"I realized that a large part of the Exit Strategy process was just coming to terms with my own experiences and feeling like I deserved to tell my stories. Making these works, and having the works programmed has been an opportunity to reconnect to myself, and to others."
Readers, I am going to get serious with this interview post with some self-disclosure. First, let me introduce you to Kym McDaniel.
Kym is an experimental filmmaker, media collaborator, choreographer and performer currently based in what is now known as Binghamton, NY. Her experimental films have shown at Slamdance, Chicago Underground Film Festival, Antimatter, and in group and gallery exhibitions including the Rochester Contemporary Art Center (NY), Whitney Humanities Center at Yale University, and Bow Arts Gallery (London), among others. She has an MFA inFilm, Video, Animation, and New Genres from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She currently teaches in the Cinema Department at Binghamton University.
It was a couple of years ago that I was first introduced to Kym McDaniel's work during a Cellular Cinema screening of short films. The program was curated by Ariel Teal and featured femme-identified filmmakers living or had formerly lived in Milwaukee.
I was immediately connected to Kym's work. It was her Exit Strategy series that appealed to me. I was interested in her ability to create consecutive works that explored the experiences of emotional and physical trauma, using video, movement, and her own body and voice to confront these themes. Not only could I relate to the premise of these films but I recognized the power of self-reclaimation found in the work.
"So how do I find my way out," Kym asks out loud in Exit Strategies. As someone who has personally experienced childhood abuse, I've asked myself something similarly. One thing trauma has made me feel is that I am alone. I have felt emotionally and physically trapped because of trauma. It disconnected me from own body, even as the trauma lived and breathed within me. Trauma stirred in my veins, in the crevices of every inch of my body. It compartmentalized in my brain. It found its way into my stomach, my shoulders, and my lower back. The emotional ramifications of the trauma I had experienced manifested into physical pain throughout my body. As a child and young adult, I hid my trauma, from myself and others, out of shame and disbelief. I lived knowing it was there. I lived trying to distance myself from it, quieting it to the point that it boiled underneath. It wasn't healthy.
Finding my way out of repression and silence, which I often used as a form of protection and safety, was difficult work. It's mind-body work. Motivations to this work came from deep hope, a desire to heal, and a place of exhaustion. I wanted to move past the pain and fatigue that went with being a victim of trauma. I wanted to find bodily interconnectedness. I needed empowerment to live beyond and find recovery.
So when I come across artists like Kym McDaniel I need to tell them how much their work matters to me. I need to be exposed to artists like Kym McDaniel because I need films like Exit Strategies. Art like this validates my experiences. This kind of art speaks to me and I know it does for others, because one thing I have learned over the years, is that I am not alone. Possibly you can relate?
I am lucky that Kim let me ask her some questions about Exit Strategies. It's not always the case that you get to ask people directly about the art they make.
And you know what else? Kym is returning to Minnesota! She will be curating a program of films in partnership with Cellular Cinema on March 15th. I will be there and you should be too! Check out more info on the event here.
Read and admire on!
Jes: Kym, I am so excited about your upcoming program with Cellular Cinema. Can you tell me more about it and what we should expect?
Kym: Thank you, I’m excited too. This program has been a real treat for me to curate because of it’s hybrid nature. I had the opportunity to integrate both of my worlds as a dancer and filmmaker.
The program is called The Language of Gesture, and includes both single-channel videos and live dances. Last fall I taught a class called Movement Media Collaborations, and one of their projects was to create a work about gesture. I was really inspired by their interpretations of what a gesture could be, and how the meaning of gesture changed in the different mediums of dance, film, and performance art. Their project prompt was an extension of my own work since gesture is a part of my creative process. I love when teaching and research have such a reciprocal relationship like that!
