Adriana Tranca: Our press release states: Melanie Jame Wolf’s exhibition The Creep at E-WERK Luckenwalde includes a new film installation, ceramic works, textile sculptures, and a performance. It is a continuation of the visual artist and choreographer’s ongoing ‘creep studies.’ What are creep studies? And how did you become interested in the topic?
Melanie Jame Wolf: Creep studies play out of my fascination with how phenomena move or operate in imperceptible and incremental ways. Things like pleasure, people, geology, and time; creep as a mode of being or as an organizing principle. Understanding ‘creep’ as both a noun and a verb, I’m exploring my curiosity with the idea that something can ‘happen before you know it’.
Central to this is thinking about how power moves. What are the choreographies through which power is accumulated and maintained? In particular, through the insidious, the indirect. Invisible violence is a thing that creeps. It moves imperceptibly, relying on its abstracted forms as camouflage. I arrive here through the lens of my own experiences of everyday gender and class violence – on the street, in doctor’s offices, in workplaces; the subtle ways that people police one another through a loaded and complex energetics of threat to maintain an unjust status quo. These are things that are hard to talk about because they exist in the realm of the affective, the felt; things that are therefore hard to quantify, and so, hard to prove.
With creep studies, I’m thinking about violence that is not directly or immediately physical; rather a torment of ‘vibes’ and inference, for want of better words. I mean the kinds of abuses that can be deployed in such a way that when the victim attempts to name them, they are framed as a hysteric, a liar, a fantasist – and their emotion, their distress, is weaponized against them. Storytelling is instrumental to creeping. Who gets to frame an incident as too slippery to fully grasp or believe, as ‘too complex’? We see this in sexual harassment cases all the time and in cases of racial discrimination. It’s present in the bourgeois rules of emotional containment that pervade institutional spaces. Wherein the status of credible full human subjectivity is liable to be withdrawn at any moment for anyone who isn’t (at least) middle class. Or at least in possession of the full complex social codes to pass as such in those spaces. These codes of ‘appropriate’ affective behavior only come through a lifetime of careful grooming, as an intangible inheritance of practicing not letting one’s feelings betray one’s success in the capitalist competition of being and staying alive. They creep into the ruling class idea of a reputation as a category of valuable property – as a tangible possession worthy of defense and deployable as a weapon. This is apparent in the subsequent defamation laws we see protecting creeps all the time through the containment of knowledge of the truth of their actions.
Zooming out to a state political level, Walter Benjamin’s concept of mythic violence is a brilliant analysis of how storytelling and creeping dance together in flirtations with, and flat-out enforcements of, fascism. I think James Martell’s synopsis of Benjamin says it better than I can:
Mythic violence is Benjamin’s term for the way that illicit economic and political power has asserted itself over all human life, projecting a form of authority out into the world that then becomes accepted as reality itself. It is mythic because there is no true or ontological basis for the powers of liberalism and capitalism; its right to rule is self-proclaimed and then naturalized so that it becomes seen as fated and inevitable. It is violent because, without a genuine basis for its authority, mythic violence must endlessly strike out, killing and hurting over and over again to establish its power and even its reality.
Simultaneously, I’ve been thinking about the distinction between cruising and creeping; the erotics of the making known of desire in unspoken ways – locating the line between what keeps it sexy and what makes it gross. In tandem, I’m thinking about time, and death, and falling in and out of love – with one another, with the world, with values – as things that creep. The exhibition is an instance of my working through these creeping choreographies and phenomena with the tools at my disposal. To place their tensions within art objects. To let those art objects creep in and see what happens.
While we’re contextualizing and exploring concepts, let’s touch on Alison M. Jaggar’s outlaw emotions (1): emotions that are in conflict or tension with an individual’s established or predominant belief system. These emotions may challenge or contradict one’s core values, principles, or moral code. For example, from a feminist perspective, internalized misogyny or ambivalence towards motherhood. How do you read outlaw emotions about your artistic practice in general, and to The Creep in particular?
