You studied landscape architecture as well as choreography in your undergraduate degree. What made you decide to turn your practice towards fine arts? Do these subjects still have any influence on your practice?
I always identified as an artist. That was the dream. However, I wasn’t necessarily allowed to be one. I was born into a lot of turmoil, and I had to find a way to survive. I had to use education in a different way; not to follow dreams, but to escape in some capacity. I grew up in intense poverty in a rural area. It was a small farm town in the middle of nowhere. These small American towns can be these pits, where there are no opportunities and you struggle to grasp onto any sort of footing to escape. If you’re audacious enough to aspire to anything, it can be a really oppressive environment. It’s difficult to achieve anything without money or any of the privileges that class and wealth can provide. I think a lot of people in art don’t realize what a significant privilege it is just to be able to be an artist, just to know what art is, to experience it. I was occupying a space outside of art, and the communities it serves. Truthfully, I didn’t really know what contemporary art was. I just had a need to make art as a way of coping with reality. This conflict of class and wealth and my occupation of the outside is why I wasn’t able to pursue fine arts when I was younger.
I took out loans to attend a local public university. There I studied landscape architecture. I saw it as large-scale sculpture that impacted
challenging, and relevant to the concerns of the contemporary world. Design is so much about mechanisms; things that exist to demonstrate something, it concerns the surface, the vessel, the exterior, and the visual. Choreography is somehow a lot more visceral. I never abandoned the way that choreography was taught and understood as a depiction of content. I also ever abandoned the way of seeing and the mechanisms of form you create within architecture. I used both of those practices and those methodologies. I combined them and it became this emotive type of conceptual sculpture with a restrained aesthetic. Its simple and straightforward, but it is clearly influenced by the emotionality that choreography allows.
the community. I also loved nature and considered it a really rewarding medium. The degree could get me the skills to make money, to leave that poverty. I discovered choreography in college. My brother had died two months before school began and my flatmate thought a dance class would help me. It did. Choreography became that way of satisfying the need to be expressive, to be heard. I just liked the sensation of movement. I was offered a lot of opportunities in choreography, but I couldn’t pursue the offers, again because of money. I needed to strategize a way to survive, and I had this fear of falling backwards into that pit. Being an artist puts you in a very precarious position. I stuck with landscape architecture. I did what I could to make it art by incorporating principles of choreography and pushing the aesthetic perimeters of what was deemed appropriate. I desperately wanted landscape architecture to be art, and I pushed an agenda. My undergraduate thesis researched the use of choreographic methodologies as a way to develop form. In addition to the design research, I presented a fully choreographed production. I always preferred making art, being an artist over a designer, but I struggled with the reverent title of “artist”. I didn’t think I deserved it and I didn’t think it was possible.
Architecture plus choreography, in a way, became sculpture. Architecture and design is about the concern of physical things; the way they function, the way things are used, the consideration of how they are built, and inevitably about how they look. It’s not dissimilar to the aesthetic aspects of sculpture. However art alludes to something more. It alludes to content, some sort of significance beyond form. In that way, it is like choreography. It could be emotive, expressive, conceptual,
You and Landis Velazquez cofounded #* Collective, which was a curatorial project based in California. Is the curator role merging more and more with the artist’s, in terms of conceptualizing and creating the final overall project?
Yes, I definitely think that it is. More and more we do not really see that much of a separation between what a curator is and what an artist is. To act as a curator was actually my first foray into the fine art world and I think this is a reason why I like to collaborate so much. It is always what I have done, I don’t just love art, I love artists. I love what they stand for. I took on that role because I wanted to promote artists and actually provide for them, support them. I also wanted to learn from them. In that collective, I worked as both an artist and a curator but it felt as if that was just one role. An artist under certain circumstances must act as a curator because they have to organize shows, produce events, and initiate opportunities to make some things happen to allow art to exist and be seen. I quite liked that role because it gave me a lot more independence, a sense of freedom within the fact that you may grant deserving artists opportunities. I never wanted to wait for anyone’s permission to make art or to be an artist, and I don’t think anyone should wait for permission, because it’ll never really be given. I had a deep respect for art, and I wanted to use my time and efforts to allow art to exist. I actually left a job in architecture and became a bouncer, working nights so I could do art in daylight. It was trying, but it allowed me to build this sense of community in which I learned from. It allowed me
to catch up for lost time somehow, to learn by doing. Curators and artists teach each other, it’s symbiotic.
