Sofie B. Ringstad: I want to start by asking you about the title of the Power Nights series at E-Werk Luckenwalde, which you curated last year: Being Mothers. How did you reach that title? What definition of being and mothers were you operating with?
Lucia Pietroiusti: It’s a good question. I have to admit to you that arriving at titles for me is an instinctive practice, which in the end always lands on rhythms and poetics. And so, on the most basic level, one day the title came to me and I just thought it sounded good. But there were definitely many circumstances that justified the title when it stuck.
First of all, sort of bizarrely, coincidentally, a lot of the team at E-Werk Luckenwalde, including the director and the head of Power Nights and myself, were mothers of young children. It was similar to the way that Sun & Sea was created as a collaboration of many mothers with young children, that made Sun & Sea a piece that, even though not quite intentionally, was designed as a place where the kids could also be parked, or placed. In Venice, it had this double function of childcare and performance. I don’t think that it was an intention then, and it wasn’t an intention this time either, but it just so happened that E-Werk Luckenwalde is this space that both inside and outside lends itself really well to the care of children, as they’re able to explore it with some degree of independence.
So that was the coincidence before the title ever came – before the exhibition came together. And by virtue of… that’s what you do when you have young kids, we ended up talking about mothering quite a lot. I was then putting together the proposal for the programming of the artists that would be involved, and because of my research I knew that there was going to be a strong connection to ecology and the environment. Though the angle I often take around ecology and the environment has an element of myth or some kind of… I wouldn’t say direct spirituality, but some kind of research interest in the spiritual and new animism.
So all of that was coming together without holding hypotheses. And then I had a conversation with Cooking Sections, who I also invited to participate, and they told me about this work they were doing for Istanbul², which was a piece of research around fertilization, fertilizers, and fertility, and the connection between those things. Which, coincidentally again, was something that I was also reading about, since another event called PLANTSEX that had happened in 2019 in London. Their description of their project evoked so much for me that was already rumbling in my mind that it also somehow brought new meaning to the assemblage of artists and practices that I was already bringing together.
Speaking with Daniel Fernández Pascual and Alon Schwabe of Cooking Sections and their project revealed the inner meaning behind the bringing together of the different artists and practices that became Being Mothers, in as much as so many of the projects had an element that in some way intersected with motherhood. It wasn’t really my conscious intention. For example, Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen’s project was sort of based on research on the strange behaviors of the octopus³. The octopus has a very poignant story of motherhood, where mother octopuses will defend the unhatched octopi babies until they hatch, and then as soon as they are born, she dies, as a result of not feeding herself and being attacked during this period. Or, if we think about Tabita Rezaire, who was opening a center for what she describes as “the arts and science of the body, the earth and the sky”, her entire political philosophy is really based on reviving practices that start from the principle of the womb. And she’s training to be a doula as well. The piece that she contributed was interviews with various doula practitioners in her travels.
So, it sort of came together with the artworks. That’s generally my process. I find it almost impossible to create an idea in the blank and then put the artworks in. That makes no sense. I prefer to come up with an instinctive assemblage of people and things, and then try to step back as a member of the audience and see what meaning emerges from these things, and then describe.
¹ Sun & Sea is an opera-perfromance by Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė and Lina Lapelytė, originally presented as The Lithuanian Pavilion during 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, where it won the Golden Lion for Best National Participation. Lucia Pietroiusti is the curator for the piece.
² 17th Istanbul Biennial, Cooking Sections: Wallowland (site-specific installation, 2022).
³ Revital Cohen & Tuur Van Balen, Three Hearts (Phthalo Blue & Titanium White Strobe), 2021.
SBR: Right, you don’t put a word like MOTHER in the middle of a blank page and go from there.
LP: No, I don’t. Although, in the case of biennales, like in the Dolomites for example, Filipa¹ and I certainly said “we’re interested in these three or four ideas” and so on but, seeing what the artists picked up on, some ideas fell through and others became more articulate. So, again it’s a reaction to the artists, generally speaking.
¹ Personen Persons: Biennale Gherdeïna 8 in Val Gardena (Dolomites), which Lucia Pietroiusti curated together with Filipa Ramos.
SBR: In the exhibition text for Being Mothers, you reflect upon ‘environmental care, repair and endurance’. For me, on a personal level, these are three key words I would use to describe my own experience of motherhood. With the Being Mothers project now behind you, how would you say mothering is intertwined with environmental efforts and ecology?
LP: You can enter that question through different ways and, being a curator, I wouldn’t necessarily be a proponent of one rather than the other. There’s a tradition of feminist eco-criticism and thought that definitely associates certain particularities of the environment thriving with forms of nurturing, that are then in turn associated with femininity and motherhood. But, personally, I’m more interested in traditions that are kind of a universal, where there is a connection between fertility, its gods and goddesses, and agriculture and myth. So, there definitely is a very strong mythologization and storyfication of agricultural practices and techniques through the figures of fertility.