I’ve found myself mutating Jaggar’s phrase ‘outlaw emotions’, into ‘outlaw feelings’ instead. I like the pun it plays on itself – feelings that are outside the law – in the realm of danger and excess. Then conversely, as a demand to abolish feelings altogether; to dispense with them once and for all, to make them illegal. It’s funny, and it deliberately pokes fun at the privileging of dry, rational, quantifiable fact as the highest order of truth. Because we know that politically consequential ‘truth’, or better, judgment, is often conditional on the storytelling and show business capacities of whoever can speak loudest and longest. So I understand outlaw feelings as affects experienced, or transmitted when a marginalised person can no longer tolerate the oppressive conditions of the social contract they are living under. They are radical and defiant impulses – anger, sadness, rage, dissatisfaction, rebellion, boredom, hate. They are what choreographer Ligia Lewis refers to as staying with negative affects, and what filmmaker and choreographer Yvonne Rainer understands as feelings as facts. What German writer Seyda Kurt talks about as politically productive emotions in ‘HASS’ (Hate). I want to be clear that I’m not talking about a kind of ‘sad girl’ feminism. Rather, I’m feeling toward the radical potential of collective grief in the way that Gargi Bhattacharyya speaks about in ‘We, the Brokenhearted.’
Outlaw feelings congeal around the productive challenge of the messy. My interest in them is to examine this dialectic tension between the value of containment, and the value of the leak; the creeping out of the mess. I’m exploring a critique of a certain kind of hygiene of respectability. It’s been said the first rule of magic is containment. This also happens to be the first rule of moving like a bourgeois subject; taut, ice-cold affect; no leaks, no mess, no fuss; winning illusions. It’s an if you know, you know situation, but anyone who has experienced class violence in a meeting or at an opening or while cleaning someone else’s toilet, knows what it is to be made to feel that their lack of containment reveals the ‘truth’ of them as a beast, as ultimately undesirable, as an unwanted mess. It’s the rendering of the ‘difficult’ subject as gauche, uncontainable, uncivilized, and therefore a threat to ‘decent’ people – it’s a practiced move of dehumanization. I see Outlaw Feelings now as the name for a new body of work I hope to make across the next few years. I began with The Creep and unpacking my political suspicion of certain regimes of social and emotional hygiene further.
And how do these outlaw feelings manifest formally in the exhibition?
I’m exploring outlaw feelings through materials of containment; prophylactic materials: the red latex of the ‘ambiguous organs’ that one sees in the film and throughout the space. The ceramic tongues and the, what I like to call, ‘gristly curiosity’ that they are made from hopefully provoke in anyone who encounters them. Materials that begin as liquid and settle in their final form as impermeable.
The Creep is also about the figure of The Outlaw. Not a cowboy, but The Creep, a person outside the law – whatever that might mean. He has his own set of leaky complexities. With this figure, I’m referencing the masculinist fantasies of the outlaws that appear in the so-called ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ made by Sergio Leone in the 1960s and 70s. They are films that made Clint Eastwood famous. When I first interrogated why I wanted to inhabit this ‘cowboy figure’ – as I initially understood him – I decided to dig into these films which I had up til then consciously avoided. I was kind of stunned by the innovative beauty of the cinematography that was framing this homo-erotic camp ultra-violence. These films are a low-budget Western European imagining of the Hollywood cowboy Westerns which in turn are a fantastical imagining of the colonial ‘Wild West’. They appropriate and inhabit ‘The Desert’ as a kind of mythic space in which morality can be radically rewired, or abandoned. There’s a lot to chew on with them – how death is staged, masculinity as a material. Renate Lorenz’s idea of ‘trans-temporal drag’ really resonates with me. Understanding ‘drag’ as a verb, she describes performance as an assemblage of references that are dragged across and through time. Arriving in the present moment covered in all kinds of sticky debris. This is the best way I can think of to explain how The Outlaw you see in The Creep comes to be. I found a lot of pleasure in this performance, it was an exorcism of sorts, and also maybe a strange self-portrait.
