Sarah Anne Johnson On Family Trauma, Psychedelics, And Art
Sarah Anne Johnson greets me at the back door to the building that houses her studio in the West Exchange. We climb the stairs, chatting about our weeks and the artist talk at the old Globe Cinema she plans to attend after our interview. We enter the studio, and Sarah shows me around. On one side, large photographs taken at music festivals hang over tables of paints and other supplies. On the other, Sarah’s constructed a large cave with the help of her assistant as a continuation of her project House on Fire. A large handmade dummy rests on a table off to the side. Sarah props him up and tells me she’s had a difficult time trying to source fake eyeballs. The last ones she ordered were pricey and they still don’t look real enough.
Since 2008, Sarah has been making work about her grandmother, Velma Orlikow, who was one of Doctor Cameron’s patients in the MKUltra experiments during the mid-1950’s. As treatment for postnatal depression, Velma underwent electroshock therapy, injections of LSD, and medically-induced sleep. Later, it was discovered that the entire project had been covertly funded by the CIA, and was part of an ongoing investigation into methods of interrogation and torture.
House on Fire in 2009 was Sarah’s first body of work about her grandmother’s experiences. The show included family photographs, newspaper clippings, bronze figurines, and a surreal dollhouse. Since then, Sarah’s been constructing life-size replicas of each room in the dollhouse, making video, and sometimes reconstructing and displaying the models in galleries, putting on live performances inside them. The first was Hospital Hallway in 2015, followed by The Kitchen in 2016. Now she’s working on The Cave, a reconstruction of a room in the centre of the House on Fire with no windows or doors, where two figures dance. One of Sarah’s current projects is shooting a video in the cave, in which she plays her grandmother, dancing with the dummy whose eyeballs aren’t right yet.
Returning to the other side of the studio, away from the cave and tables strewn with limbs and partial constructions of human figures, feels instantly cheerier. The walls are a brilliant white and photographs beckon with colour. Sarah likes to joke that, “If someone didn’t know that this was all one artist, they’d think it was two separate artists that didn’t even like each other or respect each other’s work.”
We sit down in two comfortably worn second-hand chairs and begin talking more about Sarah’s projects.
FULL: At what point did you decide to start making work about your grandmother and the MKUltra experiments? What drew you to the project?
Sarah Anne Johnson: I guess I always knew I was going to make work about that. I started in undergrad. My grandma passed away when I was thirteen. I would go over there every day after school because both my parents worked. I never asked her about it because I was young, and I didn’t know how to ask or when to bring it up. Same with my mother. My mother had a difficult childhood, and so do you bring it up when she’s in a good mood? No. A bad mood? Definitely no. So I learned about it through all the court transcripts and newspapers and everything in boxes in our basement. I would sneak down there every once in awhile and read something. Sometimes I’d go ask my mom about it, but most of the time I wouldn’t. When I slept over at friends’ houses, their parents would ask me about it because it was in the papers and very public, and they would kind of tell me things.
When I started making work about it, my mom had kept all of these boxes of papers because she thought my brother or I would want to write a book. Then I could sit her down and ask her questions. I’d do a little bit of research and come back to her. Working on it was kind of an excuse. My mom doesn’t like talking about it, but she’s very supportive of me and my artistic endeavours.
It’s hard making work about your family, especially if it’s troubled. You love them, but you always have to be hard on your subject. It’s harder than the music festival work. There’s a lot more internal wrestling, worrying about what my grandma would think, putting this emotional pressure on my mother. Also, and this is a weirder thing that I’ve just started coming to terms with, my grandma passed away when I was thirteen, and I’ve been making work about this for almost ten years. Pretty soon I will have been making work about it longer than I’ve known her.
Part of why I’m doing it is because I want, and I’m not going to get it, but it’s a search for clarity, for closure or understanding. Why she was the way she was, why my mother is the way she is, why I am the way that I am. The more I learn about it, the more I realise there is not going to be any closure. Trying to know someone else is an impossible task.
FULL: It’s impossible even with an alive person.
SAJ: But it’s weird because I’m doing it to try and hold on and learn, but actually by making art about it, I’m probably just complicating things more in my head. When you have a memory, you’re not remembering the actual event, you’re remembering the last time you remembered it. Just the other day, I was reading my journals from when I first started making work about this back in 2008. How I was writing about it then is so different from how I’m writing about it now. I was closer to the source then, memory-wise. My thoughts about my grandmother seemed more in connection with her, and now they seem more connection in my art.
