PuSh Play Episode 5: “Returns” Transcript

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Gabrielle [00:00:01] Hello and welcome to PuSh Play, a PuSh Festival podcast featuring conversations with artists who are pushing boundaries and playing with form. I’m Gabrielle Martin, PuSh’s director of programming. And today’s episode highlights clothing as a tool to think and feel through social systems. I’m speaking with Nellie Gossen, responsible for the direction and concept of Returns, a durational performance installation running throughout the PuSh Festival January 18th to February 3rd, 2024. Returns unearths the materials and performances already at play within consumer capitalism. Nellie works through the medium of fashion, costume, textiles and performance, considering the many truths of industrial labour and consumption. Her work explores the materials of mainstream fashion as a vehicle for study, spaciousness, social action, rigorous love, practice and phenomenological inquiry. I’m excited for you to hear our discussion that highlights how these considerations culminate in Returns. Here is my conversation with Nellie. 

Gabrielle [00:01:01] I just want to take a moment to acknowledge that both of us are here today on the stolen Unceded ancestral territories of the Coast Salish Peoples, the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh). And it is it’s an absolute privilege to be here living on these lands that just contextualises where we are. And I want to now talk about the work that we’re doing and the collaboration. So your work explores the space created when clothing and contemplative practices meet. And I’m curious, how did you arrive at this unique point of transdisciplinary inquiry? 

Nellie [00:01:40] For me, these are not fields that I have intentionally brought together. They are rather just parts of me, parts of what I’m interested in, parts of my own training and experience. I come to this work with formal training and the field of fashion design and also in religious studies and spiritual care. So these are just these two poles of my own interests and explorations that of course are going to come together in my practice, whether I like it or not. I think, so I’m primarily thinking about the field of fashion, and that’s been a thread that really weaves through all of my work. And when we’re thinking about fashion and engaging in that industry and that system and fashion design education, we’re really always going to be referencing or talking to the flow of money. Fashion is so deeply intertwined with capitalism from the kind of earliest stages of capitalism as we see it now. So this is always going to be a reference point and always going to be kind of a reckoning when we’re talking about thinking about working with fashion. For me, in my practice or what I what I kind of see and understand is that the fashion industry, fashion field is interested in bringing in question topics that are relevant to folks, what’s happening out in the world, reflecting, reflecting our lived experiences. And because it is so intertwined with money, with with marketing, with profit, it has the tendency to really flatten and limit and kind of water down all of these experiences. So I guess something that I want to name is any time I’m thinking about fashion, I feel like there is this reckoning with this lineage of less nuance and complexity rather than more. My interest and my field really is really always going to be one of how we can bring more interesting questions and more space into thinking about clothing and and bringing in kind of contemplative practices, thinking about attention practices, thinking about slowing down, feeling with the full body, thinking about weaving and lineages of how we make meaning, of how we reckon with what is known and what is unknown and unknowable. It’s just extra space for me to to kind of find what is interesting for me in fashion practice and, and to really be be drawing on other fields and other interdisciplinary practice, other mediums to kind of create more space to think about clothing and fashion in a in a bit of a wider frame. 

Gabrielle [00:04:37] Yeah. So the way you’re speaking, I start to get a sense of how the contemplative practice is embedded in the experience that you’re designing with Returns and your kind of artistic interests. You’re currently studying end of life care, and I’m just curious if you could expand a little bit more on how so that that experience and that education informs the design, how we may feel that, for example in Returns or in other projects of yours. 

Nellie [00:05:12] Similar with with end of life care and about spiritual care. These are I didn’t set out with the intention of making a work about that. That’s just really a reflection of the questions that I’m asking in my own life. You know, as a student of the field, somebody who has been been studying and practising that in that world, I think there is so much that that enters into my work and is profoundly relevant to how we are moving through the world today, how we’re making work today. I see a lot of folks starting to integrate grief work and death work into artistic practices these days. And I think it really speaks to, you know, how we are navigating and negotiating some of the larger questions of bearing witness to to to what what we are what we are seeing in the world today. I think in a practical sense, when we’re talking about care practices of of this turning towards are building and capacity building muscle to turn towards experiences that are really challenging, to turn towards suffering, to turn towards complexity and to try to build spaces to to hold that complexity in life or in art practice or in whatever other container it it all creates more space for us to think, think about or for me to think about my artistic practice in a more nuanced way. So what’s actually happening in in Returns, it can be considered a caregiving practice. We are borrowing clothing, we are borrowing systems from the larger fashion industry and thinking about how we can use our bodies to offer them value or to to witness them to to care for them and to care for garments that are that are essentially otherwise made to be disposable. So this kind of practice in a way of a re-sacralizing commun-  or commercial garments or commercial materials and how we can bring our our attention can actually change and impact those materials. 

