Pramila Vasudevan

Youa Vang interviewed Pramila Vasudevan for Wakpa. Youa is the Curator of Community Engagement for Public Art Saint Paul.

PRAIRIE | CONCRETE is an outdoor embodied movement project by lead artist, Pramila Vasudevan, and the Aniccha Arts collaborative, commissioned by Public Art St. Paul (PASP) for the Wakpa Triennial. This project will bring visibility to plant cycles and growing practices through embodied listening and movement sessions with communities in Saint Paul. The commission will unfold in 3 Saint Paul Parks (Frogtown Farm, Hidden Falls, and Western Sculpture Park) with 3 movement workshops, one rehearsal, and one public event at each site.

During the project’s initial stage, Vasudevan spent a lot of time in bed due to an illness that had her bedridden. When she was able, her mindset changed in how she viewed the world, and that colored how she wanted to shift her performance art.

Let’s talk about when you got sick. How does that inform what you do in your art?

The first time I was sick with Hodgkin’s disease, I was orienting myself to becoming an artist. Everyone around me knew I was an artist, but I didn’t know that that was an option. After a year of treatment, we were looking at a bone marrow transplant. I started taking classes at MCAD and a friend told me that the arts helped me will my sickness away.

When you can’t get out of bed, or dance, that kind of thing is really in your mindset. Something that was really amazing was a newfound love for plants and gardening. It used to be that Vijay, my spouse, was the gardener. I started just pouring water, taking care of plants, and it became a thing. At that time I was in bed most of the time. I read a lot. Braiding Sweetgrass was one of them. There were a ton of books and a lot of anti-caste work and conversations happening at the time – a lot of discussion, reading, and then planting. This led to wanting to develop art from orienting myself with a gardening practice and a connection with plants.

What kind of books did you read? What did you learn about?

I kind of go in and out of this anti-caste reading group, but they had a lot of literature and questions around “What does it mean to be in a dominant caste? How do you undo some of the violence that comes with that?” For me it’s through the arts.

What are some of the other things that are part of undoing the harm?

I was trained in Bharatanatyam, which is a dance form that was appropriated from inherited courtesan dance communities. It was packaged by upper castes and exported across the world. Every time I call my history through footwork or hand gestures, it’s also an act of violence because those communities were prevented from sharing, teaching, performing. It was their form, so undoing that is a critical act for me to think about.

At the same time, as an Asian origin person, in this cultural context you’re asked to orientalize yourself. The forces make you or want you to become exotic and put yourself in a stage space. Stages are an expression of colonization; they’re blank slates where you can impose your imagination and take it from place to place to place.

Being outdoors with plants, connecting with the place, thinking about my personal history and how I’m connected with other people’s personal histories, and leaning into the idea that the land forms us – something I learned from Cassandra Meyer. It’s complicated, because we’re on Dakota land and there are laws that don’t permit many Dakota communities to be here. What does that mean for me? Part of my engagement is around some of those ideas. It’s not like the land isn’t transforming or shifting on its own. Plants have a way of traveling and moving and with that whole ecosystem. I’m trying to figure out how to lean into where we’re at, and attempting in solidarity with other artists of color and gardeners to work through that complicated landscape.

This work, do you think you’ll ever get there in your lifetime?

Oh, no.

Are you okay with that?

I will give it my energy. I don’t think it’s possible in my lifetime. A lot of harm has been done and I’m part of it, in a way. We can articulate a path through conversation and engagement with everybody’s personal histories as a group.

How do you feel about the word resiliency? Some people love it, and some people hate it. How do you feel about it?

I don’t have any connections with the word resiliency, necessarily. I do feel like there’s something about the life force that all of us, including plants and other living beings, sort of assert in being here in the world and within ourselves. My illnesses has given me opportunities to let go of what I had built or created and to reform myself considering the events that have happened.

Is the iteration of what Prairie | Concrete currently what you originally came up with? What was the original concept of it when you first started?

It’s an ever evolving thing. With other people participating in it, the container, the fabric of what’s woven just emerges. I am the lead artist, so I’m sort of a holder of the container. In terms of the actual fabric itself, all of the people that are on the project are actually part of creating and evolving it.

