WRITING

Writing
An Interview with MC Coble
Claudia Edwards

Claudia Edwards: You were recently commissioned by FADO to produce a new video work in response to your past work, PULSE (2016): a 10-day performance in which you climbed the Cinesphere at Ontario Place to transmit messages of protest using light.

Both PULSE and your new work, Moving Bodies (2024), bring to mind the agency/voice of the land/place itself, and the protest chants from PULSE reverberate a broader social agency and resistance to occupation that feels just as powerful now. Could you speak about the context in which PULSE was created; coming from the States to create this participatory performance, for the site-specific In/Future festival centered around Ontario Place?

MC Coble: June 12th 2016: I was sweaty, giddy and beat, feeling a bit high on life, relaxing with friends after shouting my way through another Pride March. I am an American, living in Gothenburg, Sweden. I moved to Scandinavia from Washington, DC after living there for ten years. Just the summer before, as my Danish partner and I were visiting friends in DC, we were woken up by gunshots, a drive-by shooting in front of their house. Over my years in the US, I had experienced this countless times. I wrapped my partner up in my arms in case the shooting continued. We yelled back and forth to our friends in the bedroom next to us, checking to make sure everyone was okay. 

I was deeply shaken. After having lived in Scandinavia for a number of years I hadn’t experienced this in a while. The tension and anxiety that was still slowly seeping out of my system took hold again. My body remembered and I was reminded how profoundly violence embeds itself. This feeling is like a shockwave making it hard to breathe and leaving a deep sadness within me. It’s an imprint of not only the violence in the moment but an echo of atrocities happening all over the world. 

Laying in the grass with cute queers all around me, people are looking at their phones and begin to ask me if I know what is happening in Florida. I have no idea. The news is just starting to come out in small updates. We are six hours ahead of Florida and sit together over the next hours finding out more about the shooting at the gay nightclub, Pulse. Fourty-nine people were killed, fifty-three injured. 

I do not believe in comparative suffering on an intellectual level but I get sucked into it at times. I get stuck feeling that my emotions are somehow less valid or less important than others who have it ‘worse.’ And while I can still acknowledge so many privileges I have, I am also still just learning that it’s important that we take our feelings seriously. Compassion, empathy, love… these are not finite resources. There is enough to go around. 

The body remembers and I spent the next months feeling afraid and fighting against existential confusion and loneliness. I wasn’t alone, in life or with these feelings, but knowing this didn’t help at the time. The roots of depression can dig deep.

It was at this same time that I was preparing for a performance to take place in September. I had been approached by Jess Dobkin and Shannon Cochrane, from FADO Performance Art Centre to make a live work as part of their massive year-long project MONOMYTHS. I would take 1 of the 14 stages of Joseph Campbell’s ‘hero’s journey’ and think through a feminist revisioning of what this could be. I was given Stage 7: Ordeals, aptly enough at the time as my performances were long, physically and mentally hard, and often quite a bit ordeals in themselves. I first met Jess and Shannon after they invited me to Toronto where I presented a performance that was a three-hour long wet towel fight in a locker room. 

I was looking forward to working with them again on this project and had already visited Ontario Place Park where my stage would take place as part of In/Future: A Festival of Art & Music. I decided that I wanted to engage with the Cinesphere, touted as North America’s first IMAX built in the 1970’s. Its physical presence is what drew me towards it: its massive body resembling a geodesic dome; the skeleton of large metal tubes crisscrossing its stretched and stained skin. I saw photographs of it lit up at night and was hypnotized; it seemed there were hundreds of lightbulbs springing from its metal form, accentuating its grandeur.

But trying to make an artwork while in a spiral of grief is hard. My curiosities, excitement and drive take a backseat if I’m not careful. The time after the Pulse nightclub shootings was not the first time I’d experienced these feelings and has proven not to be the last. As an artist, I feel like I can use my platform and energy to engage with the urgencies and injustices that are around me. Something other than nothing, other than being paralyzed, other than staying afraid and without agency. 

I went four weeks convinced that all I could do with the Cinesphere was to turn its lights off; that darkness should be the answer, maybe like a moment of silence, a monument to all the death. While the artists invited to MONOMYTHS worked on their stage of the journey independently, all of our works eventually were woven together to form the bigger narrative. I eventually realized that the potential hopelessness and helplessness of simply turning the lights off was not what I wanted to add to this collective rethinking of the journey. 

If I turned it off, then I would also have to turn it back on.

Turning the lights off and on, off and on, made me think of Morse Code.

I have been fascinated with signals, signs, ways of communicating outside of spoken language in my artistic practice for as long as I can remember. And here I wanted to include a community of people, to believe in the ripple effect. The outset was an archive of protest chants that I’ve collected and recorded over years—and here it became a collective call to action. 

CE: Your new video piece, Moving Bodies, was created in response to PULSE. Do you see these two works as being in conversation with each other, the past and present in a feedback loop? Or was the original piece more of a jumping-off point for a new investigation?

MC: I see the pieces as being in conversation with each other for sure. Each holds the weight of its time but also the weight of the other. 

A dialogue between the two works would probably focus on collective bodies, collaboration, finding agency, insisting on change, and even around mourning.

A bit about collective bodies and collaboration:

My body, my climbing of the Cinesphere was an important part of PULSE only in that I needed to get up to the top of the structure to flash Morse Code to my collaborators who had scattered themselves all around the park below. At the time I did not want to highlight my effort or the process; I did not want to be Joseph Campbell’s hero. (To note—I had actually first hoped to flash the lights on the Cinesphere itself to send the signals but practically that was not possible due to its quite large and elderly electrical system.)

