Tiffany Joy Butler
TIFFANY JOY BUTLER
About the Artist
Tiffany Joy Butler is a writer, artist, and filmmaker. Her memoirs have been published as part of the Bodega Monthly Anthology, Muchacha Zine, and Telling Our Stories Press and her films have been screened at the Queens Museum, Open Space Gallery, and A.I.R. Gallery. She graduated with a BFA from the Art + Design program at Alfred University. She has been an Artist-in-Residence at The Wassaic Project and a Writer-in-Residence at the Vermont Studio Center. Tiffany Joy Butler hails from Walden, a small town in the Hudson Valley and she currently resides in The Bronx.
2017–2018 Winter Residency
with D. K. Broderick, March 2018
Given your concerns, I thought it might be meaningful to start with a discussion of empathy and awareness. These are terms that one doesn’t generally hear being discussed within contemporary art discourses. What do these words — "awareness" and "empathy" — mean to you and your practice and how do you see these expressions at work in the contemporary art world?
Those are great words to start off on. Because I feel like when it comes to empathy, art to me brings empathy. Art inspires and enforces empathy. I'm from a rural town, a bit more downstate from here, in Walden, New York. I've always felt like there was a lack of empathy when it comes to "otherness" because it's a mostly white community. What does it mean to have an absence of care for someone who just isn't you?
I’m also an educator. Being empathetic is always a part of my process as an artist and as an educator. I try not to allow stereotypes to dictate how I relate to students, even if they perform in a certain way or if they do something that is unconstructive. We have to be empathetic in the work that we do. I always try to understand their situation, to understand another's point of view.
I'm mostly a writer but I come from a painting, video art, and experimental film background. In terms of empathy, recently I've been delving more into characterization. I’m trying to work through the idea of a character as someone that is neither good nor evil but that has an overall humanistic perspective — especially in their flaws.
When it comes to awareness, I've never wanted things to be only educational when it comes to my art. Sometimes it's hard for me not to make things informative. I used to work for an activist environmental organization. We'd go door to door and talk about the environment to build support in all its forms. There was a tremendous emphasis on the process of informing people and of actively trying to make them more aware of the issues that are happening within our society. And that's fine. I understand why this was the approach. But when it comes to art I really feel it needs to be more subtle than awareness. It doesn't have to be in your face all the time. There's definitely some protest art that activists do that I love, too, and I think there's a place for that. But there's a place for more subversive forms of spreading awareness as well.
How does this type of nuance — an awareness of the varied articulations of awareness — show up in your practice?
When I make experimental film I begin by thinking of the subject matter. The screenplay I'm working on now is inspired by an experimental film I was working on called Ekzein and Cosmic Call. I specifically wanted to have my friends who were participants in the Black Lives Matter protest. They're not actors, they've maybe done a bit of performance work here and there in school but they're primarily focused on organizing and activism. The actual film was more or less a sci-fi. They go back in time as revolutionaries. That's my feeling of them and I wanted them to be these fantastical characters battling the realities of everyday and ongoing struggles. Working with my friends who are activists made me appreciate the work that they were doing more.
I was unable to go to the protests because I had this debilitating skin condition but I wanted to participate in some way in that moment, when everyone was on the streets protesting day after day — spreading awareness. I didn't make protest posters, I made an experimental film with my activist friends about time travel and revolution.
What you said about participating in something without necessarily being present at something really stood out for me. It's an important distinction to make, and whatever the reasons, health-related or otherwise, it's empowering to consider the ways in which we can all participate in the things we care about and believe in without necessarily being there at the demonstration etc. You're there through your films, you're there through your friends, you're there through social media, you're there in all the ways you were.
Yeah. I really think it’s important for everyone to be present in the ways that they want to be and in the ways that they can. In terms of my health, I took topical steroids for almost 25 years, since I was 10 months old and my body got addicted to it. So I looked up my conditions online and self diagnosed myself. There are thousands of people that are suffering from this condition once they get off of topical steroids. We're all trying to get the condition to be recognized as a medical diagnosis. There's a really helpful online forum called itsan.org and the community there has been really supportive.
