From the TELEPHONE Interview Series.
I sat with Nina on a second-floor balcony on an afternoon in May, in Montreal. We talked about whales, pen pals, long-distance collaboration, and music-making. I have known Nina since elementary school, and some of our first projects were created together. In the past years, Nina has lived between Dawson City and Montreal and, during this afternoon, I got re-acquainted with her thoughts around her practice, rhythms, and life. Check out Nina’s work here and here.
Erin Hill: I want to ask you about the secret life of your projects, about the things that happen before they’re out in public. I know you make a lot of music in your bedroom…
Nina Vroemen: I do I do, I make a lot of things solo.
I’ve always felt that your artistic practice was also homemaking, spacemaking.
Yeah. I’ve been thinking about that in relation to art making. Because I just moved, and it’s actually a little bit of a thorn in what is otherwise a sweet fruit.
What’s the thorn?
I mean I love homemaking, but I also think it’s a gendered responsibility, as well as part of how I deal—one of the ways in which I calm my mind. A clean space is important to me in terms of starting projects so I always feel like I create excuses for myself as to why I don’t do the things I love, the things that are kind of selfish—or what I’ve internalized as selfish things. Like doing projects that make me feel good versus fundamentals such as social time, food time, and cleaning time. Trying to let that go is actually really hard for me.
Letting go of all those things that hold you back from diving into what it is you love?
Yes, and I think part of it is something that I love about homemaking, which is that it’s ritualistic. I’m quite ritualistic, and I would say my practice has to have certain conditions. And I realize that’s sort of absurd, that it’s more of a mental health thing for me. It comes from fear related to not feeling entitled to do these things because I’m not ready yet. But then as I get older I realize that I’m never going to be ready, there’s always something else to do. And it feels so incredible just doing it. But I do love homemaking, and I do love making, and I do love working in a studio as well. When I was doing an artist residency in Sointula called the Sointula Art Shed, I stayed by the ocean in a cottage right beside the studio. It was interesting for me in the same way that I think moving into my own place and acknowledging the different rhythms I have opens me up. When I was in Sointula it was the first time that I would start working on a project at 9pm. And I would write a song, record it, and allow myself to stay up late and begin late. It’s so cool to realize that your brain is in different states at different times and you can create whenever; there’s not just this one time slot for it.
Do you think different time slots are more productive for different types of making? Do you think certain projects would ask to begin at 9pm, but then others would want the opposite?
For sure when making music at home, because I don’t have or haven’t had a jam space and I don’t like keeping my neighbours up! But I’m trying to let go of that. I think there are different timings in your body, you know, like spring, autumn, deep summer, ovulation.
… so not 24 hour time but rather cycles that are specific to you?
I feel like time, in general, I'm trying to let go of. In the same way as letting go of these certain elements that have to be there. Like writing, if I have a deadline I can work on something for weeks but it probably culminates in two days... and having faith in that sense of time.
What did you make in Sointula? I remember whales.
Yeah (laughs), I had initially proposed doing a project on whales as a living archive, as a very old mammal holding history and all this information. In just being an old entity. And having been witness to peripherally. I think I came up with the idea because I had read about—I forget what type of whale it is—but it’s one of the oldest whales, and it had spears in it from early colonial expeditions. It was so weird to think that this mammal had been witness to all this human history. So that’s what I proposed and ultimately ended up just researching whales. In the Johnson Straight—where Sointula is—is where there is the most orca whale activity; it’s one of the major arteries for where orcas go… I’m trying to remember, it’s been like two years since I did that. I think Free Willy was shot there. A cool thing about [the history of] orca whales or killer whales is that it’s really rooted in Canada. It was in a unsuccessful whaling incident that humans were able to project a certain empathetic narrative onto the “killer.” So, killer whales were allowed to be shot and murdered by fisherman and were considered the most evil monsters of the sea until the ‘50s or so. And it was the Vancouver Aquarium that actually changed that whole narrative by asking a sculptor to harpoon a whale. The sculptor was unsuccessful in killing it and had to tow it back to the Vancouver harbor. Thousands of people came to the harbor, flocked there, to see this evil monster of the ocean and were faced with this sweetheart whale that was just kind of trailing behind, and so the artist as well, kind of fell in love with this animal. Then there was so much news about this, they got so much coverage, and they named the whale Moby Doll.
