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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle Interview Linda Mary Montano

Elizabeth Stephens & Annie Sprinkle

Seminal performance artist Linda M. Montano’s archive is for sale. The buyer must insure that her life’s work will be properly preserved so it can be studied and enjoyed by future generations. Several major art institutions have nibbled and it won’t be long before one bites. Take a guided tour of the archive anytime; go to You Tube, search “Linda Mary Montano Archive For Sale.” Linda herself is the tour guide. There are three levels. Level I includes her paper writings, books, reviews and letters. Level 11 includes Level 1 plus her clothing, photo documents, early paintings, and items she used in her every day life, signed as performance art ephemera, as her “life is art.” With Level 111 the archive comes with a two-story building; “The Art/life Institute” in Kingston, New York, an artfully restored bakery, which Linda rebuilt and decorated herself.
At 69 years old, Linda Montano is going strong and her archive continues to grow. During a recent public intervention she spent three days in front of the Empire State Building performing as Mother Teresa of Calcutta where she greeted passers by and spread the love. Montano’s work has always been humanitarian in nature. The sari with the blue trim which she wore, will be added to the archive. These days Montano is a self-described “Catholic Performance Artist,” creating yet another groundbreaking genre of performance art. This is “testimony to my Catholic childhood and need to re-see early roots.”
Montano’s many endurance and durational pieces have strongly influenced contemporary performance art. Her visual art, her teaching, and “life as art” performances have profoundly moved and inspired many. She began doing performance art full time in 1971. Before that she lived in a Roman Catholic convent for two years preparing to be a Maryknoll nun, on a mission to help those in need and “cure leprosy.” When she became severely anorexic she had to leave the convent, and then she discovered that art making was her best medicine for recovery. Thus began her strong connection between art and life, and her conception of “life is art.”
Montano went on to get her MA in sculpture at Villa Schifanoia in Italy, then her MFA at the University of Wisconsin. She lived and worked in San Francisco from 1970 to 1975 and returned often to teach classes and workshops. She lived in a Zen Monastery. Later, she studied for thirty years at the Ananda Ashram with her spiritual teacher, Dr. Ramamurti Mishra. Montano taught performance art at many universities including the San Francisco Art Institute, Bard College, Temple University, Ohio University and University of Texas. Linda Montano has initiated many people into serious art practices and has given permission to others to make art of their life.
A few of Montano’s historic performance pieces are Rope Piece, where she and artist Tehching Hsieh tied themselves together with eight feet of rope between them for one full year during his Art/Life: One Year Performance. They never removed the rope and never touched. She has performed two seven-year-long pieces; 14 Years Of Living Art 1984-1998, where each year of her life was devoted to a different theme and color, and different commitments based on the theology of the seven chakras. During the first seven-year piece, once a month she sat in the window of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in Manhattan, read people’s tarot cards and gave them Art/Life Counseling as art. The lines were continuous and many people reported that the experience changed their lives for the better. Her videos such as Mitchell’s Death and Learning to Talk are part of any respectable history of performance art class and have played in the world’s finest museums and galleries, including the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art. From 1998 To 2005 Montano “experienced” seven years of “Dad Art,” caretaking her sick father who eventually passed away. She states that, “this event was the culmination of my entire practice as an artist.”
Fourteen years ago, Linda Montano put out a public invitation to other artists to utilize her seven-year Living Art performance structure and do their own life’s version of it. This project is titled Another 21 Years of Living Art 1998-2019. Currently 14 other artists are doing her piece incorporating their own unique vision, including an eight-year-old boy in collaboration with his artist mom in Australia. We are fortunate to be part of that group, and the experience has been extraordinary.

Interview by Elizabeth M. Stephens and Annie M. Sprinkle

Beth: Which do you use, “life as art” or “art as life?” And how did this term get into circulation?

Linda: It is interchangeable and I learned it from Alan Kaprow who studied with Suzuki. I was in San Francisco in the 70's and was also influenced by Tom Marioni, Terry Fox, Howard Fried, Barbara T. Smith, and Bonnie Sherk who created the FARM. I see ART=LIFE/LIFE=ART as an Asian concept—that the sacredness of life touched everything-- that art is indistinguishable from life. That’s why Kaprow along with John Cage and Pauline Oliveros, became enamored of chance operations. They took away the "judging head " and broke down barriers. Then, moving to San Diego, I continued to be influenced by Pauline and Kaprow and Ellie Antin who taught at UC San Diego as well. Pauline had put her tape recorder on the windowsill and decided to tape everything, listen to everything and compose with that spaciousness....sound=music.
And of course the Women’s Building in Los Angeles, was a giant ART/LIFE experience/experiment.

