Inside the Artist’s Studio, Part 5: Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman

Studio Sessions

Inside the Artist's Studio

Inside the Artist’s Studio, Part 5: Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman

By Michele Carlson June 26, 2014

Studio Sessions offers behind-the-scenes access to artists, writers, curators, and creative individuals through a variety of tête-à-tête conversations that consider the how, and what, and where of making art. Studio Sessions are presented as interviews, profiles, and studio visits through text, photo essays, and videos.

Inside the Artist's Studio is an occasional series that offers intimate, insightful portraits of Bay Area artists and places where they make their work.

Art Practical is proud to collaborate with Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on their Artist-in-Residence program and to present this profile of the 2014 recipients, Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman.

The YBCA Artist Residency awards an emerging/mid-career artist, whose work foregrounds social and public practice, a monetary award and opportunities to create meaningful programs and projects that look beyond the traditional exhibition context to engage with Bay Area communities. This three-month residency in partnership with
Art Practical aims to support local artists through substantial financial support, critical engagement with their practice, and the career enhancement that institutional alliances can create.

That's not a reality I know anything about. It's so far away from how I hope our son will grow up.

Just off the hustle of 24th Street in San Francisco’s Mission district, multimedia artists and collaborators Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman juggle life. And not just their own. Their studio is in the front room of a large blue Victorian where they live, work, and raise their 5-year-old son. He has tasked them with the grave duty of saving a beloved and recently decapitated Wonder Woman action figure they picked up at a garage sale. Such a mundane domestic scene makes for a sharp contrast with the families profiled in Hibbert-Jones and Talisman’s current project Living Condition, which the pair have been working on at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) as the second annual Community Engagement Artists-in-Residence.

Living Condition both tells and reimages the experiences of those who have, or have had, family members on death row. What began as a series of short animated portraits has flowered into a feature-length film and an interactive component. The latter part is the focus for Hibbert-Jones and Talisman’s YBCA residency. Told in the voices of those impacted by their relative’s experience with capital punishment, and set visually by Hibbert-Jones and Talisman, the stories in Living Condition are heartbreaking and confounding in equal measure. Hibbert-Jones tells of the son of an interviewee “who literally grew up and was stabbed when he was 12, he was shot when he was 14, he was stabbed when he was 16, and then shot again in the head when he was 18. And only the last one was intentional. The rest were accidents.” She continues, “I'm sorry but that's not a reality I know anything about. It's so far away from how I hope our son will grow up.”

Dee Hibbert-Jones (left) and Nomi Talisman in their studio. Photo: Michele Carlson.

An acute self-awareness of this social and psychological distance, and the differences between Hibbert-Jones and Talisman’s position as artists and the position of the people they’re profiling, is exactly what energizes them. Hibbert-Jones explains, “We've done a bunch of projects to tease out the fact that we are all a part of this system. Actually, we're impacting and presumably democratically influencing that system in a big way,” she explains, her silver-white hair playfully pulled back in pigtails as she sets their kitchen table with cheeses, meat, fruit, and drinks. The goodies appear and are offered as quickly and as abundantly as Hibbert-Jones chats, her sprightly manner balanced only by Talisman’s relaxed and thoughtful presence.  Talisman notes, “Not being in opposition makes you a part of it.” The artists confront these questions of complicity and resistance head-on and reveal the many contradictions embedded within a social and political system that is structured by division and hierarchy, and enabled by a collective willingness to look the other way.

Living in San Francisco now could also be characterized in a similar fashion. The city is a quilt of semi-self-contained residential neighborhoods, many with their own bustling business centers. One may not even have to leave their neighborhood to feel like they’re experiencing the full spectrum of city life. Couple that with the speed at which the current tech boom is reshaping San Francisco and every block becomes a borderland. But this built-in buffer also lets the larger population to avoid acknowledging, say, the poverty and systemic violence occurring just a couple of miles away in the Bayview or Hunter’s Point neighborhood. So, in the pocket of the Mission that Hibbert-Jones and Talisman call home, it is easy to feel separate from the stories and faces that emanate from the computer screens, Wacom tablets, and storyboards that line their studio.  At the same time, just as their work is very much about connecting social worlds and political agendas perceived as disparate, so too does the space in which that work is conceived and made reflect how Hibbert-Jones and Talisman are constantly juggling research, social justice, family building, and love as imbricated priorities.

