by Lora Mathis
Los Angeles based SBTL CLNG (aka Carolina Hicks)' self-analytical work is a diving into uncomfortability. It is a mourning. An honoring of grief. An unlearning of negative patterns and taught beliefs that is spread between text, illustrations, zines, and music. It is highly vulnerable and presents healing as an intentional, non-linear process. SBTL CLNG's exploration of personal disconnection reveals patterns of what separates us from others and nature at large.
I’ve loved the powerful healing aspects of your work since I encountered it. The first piece of yours I ever saw was writing which mentioned, “emitting healing frequencies.” What does healing look like for you?
The daunting reality of healing is that once you start, you can’t really turn back. Once you realize how much you deserve to heal, you nervously just start little by little. You make microscopic progress, and celebrate private victories. You trip up —a relapse, a triggering confrontation, a self-sabotage trap you set up for yourself. Sometimes those bad moments turn into a bad month, and it can feel like you’re constantly starting at square one (or negative one). That’s the intense truth.
Healing is this constant, never-ending process; it’s very multidimensional. It takes a lot of stamina, recovery, reassurance, and self-validation. A big aspect of it for me has been figuring out what forgiveness actually means — not so much towards the forces and people that have hurt me but the constant, everyday process of forgiving myself (and I have to do this all the time). I would never treat anyone the way I’ve treated myself in my own head. I hold a lot of anger, frustration, guilt, remorse, regret towards the past and myself. But I’m learning that it’s going to be an uphill battle and constant wrestling match with myself if I don’t work on the forgiveness aspect. Much easier said than done, of course. But practice certainly helps.
Last fall, you began an MFA and this summer, your thesis may have you coming to the east coast to explore, “creating art amongst psychic / ecological / racist / misogynist / xenophobic violence of the new sociological landscape.” How is your work affected by this pervading, multi-layered violence?
I fell into one of many existential crises after the election. I was frozen by how scary (and ridiculous) it felt to have entered such an enormous amount of financial and emotional debt starting an MFA while the world entered this new multi-layered nightmare. But what has started to sink in since November is that this new era is not so new; everything that’s been festering, colonizing, oppressing, and killing for hundreds of years is now just inescapably present and exposed for the world to see. This experience of graduate school has been a huge self-check of my privileges and the socio-political responsibilities/ethics that I’m responsible for as an artist.
I know it sounds grandiose, but I feel whole-heartedly that there’s no more room to make apolitical art — it’s way too late to be neutral, about anything. This unpredictable landscape affects my work in direct and indirect ways. I have very real privileges that, so far, keep me from experiencing the immediate, life-threatening violences of the unraveling shit show. And that’s meant that I now have even more responsibility to use my access and positioning to maximize my use of resources, in order to create as much work as possible — to reach and affect as wide an audience as needs me. I’m becoming much more sentient of the ways that this landscape is affecting the very notion of home/place, planet, and the concept of dwelling for human and non-human life.
That’s been a bigger shift in my work, more eco-feminist research and socio-ecological awareness. I don’t think art for art’s sake is very helpful right now. I’ve started to notice that despite whatever form or packaging you give a work, if you have no generative content, the art is just taking up space. I don’t want to make art just to take up space.
Much of your work sorts through mourning, loss, nostalgia, and growth. What are the relationships between these things?
Being a person is so intense! We carry everything that’s ever happened to us within us. This question reminds me of something one of my favorite artists Wizard Apprentice (Tierney Carter) talks about: there is so much pain/sadness in the world and for hyper-sensitive people, it’s nearly impossible to forget about it or pretend like it’s not happening. I think that’s why mourning is so prevalent in my practice, because I see that there’s so much to constantly mourn. So much is being lost, violently erased, and threatened without end.
Misogyny kills, and it’s enraging and horrible to watch it happen on so many scales. You start to feel a nostalgia for a version of the earth we’ll never see again because of the irreversible damage that’s being inflicted upon it. As a first generation Colombian person, I think a lot about nostalgia for a place I’ll never really know—never really from here, never really from there. Yet, despite all this internal and external mess, you find yourself still opening your eyes in the morning. You’re still breathing and it kind of hits you that you will just have to keep growing because as long as you’re still alive, you still have a chance to add something good to the world, despite the grief of it all.
Do you believe growth is a loss?
