Transcript - Episode 82: Victoria Mara Heilweil
Hello, and welcome to Keep the Channel Open, a podcast featuring conversations with artists, writers, and curators. My name is Mike Sakasegawa, and this is episode 82. Today’s guest is Victoria Mara Heilweil.
Hey there, everybody, welcome to the show. Couple of quick announcements before we get started. First, for those of you in the San Diego area, I wanted to give you a heads-up about a new exhibition by Trinh Mai. Long-time listeners will remember that Trinh was the very first guest on the show, way back in episode 1. An exhibition of Trinh’s new project That We Should Be Heirs will be opening this coming Saturday, February 16, 2019, at the San Diego Art Institute, with an opening reception from 6 to 8 PM. This exhibition is a collaborative installation that incorporates hand-written letters, many of them written by immigrants and families of immigrants, to encourage participants to engage in the lost art of letter writing as a method of alleviating burdens and promoting healing. I’ve included a link in the show notes to the event page at the SDAI website, and I’ve also included a link to the page about the project on Trinh’s website, where you can watch a short video about the project. I encourage you to check out the video, and if you’ll be in San Diego between now and March 31st, please do come see the exhibition.
OK, and the other announcement is—and you might have heard me mention this in the previous episode, in my conversation with Daniel Gonçalves—I’ve launched a Kickstarter for my new podcast project, LikeWise Fiction. LikeWise Fiction will be an audio anthology of short stories written by women and nonbinary writers, writers of color, and LGBTQ+ writers. I’m very excited about this new project—although, don’t worry, Keep the Channel Open isn’t going anywhere. But, yeah, I’m very excited about the new project and I wanted to ask for your support. I’ve put a link to the Kickstarter in the show notes. At the time I record this, the campaign is 41% funded and it runs until February 28th, 2019, so if you like the idea of a diverse fiction podcast, or if you appreciate the work I’ve done on this show and want to support this new project, I’d very much appreciate your pledges. And, you know, even if you can’t pledge, just helping spread the word by sharing the Kickstarter link is a huge help that I really appreciate.
OK, now on to today’s show. As I mentioned, today’s guest is Victoria Mara Heilweil. Victoria Mara Heilweil is a nationally exhibited photographic artist, curator, and educator. Her work has been included in exhibitions at the de Young Museum, San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, wall space gallery, the Minneapolis Photo Center, Washington Square Art Galleries, and elsewhere. As an independent curator, she has curated exhibitions at Root Division, PHOTO Gallery, and Art Works Downtown, and she was a founding member of MicroClimate Collective, an artist-created curatorial project which produced twelve exhibitions over eight years.
I met Victoria at the Medium Festival a few years ago, at that year’s opening of the annual Size Matters exhibition. And right away we hit it off, because, as you’ll hear in our conversation, our work is actually very similar in both subject matter and visual aesthetic. We actually did a print exchange shortly after that, and the print that she sent me, from her Sisyphus series, is now one of my favorites from my personal collection.
In our conversation, Victoria and I talked about several of her series, including Sisyphus, Remnant, and Drop. I’ve included links to all three of those in the show notes and I encourage you to check them out. If you’d like to see more of Victoria’s images and keep up to date on what she has going on, you can follow her on Instagram at @victoriamaraheilweil, and I’ve included a link in the show notes there. Also, if you’re in the Bay Area, there’s an exhibition coming up soon that Victoria curated and which includes some of her images, which you can see at Art Works Downtown in San Rafael, California. The show is in Gallery 1337 and runs from March 1st to April 19th, 2019. There are receptions on Friday, March 8th, and Friday, April 12th, both from 5 to 8 PM. There’s a link in the show notes for that exhibition as well, so go check that out.
Right. Let’s get started. As always, if you’d like to join in the conversation you can use the hashtag #ChannelOpenPhoto to live-tweet the episode. And now, here’s my conversation with Victoria Mara Heilweil.
Mike Sakasegawa: So we met at—if I'm remembering right, I think I am, it wasn't that long ago—it was in 2017 at the Size Matters exhibition at the Medium Festival. Is that right?
Victoria Mara Heilweil: Yes.
MS: Yeah, that's how I remember it. I can't remember how we actually happened to meet each other at that exhibition, but—
VH: We were introduced by Amanda.
MS: Oh, okay. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
VH: Who I know from SPE.
MS: Okay. Well, I mean I think it's just such a funny thing because I saw your piece in that show and then as I've gotten to know your work more, I really feel like we're kind of kindred spirits or something like that. We seem to have very similar interests and concerns and visual aesthetic, I feel like. Do you think that's...?
VH: Yeah, I would totally agree with that.
MS: Yeah. It's been really great getting a chance to dive into your work a little more as I was prepping for this. And the first body of work that I wanted to talk about was the one—because we did a print exchange after we met that first year, and so I have one of your prints here, which I love, from your Sisyphus series.
