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A Conversation with Dana Hoey

Dana Hoey, a San Fransisco born artist and photographer based in upstate New York, talks about her photography and video work which investigates gender roles, archetypes, aggression and power in society.

season 3 episode 16
Jan 05 2022

Speakers: Mauren Brodbeck and Dana Hoey

Mauren  00:01

This is the Raw and Radical woman in the arts podcast, and I am your host, Mauren Brodbeck. In each episode we explore the mechanisms of identity, vulnerability, authenticity, empowerment and social change through conversations with inspiring women who are making history and challenging the status quo in both the art world and in society.  We talk about their real life challenges and celebrate cis and transgender women so that you can be inspired, empowered to take action, and further your critical understanding about what it means to be a woman in the arts.

For the first episode of this year, let's welcome Dana Hoey, an American artist and photographer born in San Francisco, and based in upstate New York, Dana received a BFA in philosophy from Wesleyan University, and an MFA in photography from the Yale School of Art. She exhibited at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC Albany University Museum of Art, the Center for Arts Design and visual culture at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroits. Her work investigates discordance, discomfort, aggression, society, and power, and how those relate to the identity of women through photographs and video, she blurs the lines between facts and fiction and investigates the role of women in society. She brings art and the concept of social engagements together through boxing that she uses in her installations, performances, and she brings self defense class in the art spaces. She is represented by Petzel Gallery in New York City. Let's listen to what she has to say. Let's welcome Dana Hoey. Hi, Dana. Welcome to the show.

Dana  01:59

Hello, good morning. Good afternoon.

Mauren  02:03

So your work has always been about women, you are investigating women and their social roles. Could you tell us why and what got you interested in this subject?

Dana  02:14

Yes, I can. I grew up in the country. And when I moved to New York City, I found there were some amazingly complex social codes that I wasn't necessarily understanding. So I decided to, number one, research them. And then number two, kind of visualize what it would be like if the social codes were a bit simpler and more direct.

Mauren  02:35

And then what did you discover? And how did you use it? In your work?

Dana  02:39

What I discovered was with the white American woman, there's a certain degree of circuitous aggression or passive aggression. And there's less speaking directly to each other when we have a problem. And so I had the fantasy of what it would be like if we were more direct. And the way that I use it in my work was I directed multiple women to wrestle around and fight with each other. That was the most direct conflict I could think of. And then I photographed them at that time, kind of in the aftermath, so that they had glowing out of their eyes, the aftermath of having had a direct exchange, a direct physical exchange. So that's how it began.

Mauren  03:19

And do you feel like this glow, it made it more real for people?

Dana  03:23

Sure, for sure, yeah, definitely made it more real. It's also a directing technique to have people do physical things, because I didn't work with actors. So working with non actors, you need to do something physical to relax and get less self conscious.

Mauren  03:36

Alright, so how did you get about that to make them have this kind of engagement and reactions? And, you know, to really open that way?

Dana  03:46

Yes. Oh, I just asked. And it was more and less awkward, but it doesn't matter how awkward it was people still relaxed. I think sometimes, if you do something awkward, you can relax afterwards. So that's what happened. And so often, I would photograph people who didn't know each other. So it was a built-in kind of discomfort that we would lay with the wrestling around and that kind of thing.

Mauren  04:09

Okay, you work circles around this question of masculinity, and femininity and the myth around it. And there's violence and aggression in it. Can you explain your point of view on these themes of violence and aggression?

Dana  04:26

Yes, I think that, I mean, usually, violence and aggression are associated with what would be called toxic masculinity. And I definitely understand that, especially in this country, we have a major problem with it. However, I think that violence can also be consensual and it can be loving as well. That's been my experience in combat sports. And the reason that I became interested in this dangerous territory is because of again, that sort of passive aggression of the American, in particular culturally, the white woman in America and that sort of tendency to act like a helpless victim than to become aggressive in a backwards and indirect way I felt like just to express oneself physically, particularly in combat sports was so like healing for people who work that way. So although I do become adjacent to what you might call toxic masculinity, the difference is that I only deal with violence when it is 100% consensual, only if it's consensual. So because I do believe there are, of course, real victims in the world. And I don't take that lightly. But I also, I know many people who, for whom consensual sort of combat sports, consensual violence is completely an act of love too. So, people are made differently that way.

