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Intersecting of Art, Myth, and History: Interview with Gen Doy

Come along as we delve into a captivating dialogue with Gen Doy, delving into her artistic journey, deep ties to history and myth, and the empowering impact of her politically-charged artistic expression. Brace yourself to be enthralled by the sheer artistic brilliance of Gen Doy, whose creative pursuits profoundly echo the core of human existence and the intricate fabric of our shared narrative.

21 July 2023

Joana Alarcão

Can you start by giving us a bit of an overview of your practice and background?

As for my background, I was born in Scotland in 1948 to a Scottish mother and an English father, who towards the end of the 1939-45 war had been stationed in Scotland in the navy. I grew up in a small village in beautiful countryside with rivers and forests and even a castle! I now live in North London and have two grown up sons and they and their partners have given me the great joy of three lovely young grandchildren. I moved back to London in 2010 after I retired from my job as a university lecturer in order to undertake postgraduate studies in Fine Art. I had always wanted to study art but my mother was against this, saying I needed to study something that would enable me to get a well-paid job. My studies from 2010-13 coincided with huge demonstrations by school students and further and higher education students in protest against rising tuition fees and the abolition of a maintenance grant for older school students. At first, I was drawing and painting, writing, and trying some old-style photography and print-making, but partly because I realised it would take years to become an expert in these media, and I was already over sixty, and also because I decided that working with my recorded voice could also conjure up images as well as sounds, I gave that a try. Someone told me they liked my voice, and encouraged by that I made work editing together field recordings and texts spoken by me. I used to go to places where something important had happened, say a mutiny in the army or navy had started, or a mutineer had been hung or shot, or to Greenham Common, the site of many military encampments in the past, and do the voice recordings there. Sometimes this really made me shiver, I felt as if I was being a kind of a witness to something that was still present, if you just opened yourself up to its significance and the real people involved. While I was there thinking about the past and almost feeling it, people would come past walking their dogs or going to work etc and the past and the present were both there. I remember one-day recording on Greenham Common I met a man who told me he used to be a gravedigger. 


I was encouraged to try live performances, which I found pretty nerve-racking, but I told myself that if I had given lectures to a hundred students I could do a live performance to a handful of people, which is what my audiences tended to number. Then over time, I began to incorporate songs, both original lyrics and music by me, and sometimes well-known melodies with my new words, which often subverted the original mood of the music. At present, I’m experimenting with drawings which are projected as part of live performances, and my performance is in a kind of dialogue with the images. The drawings are inspired by historical sources but tweaked in some way to allude to current events. 

See below for an example of a drawing done in the style of an enigmatic seventeenth-century emblem, but referring to the war in Ukraine, and reversing the slogan from the 1968 student riots about finding the beach beneath the paving stones, which meant you can discover an ideal life beneath the restrictions of bourgeois society. 



In your statement, you mentioned that you want to'' construct narratives that are not linear, but suggestive, evocative, and open to creative interpretation by the viewer and listener." What motivated you to create these narratives? How do you navigate the fine line between open interpretation and developing your intended political message?