Nomi Talisman (left) and Dee Hibbert-Jones in their studio. Photo: Michele Carlson.

Hibbert-Jones and Talisman have been collaborating since the early 2000s. Hibbert-Jones, 51, was born in Manchester, UK, and Talisman, 47, hails from Tel Aviv, Israel, where both artists grew up, studied art, and became educators in their respective homelands. Eventually, and at random, both ended up at Mills College in the MFA program, but at different times. (Hibbert-Jones graduated first in 2001 and Talisman in 2003.) The two did not actually meet until a mutual friend invited Talisman, who was wrapping up school, to be a part of an artist critique group in which Hibbert-Jones was a member. About a year into the group, they began dating.

“Then we started working together,” Hibbert-Jones explained. The first time they broached working together was when Hibbert-Jones was producing a project for the Berkeley Arts Center in 2004. She explains, “[The project] was called Letters to an Unknown Friend, and from there we stumbled into a series of projects together that had this thought of having psychological, mental, and possibly political aspects to them.” The project was based on suitcases of letters Hibbert-Jones found while the Artist in Residence at San Francisco Recology, and over discussions with Talisman, it became clear to Hibbert-Jones that the two needed to collaborate and that their dialogue was more than just conversations between partners and artists. Since then they have worked almost exclusively together.

Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman. Living Condition, work-in-progress (still); drawings and video animation. Courtesy of the Artists.

Unlike Living Condition, their past collaborations have employed more humoristic and light approaches. For example, Psychological Prosthetics (2005) was a multimedia project across interventions, sculpture, installation, and video that used self-help and corporate language to address the way that people negotiate emotional baggage in turbulent times. Talisman notes that, “The more spoofy or humoristic aspect to it was a nice pull-in for some people, but it also stayed there.” “It’s not like we’re really funny!” Hibbert-Jones chimes in, laughing:“But being funny wasn’t the purpose. I felt like that was one of those places where the project, form, or delivery didn’t serve the content.” Talisman reflects further, “You work hard and then you have to move on to the next project.” The two are constantly mulling over the efficacy of their work, always considering their own positions in the dialogues their work lets them initiate and insert themselves into.

In 2009, the duo was invited to do a project at the Institute of Contemporary Art in San Jose themed around artists’ rejections, and the two decided to turn the spotlight toward a battle they were fighting in their personal life: Talisman’s pending visa and immigration status. Talisman explains, “The people who invited us, I think, thought it would be another spoofy Psychological Prosthetics, but at the time my visa was on the brink of being denied again. We were like, ‘Actually, it’s not a joke.’”

And you’re all talking about marriage this and marriage that, but it also means the granting of rights.

For seven years the couple spent $40,000, acquired over ninety letters of support, and billed an absurd amount of lawyer hours to keep Talisman in the country. Hibbert-Jones explains, “[Talisman’s] from Israel. I’m a dual US/UK citizen, and so now I could give her my status and get married, but even just half a year ago that wasn’t possible.” Hibbert-Jones and Talisman often work to reveal complicated political and social issues, which, when it comes to representations in the mainstream media, are commonly divided into neat and tidy boxes. Both artists are drawn to the undertaking of revealing the interconnected systems that lie close to society’s surface. What if it were impossible for one person to be dismissed from any particular political or social issue simply because they didn’t feel it applied to them? According to Hibbert-Jones, “We started teasing out these ideas of believing [politics] have nothing to do with you. And you’re all talking about marriage this and marriage that, but it also means the granting of rights.” Marriage is not just a union between two people; for Hibbert-Jones and Talisman, marriage is intimately intertwined with immigration, citizenship, family building, tax benefits, health care, property ownership, and basic civil rights. The choice of who is granted access to such rights distinctly demonstrates who is deemed worthy enough to have them or not.