FULL: I’m curious about your thoughts on the intergenerational effects of trauma; when a traumatic event has these reverberations down the line and each generation has their way of dealing with it.
SAJ: Part of what I’m interested in is when something comes in out of left field, breaks a branch on the family tree, and how that sorts itself out from generation to generation. I wasn’t around when it happened, but I still feel like I’m dealing with the fallout from it.
My mother did a lot of self-work. A lot of what I’m interested in is how a parent will try and protect their child from the trauma of their past and try not to pass things on, which is impossible because it comes through in your DNA, in how you deal with situations. For her, I think she would say that it’s all bad, but for me the fallout isn’t all bad, which is also kind of confusing. I come from a family where my grandmother took on the fucking CIA. That’s huge. My grandfather was also a member of the NDP and the north end riding, doing what he could for everybody. Coming from this family that really does the right thing no matter what, that’s a huge part of who I am. There’s lots of bad things that I’m constantly trying to navigate and do better with, but it’s part of what I’m interested in unpacking from my work.
FULL: Are you someone who believes that good can come from the bad?
SAJ: Yes and no. I would much rather that this had not happened. I’d still be here, I’d just be a different person who was proud of other things. With the video work I’ve been making as part of the project, I’m very interested in Bertolt Brecht’s alienation effect and the devices that he used to not allow his audience to be seduced. One was that there was no catharsis. He didn’t take the audience on an emotional journey and have it resolve so that they could feel like some right was wronged. He wanted people to take action instead.
With this work, there was no cathartic release for my grandparents or for my mother. The end of this I think is going to be a film about narrative arc. And often these kinds of stories end when they leave the court victorious and smiling, and that didn’t even fucking happen. My grandma didn’t want to settle. She wanted her day in court and a public apology. That was more important to her than the money. But some people in the group were on welfare. Everybody was getting old, they were all damaged, and the CIA would have just kept appealing and changing the court date. When they offered a settlement, there was a vote, which my nan voted against, but everyone else voted for, so they just took the money. But they gave her brain damage. They made her worse, and there’s no overcoming that. It’s just something she had to live with for the fucking rest of her life and make do.
FULL: Something you mentioned earlier was how they used your grandmother’s role as a woman and mother to get her into treatment: telling her she owed it to her family to get better.
SAJ: They guilted her. She would try to refuse the injections of LSD mixed with amphetamines. They made her feel crazy, and so she didn’t want them anymore. The doctors and nurses would say to her, “You’re a bad wife. You’re a bad mother. If you really cared about your family, you’d do this for them. Maybe you don’t want to get better.” So she did. Once again, I don’t know that this is true, because we never talked about it, but knowing her and imagining myself going through that situation, at one point you’d just go, “Okay, I’m all in. I’m going to stop fighting it. I’m going to give myself over.” Can you imagine? Just giving up everything that you know and feel is right and just go, “I’m wrong. You just tell me.” Really giving it over. I think it’s brave. I think it’s a heroic thing. But to use that guilt to get someone, it’s just so fucking dirty.
FULL: I’m curious about the connection with drugs. You mentioned your grandmother being on a cocktail of LSD and amphetamines, and then there’s the exploration into drugs you do with your festival work. Is there a connection between those two things for you? They seem so different.
SAJ: They’re both a part of my life, but they’re literally on opposite sides of the room. I was working on the festival stuff on this side, and then I had the work on my grandmother on the other side. Visually it’s so different — the materials, the subject matter. I mean the only thing that links them is that they’re both on one level about psychedelics. But consent and force is two totally different worlds. Really the only thing that connects them in my mind that they’re both a part of my life. It actually was a bit of a mind fuck at first. Now I’m like, “Nope, they’re both part of my world. That’s fine. That’s my world.” But for the longest time, I was making this work about my grandmother, and then I’d start on the work about festivals and be like, “No! What am I doing?! This is wrong! Am I taking some of the power out of the work with my grandmother? Am I making it less important?” But every time I put the festival work away, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Now I know in my process that if I’m obsessing about it, I just have to make it. I can’t fight it. I ended up deciding that it’s the inconsistencies that make us interesting, and the two are just in different worlds.
