In episode 4 of the Petri DISH, two-time Petri artists Camilo Quiroz-Vazquez and Ellpetha Tsivicos interview Marika Kent on her new project, BETTE IN THE DISTANT FUTUREPAST. This new disciplinary work is constructed from Marika’s archive of documents, photos, and oral history about her grandmother. Listen now to learn more!
To turn on video captions, click the button marked “CC.” For the full interview transcript please read below.
Camilo: Excited to be here with you today.
Marika: Same. Thanks for taking the time.
Ellpetha: Well, we love what we heard about your project, so we’re really excited to introduce the world to it.
Camilo: Well, why don’t we start, you introducing yourself?
Marika: Sure. My name is Marika Kent. I am a theater maker, primarily a lighting designer, and I’m working with the TEAM currently on RECONSTRUCTION (STILL WORKING BUT THE DEVIL MIGHT BE INSIDE). And so, that’s how I got keyed into the Petri Projects.
Ellpetha: And what is your Petri Project?
Marika: Sure, of course. So, this is a great question. We’ll go background then foreground. So background, I’ve been engaged in this long on and again, and off again, family research project for myself personally. And recently, over the last year, year and a half, it’s been manifesting as a visual art album that I called BETTE IN THE DISTANT FUTUREPAST. And I found out a lot about my family in doing this research. And this is particularly on my matrilineal line, my mother’s mother. But the project BETTE IN THE DISTANT FUTUREPAST is, really the center of gravity is my grandmother, my mother’s mother. And it already exists in an online media form on a web page, where I’m adding images one-by-one until I feel as though this album is complete.
And then what I’m working on via the Petri Project is, thinking about how it might manifest somehow physically in space, which I think I’m not sure yet, but I’m starting with a gallery showing structure, but adding in installation elements like the sound and maybe sculpting the room and designing the room and thinking about how these pieces are presented, and what we hear and what it sits in, not just on the internet.
Ellpetha: I was going to say just from the little bits of images that I saw in-person, which were slides and photos, there are so many different ways to display. Like a slide is translucent. So light goes through it, and then it can be projected, whereas a photo is a flat image. And then I know you have other things too, I think some writing and stuff like that, especially because your background is in lighting, it can be such a cool installation of mobiles of the slides and walking into a future distant past memory thing. It’s such a cool, cool story. Do you want to share a little bit about the story of your grandmother?
Marika: Sure. I can tell you what I know about her. And perhaps, I should say first that she actually passed away before I was born. So I’ve never met her in person. Although, I do feel that throughout my life she’s been a very real presence and a thing that I know, a person I have a relationship to. But at the same time, I feel that that feeling I have about that relationship exists somewhere between ancestral memory and what I have inherited in my body, and also completely my own projection of who I imagined her to be, how my mother has described her and all these things. But in terms of what I know about her life, I know that she was born in Sacramento in probably 1925. And her ancestors were slaves and they migrated to Sacramento shortly after emancipation and stayed there. And then, she, around when she was 17 or 18 enlisted to join the military during World War II. She was part of the 6888 Battalion, which was the only battalion of African-American women to serve overseas in World War II, in Europe.
And so, she went to first England and then France. And then while they were in France, they traveled a couple of different places. And then after that, she came back to the States, went to UCLA for a year, presumably on the GI Bill. And then she ended up working in Liberia for, I think the better part of 10 years. And that’s where my mother was born and my uncle. And then she moved back to Monterey and lived there basically for the rest of her life. And some of these things were things I always knew and some of them were things I found out. I knew that she had served in the military my whole life, but it wasn’t until I started digging that I found out about which battalion and what she was doing there and all these things.
So, those are the touchstones of the story. And in fact, the project is in these three parts, starting with the battalion, going back in time to her origins in Sacramento, and then flashing forwards to her time in Monrovia. So, those are the three big chapters that I’m dealing with. And then again, the more I work on it, and the more I think about what I know, what I don’t know, what I project, and what I feel, the more I come to realize that this isn’t necessarily a telling of her story so much as it is scratching at this thing of that anytime we try to tell a story about the past, is in part, fiction. And so, I think fiction and things that didn’t happen to her also appear in the piece, as it stands now.