Yes, these are good questions and I will have to think carefully to find my answer. In some of my earlier works, I often got very emotional as I thought of the people I was making the work about. For example, I went to St. Paul’s cathedral yard with my younger son to make recordings about a young army mutineer Robert Lockyer, who was shot on the orders of Oliver Cromwell in that place. He was the same age as my son when he was killed in April 1649. He was a supporter of the Levellers, who agitated for democracy, and soldiers’ rights and some refused to go and fight against the Irish. (A really good book on this inspirational period in English history is Christopher Hill’s The World turned upside down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution) Lots of the words were from historical sources including a contemporary account of his execution by firing squad, witnessed by his mother. This account meant a lot to me and also to my son, especially since as we were recording we could hear in the distance the bells for the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.! In January 1649 in England, the King had been executed! What irony. I was often surprised by fruitful coincidences in making recordings and performances outdoors. Anyway, I wondered if this was all a bit obvious and was really producing something that was ambiguous enough to allow people to get immersed in something, think their own thoughts, and gradually get to consider “what does this mean to me, now, listening to this, in my life, my situation, with my ideas?” There was also the problem of how much historical information would my audience need in order to follow the narrative and make sense of it? Perhaps I exaggerated my worries about these early works, as I was aware of how angry some of the historical events made me feel, and sometimes I would think why doesn’t everyone know about this stuff? why do people know about Winston Churchill etc but not about people protesting against injustice and giving their lives for it?   I think introducing songs helped. Instead of reading out bits of historical documents so much I could take phrases that were really telling and weave them into the lyrics, and bring the music and the lyrics into a suggestive and unexpected relationship… starting with a sweet melody taken from a pop song about teenagers in love I would gradually by the last verse be singing about drowning migrants in the Mediterranean. Sometimes it was hard not to cry performing these things, I had to be present but also keep a wee bit of distance and if not, I would have forgotten my lines anyway, so I think most audiences got the message that something pretty bad was being referred to, without being explicitly told that, and that things definitely needed thinking about, and maybe even acting upon. 


In your practice, you want to give voice to people and events which have been ignored or marginalized. Could you share a work that had this goal in mind? 

Well, the previous answer deals with this a bit, but I’ll give another example. About three years ago during the Covid lockdown, I was working on a performance called For having been born elsewhere, which took as its starting point a drawing by Goya of someone tried by the Inquisition literally “for having been born elsewhere”. Goya even wrote this charge on the drawing. The drawing was linked to other Goya works of people being tried as witches and heretics by the Inquisition on the flimsiest of charges. I began to read about the persecution of (mostly female) victims, and it came to me that the accusations were designed to marginalise and scapegoat people who were different, unwelcome, and “not from here” in a way similar to the ways that many governments and some members of the public view immigrants and asylum seekers. The ridiculous (historical) accusations against “witches “ eg. flying, having familiars, damaging property, keeping penises in nests etc gradually changed to accusations of you took our jobs, our homes, you jumped the queue for healthcare, etc. and so became anti-migrant. I decided that this aspect of witch trials had been overlooked, and this kind of persecution continues with different but related targets of fear and suspicion and even hatred. 



From For having been born elsewhere series,2020

In my performance the accused eventually turns from victim to accuser, cursing her judges.

The accused, dressed in the usual costume of Inquisition suspects. Artists were actually paid to make the hats and tabards (these are known as sanbenitos, with different colours and designs). 




The empowered, the costume of downtrodden victim has been thrown off.  

The photos are from a live performance, and this video is of a Zoom performance done during lockdown. https://vimeo.com/561737429?share=copy


Actually, it’s fairly true to say that so-called witches are not really unheard and marginalised any longer in UK culture as lots of books have been written about people executed, their stories and sufferings, and many artists have made work about witches, especially in the last few years. Very influential in this has been the now famous book by Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch, which I really recommend. I think it’s easily her best work. 


Being a social and political focused artist, do you believe art can effectively challenge and critique political systems and structures?

Well yes, I think art can challenge and critique political power and its systems of ideological and physical control. Recent legislation to further restrict the right to strike in the UK is a sample of what we are facing under a right-wing government. 


A more difficult question is who is going to see much of this art. I suppose someone like Banksy has been successful in this as he puts his work out in the public spaces where people live their lives and not so much in galleries or even the internet. A famous example would be Banksy and his teams’ images on the Segregation Wall between Israel and Palestine, 2005. 


Hopefully, your project will connect with lots of people. But ironically it also takes money to make lots of successful public art. I went to see a really excellent Anselm Kiefer series of installations the other day at White Cube Bermondsey in South London. It’s a commercial gallery and must have loads of money as the installations were amazing. Kiefer was inspired by Joyce’s book Finnegan’s Wake, but actually, the various rooms looked like a kind of destructive twilight of capitalism. One massive room had a heap of broken concrete and metal bars and rusty supermarket trollies with words and a huge painting on the walls. It’s hard to describe but just somehow apocalyptic ruinous stuff. And it was free to visit too! https://www.whitecube.com/gallery-exhibitions/anselm-kiefer-finnegans-wake


Thinking back to a previous question, the installations were ambiguously open to interpretation, and my view of them as a kind of museum of the ruins of capitalism, and relics of historical culture is just my personal response. In contrast, some of the art that is hailed by the art world as radical and “cutting-edge” etc seems to be technically slick and at times influenced by computer games and advertising and ultimately quite shallow. It has already positioned itself in a hugely commercialised environment, where thoughtful consideration of serious issues tends not to be “valued”. 

