In our ongoing series on the art exhibit A Fence Around The Torah we talk about Katz Tepper's film Roasted Cockroach for Scale. Here’s how Katz describes the film in their artist statement:
“Roasted Cockroach for Scale expands an intergenerational experience of disability, epigenetic illness, and ableism into a social practice-turned-film project made with my Jewish-Polish-Ukrainian-Israeli-American father, Haim. Addressing the links between inheritance, illness, trauma, displacement, militarism, and ableism in the particular Jewish context of cyclical nation-state violence, my film seeks to reckon with the lasting impacts of our heritage, probing how trauma and the political systems that cause it have become internalized, in big and small ways.”
Katz Tepper, interdisciplinary artist based in Athens, Georgia
Maia Ipp, co-director of the New Jewish Culture Fellowship, contributing editor for Jewish Currents, and curatorial panelist for A Fence Around the Torah
Katz Tepper: I was really trying to pinpoint some place where ableism has been developed alongside militarism, all in response to this severe impossible trauma that can't be dealt with.
Mark Gunnery: Welcome to Disloyal, a podcast from the Jewish Museum of Maryland. I'm your host Mark Gunnery. Today on the show, we're continuing our series on A Fence Around the Torah, the Jewish museum of Maryland's latest contemporary art exhibit. It explores how Jewish communities navigate the concepts of safety and unsafety in traditional, contemporary, and futuristic ways. I'm speaking with the artists and curators who made the exhibit possible.
Mark Gunnery: And today, we're talking about a film in the exhibit called Roasted Cockroach For Scale, which is by a Katz Tepper. Here's how Katz described the film in their artist statement.
"Roasted cockroach for scale expands an intergenerational experience of disability, epigenetic illness, and ableism into a social practice turned film project made with my Jewish, Polish, Ukrainian, Israeli, American father, Haim. Addressing the links between inheritance, illness, trauma, displacement, militarism, and ableism in the particular Jewish context of cyclical nation-state violence. My film seeks to reckon with the lasting impacts of our heritage. Probing how trauma and the political systems that cause it have become internalized in big and small ways."
Katz Tepper is an interdisciplinary artist based in Athens, Georgia. Their work, as they put it, embraces the disruptive potentials and aesthetics of illness. They are a recipient of the Wynn Newhouse Award and a McDowell Fellowship, and will be in residents at Stove Works this summer. Katz Tepper, thanks for joining us.
Katz Tepper: Thank you for having me.
Mark Gunnery: I'm also joined by Maia Ipp. Maia Ipp is a co-director of the New Jewish Culture Fellowship and is a contributing editor for Jewish Currents. She was also on the curatorial panel for A Fence Around the Torah and wrote the curatorial statement for Roasted Cockroach For Scale. Maia Ipp, thanks for joining us.
Maia Ipp: Thank you. Excited to be here.
Mark Gunnery: So Katz Tepper, can you tell us about your video Roasted Cockroach For Scale?
Katz Tepper: Yeah, I guess a quick summary is that it's a four to seven minute long film, but it's made entirely of screen recordings. And it's all mediated through a collaboration with my father in which I both wrote a script that he reads, but there's also a lot of conversational elements and him just responding to things. But it's all edited and orchestrated into vignettes that are made mostly in Google docs, Google slides, Zoom and Auto.ai, which is a AI transcription service. There's very little in the way of photographic imagery. Very, very little that you see beyond text, digital text.
Mark Gunnery: You said in your artist statement for this, that Roasted Cockroach For Scale, "Maintains an antagonistic relationship to visuality." Can you talk about that? That antagonistic relationship to visuality, and especially in how it relates to creating this with your father who has visual disabilities?
Katz Tepper: Sure. I guess a clarification is that in the spectrum of visual disabilities, my dad is mostly very able sighted, but like many people, wears glasses, has to go to an eye doctor. There's a scene in the film that is about him going to get these injections in his eye. I was interested specifically around the ways that people don't necessarily identify as disabled, but live on the spectrum, which is having a body that can always be moving in and out of states of disability and medicalization and dependence on various types of care. Because a big feature of the film is my chronic illness and my dad's discomfort or pushing up against confronting my reality, and also the reality of intergenerational illness that's been passed over through my grandmother.
I was interested in like having him see his own reflection of disability. But when it comes to the antagonistic relationship to visuality, I guess I'm just thinking a lot about all the things that we don't see that exist in the world and invisibility, and that ranges from like our own insides to systems of power and a Western emphasis on the visual as the main way to, in a lot of ways, prove something exists.
So what are the other senses? What kinds of consciousness can we tap into when we are more in tune with other senses? And also, specifically around loss and what we don't have access to visually, but that exists in memory and somatic memories.
