Sage Viscovi Interviews Starbux Diary Author and Performance Artist Christine Ferrera about Survival and Creativity
The life of a performance artist is often one that is unconventional, ritualistic, and overall actually quite frustrating. Performance art, despite having its beginnings as early as the Renaissance, is often overlooked or avoided by those not heavily involved in the art world while more traditional media such as oil painting, drawing, and sculpture have dominated gallery spaces and museums across the globe. However, Christine Ferrera looks to challenge the idea of “performance art versus endurance” through her work.
Originally from Chicago, Ferrera began her artistic career as a painter and printmaker, earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design in 1994. In following years, she completed several series of paintings including works on wood, collages, hand-painted objects and artist books. It wasn’t until 2003 that Ferrera began experimenting with digital media and produced a series of video and performance works on the subject of consumer culture. In 2007, she was awarded a residency at the Sanskriti Foundation in New Delhi, India where she collaborated with local artists on a video project that was translated into several languages.
This new direction led her to pursue a Masters of Fine Arts degree in Imaging and Digital Art at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, which she completed in 2010. During this time, she also had the opportunity to intern for WYPR’s The Signal and produced several radio shows for public broadcast. Since settling in Baltimore, she has had the honor to perform at Centerstage, The Transmodern Festival, Itinerant Performance Festival, Videopolis, Maryland Art Place, and The Contemporary Museum in Baltimore. Until recently, she was also the long-time Video Coordinator at the New Media Studio at UMBC.
Ferrera’s most famous work to date is a performance piece that was recently published into a book. Entitled Starbux Diary, she describes this performance as her “10-year journey to caffeinated enlightenment.” The project began when Ferrera walked into a Starbucks coffee shop for an espresso and biscotti and noticed that their customer feedback cards read, “We’d love to hear your thoughts…” She saw intimacy in this corporate statement, despite its congeniality.
Ferrera had been looking to start a long-term art endurance challenge for quite some time at that point, and she found this casual invitation rather serendipitous. Thus, she began to write a letter to Starbucks every day for the next year. Starbucks would occasionally write her back, some replies more visceral than others. Feeling the need to continue this unusual routine, she did so for nine more years.
I met Christine for the first time at On The Hill where she ordered a Red eye and we talked over the hum of nearby, overlapping conversations.
Why did you decide to go to Milwaukee for your Bachelors degree? How did you adjust to that change?
I think I chose Milwaukee because it was far enough away from Chicago that it felt like a new place but close enough that I could visit easily. It was a huge change for me. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, and my high school was over 4,000 people. I guess most suburbs are like that …everything is massive. I felt very much lost in the crowd.
I went to Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, which had less than 400 people. It was a small school specifically for art, in which I got a ton of one-on-one attention, which for me was completely new. Looking back on it, I think it was really crucial because I had been extremely introverted up until then. I never had that kind of relationship with teachers where they take you seriously. My high school was exactly like a John Hughes movie, except not funny at all!
Milwaukee and Baltimore are very similar in size, and they’re also similar in that they have a working-class, industrial backbone. Chicago does too, but I was never part of that. The attitude (at school) was almost like clocking into a factory; they really instilled a work ethic. There wasn’t a lot of talking and conceptualizing about art. It was more like you work all day, you go home, you come in the next day, and you work again… They were very into producing constantly, and that was good for me. When you’re 18, you don’t know who you are as an artist, yet, at least I didn’t.
What made you get into performance art?
I had always wanted to do theater, but I was too shy. I was a painter, because obviously you can be alone in a studio for hours painting. In art school, I majored in painting and printmaking, and for another 10-15 years afterwards I mainly painted. But I always wanted to work in film and performance, and specifically comedy… I guess it just took me a decade of figuring out how to come at it!
A lot of it was shyness and stage fright, also the 90’s aesthetic. I was a little out of sorts in the 90s; the aesthetic was punk rock… a sort of angry, confrontational aesthetic, and that’s just not who I am at all. It’s almost like I had to overcome my shyness, and wait for the aesthetics to change until the 2000s!
Who are you biggest influences?
My friends Theresa Columbus and Stephanie Barber inspired me to do performance. The two of them were doing all kinds of what felt like really vital, new work. They were like, ‘We’re going on performance tours, and you should come with us and try doing this, too.’ Basically, it was just enough coaxing that I was able to get over my fear.
One of my biggest influences is Spalding Gray, who was a monologist… Laurie Anderson is a HUGE influence. I sometimes think of her performance as stand-up comedy in slow motion. When I was young, I saw Spalding Gray perform and that really blew my mind. Also, I would go to Second City, which is an improv comedy thing in Chicago. ‘Spoken-word’ gets a bad rap but I saw a lot of spoken-word poets and performers in the 80’s and 90’s and that had a big influence on me. Oh, and radio. I love radio. Anything bizarre and surreal, like Joe Frank. Strange and funny, that’s what I love, where you feel like you’re almost overhearing it by accident.