MS: So why don't you tell me a little bit about about the series.
VH: On the surface, Sisyphus is photographs of my dirty dishes. And where that series came from is that prior to that I had done a series called Remnants which is scans of my daughter's diaper stains from when she was little. And I had realized probably about 10 years ago I did a lecture in a class about my work and I went back really far in my work and I realized that actually even though I've switched subject matters and some other things, that there was a constant—which was interesting when I looked at years and years of work to realize that—which was that I was really interested in marks and things that were left behind on things. And so I start to think about why I was interested in that and realized that it had to do with history and lived experience. So that was something that I started thinking a lot about. And in my travels and research, I've come across this Japanese philosophy which they also apply to certain art forms called wabi-sabi. Sort of thinking about impermanence and it comes out of Buddhism and Taoism. So a part of it is the impermanence of life. But a lot of interest in that philosophy and imperfection is that it's linked to humanity, that humanity isn't perfect. And so therefore if you think of humanity being beautiful, then imperfection is beautiful and they'll build in imperfection. The things are—they highlight imperfection. And so all of that kind of resonated for me. And I think a lot about why I'm interested in the everyday. And I think it's just that... I mean, philosophically—not even as an art theory, but philosophically—that's where we live most of our life. And we have these moments that are special. And then we also have very difficult moments. But really we live most of our life in the everyday where it's not particularly spectacular. But if you're going to really enjoy your life and be in your life, you have to be in the everyday and kind of celebrate it. And I think that's what my interest is. And I guess I would say the last thing is—and I've been thinking about this also a lot over the last couple of years—but I sort of came back around to really putting my artwork into a feminist context and calling myself a feminist artist. And it's more obvious in those two bodies of work because they're based in the domestic realm. It's less obvious in the work I've done since then, but it really connects back to earlier feminist artists who worked with the ideas of the everyday and how that was really work that you could have for fine art. Because prior to that it wasn't that acceptable. I mean you have Man Ray and Duchamp, but other than Duchamp you don't have a lot of emphasis on the ordinary and everyday and everyday rituals. Which, the dishes are a ritual.
MS: I think it's interesting, bringing up Man Ray and Duchamp. One thing that really sticks out about this is that these are two men, right? And I think it's really interesting—and we've had conversations about this before, especially because our work is very similar in concerns and in subject matter, that both of us have made work about the everyday and about domestic scenes and domestic details. That kind of thing. And in talking about how that was not necessarily seen as a valid topic of art for a long time. It's also, I think, really relevant to note that even when it started to become a more valid subject of art, that it was really men's work that was more accepted at the beginning, of this disparity between how men and women making similar kinds of work can have very different receptions. Right?
VH: Yes. Yeah. I actually, I have to say I had an interesting experience, which was a friend of mine teaches in the grad program at CCA and one of the grad students had a dinner party where she invited a bunch of women that were artists—and actually I think all of us were also college educators but I can't remember for sure. But we were all artists and she had questions underneath your plate that you had to pull out and answer, and we had all these conversations about whether we felt like our gender had gotten in the way and most—oh, I think we were all mothers. That was the other thing. And so there was a whole conversation about what impact having a child and having children had on your career. And it was very interesting because a lot of us had talked about... I mean, some people actually felt like it really was an inspiring experience and it actually increased their production, which—I mean, not immediately—but which I thought was very interesting. But a lot of us talked about how still in this day and age that people will kind of treat you as if you have to make a choice between those things. Like you can't be a mother and a successful artist, somehow.
MS: It does seem like a lot of times sort of a double bind, right? Like that if you're a woman and you're not making work that somehow includes your kids—if you have kids—the thing that people will always ask you is "Oh, what do your kids think of your work?" Or "What does your husband think of your work?" Or whatever. But if you are making that kind of work that is sort of more domestic in subject matter, that a lot of times you get dismissed as not being a serious artist. It seems like a real sort of tricky thing to navigate.
VH: Yeah, I mean I make work about the thing that is what currently I'm thinking about. And so, depending on where I was in my life then, that affected the kind of work I made. Like I made work for years and years and years about gender. And then I stopped being interested in that, and I think I started doing some of this domestic stuff because I was having a lot of domestic time, first of all. But, second of all, I had a child fairly late and just really coming to terms with what it meant to take on that identity. It wasn't the easiest thing for me to take on. And so I think I was making work about that partly out of time constraints, but also partly because I was really thinking a lot about what my duties were as a mom that I didn't have before I was a mom, or that intensified as a mom.
MS: I think it makes so much sense to make work about the things that are on your mind right then. In a lot of ways I feel like—I mean, I don't know how it is for you, but for me a lot of times the art-making process is my way of sort of getting my arms around whatever strong emotion I might be dealing with at the moment. And certainly when I became a parent, that had a huge impact in how I saw myself and how I saw the world and how I felt about so many different things. And making the photographs was my way of processing that for myself. Is that a similar thing for you, do you think?