Mauren  05:51

Yeah, that's really interesting, because this idea of toxic masculinity, it's a real societal problem. And I think it is the basis of so many conflicts in the world and in between people in society. And yes, so important to address that. So, to your point of view, how did it get created? Why is it still there? How come people cannot overcome this?

Dana  06:15

You know, I've sort of made it a policy not to speak for or about men as much in my work, because I feel like whoever has the power is not going to let go of it easily. So I feel like it's more on the woman to use the tools of the dominant class to elevate themselves. So the toxicity of masculinity, I don't know how to solve that. It's so out of control in this country. I mean, I drive down the street and there are trucks that have been modified so that they exude more pollution. And they're called coal burners. And they're ... every man of a certain age drives a massive, pointless truck in my neighborhood. So it's, it's just, I mean, I drive a small truck, you know, so I'm not immune. But, uh...

Mauren  06:31

yeah. So it seems that there is a serious need for this masculinity to be somehow made bigger, or enhanced in a way.

Dana  07:14

Or somehow tempered? Yeah. It would be nice if having stronger women helped that. You know, I don't think necessarily setting up conflict between men and women is the answer. But I think having stronger women who are not so easily dominated, might help.

Mauren  07:31

Yeah. So yeah, in your work, you're interested in conflict, and you approach conflict a bit in a way of political arts, and you bring social engagement and art together, and you do boxing. So you bring all this together in your exhibition and work. Could you talk about that? Why boxing? And why do you bring boxing classes within your exhibitions?

Dana  07:56

Well, it's interesting, the first time that I brought a combat sport to an exhibition was in Detroit at the Museum of Contemporary Art there and I actually offered self defense classes rather than boxing because I am fully aware that, as I say, there are real victims and people need to defend themselves. I don't look at combat sports as purely for aggression. Sometimes it's for defensiveness too. But I also love boxing, and Muay Thai and jujitsu and karate, all these combat sports as art forms as well. So the reason that I presented a lady's Muay Thai fight night with my last New York City show was number one, there was a sort of reason on the surface, which is that I wanted to present this paradigm of powerful, skillful, artful women in the center of Chelsea Gallery, and it was a packed night, there was a line down the block and hundreds of people didn't get in, it was just this incredible amount of excitement. So that was the reason on the surface. And then the subliminal reason was the fight crowd is very different from the art crowd. So it was a social experiment in that we got fight World people in the gallery world. So it was different social classes, different ethnicities, everybody was together, looking at art books together and you know, screaming at the fights together and just generally having this visceral sensory experience together. And that was what I found most exciting about it… It was that kind of collapse of social class and ethnicity.

Mauren  09:30

And would you say there is also some kind of a collapse between the genders where they kind of start to blend more?

Dana  09:38

Yes, for sure. In that situation, for sure. It was a unifying experience to watch two people use all their art form, they're muay thai art form. So the beauty of that can unify people so yes, collapse between the genders. Although I don't think you know, I think I know that there are people who worked in the gallery who didn't want to see it either. And I totally honor that there are people of either gender who aren't drawn to combat sports, but I don't think it breaks down along gender lines. I think plenty of women like to watch fighting sports.

Mauren  10:09

Yeah. So in your work, I feel there's a strong relationship to the body and skin. Could you talk about that? How you use your own body in your performances and videos because you're staging a narrative. You are constructing a narrative. Can you tell us how you go about this?

Dana  10:27

Thank you for that question. Well, I don't know if you've seen this mud wrestling video that I did. But that is the body oriented video possible. And yeah, there's a layer of American feminism that is quite anti sex. It just ends up being sort of because it's anti porn, it can kind of become anti sex in a certain kind of way. And I come from more of a pro sex movement. So that mud wrestling video was a way to engage them, like the most sexy people I could. So the woman who was stronger than the other two was a retired porn star. And I just thought, let me make an actual sort of softcore porn where you got to admire their bodies and appreciate their bodies, but they weren't necessarily... one woman was, I mean, younger than I am now, but older than the other two, so you could compare their bodies and enjoy all the sort of positions they got themselves into, and the way the mud coated their skin. So it's just like a sensory experience in that way, too.