 I just hope that people who encounter my work will become conscious of things they perhaps hadn’t thought about very seriously before, or if already aware of these issues, perhaps they will think of doing something about them.


One of the focal points of your practice is the use of sound, voice and live performance to convey political messages. Can you provide an example of where this happens? 

I think the voice can be used in a variety of ways and I’m always interested in the way that other people’s writings can be spoken or sung through me, using my voice and body as a vehicle for this. When the written words are spoken they become alive, and also singing written words is different again from speaking them. I acknowledge using other people’s material unless it’s really obvious eg. singing something to the tune of the national anthem, or Rule Britannia. For example, in the witch trial work, I sing the verses of a poem by Anne Sexton called Her Kind. It’s brilliant. All written in the first person, it speaks of a witch “dreaming evil”, home-making for the dwarfs and the elves, and being tortured and burnt and it ends


“A woman like that is not afraid to die.

I have been her kind”. 


You can imagine people disapproving of her lifestyle (just as many women are criticised for various behaviours) and saying “oh yeah, her kind”. 

Another sound work I made, quite early on in working with sound, was the testimony of the widow of a leading naval mutineer Richard Parker, hanged on board a ship off Sheerness in Kent, South East England in 1797, for demanding better food, pay, and the end of arbitrary and severe punishments. I was the medium through which his story was told by his wife/widow. I used a historical text called The Testimony of Anne McHardy Parker and I recorded parts of this at Sheerness by the Thames Estuary. I wrote a song using some of this text and sang it, and also recounted how she and some helpers broke into the cemetery at night to retrieve his body so that he could be buried and not dissected by anatomists, as was the fate of many so-called criminals.  Parker’s body was buried in an east London cemetery, but the site was bombed in 1940. All that remained was a small park, now named Altab Ali Park, in memory of a British Bangladeshi leather clothing worker aged only 24 when he was murdered by racists in 1978. I recorded passers-by there to end the work with British-Asian voices planning to go shopping. There is not a “message” as such, but the work invites listeners to reflect on injustices past and present. I visited a London medical museum ( Hunterian Museum, Royal College of Surgeons of England) to take a photo of a death mask of Richard Parker, but was told I could not use the photo in my artwork as the copyright belonged to them! I asked them how come the museum “owned” the mask and where it had come from and the woman I spoke to wasn’t very happy about my questions! The museum is full of human specimens who probably ended up there in quite unethical transactions. 

https://soundcloud.com/guineveredoy/the-testimony-of-anne-mchardy-parker?si=179e62b3fe964c2c9bf4e6520a9ff55f&utm_source=clipboard&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=social_sharing

I feel that by speaking, singing and performing I can try to bring to life the words and stories of people who should not be forgotten. 


How do you incorporate historical references into your art to highlight the intersection between the past and the present?

To answer this question about bringing historical references into the present I’ll say a bit about my performance A Dance of Death for Our Times, 2020. I did lots of research (as I usually do because I really enjoy this stage of creating works) about writings and images from late medieval and Renaissance times about the Dance of Death. Basically, Death as a dancing skeleton visits people from all walks of society and invites them to dance to their death with him (or her). A really good example of this imagery is a fragment of a large painting frieze in Tallin by Bernt Notke, late fifteenth century, see below

 



The texts underneath the figures have Death’s invitations to the victims (eg. the Emperor, the Bishop, the Cardinal ) and their pleas for a stay of execution, so it’s an ideal source for a performance with movement, musical instruments (the skeleton with bagpipes on left) and singing. As well as lots of great imagery and poems I also found original music from Florence where a Death Cart appeared in a 1512 Carnival procession. So I composed various songs inspired by this historical material and, dressed as a female Death, I came to invite our then prime minister, his chancellor (a banker ), a bishop, an asylum seeker, a careworker, and a firefighter to dance the dance of death. The potential victims were projected in drawings behind me. As if at a celebrity dance competition on tv, the audience had to vote for who would be saved by singing to plead for mercy. 