VH: It is. Although I have one current body of work that doesn't seem to fit into that, that I still am not really sure where it's coming from. But I think for most of my art-making life that's been true.
MS: Well, I'm interested to hear about how this new body of work is a little different.
VH: I think it's mostly because it's more mysterious to me about why I'm interested in it. I mean all of my work starts with a thought, sometimes an image that pops in my head, but a thought. Like, "Why don't I do this?" It actually starts usually very, very, very simply. And then of course it grows into what it is. And so I'm making abstract photographs of water and starting to do video again—for the first time in 30 years—of water. The image that pops into my head, I haven't actually ever made that photograph. I've been trying to make it and it's technically actually really difficult. I sort of got to the point where I was like, "Maybe I'm not making that image." But I started off thinking that I wanted to photograph a single drop of water with things reflected in it. But there is something about water that is really compelling to me right now. I mean there are things I've started to figure out are interesting to me about changing up my process with this, because it's not a predictable process. My early work—like really early work—I photographed people. My earliest work I actually did all nudes. My undergraduate thesis work was photographs of my boyfriend and I having sex. And not explicitly but like I set the camera on a tripod and I think I had a bulb release? I mean it was so many years ago now, but I wasn't looking through the camera so I didn't really know what it would look like. And when you work with people there's of course an unpredictability about it. But everything I've been making for the last bunches of years is far more controlled. Although I guess I would say my daughter's diaper stains—of course, I didn't really know what they were going to look like, but once I had the stain, I knew what it was. It was just digitizing it, basically. The water, even though I'm looking through the camera, because it passes by so fast and I'm using such a fast shutter speed, there's no way to really compose it or think about it. I'm a very formal photographer and somehow I must want to loosen up my process by doing this, is my guess. You know, that there's something sort of freeing about not being able to be that controlled and formal about it. And so that's interesting to me, but in terms of the content, I still don't exactly know why water is so interesting to me right at this particular moment.
MS: So is this the Drop series that you have on your website?
MS: I mean, it's interesting because, like you say, those images do sort of seem different in some ways than the other work that you have on your website. But I also feel like... I mean it's interesting to hear you talk about because I can see where in the process, in the approach for you as the artist that it would be very different and feel very different. But at the same time, even though the photographs have a different subject, I still feel like there's something about the visual aesthetic of these images that, you know, not to say that it's the same as the other work, but rather just that there is something similar, that there is sort of a through line to that aesthetic, if that makes sense.
VH: Oh yeah. I mean I'm very interested in abstract language and I'm still using that. And I'm interested in simplicity, I guess. And there's that as well. No, I can see the connection visually. It's more the content that's kind of a mystery to me right now.
MS: Well, and your artist statement that you have for that series, to me it was interesting that you were saying before, that the sort of through line for all of your work had to do with mark-making. And certainly I can see that in many of your bodies of work, but it also seems to me that having a fascination with time and how time works and that kind of thing is also a through line for many of your bodies of work. That many of your series have to do with moments in time. Does that seem right to you?
MS: I mean I guess it's something that a lot of photographers—you know, because you know photography is a medium that's about time in many ways. But I don't know, I mean I find that kind of... It's something that I'm always interested in as well. I feel like sometimes I can be almost obsessive about time and "What does it all mean?" kind of thing. Do you feel like that is something that—like how does it work for you? How does it feel for you, this kind of question?
VH: It's a really interesting experience. A bunch of years ago in a portfolio review—and honestly I don't even remember which body of work I was showing them—but the reviewer said to me, "Wow, your work is about mortality." And I actually think all my work might be about mortality, but I've never ever written about it or talked about it. But it was really interesting because when he said it, I was like, "Yes it is." But I don't know, I don't think I really interact with it on that level very much. I do think about time and certainly as I've gotten older, I now think a lot more about the preciousness of time and the value of time and things like that. And so there is something... I don't remember which version of the statement is on my website, but for Sisyphus I definitely thought—I mean, part of what I was thinking about in making that work is... I mean, I don't mind certain household chores, but I really, really hate doing dishes. And we even have a dishwasher, but for some reason just the act of it is not... It's actually gotten better recently, but it just wouldn't be my first choice. And so, you know, choosing between doing that and something else, it's like, "Well, do I really want to spend the hour doing this or would I rather spend the hour reading a book or taking pictures?" And so, you know, in some ways I feel like I also partly made that work so that I would have an excuse to go deal with my dishes. Although really all I did was photograph them and then leave them.
MS: [laughs] That's funny. It's, yeah, it's an interesting thing, you know, talking about your photographs being about mortality. I can definitely see that. And it's interesting, too—I mean, just to sort of go back to that whole, "We're on the same wavelength" thing, I think a lot of my work is about mortality as well. And it's a funny thing because with my work, one of the series that I had been showing for a while is my family series. And it's interesting when I talk to reviewers about it, how for me... In a lot of ways that series for me is really front-and-center about mortality and about having this really visible representation in front of me of the passage of time, because they change so fast that it just really makes it all so stark to me. That there is an anxiety about that. That that makes me feel my own age and the passage of my own time more acutely.
