there are cyberpunk or steampunk elements to our work, though less so with the direction it has been evolving. But what we like about either of these -punk movements is that, at their best, they take a type of narrative that is usually played straight, which is to say non-critically, and they queer it a bit. They add a punk edge to it that questions the status quo, questions history as we know it, tries to remake the world (as quixotic as that may be), and also criticizes the conventional narrative of either the future (in the case of cyberpunk), or history (in the case of steampunk). So, when we started doing something similar with old myths, and what might be called Deep History, we needed a word for it, and we came to the term mythpunk. It turns out there's also a literary movement that is also called mythpunk – it tends to be more about fairytales, but we don't mind the connection because the mythpunk literary movement tends to be very feminist and is about reclaiming these stories, reworking them from a less kyriarchal standpoint.
How is your work informed by the post-apocalyptic and post-human mythos?
See also: "The Story."
We think that part of the function of art is to speak the hard truths of the day. Without art, specifically without the beauty in art, it can be emotionally impossible to look reality in the face. Art tells what may be a lie to you, which is that it's all going to be okay, even if the world is ending. The hard truths of our generation's day is that we're killing the world, and losing much of what made us human. It's something that we've been trying to come to terms with ever since the atomic bomb, and even though we sometimes pretend like nuclear apocalypse is unlikely since the Cold War is over, at the same time we've found plenty of other ways to destroy human life as we know it. Our generation's interest in post-apocalyptic stories and dystopian narratives and zombie films is like dreaming. When you have a stressful life event, you go to bed and your mind tries to work out a solution using bizarre imagery and sometimes absurd wish (or fear) fulfillment, but still it's working on something. The artists of this generation are trying to figure out how to stop the end of the world, and we're trying to figure out what matters about our humanity and what we can happily shed. Which brings me to the post-human issue: we're actually very pro-cyborg. We are very comfortable with the idea of shedding the limitations of culture and biology and it has been heretofore been – yay birth control pills and artificial hearts and test tube babies! We love you! – but at the same time, you have to know what to keep and what to lose, and what the equivalency is.
How would you describe the symbolism in your work?
We very specifically draw our symbolism from old school myth interpretation. A 15th century scholastic could tell you what our paintings mean (though they might be a little incensed by them…), though early 20th century ideas about mythography are more the route by which this entered our subconscious. At the same time, we do draw from postmodernist critical theory to a large degree, in reinterpreting the meaning of those symbols. We like to take symbols out of their native context, while retaining their original meaning, and put them into a new context that questions the initial value assumptions.
What do you use as research materials?
The library. Before we started painting all the time, we used to read … a lot. Until they banned Moco from the University Library (long story), we used to spend hours in the mythograhy and religion sections, with giant stacks of books on our table, and we'd stay there all night looking for interesting connections. Cixous sparked queered reinterpretations of Ovid's Medusa and an interest in "women's work." Foucault sparked a growing interest in collage and the diseased and surveilled body. We even did that after our kid was born – we used to let the baby sleep on the couch in the library while we worked. And then Moco got banned from the building, and now we seriously have to move out of state because it was the only good library within driving distance.
Wait. How did Moco get banned from the library?
They have totally unreasonable rules. <shifty eyes>
What is your research process?
Coffee. Discussion. Google. Discuss. Books. Discuss. Coffee. Make some shit up and pretend it's true. Coffee. Find said shit in a scholarly book and say, "See, I told you this had to be true." Coffee.
If you could travel in a time machine, would you go forward or backward? What era would you visit and why?
That depends on how many trips it could make. We're gay and gender nonconforming -- we would not want to be stranded in the past! That said, the future looks awfully hot. We might actually be, as Pangloss says, in the best of all possible worlds. But, if it could take multiple trips, then we would go back frequently, in small steps, and then forward again to get home, and then forward again, in very small steps, to help ensure we never landed in the middle of the nuclear apocalypse… Caution is the key when time travelling.
When is the earliest time you remember painting/illustrating/drawing and what did you paint/illustrate/draw?
The earliest Maize remembers drawing was on an early-generation Mac desktop (you know, with the black-and-white screens with huge pixels), and obsessively drawing mandala-type shapes with the mirror function. That's pretty much all Maize drew for a really long time. The first thing Maize remembers drawing with traditional materials was an anatomically-correct naked man, and her mother literally made shorts out of fabric and glued it over his bottom half. It's funny how memory works – Maize remembers nothing else she drew prior to high school, except that naked man and his silly shorts. She got spanked for protesting the shorts – she argued that it was art, and that men could be naked in art.
Moco used to draw bloody dismembered bodies, or bloody knives pointing at her father. Don't worry – he deserved it.
Sometimes all it takes is a question like this to realize how not-far you've come in your life….
Please describe the room/space you work in and the objects or emptiness that surrounds you.
