Muscle Memory: In Conversation with Michèle Pearson Clarke

Michèle Pearson Clarke, Still from Quantum Choir, 2022. Images courtesy of the artist.

Interview by Adi Berardini and Aysia Tse

Michèle Pearson Clarke is a Trinidad-born artist, writer, and educator working in photography, film, video, and installation. As Clarke describes, using performative gestures, her work “situates grief as a site of possibility for social engagement and political connection.” Currently based in Toronto, Clarke holds a Master’s in Social Work from the University of Toronto and received her MFA in Documentary Media from the Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson), where she is currently an Assistant Professor in the School of Photography and Image Arts. Additionally, Clarke was the inaugural 2020-2021 artist-in-residence at the University of Toronto’s Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies and has recently served a term as the Photo Laureate for the City of Toronto (2019-2022).

In the following interview, Clarke speaks more about her most recent exhibition Muscle Memory at the Art Gallery of Hamilton. The exhibition features the film Quantum Choir, a piece exploring queer female masculinity and vulnerability through the shared experience of four participants learning how to sing. Also featured in Muscle Memory, is the photo series The Animal Seems to be Moving, which explores growing up and grieving her sense of boyhood, going from being read as a young Black boy to being seen as a middle-aged Black man. Clarke uses personally significant emblems of masculinity to reflect on both grief and the more playful aspects of queerness. Read on to learn more about the thoughts and process behind Muscle Memory.

Michèle Pearson Clarke, Still from Quantum Choir, 2022. Images courtesy of the artist.

Adi Berardini: Can you speak more about how Quantum Choir addresses queer kinship through the vulnerability of learning how to sing?

I’m not sure that it addresses queer kinship, but rather, it harnesses it because I knew I didn’t want to do this by myself. It’s always easier to do something difficult if you’re holding somebody’s hand. I knew that I wanted to harness that sense of togetherness and queer kinship, and that sense that it takes a village to do this hard thing that I wanted to do. I found three other people (participants Naisargi N. Davé, Kerry Manders and Kimiko Tobimatsu) who also wanted to do this hard thing, and I think none of us could have done it by ourselves. Maybe I could have hired a coach to get over my shame. It’s possible I eventually would have gotten there and just done it as an individual personal thing. But as an artist, you get to create these experiences and these processes, you can bring a process into being that is just so much more rewarding.

 I think a lot of people can relate to the shame of feeling like you can’t sing, but also lots of people will happily get up at a bar, sing terribly at karaoke, and think nothing of it. I think the four of us deeply understand how difficult this was for each of us. Even though I think some people in our lives, our community, may not understand. We feel bonded because I mean, everybody almost dropped out before each singing lesson. And as I said, I cried. One participant almost wasn’t sure she would be able to come and see it in person because she just wasn’t sure she could bear seeing herself singing publicly, even though she had been through the process. So, it is extremely challenging for all of us to share our voices. This is the first time we’re all singing publicly.

And I understand what it means to not just do it but to make something that you can share with an audience. Laverne Cox introduced the term “possibility model,” how you have to see it to be able to be it. We offer each other a sense of permission and possibility through all our choices and actions. That’s something I try to do with my artwork. Not to say that everybody in the audience needs to go and learn how to sing, but if these four people could do this hard thing, what hard thing in your own life might you want to harness, tackle, or work through?

Michèle Pearson Clarke, Still from Quantum Choir, 2022. Images courtesy of the artist.

Aysia Tse: You use performative gestures and repetition in your work. I’m wondering how intentional those choices that you make are, and if you see them connecting to your discussion of visibility and invisibility?

I would say performance is one of the bedrock strategies for me in my practice because I’m very interested in the relationship between looking and seeing, and thinking and feeling, so affect is something I’m always thinking about. How do I produce an affect in the work that I make? I find performance and repetition are strategies that generate a lot of affect. I’m just completely compelled by what repetition does. We learn, we gain knowledge, and gain experience through repetition.

Half of Quantum Choir is just us doing our vocal, upbeat exercises on our vocal warmups. We say words in the singing, but we never speak. So instead of interviewing those three people to ask them about their experiences of being masculine and the vulnerability associated with that, it’s like we’re expressing it through this metaphorical way of communication. For the first time, I worked with a choreographer having people do the same movements. We spent the day with our movement coach and did a workshop where we talked about our relationship to masculinity, our relationship to our bodies, movement, gesture, and performance. And then, collectively, we listened to the song that we were learning to sing. And we all just decided on these simple gestures, we performed for the camera when I shot.