Tia Simone Gardner was one of the PASP curators who invited me to propose a project. It was just an idea. I was still in bed a little bit. I just came up with a random idea based on things I had done before. I’m trying to shift my ways, but I would say I’m still within that line. The depth and evolution of it has definitely been impacted by choices of sites at Western Sculpture Park, Frogtown Farm and at Hidden Falls. Through others it also developed further in terms of who should be in the project and why.

The grant is primarily from the Joyce Foundation, and also Forecast and MRAC [Metro Regional Arts Council]. The Joyce Foundation supports artists of color, so that is a bulk of the funding. With those grants, I thought I would reroute it to other artists of color. The group that I’m working with is exclusively folks of color and indigenous folks. The other part of that is, most of the people that visit state parks, according to the DNR [Department of Natural Resources], are white. So finding ways to root ourselves in the outdoors is actually an important activity. Part of what I’m interested in is thinking about embodiment, coming from the body, thinking about our gut, exploring creativity from places of gentle curiosity.

Those aspects that I had come to value impacted who I chose to be on the artist team. Many of the artists have experience working in vulnerable communities. I invited people from all age groups into our work somehow, whether as participants in the workshops or as audiences. People who would contribute to the concepts that were engaged with because they have literal or practical knowledge and experience. That’s how the artists were chosen.

In the past I’ve worked with people who are lifetime artists, and I’ve invited folks from all walks of life that have maybe never performed before or been a part of an artistic performance. In this project that’s kind of shifted. Most of the people have a deep connection with their own art forms. I feel like with the pandemic I have a concern around artists fleeing the field because they don’t have enough support. So part of this work is to keep us going. A lot of the people are actually full artists, there are a few that have been a part of Aniccha Arts projects in the past. In that way, they have extensive experience, but not everyone identifies as an artist. That is the community that I’m working with, so that when we go on site we have that skill set to connect with communities.

Aniccha Arts, is that you, essentially?

Well, it’s funny you ask because when I make my own performances, I just go under my name. I feel free of the Aniccha Arts methods and practices because I can just be free. But with Aniccha Arts, I am the artistic director and Jasmine Kar Tang is the dramaturg. I would say that Aniccha Arts has always been collaborative, and it’s often been large-scale, at least in the past ten, eleven years. I feel like the research, the material, the how—all of that is knowledge that belongs to this collaborative mindset, even though I’m part of cultivating that. I wouldn’t say it’s me. I would say that I might come up with the next project idea or whatever, but I would say that the research and the knowledge and the culture work is held by different people that join in on those projects.

When you first started [Aniccha Arts], what was your intention? Because just like Prairie | Concrete, it started out as this different concept and shifted.

I think I just wanted a way to make weird ass shit. I wanted to make projects. I mean, I started out with ideas around interactivity, I went to school for interactive media. Right after I graduated in 2004, we presented a project. It’s been almost 20 years since we’ve published projects, and the initial ones are real experiments. I would say, you know, over the last 11 years or so they’ve really become more of a thing. I used to work with Piotr Szyhalski a lot. He has been a big part of shaping and building out Aniccha Arts. So it was Piotr, Jasmine, and myself from 2012 to about 2018. A lot of what it was was built at that time was working on a certain scale and working in collaboration with others. A lot of the evolution of the knowledge and research comes from those endeavors. Now I’m shifting into a different kind of being. We’ve always been process oriented, so each project is singular, it’s different. I would say that this land-focused aspect of the site-specific work and thinking about decolonization, how do those coexist in our practice, in our embodied presence? Especially given all the recent events we’ve been facing in the last five years, and more. It’s really coming to terms with that, finding a different way forward, and then reformation.

You talked about making weird art. Are you ever concerned about making it marketable or understandable? Is that important to you, or do you not care?

Part of the reason why we’re not a nonprofit is so we don’t have to serve an audience or board or anything. I am an independent artist. So it’s kind of weird, because Aniccha Arts is a collaborative, but it changes based on the project ideas and who’s in it.

I’m interested in the people that I work with first, and I’m interested in maintaining a practice that honors and respects the people within the work, and cultivating from that place. I went to art school, and I was trained as a designer, so that part of me is inside of me. It’s not like I’m ignoring audiences. In fact, thinking about audience navigation and challenging traditional audience mechanisms is absolutely a part of our trajectory, which is one of the threads of site-specific work. It asks viewers to think differently about how they engage with art. It’s not like I don’t care, but there is a consideration for what we want to make and how we want to engage in a place.