Gabrielle [00:07:36] Yeah. So you’re touching on a little bit about what happens in Returns that there’s this this disassembling and reassembling of garments and and there’s an embodied practice there too, that there’s dance artists who you’re working with who are engaging physically in this space, and that this all kind of comes together to critique consumer capitalism. So it’s a durational performance installation that addresses modern production and consumption and how we exist with it and consumer capitalism. and so I’m just curious if you could talk a bit more about how those different mediums come together in this piece to… I mean, you already have been speaking to that, but maybe you could just expound a little bit further on, for example, why are you working with dance artists? What does that add? 

Nellie [00:08:32] Something I’ll say right off the bat is my my clothing practice has always been in conversation with with performance. And when I say that, you know, my clothing and contemplative practices have kind of come together accidentally, I’ve been much more intentional with with really incorporating dance and movement and performance practices into my work kind of since the beginning of my more formal, formal artistic practice. So I have been thinking about how we can meaningfully incorporate those tools or incorporate the tools of of the moving and thinking body into clothing practice. What I will say about the the piece, maybe I would just really briefly tell you or just explain what happens in the in the work in the in the kind of briefest sense we are borrowing kind of cycles and the systems that are really already at play within within the retail consumer systems. So we this project works in 30 day iterations where we are going to stores going into mass chain stores that that work with a 30 day retail return policy. And then this 30 day retail return policy essentially becomes the framework becomes the container for our inquiry, our 30 day inquiry. So we buy a whole bunch of clothing of all different kinds, we bring it back to our performance space where we take it all apart very, very carefully, take it all apart, and then use the material. We explore the material, for that for the duration of our of our work. So we sew new clothing, constellations, we work, we create new kind of sculptural forms. And then we do have this ongoing movement practice working with movement scores that that run throughout the piece that’s totally part of part of the work and the way that we work. So not all is happening. Towards the end of the 30 day period, we we take apart everything that we have been working on and again, very carefully begin to reassemble all of the pieces of clothing that we are using back into their original form. So this is to reference care practices across the board. This is one of of of caring very, very, very specifically for these garments. And yeah, so at the end of the 30 day practice, the 30 day period, everything is reassembled back into original form and returned to stores for a full refund. So again, pulling things out of systems that are already in existence, borrowing, borrowing the materials for just a temporary period and then returning them back in into the systems that we that we that we’re working with. So that’s the kind of the basic form that we’re thinking about. And to kind of come back to your question in terms of the production and consumption and how we’re using this space to witness that, I really do understand all of the garments, all of the materials that we’re working with to be in the material manifestation of these these larger systems of capitalism, of the fashion industry, of of global supply chains and the fashion supply chain, the systems of production are hidden from our view. It is not profitable for consumers to be exposed to the hugely exploitative, you know, process of of of production. So we’re really sitting in this place as consumers in the global north of of these positions of privilege of how how can we even witness these systems. What how can we how can we reckon with our with our positions in this in the space. Yeah. How can we even begin to engage with, with systems that are, that are hidden from our, from our view. So these pieces of clothing essentially become this material record or this archive of this labour that we that we can work with. So we are really imagining clothing, commercial garments as, as the material that we have to witness, witness the systems and borrowing this particular 30 day retail exchange as the way of of of using our bodies to witness the kinds of patterns of consumption that are part of our everyday lives. So yeah, essentially we’re just using the materials, the systems, and we use that in ways that we can and the ways that we can slow down a little bit to to kind of have a better sense of, of what is happening and, and how we can kind of yeah, how we can learn from, from these these materials and to address the clothing movement dance relationship. I in my practice the kind of core centre central interest is the body and I understand the clothing element as a practice of the body. I understand the movement and dance element as a practice of the body. I have over the last couple of years done this, this work with dance artists as a way of, of really inhabiting this system from the perspective of the moving and thinking body and how we can trace bodies as we- our bodies, other bodies- the kind of choreographic patterns of these of these systems from more of a of a movement and performance and dance lens. So that has been an ongoing layer or two to the equation. And this particular iteration that I’m sharing this is going to. Be the eighth full iteration of this process that I’ve done. And this time I’m going to be working with three really talented artistic collaborators, kind of each coming from their own, with their with their own skills and expertise. I am working with Erika Mitsuhashi, who comes from the field of Dance. I’m working with Jaewoo Kang, who, similar to me is thinking about clothing and costume practice in an interdisciplinary context and working with Tone Puorro who is joining us from from Berlin. And they are thinking about materials and craft and performance and community organising. So we’ve got a lot of different layers that we’re bringing in. Each of us already has the pre-existing practice thinking at the intersection of of clothing and performance. So we’ve got a whole bunch of new voices to kind of explore what is possible in this 30 day, 30 day container. 

Gabrielle [00:16:05] Thank you for that beautifully articulated insight to and what this is all about and and all the the thoughtful research that has gone into making Returns. And I’m curious, you have spoken about fashion becoming increasingly present within art spaces in Vancouver and beyond. And would you be able to speak a bit to why fashion is becoming increasingly present and what that does for audience experiences and artist practices and the kind of maybe themes or or techniques that are developing through that. 