Throughout your artistic practice, you’ve demonstrated a remarkable engagement with language – for example, I find you’ve brilliantly summarised Benjamin’s mythic violence concept with ‘Oh! Get away with it for long enough, and it’ll start to look like fate.’ (as it’s sung by The Outlaw in The Creep, 2023). I’m also thinking of Acts of Improbable Genius (2021) where you play with words and meaning-making impressively. Could you delve deeper into how you engage with language? How does language serve as a medium for your creative expression, and in what ways does it contribute to the narrative or meaning within your work?
In writing the lyrics in The Creep I was trying to bring a few impulses together. One, I wanted to enact the creeping and insidious power of the repetitive hook in pop music, the earworm – as a self-reflexive texture in the work. This also occurs with Acts of Improbable Genius – where the stand-up comedian Ron repeatedly returns to his punch line: ‘Genius! Genius? Probably. Probably? Probably not!’. It’s repetition of language as a device – where layers of meaning reveal themselves through iterative exposure to what at first feels like perhaps an oversimplification or too great a distillation of a complex idea. In The Creep, I’m experimenting with the notion of the slogan as it entangles with the folk or protest song – with popular poetics and their political expediency or efficacy. The other thing I’m picking up on is the tradition of Sprechgesang in Brecht’s work, but also in the writing of Thomas Pynchon. Who often has his characters breaking out into absurd songs on the page. Text is a really important part of my work. It matters to me that it remains a poetic material within and amongst the other materials – that it doesn’t speak louder than the objects or the movements, that it doesn’t explain or neatly wrap up ambiguities. For me, the best words are ones that can go in the back pocket of the audience to hopefully show up as a kind of surprising metabolizing agent of other experiences long after the visit to the show.
You seem to have a great ability to explore cavernous spaces with one surprising tool: humor. Can you introduce us to your process/thinking?
I think it’s interesting, or telling, to think of humor in art as surprising. I remember standing in front of my video installation – Oh Yeah Tonight – with a critic at the press preview for the show, and he asked me: dare I say this is comedic? As though he wanted to be sure it was permissible to read the work that way, that I intended to be funny. Humor is a risk – which is why it pays. It’s bound tightly with very special kinds of vulnerability and intimacy. I guess it’s surprising because it can be dismissed as being deeply unserious, but for me, the opposite is true. It’s a great strategy to go deeper and faster with people. This is true in social situations – a quick, sparkling wit is almost always very sexy, and it’s true in performance – which is where I arrive at making films and exhibitions from – live performance. There, humor is much more a part of the anticipated palate. It’s disarming, and charming, but also produces a space of trust that can be both honored and messed with – bringing us back to risk. What I’m often trying to do is find a way in my work to balance that knife edge between the sublime and the ridiculous, the beautiful and the deeply critical, and using humor in a kind of rhythmic way to punctuate that cycling through. I dunno, I love the phrase: it’s not funny if you have to explain it, and that’s how it always feels to try and dissect ‘being funny’ in my work. But it is a material that I work with and a strategy. Where it emerges in The Creep film is in the shootout scene. Which is both a loving homage and a critical pastiche of the Leone-style shootout of famously ever-tightening close-ups. It’s a kind of absurdist, camp clowning around a lot of deeper threads converging at that moment in the film as The Outlaw conjures the phantom weapons at his hips. There is no gun, but there is a catharsis into a line dance of living and dying. Maybe that’s the punchline, a conjuring gesture toward the cosmic joke.