None of us actually know, because the scale has been so huge. It’s not like being in a theater where you have one idea and you find the universe inside of it. Often what ends up happening is you have all these multiple, simultaneous choreographies or actions happening, and whatever people engage with, they do. Even the performers don’t know what’s happening on the other side, or below them if they’re in a parking ramp. Even me, as the person who’s holding the container, may not be able to see everything all at the same time. There is a trust in the artistry and creativity of each person and their value for their gut, their improvised moment of how they engage with the space and the place. I am more interested in the process of how we are together, what we all care about, and the things that help us connect and create something more than, “Oh, it has to look this way or that way.” I’m hoping that the container holds all of us together from the observers, witnesses, audience, however we talk about the people that are new to the process, and then we have the performers, so it’s different each time.

So you don’t have actual choreography?

Not yet. I mean, there will be a mechanism or something that will help us understand. “Where do we start? Where do we end? How do we think about time and space?” That will be articulated, but I hope that choice, that individual agency for each performer or collaborator is at the center. If they don’t want to perform or be moving or do something, I hope they can exit as they need to. A lot of the durational events allow for that give and refusal. Refusing at every level is a critical value.

When you were talking about the performance and how it’s going to come about, I sense it’s kind of a parallel to nature, because nature comes and goes as it needs to. Was that your intention?

The idea is to lean into the ways that the land is here and learning from it. I know it’s a little anthropomorphic, but I think it’s about listening to the places we’re in. You see nature, but this is all grass. The grass was put there, and it’s mowed, so it’s complicated, and that is the point of Prairie | Concrete – that we’re in an urban setting, engaging with plants that may or may not be here on their own. It could be through certain facilitation, but I want to engage with it head on, and I want to create an environment where a bunch of us do.

I’m gonna go way back to a portion of the conversation. You say it’s important for humans to be out in nature, what are some benefits of being out in nature?

I think rooting ourselves in the outdoors. I feel like urban spaces, especially for folks of color, can feel unsafe. There’s a lot of initiatives happening right now where groups are trying to engage folks of color in the outdoors. There are a lot of reasons for the feeling of lack of safety. I think that that’s part of the transformation, to re-find ourselves with whatever’s around us in the Twin Cities environment, in St. Paul. I don’t think of it in terms of benefits, but I think there’s a lot to learn from the trees, the squirrels, and all the little beings around us about cues on how to live that maybe many of us have forgotten. It’s also important to lean into more of that, and to facilitate more of that to happen. I think that’s part of the changing of our ways, and it can’t happen in isolation. It has to happen in accumulation.

What are some of the things that you’re doing for Prairie | Concrete?

There are three sites where Prairie | Concrete will be held, and there will be three workshops at each site, and then there’s an event at each site. The workshops are in June and July, and then the events are either in August or September.

The workshops are anywhere from language to planting. There’s a Dakota language teacher in our group who would teach you to say your name and “I respect you” to the plant in Dakota, and we would plant the seeds. That could be a workshop. Another workshop could be papier-macheing trees, getting to know the skin of the trees, through the papier-mache act. There is a [workshop on] working with clay and movement, engaging in listening activities with plants. Sound-making with gourds, and so on. There are a few possibilities, and we’re still figuring out what will happen at different workshops. There is also really an engagement in observing and witnessing. What does it mean to do that? And using clay, for example, as a way to engage with your observation, to materialize that. We are making seed balls as well, with native seeds, that people can take with them and plant the seed ball anywhere that they feel native plants should be growing.

The workshops are where the communities can engage, but the performances we’ll see what kind of relationships get built and be porous about that. I’m thinking about equity and payment for people who are performing, those are things to consider in terms of the practice, but as long as there’s reciprocity built into the experience, I feel we’re kind of open.

I want that to lead the way – that you can be creative with almost anything. You don’t need a particular material in order for you to be an artist, needing a crayon or a sheet of paper, it can be other things, the little stuff that you find around. The idea of creativity, there’s something about cultivating a sense of life force. This is why I’m such a believer in the arts, because it facilitates the life force to be cultivated and gives you a sense of power, of self, of being with yourself and that you can make something. It could just be between you and the artwork. That part is what I believe in, and it drives me to make things. I want to invite others into that world and to just keep inviting people into artistic creative practices.