Category: Writer in Residence — Published:

Daniella Valz Gen is an artist and writer based in London and Whitechapel Gallery’s Writer in Residence for 2024. Across the year, they will publish a new series of texts on our website, alongside a series of performances as the gallery.

This dialogue is an edited transcript of a conversation which took place on 14 March 2024 with Jane Scarth (Curator: Public Programmes).

Daniella Valz Gen, Howl Sigh Sing, An Tobar, Isle of Mull, 2022. Image by Sean Patrick Campbell.

You describe your practice as oracular in terms of process and methodology. Beyond your artistic work, you are also a tarot reader (Sacred Song Tarot). Can you talk about what this means to you and how this manifests in your work?

It’s an approach that centres an orientation towards the speculative. It’s also rooted in a decolonial practice that is trying to retrieve a way of making meaning and of being in the world. Decentring the linear, rational and cognitive, and trying to tap into the sensorial, in a nuanced, expansive, immersive way in order to arrive at a way of making meaning through a different route.

I often refer to the Quipu, which is a system of strings and knots with fibres that was used in Andean culture, as a way of archiving knowledge. The Inca civilisation is the only big, imperial civilisation that didn’t have written language, but it had a haptic object that archived story-telling and data. It was just not coded in a linear, graphic way, it was coded in a 3D tactile way, that perhaps centres this idea of breath. It’s speculative because the knowledge of how that was done is now lost. In my own practice, I’ve integrated this as a harmonic device, which is about being present with all of your senses.

Tarot is a much more accessible way of engaging with that approach and the activity of going into a non-linear space, where we’re going to let chance throw up some symbols, and some images to commit to what is in front of us, pay attention to these images on the cards, and make meaning from them. These are different ways of tapping into a form of making meaning, accessing information that bypasses one plus one equals two, A plus B equals C. There’s this linear logic, there’s this cognitive, rational supremacy, there’s this Western enlightenment project telling us that this is how things need to make sense.

I’m drawn to the radical possibilities that your work presents. By using these alternative methods to create meaning, it gives us a glimpse into new possibilities for the world. I think there’s an intrinsic queerness to that, as well as revealing of other ways of knowing beyond white western frameworks. What lineages and contexts are you drawing on?

I think, in terms of lineages, I’m definitely trying to evoke this role of the Quipucamayoc. The Quipucamayoc is the person that ties the knot and ties the meaning into the Quipu. And it’s tapping into this sense of the tactile and the oral tradition that accompanies that. And it’s a speculative lineage, right, no one is teaching you how to be a Quipucamayoc. I could say that the contemporary reference I have for a Quipucamayoc is the artist Cecilia Vicuña. Then there are these 16th Century engravings by Felipe Huamán Poma de Ayala who was one of the first intellectual Peruvian, South American mestizos that emerges from the colonial project. He did all of these drawings and engravings of characters and figures of Inca culture.

There is a beautiful engraving of a Quipucamayoc just holding this Quipu up and all the strings falling down and I project so much onto that little image. It gets mixed with my grandmothers knitting jumpers and handling fibres and playing cards. Both of my grandmothers were knitters, and card players, card slingers, in quite a competitive way. My dad’s mum was an international Bridge player, competing in tournaments and encouraged us to all play cards every Sunday afternoon.  And my maternal grandmother was also a card player, in a more social way of meeting her friends once a week to play Canasta.  But also playing Solitaire for hours on end, on her own, as a space for reflection, as a space for, you know, just being with the cards and handling them.

I also have worked a lot in the performance tradition, of doing durational work and being in a space and letting that space change you and responding to the energies in that space. But it’s also just a way of being in the world, that’s maybe more linked to Shamanic practices, or meditative practices, or practices of connecting to the land.

Daniella Valz Gen, Howl Sigh Sing, An Tobar, Isle of Mull, 2022. Image by Sean Patrick Campbell.

How do you see the relationship between writing and performance? Or maybe more broadly – language and the body?

I think writing and performance are at odds and have an interesting tension with each other.  Performance is trying to transcend language, and writing is trying to tap into the experience of the performative and bring it back to language. I find that tension productive and interesting, and also deeply uncomfortable.

