In a series of interviews led in February and March 2021, Nacher, Pold and Rettberg examined how contemporary digital art and electronic literature responded to the pandemic. Their project on COVID and electronic literature was funded by DARIAH-EU and resulted in the exhibition prepared for the ELO 2021 Conference & Festival and the documentary film that premiered in June 2021 at the Oslo Poesiefilm Festival. xtine burrough is one of the creators of 13 works that were interviewed for the project. She generously shares her thoughts on life and creativity, collapsing spaces and the meaning of a domestic art practice during the pandemic.
Living and creating through the pandemic
The first question is really very simple, very basic. Could you please describe your work in the exhibition and say more about what inspired you to produce it?
Sure, the work that I contributed is called I Got Up 2020: Pandemic Edition. It's inspired by a series of postcards by a conceptual artist named On Kawara. The postcards that On Kawara made in the late 1960s and through the 1970s were minimalist pieces of conceptual art in which he would send a postcard every day. Usually, I think, at least two postcards, maybe more, and he would send them to a curator or friend. His postcards said, “I got up at,” and then whatever time that he woke up or that he got up with the idea that living is sort of an artful act and being conscious is an artful activity. My interpretation of this work was that his postcard series was like a meditation on consciousness, made by an art practitioner who was being conscious of his wakeful moments as an artist. Maybe I'm drawing things out a little bit there. I suppose to the naked eye it just looks like a bunch of postcards that say I got up at whatever time. But I think when you do something in a routine way like this, the repetition of doing it becomes a form of meditation and raises consciousness in some way. So that was the work that inspired me. My project is a meditation on getting up during the pandemic. And, I have found the pandemic to be challenging.
I think everybody found it challenging for various reasons. I have twin seven-year-olds who turned eight during the pandemic. One year ago today we learned that their school was going to close. So it's funny that you're interviewing me exactly one year from the date. And I kind of had this sensation that the floor had been swept out from beneath my feet with this sudden change of having to collapse all of my worlds and spaces into the domestic arena. So before the pandemic, I could be a mother and a housekeeper to some extent, and a cook and an artist and an educator, a faculty member, a friend, a citizen. I could hold all of these roles and I could occupy different spaces where I could sort of perform or play out these various roles. And it was one year ago today that my boys came home with their iPads from school and I knew what that meant. I knew it meant we were going to be doing the school work at home, and I knew that, in turn, this meant that all of the spaces would be collapsing into the home space, and that's pretty challenging.
I know people had a much more difficult time than I did. I mean, I'm really lucky. My house is not huge, but I'm not in a one room apartment doing all this. So I totally recognize my privileges. But nonetheless, this sort of collapsing of everything into one space really transformed what it meant to get up, you know. It meant getting up and running this kind of marathon every day, where I would have to perform all of those roles, seemingly all at the same time, which is pretty much impossible. And so that's, in a nutshell, what my work is about.
But it was also an attempt to keep some sort of diary. I mean, I certainly had no time to write a diary or to do any kind of extra reflection. I really feel like I've been living moment to moment throughout the pandemic. And also in this sort of realm of creative expression, I knew that I really wouldn't have time to start new projects or do anything that would require my attention for any given length of time, because the interruptions are pretty much nonstop.
So this project was also something that I thought would be possible. OK, if I have all these limitations, what kind of art can I make? Well, I can make something that acts as a kind of in the moment diary, a diaristic reflection piece, and on some days it was a quick snapshot and on others it was a little more elaborate, and I could get the kids involved in it, and include them in it, so that it wasn't something I had to do separate from family life. It enabled me to have a tiny moment of reflection and creative production throughout the pandemic.
Actually, you’ve already touched on our next question, because we try to capture the certain cultural moment of the pandemic. I think it is a shared sentiment that during the pandemic, we were living on a day to day basis (and we still do so now one year in), like every day is separate and there's not much energy to think too much about the future. So the next question is how the pandemic affected your daily life. You’ve told us about it a bit already, but could you please reflect on how you reacted to the spread of the virus in the beginning, and how do you remember it now from today's perspective?
