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Alumni Spotlight: Call Your Mom (Interarts Performance BFA '17)

In 2014, while pur­su­ing their under­grad­u­ate degrees at the Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan, Emma Bergman, Sophie Gold­berg, Mia Mas­simino (Inter­arts Per­for­mance BFA 17), and Elif Cadoux (Women’s Stud­ies and Com­par­a­tive Lit­er­a­ture BA 17) formed Call Your Mom, a mul­ti­me­dia per­for­mance col­lec­tive known for inter­dis­ci­pli­nary, immer­sive works. The col­lec­tive uses video, instal­la­tion, move­ment, and par­tic­i­pa­tory per­for­mance to facil­i­tate spaces of vul­ner­a­ble reflection. 

Call Your Mom’s work has been sup­ported by a rig­or­ous national and inter­na­tional res­i­dency sched­ule. Their most recent project, Say You’re Sorry, brought them in 2019 and 2020 to Cucalorus in Wilm­ing­ton, NC, The Tank in New York City, Cen­tro NAVE in San­ti­ago, Chile, and Per­fect Storm in Cota­cachi, Ecuador. When the pan­demic sent them home from their trav­els early, the col­lec­tive put out an inter­ac­tive e‑book to keep Say You’re Sorry alive. 

The four alums have also man­aged to keep the col­lec­tive thriv­ing for the past seven years, while simul­ta­ne­ously bal­anc­ing their indi­vid­ual careers. 

Emma Bergman (they/​she) is a mul­ti­me­dia artist based in Brook­lyn and Bal­ti­more. They are the Mul­ti­me­dia Orga­nizer at People’s Action, where they pro­duce videos, graph­ics, pub­li­ca­tions, and other dig­i­tal content. 

Elif Cadoux (they/​them) is an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary artist, writer, and pro­fes­sional facil­i­ta­tor based in Philadel­phia. They are a mem­ber of Both/​And, a coop­er­a­tive of anti-oppres­sion edu­ca­tors and con­sul­tants. The focuses of their cur­rent cre­ative and polit­i­cal work are embod­i­ment prac­tices, group facil­i­ta­tion, and spec­u­la­tive fiction.

Mia Mas­simino (she/​her) is a visual and per­form­ing artist based in Philadel­phia and Wash­ing­ton D.C. Her work focuses on comedic moments of joy and tough­ness. Mia is cur­rently the Asso­ciate Direc­tor of Cre­ative Projects for Antia Gon­za­lez at George­town University’s Racial Jus­tice Institute. 

Sophie Gold­berg (she/​her) is a teach­ing artist at Bal­ti­more City Pub­lic Schools, work­ing with stu­dents in the Visual Arts at a PreK-8th grade level. Her per­sonal and pro­fes­sional prac­tices cen­ter around well­ness and jus­tice through cre­ative expression.

This short Q&A explores Call Your Mom’s under­grad­u­ate expe­ri­ence in the Inter­arts Per­for­mance pro­gram at U‑M and advice for aspir­ing artists.

Call Your Mom’s work cen­ters col­lab­o­ra­tion. Tell me more about your vision for what true col­lab­o­ra­tion is, and what it can achieve. 

Here are some ideas about col­lab­o­ra­tion that we have devel­oped over the past few years, we have a lot to say about it.

  • When we are wholly our­selves in cre­ation, new lan­guages and pow­ers are possible. 
  • Col­lab­o­ra­tion requires trust and earnest engagement. 
  • As col­lab­o­ra­tors, we define the rules of own­er­ship. Own­er­ship is col­lec­tive and each idea is built from the cul­ture of our togetherness. 
  • Audi­ences are not only view­ers, but also collaborators. 
  • Col­lab­o­ra­tion is com­mit­ment to one another in resis­tance to a cul­ture of trans­ac­tion and indi­vid­u­al­ist gains. It is the prac­tice of learn­ing to live non-trans­ac­tion­ally. Pro­longed col­lab­o­ra­tion means trust in the unlim­ited giv­ing of each col­lab­o­ra­tor with­out need­ing to reap its benefits. 
  • Col­lab­o­ra­tion cre­ates its own beauty.
  • Our col­lab­o­ra­tion has allowed us to develop our own struc­tures and col­lec­tive lan­guage through the active prac­tice of our col­lab­o­ra­tion. This prac­tice fos­ters inter­nal under­stand­ing enabling us to con­fi­dently open our explo­rations out­ward. True col­lab­o­ra­tion is time-based. We chal­lenge our indi­vid­u­al­ist per­spec­tives by con­sis­tently and mind­fully engag­ing each other and our audi­ences in active vulnerability. 

