Interview: 2020 Ted Coons Dissertation Prize Recipient Dr. Keren Moscovitch

SPRING 2020

Questions by cohort ’14 study group: Jennifer Rissler, Angelalynn Penelope Padua, Jeff Siemers, and Gabriel Reed

Keren Moscovitch, 2018
Keren Moscovitch, 2018. Photo courtesy of Keren Moscovitch

Keren Moscovitch, IDSVA cohort ’14, recently defended her dissertation titled, Radical Intimacy in Contemporary Art. Keren was the recipient of the Ted Coons Dissertation Prize, awarded at the IDSVA commencement in Mexico City on January 11, 2020. The Ted Coons Dissertation Prize was established in 2015 to acknowledge one outstanding IDSVA dissertation each year. This award was made possible thanks to a generous donation by Dr. Ted Coons, Professor of Psychology, Cognition & Perception at the Center for Neural Science at NYU. Dr. Coons is a pioneer in the field of neuroscience and a major contributor to early studies in neuroaesthetics.

Keren Moscovitch is a New York City-based multidisciplinary artist and scholar, employing both practice and theory to investigate the workings of radical intimacy in contemporary culture. Her work traverses the personal and political, emphasizing collaborative practices and poetic approaches to social resistance. Through photography, video, performance, installation and writing, she seeks to expand the discourses of intimacy in contemporary art, encouraging a deeper and more nuanced understanding of how sexuality, gender and ideology intersect. She is particularly interested in lens-based media and performance, for their engagement of the slippage between indexicality and materiality. She regularly collaborates with other artists to dissect the ways in which relationships are built, and identity is formed, activating human relationships as sites for research and creativity. Keren serves on the faculty at the School of Visual Arts, and Parsons School of Design at The New School. In celebration of her achievements, Gabriel Reed and the members of Keren’s IDSVA study group took the opportunity to formulate a few interview questions to allow Keren to share reflective insights from her PhD journey.

Untitled from One More Way to Sink Into My Heart
Untitled from One More Way to Sink Into My Heart

Interview: As an IDSVA Study Group, we have had the extraordinary honor to study alongside Keren. Her generosity, grace and good thinking continues to challenge us. It is with immense gratitude that we offer our thanks by way of a few questions.

Q: At the time of this interview you are currently in mandatory lockdown due to the necessity for social distancing in New York City: First, how are you doing?

KM: I am doing alright! I am fortunate that my immediate family and close loved ones are safe and healthy. There’s a lot of anxiety and it’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole of news conferences and scary charts and figures. But, I am in the lucky group of people who are still employed and sheltered despite the economic disaster taking place, so I consider myself highly privileged. I recently saw an article about how dissertation work prepares us for social distancing, which is amusingly true, however, the big differences are that now the whole world is distancing together, and people are dying. We can’t forget this last fact. So, there’s an emotional component that extends out from my own personal circumstances as I watch the world suffer.

As you know, IDSVA recently lost a dear member of our community, Dr. David C. Driskell. I personally grieve the passing of this kind, intelligent and generous person, as well as urge all of us to remain committed to his legacy of generating broad recognition of the contributions of African Americans and members of the African diaspora in the discourses and practices of art, philosophy and culture. As an artist-philosopher of the highest caliber, he continues to light our way.

Q: Given your research on radical intimacy, and your exploration of this topic via video and the (camera) lens, what advice can you offer us in the cultural space of social distancing that we are exploring at the moment? And in what ways do you feel this reordering is important for philosophy?

KM: What an interesting time to research intimacy, right? My dissertation focuses on radical intimacy, which can be understood as an extreme blurring of boundaries between entities, catalyzing an ambivalence of subjectivity. Where do I end and You begin? In the age of pandemic, intimacy is threatened by the loss of physical proximity. Also, intimacy itself becomes threatening, but in fact it always has been a threat – to our sense of ‘self’ and our ideas of autonomous personhood.

Perhaps paradoxically, the need to isolate from one another underlines how intimate we already are. Just by walking down the sidewalk next to someone, we begin to share molecules.