VH: Yeah, definitely.
MS: I find that when I talk to reviewers about this, that some of them are... You know, because the images themselves often have a certain sweetness to them because they have children in them, that some reviewers are like, "Oh yeah, I get that. That makes sense." And some reviewers are like, "You know, I don't know if you have to take it there. That's a little dark." I mean, I don't know.
VH: Well, I mean it's an interesting thing to think about that, particularly in our society mortality is always thought of as dark. I don't think that's true in all cultures, but I think it's true here.
MS: Yeah, it is true. I guess that's an interesting thing. I obviously I'm not as familiar with any other culture besides the one that I grew up in here, but yeah. Yeah. I don't know. So you know, one of the other things that I wanted to talk about in addition to your own work as a photographer, as an artist yourself, is that I know you also are a curator and that's something that I'm always very interested in as well. And so I was wondering if we could talk a little bit about the MicroClimate Collective?
MS: Yeah. So tell me a little about that.
VH: I mean, that's no longer together. Now I work as an independent curator. So MicroClimate started... So I had done a little bit of curating and I always had been really interested in it. I mean, I think my interest in curating is for a couple of reasons. One is that I love all different kinds of art, and I have tried making other kinds of art and I'm really a photographer, is what I eventually found to be the truth for me. Like I am definitely not a painter or a sculptor or anything like that. But I really love other kinds of art and so curating kind of allows me to work with that. But indirectly. And as a photographer I'm very interested in sequencing and grouping and things like that, and getting to do that with different mediums to me is really interesting. And I think the last thing is social. It gives me an excuse to meet these other artists that I really admire. So I had done a little bit of curating and then I had a friend who does theater directing and—well, other stuff now—but she does theater directing and she ran a small alternative theater in San Francisco called the Climate Theater and she wanted to have other kinds of programming. She had a music series and she had a film series starting, and she was talking to me about it because she knew that I was an artist and I had done a little bit of curating and she said, very sneakily, "Hey, why don't you come by the space and look at it and tell me what kind of visual art programming I could do?" And so I went down there and I looked at the space and I wrote up some suggestions for her and she said, "Great, would you like to do this?" And I was like, "Sure." And almost immediately after taking this on I went, "Wow, I cannot do this by myself." And so I connected with some other artists that I didn't actually know very well at the time to say "Would you be interested in doing this too?" And when they came on, right around that same time she set up a meeting between us and the three people that were doing the film series. And the space was this very interesting, bizarre space. Supposedly the building used to be a bordello and it was this older San Francisco building that was kind of run down, and it had a bunch of different rooms and a rooftop that it was not legal to use, but we used. I mean, there were so many things in there that were not up to code, really. The theater was like half of the floor and the other half of the floor... And the guy who had the master lease was this guy who was a long-time Burning Man participant who used to throw these illegal huge parties there, who thought of himself as an artist, who was very crazy. And so he agreed that we could do these shows, but we could only do them for one night. And I mean this was a whole floor of a building. And so we would do these crazy shows where we would curate, I don't know, like 15 artists on a theme and then set it up all day, have this big party kind of opening/closing, one-night events and then have to take everything down and clean everything up the next day. And this guy had so much stuff in his space. So part of what we had to do was move it all and then put it back. And inevitably we didn't put it back in the right place and he was... I think he'd done too many drugs over his life, honestly. And so he was very unpredictable, let's just say. So it was exciting and interesting, but exhausting. And people—a lot of these people were pretty young and they moved to other cities or left to go to grad school or did other things. Until it really just came down to me and one other artist and we both got to the point where we could not deal with this space anymore. And actually the space was kind of going away anyway. And then we started writing proposals for other spaces and we did a couple of shows in a couple of other spaces. That was over a period of eight years, but we wanted to get to the point where we could have a show that was up for at least a week, if not a month, you know, that was a more normal turnaround time. It was nice. We started to work with spaces that actually had some support, like they had a mailing list and they did the PR, and some of the spaces had installers [so] we didn't have to install the whole show or have the artists install their own work. It was a great learning ground. Also she and I were both really interested in having also spoken word and music and other kinds of art forms at these events. So they were really exciting but really exhausting.
MS: I think that this is something that a lot of people probably, if you've never done it before, wouldn't necessarily realize how much work can go into curating a show.
MS: It's real interesting. For me one of the things that I think about in terms of curation is how hard it is just to even have some awareness of what work is out there. You know, there's so much work that's happening, new work and existing work, and keeping on top of it all to be able to put a show together, that's a lot of information to keep track of, I feel like.