Mark Gunnery: You made a piece about, as you put it, diaspora, disability and distance during this time of COVID using technologies like Zoom that have changed the way many people have communicated to each other over the past two years. And there are moments in the film where technology feels like another character or even another artist. I'm curious what you were trying to say about communications technology here, and especially how it relates to disability and accessibility.
Katz Tepper: Sure. Yeah. I guess in one sense, remoteness is something that's always built into experience. And I think that's a big part of the diasporic experience is that distance that you're always holding multiple locations at once. And that became a very mainstream concept because of the idea that we'd be all meeting in a specific digital form of remoteness in which we depend on these corporate technologies that both enable radical access. And people didn't have to leave their beds to go to work or to be with people. And as someone that's sometimes bedridden, or for whom like illness was new with the pandemic, I had already lived in social worlds that met entirely remotely. But that corporate technology is also very much a surveillance technology and has a lot of various imperialist undertones built into its very nature. I think the piece is trying to approach those contradictions with a lot of playfulness. Figuring out how much I can manipulate Google and Zoom to do what I want and undermine some of the more distressing aspects of how they operate, if that makes sense. Yeah.
Mark Gunnery: Maia Ipp, I want to bring you in. Like I said earlier, you were on the curatorial panel of A Fence around the Torah. Why did you want to include Katz's video, Roasted Cockroach For Scale, in this exhibit?
Maia Ipp: Sure. I mean, I think the listeners who haven't had a chance to see the work, even just by listening to Katz will have a sense of how deep and brilliant and funny and generous and dynamic a work it is. Katz, you already said like a hundred things that I was restraining myself from jumping in and wanting to respond to. And I think the work is approaching so many important and super relevant to our exact moment questions. And doing it in a way, like you just used the word playful, but I think that this playfulness and the humor that's in the piece is so disarming. And when I first watched it, I had this feeling of delight at the same time as I was also really provoked intellectually. But it was kind of like falling in love or something, where I was so excited.
It was like kind of terrifying. I never knew what was going to come next, either visually or conceptually or intellectually or relationally. But I was so there for it, I just couldn't... and I didn't want it to end. And it makes me think of this Adrienne Rich quote from this essay that she wrote. But basically she says, "An honorable human relationship. That is one in which two people have the right to use the word love is a process of refining the truths they can tell each other."
And I just think that so much of that is what your film does between you and your father, but also between you and the viewer. And it provoked for me the sense of what needs to happen in the Jewish community right now, well in all our communities right now, in thinking through what are the truths we need to keep refining to get closer to each other. And that might be difficult, painful truths.
Mark Gunnery: So Maia, in your curatorial statement, you pulled out this moment from the film where Katz's father reads that. If the artwork and specifically, the way he reads and speaks feels disjointed, "It is because the artist believes that this is a feeling worth imposing on people who might not otherwise feel it." Can you talk about what you called the intentional disorientation of this piece?
Maia Ipp: Sure. I think it's one of the things that was the most, or not the most, but it was one of the things that was really exciting to me in watching and listening and experiencing the piece, was that I felt I was being given an experience, which I don't normally have of being made aware of my own ability, visual ability specifically. So it was disorienting sometimes to follow some of the visuals, for example. And I'd be interested, Katz to hear, there're places where visually you're disrupting what your dad is reading out loud. And I wasn't sure if those were like post production things or if you were disrupting them while he was reading them, so that's part of why he was stumbling. But either way, there's such a profound impact for me, it slowed me down and made me much more open to hearing and seeing and experiencing what was being said. And of course what isn't being said.
There's so many things that I think the piece is also about that never get explicitly named. And so there's something about this sparking of a contemplative experience, which was one that was also kind of stumbling for me. And I think that's profound because that's a deep kind of contemplative experience and artistic experience to feel yourself grasping. And because that reflects so much of the longing that Katz mentioned also around being diasporic, or this sense of trying to hold multiple states at once. I mean, I don't mean states there in the nation-state way, but also the nation-state way, I guess. And what we do with that. So it just felt profoundly alive and enlivening to me, that disorientation.
Mark Gunnery: Katz, do you have anything to say about that? Anything to say about that disorientation or the visual disruptions that are happening to the text in the piece? Do you have anything to respond to what Maia was saying?
Katz Tepper: Yeah. Thanks Maia. There are a few specific scenes where I was distorting the text as he was reading it. And that creates, I guess, these hiccups in his reading that put what was not necessarily poetic script, but it forces it into a poetic delivery where a lot of words are missed and there're strange stresses on words or syllables, which is already built into how my dad, as a not native English speaker speaks. Just really quick to say that a huge part of the piece for me is about how he talks, and the ways to me there is a poetics inherent to his speech patterns. But there's a lot of gaps.
I mean, for me, the disorientation has to do with gaps. Gaps of what we can know and what's passed down. Gaps in language, in English, in memory. I don't know. I'll leave it at gaps.