What inspired you to do this long-term project involving Starbucks? Were you ever sick of it after a while?
Yeah, I definitely got sick of it a lot! Ten years ago, I was living in Richmond, VA. I had three jobs waiting tables. I just felt like I was always running, and hardly had time to make art. I would paint whenever I could, but I really wanted to try something else. Something was missing. Also, my paintings are quite narrative, so it made sense to make this leap.
I took a class for film and video, which was taught by this unbelievably brilliant artist, Bob Paris. His class used Society of the Spectacle, by Guy Debord, as a jumping off point to talk about the Situationist movement, this radical art activist movement in France in the 50s. It’s not a great read, a very dense book and kind of hard to decipher. But that whole movement has really affected everything in art ever since, which is taking it out of the galleries and into real life, blurring the line between real life and art.
That blew my mind! I already knew a lot of people who were doing that. We learned about the artist Tehching Hsieh, who did one-year performances. I was like ‘I want to do a daily ritual, …but I don’t want it to be a drag like this guy!’ I totally respect what he was doing, but I just wasn’t interested in that. It wasn’t me. I thought ‘I want to do something really enjoyable every day.’ I went through a few permutations of what that ritual could be.
One day, I was at Starbucks and they have these little cards. They even say on the front: “We’d love to hear your thoughts…” I thought that was perfect for me because my other big fantasy was to have a person that I could tell everything to, like a diary or confidant. It kind of hit me there and then, and I started doing it right away. I had meant to do it for a year, but I really liked doing it, so…
It was very tedious at times, sometimes you’re really tired and it’s the last thing you want to do. But the discipline of having this thing I do every day was sort of a challenge. I don’t know who cares if I don’t do it, but I feel like I’m letting myself down. It was still a solitary, private thing but it got me over some self-consciousness, in terms of writing and saying things and putting them out in the world. It’s always a battle facing a blank slate or canvas. But if you have to do a little something every day, a little assignment, you face that over and over. Then, when you’re doing a big project, you delve into it more easily than you would have otherwise. It changed my whole way of looking at and working on art. It helped me overcome a lot of fear about trying new things.
Coincidentally, about six months into it, a friend of mine who owns a bookstore said ‘we’re having a 24-hour reading series, you should come and read something.’ And that started this thing where I would regularly do a reading from it, mainly for friends or for local shows. That was my first real attempt at performance…
What do you do to promote yourself?
I hate promotion the most as far as anything to do with art making. It’s really hard! I think that’s why so many people promote each other.
I used to raffle off ‘prizes’ at art shows just to attract people that might not go, otherwise. I would advertise prizes, such as a ‘Dream Date’ or a new car, which would usually be a toy car of some kind, but once I did raffle off a real car that I bought for $70 bucks and hand painted to look newish. You had to start it with a screwdriver and the person who won it reported that it got stolen within a few days.
I usually do whatever local paper advertisement I can do. I make posters; just try to get the word out. It’s a huge frustration, especially as you get older. You feel a lot more isolated. Nowadays, I definitely feel a bigger gap between me and the audience than I ever have, which is unfortunate because I also feel like I’m making the best work I’ve ever made.
I don’t know if that’s just me, or part of aging as an artist. You think when you’re young that it will get easier, and it does get easier in some ways but harder in others. For me, that’s one of the way that it’s gotten harder. I feel less connected and more isolated.
In a bigger city like New York or LA, there’s a whole industry around promotion and that’s for good reason. It’s very hard to do both. I actually want to make a documentary about how artists support, promote, and sustain their work. That’s a big topic of conversation among my friends who are artists. It’s incredible the amount of friends who don’t make art anymore. It’s really hard to sustain a career long-term, and there are not that many great examples. I think especially for people who make personal work or people who come from DIY traditions or any kind of experimental, alternative tradition… there’s still not a lot of support for that. Most of the support is still for traditional media.
How difficult has it been for you to get your work into shows?
Well… you can do a show kind of anywhere, anytime. Most shows I just do myself by reaching out to a gallery or a space. I have been invited to do more shows since I’ve been doing performance. When I was painting, I feel like I had to seek out shows a lot more. It’s more of a commitment than one performance.
I guess I have had some good luck. I’ve been invited to some great venues. Last year, I was invited to the Amsterdam Fringe Festival. That was an amazing experience. Two years ago, I was invited to do a solo show at VisArts. The curator is an artist I went to grad school with. Grad school helped a lot, and I made a lot of connections that way but it’s still a challenge and I have self-funded all of my shows with only a few exceptions.
