BA (Hons) Photography lecturer Louise Fago-Ruskin is a practicing artist alongside teaching on our undergraduate programme, and recently secured an artist residency at a non-profit Arts and Cultural foundation, Arquetopia.
The foundation is the largest and most reputable artist-in-residency programme in Latin America and its methods are deeply rooted in social awareness, shared responsibility, innovation and local network development. The project was initiated and directed by Mexican visual artist and curator, Francisco Guevara and American classical musician Chris Davies.
We caught up with Louise following her month-long residency in the city of Puebla, Mexico, to find out more about her practice, her influences and how she maintains a balance between teaching and making.
Tell us about your own practice and your influences...
I have been working as an artist, educator and writer for approximately thirteen years and have experienced quite a few shifts in focus. During this time I have used a variety of mediums, primarily camera, textiles, sculptural elements and writing as tools to combat the silencing of expression, be that as a personal or collective experience. I had been a very quiet child and a rather introverted adult (which I now celebrate!) and the camera was instrumental in eliciting aspects of the unconscious that had remained quashed for years.
My practice has been used both as a kind of contemporary confessional space and a freer of secret information. As it has evolved I have also begun to engage in the more tactile elements of making, to include the sculptural element alongside installation works. I have also focused more directly on my writing practices which take the form of introductory essays to fellow artist’s works, my own creative writing project and academic papers for publication.
What were you working on during your residency?
Well, this is interesting. We often come to a project with a carefully crafted proposal and a precise methodology mapped out, yet it seems that many of my original plans have been undergone some modification. It is worth mentioning that this particular artist-in -residency programme is process led as opposed to outcome driven. This makes for a fluid experience that has built upon and developed my original artist proposal. However, my main areas of research and making have been driven by notions of religious oppression and the loss of spiritual, and thus, political and social autonomies. Initially interested in the early Franciscan religious conversion drives of the long 16th century within Mexican culture, I am also keen to examine tumultuous aspects of genocide and the desire to locate any sense of the numinous, or divine, amidst such violent impositions.
As such, I have been experimenting with a range of methodologies to engage in a discursive dialogue with Mexican histories and institutions. This has taken the form of figurative sculptural explorations/installations alongside the use of photography as an alternative form of communication. All of the works are as yet in progress but have proved to evoke many a challenge, both in terms of craft production and emotional engagement.
How important is it for an artist to work in different cultures and seek out experiences like residencies and competitions?
How many times do we hear that we live in a ‘global society’? We are able to send emails half-way across the world within seconds and hold online ‘face-to-face’ conversations with anyone from Guatemala to Iceland. We have access to mounds of literary information that offers to inform us of the nuances of any language, culture and national personality. Yet we continue to hold pre-conceived assumptions about the nations we see and hear about in our media saturated world. To visit another country, especially when affiliated to organisations keen to foster intercultural dialogue, is an invaluable and eye-opening experience. Whilst it can be a difficult one that necessitates immersing oneself in the unfamiliar, with the necessary internal disquiet this can elicit, the growth that takes place in one’s practice is a vital one.
"...the residency has challenged the notion that one culture can ever fully understand the other in all their complexities, but what we can do is engage in a dialogue as an aid to respectful intercultural exchange."
– Louise Fago-Ruskin, BA (Hons) Photography lecturer
How is it possible to create meaningful dialogue with another country, especially with so little time? And how do we do this in an atmosphere of mutual respect, acknowledging difference, avoiding cultural appropriation or over-romanticising the ‘margins’? Under the tutelage of Francisco Guevara, I have been giving careful consideration to the ‘shadows’ that will inevitably follow our work as artists, whether we like it or not! An international residency enables an immersion and self-scrutiny that simply would not happen alone and in isolation. Our students have a great opportunity to take part in the Erasmus programme and it is one that I would highly recommend.
Equally some of us can be tempted, for a variety of reasons, to withhold our work from public view. Why we do that is so very varied, but much can have to do with fear and unfavourable comparisons with others. Yet we never know who will connect with our own unique practice or how we may be received, if we can be brave enough to share the work we do. Competitions and artist call-outs are a key vehicle for us to move forward into the world with our various creative expressions. It can feel risky, but it is worth it!
