Bonnie Norlander interviews Liza Cucco
As someone who is interested in the question of what art can “do,” I was pleased this month to attend the Creative Time Summit, held in Washington, D.C., and especially happy to reconnect with a good friend from art school, Liza Cucco.
Cucco is a multi-media artist working in sound, image, live art, and installation. In recent years, she has resided in London, England, first to attend graduate school at Slade School of Fine Art at University College London, and then to serve as the director of the Hackney Food Bank. As her time in London draws to a close, I was interested to get Liza’s impressions on how her Christian faith, studies in art, and work with refugees and others in crisis have framed her perspective. She will transition back to life in the States by the end of the year. What follows is a paraphrased version of our extensive interview.
Bonnie: Tell us about your background, education, and your path into the arts.
Growing up in a conservative Pentecostal church, I was conscious of a certain amount of suspicion on the part of the church regarding art. We were discouraged from engaging in anything “secular”—museums, movies, and music that weren’t explicitly Christian. My parents didn’t necessarily feel this way—in fact, my mother had even wanted to study art when she went to college, but her father wouldn’t allow it–but they also shared some of the same suspicions as others in the era of the conservative Christian “culture wars” of the eighties and nineties. As a high school student, I became interested in a lot of theater and art classes. One of my teachers noted that I was technically skilled, and in theater classes, I became interested in set design as a merging of the two. Up to this point I was focused on technique over content.
Branching out on my own, I was determined to pursue either architecture or documentary filmmaking. I moved from New Jersey to California to study at Biola University. While there, I became enthralled with the idea of narrative storytelling and, though Biola’s film department was strong technically, I felt I needed to jump over to the art department for a more well-rounded perspective on making films. Thankfully, one of my art professors finally challenged my either/or thinking on the “art vs. film” debate and helped me realize that I didn’t need to choose one over the other.
Bonnie: I know that after you graduated from Biola you worked in the U.S. for a while. What prompted your move to the U.K.?
Liza: I had always been interested in English culture, history, and medieval historical fiction so when I had an opportunity while at Biola to study in London for a semester, I jumped at it. As it turned out, the art classes offered at the school in London were pretty terrible, but I did enjoy taking a course and becoming proficient working with stained glass during that time. The other upside of my time there was that one of the history professors–noting that I was more serious about art than others of the students there–suggested that I might prefer the offerings at the Slade at UCL and encouraged me to attend some lectures there. That planted the seed for where I would end up for grad school. After graduating from Biola, I spent several years working in the film industry by day and continued making sculptures. Eventually I determined it was time to pursue my master’s degree and made my way back to London to attend Slade.
Bonnie: How do you think your interests and experiences up to that point shaped the kind of work you did in grad school?
Liza: When I started work on my M.A., someone mentioned that the work I was doing was “formal,” and that, though it was beautiful, they couldn’t really understand what was at the heart of it. Of course, this got me thinking, and I realized that I just couldn’t do the same kind of work I’d been doing up to that point because it didn’t make sense to me anymore. I had to go deeper.
Bonnie: How do you think your Christian upbringing has informed your art?
Liza: As I mentioned, I grew up in a conservative church that was suspicious of art that wasn’t explicitly Christian. At times I felt like I was living a double life because I was interested in art but didn’t think “Christian art” went far enough. The church actually did a lot of creative work—like choreographed interpretive dance and elaborate theatrical productions—much of it very beautiful, and I enjoyed being involved because I was a creative person. But I often felt shortchanged because of the limitations placed on the creativity; it had to be in support of an explicitly Christian message and for the sake of getting people in the door. Worse than that, sometimes the message was actually disparaging of other traditions or denominations. It led to a lot of conflicted feelings for me that I had to wrestle with in my late teens and twenties.
Much of my performance art in the last several years has been aimed at challenging people to consider the implications of how they view the world—especially regarding political and religious assumptions. Sometimes I’ve worried I might be crossing the line, unintentionally offending some Christians with my pieces, but my goal is to help people see how they can sometimes become superstitious in their Christian practices, treating God like he’s a magician or a genie in a bottle. There are a lot of tensions to juggle to arrive at a piece that prompts thought and isn’t just a joke or an eye roll. I want to use humor but also be sincere; I try to be a little unsettling in order to cause people to evaluate and challenge their own thinking.
Bonnie: Since completing your M.A., you’ve spent the past several years helping to run the Hackney Food Bank in London. Reflect on your work there and how it has affected your creative work.
Liza: Great Britain has a long history, dating back to the Victorian era, of a moral imperative to ensure all had a basic standard of living, an effort pursued mainly by private charities until after WWII. At this point, the government began to seriously address how poverty could be alleviated, leading to a burst in social housing, the establishment of the National Health Service, new welfare programs and a decrease in relative poverty. However, what we have seen over the past five years in the U.K. is a government project to reduce the size of the state, which has led to reductions in funding for many services people have come to rely on. That combined with increased global economic instability and insecure work has meant many are finding themselves in unexpected financial crisis, and charities like Hackney have tried to fill the gaps in a way that hasn’t been seen for over a century.
(Interviewer’s note: this portion of our conversation included insightful analysis of the history and current status of the British economy and welfare system and the necessity for support services like those Hackney provides; unfortunately, space doesn’t permit the full text here.)
The demanding front-line work has often left me without energy to invest daily in my art practice, which has been a tension for me. There have been many days where I wished I could be in the studio rather than a makeshift charity office juggling a constantly ringing phone, endless emails, and navigating Kafkaesque bureaucracies to get struggling people the assistance they require. Running a charity wasn’t something I necessarily chose to do—it sort of just happened to me—but I’ve felt it was where God has placed. I have been able to link this work into a curatorial practice by putting on auctions, exhibitions, and making space for artists in residence at the charity. Now that my time here in London is coming to a close, I’m transitioning my energy to other creative projects.
Bonnie: It seems that your work ethic requires a sort of all-consuming energy for whatever you have before you. How do you envision your time at Hackney will inform your creative work going forward?
Liza: Something I really enjoyed about starting a small non-profit was the process of creating something out of nothing, the entrepreneurial activity that’s sort of similar to making art. Now I’m wrestling with how I can translate the wealth of experiences from these past four years into whatever I do next. Working at the food bank has exposed me to serious social injustice, so I’ve got something to say; I’m thinking through what forms that will take. Right now, I’ve returned to making stained glass, which I hadn’t done in years. The process is soothing, and it gives me joy.
Looking toward the future, I’ve been thinking a lot about how people access art. I’m interested in working along the boundaries of fine art, film, theater, digital media, and the Internet. What’s got me really angry and motivated right now is how much of the world is full of hateful rhetoric and how even ‘good’ people get caught up in it and find ways to justify it. In this regard, I’ve been thinking of how I can use my set of skills to help people get outside the echo chambers of their own Facebook feeds and challenge themselves to consider issues from another perspective. I don’t want to add to the noise, and I’m not interested in more propaganda, but I’m just not sure yet what’s the right approach. Sometimes a gallery feels like as much of an echo chamber as a Facebook feed!
I believe that Christians need to be thinking more about inclusion than exclusion, cultivating lives that offer encouragement, love, hospitality, and consideration for others. I’m not sure yet how to accomplish this, but I’ll get back to you.
Bonnie K. Norlander is an Administrative Consultant in the Arts, and a Public Art advocate. She holds an M.A. in Visual Arts Administration from N.Y.U., and a B.F.A. in Art and Design from Biola University. After a decade of working in New York City, she has recently moved to Portland, Maine, started her own business, and has taken up drumming.