Inherently Interdisciplinary: Jasmine Dreame Wagner Interviewed by Robert Rubsam

The artist on how her practices influence one another, who gets to be a “Renaissance man,” and the significance of DIY ethics.

Portrait of Jasmine Dreame Wagner in a blue-lit room

Jasmine Dreame Wagner. Courtesy of the artist.

Jasmine Dreame Wagner has always worked within multiple worlds. She has published two books of poetry as well as multiple chapbooks that toe the line between the poetic and the reported. She has directed and scored multiple short films, received grants to create sound works from archival materials, and has been making music for many years now. “Above all things,” she recently told For the Rabbits, “I make music to connect with other people.” Wagner’s new EP, Switchblade Moon, is an intense and occasionally disquieting listen, but an unsettlingly familiar one. Written over several years and recorded with a number of collaborators both old and new, the EP finds her working in a variety of modes. Its four tracks of whispered vocals and scraping strings dig into the ugly underbelly of the American self-imagination.

—Robert Rubsam

Robert RubsamYou’ve published several books of poetry and literary essays, but we’re talking because of your new EP, Switchblade Moon. What does it mean, for you, to be an interdisciplinary artist? Do you see disciplines as being separate but mutually reinforcing, or is it more complex?

Jasmine Dreame WagnerI’m often asked what I mean by multidisciplinary artist. People can be confused by interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary as descriptors, especially when they’ve been introduced to my work through a poem or a song. Interdisciplinary works incorporate several disciplines into a piece or performance. Multidisciplinary artists work across disciplines, creating in diverse fields but not necessarily integrating them. I do both. When I’m creatively blocked, turning to another discipline frees up my unconscious—frozen areas thaw themselves out as I focus elsewhere. If there’s a common thread between disciplines, I’d say that my work is grounded in the lyric, connected to the breath, body-centered, invested in accumulations.

On the practical side of making multidisciplinary work, I’ve been writing poems and zines, publishing in magazines, and playing art music in some fashion—participating in the DIY ecosystem—since I was a teenager. And when I say DIY, I specifically mean a practice that operates outside of corporations and institutions, distinct from the depoliticized DIY that denotes “arts and crafts” or unpolitical platform-enabled music. When I produce music, I’m creating on my own, or with friends, in an independent spirit, sacrificing neither vision nor quality or skill. DIY spaces, house shows, and artist-programmed performances in alternative spaces are a complex form of open-source technology, a social practice in which anyone can learn the code and participate in anti-corporate, egalitarian, community-oriented, and politically centered work.

As for the mutually reinforcing nature of interdisciplinary practice, you don’t need to know the history of the ballad or the blues to recognize that a song is a poem or that a painter’s stroke on canvas is similar to a dancer’s movement in space. When I discern the pulse of a brush through oil or see a dancer’s arc onstage, I feel like I’m witnessing very similar things. Gestures are building blocks whose accumulations, repetitions, and variations create meaning; artists take materials, air and sound and light, and use them to connect people emotionally over distance and time. At the basic level of gesture, all artistic disciplines are trying to speak the same language. Art is inherently interdisciplinary.

Video still from Switchblade Moon music video by Jasmine Dreame Wagner moth sitting on pink flowers

Still from Switchblade Moon music video, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

RRFor this EP, you put together a number of musicians, shot the video for Switchblade Moon with Jonathan Schwarz, and edited with Maisie Weissman. How do you choose your collaborators?

JDWJon is the spouse of my college friend, Mira Lew, a film producer. Maisie is the spouse of my poet friend, Daniel Nester. I tend to work with friends and with friends of friends. That said, I was approached by animation artist and UX/UI designer Dai Oinuma about creating an interactive video game based on my poem “Metronome,” which he read in a literary magazine. It’s incredible to see a visual artist create a three-dimensional world based on my words.

RRHow much of what happens in the studio comes from your writing and direction versus the ideas your collaborators bring to the recording?