Well, you are talking to me on a pivotal day in my pandemic experience. And this is a total happenstance because I could have very well accepted your invitation for tomorrow. But somehow the worlds collided and converged and here we are on the same day that it was one year ago that the kids came home and that we really started our quarantine last year right on the same day. And then today, which is March 8th of 2021, I just sent my children back to school for the very first time. So one year to the day. I know. No kidding. It's like a lot of applause, a lot of emotions, happy emotions and also some weird sadness. Not a real sadness, but just like it's been a really interesting year and mostly happy feelings, though, so I did send them back today and I received a call just on Friday that I can go and get my vaccination tomorrow and then I received a call today to confirm it.
And so it just feels like this day where things maybe are starting to get just a tiny bit lighter, that at least I'll have a vaccination. My husband has had his vaccination and the kids are going back to school and these things are happy, positive things. So that's a real moment. We started quarantining a year ago today in Dallas. But we're a little at risk as a family and so we took the quarantine pretty seriously, we were not lighthearted about it and we stayed put, we only stayed in our house. We had groceries delivered and were just really careful. I have friends who would do a kind of pod situation with their children for schooling, so that they would have some friends that they make an agreement with and school their children together in a group. We didn't even do that. We isolated. So it has been a very lonely year in some ways. I mean, I've been with my family and that's great. But in the realm of being with, seeing peers and friends, it's almost entirely been through the screen for me.
Diary of collapsing spaces
Are there any specific elements of the pandemic experience that you drew your inspiration from? For example, social isolation, wearing masks, sanitizing groceries, and so on?
Yes, I wanted to focus on the concept of the collapsing of spaces. I think that was what I was really feeling. So I didn't include much in the way of images or symbols that related to mask wearing or sanitizing surfaces and stuff like that. I was more interested in the daily routines. And I think maybe that points back to On Kawara's work as the initial inspiration for this piece.
And so my dog appears a lot because walking the dog is enjoyable but it has to be done every day. It's a daily routine. It's a regular part of our lives. Certainly, cleaning and laundry, and washing dishes, and cooking, are unavoidable parts of life that can be enjoyable under certain circumstances, but can get real tiring under other circumstances. I found that these daily operations became exhausting during a pandemic because the normal kind of outlets one would have as a conscious being weren't there.
One of the things that we see across many artworks is how artists try to make the meaning of the pandemic or how they actually make sense of the pandemic. In retrospect, what were your artistic or intellectual strategies to deal with this?
This is going to reveal the need for organization in my life. So my primary strategy was to create certain kinds of markers of time, of which day it is and how we mark the days that pass, and this also probably comes from the fact that I have twin children. And when you're a parent of a twin infants, one of the strategies that appears in every twin parenting book is that you get on a schedule. You get them on a feeding schedule and a sleeping schedule and all this stuff, because if you have two babies who are on opposite schedules, you never get a break. You never get to sleep. And so I learned early on in their lives that we had to be a scheduled family.
And it turns out that kids in general really need organization in this way. They need their time organized. And then it turns out that I need my time organized. I think I learned from this that I actually feel less anxious in general and feel a little bit more adaptable if there's some kind of organization to the day and to the week. So we made up things that we would do in the week to mark certain days. In the pandemic, we had fun Thursdays, which meant that I would go to a drive-through and get lunch somewhere. We had pizza Friday. We had movie night Saturday. We just tried to have something to mark the days and have some kind of meaning besides it just being another day. It sounds trivial now, but I really feel like it helped us to get through weeks and weeks on end that blurred together otherwise.
That sounds like a surprising inspiration to uncover in a conceptual work. And it reminds me of a Taiwanese-American performance artist, Tehching Hsieh, who became known for his one-year performances based on counting days, exploring endurance, impermanence and passing of time. I think I've seen this observation coming up in conversations with other people around the pandemic as well. So that's really interesting what you've just said. Did you feel your creative process was somehow influenced by not being able to follow your pre-pandemic routines?
Yes, absolutely. One thing that is still kind of the case for me is that I have a studio or lab space at the university where I work and I haven't been to it in a year. That space for me is important. It's really the place where I feel like I can take on projects in a way that is very, very difficult for me to do at home. And it's not even necessarily about tools or supplies or materials. I mean, there are some supplies and there is a room and supplies in it that are helpful and important. But more importantly, it's a room that's not in my house, where I can start a project and leave things out and not worry about who's going to come and move things around or decide to borrow whatever materials look like they might be fun to tear in half or walk away with. And it's also a space where I have uninterrupted time. So, yes, I feel my practice is in a lot of ways still on hold until I can get back to that space. Although maybe now that the kids are at school, I can start to imagine that I maybe have a few more hours in the day than I have had in the last year. But living with children, you know... It's not like they intend to interrupt you every 20 minutes, but they do, they find a way to interrupt you every 20 minutes, and it's really hard to get into a space where you can think deeply, let alone try to make something that would take more than 20 minutes to make. So I just shifted, you know. I put a lot of things down and then I shifted. And this [I Got Up 2020: Pandemic Edition] was a project that I imagined, okay, I could do this.