Beth: So if you think about the work you’ve done and where you have been, what do you think your most important contributions have been to the art world?

Linda: Humor, an ironic twist that pushes things to another level and takes away the kind of seriousness and pomposity that could be a kind of elititism, and birth a world of artists who have gifts and brains that would set them apart from the populous, the people.

Annie: Do you have a favorite work you have produced?

Linda: My favorite "piece" really was taking care of my father. That was a quintessential art life piece. I used my video camera not to make art but to hide behind because of the pain of having to watch him with my own eyes. When I started seeing it as art it was easier to witness, see and transform what was happening. Then later after my Dad died, I made a two-hour movie about him. That was pivotal, because it changed me from what I was before to what I am now. I went back in time, back into my child house, my childhood. Being so near my father, and the intensity of that, I became another person. Humor was my gift in my early work. I see the humor somewhat now, but it’s not a consistent humor. There is something else, and I’m not sure what. Something more real has entered. It’s not that I have given up humor. I just performed as Mother Teresa of Calcutta, which had a twinge of irony because here I am a “dystoniac”(I have cervical dystonia) bent over in spasm, and making believe I’m her. That's funny, no? There is also something else that is interesting that is happening. In 1970 I sat in front of a video camera for a year and became different characters. Now I’m wanting to become live people. Now I’m wanting to not be make-believe people, but Mother Teresa, Bob Dylan, and Paul McMahon. Before I was Dr. Jane Gooding, and it was fake. Before I was trying to get out of myself and now I’m trying to get nearer to people, to get out of isolation and into intimacy. I will be "you" because I need to share my life. Before it was I’ve gotta get out of my life and be these false people. Also I just finished an essay on this titled “Masks.” See my blog: (HTTP://LINDAMARYMONTANO.BLOGSPOT.COM) I talk about the four levels of consciousness: unconscious, subconscious, conscious and superconscious and I see that I have portrayed all four levels in my persona work: the alcoholic, the professional, the real person(Bob Dylan) and the Guru. It all revolves around accepting all aspects of the self. The neurobiological aspects of rehearsing being another person, changes my brainwaves.

Annie: I adore your humor. Your humor starts in my gut and radiates out my body. It’s not a surface humor that goes inward but a very deep humor that explodes outward. It is spiritually that provides spiritual nourishment.

Linda: Thanks Annie. My grandmother was very funny. She would take her teeth out on holidays and sing. And my mother dressed up on Halloween and went trick or treating.

Beth: My grandmother would take her teeth out too! It was very funny, and very scary. What do you think is the highest form of life-art?

Linda: Anything that creates an ecstasy in the artist; where there is a suspension of time, of judgment. Suspension. There’s a riding the wave of ecstasy when everyone is on the same page. No one is dragging the rudder of judgment or disbelief. It is when the artist is in the state of creation... Or when the artist is co-creating with other ARTISTS/LIFEISTS and they are riding the same train in the same manner and don’t care about time or space. In Catholicism it is called The Mystical Body of Christ. In life, it is ecstasy.

Annie: Are you proud to be an artist?

Linda: I’m very, very happy that I was chosen. I don’t think you choose. The universe chooses people. I am honored to be chosen to be an artist. I don’t think I have anything to do with it.

Beth: What’s the most fun you have had making art?

Linda: I love being different personas, I love being other people. The first time I was Mother Teresa I blew myself away. Me blowing me! And that is so correct because we think… is this blowing the audience away? No, that is the wrong thinking. We have to blow ourselves into ecstasy. When I was studying sculpture in Italy, I dropped the idea of being a studio artist. I collected Italian found objects , audience members picked up an object (according to numbers) which they individually assembled and make a sculpture. That was the beginning of my liberation. Another one happened when my college teacher and mentor, Mother Mary Jane at the College of New Rochelle, gave me “art-wings” and I made a group ceramic mural on a public wall in 1965. Oh yes, freedom for sure.

Annie: You’ve been using recycled materials for a LONG time. Would you say you’ve been in the environmental art movement?

Linda: I think it’s more that I learned thrift, a frugality and a respect for matter from my family. I remember my dad drawing one bowl of water to wash in the morning; everything was done with this one bowl of "sacred" water. Our life was very monastic. My grandmother recycled everything and had a whole album full of condensed milk cows cut from labels. Yeah, recycling is natural to some people because they grew up that way. And then it becomes a movement like Art Povera or Eco-art.
Poverty, war, recessions, depression, a non-consumerist ethos allows for a neo environmental-green that is now au courant.

