This article is a contribution from 2018-2019 LEIMAY Fellowship Artist Jenna Kirk. The LEIMAY Fellows are a group of local artists working individually throughout the year at the LEIMAY studio.
INTERVIEW with Jenna Kirk by Jeremy Goren on a new work, The City of Ladies:a question of where (compiled by Jenna Kirk from Silvia Federici, Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Beatrice of Nazareth, and Hildegard of Bingen)
Why do you call this piece The City of Ladies?
The City of Ladies is the title of a book written in the 1300s by Christine de Pizan, who was potentially the first female professional European writer of the middle ages. Although, just recently they dug up the bones of the nun in Germany from the 1100s; she had lapis lazuli in her teeth, so they think she might have been a writer/illustrator of illuminated manuscripts, which is a whole new can of worms. In Christine’s book, three daughters of God come down to talk with her, and she asks them questions about why the world treats women the way that it does. They answer through stories and histories of remembered and forgotten women. They build a foundation of a city by telling these stories, and then they build the walls through the stories. So, it’s through stories that the City of Ladies is built.
How did this piece come about?
It started when we were working with Polina Klimovitskaya and I found an old sermon text -- ‘We can’t meet in God’s house, We can’t meet in another city’ -- and continued when I went for a first residency at the Workcenter. There was a proposal and time and space that I could make something. I didn’t understand what the Open Program meant by “action”, and I started making a performance proposition in order to try to understand it. I had seen some of their propositions, and I started putting things together. There were some words my grandmother used to say to me when I would see her; there was a song I was interested in, some biblical texts, and then this sermon. There were several more propositions I made in the following years, and then I read Caliban and the Witch by activist and academic Silvia Federici, which became the driving force for me and a glue for the whole work. Federici’s project, which extends beyond this book, involves an exploration of the catalyzation of the advent of capitalism by way of the privatization of the commons and the degradation and mass murder of women in western Europe -- the witch hunts -- as one of the means of retaking control of society, which she later extends to the very recent large-scale murders of accused witches largely in nations in the throes of capitalist eruption, like Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania, Papua New Guinea, Nepal, Saudi Arabia, and India.
Why, aside from historical curiosity, make a performance from this?
On the one hand it’s a bit of a link for me to why women are as we are now, particularly white, European-American women, and why we approach the world as we do. And, on the other, this sensation of lost history. My family is here and from here, but their roots go further back to Europe a few hundred years ago, and there’s something of a lost memory. Not so much of my family particularly, but of a larger, women’s history. I had a sensation, after having read Federici’s book, of seeing how much was lost by the murders of all these women and the change of society that it helped enable. Federici talks about housework a lot. And one of the examples she gives is this never-ending story of how housework is not work. She’s been fighting for years that it should be wage work; but, instead, it’s the butt of jokes. For me, in some weird way, the witch trials help me understand this butt of the joke better. The deterioration of women through mass murder… people need space from that, so people turn it into jokes. And, if society is built to control women, then its jokes will be to degrade women. It’s coded into our system, right? We’re coded to think housework and cleaning work should be demeaning. It’s coded into our system to think women should be there for pleasure, women should be there to smile, women should be there as objects. And I understand that coding better when I can trace it back to this mass murdering, which resulted in the loss of a strong communal life among women and the decimation of women’s healing traditions, and even historical memory. Anyway. Wrapped around Federici’s research are several other stories of women, including the little girl with the red shoes and a real-life-16th-century-transvestite-Spanish-conquistador-nun.
So, you’re making this performance…?
To let the information be accessible but also to let it live in a way that’s not just in a book. Which people can and should read.
If you wrote invitations to people to come see The City of Ladies, how would you describe it?
I like the phrase theatrical lecture, but I feel like it’s getting used a lot, but: A theatrical lecture about stories of women in the shape of a double-helix. Maybe it’s more than a double helix, maybe a quintuple helix. It’s shaped like a Twizzler candy, like a Pull-and-Peel. The whole piece is woven from multiple disparate threads that get passed through each other, and you have to go through the whole thing to see the larger picture that they make.
Do you feel like you’re also propelled by what’s going on in our society?…
Sure. Trump. Abortion rights. The whole conversation around colonization -- including gentrification -- and how we’re in constant processes of that, even inside our minds. The coding and structures in the mind that result from these processes. These larger conversations we’re having about the structure of our society, which also include religion, money, and power structures. For me it’s useful to look at older structures in order to get a glimpse as to why we do what we do now.
Can you say something about your process creating this piece alone?
Whenever I start working, whatever starts generating, starts working, at some point a thread will start to unravel or a door will open up, and I’ll see “Oh, and should go this way”, and things will fall into place rapidly for a moment. And then maybe things get rearranged. But that sensation is the same.
Do you have other dreams, other future projects in mind?
At some point I would like to do a project more specifically related to the City of Ladies book, with women of all ages and backgrounds telling stories, as the Daughters of God do in Pizan’s book, to build a city of ladies and people outside of the patriarchy. Also, The City of Ladies in theory exists in a world that has men in it. Like a convent, but not a closed one and not a religious one. And, you and I are also working on a festival/social-performance-sculpture -- Feast Your Famine -- and a new work that is performed inside of this -- Mosh-Pit Daisies. The works will appear first through our residency at The Center at West Park in Manhattan, during the week of October 7-13, 2019.
Anything else you want to say?