Brooke Herr is a visual and performance artist based in Brooklyn. Originally from Tuscon, Arizona, she attended SUNY Purchase and has been living in Brooklyn for almost five years since graduating college with a degree in dance performance. Brooke works primarily as a collage artist, mixing a variety of printed materials including excerpts from a catalog of Caravaggio paintings, vintage copies of Arizona Highways, and ballet programs dating back to the 1940s.The results are stunning series of organic, earthy textures and colors that express movement, fragility and strength in their simplicity. Her collages have been commissioned for Hypnocraft‘s performance series, ‘The Hum,’ The Moon Show, and Not Art Records. Brooke displays a range of visual art, video and performance work on her website, Brookeherr.com.
Brooke Gassel sat down with Brooke Herr to discuss identity, urbanism, process, and artistic communities in Brooklyn. The two talked about some of Brooke H’s most compelling work such as ‘Vaginal Forms,’ a series of collages that are “varied in their expression of experiencing and redefining… relationship to femininity,” portraying vaginas in a range of visual ways from soft and enveloping to bristly and cactus-like. Brooke H’s work and sense of identity in her art pushes on the boundaries of what is expected of women and society, especially when it comes to the female body. Brooke also explores themes of nostalgia, time and space as she moves through her familiar environments connecting her body and hands to the walls, surfaces and textures around her.
“I didn’t want there to be any confusion that I was definitely talking about being a woman, that I was definitely talking about having a vagina.”
BG: How did you get started with collage art as a medium, being that you studied performance art and dance in college?
BH: The first time I ever made a collage piece was actually in high school and then it was this idea that lay dormant for a really long time. At some point post grad I moved home to Tuscon where I didn’t have an experimental dance community so I started some new explorations, doing all of compositional exercises to practice making decisions. I started making collages out of just two parts. There’s nothing ambiguous about that decision – there’s a very clear pairing of two things and so I was using that as a tool.
At that point in my career, I was struggling with the confines of making dances – finding that I was indecisive or uninspired at the moment when I’d attempt to make work. I had just begun to make non-dance work but I felt like I was swimming in so much information and I couldn’t really pare it down. So the collage thing was just to practice making very definitive choices and then looking at how when you make very clear choices you come away with this very clear piece. I couldn’t have at that point guessed that it would then go on to be my primary practice because if I had said, “Now I’m a collage artist” I would have had that same writer’s block with the collaging.
BG: It can be challenging trying to discover one’s artistic identity, because you run the risk of becoming pigeonholed too early so maybe experimenting with different mediums prevents you from being too boxed in.
BH: I think I am a little bit fickle and I plateau with a medium and need the relief of another medium for a while. It’s a way to still break up that writer’s block feeling and come up for fresh air. I guess what it accomplishes is that it becomes more about the ideas than the means, so I get back to which ideas actually interest me rather than being caught up in trying to make something that looks interesting.
BG: In what ways does your dance and performance art relate to and play with your collage art?
BH: An example is that I made this one collage called ‘Cluster’ that was part of the ‘Vaginal Forms’ series, the ideas came from the same place as a song I had written called “Around It,” but the lyrics say “to cluster around it” and it’s just this idea of an essential self. So I sat down and was collaging and thinking a lot about being a woman and the song was so much about being a woman and being desired and used and misconstrued or like someone’s fantasy, so I made this bristly amoeba-like collage. I was trying to get this play of something that was simultaneously folding in on itself and pouring out of itself.
I’ve also been experimenting with animated collage; combining that idea of using my hands in video by manipulating the collage pieces with my hands, or building miniature collage-sets and playing with particular lighting or movement within them. I’m interested in making time-based works with the collage aesthetic I’ve been developing.
BG: The ‘Vaginal Forms’ series is one that could be interpreted in different ways, but you assigned a name to it which suggests that your work is expressive of your identity as a female. Why did you choose to name it?
BH: I didn’t want there to be any confusion that I was definitely talking about being a woman, that I was definitely talking about having a vagina. In a lot of ways the goal was deshaming that part of my body and that part of my identity. I didn’t want to be anything but blatant about the name, so that people were looking at it through that frame too.