I was just at a psychedelic science conference in Oakland. Doctors and scientists are finally being allowed to research psychedelics again. After the counter-culture revolution and the war on drugs, psychedelics were demonized, even though back then, other doctors and scientists who were doing actual fucking research were having remarkable results with it. It was helping with PTSD, couples therapy, addiction. And then it was demonized, and no one could get their hands on it anymore. Now, finally, governments are allowing this research again, and once again they’re finding remarkable results. MDMA is in its third FDA trial — it’s probably going to go through. People who have had PTSD for thirty years, they do two sessions of MDMA, talking with the psychiatrist before and after. Just two sessions and they don’t have PTSD symptoms anymore. That’s fucking amazing.
So while it’s weird that I’m doing these projects, I do believe in doing research the right way.
FULL: Through your festival work, what do you feel you’re communicating about being out in nature, partying, and taking LSD?
SAJ: Going to those festivals and doing those drugs was an important part of my young adult life, and continues to be. I don’t really go to festivals anymore. The last two times I went to a festival, I was older and was not partaking, just there observing and taking photographs. You could see these hordes of young twenty-somethings that come in from whatever big city running around at night high as kites, jaws dropped, and they’re just looking at a tree, or they’ve got their feet in a creek and they’re freaking out because it’s so beautiful. It can give you love of nature that maybe stays after. You don’t need the drugs every time. It just opens your mind up, it opens your heart up, you see things in a different way. You can have these profound experiences of forgiving your parents, forgiving yourself, bonding with people, talking with people you wouldn’t normally talk with, and I think you can learn so much from these experiences. There are downsides to it too. One of the festivals that I went to a lot I stopped going to because it was 13- and-14-year-old kids who had taken too many drugs, and I felt nothing but concern for ODs and date rapes. They’ve changed it now and made the festival 18 and over.
FULL: Before you mentioned consent and force, and I think consent is tricky even in situations like this, because sometimes people feel pressured to try a drug, or people are too young and they don’t think it all the way through, or sometimes something is literally slipped into someone’s drink, so in these festival situations, consent can be murky.
SAJ: And young women are preyed on more than anyone else. I don’t go into that really dark shit that can happen in my work, because that wasn’t my reality. I have a step daughter who just turned 18, and for years I’ve been telling her — moderation, safe location. And I always followed those rules myself. I was able to be a responsible drug adventurer.
FULL: And while there’s priviledge that comes with that, I think it’s valuable to explore the positive aspects of recreational drug use. You’re talking about these experiences with nature, and sometimes that’s portrayed as being false or shallow or just because of the drug. But I think it can be real. Sometimes you understand things that you remember later sober and you go, “Yeah, that was really true. I’d never thought about it that way before.”
SAJ: Or you don’t even understand it. Psychedelics can tap into places of your mind that aren’t normally accessible or aren’t understandable. You can learn things without having to understand them in the front of your brain, but it can be a subtle shift in how you see the world. I know so many people who say the LSD they did when they were young helped shape who they are today, and they’re so glad for it. It really can open your mind and heart in ways that were closed and locked down before, and it doesn’t just go away when you’re done doing the drug.
Even bad trips you can learn something from. Learn how to ride through it. I was at Burning Man once and took what we thought was MDMA, but I think it was probably LSD mixed with speed. There was three of us. My friend and I could just feel that we needed to get back to the tent and we had to find our other friend. My motor skills were messed up. People who were naked and body painted were going, “Woah, you guys okay?” They helped us get back to our tent.
FULL: I’ve heard Burning Man can be a really great environment for community support.
SAJ: The second time I went, I lost my luggage, and I showed up with nothing. I would just mention it and people would go, “What do you need?” Like the shirt off their back. I didn’t need a thing. I was taken care of.
The first time I went, I was running around going, what is this place? I yelled out, “This is the best night of my life!” And from the darkness a chorus of voices going, “Me too!”
Everybody’s so nice, everybody’s so willing to help, they’re their best selves. And you go to one of these things and you get a charge, and maybe you can take that back and find a way to bring it into the fold. It can make you a better person maybe.
FULL: What are your plans for the work you’re making now?
SAJ: Last year I had seven solo shows in five months and three separate bodies of work. I have lots on the go right now, and I’m working on them all seeing which one is going to be the path of least resistance, or if they all come together. That happens a lot.
I always thought it would get easier as I get older, but this life of uncertainty, it’s tiring. It’s fine as long as I don’t think about it, but as soon as a start thinking about the future, fuck. It’s anxiety inducing for sure.
FULL: Why do you think you chose to live that way?
