Aspiration and the Deferral of Pleasure: Ilana Harris-Babou Interviewed by Rebecca Schultz

Rap videos, cooking shows, and housewares catalogues become a source for reparative thinking. 

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Ilana Harris-Babou, Reparation Hardware, 2018. Film still. Courtesy of the artist.

In my earliest memory of Ilana Harris-Babou she is ten years old, in a wedding dress, and glued to a goose in a school play. The goose is golden and enchanted: all the greedy people who reach to grab a feather end up getting stuck. When I look at her work now I think of this play and the memories wrapped up in it: memories of greed; of getting stuck; of the school that put on the play, a progressive private school we each attended for thirteen years; of the scary, impressive, neo-Gothic college campus we went to later; of Ilana playing. Ilana’s work is about American aspiration: the ways we are made to want, the violence we do, and the violence that is done to us, when we want, here. Her work is playful, mournful, cutting, and generous. In Cooking with the Erotic (2016), our hostess/chef smears blue paint on a bagel, and serves shrimp cocktail on a human stomach.  She’s blithe and ironic, taking pleasure in the materials around her, in a cooking show that’s wrong, messed up, that serves nothing anyone would dream of cooking in their own already imperfect home. In Reparation Hardware (2018), our hostess/visionary/craftsperson promises her customers—who think they just want a restored wood table—that she will resolve the past and tap the untapped resources of the present. In her perfectly dilapidated New England barn, she puts nails in a misshapen clay hammer: an object at once too lovely, too delicate, and too botched to really hammer with. The nails and the hammers look like dead bodies. We remember the violence of the hostess’s promise, and of the desire it answers. 

—Rebecca Schultz


RS I’m reminiscing about your early work in our salad days. Do you still think about music videos?

IHB Music videos still influence the way I edit. I started out as a painter, and I was more interested in images than in narrative when I began making videos. I thought of each shot as a composition or a color world. I was looking at painterly metaphors in rap lyrics—phrases like “ice-cream paint job” or “all gold everything.” I was making a sequence of images, akin to the ones you might see in a music video. Images that flash quickly on the screen. Pile of gold! Car! Woman! Pile of gold! Music videos were also the first reference I used that I would describe as aspirational media. Late nineties rap videos are American dream narratives. They’re saying, “I had nothing, and now I have it all.” Cooking shows present a similar image of success. You can live vicariously through the master chef or superstar rapper.RS With that aspirational quality, you’re always setting it against something broken, something impossible. The Ilana character in the videos is so clumsy! 

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Ilana Harris-Babou, Reparation Hardware, 2018. Film still. Courtesy of the artist.

IHBWe have these tropes about a creator: a genius flinging around paint in their studio, or a cooking-show host effortlessly baking a perfect cake, or the guy on a home-improvement show knowing precisely how to make the plumbing work. I begin by genuinely trying to mimic these characters. They inhabit a coherent world where everything falls into place. Because I am myself and because I am human, I inevitably fail. When I’m editing, I let those moments of failure shine.

RS You’ve talked in the past about the connection between the artist and the creator/host of these aspirational media. Do you think there’s a connection between the artist and the consumer of these shows? I mean, do you relate to the person trying to replicate a Melissa Clarke recipe, or falling in love with salvaged wood in the Restoration Hardware catalogue? 

IHB I am that person. I want lovely things. I want to cook delicious meals. I don’t want to pretend I’m criticizing those desires at a distance. I’m on the inside and outside simultaneously. If you talk to other people of color who went to fancy schools like the ones we went to, many feel like they almost know liberal, elite whiteness better than liberal, elite, white people know themselves. The consumer I’m thinking of in my work lives in that world, but also lives inside my head.

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Ilana Harris-Babou, Reparation Hardware, 2018. Film still. Courtesy of the artist.

RSYour work always feels redemptive to me because of the sense of play in it—the feeling that you’re having fun with your materials, that you’re in love with the sensuality of them. Which, to me, kind of runs against the very un-fun idea of American aspiration. The idea of working hard forever. Working for something in the future. 

IHB The deferral of pleasure. You can look at the past with nostalgia, and toward the future with hope. You don’t have to stare directly into the problems of the present, but you also don’t get to enjoy the pleasures of the present. I was looking at Audre Lorde’s speech “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” when I made Cooking with the Erotic. In it, Lorde describes a world that declares that pleasure isn’t for her, that she should always be working, and that her labor isn’t her own. She asserts that she can and is entitled to take pleasure in her immediate surroundings. The erotic can be a way of looking at the world, rather than a pathologized set of relations between people. She can feel the sunlight on her face. No one can ever take that away from her. We are allowed to enjoy the present moment, and not just because we bought something.

RS What other forms of aspirational media are you interested in right now?

IHBI’m thinking about travel television. There’s a podcast called Happier that I’ve been listening to. It’s by the self-help guru Gretchen Rubin. She tells her audience how to deal with the anxiety of having too many things—how to organize the apps on your phone by color, for instance. In one episode she tells listeners to pretend to be tourists in their own homes. As tourists, her audience is afforded a sense of strangeness that helps them identify what to throw out. She presumes a level of comfort in one’s own home, so much so that one has to use a thought experiment to feel alienated. It makes me think again about Lorde and the conversation she had with James Baldwin in Essence magazine in 1984 about the American dream. She says that deep down she always knew the dream was never hers. It was more of a nightmare. Can you become a tourist in your own home if it’s never been a place of comfort? What if you expand the idea of a “home” to an entire nation? I’m imagining a video where I act as a travel guide moving around familiar domestic spaces. In Parts Unknown, Anthony Bourdain shows us where to find pleasure in exotic places. He’s not an expert on Vietnam, but he has expert taste. That’s why you trust his judgment and believe he’s conveying an authentic experience.

Ilana Harris-Babou, Reparation Hardware, 2018. Film excerpt. Courtesy of the artist.

RSHe’s telling you where to feel safe, too, right? Where to trust that you’ve made the right choice. Your work always makes me think of how privilege gives people anxiety. If you can pay for everything, you don’t have to do the work of choosing, or thinking. And then the world becomes very alien and scary.

IHB Right. When you go to the new Restoration Hardware store in New York, there’s a staff member every couple feet saying, “Hi! Can I help you?” There’s a concierge, and people with laptops can tell you what to purchase and what will go with what. You can order a glass of rosé at the wine bar to calm your nerves and then carry it around the store.

RS That’s amazing. It feels as if having privilege and not having it in America both tragically remove you from the present moment and make you aspire in a painful, impossible way.

IHB Right now, almost all of us are in one of those two categories. Either rich or poor, not in between.

RS Right. Which makes me wonder: is there such a thing as “good taste” in the United States? I mean the real version, that exists apart from the violence you’re talking about, that doesn’t try to make boundaries or to colonize? The artist gets stuck in this, almost worst of all. Here we are laughing at Restoration Hardware customers, and when we go to decorate our own homes, we deliberately want it not to look like that. Isn’t that just another layer of class ascension? Of us turning up our noses and saying, “Don’t get on me”? In other words: is there a way out? 

IHB I think if I knew the answer to that, I could stop making art.

Ilana Harris-Babou’s Reparation Hardware is on view in Further Thoughts on Earthly Materials at Kunsthaus Hamburg until November 25. 

Rebecca Schultz is a writer who teaches college students at UC Irvine and middle-school students at California School of the Arts. Her work has appeared on the Los Angeles Review of Books blog and in Faultline. She lives in Los Angeles.

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