Anyway, while I was working for the environmental agency and going through these health problems I had a weird dream that I was recycling my skin. So I produced some work about it and am expanding on the screenplay now. It's related to people consuming Ekzein skin bleaching cream products. A lot of skin bleaching products actually have steroids in them so in addition to lightening your skin they also give you horrendous side effects. In response to the widespread addiction to Ekzein, this group of canvassers go door to door and through direct action take back the products — at times forcibly.
As far as my approach goes when it comes to producing the screenplay, I want people to improvise based on the events that have happened in their lives and in the country at large. Say for example there is another school shooting that happens, which there will be, before we shoot the film. I want them to talk about that instead of whatever I am imagining them saying in my mind right now. I want it to be very grounded in their personal perspectives on what's happening right now.
Deliberately giving space to the actors in your films in order for them to express their own agendas and not necessarily abide by a script seems like both a practical and conceptual decision. It’s also risky. Have you always worked that way?
Because I'm not working with professional actors, it's difficult for me to say, "just improvise." Although, that is my ideal. For someone to be that comfortable and of course that might work better for someone who is an actor and is more experienced because they can just improvise really quickly. But yeah, I always try to infuse more improvisation into my work and ask that of the people that I work with. It’s about trust.
I talked to one of my friends who was in the Ekzein series and I just wanted to get her dialogue, like how she informatively speaks. She's always organizing or assisting in lobbying and has a very particular political way of speaking as a result. And I really wanted to just capture the way in which she speaks even if its not necessarily improvisation. I just wanted to record the flow and the vocabulary. But, I really would like the next film that I shoot for people to go entirely off their own personal experience. I'm Black American Puerto Rican and I would like to work with folks with diverse backgrounds who are coming from that place and whatever experiences they've had and feeling comfortable just talking about that.
In thinking about your desire to work with friends that come from hybridized backgrounds, I find myself wondering about your audience. How do you imagine your audience and who is actual your audience?
When I have shown my work, it's generally been to a mostly white audience. Even my friends who are participating in these projects, they watch more mainstream films, Black Panther, A Wrinkle in Time, and stuff like that. And that's complicated for me. I'm trying to bring in more humor into my work because I think the last couple of films have been more surreal and eerie which can be off-putting. It's also difficult at times because of issues of access. Who has access to my work? Who has the ability to go to these film festivals and see it? And even when I put it online for a very small rental fee you still have to have access to a computer and access to the internet and be able to pay.
Regardless of the intentionality that goes into production or the people one works with, it's difficult to address questions of access because they're so structural.
And it also has to do with marketing. Folks try their best to do marketing within the arts but I think it's also dictated by who you already know. Not very many people actually have access to art world communities. I'm very anti-corporate marketing so I've always been apprehensive about whether or not I really wanna push things to that kind of commercial level.
One can engage with market pressures and forces without totally compromising on their beliefs. I don't think it has to be an either/or scenario. Maybe what makes these kinds of struggles real is the difficulty with which one successfully and unsuccessfully walks these fine lines.
Yeah. I always think of how films are advertised in trailers relative to my experience of seeing them in their entirety. I'm often like "wow, I like this," but the way it was marketed makes me not want to watch it. For example, Get Out. I thought it was gonna be way scarier than it was and I didn't want to see it because I’m scared to see horror films. And then I saw it and it was kinda funny and psychological and not as scary as I thought it was gonna be. But I had this misperception of what it was gonna be like based on the advertisements and the audience they were trying to target.
Related to misperceptions, on your website's about page you explicitly situate your practice and its output within the process of delearning. What does it mean to delearn and how does delearning show up or not in your work?
That's a good question. I think I prefer that word, delearn, to the word decolonize. I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood. There were prejudices and biases at work on me every day. It was multicultural but because it was rural there was a lot of space. A lot of space between. The isolation of being in a small town can amplify these forces. You just don't know what it's like outside of that space. I also just didn’t know a lot about my Puerto Rican ancestry. So when I use a word like delearning I'm also talking about learning. When I'm delearning the prejudice learned from growing up in a rural white neighborhood, I'm also learning about where my histories come from, where my roots extend to. I would hear about the history of European colonizers in school, I would hear about Black history from my dad, and because my mom immigrated here from Puerto Rico so young she remembers mostly the struggles of living in The Bronx. So I'm trying to learn more about my ancestry and when I learn those histories, that’s a way of delearning the idea that only one country’s history matters.
