I recently started a conversation with Megan Mantia and Leone Anne Reeves to talk about their immersive performance practices as Blanket Undercover, and their most recent performance series The Year of Dreams. Known for their unique costuming and travel locations, their work has led them to make discoveries about fringe subcultures. This duo recently received a Rocket Grant from Charlotte Street for Mini Vinnie Bini to create a citywide experimental dramatization of the 56th Venice Biennale across the Kansas City metro.
Melaney Ann Mitchell: In this project, you are both travelling as a team and immersing yourselves in different subcultures, how do you go about that?
Megan Mantia: We start by doing extensive research about an event that seems to draw a global or specific attendance. Costuming is essential for mass-gatherings and becomes our “packaging,” so to speak. Leone is our costume designer, and she’s genius at boiling down the most significant elements from our research, then thoughtfully and creatively twisting the ideas to make completely original pieces. Then we test out our interpretation and see how/ if we fit in.
Leone Reeves: I think we both are the kind of people who automatically feel open to any way of being, so it is impossible for us to not seek these things out. Also, this project is affirming our existence in a world that has more possibilities than being white, straight, and working class.
MAM: What has been the most rewarding event to attend? What has been least?
MM: The Coney Island Mermaid Parade was one of the most perfect, not-creepy, completely fun days I’ve ever had. I would say the most rewarding event (overall) would be our Burning Man excursion. We read every resource we could find online, and it’s one of the most organized mass gathering you’ll find on this planet. There are guides and rulebooks and recommendations, blogs with stories of how to photograph in the dust of the desert, how to not scorch the desert floor while building a fire, and even how to make your own temporary shower. Many people were shocked we were first timers and we didn’t have any ‘oh-shit’ moments where we were really unprepared or uncomfortable while camping in the inhospitable desert for a whole week.
The least rewarding so far was New Year’s Eve in Times Square because it was our first trip and we hadn’t really developed our method yet. Exhausted from a previous project, we embarked on the trip with little research about how to find your way to the center of the event, and by the time we actually made it through security, the streets of people were backed up seven blocks in all four directions. So we could see the live glitter of thousands of cameras all going off at once in what looked like a very exciting middle of Times Square. We started that trip too exhausted to care and left feeling like it was a do-over.
LR: I have really loved each event we have attended for different reasons. Most of the time it is because I proved myself wrong on a preconceived idea of what the event would be like. Sometimes, like in the case of the Juggalo Gathering, I loved it because it scared me. That event was really out of our normal habitat. Also, I did have a life changing moment at Burning Man. I realized I was exactly who I was supposed to be. I know that Megan and I both felt this way, because we went to bed early every night in our tiny tent and laughed about how hard people were trying to be different, and how easy it was for us to be ourselves at burning man or at home or at work. Thank god. So I realized I’m in the right place, and I loved it for that.
MAM: How do you deal with the line between voyeurism and authentic immersion into these events/subcultures?
MM: This is something we discuss a lot. We’re all aware of a fairly healthy stereotype attached to tourism. It gets a dirty rep in general when people whine about never getting to go anywhere, but when they do they’re face-down in their phones, or won’t go without all the amenities of home, or just want the fast-food version of traveling. We hope that the lengths we go to fully join the ranks of the gatherings that fascinate us are evident to our audience. We do not attend these events to deliver a snarky Vice.com-worthy report, to be amused at attendees’ expense. We document extensively, and are often surprised by things we encounter. There are times where we are not always comfortable with who we interact with or some of the traditions inherent to these events but that’s the whole point. With this project, we hope to exemplify how much fun can be had during the unexpected, how many weird pockets of the world exist and how there are no substitutions for experiencing the world IRL.
LR: I’m not totally sure that we aren’t participating as voyeurs, but even if we are, there’s an authenticity to our complete surrender and immersion into these eyewitness experiences. I also give us permission to be eyewitness, because everyone is a voyeur with a tiny window to the world that they carry around with them all day, or have in a bag, or have at home. These little windows to the internet have evolved us into a Voyeuristic culture. I know voyeurism gets a bad rap because it’s about sexual pleasure really, so I would like to replace Voyeurism with Spectator.
MAM: Does it ever come off to those around you at Burning Man or The Gathering that something is different about you?