How do you keep yourself motivated as an artist and not withhold your work from public view?
Staying motivated as an artist does not come easy. Life can take over and steal from the very thing I find most meaningful. It takes discipline to carve out time to nurture my thinking processes and engage in thoughtful making. For me, one of the key activities that helps is reading – essays, key academic texts, artist interviews, journals – they all contribute to ‘feeding’ the part of me that needs stimulation and fresh understandings into my various interests. Without this I am running on empty and my work becomes repetitive and mundane.
I also need to talk! With friends, with students, with my colleagues. Working in isolation simply does not work for me and feedback from those I trust creates the growth of a dialogue so key to art making.
You mention conversation with your students as a form of motivation, does being a practicing artist inform your teaching, and vice versa?
When I was studying as a mature student I was struck by the rich experiences of my own lecturers. My professors approached their teaching from a place of active practice that inevitably funnelled down to us all. There was an energy and vitality that they brought and that we appreciated and aspired to. But this came at a cost. In some respects, they were juggling two intense activities, that of making and that of educating. It’s not easy! But I am convinced, for myself that is, that active making makes for a vigorous dialogue with my students and, perhaps more importantly, a renewed understanding of the challenges of making creative work that can feel exasperating and requires the stance of compassion from the educator involved in fostering student practice.
Your work often features themes of identity, religion, memory and familial relationships. Are these very personal subject to you, and how do you consider your emotional ties to subject matter when producing work?
Ah, this is always the most difficult question to answer and triggers an anxiety that I have not yet managed to wholly conquer! It is undeniable that I have a personal and traumatic psychological tie with notions of religion and ideological belief systems, and it is one that will no doubt follow me throughout my career. The re-telling of moments of memory is not easy and elicit a range of difficult feelings. Yet whilst I hold an interior fear of spiritual and psychological manipulation, I maintain a fascination with, and a somewhat frustrating longing for what we might call the ‘numinous’. So yes, the work certainly touches on personal and relational territories.
However, it is worth noting that the notion of ‘Confessional Practice’ could place the work into an overly constrained conceptual framework that disavows connection with the wider world. Susanna Egan has a really interesting way of framing self-disclosure when she says:
“Making one’s self visible or mapping identity are not only figures of speech but also tropes for recovery of understanding, which is always elusive...neither the person nor the text can reveal any single or final truth, but both can provide activities of interpretation, in which the reader is compelled to join…we become part of the map of interpretation." (Egan. S. Mirror Talk.1999. The University of Carolina Press.)
I think the challenge in making work that begins with one’s own personal history is to see if what you make connects with another individual or community; with what we might call the ‘collective unconscious’. Does the work sit only within my own frame of reference or does it have the capacity to create an inter-connection with another person, another viewer of the practice? And as Egan states, our identities are unstable ones. If we are brave enough, we can invite others to join us in the construction of meanings that will change and shift over time, both for them and for us. It is my hope the work has a wider appeal and certainly, my current experience in Mexico touches on wider notions of both spiritual and social control from an historical context. It has been a merging of the personal and the political on an enriching scale.
What’s next for you?
The residency is Mexico has proven to be a catalyst for the furtherance of those areas I remain transfixed by. Methods of protest have deepened but this has been coupled with an acute awareness of the dangers of such work, especially when exploring tragedies that occur outside of one’s experience and one’s own culture. With a careful eye on the need for ethical making, I intend to widen my exploration of the potential for spiritual exploitation alongside acknowledgments of the numinous experience, both within and without creative practices. My attention has been drawn to a fascinating book entitled Plotting Women: Gender and Representation in Mexico by Jean Franco, examining the lives of persecuted women on the margins of Mexican religious and political life.
In many respects, the residency has challenged the notion that one culture can ever fully understand the other in all their complexities, but what we can do is engage in a dialogue as an aid to respectful intercultural exchange. At some point, this means engaging deeply with a process that works in layers, investigating the precise over the general. My aim is to thus ‘drill down’ into one particular area that resonates both on a political and a personal level to see what can be uncovered and what can be shared.