Definitely, but the loss is crucial – without it you’d run out of space to grow. You lose parts of yourself that you’ve known for years and years. You let go of the patterns and habits you’ve gotten so used to navigating your reality with. I picture it like a video game terrain in your mind that you grow accustomed to, like muscle memory. Your life’s experience and traumas create a map and you learn your video game’s grid —all the guilt hallways, regret corners, self-hate goblins, self-sabotage vortexes. When you start to grow, you realize those virtual maps are just your own patterns shaped by trauma(s), misogyny, really toxic socialization — you keep them because they’re all you know and all you have to cope with. But, something I learned this past year (via a studio visit with Karen Rose, herbalist/healer) is that coping isn’t healing.
Once that truly sinks in, you realize that you have to scrap those virtual maps and make entirely new ones and starting from scratch is always really scary! But once you start this loss/undoing, you realize like “wait, I can’t go back anymore and even though that makes me sad (and it’s normal to get sad about growth), I know I don’t ever want to.”
You’ve recently begun incorporating music into your work. How has this new medium expanded your work?
I’ve been thinking a lot about misogyny and the ways in which it’s become internalized within my own body. As someone that came of age in the punk/DIY scene where I grew up, I can trace that “community” as the place where my friends and I experienced some of our most humiliating and scarring experiences with what we thought was intimacy, validation, and support — experiences that warped our sense of self-worth and stunted so much internal growth. Fast forward to a decade’s worth of unlearning, and here I am, sad at how long it took me to realize my own agency and snap out of the stupor that had me convinced music-making and validation was to be found in “talented” men with disproportionate amounts of social capital. No one told me I could play the instruments, I could book and/or play the shows, that I should or could make my own sounds. I’m so relieved and at home now in my developing music practice. It’s become an extension of my writing and visual work, because I often incorporate all elements into my song-making and live performances. My music is intentional; when I play, I am creating sonic waves to combat my internalized misogyny and inferiority complex that a Boys Club world has instilled in me — a type of sonic mourning/grieving/cleansing. It feels so healing and exciting to create the songs my body wants to make, to create work that is deeply instinctual and non-technical. My music is partial “fuck you” to toxic/mediocre cis man-music and damage but mostly a sonic prayer for the Earth and all its wounded.
As someone who publicly shares highly vulnerable, self-analytical work, how do you carve out personal space for yourself?
As an empath, I really appreciate this question because I think about it often. Energy is very alive and real to me, so creating spaces of recovery/retreat for myself is critical. I often forget how open and exposed I make myself through my own content, but I’ve been feeling its effects much more lately. Intentionally or not, people in the contemporary moment become very entitled to your energy and emotional labor —a lot has to do with the Internet, and instantaneous accessibility to the work. So, I suppose it “comes with the territory” but it gets quickly draining and dangerous if you aren’t careful.
Energy vampires are real and they’re really tricky/manipulative! Creating boundaries has been crucial (and relatively new for me). It’s scary to be forthcoming and clear about not only setting boundaries, but actually following through with them. Intentionally protecting my energy/emotional labor/time and anticipating my needs has become increasingly more important to me. In doing so, my practice has actually strengthened because you naturally become more disciplined and selective about how you spend your time and psychic resources.
There is so much power in the self-awareness and deep self-reflection in your work. It’s poignant honesty on trauma, mental illness and self-destructive tendencies has helped me sort through my own experiences. How does art become a tool for learning forgiveness in a body which has hurt itself and been hurt by others?
Something I’ve been learning through my own visual work and writing is that my subconscious is actually my most honest sounding board. A tactic for the patriarchy to perpetuate itself is to atrophy the feminine and the unlearned wisdom within ourselves (I’m directly referencing Audre Lorde’s “The Uses of the Erotic” essay — a foundational text to my practice). We are forced to mistrust and silence our own desires and instincts. After years of doing so, it’s no wonder we feel like such strangers in our own bodies. That estrangement from ourselves is how we end up so lost and far from our own power. But, I think deep down, despite how loud our self-loathing may get, we really want to be advocates for ourselves — my own art practice has taught me this. Art has helped me understand a lot about my own behavior and through that, I’ve learned how to safely hold empathy for others and myself. Art helps me better navigate reality when it often feels completely unnavigable. Art opens up portals: a source to access lost, ancestral knowledge and support; a well to receive psychic nutrition and relief; a space to unpack all the things; a refuge to cry/scream into when the sadness feels unbearable; a quiet space to learn how to forgive others, and most importantly yourself. I feel perpetually homesick for a place that doesn’t exist, so for me, art is the home I get to live in (somewhere in my mind and heart —connected via tunnels).
Keep up with SBTL CLNG on Instagram at @sbtl_clng.
See the whole spread here in Issue #18 here.