The Grandeur of His Epic: An Interview With Choreographer Jay Carlon

interview by Summer Bowie

photos by Oliver Kupper

Defining a culture that comprises 7100 islands, centuries of colonization, and an overwhelming desire to assimilate is profound and Sisyphean. Unlike a migration that takes place over land, the ocean seems to wash away all evidence of the traveled path. The historical narrative that has framed Filipino-American immigration is fraught with this eternal question of identity and belonging. Being part Filipino myself, I learned very little about my grandmother’s life story while she was alive. It wasn’t until after she passed away and my grandfather published her memoirs that I learned just how harrowing her journey had been.

After attending the world premiere of FLEX, a dance theater piece that explores primarily the story of choreographer, Jay Carlon’s father and his immigration from the Philippines to the States, I realized that the erasure of these stories is rather commonplace. Jay’s father was not only a senior citizen by the time Jay was born, but it seems that he liked to let others tell his story for him. It wasn’t until his father passed away that Jay started to make heads and tails of the man versus the myth, and the role that he and other Filipino-Americans played in the United States throughout the 20th century, from World War II, to the Labor Rights Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, and beyond. The work explores the story of Honorio Carlon and his immigration to the States, as well as that of several other Filipino-Americans and their children. This pastiche of memories serves as a paean to those whose stories have been lost in the shuffle of sublimation. In the following conversation, we discuss everything from the Filipino sartorial sensibility, to the homoerotic Renaissance paintings of “Jacob Wrestling the Angel” in the book of Genesis, to the implications that result when one must prioritize survival over preservation.

SUMMER BOWIE: First, I want to talk about your upbringing as the youngest of 12 children, and what that’s like to have such wide age gaps between both your siblings and your parents. Were you all very close?

JAY CARLON: I suppose this question is difficult to answer succinctly. My dad had 3 wives and my mom was the last. Let me provide some context: My dad, Honorio Carlon, immigrated to America in 1932 during the Great Depression, while the Philippines was under US occupation. Filipino immigrants were almost exclusively men due to gender expectations in the workplace. These immigrant men started bachelor societies for solidarity. Due to anti-miscegenation laws (anti-interracial marriage laws) these men found it difficult to start families in America. Despite this, my father married twice and had 6 children. It wasn’t until the 1970s when my dad was able to make it back to the Philippines to eventually meet my mother and bring her back to the US. Now back to the question, my siblings: 6 of them are my half siblings and the other 5 are my full siblings. Naturally, because of age and generations, I am closest to my full siblings. The strange thing is some of my half siblings are older than my mom, which is a weird dynamic having half-brothers older than your mom. My relationship with my father, however, was somewhat distant. Ever since I was born, his death was imminent. He was 74 when I was born. He kept to himself; perhaps my expectation of him as a father was to simply maintain this “Big Fish” legacy and the grandeur of his Epic, being among the first wave of Filipino immigrants in America. He lived through the Great Depression, World War II, the Labor Rights Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, etc. He never talked to me about his experiences, also I was a child, so I couldn’t really understand why any of this was important/interesting. However, doing all the research I’ve done for FLEX, I’ve been able to fill in some of these gaps in his memory, his narrative.

BOWIE: I grew up in a suburb of San Diego with a large Filipino population, and my being only a quarter Filipino meant that I had a lot of Filipino friends, but I was never Filipino enough to call the parents of my friends Auntie and Uncle the way they did with each other. Did you grow up with that idea of the extended cultural family?

CARLON: I grew up in a large Filipino community and both my parents are from the same very small island in Philippines. My dad immigrated here with a group of about 8 men, some his cousins and some his friends. Those 8 men stuck together and worked as migrant workers throughout the Southwest. Every Labor Day Weekend, they would all come together and have a fiesta. This tradition has been going on since the ‘50s and still happens today. From those 8 pioneers, there are now over 500 descendants, and we all still gather in Santa Maria, California. All those 500+ extended family members are my uncles and aunties, whether I’m related to them or not! 

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BOWIE: It seems like you did an extraordinary level of research into your father’s life while in the process of creating this work. Do you feel like you see your father in a different light now that the work has been fully actualized?

CARLON: Like I stated earlier, a lot of my knowledge surrounding my father’s history was from oral stories told by uncles, and aunties, and cousins. Some of these stories seemed to be conflated or exaggerated, as most memories are. 

Last year, I was interviewed by an Asian periodical and was asked how my work was influenced by my identity as a Filipino American. The question really caught me off guard and I felt uneasy and confronted with this responsibility to be more or less Filipino. I am a contemporary dance choreographer. Some of my work is abstract, some of it is conceptual, and some of it is expressionistic. The general topic of my work was often surrounding migrant issues and labor rights, but as far as a direct Filipino relation to my work, I was stumped. I thought of an article that I came across by Miguel Gutierrez in BOMB Magazine called “Does Abstraction Belong to White People.” The article resonated with me and elicited introspection: as a Filipino-American abstract choreographer, what am I doing here, and why, and how did I get here? Soon after being asked the question about my identity and coming across this article, L.A. Dance Project asked me to be their first recipient of the MAKING:LA Residency, a new work by a Los Angeles-based artist. I knew I wanted to make an unapologetic work about the diverse tapestry of Southern California. My father’s, mother’s, and my story seemed to be the perfect backdrop for that opportunity to create and share a hella Filipino [untold] history.

To return to the question: the process of researching my father’s history and filling in the gaps of his narrative allowed me to create a more human understanding of who he was. My dad was this historical figure to me once I was born. I wouldn’t say we were emotionally close. I have few memories of him, some of which include dropping me off to kindergarten with whiskey on the dashboard. (Laughs), it was a different time I suppose. But I never had conversations in length with my dad. Doing all the research I’ve been doing has made him become a more human and tangible person in my life. This research has also served my relationship with my mother, who is still alive and thriving. I seem to understand her better; why she is the way she is. My mother and I never had conversations beyond the weather or my financial situation, but now we talk about memories, family back in the Philippines, and emotions (which, for a Filipino family is huge).

BOWIE: You grew up training as a competitive wrestler. How did you find dance, and how do you think your wrestling background has influenced your approach to choreography?

CARLON: My first introduction to physicality was wrestling at the Boys and Girls Club. I followed my older brothers, who joined the wrestling team to stay out of the streets. I was 5 years old when I started wrestling and competed throughout my teens. I learned partnering and momentum, strength and velocity, and nuance between force and flow. I loved these concepts, but hated competing. Wrestling is brutal. I watch videos on YouTube now and think, “Goddamn! I grew up doing that?” I found the arts in high school, first with architecture, then voice (choir), and eventually the body (dance). I knew that I could channel these learned skills into a different medium.

I am also inspired by the image of “Jacob Wrestling the Angel” (Genesis 32:22–32). The story has been depicted by many Renaissance artists in painting and sculpture form. The artworks inspired by this scripture tend to look very homoerotic. I wanted to use this image as inspiration for FLEX to represent the Filipino peoples’ resistance to colonization, and perhaps the obedience as a result of colonization. The image also reminded me of Filipino male affection, and I wanted to use this image as a way to display the way different cultures showcase affection.

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BOWIE: FLEX tells the stories of several Filipino-American immigrants and their children. There’s a very militant scene, it feels like boot camp and the dancers are counting in Tagalog, I believe. Can you talk a bit about that scene and the story behind it?

CARLON: I love that scene. I wanted to integrate Filipino languages in the work. I don’t speak Visayan (my family’s dialect), but counting seemed to be a natural and relatively easy way to integrate Tagalog (the national dialect of the Philippines) into the work. We made 16 gestures/movements and gave them each a number. I noticed the sequence of movements with the counting in Tagalog sounded very militant. This section made me think of the Philippine American War (1989-1902), where the Philippines fought for their freedom and independence from America.  I wanted to create a scene where the wrestling drills, something I grew up doing in America, paralleled the guerilla warfare in the Philippines.

BOWIE: The dancers you cast for this piece are all incredibly athletic, they’re poetic with their movement, and they’re multi-talented. At times they lend voice, either in narrative or song, and your choreography demands a certain versatility as well. How did you go about casting the work?

CARLON: I only cast people I trust. Trust is a very important component of my work, for the performers, the audience, all the natural and simulated elements, etc. I have worked with all my collaborators in the past on projects at REDCAT or The Annenberg Community Beach House. In my process, I like to [safely and consensually] push physical and emotional boundaries. I also like to work as a multidisciplinary director and see how I can integrate each and every individual's skill[s] into the work.  The cast of FLEX is incredibly dynamic and I had a wonderful time learning about their multiple talents and how I could incorporate them into the work.

BOWIE: Your dancers seem to go through a marathon from the beginning to the end of the piece. Some of their faces were dripping within the first 3 minutes, and you see the way that the movement becomes increasingly more demanding, pushing them into a deeper synchronicity with one another. What is the warm-up and rehearsal process like for a project like this?

CARLON: I often like to focus on sensory improvisational tasks to begin a process. I like to work with eyes closed to privilege the other senses, especially touch. We start with an improvisation with eyes closed while being guided through the space. The participant with the eyes closed will recall a memory and tell that memory to the person guiding them around the room safely. This mode of embodiment and memory primes the dancers for the process of creating FLEX.

BOWIE: There are two very deep Americana references that you included in this piece, the first being the opening monologue from Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, the second being Patti Page’s “Tennessee Waltz.” The Tennessee connection seems coincidental, but can you talk a little bit about those choices, and the Filipino rendition of the song that you included? Where did it come from?

CARLON: I wanted to create a 1950s Filipino American ballroom, a place in which my father and his comrades found solidarity--the only place they could escape and have fun without judgment. My dad loved the Cha Cha and music from the ‘50s. The Tennessee Waltz was incorporated into the work because the lyrics reminded me of the loss of their home. 

We also changed “Tennessee” to “Philippine” in the live version of the song. I did this because I wanted it to be clear that these Americana attributes were coming from a sense of otherness, or perhaps reappropriation.

I was dancing with my darling to the Tennessee Waltz
When an old friend I happened to see
I introduced her to my loved one
And while they were dancing
My friend stole my sweetheart from me

I remember the night and the Tennessee Waltz
Now I know just how much I have lost
Yes, I lost my little darling the night they were playing
The beautiful Tennessee Waltz

BOWIE: The musical score was really beautiful. I think Alex Wand did a phenomenal job. How did that collaboration come about, and what was it like?

CARLON: I began working with Alex Wand on a previous project that took place in a parking lot with my car about mental health and stability. We used audio recording from the iconic moon landing as well as solar system sonifications (using the orbital speeds of the planets and creating a sound score). After that project, we became obsessed with sonifications and played with amplifying sounds of a cardboard stage, we made synth sounds activated by waves by putting Wii controllers in a buoy at the beach, and made a resonant frequency plate that used sand to predict the vibrational sound, etc. Prior to FLEX, Alex went on an epic bike tour across the Mexico-American border, biking from LA to Michoacan (the Monarch Butterfly migration path). We used field recordings from his bike ride for the ambient and environmental sounds in FLEX. I love finding parallels with Alex’s interest in ecological sustainability, like with the Monarch Butterfly migration and my interests in immigrant stories, and visible vs. invisible borders.

BOWIE: The costumes were really lovely. I understand that many pieces were from your father’s wardrobe. There’s one story you tell, called The Filipino and the Drunkard by William Saroyan. Can you talk about your father’s sartorial sense and the role that the costuming plays in this piece?

CARLON: My dad, though being a strawberry picker for over 50 years, never left the house without a suit. He never wanted people to know we were poor. He wore pressed suits and tailored clothes daily.  He taught me how to shine my shoes and slick my hair back. I always felt that Filipinos had this sense of showing off, and I never understood why. When I heard The Filipino and the Drunkard, it brought to light the complexity of Filipinos not wanting to look poor, to assimilate. This is one factor why I decided to call this work FLEX--slang, to show off.

Over 70% of the costumes were sourced from my father’s wardrobe. However, the garments were quite large and boxy. Ching Ching Wong, soloist for FLEX, also served as a costume production assistant and tailored the costumes to fit the performers. 

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BOWIE: Throughout the show, there are times when characters can be seen in the back folding, unfolding, and refolding jackets. You also have a previous work literally called, Fold, Unfold, Refold. Can you explain this theme a bit?

CARLON: The integration of the folding in the background came out of this notion of hidden labor.  I integrate labor a lot into my work. The work Fold, Unfold, Refold was a work about monotony, and repetitive gestures, and the performance of labor. I’m obsessed with the performance of labor. The folding in the background of FLEX was inspired by my mom’s immigration story. My mom lived in the shadow of my father’s epic and I wanted to pay homage to her. I thought about the invisibility of domesticity within our Western culture. I tried to incorporate as much folding in the background as possible to remind the audience of a sense of forgotten work.

BOWIE: The history of Filipino-American culture and its contribution to American development has been widely overlooked. However, Filipinos are the second-largest population of Asian-Americans, second only to Chinese-Americans. Why do you think this history is so easily overlooked?

CARLON: The Philippines is such a uniquely eclectic culture that is constantly evolving and trying to understand itself. From the 7,100 islands within the archipelago to the large amount of immigrants all over the world, Filipinos are great at adapting to cultures while still maintaining their own culture. There are so many influences, mainly because of colonization, but it’s hard to pinpoint what a Filipino is. I think assimilation, the desire to fit in, is a result of our culture being forgotten. I also think erasure is just a part of the Filipino diaspora; through centuries of resistance, the Filipino mentality is primarily survival, not preservation. That’s why I think it’s important for more Filipino stories to make their way into pop culture, and media, and academia. I think we’re getting there.

BOWIE: Where else would you like to take the work from here? It’s so emotionally compelling and educationally-rich that I could see it playing at a number of different venues.

CARLON: My dream is to share this story with other Filipino-Americans. I want to focus on touring this work throughout California, to start. From San Diego to the Bay, California is home to the highest number of Filipinos outside of the Philippines. I would also like to take the work to New York and other Filipino populated cities. It would, of course, be a dream to even take this to the Philippines.

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Follow @carlondance on Instagram to learn more about FLEX.


The Tao of Maceo: An Interview Of Multi-Disciplinary Artist & Behavioral Economist Maceo Paisley

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interview by Summer Bowie

photographs by Dan Johnson

What does it mean to be a twenty-first century renaissance man? For Maceo Paisley, a wide range of disciplines comes together in a positive feedback loop that supports his indefatigable exploration of human behavior. Using embodied inquiry, he investigates his own identity and presents his findings in performance and film. A prolific writer of prose, he just released his first book Tao of Maceo, which takes inventory of his personal beliefs and aims to define his perspective more acutely. Stepping off the stage, he cultivates community through his Chinatown gallery, Nous Tous and a multi-pronged community practice/social innovation agency called Citizens of Culture. When he’s not writing, choreographing, curating, advising, and organizing, you might find him modeling or dancing for the likes of AirBnb or Justin Timberlake, respectively. Or you might find him enjoying a day to himself with a great book in hand. In the following interview, we learned about Maceo’s ever-expanding artistic practice, his time in the Army, and his unique approach to community organizing.

SUMMER BOWIE: Your short film, Dynamite investigates gender and identity, specifically the black, male experience through embodied inquiry. Can you talk a bit about the concept of embodied inquiry and any discoveries you made about your identity through this process?

MACEO PAISLEY: Yes, embodied inquiry, as I see it is a practice that deepens the thinking process by approaching ideas through the body. From the neurological perspective, we tap into kinetic intelligence, and somatics. From the more spiritual or philosophical perspective we tap into the bodies natural, sensual wisdom, as a reference point for our conceptual understanding.  

The most interesting discoveries have been around relationships, in partner dancing, where trust, communication, vulnerability, and boundaries aren’t just metaphorically applied, but fully actualized in the bodies of two dancers.

BOWIE: Speaking of masculine expression, I understand that before your career as an entrepreneurial creative, you earned a Bronze Star for your service with the Army in Iraq. Can you describe your tour in Iraq and do you feel this is a testament to your masculinity, or something else completely?

PAISLEY: I think that my time in the Army, was challenging, but it gave me access to a kind of masculinity that, when untempered appears as violent aggression, but when honed, can actually be useful as clarity and assertion.  It took me going to the extreme to know what limits I was comfortable with, but through that expression and exploration I was able to find a balance point and operate from there.

Iraq was a mixed bag, everyday was different, some days were almost boring, and other days there were mortar rounds blasting over our heads.

BOWIE: Aside from being a multi-disciplinary artist, you’re also a model, behavioral economist, an entrepreneur, a writer/magazine publisher, the president and director of Nous Tous Gallery in Chinatown and you oversee strategy and vision for a nonprofit called Citizens of Culture. That’s a lot to unpack and we’ll come back to these projects in detail, but have you always been such a polymathic person, and how do you manage to wear so many hats?

PAISLEY: It seems to me that my work is actually quite dynamic in practice but almost singular in focus. At core, I am deeply interested in the humanities as a field, so that might be the qualitative measurement of human behavior, or it could be the observational study of a couple arguing in a coffee shop, or the of publishing of works across whichever medium is most suitable for the audience.  

Art & science are often posed as opposites, but I believe that they are like twins separated at birth, who are both often misunderstood, yet each necessary to gain as robust a picture of humanity and it’s surroundings as possible.

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BOWIE: You just had your first book published, Tao of Maceo, a personal inventory of your beliefs in writing. You say that by putting your views on paper, you gain a better understanding of your fallacies and limiting beliefs. What’s the most important thing you learned about yourself through the writing process?

PAISLEY: The most important thing I learned about myself has to be that for as much as I am open and perceived as vulnerable in my work, I am a very private person, who isn’t nearly as open in my relationships as I am in the controlled context of sharing art.

BOWIE: You’re an avid reader and you publish a biannual print magazine called Correspondence. Who are some of the authors and magazines that inspire your writing and publishing, respectively? 

PAISLEY: Well, in 2016 I read about 115 books, both fiction and non-fiction. I really have to say that Oliver Sacks is one of my favorite non-fiction writers because of his range of experience dealing with the human mind. In the fiction realm, Octavia Butler is really a titan, that I keep wanting to go back to. As far as periodicals, I really love the Copenhagen Institute for Cultural Studies magazine SCENARIO, it has the most fabulous images, and deep insights about culture and identity from the individual and macro perspective.

BOWIE: You seem to be on a highly proactive odyssey toward excellence. Are you seeking an arrival point, or are you simply trying to see how much you can accomplish within your lifespan?

PAISLEY: The latter, I don’t know that “excellence” is the goal, it certainly was at one point. Now, I am more focused on finding peace and living in an urban environment, and contemporary society makes that a worthy challenge. My biggest goal at the moment is to understand what “enough” means to me, and how that idea changes accordingly with changes in my environment, and at various stages of life.

BOWIE: I want to talk about Nous Tous (French for all of us). What made you decide to open a gallery/community space and what does the decision process look like when curating artists and hosting events?

PAISLEY: Well, to be frank, we’ve never really said “No.” to anyone who wanted to show at Nous Tous. It would be contradictory to the name if we were to be exclusionary. Instead, I see my role as gallerist to be more of an editor, highlighting the best elements of whatever work is brought my way, and to coach the artist to trust in a shared vision, or in some cases, simply submit to the artist’s vision, and work to support it as best we can within our parameters and resources.

We have a manifesto that we reference, and works that fit naturally within it are usually what we attract, and other times we offer rental agreements to allow works to be shown with more autonomy. We then use that financial support to uplift other programs.

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BOWIE: Can you talk a bit about Citizens of Culture? How it came about and what you guys do.

PAISLEY: Citizens Of Culture is really about creating a place to have all the conversations we find difficulty having otherwise. Whether it be race, sex, politics, death, money, or morality, we support individuals and businesses as they approach cultural challenges in the hopes of providing the kind of clarity that can inform values-based actions. Practically, we are consultants for innovation, diversity and belonging, in companies, and that work supports, free or low-cost programs that are art-based, therapeutic, or support economic empowerment.

We have weekly meetings on Wednesdays, 7pm at Nous Tous in Chinatown if anyone wants to pop in and check it out.

BOWIE: Through Citizens of Culture you conducted a dating social experiment called, No Pressure, No Shame. What do you think are some of the current challenges that single people face in our current dating culture, and do you have any wisdom to impart for those who are currently trying to navigate the dating scene?

PAISLEY: The biggest challenge is that we have only been trying to marry for love for a short while in human history, and we don’t really have stale or universal definitions for what “love” is. So there is this mythology around it that we are trying to live up to, all while the ground shifts beneath us as to how we are supposed to go about achieving a loving relationship.

We first try to encourage people to clarify their intentions in the dating world, and that might mean having a flexible, working definition of what love looks like, and how a romantic partner might fit in to an ideal life. The next thing would be to set up some goals and boundaries that feel appropriate for our stage in life, and realizing that the work is never really done, so having compassion for ourselves and others along the way.

BOWIE: Is this an ongoing project or was it more of a one-time thing?

