Suso Phizer is a Philadelphia based artist and social worker who specializes in group process. In her artwork she uses performance and video to explore relational dynamics, often involving herself and her collaborators. Her most recent work, Utopia, documents an unscripted fight with her partner. Following this, she uses a role-reversal exercise to re-enact the fight and to feel into each other’s performances of anger, hurt, and tenderness. This piece was created from the project Videowords by Magmart, whereby thirty international artists were each given a word to interpret, the words acting as a catalyst for the video piece. Each word represents many aspects of human life and emotion – it is therefore up to the artist to reflect on the word and relocate those thoughts into a short film. Suso was given the word Utopia.
You got given the word utopia. I wanted to ask what that word means to you? For me if I hear the word utopia, I think of something quite saturated and dreamy with colour, whereas I noticed your work was the opposite, very monotone and unfiltered. It resembled real life.
I get tense when I think about the notion of utopia. I feel a bit frozen by the idealism and the fear of some kind of utopic project having devastating consequences. What comes to my mind is historical utopian projects that at times have been brutal and genocidal. So I was just sitting with that word, thinking, how do I relate to this word, and what kept coming to mind is my romantic relationship. There’s some kind of striving after perfection in that realm, that I think in some ways is foolish and doomed and yet, it seems that my partner and I both enter that mindset. Especially in moments of rupture, there’s this kind of urgency that emerges, a part of me that demands for the way we treat one another to be exceptional. So I think that my relationship is the arena in which I could honestly say I am partaking in a utopian project. It’s maybe the area of my life where I have enough power to give me the courage, or sometimes, the arrogance, to try for utopia. So that’s how I landed on this mundane reality.
I like that a lot. A relationship with a partner feels somewhat tied with control/loss of control. Whether this carries on, how much effort I put into this, where this completely comes to a halt. And sometimes that power can be a little bit overwhelming.
And when you say that it makes me think of the intoxication of that power. It can be corrupting and it can be used in a corrupt way. It makes me think of “parallel process” which is a term from the therapy world. It comes from a systems approach, and it refers to how dynamics that are happening at higher levels of a system tend to replicate at lower levels and vice versa. For example, with a relationship, if I have some utopian ideals in the culture I’m in but feel disempowered and totally overwhelmed to enact those ideals then I might try to act out those ideals in the realm in which I do have power. And in doing that I could be described as enacting a parallel process with my partner to what’s happening in the world outside of our relationship. Some of the power dynamics that happen between us can be understood as an acting out of larger societal themes around power and gender.
I didn’t see much of a gender dynamic as I was watching the video. It felt very neutral.
Yes I agree – somehow with the length of the video and the exercise that we were doing, of role reversal, and trying to get deeper and deeper into each other’s performance of anger, there ends up being more of a twinning and mirroring. We both play both roles. I don’t think this video prioritises showcasing a differentiation very much – it’s more like role confusion.
In the video there’s cuts between a role-played fight and a real fight between you two. Is the original fight the footage towards the end? Because I couldn’t quite tell – was that the point, not being able to figure out which one is acted and which one the original?
The original plan was to try to write a script for a fictional fight together, based on our past experiences. But then we had an argument on camera organically as I was beginning to shoot. It was a precious opportunity, so I decided to change course. Yes, the video comes to a close with some clips from the real fight. There’s a part in the middle and beginning that has some of the real fight in it as well, so it is worked in and it is meant to be ambiguous to some extent.
I’m invested in the slippage between performance and the real, and I look to methods like Theatre of the Oppressed and Psychodrama for inspiration in that space, as well as other therapeutic and theatrical tools that have been developed to help people re-enact and intervene on their personal experiences. These structured re-enactments can end up feeling in some ways more real and have more emotional depth than the original incident.
I’m really interested in the research that surrounds this topic. I wanted to ask if you had any book recommendations? What are you reading at the moment?
Well now I’m reading Family Lexicon which I can see being somewhat relevant to this topic in her relationship to reality and fiction – that’s by Natalia Ginzburg. I’ve also been revisiting Internal Family Systems Therapy by Richard Schwartz and Martha Sweezy which I draw a lot of inspiration from. For work I provide therapy, which heavily informs my art practice. Internal Family Systems is a theory for differentiating the self into parts, accessing those parts and putting them in conversation with one another. In some ways it’s very compatible with Psychodrama, which often involves acting out conversations between people from your past, or parts of yourself. If you are interested in learning more about Psychodrama, I recommend Scott Giacomucci’s book called Social Work, Sociometry, and Psychodrama (it is available for free here). For more about Theatre of the Oppressed, I recommend Theatre of the Oppressed by Augusto Boal.
I wanted you to ask what pushes you to make this sort of work like what inspires you. I’m imagining the therapy has a big role to play.
Honestly, I think that the therapy came out of doing this sort of work more so than the other way around. I had a career change – I was in the art world for ten years or so and then I discovered Tavistock Group Relations Conferences, which are a niche form of experiential pedagogy. They are intensive, very chaotic and exciting 3-5 day events involving something called here-and-now group process, in which a group’s task is to get to know itself over the course of those days. So basically, you’re sitting in a room full of people, and people kind of don’t know what they’re there for – there’s a lot of silence and tension. The instructions in the conference are hard to take in because in a way the task feels impossibly simple: the task being to get to know the group in the here-and-now.
It feels like a social meditation, but eventually more chaotic and aggressive and messy than one might associate with meditation. I found out about these conferences from a film – my partner (the same one in Utopia, Fred) showed me this film called The Task by Leigh Ledare. The Task shows a Group Relations Conference unfolding, and as I watched I fell in love with Group Relations, and I went on to participate in conferences, and reoriented my art practice around group process.
I’ve come to be obsessed with making art about the “here and now” of groups as my way into looking at the dynamics that happen on every level of society. One of my first projects in this style was a collaboration between me and my friend Anne Lukins. We studied our friendship in the video, and framed our dynamic as a microcosm of dynamics in white female friendships. It was very opening for me to legitimise investigating what’s present, as opposed to striving after something that isn’t here yet.
I do think it’s inspiring to deal with the present and relationships that are happening right now but sometimes with my own work it sets me back, especially when I started doing performance. I used to paint, and with it had that separation, there was art and then my life, however I think especially when you sway into this topic, the practice and the everyday both sort of slur into one. What do you do? Do you want to keep the barrier or are you happy to let it flow between?
I think those boundaries are really important. And there’s been times when I was in grad school, discovering here and now group process I started to feel like there was no differentiation, and at every moment of my life there was part of me that was like “do I turn on the recorder? How could this moment enter into the video I’m working on at the minute?” And I think I’m not in that head space anymore – I’m appreciating that there’s a lot more boundaries at this point in my life. Of course, that blurriness, the slurring as you put it, I like that, never goes away – because through memory, every moment is available to be mined for content. I think it is wonderful in some ways to not have boundaries and to always feel like an artist, but it’s very taxing. For one thing, that dual mindset of artmaking, where you’re both inside the experience and trying to look at it from a viewer’s perspective, is exhausting.
Do you have a studio space?
I don’t – I don’t currently gravitate towards that way of working. When I’m in the studio I end up feeling lots of pressure, and I’m sure at some point in my life this will probably change but at this moment there’s excitement in just being in my living spaces or other non-art spaces as I make art. Even just the way I’m thinking about drawing or the way I think about the set of videos has really shifted. Instead of feeling gravitated towards finding blank spaces I feel very drawn towards working on top of or inside of whatever is there. I liked shooting in my bedroom for example. It’s just jiving with my current state of mind.