Mark Gunnery: Okay. Speaking of gaps, your father mentions that he's avoided talking about his mother's illness. And that's something I've noticed in my own family, this avoidance of talking openly about physical and mental illness, even for people who've passed on. What was it like to create a video where you and your father are talking about your bodies in such an open and honest way? And I would add, not just your bodies, but also your deceased grandmother's.
Katz Tepper: Yeah. My dad is multiple times an immigrant, or settler is one other word that you might use, but he's migrated many times. And that's a theme in the piece and I'm bringing that up because there's just... And it can't be separated actually, the processes of genocide and displacement that produced my grandmother's disability, probably, also my grandfathers, but have less access to his story. And my dad really being brought up in Israel. So having a really particular relationship to ability and strength and militarism that I think is pretty common for Israel as a whole, and especially for his generation of people who were raised by survivors and are really... Sorry, I'm stumbling because it's really hard to talk about so I had to make a film... But doesn't really talk about it. But I was really trying to pinpoint some place where ableism has been developed alongside militarism, all in response to this severe impossible trauma that can't be dealt with.
So much of the piece involves conversations that don't end up in the 47 minute long film, but that inform a certain level of emotional intensity that I just grabbed little pieces of to show the viewer. So we had a lot of pretty intense conversations about illness and his discomfort with it. But I think through all of the time we spent on it, which is a big material in the piece, as much as technology, was just like that we spent a lot of time together talking. And through that, I think a lot was released. And I think a lot of his blockages around talking about anything that would really involve vulnerability of the body were sort of opened up and addressed more than they had been.
Mark Gunnery: Maia, in your curatorial statement, you said, "Without ever saying the words, Holocaust or Zionism, Tepper's film invokes both." Can you say how you saw both the Holocaust and Zionism invoked in this video?
Maia Ipp: I'm almost reticent to answer this question because part of the power of the piece is what isn't said, that it isn't so explicitly named and yet those ideas and a very, I think, deep critical analysis is very apparent and explicit in the film. Of course, I could be projecting a lot of my own ideas onto it. Within the first few minutes I think of the film, the artist's dad says something like, is this going to be a piece of artwork about hating my country? And that country is never named, but between for me, there's a recognition of Katz's dad's accent, even though it's not the most archetypical Israeli accent. And that sounds like because there was also other migrations. To me, it sounded like this is an Israeli voice speaking. And that specific question, for me, immediately felt familiar, frankly, about in this intergenerational exchange also. That someone of our parental generation feeling that the younger generation's critique of Israel or critique of Zionism, that there's a tension there between the generations, which is also a tension that exists in my own family.
And my parents lived in Israel for many, many years and I was born there also. And I have survivor grandparents, so also lots of convergence here. And so to me, I immediately assigned Israel and Zionism as a very strong subtext to the film. And then also, once I saw and heard mention of the paternal grandmother and the forces that pushed these migrations, I also wondered if the Holocaust was a contributing factor or the contributing factor to a lot of the inheritances that are being both discussed and avoided. And yeah, and because I also saw a critique of that kind of Zionist, I guess I'll use also ableism as a shorthand, like you said Katz. Because I also see how that's a direct reaction to the Holocaust.
It just, all of those things fit seamlessly together for me. And then how you're working with them now, interpersonally and across this generational and cultural divide or divides. It just feels super alive in the film. And I think that whereas sometimes Jewish art that's being made about the Holocaust or about Zionism that doesn't explicitly address any of those things, can be a real dodge. Your film to me didn't have that feeling at all. It felt actually like much, much more powerful because there was so much in those illusions or in what wasn't being said. And I think that's a reflection of what you just were saying, Katz about the hours and hours and hours of conversation and background material that I feel very strongly. You can feel that it's there, even though we don't get access to all of it.
Thank you for your really generous read. And I wanted maybe to say a few things. One is that my dad's Israeli, but he is also an expat. So he already has this rejection built into his own. I didn't have to convince him of certain things. Yet, he's still protective. I mean, he is really protective of his parents' story. And that's ultimately something that I think... I think something that's missing from certain critiques of Zionism, which I'm very glad that critique of Zionism is becoming a larger part of the American political leftist conversation.
What I'm trying to do, I guess, by not addressing certain things so directly is to address the way things feel inside people's bodies. And for me, my dad's being from... Israel was not... Before I was able to even abstract it as a political system or cause, it was just where my dad was raised and a place that I also spent a lot of time. But I wanted to make a piece that actually tried to work through psychic damage and think about the part of Zionism that isn't even about racism or colonialism, but is about really passionate attachments that have to do with familial bonds and wanting to honor one's parents and everything they went through, et cetera, et cetera.
