Maya Manvi: on Psychic Signs, Bathtime and MFA Gaslighting

Maya Manvi, Still from Baptismal Font

Sometimes the art comes first - it's on the outside and it's inextricable. This was not the case. It was Maya's thoughtfulness and social habits that made me want to interview them. It was my obsessions with understanding thought processes and breaking down slickness and academic language that made me want to interview them. I wanted to talk to them outside of our usual joking and deflecting - my deflecting intellect and their deflecting emotion. Rather than wanting to get to know their art better, I wanted to get to know Maya better. And it turns out that they do make things and they do have an emotional and material process with those things, and, of course, it is both as enigmatic and well calculated as their social ethos. They showed up at my house, glowy from a bike ride as usual, and before diving in we had to immediately find the nearest source of Kung Pao Tofu. They satiated. We began.

You work with a huge variety of materials. Where does your process begin?

I think when someone asks me what I am, I never say I’m an artist. I think the first thing I say is always oh I’m a teacher, or oh I work in video or vaseline or "I art handle". But I guess my work starts with ideas that emerge from the act of noticing. My work tends to be interested in how social fictions shape subjectivities, and what gets left behind in the process. Then I try to do whatever I think the idea needs to breathe. That usually means playing with the structure my noticing rested in to begin with. Sometimes that’s text, sometimes images and video, and sometimes that’s a material investigation.

Maya Manvi, Installation View of The Thing

So, for example, with your installation The Thing, where did the idea come from and how did it call for that particular medium?

Whenever I’m home in LA I do a lot of driving (duh, I guess). I listen to alot of top 40 radio, zoning out, doing this sort of chop and screw in my head to incorporate a fantasy self into the lyrics - making these, like, pop anthems of heterosexuality into something a little queer. And while that’s happening, no matter how much I space out on the drive, there are always anchor points that get my attention - which are the neon psychic signs that crop up everywhere.

So, The Thing started with a fictional interaction in my head between a real estate agent in LA trying to sell the idea of place, a psychic who makes a living from the astral burnout of all the people trying to participate in the fiction of place, and my father who in my mind often serves as a pretty great example of the failure of assimilation to place. He came to the U.S. when he was 22 from Hyderabad, India,and moved to LA shortly after. He’s been there ever since, but the cultural residue the U.S. demands you give up when you’re an immigrant makes you an outlier even if you’ve been in place for longer than you were out of it.

I was thinking about what that kind of interaction would need, physically, and ended up going through the same process I had with top 40 songs, aiming towards creating a tremulous place that existed out of many things chopped and screwed together. Each element of the installation acted as a prompt for a different way of reading, through space.

The ground of the installation was built out of... well, it was a mixture of cornstarch and water that weighed my father’s weight when he first arrived in LA… and which weighed less over time, as the water evaporated. If you came at the beginning of the installation’s duration it would have looked like the floor was made of liquid concrete, and at the end it looked like a cracked desert floor. You entered the installation by moving past two fake ikea ferns that greeted you at the entrance, then down a walkway of onyx plexi. The walkway ended with you standing in front of a monitor with a video on loop, submerged in liquid. You were surrounded by forms built of burnt insulation foam, embedded with pools of liquid. The surfaces of the pools created reflected fragments of what was above you, which was a spinning neon tetrahedron reading “the psychic, the father, the real estate agent”.

Talk about your installation process a bit. The space that is created - are all of the elements very symbolic for you?

Yeah, I think that’s the problem with my work... or at least my older work, like The Thing. I’ve noticed it’s been a process since graduating grad school, of stripping down and stripping down... because a lot of what I was doing before would be just layering and layering, complicating and complicating... probably beyond the point of comprehension. It’s a strategy of survival I developed... I’m a pretty mushy gray brained person, so building moments that hold multiple things at once makes sense to me. But I also think it’s a defence mechanism - like, I’ll make something so complicated it’s you can’t get close to it..and by extension me. Building a world oriented towards capacity, but with a population of 1. There’s a real lack of vulnerability in that work. But, I’m trying to change that, as my practice progresses.

Do you mean that people, while viewing your work, would spend the time just trying to decode it rather than having any kind of connection with your experience?