MM: We generally don’t pretend to be something we’re not when we attend these gatherings. Especially at the Gathering of the Jugglalos, people would ask us how long we’d been in ‘The Family’ or if we were huge Insane Clown Posse fans, and we’d just say that we were new the whole thing, but fascinated and were there to learn what it was all about. All of these events have tons of newcomers every year who were either brought by ‘lifers’ randomly or who’d dreamed of attending for years and finally made it. At Burning Man we had tons of people marvel at the fact that it was our first year, because we seemed so prepared. It made me feel like we fit in and regulars were excited about our presence. We always tell people that we’re from KC and make all of our own costumes and proudly wear the KC fountain symbol on almost every outfit. They always think it’s amazing. And it is. That symbol was just made to fit over boobs and butts on clothing. It’s perfect.
LR: I think these places were created for people to be themselves, which is different from the norm of society. I think we fit in because of that. Though I will say in our most recent travel to Spain for the Running of the Bulls, we choose to dress as American tourist, and we did not fit in at all! Ha! It was an experiment to throw into the regular immersive way we conduct these performances, and part of it was because of thinking about this question from your interview Melaney.
MAM: I remember speaking with Megan about how you noticed women being treated within these spaces – specifically at The Gathering- can you elaborate on that?
MM: The GOTJ was the most threatening to women of all of the events we’ve attended. It was the only time we chose to bring boys with us “as accessories to our outfits” but also as documentation assistants and as bodyguards if needed. In our research, it seemed pretty clear that the Juggalos were a predominantly heterosexual group where if you weren’t paired off, you were fair game. 90% of the photos you find online are of guy-girl couples, or topless girls. So from our research, we felt like we might stand out in a way we didn’t want to if we came just as two girls alone.
There was an underlying vibe of chivalry that came with all of this oddly enough. I walked away from the whole event feeling that if one guy had tried to assault me in public, 10 other Juggalos would have stepped in and beat the shit out of my assailant. But then I would have maybe, owed them, if you know what I mean. It was very strange. And we did meet a few really nice guys. But one of our more regular encounters was a near-by camp-mate “Clifton” who had a wife, and 2 girlfriends, one who knew about all of them, and one who knew only about the wife. I told him it sounded like he did a lot of “juggling”.He didn’t laugh.
We witnessed both a Juggalo wedding and a Miss Juggalette Pageant, where in the pouring rain people stood in the mud to watch 11 women brag about how much weed they smoked, and show as much skin as they dared to try to win a framed gold record type thing and the love of every Juggalo for 20 miles. During the swimsuit portion of the pageant, I heard one guy say (in what sounded like all seriousness), “Man, I’d like to take a shit on her.” and no one laughed. I shuddered.
We all left feeling pretty gross about being party (even if only in part) to such grotesque and antiquated (yet still so prevalent) sexism and degradation. On some level, there was a strong vibe of love at the GOTJ, every man kept saying “I’d be dead without my woman, I don’t know how she puts up with me- I owe her everything” But then they (and their ladies) would scream every word to the ICP song “Red Neck Hoe” with lyrics such as
“Bitch, we can take a walk
But I hate the way you fuckin’ hillbillies talk
So keep your filthy ass mouth shut
And don’t say shit, nasty slut
Bitch, I wanna hit it
So I can drop your ass in a New York minute”
So it was a very confusing place, to say the least.
LR: At the Gathering I could not stop thinking about the dark ages. I think the mentality at that event was this barbaric – post Roman Empire – strict christianity – fear of “other” – living in nihilism because life is Dante’s Inferno. So, eat whatever shitty high fructose disgusting thing you want, and drink till you’re liver falls out of your body, take all the drugs, and treat everyone like a disposable object. Women were revered for being fat slugs to be taken care of but also hated, and Men were self-identified useless containers of overflowing Monster Drink fueled testosterone. No one was spared.
MAM: Do you think that any of these events are safe spaces for women (specifically women travelling without men)? Is sexism rampant or non existent in any of these spaces?
