A peek into Art As Action

By Caitlin Howard

From the outside the warehouse is a non-descript unit in a suburban complex west of Eugene. The door opens into a triangular room with walls painted a clumsy punk turquoise. A woman named Etain is getting her makeup done while another chats with her. The main–larger and mostly empty–room is dimly lit. A smoke detector makes it hard to see. On the far side is a garage door that a semi-truck could fit through; it doesn’t even take up a third of the wall.

Tracy Sydor is at the camera with her husband, Rob Sydor. One of their children is asleep on a divan in the corner, the other is waving around an enormous American flag that is attached–upside down–to a long wooden pole. Rage Against the Machine’s self-titled album is playing, including the expletive lyrics to the band’s lead single Killing in the Name: “F*ck you, I won’t do what you tell me,” which Sydor had posted on her facebook page earlier that day with a teaser photo of the set.

“This is a political piece,” Sydor calls it. “And very dark.”

The set includes a backdrop of six or sevens boards painted a dark, eggplant brown. In front of them is a tall mattress covered in silky blue, red and white sheets. Next to the set is a handful of sharp daggers and swords of varying sizes and a loaded crossbow.

Sydor grabs the crossbow and slings it over the shoulder of Etain, who will pose as Judith.

“I love Tracy’s vision,” says Etain. “I’m a simple creature and I love waving weapons and screaming. There’s been so much angst recently, it’s great to have a vent for that.”

Her costume echoes revolutionary army garb: a black collared jacket with thick black buttons that run in two parallel rows down the front. The long skirt adds a feminine spin. She’s got dark eye-makeup and her natural red hair is shaved on the sides and styled in a way that mimics a mohawk. Sydor helps her settle on the bed and selects a dagger for her to use as she practices posing, ready to slice the head off of Holofernes.

“I don’t want you to do that though, that’s just the story,” Sydor says as she recounts the greater context of her vision.

As the clock nears 6 p.m. more and more women arrive. Although close to 50 people agreed to participate on Facebook, Sydor expects around 15-20 to show up. They each come with a white nightgown, into which they all hurriedly change. Sydor has prepared a gaudy white ceramic pitcher filled with mud from her yard for the ladies to smudge over their garments.

“I’m a friend,” says Brandi Wilkens, who is pacing anxiously as she awaits instructions from Sydor on her specific role in the photograph. “I don’t usually get in front of the camera but this seemed important enough so I wanted to jump in.”

One by one Sydor places the women somewhere in the scene as scythes, pitchforks and a broom get handed out to the models. The one and only man is laid back shirtless on the bed. One woman holds his head in place by his hair. Etain looms above him with a large dagger aimed at his throat.

“Who am I missing? Who am I missing?” she keeps saying, scanning the room and directing the stragglers.

When everyone is in place, she gets behind the camera, shouting orders and trying to make sure she can capture every individual face in the photograph.

“The idea is that you’re all here, you’re all beautiful and you’re all participating in this,” she says.

The camera begins to snap.

“Show me what pissed off looks like,” she shouts as she draws her head back away from the viewfinder. “Get mad.”

The women start to yell as their bodies lean forward toward the bed, weapons erect, the upside down flag billowing behind them.

Sydor continues to maneuver onto the set between shots to move arms and props so that she can see everyone in the shot.

“I know this is uncomfortable,” she says apologetically as she gets back behind the camera. “But it looks fucking sick.”

She gets the shot she’s looking for in no time and everyone releases. The women are giddy with success and mill about the room looking for their clothes and belongings, giving hugs to one another and, especially, to Sydor.

“The political season that we’re in is pretty powerful so you don’t get much chance to have a strong voice,” says Crystal Morrison about her participation in the shoot. “I take every opportunity that I can.”