The authority in most high art is the singular artist. In my undergraduate career, we were taught the notion of ‘auteur theory’, i.e. that you could look at a work - especially a film - and just by its most obvious features in form or content, remark the notable impact of its director. Nevermind the legions of other folks on set, from the lowly PA, to the more esteemed cinematographer ignored in the process... Although it’s not uncommon to see group exhibitions, or even artist collectives, it’s not common to see a true team of working artists. Dani and Sheilah Restack (née Leventhal and Wilson, respectively), along with their daughter Sky, who they’ve lovingly added to their ‘Stack’, are the art world’s version of a family band.
V: It feels blasphemous only speaking to one of you, as I know you and Sheilah create together. Is that exclusively so?
D: No, we both have solo practice. Sheilah makes sculptural photography work and I draw. We recently collaborated in printing Feral Domestic as a small edition with the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester. In the Camden Art installation you can see her work on these concrete plinths and mine on wood panels. We have a separate practice, but we support each other because I trust her point of view.
V: You're both from rural North America. Sheilah being from a small town in Nova Scotia, you being from Ohio. Have you noticed any similarities or differences?
D: Sheilah was raised, in a small town with a lot of homophobia. Her father built boats while her mom taught kindergarten. They were back-to-the-landers from the States. It was very influential on her and how she perceives the world. There was a lot of inequality and lesbians just didn't exist. That's the same for me because I was born here [Ohio] but raised in upstate
New York. I felt like I didn't even know about queer. My family was more middle class, so we have differences with how we make sense of security.
V: Collaboration and allowing the interpersonal to bleed into your work, reminds me of other famous artist-lover collaborators: Marina Abramovich and Ulay, for example. Does it also pose conflict at times by intruding on the personal?
D: It's so intertwined at this point. I really believe in personal work - it’s what I tell my students - because it’s what you know best. The domestic is incessant but we're always thinking about work. We shoot in the house, we’ll prepare props right in the studio. We fight a lot in editing or making a shot. When we were in Camden installing that piece, there was some tension. We're both very opinionated, and have ideas of how things could be.
V: I'd imagine that gives more spontaneity, that you could wake up on an odd Sunday and say let's go do this in the park.
D: It happens all the time, a kind of magical occurrence. Rose will be working and the sun will be pouring in the window. So we'll shoot it - don't know necessarily where to land an arc, or if it ever will.
V: I think in Come Coyote, there was a shadow of legs which created this lovely diamond shape.
D: Yeah, we were doing the insemination and this shadow developed on the ceiling. The difference between a home movie and our work, is to bring in the formal. That triangle, or the diamond shape is the way to transform and elevate the work.
V: I also wanted to touch on ‘living in the feral’, and what that meant. How does one adopt this ethic in their work or daily life? What has it meant to you and Sheilah?
D: That term came up when I was starting to get overwhelmed by the domestic…Being domesticated by capitalism is a big problem for me and Sheilah. We can't go back to the wild, so the ‘feral' is in between. You have to pay your taxes and can't just fly away to Iceland to get the shot you want. But keeping the Iceland shot paramount - is like putting art, joy and imagination, first. It's simple, but it's what capitalism tries to squash in us.
V: Anti-productivity culture has pushed back against the notion that not contributing is time wasted or a sign of laziness. And it's like no, we were actually not put on this earth to produce in the name of capital.
D: Absolutely. You gotta keep it at the forefront or you get just swallowed up in it.
V: …The films at Camden were played in a loop together. It felt like a movie when there's a double feature, or I guess, in this case, a triple feature. Was that partly intentional? How do you make sense of this trilogy? What’s the underlying thread?
D: Strangely Ordinary This Devotion is about lesbian witches in Ohio, struggling with the climate crisis use magic to create offspring who can survive without water. That's the crux of the story, but when we were showing it to people who were like, I don't get that. It's an emotional roller coaster, but I don't see your story. That's when we thought, well, let's make another and another. So the trilogy came about organically. They were made for the cinema but this idea of a loop is what institutions have wanted. Come Coyote, is about Sheilah’s desire to have another baby and the conflict between us. Sheilah intended that by the third film, she’d get pregnant and we’d close the movie with a birth, but she didn't. Future From Inside, is a quest to make this baby. Say they survive the water crisis, but then what? My theory, Sheilah sees it differently, is that the children make kin with predator animals who would protect them.
V: Are you familiar with the French film, Évolution. It's about an island of young boys who are impregnated once they enter puberty. It feels very Freudian to me because it's a village of just mothers and their sons. Their stomachs are cut open and they are inseminated. This image reminded me of your scalp being incised in Come Coyote.
D: At first, it sounded like Lord of the Flies, right? The boys are on an island, but their mothers are there.
V: There's that sort of animal quality too, very non-verbal, which seems to speak to the notion of feral domestic. Continuing with this notion of the wild, in a lot of your video work, you seem to display a lot of animal knowledge, could you speak to how that was derived?
D: My brother taught me how to skin animals, which is what you see in that video [Drawing for Quill.] I make sculptures with hides and work them into drawings. They become a lot about texture. I become so close to these animals that the experience of color and texture is
just phenomenal. It's a premature death when I wind up with them, this work feels like I'm
honoring them in a way.
V: And in Project Nine, there were a couple shots petting the fur, mimicking a live animal. Touch is also how we form intimacy with each other. Do you see that extended as a form of understanding in your work?
D: I started in ceramics. So I think that's why my work is imbued with that kind of visceral quality.
