Sneaky Boundaries: Video of Merritt Johnson’s “Clouds Live Where”

I’ve written about work by Merritt Johnson in previous posts:  Clouds Live Where Performance Documentation and A Commentary on Animal and Human Boundaries – Merritt Johnson at Grunt Gallery. She is one of the artists with work in “It’s Complicated – Art about Home” at The Evergreen State College.  Johnson came to campus to perform a piece called Clouds Live Where in conjunction with that exhibition. I arranged for the performance to be recorded on digital video from the mezzanine above the performance, which took place outside the gallery in the large entryway to the building. The video above has been edited from 35 minutes down to less than 6 minutes.

In a previous post , I wrote the following:

Johnson’s work is a carefully crafted commentary on the boundaries that humans set and the boundaries set in the natural world. Patterns of migration, airflow, water evaporation, all create their own natural boundaries – factors not considered when we humans set our boundaries, borders, and fences. Johnsons points this out with a subtle, wry humor and beautiful handling of paint.

Clouds Live Where moves those same ideas from two dimensions into four dimensions: length, width, height (as in sculpture) plus the dimension of time, by making her interactions part of the artwork. Johnson’s persona in this performance is “Sneak,” a persona she has used previously in the performance Sneak and Lock-pick, from the 2008 Aboriginal Curatorial Collective Colloquium in collaboration with 2008 LIVE Biennale in Vancouver, BC.

Still-photo from Merritt Johnson's performance "Sneak and Lock-pick" as part of "Auntie-Hero" at the 2008 LIVE Biennale in Vancouver, BC

Artist and art-writer Francisco-Fernando Granados saw the Sneak and Lock-pick performance and wrote the following about the sneak persona and his/her relationship to borders:

“In conversation with the artist, I discovered that the piece emerged as an extension of her painting practice. In creating a performance, Johnson wanted to physically engage with her interest in the tension between geological structures and human-made boundaries. The translation from painting into performance added the element of the artist’s body into the tension. Johnson chose to represent her body in an ambiguously gendered and raced way: moccasins over shoes, a coyote hide peeking out of a “man’s” coat and a hat that covers her features. This figure is certainly hybrid, and could be understood as some kind of undercover agent. The border constructed in the performance is rigid and stagnant. Johnson addressed it by foregrounding her hybridity and by being in constant movement.  

This performance of a hybrid subjectivity that imagines a utopian transformation of the political space of the border also modified my perception of the social space by presenting a tableau vivant that allowed me to enact identification, empathy and solidarity as an embodied, aware viewer… The performative and utopian nature of the work resonates with the kinds of culture-making Spivak calls for in Who Sings the Nation State?[1] While the divide-and-conquer approach of the nation-state seeks to reify the borders between cultural groups as a way to limit the power that may arise from their cultural and political coalition, art such as Johnson’s can inspire the mind to seek alliances across communities that are rooted in a critical regionalism. Rather than simply standing in opposition to oppressive border, Johnson’s work stood outside, on top, within and without that structure, changing, collapsing it and creating a space that was all its own.”[2]

One of the appealing aspects of the 2010 performance in Olympia is its open-endedness. As you’ll see in the video, the police-type “do not cross” barriers from the 2008 performance have been replaced by custom-made Lucite barriers.  This opens our possible interpretations of the work to include consideration of natural forces, borders, and barriers to natural processes (think shifting weather patterns due to pollution, urbanization), without closing out consideration of political, cultural, or gendered boundaries.

I am not an impartial observer. I admit to having a favorite moment in the 2010 performance. It is when Sneak blows a fine blue pigment onto the Lucite barrier, making it much more visible. I remember the blue as startlingly blue in front of the expanse of red brick flooring. It was a moment of physical and symbolic beauty; the trickster coyote (Sneak), causes a barrier that has been manufactured to be nearly invisible to suddenly become visible – with humble spit and chalk. This is a significant moment of action in the performance. Once the barriers are visible, Sneak can get under those barriers and carry out his/her important business. Constantly working around those barriers exhausts Sneak. It shows in a slowing of movements, a tiredness in lifting the clouds. Ultimately, Sneak makes a blue ribbon unroll from the blue water area to the tan island-form. Sneak puts the suit-jacket back on, tucks the coyote tail back into the trousers, and shuffles off in dress shoes. Apparently, Sneak has business elsewhere.

For additional info:

Merritt Johnson’s Website:
Francisco-Fernando Granados’ Website:
It’s Complicated – Art About Home Website:


[1] Judith Butler and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Who Sings the Nation-State? Language, Politics, Belonging. Seagull Books: London, 2007.

[2] Francisco-Fernando Granados, unpublished paper “Seeing Across/Stepping Beyond: Critical Border Crossings,” 2010.

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