It's a mess. Please don't make me.
We usually have two or three easels going at once, and paint spread out all over the place, and piles of paper and clothes and books and painting rags and lots of cups, because when Maize paints, she paints for really extended periods at a time, and she has water and coffee and alcohol all going at once. And sometimes juice, so she doesn't have to stop to eat. If she's lucky, she's painting in the studio, but if she has too many projects going at once she ends up in the kitchen, and then there's …a kitchen… and she has to try really hard not to cover the counters and stove with paint and wax.
Luckily, our child is brilliant, and has never once done something inappropriate in the studio, even when they were tiny. Kitsu is very at home when surrounded by chaotic art projects.
Do you collect certain objects to inspire your work? Can you describe them?
We collect too many objects to inspire our work – partly because we work them into collages or installations. Here's some of the things we collect:
Old books and journals, roadkill, antique photos, real and synthetic hair, fabric swatches, shells (we use them to paint with), boxes, dead furniture, interesting wood, old string, rusty nails and razorblades, dead insects, bones and feathers, art store clearance items, strange old tools, medical texts/notebooks/paraphernalia, bottles, and original art by Steven Archer.
If we came to your house to dinner, what would you serve us?
Take-out Chinese. Let's be honest. But really good take-out Chinese, because we know all the best places. We have tried every Chinese place in town.
If you have pets, describe them, and tell us something about their personalities.
Havok is the old man. He's an 11-year-old Catahoula Hound mix, with some health problems. He's a layabout, and grumpy, but he really, really loves Kitsu. He's been like Kitsu's nana dog, and he was Maize's doula – he licked her feet and supported her legs while she was in labor. He hates strangers and female dogs… and the mailman. He loves his puppy, however. That's "Racecar Lightening No-chewing!! Mwah." (Kitsu named him.) Racecar is under a year old, and he is a Rat Terrier with a Chihuahua head, which is as ridiculous and adorable as it sounds. His name pretty accurately describes him, actually. We have 1.5 cats – Mishki is 16-years-old, and remarkably healthy for her age, apart from being severely allergic to Florida pollen and subsequently looking a little like The Phantom of the Opera. We've had her since she was a kitten. Mishki used to be extremely mischievous and talkative, and she would frame other animals for things she'd done (or better yet, convince them to do it for her). Then, after Kitsu was born, she moved out for four years and went to live with a neighbor because she didn't like the baby messing up the power structure in the house, but she recently came home and now she won't move from her throne. Our other cat, Church (named after Pet Semetary due to her behavior when we first got her), is sweet and cuddly and likes to pee on art, which means she now lives outside. We don't know what it is about the art that makes it irresistible to pee on, no matter what we do with the litter boxes, but there it is. We also have three rats, two fishtanks, a colony of earthworms, and a pet cockroach named Antennae.
If you could have just one super power, what would it be?
Moco's real-life mutant super power is being hyperflexible! She's like Mr. Fantastic! (It's a genetic condition called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and it's not actually as cool as you'd think it would be.)
Maize's real-life superpower is seeing patterns – which is why when she makes some shit up, she is able to find academic proof of said shit in a book shortly thereafter. It also comes in handy for being able to write papers about things that she's never studied, at all… not that she would do that, of course.
Who or what is your muse, if you have one.
We are mutual muses. Kitsu is now an additional mutual muse.
What's more challenging for you, the execution or the idea?
The execution, hands down. Especially when the prisoner keeps struggling!
What are your upcoming projects?
We have more St. Sebastians to paint, and then we are pretty sure we will be starting a Dionysus painting series that is related to it. We also have to finish our Medusa series, which has three more paintings to go.
In Spring 2016, we will be spending one semester teaching art in Florence, Italy, and we hope to work on a film while we are in Europe, in addition to the paintings.
When we return to the States, and get a new studio set up (which may be complicated), we will be doing more encaustic works and book-making. We can't do more encaustic work now because we don't have a good way to store them while we're in Europe (they're very heat sensitive).
Also, we're contracted to do the covers for Nonbinary Review (from Zoetic Press), and before the end of the year we'll have some other books and CDs coming out with our art on the cover.
Do you keep a notebook or do you just store ideas in your head?
We keep a notebook computer – or rather, we keep a laptop. We are cyborgs, remember?
How has your practice changed over time?
MANDEM began as a purely digital artist, and most of our work, early on, was for-purpose, whether that was a commissioned illustration, or for a website, or concept art, or what have you. We did surprisingly little work that was just personal expression or imagined for gallery display. Both of these things shifted at the same time – When we first started looking into printing work for display, we realized how much the digital prints lacked aura when they were outside of an electronic medium, and that's when we started exploring analog methods and materials. At first, our goal was to enhance the digital work, to add pop when putting them on display in a gallery setting, and then slowly the goal moved towards a hybridization of the two, in which neither would be complete without the other. Our current body of transdigital painting work depends as much on analog as digital methods (if not more on analog methods).
