By Rafael Soldi | Published February 4, 2016
MKNZ (b. 1986) is performance artist and tattoo artist originally from Pontiac, Michigan. Currently living and working in Seattle, she received a BFA from Cornish College of the Arts in 2008. Her performance works often include prolonged images of discomfort and suffering; sustained moments of urgency; and exploitation of personal relationships. Recent collaborators have included Vignettes Gallery, Saint Genet, Hatlo, Mary Ann Peters, Erin Frost, Leigh Riibe, and Sierra Stinson.
Rafael Soldi: Tell me about your upbringing and childhood experiences and how these inform your work?
MKNZ: My upbringing was very matriarchal. I was raised in a household with my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. I was never made to feel like any of my inclinations, ideas, or desires were wrong or shameful. I am very lucky for this. If this has informed my work in any way, I would say it has afforded me a degree of audacity (for better or worse) that I may not have had otherwise.
RS: Lets talk about collaboration. Though your practice consists primarily of durational, performative works featuring yourself, collaboration has been key to your success, can you talk about the different roles that your collaborators have taken in your practice?
MKNZ: I always think of my work as being collaborative. Even pieces that are billed as solo work never really are. The people in my inner circle have a high degree of participation in my process, whether or not they are aware of it. I am a highly social creature with a piss poor studio practice. I am compulsively hanging around the people I am closest to, so if I am going to continue to make work, they have to be a part of it.
Of course, some of my work has been traditionally collaborative. At the 2015 Out of Sight show at King Street Station, I did an installation with Mary Ann Peters, called impossible monument (on my eyes and my head). This was our first collaboration, though Mary Ann and I have known one another for many years, so we had already developed a bit of a shared aesthetic and common language. This was easily one of the most rewarding collaborations of my life. The execution of this piece was extremely difficult and involved a lot of ingenuity and adaptability as we built it. It was exhausting, but every time either of us would experience a wave of despair, the other would come through with just enough unflappable optimism to push through.
RS: Performance art is unique medium to land on. Often times the formal qualities and beauty of more traditional mediums are very attractive—you mentioned, however, that you’re interested in truth, rather than beauty. How do you arrive at a place where art takes the form of extreme physical discomfort, and are there any patterns in the type of activities that you inflict on yourself?
MKNZ: It is strange to consider myself as a performance artist now. It was not something I ever imagined for myself, but somewhere in my early 20s, shortly after graduating from college, I became eager to incorporate my body into my work. To be honest, creating moments of continuous suffering is as much a necessity for me as a performer as it is about concept. I have horrible performance anxiety, and one of the only ways I've learned to make that less visible to an audience is to encumber myself with a difficult physical task.
With every performance I do, there tends to be this sweet spot that I am always searching for. I am often groping around for the center of balance between certain physical harm and sustainability of an image; this is where I find an urgent moment. The stakes of my actions have to be high enough to respect whatever concept I intend to convey, while not so unreasonable that I injure myself right off the bat. If I choose to talk about loss in my work, I have to really lose something; if I chose to talk about grief, my heart must really break.
RS: I’m interested in your relationship with dates and numbers. Tell us about Days That Stay With Us
MKNZ: Days That Stay With Us was a small, quiet collaboration with my ex-girlfriend, Hatlo. We were together for five years; from age 18 to 23. We broke up on my 23rd birthday, and since then, I have been very ceremonious about dates, about numbers; the passing of time. This is an observation that Hatlo made about me, actually, and it lead to the development of this performance.
This piece was a collaboration with people who have a significant date in their lives that they carry around; a date whose passing never happens quietly. They were asked to have this date stamp tattooed (by me) while their stories were simultaneously collected and transcribed (by Hatlo), as part of an ongoing narrative of every story told during the performance. This project did something, I hope, that I think tattoos often do, which is to drag a part of yourself out from under the surface and make it visible. Every instance of naming something about yourself that was theretofore suppressed or ignored is an act of courage; an act of survival.
RS: Two recent pieces that I got to experience relied heavily in public participation. Can you elaborate a bit on Sentimentality and The Inherent Codependency of The Heavy Heart?
MKNZ: Sentimentality was an installation of 23 sealed letters addressed to specific individuals, as part of the exhibition In the absence of... at Greg Kucera Gallery. Each letter could only be opened by its recipient, but the catch was that once a letter was unsheathed, it had to stay that way for the duration of the show. All of the named recipients were people in my life, at one point or another, ranging from friends, family, collaborators, mentors, ex-lovers, etc, so the contents of the letters varied greatly; some felt riskier than others. Some were written, some were small paintings, ephemera, photographs, some were confessional. This project was daunting for me, as I kept it a secret from almost everyone in my life, and had to spend a great deal of time alone to meditate on and create each piece. I was concerned how some pieces might alter my relationship with the recipient. I thought a lot about the ethics and blurred consent of attaching a person's name to something so intimate and so public, which is why I made it their job to activate the piece if they so chose. At the end of the show, only 3 were unopened.
The Inherent Codependency of the Heaving Heart was part of the group show, Go On Take Everything, with Erin Frost, Leigh Riibe, and Sierra Stinson at Vignettes. I wore a wooden milkmaid's yoke from the early 1900s, balancing two 45lbs salt blocks on either side. I was blindfolded and wearing ear plugs. I stood and balanced these blocks for the better part of the opening (approximately 2 hours). The audience was invited to relieve me of some of the weight by holding the blocks for whatever length of time they desired. This was tricky, because both blocks had to be lifted in tandem to keep me from losing my balance. Participants could not communicate with me, so they had to cooperate with a partner if they wanted to assist me.
When I began thinking about this piece, and in many of the discussions I had with Erin, Leigh, and Sierra, we talked a lot about mutual grieving and communal support, and the silver lining of coincidental instances of loss. I wanted to create a situation that would beg the audience to assist, in a way that perhaps preyed on the benevolence (or anxiety?) of this particular crowd, many of whom were friends or acquaintances. Looking back, I think the piece was the most serene of any performance I've done, perhaps because its success (if success is measured in the completion of the task and my personal safety) was not in my hands.
RS: Formally speaking, your performance work is heavy, often painful, robust, and uncomfortable—it’s not “pretty.” But conceptually, your motives are tender, stemming from the heart—they are sentimental. Why this dichotomy?
MKNZ: I'm not sure, but I suspect it is because violence and romance occupy the same space in my heart. By which I mean; I am a firm believer than you can only experience as much pleasure as you have pain. They are deserving of equal respect and consideration, as they do not exist without one another. I suspect we desire them both more evenly than we admit. Some people seek love to arrive at pain; some seek pain to arrive at love. I am also pretty vulgar and brutish at heart; performance allows me to exercise that, when I otherwise spend a great deal of time playing more sophisticated than I actually am.