In terms of your influences, it seems as though you draw a lot of inspiration from your family. What role does your family play in your work?
As I was saying, I come from a multicultural family. My mom grew up in the Bronx in the 70s, you know the story, it was a hard time especially in terms of addiction, so that's always been on my mind. We are all addicted to different things on some level or another. Also, related to addiction, I think a lot about spirituality. I don't know a lot of my family members because they've all passed away over the years and the ones who haven't are all still trying to figure it out. I've written a lot about what my family has been through and what they continue to go through today, especially around health issues because of what we do and do not have access to as black and brown folks.
Listening to you speak makes me reconsider the relationship between delearning and remembering, especially when situated within a discussion of one's roots and of being rooted. How does one remember these histories, these landscapes and seascapes, the stories of peoples and places when they have been un/intentionally forgotten and systematically overwritten? As you've said, perhaps delearning is one way to address this violence.
Yeah. When it comes to my dad he would focus on his American Indian histories because when it comes to his African roots he doesn't even know what they are within the United States. He's really light skinned and recently found out he was part British. So that was a revelation. And obviously Black American history is its own thing — it's what we made up. So outside of that, more folks are starting to say, "African descendent" because more folks outside of the United States have African ancestry within their cultures and we can connect across borders and continents as a result. More people are connecting to that term and that's been helpful for me to realize that I’m not alone as a Black Puerto Rican.
Can we return to your preference, as an individual, for the term "delearning" over "decolonizing?" In what ways do you understand them as entangled but ultimately separate processes?
It's difficult. I've looked back at my social media posts over the past couple of years and tried to understand my use of the word "decolonizing." Like, "When did I use this word and why did I use this word?" It seems necessary at times, to use the word decolonizing, but I also think that it's a bigger process then anything that one individual can do. Right now, we have to decolonize as a whole culture and society but we can delearn individually. Right now, it's bite-sized, everyone can delearn on their own. And then, we can all decolonize together.
How does delearning come into play in your role as an educator?
That's something I'm still working through. With my students, I teach mostly English for international students. When it comes to learning, I definitely learn from them. I make an effort to stop myself and to listen to them and to hear their stories. But there was an incident where one of my students was harassing another student online. He didn't know he was cyberbullying but he was. In Latinx culture and in Latin America, there's a certain machismo and I understand that but it's something that I tried to get my students to understand in that moment. Sexism is a part of many cultures. In Latinx culture, it's infused within our music and our dance and how we behave. So yeah, that was something that I wanted to delearn and learn with the students. But I also want to be appreciative of the Latinx culture I grew up knowing. So we'll listen to music together as a class and reflect in the process. In the incident, the girl who was being cyberbullied was from Japan so she also said to me, I think it's also cultural differences . She was empathetic to his situation while still being concerned about his behavior. So I don't want to say that I'm changing anyone’s culture but students can become more accepting and understanding of each other.
In the example you just offered, the act of listening seems to be of importance. How does listening fit into your understanding of delearning and how does it guide your approach to education in general?
That's definitely something that I still feel like I'm learning, too. Listening takes time. I was raised in an environment where we would talk over each other out of impatience and so it's been a process for me to delearn that aspect of my upbringing. I want to be more of an active listener and to be an aware and empathetic participant in every moment. Having been part of an activist organization, I’m used to t aggressively sharing all the information you have with everyone you come into contact with. Call-out culture is a part of this as well which I was also participating a lot in. It has it's importance still but now when I look back at how I was treating people I realize that in my outrage, I really wasn't listening to other people. It's also just part of my personality so that's an ongoing struggle, too. Whenever I take on a belief as my own, I tend to immediately cast anyone who doesn't share my view as wrong. So, I think, post-Trump, a lot of artists that I was working with were trying to think about how to be more tender. We tried to call-in instead of call-out. At the time, those folks weren't participating in online conversations because they felt like people weren't listening. Sometimes online, because no one sees each other, there's really a lack of respect.
Photos by Walker Esner