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LA-based multimedia artist Autumn Breon

Q&A | Autumn Breon on Radically Accessible Self-Care

The Care Machine travels to D.C.

When we got word last August that artist Autumn Breon was looking for “care essentials” to include in her latest interactive installation, we were immediately on board. Essentials, she explained, would be a group of sculpture and video works that invites viewers to interact with relics sent from Esoterica, a planet ‘powered by care,’ where residents consider it mundane to tend fully to their own and others’ needs. Can you even imagine such a place?

The central relic would take the form of a neon pink vending machine filled with items that ‘"represent and provide care,’" ranging from tampons and edge control to lube and even gift cards for free pelvic floor PT. The pink Care Machine has since traveled across the country and was last seen in D.C. in front of the Washington Monument.

As big fans of Autumn's, we couldn’t launch the Visual Art Gallery without checking in to learn more about the thinking behind her Care Machine, how history helps us see what’s possible, the protective power of beauty, and what it feels like to interact with crowds during her visually stunning performances.

The concept of ‘self-care’ sounds so simple, but it can be really hard to act on. What do you see as the catalyst that makes someone able to truly prioritize caring for themselves?

I think that's very personal work, but it has to start from a foundation of believing that we deserve to have our dignity. Once that is established, we're able to kind of imagine… okay, what are the things that I need to feel that dignity? What do I need to make that part of my day-to-day life? If the truth that I observe is that I am worthy of dignity, how am I going to organize my life around it?

Then, when we are able to imagine that for ourselves, we can collectively imagine what needs to happen for this to be a reality for everyone. Does that make sense?

Yes, it truly does. Can you talk a little bit more about that sense of dignity? What takes it away? What helps bring it back?

I think what takes away dignity are the systems in place that cause us to accept this falsehood that our needs aren't important. Which is so counterintuitive — there's absolutely nothing natural about thinking that way. Once you clock that as lacking logic, as not useful, I think that's when dignity is regained. Once you say, I’m not going to let myself be gaslit into believing something that I know isn't true. Then you can decide things like, hey, I deserve to feel safe in medical environments. I know that I'm worthy of that. Or I deserve for my whole self to be treated when I need care. I deserve care.

But when it comes to realizing your own dignity, I don't think that's something that has to be learned or something that's this huge epiphany. It's something that we all know. We just have to be reminded of it sometimes.

How does this idea of being reminded of our inherent dignity relate to the Care Machine?

Well, that's why the care machine takes the form of a vending machine. As humans, we see familiar cues — and that could be in the form of an object or an invitation — we're socialized to know how to use it, how to engage. So that's why I wanted to use something as common as a vending machine, something that ubiquitous. It was important to inject objects into that familiar space.

So we filled the vending machine with everything associated with care so that you can see all of these essentials in one place. And they’re so easily accessible. So hopefully your mind can take the next step and you’ll ask yourself how can I have my care essentials readily available in my everyday life? In my community's everyday life? How can they be as readily available as items in vending machines?

Autumn in her 2022 performance about Black women's labor entitled (Don't) Use Me

I would love to back up a little bit and ask more about you — can you tell me a little about your story?

I'm from Los Angeles. My great-grandparents migrated to Los Angeles in 1951, so my mom, my aunts, my uncles, and I have all grown up in Los Angeles. I think this is such a special place to grow up. The amount of art and all the different parts of the city that I got to see, I think it laid a foundation and inspired me to think about how to organize my life around creativity.

I think that we're all creative. I believe that all humans are creative, but I decided to find a way to organize my life around it.

That came in different forms. I studied aeronautics and astronautics. I found my degrees in engineering extremely creative. I always found ways to inject art into what I was doing. Working on small satellites felt like a form of art-making.

But as I started spending a lot more time in traditional art ecosystems, going to art fairs, spending time in other artists' studios, learning from curators and artists and art historians,  I became more and more interested in my own studio practice. So when I moved back to Los Angeles as an adult, I started my studio practice with work based in performance.

How did your artwork start to take a unique shape that’s all your own?

My bodies of work always center some kind of research related to history, but also research with a call and response with the public. So I’m sharing what I've learned with the public, but then finding out how they respond to it as well — and including all of that in the performance or body of work.

For example, when I learned about some of the numbers and statistics around pay and equity, and specifically how black women are paid about 63 cents on the dollar — which means that I have to work another eight months into the next calendar year to earn what a white man did in the previous 365 days — I understood how pay inequity translates into time.

But what I really wanted to know was, well, what would I do if I had all this lost time back? If I got an extra eight months back every year, what would I do with it? And I wanted to ask other people the same thing. So I did that and their responses were written down on a paper and incorporated into a six-foot Afro that I wore for a performance. Then I read them out loud and invited the public to hear other women's words for what they would do with this reclaimed time.

So those are the types of responses that I love inviting into the work that I make.