And that, to me, is really fascinating because a lot of times these stories – these myths, these poems, and creation origins – are encoded with learned human knowledge of how to relate to the more-than-human world. Whether it is human fertilization of the date palm, for instance, or many other forms of care, or indeed medicinal uses of plants. So, there’s a kind of human and plant story that is told through myths, which I think is really key. There are also a lot of political movements today that argue that if women and female-identifying persons were in power, we would be facing less destruction and devastation. I suspend my judgement as to whether that’s true or not, although it couldn’t get any worse, so… [laughs]
SBR: Why not give it a try!
LP: Exactly. Certainly, for me, it’s sort of reflecting back on those three terms – ‘care, repair and endurance’. The experience I had of motherhood was not one that I would glorify at all. I was under the spell of post-natal depression for about a year, which meant that the things that were more evident to me at the time were things like the fragility of this little new being, the fragility of the bond between us, the fragility of me in that relationship. So that was one of the elements. The sort of slightly uncomfortable adjustment that came was one of the elements that really affected and inflected my ecological thought. The other one was during pregnancy, which I had a completely different experience of. It was one of the most joyous, powerful feelings I’ve ever experienced. I actually remember being so high on the whole experience that it became really obvious to me that these monotheistic religions that place a kind of male god figure on top of everything that creates the world was an elaborate, millennia-long con to hide the fact that the divine – and the power of creation, period! – instead of being transcended and in the hands of a man, is actually imminent and in the womb of women. I’m aware of the fact that there is a risk of essentializing female bodies. This was a very personal, intimate experience that I had between me and my own womb. So, when you think about care, repair and endurance, you have a kind of divinity at the level of pregnancy. And then you have a fragile, always at risk to be broken, kind of relationship in the first period of mothering. And then you have the enduring stubbornness of continuing to think about what is this body that is basically your body, but that is extraneous to you all of a sudden.
SBR: It keeps coming back to this realization that being a birther and being a mother are actually two completely separate things, which opens up the term of mother as well. Hence my question regarding the title Being Mothers. I was sure you did not mean being birthers, you know what I mean? It’s much wider than that.
LP: Absolutely, you’re right! There are two more elements to the title, actually. One of them is the notion of being, as a continuous, unfinished, self-transforming act. It wasn’t called Mothers. It was called Being Mothers, as a process of self-transformation. And the other one, as you point out, Mothers, was not suggesting a particularly essentialized 1950s version of a housewife, but was suggesting the notion of motherhood as a potentially really expanded notion or term.
Like, if you think about the yeast mother, that’s a figure that’s been really important to me. The fact that you call the yeast mother a mother is a metaphor in a sense, but what if we take that metaphor seriously? What does it then teach us about what human motherhood might be? Right. I’ve given a lecture and written about this back in the day. If I try and take seriously the notion of yeast as a mother and I look at how it works – you take a little bit from it and then you grow something else, and then you take a little bit from that and you grow something else – taking that seriously reveals to me the fact that as we birth more life, and this is true of any living being, we sort of are and have always been kind of the same body. Just growing out of one another.
And that’s a completely different way of thinking about pregnancy, because a lot of the time we think about pregnancy as a kind of holder, like you’re a cup and they’re the tea. But, actually, if you start thinking about it, when I was giving birth, I really had a strong sense that it was my being shedding a skin, an older skin, and that older skin was me, it was my body. So, there’s a continuity and endurance in that physical experience, which, in fact, you find in a lot of mystical visions of things like the Eucharist. Many mystical visions are about the union of bodies, as you take in the body of Christ, for instance, and the Eucharist is not an object. It’s a becoming, together.
SBR: You’re rather completing…
LP: …. you’re merging, yes. Or at least that’s how I’ve read a few of these visions.
SBR: You touched a bit in on this – woven into these concepts of care, repair and endurance is a good portion of memory work, which is something I’m also interested in. I’m thinking of the mothering role as maintaining and transmitting epistemic knowledge, but also the more day-to-day, the cooking, the storytelling, the craft… Can you tell me a bit about how the works in Being Mothers reflected this? Did you think about this aspect consciously? Because I know you, as a curator, go beyond the gallery format also.
LP: Yes, I would in fact start with a piece that wasn’t in the exhibition, but could have very well been, which is any of the works by the artist Zadie Xa has done based on her research on orca whales, and the family structures of orca whales. She has told me in several conversations that the reason why she’s so interested in orca whales is that they have this matrilinear, matriarchal structure in which the grandmothers of orca pod families live many, many decades after their menopause. They do that, hypothetically, because they’re the holders of crucial navigational and survival knowledge, and it’s their duty, after menopause, to pass on generational memory.
