Artist Genevieve Belleveau's Experiment in Urban Asceticism

text and photos by Rebecca Smeyne
Artist Genevieve Belleveau outside her mobile monastery

Last Fall, NYC artist Genevieve Belleveau started an indie-gogo campaign to fund a project she calls the "Mobile Monastery." Bolstered by promos like this crazy telethon, the campaign raised nearly $4000 and so since January, the "St. Anal Banana Blob" (a $500 pledge won an anonymous donor the privilege of naming the vehicle) has been up and running, with Belleveau chronicling its trials and tribulations on her website. Initially planned to be stationed in New York, the RV currently resides in the Altadena neighborhood of Los Angeles. We recently got a chance to light some Frankincense with the artist (and her teacup cat Cuckoo) and get a closer look at ascetic life in the RV.

What exactly is the Mobile Monastery and what were your inspirations and foundations for the project?

The Mobile Monastery is a 19-foot RV I am currently living in as an experiment in civil disobedience, technological asceticism and reconnecting with the silence of daily life. I began thinking about this project while I was hosting an offline residency in the woods of northern Minnesota with fellow artists. I was living in a yurt, tending a garden and stacking wood and I realized that I found this type of manual labor to be more satisfying than the labor I was enacting both online and in my life in NYC. I began researching hermeticism and reading Walden for the first time, which led me to the foundational principles for the project.

The artist inside St. Anal Banana Blob. Stained glass by artist Andy Kobilka.

How does it tie into your other work, which tends to deal with issues of communication and technology, like the Emoji Autism Facial Recognition Therapy project?

The backbone of all my work is an interest in the human desire to connect and the ways this drive is expressed through emerging technology. With the emoji piece I was looking through a psychological lens to examine the minute nuances of expression we are developing through new mediums. By submitting myself to the largely off-the-grid, relatively solitary life of the hermetic monk, I am investigating the other side of that equation; what becomes of an individual willingly cut off from the the state of constant connection we now live in? What can be gleaned from the sacred tradition of silence and meditation that we can take back to the rapidly evolving technosphere? I have been exploring the "divine online" for several years now, generally through tropes of spirituality and therapeutic healing. I role-play these various traditions in hopes of better understanding my own process of connecting, thus encouraging others to examine their own.

Your project was initially planned for NYC. Why did you end up in LA? Is the project in part a commentary on the rising cost of NYC rent? Is the rent just too damn high?

I was initially really excited to have the RV in NYC as a nose-thumb at the high rent and as a form of civil disobedience. I wouldn't have been breaking any laws, yet would have been able to live for free in virtually any neighborhood despite the accelerating cost of rent. I purchased the RV in Louisiana and ended up having mechanical and registration issues that detained me for over 2 months. During that time I was in the deepest period of silence, solitude and meditation, and out of the silence I received what I can only describe as a "Call to Adventure," in the words of Joseph Campbell. Of course, I was also looking at my weather app everyday and realized I had been overly optimistic in my initial desire to live in an RV in NYC during the coldest winter in years and what looks to be an oppressively hot summer coming up. I am definitely okay with the struggles of daily life lived in the rig but decided the weather did not need to be one of my opponents on this path. If I could have a monastery on both coasts I would; I'm still very curious what RV life in NYC would be like. Maybe someone will start a sister abbey in Bushwick or something!

You've described yourself as a "crust monk." Can you explain this term?

Crust monk is a play on the term crust punk, a counter-cultural movement of youth who are often nomadic and living in relative poverty. I started to notice similarities in the lifestyle of crusties and the tradition of degenerate drifter monks called the gyrovagues. I realized I was more a gyrovague than any other kind of monk as I follow only loosely proclaimed vows rather than the law of a specific order. Crusties live on the fringe of capitalistic culture and are often despised as parasitic. I think crust culture is one of the last bastions of counter-cultural anarchistic lifestyle and became interested in the overlaps between my own intention and that of crusts. In funding my campaign via Indie GoGo I recognized I was really no more than an organized busker and poked fun at this by staging a performance in New Orleans where I stood on a popular busking corner with a sign asking for PayPal only donations and my campaign URL. Also I think the stereotype of greasy, smelly, dirty crustie pretty much applies to me now as I have limited access to showers and my personal appearance has taken a back burner to the other necessities of daily living. I adopted this term as a precursor to my current lifestyle, as a way of humbling myself and preparing for the less glamorous aspects of the project.

What have you learned so far on your journey?

The most important experience thus far has been a submission to silence and the inherent wisdom we can access when we take the time to slow down, turn off, and be patient enough to honor our personal truth.

The artist and Cuckoo

What kinds of reactions have you gotten to your tonsure haircut?

It's all been extremely positive and generally opens a discussion about the project with strangers and peers. I'm actually growing the tonsure out now as the lack of shower makes up-keeping the cut and color incredibly difficult and ultimately serves as a distraction from some of my higher aims. (Though I want to give a shoutout to my friend Jos McKain on being my final tonsurist!) I think the haircut has helped draw attention to this project as any online avatar has the power to do, but in the spirit of humility I've realized the haircut is its own bid for attention and I need to focus my energy on less superficial aspects of the project now.

Have you considered tonsuring Cuckoo, your teacup cat? And what's a teacup cat?

Haha, so many people have told me I should do that but I have never seriously considered it. I think it would be inordinately vain to do so, creating a little mini-me in my own image. Cuckoo is a very strong-willed cat, I wouldn't dare threaten her autonomy. She comes from a colony of outdoor country cats at my parents' house in Minnesota. They are a mixed colony of feral and tame cats. Cuckoo's mother was a feral female who mated with her own brother, which created the unique genetics that give us Cuckoo. That colony actually often breeds abnormally small cats who usually die of health problems. Cuckoo had a glimmer in her eye that told me she was going to be blessed so I brought her back to NYC with me and though she has remained unusually small she is a perfect specimen of health and cat wealth.

Belleveau's illuminated manuscripts

The illuminated manuscript you're working on is impressive. Any plans to show this work or turn the Mobile Monastery project into a formal gallery show?

Ideally the manuscript will be published as a document of this project, including both the paintings and the extensive writing I have been immersed in. I would love to find a publisher willing to go all in on it and produce a limited run with actual gold leaf or gilded accents, since that's what makes an illuminated manuscript illuminated. Another dream would be to have an institution fund my driving the RV back to NYC for a retrospective of everything created while in-residence in St. ABB, with the rig herself parked inside the gallery for the public to experience her altered state at the end of this epic adventure.

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