PAISLEY: No Pressure No Shame, started in 2015 with a 150-person queer, sex-positive, consent-based dating event, and we have been activating different iterations of the program as talks, art events, and parties ever since then. We activate something larger each October.

BOWIE: I’m really interested in a video series you feature on Citizens of Culture called Talking in Circles. Can you talk a bit about the concept of this series and any future topics you plan to cover?

PAISLEY: We believe that every great movement in humanity starts with people coming together to make collective decisions. Every one of our programs has some element of this, in the past we have covered technology, religion, police brutality, gentrification, and other issues, and moving forward I think we should be speaking more to addiction, sex-work, ideas of normalcy, economy, and mental health. As we move forward, we would like to be a go-to place for all of the most important conversations of our time.

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Maceo Paisley will be officially releasing Tao of Maceo and signing books Thursday March 14 from 7:30-9:30pm @ NAVEL 1611 South Hope Street. Please join us for a screening and performance of DYNAMITE, as well as a short Q&A with Maceo Paisley & Summer Bowie.


The Power & Vitality Of The Image: An Interview Of Controversial Artist Darja Bajagic

We are both among the first rain drops which indicate that there is a massive purifying storm approaching (2018)

We are both among the first rain drops which indicate that there is a massive purifying storm approaching (2018)

interview by Adam Lehrer

photographs courtesy of Darja Bajagić

Where the political left was once the clear bastion of free speech and expression in the U.S., it could be argued that the new left silences thought and speech perceived as antithetical or offensive to its values almost as much as the right wing does, or did. This is a problem for culture, and evidently, for art. “Political correctness,” says Slovenian philosopher and cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek, “is a desperate attempt by the public norms to tell you what is decent, what is not.” What Žižek suggests here is that political correctness can be harmful in its ability to obscure the truth and dilute public discourse; by sanitizing rhetoric we sanitize cultural meaning. This climate of over-the-top, politically correct theatrics has infiltrated the art world; art’s job is ultimately to push back on societal taboos and interrogate prevailing norms. Good art is almost always offensive to someone.

I first came across Montenegro-born, Chicago-based artist Darja Bajagić at the Independent Art Fair in 2017. Bajagić uses (mostly) monochromatic acrylic painted backgrounds to transform images found within the dark corners of the internet and other non-web sources. Screen-printed atop her canvases are symbols of evil or complex/dual meanings, pornographic images, and pretty girls and boys. Subsequent research reveals these girls and boys to be victims and/or perpetrators of abductions or murders. Bajagić also refuses to over-explain her work, nor does she seek to moralize it (responding to a reporter about her use of a Greek meander motif in recent works was met with Bajagić’s claim that her work is about “the banality of evil”). Her stance has led to her work being misread and mischaracterized. While Bajagić was attending Yale’s Painting and Printmaking program, the Dean suggested she seek professional help. Years later she found herself being censored when her piece Bucharest Molly was removed from an exhibition at Galeria Nicodim.

The cancelation of a duo show between Bajagić and industrial music pioneer, writer, and artist Boyd Rice at Greenspon Gallery reveals the toxicity of political correctness in the art world. Stemming from revelations of numerous events in Rice’s background, such as his usage of fascist imagery in “Non” (an industrial music project), these “revelations” caused an artist-resource listserv entitled “Invisible Dole” to ultimately threaten the gallery’s owner, Amy Greenspon (though it remained installed and was shown privately to those that wanted to see it.) The animus towards Rice was eventually transferred to Darja as well. What they don’t understand about Bajagić is her belief in art’s ability to create conflict, to provoke thought, and to deal with the complexities of the world with nuance and clarity.

If the art world keeps presenting this utopian, groupthink version of the world, art itself is going to collapse. Artists like Darja Bajagić make us look at what we might find ugly, distasteful, and upsetting. I want to be upset. Please offend me. When you offend me, you are forcing me to think for myself. Being offended is healthy. Darja and I corresponded over the Internet to discuss this fiasco as well as her work at large.

“German Madeleine McCann” (2019)

“German Madeleine McCann” (2019)

ADAM LEHRER: I assume you knew that showing alongside Boyd Rice at Greenspon might ruffle some feathers, but did you anticipate at all that the show would be so offensive to others that it might actually get cancelled?

DARJA BAJAGIĆ: I did not expect any feathers to be ruffled. Only two years ago, in fact, Boyd took part in a group show at Mitchell Algus Gallery. So, I definitely did not foresee the show’s cancellation. The show itself did not cause offense; what generated offense was a series of falsities spread on a “private” listserv by a number of terribly misinformed “art world” persons. As a result of subsequent harassment directed at the gallerist by a select number of those aforementioned persons, including threats to the gallerist’s well-being as well as the gallery’s, the show’s opening was cancelled. Nevertheless, it was installed, and viewable by appointment.

LEHRER: How did you come into contact with Boyd Rice? Had you been a fan of his music and writing? What was it about showing work alongside of him that you thought would be interesting?


BAJAGIĆ: Chris Viaggio, the curator of our two-person, approached me with the idea in January of 2018. It goes without my saying it that Boyd is a pioneering artist.  I’ve always appreciated the ambiguousness of his output. Rather than providing any answer(s) to what he re-presents, he functions as a big question mark—forcing the [concerned] individual to answer their own question(s). They must answer it. This modus operandi is now, more than ever, relevant and necessary in the face of the rising, violent insistence to identify and [over-]define to the point of infantilism.

LEHRER: Your work has often been misread and mischaracterized. Are you finding that it’s getting increasingly difficult to show work that is challenging and at the same time not in line with the typical “art friendly” topics of the day, such as identity or inclusivity?

BAJAGIĆ: Yes. First, They Came for the Art. What’s remarkable is that, this time, it’s coming from within [the “art world”]. Artists are fighting to censor other artists. It’s truly absurd. They are executing what they claim to be fighting against, and using Gestapo tactics. Their democracy is, in reality, totalitarianism. They are cowards, essentially. They fear the unknown (we have come back to the violent insistence to identify and [over-]define). What they fail to understand, time after time, is that the subject of art is not the artist. On top of this, it must be acknowledged that, today, the motive of profit outweighs the pursuit of art, in its truest sense. Opportunism is a widespread disease. Complexity is unfashionable, especially if it risks affecting [your] financial stability; an added incentive to degrade [the status of art]—as have we, so has art become reduced. Vapid ornament.

LEHRER: No longer can people seem to grapple with the fact that a depiction is not an endorsement. Obviously, when Pasolini made Salo he wasn’t saying “I like fascism and child abuse,” but he was using the extreme violence as a way to show how power destroys both the victim and victimizer. You, like Pasolini, don’t take a moral stance on the work, which further complicates readings of it. Do you ever fear that if the art world keeps moving in this direction there just won’t be any room for work like yours anymore?

BAJAGIĆ: It is evident that there is a pathetic tendency towards greedy mediocrity. There is an inability or unwillingness to deal in any depth with complexity. Now, when it is needed most, complex systems of aesthetics, or even provocations, are suppressed. That certain things are uncertain or unknown is simply an impossibility and certainly not permissible; you see, Google has all of the answers—as one listserv member wrote, “With one quick google [sic] of Darja and a look at her instagram [sic] I found some pretty questionable stuff.” This included my following the account of Neue Slowenische Kunst  on Instagram—clearly they are pitifully unenlightened. They go on to say, “To be clear: I have never met her, have nothing against her and know little about her work. That said, fuck Nazis, White Supremacists and Nationalists. Why is she using this imagery with seemingly no indication that it is not in support of it?”. And there you have it. They admit to knowing “little” about my practice but are nevertheless put-out due to my lack of [an indication of] support towards my artwork’s content, which they are only capable of superficially labeling as “Nazi, White Supremacist(s) and Nationalist(s)” imagery. Symptoms of a myopic perspective. This mania for a sterile, essentially dead, art is detestable. Art should not exist within a zone of safety—this would effectively eliminate its true efficacy and potentiality. Censorship occurs when this true efficacy and potentiality threatens the ruling ideology. What the censors fail to see, however, is that, paradoxically, censorship is like pruning: it gives new strength to what it cuts down.

LEHRER: Your work deals directly with “the banality of evil” as you describe it. What is it about the art world, do you think, that makes it so adverse to this subject matter? Certainly depictions of evil, violence, power, and destruction still exist in cinema (Michael Haneke, Lars von Trier, David Lynch, Catherine Breillat), literature (Brian Evenson, Ryu Murukami, Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy), and music (noise music, black metal, even hip hop). And the art world, to outsiders anyways, seems like the most radical of all these industries, but perhaps ironically is the most sterilized in its thematic content. Where is this irony coming from?

BAJAGIĆ: Sterilizing art is a way to defuse its power. Fear and the fear of generating offense is one excuse in the defense of sterilization. Offensiveness is subjective and relative. What a person chooses to be offended by is a matter of personal opinion. Hypersensitivity is a[nother] widespread disease. So widespread has it become that it is now a tyrannical force. Everyone is catching it. And, as the Greenspon cancellation attests to, “even” the “art world” is forfeiting whatever semblance of [its support of] liberty it feigned—bigots and hypocrites, welcome. In regards to depictions of violence, violent images matter. We must force ourselves to see. We are not bloodless. Violent images are not dangerous, but what is is the overwhelming effort to sanitize, delete our access to an unvarnished reality.

LEHRER: You keep a fairly low public profile when compared against the endless self promotion of many artists in the digital age. This has me thinking of “cancel culture,” which I find to be inherently childish and a bit faux, which happens on both sides of the political isle (the left canceling Kanye, the right canceling Nike). By you taking a back seat from self promotion and controlling distribution of your image, are you hoping to at least somewhat emphasize the importance of divorcing your work from your persona?

BAJAGIĆ: For sheeple, innuendo trumps truth. Provincialism is rampant. Even opinions that diverge from those held by [these] mentally incapacitated persons spur onset extinguishing—this is a dangerous intolerance; it, in fact, calls for extinguishing as it eradicates the possibility or potentiality of anything other than itself to exist. Furthermore, yes, it is troubling, the death of the “marketplace of ideas”. Everyone deserves the right to express, discuss, their views. However, we have, instead, in place an obsessive preoccupation with victimhood, and it triggers a furious and compulsive cleansing—a moral panic. And, always, the threat takes on a symbolic form, as in the examples you list. It is an irrational one, as is the subsequent response [of the public]. Society’s hissy fit. As to my emphasizing my art over myself—I find the tendency to focus upon the artist reductive. The subject of art is not the artist. Art is impersonal and external, not in the sense of detachment [between artist and artwork], rather in that it is the process of a truth which is external to the artist but to which the artist is committed. It is addressed to everyone. All interpretations are correct.

LEHRER: You have said that those who get offended by your work are victims of hypersensitivity, but also that you are sympathetic to that hypersensitivity. But also, the work probably wouldn’t be as powerful if it didn’t offend at least some, correct?

BAJAGIĆ: I do not regard my art as offensive. What you are referring to was an answer to a question regarding “negative reactions to the subject matter of [my artworks].” And I followed by saying that What is in fact obscene, offensive, and oppressive is this hypersensitivity, imposing morality. With that said, I am definitely out to make trouble for people who like things to be simple. Because they are not. Things are incredibly complex, subtle, and nuanced.

LEHRER: One thing I am drawn to in your work is that it necessitates engagement beyond one dimensional looking. For instance, if there is an image of a young, pretty girl, the aesthetics of the work might trigger a subtle uneasy feeling but it is only through the extra step of research will the viewer find out that this young girl was the victim of an abduction and only then the art work’s full meaning is attained. Is this a conscious goal of yours, or am I reading too much into it?

BAJAGIĆ: Yes.  There is no single definition or “essential nature” of images, and different meanings and use can overlap. The meaning of a word is its use in the language. This is a fact, and it inexhaustibly excites me. Instances of this in my most recent artworks are Beate—helpful, kind, nice, obliging, primitive, subliminally aggressive and vulgar and “German Madeleine McCann,” two paintings that were a part of the Greenspon show. They feature the Greek meander—one of the most important symbols in ancient Greece, and, still today, one of the most common decorative elements. It’s on everything, from architecture to Versace thongs and bikinis designed by Instagram “celebrities,” as well on the flag of the Golden Dawn, a political party in Greece that is ultranationalist and far-right. It is thought to symbolize infinity and unity; to the Golden Dawn, they see it as representing bravery and eternal struggle. So, does this make Versace a supporter of ultranationalist and far-right policies? Of course not. The meaning of a word is its use in the language. However, judging by, say, the logic of the attitudes of the persons who forced the shut-down of the Greenspon show, Versace is unequivocally a supporter of ultranationalist and far-right policies due to their continuous use of the Greek meander in their designs, a symbol now notoriously tied to ultranationalist and far-right policies.

Another instance, in this same body, is Beate Zschäpe in Lonsdale, shrouded in intrigue. In it, Zschäpe is pictured in a Lonsdale top. Lonsdale is a long-running (ca 1960), hugely-popular UK-based brand of sporting clothes. In the late 1990s and through the early 2000s, neo-Nazis co-opted the brand as a means to bypass laws outlawing the public display of Nazi symbols, as by cunningly concealing the first and last two letters with a jacket, only the letters NSDA were left visible, one letter short of NSDAP, the acronym for Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Workers’ Party). Lonsdale reacted to this trend by marketing initiatives promoting multiculturalism and sponsoring anti-racist campaigns (“Lonsdale Loves All Colours” and “Lonsdale London Against Racism & Hate”). Notwithstanding, the trend (coined Lonsdale youth) was too widespread and took on a life of its own. It was subsequently selectively banned in schools across Germany and the Netherlands. Still, does this make every Lonsdale wearer a neo-Nazi or a member of the NSDAP? Of course not. The meaning of a word is its use in the language. We have to engage with things as they are and not as they appear to us.

LEHRER: One thing I find interesting, if a bit overemphasized, in your work is the critical focus on your use of pornographic images. The porn in the work is usually softcore, especially in comparison with what people see all the time on pornhub and its affiliate sites. But, by divorcing the porn from its source material and placing it into a fine art context, you are able to amplify its meaning to subversive effect. It’s like you are giving an image its power back after that power has been weakened by the sheer amount of images that surround it on the internet. Is this idea something of interest to you?

BAJAGIĆ: Sure. Art prompts the viewer to see and then re-see, and, in this, the power and vitality of the image [in an artwork] is less likely to go unnoticed. It applies to a pornographic image or another—it could be an image of a potato. Reanimating it, in the context of art, often impels suspicious engagement as it recalls its illusionary status. It reminds us that images are not to be taken at face value. They are symbolic constructions, between us and reality. Therein is their power.


NOTE: Neue Slowenische Kunst, or NSK, is a political art collective formed in Slovenia in 1984 that appropriates some fascist symbols into their output, sometimes juxtaposing symbols from totally opposing ideologies, and their musical wing is the successful industrial/avant-garde band Laibach


Screenshot at 13:49/15:02 of the NSU’s “Pink Panther” confession video (2018)

Screenshot at 13:49/15:02 of the NSU’s “Pink Panther” confession video (2018)




The Anarchy and the Ecstasy: An Interview of Dean Valentine & Mills Moràn Preceding the Inaugural Felix Art Fair

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interview by Summer Bowie

photographs by Oliver Kupper

For anyone who’s seen Velvet Buzzsaw, there were a number of glaring inaccuracies about the look and feel of an art fair, most notably is probably the fact that they’re usually filled with hundreds of slack-jawed visitors under harsh halogen lights who look like they just stepped off a Southwest flight…or a parade float, depending on which day you go. This scene is depicted far more accurately in Mark Flood’s Art Fair Fever, a biting, feature-length parody about the dark misgivings of the art world’s collectors and dealers. So, how does one go about reformatting the art fair formula? How do you pull it out of the white cubicles that we’ve all grown to abhor? For Dean Valentine, Mills and Al Moràn, the answer was to start with the location. Building out a fair in a convention center, throwing up some drywall dividers and pumping the AC may be the path to least resistance when it comes to such an ambitious endeavor. However, the humble team of three decided to use the historic Hollywood Roosevelt with its one-of-a-kind hotel rooms, cabanas and banquet halls to create a mis-en-scène that transcends the typical art fair experience. I had the chance to sit down for coffee with Mills and Dean to talk about their inspiration in starting an art fair, the obsession that art necessitates, and the future of the Los Angeles art scene.

SUMMER BOWIE: I want to talk about the inspirations for the Felix Art Fair, because the main inspiration seems to be the Gramercy Art Fair.  

DEAN VALENTINE: During the time of the Gramercy Art Fair in New York, the art world was completely devastated by the [stock market] crash. I mean ‘89, ‘90 there was just nothing. And so, there were a group of dealers, Pat Hearn and Colin de Land who started the Gramercy International Art Fair. It was downtown, sort of low cost, and eventually that migrated over to Los Angeles. When it came to Los Angeles it became the Chateau Marmont Fair because it was the same idea kind of a hipster-y, old hotel, and that’s where I was at the time. I had just begun collecting and the whole LA art world was actually tiny. It all fit into the hotel, pretty much at one time. Marian Goodman had Tom Schütte sculptures. Jay Jopling had early Damien Hurst dot paintings and Tracy Emin quilts. Just, amazing work. So, people would just wander around, and wander to a booth, and look at art and talk to the dealer and talk to each other. 

BOWIE: Casual. 

VALENTINE: A casual, fun way to engage. 

MORAN: Really communal.  

VALENTINE: I just feel like art fairs over the past few years have become so profoundly over-commercialized. Much closer to a shopping experience rather than an art experience. You know when they first started it was a bit different. You’d go to an art fair and it was become you could see art from all over the world in one place and that was pretty cool, but now there’s like 150 art fairs. 

MORAN: They also used to find things. You know, now, there’s so much pressure on the galleries, coming from the galleries’ side; you have to get your PDF ready two weeks in advance. Most people will buy what they want early on and that’s a wrap. So, by the time you get to the fair, you don't really want to be there.   

BOWIE: Yeah, the element of discovery is gone.  

MORAN: The element of discovery is totally gone. So, as much as the Gramercy and the Chateau were reacting to a different time, to a market that had been decimated a couple years earlier. We’re responding, I think, in a different way; not so much because the market’s been hurt, but also because I think people are looking for something different: to engage with the art, and engage with the community. 

BOWIE: Yeah. I also want to talk about the inspirations for the name of the fair. So, I’ve read that it’s Felix the Cat, the Latin word for happy, and then also Félix Fénéon, the dandy anarchist and critical genius, and I was curious if the curation of the galleries was in any way driven by these disparate, sort of, influences. 

VALENTINE: We were all trying to come up with a good name for it. We kept coming up with these names that just sounded so…art fair-y.  

MORAN: Quirky.  

VALENTINE: Yeah, quirky.   

MORAN: There was no fun to it.  

VALENTINE: We first thought, Alta. One name after another, we kept saying, “Oh, yeah, that’s okay, we should do that,” and then none of us were really— 

MORAN: Nothing hit.  

VALENTINE: I guess it was all three of those things simultaneously, I believe.   

MORAN: It’s not too corporate-y, and it’s not totally whimsical at the same time.  

BOWIE: Yeah. It’s not too pretentious and yet that Fénéon influence grounds it a little bit.  

VALENTINE: I mean, I thought Fénéon and his anarchism touched on the fact that we take art very seriously, but the lightheartedness of Felix the Cat, and the felicitousness of the word seemed to touch all of the bases in the right way.  

BOWIE: Any anarchist sentiments between any of you guys?  

MORAN: Not currently, no. 

VALENTINE: Not yet.  

BOWIE: What aspects were you guys looking for in the curation, in terms of representation?  

VALENTINE: You mean, in terms of the galleries? 

BOWIE: Well, I assume that the galleries are applying based on the artists they plan to represent. 

MORAN: So, it was invitation-only. There was no application process.   

BOWIE: I see.   

MORAN: We looked at a range. We just wanted to get a good range of people, internationally, domestically. I don't think there was ever any one thing we were looking for.  

VALENTINE: Part of the fair was born at a dinner with Anton Kern and Tanya Leighton. It was at that dinner that we decided to go ahead and try to do this. These are people, I think, if you look at all the gallerists, what they all have in common is the fact that there’s an actual person, or people, that are running them. People that are profoundly engaged with artists and what artists make and care about.   

MORAN: Right, it could’ve been top heavy, could’ve been project space heavy. Part of the attractiveness for the galleries is the price point. It’s something that’s just very affordable for everybody. It shouldn’t be tough for people to turn a profit or at least get themselves out there and show their artists. We didn’t want to just have twenty big galleries. We wanted to get that range of some small spaces that we really respect, but then also have the anchor with certain gallerists like Anton or Tanya, that have really robust programs as well.  

BOWIE: Are the gallerists also staying in the hotel? 

MORAN: That’s up to every gallerist, but some people are staying in their own rooms, some people are getting an extra room, that depends on the staff they have. There are a number of people staying in their rooms, which I think is the spirit of the fair.  