I discovered during my research that the root of the word intimacy comes from the Latin intimus, loosely translating as most inside. To be most inside means that we lose the boundaries between us, and with them the designation of self and other, which results in a paradox. Intimacy is always trying, and always failing, lest it lose its own identity.

Intimacy is also an experience of deep interiority, what Kristeva refers to as “this interiority that the Greeks called ‘soul’ (psukhê), defined by its proximity with the organic body as well as by preverbal sensations” (The Sense and Nonsense of Revolt). I’m very interested in how those of us who are forced inside are also forced to contend with a prolonged and unyielding experience of our own interiority – both of our minds and also of our homes, which contain signs of our unconscious secrets and desires. We are invited to traverse our recollections and anxieties uninterrupted, which is sometimes painful.

My newest research revolves around what Morton refers to as ecological intimacy. How do we coexist in close, intimate contact with other beings in the world, both organic and inorganic, while at the same time interrogating the terms being and world? How do we think of ecology without the essentialism of Nature? What role does technology play in recalibrating our sense of ‘self’ as well as our relationship to the intimate? All of these questions interest me tremendously, and represent the concerns that I believe are the next stops on philosophy’s unmapped journey.

Performance still from The Space Between Us
Performance still from The Space Between Us.  2016

Q: Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, so prominently featured in your dissertation passed away recently. Does h/er passing affect the immediacy of your scholarly contributions or change any of your reflections on the importance of h/er work? What question(s) has s/he given you?

KM: Genesis lived h/er life flouting death. S/he spoke often of her childhood ailments, as well as h/er conviction that death is a transition into a new form. In my brief time knowing Genesis personally, a time that I greatly treasure, I was moved by h/er ability to grieve, to really feel the bodily death of h/er wife Lady Jaye, while still maintaining h/er commitment to a person who has merely ‘dropped her body’. As stated in numerous artworks and communications, s/he is still h/er.

Only in recent years has Genesis been recognized for h/er immense contribution to contemporary art, gender studies, and performance practice. H/er 2016 retrospective at the Rubin Museum began to articulate in institutional form the depth of h/er spiritual practice and its manifestations in h/er life’s work, in the shape of artworks, writings, music, performances, life actions, and relationships. I have always considered my dissertation to be part of this wave of recognition and understanding, and h/er death puts even greater responsibility on those of us who are still alive to make sure that the stories of those who have passed on remain active in discourse. In particular, I am interested in highlighting ways that Genesis has altered (or altared as s/he may say) modern notions of selfhood and identity, offering radical antidotes to the harmful messaging we receive from language, culture and the rule of law.

Genesis addresses some of the most fundamental questions in philosophy, such as What is a self? How can we merge our bodies as an act of evolution? What do we need to do, and change in ourselves to meet the existential threats facing humanity? How can technology, both ancient and of the future, provide us with ontological and epistemological re-directs, allowing us to change our realities? These are huge questions that can be investigated now, not in some distant science-fiction future, but right now in our homes and studios and minds.

Untitled from One More Way to Sink Into My Heart
Untitled from One More Way to Sink Into My Heart.

Q: While writing your dissertation, you produced a feature-length documentary, One More Way to Sink Into My Heart, about the intimate life of a couple. How did the ongoing development of this film enhance or detract your understanding of intimacy?

KM: Working with John and Tina has been a gift and a joy. I would never have been able to make the conceptual leaps that I took in my dissertation research if it were not for the openness,  vulnerability and philosophical thinking enacted through their intimate life, and in their gracious sharing of that life with me and my camera. While working on the film and related projects, I learned about the importance of the intimate to individual subjectivity, and also how intimacy breaks down ideological thinking and opens into a poetic field of associations and sensations.

At IDSVA, we are encouraged to think of art and philosophy as symbiotic frameworks, but that can feel really abstract unless we put this multi-pronged inquiry into practice. In making the film, I was able to explore the fluidity of time in the crackle of corn fields in late summer, and in the poetic unconcealment of editing techniques such as slow fades and asynchronous sound. I learned of the relationship between sexual intimacy and memory, not merely through spoken discourse (which was an important element of storytelling and building intimacy amongst all participants) but also in my own thoughts and recollections while shooting, editing and re-watching scenes. The art critic Jerry Saltz often talks about ‘embedding thought in material’ and I really experienced this first-hand while making the film simultaneously to writing the dissertation. The material was sound. The material was an image. The material was a body, or a breath, or a word, or a memory. The material was an infinitely unfolding Text, as Barthes would have us think of it. The material was intimacy.