Do you sometimes find yourself struggling to make a living from art? How did you support yourself?
I would say I don’t make a living from art. As a matter of fact, I’ve definitely lost money by doing shows. It’s always been a struggle. Right now, I’m at another crucial turning point because I just quit my full-time job a few months ago. It was a good job doing video production, which gave me a ton of technical experience and skills. But it was crushing me in terms of 40-50 hour workweeks, no time to make art.
This year I did more shows than I’ve ever done in one year and also worked more hours than I’ve probably ever worked. It was taking a toll on my health. So, now I just freelance.
I’ve still been juggling a lot. But I’m slowly unwinding from years of overwork. My hope is that I can really develop my art projects more.
What are you currently working on?
I’m revising my book, Starbux Diary, and sending it to publishers. It would be nice to actually have that in the greater world. And I’m writing a film with a friend of mine that’s based on a character who does stand-up comedy. I’m making a video of a comedy character that I do called Awkward Pauzez the Digital Comic. I’m hoping that in a year from now I can do a show of paintings. I haven’t been painting consistently for years. I’m hoping to do it at Current Space, actually. And then I’m just trying to perform as much as possible. This past year has been all comedy, but I really want to do more of my performance work.
What advice do you have for students who might want to be in the same area of work after graduation?
This is pragmatic advice, not very romantic, but avoid a full-time job if you possibly can. I know there are student loans and all that but if there’s a way to minimize the payments and maximize making art, opt for that. I tried to work full-time and pay it off and I didn’t make a dent. Now, they are telling me there is such a thing as ‘loan forgiveness’ and I regret wasting that time. It’s easy to feel oppressed by money (or lack of) but try not to fall into that trap. Time is so much more valuable.
Find a cheap place to live. If you know where you want to be, buying is cheaper than renting. You could put 5 or 10 thousand into it or less. (Got any of that student loan leftover?) Or even do it with friends!
Find an art-related job, if possible… teaching or anything that keeps you in the art world is good. Most of my jobs have not been in the art world, and it’s more than just the time that you spend there. It keeps you more isolated. So, any part-time job that isn’t going to suck your soul, and then live cheap with other people cooperatively. I feel like now people are much more savvy about that stuff. For me, I had to learn the hard way.
Support other artists every chance you get. The more successful your friends and colleagues are, the better for you and vice versa. Invite artists you admire to work with you or do a show together. They will be flattered, at the very least.
Take your work seriously and present it with confidence. It’s never too soon to start doing this. Also, don’t be immune to criticism. Thoughtful, constructive criticism is a valuable gift. If you are able to talk about your work articulately, you will get respect.
Never burn a bridge. This was the first thing my professor told us in grad school and I’ve found it to be true. Always comport yourself professionally with grace and dignity. You may find yourself in situations in which it is very difficult to do so but trust me, it’s important. It will save you a lot of unnecessary drama.
Do as many shows as possible. If you want to perform, perform as much as possible. People always told me that – and it’s really only been the last 3-5 years that I’ve been performing regularly – it’s huge. You make so much more work, and you develop your work so much faster. I’ve done stand-up comedy for 5 people, or a performance for 10 people. I’ve done house shows. I once showed a video in an actual closet. My only regret is that it took way too long to overcome shyness and try a lot of stuff. Most people don’t have that problem, but if you do or even if you don’t just try anything that you want to try. Don’t be afraid.
Are there any artists you would like to work with in the future?
So many in a lot of ways. A lot of them are friends. My friend Ben O’Brien is an amazing comedian, and I hope to work with him. We have similar interests in comedy
and art. The main people I work with are my friend, Temple Crocker, a brilliant theater artist and my partner, Dan Hanrahan. They inspire me and teach me a lot. Oh! Dan is also one of my biggest influences… I stumbled upon him doing these outrageous monologues in a storefront twenty years ago and all these years later he is writing more than ever. I also have a friend, John Moran, who is one of my favorite artists. I would love to work with him, but he lives in Germany …though we have talked about a Skype performance! As long as I’m dreaming, I would say Laurie Anderson, maybe. Dynasty Handbag! That would be the best.
Random question: How would you describe the color yellow to someone who is blind?
I never thought about that. I guess you just think of it as warm, so maybe rub their arms? Like, warmth and the heat of the sun, think about lying in the sun. Yellow can be so many different things. My favorite color is a very, very pale yellow, which almost gives you more of a nauseating feeling. I wonder if you could describe it in terms of taste. Honey, golden… toast? Does toast taste like yellow?
Author Sage Viscovi is a Baltimore-based artist and performer.
Photo Credits: Awkward Pauzez, all photos of Google Art Video (pink and green performance), and Starbux Diary video by Roberto Herrera. Stellar Cellar (with wine glass) by Bill Shewbridge.