The works in the program investigate gesture in a way that is specific to each artist’s medium and voice. One thing that ties the works together is my passion for curating work by women and non-binary artists. I naturally gravitate towards the themes and stories shared in their works. Artists in the program include Chelsey Becher & Ivy Jerin Robertson (performance), Tasha Holifield (performance), Ariana Gerstein (video), Amielle Gibson (Super 8), M.O. Guzman (video), Terrance Houle (video), Marissa Jax & Maria Tordoff (performance), Chanelle Lajoie (video), Chloe Nagle (performance), Arneshia Williams (performance), and Nina Yuen (video).
I have been interested in your Exit Strategy project. As someone who has also experienced emotional and physical trauma, I have connected to the premise of the work. What’s next in this series?
Thanks for this question. It’s a privilege for me to connect with others in this way.
The works were created to be modular, but I hope #1-6 will be able to screen as one in festivals and/or other pop-up, DIY, or independent venues. They are single-channel videos, but I think of them as performative, so having them screen as one feature is another dimension of their performative life cycle for me. I also started seeing the works as episodic chapters in my life and recovery. When screened together, they embody oneself piecing together aftermath and moving forward as one entity.
When I watched #1-6 together last week, I couldn’t believe how fast the hour went! I realized these works represent 1/100 of my experience as someone in physical / emotional / sexual / spiritual recovery. There’s a sense of empowerment in that idea that I am the only one who truly knows what I have gone through. And, on the other side of that- an empowerment in sharing the series and having the privilege of connecting with an audience. I’ve been reading the book Blogging in a Postfeminist Age by Jessalyn Keller and she talks about a “pedagogy of hope” … I’ve been thinking a lot about what a pedagogy of hope means, and I think sharing the series as one feature is part of that hopeful process for me.
I am curious to know more about how making this work has been healing for you. Could you talk more about that?
When I started making the videos, the intention was to release embodied shame in the hopes that my chronic physical pain would lessen. The initial experiment of the project has grounded me over the last several years. Why is this story essential to tell, how does it relate to shame? How is this video considered an exit out of shame? Will telling this story facilitate a release so I can integrate a dissociated part of my psyche into my body?
The first time I watched the movie Thelma by Joachim Trier I was crying…There is a quote about the movie by Sheila O’Malley that says, “[the movie’s] engine is the emotional awakening of an extremely repressed girl, a girl who finds emotions so stressful it ruptures the fabric of her reality.”
To step outside my habits of repression, shame, and silence in order to create these works was a huge risk. I used repression and silencing as methods to keep myself safe when I was younger, but now as an adult, I realized those techniques were actually keeping me a victim. It was (is) a risk for me to be vulnerable. After I created Exit Strategy #1 and #2, I started translating this risk of vulnerability from within the series to my “real” life. The series became more than just making art, but about how to feel and cope with being human. This was something I had not allowed myself to do for almost 20 years.
I think I chose dancing as my original medium because I could express myself with choreography and the body, and I never had to talk about my experience directly. But, I kept getting injured. All of my feelings were bound inside me: physicalized emotional pain. When I first started working in video and tried voiceover, I couldn’t handle hearing my voice... I kept receiving critique to stop whispering! But I was only whispering because I couldn’t speak any louder. Since all of the strategies have a voiceover (except #4), I see how far I have come. I imagined my voice being a key I could use to free memories trapped inside my chronically ill body. But I’ve also learned this isn’t enough – I needed to transform my narrative of victimization. I needed to reclaim my own memory, and change the ending to stories I had kept in my body for so long.
I realized that a large part of the Exit Strategy process was just coming to terms with my own experiences and feeling like I deserved to tell my stories. Making these works, and having the works programmed has been an opportunity to reconnect to myself, and to others. The experience has been validating, bittersweet, and healing. I think a part of the series is about how I feel disconnected from my body, and how disconnected I feel to others, and the amount of pain, loneliness, and destruction that alienation has caused me. Connecting with others kinesthetically and empathetically has been an unexpected outcome and healing...
My Alexander Technique teacher, Luc Vanier, introduced me to a quote by Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind that is often on my mind about process. The quote in part is “In a fog, you do not know you are getting wet, but as you keep walking, you get wet little by little.” This is what healing has been like for me. I could not foresee the impact of this work on my identity and my transformation… it is not until later (or when I’m crying about Thelma) I see how the works have aided in my process of recovery and healing.