Beth: Is there such a thing as a failed art project in art/life?

LINDA: We must always think about consequences even though we are these freedom-fighting-geniuses called artists. I would say, as a cautionary word, that the beauty of our calling as artists is to see beyond; we must be the creator, beyond limits, and regulations, and beyond consequences. And yet in the world of reality there ARE consequences. That’s the paradox and makes some of us want to stay in the cave. It takes time and wisdom, and it takes stumblings, and those kinds of haphazard and consequential mistakes to realize that first flush of, oh, I’m going to do this and its going to be fabulous, without thinking of the consequences. Horribleness happens. It is part of the game. But as I age, I can take less and less of it as my stress level seizes me up. Honestly I’m quite content sitting in the kick back chair and watching Entertainment Tonight re-runs. Its good ART/LIFE for me and I am failure-free!!

Beth: So do you think there is such a thing as failure, or is it just part of the process of becoming an artist, and an adult?

Linda: I think that there are no mistakes because there is reality in both. It is "What can I stomach?" I just wrote a "hell" poem inspired from my college days studying the Divine Comedy. My version is composed of layers of hell with exclamations of pain. The poem is titled ENTER (see blog). It is about serial failures and it was so cleansing to write. Failure as art. Exorcising the dark....

Beth: Can you talk about being a Catholic performance artist Linda?

Linda: In these complex times of recessive recessions, downsized possessions, boundaried vacations, medical quarantines, folded funding, foreclosed dreams, I decided or felt called to Become a Catholic Again! It is an exciting return and also has its own challenges. Being a Catholic artist is very new for me, about 10 years old. It came from teaching at the university because there, I had "art children" and I didn’t know how to be an "art mother". I had been a gig-er before that. I went to gigs in different cities/countries, did my thing and left. No consequences, no muss, no fuss. But teaching for seven years with a group of young people at the same place was a whole other ball game. I had to be a moral compass and protector of their physical/psychological/spiritual safety. Not having had children, I had no idea how to do that so there were times when there were flower-child-art-students, running aesthetically in the halls and a whole lot of performative incredibleness happening that Linda-art loved but Linda-teacher had no idea how to decipher. I went to the Church to get help!

Beth: If you had a young student now that wanted to do life art what advice would you give?

Annie: I’d say ‘call Linda Montano because she’s the best art mother there is.’

Linda: Annie, you are always so generous and supportive of me, and I tear-up with it always… What would I say? Don’t be scared, yet be careful. I’m watching an extremely ill friend who is in her sixties. She had a stroke. Kathy Brew and I were standing next to her bed. She was in critical care. We sang to each other, because we were both feeling the same thing, “What’s it all about Alfie?” And I guess we both agreed that it doesn’t matter how long that resume is when it comes down to the deathbed and final breath. I think I’m coming to that kind of realization which time and age reveal… How to illustrate this? I think when people begin aging and see other people age and when things change so drastically, like my father’s illness, and then returning to Catholicism, having a medical issue where I’m so health focused… I think priorities change.
Can I now be as spicy, and as loyal to the image, to my students, to the video, to the performance, to my brilliance, or to the painting as Georgia O’Keefe was in an interview of her I saw when she was ninety-two. She looked as sharp and committed and focused on being an artist… just like a rattlesnake watching her prey ....and this I could see as she was getting out of her car, going up into the woods on her way to paint New Mexico sunsets. I want to bull dog my way to the end and hang on to the bone of my art and life in a dignified, totally comical, graceful, divinely directed and correct way just like Georgia. Fate might deal me a different strategy. Thanks to my belief-system, it is all, no matter what, wonderful art and a wonderful life.

Beth: Do you think your work is interventionist art? And what do you think that term means?

Linda: There are programs on some of the 400,000 TV programs I watch a week that are about interventions for drugs, alcohol, etc. I think intervention is about: speaking the difficult. Artists really hang out in the difficult, are obliged to communicate the difficult.

Annie: How do you feel like feminism and religion have interacted with your work?

Linda: Feminism is a word that I really don’t apply to myself and I feel really quite inept in this journey I’m on with this Catholic position. Sometimes its working and I’m pretty happy with it and other times not. For example, I go to the jail on Sundays and do a Catholic service there. There is one guard, a man, who likes telling anti-Catholic jokes. There are two other women there and they just listen to the jokes and laugh. They’re more mature than I am. Last time he said he had a new joke. I said, ‘Is it a Catholic joke? Because if it is, I’m leaving.’ And I left. I don’t like the way I did it. I’m proud that I left, but I wish I had done it with more creativity, with humor. With ART! Creativity is the ticket. How to get out of situations or into situations that are more nourishing because I ended up winning in my own eyes, and I don’t want to do that any more. Loving is winning because when l look at a friend on her deathbed…who cares who’s winning. Who cares? There’s just one less person at MY funeral when I’m so intent on winning!