Nellie [00:16:49] I mean, something that I can speak to right off the bat is that we are in this interesting moment in Vancouver where the fashion depictions exhibition of the VAG just closed. The Museum of Vancouver has a fashion history exhibition. My collaborator, Jaewoo Kang is currently in a show with the Griffin Art Projects to do with fashion. So I have never have never witnessed a kind of momentum in this city around thinking through questions of fashion before. It’s a it’s a medium that has often been left out of artistic practices. It’s been considered more in the world of design, and it’s sometimes been a challenge to see that in in more artistic conversation or art conversations. Yeah, so I recognise that, that it is having a moment and I see a lot of folks turning towards clothing practices and kind of incorporating that into other kinds of works. I think the people have been doing that for a long time and I also recognise, you know, that there is momentum coming from lots of different ways. The pandemic, our kind of increased intimacy of supply chain issues and and this kind of global interconnectedness when it comes to materials and supply chains, I think it brings fashion or brings brings this kind of production process into our lives in a in a much more immediate way. Fashion is hugely problematic when it comes to our ecological situation. And and I think there is increasing motivation to look at what’s happening there. So, yeah, I think there are a lot of these kind of entry points that that how folks are more interested and thinking about this this topic. And there have recently been a number of of books that have been published about kind of fashion history and textile history that have reached a wider public. So, yeah, I do, I am witnessing this kind of this kind of momentum and and uptake and in the general public being kind of interested in engaging with clothing. And something that I will also add and what I’m thinking about and, and in the process and research that I’m doing is that and I think when we’re talking about shopping for clothing, when we’re talking about interfacing with these big chain stores and interfacing with fashion, that these are these are practices that that so many people can relate to and have this kind of personal lived, intimate experience with. So, yeah, I hope that can be an entry point for folks in kind of engaging with their work in a different way. 

Gabrielle [00:20:00] Yeah. You’ve spoken about shopping as an artistic practice. Yeah. And so you’re kind of touching on that now. Is there anything more that you want to share on that? 

Nellie [00:20:10] The shopping have been such a huge space of research for me and it is incorporated into this work, absolutely. It’s not really what folks are necessarily going to see as as audiences for this work. You know, we are we are essentially just opening our working process up in the in the sewing in the building and the wearing for for folks to come and see that side of things. But all of this all of this work is in reference to systems, to exchanges in in this kind of shopping retail space. So a lot of my research and the research that we have been doing is also just growing into retail spaces, into malls, into stores, and witnessing the performances that are already happening there, witnessing the kinds of movements, the kinds of patterns, the kinds of embodied experiences, and what it feels like to be moved by music, what it feels like in the stores, what it feels like to be moved by spending money. Like what, what that does to the body, what that does to one’s, you know, embodied experience. All of these, all of these patterns and these paths that are that are set out for us in retail spaces. So that’s been a huge part of my my own practice and. I own research, and partially because as somebody who likes clothing and has been thinking about clothing, you know, it’s the fine line in this contemporary day and age, the the the the boundary between liking clothing and liking shopping and it feeling good to consume and shop is is thin. So I, I come by my interest in shopping honestly it’s I am a researcher of my own experience of what it means to interface with with those systems. So yeah, very much a big site of my own research and, and what kind of comes together in my practice. 

Gabrielle [00:22:24] This… Returns is going to be running through the festival, which is really exciting that there’s an opportunity for folks to see. It. Not only is are there lots of opportunities to experience this work, but also you could come more than once. How might that function as a you anticipate folks coming back? Yeah. 

Nellie [00:22:45] Hopefully. Yeah. So we are for the whole full month cycle. It starts on January 6th and runs all the way until February 4th at the at The Dance Centre. And we are going to be open to to the public for 3 hours a day, 5 days a week within our formal working period, which is then going to be January 7th to to, February 3rd. That’s going to be our performance window. We’re open five days a week. The the entry is free. So we hope that that will encourage folks to come back. Many times our days, our performance days are structured in more or less the same way, and we are continuously working with the materials in different ways throughout the month, and they’re going to take on really different forms as the clothing, as large scale kind of sculptural installations. So we are just kind of working, moving with them, thinking with them continuously. So I really do hope that folks can come back a couple of times to kind of see the evolution of the materials and our practice throughout. So I would absolutely encourage, repeat, repeat visits. Yeah. 

Gabrielle [00:24:21] All right. Thanks so much for just bringing us inside your world a little bit more and giving us more of a sense of the context and how we can engage with this work. Yeah. Thanks so much, Nellie. 

Nellie [00:24:35] Thank you so much for having me. 

Gabrielle [00:24:40] PuSh Play is produced by Ben Charland and Tricia Knowles and supported by our incredible community outreach coordinator, Julian Legere. New episodes with Gabrielle Martin are released every Monday and Thursday. For more information on PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, please visit pushfestival.ca and follow us on social media @pushfestival.