In conceptual art, concept is significantly more important than whatever medium the art occupies. That concept can still exist as the intention of a curatorial practice or as the unifying theme of an exhibition. To a curator, an exhibition can be the piece itself, the manifestation of the concept, the finished thing. It is just a different medium: artists are the curators’ media. Some good curators act as artists and good artists can think like curators. During the last Sophie Calle show at the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature in Paris for example, she took on her own role of curator with the invitation to create the exhibition carte blanche. Her curation became the art itself. I think it’s beneficial to art to blend these roles, and to forfeit a bit of ownership sometimes, to have something that exists as the marriage of different practices, different forms, different things made possible by a flexible ego. When done well, it feels very democratic and I think we need more democracy in art.
Your performance Allusion to a Body no Longer Present occured in the Swiss Church of London. How did you conceive the project in relation to this religious building, which is full of a spiritual charge?
In actuality we did not try to make this exhibition about Christianity, but this happened because it was made within a church and was informed by a religious community. This project came as a result of working with curators Camille Bréchignac, George Watson, and artist Sara Rodrigues. Prior to us arriving at Goldsmiths, I had a design and choreography background and Sara studied music. We all joined forces to make the proposal for a performative installation at the church. The title Allusion to a Body No Longer Present came as a result of a lot of existential questions about death and loss. I started choreographing when my brother died when I was seventeen, when he was nineteen. Sara had recently lost her father. We felt like we had common emotive concerns as artists. We allowed ourselves to be a bit untrammeled and romantic and ask these questions: What is the significance of being alive? Is there a soul or are you just a body? What do you leave behind when you die? Where do you go? I was curious to see how these questions alluded to the significance of self and any ideation of mattering. It was an intensive research project through which we interviewed about sixteen people affiliated with this church. We asked them these questions. We didn’t just want to engage the physical ecclesiastical space, but rather we wanted to engage its affiliation with faith and the questions it might answer.
Since Sara and I did not have answers to these questions, we thought it was appropriate to interview all those affiliated with the church. This included the church staff, its community, and the homeless guests it serves. We wanted to transcribe the text and translate it into a form of performance. We worked directly from the transcriptions and translated it into song, spoken text, simple choreographies, and a series of sculptural objects that served as props. For instance, we connected air mattresses to flutes covered in clay. When they were deflated, you’d hear some sort of a “swan song”, an exhalation of breath. I saw it as a body in decline, the corporeal self approaching death. I like to work with quotidian materials and imbue them with emotive content. I find it uplifting somehow to create significance in insignificant things. Clay is also an interesting thing to me. Literally it’s made of dirt, it is a very mutable, humble form of medium which could take any form. There is a very creationist image linked to the use of this medium; the clay body, the impression of hands, God. But in materiality, it is just earth, its kind of atheist, it relates to the grave. It depends on how you see it, how you use and shape it. We also depicted an image of faith as the manifestation of something that you are unsure is present. We put a drop of water in 30 glasses and poured one into the other until it filled a complete glass. It was a demonstration of how effort can create something real from the supposedly unreal; to make visible the invisible, to make certain the uncertain. We worked on these big existential questions and tried to present them in a very straightforward informational way; sculptures made of banal things or performances of pedestrian acts. We hoped to recreate the perceptions about these
questions. I think it humanized them, brought them back to reality. I find it very satisfying to see how big lofty ideas can be demonstrated very simply. The show does not allude to any direct answer. It’s just a presentation of questions. It depicts the human condition as a constant state of precarity and uncertainty.