Death comes for Boris Johnson, then the UK Prime Minister. 


The historical Dance of Death is supposed to show how no one from any social level can escape death, but it’s clear that some people are more likely than others to meet death at an early age. For an extract from the performance see https://vimeo.com/781045590?share=copy

I must say that researching historical material and finding ways how it can be brought into a kind of fruitful collision with the present is probably the main method for creating my work. It’s interesting but also sometimes very disappointing, to see how little has changed. It’s just worse and dressed up in more obfuscation and downright lies. 


Why is it so important that your practice actively engages your audience and encourages their participation in your artistic process or the experience of your work?

I try hard to engage the audience and if possible get them to sing, and/or take part in other ways in the performances. For example in Cuts Piece, (both Dance of Death and Cuts Piece were developed with a bursary from a-n, the artists’ information company), the audience sings and also takes scissors to cut or slash a large piece of muslin on which are projected the bitter fruits of capitalism and austerity. 


This is projected from a slide projector onto a large sheet of thin muslin hanging from the ceiling, as the last slide in the performance. 


You can see in the video how the performance ends. https://vimeo.com/781040265?share=copy   However destroying the representations of oppression, corruption and greed does not destroy the actually existing things, so I am hoping that this is something that the audience may consider when reflecting on the work later. Even when they think they are destroying the images, they are only destroying the surface on which they are projected. Only when you switch off the machine, the images are gone. When I decided to make this work I remembered the famous Cut Piece performance by Yoko Ono, where the audience cuts pieces of her clothing off, but I wanted to make something more political about actual government cuts to healthcare, foreign aid etc. and how the act of cutting something with scissors could be experienced by audience members as really delicate, even creative, or progress to something quite violent, and indeed government cuts have resulted in many deaths in the UK including people committing suicide because they are so depressed at the situation they are in. Jodey Whiting, a disabled woman, committed suicide in 2017 two weeks after her benefits were stopped. Although she could hardly walk, the Department for Work and Pensions said no one was available to assess her needs at home. Her mother campaigned for a new inquest into her death, which was granted in March 2023. 


As far as joining in with the singing is concerned, I often use familiar melodies but write new lyrics to them, so the audience will already know the tune, and sometimes I give them a print-out of the new lyrics as well. Singing can be quite embarrassing for some people, but in a group and singing about a serious issue, it can also be quite emotional and moving. I once did a performance in a mobile camera obscura where only 2 or three people could enter at one time, including me. I sang a song about the world turned upside down ie. current social and political relations would be turned on their heads/reversed. http://bhamobscura.com/artworks/upside-down/  One woman took my hand while I was singing and afterwards told me it was like being sung to by her mother when she was a child. I found this quite moving, and pondered on the idea that singing about changing society could become a comforting experience! 



For having been born else where - Performance

How do you infuse humor, particularly of a dark nature, into your art to address political issues and engage viewers on a deeper level?

Ah, humour…I suppose it’s a case of, looking at the state of the world, if you didn’t laugh, you would cry. Sometimes the works start off in a rather lyrical, quiet way, and get darker as we go on, putting the audience in one kind of a mood before changing it to something more serious or even shocking. Or I can start off with some amusing remarks and then things turn nasty. For example in the witch trial performance when I am accused of flying by night on a broomstick, I reply in a puzzled voice that there’s no law against flying and anyway, I have a vacuum cleaner, I don’t use a broom or a broomstick. In the live performance of Albie, I plan to dress like an albatross, with a bird mask (I’ll take it off to sing) and long knitted wings on my arms, before ending up mourning the death of seabirds from ingesting plastic pollution in the oceans. I wasn’t able to give the performance (twice cancelled due to covid and lockdowns) so I made a short video of it. I hope to do it live eventually. https://vimeo.com/426532065?share=copy


In the Dance of Death for our Times piece although I’m dressed as Death I invite the audience for a start to see the funny side of things. See below 


Death enters doing a weird dance with “attitudes” and poses. Plays some tuneless notes on a tin whistle  


Death strikes a pose from a dance on one foot and says 


“ it’s hard to balance on one foot when you are older…it’s even harder if you are dead!” 