I saw the ‘hero’, or rather the ‘agent’ as a collective body; all of us, in the moment, who were sending out these protest chants of resistance. All of us who would pass these chants on as a call to action. All of us who stand up for social justice. All of us who demand change. 

When I show documentation from PULSE I typically focus on photographs of my collaborators. I love seeing the configurations of their bodies, in groups, highlighted in the landscape. Each night ten to twenty volunteers simultaneously flashing their lights/our messages onward. 

When I was asked if I would like to relook at the documentation from PULSE in order to make a new work, I thought I could allow myself to look back at the Cinesphere and at myself. I have changed a lot in nine years. I now identify as a non-binary trans* person; my name and pronouns are different than when I made PULSE; my physical body is marked by age, top surgery and testosterone.

I decided to use my figure (and others) climbing up the Cinesphere in the new piece Moving Bodies, in part, as a way to meditate on some of the complexities that my own changes call into question such as the binaries of familiar/monstrous, natural/artificial human/non-human and wilderness/domesticity. So I both pulled from the archive of PULSE and my own ongoing video archive of everyday observations: beings climbing, clinging, crawling, reaching and searching; being moved or moving themselves. 

I tried to experiment with multiple non-human bodies and interspecies interactions to think of the deep interconnectivity that we share. 

A bit about finding agency, insisting on change, and even around mourning:

While trying to work on Moving Bodies I again found myself paralyzed by feelings of deep grief, anger and loss of control. What could I possibly make while in real time witnessing a genocide unfold in Gaza; unimaginable suffering, loss of life including the complete destruction of natural habitats and non-human animals? 

How to deal with the very real needs of this time: to boycott, protest, to demand that Israel stops the killing now. To amplify voices, to support others and to try to take care of myself in this process, by in part, finding agency. 

Moving Bodies is perhaps more understated than PULSE was. As an artist I find this to be exciting—that both the loud/direct and the poetic/subtle can both take space and hold power. Moving Bodies is a call to action as was PULSE

CE: I am curious about the sequence of protest chants that were shared throughout the nights of the performance. Was there any planned progression of these phrases, building towards a specific intention or affect?

MC: We started the first night of the performance with the chant of One Voice and we ended on night ten also with One Voice. To me that was a symbolic act that felt important—we were of course multiple voices but during these moments we were acting as a collective body. 

The main intention with the selection of chants was to somehow amplify the urgencies of our times. I can give a specific example. On day six of the performance I woke up to read that in my home state of North Carolina, Keith Lamont Scott, a 43-year-old African-American man, was shot by a police officer. What other chant could we possibly have sent out into the world that night other than Black Lives Matter?

CE: The PULSE performance seemed like a real community effort, by inviting participants to help you shine the lights that translated each protest chant into morse code through the night sky. Could you share about this aspect of the work, and whether there is a connection for you between creating socially-engaged performance, and the socially-engaged nature of activism?

It was amazing to have over seventy people work with me throughout the ten days of PULSE. This included volunteers who helped me safely climb the Cinesphere, strangers and friends…there was a community of people that showed up to make the work happen. 

Gathering, discussing, organizing, implementing, coming together afterwards for a bit of processing. Art and activism do not have to be the same thing, sometimes they shouldn’t be, and at other times they are the perfect match. 

The way that the activist group ACT UP used performance has always had a profound impact on me. During the worst times of the AIDS epidemic, they fought from all angles—using performance, protest and even humor to demand change. And they forever changed the discussion, treatment, legal and medical rights of people with HIV/AIDS. How amazing.

CE: Speaking more generally about your practice, what direction has your work taken since creating PULSE? What’s lighting you up right now, or is there anything on the horizon you would like to tell us about?

MC: I think my work will always have activist roots at its core. Testing new mediums, while trying to figure out how to address difficult issues has led to some exciting projects recently. I’ve started drawing which to me makes sense with both my performance and photographic practice. It’s a way of mapping and connecting experiences, spaces and reflections in non-linear constellations which open for new potentials. 

I just had the opportunity to work along with other artists and collaborators in a project called “E21: A DIFFERENT HORIZON ATLAS: COLLABORATIVELY MAPPING QUEER UTOPIAS”. I was invited by Jaimes Mayhew, an artist that I have admired for a long time, to visualize my own queer utopia. In collaboration with my queer family, the result was a large watercolor drawing that depicted a world on top of a slug—life slowed down—connected through the mycelium network. I guess it echoed a grief many of us are feeling for the ecological disasters of our planet, and the hope of learning through our quite queer natural world.

I also recently published a book with my partner, Louise Wolthers, called Things Change Anyway, which I’m really proud of. We have used photos from our almost twelve-year archive, drawings I’ve made and essays by Louise. It’s our reflection on experiences of non-binary gender affirmations, menopause, and aging, as well as non-human connectivity and queer kinship. We now look forward to expanding that work from its book form into other spaces, and have upcoming exhibitions in both Denmark and Sweden.


Find links below to watch the video Moving Bodies, and to see documentation from PULSE!


Notes:

1. For more archival documentation from PULSE, check out the original event page, where MC posted updates of the daily climbs, chants, and community of volunteers. “FADO Presents Pulse by Mary Coble / Monomyths Stage 7 | Facebook,” https://www.facebook.com/events/1736402856621009/?active_tab=discussion.

2. Additional reading: Bryne McLaughlin, “When a Contemporary Ruin Becomes an Art Festival,” Canadian Art, https://canadianart.ca/reviews/when-a-contemporary-ruin-becomes-an-art-festival/.

3. Ontario Place has long been the target of redevelopment schemes by the city of Toronto, with the west island now slated to become a private spa. To learn more about this, or to get involved in the campaign against destroying and deforesting these public park lands, check out Ontario Place for All:
Website: www.ontarioplaceforall.com
Instagram: @ontarioplace4all


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