*This article appeared in the Summer 2018 Visual Arts News’ Special 40th Anniversary Issue
Emily Vey Duke—one half of the creative duo Duke + Battersby— exudes this refreshingly raw honesty that makes people feel like they know her. She’s a bit of a Halifax art world legend, and speaks candidly about her own experiences with hot button issues like drug use and body image. After gaining notoriety from her performance in Duke + Battersby’s Being Fucked Up (2001)—a film featuring morose talking animals and the artist inhaling and exhaling into a plastic bag and smoking drugs—she and her partner in life and art, Cooper Battersby, went on to create a slew of videos and installation works, combining absurdity, existential apathy, hopefulness and fantasy in equal measure.
These days, Duke’s writing appears alongside artist Shary Boyle’s paintings—she’s written several fiercely imaginative texts about the brutality of female adolescence and the wild imagination, desires and adventures of a young protagonist named Bloodie–in the exhibition The Illuminations Project. LIZZY HILL catches Emily—now an associate professor at New York’s Syracuse University—in Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca via Skype, while her Illuminations Project is on view at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. They discuss reality TV, adolescent avatars and the infamous chimpanzee Lucy.
LIZZY HILL: My first introduction to you was your 2oo1 video Being Fucked Up. I was awkwardly drunk at a very civilized Anna Leonowens Gallery pop up bar years ago, and all of a sudden I see that VHS video and you on the screen and I was transfixed. Later I stumbled across your description of Jacob Wren’s writing as “optimistic” because “it makes a certain type of reader—one who is similarly acerbic, lachrymose, and haunted … feel not alone.” That’s how I felt about your work when I woke up with hazy recollections of it the next morning. Do you see a similar optimism running through your own work? A desire for connection?
EMILY VEY DUKE: It’s really nice to hear someone say the work as optimistic, because often I think people see the darkness in the work and view it as pessimistic, and that always makes me really sad because it’s the opposite of what I want. It’s been about reaching out completely from the place where I am emotionally when I’m doing the writing, and it’s incredibly gratifying when it lands, when people experience that as feeling less alone.
LIZZY: You were really at the forefront of sharing the personal and in doing so back in the late 90s early 2000s, it was a political act and a radical act. Whereas for me growing out of this, my experience as a journalist was writing for media outlets like Hearst who’d reverse engineered the personal essay by sending freelancers these lists of article topics they needed to attach writers to, like “I have endometriosis” or “I was stalked.” It felt like the personal had been coopted. Now that the idea of oversharing doesn’t necessarily feel empowering, how do you respond to that as a writer yourself and one of the original ‘oversharers’ of our art world?
EMILY: I’ve found it distressing to encounter this sort of sensationalization of ‘oversharers.’ Reality TV is a good example of a place where that total exposure sort of lives, but another place is the fucking Guardian, and I love the Guardian! I just read an article, “My Secret Life as a Bulimic Food Writer.” I don’t want to be shitty to the writer because she sounds great. It sounds like she wrote an amazing critique of the meat industry in her piece. But the Guardian has this setup it prefers, and they’re always like ‘I was a bla bla bla,’ and then they always have a kind of sunny wrap up at the end. And it really feels super disappointing.
“I think that even the term ‘oversharing’ is slightly anti-woman. When people talk about oversharing or gossip there’s something misogynistic.”—Emily Vey Duke
I am a drug addict, and I will always be a drug addict. Addiction is a perfect example of where there’s this narrative arc that should end in a full recovery, but I always want to tell people that it just isn’t like that. It never gets totally better and it’s like this open wound that you’re going to be living with. I can’t tolerate saccharine sentimentality ever and in that instance of personal exposure, it’s especially difficult.
I think it’s about whether there is sensationalism around the idea of sharing, or ‘diaristic’ work. I remember hating it when people would say my work was ‘diaristic’. But the kind of self-exposure that you’re talking about, ‘oversharing,’ it’s like gossip, it’s a female form of communication. It’s emotionally based. It’s culturally denigrated. Politically, I still feel really dedicated to the form. The lure of explicit autobiography definitely wanes as one gets older—I think that’s natural. But I guess I want to stress that I think that even the term ‘oversharing’ is slightly anti-woman. When people talk about oversharing or gossip there’s something misogynistic.
LIZZY: I love how you suture the wounds your work opens through the lens of these imagined feral child superheroes, like in The Illuminations Project. What drew you to this imagery?
EMILY: When I was a child I was completely drawn to stories about children raised without language. One of the things that I worry about when using feral children in my work is it’s kind of a trope. It kind of borders on the cliche, but what fascinated me what the idea that nature will avenge itself, so those feral children are an instance of nature being able to unleash her fury. The other thing that I was thinking about when I was thinking about that fascination—do you know the story of Lucy? The chimpanzee that was raised by a human family.
EMILY: One of the best things about that story is that when she reached adolescence she became super horny and they didn’t really know how to deal with it, and her lust was primarily directed at her father, like the man who had raised her, which was super distressing for the family of course.
LIZZY: Oh my god.
EMILY: And then as a way to deal with it, they started giving her Playgirl magazines, which she would then go and masturbate with.
LIZZY: I forgot about that!
EMILY: The thing that’s always been baffling about Playgirl is the models don’t have boners. They just have like their flaccid dick and—
LIZZY: I’ve actually never seen a Playgirl! I’m going to Google it and find these models!
EMILY: Anyway, that’s a total sidebar to the question about feral children, but somehow seems related.