I can make some short media piece for Instagram, you know. At first it was daily and then once they went back to virtual school in the fall, I couldn't even keep up with it. I couldn't even make a daily post. So I think that's an indicator of how little time there is doing all these things.
Digital art, electronic literature and platforms in the pandemic
[In our project] we're primarily interested in electronic literature. Since electronic literature and digital art have always been mediated and online experiences, we would also like to know whether you think that this new situation, where most of the cultural life moved online, somehow changed the way or the experience of producing and appreciating this kind of work?
Yes, that's a great question. You know, I contributed an online performance for ELO last summer as part of the Electronic Literature Organization's virtual conference [ELOorlando 2020: ELO Conference and Media Arts Festival in Orlando], and I was surprised at how many people attended it. Not that I didn't think people would attend, but it was not just the membership of the Electronic Literature Organization. Some of my friends also came online to see the the work and be invited into the performance. And then some of my collaborators’ friends and their families and children participated. And so there was a way, that we saw just in that one virtual engagement session, how the boundaries that maybe were a bit more clear and cut in a pre-pandemic situation… Well, we would have gone to Orlando for ELO and we would have sat in a room in a session together, and these families and children would not have participated.
And I probably would not have brought my children and my collaborator probably would not have asked her friends from Michigan to travel to Orlando and come see our presentation. So, yeah, I think there is a way that these types of online possibilities are more accessible. That's maybe obvious. But what I guess is interesting is that people are taking up the offer. It does seem like people are more inclined to say “yes” to attending something online or looking at something online in a way that before the pandemic, I don't know that we would have seen such attendance. It might just be that people are bored at home, you know, right now.
So it'll be interesting to see what happens when we leave our houses again in a serious way. But the other part of it, I think, is that a lot of people had to get online to work so now many people are familiar with using digital tools for communication in a way that maybe they would have not been as interested in. Now it's part of their communication technologies on a daily basis. So that kind of barrier to entry maybe has been broken down a little bit.
Yeah, and lots of our activities moved online to platforms. We’re talking on Zoom right now. More and more electronic literature is happening, for example, on Instagram. So how do you see the role of your work and the electronic literature in relation to platforms? Do you see somehow that the platform culture has changed during the pandemic? And what do you think about platforms versus creative tools produced by the artists themselves?
Right. Yeah, I'm not sure that I've given that a lot of thought. I've always been a digital media artist and I've always been interested in using or misusing or hacking or appropriating platforms in this sort of understanding of the platform as a creative place for intervention. So I think there's maybe a way in which some of the work that I make has been doing that thing for a while. You know, this particular piece [I Got Up 2020: Pandemic Edition] doesn't really do much of that at all, it's really a very basic and simple post to Instagram.
It's not like I have hacked Instagram at all. That's not really what's happening here. But I think to your question about taking up platforms, looking at electronic literature and the relationship between experiencing language and experiencing digital media infrastructures, there is a way in which people have more access to be able to play in that field now than what we have seen maybe in the last 10 years. But I think every time we get some kind of new technology, you can leave it to the artists to play with it and change it and misuse it. We want to know where the boundaries and edges are. And that is where we want to be.
Do you see any changes in how you see your role in the artistic community and your social relations, and the broader community, broader social circle?
I'm not sure if my kind of role in the various creative communities has changed due to the pandemic. I think that I've seen my role shifting a little bit maybe in the last several years, but I'm not so sure it's related to the pandemic, I think I'm just getting older. And as this happens, sometimes things tend to change. Part of my practice, aside from art making, also includes writing and working on books that offer other artists a platform for writing about their work, reflecting on their work. Archiving my work and making space for other artists to do the same is something that I'm pretty committed to.