You all seem to have mean­ing­ful careers and cre­ative lives out­side of your col­lec­tive. What tips do you have for cre­at­ing space for both facets of your pro­fes­sional life? 

Emma: For me, it’s about under­stand­ing that the thing I do for money will never bring total ful­fill­ment, so main­tain­ing my cre­ative prac­tice requires putting aside time to think and make art with­out pro­duc­tiv­ity as the direct goal. If you have a more cre­ative job, maybe 9 to 5 life becomes more tol­er­a­ble because you can chan­nel some of your cre­ativ­ity there. But then does that cre­ative energy come out of your other artis­tic work? One strat­egy is to get a job entirely unre­lated to your art so that you can put all of your love and energy into your prac­tice. And then there’s free­lanc­ing, which comes with the biggest risks but pos­si­bly also the biggest rewards. So that’s to say, I don’t know! I think that we’re all still fig­ur­ing this out. When we all lived in Bal­ti­more for the first 2 years after col­lege, we worked 20 hours for CYM every week on top of the 40 hours we were each work­ing for our other jobs. That level of hus­tle isn’t always pos­si­ble and wasn’t ulti­mately sus­tain­able, but it led to some really inter­est­ing work. It was only with that invest­ment of time that we were able to make the year of work­ing exclu­sively on Say You’re Sorry possible.

Sophie: I advo­cated a lot in the begin­ning for all the pathfind­ing we needed to do as indi­vid­u­als in order to solid­ify sus­tain­abil­ity in our futures. It was, and still is, impor­tant to me to bring a grounded sense of self to the col­lec­tive. I’m always check­ing in with myself to make sure I’m con­sciously choos­ing to take part in each project. Hav­ing some ful­fill­ment and finan­cial sta­bil­ity out­side of our strong, beau­ti­ful rela­tion­ship has given it room for even more strength. But I also learned so much from the times when we took big­ger risks together, when we depended more on one another (emo­tion­ally or oth­er­wise), when there was some money tied up in our col­lec­tive endeav­ors. The higher stakes have prompted big­ger real world moves from us! Gen­er­ally, I don’t think our actions are moti­vated by money as much as imag­i­na­tion, rela­tion­ships, jus­tice, those things.

Mia: It takes a lot of work! I agree with what both Emma and Sophie have said. We worked 20+ hours out­side of our full-time jobs to make sure we kept up our col­lab­o­ra­tive prac­tice — and it is a prac­tice. But in order to nur­ture that, we each have to have our own projects, work, ideas etc. that we bring into our col­lec­tive world. Some­times that bal­ance is really dif­fi­cult to strike espe­cially if I’m feel­ing unin­spired in my per­sonal cre­ative projects or my work — but I’ll def­i­nitely say that hav­ing CYM as friends and col­lab­o­ra­tors is sort of an unend­ing energy source. It ebbs and flows cer­tainly (and COVID has been a real chal­lenge in that aspect), but it is always there if you make time for it. I think that is true for the most impor­tant cre­ative rela­tion­ships in our lives: if you nur­ture it you can lean on it!

Elif: When we grad­u­ated uni­ver­sity in 2017, we moved to Bal­ti­more, Mary­land together to com­mit to our prac­tice. We all worked as edu­ca­tors and com­mu­nity artists 40 hours a week, and would come to our ~20 hours of CYM work a week depleted. The nor­mal­iza­tion of cap­i­tal­ist hus­tle cul­ture mixed with our cre­ative wounds — it wasn’t always pretty. I am so thank­ful that we did not give up on each other and the worlds we make together. My tips for bal­anc­ing mate­r­ial and cre­ative needs are sim­ple — find peo­ple who inspire you and who you inspire, and don’t stop invest­ing in each other. Learn how to sit in con­flict together. Learn how to take cri­tique with­out shame. Learn that the fail­ings of our sys­tem are not alone to carry. And keep mak­ing, even when you can’t define what it is you’re creating. 

What is Call Your Mom cur­rently work­ing on?

At the start of the pan­demic, we had just com­pleted two suc­cess­ful process res­i­den­cies, one at NAVE in San­ti­ago, Chile and the other in Cota­cachi, Ecuador. Our plan fol­low­ing those devel­op­ment res­i­den­cies was to tour Say You’re Sorry around to var­i­ous US cities. Of course, those plans were rearranged for safety. Instead, we spent some of 2020 devel­op­ing the Say You’re Sorry work­book, an inter­ac­tive dig­i­tal piece that gath­ers data from par­tic­i­pants on For­give­ness and simul­ta­ne­ously gave us a chance to share some of the work we made over the course of our year. We intend to con­tinue adapt­ing Say You’re Sorry to the times, fol­low­ing up with a resched­uled res­i­dency in Sim­r­ishamn, Swe­den in 2022 (which was orig­i­nally sched­uled for May 2020) and even­tu­ally bring­ing our US Say You’re Sorry tour to fruition. It is a great and hum­bling under­tak­ing cre­at­ing live art with integrity in such unprece­dented times! Devel­op­ing work over zoom has been unin­spir­ing to say the least, so we have actively cho­sen to take time for joy­ful play and exper­i­men­ta­tion as a col­lec­tive and as friends.