BOWIE: That sounds like a lot of fun.  

MORAN: Yeah.  

BOWIE: What made the three of you decide to team up and start a fair?  

MORAN: That’s a good question. I mean, we’ve been good friends for ten years or so, and after that dinner, we walked into the gallery and just started firing off ideas. My brother and I are pretty entrepreneurial, and Dean has a great history. We’ve always respected working with him. Al is really close friends with one of the owners of the hotel, so we brought up the idea of doing it at the Roosevelt, and there was never any other option.  

BOWIE: This hotel has such a rich history. I mean, it was the first location of the Academy Awards— 

MORAN: Yeah, we knew that, and in terms of grounding Hollywood in the last hundred years, this was a special place. We thought, if we could bring that type of energy back to this place, it would be really special.  

VALENTINE: Yeah, the hotel itself has become more of a character in our sort of fair drama since it began. It’s such an interesting place. It has so many nooks and crannies. It has its own life, you know? We were really very fond of the place and its history and its design. I just can’t imagine doing it anywhere else. 

MORAN: We’ve seen every nook and cranny, and every special room, every ballroom, every banquet hall. You’d be shocked at how many things are possible in this hotel.   

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BOWIE: Which aspects of organizing the fair have come most naturally and which have been the most difficult?  

MORAN: I mean, really, getting the galleries was the most natural part. He’s been talking to a lot of these galleries for years, a lot of them are friends of mine. The hardest part was limiting it to the number of galleries we have. We had a lot more people who wanted to be in this fair, but that to me, was a good sign. 

VALENTINE: The hardest part has been the logistics. 

MORAN: The devil’s always in the details.  

VALENTINE: Yeah, it’s the details. All of a sudden, it turns out that in certain rooms there’s a headboard that occupies an entire wall and it’s screwed into the walls. So, that’s a wall that a gallerist would otherwise have to show art, and so it was like, “What do we do about that?”  

MORAN: And that’s a big difference from the ‘90s fairs. You cannot touch the Gramercy Hotel. You couldn’t take a thing out of it, you couldn’t hang onto the wall; you couldn’t do a thing. We’ve been blessed with good partners at the hotel— 

VALENTINE: —They’ve been amazing.  

MORAN: They’re allowing us to drill into the walls, we’re building walls in the cabanas because they need an art wall, we’re moving beds. It’s all kind of wide open.  

BOWIE: Really? 

MORAN: (laughs) But it all makes things a lot more complicated. 

BOWIE: I’m sure it’s a logistical nightmare.  

VALENTINE: Yeah, each of the forty-two galleries has their own room. Because it’s an old hotel—it’s not like the Sheraton, where every room is the same—each room is different.  Every floor is different. The cabanas are pretty much the same. But each person has their own demands for what they want in their room.   

BOWIE: It’s well known that Dean, you come from a background in television. You were a media executive, turned prominent art collector, and you’ve also served on the boards of the Hammer and MOCA. And then, Mills, you and Al have said that have no formal art education or training, so what would you say led the three of you guys to being such notable purveyors of art?  

MORAN: From my standpoint—it’s always been the relationship with artists that has driven my career, and early on, before we formed the gallery, we befriended artists. We knew artists and that drove everything. So, as a gallery, we’re very artist-centric. Very rarely will I go into a studio and edit somebody’s show, and that relationship, to me, has been able to transcend and build the gallery and the career we’ve grown into. This business is the most relationship-business I can think of. You have to be there for the openings, you have to be there for the dinners, you have to be there for your artists at all times, and I think that’s always driven us. So, once you have those relationships in place, everything else sort of cascades down. But, you gotta have the passion for it. To me, the passion is with the art and the artists and the relationships, and that’s how I’ve grown my career.  

BOWIE: It’s an experience-based practice.  

VALENTINE: Yeah, I mean, I think for me, I was a journalist for twelve years before I was a television executive and I’ve always been around writers and artists, and that’s been the core of my professional life. Even as a TV executive, there were writers, there were designers, there were directors. So, I’ve always been around creative people. I mean, art, specifically, was a revelation to me. At some point I came on the idea that it was a different way of understanding the world through these material metaphors. That it wasn’t just this thing that hung on a wall; it was a language and a way of looking at things, and I became obsessed by it. Once I got obsessed, I guess I had the means to acquire it, but, for me, it wasn’t just about the object, it was always about being part of the art world. Engaging with artists and gallerists. I don’t have an art education, obviously, but my graduate school was working with art dealers. Stuart Regen at Regen Projects, Tom Soloman, Andrea Rose, and Lisa Spellman, those are the people that taught me about contemporary art. So, I value that.  

BOWIE: It’s an ongoing discourse.  

MORAN: Yeah, and I think, obsession is the right word. It’s almost impossible to be successful in this industry without that obsession. You can’t do it halfway. People smell it from a mile away, if you’re not passionate about it. I think that’s the one thing that ties the two of us together, and Al as well.  

BOWIE: Yeah, if you think that it’s going to be a fun way to make money...  

MORAN: (laughs) It’s certainly not. (laughs)  

BOWIE: What would you say are the hallmarks of an emerging artist with enduring potential? 

MORAN: Well, I mean, the way that everything’s been moving in the last ten, fifteen, twenty years, is you have to go to a good school. It’s hard to just appear on the scene without having an education. Whether that’s good or bad, I have no idea, but it’s certainly good for the art schools and some of the art programs. You know, people used to say, “You need to be identifiable, people need to recognize your work,” I don't know if that’s true anymore. I think you need to have a voice, and you need to be unique. You need to bring your own genuine language into the conversation.  

VALENTINE: As with anything else, you want somebody that has talent, that has a point of view. 

MORAN: Most artists will have downs. All of them. It’s how you manage through it. It’s the things you do during that down time that speaks a lot more than when you’re having success. I tell all my artists, “I want to be able to sell your work now and fifty years from now as easily as we can now.” That’s a goal that someone should try and achieve; to have that kind of longevity in their career.   

BOWIE: Yeah, I think that back in the midcentury there was this accepted notion that being an artist wasn’t a career choice, it was an identity.  

MORAN: There’s so much more awareness now about artists, especially with people that would’ve normally never paid attention to what an artist was doing. So, that could be dangerous, and to fall into trends, or to fall into market forces, or to fall into what people expect you to make or expect you to say. That, to me, is a pitfall that any artist needs to try and avoid.   

BOWIE:  We’re seeing the arrival of Felix, and of course, Frieze LA, Spring Break, etc. Do you guys think that February in Los Angeles is going to turn into December in Miami? 

VALENTINE: Well, we hope so. I mean Miami’s actually a pretty small town, and it doesn’t take a lot to get its boosters together to keep interest going in this kind of thing. LA’s not a small town. It’s a very big town. It has a lot of other stuff going on and people do all sorts of other stuff. I mean, you’re competing with the Lakers, the beach, the mountains, and all that stuff. It’s hard to focus people’s attention, you know? It’s always been hard to focus people’s attention on anything. There’s just so much happening. So, whether the market’s reached a critical mass is still an open question.  

MORAN: I also think the key is, in some way, baby steps. Like, we could have had eighty galleries in our fair.  

VALENTINE: Right.  

MORAN: Frieze could have done two hundred galleries in their fair.  

VALENTINE: But they’re both small. 

MORAN: They’re both manageable. 

VALENTINE: And, also, it’s probably right that it’s relative to the size of the art market here. I mean, New York is vast, but there’s also a vast market there - journalists and galleries and collectors. LA is vast in terms of the number of artists. In terms of the infrastructure, it’s still relatively small and developing. So, I think Frieze is doing seventy galleries; that’s perfect. We’ll do forty-two galleries.  

MORAN: The key is to provide an experience for everyone. I think that will really help the notion of this process.  


The first edition of Felix LA will take place from February 14-17, 2019 at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Click here to learn more. Follow @felixartfair on Instagram.


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Unearthing Embedded Knowledge: An Interview Of Rosha Yaghmai On The Occasion Of Her Exhibition At The Wattis Institute

interview by Summer Bowie
photographs by Oliver Maxwell Kupper

Walking into Rosha Yaghmai’s studio is a little bit like walking into the laboratory of a junkyard hoarder/mad scientist. There’s a distinctly pleasant organization to the vast collection of Los Angeles detritus that extends from the studio to the backlot outside. The walls are plastered with images from torn magazine pages, postcards, posters, watercolors and collage works. It’s as though you could hold a microscope to any detail in the room and discover a tiny world within. This is especially the case when viewing the centerpiece of her upcoming exhibition Miraclegrow at the Wattis Institute in San Francisco. In the center of the room sits a giant sculpture of a human hair. Pubic? Maybe. This mysterious hair sits on a floor which acts as a pedestal of giant, reflective bathroom tiles. Encapsulating this familiar scene, the walls are covered in large black tiles, effectively wall works that appear to drip with the glistening traces of warm condensation. The hair itself is a sedimentary composite of industrial materials, cleaning products, bathroom products, nail polish, and so much more. Layers and layers of genetic material soaked in personal history. I had the chance to sit down with Yaghmai just a few days before the works made their way up to San Francisco to talk about her upbringing as a tinkering, junk-collecting Angeleno, her work and its relationship to personal heritage, and how she so compellingly defines the cosmic in the microcosmic.

SUMMER BOWIE: I want to start by just talking about your beginning. I understand that you started as a photographer and then transitioned into sculpture. What kind of photography were you making, and why did you lose interest in it?

ROSHA YAGHMAI: I started off making photographs really young. In the sixth and seventh grade. I was really interested in taking photographs. Really quickly, when I went to photo school, I spent most of my time trying to use the chemicals to do things you aren’t supposed to do. So, I never was making straight photographs...I was always.... altering the image, adding weird color.... I was trying to make the photographs more like paintings, but I think I was just trying to make sculpture. I would combine Xerox’s so there was this approximation of the real that I was really interested in, which seems like a natural link between photography and sculpture. I eventually started making fake diorama-like environments with the photographs, so again, pushing into sculpture. I was at SVA in New York at the time and I ended up transferring to CalArts. As soon as I got into the desert landscape, photography was gone.... and I started making sculpture. I haven’t made photographs for a long time.

BOWIE: That is interesting because you often hear of artists coming to LA, discovering its unique light and then naturally pushing into photography.

YAGHMAI: I am also from here, so it was less about that, I just wanted to create environments when I moved here.

BOWIE: The work you presented at Made in L.A., Slide Samples (Lures, Myths) includes projected slides from photographs your father took when he first emigrated to California from Iran. Have you always wanted to work with these images, or did the urge come to you recently?

YAGHMAI: They’ve always been around our house. We had this one print, and I thought it was just an eighties photo, and I didn’t think much about it. My father was interested in photography and that’s how I got into photography. I had all his cameras. etc. and I saw those slides and started making slides, but nothing like that. They [the slides] have always been lingering for years. I finally just asked him about them. I knew he had made them in Berkeley. I knew he used abstract color, they were trying to be psychedelic because of the timing, 1969-72. When I asked him about it, just the process of his thinking, it was very similar to how I was making resin that I was calling slides. He was taking hunks of glass from the Coca Cola Company in Oakland and using different sources of light and filters (light from the television, etc.) to make reflective surfaces. I thought it was an interesting, strange way to connect with a new culture but also realizing there were some similar physical properties with my work: the resin, using lenses and different filters. I think up until the Hammer most of the work that I have made was some sort of screen or a way to alter a site and I linked it with that work once I knew he had made it.

BOWIE: You were born right around the time that the Shah of Iran was overthrown.

RY: He [my father] emigrated here in the mid-60’s and my parents got married and they moved to Iran... and I was actually conceived in Iran and we lived there...then the revolution broke out and we came back to the United States...and I was born.

BOWIE: Growing up in Los Angeles, what was it like being in the wake of these events as a first-generation Iranian-American?

YAGHMAI: I think my dad was so involved with being an American person that we never really talked about that stuff... I didn’t really understand until later but I feel like...I am realizing... how in much of my work there is a subconscious draw to that... or a feeling of wanting to traverse long distances, or different perspectives comes into the work. I am so disconnected from that part of my lineage or history and I could ask my family, read more about it, and I do; but, I feel like I am in the process of unearthing some embedded knowledge and I think the misunderstanding and not knowing is really generative for me.

BOWIE: That makes sense. Maybe your dad was seeing America through a lens that is slowly revealing itself to you.

YAGHMAI: He only went back to Iran maybe five or six years ago, maybe because it was so awful and painful. It never really came up.

BOWIE: You said once that you take pleasure in the sort-of trashiness of LA. What aspects of that trashiness appeal to you most?

YAGHMAI: I don’t know if it just being that I am a beach-desert person, and there are moments in that??? (7:53). and there’s moments in that hair that are in this zone. You know, like a piece of glittering trash like in a desert landscape. Just these little moments of collage really interest me. But in terms of trashiness, I really thrive and enjoy a casual environment. I don’t know if trashiness is the right word, but I feel like (it’s not this way anymore) the feeling of complete freedom here. But now it is not quite like that. I grew up between Alta Dena and by the beach, we would just ride our bikes out, and go to the junkyard and find weird stuff, and my grandfather was a bit of a hoarder and a handyman type. We would just be tinkering. I think that is it. Thrift store shopping and finding some weird historical gem… I also have a real interest in outsider architecture.

BOWIE: I can see the psychedelic influence of your father’s work with those weird remnants of Americana that seem to litter the streets and the junkyards that used to exist. Santa Monica and Venice were very different places back then.

YAGHMAI: It was so wild there when I was growing up and trashy. It was great! The beach towns were abandoned--it was a bunch of old people and skaters. Weird remnants. It was magical, I feel lucky I grew up here during that time.


“I am realizing how much, basically, “dusk” is my color palette. That is where the light and space of California comes into my work. It is “dusk” but it is city dusk; that moment when the sky has that color and there is the neon turning on. That in-between time...”


BOWIE: You use a lot of found materials, industrial metals, liquids, resins, do you have any favorites or least favorites?

YAGHMAI: They are all a pain (sighs). I definitely do like working with materials that are liquid to solid. In terms of favorite, detrimental to my market, I just move through and use what I want. I don’t really have the usual approach. So, this show has a completely different approach than the one at the Hammer. I do like working with transparency, like this super clear, very toxic resin. My work relates to light and space because of my history and the physical properties of the work (color and all that), but I feel like for me it is much more about collaging. So, if you have one thing that’s transparent, you're altering what you see behind it, and for me that altering and blending of sight is really important. I also really like using silicone, the type of silicone you make prosthetics out of. Platinum silicon. And that has a translucent quality too but I like using that material as an approximation or stand in for the body, clear resin and that are the two things I go back to.

BOWIE: Your work has a quality about it that invites viewers to temporarily enter a foreign world and quietly meditate there for a moment. Is this an experience you look for when viewing the work of other artists?

YAGHMAI: I think you always fantasize that you make different art. I like going into a full on crazy installation...just something that looks like a playground. So, I am not always drawn to a contemplative space... I think that in my work that kind of emerges because up until very recently I was very stubborn about (sternly, “I make objects, I want to make objects”). Yet, it is teetering on installation because these objects when in relation to one another create this sort of psychological environment and their relation to each other creates an oddity you want to linger with. I feel like this show is the first time in a while that I am making an environment. I mean each object in the show... like the floor is the pedestal for the hair and the panels are paintings and they can be separated so they are still existing as objects kind of coming together for this moment but they are not props and still are works of art, or sculptures. I really think a lot about putting things together that are a bit perplexing or strange that makes one want to linger a bit and figure it out. I think that may be the color palette. I am realizing how much, basically, “dusk” is my color palette. That is where the light and space of California comes into my work. It is “dusk” but it is city dusk; that moment when the sky has that color and there is the neon turning on. That in-between time... which I think is a very contemplative time, when you are driving around that time.

BOWIE:  Always in LA... I think you said that your color choices are kind of the most intuitive part of the process...

YAGHMAI: I made this whole series of silicones for this show in Germany and I realized they are all colors from my childhood--wetsuits that were around. It just emerges, “oh, of course, that’s why I’m doing that...”

BOWIE: In this show, you said you wanted to create an environment that takes on a spider's perspective on the floor of a bathroom. What inspired this particular perspective?

YAGHMAI: I was really torn about what to do for this show. I feel like the Hammer project was sort of the end to a couple years of thinking. So I felt a bit stuck, to be honest, and I was trying to figure out what the next step was. I knew I wanted to make an environment. I was super frustrated, came home to the studio, threw down my jumpsuit, and I noticed (I hate spiders. Sorry, I’m trying to change my perspective on that) a spider trying to crawl into it, so I snatched it away. And the spider kind of stopped, and I was just watching, and thought, “what the hell does that thing think just happened?” So, I had this moment where I thought, if I am trying to make work that alters perspective in a very physical, literal embodied way, why wouldn’t the next step be to try to empathize and project myself into something of which I could never understand what their perspective would be. In terms of psychedelic properties, I think that’s the most honest way to go about it. I just wanted to physically remake it, but in a skewed way.

BOWIE: Has it changed your feelings towards spiders at all?

YAGHMAI: My husband got me this Louise Bourgeois book, and so obviously, she has those big spider sculptures, and she talks about them as a symbol of renewal. So, I’m trying to get into a Louise Bourgeois way of thinking about it, rather than just thinking about them crawling on me at night. So, I think I can empathize with them a little bit more. How scary must it be? I just wanted to make a direct approach to the show.

BOWIE:  There are so many materials that went into that hair sculpture. It has this sort of sedimentary value to it...can you just talk for a moment about the different materials that you used in creating it?

YAGHMAI: I mean... it is the hardest sculpture I ever made, not in a physical way, but just that you’re really fighting the form. Not to be too literal, but your hair is a shedding of some kind of skin, and I knew I wanted to cast my body and incorporate it into the work. Almost like it is carved out of some kind of stone, or I wanted to make it seem like something that happened or something that is really forced. You don’t work on growing your hair, it just happens, but if you think about all the energies that go into making it... I used a lot of materials that I’ve used before, like limestone, graphite, household plastics like shampoo bottles, laundry soap, and shopping bags. I melted those down and put them in. It’s almost like coral where it absorbs anything that is in the environment...I was thinking about that with all the chemicals in the body and how they can all be traced in a single hair. And also, thinking back to my father and my parents, and just thinking about what you absorb in your DNA, what is trapped in there, trapped knowledge that I don’t know about. I wanted to have this sort of spacey, geological tone and I was looking at images of the sand dunes on Mars, which is basically the whole brochure for the show, which is a reach, but it’s cosmic level shit. You know, like you’re sitting here and now our molecules will be tangled forever. Things that are blowing my mind. For me it is kind of fake because it is cast and modified material, but I was trying to be really genuine and putting together a lot of stuff that I’m around on the regular.

BOWIE: There seems a deep desire to capture moments or feelings in your work; to encapsulate and oppose the forces of entropy. Would you agree with that interpretation?

YAGHMAI: I think so... there is so much in my work that is the familiar becoming foreign, and so there's this flip all the time of something so familiar (that maybe you take for granted) turning on you. I feel just that awkwardness-- making you aware of your existence, of your body interacting with the object.

BOWIE: You have referred to the desire to freeze time, but is that something you feel like you want to do permanently or temporarily, and if so, for how long, what is that desire to hold things in space?

YAGHMAI: I mean that’s sculpture (laughs). If I had one power, it would be to stop time.  You know when you play that game. Just slowing down the process and pointing to that one thing and using force to stop that moment or those moments and to have it on display. Not that my work is usually that figurative, but to slow it down. Having a one-on-one relationship between the object and the viewer.


Rosha Yaghmai's exhibition
Miraclegrow opens on January 15th and runs until March 30th at The Wattis Institute. 360 Kansas St, San Francisco, CA 94103

Rough Cuts: An Interview Of Chuck Arnoldi On The Occasion Of His Show At Desert Center Los Angeles

Some interesting facts about leopards: they are solitary animals that hunt in open terrains, they are difficult to track in the wild, they are extremely adaptable to new environments, and they often leave claw marks on trees to mark their territory. In Chuck Arnoldi’s expansive Venice Beach studio, a dusty, taxidermied leopard is perched, mid-roar, above the kitchen alcove. There is something strangely symbolic about this once ferocious, now inert genus of panthera.  Arnoldi is not a hunter, but he is quick to note that this leopard is one of the best examples of taxidermy in the world. Among the Cool School cohort of artists, like Ed Ruscha, Billy Al Bengston, and Larry Bell, Arnoldi may be the lesser known, but he may also be the most prolific. His chainsaw sculptures – which can be quickly described as chunks of painted wood with blade marks slashed into them – are his most well known, his Girl From Ipanema. They are dangerous and allude to his misfit youth. These hyper-mystical geometries can also be seen in his Machu Picchu paintings, which mimic the mysterious architecture of the ancient Incan citadel. Arnoldi’s latest show at Desert Center, entitled Rough Cuts, includes a number of recent chainsaw paintings made in and around the Yukon. A day after the Woolsey Fire broke out and threatened the artist’s home in Malibu, we sat down at his studio for a chat.

