July 31, 2013

Collective: Black Salt

Black Salt Collective bends time, space and identity to present visceral 
narratives of tradition and sadness.

In the millenials' world of constant stimuli, endless vapid ways to pass the time and oceans of information to drown in, it's easy to eclipse the noise in our own heads with diversions. The market is saturated with music and art that's so processed it is unrecognizable from its original form. It's increasingly rare to find a piece of expression that appeals in a humanistic or visceral way, that has retained the blood and marrow of its creator and ultimately allows viewers to experience something they might recognize as part of themselves. Black Salt Collective draws inspiration from a deep, connected subconscious and presents work that is both stunning and jarring in its exposure, with a magnetic quality in its unflinching honesty. Artists contribute by exposing themselves; Black Salt contributes by telling the secret stories of their ancestors and the posterity they precede, with the hypnagogic quality of passed time.

The work they present is not grandstanding in its representation of culture; it does not convey history through war or colonialism, or through a Zinn lens of revolution and repression. The work is evocative of the interactions that compose everyday life; stories told around campfires over wine on late summer nights, that get buried and lost in the generational tide. Black Salt, the work of Sarah Sass Biscarra-Dilley, Fanciulla Gentile, Grace Rosario Perkins, Anna Luisa Petrisko and Adee Roberson bends time, space and identity to present greater primal narratives of tradition and sadness, integration and loss; and along the way, captures something universal about the resilience of the human spirit.

THE LE SIGH: Black Salt Collective has a very original aesthetic. How did you come together? Was there a founding member, or did it start out as a collaboration?

ANNA LUISA PETRISKO: We came together because of a cosmic destiny.

GRACE ROSARIO PERKINS: There was no founding member. To build off of Anna's answer, we all knew of each other on a creative basis. Black Salt just made sense. I remember talking to Adee about how I didn't really feel like I fit into any of the art scenes I'd seen, just didn't connect--there were too many variables, and the alienation I felt specifically had a lot to do with who I was in the grander scheme of things, where I came from. Black Salt just had to happen and I'm glad it did.

FANCIULLA GENTILE: It was pretty clear it was already happening; we just needed to acknowledge it and take it to the next level. It gave me great comfort and encouragement to know that these other freaky visionaries wanted to come together.

TLS: How did you choose the name?

FG: We played around with a bunch of different words until finally "Black Salt" was said and it really clicked with all of us. I've sometimes used black salt to cast boundaries of protection around the house. Also, I've read black salt is a term used to describe the charred remains at the bottom of a cauldron.

TLS: I like the idea of casting boundaries of protection--that's beautiful. How did BSC grow to include five members? Was it sort of an organic growth, with new members gravitating toward the kind of work BSC was doing?

FG: Very organic, I feel. Anna and Sarah have been in our spheres for quite some time; we're all big fans of what they do. Their expressions resonate with what we do, also. It just made sense.Their energy is really strong and inspiring.

TLS: How has BSC evolved with the addition of new members and their respective energies and styles? Has everyone sort of come together in kind of a mutually shared, enriched space, or has the scope of the collective expanded to include the distinct presence of each individual?

ALP: All of the above! We live in spectrums, we work in dualities, we are complex vibrations. The collective is always expanding, to contain more ideas, more mediums, more platforms of expression. One of the things I love most about this collective is that we can share and build this art space together while maintaining our own individual presence both in and out of the collective. Given that we're all such strong artists as well as great friends, this seems to be a very fluid process.

TLS: You use the term "collective"; how would you say that term describes your view of the project, and how would it be different if you categorized yourselves differently? What is the commonality that connects you all in your work?

ALP: There are many commonalities between us, but one profound similarity is that we all make artwork with the intention of healing. Healing ourselves, healing our communities, healing the past and healing the future.

SARAH SASS BISCARRA-DILLEY: The term collective holds such particular weight because of interdependence. We're not coming together to merely show our work alongside one another, we're coming together to support one another, to form a network that's often fragmented by scarcity narratives and the devaluing of experience through multi-facted oppressions, to align ourselves with one another. Black Salt is undertaking the task of re-weaving broken baskets, honoring our differences, witnessing our commonalities and choosing communion over isolation.

TLS: Is it difficult to express what BSC is about to new viewers/listeners?

GRACE ROSARIO PERKINS: It is difficult; the work is complex. However, we're doing what we can and redefining what it means to make work about our respective cultures.

TLS: In the description of your project, you mention the collective is "cultural, but not 'cultural' in the anthropological sense of the word, as cultural art is often seen through a Western lens." Is it difficult to present culture without a Western lens that's sort of absorbed by a Western upbringing? How does your work transcend or disavow the limitations of personal perspective?

GRP: A lot of the work I made as a student was reflective of my own personal history and interests but never actually pulled things together in a scope that encompassed it all--at least in terms of race or culture. However, this has changed recently. There's a point of Westernization because that's what happened to us, this reconfiguration of tradition and history in which we as contemporaries have to look before us and make a decision about how we'll navigate. Do we want to think about culture now or later? This is a tough, conflicted way of working, but I feel like I have to do this right now, especially because I'm the only granddaughter; the baby. I don't think one's work, however, has to be direct in its exploration of these issues or spelled out. I believe the things I make are really automatic in that I create work that's a result of being a relatively young person who grew up with urban parents, whose grandmother went to an Indian boarding school, and is the last native Navajo speaker, who experiences two ends of culturally based isolation--in both the mainstream white world and at home.

