Feminist Interview Project: Katherine Guinness in Conversation with Jasmine Dillavou

The Feminist Interview Project, organized by Katherine Guinness and Jocelyn Marshall on behalf of CAA’s Committee for Women in the Arts, examines the practices of feminism by interviewing a range of scholars and artists, preserving oral histories while expanding the boundaries of what might be considered feminist. Throughout its interviews, this project reimagines the possibilities of feminist practice and feminist futures.

For our ongoing collaboration with Art Journal Open, the Feminist Interview Project is excited to present artist Jasmine Dillavou in conversation with Katherine Guinness, lecturer in art history at the University of Queensland. The two met for a conversation over Zoom on October 14, 2021.

Jasmine Dillavou performing Viva Voce at Kreuser Gallery, 2021 (photograph by Stellar Propeller Photography; provided by the artist)

Katherine Guinness:  I just want to start off by saying thank you so much for doing this interview. Can you talk a bit about yourself and your practice to begin with?

Jasmine Dillavou: My name is Jasmine Dillavou. I’m a Boricua artist, educator, community activist, and program co-director for Non Book Club Book Club here in Colorado Springs, along with a bunch of other hats. But that’s who I am in a little nutshell.

KG: My first question, which we ask everyone to kick off the Feminist Interview Project, is: What is feminism to you?

JD: To me, feminism means social, economic, and political equality for everyone, with an important focus on underrepresented folks and all their intersections of identity. I think feminism no longer means this generalized and over-popularized catchphrase of rights for women because that doesn’t cover the largeness that feminism is. It’s about equity, it’s about holding the door open for those coming in behind us. It’s about altering the starting line, and the finishing line, and the entirety of the track.

KG: To follow on that, what is the relationship between feminism—as you define it—and your scholarly and artistic practice? From my experience of your work, especially within the community, where it’s so often central, they seem inextricably linked.

JD: My practice focuses on storytelling as an activist tool, in that it focuses on education, performance, and social engagement as tools for change. And not just beauty and culture and all the things that we so often like to engage in with the arts. My work acts—I hope—as a stage for viewers to come sit with me in conversations as I research and delve into and break apart the binaries that we’re constantly experiencing. The most important things that I focus on in my work are about the intersections of gender, class, and religion. But, within the largeness that we’re talking about with feminism, it’s also about honing our personal stories, our personal struggles, and creating a platform where other people then feel safe to tell their stories. It’s a challenge, right? Saying, “I’m going to challenge American beauty standards, I’m going to challenge stories of colonization,” because it’s not strictly about an ego-centered vision of what white feminism is. It’s this bigger, larger thing that says that our stories, as individuals, and intersections of our identities are just as valuable and just as important. We have to make space for them.

I hope that feminism is the forefront of my practice. I hope that every time I get on stage, I’m saying this is about equality, this is about equity. It’s more than just what you see—which could be physical movement, or costuming, or eating, or extracting, or whatever. It’s a storytelling tool that helps people access these bigger ideas like restoration and rebellion and reparation.

Femininity is performative. Every day, I put on my mask, and I walk into the world, and I use it as ritual. I use it as a power-making tool.

KG: You said your work isn’t just about beauty and culture, and although so much of your work is beautiful, it’s also destructive. Outwardly, you embrace highly stereotyped objects of femininity and embrace aesthetic beauty, but then it gets very difficult to sit with. How do you see that aesthetic and that form of the “highly feminine”—or at least what’s coded in our culture as “highly feminine”—playing a role in your work?

JD: Definitely. The coded femininity, the softness, sheer materials, lipstick, jewelry, bathing, hair, all these things are coded language that we’ve taken as our feminine id. There’s a storytelling aspect; some sort of channeling with vintage intimacy, softness, and the softness of a woman, but then there’s the story. We’re going to push right past all of that and tell you a story, a story that’s about climate change, about colonization by gentrification. I’m drawing parallels, and it’s all coded language, and it’s all fake, and it’s all performative. Femininity is performative. Every day, I put on my mask, and I walk into the world, and I use it as ritual. I use it as a power-making tool.

