The video opens on the artist’s head and shoulders as she lies in the grass on a sunny day, desperately gasping to catch her breath while repeating, “You are an artist, you are an artist, you are an artist.” The rapid cadence of her breath slowly shifts from the familiar wheezing of a workout pushed too hard, to a panicked hyperventilation, all the while maintaining her declaration, “You are an artist, you are an artist.” This video is a version of the performance Iowa-born, Chicago-based artist Julie Potratz will be presenting during the Rapid Pulse Festival on Friday, June 12 at 7pm.
For Potratz, who completed her MFA at the University of Illinois at Chicago one year ago, this piece is a result of the particular kind of self reflection that recent grads encounter, as the resources, support and constant feedback of graduate school suddenly cease and one’s practice is subject to the constraints of real life. Notably, the mantra of this piece is “You are an artist,” rather than “I am an artist”; Potratz explains that this choice was intended to ensure that the phrase was not only an affirmation for herself, but one that is pertinent to the viewer as well.
Potratz is especially adept at creating performances resonate deeply in her viewers, combining emotionally and intellectually challenging content through simple yet dynamic gestures. On a very early morning in June, Potratz spoke with me about the evolution of her practice, the discrepancy between her everyday self and her performative persona, and how she conceptualizes her performances living on far beyond the event.
Robin Dluzen: Has your medium always been performance?
Julie Potratz: I started doing performance when I was a freshman in college, and that was really before I knew what performance art was. I was always interested in making costumes and objects for the body. That was instinctual. I started off wanting to build things for my body, but that never seemed like enough. There was a need for action.
I’m a bit shy now, but when I was in my early 20s, I was extremely shy. Doing performance was an outlet for different aspects of my personality.
RD: The crafting of objects is crucial to your practice. Do your objects ever live beyond or outside the performance?
JP: That’s something that I struggled with for a long time. For years I thought, “No. It’s only an artwork when it’s part of my body. As soon as it comes off my body, it’s dead.” The only time I’ve broken that rule is that I made space bag sculptures in which I would take my costumes from previous performances and vacuum seal them in space bags. They shrink down into these preserved relics of the performance. That made sense to me because it was like a chrysalis –it was in stasis.
I’ve tried making sculptures that aren’t worn on the body, but I have a hard time because they’re not strong enough without me there.
RD: Your Angela Merkel impersonation piece really intrigues me. How did that project come about?
JP: I’ve done a lot of projects on powerful women and in one, I was impersonating the two most powerful women in the world: Hillary Clinton and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. I am obsessed with costumes and clothing. The things you put on your body are personal and they’re also full of signifiers of your personality, socio-economic status and your position in the world. I recreated two dresses that they had each worn in real life that contrasted their typical professional personas. One was a dress of Angela Merkel’s with an extremely low cut neckline with a lot of cleavage showing. That was an interesting move. She’s the most powerful woman in the world, and she’s going to get a lot of criticism for that. But, if she wants to show off her cleavage, she can! Who’s going to stop her?
Clothing is so personal. It affects the role you’re inhabiting in each situation. Put on a different dress and all of a sudden you’re not the chancellor, you’re a sexy wife! I like to look at where power comes from, and sometimes it’s not where you expect it to be.
RD: As a viewer, I see a lot of humor in your practice. Can you talk about the way you conceptualize humor in your practice? What goes into (or inspires) the humor in your work?
JP: Humor is nothing I really intend to do. I’m not trying to be funny, but it’s a part of my personality that comes through as I perform. Before I started doing performances, I never even thought of myself as a funny person. When I first began making artwork, it was a surprise to me that my work is funny. But it is something I do enjoy –having an irreverence for very serious subjects.
Sometimes I get the question: “Are you trying to entertain people?” or “Is entertaining people important to you?” I feel like “entertaining” is a bad word, as an artist. Sometimes I like to make a serious artwork, and sometimes I like to dance in a bar and have fun. It feels good to switch between those modes. It refreshes things for me.
RD: Presently, there’s a lot of discussion about artwork, particularly paintings, that thrives in the format of Instagram documentation. Likewise, there’s a masterful simplicity to your individual works that lives on powerfully in the medium of a Vimeo or YouTube video (I’m thinking especially of your piece Dancing with Myself). How does documentation figure into your making process? Do the pieces’ subsequent internet lives play a role as you’re creating a work?
JP: Performance artists always have to deal with documentation, and I think that the internet is the perfect mode for viewing that documentation. There’s no confusion between the performance and documentation. People often give performance artists a hard time, saying things like, “This video is no where near as good as the real thing, so don’t even show it to me!” [Laughs] Well, art historians are going to come along and need something look at.
When I’m shooting documentation, I’m always anticipating it to be online. I have no interest in showing it in a gallery setting or as an artwork. However, if I shoot something intended to be a video, it will be a video installation. It’s important to make the clear distinctions because people get confused! [Laughs]
RD: What do you want your viewers to take away from your work?
JP: I try to create performances that are experiential in a bodily and emotional way. That opens up a different mode of thinking, rather than a purely analytical experience. A different part of your mind is activated when you allow yourself to have emotional thoughts. I want to create artworks in which the only prerequisite is that you have to be a human being.
Julie Potratz’s impersonation of German Chancellor Angela Merkel photo courtesy of the artist, Julie Potratz in her studio photo by Robin Dluzen
Robin Dluzen is a Chicago-based artist and art critic The former Editor-in-Chief of Chicago Art Magazine, Dluzen now writes regularly for Art Ltd Magazine,Visual Art Source and Art F City. Dluzen received an MFA in Painting and Drawing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.