Camilo: It’s so interesting and like, there were both huge fans of grandma art in general. So, it’s definitely very…
Ellpetha: And just also the complexity of an American. It’s like Sacramento, an all African-American battalion in a war, female soldier, Liberia, and then Monterey. There’s so many crazy iconic things. What a story? And it’s really cool that you find these little markers in her life that open up access to more research. Like, when you discovered the battalion that she was in, and then you were like, “Oh my goodness, I can search this battalion.” And, she was there. I also remember you telling us about Liberia and everyone in the room was like, “Okay, none of us knew this about Liberia.” It’s so much information that is connected, but who would ever just think that all of those things are connected? So, it’s very, very cool.
Marika: Yeah. And I think too, as I’m bringing this and showing it more to other people and thinking more and more about how is this useful for anyone other than me to see? I think something that I have found about it that has a lot of potential energy in it is this thing of counter-narrative and alternate history. Because what I learned about Black history in school was a very clear and narrow narrative. And that I felt like everything I learned about my own family verged off that narrative. Like, some of the things you were just talking about and it always made me feel like it made my own family very hard to describe and explain to people, these different things.
But then, I think that is really common now. The more I talk about this project with other people, the more I hear other people be like, “Well, yeah, my family’s from here, but you have to understand about this and that. And then this happened and this person moved here and then this person was adopted.” And again, that goes back to how much of the past can we really speak to as fact because, if everyone’s narrative is a counter-narrative, then what is the narrative? Right. And I can feel myself be about to lose the thread of what I’m saying. But that’s one of the things I’m really interested in exploring with the work.
Camilo: I think, yeah, looking at the past is about having all those threads of narratives that you’re like, “You know what, I can’t actually connect this to anything, but I’m going to fill it in with my imagination.” So, what you were saying earlier about, some of it is just your own reflection based on your life and the things you learned about your families. Yeah.
Ellpetha: And it’s just the complexity that exists within one person and memory and nostalgia, and then like you’re saying counter-narrative. I think that’s something I think about also with my family, just like little traits I’ll see in my elders where I’ll be like, “I’m like that.” And then I’m like, “Maybe I’m not like that.” Or, maybe that’s just my own impression, but I’m sure in some of your research, there are things that you’ve seen and you’re like, “Oh, that’s like me.” And then there’s this sense of like, “Well, I’ve never met her. Is that really like me? Or, it’s me imposing it?” But sometimes you have to be like, “I’m sure there are things about me that were like her because I am part of her.” And I don’t know it just, every time you talk about it, it’s like I see this very vivid world. I can’t wait to walk into it, wherever it is. It’s going to be really beautiful. It already is. The story is so beautiful.
Marika: I appreciate that so much. Thank you.
Camilo: Is there anything else you’d love to share about either this project or anything else you got going on?
Marika: Only that I’m really enjoying working on it, and I’m really enjoying, sharing it with you now. And then with this group. All these Petri Projects are so cool and different and I didn’t expect to enjoy sharing with people. So, that’s a pleasant surprise and that’s it, onward into the future.
Ellpetha: Well, I think that’s great. And I think the Petri Projects are just a great opportunity for people to just explore things more deeply than maybe we never would’ve gotten the chance to do. So, it sounds like you’re doing great. And I don’t think we introduced ourselves, so if you’re wondering throughout this interview who we are. I’m Ellpetha.
Camilo: And I’m Camilo.
Ellpetha: And are also Petri artists.
Ellpetha: So with that, thanks for watching. Thanks for sharing, Marika, and we can’t wait to watch you along this journey.
Marika: Oh, thanks.
Camilo: Yeah. Really excited.
Marika: Thank you for your questions.