Yeah, and I think that was on purpose in a lot of ways.

In grad school there was a language that was built in the critique environment - and by the academic structure in general - which centered on a predominantly white cis male perspective (and the attending politics that allow those perspectives to thrive). And I had a couple of reactions to that which infiltrated my work. One was a feeling of anxiety and awkwardness, of feeling demoralized at the lack of generosity folks brought to other people’s work. And the other was a deep feeling of desire to make work that would make me pass in that environment. So for the first year I flailed around in an effort to quell my already raging imposter syndrome - trying to make things that would maybe impress an audience that simply wasn’t going to be interested in my work, as it wasn’t in keeping with the ideologies they were invested in. So the work was both needy AND confusing; constantly looking for reassurance AND keeping the audience at an arm’s length.

That shifted during my time there, but because of that really pivotal process of being confused in the work and very clearly feeling bad about it. I started focusing on making work that, sure, still might be confusing, but in the midst of that confusion, could be evocative. It became important for me to build immersive spaces that would kind of destabilize your sense of what things were, to make room for what they could be.

How do you think studying an MFA affected your artistic practice or affects an artist's practice in general? Do you think one can be a successful part of the art world without an MFA?

I think my MFA was most important to me because of the deep depression that happened after. During the program there was still some insularity. Like, ok, this is hard as a queer person of color, being enmeshed in this institution that doesn’t really see me... but while I was there I was still pretty delusionally attached to the idea that if I passed hard enough in the program, there would be some sort of safety (psychologically and financially) on the other side. And I had a pretty problematic idea that once I was safe, that I would start making the work that I really wanted to make. But then after graduating, I was so low, like trench low. Mostly because that safety that no one had explicitly promised, but that I was hedging my bets on, wasn’t there. And then I had to reckon with how much work I had made for other people, in the hopes of that safety being afforded. And I had to really sit with that. Like, wait a minute... am I even an artist? And what does it actually mean to be making a practice, and making a living, from the position of being a genderqueer person of color.

You know... sometimes I witness myself having certain ideas for work... they creep in and flutter off.. and I let them, because I don’t often give my own thought process any credence. Whereas, when I entered white cis straight male artist’s studios in graduate school, or as an art handler, I got to witness what it looks like when you operate with the underlying foundation Culture afforded you - that every idea you have has worth. And thus you advocate for yourself, your space, and your life so vastly differently from how I advocate for mine.

So, to answer your question in a nutshell: up until the MFA I had no idea how much of my work was built around pleasing and being accepted by whiteness, and straightness. And afterward it was a long oh fuck exhale and reprogramming. And therefore I am probably the wrong dummy to ask about whether or not you can be a successful part of the art world without one.

Has your relationship with art making or the idea of audience changed?

Well, I don’t ever think there’s an arrival date... with any type of transition. I think my work since coming out of the MFA has been truer to my specific landscape of desire and curiosity. It’s been less invested in appealing to particular audiences. It’s been utilizing less and less complication for complication’s sake, and it’s been more about trying to understand what happens when different stories (insulated from each other originally) get entangled. Overall there’s less of a defence mechanism language.

Maya Manvi, Still from Baptismal Font

Let's talk about language. Do you think you layer and complicate language in similar ways to your process with art making? Is there a code switching or decoding that must happen in order to communicate with others outside of the world of academia?

Well, I’m not going to apologize for what that language has provided me. It’s ok to use complicated, abstract language as long as that’s not the only thing you’re accessing. I understand how a really dense rigorous language is and can be irritating, but it’s also a language that has been deeply resourcing in my path by putting form and concept to certain things that were just in the ether. It’s like it gave form to these little fluffy affectual clouds - and now it’s about incorporating that into my practice and making it more accessible. Who do I want my audience to be? What do I want to say? And how do I want to say it? And I think the MFA does a great job of gaslighting folks, with the language and inflation and illusion of what we’re doing and how important it is. Like, not only are you in the club, but there's a conceit that the club does the most important work. Which, at this point in my life, I know is not true. I know that art can do important things, and potentially my work can do interesting things, but it is going to require me to do many other things that are equally important.

Tell me about Baptismal Font. First, where does the title come from?