MM: GOTJ was the most rampant sexism we encountered. I would say that Burning Man was 2nd in line with creatively-named clubs such as “Slut Garden” and the “Little Crackwhore Camp”. Most of those places were all in good fun and our general interactions were (mostly) non-creepy. We had one incident when we were walking around “patrolling” (our theme costumes for the week were “Party Patrol”) and we encountered a ‘Sobriety Checkpoint’ where a camp of crazies (men and women) decided to block the road and spank all people who weren’t appropriately inebriated. You had to take shots and get spanked with leather whips and it was sort of forceful and not fun to try to play along with. We did not enjoy it, and it wasn’t really possible to opt out without retreating the way you came.
We also heard stories from some older Burners who had seen people spiking watermelon slices with date-rape chemicals and passing them out. Gifting food and drinks is a very common thing there; we were eating cantaloupe handed to us by two half-dressed strangers within ten minutes of arriving in the desert. 70,000 people attend Burning Man, many are families who bring children, and there are AA camps for those who don’t drink and safe sex seminars and tantric workshops etc and the Cuddle Dome for those who are looking for a consensual partner. So out of that many people, obviously there will be a few bad apples, and some apples who only go bad on drugs/ in a seemingly lawless place. On the whole we met a lot of respectful, nice people. And we met a huge number of men who were just excited to get to walk around in the nude. They weren’t creepy, just wanted to be without clothes in public and not be seen as lecherous just one week out of the year.
LR: I’m not sure if there are any universally safe spaces for anyone. We generally have good experiences on all our trips, but there are always those “ick” moments. Years ago I was reading this book called “Skin” and it was all about understanding identity through our biological visual representation, and touch as communication. Our skin is visible, and we literally touch and feel things all day everyday. So it got me thinking about how we decide to process what information is communicated to us because of our skin and touch, and how I get to decide when I am and or am not affected by what is happening to me. As a defense mechanism, I have developed myself into someone who ignores a lot of things that should make me more upset. It has helped me navigate the world, but it has also made me desensitized to how the world views and treats me. So now as a woman in her 30’s, I am re-evaluating my experiences, especially while on our Year of Dreams trips, and that is why I say I’m not sure if there are any universally safe spaces for anyone.
MAM: Now you two are heading to the Venice Biennale as part of your new Rocket Grant-funded project as Blanket Undercover. What is the story behind that?
MM: We are going to Pamplona, Spain and Venice, Italy for new Year of Dreams installments and then separately, while in Venice, we’ll document the Venice Biennale for our city-wide Rocket Grant exhibition The Mini Vinnie Bini. We’re going to recreate the exhibition in KCK and KCMO so those who can’t travel to it can still experience it. Pieces will be installed on and around buildings and houses. In addition, we’re going to compile and make available creative interpretations of contemporary theory, criticism, and discussion growing around the show. Once we return, we’ll take August and September to confirm who will be assisting us and set all of the venues and collaborative forces that will make this dramatization come to life. The project is a perfect opportunity to create a lasting document of the experience here in KC, the people who are part of it, and how we made this significant exhibition our own/ more accessible.
MAM: So a lot of what you guys are doing with this project is giving the audience a chance to become a member of the group? And then as Blanket Undercover you’re taking that experience from elsewhere and recreating it here?
MM: We are always Blanket Undercover. The Year of Dreams is a series within our body of work. Our Rocket Grant isn’t for Year of Dreams, it’s specifically for bringing the 56th Venice Biennale to Kansas City. The grant isn’t for our travel to Venice so that we can see the Biennale, it’s specifically for recreating the exhibition in KC. The nature of the Mini Vinni Bini relates to the fact that Kansas City is this very DIY, make-your-own-fun type place. KC is also a collaboration-friendly city, so we think that it is a perfect place to have everyone be a part of something that they may not even know exists yet.
We’ll secure pieces inside and outside businesses and friends’ residences and create a detailed map that will lead visitors to locations as if they were winding around Venice tracking down each pavilion. A large percentage of the Biennale is free to the public, but this exhibition will be entirely free to the public, as will recreated didactic materials and our own catalog presenting curated highlights of our experience and more in depth information on blockbuster emerging contemporary artists. An exciting aspect of this installation process is that it will include neighborhoods that typically have no connection with the insular art community that exists here. Members of our community always act like they want art to reach beyond the designated art neighborhoods, but the majority of exhibitions put on here exist in spaces and events that can be intimidating to those outside the insular art crowd (and rarely off the beaten path).