OLIVER KUPPER: First off, I want to talk about the fire because it came very close to your property in Malibu, what did you do to fight off the fires? 

CHUCK ARNOLDI:  We weren’t going to leave because I have so much art in the house--I have a little Warhol I got for nothing...that is worth two million dollars, you know. We felt comfortable, because the house is quite high up there. We knew if the fire came, we could always go to the beach. If you go up to our roof, you could see the stuff coming. They looked like atom bombs, flames a hundred feet tall. I didn’t think my house was going to burn. I took the Calder and the Warhol...I got a lot of stuff, about a hundred-fifty pieces of art at least in the house. I took it all outside and put it in different places. It took me 25,000 steps to take it out and 25,000 steps back to take it back.

KUPPER: The fires tune in to your work in a way, because some of your most well known works deal with using discarded materials or recycled materials, like your stick paintings, which came from a burned down orchard, can you talk a little bit about that?

ARNOLDI: I had an artist friend from Malibu and he told me one day, there is an orchard...and it had oranges and avocados and he told me to go steal some fruit. It was his special little thing…he’s an odd guy. So we were out there stealing oranges and avocados. The perimeter had all these leaves that had burned off, and they looked like charcoal lines. I thought those are beautiful, so I took my sticks back to the studio. The first piece I made, I took four sticks and tied them together at the end and I put two nails and hung it on the wall. It’s really about something being the sum of its parts, gravity.

KUPPER: Is it true that some of your stick paintings have come from your childhood home in Ohio?

ARNOLDI: No, but you see those thorns up on the wall? When I was a little kid growing up, those were from a tree in Ohio. So I made those paintings from thorns. I’ve been avoiding Ohio like the plague. I have a very dysfunctional, bad family. 

KUPPER: What was it like growing up there?

ARNOLDI: Most of my buddies are dead, a lot of them went to prison. I was just in a bad place. I had no art history at all in my childhood. I have an uncle who was a portrait painter, he wore a beret and had a little painting studio. I used to go there and I really liked the smell of oil painting. He was my only exposure to art and at one point I got a modeling job at an art institute. I was broke and they would pay me to pose. One of the directors convinced me to take my clothes off and then he wanted me to get a hard on. This fucking guy, I’d like to meet him today. No fucking way.  

When I was a kid, I made tree houses and forts and if I saw a Tarzan movie, I would make bows and arrows and spears. As I got older I got involved with cars. When I graduated, a teacher told me, “You are the most talented with the least amount of vision of anyone I have ever met,” and it made me feel terrible.... See, when I was growing up, I got attention for doing stuff, I was really good with my hands.

KUPPER: Seems like the whole Venice School came from places like Dayton, the mythical American city, what was it about LA that was such a beacon for you guys? 

ARNOLDI: I was a senior in high school and I had gotten in a little bit of trouble, they were gonna put me in a foster home. My father was living in Southern California with this woman he ran away with and he flew me out to California. I had never seen a freeway. It blew my mind. When I got back to Dayton I wanted to move to California. After I graduated high school, my mother had about six dollars and twenty-eight cents, so she gave me that and I left with four buddies of mine. I had a ‘55 Chevy with a ‘53 engine. We were terrible thieves.

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KUPPER: When did you get serious about art?

ARNOLD: While in Los Angeles, it was time for me to go to school. I drove out to Ventura and I chickened out, I just couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t even go to an art history course. It was way over my head. I would just go to the art classes, ceramics for instance. The guy who ran the art department, Mr. Deets, saw my work and he came to see me and said, “You know son, since Picasso, everything is bullshit. You need to be an illustrator. I can make you one if you do what I tell you.” I could draw perfectly. I had the skills.

KUPPER: How did your later experiences at Art Center influence your perspective?

ARNOLDI: I’d be doing a painting and the guy would come and go, “That’s done.” To me, it wasn’t finished, but to them I was ruining it. They would take your work away from you. In painting class the first thing they taught you is that you have to wear a tie and how to wear it so you don’t paint on it. This was all bullshit to me. I’m sitting there thinking this is fucked and I quit.

KUPPER: You seem like a bit of a daredevil – can you talk about your chainsaw sculptures, because those sort of put you on the map in a way?

ARNOLDI: I just liked the way it looked. But one little slip and it’s really bad. I’ve been doing the Machu Picchu thing...these multi-paneled paintings. But the chainsaw sculptures were just one of those things that was on my mind. I don’t like to make sculptures because they are bulky. But these sort of made sense.

KUPPER: Some of the work at your current show was made in the Yukon?

ARNOLDI:  I went up there not expecting to make work, but I was sort of coaxed into it. The guy who owned the property has a gold mine. He asked if we wanted to get to work, so we go down to a river to find some wood. There were these two rough kids – one of them had recently slit a wolf’s neck that tried to attack him. So we are up there and they start to cut down some trees for me to make a sculpture. One kid said, “What do you want me to do?” I tell him to cut five slabs off and to get me some kind of platform. I said, “Kid, you’re good with the chainsaw. I’ll draw the line. You want you to give me this much of an angle.” (makes the vroom, vroom, vroom sound of a chainsaw) I look over and the other kid wants to do it too (vroom...vroom...vroom). We worked for two hours and made a few pieces. By the end, we made nine... and the new chainsaw pieces were painted in red, black and yellow. When I used to make the old chainsaw paintings, there would be splinters all over, so I would torch them away. I went and bought a serious blowtorch and all the kids were so excited.  The kids cut trees down like crazy, and never thought of doing anything beyond that. I bet that within a year these kids would be making furniture and shit out of logs.

OK: Your upcoming show at Desert Center is called Rough Cuts – there is a connection to your work and some of the other Venice artists to music, the improvisational nature could be compared to jazz?

CA:  Somebody once told me something and I felt rather flattered:  “Your chainsaw paintings are the closest thing I can think of to Pollock.” The reason is....Pollock in a sense did a dance, it was spontaneous, you know--he was physically involved. Man, then you start cutting in references and you are making hundreds of decisions a second, but it's a physical thing, you’re actively engaged in it.


Chuck Arnoldi: Rough Cuts is on view now at Desert Center Los Angeles, 7466 Beverly Blvd. Email for appointments: desertcenterlosangeles@gmail.com. Text and photographs by Oliver Maxwell Kupper


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The Thrill Without The Tropes: An Interview Of Screenwriter Isa Mazzei & Actor Madeline Brewer On The Occasion Of Cam's Premiere On Netflix

text by Summer Bowie

portraits by Remy Holwick

film stills courtesy of Divide/Conquer


For anyone who has painstakingly worked to build and curate their Instagram page, only to have it disabled unexpectedly, you know just how devastating the loss can be. For those whose accounts have been hacked, the consequences can be much worse. Thus is the case for Alice (played by Madeline Brewer), a young and ambitious camgirl on the rise, who is relentlessly creating new shows and characters to improve her ranking on freegirls.live, a fictional camming site, designed and created specifically for the film. When Alice’s account is hacked and hijacked by someone with an uncanny resemblance, she is forced to outwit her doppelgänger while watching her own identity, both online and irl, degrade rapidly. Aside from the psychic thrill that the narrative provides, this film offers a refreshing subversion to the standard tropes that come from the sexy, horror genre. From the ways that sex work is represented in the film, to the ways that the screenwriter, Isa Mazzei and director, Daniel Goldhaber challenge the standard director-authorship, this film provides a wealth of new templates to consider that are seemingly radical, yet unsurprisingly, quite logical. In Mazzei and Goldhaber’s Cam, the hyper-indulgent and semi-private world of camming is given life in a way that is instantly translatable by the genre. A surreal, thrill ride that seeps into your unconscious mind and humanizes the very real people that hitherto have been unjustly stigmatized by the film and media industry at large.

SUMMER BOWIE: Isa, you wrote a film that is in many ways inspired by your own experience as a camgirl, but you chose to write a fictional, horror narrative. What drew you to the genre for this project?

ISA MAZZEI: First, I love genre, so that makes sense (laughs). But also, I felt like it was really important for me to bring audiences inside Alice’s experiences...and I think that genre is a really great tool for sharing subversive ideas in a way that’s really commercial and digestible. So to have an audience empathize with a sex worker and have them rooting for her to return to sex work… while there’s also so much adrenaline, and so much color, and so much action, and you’re on the edge of your seat –– I feel like that was the most effective way that I knew how to really bring audiences into that.

BOWIE: It seems the more horrific the daily news cycle becomes, the more obsessed we as a society become with horror films. What do we find so cathartic about it, and do we ever really exorcise the demons?

MAZZEI: I feel like horror can be really cathartic – absolutely – and I also think horror can be a way to communicate important ideas while still feeling like escapism, and that’s what I think is so cool about it. I don’t think anyone watches Cam and walks out going “Wow, I just watched something really political, and I just watched something really subversive.” I think those things happen on a subconscious level. I think that in a literal sense, Cam is a really fun, exciting movie that brings you into this really colorful, thrilling world for ninety minutes...and the work that it does that I think is really important is kind of on a more subconscious level than that. I think all horror can be used that way, and I think a lot of genre films do that work, and I think that’s why I love them so much. Because again, they’re kind of this way where you feel like you’re escaping from the real world, you feel like you’re in the fantasy space that is very cathartic, full of adrenaline...but actually they can communicate some really important ideas.

 
 

BOWIE: And there’s something really nice about this film and it’s approach to the genre, because I feel like horror in particular has a very rich, misogynist history, and to approach it from this perspective where you’re telling the story of a woman that is not a damsel in distress being chased by a monster is a really nice way to approach the genre.

MAZZEI: Thank you.

MADELINE BREWER: I think that’s what I found so refreshing about watching and doing the film. I’m a big slasher fan, but every situation in a slasher movie is like a young woman...with her boobs hanging out unnecessarily being chased by a much larger man, and that whole visual is just so tired to me now that I have a movie like Cam in my life. There are other ways to tell stories about women in a horror genre without that thing where the ‘slut’ always dies first. This movie still gives you the thrill without any of the tropes.

BOWIE: Madeline, how did you get a hold of the script, and did you initially see yourself playing the role, because I know a lot of reps won’t even show actors a script like this?

BREWER: Yeah, I talked to Danny and Isa about how there were some difficulties with them getting the script out, because not only actors, but actors reps have to be on board with the whole idea. My manager had said something to me like, “Hey, I have this script..I don’t know..it’s about a camgirl. Just have a look, see what you feel.” I read it and I immediately was frightened of it, because I was just like...I don’t know if I can do justice to a story like this, playing three characters. But I was stoked to play a camgirl.

BOWIE: The role demands a certain vulnerability and I understand that the on-set crew was predominantly female. How would you say that affected the vibe on set?

BREWER: Oh my god, we could not have done this I don’t think––I know personally, and I know plenty of actors that would back me up––that in this kind of situation, where you are physically and emotionally vulnerable, where you are literally and figuratively naked, you have to be in a safe environment, in which you are free to explore and express, and take yourself to another level. I’ve been on sets where women have felt uncomfortable because some random...I don’t know...crew member ogled them in a way that maybe would make them feel uncomfortable. I think that whole situation was just a non-factor for me because there were so many women, and I feel comfortable around women. But also the fact that there was a crew that….they knew what they were getting themselves into, they knew the story that they were telling, so if they weren’t supportive of that, then they would not have been there. It was already like a litmus test that everyone had passed. They were there and willing to be supportive of whatever had to go down to make this film, and a lot of that was me not being clothed.

BOWIE: Isa, you undoubtedly directed yourself in the past as a camgirl. What made you feel confident that Daniel Goldhaber was the right director to bring your script to life?

MAZZEI: I mean, a lot of things. The main thing is that he listens to me. And I think, you know, it’s easy to look back and say we’ve been collaborating for ten years, I trust him and his shot. You know, in the past I had hired him to shoot porn for me, and direct some videos that I had made, but at the end of the day the most important thing about him is that he listens to me. When I said, you know, “this is how she would hold her body in this scene,” it was kind of this three-way collaboration. She already knew those things, and I knew those things, and to have a director that would just kind of say, “Okay, I trust you and I’m not going to force anything onto the scene or onto the character that you’re telling me is not real or valid.” From day one of collaborating on the script, Danny always deferred to my judgement calls, especially on representation of the female body and performative femininity, and performative sexuality; all of those.

BOWIE: And the two of you share equal credit for the film. Was this a decision that the two of you made from the beginning, or did it happen somewhere along the way?

MAZZEI: That happened along the way. Initially, I was just writing it and he was going to direct it. But it became pretty clear in the beginning of the collaboration that we were building the story together, we were building the world together. We were discussing things like how we were going to shoot scenes while I was still writing them, and while we were still workshopping them. I had a lot of opinions and insight on the actors that I wanted, and the crew that we wanted, and what kind of DP I wanted, and how we wanted to include as many women as possible on set, and all of these decisions. So, it became pretty clear that it was something we were making together. We always like to say it’s like 100% his movie and 100% my movie, and there’s no way to tease apart the ownership more than that. It’s a shared vision, it’s been a shared vision, and that’s what we decided.

BOWIE: The platform used in the film, freegirls.live, so closely resembles that of any social media platform with live capabilities that the basic act of camming is actual pretty familiar to most people. Madeline, did you have any personal experience with going live and juggling your attention between the performance and a live stream of comments and requests?

BREWER: The act of being live online and responding to a livestream of comments was totally new to me, I had never experienced anything like that before. I mean also what we were doing was synced up and I knew what they were going to say, and then the responses and everything. But it’s quick paced, very live and interactive and I watched a lot of cams in preparation in our pre-production time, and even during shoots to get kind of a refresher. I had a few camgirls that I liked in particular for their little quirks and nuances, so I watched them and how they interact. The things they say and what kind of inside jokes they have with their room, and their guys and all of that. It was something that I was totally unfamiliar with in that aspect, but what I was familiar with was that kind of performative identity that we all have online, and that feeling of always showing your best self, and the most ‘attractive,’ for lack of a better word, part of you to your internet following. The more time I spend on the internet, the more I learn about it. For example, someone I know who knows Kim Kardashian; all of her candid shots are completely staged. Everything she does is a business, and it’s all so perfectly cultivated and curated. This film in general has made me look a lot more at how I present myself online, and even whatever level of transparency I think I do have. I’ll never be totally transparent because the only people I reserve that for are my mother and my closest friends.

BOWIE: I read that Pink Narcissus was a major inspiration for the set of Alice’s room. That film has such a great tension between intimate vulnerability and performative indulgence. It’s more peep show than porn. Why have we seen so many films about strippers, porn stars and prostitutes, but never anything about peep shows or camming? Is it just too gray an area?

MAZZEI: One of the draws of camming in general is that there is this gray area between: Are they a performer? Or are you actually getting to know the real person? There’s definitely this line that a lot of performers walk, where a lot of them don’t say, “This is my cam room,” they’ll say “This is my bedroom.” And maybe it will be their real bedroom. I worked out of my real bedroom for a long time before I built my own “pink” room that I had. There’s an appeal to that, because unlike a stripper, where you know you’re getting a performance, you know that you’re at their place of work...when you’re watching a camgirl, there is this blurring of a fantasy where you feel exactly that – you feel like maybe you’re seeing into their real life a little bit. I would often work six to eight hour shifts. I would put dinner on, I would drink coffee, I would be getting up to go to the bathroom...my roommate’s dog would wander through on my camera feed. There’s a level of reality to it that I think is really appealing, and that builds this level of personal intimacy. This is often found in any type of sex work but is especially highlighted in camming. So, for the Pink Room, we drew a lot of inspiration from that, and for me it was just important to build a space where we could not only show that Alice has a curated space that she works from – this kind of fever dream fantasy space – but also to kind of contrast this space to her real life. Because what I found when I was working, and what sex workers are often not credited with enough, is how much they dedicate their craft...how calculated and dedicated they can be. So Alice has this space that is intensely curated, very much thought out and decorated with all of her props and all the things she might possibly need. Then she has her house – and her house is not even unpacked, it’s still in boxes, it’s messy, there’s takeout food. She is giving everything to this space and, as I had mentioned, this craft. And that’s a side of sex work that I wanted to show, and I wanted to be really clear in this visual juxtaposition of this really curated space and then this kind of sloppy, still expensive, but not quite so deliberate space that she exists in outside of her work.

BOWIE: Madeline, as you were following several camgirls, what were the characters that you were drawn to? What was it about a specific camgirl? Can you give an example of one that you felt was really honing the craft?

BREWER: There were aspects of some camgirls that I would watch that would take on the persona of a little more girly...or there was a sweetness, or an innocence to them that I felt when I watched, which was totally part of an act…I believe...I don’t know, but there was a lot of quirkiness to them that I really enjoyed. It felt very human, and I guess that is what is attractive about cam – you feel like you’re watching a real person. I feel like as a performer myself - and for these camgirls as performers - we’re constantly highlighting things about our personalities that we want to make a little bit louder or exaggerating them, and then not including too much of the things we don’t want other people to see. It’s all there, it’s all underneath, whereas someone like the camgirls that I related to when I was playing Lola II, who were purely so enigmatic, and so unobtainable seemingly, that I wanted to model Lola II after, but without losing the fact that it’s based on Alice. I watched a lot of cam. I watched these girls day and night and just...the best word is “stole” from them what performative things they were putting in their shows that I felt fit Lola I or II, I just kind of stole them.

BOWIE: And I’m sure that’s a process for other camgirls. Isa, maybe you can speak to that. Do other cam girls watch each other and get ideas? Is it a very interactive evolution?

MAZZEI: Oh absolutely! There’s varying degrees of that: There are girls who draw a lot of inspiration for each other, there are girls who accuse each other of stealing their show ideas. I know when I was working there was one girl who claimed that she had copyrighted a certain type of show and that if you performed it, you would get in trouble. There was also sharing ideas, or saying “I have this really cool idea for a show that you should do because you’re also really good at this type of thing,” and even collaboration between girls is really cool because there’s a lot of creativity there. Where I would work with a model, maybe a non-nude model, and I was definitely a very nude, very sexual model, and so us coming together creatively to figure out what type of show combines my style with her style, and how we highlight each other in the best way possible, while we maintain our own boundaries and the types of shows that we like to do. It’s a really interesting thing that happens and there’s so much sharing and inspiration there….there’s so many camgirls doing so many types of things, it’s quite mind blowing.

BOWIE: In addition to playing a wide range of characters, camgirls encounter an equally wide array of fans and benefactors. It seems that navigating this landscape safely and with dignity is almost an olympian feat. In your experience, Isa, do most camgirls have to learn how to do this alone, without any guidance?

MAZZEI: I think some girls are really integrated into cam girl communities and some girls aren’t. I think an important thing to remember is that every girl that’s camming is camming from a laptop or a computer somewhere in the world, so it’s not this thing when you’re in a sort of club with all your fellow dancers around you. It can be really isolating, it can be really hard. The only camgirls that I knew were the ones that I met through Twitter and I would fly to see them. I was recognized once in a coffee shop by another girl that cammed, who approached me and said, “Hey I cam too!” but that’s the only encounter in real life where I’ve actually met someone who lived in my hometown who did it. For the most part you’re pretty on your own, and I think that girls can choose to be really into these communities; they can choose to live together, they can choose to share and get advice from each other, and they can also choose to work in isolation and do their own thing. I think there’s a wide variety of that. When it comes to men, another misconception I think is that all the tippers on the site are middle-aged divorced men. I think if you look at just my fans, most of them were men...I had a couple women viewers, and a couple non-binary viewers. For the most part they were men but I also had a wide spectrum: I had married men, I had single men in their twenties, I had, like, fuckin’ hot men, I had men that worked in porn, men that were in their sixties or seventies who really didn’t know how to use the internet. You know, different levels of income, different levels of employment, interest, and I think that’s what’s cool about camming. A cam site is a place where all these different types of viewers in general can really find a person that they genuinely connect with.

BOWIE: I want to talk about the casting a bit. For any Paul Thomas Anderson fan, Melora Walters is a god among actors, and in this film, the two of you have a very tenuous relationship that is delicate and subtle. What was it like to play her daughter?

BREWER: To be on set with her was such a gift in itself, and hanging out a little bit. She’s such a pro, but she’s also so open to conversation and to how we both interpreted our relationship. I know that on Isa and Danny’s side, she had a lot of feelings and input about the script and her lines.

MAZZEI: Yeah, I mean, Melora was awesome. She came in right away...I was very much writing a mother from the perspective of a daughter. What I was so grateful to Melora for was that she literally would come in every day and be like “I wrote this line. I rewrote this line. I rewrote this part. I want to see this happen.” And she really engaged with those discussions as a mother, saying things like, “I really sat down and thought about what it would be like if my daughter were doing cam and I found out this way.” I really was blown away by the perspective that she brought in and how well she did that, and how it was very natural for her to just embody this character. So, I found working with her a really cool process.