JDWSpeaking specifically of music and its arrangement, I’ll typically first write a song, then generate ideas for parts. Then I’ll rehearse with collaborators, seeing what’s possible, what sounds good, brainstorming ideas for mics, effects, production tricks. In rehearsals for Switchblade Moon and in the studio, I had conversations about the textural landscape of the recording. I wanted to capture sounds that conjured images: scratch tones and flautando bowing across the double bass strings, evoking the sound of airplane wings; cymbal scrapes echoing equipment in shuttered factories; a marching snare battle call that would’ve ricocheted over a hill during the Revolutionary War. When recording guitars I spoke with Oscar Albis Rodriguez about how I wanted to capture a line that felt like a sour child of Jimi Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner; Charlie Rauh and I meditated on spaghetti western soundtracks until we arrived at a phrase with a similar feel to Ennio Morricone’s baritone twang. Each melody lasts a few bars and resonates the way a poetic image would on a page.

My performance work, particularly Lovely Guns of Glacial Shifting, is also collaborative. The piece, which has been produced as a staged reading and an experimental theater performance (and which I’m in the process of developing into an opera), is about many things, among them the way that industrial ruins function as negatives of the products and public works that the industries that created them continue to produce. Vermont quarries provided the marble that gave rise to the New York Public Library and the buildings of the National Mall in Washington, DC, including the Department of Justice and the Smithsonian. What is extracted in one place rises in another. There is a balance and a reciprocity between natural resources that are extracted, shared, stolen, and sold, and the culture created from them, which is also a commercial product marketed and exported around the globe.

Today, the quarries remain privately owned yet function in social life as collective spaces used for recreation—diving, hiking, and relaxing. The rocks are home to both native flora and invasive species, litter and graffiti dating back to the 1920s, planned trails and improvised parking lots. I was filming the water’s refracted light when a swimmer approached me to say how the rocks reminded him of a stage and how wonderful he thought it would be to recite Shakespeare on the marble. On my first visit to the quarry, I’d felt a similar desire to create drama, and yet I didn’t want to stage anything classically structured at the site. Instead, I was interested in using sound, imagery, and text sourced from the graffiti to create a poetic commons, open-source theater. The libretto becomes a framework for improvised music, interpretive movement, and visual installation steeped with a sense of recreation between performers.

Small theatrical performance of Extinct Attractions Lovely Gunsof Glacial Shifting at Taylor Road Barn in vaulted room with images projected behind performers

Jasmine Dreame Wagner’s Extinct Attractions: Lovely Guns of Glacial Shifting at Taylor Road Barn, 2019. Photo by Dana Maiden.

RR You’ve mentioned that working across disciplines can lead you to feel like you’re in-between various artistic worlds.

JDWI’m definitely working across separate worlds. In the years that it took to write, arrange, record, mix, master, press, and distribute the record, I also published two full-length books and six chapbooks while working for organizations that fight hunger and advocate for equitable practices and policies in the arts. I’ve always been a person who puts a lot on their plate. The myth that an artist needs to specialize and give up other passions, including day jobs, to be considered legitimate is harmful. In the early days of working on the record, I jumped from a studio session in New York to launch my second book, On a Clear Day, at a conference in Washington, DC, taking a day off from the conference to meet with Senator Schumer’s legislative team and deliver seventy-five pages of testimony I collected from artists speaking in defense of the Affordable Care Act. Then I was back in Brooklyn, editing and mixing, writing poems by hand.

While I’m creating I rarely feel like one practice is separate from the others. If I feel “in-between,” it’s likely because I’ve interfaced with institutions that create artificial boundaries between disciplines as a means of making efficient decisions. Poets grouped into one category, composers into another, etcetera—this segmentation is common in grant and fellowship applications. Many times, when seeking support, artists working in multiple fields must slim down their CVs and present themselves as professionals focused on a single path. Our efficiency-driven society prefers a simple means of classifying abilities, rating expertise, and placing a valuation on an artist’s career. This attitude is a curse of capitalism, and it’s something I work against. While I’m not railing against institutions (residencies have supported my work, and my MFA allowed me time to write poems, make music, and screenprint), I’m critical of our culture’s habit of reducing a person to their one most employable, marketable skill.