Mauren  11:26

Yeah. Although it's fighting, there's something very essential about it. Yeah. And I think the fact that you have bodies of different ages, it is very humbling. And it can bring discomfort to some because you know, as we get older, most women want to hide their body instead of showing it. Yes, this is something very strong in society, how we have to start to hide our bodies, and it becomes not right to show it. And so I think this is really important. Yeah, there's also the video, the Amish video where you put yourself in.

Dana  12:01

Yes, well, it was a quarantine. So I had to use myself too. And that was my son and his then delightful girlfriend. And so we're quarantine in the woods. And she was part of our pot, as they say. So that video was set up to be a narrative about who does more work, it was about who is going to carry more wood and who carries wood better and who looks right doing the work and who looks wrong doing the work. So we alternated the boy and the girl to carrying the wood. And then I have a scene of myself as the older woman knitting although I really don't know how to knit so I just made a bunch of knots, you know, just whistlers mother by the fireplace in my old house. And of course it ends with dumping the ash out of the wood they have labored to and in my mind dumping the ash of my horrible knitting project out as well. It's about labor between the genders.

Mauren  12:56

Yeah, so the video is entitled Pilgrim, Puritan, Whore. I'm curious, why the Amish? Why the subject?

Dana  13:02

Because they're just so iconically Puritan looking, and it's a Puritan country and the Amish, although they first come from Germany and Holland, they retain this puritanical look to them. So that's why the costumes and I wanted them to be iconically Puritan. But I also wanted to raise the question of like, if you do the labor as you're supposed to, does that make you a Puritan? Or if you and if you don't do the labor, does that make you a whore? Like that kind of the connection between doing domestic labor and being a sexual being or a sexual product was one that I wanted to make in that video.

Mauren  13:42

That's very interesting. In your work, you blur the lines between fact and fiction. Do you have a methodology?

Dana  13:49

Yes. I mean, in the 90s, it was a big question in photography, because digital photography was just coming up. And so still the shreds of a belief in the truth of the medium of photography. And now that digital photography is so pervasive, I think it's more generally accepted that photography can be fictional. I still think that there's something to say about it in the sense that I think that you can present one reality and have a completely different truth involved. Or you can also have propaganda where a picture looks like one one thing to one person and one thing to another person. So I'm interested in all those questions. They're just fundamental to photography, as far as I'm concerned. And the reason that I do make fictions because I simply don't... I do free shoot or do documentary shoot, I do take pictures a lot, but I don't uhm... For me, they're not my artwork so much. They're more my Instagram. [laughter] You know, more more… for just free shooting and being a photographer, like everyone else is a photographer, you know, now the entire world is a photographer. So it gives more my subjective point of view and observation. I do think there's always a grain of truth in them and that's why I direct people heavily because I feel like you can elicit real emotions through fictional techniques. And that's what I'm aiming for. So it's rigged under the cover of fiction.

Mauren  15:10

So what is your experience about being a woman and a mother in the arts?

Dana  15:14

Oh, woman and a mother? Yes, gosh, you know, what I, I actually backed into being a mother, I, I had a happy accident, I did not plan to be a mother. And I was very scared about it. And I didn't know very many mothers. And so when I was pregnant, I asked the painter Eva Lundsager: “How do you do this? (She had then, I think, two kids [...]) And did you have to give up your work? And when did you ruin your life? Are you still an artist?” and all that stuff... And she just said: “this [is a] great thing to me”. She said she felt now she must make even better work for her kids. So it's been nothing but, you know, inspiration for her. And I love that. I mean, the real facts are that it limits your time. But for me, photography doesn't require seven days in a week with an oil painting, you know, so I think it's a little bit easier for me. At times, it's defined my work, like I made a long collage project when I was in the house with a newborn more so but I just feel like life defines your work for everybody. There's things happening. You're trying to be productive no matter what.

Mauren  16:21

You could say it was harmonious for you to bring the two together. In parallel.

Dana  16:26

Yes, it was. Especially now I can even use my older son as a model. So perfect.

Mauren  16:32

Yeah, really cool... Would you say it's right to say that through your work, you reveal the inner life of women?

Dana  16:40

Well, I don't want to speak… I don't want to presume to speak for all women. Because I think I own a unique point of view, I think of a bit of a tomboy, and I have and having grown up in the country, I have sort of slight, like alienation from more urban points of view. So I definitely can't speak for everyone at all. But I definitely speak for my inner life. And then I have found that it meets the way that other people also feel at times. That's my goal is to create connections, of course.