Thanks for sharing, Kym. It’s powerful to see how Exit Strategy as a series has not only created connection with others for you but that the creation of the works has supported your own voice and ability to tell your story. I think that means a lot, especially when it comes to using art as a way to process through events and experiences from our lives. It’s very relatable.
On different note: I have admired how you incorporate curation into your art practice. How do curatorial practices advance or add to what you do? Do you have recommendations for others who want to extend or expand this approach into their work? How do you manage to curate and develop the art projects that you have?
I view curation as an extension of my collaborative practice... not only between me and another artist, but how each piece collaborates with other works in the program. I think curation is a way to test out how themes work with one another and how the audience responds to a framework I have facilitated. I grew up playing competitive chess and curation feels a lot like chess to me. Piecing together moving parts and following a strategy with a goal in mind.
When I was living in Milwaukee, my curation practice started because I needed to keep my choreographic practice alive when I was in grad school for film. I would put on shows in the summer when I had a break from grad school. I was able to connect and build a platform for dancing, friends, and artists in the area and beyond.
I think a recommendation would be to think about the relationship of power, privilege, and oppression when you are in a role of power, like a curator. I think about who is visible and invisible in our society, culture, and art world. I also believe that art shouldn’t be separated from the artist. I want to support people who are doing the work and aren’t personally or professionally hurting the community.
Are there any particular challenges you face as an artist?
Getting paid for my work. Paying other artists for their work I’m curating when I don’t have a specific funding source. Believing in myself and my work. Not having health insurance, and/or the possibility of losing health insurance. Finding good mental health support when you’re moving around/can’t afford out of network/don’t have health insurance. The student loans. The instability, not knowing what’s next professionally/artistically. Finding time to make work in the sea of other responsibilities. Being a woman in this industry. Negotiating the idea that rejection does not have a relationship to my worth. Dating other artists. Dating non-artists. Honestly maybe just dating in general.
What do you love about being an artist?
Ultimately, I became an artist because I had to… being an artist is too difficult unless you are so in love with creating there is no other option… I love creating a life rooted in discovery, surprise, and self-expression. I love learning how my work informs me about myself, and feeling like my work is making an impact or helping someone else. I love the excitement of integrating movement, writing, and images into a practice, and meeting new minds through teaching/curation/choreography. I love being in collaboration with another artist and creating a work together that I never would have made on my own. I love the friends I have met along the way who understand me (and give me critique!). I’m grateful for the opportunity to have met my mentors who have changed my life.
What artists do you admire?
Chantal Akerman, Anne Charlotte Robertson, Dani ReStack, Wu Tsang, Zeinabu irene Davis, Trisha Brown, Pina Bausch, Stephanie Barber, Nazlı Dinçel, Carolee Schneemann, Will Rawls, Maggie Nelson, Yvonne Rainer, Numa Perrier, Roxane Gay, Robyn, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. My graduate committee at UW-Milwaukee was amazing. I was able to work with Carl Bogner, Lori Felker, Kelly Kirshtner, Jesse McLean, and Cecelia Condit.
Where can we find you online?
My website is www.kymmcdaniel.com, and my instagram is @kymcdaniel
Is there anything else you would like to share?
The quote I mentioned earlier about walking in the fog can be located here. Thank you for letting me think about these questions and sharing this event!
Thank you so much, Kym, for being part of my interview series. I look forward to the event on March 15th.
All images courtsey of the artist.
Did you know that I am starting a new cinema program in St. Paul for women and non-binary/gender non-conforming filmmakers? I am! Moonplay Cinema’s first event is June 28th. Our first screening will open with a program of short films and conclude highlighting the work from Kiera Faber. You can learn more about Kiera in an interview I did with her last year.
Submit to screen with Moonplay here.
Contribute to our first season’s crowdfunding campaign here.
Artists I Admire is a series of interviews with artists I think highly of.