The body is the vehicle for the writing and the vehicle for the experience of performance. So the way language helps this body articulate experience is particular to the circumstances of this body and everything that this body can become labelled with. This is a body that’s operating between languages, between systems of thought and systems of knowledge. It is a body that is also an outcome of in-betweenness, a mestizo body, a body that is coded in colonial projects. Then this is a non-binary body that is also fluctuating in its spectrum of gender. And then it’s a body that is ill and has chronic pain and that doesn’t fit properly.

So the orientation towards language from that position is an embodied experience. I feel at times it can be really expansive, there’s a lot for me to look towards and grab, and it can help me transcend the colonial. And at times, it’s also an experience of total and utter silence, like, there are no fucking words in any language, it’s actually indescribable. Which is why the oracular, and even more precisely, the tangible aspect of the oracular, like the cards, can be really grounding for me.  If I don’t know how to make sense of something, I can say okay, let me step away from all of this and narrow it down to three images. And then once I can string one sentence from there, I can look up again, with that one sentence almost like a thread that can reveal a pattern.

A relationship with land and the natural world underpins several aspects of your work. Your 2019 work (be)longing, which was a reflection on the migrant body, was a performative action in which you were partially buried – physically embraced – by the earth. You’ve written about other deep engagements with different landscapes (including for example working with traditional medicines). How would you describe these relationships with land and nature?

I think it comes from the body, and this body’s need to feel grounded, to feel connected to wherever it is, or whatever is holding it, that’s definitely the impulse for (be)longing as a project. The government can say whatever about my right to be here, but I have the need to uncouple all of that language from my experience of what it means to actually be here and be held and nourished here and relate to this space.  I am willing and even excited to do that. What’s been fundamental for me is trying to uncouple the nation state from the land, and I have to go through language in order to do that, to access this experience.

Tapping into what it means to make sense in a way that’s not linear, trying to tap into a practice of recording through fibre and through an experience of touch, is a practice of the land. It’s a practice of being present in the body, of being aware of everything that surrounds you. Because in being open to being affected and in relationship to the natural forces, you are being shaped by them, you sensitise yourself.

Daniella Valz Gen, (be)longing, 2019. 35mm slide film shot by Rowan Powell.

The project that you will develop within the residency is titled All tangled up with beasts – and you plan to work with and to channel archetypal, mythical figures. The first is Chiron but it might also include Medusa, Kasandra, Medea. Can you tell me about what these figures represent and how you see this project developing?

They represent a mythical other that is quite hard to categorise.  Who are they? What are they? Are they gods? Are they half-god? Half-human, half-god?  And they are all outcasts, these figures, they experience an acute rejection. Chiron in a way is not outcast, but his condition of living with chronic pain places him in a very particular way, as a god that has pain. A god that does not have any reference, because even though we can say he’s a centaur, he’s not really a centaur, he doesn’t descend from the centaurs, he just happens to be half-human, half-horse, but he doesn’t belong with the centaurs. He’s all alone and one of a kind.

Kassandra has the gift of prophecy and is cursed so no one believes her, what she sees is the truth and no one can hear it. So then she becomes an outcast.  And Medea is a figure that is a little bit stickier for me. Because she’s the sort of badass witch that can trick everyone around her, but then she is also the woman that is left by her husband and decides to kill her children in her wrath. And she becomes possessed by this anger and revenge. So she becomes the terrible, awful, bad mother, who centred her own passion and acted upon it, which, as a figure fascinates me.

In exploring these characters, I’m trying to speculate about what they are holding for us. What does the god hold for the human, and what does the myth hold for history? What can I disassociate myself from because there’s this figure, this archetype that can hold it for me, so that I can still remain relatable and human, and maybe good, or not horrifying, or terrifying, or scary. How can I bring that back to what it means to be a person in the world right now, to witness other people inflicting horror, and to not have to make that dehumanising split? To call it back in and to ask what it actually means to be a human.

So this idea of being tangled up with the beasts is trying to follow that thread. It’s trying to find the points of connection, trying to not disavow the horrifying nature of the killer mother, to not disavow the madness, or the otherworldly beauty, or the immense pain and grief that these characters hold, but to try and bring them back.

The research for the project includes looking at all of the cultural material and popular culture that is tapping into these themes and characters, because they are present through the centuries. They keep on coming back, we’re still thinking about them and positioning ourselves in relationship to them.


Find out more about Daniella’s residency here.