BOWIE: Madeline, you’ve now played several major roles in shows like Orange is the New Black, Black Mirror, and The Handmaid’s Tale. In the midst of the Brett Kavanaugh circus, we can see clearly why the dystopian present and women in bondage is currently such a recurring theme. What do you think of the protesters who have appeared in Washington in Handmaid costumes?

BREWER: The fact that the design that we wear every day when we go to work on this show–– we’re just actors and we work in Hollywood, and the fact that those designs that Ann Crabtree made from her heart and from her inspiration from Margaret Atwood’s book–– they’re being taken and used as a symbol of resistance, and there is truly no better life for them. It’s great that they’re on the show but the life of this symbol of women’s resistance and women’s refusal to sit down, and shut up, and let old white men make decisions for them; it’s the best possible life that your art can take on. A whole new life as a symbol.

BOWIE: Finally, Isa aside from the release of your first film on Netflix, your first book, CAMGIRL, is slated for release in November 2019. What can we expect from the book that wasn’t expressed in the film?

MAZZEI: I think that the book serves to work along with the film to kind of normalize and bring to light this subculture that not a lot of people are talking about. The book is really fun, it’s funny, it’s not at all like the movie. But I feel like often people come out of that film saying “Whoa, is that what it was really like, and where did the inspiration come from, what were your shows actually like?” So I think the book can serve to answer those questions, and also serve as another tool to reach more people, and raise people inside this world, and say that it’s just normal people doing this. It’s just another job that people have and it can be something that is not only a career but also really empowering to women. There’s this misconception that is predominantly held by men, but also can be held by women: that selling your body is somehow disempowering. Not to pretend that there aren’t victims. In the sex work industry there is often exploitation, but there is also a huge huge portion of the industry that is women reclaiming power over their bodies. I’ve been catcalled, I’ve been insulted, I’ve been abused, I’ve been sexually harassed for my entire life, and now I’m setting these boundaries, and I’m saying “Oh, you want to look at my body? You’re gonna pay me. You want to touch my body, you’re gonna pay me.” And that reclamation of power is an incredible tool for some women to heal and again, to build empires around themselves. So, I hope that the book can speak to that and just be another piece of the puzzle of trying to have people empathize with sex workers, look at sex workers a little differently, and I definitely think when they’re going in to vote, either to put someone in office or vote on legislation that does affect sex workers, they can look at it a little differently than they did before.

Cam is available now on Netflix.

Oh, La Gaule: An Interview of French 'Gaule Wave' Band Faire

text by Agathe Pinard

photographs by Kealan Shilling

FAIRE are very serious about not taking themselves seriously. Their shows are infused with a raw improvisation that makes every performance a completely unique experience. They just play with the vibe given by the audience and then do their best to push the limits of that relationship. The images from their shows speak for themselves, filled with overflowing energy and rage. Romain, Pierre and Simon make up the French trio Faire, a band emerging from the Parisian underground music scene. Self-labelled as “Gaule Wave,” the band mixes opposing sounds, from ‘80s synthesizers, to punk power chords, to the lyrical stylings of pop chanson.

We had a chance to chat with Faire just before their highly anticipated second show in Los Angeles. They play tonight at Madame Siam in Hollywood, catch them live at 10:00pm for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

AGATHE PINARD: First of all, how did you all meet?

FAIRE: We met at school, we were about 12 years old. There we were, the only guys listening to rock, wearing leather and boots. So we easily found a subject of discussion. 

PINARD: What’s your first experience with making music?

FAIRE: A basement in the center of Paris where we experimented with lots of anger, love, a few cries and lots of laughs. We took it very seriously, being musicians. We were rehearsing between class at least twice a week and started playing live shows pretty early on. 

PINARD: Have any of you ever had any ambitions outside of music?

FAIRE: Not really, except the fact that we love to customize/make clothes, and making videos, drawing, painting and writing. 

PINARD: What’s the meaning behind the name Faire? Did you have any other names you were also considering?

FAIRE: First we thought about “la GAULE” which is the old name for France and it also means to have a boner. It ended up becoming the name of our music: “Gaule Wave.” But we wanted to explore a maximum of different musical horizons. We thought that with FAIRE (meaning “to make” or “to do”), we could mix all kinds of music that we like, surfing between rock, yéyé, Eastern music, trap, techno and more. Also it’s a simple way for us to make music without thinking too much, and just go with the flow of our spontaneous ideas, like a manifestation of sorts. 

PINARD: Do you have any major musical influences?

FAIRE: Yes! We started playing music together while listening to Led Zeppelin, Steppenwolf… and the Motown Records really inspired us when we were younger. Later we let go of the stigma that we had of drum machines and were really inspired by ‘80’s cold wave, and especially Martin Rev of Suicide. French Pop culture influences us too, think Michel Polnareff, or all the old ‘50s songs with those incredible lyrics. Swinging by the US, people like R. Stevie Moore just transcend us. But for real, the list is really long, we’re not even talking about all the African, Indian or South American influences!

PINARD: Are there any non-musicians who inspire your work?

FAIRE: We met the incredible Charlie Le Mindu, the French hair designer who also does exhibitions of clothes made with an infinity of hair. His work is absolutely amazing. 

PINARD: What’s your personal process of creating an album like?

FAIRE: We like to be really isolated in a countryside or on a rooftop in Mexico, as we did with “Le Tamale.” Notice that we never really put out any albums, it was only EPs that we self recorded in our computer. Now we are preparing the recording of our first album, which we want to record live with someone capable to catch our live energy, because that’s where our potency lies.

PINARD: You seem to like using old women’s names as titles, Mireille, Sisi, Christiane, Marie-Louise, is there any particular reason?

FAIRE: We just love our grandmother’s stories and the era that they lived. 

PINARD: You released a very psychedelic video clip of Noizette a month ago, what’s the story behind it?

FAIRE: Some student from l’ECAL, an art school in Switzerland, asked for a song to do a video clip, then pitched the idea and we liked it! For the first time we just let them do what they wanted and received 6 different versions. We had the luxury of choosing the one we thought was the best. This battle between our faces and the Prince was exactly the kind of trip we liked.

PINARD: Is there a show you gave that you will remember forever?

FAIRE: Wow, when we released our EP « Le Tamale » in a Parisian bar people were so excited, and it was so overcrowded that the public was making waves falling down every two minutes on the little three-by-three-meter stage that they kept us from playing long. All our machines got disconnected and fucked up at the same time (it was also because of some spilled beer.) And we had 20 kilos of confetti flying around everywhere. It was two years ago, but we still have some in our synthesizers. It was definitely the best show/non-show. 

PINARD: You’re all super wild and insanely energetic on stage, how do your rehearsals differ from your live performances? 

FAIRE: (Laugh) that’s a good question. We take it really easy and chill, the exact opposite of our live shows.

PINARD: How do your audiences affect the performances?

FAIRE: We started being crazy on stage after some shows in Mexico where people were getting totally crazy, and thanks to them we took that energy, and it morphed us into these uncontrollable beasts. Now even if the crowd is really chill we get into them with all our passion and love, and push them to dance by jumping into the pit.

PINARD: What was it like to play in LA for the first time?

FAIRE: Really great, people were really into the fact that we got the mosh pits going. They weren’t accustomed to it or prepared for it at all. So we were kind of exotic with our craziness. 

PINARD: How was your experience with the city of LA, the American culture?

FAIRE: Pretty interesting, lots of cool vibes and a beautiful mix of various world cultures over there. People were lovely with us, and we met great artists there. Also Simon’s dad is from LA so we had a good introduction to the city. 

PINARD: It’s been more than a year since the release of your last EP, C’est L’été, what are you working on at the moment? You said there is a new album in the making?

FAIRE: Absolutely, we are now preparing new songs to record our first album. It will be released next year, but the date is still a secret. 

PINARD: What are you listening to right now? What was your summer ’18 soundtrack?

FAIRE: Escape-isms, HMLTD, Lil Pump and les Charlots.


Go see Faire play tonight at 10pm @ Madame Siam in Hollywood. You won’t regret it!


The Nonconformist: An Interview of Painter Duncan Hannah

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photograph and interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper

A painter of imaginative worlds of youthful frolic and abandon by trade, Duncan Hannah is a natural-born gentleman of letters and raconteur. He has a lot of stories to tell, like the time he introduced Nico to the band Television at CBGB. Or the time he wound up in a limo with David Bowie, Brian Ferry, and Andy Warhol. Or the time Patti Smith wrote a poem about him. Or the time that Lou Reed asked him to shit on his face at Max’s Kansas City. But Hannah wasn’t always at the right place at the right time, he was also at the wrong place at the wrong time. Growing up in Minneapolis, smoking weed, and taking acid, Hannah yearned for the bright lights and big city. Obsessed with literature, obsessed with the libidinal forces that consumed him, and obsessed with French and Italian New Wave films, Hannah’s figurative oil paintings have that new car smell circa 1935. They are electric, new but vintage, eternal but corporeal, vague but crystal clear, flesh-toned and coated with a fresh wax of nostalgia. Imagine Edward Hopper’s loneliness caught in a tornado with the masturbatory fantasies of a teenager – Michel Poiccard's bush and tush pinups taped to the mirror of a celluloid sex dream. I caught up with Hannah before the opening of his exhibition and West Coast book release at Parker Gallery in Los Angeles.

Oliver MAXWELL Kupper: Let’s start off with Cinemabilia in New York.  Was that 1970? 

DUNCAN HANNAH: That was probably the spring of '74, because I went to Parsons, and Parsons was right above Cinemabilia. So I just swung in. I was nuts about foreign cinema. So I'd say, "Let me see your Alain Delon file. Terry Ork, who owned the place, would go, "Richie! Alain Delon." Richie was Richard Hell – he worked there. I'd get a big pile of stills and then I'd say, "Could I get these?" And Terry would say, "Just take 'em." 

And you used those for reference?

Yeah. I wanted to make paintings like French movies that felt kind of pregnant with danger and romance. But unlike film noir I didn't want them to be too heavy. Because the French are – it's kind of lighter. And it happens in broad daylight. Breathless is a great example. 

I love the way Belmondo touches his lips in that movie. Alain Delon was another great actor. There's a
photograph of you, I think it's in your studio maybe, and you look sort of like Alain Delon! 

A little friendlier than Alain Delon. He's got those icy blue eyes.

He has very steely blue eyes. And a very steely look.

Yeah and he is...He killed his bodyguard. And got away with it.

That's wild. I didn't know that at all. 

I don't know if you can print this, but he had an orgy club and Pompidou was part of the club. Pompidou's wife was kind of a swinger, nympho, and Pompidou apparently had a huge penis. But anyhow, Alain Delon secretly filmed all of his orgy things behind a two-way mirror. So he shot his bodyguard with his gun, a Luger, wrapped him up in a tarpaulin that said, "Alain Delon," on it.

Smart.

[Laughs] He drove to the outskirts of Paris and just threw him in the dump. And so the dump guys found his corpse with a bullet. So there could only be one suspect: him. His bodyguard had been blackmailing him, because he got jealous of how rich Delon was. And I think Delon was kind of a dick too, so he was just like, "Fuck you, I'm so sick of working for you. Gimme something." But Delon was completely unruffled, and nobody could figure out why. Why is he being so cool? I mean it's completely in character. So Pompidou stepped in and said, "Case dismissed. There is no case." And the country, especially all the lefties, just said, "What? Different rules for rich and powerful people, that ain't right. Fuck you pigs." 

I wanted to talk a little bit about your upbringing. It seems like being a rebel started suiting you a lot more than conforming. Especially against a lot of these strict, postwar,
Midwestern values. Where do you think that rebellion came from?

I was fine with everything until, I don't know, maybe I started smoking pot at fourteen or fifteen. That was a great eye-opener. My grades immediately plummeted. And then pot led to everything else eventually. I also always wanted to be an artist, which is nonconformist. Anyhow, my dad was a lawyer, and he thought, "Well, he'll be an architect. He'll be something.

Was there ever an ounce of thought of becoming a lawyer or anything
like that?

Not at all. Not a nano second. 



But it seemed like your artwork was your own way of finding your identity. The realism in your art – was it a way to ground you in a way?

Yeah I would say that.  If you'd asked me when I was twenty, "Will you paint like that?" I doubt it. I just kind of grew into it. But it took a while, because I was just absorbing, you know Fillmore posters, and Zap Comix, and Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol. There was just so much coming in that it could've gone in many different directions. 

You were mainly studying abstract expressionists, right?

I went to Bard, and my teachers were Color Field painters. But I took art history, which was great, because you see this continuum and how it all fits together. Which was new to me. When I was a kid, I'd go to the MoMA and you look at all this different stuff and you think, "How does it fit together? I should know this. I'm gonna be an artist, but I don't get it." But then when you take art history, you kind of get it. One thing leads into another and you go, "Ohh." The reason I was confused by that is because, you know some particular painting, it's just that I don't like it. It's just my subjective take and it's okay not to like it. But now I know how it fits in. But anyhow, when it got to the late '40s and you get to de Kooning, I just went, "Wow."

You had these other tastes and interests that were completely opposite and modern in a way. 

Yeah, I was really attracted to being narrative. And I could just see I was gonna be a third-rate abstract painter. I mean it was fun, but I just thought, "It's not me." So I thought my voice was elsewhere. And figurative painting, you don't need an outside challenge, because it's challenging in and of itself. Because I wasn't trained to paint the way I am. So, I was just looking at dead painters and trying to figure out what they did. 

Like Hopper?

Yeah, like Hopper. And wondering: Why is there so much psychology? His paintings were so pregnant with something. 

There's an anxiousness about them. And a loneliness.

Yeah, and a kind of mistrust. Whose side are you on, and who can you trust? And how can you put that in a painting? I realized that film and books travel through time. If you want to make a movie about Los Angeles in 1939, no problem. But if a contemporary painter paints Los Angeles in 1939, it's called, “nostalgic," or "retro," or something, which just doesn't seem fair. So as long as you do it well, you can transcend it. I love period stuff. And I thought, "Why can't painters do that too?"

I think your paintings are interesting because there's a distinct contemporary feel to them, even though they're retrospective. They look more like fantasies in a way...

Yeah it's not quite real. I remember when I was like ten, I went to Europe for the first time and it felt really foreign. I loved that feeling. And it gave me some sense of what the world would be like when I actually became an adult at twenty-one. It'll be like this. Anyhow, then I grew up. Things change and it's not really the way you thought it would be. But I thought, that feeling I had when I was ten, and also the future being kind of friendly, it was gonna be great. [Laughs]

It feels like you were yearning to get out of the Midwest and go to the big city.

Yeah, as fast as I could. Clearly, Minneapolis was, for me, nowhere to stay. I went to New York when I was seven, with my parents. We were staying at the Waldorf, and I remember standing under the Marquee on Park Avenue, looking at the yellow cabs going back and forth, and just thinking with absolute certainty, "Oh, I get it. So this is where you come to live." And I never wavered.

You have endless incredible stories. And you're an obsessive collector of personal ephemera, too. Your diaries were full of everything.

And physical memorabilia too. I mean I am, I've always been a collector of all kinds of stuff. 

And the writing seems that way. It seems like a collection of streams of consciousness...

I suppose that's it. You collect records and drawings, and you collect conversations, and you collect memories and you collect dirty jokes. You collect all kinds of things. I guess I hate to let things slip through my fingers. 

Keeping all these moments recorded, did you feel like you were living through a sort of historical time? 

I'd have to say no. Except, I wanted to be in swinging London, with the Yardbirds and the Who. I don't know, that was really appealing. I was born too late. When this started happening I thought, "Well, this is pretty good too." But, I never thought it would cross over. But then, you know, Blondie and Talking Heads got signed and then they'd be gone for a year. Then you'd see them on TV, and you'd read about them in Melody Maker or some French pop magazine, and you'd go, "Wow. These are not our bands anymore. These bands belong to the world." It's working. 

Even Patti Smith too. It seemed like Patti was so niche.

Yeah she’s a poet. 


Inspired by Rimbaud. 

I think I saw one of her first gigs, when she had Lenny, and she was very embarrassed about it. Like she was pretending to be a rockstar. "I'm just gonna pretend to be a rockstar, just for this one song. So I'm bringing out Lenny Kaye!" And of course we all loved Nuggets. Yay, Lenny Kaye! And it was so primitive. She'd do a Marvelettes song. And you'd just go, "Oh, that's charming." Who would've thought? It was like a magic trick. Also, because she was in love with rock
stars, then to become a rock star gradually, right in front of your eyes.

It's really fascinating. And people think about that era of being just purely punk and people in tatters.

Real punk is something I've barely listened to. And even when I did, it's fun, but it's not really my kind of music. Except something like the Stooges, it transcends punk. As Danny Fields said, it's like our "Wagner" or something. And I thought, "Yeah, it kind of is." 

triumph in brussels 2.jpg

Danny Fields was sort of a big part of your evolution. He seemed to introduce you to a lot of different people in New York. 

Yeah. My editor said, "Y'know, I kind of get tired of your antics with your decadent friends, until you move to New York and meet Danny Fields. He's the straw that stirs the drink." And I don't exactly know what that means, but it sounds good. 

It totally makes sense. It seems that way. You read it, and it's amazing, it's riveting, and then...

Well then I think it just kicks in. All those people I've been reading about and listening to, fantasizing about, there they are. And he had the magic key. And they all loved him. He was so respected. 

Do you still paint upside down? I read somewhere that you paint upside down. 

Oh, well I don't get upside down, but yeah I do turn the painting upside down. And it's very helpful. And then the other trick is you hold a mirror against it so you can see it backwards. And you can see a flaw immediately. Because you've gotten so used to it. But that was the one thing — not the one thing — that I really learned from my abstract teachers: is just keep turning it.
Because the painting should be as strong formally as it is narratively. It's to prevent you from painting a picture. I mean pictures are fine, but you're painting a painting. And painting
has its own rules. And if you forget that, it's weaker.

It doesn't hold up the narrative as well if it sucks formally.

Yeah and it's even good to bring the narrative down. Like if details get lost or something. That's fine and hopefully it becomes archetypal in some kind of way.

The viewer can better create the picture in their own head. 

Well that's exactly it. It's more generous that way. If you don't nail everything down for the viewer, they know that. I mean I always think it's funny painting reflections in water, or reflections on anything, because it looks so difficult, but actually doing it is really simple. You just mimic what's nearby. And the viewer fills it in. They know exactly what that is. So you don't even have to flesh it out much. You have to suggest it and the viewer does the rest. 

I think that's why the Renaissance painters were so brilliant. 

Yeah and then the viewer's more engaged too. Because they've actually contributed to it. Whereas like a photorealist, they leave you absolutely nothing to do. It just leaves me cold. Because yeah, that looks impossible to do, but who cares?

Going back to the book, what made you decide to publish the diaries? Did they come to you?

I had an offer from an archive dealer to sell my archives to some big library. And I was sixty-three at the time maybe. I thought, "Ooh, I'm not done with them." I'd never read them, and I'd been meaning to do something for about ten years. And I thought, this is the time. So I started editing.
Salvaging what was salvageable. And then there was a New York Times article about me, because I had a show in Chinatown. And they were asking me how I liked the Patti Smith book and I said, "Yeah, I liked it. It wasn't quite my experience, but maybe I'll write my own." And it was completely off the cuff. So it's funny that he threw that in, but then an editor at Random House saw, who owned one of my paintings, and I knew very slightly, and he said, "Hey, if you actually do that, let me have first peek." I thought he was being polite. After a few months, I thought, "I should get him out of the way." So I sent him forty pages, waited for him to say, "Oh, I'm so busy, I don't know when I'll get to this but thanks a lot." But he wrote right back and said, "This is great. Send me more." So I sent him another one-hundred pages. And then he just said, "Alright, meet me for breakfast tomorrow." And this guy's a famous editor. He did David Foster Wallace. Like real writers. [Laughs] And I thought, "What?" 

Well this is real writing, I think that you have – you could have been a novelist, you could have been a short story writer. 

That's really nice to hear, but it's impossible for me to see it like that. Anyhow, he just said, "I'm
gonna sell it to Knopf. This is great. And, there is no primary document of the '70s that's like this. This is so different from a memoir. It has an immediacy to it that those other books don't have." And I said, "Okay." And he said, "So just finish up..." And he warned me, he said, "This is very — are you ready for this? Because you're, like, naked."

I like that he warned you afterwards.

Well, it was kind of in the process, but he said, "You know you're laying yourself open." And there's a lawyer to protect other people in it. So we concealed identities. I said, "I don't know. I don't think I'm that bad in it. So why not?" Also, I love this kind of book. I love when an author tells the truth. And I always feel so grateful. And they don't all do it. I mean if you don't tell the truth, who cares? It's just not that interesting. So I thought, well it's my ace in the hole, that it's just tawdry as it is.