From this experience the artists created I-140 (2009–10), employing the loaded artifact of handwritten cardboard signs as a way for the voiceless and powerless to communicate. The two stood on the sides of highways and freeways up and down California, holding a variety of signs that expressed and exposed their immigration experience with phrases such as “We call the INS,” “Status is Pending,” or how much debt they were in because of their immigration efforts. We “videotaped each other and the interactions to really talk about that invisibility and sense of abjection we felt,” says Hibbert-Jones. Talisman continued, “It was very direct and very immediate. It’s not spoofing anything. This is not me pretending to be somebody else.”

Animation cells from Living Condition. Studio of Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman. Photo: Michele Carlson.

“Our friend was like, ‘You can’t do that. That’s insulting to the people who are standing out on the corner.’ But actually it highlights exactly white-collar issues. [We were] dealing with the exact same issues, but because we don’t read as the population standing out on the corner, somehow it doesn’t get corralled in the same way. It’s not supposed to be a spoof or critique of those people [but the system].”

Talisman explains, “It's white-collar immigration. I was not illegal for a single day. I had ways to do it.” “And luck,” Hibbert-Jones interjects. Nodding in agreement, Talisman continues, “And luck, and pursuing, pursuing, pursuing. I was lucky enough that someone was able to get me a job because they really wanted me. And to get a lawyer who was really on top of it and I was able to pay for all of these things. Well, we're still paying them back.” Hibbert-Jones shrugs and nods in response. “Yea, we went into debt for it.”

“But we were able to come up with that, as opposed to people who have absolutely no means,” Talisman offers. Hibbert-Jones leans back in her chair in heavy contemplation, her hands clasped together on her chest. The resolution of this personal battle with immigration seems to have only strengthened their interest in the ways individuals negotiate larger, failed systems that claim to be democratic but in fact work differently for everyone. “It works for me because I can navigate the system, but it’s not going to work for them?” says Talisman. “That’s not a system.” Despite their personal struggle, the two are constantly examining their own position and privilege, which makes the weight of the questions they wrestle with in their work all the more palpable.

Nomi Talisman in the artists' studio. Photo: Michele Carlson.

Living Condition, in particular, reveals the ways the disenfranchised are left voiceless and invisible in the face of institutional and systemic failure, but it also attempts to complicate the public’s perception around capital punishment, incarceration, and criminality. One subject of Living Condition tells the story of Martina Correia, whose brother Troy Davis, a black man, was accused of killing a white police officer in Savannah, Georgia, and was eventually executed. Troy had no criminal background and the family was solidly middle class. In the animated segment devoted to her story, Correia explains, “Reporters came to us and wanted to know: Were we reared in the projects? Did we sell drugs? Were our parents alcoholics? Did they abuse us? Were they drug addicts? And when the answer was no, they didn’t want any story about us.” Because the family did not fit a perceived profile of criminality, there was nothing to report on. This troubling anecdote reveals how the media, public perception, and social class play key roles when constructing this system.

And [Bill] just wants to think he did the right thing and justice would prevail.

An especially painful narrative in the project is told by Bill Babbitt, whose brother Manny was convicted of murder in 1980 and was eventually executed on May 4, 1999. Talisman explains, “Everyone we've interviewed so far wants to do the right thing. Bill turns his brother in to the police because he thinks it's going to get him the help he needs.” Manny fought in the Vietnam War and was a part of the 1968 siege of Keh Khe Sanh; he also suffered from severe PTSD. “And [Manny] gets executed on his 50th birthday after being given a Purple Heart. And [Bill] just wants to think he did the right thing and justice would prevail.” The family members profiled must live with the psychological and social effects of having a loved one who is not only incarcerated but on death row. Many grapple with their own personal experiences of loss, guilt, and trauma, along with a range of social stigmas for being the partner, parent, sibling, or friend of someone who was convicted.

Focusing on the family’s experience, as opposed to that of the incarcerated individual, reveals the experiences of a population who are often ignored. It also separates the incarcerated individual from their criminal status. “There's a clip at the end where Bill talks about witnessing his brother's execution, and one of the things he says is that we are all part of the system. We all have blood on our hands,” reflects Talisman. “Not being in opposition makes you a part of it. Sometimes you are in opposition and think you have no voice, but you are still a part of it and you're paying into it.”