Mauren  17:09

So maybe we can talk about your series Moon Bitches. There's a picture in it called Trunk Lab, where we see a trunk with a portable meth lab. So according to an interview in Bomb Magazine, you said it was a typical housewives economic support. Could you tell us why you're interested in this idea of the housewife and the economic support? And how did he come about to discover this reality?

Dana  17:34

Oh, [there’s this] terrible fact that I read somewhere that over half, over half 50% [of American meth labs] were run by sort of stay at home moms. And so it just rang a bell with me that there are women who have to do strange things when they have to take care of their kids. That's obviously a negative example. It's very dangerous to have a meth lab, but it's also my twisted sense of humor. I think it's also funny to take the kind of iconic view of the “Oh, isn't it nice?”, “It's fantastic”, the mother that everyone smiles... I just get a little disgusted with that type of false worship. And so it seemed to be like: let me make a bad mother and let me see what happens with a bad mother. And she's so beautiful with her tattoos and stuff. I just I find her so cool. So that's why.

Mauren  18:23

Yeah, so what about your sense of humor? Because I feel your pictures have a lot of sense of humor, like the t-shirt, where it says “Hysterical Female”. So you do bring a lot of humor in your work, even if it feels sometimes really serious.

Dana  18:40

Yeah, I find archetypes very silly. So like a hysterical woman archetype is silly. A Puritan puritanical archetype is silly, that sort of Madonna mother, person… I find it silly. Nobody is really like that. So this tends to be the sort of thing that I joke about. I am glad that you recognize this humor. I think sometimes people take me quite seriously but that's, that's also their right to but yeah. I'm not a hysterical female.

Mauren  19:09

Barbara Polla, a gallerist in Geneva, writes this about one of your photographs “Faye Silver”: "This mental space claims discordance, role reversals, a different vision of the world. And we understand that the use of the negative was essential here, as it brings to the image a form of lightness that contributes to the better containment of the depth of the subject." Could you comment on that?

Dana  19:36

Yeah, that was so beautiful, what she wrote.

Mauren  19:40


Dana  19:42

I just appreciate for a moment how beautiful it was, and I especially appreciate that she understands why I use the negative. I don't often manipulate my photographs. But for that one in particular, putting a young girl (actually a disabled young girl) in a combat sports helmet and gloves was a reversal of what you would expect from the young girl, but if you just look at the picture, you don't necessarily know that she's disabled. So I need to reverse it to sort of restate the fact that it's not what you expect.

Mauren  20:12

Yeah. Could you tell us about your work, your series called Eleonore with a dancer that you met? So it was a life encounter, wasn't it? That’s how it started, right?

Dana  20:21

Yes, yes, I know Eleanor from my combat sports gym. Her kicks were super interesting because she was a dancer and so these kicks that you do on a bag in muay thai are very heavy and harsh, and hers were elegant at the same time. So I became interested in working with her and she just sort of goes across both categories of male and female, she's probably more feminine than me. So I really appreciate that aspect of her, she inhabits her femininity and sexuality very freely and comfortably. I think that's what really drew me to her. I wanted to make beautiful photographs and she's extremely beautiful, too. She agreed to perform for the camera, for me. We made very set up pictures. It was an appointment to make a very set up beautiful picture with a girl, which is kind of a classic thing. But I like to think that she exudes this kind of strength within her femininity, that's uniquely a young woman's strengths, and unique to her as well.

Mauren  21:22

To talk about the photographs, you set her up in an environment with pieces of metal. Yeah, that represents masculinity, in a way?

Dana  21:31

Masculinity, or just like a figure generally, like a standard, What is a standard figure? It's those pieces of metal. that's a body, as you might imagine it, in two dimensions and a photograph in a black and white photograph. And then you put it next to a fully realized person in the flesh. So it was to provide that kind of sense of the generic versus the very, very specific.

Mauren  21:53

And he has that contrast between the warmth of the body and the cold of the metal. Could we talk about gender fluidity and how you bring it out in your work?