‘Being funny’ is more often than not a way to deal with the schisms of life. Similar to gut feelings, there’s an intricate web at work, a whole constellation of invisible knowledge. This brings me to a confession: I’ve been long interested in gut feelings, both from a deeply personal perspective, the way I can use instinct and how much I can rely on it, especially as a woman trying to navigate this heavily gender-based violent environment, as well as from a more general societal view, how it’s perceived, who acknowledges its validity and who condemns it as non-rational, hence worthless (hello patriarchy and western dominant thought!). And then you and The Creep come along leaving a vibrant mark on me. Much like Pauline Oliveros’s idea of the yet-unheard being inherently part of the act of listening.
Right, and her rule: ‘listen to everything all the time, and remind yourself when you are not listening’. Which can be understood simultaneously as a score for deep listening practice and also a survival guide.
Shall we continue by addressing the mountain in the room? The two wooden works, The Mountain (2023) and Another Mountain Still (2023) have been specifically produced for this show. What led to their existence?
Let’s talk about mountain in the room! Ok, so, the essential proposal for The Creep was to enact a series of creep studies through a duet between an outlaw and a mountain. As a kind of play with the rudiments of narrative, with the mountain as ‘The Metaphor’ and the Outlaw as ‘The Unreliable Narrator’. In the film, the mountain only exists through language – it’s never seen. It exists because the outlaw tells you it does. The two works that are encountered in the room are sculptural riffs on the theatre flat or scenography. Their scale and their credibility as ‘the real thing’ shift around according to the proximity of your body to them in space. They’re a continuation of my preoccupation with the idea of ‘show business’ – the liminal, the persuasive, the deceptive, the staged, the performed, as they operate as political strategies. I don’t want to unpack the mountains too much though, they need to maintain their secrets.
How about the tongues? Perhaps the smallest, yet the sharpest elements in the exhibition, I find – four ceramic tongues – are concomitantly libidinous, self-determined/with a mind of their own, intelligent, wild, and scary. To me, they’re proof you feel free to play: with words, with textures, with concepts, with fears. Would you agree?
The tongues come about throthe ugh me feeling a sense of freedom or permission to play with forms that are new to me. In this case, ceramics, which I have never made before. I’m looking for methods to produce objects that perform in space. I guess in that way, my practice is kind of tenaciously choreographic. In terms of ‘why tongues’? The name I have for these objects is Tongue Army Got You Licked. They are less about alluding to language and more about what I referred to earlier as my ‘gristly curiosity’. One day, when my child was about 2 and a half, we got on the bus and before I knew it, they had sat next to a stranger and licked his bare arm. Besides the mortification I felt at that moment, I was so aware of how strongly the stranger recoiled; the transgressive potential of the lick; the encounter with the wet muscle that speaks and sucks and offends and pleasures. I wanted to put all that into the space of The Creep in these compact forms.
27 January 2024
Artist Talk & Performative Reading
Melanie Jame Wolf will speak with curator Adriana Tranca about the research and conceptual inspirations behind The Creep, providing insights into her broader artistic practice, and offering a compelling introduction to The Outlaw, the central persona of the exhibition.
Seating is limited, RSVP to email@example.com 24th January 2024.
Melanie Jame Wolf is a visual artist and choreographer who lives in Berlin. She works solo and with friends, making interdisciplinary pieces about power, flows of capital, and the pervasive phenomenon of ‘show business’ in the atrical, political and everyday contexts. Coming from a background in contemporary performance, Melanie Jame works with text, sound, moving image, choreography, and sculpture. Her work often focuses on specific performance techniques, like impersonation, rehearsal, or stand up, understanding the body as an unruly political riddle. Leaning into a hyper-stylised pop aesthetic, she is invested in humour as a strategy for critical possibility, and in working with language in subliminal and surprising ways.
1: Jaggar, Alison M., 2016: Love and knowledge: Emotion in feminist epistemology
Cover, Fig1/2: The Creep (installation view at E-WERK Luckenwalde), Melanie Jame Wolf, 2023. Courtesy of Joanna Wilk