BG: Are there cultural or societal catalysts that are particularly important to you that push you to put a series like ‘Vaginal Forms’ out there in the world?
BH: Yes! So many! I remember reading a sociology paper in college about how women are constantly being given these two contradicting messages that in order to be “of value,” A: they should be sexually attractive and desireable, but B: they should be chaste and pure and without desire. So being a woman, having a vagina, wanting to be sexually desireable is such a part of my life, but then it’s sort of this part of my body that I’m not supposed to explore and I’m not supposed to share either, like it’s supposed to not exist, until it’s supposed to exist to be used by someone else. I’m still very much learning how those cultural and societal expectations have manifested in me, still very much unpacking them and discovering how to relate to my own body and sexual agency.
BG: What are people’s reactions to that series?
BH: When I made it I was like, does this world need more vaginal art? Didn’t Georgia O’Keefe cover it? But people do love it, people wanna talk about it. It’s really ripped open a lot of my relationships with other women; they really want to talk about their bodies and their relationships to their bodies – they are excited to think about it, and generous enough to share their thoughts. So the reaction to it has been more positive than I anticipated, and I haven’t had any backlash of anyone finding it obscene.
“It’s been a real process of exploring cultural ‘shoulds,’ and sometimes doing a lot of the should-nots and sometimes doing the shoulds for my own reasons…”
BG: What is it about working within the structure of having a series that works for you?
BH: I think this could be related to dance. The nice thing about having a series in visual art is that you get to show something has unfolded over time and you get to show an idea as it kind of evolves, and it’s a much more complete view of that idea – it’s not a static thing. So it sort of relates to wanting to work in a time-based medium.
BG: So would you say the various series are expressive of where you are in your life? It seems like you’re interested in nostalgia and capturing moments and places in time.
BH: Yeah it’s a way to encapsulate this thought spiral that’s happening and express it as that, as a moving and happening experience.
BG: That says something about the way you view identity and that’s it’s constantly morphing and changing and reflective of what’s influencing it in the moment without getting stuck.
BH: The series often have to do with finding a door that you didn’t know was there, and then opening it up and being really excited to spend some time in that room; even if I decide to shut the door and close the series, it’s this whole new room that’s added to the blueprint of identity, and it’s just kind of exciting! That’s why I stay in those ideas for a while, it’s like a new thought that I haven’t had before.
BG: The ‘Intimate Spaces’ video series on your website really seems to show how your work is impacted by your geographical and environmental setting. How does space, in particular the spaces that you work and live in, impact the process?
BH: I think having no space upon moving to NYC definitely impacted my choreographic process. I mean, who has money to present in a venue really? When I first moved here I was performing a lot in DIY music spaces and so I needed to make pieces that were adaptable to that and I wasn’t contentious with that. It was really exciting and fun and it very much changed the dancing and the need to make it “dancey” at all. It led me into a different way of working and it led me right into performance art.
BG: How experimental were these places?
BH: Very grungy! I was like, well I can’t really roll around on the floor here because there’s definitely broken glass etc. Though we often did roll on the floor anyway. But it was a really impactful reality, it required an aesthetic and mental shift to figure out how to present content. I also made so many videos in my apartment – in my underwear, in my living room, and the end of each video was usually my roommate starting to turn the key in the door and I was like, “Ahhh, no!”
BG: Is there an ideal environment for your art to be viewed within or experienced?
BH: One of the shifts that happened – partially as a result of some DIY spaces closing and partially a result of working more with video – was that there came moment when I really wanted everything to be available online, to be able to be seen online.
Especially with video, I do like to control a lot of the parameters. I like to know what the sound is sounding like to the listener because a lot of it is really low and quiet and so if you’re not listening with headphones you’re not going to get all of it. So, I write these little notes, which nobody probably listens to and that’s totally fine (it’s so imposing!) but there is something really nice about preparing exactly what’s going to be seen and heard and showing it in the way that matters to you.
BG: There’s always a tension between wanting to make art widely accessible but then knowing that you have an intention for how you want it to be consumed, so it must be hard to put work out there and watch it be changed and morphed by the way people interact with it.