In this show, the body tends to appear as a sculpture. You even put some clay on performers, effacing faces. It tends to dehumanize them. With the mattress and blanket, it evokes the vacuum of the body of homeless people or bodies slumped in the street and away from people’s eyes. Could you please explain the process of how you constructed it?
Some of the population that we interviewed are homeless. They provided very different answers than others about the significance of self, faith, the soul, and the after life. They felt that they go unseen and unacknowledged so often. Questions about purpose and significance of self are far more pressing when you’re in these circumstances. They spoke of surviving, of enduring the difficulties of life, and they spoke of aspiration. Aspiration has so much to do with the soul, and maybe even the afterlife, to become something. It was also necessary for us to discuss the most religious material we were provided with in contemporaneity. We were able to juxtapose their words with those of the devout Christians who haven’t known hardship. It politicized Jesus. It brought us back to Christianity as a moral code, one that speaks of care, and potentially of communism. These people were brilliant and some of the most intelligent people Sara and I met. They could be Goldsmiths professors. They provided the most interesting meaningful answers to these questions because they experienced more depth of the human condition, and weren’t apologetic or hesitant to tell us their thoughts. If anything, they suffer for being too aware, too informed about the realities of life, and it has harmed them.
There is this belief that those who are poor are somehow without merit or potentially naive. In reality, those who endure being very strong and are the furthest from naivety. One of the statements that I recall is that the homeless all have hurting feet because they can never take off their shoes. They described the dream a friend had. In that dream, a woman saw the feet of God. She said that they were rough feet. They weren’t well kept, they were rough, they were burnished. In actuality that is the description of God in the bible that his feet were burnished and his hair was like wool. That statement stuck with me, because it implied that the all-powerful and omnipotent was capable of suffering. It recapitulates our understanding of power, to think that the Christian God has the same body as ourselves and is therefore capable of the same pain, and potentially the same failures. I think that changes our perceptions of purpose, of success, of aspiration, to become something. That sentiment is so moving because it reverses all our systems of value, of power, how we view the victors and victims. We never thought homeless people would have God’s feet.
Is there a relationship between art and politics in your work?
There is one, and it’s becoming more apparent. However, I think I’m going about it in an unusual way, and it’s not really up to me whether I’m a political artist because my existence here is already a political one. I am operating from within the interior of the art world. I’m a “vetted” visual artist that is exhibiting frequently within the art circuit and studying at a somewhat exclusive institution. It’s a very privileged place to occupy, one that I myself have concerns with. I’m certain that I was able to enter this interior due to how formally I’ve chosen to present myself and due to the upward mobility allowed by whiteness. However, due to the expressiveness of my work and my background, I was seen as some sort of an aspirational outsider for sometime. A conceptual outsider artist is an odd identity to have. On the one hand, I had this necessity to be expressive as a way of coping with my background. People equated that emotiveness with naivety. On the other hand, I had this deep appreciation for intellectualism and sought out the most experimental teachings of art. I feel that my subject matter will always be political because it’ll always be personal or empathetic.
I interviewed at Yale, and was told that my work was “too emotional to critique”. People create this distance between political crisis and how they want you to respond to the political crisis in a way that is appropriate for them but inappropriate for you. Additionally, my statements about the paradox of making luxury objects
about poverty offended and alienated me from a few of these wealthy private institutions. Money seems like such a difficult thing to discuss in art because it can be nonsensical to make expensive things for wealthy people as a way to discuss poverty and pain, yet it’s such a privilege to be able to not ever have to make or need money.
