Bemis Science Fiction Residency

Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Omaha, Nebraska, as experienced by Jess Johnson, September 7 – November 18, 2016

Before Bemis

At the beginning of 2016 I left behind 12 years in Australia and relocated to New York with my husband. I had been awarded the Australia Council’s Greene Street Residency, so we landed softly into a palatial Soho loft, acquired 40 years prior when the area was a backwater of poor artists and small factories. After three months of spatial comfort we found a tiny shoebox apartment to rent in Chinatown, moved in then promptly broke up. The day after we split I flew to Scotland for an exhibition which passed in a blurry gut ache of stifled grief. On my return to New York I spent two weeks camping out with my dead plants in the recently vacated apartment, listening to Enya and feeling utterly adrift. My only beacon during this time was my upcoming Bemis Center Residency.

I had applied to the Bemis Residency one year prior when I came across a call out for International artists working in the themes of Science Fiction. The eleven selected artists would be bought together in an attempt to hothouse a cosmic collaborative exchange. I knew nothing of Bemis or even where Nebraska was located (just drop a pin into the middle of the USA). However, the residency was fully funded and perks included a residency car, gym membership, veggie garden and movie discounts.

I decided to approach the residency as my own personal health retreat—ten weeks nestled within Nebraskan cornfields in order to lick my wounds and rebuild. I pictured myself eating healthy meals, exercising and sleeping seven hours a night. I would wean myself off Enya. In my final weeks I would download Tinder and have a fling with a cowboy. I would return to New York restored and ready to start my life anew.

Spaceship Bemis

The Bemis residents include a science fiction writer, video game developer, painter, dancer, and VR creator. Our collective response to the generous environment was a feeling of weight being lifted from our backs. The studios are huge, light-filled spaces with modern facilities. Any request is immediately fulfilled by attentive and friendly staff. I feel like I’m back in the womb with all that I require being delivered to me through tubes. Here at Spaceship Bemis we have no need to leave. In the mornings I find myself swinging my arms vigorously around in circles. I’m not used to being able to move my body so freely after the cramped confines of New York. I step out to my studio floor space in disbelief; 16 of my New York studios could fit into my new digs.

The comparisons are brutal: back home my Lower East Side studio is a tiny underground basement that I found on Craigslist. It has no running water and once underground I am without phone reception or internet. I affectionately refer to it as ‘My Rathole’. When I need to use the bathroom I emerge through cellar doors in the pavement and scurry to the public loos at a neighboring market. During the stinking New York summer it had become roach infested. My studio’s only selling point is that I can afford it.

Raccoon Dive Bar

During our first week I organise a group outing to a local dive bar, whimsically known for accommodating a large population of raccoons. We pull up to a ramshackle cabin in the woods. Our group includes a transperson, two black women, one large Norwegian and me. The entrance is dim and we fidget nervously as we get out of the car. ‘Who found this place?’ someone asks and I preemptively mutter an apology. I look down at my too-bright vintage ski jacket. I take it off and Annie regards my scratchy arm tattoos, ‘they might think you’re on meth’. I put my jacket back on. My new friends regard me impassively. They have nothing they can shed.

At the bar we are asked for our IDs and silently hand them over. We are taken aback when the woman exclaims excitedly ‘Y’ALL HAVE BEEN PLACES!’ as she inspects our colorful IDs. She announces our home countries to the rest of the bar and promptly serves us free shots of home-brewed appley liquor in plastic pee cups. Later we eat a fried chicken dinner out the back. Periodically the woman from the bar dumps buckets of fried leftovers outside for hoards of raccoons and feral cats to consume. The raccoons are morbidly obese and lie on their backs shoveling bones into their mouths. The cats weave between them, rubbing their heads on the raccoons’ fat haunches. We eat our chicken in silent rapture.

Midwest Hospitality

We quickly learn about Midwest hospitality as our newcomer status proves extremely profitable. When I attempt to pay for my coffee at the local cafe I am waved off, ‘it’s just coffee!’ the boy says. The next week he won’t accept my money for a loaf of freshly baked bread. I am so paralysed by this display of generosity that I avoid the cafe for two weeks. The other residents are given bags of cheese, free pizza, tequila. Older couples buy us rounds of drinks in bars and ask us to repeat again and again where we are all from. Though most of us now reside in New York we have learned our places of origin get the best response; England via Jamaica, Norway, New Zealand, Nashville. ‘Oh Lord! What are y’all doing in Omaha!?’

 Deep Fried Cheese Burger

The other residents all look after themselves. They buy organic vegetables and natural face cleaners. They go to the free gym and do yoga. I suspect they visit the doctor and dentist on a regular basis. Today I ate my lunch from the gas station across the carpark. I chose a round lump of bread sitting in the warmer because I was curious as to what was inside it. It turned out to be a bacon and cheese hamburger encased in dough then deep-fried. As I lay in bed afterwards I reflected on how my lifestyle choices resemble those of a recently divorced, 40-something man suffering from mild depression; only one chromosome and a thin veil of time separated us. I resolve to learn new life skills from the other residents. I ponder how my life will improve once I return to New York and am able to get a cat.

Donna’​s Cabbage Patch Fantasy Land

I’ve been perusing a website called America’s Roadside Attractions to locate places of interest to visit. I weigh up the six hour round trip to visit THE WORLDS BIGGEST BALL OF STRING, housed in a barn that a man named Frank charges two dollars to look at. Instead I drive two hours into Iowa to visit Donna’s Cabbage Patch Fantasy Land Museum. I wonder if you can call it a museum when it’s actually a shed down a dirt road in Iowa.