When Charlotte Street held panel discussions about how we could improve art in the city…Melaney you were present at the session I attended…
MM: … I was pointing out our art scene’s lack of diversity and asking why artists/organizations here don’t invent new methods of showing work that go beyond the same cubes they always end up in? The Rocket Grant program states that its aim is to fuel the energy of the Kansas City regional visual arts community by encouraging and supporting innovative, public-oriented work in non-traditional spaces.And though I don’t think every project they’ve funded fulfills this, it’s an inspiring and necessary example for an organization to set to help push the democratization of art experience and education in KC.
The Mini Vinni Bini will provide an extremely public, inviting way to interact with art for over 3 months and will breed new connections to our art community in new areas during our fun, experimental programming.
MAM: When you go to the Biennale are you two going to be yourselves or are you going to be a character you take on?
MM: Us visiting the Biennale is not really meant to be a performance- we are there to gather the materials for our Rocket Grant project. However, we never pass up an opportunity to thumb our nose at the art world we love/hate so much. So we are going to wear all black like SERIOUS ART CRITICS and we have little turtleneck insert “dickies” added to summer dresses so we still look SUPER intelligent and SERIOUS yet ready for hot Italian summer at a moment’s notice. And we’ll have fake black super intelligent glasses so we look well-read next to all the art nerds. For the Year of Dreams installments on this Euro-Trip, we are going with an overall theme of “American Tourista” and dressing like matching little-kid siblings on family vacation. But we’ll also have moments playing the All-American summer dream girl/ All-American Olympian touring the world. At the Festa Redentore (July 18th in Venice) we’ll be dressed as rats because it’s a celebration of the end of The Plague. For Running of the Bulls in Pamplona we’ll dress out in the classic red and white, but our fans will want to keep social media scanned for sightings of a couple of familiar faces!
MAM: Overall, what do you hope your audience and those you attend these events with take away from the experience you’re creating?
LR: I would be thrilled if someone had a change of perspective about the human experience after viewing our work, or talking to us about Year Of Dreams, or other ideas we work on. I always think about the artists who created Dada during WWI. I feel that same sense of disillusionment, but instead of being horrified by war, my horror is spawning from the way we westerners live our lives. Totally blind to our prejudices, and privileges. It makes me want to take a sarcastic tone, or do something illegal, or stupid, or hurt someone’s feelings. You know? I think that is where Blanket Undercover art projects start for me. Megan and I also talk about the idea of doing our Year Of Dreams project as something of an anthropological study. We are both aware of race and gender inequalities, and hatred towards non whites or non heteros or non christians in our current climate, and we want to be artists who are trying to make a change. We are also aware that as two white women, we run the risk of assuming a cultural identity to give it a voice and point out issues in the world, even when do not have ownership of those cultural identities. So, for me this is an adventure into the culture of “whiteness”, and how to understand what we are so we aren’t always trying to misrepresent and oppress everyone else.
MM: I hope people see us going to THE place and doing THE thing and realize that there are things that they can’t live without seeing. That making sacrifices in their daily routine could be worth everything to stop dreaming about how they’re going to experience that thing one day and actually do it. We live in a land-locked place and it’s easy to feel trapped and lose that feeling of wonder that life can give you. I find that wonder most while traveling and nothing has made me happier/feel like I’m learning more than to make travel part of my artwork. To save my money and spend it on experiences instead of stuff. To get out of KC enough to appreciate what a great home it is and that I want to return to it. The title Year of Dreams is also a joke on the “bucket list” concept- (a term I’ve come to hate)- because it’s taught this idea that once we’re retired or before we croak we need to spend a year seeing all the things we can’t die without seeing. But it’s like this limiting, last gasp approach that I don’t understand AND saving it till you’re too old to learn as much/ too wise & careful to want to explore or do anything dangerous. We believe every year is the year we’re going to live out our dreams and NOTHING is going to get in our way. One day we’ll be the only people who have attended every mass gathering in the world and can speak about them in the first person. And just so you know, we’re saving Spring Break in Cancun for when we’re 80 so we can really freak everyone out. It’s gonna be a good one!! So stay tuned….for life.