Gold & Hot, a mixed media sculpture from Autumn's Protective Style body of work

It’s so interesting how you combine history and interactivity and also science fiction in your art. Starting with history — why is that an important element for you?

I think it's because, when I create something, I'm always starting from a place of seeking understanding. I want to pick apart a concept and understand how it came to be. And then I love sharing that information as soon as I find out — and then that's the invitation for the public, to not just learn the same thing that I may have learned, but also to think about how it applies to you individually. That's where the prompt usually comes in.

So as I learned that abortion suppression is actually kind of recent in America — that abortion and birth control weren't always taboo concepts — it was important for me to go through the archives and see newspaper ads for abortion.

That kind of time traveling into history is really cool for me. It helps me understand how things that feel so impossible, like, could there ever be a time where we can talk about abortion freely and where that's accessible for everybody, and see that, hey, this reality has existed before.

So we need to be reminded that there's nothing really that's impossible. Traveling through history is a creative way that you can get to possible.

Going back to the interactive nature of your performances. Why make audience participation a central part of your work?

I think that it's really about optimizing the engagement that's already built into experiencing art. Quite frankly, if I know that I have your attention when you attend a performance, or if you come to my exhibition, I want to like milk as much as I can out of that moment.

And I love that I can use interaction to make someone more receptive to a different way of thinking. For example, if you’re part of a ritual or performance where I use beauty to conjure agency, you may realize that you can also do that beyond this white cube of a gallery. You can do this after the performance is over.

That's the fun and magical part for me.

Beauty is another recurring theme in your work — is that also about getting people’s attention?

Well, I'm really partial to adornment, to color. The Rococo. That is my way of expressing beauty. And, also, there's this definition of beauty that I've read in Christina Sharpe's work in Ordinary Notes that gave me the vocabulary for thinking about the approach that I like to prioritize. She describes it as a commitment to an aesthetic that escapes violence whenever possible.

When I think of violence, it's different types of harm. And I’m converting all of that into a different type of energy that has agency and is full of care and it's like a conjuring. So what appears loud and colorful and maybe even magnetic, it's really just a conversion of all the ugly that had to be used to create that.

And every performance is meant to be a ritual or a ceremony from planet Esoterica.

Autumn adorned for a 2023 performance of Swag Surf in the Water about reclaiming public space for relaxation

This is where the supercool science fiction comes in. What is the planet Esoterica all about?

So the planet that I imagine is meant to be where ancestors go from planet Earth instead of dying. They go to this planet. And the fuel that keeps this planet going is care. Because of that, there's going to be a lot of self-expression on this planet. And I imagine this planet is a place that's full of gold and full of pinks and brass music all the time.

So objects I create, like sculptures and the care machine installation are relics, physical manifestations of wormholes to esoterica.

When did Esoterica first come to you?

I've always been really intrigued by sci-fi, really comforted by sci-fi, especially Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler's work. Thinking about futures that aren't really that distant.

But Esoterica actually came when I was on a panel for the first For Freedoms Congress. One of the founders of Four Freedoms is the artist Hank Willis Thomas who is also involved in the Wide Awakes, this group of artists, organizers, and creatives who are all working towards re-injecting joy in civic duty.

Everyone in the Wide Awakes gets a name, but I didn’t have one. And Hank was saying, well, okay, what is one of your gifts? And I said, one thing that I like to do and think I'm good at is making esoteric ideas easy to understand. I love the translation part. And he was like, your name's going to be Esoterica.

Later when I was working with folks in an early performance, I was describing what they needed to use their bodies to communicate. And I was explaining that we were going to bring this ritual from another planet to downtown LA. As they were figuring out how to move their bodies and adorn themselves with their costumes, they asked, what’s the name of this place that we’re coming from? I said, it’s planet Esoterica. And I have been using that ever since.

How does it feel to be in the middle of a performance, engaging with the crowd?

It's a high that I keep on chasing because it's a very satisfying feeling. It feels like a snapshot of the joy of full freedom. It’s a kind of liberation that's unapologetic and that invites everybody that's in the room to create this rhythm together. Everybody keeping beat or nodding their head or clapping. Everybody being of one accord for however long that performance is taking up space. There's no other feeling like it.

Actually, I shouldn't say that there's no feeling like it because we feel it in many other places. And I think it’s the familiarity that makes it take over your whole body. Like it's, it's the feeling that you have when you see yourself in the mirror after you got your hair done or when you catch a stranger’s eye and you exchange a smile. When you feel fully seen and feel great about yourself. When you feel safe. When you feel care.

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Nicole Zeman
Nicole Zeman

Nikki Zeman is the Head of Content & Community at Origin — a dream job that allows her to create eye-opening content about pelvic and sexual health. Before Origin, Nikki worked at Cosmpolitan, Women's Health, and Parents Magazine as an editor, health journalist, and advice columnist.

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