And what I call the psychic damage that gets passed down. But that's, again, from an Israeli expat. So I don't know if that is even applicable to a contemporary Israeli nationalist in any way. But I'm thinking about just within my family. And fighting about Israel is something my dad and I have done pretty much every conversation we've had for like 15 years. You know what I mean? So I do think it's part of the texture of contemporary Jewish life in a lot of ways. As much as there is a didactic element to my piece, and there are these explicit critiques in it, I'm also just trying to show the texture of our specific lives and the specific interaction between only the two of us as individuals. And I'm not necessarily feeling like I can take on the entire system of Zionism, but one father at a time or something, I don't know.
Maia Ipp: Well, and that's why I think it works so profoundly for me at least, was because it doesn't feel didactic like you said it and because that hyper specificity. As we know, sometimes there's this amazing surplus or something to hyper specificity wherein it becomes accessible to other people, though you are really telling like one story. So just wanted to say, I think that's why it's so powerful. That's why it worked for me.
Mark Gunnery: So I just want to ask one more question specifically to Maia. So Maia, you're co-director of the New Jewish Culture Fellowship. So you see a lot of art made by Jews. Can you speak about the place that you see this exhibit, A Fence Around the Torah and the artist featured in it, like Katz, fitting into the larger context of Jewish art in this moment?
Maia Ipp: Yeah. I mean, I feel extremely excited about what the exhibit has been able to do because I think it's really surfaced something that Katz just mention, which is these kinds of the intergenerational arguments or tensions or conflict that is really dynamic. And to me, not something that we should be avoiding or shying away from. In fact, we should be going towards it. I think the exhibit really points to a lot of those. In asking this question about safety and unsafety and whose voices get heard and whose don't explicitly and implicitly. I think that the show is such an exciting collection of many younger artists who represent what I think, or what to me feels like a real common experience at the moment of dynamic tension, really big questions, difficult, complex questions, and a desire to ask them and to engage.
And also the challenges of doing that. And also not knowing how sometimes or where. And I think that what the exhibit allows is for a discomfort, also represented in Katz's piece, that is one of the greatest strengths. This is what art can do. And I think that the Jewish community often has shied away from art that is actually challenging in that way, that actually does disrupt. What this show does is make a space. And it actually captures, I think, of course it doesn't capture everything about this moment or even a lot, but it captures something specific. When I was walking around, when I got to Baltimore and see it in person, it felt to me like it was really capturing something exciting and specific to this moment for American Jews really grappling with lots of very, very deep and important questions about Jewish future and radical possibilities for Jewish futures.
Mark Gunnery: Katz, do you have any thoughts? Is anything you want to throw in there about how both your piece and this larger exhibit fits within the context of Jewish art right now?
Katz Tepper: Well, unfortunately I didn't get to come to see the show because of pandemic stuff. So I've only been able to familiarize myself via the website. But I think that the premise, I'm really glad that it's not just about antisemitism. Let me put it that way. I'm really glad that it's about inner Jewish conflict. Because there are monolithic tendencies in media, et cetera, and powerful forces to erase these dynamic tensions, as Maia put it. And there is a lot more dynamic and diverse strands of contemporary Jewish American life than are necessarily represented in pretty much any other Jewish museum show that I can think of right now. There's a lot of totalizing tendencies around how our narrative has to be presented.
Mark Gunnery: That's Katz Tepper. Katz Tepper is an interdisciplinary artist whose video Roasted Cockroach For Scale is featured in A Fence Around the Torah. Katz Tepper, thank you so much for joining us.
Katz Tepper: Thank you so much for having me, and for your generous questions and responses.
Mark Gunnery: Yeah. And we've also been joined by Maia Ipp, who was on the curatorial panel for A Fence Around the Torah. She is co-director of the New Jewish Culture Fellowship and is a contributing editor for Jewish Current. Maia Ipp, thank you for joining us today.
Maia Ipp: Thank you so much. This conversation feels like we could've taken many more days to have it, and I hope we'll have a chance to keep talking.
Mark Gunnery: Thank you so much for listening to Disloyal. We hope you enjoyed the podcast and we'd love to hear your feedback. Our email address is email@example.com. You can follow us on Twitter @JewishMuseumMD or on Instagram @JewishMuseum_MD. And if you're in Baltimore, come visit. Go to jewishmuseummd.org for more information, and to become a member if you're interested in supporting content like this podcast. Visit afencearoundthetorah.com to check out our latest art exhibit.
Disloyal is a production of the Jewish Museum of Maryland. And is produced and hosted by me, Mark Gunnery. With production assistants from Naomi Weintraub, the Jewish museum of Maryland's community, artist and residents. Our executive director is Sol Davis. You can subscribe to Disloyal wherever you listen to podcasts. New episodes each Friday. Until next time, take care.