And I think that I kind of found myself in this position and I don't know if it was super intentional. I just started doing some writing and then eventually found myself in a position where it seemed like this is something I do want to be intentional about. One thing the pandemic did offer was a space to write, because while I really, really have a hard time working on projects at home, I mean, I'm in right now what's supposed to be an office, but also doubles as a game room. And you can see the kids' wall behind me and there's toys. I mean, the floor, it's a disaster. You're getting the cleanest view of this room that I'm in right now. And there's a Nintendo over there. I mean, it's just crazy. It's not really a space that's conducive to working outside of the screen. So I have been able to write, that's something I can do after they go to bed, which is like the only time of day that I feel I can think for 20 minutes straight or more. And my relationship to writing is different than my relationship to making projects. Somehow I'm able to write for 30 minutes and then put it down and come back to it. I can't seem to do that with projects. I need hours, and I just don't have it right now. So I have invested more time in my writing efforts during the pandemic, because it's something that is a little more feasible for me as an artist who writes, trying to create opportunities where other artists can get involved and where I can share works of other artists doing similar things.
Do you think this experience will creatively impact your post-pandemic life?
Oh, I dropped my children off at school and I came home and said to my husband, “I don't know how it is that I don't look like I'm 80 years old right now. And I don't know how it is that we just got through that whole year and I homeschooled our kids almost through all of second grade and I still look like I'm not really old, really, like just about to die.” OK, but your question was not about that. It was about changing my creative interests or capacities. Yeah. I can share with you one thing that I do at the university. So I teach at the University of Texas at Dallas and I lead a lab which is kind of more like a studio than a lab. We call it a lab because it's a real STEM university like science, technology, engineering, math and we have labs at our university. So the lab that I lead is called LabSynthE1LabSynthE, https://atec.utdallas.edu/content/labsynthe/ , and we make these creative projects for exhibitions and festivals and it's a real collaborative space. I work with graduate students mostly. I work with other faculty as well, and we collaborate on a project by project basis. And the projects come from all different points of inspiration, I mean, sometimes a student will have an idea and we'll kind of run with it as a group and the idea evolves and it just becomes a group project over time.
And so we met as a group last year in May. And then throughout the summer, we met and we were talking about what kind of project can we make now as a lab that is pretty much relegated to meetings on MS Teams. That's the platform that the school uses. You know, not just socially distanced, but really distanced. I mean, really, like some of our members are isolating in their hometowns, which in some cases are different countries and different states. We're pretty far apart in terms of geographies and time zones. But we get together on the screen and are thinking about projects we can make that we could work on together. And then also because our projects tend to be participatory, what kind of project could we make for the public, right now, who is socially distancing? And those are some pretty good creative limitations that lead to thinking about what kinds of works we can lend our creative expression to in a pandemic. We came up with the idea for two projects that are still in development.
We haven't finished making it yet, but it's one project in the works is called Picturing Us. It's a project that makes or facilitates group portraits for people who are not standing in the same place at the same time. So it's a photography and computer generated imaging project that automatically collages people who stand in a certain location and opt in into these cut-up looking collages of group portraits. I don't know that we would have ever come up with that concept if we were not coming together and thinking about art making during a pandemic, when we certainly wouldn't have said: here's the limitations.
You can't stand near each other. We can't be together as a group. And it really came out of one of the students in the lab named Elmira who was thinking about this sort of quintessential group photograph that our graduating students take. Every campus has an area where the graduates go in their robes and they all get together to make a photograph in front of whatever it is—the sign to the campus or a statue of somebody who is celebrated or a piece of public art or whatever, some important symbol. Ours happened to be right outside the window of the lab. So our graduates, every December and May, twice a year we watch students out the window during our lab meetings, all getting together by the sculpture called The Love Jack and pose for their group pictures. And I think that part of the reason we came up with this project idea was that Elmira was thinking about this kind of scene that we normally see in May that we didn't see, you know, and thinking about students who graduated in May of 2020 without having a lot of those traditions. That inspired a project that we're still working on now.
The way forward is probably not the way backwards
The last question is the kind of the broadest one. Do you think the current pandemic somehow relates to the larger crisis that we have heard more about before: ecological crisis, racial unrest, social injustices, etc.?
Yes, yes and yes. I just saw Bruce Mau deliver a talk. I don't know if you know his work. He's a designer and he has a strong publishing record. And this is his latest book. I'm going to plug Bruce now for a moment. It's called Bruce Mau’s 24 Principles for Designing Massive Change in Your Life and Work. It's a beautifully designed book. I saw him give a talk that went along with the book to tell us about it and bring us into his world a little bit. He had a slide that we viewed that he brought together these various crises, you know, stacked on top of each other. In fact, maybe that's what he called it, the crisis stack or something to that effect. And it included this public health crisis, climate crisis, social injustice or social unrest. We are clearly in a point of multiple crises. And the way forward is probably not the way backwards.This talk inspired the other project the lab has been working on, One Breath Poem: Message for a Revolution, that asks participants to call our hotline and leave a voice message in just one breath (https://messageforarevolution.carrd.co/).