I knew that with Quantum Choir, I was filming everybody separately, but that [most] of the piece I would have two, three, or four voices together. And I knew that in the scenes where it’s only one person singing, that is the peak vulnerability, right? Because when there are two voices, your inability to sing is a little bit lost by somebody else’s inability to sing. But at that moment where it’s just [one person] singing, I was thinking, how do I communicate and express an enormous amount of solidarity and collectivity? When the three of us are moving and one person is singing, I wanted that choreography and that intentional movement to emphasize that we are in sync, we are together. We got you. We’re not just standing there listening to a person singing. Almost like a boy band, there’s something about movement together that expresses we are all one, we belong, we are a group.

Quantum Choir, 2022. Four-channel 4k video installation (colour, sound, 12:46), soccer balls, and training cones. Photo credit: Natalie Hunter.

AT: I love how you integrate sport into your practice. I see that there are soccer balls in the exhibition, and it seems like you’re thinking through the architecture of the space very thoroughly. Can you explain these creative choices?

It’s exciting for me because when you’re an emerging artist, you’re not always able to realize your ambitions. Institutions don’t give you enough space and resources. Muscle Memory is the first time I could design my dream installation. But one of the things I have been grappling with in the first stage of my career is the power dynamic of consuming moving image work in a gallery space. Most video in the gallery is projected on a wall. You walk in, you sit on a bench, and there’s this kind of passive consumption of the work. I’m always thinking about what it means to share the vulnerability, the griefs, the pains of queer folks, Black folks, of people of colour in a gallery space that, as we know, has colonial power dynamics still embedded in it.

And when I think about that history, particularly of making Black pain a spectacle for public consumption we go right back to the circulation of the lynching postcard. Even though I’m not showing that kind of violent pain, I am still showing pain. This piece is more of an extreme step in beginning to think about how I introduce more opacity and refusal into my work. With this piece, I wanted to think about how I ask the viewer to be an active participant in bearing witness to this vulnerability.

I’m always thinking about what it means to share the vulnerability, the griefs, the pains of queer folks, Black folks, of people of colour in a gallery space that, as we know, has colonial power dynamics still embedded in it.

The soccer balls have two functions. One, for all of us, sports is the only place in our life where masculinity has been supported throughout our life and for three of the four of us, that sport is soccer. Beyond that, the grid on the floor is a small ask from the viewer since you have to pay attention to where you’re walking. It’s a bit of labour and effort on the part of the viewer to come into the installation. Because of this design, even though we’re always on screen, you can never look at all four of us at the same time. This is what I mean about opacity and refusal—how do I hold something back for each of us? As a viewer, you have to make decisions from second to second about where you’re looking and who you’re looking at. It’s not just sitting on a bench and it’s all coming at you.

Glitter Stache, 2021, Archival pigment print on Hahnemühle Hemp, Alupanel mounted, 40” x 50”

AB: Can you speak more about your photo series, The Animal Seems to be Moving, and how you use humour to address aging and racial stereotypes surrounding Black masculinity?

MPC: This is an ongoing project that I started in 2018, I was 45 when I started it. I decided that I would work on it for five years and finish the project next year when I turn 50. This series is just really rooted in how I’ve always been read as younger than I am. For [most] of my life, I have been read as a young Black boy. Then before I started working on this series, I was brushing my teeth one day and I thought, “Oh, your face is finally beginning to catch up to you.” And then I just found there was a span of particularly hostile encounters with strangers. Obviously, I don’t know what’s in people’s minds, but I started to surmise that I am moving from being read as a young Black boy to being read as a middle-aged Black man.

Even though Black boys do have their innocence robbed and often get read as older than they are, a Black man is to many people more threatening than a Black boy. I was thinking “Now I have to worry about more risks and less safety for myself in the world as I age.” Then I was just struck by how absurd that is. Using humour and leaning into the absurdity of oppression is not a new strategy, right? It’s something that if you’re a woman, if you’re queer, if you’re trans, or come from any minority position, if you face oppression, then humour is in your tool belt for coping with oppression. It might be you read some nonsense in the paper, and you just laugh. If we responded to everything with anger and grief, we wouldn’t get out of bed. There’s grief, right? Every time I walk into a woman’s washroom and a woman shrinks in fear because she thinks I’m a man coming to hurt her, there’s grief. There’s grief that people see me that way, that people respond to me that way, that [my presence] in their world can create that kind of interaction.