BH: Yes, and sometimes my limitations with technology have made live shows and screenings feel like they weren’t the right experience. But also I am at this point right now, where what I need is a lot of feedback and I feel like making the transition into video art I need to hear back and I need to hear about how I am doing with it, so putting it online and having people watch it is really important.
BG: Interesting, because my initial assumption with putting it online was that it was a bit more disconnected, but it sounds that it can actually induce a sense of community and incite a conversation. So, does community play a role in the way you want your art to be consumed?
BH: There are two main reasons that I make work; one of them is that I just must, that I have to use it in a therapeutic sense to organize myself, to process things that are happening to me. But also, making work and having it be seen is an integral part of feeling connected to other humans.
It’s not that I think anyone needs to see it, it’s that I need them to see it and to see me. I am kind of an intense person and this is a space where I’m actually encouraged to be really intense. In that form of interaction my intensity doesn’t scare anyone or stress them out, versus relationships, it’s a totally different kind of vulnerability. So community has been an incredibly supportive, developmentally important thing – to have people receive this stuff that I make that reveals my most personal truths and for me to see that they can handle it, they can be there in the room and see it.
“I really prefer the non-separation between the artist and the audience that happens in those spaces.”
BG: How does living in Bushwick and interacting with other parts of Brooklyn play into your psyche when it comes to creating?
BH: It is important. I moved to Brooklyn after college because that’s where the people I knew were gonna be, but it took me three years to enjoy living here. I really didn’t resonate with the pace of the city. It was a tough moment in my life too, because I was really in need of developing a self esteem and a self worth.
Something that’s been exciting about the last year is that I feel comfortable engaging in artistic communities for the first time. I am comfortable going into spaces where I maybe don’t know as much as everybody else. I used to not go into galleries because I was just stressed about not being knowledgeable. It felt like a world that I didn’t understand how to have access to. And I was just afraid and wouldn’t walk in. I moved to Bushwick about 8 months ago and I did want to be closer to the “happenings” so that I could go to shows and go to galleries more comfortably.
And that’s talking about the artistic communities in Brooklyn, but it’s a whole other thing to talk about being an Arizona transplant living in Bushwick… I am not sure I even know how to talk about that yet, it’s really fraught and strange. I have no ownership over this place at all, I have no history here and that feels intrusive to the existing community, though I am also trying to locate a sense of home. Gentrification and cultural erasure are painful and destructive and I’m a part of this neighborhood changing.
BG: What interests you about participating in a series like HATCH and that approach to bringing people together?
BH: The venues I’ve enjoyed most – in terms of places I’ve performed – have been house venues, and I think I really prefer the non-separation between the artist and the audience that happens in those spaces. I think it’s optimal for feedback. And I am also interested artistically in the different choices that have to happen about the piece when you’re not in a very formal environment.
It can be frustrating because there are some people in the dance scene that don’t like performing in informal spaces because it really changes the choices they have to make. I understand that certain ideas fit better in formal spaces, but the ideas that interest me the most are the ones that should probably be in informal spaces where we are then going to discuss them and mull over them.
BG: Do you think that house shows are important for the community given all the changes happening to neighborhoods in Brooklyn (like condos popping up and Vice taking over numerous Williamsburg performance spaces)?
BH: Yah, I wanna use the word foundational. In fact, this feels like a very touchy thing to say, but I’m really much more interested in seeing a show that’s in a salon setting, than I am in going to see a show that’s produced at MoMA. And I do wanna see both, it’s important, and I’m not saying that the work that gets mega-produced and championed isn’t great, but I really value being able to interact with work in a personal way.
BG: It reminds me of seeing bands in small venues in Brooklyn, and how NYC tends to be the nexus and growth point for so many bands that go on to be big. Getting to experience music that way feels much more grounded and close to the people that it’s coming from. Any of this art could go on to be curated in a museum, but it feels more connected to the inception point when you’re in an informal setting.