Yeah, that seems to be a common feeling, and I'm wondering how it will play out in the nearest future when everyone starts thinking there is no way back. We'll see how it unfolds. Yeah, so thank you so much for the answers so far. We still have a few more.
We looked at a bunch of art pieces related to the Covid and your piece, of course, is pretty much about home, you know, your home, the family, the dog. Which is great and it's very recognizable, right? We’re all locked down in our homes and this seems to be the sort of general feeling. We have to stay at home within a very confined area - at the same time as this crisis is global. We can talk about the same experiences, even though I don't know how far Denmark and Texas is, but pretty far. And because of a virus that came from China and in the beginning I was thinking, oh, yeah, it's something in China. And then suddenly it's there and you realize that we are so bound together and at the same time locked in our homes. It's more of a comment on this focusing on home. Do you have any more comments about meaning of home during this?
I think what you're getting at is that there's sort of a way in which my home may feel oddly familiar to anyone who's looking at this series of daily images because you're also at your home. And, maybe, I mean, the hope, I guess, is that there's some transcendent quality about this domestic space in this time when we are all confined to it while images in this project read specifically as my home and my dog and my yoga block, but maybe the images are easily understood as signifiers of a home. The home experience is global, you know, it is where we've all been. And it's a struggle to be in the home for a year when we'd like to be in other places, and we'd like to have those opportunities to be social outside of the home.
Yeah, it's funny. I've been teaching my graduate courses on Zoom for the whole time. Students—I certainly did this when I was a student-—love to play a little trick on the professor during class. When I was a philosophy student, we did this by replacing our professor’s white chalk with colored chalk. He used to put his fingers to his forehead whenever he was expressing a particularly deep thought. So by the end of the class his head was covered in polka dots. The equivalent was what my students did about our third or fourth Zoom class. After we took a break, I came back and I didn't notice it at first, but everyone had this background. [Scott's home office] So they were all suddenly in my home office. (laughs).
I have one last question. What do you miss the most or what have you missed the most during this period and as you think ahead, what do you think you will miss about this period?
I already know what I will miss, because you are talking to me on the day that my kids went back to school and I knew I would miss them—not enough to want them at home, but I do. There was something really sweet about having my kids with me 24/7 at seven and eight years old for a year. Absolutely, that would not have happened under any other circumstance than what we're going through. And so I'm sorry to answer your question backwards, but it's the one that came to my mind right away. And I do miss them being here, although I'm happy that I can talk to you for 46 minutes with no one coming through that door behind me, which is totally what would have happened yesterday.
And gosh, what do I miss? I miss seeing people's whole faces in person. I miss being in the lab with my lab members who are students who I've been working with and mentoring for a year or two years or three years, and faculty who are really friends and being able to sit together with a cup of coffee or tea and think deeply together, uninterrupted, seeing each other's whole faces while we're talking. I miss that experience a lot. Because there's a sort of rawness, I think, to being together when you're with people who you feel that comfortable with. That really affirms or reaffirms your sense of selfhood. I feel I'm my most me, doing my most me thing when I'm in this room with these people who I trust and know and I've come to know and believe in, and want to equally validate that they're doing their most-them-thing. And I miss that because that's something that my husband and I maybe can do for each other. And maybe you do that with your kids, but, I miss that with my intellectual community—my creative and intellectual community—who I've only seen like this on the screen. It's nice to see them on the screen and to have these conversations on the screen. But I miss being in the room where we can also have the smell of the coffee and the surprise moments when someone else walks in. It's just a really different experience to be sitting with your friends in that way.
Well, thanks so much, it was great talking with you and we'll hopefully be doing some interesting things with this project in the future. Look forward to putting up the exhibition pretty soon and congratulations again on that you're going to get a shot really soon.
Yeah, no kidding. Thank you. Thank you for reaching out. Thanks for including me. It was really fun to think about your questions, so I hope my responses are part of a bigger conversation.
I loved your piece.
Not only insight, but a real pleasure of conversation.