Moby Doll, instead of Moby Dick. And it was the first whale in captivity, I think. That’s when all these realizations about how complex and sentient whales are… I just nerded out... Oh yeah, and whales with teeth have this part in their brain called the melon. Which is an incredible sonar neuro-hub that can hear emotions, essentially. There’s this idea of telepathy that whales have been said to have. There are all these stories about whales knowing when people are in some sort of happy or traumatic state and then reacting accordingly. They can hear emotions. Imagine if you could hear that I’m anxious right now.
Like through vibration?
Yeah, or like there was a tone you could hear that represented my state of mind. Imagine how much knowledge you would have.
So you made an album in Sointula?
I recorded a couple songs, not a full album. Actually, I was doing mostly watercolours of whales. And I was feeling anxious because I wasn’t able to render this really highly realistic whale work. Have you seen any of them?
No, I remember we were writing letters during that time, but I didn’t see any of your work.
I made these really playful, super-colorful paintings. They’re pretty large, which is something nice about having a studio space and being able to make big works. I did this one of a bathtub and titled it Bathing with Killers, and it’s these orca whales in my bathtub. I wrote one song about whales, but it was more about whaling. And did a bit of a collaboration, that sort of fell through… I feel that when you first start making work after not making for a while, you have to just start. They're not going to be perfect. I was doing that collaboration with a friend of mine, Billy. We were doing a correspondence. He used to be the drummer for the Brian Jonestown Massacre, and I always loved them. Anyways. He was like “I like your music. I can do some drums, it would be cool to do some drums for your songs.”
Through long distance?
Through long distance. Yeah, he lives in London, England. So I would send him a recording, and he added drums. And I’ve done a lot of that.
Yeah, pen pal partner…
Pen pal collaboration. We’ve done that too. And with my friend Krista who I’m doing video work with—we’re doing a pen pal collaboration. Not exclusively, but it has a lot of that. I respond really well, even though I don’t want to, to deadlines. I think there’s a certain amount of accountability within a correspondence that maybe other forms of collaborations (don’t have). It goes back to the timeliness thing, like time being such a huge ridiculous factor. I mean, if you’re living in a city and you don’t make time with a potential collaborator it kind of just falls apart, the project will become stale. Maybe penpal collaboration actually corresponds better with our society’s high-speed life… that you can respond in whatever rhythm you’re living your life in at that time. It’s more about us meeting in our own rhythms. You know? You might want to respond right away to something that I do because it hits home, or you’ve already been working on something that relates. But it can also be two or three weeks or months. In Sointula I was also doing another project with my partner at the time, which was writing stories for all the photographs I would take with this old Polaroid camera that he got me. And that was a cool way to continue writing. Little tricks… like I couldn’t take another photograph until I wrote the story. And I wanted to take a photographs!
That would be so tempting. That’s quite the task to give yourself.
I think I wrote eight short vignettes which were really rewarding.
Some people would rather produce produce produce. Like take photos take photos take photos, and then write write write write write and maybe have too much material. An aspect of your practice seems to be through resisting a bit?
Yeah, and maybe not being so precious. Enabling constraints are my jam.
So, I know you work in many different forms: writing, performance, music. I’m wondering how you navigate who your audience should be, and what structures do you go towards who could contain the audience you want?
I once did a performance at the Klondike Institute for Arts and Culture, during the Riverside Arts festival in Dawson City with my friend Carly, who’s a really wonderful collaborator that I’ve been doing a couple of projects with. She also plays drums and we make music together. We did a piece there that was called Pirouettes of the Absent Mind, the Nocturnal Circus, and it was all about visualizing or enacting through performance elements different human neuroses. We performed it during summer in Dawson when there’s no darkness, so that the only time there is darkness is when you close your eyes and you go into the recesses of your mind. So we started off with the sound of ringing in your ears, and then Carly did this tap dance in the dark where she would have some neurotic thoughts and reactions. My partner at the time also had stilts. We had a few musicians plugged into the space, and worked with weird lighting and mirrors, creating illusions in the hall. That was cool because it was for the community and I really enjoyed it; there’s something performative about it that I feel is safe for me. But I’ve definitely had the opposite experience doing music at the same festival. I was playing music for a project, and I realized that while audiences can feed you and nourish you so much, they can also suck you dry if you’re not able to set limits to what you give. There’s a lot that’s given away.
Yeah, you really put yourself out there to be looked at, to be stared at.