BH: Yes, the process that led to the product is more visible, and you can actually talk to the person about that process. It also feels like a very generative space in terms of going and gathering inspiration for attainable and possible next-goals. That’s what happens a lot with the DIY music venues is that you go and you see work and it’s not something that’s bigger than what you could produce and so lots of ideas start percolating. It’s people you could potentially collaborate with.
BG: NYC is a place of such large divisions in funding. We need reminders because sometimes it feels like we are in a place where all events are happening at their utmost potential and in the most expensively produced way and that doesn’t always need to be the goal.
BH: Yes, It’s sort of like, “just do something already!” I went to a Symposium once, no actually a “Colloquium,” for the 50th anniversary of the Center for Book Arts, because I also really love art books. It was another space that I was very nervous to go into to because I was like, “I don’t know enough about art books to be here.” I was like “how do I dress?” I was really stressing and almost decided to stay home until I was pretty much shoved out the door by my boyfriend at the time. So I went and it was really special. But, one of the panelists said that in her day, nobody was doing anything with funding – it wasn’t really a possibility. She said, “Now I always hear people say I won’t do it without funding” and I wanted to cheer out from the audience, “No! Everyone I know does things without funding! None of us are getting funding.”
BG: Sometimes it feels like even if you start with a community driven approach, that it necessarily has to lead to generating excessive income, which isn’t inherently a bad thing, but if you make that a goal you miss out on some of the benefits of just sharing with each other.
BH: That’s also what’s charming about a salon or house show, you know that people made the things they made primarily because they wanted to make it. No one is going home with serious money from it.
BG: I was just at a Shea Stadium which is an example of a space that is really charming in its state of disrepair.
BH: Oh yah, I love that kind of space. I actually did feel really at home in the DIY music scene when I first moved here. I felt a lot of belonging, and there have been so many things changed, so many of those beautiful spaces that were really exciting because of what transpired or because of what could transpire – they’re gone.
I feel a weird equanimity with that reality because I feel like those kinds of spaces are a part of the human condition. Humans needs spaces to freak out and they will crop up again. Its still sad, but I have a lot of faith that there’s always going to be another homemade space to make some weird noises.
“Being a woman and beginning to understand what it is to be living feminism, rather than just considering myself a feminist.”
BG: We’ve discussed themes of both identity and space, how are these two themes related when it comes to your work?
BH: I think the things that are most important to me are the crossovers between identity and urbanism. Being a woman and beginning to understand what it is to be living feminism, rather than just considering myself a feminist. What does lived feminism feel like? That’s interacting a lot with how I move through the city that I live in. And we talked about being seen and using art to be seen and reach out to others. Something I’m thinking about a lot is how to have enough connection to get the emotional nutrients I need, and a big part of that is showing work.
The thing that keeps me here is that I am ever learning from just being in this place, both artistically and as a human being, in the city where there is so much diversity all the time and you are so confronted with people living very different lives, right next to each other and having to deal with that on a daily basis – I am so excited about the opportunities that presents for learning. I would be a very different person if I had been living somewhere more homogeneous. It makes me never want to live somewhere more homogenous.
BG: Sometimes feminism is taking the time to be selfish enough to say, “This is what I have to say.” It sets an example of what it means to exert yourself upon the world in the way men have typically been encouraged to do.
BH: It’s been a real process of exploring cultural “shoulds,” and sometimes doing a lot of the should-nots and sometimes doing the shoulds for my own reasons – like revisiting behaviors that are socially encouraged for women, but from a place of choice and observation. That is one layer that’s present in ‘Vaginal Forms,’ because I am exploring a lot of idyllic erotic imagery – sometimes co-opting it. I’m trying to explore what that even means to me, and how I even relate to this idea of the ideal female form. It’s a push and pull between wanting to be it and wanting to destroy even the idea of it.
BG: ‘Vaginal forms’ is really compelling to talk about for all of those reasons. Do you get sick of people asking you about ‘Vaginal Forms’?
BH: I love talking about ‘Vaginal Forms.’ A guy recently was like, “That’s kind of vaginal, too. You really do love them don’t you?” And I was like, “Vaginas? Yes, I really do love them. I want to talk about them and draw them and paint them all day.”