Mordecai Martin: So I want to start by saying that there’s something I think about a lot, which is a problem I’ve nicknamed, “the tyranny of the page”. This sort of inevitable crushing dullness to how we read – linearity that can’t be escaped, the eyes scan the page in the same old way, letters turn to words to sentences one after the other, and sense is slowly given up. I say all that as a preamble, because your work really excitingly tackles that tyranny and dullness, forcing us to approach the page in new ways. Having said all that: what are the questions you start with? What do you set out to do with each piece, each page?
Arden Hunter: I sometimes think I’ve set myself an impossible goal because I basically want to create the opposite effect in the reader as what you first described; I want them to see my work and first experience a moment of confusion, even a moment of feeling uncomfortable before they take a closer look and find a way to engage with it. I think that moment of encouraging them to get past that ‘other’ feeling can create more engagement with the message I’m trying to convey. Rather than seeing a piece of art and thinking, ‘oh, a painting, I know where I am here’, I want them to think, ‘wait… is that… those are words… what does it mean?’ The impossible goal then is to keep doing that, over and over. Keep being surprising, keep being inventive. Keep challenging.
Mordecai Martin: I think you’re off to a good start though. In a little bit, I want to get into the Content, that message you’re trying to convey. But right now, I’d like to ask, why use discomfort in art? We hear so much on the value of escapism these days, not that I’m particularly sympathetic to that escapism. But I’d like to hear your thoughts on why use discomfort, and what are the challenges and rewards of doing so
Arden Hunter: I think there’s value in escapism, certainly a time and a place for it. To me, a central part of escapism is moving into a kind of thoughtless-state, a little moment of being in a world with no consequences. We all need that break sometimes. However, to tackle some of the issues that interest me, I’d like the reader/viewer to be an active participant in the process. As much as that is possible in 2D art and books, I’d like them to be present and willing to look at the pieces and ask their own questions about it. Why has it been set out this way? Why this image juxtaposed with this word? Why these words at all?
There are a few challenges to this approach. Some people do not want to be challenged; they want to read the poem or see the picture and think, ‘nice’ and go about their day. In a collection, they might not get past the first couple of pieces, and that’s sad to me because it is a wasted opportunity. This is one of the reasons I try and make my work as accessible as possible – I have audio recordings of all my published pieces on my website, there will be alt-text to go with the visual collection.
Thankfully the rewards outweigh the challenges. People tell me that my pieces made them think about things in a different way. They enjoy needing to spend time with a piece to really find the meaning, instead of a fast ‘glance and gone’. It creates more of a dialogue with the work. At least I hope so.
Mordecai Martin: There’s definitely a demand on the reader, and I appreciate the lengths you’ll go, in the work and through accessibility strategies, to empathize with that demand but not mitigate it. So as I said, let’s talk about content and the messages you’re working with, and their relationship with the experiments in form you’re working with. Which came first? Your kaleidoscopic collage-like techniques? Or your questions about boundaries and edges and breaking out?
Arden Hunter: This is a difficult one, as my creative process is a bit… all over the place! With ‘Drifting Bottles’ it was literally all over the place – bits of paper and glue and ripped magazines littered my living room floor. At the core, it is a set of erasure poems, and even just the thought behind erasure poems is a difficult thing to explain. (Many have tried). You think to yourself, ‘this was the only poem to be found in this text’ but then someone else can use the same text and find something completely different, so the content still somehow comes from the viewer/artist. When I’m in the middle of creating I’m actually not very reflective; I don’t sit back and think, ‘why am I doing it this way?’ I just get a bit possessed by it and power through. It’s only looking back afterward that I can consciously see the connections I was working with. ‘Drifting Bottles’ looks chaotic because it’s dealing with chaotic emotions, rambling thoughts, worries and anxieties and hopes and ambitions. It’s a peek inside my head!
‘Stop Fidgeting’ is quite different. I made one piece one day when I was angry – it’s actually become the front cover – and the essence of it was someone telling someone else to behave a certain way because of their gender presentation. I realized that the anger I have about it meant I had a whole lot more to say, so the approach was a bit more directed. I wanted to present familiar images, familiar words, but in such a way that highlighted the many issues pertaining to gender presentation so that the reader/viewer might start feeling angry as well. I wanted to create a moment of shared anger. The lines are crisp, the language is simple, sometimes it’s a page of capitalized shouting, and that was all purposeful.
However, the choice of each image and the choice of words was still instinctual. It’s still me creating at a mile a minute, propelled by something I can’t always articulate.
Mordecai Martin: There’s a bitter irony in many pieces in Stop Fidgeting, where much of the voice is given over to articulating the sinister demands of gender. Where do you feel the intervention comes in, that manages to contradict those sinister demands? Is it the image or where do you feel exactly the impression is coming from that this isn’t what it seems?
Arden Hunter: I think the bluntness of that voice goes a long way towards the understanding that what is being said is unfair, or needlessly critical, or even dangerous. Though a lot of the words and phrases I used in there are things we have all heard in real life, we haven’t heard them all at the same time or been in an emotional state to react to them with anything other than self-protection. There’s space here to be able to read those words, recognize how nasty they are, and react from a place of safety. Sometimes it’s not immediately apparent why I’ve chosen a word or an image until you think about the link between them. In the majority of the pieces, there are overlapping words as well that you need to really concentrate to be able to read, so there is this ‘revealing’ aspect to them. The more the viewer pays attention, the more they interrogate, the more meaning is revealed.
One of the simpler-looking pieces, ‘Briefcase’, is one of my favourites. It has a repeating pattern of an image of a briefcase, and I played with layers so you get vertigo or swooping sensation when you look at it, almost like you’re going to fall into the page. Overlaid on that is one repeated phrase, ‘BE BRIEF’. I think many people, especially femme-presenting people, can relate to being in a high-pressure professional environment and feeling like if they do speak at all, it better be to the point and as little as possible. I was pleased to be able to address that with just that play between the image and the words.
Mordecai Martin: I do think the simpler ones are somehow more shocking. I sadly need to wrap up here, but I usually like to end on you asking me a question, that I will then turn over to our readers. So what would you like to ask?
Arden Hunter: I would like to know what people do when their expectations are challenged, whether by any of my work or anyone else’s. If you read or see art that makes you think about something in a way you never did before, what do you do with that new knowledge, what do you do with those feelings? A big question perhaps, but as an artist who likes to challenge others, I’d like to know what happens next.
Mordecai Martin: I’d like to think I always or usually respond with curiosity, but of course, it’s more complicated than that. Sometimes with exasperation, if it’s poorly done, if I feel the artist is trying too hard. But with your work, it was with increasing delight and surprise, especially when I saw how the forms interact with the content. I wonder what our readers will say!
Question from Arden Hunter: What do you do when your expectations are challenged?
Arden Hunter is a ND aroace agender writer, artist, and performer. Arden has three books coming out this year: ‘Pull Yourself Together’, a collection of poetry through Alien Buddha Press, ‘Drifting Bottles’, an erasure/collage/narrative hybrid through Gutslut Press, and ‘Stop Fidgeting’, a vispo/concrete/ekphrasis collection through IceFloe Press They also run a free online generative writing workshop twice a month and anyone is welcome to join. Find them on Twitter @hunterarden, Instagram @thegardenofarden, and at http://ardenhunter.com.