VH: It is. For years we were really good about going to all the MFA shows in the area, and we had different networks because we had gone to different grad programs at different times. And honestly, now if I'm curating a show and I don't have enough artists, I'm stuck, I will email artists I know that I respect and be like, "Hey, can you suggest some people?" And then I've gotten really interesting people that way because while I have shown people more than once, I try not to repeat them very often.
MS: I guess there is this thing about, if you're a curator, in some ways curating is a form of advocacy, right? And so you want to make sure that you're doing right by all the different communities that might be engaged with that project, whether it's the audiences or with the artistic community or whatever. And so you'd want to find a way to do it right, right?
VH: I guess. I mean, I don't know that there's a way to do it right. I think that the feedback that I've gotten and we got when we used to do shows together, for most artists, they felt like their work looked really great and they liked the combination of the work we chose and the conversations between it. Of course there's been over the years a couple of people who weren't happy but it's been mostly pretty minor. I mean we did have one show at a space that was very weird—and that show actually almost broke me because it was such a hard experience, not only dealing with this space, but the space was in North Beach, which is a very busy, touristy neighborhood in San Francisco. Most of the spaces we've worked with have been in other neighborhoods. This neighborhood not only is horrendous for parking but it's not great for public transit either. And so just getting to is already a dedication. That opening was probably one of the smallest, quietest openings we ever had because when you have like eight or ten artists in the show and they have their mailing list and your mailing list, you're almost guaranteed to have a decent crowd. It's just numbers. This was really empty and I had friends actually that told me that they drove around for 20 minutes, couldn't find parking, and gave up. And these are friends that come to every show, they're really committed to me. And they were like, "Sorry, I just didn't do it." It just had a weird vibe. And there was an artist in the show that we had been quite friendly with, who for whatever reason at that moment was kind of a prima donna. We ended up with kind of a big issue with her work because she was working with sugar and this space was... The people whose space it was, they also lived there and, you know, sugar attracts things. So they were not super happy with some of this. But that's the only time. And thankfully the show we had after that was so great and so positive that it kind of made me realize that that was sort of a one-off. You know, in ten-plus years of curating to only have one space that was a nightmare seems to be pretty good odds. And, you know, only a very small handful of experiences with the artists that were not great, out of probably hundreds of artists.
MS: Yeah, it seems pretty good. Yeah.
VH: Yeah. No, by and large I think most people are really happy to be included in the shows. I think most people have a pretty good idea of how much work I'm doing as a curator and I feel like at this point it's all pretty professional anyway. I don't ask people to do things that I don't think they would be comfortable with.
MS: Right. So there's a lot of other stuff that I have in my notes to talk about, but we should probably take a quick little break and then come back and do the second segment.
Mike Sakasegawa: So for the second segment, I always invite the guest to bring a topic of their own, which could be whatever you'd like to talk about, whatever it happens to be on your mind. So what would you like to talk about today?
Victoria Mara Heilweil: I'd like to talk about teaching, which I have done for over 20 years, and just education and the state of education in the United States.
MS: Yeah, it's certainly a topic that is something that I think about a fair amount. Both, you know, obviously having been a student at one point and also my wife used to be a teacher. She was a teacher for I think about ten years and a lot of our best friends are teachers. So, yeah. What's on your mind?
VH: And you have kids.
MS: That's true.
VH: I mean, I feel like also when you have kids you get a whole other view of how messed up this all is.
MS: It's definitely interesting. San Diego Unified School District certainly has its, shall we say, challenges. So what would you... What are you thinking to start with?
VH: First of all, my experience as a college professor, there's two things that I see. I mean, forgetting even about the fact that we're underpaid—that's kind of a given—but I think there's more even insidious stuff than that. I just think most teachers are not respected or treated as the professionals they are. You know, we have training, we have degrees, and we are asked—not by our immediate supervisors, not by the department chair, but, you know, the higher-up bureaucratic organizations really micromanage teachers in this way that's so disrespectful. It makes it very difficult for you to actually be creative and take risks. When people are always railing about how we have to change up our education system—which I would agree with—if you want to do that, not only do you have to throw more money at it, but you have to leave teachers alone and not penalize them and trust them. If you're going to try new thing, they're not all going to work. That's the nature of it. And the other thing I see, the other side that I'm seeing much more in the last, let's say five years from the student population is this immense amount of financial stress. I mean immense. That you have 20-year-olds that are getting themselves sick worrying about money and how they're going to have a job, and they don't sleep because they're trying to work and go to school, and in some cases they have a kid. But even if they're just trying to work and go to school, it's pretty heartbreaking. They're very young and some of them are already having health problems from so much stress.