My mother’s father was an Anglican priest. Baptismal font is a christian denominational term for the basin that holds the water that you will either sprinkle, dip, wash, or immerse a baby in, during a ritual baptism. I was interested in the idea that you could come into contact with a material and be changed by it... that it could operate as both membership and alchemy... and that at the end of the day the material that afforded you all this symbolic transition was also held by something. That the baptismal font isn’t the water itself, but the vessel. And that the size, shape, and contours of the vessel determines how the water will be used. It seemed to me like a good reminder to take note of the structure that carries the content, as well as the content itself.

Maya Manvi, Still from Baptismal Font

Maya Manvi, Still from Baptismal Font

Maya Manvi, Still from Baptismal Font

Where did the footage come from? Was it all scripted?

I shot all of the footage. It’s unscripted, and unwieldy in all aspects. I bumbled through talking to people, recording their stories, asking what they felt comfortable with, and then filming based on their input. We filmed a ton of raw footage with the idea that if nothing came from it, then... nothing came from it. It’s like what I had been doing in my head with top 40 songs - taking shrapnel that exists in the now, culturally, and stitching it together to create new worlds or stories. I had to trust that that other people would be generous enough, and that I would be open to divesting authorship enough. (The people that participated also had a say in how it was edited.) The only thing that’s really scripted is my narration.​​

I see some graveness and also some humor in your work. Would you say Baptismal Font, in some bleak or maybe ironic way, is about the pain of human existence?

Haha, gosh, I hope that’s not the case. I mean it probably is a little bit. I think Bridget (the reality TV producer), Rachel (the microbiologist), my father, me... we’re all just stumbling our way through, coming up with strategies to name, collect, and order the world and our place in it. There was a period of time when this grief I felt was overwhelming, crystallized, immovable. One of the things that acted as the greatest salve was was hearing other people’s stories - their strategies of making meaning, because over time I couldn’t ignore that there was overlap between these seemingly unrelated things, and that in the overlap, there was some new perspective that demanded an interconnectedness and a vulnerability. The idea that things were actually much more porous than they appeared.

Tell me about the scene where you are giving your dad a bath.

My dad had wanted to tell a story about a fish. The story goes, when he was 10, he had incredibly bad asthma. His mother and auntie took him to this event that happens once a year in Hyderabad (his home city in South India) where thousands and thousands of people get these live fish - they used to get them in clay pots, now they’re given in plastic bags - and you would wait in a line for hours as the moon moved across the sky, waiting to get to an ayurvedic healer, who would stuff homeopathic medicine into the fish’s mouth. At that point you had to swallow the live fish under moonlight. He swears to this day that it cured him. And peppered throughout his telling of the event are these little asides - of his mother and auntie gently touching him, of thousands of bodies pressed up against him, of the feeling of a live fish’s tail beating against his throat - and how good all that felt. You could peer in, through all these little holes of the story, to see how important touch was for my father. That was pivotal for me. Growing up, I never touched my father... and for a million reasons, including that one, there was this huge painful maw between us. So it felt necessary in the work to have an act referencing the history in his story, and also re-attending to the one between him and I.

Had the healing already happened? Or was process of making the video a form of healing for your relationship?

A lot of work that I produced early on, before grad school, was from my family. And it was often in response to this huge caretaking event of living with my grandmother who has - um, had - Alzheimer’s, and our choreography around her and with her. There’s this acute pain of being a nuclear family in the US, and how isolating that can be. But then... there’s this weird joy in the little acts of subversion you can do as a nuclear family because you feel like no one’s watching. So even though you feel cut from a broader network of community and support, you can sometimes create these absurd myths and rituals as an antidote... as a way to release steam from a really pressurized unit. Which is to say that an interesting response to the private crisis that was happening in my home (that had us performing and dealing with the material of time and the act of touch in a really different way), was for my father, mother, and grandmother to be really excited about working with me. So in Baptismal Font, it’s not just the act of bathing my father that was healing - which operates as a performance and as an image - it was the alchemy of the performance along with my father talking to me about my work, being generous enough to process with me and have ideas with me. And of course the healing is never done.

Maya Manvi, Still from Baptismal Font

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