Each year, BRIC, the leading presenter of cultural programming in Brooklyn, awards twelve fellowships through its Contemporary Art and Media Education programs. The fellowship offers recipients several key resources, including access to camera equipment, studios, and editing suites, as well as free enrollment in any course offered by BRIC’s Media Education program. In 2018, B&H was proud to sponsor the fellowship as part of its continued support of Brooklyn-affiliated artists and creators everywhere. I had the opportunity to speak with one of the fellowship recipients, Caroline Falby, about her time as a fellow, her work, and what the experience meant to her.
Photographs © Caroline Falby
How important was BRIC’s Media Arts Fellowship program in terms of getting your film made?
Caroline Falby: Without the BRIC Fellowship, I never would have had the confidence to acquire the skills I needed to create this project. I went to art school in the mid-1990s and didn’t have access to video equipment or computers through the Fine Arts department. When I finally bought my first Mac, in 2003, I realized that I lacked the digital knowledge of peers that had graduated just a few years later than me. I now use Photoshop in almost all my work, but until my fellowship, I was still intimidated by video. I can be quite ambitious in my ideas but until BRIC gave me the tools, I couldn’t fully articulate them through my artistic practice.
I’m curious about the origin of your film, The Animation of Mortality: Ne Me Quitte Pas. Could you talk about the origin and any of the workflow of that piece? Was it something you had in mind before BRIC, or did it come about in some other way?
CF: The Animation of Mortality: Ne Me Quitte Pas, is inspired by the death of a loved one from HIV/AIDS. After his death, I struggled to make work. My art tends to be autobiographical and, since I had sworn to keep his diagnosis secret, I felt paralyzed in the studio. I broke this by making stream of consciousness drawings and developed an iconography that represented both the virus and my grief. These sketches and collages were the genesis of my project proposal for BRIC. While working on mixed-media pieces, I saw how the shapes related to cut-paper animations from Terry Gilliam. The HIV virus is constantly moving and adapting, so it only made sense that my work should be animated. The person to whom this work is dedicated listened to Jacques Brel, and I took his cassette tapes along with me to college. Ne Me Quitte Pas is a heartbreaking song that captures the emotional weight of grief. Its lyrics are directly about the loss of love but they are also full of the same regret and bargaining that I felt when dealing with HIV. I made my film’s soundtrack by layering different renditions of the song into a cacophony of voices. “Ne Me Quitte Pas” (Don’t Leave Me) can refer to each loss from HIV or to the permanence of the virus itself. I regard the piece as a lamentation for not only myself and my family but for all those who have lost someone.
Since finishing my fellowship, I’ve been working to develop my project into a portable interactive video projection that can be shown as an educational tool in public spaces. This piece will allow visitors to trigger audio recollections by long-term survivors of HIV and the children of those lost. I’d like to use my work to advocate the stories of those neglected in the historical narrative of HIV/AIDS.
In your bio, you talk about “using mixed media to examine how power manipulates historical memory and changes it into folklore.” This is a fascinating concept. I’m wondering how you came to incorporate it into your work, and whether you want The Animation of Mortality: Ne Me Quitte Pas to be viewed, in light of that philosophy.
CF: I read Gramsci, Eric Hobsbawm, Benedict Anderson,and Edward Said in college, and became very interested in how cultural hegemony shapes our writing of history. I was also interested in the historic roots of legends (King Arthur, Robin Hood, Paul Revere, et al.) and wondered about what cultural influences shaped those stories. Early works of mine appropriated historical events and filtered them through my personal experiences. This included re-imagining the Jonestown death tapes as the thoughts of a domineering Brooklyn Mom. My children were very young at the time and it reflected the irony of feeling helpless while having two children who were entirely dependent upon me.
I don’t think The Animation of Mortality: Ne Me Quitte Pas speaks literally to the relationship between memory and folklore but I do think my experience challenges the historic narrative of HIV/AIDS. Stories about cheating spouses, drug addicts, and neglectful parents don’t serve activists’ mission to show victims in a sympathetic light. However, that doesn’t make their deaths less impactful or painful for loved ones. People like to think of the epidemic as being something in the past—they believe they’re not the “kind of people” who could get infected. Families affected by HIV remind us that the virus is not biased in selecting victims. That is terrifying. Everyone makes mistakes in life but few of us have to die by consequence. Many children of AIDS victims carry their parents’ shame and live their grief in the closet. They feel alone and unsupported. HIV is ruthless, unforgiving, and sadistic. No one should have to suffer its brutality. We are lucky that artists in the 1980s had the courage to speak their experience while facing certain death. Otherwise, we never would have never made advances in research and education. HIV robbed the arts of many geniuses and it has never recovered. However, the history told by these artists is dominated by the stories of openly gay, white men. Broadening that narrative serves to squash the homophobic stigma related to the virus by showing that no one is immune to HIV. We are all worthy of love and death.
I find artists’ workflows to be fascinating. Can you talk a little bit about yours?
CF: My artworks are project-based. I’m not as disciplined or as prolific as other artists I know. I admire their work ethic and commitment to their practice. My practice ebbs and flows. When I was an undergrad, I studied under the feminist art critic Arlene Raven. She insisted that to create meaningful work, one had to cleave oneself and be intellectually honest. I go through long periods of being stuck and isolating myself. While I love drawing Portraits and Still Lives, they feel like binge watching TV or eating too much candy. There’s a masochistic side to my art making that won’t allow me to make pictures for pleasure. To feel satisfied that I’ve created something substantial, I need to unwrap ideas until I find the parts that make me squirm. This is exhausting. Having an assignment, like my project for BRIC, can sometimes help me to let go of hangups and get to that place faster. However, once I’ve found a groove, I become obsessive. I’m sure all of this is rooted in my Calvinist background. I have always had a hard time balancing my artistic practice and home life. I’ve been told that being an artist is selfish and that is a hard thing to square as a parent. Motherhood and Artistic practice are often presented as either/or and I often hear that women can’t have both. I have to keep reminding myself of who I want to be for my kids. They are what inspires me to get back in the studio after a long absence and who get me out when I’m working compulsively. Recently, I’ve been surrounding myself with other women artists that model a good life/work balance. I’d like to build that community up to include women curators, critics, art historians, etc.
Finally, if you had to single out one positive aspect of the fellowship—or BRIC in general—what would it be?
CF: I wish I had known what an important service BRIC is performing for Brooklynites. They are democratizing digital tools and making it possible for more people to express their art and share their perspectives. My classes reflected different industries, ages, ethnicities, economic backgrounds and skill sets. As an artist, it is easy to only surround yourself socially and professionally with other artists. Working alongside people from different backgrounds helps keep my work relevant.
If you would like to learn more about BRIC, the Media Arts Fellowship programs, or any of the cultural goings-on in Brooklyn, be sure to check out their website.