And I’m very conscious. I just did a piece at the Kreuser Gallery for a performance series called Viva Voce in which I use red lipstick to make markings that create hieroglyphics of caring oral tradition. The idea of red lipstick is coded as feminine, as a sexy thing that so closely ties to Latinas. And often Latinas, and Hispanic women are hypersexualized, or looked at as an ideal: feminine, curvy, lush. You can Google Latina and you know what’s going to come up. It’s not me. And all of that becomes performance. The gender binary is gone, but it’s also so deeply coded and rooted in who I feel like I’ve had to be as a woman, as a person. Performing for the male gaze, the Western gaze, the white gaze; it’s all integral to the performance. I constantly try to figure it out—what is my feminine view? Why does it look so different than my white female counterparts’ femininity? And why is mine coded so differently? And so, I dig into it, I make it the forefront of the conversation, I use the makeup, use the jewelry, use the body. I put it right on display.

I frequently use vintage nightgowns as a performance costume. They’re neutral. They’re all the same material. They have this feel of softness, and they feel hyperfeminine to me, they feel like ideal feminism and make me think of my mom waking up in the morning. It’s entrenched in my memory of womanhood. So, in my work I can say: “Here’s this very feminine, soft thing, and then let me like, fuck it all up because it’s not tethered to anything that has do with my worth.” And maybe it makes people listen a little bit better. Maybe it makes them say, “Now I want to listen to this story of rebellion, this narrative extraction.”

KG: Do you think that it’s a Trojan horse in a way? That in using those forms and codes, people are more willing to engage with your work? And then, once engaged, you can slip in like, “No, listen!”?

JD: I think pretty much all female artists right now feel that way to some extent. Especially as code switching POC artists, we are constantly like, “This is what I present so I can get in the door so that I can actually show you what I’m trying to say, this is exactly what I need to give you so that I can have access so that you can finally start listening.”

KG: It’s something that’s always happening. Period.

Jasmine Dillavou performing Pageant Answers, October 4, 2019, Colorado Springs, CO (photograph provided by the artist)

JD: When I stand in front of this store dressed like a pageant queen, that’s just life. It’s all pageantry, and it sort of feels like when we put this high femininity up on the platform, suddenly, people want to listen to you. There’s a sense of, “You’re an ideal and I’m ready; give me all that you want to tell me.”  

KG: I’ve had so many amazing experiences with those performances in which you’re dressed in a lot of costume jewelry and makeup, and you’re on a pedestal of some sort—whether you’re standing on a box, or it’s a literal pedestal in a park downtown. I especially enjoy watching the audience—watching who stops, who passes, and how you draw in that engagement within the public sphere.  

JD: I think that’s the ultimate activist tool—creating a platform where I can tell my story. And because of that, the people coming behind me feel safe to do that, too. You’re making the safe space for voices to be cared for and nourished. Not everyone is going to like it, that’s the nature of the arts. And especially with performance art, especially in a work-in-progress–style town like Colorado Springs. We have to set the stage for the next person to come in. We have to coddle and care for it because there’s not enough of it. And there historically hasn’t been—from academia to the professional, contemporary art world and everywhere in between—there’s never going to be enough room if we don’t make room for emerging artists in our town to feel as though there is space for them, space saved for their narratives to come alive, or for them to take a risk or to feel as though these tough to tell stories are totally worthwhile. That’s the job. What else are we doing? We aren’t just navigating a complicated and classist and messed up contemporary art world; we have a job.

KG: You are deeply embedded in the community of Colorado Springs. Which, as you mentioned, is not a large or coastal city, but does have a large community of artists. You co-founded the Non Book Club Book Club, you’re curating local artists at the Ephemera space alongside curated dinners, your performances happen across the city, not just in galleries—everywhere from public parks to vintage stores.  Building that community, sustaining it, what does that mean to your practice?

JD: I think the place to start with that question is that it is such a privilege to be an artist. We thrive in a culture of hierarchy and an identification model. It’s complicated to me to capitalize on emerging artists and POC artists. So, it is integral to my duty and responsibility to use my platforms correctly. What we do is serious, it’s intense, and that’s why it’s so special that when we start learning to navigate our communities, when we start getting some sort of voice or resources that we use our mic time. Right? Everything is a platform. We can deny it, or we can see the arts as beautiful; they bring culture to the city, they make it more colorful, but also, it keeps people alive.

I have all these things that I’m cooking up all the time. 100 Potions for Puerto Rico happened because of the hurricanes [in Puerto Rico in 2018] and everything was very scary. I realized that the only thing I had power in was the arts and making something, because when I make stuff people listen. And when people are listening, I can get them to donate, or care, or do anything. So, I launched the project which started getting attention from the community. It made me realize this is so much bigger than making pretty sculptures. This is activism. This is how we can have any change in the world. That’s so much power!

There needs to be social engagement, there needs to be a way people can educate themselves further. We are responsible for what this community is. The Non Book Club Book Club, which JD Sell and I started right out of university, is just a space for young artists to hang out and talk. It’s become a safe place for emerging voices to come together in a place that had nothing to do with academia.