My professors at Goldsmiths have encouraged me to allow the personal to become political. Few working artists have the agency to really speak about issues of poverty and class. This is because the art world, as empathetic as it is to these issues, is a very inaccessible place. I was told I was allowed to be angry that I wasn’t expressing my anger. It’s also a somewhat difficult thing to navigate, making the personal political. It demands a lot of vulnerability to discuss the poverty, domestic violence, substance abuse, and incarceration that has harmed my family. I’m not necessarily trusting of the art world. Sometimes I need to keep it at a distance. Not because I don’t think the art world is empathetic, but rather because I think it can’t relate. I’m fearful of the prescribed identity of the “victim” because it creates a caricature. It simplifies things in a way that is more palatable and entertaining for an audience. I think we should understand that artists don’t want to be a demographic or a statistic, and that if we are expressive then it’s from a sincere perspective and not from the art world’s uninformed perspective of “the other”. I think keeping things personal grants me agencies, it doesn’t allow me to be used in that way. It’s my way of protesting.
However, there is this genuine want I have to actually solve things. There’s a want
to make space for these “others” by being vocal. I have significantly more visibility now and I feel like I shouldn’t take that for granted. There is this new sense of being seen, of being heard. I think I should use my art to communicate something that is so much larger and so much more important than myself. I am in the process of figuring out how generous I’d like to be to an art audience. People are comfortable with the victim when the victim is well-behaved, but the victor implies some sort of tenacity that people find offensive and potentially violent. I’m not sure how “angry” I’m allowed to be, again with this sense of precarity. My future works are exploring these same ideas of insignificance but in regards to the oppressive reality of money, of class, and of political inequalities that exist within America and even here within Europe. For the moment, I quite like occupying this space as a way of disproving social Darwinism and all of this bullshit about supposed meritocracies.
The theme of the body occupies an important place in your work. You incorporate physical elements of people, such as hair. It can appear as a relic since it retains some of the aura and energy of its owner, or it can be a very sensual and erotic symbol. What symbolism do you attach to these different uses of human hair?
When I make sculptures, when I use physical things, I always rely on the definitions or connotations of material. I do not believe that any material is neutral. Even a canvas, it is an art material, it is not neutral. That is how I like to work. I use the definitions of objects, and I string these definitions together to create prose. I love hair because it can be extracted and it could be sculpted in a way that expresses an identity. It is also physically made from the body. I like to use the material the body produces because it blurs the inanimate with the animate, the abiotic with the biotic, the insentient with the sentient, the sculpture with performance. When creating sculpture, I still employ my understanding of choreography and performance. I was always hesitant to make objects that are distanced from sentience, and I think thats why I rely so much on the body, the self, and sentimentality. I would like people to question whether it is a performance or sculpture whether it’s an animate or inanimate thing?
I also used human remains for sculpture. I did a controversial work in which I used my brother’s ashes displayed in the plastic case we received him in. The piece, which
was titled “Performance”, spoke about what it means to have an inanimate material like the cremains of a body and how those insentient things can project something, or perform something, this significance of the body, living or dead, has so much weight. For me, art was never really about producing anything, or even inventing anything. Truthfully, it wasn’t about making big political statements either. It was more about providing a service to people. I mean that in a very idealistic and romantic way. By speaking in such an emotional tone, in a confessional way, depicting vulnerability, I hoped that it provided a service for others to reflect, grieve, or remember.
You use clothes as an empty envelope; making the absence of the body visible, exploring its fullness and emptiness. You’ve also used clothing to replace canvas, by more formally dressing and stretching the frame in your exhibition Waterfall Waterfall…
Clothing became a very familiar material to me. It alludes to the body. When it is empty, it alludes to a missing body. I quite like that way of using a thing to depict a non-thing, somehow like the perimeters of a void. This earlier work, “American classic”, the title refers to the t-shirt as the classic American way of dressing, it’s the quotidian clothing item for American men. I stretched these white t-shirts over a frame and presented them as paintings. There is a series that I show as a timeline. First, it just looks like a white canvas, but then you start seeing seams and curving lines. Then you start seeing openings for the neck and arms, then it becomes soiled and worn and filled with holes. It’s a lifespan. I wanted to make these paintings have a lifespan. I’ve also used clothing inflated with fans and illuminated with drafting lamps. I wanted to create these spirits or apparitions. I wanted to somehow reanimate these empty allusions of a missing body.