Dee Hibbert-Jones in the artists' studio. Photo: Michele Carlson.

Living Conditions began when Talisman worked for Community Resource Initiative in San Francisco, where she did media work around the families and communities of those on death row and those “who were directly impacted, but not the prisoners. The stories are heartbreaking because all [the families] haven’t done anything and are voices nobody hears from.” She knew there was a project in these stories, but also a need to create a unique platform for these experiences to be told and shared. 

Hibbert-Jones and Talisman’s animation style centers around simple gestural line renderings of the subjects set against a white background as they relay their experience in their own voice. This minimal rendering acts as a sort of filter, letting viewers focus more on what they’re hearing. Hibbert-Jones mused that “it's kind of trying to function in two ways. A layer of distance so you can watch it, but the other is that we pull in so close there's an intimacy you almost only get with a lover, partner, or child.” Hibbert-Jones and Talisman couple the intimate portraits with multilayered scenes that enact selections of the narrative being told. Layers upon layers of found and drawn images create an imagined backdrop where scenes flow in and out of one another. These segments aren’t so much about illustrating an event, or even a memory, but creating a space to visualize how lived experiences within larger systems—such as immigration or the penal system— can be complicated, messy, and unexpected.

Dee Hibbert-Jones (left) and Nomi Talisman in their studio. Photo: Michele Carlson.

Living Condition synthesizes hours of interviews, footage, and research. Typically, Hibbert-Jones conducts the interviews while Talisman films, jumping in only to correct or expand on Hibbert-Jones’ points in a way that mimics their everyday exchanges. Then they make an audio-only edit of the interview. “Then we break that down into scenes and fight about how we’d like to animate,” Hibbert-Jones teases. The two spend so much time with their subjects, both in person and through the editing process, and it is obvious how intimate and personal the process has become. Hibbert-Jones painstakingly renders faces and other images over and over by hand (they must produce every other frame for the audio to sync up correctly). In fact, Talisman in particular often flip-flops persons when talking about her subjects in any given sentence. It’s as if she is actually speaking to them, not about them. Whether physically present or not, Living Condition’s subjects are always in the room and always on their minds.

“It's totally collaborative. Sometimes we sit down separately and draw things, but we work really closely together and we've kind of influenced each other’s styles... Do you think so?” Hibbert-Jones asks her partner. They more often than not turn to one another to back up the stories they tell that make up their life together. They fill in each other’s blanks and finish sentences with equal ease to dispute each other. Hibbert-Jones continues playfully, “We of course drive each other crazy. It’s interesting to think of how people collaborate. We started working on two computers and trying to do both of it, but then realized for the editing process it really needs to be on one. So mostly now Nomi sits there and I sit here and try to will her to do things.” 

“You judge society based on its lowest citizens, not its highest,” and if you think about that in relation to this country, it's pretty damning.

“Well, why would you collaborate otherwise? Except for a division of labor, but for that you can get assistants”—which they do occasionally employ. “If you really want to collaborate, you really want to get something out of it. I could work on my own project and still talk to you, but the bit where you actually sit and do the work together is where everyone brings their own strengths and blind spots. It pushes something forward and is interesting and challenging,” Talisman offers to her partner. It is unclear if Talisman is speaking of their art practice or life together, but the distinction is something of a moot point.

It seems apt that the kind of projects and subject matter Hibbert-Jones and Talisman gravitate toward is made in their home, intermingled with their family and personal life. They have constructed a space where intimacy, responsibility, and collaboration are embedded in the studio environment. How could they not extend the same sort of care they bring to their domestic life to how they approach their practice and the communities they collaborate with? Hibbert-Jones reflects, with a loving clarification of the quote from Talisman, that “Nelson Mandela said: ‘You judge society based on its lowest citizens, not its highest,’ and if you think about that in relation to this country, it's pretty damning.” Talisman reaffirms: “Because we're looking at all of these social structures and failed systems, it's almost pick-and-choose. It's not as if it's going to go away. And what can we add to this, or are we even the right people? But there are a lot of things that come out when you look closely.”

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