Then I mock the politician as I invite him to Dance with me:


DEATH

Come forth sir, in your suit and tie

Your mobile phone in sweaty paw

You answer questions with a sigh

As if each were the final straw. 

Your wars and greed, your lies and sneers

Your policies that ruined lives

Now death with grinning skull doth leer

Your votes won’t help you to survive (repeat)



POLITICIAN (seductively)  


Oh pity I beg you, cruel death

I have much still to do,

Increase my wealth, with every breath 

Enrich my cronies too

Just one more year to lie and squirm, 

when I’m put on the spot

soon snakes and toads and hungry worms 

devour me, like as not (repeat)


DEATH

the politician failed to seduce me….fancy trying to charm a woman thousands of years older than he is? he must join my dance of death!


By this time the audience is having a good laugh at the politician’s expense, though I must admit most people already mocked this particular politician, Boris Johnson. 

I think that for a short piece, or a very historical piece, it would be possible to do something totally serious all the way through, but for a longer in-depth look at a serious topic it’s probably better to start with a more light-hearted tone and then gradually while using the same music, I lead the audience to realise that they are being taken into some serious territory involving deaths from various causes, the degradation of nature, and the future of today’s children.  

With the Scottish Sibyl work, where she gives answers in bureaucratic or customer-service-type meaningless statements, the audience laughs and experiences frustration at the same time. They have all been there before in real life, not at an art performance. I’m just reminding them of the futility of trying to get government and big business to give them speedy help and honest clear answers. 


Sometimes I just make something where people can enjoy themselves, like singing with me in a mobile sauna, (one person told me he enjoyed it so much he was going to join a choir), or taking people on a guided tour of a supposed Roman Bath (it’s really 17th century) filled with a mixture fact and fiction, and then surprising them by getting them to sing a song about the Bath to the tune of Y.M.C.A by the Village People. If you warn people in advance they are going to be asked to sing some get nervous, but if you just spring it on them it works better. 


As an artist who actively participates in demonstrations and supports striking workers, how do you see your role in the broader political landscape, and how does this activism intersect with your artistic practice?

This is a very good question to which I only have very inadequate answers. To be honest I think in many ways things have changed little for most artists since the days of the Renaissance, when you needed to find a patron to select you for a commission to make some money. Now it’s basically the same. You can make whatever art you like at home in private but in terms of getting commissions or being selected, it’s the same. Your proposals and works have to satisfy commissioners, who tend not to want work that raises political issues. Maybe I should disguise everything as an allegory! They prefer identity politics rather than the politics of social and economic change. Anyway, when I make a work with my identity ie. an old Scottish woman (The Scottish Sibyl) it’s about more than my identity.