It’s absurd also that people see Black men as a threat but that gets transferred to me because of my gender presentation. Oppression, at the root of it, is absurd and I wanted to incorporate that. How can I work these ideas of performance in a photograph? But it also helped me, [that] with both pieces there’s play and there’s humour. Both pieces are about [the] vulnerability and grief of being seen in ways that are not how you feel yourself to be in the world. In both pieces, rather than foregrounding victimhood or a trauma position, they foreground the pleasure that’s part of the experience too. Both are trying to acknowledge that oppression exists, and the pain is real, but it was fun to make Quantum Choir. It is fun to be gay.

The absurdity is both trying to point to the absurdity of the gaze and the assumptions about me, but it’s also a way for me to express the joy, pleasure, and the fun that I’m having aging. And how do I prioritize that for myself? How do I let [myself] define my experience of aging and not that external gaze? I have to live with it, I have to contend with it every time I leave the house, but how do I foreground my pleasure and experimentation and play? And a little bit of that series is also melancholy in terms of feeling like I’m saying goodbye to my boyhood as well.

They’re also intentionally photographs because when I’m out in the world, I don’t want people staring at me trying to figure out my gender or trying to figure out if they should be afraid of me or not. The photograph freezes that moment. In the exhibition design, I put seating in the room with the photographs because it is an invitation to look and stare as long as you want at these photographs.

I wanted to play with tropes and ideas of masculinity, and many of the ideas are rooted in my childhood memories because I wanted to be a boy when I was a kid. And I remember the things that my child’s mind associated with manhood, like in one of them I’m wearing one of those tree-shaped air fresheners. As a kid growing up in Trinidad, I remember it was something that taxi drivers had. I’m wearing it on like a gold chain, which is another kind of Black manhood.

Little Trees (Hold), 2021, Archival pigment print on Hahnemühle Hemp, 24” x 30”

AT: I think that you’ve expressed beautifully how grief is personal for you and your boyhood and kind of moving through different stages of life. Do you also see it as personal and collective in your work?

MPC: Absolutely. As I said before, there’s nothing I feel that only I feel. My work is also ethnographic versus autobiographical because I feel like the things that I feel are not because I’m Michèle—they’re because I’m Black, I’m masculine, I’m queer, and I’m an immigrant. There are these systemic, historical, and cultural factors that mean that people respond to me in certain ways, which make me feel a certain way. Anybody who occupies my identities, those same cultural, historical, and social factors are [imposed upon them]. The feelings I’m exploring are not individual feelings. They’re political feelings, they’re public feelings that are produced by political and social forces.

To me, grief itself is something that in Western culture we are told should be private, not public. By bringing it into the gallery space, I’m bringing it into a public space. I do think that grief is one of those things where everything is politicized. We see it in the world’s response to Ukraine, not that the world shouldn’t have responded to Ukraine the way it has, but the world didn’t respond to Yemen in the same way. The grief of certain people has more value to a degree than other people. We’re not free of systemic forces with anything, even when it comes to grief.

I also feel that one of the ways that Black people have been robbed of our humanity is the ideas that white supremacy brought into being to justify slavery and similar for Indigenous people. We are not seen to have rich interior lives—That’s not a coincidence. It’s white supremacy [proclaiming] “Let’s reduce these people so that we can justify the way that we treat them.” This lingers in contemporary culture.

When I lost my mom, I couldn’t find anything that [spoke to] the experience of a Black queer person losing their mother. I couldn’t find a book; I couldn’t find a tool. I couldn’t find anything. Everything about Black loss is homicide or violence. The only grief that our culture wants to talk about is hurt and anguish, not just the everyday thing like losing your mom. We don’t get to be seen as having [that kind of grief]. It hurts since it’s just the most mundane kind of everyday grief. That’s what I mean about grief as a site of social engagement and political connection. It’s a way to connect to the impacts of these larger forces.

For people who feel like they are different from me in the world and that we have nothing in common to sit and watch Parade of Champions, which is the work I made about grieving my mother—It sounds so ridiculous but I’ve met the little old ladies who don’t understand, nothing in their life has ever prepared them to think that somebody who looks like me could feel what they feel. We are the same in that way and grief is the most universal human experience. And so, by sharing queer grief, by sharing feminist grief, by sharing Black grief, it is a way, hopefully, for people to feel that kinship across differences.

Michèle Pearson Clarke’s Muscle Memory is on view at the Art Gallery of Hamilton until September 5, 2022. This interview will be featured in our second print issue on Queer and Feminist collaboration, launching later this summer.

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