But if I think about works in the context of Being Mothers… for instance the work Karrabing Film Collective is doing is really interesting in its infrastructure – as a collective their members range from children to elderly, and they all make films together. Part of the reason why Karrabing makes films is to ensure the endurance of ancestral and land knowledge passing from the older generations to the younger ones. Some of the members of Karrabing grew up in the city and then have come back, in a sense, to ancestral territory, but, by doing so, have lost ancestral knowledge. So, Karrabing makes film in order to also tell stories that then get passed on from generation to generation. What these two examples are telling me is that, when it comes to mothering and memory, there’s a really important three generation connection, which has the grandmother involved in this passing on of knowledge.
It’s a really useful exercise to not take for granted everything that we take for granted, being quite aware that what we are doing is creating a world.
SBR: I’ve heard that geologists, when they are young students, need to completely relearn how to think about time, simply because the life span of say, a mountain, is so long one must completely rewire the brain to grasp it. For you, working with ecology, has it changed how you think about temporality and memory?
LP: Undoubtedly. But I would say it was the other way around. A lot of the time, when you meet people who are in environmental movements, they will say I developed my environmental consciousness as soon as I became a parent. And a lot of the time you’ll hear “what world are we leaving to our children”, and so on. Now, knowing full well that from the points of view and principles of climate justice, myself and my son are not at the front line of the breakdown of climate, imminently. Which means that it’s not actually for me a question of what world am I, as an individual, physically leaving to my one child. However, what did happen, as he was really small, is that I realized all of a sudden that I cared – I felt present for an amount of time in the future that outlived me and my life. Just, you know, one-and-a-half-life – how long will he live? Hopefully fifty, sixty more years after I die. Which means that, all of a sudden, your scale goes from one life along to one-and-a-bit. And somehow that descaling of my sense of feeling present in the world was like a baby step in the direction of deep time. Like an… you just kind of expand that feeling and multiply it really vastly. You can start to think about cycles of materials recomposing and belonging to these larger cycles of time, in soul and body both, existing past one’s own conscious lifetime. It was those kinds of thoughts that brought me to thinking about and with ecology, and more-than-human beings, specifically.
The other reference I would say is that there is quite a lot of speculative fiction writers that have tried to write that time into existence. To give you just one example, there was a very brief sci-fi story where one of the characters of a book by Richard Powers – it’s called The Overstory – reads in the novel. So, it’s a story within a story. And in this story, a community of extraterrestrial beings arrive on Earth. But they are so fast – they move at such great speed – that, as they arrive, the scale of the time of our human movements seem to them invisible. We appear still. And they assume because we are still, we are lifeless, and they cut us down and harvest us for materials. In the context of The Overstory, it’s really about how we think about plants and trees, so it reframes the perspective by doing the exact same thing that we do but in a different time.
A geologist will tell you that, from the point of view of deep time, you would see continents and mountains and minerals, and things that we actually consider lifeless, move. I know there is a chemical aspect to it, if it’s carbon based or not, but actually the notion of life that we associate so much with movement is entirely contingent on our time. I wouldn’t say that it’s super easy to experience life like that on a daily basis – it’s not even super easy to experience consciousness on a daily basis. I mean, that’s a fact. But, they are useful exercises to begin to apprehend things that would kind of seem impossible to conceive. And, in fact, they’re not. It’s just a question of practice. For me, artworks are a way of introducing you to those kind of instincts and pre-perceptions in a way that’s sort of non-logical, non-didactic.
SBR: Yes, I actually wanted to finish with a quote from you. When you ended your recent TED Talk, you said that: “Art is where symbol and imagination meets the material world itself. And that art and culture might just be the most resilient technology […] that we as a species have ever come up with to carry across deep time all the things we learn about our relationship with the more-than-human planet and, most crucially, about our responsibilities and obligations of care to it and to one another.” I want to ask you, if art and culture is technology to learn, is it possible that mothering is the means with which we apply this knowledge back to the material world?
LP: That’s an incredibly deep and poetic reflection that you make! I agree, although I would also suggest that when we say art and culture, we might also be including all forms of creativity, including mothering. Understood in the vastest, queerest possible sense! I suppose maybe it comes down to the notion of world building, as we make little beings and introduce them to what we think the parameters of the world are, we also create that world around those beings and re-create it every time we propose it. So, what we need to be aware of is that as we make nurture, that we’re making culture. It’s a really useful exercise to not take for granted everything that we take for granted, being quite aware that what we are doing is creating a world. By introducing our young to a world, we’re also creating it for them. There’s a responsibility in that and we really start to realize that responsibility when we expand the notion of culture.
* This interview is part of Sofie B. Ringstad’s master’s degree Mothers, Mothering and the Mnemonic (Weißensee Kunsthochschule Berlin, supervised by Dr. Prof Bonaventure Joh Bejeng Ndikung and Prof. Nasan Tur).
Sofie B. Ringstad (b. 1992) is a Stavanger-based curator and writer. She has a long career as a manager in the music field, and consults artists and institutions at the intersection of visual and time-based art. Sofie holds a Masters Degree in Spatial Strategies form the Weißensee Kunsthochschule in Berlin, and is currently engaged as a curator for KORO.