And that’s when I started realizing how much I love making music for things like video, or different projects. It’s as though sometimes people think music’s end goal is to be performed. Almost like a scientific proof. It’s like “see, it’s real! This artist can make it in front of me!” I mean, I love going to see live music and I love musicians that can do that…
Or the ritual of coming together to watch…
Yeah! And dancing… there’s so much. A good performance is… incredible! And I’ve had really positive experiences performing for people where they’ve learned my lyrics and were singing along! And I think: wow, I’ve resonated with somebody! They’re reading into my songs differently! But this idea of the end goal of a musician is being seen and going on tour… that sounds so exhausting to me right now. I would be pretty selective for where and with whom I would do that with.
So, when you’re making music nowadays, if it’s not for the confirmation of an audience, what keeps you making music?
I mean I really love it; I find it therapeutic. In the past, I thought I had this gift of channeling lyrics for any kind of melody. Song melodies and lyrics come to me intuitively. I think what’s so nice about music for me is that I don’t think… or overthink. And I feel like that’s really freeing. There’s actually a poet, Ariana Reines who was doing a conference on writing and esoterica and witchcraft. She shared this idea of not wanting to improve the skill that you already have, because you’re worried about taking away its magic. And you just let it be this thing that is undiscovered and untrained that you know you can tap into sometimes. It’s like a magical element. I get that. I have hesitations when I’m learning more about music, because the minute I have more knowledge about it I’ll have more insecurities about it.
It’s a really freeing idea, that there are maybe some spaces in your life where resistance to knowledge is emancipation, or to resist training in an institutionalized setting.
Yeah... and not necessarily understanding, or naming it. It’s in that same vein that I feel like you can give me a melody and I’ll come up with lyrics, a tone, an idea that I haven't really thought about prior to it. I think it’s probably what you get when dancing. I was thinking about when I used to play competitive volleyball in junior high. The only way I could get the ball over the net was if I was singing. So I’d be serving the ball and singing; it’s because it kept a part of my brain calm and concentrated—not over-thinking. I would just repeat a song over and over again.
And also freak your opponents out…
Yeah! I remember I was in this one tournament and every time I started serving I would just sing and get the ball over…
I can really relate to what you’re saying, about somehow choosing where you want to fill in those shadow spaces and where the shadows are actually your drive…
It’s complicated too, because maybe you’re denying yourself. This idea that you keep something precious, separate. I forget what the line in the poem is, something like “I don’t want to understand because it takes away the magic.” So, yeah, that for me is singing.
And what are you working on now?
I’m working on a couple of different projects…
Uh oh. Which one are you going to tell me about?
I don’t know—which one do you want to hear about?
You’re working on one with Alejandro šajgalík
That one hasn’t truly started yet, but yeah… I can talk about that if you want.
And the one with Krista Davis?
That one’s kind of over I guess... I make music for her videos, but we’ll start a true collaboration soon. We’ll both be in Dawson in the summer. I think what’s really freeing in collaborating with Krista is that she’s excited about the music that I make, it doesn’t need to be perfect and it holds space for her narrative—I get to feed into a tone. Like that game! Exquisite corpse. She gets excited about it in the same way I do because it’s like completing this aspect that she doesn’t know how to do, and vice versa.
It sounds like a big practice of trust, believing “it’s going to be better when we do this together.” Or, not necessarily better, but it’s going to be what it should be.
Yes, and we want to make something intentional. I’m thinking of a project about mineral extraction in Arizona & Dawson City. Something about these holes in the ground, holes in our consciousness, and where resources are being drawn from. And then linking that to culverts, those holes where water passes through from one side to the other. Communicating through a hole.
Beautiful. Nina, I want to ask you one last question that’s been asked in the two last TELEPHONE interviews: What do you need in order to keep doing what you're doing? What do you need?
I think I need a crush in order to keep doing what I’m doing. Not necessarily on a person, but rather an idea, a place. I would say a crush is a combination of obsession and playfulness. It’s that feeling of energy—an eager vulnerability, a desire to share. I think this is why I often develop crushes on pen pals, professors, and places. Also, crushes are quiet. The secret is key!
About the artist: Nina seeks projects that quicken the heart. She writes, creates, performs and directs a collection of multidisciplinary works.working primarily with video, dance and sonic experimentation, Nina aims to engage audiences in realizing voiceless narratives, unmarked history and the silhouettes of memory. Nina is also the creator of the freak-folk project blu hour.