Donna’s museum is incredible. Inside it is partitioned into booths like you’d see at an art fair. Each booth reveals a thematic scene commemorating important moments in Cabbage Patch history. My favorite is dedicated to NASA’s space program. I learn that in 1986 a Cabbage Patch Kid by the name of ‘Christopher Xavier’ was sent into space aboard a NASA space shuttle. My friend whispers, ‘wasn’t that the one that… didn’t make it back?’. I shush him quickly.

I like Donna and make attempts to ingratiate myself by asking perky questions, ‘How did you get into collecting Cabbage Patch dolls?’, ‘Do you have a favorite one?’. My questions are met with a pained expression as Donna stares long into my face then looks away without answering. I frantically puzzle why Donna hates me so, which provokes a stream of anxious prattling. I am relieved when eventually Donna pats my arm and drawls apologetically ‘I can’t understand a word you’re saying, Dear’. I realize Donna has not encountered many other accents at her museum. When I leave she insists I write ‘HI FROM NEW ZEALAND!’ in her guestbook and gives me a free Cabbage Patch button.

Walmart Chicken Juice

I decide to practice driving in America and take the car out for a solo supermarket shop. The other residents prefer to shop at Wholefoods but I have been secretly harboring a desire to see what unethical discounts Walmart has to offer. I drive for miles down wide motorways lined with identical looking strip malls. This is the America I know from years of watching reruns of Cops.

I have no idea how to cross traffic so drive in complicated looped circles. I have been driving for forty minutes when I watch a man vomit out of his car window at the traffic lights. I wonder if this is the day I will fall a little out of love with the Midwest.

Walmart is glaringly bright, vast and overwhelming. The aisles stretch for miles. There are a high proportion of people in motorised wheelchairs and I wander in dazzled circles like a squirrel with a brain injury. At the checkout a woman’s cooked chicken bursts on the conveyor. There is a surprising amount of liquid that soaks both our groceries. Paper towels are brought and we all start to sop up the juice. The groceries are slick with it. The teller is extremely pissed off but silently resigned. The customer is extremely pissed off but silently resigned. The clean up is slow and futile. I find myself inching further away until without knowing it I have turned and am striding out of Walmart leaving my groceries behind.

New World Order

Trump is president. The residents spend a shellshocked day absorbing this new reality. Annie and I wander around Omaha as we did in the days before Trump was elected president. We feel a need to enact what once bought enjoyment but today there is a hollow emptiness to our actions. We eat chili dogs at a diner then drive to a thrift store. Our minds are elsewhere. I grasp for something to equate the feeling with and decide it feels like a death. I wonder if what has died is hope.

At the thrift store the woman in front of us is loudly telling everyone that she hopes the first thing Trump does is overturn Roe Vs. Wade so Americans will stop slaughtering babies. She is upbeat and chirpy. Today is her day. I’ve turned up at a birthday party I wasn’t invited to. Back in my studio I watch footage of thousands protesting outside Trump Tower in Manhattan. Their outrage and disbelief is molten. I search inside myself for anger. Anger would at least be mobilising but all I feel is an awful debilitating resignation. Making art has never seemed so pointless. I wonder what has changed forever and what will go on and what will come back to me that feels lost today.

In Nebraska, Donald Trump won 60.3% of the vote. Looking at a map of the electoral vote shows us surrounded by a sea of red states. Next week I will thank the Midwest for its hospitality then pack my small life into a hired van. It will take three days to drive through this red sea in order to reach my small bubble of New York blue.

At the beginning of 2016 I moved to a new country with my husband full of hope and modest expectations for the future. A lot can change in a year. I have seen my life and landscape shift as if born aloft on flowing lava. I think of how cornfields look at night. The black rows indicating infinite choices, dangers lurking unseen, unknowable journeys to uncertain destinations.

I think of the walls my new country is building and the eruptive divisions between its people. I think of the messy little microcosm of my marriage breakdown. How we all get hurt in life and build walls to protect ourselves. Then spend the rest of our lives trying to take down those walls and open our hearts to love again. I think of the protest signs being held aloft across the country, ‘LOVE TRUMPS HATE’, and hope I can carry this with me through the cornfields towards home.

Air Presto Flyknit Ultra

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Jess Johnson in her studio at the Bemis Center Science Fiction residency

Courtesy of Jess Johnson

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Obese raccoons out the back of a Nebraska dive bar

Jess Johnson

Deep Fried Burger 1.JPG

Deep Fried Burger, external view

Jess Johnson

Deep Fried Burger 2.JPG

Deep Fried Burger, internal view

Jess Johnson

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Cabbage Patch button 

Jess Johnson

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Donna's Cabbage Patch Fantasy Land Museum, Iowa

Jess Johnson

Jess Johnson is a New Zealand artist currently based in New York after ten years of living and working in Melbourne. Her drawing and installation practice is influenced by the speculative intersections between language, science fiction, culture and technology. Her recent video collaborations with Simon Ward have involved translating her drawings into animated video and virtual reality. Jess’s work has been exhibited throughout Australia, New Zealand and internationally, including Jack Hanley Gallery, New York; Art Basel, Hong Kong; Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh; National Gallery of Victoria, Australia; Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia; and Christchurch Art Gallery, New Zealand. Jess is represented by Jack Hanley Gallery, New York; Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney, Australia; and Ivan Anthony, Auckland, New Zealand. You can see more of her work at: www.jessjohnson.org

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