I can offer to show and perform my work for no money if I reluctantly feel I need to get some work out to an audience even if I’m paying to make and present it, and sometimes even no travel expenses, but I can only do that as I have a pension from working thirty-six years as a lecturer. The state-of-the-art world in the UK is grim for most artists. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been awarded two bursaries from a-n, the artists’ information company, who have also campaigned to get artists paid properly for their work and the time it takes to develop it. I remember some years ago being refused money by the arts council with the comments that “not enough stake-holders were involved” and “the work was not of sufficient artistic quality”. OK, so please tell me why you think that and what I need to do about this lack of quality. Artists spend ages writing these applications and don’t even get useful comments in exchange. The main problem is that there are lots of artists and not enough support for them. But I feel that I cannot change the art world and would rather try to change society in whatever ways I can, and if society changes, so will the art world. The art of the Russian Revolutionary period and the early years of the U.S.S.R. demonstrates this. I feel frustrated though, because I want to get my art out into the public sphere, and like many other artists, I find lots of obstacles in my way. Still, I’d rather have a few people come away from one of my performances thinking seriously about important issues, and emotionally involved than change my work to fit in with what is demanded by many selection committees. For example, there is money to do artist’s workshops with refugee women writing, sewing, or making, but not a lot of money to make artwork which totally condemns the fact that the UK and the EU try to prevent migrants from travelling safely to claim asylum and citizenship. The latest plan of the UK government is to house the migrants who manage to make it to the UK in large ferries moored offshore. I doubt there will be many art workshops going on there somehow. I better stop before I feel too angry! I’m not saying these workshops are useless, it seems though as if they are sometimes a therapy for situations that need much more radical treatment. I thought Pablo Helguera’s book Education for Socially Engaged Art: A Materials and Techniques Handbook, 2011 was good on some of these problems. 


Lastly, are there any podcasts, books, or artists you would like to share with our readers?

As well as the works by Anselm Kiefer and books by Christopher Hill and Sylvia Federici mentioned above, I really love The Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker. It’s such an inspiring read full of hidden histories of brave people who defied the social and political ideologies of their time. Any book by Derek Jarman is also inspiring, especially Modern Nature. He knows he is dying but he tries so hard to keep creating right to the end. I feel ashamed at the time I have wasted over the years and know that Jarman would have put it to good use. Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism is a great book by Steven Connor dealing with the voice, and agency gender and I think it’s indispensable for anyone working with sound and the voice. He has also put lots of his writing on his website where it is freely available so well done to him. I could list many books here but will just give a mention to John Donne. He’s not mentioned here for his politics but because of the way his writing inspires you to think creatively, to marvel at his way of offering you images and phrases you really feel in your body not just in your mind. He’s terrific. If you read some of his poems out loud (same with some of Shakespeare’s sonnets) you really feel the difference between reading something and speaking it. I was interested to read that in medieval times people often read out loud, even on their own. And reading to small children is so interesting and enjoyable, but probably they are not ready for John Donne! 


As for artists, Goya, what a fantastic artist and political too. And the work made by Iranian artist Farideh Lashai based on his Disasters of War series is so profound and moving and one of the best artworks I ever experienced. It’s a great work, in dialogue with the historical prints of Goya, and without any words, making us reflect on the wars and violence, rape and tortures that continue in the present. I think everyone should see and hear this perfect work, but alas I can’t find any videos online with the whole work, just extracts.

https://notesonfilm1.com/2017/08/25/on-when-i-count-there-are-only-youbut-when-i-look-theres-only-a-shadow-farideh-lashai-the-prado-museum/

I like some of William Kentridge’s works a lot, especially what he does with drawings as a basis for political art. Last but not least huge admiration for Claude Cahun and her partner in art and life Marcel Moore. Both women risked their lives distributing anti-Nazi material during the German occupation of Jersey in the 1940s. They were imprisoned and sentenced to death but were liberated before the sentences were carried out. Cahun’s gravestone has a quote from the book of Revelations on it:

“And I saw a new heaven and a new earth”. Well, we just have to try to achieve this, especially the new Earth part! 


Read more about the artist here.


All Images courtesy of Gen Doy, Helen Goodwin, Elizabeth McGrath, Joy Sleeman, Richard York, and David Tett.

I use various media in my work, particularly sound and live performance. I also work with still and moving images, written and spoken texts, in order to construct narratives that are not linear, but suggestive, evocative and open to creative interpretation by the viewer and listener. I am interested in myth, history and the many ways in which the historical can collide and interact with the contemporary. Giving voice to, and making visible, people and events which have been ignored or marginalised is important to me, and I often work in response to sites of both natural and historical significance. A sense of place can encompass the site’s unearthed and imagined past, and also its experienced present. I want people to think about the situation in which they experience my work, and I experiment with ways to create a political artistic practice.


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