We tried to use our platform as a safe space for artists. We have a tiny platform, we don’t have any money, we don’t have a physical space, but we have each other—strongly. We have a community of young people who really give a shit about this town. They deserve a space that is safe and easy to navigate. As directors, we help initiate conversation, but that’s about it. We hold space and we bring beer. It’s really such an easy, small thing to take care of people here. And it’s also a big responsibility. We’re a work in progress community; we’re constantly going to be trying to find out who we are and making a new identity for ourselves as an arts community. There’s this amazing thing happening right now, where we have so many emerging voices coming out of the woodwork, which are not necessarily coming out of the university. They’re coming to us from high school, from the military, and doing incredible things that will change the face of our town.

I’m lucky because with Ephemera I get to have walls, right? I don’t have any oversight or rules with those walls, so I can just say, “I got walls for you! Do you want walls?” And I’m starting to realize that maybe, really, the job is just holding space. The job is sharing the resources I have. That’s the whole holding the door open for each other thing. That’s all we’re doing and that’s the most important job I’ve ever had in my whole life.

KG:  What advice do you have for artists who may not be in larger cities or in an MFA program?

JD: I think about that a lot—especially if I was talking to a young Jasmine; a Latina artist trying to pave an art road I was unfamiliar with, trying to navigate a white art world that was not set up for you, in a pretty conservative town full of white male artists. Coming to the school system coming out of it or not going into it at all, but just trying to navigate the art world with a fresh emerging voice is to see yourself as equally as worthy as the most mediocre white man making art in your town. You are so worthy. And you are so safe, and you are so okay. Your history and the things that you care about are taught as electives, you have to find it yourself.

It’s about investing in yourself and your story, in your family, your friends, your community. It’s about being involved, being present, and showing face. But what does that mean—having to learn to navigate a white art world and code switch? You don’t have to give your pain to everyone. You don’t have to give access to everyone or tell your story all the time. But you do have to be true to your story because someone’s going to see that and relate and feel so seen and protected and held by your story. Your community is yours. There’s this fear like we need to win, or talk about all of feminism, or that we need to solve the world’s biggest problems. But that’s a waste of energy and time. It’s so ego driven. The most important thing I got out of university was the people that I walked into the community with, that handful of artists that all did DIY installs together and missed class because we were out seeing art shows. I often think about my senior year, the final week around graduation, but there were tickets to Chicago to see Christian Boltanski for about forty dollars if we booked them immediately. I thought, alright, I’m walking out of class, I’m going to fail my final exam, but I got to see Boltanski with my peers.  

KG: So, your advice is to blow off class [laughs].

What communities do you claim and what communities claim you? And how do you understand the relationship and responsibility, especially through your artistic practice, to those varying communities?

JD: Yes and no! I mean, make garbage, go to class, I don’t care. Do whatever it is you have to do to navigate the school system but invest in the people. Walk away with a connection. I still talk to my professors who I feel profoundly connected to. I just needed to talk about my experiences, I needed to delve into who I am so that I can help other people feel safe in doing that too. Simple as that.

KG: We’ve been talking a lot about local community. But I want to ask you, in a broader sense: what communities do you claim and what communities claim you? And how do you understand the relationship and responsibility, especially through your artistic practice, to those varying communities?

JD: Latinx and Hispanic communities—we are so broad and so diverse, and are so intricately connected because of our lived experiences, whether that’s familial—very common experiences that we have with our parents and our siblings, and our ancestors—religious connection, spiritual connections, These are communities that I feel connected to, and when they come to my shows or presentations, they really get it. And it makes me feel, this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to make work for you. Not just to educate the community but for you. Because this is shared experience that we have. It’s like, we’re sitting in the living room together, sharing a meal. That is the experience I want. And those are communities I want to cater to.

Moving forward and into adulthood, I’m starting to see more of this connection. Additionally, I feel closely tied to spiritual community and people who use ritual altar-making and brujería in their work. This isn’t performance art, it’s not theater, it’s ritual. Like you’re casting a spell alongside us, we’re doing the magical work of telling a story. When you’re up on the stage, you’re doing something more than theater. It isn’t pretend; it is so deeply real, so deeply magical. And you feel it. This is self-care as magic. This is storytelling as time-changing as time travel.

KG: So much of your work is improvisational and collaborative—centered on a live audience experience. How has the pandemic changed that experience and those relationships?