Additionally, over the last three years we started creating a new body of work that was more collage/assemblage-based, which eventually mutated into the encaustic works that, in the end, made up half of my thesis show.
What does Transdigital mean?
Transdigital is a term we coined to refer to artwork that depends upon the incorporation of both digital and analog processes. This is something that very many artists do now, both in illustration and the fine art world, but it's often either unrecognized or just referred to as "mixed media," which doesn't entirely cover what is unique about it. Transdigital art could include anything from 3D printed ceramic work to paintings like mine that use both digital painting and oil painting to create the final product. In my case, I often go back and forth between screen and canvas, for example completing a section in paint and scanning it in before working on it digitally, and then printing it back out before putting oil paint on the print. Increasingly, my process is leaning towards digitally painting a grisaille and adding all of the color manually with oil paint, but that's not always been the case.
What's your scariest experience?
Describe a real-life situation that inspired you?
There is a Hellmouth beneath that town. Literally, in the nonfigurative sense. And it shows.
What jobs have you done other than being an artist?
Maize is an adjunct instructor at several schools, across several disciplines. This summer, she will be teaching Composition II, Intro to Humanities, and two art classes, spanning three different schools. In the fall, she will be teaching an original mixed-media course and an experimental drawing course at Florida State University, and in the spring she will be teaching photography and drawing in Florence, Italy. She has also worked her way through two graduate degrees by doing graveyard shift customer service at a call center. She has also been a professional book editor and proofreader. Maize is available for hire, if any universities are looking for a tenure-track art instructor or humanities professor… just putting that out there…
Moco financially supported our art habit for many years by working customer service, but she is now disabled as a side-effect of her mutant superpower.
What memorable responses have you had to your work?
One time, a woman tried to start a fistfight with Moco at an art show because she was so offended by something. People are frequently afraid that demons will come out of the paintings and eat their souls, we kid you not (this may be a side effect of living in the South). We also often have people asking us questions like, "But where did you find this picture?" and the answer is…. "We painted it. We are the artist." And they continue asking, "Right, but where did you find the picture?" At a film screening of our work, people kept asking, "Where did you find this old movie?" and we'd explain, "We made it. This is our film. We are the artist." And they'd ask, "Right, but where did you find the footage?" I'm not sure what it is about us that makes people absolutely certain that we did not create our own art, but maybe it has to do with it resonating with them on such a personal level that they feel like they've seen it before. Or maybe it's because there are a lot of crap artists out there who appropriate shit and sell it as their own.
We've also, of course, had positive responses – people who have been moved to tears by our work, people who have been speechless, high school and college students who have written esssays about us for classes, people who have told us that our work changed their life. The best is when a gallery director sees a painting and hands you a business card and says, "Can you do a solo show next January?"
Is the artistic life lonely? What do you do to counteract it?
We have found being artists to be no more or less lonely than anything else.
What do you dislike about the art world?
We dislike that the emperor has no clothes and his male privilege is showing. There's a very large degree to which the art world is controlled by rules having more to do with class distinction than aesthetic or conceptual value. It's corrupted by the 1%; by speculators who treat art as an investment commodity rather than as part of a living culture; by past government interference that used art as a way to wage war and current government indifference that allows donors' wealth to be more important than cultural relevance; by lack of education in the populace and by too much educational brainwashing in academia; and by the pigeon-holding of what minority and women artists can and cannot do.
What role does arts funding have?
Name something you love, and why.
The art world. We're not even kidding – that's why we get so angry. What we really love is the upcoming generation(s) of artists. The ones who will never get to show in galleries. The ones who give their work away for free or for poverty wages while making incredible lattes.
Maize also really loves cookie straws. It's a cookie AND a straw. It's a cookie straw.
Moco loves avocados.
Kitsu, upon being asked this question, answered, "I love you, moms." And now we both feel bad for talking about cookie straws and avocados, because obviously the thing we love the most is our kid.
Name something you despise, and why.
Anti-intellectualism. It's like the scourge of society, seriously.
What's the best piece of advice you've been given? What is the best piece of advice you can give?
"You need a man in a suit. Then people would take you seriously." We promptly promoted Moco to being the Man in the Suit… with mixed results. We didn't get the male privilege, but that paradigm helped. You can't just hide in the studio working – you need to hustle. You need to meet people, and keep putting yourself out there, and apply for things even if you don't think you can get them, and be confident in yourself – not as yourself, but as your agent would be. Of course, it helps if you can be an able-bodied White man and wear a tailored suit. In absence of that, accept the barriers to entry you're going to face, and then do your best to bust through them.
One of Maize's painting professors, Lilian Garcia-Roig, tells her students to say to themselves, "Why not me?" Damn right. Why not me.