Still from One More Way to Sink Into My Heart, 2018
Still from One More Way to Sink Into My Heart, 2018

Q: You have always been a master practitioner and advocate for the dual expressions of art and theory and their entangled limbs - pushing  your visual and written theory to the edges never leaving behind one to focus on the other. What are the lines of intimacy between your written research and your art practice? Could you provide a specific example from your (visual) research that you felt changed the way you approached your (written) topic?

KM: Well, in the spirit of intimacy, I suppose, the lines are quite blurry! Just as intimacy generates a slippage between self and other, subject and object, inside and outside, theory slips into practice and practice slips into theory, with no substantial way of differentiating them save for their physical boundaries, which remain somewhat arbitrary.

I was reading one of Lacan’s seminars while visiting John and Tina in their country home, and suddenly I had a foggy recollection of a word in Lacanian theory that I could not quite pinpoint. After searching around in my mind and on the internet, I concluded that the word in question was cannula, which is a hollow tube inserted into the body to transfer fluids and/or data. The cannula seemed like a perfect metaphor for intimacy, and the ambivalence of masculine and feminine that we were exploring in the film, and in my writings. That weekend in John’s woodshop, we made our first handmade cannula out of cherry wood. As it turned out, the word Lacan uses that initially sparked my interest was lacuna, which means blindspot, and happens to be a near-anagram to cannula. A whole body of work flourished from that point, all based on a mis-recollection, or perhaps even a meconnaissance, a Lacanian misrecognition. The relationship between not seeing something that is right in front of you, and the ways that intimacy folds in on itself became very poignant to me through the visual structures that emerged, and I continue to use this shape to produce objects and performances that examine the intimate as a formal structure. Sometimes these little accidents that happen when we just allow ourselves to be creative and open (a state that psychoanalysis encourages), lead us down unexpected paths and new discoveries.

Cannula Racks on Pink from the Ontology of Intimacy
Cannula Racks on Pink from the Ontology of Intimacy

Q: What aspects of the last few years of completing your PhD have been enriched through the process? What was the most difficult portion of your IDSVA journey and what advice can you offer those who may be in a similar place now?

KM: On a practical level, my teaching has expanded exponentially. I am a much better teacher now than I was when I began this process, and not just because I’ve read more books or can cite an expanded set of philosophical ideas. The deep introspection and commitment that is required to earn a PhD also prepares us to support others going through their own creative process, towards whatever their goals may be. The most difficult part for me (ironically in this moment) was the social distancing, and also the constant self-doubt. My biggest piece of advice is that the isolation can actually help with the self-doubt, because when you allow yourself to listen to your own voice instead of the voices of everyone around you, new truths emerge.

However, you didn’t ask me what the most easy or helpful part was, and I would say that it was my study group! This brilliant group of scholars provided a bottomless well of curious intellectual paths to explore together, and an endless stream of emotional support that continues to today. Even as you distance from interactions that previously felt so important, but now are mere distractions, don’t place yourself in a bubble. You need your peers, and particularly those who are going through the same exact thing you are, for support and to share ideas and references. My dissertation advisor, Ewa Ziarek, was instrumental in the development of my project, and both supported and challenged me daily. Her wisdom and camaraderie will accompany for a lifetime of research and inquiry. You need to prioritize, but you definitely cannot do this alone.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish with your research and is there a "next" specific goal you have now that the PhD is completed?

KM: I’d like to publish my research in journals and in book form. I’m really fascinated by how intimacy is changing alongside technology, and the ways that phenomenon is represented in this particular moment in history. Ideally, my writing will enrich the study and understanding of contemporary art in philosophy, and contribute philosophical contexts to the reading and making of art, specifically as it relates to the radicality of intimacy. Of course, like most artists, I have about a half-dozen projects in the studio that are begging for attention. I’ve been thinking more sculpturally, and also in terms of a return to my own nonverbal interiority. Other than that, I am open to seeing what comes my way in this unprecedented new moment.