Dana  22:01

Yes, I mean, it's interesting, because my notion of gender comes very much from Judith Butler's idea of performative gender in which you kind of are what you do. So, if I'm a woman, if I behave in womanly ways, theoretically, that would make me female, or if I'm a man, even womanly ways, theoretically, that would make me female as well. I think that that performative idea has been superseded by the notion of biological gender or being and then in terms of being trans being born in the wrong body. Those are more grounded biological concepts [even though sometimes people don't believe in being born in the wrong body, which is insane because of course that happens]. So all of that is to say that I believe that… I do believe that you can define gender, you can behave according to whatever social conventions you choose to, whatever delights you… So if you're a biological woman, if it delights you to be extraordinarily feminine, that's fantastic. If it delights you to get rid of every feminine convention and be a straight cisgender woman who is a tomboy like more like me, then that's also a different definition of woman. So you have the theoretical transexual and then you have the grounded one. So you also have, of course, trans people. So, now I'm getting to an age where I think young people are going to speak their own truths about being transgender in a way that… I am listening to, you know, I'm only listening to and learning from. I have a trans son and I let him talk, speak for himself. He doesn't want me to speak for him, but for sure, seeing people cross the gender lines, because they really must, has made me understand the gravity of how it is to be gender fluid for someone. For me, as a woman becoming more of a tomboy is no big deal. I think for a cisgender man to become feminine is a very big deal. They take a lot of trouble. So I wrestle with the privilege of exhibiting masculine traits myself, but not really getting into trouble for it. And I think people take enormous risks to be who they are. So I honor that and I recognize that as a difference from me.

Mauren  24:21

It is true that in the history of our societies, when you think about it, we heard that a lot I think and everybody has that “Oh my parents wanted a boy so I was you know, I was a tomboy” or “My dad raised me more as a boy”. That kind of is a thing that, you know, people hear. So somehow it becomes okay, but the opposite is not accepted. It's very hard for some men to understand that it goes both ways. And maybe some girls did not want to be tomboy or be treated as boys, but some did. It was okay because it was accepted. Oh, that brings me to conclude that having this ability to be more fluid brings a lot of freedom to all of us. And your work is about freedom. Could you talk about this notion of freedom and what it represents for you?

Dana  25:13

I love that. Well, first of all, being an artist represents a lot of freedom, because you can take whatever you're interested in and put it in a container of art. So I can put combat sports and gender and everything in the container of art and photography. So I definitely want to also, in presenting other paradigms of being female, or other paradigms of being human, I want to add to people's freedom, like I really care about the idea of unfettered life, particularly for women. I have a particular point of view on what that is, but I also just care about it in general, as a master plan: more and more freedom. And I actually feel like Eleanor is an example of a younger person who experiences more and more freedom, that's why I'm interested in her. So we talk about it in a very kind of quasi fascist way, in America at the moment, you know, like, I don't have to get vaccinated for my freedom and so forth. So I, I'm cautious with the word but in terms of artistic liberty and freedom, I'm on there for it.

Mauren  26:12

I like this idea of having a bit of a cause, you know, through the work. And I think it's important because a lot of people [have], as you said, [an unfettered life], and that's so important. How was your experience being a woman in the art world?

Dana  26:30

Yeah, I mean, I'm a little grumpy about some of the dollar differences between male and female prices, but I try not to be grumpy because you can only do so much. But as I get older, I'm a little more clear that some things you should be grumpy about. So... but I also got special treatment particularly as a younger woman in the art world. And then as I've gotten older, I've made enormously valuable colleagues and friends, like actually Barbara Polla, who was a remarkable appreciator of women. So I think it's very special. It's very special at times it pays less well, but that's okay.

Mauren  27:06

So do you have a list of the top three things you are grumpy about?

Dana  27:12

Yeah, price differences. That's really the only thing that I'm grumpy about, you know, I can be grumpy that young people get more attention. But you know what young people are magical and incredible. And of course, they get more attention. So I'm not grumpy about that. I think that's fantastic. Of course, mid-career people should get more attention, but I also think there's some value to a quieter period in artwork, and I think you can make it through them and really make your work for yourself and that's fantastic. So yeah, I only have the one grumpy thing with prices.

Mauren  27:44

This is a great word of wisdom, actually. Well, thank you so much. This has been a wonderful conversation.

Dana  27:49

Thank you so much. So nice to talk to you. Thank you for the great questions.

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