JD: For anyone who does live poetry or performance or storytelling or narrative work, the pandemic hit us different. It hit different not having anyone to share with besides someone across the computer screen, and it sucked. And so, I turned more to poetry, writing, and video recording as well as movement work I made for myself. It was more like research and self-work. But it really messed me up to not be in a space where I could work alongside anyone. And it was super lonely.

Jasmine Dillavou and Ashley Cornelius performing A Seat at the Table at Concrete Coyote, 2021 (photograph provided the artist)

But then, I was able to perform with Ashley Cornelius [spoken word artist and the 2021 Pikes Peak Poet Laureate] for A Seat at the Table, which felt so good. I felt like my spirit was electrified. And I really needed it, and I think she did too. She’s a poet, and she’s a performer and not having a stage sucks. Working alongside people is like the only thing that makes me feel invigorated. I also feel lucky getting to work alongside my partner for Ephemera—having that space, those walls, it’s something we put into existence with our brains. That’s powerful! Every two months, artists get to come in and do full takeovers of the space. And then the chefs design a menu around their artwork. And as of right now, artists keep 100 percent of their proceeds. It is a labor of love. And it matters a lot because we get to put people on our walls that would otherwise not get that.

KG: That is such a such a brilliant way of creating audience and finding new ways to exhibit work. So much of your work is about cooking and eating anyway.

JD: Yeah, food is already integral to my culture and story. Eating and sharing—it’s in my heart, it’s intimate. I think about why the table keeps coming up in my life, and it’s because it’s an intimate place. We share food, we eat in front of each other, we make something for each other. It is like giving birth right in front of someone across the table; so intense and beautiful to think about food as cultural experience, or romantic, or intimate. It connects Ephemera, it connects A Seat at the Table with Ashley Cornelius. The table is where all the good and bad things of your life happen; memories of doing homework, fights, where you totally fell in love over the most romantic dinner you’ve ever had, so much boldness and life around this thing. And so, all of a sudden, I find that the table is an integral symbol of my practice now but am realizing too that it’s not sudden at all, it’s a lifetime coming. And then I get to come back to that at Ephemera every day and feed people good, accessible, locally focused food—art created by my partner, the chef—and also surrounded by art on the walls—it’s so cool, what a great opportunity to connect these icons in my life together! 

KG: That’s amazing. Clearly, collaboration is important for you. How do you find collaborators? Can you speak more about collaboration in your work?

JD: It’s a delicate process. I do lots of collaboration, I’ve assisted on a lot of work, and I’ve given tons of my labor to many people I love for years and years and years now. It feels really good. But true collaboration has to be treated delicately, it has to be protected and nurtured. You’re sharing this really intimate and powerful thing—you’re sharing your whole brain with someone. That is not to be taken lightly. As I move through my artistic collaborations, I realized I’m more interested in collaborating with female artists and POC artists, people who I can have these shared experiences with artistically and on a stage. I’m opening up a part of myself from here on out that I do not want to give access to—not to cis white males. I honestly don’t, I don’t care what white cis male sculptors are making, I don’t. I don’t! I know that sounds harsh. I don’t care. I want to see this community flourish and be filled with art of collaborations between people with shared experiences, who do not get the stage often enough.

And I’m going to put this into the universe, right? We speak it into existence, that I really want to create a space—a physical space—in town that’s driven for POC artists, queer artists. I want to encourage and be a space holder, let me speak it into existence. I don’t quite know how it’s going to happen, but we can only be better with more access and more space, it can only make the community stronger and better.

KG: Absolutely. And thank you for the labor you’re doing with that holding, with that opening, with your walls and your tables and your infrastructure throughout this town. Thank you so much for speaking with me.

JD: Thank you. I appreciate you being a space holder right now. So that we can do the labor of taking care of each other’s stories.

Jasmine Dillavou is a Boricua mixed-media and performance artist based in Colorado. Dillavou received a BA in Visual and Performing Arts from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. She has shown work at numerous exhibition spaces including Understudy, GOCA 121, and A.I.R Gallery, New York. She co-directs a program called Non Book Club Book Club in Southern Colorado and runs a curation program for Ephemera Dinners. Her passions lie in documenting the personal and complex Latinx experience.

Katherine Guinness is a theorist and historian of contemporary art. She is a lecturer in Art History at the University of Queensland and is the author of the first academic monograph on German artist Rosemarie Trockel, Schizogenesis (University of Minnesota Press, 2019), as well as co-author of The Influencer Factory: A Marxist Theory of Corporate Personhood on YouTube, which is forthcoming from Stanford University Press.