But it also has a lot of...the tawdriness of it adds to the depth in a way. And I think that you had a sort of very keen way of observing what was around you. It really did seem grounding. 

Yeah, I think that's right, it was a way of equilibrium. And if I could write it down, it didn't mean that it was that bad or I was still in possession of my wits or something. I think that's probably right. 

I mean there's a lot of blackouts. There's a lot of lapses in memory and small lapses in judgment. But you always sort of bounce back to things. And you're still alive. You're still around. 

Well I'm surprised that the tone is kind of consistent from the beginning to the end. And I didn't expect that. I thought it would be kind of all over the place. Because I remember — if I'd written a memoir, I would've thought, "Oh, that's the time when I was trying on identities and we were all very pretentious and phonies a lot of the time." But I didn't find it like that. It doesn't seem like that. 

It seemed authentic. You seemed like a journalist in your own life. You seem like you were on an assignment.

And that myself is my experiment in a way. 

And you sort of become a fixture in the history of a lot of people's lives. I think that's what's so
interesting about painters. You can enter different worlds.

Yeah. Not something I necessarily thought about. But it does provide you, as long as you're in the mix somehow, you don't have to be David Hockney. But if you're in there, it just keeps ever-changing. It's fascinating. So, that's really good. And that is one thing I really wanted: access to that world that seemed out of reach when I was twelve. And then eventually it wasn't. 

What was the process of curating this show? Because it seemed like it goes back a little bit to your earlier work.

When Sam Parker opened his gallery, he said, "Let's have a show." Actually, I've had a bunch of shows lately. I've shown in Amsterdam, Paris, two in New York, and then this, all in a year. And it was all based on the inventory that I had. So that was good. I mean I paint a lot. I paint every day of the week if I can. So it just builds up. And not all painters I know do that. And they'll call and say, "What're you doing?" "Painting." "Got a show?" "No, just painting." And they go, "Oh, good for you." Regardless of shows. And also I paint better if I don't have a deadline or a destination. So if it has no purpose other than to turn me on that week – that’s usually the best.

Well, I like the world you are creating with your paintings – your imagination is rich.

I mean, sometimes I'll be painting in a heatwave in the summer and I'll paint a car in the snow. It's clearly escapism for me. It's a blizzard in January and I'm painting the Riviera. As long as you've got desires and whims and eccentricities, I just think, exploit them. And then the other thing is, which I think most artists agree with, is that you don't have to start with a good idea, all you've got to do is get engaged. And you don't start with this flourish of virtuosity. I don't anyhow. You can start with a mistake and then you make another mistake. And then you have to correct those. And after you've corrected enough mistakes, suddenly it starts happening. And you're connected to this thing. That has its own rules. And your deal is to try to figure out what those rules are and follow them. Or not follow them. That to me
is creativity.

This interview was published in Autre Issue 5 (Summer 2018). Purchase here.

Pointless Prophet: An Interview With Joe McKee On The Occasion Of His New Video Premiere

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text by Summer Bowie

 

Joe McKee might have been everyone’s best friend in a past life. He’s full of charming witticisms, unexpected humor, moments of sober pontification, and there’s always a little light in his eyes that let’s you know he’s really listening. To hear him play music is a little bit like a secular religious experience. There’s no call to worship, but something about his sound is invariably transcendent. All of that thoughtful articulation in his discourse gets shrouded in a layered veil of sonic silk. It’s much like listening to a song in a language you don’t speak. You might be able to make out a word here and there, but you can never tell if your interpretation of the song is correct, or if you’ve just projected your own story onto it. McKee’s second solo album, An Australian Alien tells the true story of the artist’s journey through the loss of a best friend, the birth of a daughter, and the experience of processing a major life transition while being processed as an immigrant. Now five years an Angeleno, McKee is feeling much more at home geographically, but he’ll always be an alien of sorts: daringly vulnerable, abnormally modest (and not just for an Angeleno), and uniquely eloquent. I had the chance to ask Joe a few questions about the album and the pleasure of premiering his latest video  - and maybe, just maybe, I’ll find myself in someone’s living room some day, enjoying a private performance by the alien himself.  

SUMMER BOWIE: I want to start by talking about the title of your new album, An Australian Alien. You’ve been in LA for about 5 years now - do you still feel like an alien here in the States? Having been born in England, did you feel like an English alien in Australia? 

JOE MCKEE: I've always felt a little bit alien and I probably always will. I suppose that comes from being transplanted, as a ripe young chap, from the grey kingdom of Londonium to the outback of Australia. Everything was familiar but strangely different, like a bizarro world where Burger King is called Hungry Jacks and so on. I spoke the same language, but I was still the "other." I was probably quite self conscious of this growing up, but I learned to celebrate those subtle differences as I got older, I suppose. 

So, that 'alien' word was bandied about all over the application forms for my permanent residency to remain in the United States. An Australian Alien had a nice ring to it. It's musical, and it's playful. Prior to living in the US I was vagabonding around Europe, sleeping on peoples couches, outstaying my welcome wherever I was performing. Always a tourist, even at home. I feel like I've finally found a place to reside and plant some roots in Los Angeles. This is mainly due to becoming a surprise father here.  

BOWIE: So you’ve always felt a bit extraterrestrial? Do you still feel extra-Angeleno? 

MCKEE: Living here in LA? Somewhat, but I feel more at home here than I have for a long time. The album was written primarily during that transition period, when I was still in this state of flux. Living in-between. I'd alienated myself from my previous life by moving here, which was difficult and freeing at the same time. I could reinvent myself in a new place and shed all that old scabby skin that was weighing me down. So I think I just feel more at home in my fresh flesh-suit.

BOWIE: This album was recorded in a number of different locations, including a cargo ship sailing the Pacific, friends’ homes, and a marijuana plantation in Northern California. Have you always been very nomadic while recording, or was this choice made specifically for this album? 

MCKEE: I definitely come from nomadic stock. My family has moved countries every generation for as far back as we can trace. We're all running from something! Or seeking something perhaps. One of the lovely things about making music is that it's weightless. You can do it all inside your noggin' while you're galavanting around the globe. You can hum a melody into your phone, or you can write a lyric on a napkin. I don't have to lug a roll of canvas and my paintbrushes around to create something. 

Having said that, recording this album was a particularly scattered process. I really didn't have a community in LA when I first arrived, nor did I have a cent to my name, so I had snatch moments to write this record amongst all of the madness of becoming a father, moving to a new country, going through my Saturn's Return yada yada yada. I relied on the generosity and kindness of strangers really. People like Derek Brambles, Ethan DeLorenzo, Paz Lenchantin, Chris Nelson. Good humans, those.

BOWIE: If I’ve ever to known anyone to experience Saturn’s Return it would be you.  Do you subscribe to this theory, or have you gained any deeper perspective on the chaos of your late twenties? 

MCKEE: I think the Saturn's Return concept is a poetic way to understand any turmoil or life-shift. I think there’s probably some truth to it. I know what I went through was a mind-bending and ego-crushing experience. I was ruled by my ego in my twenties and I was increasingly dissatisfied with what was happening in my life to be honest. Things had fragmented and life seemed like a labyrinth. So the universe came along and obliterated my concept of reality. It dealt me a cataclysmic hand. My best friend passed away and I was becoming a father with a virtual stranger on the other side of the world. The only thing you can do when the universe, or God, or whomever or whatever deals you that kind of hand is to relinquish control. To let go. This was a drawn-out process, like untangling a chunky dread-lock, but eventually I freed myself from my warped concept of myself that I'd created. Like I'd birthed a brand new slippery, shiny version of myself. Being a father helps you reconnect with a clean slate, a tabula rasa! It helps you get back to this place that you were before all the conditioning and confusion. Before the ego takes hold! Then you can start anew, but with the knowledge that you've accrued along the winding way. Y'know? 

BOWIE: You delivered your best friend’s eulogy on the same day that you met your daughter, Juniper. Did you start composing the album very long after? 

MCKEE: I began writing the album prior to this actually. I wrote a song on the album that is sung from the perspective of an unborn child in his mother's womb, before knowing I was becoming a father. Some weird prophecy. I keep having these prophetic dreams that are absolutely useless to me. Pointless prophecies. I'm a pointless prophet. 

Anyway, Juniper's birth and Matt's death were interconnected. He was also becoming a father at the time of his death and he actually introduced me to the mother of my child. My psychic friend called me recently and told me that I was Matt's mother in a past life. I don't know what that means but I think I understand. 

So to answer your question, the album was written, before, during and after those events. So it tells the whole story in some warped and mangled way.

BOWIE: This is the second solo album you’ve released since parting ways with your former band, SNOWMAN. Would you say that your personal growth has been an analogue to your growth as a musician, or do you feel like music has acted as a sort of constant in life that helps you navigate the rest? 

MCKEE: That’s a good question. I suppose you might be onto something there. I suppose my music has become more like me in some sense. I’ve been following a thread for long enough that I'm in a place creatively that I don't know if anyone else is at. It's just a little nook somewhere that feels like home. Don't get me wrong, we're all just regurgitating our various influences, but at some point you get to a place where you've forgotten what they were and what you are making feels like it belongs to you and only you. I'm a less frightened and significantly happier person than I was in my SNOWMAN daze. I don't think it's a coincidence that my music has become less frightening and more colorful as time has passed.

BOWIE: Do you find the composition process to be very fluid and organic, or does it tend to be very labor-intensive?  

MCKEE: It's both really. There is fluidity in the conception of an idea, but the execution is laborious. The most enjoyable part of making music is when an initial spark becomes a flame, and hey presto! a song is born. The rest is quite a painful process and it doesn't come naturally to me at all. It's work. The song "I'll Be Your Host" is about the birth of a creative idea, and the eventual letting-go of that creation. It no longer belongs to me after the initial burst. I'm not terribly interested in touring these songs live and playing them ad nauseum to vaguely interested drunk people because that seems so far removed from that "first spark" moment that I'm talking about. Perhaps I'll just play private one-on-one performances for a person in my garden. Then it still feels sacred or something. Perhaps I'm rambling.

BOWIE: Your lyrics and song titles have a certain cryptic vulnerability to them. Is this intentional?  

MCKEE: hmmm... It's inherent, I'm not sure it's intentional. It sounds utterly trite but music really is a form of catharsis for me.... but I'm not particularly fond of that confessional style of song writing, so there's always a veil of some sort. I have to wrap metaphor in pataphor in metaphor to feel as though I'm saying anything in a way that feels unique or unburdensome. Is that a word? I don't want to burden people with my crap. I want to sort through it, turn it into something magical and share that, y'know. It's digestion! Songwriting (or creation in any form) is like a digestive process. The final release is the turd that I've presented to you! All the garbage that I need to release! Flushing it into the world. Magical crap. Perhaps childbirth is a nicer analogy. 

BOWIE: “A Yolk He’d Never Seen” is about people getting their comeuppance and feeling the karmic consequence of behaving like a jerk. Can you elaborate on that? 

MCKEE: Yeah that was the first song I wrote for this record. I was living a life of sin! I was genuinely trying to do things purely for myself even if they hurt other people. I made a conscious decision to do this. Madness! Of course the universe dealt me the hand that it did, and I learned my lesson. So that song is about cosmic/karmic repercussions. I won't go into too much detail, but I hurt someone, and in turn, I was hurt. Egg all over my face. 

BOWIE: Can you talk a bit about the first track you released, “I Want to Be Your Wife,” and its significance to the album? 

MCKEE: I sung it from the perspective of a woman in an unhappy marriage. I was a stay-at-home dad in a peculiar marital situation, but really it's based on every relationship I've been in and that crippling fear of losing oneself to another person. Terrifying stuff. It's a funny song, you should listen to the lyrics. You devote so much to these beings (songs/children) and at some point they have to leave the nest and you're all alone again! Then you die. 

BOWIE: Let’s talk about your use of reverb. How long have you been experimenting with the effect and do you remember what inspired you to develop this signature? 

MCKEE: Oh yeah, it's another veil, like the cryptic lyrics, it's a way for me to hide behind something. It's just like clothing for me; it feels natural to wear a suit made of reverb. I'd like to thread a sound suit together and wear it, but sound is still invisible, so it'd only ever be a representation of a sound. But imagine that! Joe McKee and his Technicolor Reverb Tracksuit. It'd be like the Emperor's new clothes. I'd be wandering around in my disgusting naked body. People would say "put some goddamn clothes on you pallid creep!" and I'd simply reply "oh you can't see the reverb? whats wrong with you? 

BOWIE: Can we expect any more music videos for the album? 

MCKEE: Yeah one more!

BOWIE: Performances? 

MCKEE: In some capacity. Not in bars though. It just doesn't really make sense for these songs to compete with the alcohol industry. I don't want to be at battle. Being on stage just feeds into this ego-worship thing that I don't think is very healthy for me. So If I play, I'll play on the floor, eye-to-eye and you can have a cup of tea. And you'll bloody well enjoy it.


Meryl Meisler's Disco Versailles: An Interview

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Text by Adam Lehrer

Photographs by Meryl Meisler courtesy of Steven Kasher Gallery

What lifts the medium of photography into the realm of fine art is contrast. During the 1970s, Meryl Meisler was a teacher by day and a disco dancing queen by night. She photographed everyday life in Bushwick, and she documented the wild scenes of the discos. In her work you find sobering scenes from an impoverished and crime-ridden city, and yet its inhabitants can be found each night celebrating their fundamental rights. The right to don a more perfect look each night, the right to be a free sexual agent, and the right to dance. Her recent book, A Tale of Two Cities, depicts the stark contrast between the aching realities of life in Bushwick and the opulence of a nightclubbing scene that the artist describes as her Versailles. In these photographs, she channels humanity’s ability to rise above the chaos and revel in the miracle of life. I spoke with Meisler on a balmy day in New York to talk about the state of the city in the 1970s and the sanctuary that was the disco scene. 

ADAM LEHRER: I know your grandfather and your father were both photographers. Was that your initial exposure to the form?

MERYL MEISLER: They were a tremendous influence: their styles and purposes and just that they did it. My dad did mostly family portraits. I have his negatives and large prints. You can see pictures of his brothers, pictures of when he was in the Coast Guard, self-portraits of him writing letters, photos of when he was dating my mother. They were just really beautiful black and white portraits.

Were you already looking at photography as fine art while you were in art school?

I did not, but I saw purpose in it. My last year of undergraduate school I came home and went to see the Diane Arbus show at MoMA. That was the first time I ever saw photography as art. All the Arbus classics staring at me. I was moved. I took a class with one professor in college and he introduced us to documentary photographers and Henri Lartigue. My mindset became “this is art.”

I can see some of the influences in your work because it had some of the poetry of Arbus, but also Lartigue’s glamour. Did you think of the disco as your Paris or your ‘place of action?’

I thought, “This is my Versailles.” I knew disco was a scene that was wild and interesting. But those places were full of photographers so I never showed these photographs. When I did, I was pleased that people found a uniqueness within them. I always felt I had a special eye. I saw things differently. Even as a kid, I would look up at trees and say to friends, “aren’t they the funniest trees?” I capture a certain energy.

Absolutely.

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When I was in graduate school, I went to go see a psychic who could read spiritual things in photographs. Looking at a photo of my grandfather, she said something terrible happened with this person. My grandfather took his own life. I think that photographs have a spirituality.

What I really love about your photographs is how well the Bushwick and Disco photos juxtapose each other. New York at that point was in ruins, crack was at its worst, and Bushwick was crime-ridden, but you found joyous moments. Was that intentional? To paraphrase Keith Richards discussing ‘Exile on Main Street,’ were people partying in the face of tragedy?

I realize now I was taking pictures of things I found uplifting because I couldn’t afford to quit teaching. Bushwick was tough. But I also found it to be friendly and warm. Whereas the disco stuff, I wanted to go deeper. There were darker things on the disco scene. As dark as Meryl gets.

What did you prefer about disco, as opposed to punk rock?

I liked the big club, I liked the lights, I liked the fashion, the bathrooms certainly were a lot cleaner, you could dance. I went to CBGBs, but disco was my scene.

How did this reappraisal of your work at the Bushwick bar, Bizarre, come into fruition? 

During Bushwick Open Studios one year I went to get lunch and Bizarre bar owner Jean-Stephane Sauvaire says, “Hello, this is my place!” and he showed me what he was doing there. They didn’t even have a food license yet. And then he showed me the basement that he painted dark and he said, “I’d like to show photographers like you here.” I told him, “I’ve shown in museums and now I’m gonna show in the basement of a bar where they’re stealing stuff off the walls!” and he says, “don’t be such a snob.” 

That’s how you introduce it to a new viewership.

He said, “I want to publish a book.” I’m thinking this guy is out of his mind. I’m thinking okay,  “I want it to be about Bushwick and my disco work, these worlds connect.” He asked to see them  and I just started scanning them. My spouse Patricia Jean O’Brien designed the book and we put it together. Bizarre became my publisher, which is the most bizarre thing. 

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An Interview of Nobuyoshi Araki

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Interview by Dan Abbe

Portraits by Tom Fraud

 

NOBUYOSHI ARAKI: What kind of questions will you be asking? There’s nothing really to ask, is there? Because my photos are pretty chatty. I'm not joking! They're just the same as talking to me. If I was going to put it in a cool-sounding way, it’s like they translate my subjects as they really are. So, there's really nothing to talk about! 

DAN ABBE: [Do you] look at the internet much? 

ARAKI: No, I don’t have it. I don’t even own a mobile phone. Nothing like that. I don’t like being shot with a digital camera, especially a really good one. It's too good, you know? I feel like digital cameras miss what’s most important, emotion and wetness. These things get lost in digital photography. And before you know it, you get used to that. I’m not talking about shades or shadows being lost, or anything like that. But I almost feel as if digital photography takes away the shadow of the person taking the photo. That’s why I don’t use digital cameras. 

I’d like to ask you about your recent exhibit at the Toyota Municipal Museum of Art, "Ojo Shashu: Photography for the Afterlife." How do you think it went, either in terms of the content, or the reaction from the audience? 

The museum tried to make it seem like I was dead. For me, putting something together always means pulling it apart. For this exhibit, it worked, though. I mean, the museum is designed well, as a place to show photographs. When I first started, I thought that photographs should be shown in books, not in museums. At that time, I thought that museums were like graveyards, at least for photography, you know. This exhibit was good. Presenting my works in an exhibit like that instead of through a photo book, I feel like I was able to express myself even better. It’s like climbing Mount Fuji—it’s usually better to see the sunrise from the 8th station, but for this exhibit we went straight to the top. 

Did you try out anything in particular with the presentation of your work? 

I try to switch things up to make it look as rough around the edges as possible. You know those people who pay really careful attention to the way their works are exhibited? Like, some photographers focus on the layout too much. That’s wrong. It should just be slapped together. I didn’t even put the photos up myself. I entrusted all that to people who understand me well—I just said, "do it however you want." It was a success. I’ve always acted on the principle of pulling everything apart and always presenting something new. 

The next exhibition I’m doing is called Ai No Tabi [Love Journey] in Niigata Prefecture. (pointing out a photo in the catalog) This one is of my balcony when I was living in Gotokuji. This is the western sky. Heaven, in other words. Around March 11, 2011, my apartment building was demolished, so I moved to Umegaoka, a neighborhood close by. I did up the rooftop and began shooting the eastern sky from there. That’s where the sun rises, you know, reborn. In this sense, I take photographs in the same way that I live my life. 

It’s not just a simple shot of the eastern sky; it’s loaded with my feeling that everything starts from there. Let me tell you something: as you can see, the sky in the east gets darker and darker. Now look closer, and it becomes a mirror, or a window of myself. Before March 11, 2011, I had to face my father’s death, my mother's death and my wife’s death. Then around March 11, my cat Chiro died. So recently, the Grim Reaper has been hovering around here. And over there is a goddess (gestures at the woman sitting next to him) so these days it's the three of us! (laughs) I got prostate cancer and did radiotherapy, which messed this up (points towards his pelvis) and made me piss blood. Then I lost sight in one of my eyes. The blood in my urine is from the radiotherapy. But I also had a circulatory problem, a blocked artery, so now I’m taking a blood-thinning agent, but it's thinning too much and making me piss blood. So here I am going through all this, and now you want to ask me these questions! (all laugh) 

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Your exhibit "Sagan No Koi [Love on the Left Eye]" was showing at Taka Ishii Gallery recently... 

Yeah, I took the title from van der Elsken's "Seine Sagan No Koi [Love on the Left Bank]." It could have been Love on the Sumida River for all I care. My wife loved "Love on the Left Bank" too. I was a fan of his work when I was around 20. I guess I’m paying homage, or really just playing around. What did you think of it? 

I thought it could be appreciated as painting, too. The show that's up there now [an exhibit by Kunié Sugiura] also combines photography and painting, so there’s a connection. Anyway, I was interested in the gaps where the light breaks through the paint a little bit. 