LIZZY: Yeah I haven’t thought about Lucy in a long time! Anyway, jumping to your more recent video Dear Lorde. Your narrator Maxine Rose writes a letter to her idols—Do you have any creative idols?
EMILY: Yes I do—difficult women. Those are the people who are my creative idols, or people who I am just enamoured by. And not always women, like one of the people is James Baldwin, the writer—they’re almost all writers. Some of the people who come to mind are Eleanor Ferrante, who wrote the Neapolitan novels, which if you haven’t read them and female friendship is important to you, they are like, utterly shattering, also incredibly virtuosic. And Doris Lessing is another novelist. And Shary Boyle. I will never stop being in awe of her practice or her dedication. She is such a fucking pro, and I don’t know anyone who works harder. And somebody that I refer to all the time, when I’m trying to figure out how to operate professionally—a lot of my life now is not being an artist, it’s being a university professor who has a lot of administrative bullshit to deal with—anyway, it’s Annalise Keating from How to Get Away With Murder.
EMILY: She’s so completely without the tolerating of shit, you know? And I’m so admiring, because I have to deal with a lot of fucking alpha assholes in my professional life as a university person, and I constantly have to check my desire to undermine myself, and say, ‘oh you know, I’m so bad at this,’ and I pepper my emails with question marks and exclamation marks … I just think I’m a middle aged woman, and I need to be bossy, because I actually am a boss, you know?
LIZZY: Yea, it’s a hard transition to make, where you go from moving through the world on your sort of sex capital to sort of harnessing your power. I sound like a self help book, but—
EMILY: You don’t. You sound like you are a woman who is experiencing—although you are younger than me I’m guessing by ten years or so—you are beginning to see what that transition is like.
EMILY: And nobody cares! But it’s incredibly hard.
LIZZY: On the topic of getting older, Maxine Rose is a teenager, so you kind of chose to manifest yourself through this younger person. Why did you step out of the camera yourself?
EMILY: I used to like being in front of the camera. So what am I saying by moving away from the camera? Is it an important political thing for me to stay in front of the camera? One of the reasons a recent project failed is because I hated looking at myself so intensely. And I also think—this is a very fucking controversial thing to say— but I don’t think anyone likes looking at middle aged women. I just don’t. I think that unless they are so aestheticized or have some sort of uncanny natural beauty that doesn’t fade, I think that we really have an aversion to looking at middle aged women. And I have that aversion myself, which is part of internalized misogyny.
There’s another artist called Jennifer Reeder—she is in her middle years—who has also switched from being in front of the camera to using adolescent girls as avatars in a way for herself, and I really love and respect her work … It wasn’t strategic to choose to use a teenage girl and tell a coming of age story, but it was a strategy that worked. People like looking at Maxine Rose. I like looking at Maxine Rose. We like looking at teenage girls. I don’t know how to deal with that. It’s just a shitty reality!
LIZZY: Yea, and as you get older, you inevitably start to get annoying questions—even if your work is not about the body and aging, people force you to talk about the body and aging in the performance art world, which you wouldn’t necessarily to do to a man.
EMILY: Yeah I know.
LIZZY: I’d be remiss not to ask about your relationship with Cooper. You guys have been working together, I think, for close to 25 years?
EMILY: Almost! It’s 23.
LIZZY: How do you keep that creative curiosity alive?
EMILY: One thing that has been so helpful in keeping it alive: In a lot of the work the starting point will be my writing, and one of the things that amazes me is that Cooper, he loves my writing. It’s just such a gift. When we were first together, I used to play guitar and I had had dozens of boyfriends it seemed like who played guitar, and I fucking hated it when they played the guitar. It meant that they weren’t playing attention to me. Soon after we started dating we went on a hiking trip across the states and I had my guitar and at night I would sing and play my guitar and he loved it! That felt like a big deal.
LIZZY: I’m curious to know more about what your experience of NSCAD was like back in the 90s?
EMILY: It was a really great time in my life, and it was pre- Cooper until about half way through. And when me and Cooper were first together, we also had like another partner. We were trying to have a three person relationship, and that was with Steven Elwood, who I met at NSCAD. And Steven was a really core part of my experience and we collaborated before me and Cooper collaborated.
And Steven, his aesthetic sense is still really fundamental in my understanding of what makes something look good. I’m still trying to copy Steven Elwood 25 years later! My memory of what it was like there is that it was very competitive. We didn’t yet understand that we were competing over these crazy crumbs; it was about status and power within like—I remember people called Steven an art star because he got his work up in the windows of the library! … But it also felt super tight knit.
LIZZY: What are you focusing your energy on now? I imagine it’s really split between the professional and your work.
EMILY: That’s exactly right. For example, one of the things that I’m doing on holiday is, we’re dealing with pay equity now at school, which is so important, right. But it means that I am responsible for contacting all of the senators for my college—I’m on faculty senate—to write a letter to our dean to ask how our college is dealing with pay equity, and it’s really fucking boring, but it’s really a big deal and not something that I can blow off … But also, I’m constantly trying to refer back to the core of my practice. It’s hard to shift between those two registers, to shift between being a boss in that way and being vulnerable in the way that I need to be to access my work. Oh and Cooper wants me to tell you that this spring, for the first time we’re offering this class that’s called “Animal as Image,” that we have completely engineered as an excuse to get paid to go to all of the animal rescues in our vicinity! So we’re going to take a group of students to the crazy cat shelter and the dog shelter and there’s a wolf sanctuary and a petting zoo and a farm.
LIZZY: I would totally take that class!