Elizabeth Salaam Turns Healing Into Writing Into A Performance Art Exhibition
"Write or Die" is a live, interactive performance art exhibition at You Belong Here — with small group appointments or virtual viewing.
Elizabeth Salaam’s use of writing as a form of healing began at an inpatient treatment center when she was fourteen. A therapist asked her to write a letter to her father, her abuser, so she unleashed a raw, angry piece of writing. And when the therapist then asked her to take that letter and revise it into something to present, it resulted in a real understanding of healing for Salaam.
"My process has always been like that,” Salaam said. "Whenever I get stuck, I always go back to: Let me just blurt it out. Let me just gain access to the truth of it, as ugly as it may be, and then from there, I'm seeing my hands kind of molding it and shaping it into something like that. It always starts with that place of pure freedom."
This weekend, Salaam will open an in-person, live series of small group performance art pieces, "Write or Die" at You Belong Here gallery, art space and coworking center in City Heights. The exhibition's events will be reservation-based and require masks. The venue will provide gloves and will be cleaned between each timed performance session. The event will also be streamed using Zoom for those who wish to watch from home.
It will be a series of writing-based art installations, ranging from projections of live writings, a journal where audience members can add thoughts (that's where those gloves come into play), plus sculptures and visual art installations made from written pages. It's a multi-genre exhibition that solidly hinges not just on the written word, but on the way writing can heal.
Another big step in Salaam's relationship with her own writing career was accepting that she does not need to meet specific publishing requirements before calling herself a writer. "I realize that I was holding myself hostage, that I don't actually get to exist as a writer until I have published this… whatever it's gonna be," she said, about a variety of unfinished projects that have conglomerated over the past decade or more.
This project, creating a new work of art with her writing and displaying the act of writing, is a major way that Salaam is releasing herself from that. "The performance aspect of it is the process, just sitting down and writing and being totally open, and letting myself be in the world in process, without having published this big magnum opus," Salaam said.
In some ways, the project is also a permission slip, an invitation for others to also do the same. One piece, "In Bed Together," is an actual bed, constructed in the gallery space, with a journal set out for others to enter their own writings if they’re comfortable. (The pens will also be cleaned or replaced after each show.) It's a way of creating real-time conversation, Salaam said.
It's also a way of creating — Salaam will undeniably create new works during this, like an interactive, short-term, zoo exhibit version of a writing residency. It's also an archive of existing work and her own history with trauma.
"All The Things," the live-writing portion, will have Salaam seated at a laptop, writing, while the words project live on her own body and the wall behind her. Her aim is to write a hybrid of fiction and essay about her experience as a Black child in Boise, Idaho, the sexual abuse she was victim to, about addiction and more.
Two more installations feature writing as visual art, including sculptures made from notebooks with a single or repeated line in "Save Me," and in "I Was Here," a variety of wall hangings made from documents: journals, love letters, police transcripts from when, as an eight year old, she told the police about her father's abuse, and an arrest warrant (her own).
"Write or Die" is not the first time Salaam has worked with You Belong Here. She discovered the venue as a coworking space while in a period of depression and isolation.
Before the pandemic hit, Salaam was going to facilitate an Artist's Way workshop group — a 12-week program that follows Julia Cameron's 1992 guidebook, "The Artist's Way" to build daily creative practice and complete larger projects. When in-person gatherings weren't feasible, she and some others formed a group anyway to virtually support each other and follow the Artist's Way curriculum.
"[Owner and cofounder Nic Roc] talks a lot about space, the importance of space, and a lot of the programming that she does, she's offering space to people to do things. You know, we can all have these dreams. We can have these ideas. But we need space to do them. We need space to make signs for the Black Womxn's March; we need space for clothing drives," Salaam said.
For those interested in attending in person, tickets are sold for one-hour experiences from 12-7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 12-4:30 p.m. on Sunday.