MS: I would imagine that in the Bay Area that's probably even more especially acute—given the high cost of living in that area—than it might be in other areas. But I suspect that it is probably something that is a nationwide, possibly even a worldwide problem. It's really interesting, I think, because the standard narrative about young people, young adults today is that, "Oh, they're spoiled and lazy and entitled and everybody just wants a participation trophy or whatever." It's a narrative that really doesn't, one, match my experience of young people in the first place, but, two, doesn't reckon with the ways in which the world has different challenges and different—you know, that the economic landscape is so different now than it was when I was in college, for example. And it's something that people don't really seem to have a lot of awareness of, and I'm not entirely sure why that is. Maybe it's just lack of access to what young people's lives are actually like or what. But yeah, I don't know.
VH: I mean, the people who are making decisions about these things are dramatically out of touch with what most people's experiences, not just young people's experiences are. Yeah. I think a lot about how this generation has so much college debts that it takes away a bunch of their choices. I think there's something to being able to experiment and fail, and there's something to be able to try different things when you're young. And especially now that I'm older, I'm like, "God, why didn't I do more of that? We're already talking to my daughter about, you know, either between high school and college or after college, take a year, we'll give you a backpack and a plane ticket and bye-bye. Go figure it out for a year ago and go around the world and come back. And that's common in other countries and it's just not as common here. I even talked to my own students about that. I just tell them "The jobs will still be there. At 21 you can do this." You can still do to 50. It's harder. Or different, I guess. I mean, I have more money but much more responsibilities. So I worry about that because I feel like the things that make us innovative as human beings and creative and innovative as a society is completely going away. Even the way we educate has taken that away, you know, that there's a lot of emphasis on job skills, which is not... I mean, to me that's very misguided because jobs right now change very quickly, and skills that you get, in as soon as five years might not be relevant. So really our job as a society and particularly as educators is to educate people to love learning and how to learn and things like that so that they can be lifelong learners. But that's not what is coming down from the administration at all. That's not what's coming down from the people who are making decisions about curriculum and money. And so that really worries me. I mean, I actually for the first time in my life am starting to think that maybe not everybody should go to college and maybe it is becoming a waste of time. You know, if you're going to be $60,000 in debt, imagine what you could do with $60,000. Maybe that's better. I don't actually know.
MS: This kind of thing that you're talking about, with what the sort of educational philosophy is, that that's every level of education. It's something from preschool on up to higher education. And it's sort of a strange thing because everybody always talks about how education, especially higher education is something that's very... You know, it increases your opportunities. But that doesn't really... I think that's true to a certain degree, but it also doesn't really reckon with, as you say, with the realities of how much more expensive and how much less assistance there is for higher education. I don't know, I kind of feel like maybe one of the problems is that people—especially people who are older and more established in their lives—have trouble seeing that the world isn't the way that it used to be, already. It's not just becoming different, but that the realities of life now are just already very different from what they used to be. And so making decisions based on these old paradigms is going to lead to structures and systems that aren't really applicable anymore. You think?
VH: I mean, a lot of them have kids, but I guess all their kids go to private school or... Even private school, those teachers make so little. In San Francisco, some of these teachers have like an hour and a half or two-hour commute each way. It really impacts their ability to teach well, to be present with the kids, to stay in those jobs. We have a lot of teacher turnover, even in private schools here. And, yeah, I mean you would think that they would see it. I mean, I don't actually know. If I'm being like really dark and going down a negative theory, there is a lot to be said for keeping people stupid.
MS: [laughs] Yeah, I guess.
VH: You know, if you want power and you want to be able to do what you want to be able to do, the stupider the people are, the easier it is for you to do that. So I think that there is some thought to this. The more educated you are, the more likely you are to vote a certain way or think a certain way. It's not 100 percent, but statistically more educated people tend to vote more liberal.
MS: I don't know if I'm quite willing to be that cynical. Just because—
VH: I'm not usually that cynical but sometimes I go there, because in the same way that we have institutional racism, I just think, "Could this all just be..." Like you said, how do people look at these statistics—and also if you look at our statistics compared to other countries we're really dumb compared to other countries and, gee, I wonder why. Well, in other countries they put more money into education. It's free to go to college. I mean, I just feel like if you look at this objectively, there's no reason why we don't have a better education system. We're a rich country,
MS: On some level it all just does kind of come back to capitalism, which is something that whether you're conservative or liberal in some ways doesn't even matter. You know, because this is California. We both live in California and the electorate here and the politicians are at least for the most part nominally fairly liberal, but even at that aren't necessarily engaging with the ways that unfettered capitalism isn't really great for anybody who isn't already rich. But yeah, I don't know. I mean I think part of it, too, my experience—obviously I don't... I've been through college myself but that was a while ago now and I don't have kids going into... You know, my kids are still fairly young. My oldest is in fifth grade right now. But I think when I look at how K-12 education at least in our school district works, it's the second biggest school district in California, San Diego Unified is. And as I've become more politically engaged down here, you know, being aware of how the school board operates and how the school district operates, and the politics of all of it, it's interesting because in some ways a lot of these things seem maybe ideologically driven or mismanaged or whatever. But also one of the things that I've really noticed is how when I go to community meetings or something like that and the other parents there will talk about things like—I think on a certain level there's also that parents don't necessarily... What am I trying to say? Like one of the things right now is how everybody still—still!—really up in arms about the whole Common Core thing. And certainly, you know, as someone who has a wife who was a teacher teaching Common Core and she has a master's degree in math education, elementary math education, and our best friend is a teacher who has a master's degree as a reading specialist, and so they have access to all of this research into what kinds of pedagogical methods really work and which ones don't work. In a lot of ways Common Core is very good, in so far as it is at least notionally embracing research-driven methods that work. Now, obviously the implementation of it and the rollout of it and the teacher training and the funding of the teacher training and all that stuff, that's a whole other thing. And there's a lot of ways that we could find fault with it. What I find really interesting and very frustrating a lot of times is that I feel like from other parents, who have no idea what goes into teaching, they've never been teachers, they've probably never even talked in any meaningful way to a teacher about teaching, have these really strong ideas that it's like, "Hey, this is the way we used to do it and you're not doing it that way anymore, and so therefore it's wrong."