SAJ: No one really tells you that when you’re in art school. I hoped that I could get a decent part-time job that didn’t exhaust me, and then I’d be making art. I never thought that I would be able to have it be my job. But that could end at any time. I sometimes daydream about getting that job: stable money coming in, structure. I keep trying to give myself routine and structure, but I’m very lazy about it. The grass is always greener. When I’m not thinking about it, I love my job. I feel so privileged that I’m able to juggle all of this.
I joke around, but it’s probably true is that my best talent is being able to live a life of uncertainty. I have friends who are way more talented than I am, but they needed to have that cheque coming in every two weeks.
I hate this part where there’s so many uncertainties. I’ve got six different projects going and there’s so many variables, directions that each one could take. It’s overwhelming right now. I love being a couple of steps ahead of where I am, where you know what you’re working on. There are always a lot of variables, but every step takes you closer. Everything’s up in the air right now.
I have these three projects that I’m really excited about that will only cost money, will not make me any money. There’s nothing to buy except for a huge sculpture. A museum or gallery or a very serious collector would have to buy it. Sometimes I wonder, do I go ahead and make the stuff that I’m really excited about? I always break the bank. I always throw every fucking penny into it and then cross my fingers.
But I think that the real art happens between the birth of your idea and the limitations of your reality. And one of those limitations of my reality is that this is my only source of income. That’s one of the things I have to be thinking about. Other things are where my skill set is, my ability to form conceptual ideas, my time limit, my financial situation. Because I think everybody has the same ideas.
FULL: Yeah, I mean I don’t think you’re going to think of something that no human has thought of before.
SAJ: And that’s a load off. So it’s like how do you take that idea down to your reality? That’s the thing that’s going to make it yours and make it unlike anybody else’s. If you just give in to all of your desires and are honest about your insecurities and laziness and just make art with that, it’s not going to be like anybody else’s work, it’s only going to be a reflection of you.
FULL: To me, and skill is also a factor, but honest work is what makes good art. You can tell when you’re at a show and someone’s made something because they think they should be a certain way.
SAJ: I love going to an art gallery or seeing a show where it feels like you’re stepping into someone’s brain, or their thought process, how they see the world: when it’s unselfconscious. Words are not my favourite form of communication. We have these images and thoughts in our head and we assign words to them. They may not even be the best words. Then you have a conversation, and those words get taken up into someone else’s brain and they interpret. You’re communicating, but it’s abstracted. If an artist can show their thoughts, I feel like they’re communicating in a more direct way. It takes a really good artist to show you what it’s like for them in this world. When I see good work, I feel this connection to the world like nothing else.
There’s a lot of art now where the intention is to set itself apart. They’re referencing some obscure philosopher, and if you don’t know it, you don’t know it. I think a lot of art is meant to exclude. I can’t stand that kind of work. I try and make work that is accessible on many levels. I want people who know about photography to look at my work and see that I’m wrestling with the history and current issues, and trying to bring something new to the medium. But people can see also see beauty, humour. People who don’t know about artwork can still get something from it. I’m not into exclusionary kind of work. I think there’s so much art about art about art about art — fuck, kill me — I can’t think of anything more boring than that.
FULL: What do you think your art is communicating about the way you think about the world?
SAJ: There are no answers. No grand statement. Just, “I’ve done some thinking about this. Here are my thoughts.” That’s all I’ve got. I’m not bold enough to have a grand declaration of truth.
I love the days back when people would write manifestos and denounce the work that came before. People don’t do that anymore, and part of me’s sad about it because I feel like to make work you have to take a stance. Even if that stance is “I don’t know anything for sure,” that’s still a stance.
Whenever I’m teaching art, there are so many students who don’t want to take a stance. They don’t know anything yet. And I think it’s because we’ve seen in history, someone throws a gauntlet down and then ten or twenty years later, someone proves that person wrong, and not even just with art, with science and society. But that’s how things move forward. We need that. Someone will prove you wrong. That’s how it works. But if you say something strong enough, people will want to react, and society moves forward and will show the error of your ways. You've just got to accept that. That’s how it has to be. But you don’t want to think about that one too much when you’re making work.
Because the work is still in its earlier stages, Sarah asked me not to photograph The Cave. Once Sarah announces the showing of the work, I'll announce it on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, so you can see it for yourself. To keep up with Sarah's projects, follow along on Instagram, and check out her website to learn more about her work.