Over the course of my 5-month residency at Flux Factory in Long Island City, New York, I am recording a series of studio visits with other artists-in-residence (aka Fluxers), as well as outside artists collaborating with Flux for its various public programs. Through its studio residency program, Flux Factory supports approximately 30 emerging artists each year from a range of creative disciplines and international locations. Flux commissions new work through quarterly exhibitions, and residents produce public events at a prolific pace.
For this interview, I invited Maya Jeffereis to talk about her current project, Fallout Shelter which stages a moral values exercise developed by the US Navy. Maya invited visitors to participate in the exercise at Flux Factory on July 14, as one of the featured collaborators for Interdependence Day. Fallout Shelter is on view at the Soho20 Gallery in Brooklyn until July 25 and the New Britain Museum of American Art through September 11.
C: How did your Fallout Shelter project come about?
M: I found a U.S. Navy training manual at an abandoned military site in Puerto Rico. Inside was this exercise on moral values: a hypothetical apocalyptic scenario with ten people occupying a fallout shelter. As participants, you are on a civil defense committee appointed by the President and it’s your job to decide which six occupants should remain in the shelter in order to rebuild society and which four have to leave, because there is only space for six. The exercise describes each occupant by very problematic statements that include information about age, race, gender, sexuality, profession, and ideology.
Text taken from the fallout shelter exercise:
- Thirty-six year old female physician, known to be a confirmed racist.
- Marine drill instructor, 37, white, accused of brutality to recruits — has a revolver.
- Black militant, 35 year old biological researcher (PhD).
- Biochemist, 62 years old, white male.
- Olympic athlete, 26, decathlon champion, Asian female.
- Hollywood starlet, 27 year old white female, known drug user.
- Third year male medical student — homosexual, 28.
- Sixteen year old girl, pregnant, questionable IQ, high school dropout.
- Thirty year old Catholic priest, Hispanic.
- Thirty-eight year old carpenter, and “Mr. Fix-It” man. Served seven years for pushing narcotics, has been out of jail for 7 months.
C: How did you take the ideas from that document and transform them into a work?
M: The most interesting aspect of the exercise was the conversation about identity politics and values that it opened up. I invited participants to my studio to complete the exercise and make their own decisions about whom to keep and whom to remove. They improvised on camera playing three roles: a member of the civil defense committee discussing their decisions, an occupant they chose to keep, and an occupant they chose to get rid of. In the role of the fallout shelter occupants, they would make a video confessional speech about why they should remain in the shelter, with the idea that their speech would be sent to the civil defense committee making decisions.
C: How does the two-channel format influence our understanding of the content in the speeches?
M: The video is edited together with the civil defense committee members on the left channel and the fallout shelter occupants on the right. By having the same performer play three distinct roles, you get a conflict of interest. For example, you might see a member of the civil defense committee on the left talking about why we should get rid of the Hollywood Starlet but then on the right, you see the same performer making an argument in defense of herself. Many different performers play each of the occupants, so you might see 10 different performers playing the role of the Marine Drill Instructor. I wanted to create a collective identity for each of the 10 occupants that would represent the range of arguments for or against each occupant. This would expose latent biases, because you’re having a very direct and open conversation about race and identity politics and your own values. You are also building your own conception of a utopia by doing this thought experiment of what it would mean to rebuild society. What kind of society are you building? What do you hope to bring to a new society and what do you wish to leave behind?
C: How many people participated and did they write their own scripts?
M: About 35 people participated in the video and all of the performers improvised their own parts. When directing the video, I offered some general guidelines but tried not to influence what they said because it was about what each person brought to their own performance.
C: You don’t guide them as to whether they should use their own value system or approach it like a philosophical exercise?
M: I’m interested in this gray area between the performance of the self and the performance of a character. Where do you draw the line between the two? When performing a character, you are calling on personal experiences and external experiences that you have observed or absorbed through culture and media and these experiences become internalized. When performing your own identity, I think of Erving Goffman’s research on how an individual acts differently in different contexts, constantly adapting to various situations. The question of real versus fictional can be asked of both the performer and the performed.
C: In reading the document, there is an absurdity to the exercise that makes it hard to take seriously, but there is something about watching people act it out that feels surreal and frightening in its plausibility.
M: I think of the occupants of the fallout shelter as archetypes: you have The Doctor, The Soldier, the Academic, The Athlete, The Movie Star, and so on. Each archetype may have varying degrees of relatability, depending on your own background. For example, the Female Physician is described as a “confirmed racist.” How do we interpret this information, especially when it seems to present a conflict of interest between a doctor who swears the Hippocratic Oath and a confirmed racist who may refuse to treat certain patients? When the participants play the occupants, they begin to humanize these characters, giving insight into their personalities, their flaws, and their motivations. Perhaps it’s this sense of empathy imbued in the performance or conveyed to the viewer that is unsettling, because we’re confronting morally ambiguous and ambivalent issues. But that’s the great thing about this thought experiment: it gets us to have very frank and candid discussions about difficult topics, like race, policing, and gun control–issues that we’re facing right at this very moment.
Maya Jeffereis is a video, performance, and installation artist based in New York. Her work has been shown most recently at SOHO20 Gallery, Flux Factory, and NARS Foundation. She holds a MFA from Hunter College and a BFA and BA from the University of Washington. Maya is also the Public Engagement Associate of Adult and Access Programs at the Guggenheim.
Christina Freeman is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Fine Arts at Haverford College in Pennsylvania and currently an artist-in-residence at Flux Factory in New York.