Stills from Too Day performance: members of Call Your Mom interact from opposite sides of a window

How would your group describe your expe­ri­ence as part of the Inter­arts Per­for­mance pro­gram? What lessons con­tinue to serve you well in your career and your cre­ative practice? 

Inter­arts really encour­aged exper­i­men­ta­tion and pro­duc­ing work with­out fear of fail­ure. Of course fear of fail­ure is a life-long chal­lenge, but it helped us develop a prac­tice of test­ing ideas with­out stran­gling them. Our first show as a col­lec­tive stemmed from see­ing a piece we were inspired by, set­ting a date, and telling every­one we knew. Inter­arts also encour­aged us to exper­i­ment with dif­fer­ent medi­ums which inspired Call Your Mom’s struc­ture of let­ting our ideas dic­tate our medium. Some­times this means learn­ing as we go and adjust­ing to being begin­ners which can be both chal­leng­ing and invig­o­rat­ing. We were given a lot of trust and free­dom in inter­arts: to choose our classes, to col­lab­o­rate with peo­ple out­side the pro­gram, and to make con­nec­tions and work out­side of our classes. The con­fi­dence that this active par­tic­i­pa­tion in our edu­ca­tion helped develop has cer­tainly served us in our careers and cre­ative practices. 

The pro­gram helps develop real artists, not just art stu­dents. In addi­tion to learn­ing the his­tory of per­for­mance art, which is under-taught, we had the oppor­tu­nity to take trips and show our work in pro­fes­sional spaces and build rela­tion­ships with incred­i­ble work­ing artists. It was so help­ful to have atyp­i­cal path­ways to pro­fes­sion­al­ism mod­elled out for us. We saw Inter­arts alums like Erin Markey and Joseph Keck­ler (and more recent grads like Brita Thorne, Carissa Bled­soe, Willie Filkowski, Gabrielle DeCaro, and on and on) mak­ing their way through the world in really grace­ful, but totally dif­fer­ent, ways. 

What advice do you have for stu­dents as they explore per­for­mance within their cre­ative practice?

Try it! The stakes are lower than they feel. Col­lege is a great con­tainer to try things that intrigue you but feel out­side of your com­fort zone. Make a fool of your­self. Don’t be afraid to say some­thing. You can change your mind! It is ok to try it and hate it, or try it and fail, that’s all going to be part of find­ing out your spe­cific loves and inter­ests which, if you’re lucky, hap­pens through­out your life. Don’t be afraid to say you per­form, or that you play with per­for­mance. Dif­fer­ent doors will open for you with the addi­tion of embod­i­ment to your prac­tice. And if you don’t like what’s through that door you can sub­tract per­for­mance any­time. You don’t stop being a per­former or per­for­mance artist when you haven’t made a piece includ­ing per­for­mance in a year, just like you aren’t less of a writer if you haven’t pub­lished any­thing. Per­for­mance adds thought-processes to a cre­ative prac­tice that will con­tinue to inform your work in what­ever ways you let it. Get col­lab­o­ra­tors you trust! It’s less scary with friends and when you can’t believe fully in your­self, you can believe in them. Even if a col­lab­o­ra­tion like ours isn’t for you, col­lab­o­ra­tion can be many dif­fer­ent things! Bounce ideas off peo­ple, talk about the ways you agree, dis­agree, and what new things you think about together. It’s fun to com­bine your work/​life bal­ance. Art school is a great place for that. Bring your school ideas into your social life and vice versa. All the cool kids are doing it! 

One resource that we def­i­nitely uti­lized later on at Stamps was grant money. There is so much fund­ing avail­able at Michi­gan for cre­ative work, you just have to know to apply for it. Go big while you have access to the resources (espe­cially the DNC Video Stu­dio. Video doc­u­men­ta­tion is key, Holly can’t say that enough… you should listen).

Members of Call Your Mom shout at camera, 2014
Call Your Mom, 2014

You can keep up to date on Call Your Mom’s work on Insta­gram or at their web­site, call​-your​-mom​.com.