VH: But this goes back to how we see teachers, our society, that they have no respect and that there is no trust that they have experience and they have something to give to this. And same thing,, yes, when they rolled this out, there were problems because it was a new thing. My daughter's teacher in third grade was very transparent about "I'm trying some things. I'm figuring out what works. I'll probably do better next year. I'm sorry you had the first year of this." I personally talked to friends of mine who have... A lot of my friends, their kids are much younger. My daughter is in seventh grade now and so when she was in third grade, their kids were like three. They weren't actually in school yet and one of them was talking about how she heard it was really terrible. I'm like, "You don't even have a kid that's doing it." And I was like, "As somebody who has a kid that's doing it and as somebody who teaches for a living, let me tell you, I think it's great." What I'm seeing is that they're teaching kids different learning styles, different approaches to get the answer and they're also putting a lot more emphasis on understanding how you get from point A to point B rather than rote memorization. And all of that is good. All of it is good and it does make it harder for parents because they have to learn new ways to do this if they're going to help their kids. But so what?
MS: It drives me nuts. The thing that drives me the craziest is—especially when people are talking about the new math stuff that they're doing—is that I see over and over all these parents saying "I can't even figure this out and that's why we should go back to the way we did it." And to me, I'm just thinking "The fact that you can't figure this out shows that you weren't educated very well."
VH: Right. Because actually... Well, I mean, I'm fairly mathematical in the way that I think, so when my daughter was doing that, I had to sit down with it, but I was able to figure it out. And other parents I knew went on YouTube and just watched videos until they figured it out. I mean, it's your job, you have to figure this out. And if you can't, you don't have to help them. I mean, that's what the teachers for. All of this to me all goes back to the same thing, which is that if teachers were much more respected and they were paid a lot more money, like they are in other countries where it's very difficult to become a teacher and people know that it's a big deal if somebody is a teacher, they would never, ever question them in this kind of way and societally it just doesn't work like that. They're trained professionals in the same way you would talk to any other trained professional. I don't know, people don't like change, though.
MS: Yeah, definitely. Oh man, I could keep going on this for... [laughs] I have some rants saved up, I think.
VH: I ended up doing that one-off project that was about teachers because I was ranting a lot and I was like "Maybe I'll just go photograph them." And that did, it really helped. I did that for two years and actually talking to a lot of teachers because I was having my own sort of crisis about wanting to do this anymore and that actually really helped.
MS: One of the things that I thought was really interesting about that series of yours was—in thinking about how it fit in with the rest of your work—was, obviously the way the photographs look is very, very different. But I kept coming back to this idea, especially with K-12 education, is how—and this also dovetails with this idea that you've been talking about, about teachers not getting enough respect—is that especially how in the younger grades, how teaching is often seen as sort of a feminized profession, a sort of feminized labor. And maybe that has a lot to do also with why... I mean I guess there's sort of just a general American antipathy towards experts and professionals, but I think maybe with teaching, especially, the fact that there are so many women who do it, especially in the earlier grades, that probably factors in as well.
VH: Oh, I'm sure it does. I'm sure it does. Yeah. In the Bay Area there's a lot of new private schools that were funded or started by tech people or former tech people and part of why they started these schools was to shake up education. That they know better. And I have to say, whether it's right or wrong, I have an immediate aversion to those schools, as opposed to other private schools that have been around for a long time. Part of it for me is also track record. My daughter goes to public school but friends of mine who have money and also thought they would look at both, we've talked about schools, you know, they've asked my opinion and I feel like if I was going to look at private schools, I would want to look at schools that have a track record where I can look at where did their graduates go and that have more tried and true years of their pedagogy. We have a Quaker school here. We have a Friends school and I know a lot about that because I have a friend who used to teach at one and that's a pedagogy that I understand and it's a pedagogy that I think is really successful and adds a lot to the kids and... You know what I mean? But some of these new ones—and I have friends whose kids go to them so I have to be really careful when I talk about them, but—
MS: Well, I don't so I don't have to be careful about it. [laughs]
VH: But I had real hard time with it because, again, I think it's like, "Oh, just because you're smart and you have money, you think you know more than I do."