That’s what’s great about those works. That you can kind of see them, but you also can’t. After this, I thought about painting over the left half as well, and calling it "Light and Darkness Lost." Light and Darkness is Natsume Soseki’s posthumous novel. It seems like a waste, but I painted over photographs of nudes and so on in black. Still, if I went too far, it would seem like I was trying to do some sort of trendy art, so I’m holding back. It's tough though, my genius makes me do these things! (laughs)

I want to talk about your recent work. Every time you produce something new, you do it under the name Araki, which means that the bar is always set high. Yet I think you’ve been clearing it each time, and I wonder whether people don’t think: "well, it's Araki, so of course it’s going to be good." Do you think you’re taken for granted?

I mean, I’ve decided that I must do something different every time. If I don't keep transforming, I’ll just become a master. It's no good being a maestro. (laughs) I always want to work as if I’m a novice. I never want to reproduce or reshoot anything I've already done. I do always say that photography is about reproducing, for instance the reproduction of a person, or the reproduction of an era, reproduction this, reproduction that, but actually I think it's bad to keep reproducing your own work. 

I actually wanted to ask you about this word reproduction, or replication. The same subjects often appear in your work, and I wonder whether you would also consider that to be a kind of replication, too. Based on what you just said, though, I’m guessing no. 

That's right. So his style is a little different, but it’s like looking head-on at a Picasso painting. (looks at the woman next to him) From a different angle, she looks Chinese, different. From the front, the back, at an angle.... What you see and what you feel is up to you. My subjects are multifaceted, and that’s what I find appealing, that they’re appealing in different ways. When I photograph a woman, I see many different sides to her.

Is the sky similar as a subject in that it's different every time?

Yes. To me, that's why it's "heavenly." There are no two skies that look the same. Later, I will exhibit “Eastern Sky” at Shiseido Gallery. I’ve been shooting the sky every morning for nearly three years, since I moved to my new apartment after March 11. 

But you know, when it comes to showing these photos.... It’s not like I think the audience won’t understand, or that I would be making fun of them, but shooting photos and showing them are two different things. When you exhibit, you should have at least some entertainment. 

For example, I do this thing that I call "kurumado" [this is a portmanteau of the Japanese words for “car,” kuruma, and “window,” mado] where I shoot from the inside of a taxi. Everything looks great from the window now. I used to photograph all the time, but looking makes me more tired now, because I can only see with one eye. So now, I only shoot when my taxi stops at a red light. When I stop at a red light, the shot is framed perfectly by the side window, because the photography gods are on my side.

But anyway, when I show these photos of basically nothing to an audience, I feel like I should make it more entertaining by throwing in some nudes here and there, even though I call my work "Shi-shashin" [I-photography]. 

The content of these three shows in Aichi, Niigata and Tokyo are all very different. 

Yeah, it’s not a “traveling exhibition,” I don't do that.

Because that would be a repetition?

Yes, yes. Otherwise it’s like, “Oh, I saw the same thing in that city too.” 

Are you making three different catalogs too? 

No, just one. There are going to be some photos in the Niigata section of the book that didn’t even make it into the actual exhibit. Also, I’m only using one photo from the Eastern Sky exhibit I’ll be doing at Shiseido. I took it on New Year's Day, this year.

I bet something's going to happen within this year. Like a nuclear power plant or Mount Fuji is going to blow, something like that. It won't be a reborn eastern sky anymore. I feel like the entire sky—north, south, east, west—is beginning to resemble the western sky, in other words heaven. Still, I want to live to be over eighty. That’s how my photos make me feel. They encourage me. The sky that I’m looking at right now has become a mirror. 

What’s the difference between the eastern and western skies? 

Ah. It's very chatty, you know, the western sky. A real loudmouth. In the olden days, it was considered to be the Pure Land. It’s where the sun sets, and when it does, it’s quite dramatic. I think life’s the same way too. 

The sun rises in the east, so I thought that the eastern sky was flat, because of all this backlight. But these days, it's getting more complicated. Perhaps because of El Niño, what the hell do I know!

Here's the interesting thing, though. Because I’m shooting against the light, the bumpy tops of those buildings look like graves, or gravestones. You could almost say it’s like a graveyard sky. You look at the sky, you look at the heavens, you look at the world. And see, that’s where the road is. When I see roads, I feel like they’re life itself. At every moment. 

Mornings from 7 to 8 am, there’s always a girl running in high heels, click clack click. If only she’d leave the house a little earlier, then she wouldn’t have to rush, and the station is so close, too! Someone's walking their dog, and there are families and married couples. I’ve been shooting the same scenery for three years, so now there’s room to think thoughts like “I wish I saw new couples instead of the usual ones.” Or “I wish he’d get a different girlfriend.” That’s what I think about when I’m shooting. (laughs) You can see the essence of this whole year in these photos. (points to a section of the catalog)

So these are all photos you took from your rooftop?

That’s right. I’m making a photo book entirely of this series. It’ll be out in a month or so. But without anything else, I think it will be kind of boring for the poor saps looking at it! (laughs)

But you’re not bored of them yourself, are you.  

Oh, nowadays this is all I need! It’s a bad example, but they're better than Balthus’ road. ["Le Passage du Commerce-Saint-André"]

In Japan, words like “path” [michi] or “sky” can easily take on deeper meanings. That’s why I’m using the word “road” [doro]. If you say “path,” people might take this to be spiritual or symbolic, they might think of paths with no one in sight, or a painting by Kaii Higashiyama, and this is not what I’m going for. I want to say that everyday things can tell us a lot about everything. It’s the everyday that’s alive. That's why I shoot every single day.

So every day without fail, you shoot the sky and the road from your rooftop. Is there anything else that you do every day? 

People often decide this kind of thing, right? Like, "I'm going to shoot such and such a thing." If I had that kind of time, I’d rather just take photos of myself. That's why I take “I-photographs.” You have to keep on breathing, keep your heart pumping, and in my case clicking the shutter is the same thing. That's why I'm not going to go photograph a war, or something like that. 

It's weird to say I’m moved, but I guess I'm most affected by things like pissing blood. When things like that happen, the first thing I think is to grab my camera. That’s what I’ve been doing for about fifty years. (laughs)

I wanted to ask you about something I read in the remembrance you wrote for Shomei Tomatsu, in which you said that he'd influenced you in terms of your thoughts about history, or politics. 

Oh, I wouldn't write that. "politics" and such. I think it depends on when you were born. He was born 10 years before me, so he was hung up about the fact that we were occupied, that's why he went to Yokosuka and Okinawa. I’m personally more hung up about things like the atomic bomb. I shoot a lot in August: the 6th, the 9th, Nagasaki, and the 15th, the day the war ended. When I was working on Pseudo Diary, I messed with the camera's dating feature, so in some sense I have an obsession about this, or about the Showa Emperor. Again, this all depends on when you were born. On August 15, I would, without fail, go to the Imperial Palace and shoot. I was really into that. I have a thing for the date August 15. I would change the date of the camera to August 15, take regular photos of daily life, and some other meaning would appear. March 11 overlaps with the atomic bomb in my mind.

Right, I mean you've said that your photographs are all about yourself, but I think that March 11 has become a surprisingly big theme for you. 

It's influenced me, yes—but it's more like I’ve had no choice but to be influenced. It’s probably the influence closest to me personally, strange as that may sound. But it was its own expression. Photographers, you know, aren't people who express things. It's the world that does the expressing. Time, too.

One role of photographers is to respond to such expressions through shooting. I'm not like that, though. Even now I sometimes think maybe I should have gone, but I'm the kind of photographer that squeals out, "nice!" when I shoot. As a photographer, it would've been a fantastic landscape—a boat sitting on top of a love hotel—but I wouldn't have been able to keep my mouth shut. I get like that when I hold a camera. So that's why I couldn’t go, didn't go.

So many photographers have gone to Tohoku and taken photographs, but personally I'm not sure it's adding up to much. 

Well, I basically don’t look at other people’s photos. It’s not that I’m cynical, but I’m interested in other things, like the silly people trying to save this lone pine tree that miraculously survived. That’s the kind of thing that I’m interested in. It's kind of a goofy or foolish thing, but it's really interesting to me. 

Okay, let's talk about the sky again. You're now facing towards the east, but as far as I know Tokyo Skytree has never appeared in your work. Is that intentional? 

I’m loyal to Tokyo Tower, I grew up with it. I went up Skytree for a job, but it was cloudy that day so it didn't even matter!

I’m worried that Skytree will ruin the shitamachi [Tokyo's older district] by turning it into a regular place. Of course Tokyo is always changing, but I wonder how you feel about this.

Cities are always changing, and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. Even if it does become all digitized, I don’t mind the idea of a digital shitamachi. 

I don’t like photos that don’t have a feeling of nostalgia. Nostalgia lasts forever. Even if you can’t see it, nostalgia remains. People look down on nostalgia and sentimentality, right? Like they're not virile. Tears are good. 

Everyone is losing touch with this kind of thing. Not just in photography, you know, but in the way they're relating to each other. I mean, what is this—Twitter and so on. Pick up a damn brush and write out the characters! (laughs) That’s why people get frustrated and stab one another, because their words aren’t getting through to others. That's something good about the shitamachi though. You can see siblings going to calligraphy classes together after school. Ah, I just love that, I can't contain myself. It’s so great. 

(Araki looks through the catalog)

A little while ago I said "Light and Darkness Lost," making a joke out of Soseki's Light and Darkness, but I’m not necessarily inspired by literature. It’s the photos I take subconsciously that teach me the most. I took a photo of a cat’s shadow, you see? (picks out an image in the catalog) That’s because I felt that there might be more truth in its shadow. Regardless of whether that’s the right thing or not. There are some men who prefer shadows to bodies, you know. (laughs) 

Something I like about your work is that it's extremely pure, but it’s not naïve. I mean, this is sort of a strange thing to say, but I have this idea that your mind is more Greek than Japanese. Before you mentioned how tears are good, right? A few years ago, when I saw your exhibit about Chiro, Sentimental Journey, Spring Journey at Rat Hole Gallery, I was so overcome with emotion that I nearly burst out into tears right there. It feels to me like you relate to things, whether animal or human, in an almost cosmic way.

With Chiro, if you look at those photographs you can see that her feelings towards me were much stronger than my feelings towards her. I did not respond enough to her love. Her love was deeper than mine. The photographs make this clear. Look at her final portrait, when she gazed at me. I just feel that my love was weak. That's why the photographs of Chiro are good. My photos have always been about my relationship with the partner in front of me. 

How about the people looking at your work—what sort of "partner" are they? 

I’m not so concerned about them. For me, it’s all about the subject in the photo and nothing else. That’s why, when I present my works, I feel like I need to add an element of entertainment for the audience, even if it's a lie. 

(showing images of Chiro) This is when she’s so thin that they can’t even find a place to put a drip in her arm. I asked her to stand one last time for a photo, and she did. But you know what? This face, with her eyes closed, when she was dead—that was the most beautiful shot. 

Here, she’s already got rigor mortis. It sets in immediately after death, you know. That’s why she’s the same shape. (shows Chiro after cremation) I told them [i.e. the crematorium staff] to keep her in this position. 

Here I’ve painted onto the sky. (points at an image) I made these works for the exhibition one year after Yoko's death. It's a pity to exhibit black and white photographs on white walls, so I created a sky dedicated to her. A sunrise or sunset, a sky for her. I can’t help it, I’m naturally gifted. These are great, aren't they? (laughs)

I’m curious to ask about Setsuko Hara, who has appeared in your work a few times— 

Yes indeed! That big-boned, Russian-looking woman. There's the word sonzaikan ["presence"], but I have a particular term that I use when I’m referring to a woman, nyozaikan [a portmanteau of the Japanese words for “woman,” nyo, and “presence”], and she had it. She isn’t cute or sexy at all, but I like women who are full of resentment, who have some poison in them, and I was attracted to those qualities in her. 

In that sense, what do you think about the girls of AKB48? 

They’re all the same... That’s what I'd call “digital.” It's okay for what it is. They’re all cute, and that's not bad, no? But there are girls from the same generation who exist in a different realm from AKB48, and I think they're amazing. The AKB girls are manufactured. I guess some people will find them interesting, though. 

But they're not your liking? 

Oh, some of them I like. (laughs) But they all look the same to me. I’ve shot some of them, too. In thinking about what I would want to shoot, my own mettle came out. So, you had Atsuko Maeda and Yuko Oshima. In the election, Oshima had won— 

You're surprisingly familiar with this!

So I thought I’d get some sort of reaction if I made them stand side by side, and in fact there's one shot where they're almost wrapped up together. You could just feel their rivalry. That's interesting to me, to shoot two people in that kind of situation.

Let’s talk a little bit about foreign countries. What has the response to your work been abroad? 

People overseas responded to my work immediately. When I showed Akt-Tokyo in Europe, the photos spoke for me, especially since I didn’t speak the language. It convinced me that photos are better than words. 

Do you think that Japanese photography culture has anything to teach overseas? 

Probably not, right? (laughs) Anyway, it’s not about teaching or being taught—as long as you’re ready to learn from your subjects, you’ll definitely be fine. And by the way, everything around you is fantastic.

Overseas, they try to force all this emotion into the frame, right? But it’s better to think of the frame as something from which emotions and such can escape easily. 

How would you look back on your experience as a judge for the Canon New Cosmos competition? In some sense, you helped shape an era. 

I've been bashing digital today, but these days, digital shots that people take of friends of friends seem to be valued pretty highly. Maybe that’s because I used to select those kinds of photos all the time at the competition, though I selected other things too. 

We had guest judges sometimes, like the director of a photography museum in Paris. He told me that he understood my photos, but that he didn’t understand the photos I'd selected as a judge. You know, people like HIROMIX. 

I mean, the stuff that guy selected was amazing! A reflection of the moon in a pond, that kind of thing. Come on! (all laugh) So I guess it's not surprising that, coming in as a guest judge, he couldn't understand photographs taken by young Japanese girls. Maybe that work could tell him something like, "Hey, dad, this is how photography is really done!" 

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Temporary Places: An Interview of Robert Montgomery and Greta Bellamacina

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Text by Mazzy-Mae Green

Photographs by Flo Kohl

There is something appeasing about the strong political messages that come through in the works of Robert Montgomery, a Scottish artist who deals in text-based pieces, and Greta Bellamacina, a filmmaker, poet, and actor from Hampstead. In a time of political turmoil, both Robert’s three-dimensional works and Greta’s way of interpreting her surroundings, have cemented their place in the contemporary fabric of London, as they lead a new wave of literature and poetry

Greta and Robert have been composing poetry together since the first day they met and, just over a year and a half ago, started New River Press, a poetry-publishing house in London that bears closer resemblance to an indie record label than it does to a traditional publisher. Although they run New River from their home in bustling Fitzrovia, they also keep a studio space in the more tranquil area of Bermondsey, which Greta describes as a welcome contrast when it comes to musing ideas as it creates equal variation within their work. 

We catch up with them in a café just down the road from the studio. As I walk inside, they’re sat around a small table in the corner as Lorca, their child and evident creative influence, totters from edge to edge, seeing if there is enough worth tempting down to his level. I’m told to keep a watchful eye on my coffee. 

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Mazzy-Mae Green: So, as a question for both of you, maybe Greta you could go first here. Where did your love of poetry come from? Were you around books growing up?

Greta BELLAMACINA: I found poetry quite randomly. I always wrote it before I read it. I started writing from a young age and then only later when I began to study and go to the library did I really start to read poetry. I never called it poetry at the beginning; it just kind of was what it was. But when I first edited a book, I got to read for 6 months to find the best poetry to put into it. It was such an amazing learning curve for me. 

Mazzy: How did you come to find it, Rob?

ROBERT MONTGOMERY: I went to a state school in Scotland, but really had a good English teacher. When I was 12 years old, he would bring his own books from home and give them to kids in the class who he thought liked poetry. He’d come up to our desks at the end of class and say, “Hey, Robert and Donna. I think you guys would like these.” So it started with Siegfried Sassoon and the First World War poets, and then he’d bring in Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes and give them to us. And so I read Sylvia Plath when I was 12 and it blew me away. 

Mazzy: That’s quite an early introduction to Plath…

Greta: I think I read Sylvia Plath when I was 12. I read the Bell Jar and didn’t understand it. Then I read it again when I was 16 and I was like, “This book is my life.”

Mazzy: There is obviously a lot of value in the written word and preserving the written word – was this sentiment something that you had in mind when you started New River Press?

Greta: Definitely. I think we both found the poetry industry frustrating. There didn’t seem to be any regeneration. There seems to be a lot of reprinting and a lot of safe books. As a young writer, I always found it hard to find a place to publish my work. I found it frustrating. And I think also seeing how many incredible poets we knew who had also faced the same thing. It did seem that we needed to find a way of preserving that language - a language that is so relevant now. 

Robert: I mean, I make my living as an artist obviously and I feel as though to get noticed these days you have to really get your own work out there in quite a self-sufficient way. And the poetry world in England is so stuffy. It feels as though the old publishing houses are still run by an almost patrician system. So we wanted to see if we could apply an indie label philosophy to a poetry press. So we looked much more, when we started New River Press, at music labels like Sub Pop than we necessarily did at traditional publishing houses to structure a kind of collective. All the poets get half the money from each book sale. 

Greta: Which is really rare. We went on BBC Radio 3, on this show called the Verb. And we were with this other poet and she was saying how she wrote her book for three years, how she was getting it published by one of the biggest poetry publishing houses, and how she was getting paid £400. And we were like, “Oh my god, how are you going to survive? How are we going to preserve the next generation of people coming in, who probably won’t choose to be poets if they can’t afford to be?”

Robert: And I don’t believe the myth that poets shouldn’t get paid. If you sustain this system where poets don’t get paid properly, you’ll end up with only posh wankers being poets and we want to be carving a new path for serious books and finding ways to fund that self-sufficiently. 

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Mazzy: To come back to this indie pop label approach to poetry publishing, do you think that it is working, or do people still need convincing?

Greta: I mean, I’ve been really surprised. I read a statistic the other day saying how poetry sales have risen for the first time in...god knows how many years. We are living in a time of political worry and there’s negative press everywhere. I think that people look to poetry as an almost democratic voice, a sort of easy, automatic voice of its time. With New River Press we’ve done no traditional press. It’s all been on Instagram or online. The amount of people that have engaged with it online and been like, “I want to find out more about it, where can I find out more about the readings and the writers”. I edited this collection of all-female poets called Smear, as a feminist collection, and we completely sold out within the first month. So it does show that there is this very real element of engagement. What do you think?

Robert: Yeah, I mean, I think poetry is an antidote to materialist language. I think that the language of capitalism and news media in the world is so incredibly harsh at the moment that poetry is the necessary retreat into a more spiritual place. 

Mazzy: It’s interesting that there is a growing poetry readership because, in the same way that painting is often associated with old museums and stuffy art, poetry houses are often associated with stodgy and traditional literature. Do you think, then, that there is a new wave of contemporary writing happening at the moment?

Greta: I do! I think we are living in this time where we have a free platform for anyone to write. I don’t think it matters whether that is good or bad. What matters is just that this freedom is given, this freedom to choose, for people to decide for themselves. So you don’t necessarily need to rely on a publisher. You can self-publish your work. It’s a really pioneering time for writers.

Robert: Also we felt that when we started New River, a year and a half ago, that traditional poetry houses were afraid of political writing. For example, Heathcote Williams, who we’re publishing, is really the grandee of British, political, anti-establishment, left wing poetry. He didn’t have a publisher, even though he’s one of the most important poets from the 70s and 80s. That speaks for itself. So we felt with New River that we were carving out a face for political poetry, too. We didn’t know at that point that things were going to go to shit as much as they have over the past two years, so that’s now even more necessary: poetry that’s politically engaged, that is part of the movement for positive social change. 

Greta: Like everything in the art world, it has to reflect the time you live in. It has to challenge the time you live in. I think that poetry is one of the most automatic ways to do that. When I edited Smear, I was really amazed by how honest the poets were in talking about abortion, body image, marriage and motherhood. I don’t think these things would necessarily be the first things people would expect to read when picking up a poetry book. 

Robert: I think there’s a dawning realization in the art world that there has been this lazy disengagement with politics over the last 20 years that has partly helped lead us to where we are and I think artists and poets now see, more than ever, a need to reengage with politics - and I think we are going to see this intensify over the next 4 years.

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Mazzy: Greta, how do you feel motherhood has affected your poetry and Robert your practice as an artist?

Robert: Lorca come back over here...

Greta: I feel incredibly refreshed by it. I wrote a lot of poetry about the internal feeling of being pregnant. I feel like no one ever really writes about the emotive side of being pregnant. There’s so much prescriptive writing; you must eat this, you must drink that, you must do this. I’m quite an emotional person anyway, but I didn’t realize I was capable of delving into even more emotion. You feel so connected to other women. I think that’s been really enlightening. 

