Decision Fatigue

Ilana Harris-Babou

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Screaming from the Inside: Week #1 Decision Fatigue
Ilana Harris-Babou

8 Minutes

Artist Cinemas

July 18–July 24, 2022

In Decision Fatigue Ilana Harris-Babou confronts the absurdities of the wellness industry: a space where structural inequalities are often framed as personal choices. The artist’s mother, Sheila Harris, stages an intimate, playful, and sometimes painful beauty tutorial. In a decidedly “unclean” morning ritual, she traces the choices she has made in her life, both large and small, to hold on to youth and remain well.

Decision Fatigue is the first installment of Screaming from the Inside, an online program of films and accompanying texts convened by Camille Henrot as the eleventh cycle of Artist Cinemas, a long-term, online series of film programs curated by artists for e-flux Video & Film.

The film is presented alongside a conversation between Ilana Harris-Babou and Camille Henrot.

Screaming from the Inside runs in six episodes released every Monday from July 18 through August 29, 2022, streaming a new film each week accompanied by a commissioned interview or response published in text form.

Camille Henrot in conversation with Ilana Harris-Babou

Camille Henrot (CH): Your film made me think of ASMR videos. Were you inspired by that trend of sonic “brain massage” in the making of your film?

Ilana Harris-Babou (IHB): A lot of people have told me that my videos remind them of ASMR. Strangely enough, I was unfamiliar with ASMR videos when I started making this work. I’m jealous of folks who can feel those tingly sensations. It seems amazing! Because I don’t feel anything special, I get kind of bored watching ASMR on YouTube.

CH: The film has a different resonance since the COVID-19 pandemic started. For many people, rituals of self-care or makeup application became part of a routine that helped them feel soothed and cared for. Has the pandemic, or its effects, influenced your own interpretation of your work?

IHB: The pandemic has definitely changed my relationship with the work. The exhibition I originally made Decision Fatigue for opened in late February 2020 and closed during the first NYC lockdown. At the time, I was thinking about who does and who does not have time to devote to elaborate rituals of beautification and care. Early in the pandemic, we saw a stark difference between those whose labor was considered essential and those for whom self-care was allowed to be “essential.” Rest should be a right.

At first I was looking at celebrities like Gwenyth Paltrow, who embodies a certain kind of idealized whiteness and access to leisure time. Since the pandemic, I’ve been more interested in figures like Dr. Sebi, whose black-nationalist diet presented a path to self-determination through nutrition. He is also a complicated figure, but I’ve found more satisfaction looking at people who promise a collective solution—no matter how flawed.

CH: A lot of my research in recent years has focused on the psychology of pregnancy and mother-child relationships, and I found it so interesting that the actress in your film is your own mother. We often have an ambivalent relationship with the body of our mother—a dual fascination and rejection of it. Is the choice of working with your mother related to her influence on your own relationship with the idea or pursuit of beauty?

IHB: My mom has absolutely influenced my relationship with beauty. She had me in her late 40s, and I’ve always admired the way she defies expectations of what her body should be capable of at her age. There’s certainly some ambivalence too. In the video, when she describes feeling disgusted by breastfeeding, it’s implicit that she was disgusted by breastfeeding me.

She has a massive collection of beauty products. When I was young my mother used to take me shopping for cosmetics as a bonding ritual. I have many early memories of testing layers of perfumed potions at department-store counters with her. She watches way more beauty tutorials than I do. The language in Decision Fatigue is primarily improvisation using phrases she’s picked up on Youtube over the years.

CH: I think of beauty and spa treatments as a kind of substitute for a mother’s love, or as a comfort to make up for the lack of care that we may not be receiving elsewhere in life. Is this something you were thinking about?

IHB: I was definitely thinking about the care we don’t receive elsewhere. More specifically, I was thinking about our lack of mutual support and social care. We lack healthcare. We self-soothe and seek wellness but lack basic welfare. Many beauty regimes make it seem as though we might buy our way into a sense of well-being that we shouldn’t have to pay for in the first place.

CH: How did you choose the title of your film? It’s a great title, and I think I would have used “Decision Fatigue” instead of “Grosse Fatigue” for my own film, had I thought of it ☺ What does it mean for you?

IHB: Thank you! Grosse Fatigue (2013) is one of my favorite videos, and I imagine it must have been somewhere in the back of my mind when naming this piece. The title describes the exhaustion generated by the endless barrage of mundane and high-stakes decisions we must make to take care of ourselves, especially as black women.

I was thinking about the ways structural inequalities are often framed as personal decisions in American society. This is especially true when it comes to staying healthy. In the video my mother stages an intimate, at times painful, makeup tutorial. She traces the choices—both major and minor—she’s made in her life to hold on to youth and remain well.

CH: In the film you made some tools and props in ceramic. Where are those objects now? What is their “second life”?

IHB: I initially showed the objects alongside the video in an installation that mimicked the design of a high-end wellness store. It was an absurd beauty boutique that rebuked notions of “clean” eating and “pure” ingredients. The objects on the shelves were caustic, seductive, and sickly sweet. I made Cheeto face serums, hand-crafted car air-freshener soap, and healing crystals made of Borax.

I keep many of the sculptures at home or in my studio. Some of them became part of a project called “Aldrich Care Box” at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, CT. Visitors were able to take the sculptures home for a couple of weeks and bring them back to the museum. It seemed like the perfect way to share the work.

For more information, contact program@e-flux.com.

Health & Disease, Rituals & Celebrations, Beauty, Motherhood and Reproduction, Video Art, Domesticity
Return to Screaming from the Inside
Return to Artist Cinemas

Ilana Harris-Babou’s work is interdisciplinary, spanning sculpture and installation, and grounded in video. She speaks the aspirational language of consumer culture and uses humor as a means to digest painful realities. She has exhibited throughout the US and Europe, with recent survey exhibitions at Kunsthaus Hamburg and the ICA at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga. Other venues include The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA; SculptureCenter, New York, USA; The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, USA; The Queens Museum; New York, USA; Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen, Denmark; West Space, Melbourne, Australia; Gallery Miroslav Kraljević, Zagreb, Croatia; and Warehouse421, Abu Dhabi, UAE. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and a BA from Yale University.


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