MS: Well and that's exactly the thing. Right? Even, as you were saying earlier in this very conversation, that there are probably changes and new methods that we need to try out, and systemic, structural changes that we need to make to education in this country. I think there's probably a good argument to be made that some amount of charter schooling and private schooling is good in terms of how it can be a lab for testing out new things. But this whole idea that, especially in the Bay Area with all these sort of tech billionaires who just sort of think that because they know how to put a circuit together or code piece of software that doesn't even really do anything good in the first place—
VH: Or they were in the right time and right place.
MS: Yeah. It's like, so you can write two lines of code and you just happened to luck out in the economy being what it was, all of a sudden that means you know how to solve everything. It's so arrogant. It's such a man thing. It's such a... Oh, it drives me crazy.
VH: Yeah. The other problem is even if you look at a private school or charter school as a lab, is that a lot of these methods don't scale and so if you're going to continue to have such large classroom sizes, something that works in a classroom of 15 or 20 kids does not work in a classroom or 30 or 40 kids. This morning when I was driving my daughter to school and they were talking about the teachers in LA being on strike—and I know LA Unified is notoriously bad and has problems—I didn't realize that some of their classes were 40 or 45 kids. And I don't know what age group they're talking about, but any age group they're talking about, even high school, that is just an enormous amount of students in one classroom. I have taught a 50-student class and, man, it is a lot to manage. And so that's the other thing is if you want to have more experimental education, you have to have the class size come down. You have to have in the lower grades 15 and then upper grades 20, maybe 25. You can't have as many kids as you have because this stuff doesn't scale. Because a lot of the ways that that kind of education works is with more individualized curriculum, which I really believe in, right? Kids are coming from different places. They need different things. When you have too many kids and one teacher, you can't have individualized curriculum. It's too difficult. You can't even keep track of it. Which goes back to money, right? If you want to have smaller class size, you need more money.
MS: So I think we need to close pretty soon, and there's one question that I always like to end with, and that is if there is a piece of art or literature or some form of creativity that you've experienced recently that meant something to you.
VH: Okay. So I just went to... At SFMOMA one of their special shows is a huge Vija Celmins show. Who, for obvious reasons, I love her work. That was kind of an amazing show and it's so big. My friend and I made it through the whole thing, but the last couple of rooms we were like "Okay." You just can't have attention for that long and it's enormous. But I mean really impressive. The thing that's the most interesting thing to me about it is how obsessive she is. Which I already knew, but when you see this much work of hers together, you're like "Oh my God." But also I think if you just see her work and you don't know anything about her, you can look at it as being very symbolic and actually quite spiritual, and she is pretty vehement in her own talking about it that it's not. It is very, very formal, processed work. Which I also find really interesting because I think in my own process as an artist—an artist who got an MFA, which I think is a very specific thing—I have come up against the fact that I am not that theoretical, really. And I also am not... Like another friend of mine has a huge installation at the de Young Museum, in their center court area. I finally saw it, it's been up for like three months and is coming down. So I finally went inside and it was amazing. She's an amazing artist, but her work is all about colonialism—and she loves thinking about this stuff, you know, she's not doing it because it's hip or trendy or whatever. It's really deeply important to her. She loves reading theoretical books and I really don't. And my work really does not come from that place and it's taken many, many, many years for me to kind of make peace with that.
MS: Listen, I really appreciate you taking the time and talking with me. I had a great time talking to you. So thank you.
VH: Absolutely. I had a great time too. I know this could have been like a three hour conversation.
MS: [laughs] Yeah.
VH: Some other time.
Alright, so, as I mentioned at the top of the episode, you can follow Victoria on Instagram at @victoriamaraheilweil, and you can visit her upcoming exhibition at Art Works Downtown in San Rafael, California from March 1st to April 19th, 2019. There are links in the show notes for both of those, do check them out.
And that is our show. If you’d like to get in touch, you can follow the show on Twitter and Instagram at @ChannelOpenPod, on Facebook at facebook.com/keepthechannelopen, or you can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’d like to support the show, a monthly pledge in any amount to our Patreon campaign is greatly appreciated, it also gets you access to our subscriber-only bonus content. You can find that at patreon.com/sakeriver, that’s sake like the drink and river like river. And please leave a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts, that does help new listeners find the show. Our theme music is by Podington Bear, you can find more of his music available for licensing at soundofpicture.com. We’ll be back on February 27th with a conversation with poet Shivanee Ramlochan, so do be sure to come back for that one. Until then, remember: keep the channel open.