M.A. Harms on carnation, lily, lily, rose
M.A. Harms is a Los Angeles based composer and performer who is currently exploring the intersections between grief, gender, and sex through a combination of text and sound. They are a firm believer that sound and visual aesthetic are equally significant within performance, and because of this, performance art is rapidly becoming a major component of their work. Margo’s focus is on navigating literal stories and personal life events via sound practice, obscuring them to the point that they begin to bridge the gap between individual and “universal” experiences.
On April 28 at 8:30 pm Boss Witch Productions presents part two of M.A.’s project carnation, lily, lily, rose at Human Resources. lily, rose is an installation and performance at Human Resources Los Angeles that brings to life the world of Kelly Link’s short story through live music and theatrics by M.A. Harms, navigating the woeful and complex reflections of our anti-hero, the story’s main character, as he reflects on his life post-mortem. This project explores periods of sorrow, disgust, humor, and anger through the realization of musical performance, video found footage, white out illustrations, stop motion animation, and mannequin instruments. Writer siri gurudev caught up to ask some questions.
By siri gurudev
sg: How do you describe yourself as an artist?
Harms: That is something I struggle with a lot. I think of myself as a musician and a
percussionist, although I don’t think that a lot of the things that I do come off as what we know as
percussion, as in the group of people that I’ve been training with. Have you heard of ignorant
sg: I have not!
Harms: They’re supposed to look like scratcher tattoos, almost. They look like doodles. They
look like kids could have done them, but they couldn’t be done by kids. They are executed well.
They’re intentionally messy. And I guess I’m thinking of myself as an ignorant style musician.
sg: You have been incorporating performance art into your practice. How is your
relationship with performance?
Harms: It is rooted in my percussion background just because it’s such a visual instrument. And
when you’re studying, half of what they’re talking to you about is how to move your body and
make things look seamless and make things look effortless even when they’re hard. On top of
just being pressured to present femininely, I’ve always thought very heavily about the way I look
when I play, and that’s transferred into trying to extend out into my space. It started with me
wanting to turn my stages into living rooms or bedrooms so that I could have a space that felt
esthetically comfortable and familiar and do things that scared me. I was trying to provide
comfort to myself and my audience in doing it, and it suddenly started to expand more.
Definitely because of the pandemic, too, we were forced to do things at home. I’ve always cared
about visuals, and I don’t know, all of a sudden, it became really important.
sg: I love that, like leaning fully into the embodied part of the practice.
Harms: Yes, I spent a lot of time thinking about my body. And I think it started with me learning
about Charlotte Moorman, a cellist. She’s very famous for being a topless cello player. And she
got arrested for it. She was doing it in the 60s, and she went to jail. And it was a big deal. People
were very upset. It started with me emulating that, too, but thinking more from the perspective of
being nonbinary and being scared about the way my body looked. And instead of hiding it
through lots of fabric and clothes, which I tended to, performing naked and being overly
sg: Speaking of vulnerability, I know it’s a big existential question, but what are some things
that you have learned about life by doing art?
Harms: I’ve learned how to survive. I’ve learned how to be my authentic self, or at least I’ve
learned how to find a path toward that. I’m scared of so many things, but I’m learning. I’m
finding an outlet through it, and I’m finding a community through it. I found so much truth and family through my art practice and collaborating with people. I’ve become way more open-
minded, and I’ve learned patience. I think that I’ve always been an emotional person, and I used
to think that was a bad thing. And I think through art, it helped me find power in my emotional
intensity. If I hadn’t found these outlets, I think I probably wouldn’t be here right now.
sg: That’s beautiful! And I’m curious, what kind of topics do you explore in your art?
Harms: When I was 14, my mom got sick with pancreatic cancer. And for a long time, my whole
identity revolved around taking care of my mom and my family. My dad was also heavily
struggling with alcoholism. My mom passed right before I went to college. She was a teacher
and my hero. So, I was desperately trying to be her and honor her instead of figuring out who I
In my fourth year of undergrad, when I started getting into the women and gender studies
department, I finally started genuinely thinking about me and who I am and getting to explore
myself. Gender identity became a focus for me. And then, right before the pandemic hit, my dad
died, too, from liver failure. I was so angry. And it just resulted in this massive collapse.
I applied to grad school and got into CalArts. At that time, it was just talking and playing and
utilizing text. And the living rooms and bedrooms were there already, but I didn’t really know
why I was doing it. Finally, I realized that grief was the center point of everything. And I knew
I’d been grieving, but I didn’t realize how much it was influencing my practice. I spent my whole
time at CalArts just being extremely vulnerable and giving really personal projects about how
hard I was feeling. Everything was about grief and about learning who I was as a 24-year-old and
finally acknowledging those parts of myself.
sg: Tell me about the Boss Witch project you are developing. Is it connected to your work in
Harms: This project is actually different because while it was important for me to do those things
that I did at CalArts, I was finding that while making it was therapeutic, presenting them was
painful and could make me extremely upset. And while I knew I needed to do it and say it, the
ultra-vulnerability happening all the time was hurting me. I’m really excited about this project
because the short story I’m setting is about those topics, but it’s not my words, and it’s not my
story. And while I have a sentimental attachment to it from thinking about it for so long, and the
people that showed it to me are people I really love, it doesn’t hurt me to share it. It’s a self-care
way to explore the things that make me who I am at this point.
sg: What is the story that you are using for the performance?
Harms: The first one from a book of short stories called Stranger Things Have Happened by
Kelly Link. It’s such a fantastic story. It’s about a guy who wakes up in purgatory in the form of a
beachside hotel, but he’s the only person there. And he knows he’s dead, and he knows his wife is
alive. And he’s writing these letters to her, trying to hash out what happens leading up to him
dying. And he tells the same four stories several times and gives you more and more details to
realize how terrible of a person he was.
sg: And finally, tell me more about what we can expect to see!
Hams: Part of the commission went to Rainey Chevako, an experimental animator and
filmmaker. She did these phenomenal animations and video collages. And I’ve been making
instruments out of mannequins. I got a few of my friends to record parts for the fixed media
component of it: Mason Moy, Daniel Newman-Lessler, and Nicholas Deyoe. Next up, we’re
going to be at Human Resources on April 28. And I’m going to do a solo show telling the story.
I’m going to be the talking percussionist that I came to LA to be but in my own way. It’s all
percussion to me, but there are going to be mannequin guitars being played and bowing clocks
and jacking off dildos with bells. I’m excited to wear a strap-on. It’s going to be a retelling of the
story with fixed media components and projected material. It will be the mannequins, a desk, a
carpet, and me. I’m thinking of it as an opera. It’s a musical telling of a cohesive story from start
to finish. That’s what’s coming up next.
carnation, lily, lily, rose is a two-part project presented by LA-based artist M.A. Harms including an interactive installation at Coaxial Arts March 24–26 (carnation, lily) followed by an installation and performance at Human Resources Los Angeles on April 28 (lily, rose). This work is co-presented by Boss Witch Productions, Coaxial Arts, and Human Resources Los Angeles, and is developed with support from a 2022–23 Boss Witch Productions Commission.