The way I’m using clothing now is different. They are more about the actual body, not just the image of a body, my actual body. It's discussing its physicality, its endurance, and inevitably its failure. I’m attempting to use my own body to recreate these very dramatic, and in a way unreal, Greek sculptures. I made my
reinterpretation of “The Wrestlers”. I wore these white workmen coveralls. I recreated the body positions of the wrestlers, being both the loser and then mounting myself as the winner. I was covered in resin. The resin covers my entire body, and then I absolutely cannot move. I become fully stiffened statuary. The process takes an hour and half. Holding these positions is intensely physical. After it fully hardens, I have to find a way to escape the statue. It can be really difficult, and it is potentially terrifying. I wondered if I was actually able to get out of this thing. I had to be immobile and trust those helping me to cut me out. It feels overtly masculine, there is this muscled effort of holding my body to create these athletic forms. On the other hand, I have to be completely passive and still to succumb to this form. That feels like the sensation of aspiration, to muscle an effort to become something greater than you are. I leave behind this kind of ghost, a shell, a fictitious monument. I find the process very satisfying because I’m not certain if its performance or sculpture. I see the effort and discomfort when I see the work that effort feels satisfying. It alludes to a body that is performing a different self.
The Moon is dead.
The corpse has been chromed, a futuristic mirror reflecting the evidence of tomorrow.
The Moon lives in the future.
The Moon appears when we are as a third party, witnessing conversation. Gazing through our periphery.
The Moon is reanimated.
We have touchstones of the future other. It is a possession of light. It is a possession.
The Moon is a Ghost.
The apparition appears in the nonfiction of daylight in its approach of apogee, briefly with us.
The Moon is living in the present.
The mirror dims, our brother, our future other. We forget the dead if they do not warm you.
The Moon is living.
For our love of stars we block the dead moon, not allowing its reanimation.
The Moon is trying to stay alive.
Yet we sleep at night, yet we confine our vision to the light we feel on our skin.
The Moon is dying.
Some of your exhibitions are accompanied by a poem or text that you read as a performance, like Full moon in the day time or How to be a ghost. Can you tell me about your relation with writing, speaking, and your visual creation?
I always start with writing. I feel that the nature of my work is more confessional. It is similar to having a diary. During Full moon in the day time, the whole exhibition started with writing, and then I made sculptures that address every aspect of the writing. I created the physical manifestations of the written ideas. It brought some lyricism to the visual elements. Text is a silent word, but it can be spoken in any volume. The reason I’ve done readings is because some words are so important that it’s best to just tell them in person. There is something very straightforward about it. The writing is both a way of formalizing ideas, but also it’s a piece within itself. When I do not quite understand an idea but it fascinates me, that is when I don’t write and I just use a visual language to communicate. Sometimes, when things are uncertain, it’s best to depict them visually and honestly in a state of uncertainty. That is when sculpture makes the most sense to me because I have to say something that I have yet to understand myself. A form can have many definitions and does not have to be fully articulated or understood, just felt.
The mirror puts us in front of our own fate, which reminds us that we are going to disappear. But at the same time, the fact that it is reflective is also a way to bring artworks to life, by engaging the reality, making them change constantly, taking the shape of what surrounds it. Can you tell us about this dichotomy, which is often present in your work?