Annie: In terms of your art life practice what are you current commitments/projects now? Didn’t you take a vow to not write for a year?

Linda: The writing commitment is up 2012. It was for seven years. I was going to wear orange forever, and that is getting really mushy. I have a lot of orange clothes but I slip in browns and purples and reds. But as I said before, I’m more focused on compiling, completing, concluding the past, and bringing it into some sort of crescendo/conclusion. That was why I took this no-writing vow. I wanted to cure myself of greedily creating as if I were an art addict and not a lover of truth. Artaholics are not necessary.

Beth: Could you talk about the current group that Annie and I are participating in with you? There are about ten other artists using your Seven Years of Life as Art and seven-chakra structure. Are you glad you made the call for people to join you in using your structure? Is this maybe a strategy for a longer project? What’s it like collaborating with people? What is your response to having this project?

Linda: As far as 21 Years of Living Art is concerned, every 7 years, artists “do their 7 year thing” under the auspices of this school that I founded because I truly love endurance and I wanted to share my love with others. One day I see my thinking about what people are doing in this school as ecumenical-offerings which are not quite Roman Catholic but certainly are spiritual (not religious), and then the next day I want to hide and feel as if I am uncomfortably pushing my boundaries of Catholic belief. Yes, that says it, my boundaries of belief. So right now the school is a wonderful mix of geniuses who are forcing me into deciding whether I’m going to be a fundamentalist finger wagging Catholic church woman via SNL, or if I am there to encourage creativity.

Beth: Here’s a question from our editor, Roxi Hamilton, “How do you feel that ritual and longevity, like 7-year performance cycles, intervene in and shape our conceptions of how art affects life?”

Linda: I want her to answer that one!

Beth: Here’s another one from Roxi., “ How do you regard your extension of ancestry, and that’s borrowing appropriating and extending your 7-year chakra paradigm and whether the 7-year performances should be repeatedly reconceptualized by other artists?”

Linda: I think it’s in the culture anyway. I think that performance art has a way of infecting culture, and then reappearing. It’s already happening, and it’s happened. A lot of it is because the computer has squashed and trumped time, and is preparing us for robotization and intellectual piracy. These attempts of these interventionist artists to speak to, and hold on to time is really an Armageddon-like attempt to point towards a loss via the machine. Endurance is a response to the information age. Endurance is availability. Endurance is staying the course. Endurance gives us a taste of solidity that is being lost to floating avatarily in SECOND LIFE.

Beth: One more question from Roxi. “Your personal spiritual, and artistic vocabulary seems to be composed of a hybrid of mostly Catholic but also Indian influences, the guru, the chakras, etc. Can you comment on the significance of combining your own childhood religion with the language and practice of other cultures?”

Linda: It can only be a richer meal.

Beth: Anything else you would like to say?

Linda: Buy my archive so I can simplify. lindamontano@hotmail.com See it on You Tube. Its called “Archive for Sale.” I’m giving a finder’s fee for the best price.

Annie: Who would the ideal buyer be?

Linda: The Getty, NYU, Bard, An International Institute? See Part 4 of the video and find a place. Fast. Anywhere that the Archive can be used for research would be good. I’m really putting effort into putting my papers, books, videos and objects in order. I’m becoming an archivist. Does that mean I’m now a librarian? Not another persona, please! The best scenario is if somebody bought the Kingston “Art/Life Institute” and kept the archive there and used it as a study center, a performance center. That would be perfect!

Annie: I’d give anything to see that happen.

Beth: That’s really exciting.

Linda: ART LIVES!!!!!!!!!!

We highly encourage you to contact Linda Mary Montano for Art/Life/Laughter Counseling. Or gather her unique wisdom from her three books: Art In Everyday Life, Performance Artists Speaking In the 80’s, Letters from Linda M. Montano. Invite her to do lectures, workshops, and performances in your city. Visit her web site at lindmontano.com. If you are interested in acquiring her amazing archive, contact her at lindamontano@hotmail.com. Buy it and donate it to NYU or find a rich uncle who needs a tax write off and let him buy it, then donate it to NYU. Your finder’s fee is a day tied to Linda with love.

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