Gender also plays a role in feeling “in-between.” Male artists are able to enter creative fields as autodidacts and gain legitimacy as “Renaissance men” as they experiment across various disciplines. For women, nonbinary people, and BIPOC, establishing a wide-ranging career is not always as easy. We’re pressured to earn degrees, affiliate with established galleries or record labels, and achieve an insane level of visible commercial success in order to be perceived as artists and not dilettantes. In our communities, we’re expected to take on unglamorous caretaking and administrative roles, and we bear the brunt of bad behavior from those in power. We have fewer role models at the level of recognition where the average person would learn our work as canon. While commercialization is not progress, and visibility is not the key to equity, I’d love to live in a world where artists from Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party are as widely recognized as Warhol is on a t-shirt. Women, nonbinary people, and BIPOC need equitable social policies, leadership opportunities, and resources to erode the implicit bias that pervades our cultural atmosphere and leads to rigid hierarchies that are outmoded, misogynist, and racist. We need a widespread cultural understanding that we don’t have to specialize to the detriment of other talents, that we can do many things well, and that we don’t need to “pick a lane” or quiet our ambitions.

Jasmine Dreame Wagner walking in front of abandoned industrial building

Still from Switchblade Moon music video, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

I’d also like to emphasize that the traditions that ground experimental interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary work today—from jazz to pop music with visuals, poetry in performance, work that engages with the healing arts—aren’t the products of conservatories. They developed from Black spiritual music that survived the slave trade to be re-created as the blues, the ballad, spoken word, gospel music, and ritual performance—art forms that were created by people who weren’t considered equals by their managers and executives or by the corporations and institutions that profited from their work. Any American art practice that is committed to anti-capitalist or anti-racist practice today is going to be influenced by Black art traditions and will transgress disciplinary boundaries. Right now, there is a disconnect between our institutions’ need for profit through specialization and cult of personality and the greater societal need for comprehensive social justice.

RR Do you think there’s a certain institutional instinct in the art world that understands the realm of publishers and universities but not that of an independent musician?

JDWThe limiting instinct extends beyond publishers and universities. I remember being shocked when I learned that Paul Bowles, whose novel The Sheltering Sky scared the heck out of me as a young reader, was also an accomplished poet, pianist, and composer. I wished I’d been introduced to his work holistically, known early on that his work was diverse, and not only heard him described as a novelist. Learning his life story, and that of his partner Jane, that they were queer and gender nonconforming, was important to me. Equally as important is Laurie Anderson’s influence. Her pop music was a gateway drug, but knowing her as a musician doesn’t even tap the surface of her performance work, drawing and painting, fiction, sculpture, filmmaking, and VR. 

As a young person, I wished I could’ve learned about art integratively instead of in segmented bits: art, music, English, theater as an extracurricular. I’d like to see our culture shift to value multivalent expression, adaptability, and curiosity over virtuosity and commercial appeal. As an audience member, I don’t want to be influenced or impressed; I want to be moved with compassion and inspired to experiment. I don’t need to feel transfixed by an impressive artifact; I want art to make me feel like things are possible for me, and for others.

Jasmine Dreame Wagner’s EP Switchblade Moon is available on Bandcamp.

Robert Rubsam is a writer whose work has been published in the New York Times Magazine, The Baffler, Commonweal, and Texas Monthly, among others.

Lovely Guns of Glacial Shifting by Jasmine Dreame Wagner
A New North Star: George Ferrandi’s Jump!Star by Jasmine Dreame Wagner
Blue and white diagram of Jump!Star's Collaborative Structure illustrated by artist George Ferrandi BOMB

Designing public rituals to commemorate the North Star’s eventual transition.

One Poem by Sophie Robinson
Sophie Robinson Banner

at dusk each day i like to think / of all my new friends in different parts / of the city jerking off / running baths / vaping weed    getting sober / running their mouths / & reading poetry aloud to one another.

Harmony Holiday by Farid Matuk
Miles Davis Trumpets

“I don’t want the kind of career where everything is sensible and safe; I’d rather suffer through the anxiety of wondering where I’m going next than suffer the boredom of dancing in the same safe square.”