V: Yet the text felt very resonant in Drawing for Quill. Attachment theory, mentioned here and in Come Coyote, shows that insecure attachment causes severe problems with empathy. Does living and creating work in a queer family unit attempt to undo some of the damage, which has been caused by that structure?
D: That's a very astute read. Sheilah and I changed our names - because of an Ann Carson poem in the chapbook, Float. It’s about cutting with the patriarchy and our own families on a certain level. There's an attachment that I've never experienced before and I'm really rattled by it. It's not always joyful. Attachment means loss, in all kinds of ways.
V: In cases of surrogacy or adoption, there's always that element of embedded trauma. But even with most biological attachment, there's going to be an aspect of that. In FFI, a woman voiced the opinion that even a loving and empathetic person will cause hurt to a child because it’s inevitable. So even if you tried to escape that —
D: —she's like, “no one can escape it, you will hurt people,” Right? The decision to be a parent is to get ready for that, as we all hurt each other, all the time. You try not to cause harm, but it happens.
V: More people are questioning their own desire to have children. Both the source of their desire and its validity. These discussions surrounding the nuclear family seem so concrete in people's minds, when really the idea is very modern, created between the 1940s and 50s. So these rules feel historic but are really more recent.
D: I agree. To have grandparents around in a multigenerational household or, you know, living with cousins and aunts and uncles and everybody helping out, man, I could use some of that.
V: It’s one of those things where the micro is the macro. These might seem like very person to person, family to family problems, but what about the collective? There's not the collectivization of child rearing that there maybe should be.
D: And the kids, the more love the better.
V: Does the feral domestic ask ‘what would I look like if it hadn't been weighed down by all these systems and structures of oppression?’
D: I also actually think it's about relationships and how one chooses to engage. My parents didn't ask me about how I felt. They just got divorced and it was a big secret. All of a sudden I was taken to upstate New York. How are you going to operate with your kids and talk about things? Choosing the paths of authenticity and honesty are harder but ultimately worth it.
V: While we're on the topic of families and children, I wanted to talk about play, because it feels very forward in your work. Play is seen as this integral aspect to the social development of children but in adulthood, so often ignored.
D: So important! I play a lot. Having fun, having pleasure and having joy are all part of it. But it's tricky, because our daughter will make a disaster mess. She was experimenting with glue, got it everywhere. It’s like I wanted her to experiment with glue, but then clean it up, Goddamnit? Like, I'm not always on board for this.
V: Every parent is a human, it's bound to happen that as you're raising a child you’ll trigger some of your own wounds. Everyone's big on the idea of the inner child, meaning, having the space to be free and act on authentic expression.
D: Inner child work is challenging for me. You're supposed to nurture and parent yourself but I didn't really have a steady example. Sheilah shows me unconditional love, but I have to direct it towards my little wounded person inside.
V: I wanted to go back to the witchy activity in Future From Inside. Why do you think the cultivation of the feminine often points towards the occult and paganism? Do you think there’s a proto-historic element to it?
D: I think it has to do with women refuting the church with their own ideologies. Are you familiar with Hilma af Klint’s work? She left the church along with a group of five women. They performed seances where they’d channel whatever their higher power was saying. She made these huge, gorgeous drawings based on that channeling. There’s also the Sanctified Sisters in Texas, who in the 1870s created a women's separatist household. The rules were: no sex with men, and all decisions had to be made through dreams. The scene that we're making tomorrow is an homage to those women. There's ancient knowledge in the moon and in water. There's gravitation towards it, because of cycles in our body and things like that.
V: Especially when we live in such a sterile, detached world, there can be yearning to return to ancient knowledge. I was also wondering if you were familiar with Lea Cetera?
D: No, I'm out of it. My life…
V: She just had a show at Phillida Reid. One of her pieces felt reminiscent of Drawing for Quill. There was a monitor contained in a cage showing the killing and gutting of various crustaceans, with text overlaid. The one with lobsters featured an old wives tale warning not to put two female lobsters in a pot, because one will kill the other with its own weight trying to escape. Whereas if you have two male lobsters in a pot, they'll work together to build a bridge to get themselves out of there. So I guess it's supposed to be commentary on gender essentialist notions of female competition. The blobfish one talked about empathy and collectivism, how a lot of inequalities happen before our eyes, not out of ignorance but complacency.
The work of the ReStack crew is not without complication and unresolved tension. Opposing notions of domestic and wild, rest alongside grief and desire. As Maggie Nelson writes in the file note essay, “The viewer is feeling the overlapping but distinct orientations toward the world that the artists seem to want very much to convey to each other and to us.” At times it felt like Dani was not only speaking to me, but through me. To the work, to Sheilah, and the world at large.
In editing this piece, I noticed how often she and I would use the second-person when relaying a story. Which seems to point to that part of human experience which exists solely in the confines of our inner monologues, the ongoing waves of emotion that we cycle through daily. We revert to this second-person speech not only as a metric to ensure that our interlocutor understands us cognitively - a.k.a. Do you follow what I’m saying? - but emotionally too, - Have you ever felt this way before? I don’t believe the artists are looking for active participation from the audience. I never felt pressured to commit to anything. Instead through these poignant moments of acute vulnerability, I had the sense that there was the more sheepish inquiry, ‘do you see me?’ I think this innocence is beholden to the handicraft and childlike qualities to the work. This work is not asking of you to respond with extremes, Dani’s confrontations with the grotesque or Sheilah’s bids for cultivating warmth and safety, but to simply observe and consider. To an extent, I think this contradiction of the feral-domestic resides in us all.