In Full moon in the Day Time, there were a few works that used mirrors. Brother Completed was comprised of a butterfly’s wing, a single polarized sunglass lens, a magnifying lens, and a false eyelash on a mirror. I displayed things that are complete when they exist in pairs. A Brother implies a multiple, a plurality, or some sort of copy. To be a brother that has lost a brother is to no longer hold that title, it’s to be one half of something, incomplete. A brother is the closest biological thing to who I am, the person who is shaped by the same circumstances. To lose him feels like I lost half of who I am. So it’s the same with the one butterfly wing, the one eyelash, and the one polarized lens, but they become pairs again within a reflection. The mirror could provide this duplicity, this copying, this creation of a replica of the self that I find combats that loneliness. I also used the mirror in a piece called Apparition. I had made the mirror transparent in some places and reflective in others. An empty men’s shirt was held behind, and was displayed where I removed the mirror’s reflectivity. The shirt was able to occupy a liminal space between reality and reflection. It’s unnerving when it invades your own reflection, your own image. The viewer’s gaze
becomes part of the aesthetic within mirrors, I like that interaction. This shirt shows the viewer inhabiting the emptiness of the reflection and the empty shirt, reanimating it somehow and occupying that in-between and potentially spiritual space.
The mirror is very loaded emotionally, but it’s also a very passive material. Its image is whatever it reflects. In the series Void, the mirror presents the aesthetic of looking. You see the self gazing into the self, that emptiness within false duplicity. Mirrors have been used a lot within art. They create this other world, this human-less endlessness, or some sort of sublime. Void is very much about the lack of self, it’s about the gaze of the self gazing into the self. It’s the domestic and terrestrial mirror. It’s about the self’s conflict with gazing into emptiness, like some sort of vanitas painting. I always feel that I cannot remove the self or emotionality from my practice. I tried to create this type of emptiness, this lack of something, and I intended it to be untrustworthy, sterile, spacious, a void, but again that elicits this emotionality, this conflict with emptiness. One work in the series is a photograph of a mirror that reflects nothing but it is reflected into a curved mirror. It is printed on clear perspex and shown over a prefabricated bathroom mirror. The reflectivity was removed to show a blue shipping blanket behind. The blue American blanket has become a common image within art studios and galleries. It’s a different type of emptiness, some sort of a shell. I alluded to all of these exterior mechanisms that art becomes when you remove the self and expression. You are left with that fascination with shininess, that gaze, that commerce, that wall hanging medium
sized dry good that needs a wall to cling to. I used the mirror as a “painting” to show people’s own image peering into this empty thing, pondering meaning when I intended this nothingness, blankness, the blue of a default, digital, or commercial void. My mirror is about emptiness, but when you have a solitary bird in a cage, you give him a mirror so he won’t be lonely.
A permanent tension subsists in your work, between equilibrium and fragility, especially with the use of the glass, which is an easily broken material. I am, for example, referencing to Demo or Scale. How does this tension between balance and vulnerability define your work?
I first started using glass to bring this sense of levity. There is an innate spirituality within that. It alludes to some sort of flight that I find unnatural but fascinating. Then again, there is this reality of what the material is. It’s both fragile and dangerous. This could actually refer to the physical or emotional self. I’m not stoic, making this very lyric work is also making work about precarity, fragility, danger, and being on the precipice of failure. Again I come back to this choice of using materials because of the definitions they carry.
Shelter for Heavy Rains, from Demo, is a piece addressing concerns of homelessness and how something as monumental as a home can be a fleeting shelter for those who are impoverished. Two pieces of glass were held together with hair, a gold chain from a pawn shop, a glass of water, and gravity. There is a precariousness that I find very relevant to this, the fact that things will fail. It creates suspense because inevitably this thing will break, it will slip, it will be destroyed. It’s both sculpture and performance because of this. If we move it a millimeter, the whole thing will fall apart. Even if the sculpture broke, that pile of glass would still be the work for me. I find it satisfying to show all the different stages of the self within art; including
failure, destruction, death. There is also a political statement within that. I do not want to make monuments, I will make memorials, but eventually all art becomes ruins.
Figurefigure, n°7, avril 2018
Propos recueillis par