I don't think there's a limitation of personal perspective. I actually would say there's a strength in conveying one's personal history as it's often completely informed by the restrictions of the Western world...how your grandma taught you this, or you may have experienced hardship or how the jokes you family makes all contribute to your stream of consciousness and your output; that in itself is relatable to those from similar and even dissimilar backgrounds. There's just an understanding to be had of what's yours and what's not.

SSBD: This "Western lens" is a new and limited one; a view that tends to obsess over "authenticity" and "purity" and an attachment to static reality. And although I grew up in a "Western upbrining," as you call it, I also grew up in a hybridized community, steeped in the cultures of some of my ancestors with stories as a teaching technique used since time immemorial. For example, on my maternal side, we are Chumash people born into missions, Yaqui people displaced from our land, Michoacanas working in the states as migrant workers; we have Basque names, Spanish names, Anglo names. When my great-grandmother--with whom I was very close--passed away, I also found out that several generations back we're Yokuts, through hearing a wax recording of my great-great-grandmother's singing. My people have been mixed since before colonization, through the colonial era, into the present. These aren't stories that are valued by this Western lens because it doesn't reflect a static reality, a static culture. This is our reality, though, and it isn't codified neatly; this is its beauty and complexity. It's so much bigger than each of us.

To quote Chumash/Esselen writer Deborah Miranda, "Those who do not change do not survive; but who are we, when we have survived?" This is, I feel, a question that guides some of us in our work. Not romanticizing an idea of how things once were or being crushed by cycles of trauma, but undertaking the task of metabolizing the stories that transcend time and space to honor the work of having a body in this lifetime. This is not possible while using that Western lens; we are using our own eyes and the eyes of our people. We are attempting the telling of those who may not have been heard. We are treating that Western lens like the constructed, colonial nonsense that it is, and being truthful to our actual experiences, the experiences of our people.

TLS: You seem to be very in touch with your ancestry while having a simultaneous emphasis on the future. Is this a correct observation? How does this duality inform your work in the present?

FG: I'd say honoring ancestry and creating a future isn't so much connecting point A to point B but more about bending space and time, or integrating. Colonialism has fragmented time in such a way that it can feel as though our identities aren't whole and the "present" feels like more of a corridor or limbo one must walk. I do think this is essentially an illusion; we aren't linear, there's an infinite multiverse. My work is to listen to the voices echoing down the corridor; they'll lead me to freedom and wholeness.

TLS: As I was checking out your work and some of the statements you'd made about BSC's mission, the idea reminded me of the difference between a traveler and a tourist. A tourist is someone who goes to spectate another land from within her sphere, her identity, and sort of constructs the meaning of that culture or land in opposition to herself and her reality. A traveler is someone who tries to inhabit another consciousness, to see the world in a different way and to live in it, and ultimately constructs her perception of that culture or land collaboratively, as in the commonalities we share that transcend most geographical, temporal and cultural divides. Do you think that comparison is illustrative of Black Salt's view of presenting culture as opposed to the sort of textbook, often dichotomous lens of comparative anthropology?

FG: I don't know that I've ever considered myself a traveler or tourist in those definitions, mostly because I'm an immigrant and had a lot of mixed messages about my place in the world. I had a lot of stress from looking very different, not speaking English, and on top of this, having a presence that's hard to ignore. The pressure to assimilate was very clear and I think I found excitement in performing "American-ness" even though it was very isolating and painful. I always felt like more of a spy than a tourist or traveler, in the sense that I felt I couldn't really show who I was because I'm not supposed to be here. Finding a community as I got older really helped me break out of this paranoia and actually embrace my performance and not feel as though I was denying anything about myself. Black Salt is an inspiration and solace to me because I see them as warriors who have also survived the wars and scars of assimilation, the rebellion against it, and the embrace of the parts that have absorbed it.

TLS: Do you have any upcoming plans for the collective? Do all the members get together often, or do you collaborate from different parts of the country (or world)?

GRP: We see each other as much as possible. We hang out pretty regularly, have meetings at least twice a month and even though Anna is in Los Angeles, we correspond through email or phone, with some really good visits in between. This summer, we have a big road trip planned in which we'll make a video with aspects of performance and documentary. The resulting piece will be used in an upcoming art installation with the video being a focal point. I want to make some elaborate costumes and work with more sculpture. Everyone will get to meet my father, some will get to meet my mother. I'm kind of excited about that aspect.

FG: Yes! Super excited I get to meet Grace's family and the places she talks about in her stories of growing up. This trip and collaboration is really going to be transformative and bonding. I think our collaborative project is going to blow minds.

TLS: If BSC took on a corporeal form, what would it be?

SSBD: Ebony Champagne King.

ALP: A shape shifter that changes from lioness to dolphin; corn goddess to centaur; she is everything and everyone!

FG: The spinning Wheel of Fortune tarot card.

The ladies of Black Salt are trying to make their road trip a reality; see how you can help make this happen here, and check out more of the collective here and on Facebook.

Carolyn Lang, who likes to write and travel and spends most of her spare time in Middle Eastern restaurants. She is the combined effort of everyone she's ever known. Carolyn keeps track of things that fascinate her here.