Robert: We kind of share it. We share those mothering duties. 

Greta: We do. I wrote a poem at Shakespeare & Co.  You were there. It has this line in it that says ‘we are two mothers.’ 

Robert: Yeah, I mean, I don’t know if it’s changed my practice as an artist. It’s changed my life. It’s made me feel happier and part of a new family, like I’m in this bubble of love. I lost my own father a year and a half ago and I was really close with him. Being a dad is really good therapy on that front because I see little bits of my dad in Lorca. 

Greta: And also I think it makes you think about time a lot more. You see yourself on this strange string and you’re like, “I’m there at the moment, and he’s there.” So it does make you feel sort of semi-more connected to the world, but also sort of connected to death as well, which is quite amazing. 

Robert: Ah the fragile thread of mortality. (Comedic voice) We are just barely holding on to the fragile thread of mortality. 

Mazzy: And so you guys live in Fitzrovia, right? 

Greta: We do, in a matchbox flat right under the BT tower. 

Mazzy: And do you then see London as a fertile ground for creativity?

Greta: I do because I think it’s incredibly diverse. We have a lot of friends that live in very non-conventional ways. Having traveled around a lot, for me, London is that one place that really challenges you and it does still have that kind of fresh, young, underground scene. Having said that, just living here is incredibly expensive.  

Robert: If they don’t fix the housing crisis in London, then it’s going to be a fucking cultural desert in ten years because all the young artists, all the young musicians and writers will be outta here. 

Greta: Yeah, I think the housing crisis is petrifying. I think that it is definitely one of the things that fueled Brexit. Not to say that I agree with Brexit, but I think people’s living conditions were so bad that they wanted to shake things up a bit and be heard. 

Mazzy: So in both of your poems there is this recurring theme of the ethereal, of angels, of ghosts. Is this to say that you believe in angels?

GRETA: I love that question! I always love Dreamtime Theory. I feel like the city is a bigger thing. I feel like it’s more of a centralized mind, a centralized heart. So I think the idea of angels for me is the idea that an angel could be a tree, or it could be a person. I think it’s just about having a group voice, a group mind.  

Mazzy: So the angel for you is a collective consciousness?

Greta: Yeah, I think so. That’s my take on it. 

Robert: Yeah I think cities are ancient, sacred places. All of these shiny new buildings in the sky are built on the graves of our ancestors. So there’s this real sense that they are magically alive places. And I am fascinated by that idea of the collective unconscious. I was always fascinated by surrealist writing on the collective unconscious and André Breton’s idea of the collective unconscious and how it mixes with the romance of the city. I think I was a slightly haunted child. 

Greta: I said this to Rob the other day, but I feel like you could almost survive just off sunlight. I love the idea that the plants, the trees, the flowers, the land, that they’re always being renewed by sunlight. And in a way I kind of see that as a symbol of angels. It really is that renewal that makes me feel closely connected to the ethereal. 

Mazzy: Robert, when did you first decide to turn your poetry into three-dimensional sculptures? 

Robert:  I don’t know if I decided that at any point. I mean, I went to art school to study painting and I read poetry passionately in the library. I tried lots and lots of different ways to make painting and writing go together. From the time I was at art school until now I tried lots of ways that failed, and I just kept trying until I’d bashed out a couple of forms that worked. I started working with billboard space, and hacking advertising space in 1994, right back in art school, so I’ve been doing that for a long time. 

Mazzy: With the projects you were doing in off limits spaces, did you ever get in any serious trouble?

Robert: Hmm.... I once did an illegal billboard piece in Bethnal Green, actually it was in the lead up to Brexit and it said: 

“England is the first lie. England is a lie the invading kings told you to take your actual land from you. This land is your land from the flat Norfolk night to the blue Cornish morning. Just a wild Pagan land with no name and no flag. Just this cold beach that nourishes you/just the wind on this grassland that nourishes you/just the rain on your face in the morning in this blank springtime that nourishes you.”

And for some reason I was doing that billboard and a police van pulled up really fast and five cops got out and they dragged me into the back of the van and...

Greta: He says whilst picking up a baby bottle. 

Robert: ...And I was sure I was going to jail. But then one of the four cops in the van, I discovered I could speak to. He was a bit softer. We started talking and I said, “Look, what I’m doing is public poetry. This is really about how the land should belong to everyone, about how the land should belong to you as much as it should belong to the queen.” I always carried this little book of poems with me if I was doing any of these illegal things, and I took out the book and started showing him some of my other poems. We talked about it for about 20 minutes. He had the other police officers let me go. 

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Mazzy: What an incredibly fortunate time to run into a fan of poetry. 

Robert: I just hope as the years go by, more and more police officers will become fans of poetry. I mean, we should start sending them books.

Mazzy: I sense some future billboard plans. Greta, you recently released a film about the decline of British public libraries, and you spoke to a lot of people whilst you were making it. What was that process like?

Greta: It was very DIY. I’ve always been a massive advocate for public libraries. I see them as temples of learning. I know a lot of students who couldn’t afford wifi at home. They went to the library just to get through exams. At the beginning it was meant to be a short call-to-action film. It was almost like a visual essay. So we got Stephen Fry to come in and all these kind of talking heads. John Cooper Clark. Rob was in it. We went to the first ever public library built in Scotland by Scottish miners in 1754. And once we got into the history and started to really research what was going on, I realized quite quickly that it would need to be a feature length film. Just because it was so relevant to what is going on now. There were so many stories, so many campaigns, and so much history attached to every single building. And it felt like to give it justice, it needed to be a longer thing. So it took a year to make and was edited quite quickly and then it launched in cinemas last February. Since that time, the response has been amazing. It’s something that people feel passionately about.  

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Mazzy: What effect do you think Internet platforms such as Youtube and social media have had on the written word?

Greta: I think it’s helped enormously. I think it breaks the snobbery around the art form. I think it really lets people decide for themselves if they like something or not. I mean, there is that element of, unless you know what you’re searching for, then you might not find the material you want to find, as well as the whole role of subliminal advertising. But I think for artists it’s so refreshing to break away from the traditional output. 

Robert: Yeah, for contemporary art, it’s definitely a healthy, democratizing medium. It expands the audience beyond the gallery, which is a really healthy thing. I mean I was very optimistic about the Internet as a force for good until I saw how insidiously Facebook was used to manufacture consent for Trump. It’s really making me rethink how positive I think the Internet is as a whole. 

Mazzy: What are you guys working on at the moment? 

Robert: I just got short-listed for the National Holocaust Memorial, which is the permanent memorial to the holocaust that will be built on this side of the Houses of Parliament. So I’ve just finished that and submitted it. I’m also currently doing some paintings in the studio, which is something I haven’t done for a while - so I’m really enjoying that. I’m going to do an exhibition in May in Mexico of some anti-Trump declarations in Spanish.

Greta: I’m currently making my first fiction feature film, Hurt by Paradise, which is this kind of conversation about how society has these rules and ways and if you don’t fit within them then you are an outcast. 

Robert: I’m excited about your film!

Greta: I’m really excited. I’m just finishing the first draft of the script, so I’m hoping to film by this summer. I’m just busy roping in lots of people at the moment. And we’re getting married!

Mazzy: Oh wow, congratulations! 

Greta: We’re really excited. We’re doing it as more of a festival of art and love. We’re not doing any of the traditional stuff. We hate traditions. We’re making our own traditions. We’re not going to have a priest. We’re going to make up our own vows and just say them to each other. 

Mazzy: I just had one last question. It’s not something I’d planned to ask, but I’m suddenly interested in what you might say. Do you have a favorite poem? 

Greta: Oh, I do. My favorite poem is Love Song, by Ted Hughes. 

Robert: So many Lives, by John Ashbury. So many Lives, by John Ashbury. 

Greta: Love Song, by Ted Hughes.

(Laughter)

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A Transcendental Storehouse For Culture: An Interview Of Lauren Halsey

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text by Taliah Mancini

photographs by Oliver Kupper


Lauren Halsey’s dream-world is cosmic, funky, carpeted, and technicolored; an atemporal, fantastical, and hyperreal vision of black liberation which she conjures via site-specific installations that celebrate her childhood home.

Iconography and aesthetics (not to mention philosophy, lived experiences, and informal economies) of the diaspora serve as Halsey’s blueprint. Manipulating found objects and cultural artifacts from South Central, she deftly plays the past and present off one another to build a black utopia outside of time. Incorporating, for example, smashed-CD’s, aquarium plants, artificial crystals and rocks, hair extension packs, incense oils, aerosol spray cans, pan-African flags, tchotchkes, figurines, and black-business signage, she shapes a community-based, architecturally-rooted, afro-futurist cosmology.

Perhaps most explicitly, Halsey’s work is embedded in a spatial analysis of racial capitalism. Recognizing the power of oppressive built environments, she works to dismantle hegemony’s spatial ordering—a subversive move against cultural erasure and panoptical city planning. In response to the calculated displacement targeting South Central, she invests in her own architecture, preserving black-owned shops and community spaces by archiving her long-time home. She not only presents a cutting critique of the modern consumer economy but also an active re-constructing of heterotopia.

Creatively and politically, Halsey has carved out a space for herself in an art world that is often complicit in the very systems she re-imagines. With installations that are reminiscent of few conventional object-oriented art works, she is creating a new visual genre, pushing those who enter her fantasy to re-envision the perspective-altering potentials of the visual, aural, sensorial, and spatial. And, firmly rooted in love for her neighborhood, her work is defined in equal measure by healing from trauma and honoring history. Halsey’s dream-world is a moving through abuse to create new realities; an optimistic, grounded, and empowered archiving of the future.  

TALIAH MANCINI: To start, what does your neighborhood mean to you?

LAUREN HALSEY: Neighborhood Pride, Gorgeous color palettes and aesthetics, Black history as it relates to The Great Migration, Family History, My future.

MANCINI: When did you begin creating art?

HALSEY: Intentionally in the 12th grade. Oddly enough one of our first art projects was a carving project that I’m revisiting for my upcoming public project, The Crenshaw District Hieroglyph Project. I was already intrigued and deeply obsessed with collecting and creating records in my notebooks. The 12th grade carving project gave me the form.

MANCINI: I’ve seen pictures of your early maximalist collages. Did your documenting of South Central emerge with these Photoshopped images?

HALSEY: No, documenting and archiving signs, posters, mix CDs, parties, menus, incense n oils, party flyers, hairstyles, bus routes, businesses, knick knacks, t-shirts, greeting cards, local landmarks, city blocks, voices, etc. was already happening. I used the archive I was engaging to create the maximalist blueprints of my neighborhood a few years later when I took my first Photoshop class at El Camino Community College.

MANCINI: Your work is, most notably, a community-based practice. Where does that process start, both conceptually and physically?

HALSEY: With all of the odds already stacked against working class black and brown folks in low income neighborhoods in LA (food, education, police, housing, etc), I can’t imagine not having a community-based practice. My interest is to not only affirm folks through my practice/the artwork but most importantly to do so with tangible results: paid jobs, transcendent programming, free resources and workshops. My upcoming public project, The Crenshaw District Hieroglyph Project will address this conceptually and physically. Here’s a blurb on it:

The Crenshaw District Hieroglyph Project (C.D.H.P.) is a hybrid public art installation and community market created in collaboration with the Crenshaw District that will build and reinforce local economies of South Central LA that can sustain the pressures of rapid gentrification. The Crenshaw District Hieroglyph Project will exist on an empty lot where over the course of a 3-6 month public installation, four autonomous 16 ft. hieroglyphic towers with open circulation will be constructed. Each tower will include a series of rooms covered in hieroglyphic-style engravings on the interiors and exteriors. Upon entering the structure, the public will be invited to make their own "hieroglyphs" by carving into a series of blank panels serving as a medium to express narratives, share news, honor community leaders, celebrate events, and leave obituaries or memorials. This visual archive of and for the neighborhood will allow community members the freedom to commemorate and monumentalize themselves and one another in a city (and nation) where the place-making strategies of black and brown subjects are increasingly deleted from the landscape.

Through programming that generates paid jobs and provides tangible resources through free workshops on entrepreneurship, The Crenshaw District Hieroglyph Project provides and examines how alternate modes of community building can take place, while providing community members productive inroads to be engaging with, participating in, and benefiting from the top-down pace of development encouraged by Los Angeles' economic imperatives. Importantly, the public project’s investment in community artmaking will document and inscribe into the four towers the plural experience of communities who rarely benefit from, for example, gentrifying landscapes that privilege the lives and experiences of upwardly mobile middle classes. The towers provide space for the city's most overlooked citizens to describe their iconographies, aesthetic styles, informal economies, leisure activities, celebrations, oppression, local histories, and potential futures in the form of a tangible community monument. It is my hope that the publics' engravings and the informal economies The Crenshaw District Hieroglyph Project creates will inspire productive dialogues about liberation for South Central LA from within, beginning with our dollars.

MANCINI: Your exploration of architecture is brilliant. When did you become interested in re-imagining the built environment?

HALSEY: I’ve always been deeply, deeply, deeply into PFunk. They empowered my imagination at a young age. Early on I was very intrigued by the space making that was happening with PFunk seamlessly on the scale of worlds (outerspace, place, blackness, queerness, me). They beamed me up and into their radical worlds without me ever having to leave my bedroom. They left me totally transformed, always. Who I was/am will always be enough to participate. That relationship to space making carries over to my work where I remix and propose new spaces with what we already have and who we already are, to conjure new reflections on self-determination, affirmation, community wealth building, love, Funk, etc.

My interest in architecture is also biographical as it relates to growing up and living in a LA with so much oppressive architecture and always having questions around who’s building our architecture for us.In architecture school, I became really into the dialog of 60’s/70’s fantasy architecture.

MANCINI: Can you talk about your play with architecture in reference to the resistance of gentrification in South Central?

HALSEY: I can’t omit architecture and our built environment outside of the convo of gentrification. There should be, and are many, responses. I’m interested in responding through interventions with “for us by us architecture.” An architecture that representationally and structurally comes from us to empower us. An architecture that doesn’t signify erasure to disempower us. A Funky architecture. An architecture that comes from our hands.

MANCINI: How do you describe the way funk (Parliament/Funkadelic, Gospel Funk, Jheri Curl Funk, etc.) informs your cosmic black utopia?

HALSEY: Density. Layers. Immersion. Maximalism. Control. Black Style. Black Aesthetics. Deep Time.



MANCINI: What about outer space?

HALSEY: Outer space is limitless. White supremacy, racism classism, sexism, nepotism, consumerism, etc. aren’t the order there. There’s great freedom in contextualizing my projections for the neighborhood in an infinity space without Earth’s baggage.

MANCINI: And nature?

HALSEY: Funkifying nature has a lot to do with my interest in fantasy nature. Seeing nature through Funk sounds. The effect of a Funk nature that’s an assemblage of multiple geographies while remixing and also, sampling place, texture, form via my own renditions of the landscape.

MANCINI: You grew up in South Central, spent time in New Haven for graduate school at Yale, and then moved back to your childhood home. What are your impressions of the LA art communities?

HALSEY: There are so many because of the enormous geographical spread in LA. I spend my downtime in Atlanta. I haven’t been consistently in LA long enough to truly belong to a community, but I think I’m forging one and beginning to join existing ones.

MANCINI: Where (and what) in Los Angeles inspires you?

HALSEY: Black LA, the beaches, the sunsets, bonfires, candy cars, ice cream trucks, the pan man, the elote man, the tamale man, signs, hair, sunsets, taco trucks, freeways at night, hot days, rooftop pools, walking, riding the bus, growing up in church, ceviche, paletas, soul food, my family, chasing lowriders, the roosters, the hills, everything.

MANCINI: How did “we still here, there” at MOCA come about?

HALSEY: I was researching Chinese grotto heavens and became interested in the Mogao Caves. I was intrigued by the cave as a super structure rock form but also, as its function as a transcendental storehouse for culture: research archives of lost cultures, specific histories, discourse and ideas. I proposed to MOCA that I would build a cave-grotto with a series of connected chambers and corridors marking the plurality of black daily cultural experiences in downtown South Central LA. Some chambers include local ephemera and iconographies (i.e. South Central superhero, Okeneus’s original collages, selections of incense n oils, black figurines, mix cds, local newspaper clippings, portraitures, etc.). Other moments will be more speculative, including imaginary of future South Central landscapes, memorials, miniature shrines and statues, poems, rock carvings and soundscapes. Conceptually, I wish to create an aesthetic-sociopolitical record and overview of contemporary South Central in order to mark the evolution and narrative shifts of neighborhoods as they are being increasingly deleted from the LA landscape. Community identities are being lost and some histories aren’t being preserved (i.e. displacement via market-rate condominiums, new stadiums, developments, etc). The long-term goal is to create a permanent public cave-grotto in my neighborhoods that centuries from now will be excavated and inhabited by the future.

MANCINI: It seems like an important component of the installation is you regularly changing the space. What is your role as “pharaoh, high-voltage Funkateer and master architect”?

HALSEY: I can’t give all of my recipes away but in a nutshell, Keep building, Keep visioning, Keep Funking so that the work isn’t a set or an eulogy of itself. It’s a living environment that will accumulate energy, poetics and an archive through the run of the exhibition.

MANCINI: In what ways is the installation connected to your on-going artistic project?

HALSEY: Preservation. Past/Future. Monument. Community. Archive.

MANCINI: What is next for you? Kindgom Splurge? Any new projects on the horizon?

HALSEY:The last iteration of Kingdom Splurge happened a couple years ago. It’s put to rest for now. The Crenshaw District Hieroglyph Project is next. I’m building a prototype architecture of it for the Hammer Museum’s Made in LA Show that opens in June.


we still here, there was curated by Lanka Tattersall. The exhibition is on view at MOCA Grand Avenue through September 3, 2018. Lauren Halsey will be in gallery every other week on alternating Fridays and Saturdays, beginning Saturday, March 10. For more details visit MOCA. Follow Lauren Halsey on Instagram @summeverythang. Follow AUTRE @autremagazine.


The Art Of Short Cinema: An Interview of Christian Coppola

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text by Oliver Maxwell Kupper

photographs Pierre Auroux

Christian Coppola is an LA-based filmmaker and photographer with a few short films already under his belt. Informed by an early fascination with The Wizard of Oz, Coppola’s personal style incorporates dreamy colors and the ever-present dichotomy between home and away. His short film debut, Heartbreak Hotel and his upcoming short, Daddy, explore the complicated nature of hotels, and the opportunities offered by the short film genre. Fixated on the process of creating his personal style, Coppola’s own viewing process is predicated on the question, “could anyone else have made this?” We had a chance to catch up with the burgeoning filmmaker and discuss his upcoming film, development as an artist, and his desire to create a universe through film.

OLIVER MAXWELL KUPPER: How are you?

CHRISTIAN COPPOLA: Good, I'm sitting in my backyard looking at some palm trees, and it's a really beautiful day.

KUPPER: I assume you're in LA.

COPPOLA: Yeah, I'm here. I'm actually—I just shot this new film in New York. And I shot it January 16th through the 19th. Pretty quick shoot.

KUPPER: So this was a pretty fresh, new project.

COPPOLA: In the grand scheme of things, we just shot it. But now I'm—you know I've been here for a month just meeting with editors and people who are going to be involved in the post production process. And also hanging out with my friends, because I really love LA and all the things it offers. And New York is really cold right now, kind of a wasteland.

KUPPER: I keep hearing that about New York, and everyone's moving to LA. And it's not just for weather, it's also like the creative energy.

COPPOLA: Well it's nice—I went out for Valentine's Day and I went to this party in Chinatown and before, we kind of congregated in this space downtown at my friend's apartment. And I walked in and it was so big. It always blows my mind. I just sort of realized that we can actually congregate in a space that isn't someone's shoebox bedroom where we're all piled onto a bed talking about how we're all going to fit into an uber to go to this stupid fashion event that nobody even really wants to go to in the first place. It's a bit insane how you meet people who are able to not only sustain a life here, but sustain their creative work.

KUPPER: You're still quite young, but what are some films that you grew up watching that inspired you to make movies?

COPPOLA: Well, whenever I'm asked that question I always go back to The Wizard of Oz. Just in terms of the scope, and the imagery alone. In the sense that, when I watched it, I would act it out as it was playing on the screen. I was so enamored with all of the elements that went into making this movie, whether it was the music, the costumes, the lighting, the set design, the props, the story. That was a movie I watched where I kind of just had this aha moment of, "Holy crap, I need to be a part of this world."

KUPPER: So you want to make movies to sort of capture that feeling.

COPPOLA: I definitely want to make, not just movies, but anything that I create, I really strive to get the core of why we react or why we feel what we feel when we're watching something. It's really kind of powerful to be able to make something like The Wizard of Oz that is the most unrelateable story. It's about a girl that gets swept up in a tornado and ends up in this weird world where she's trying to run away from witches. But there's something about that that really strikes people deep down. And a lot of that's about going back home and going back to a place where you came from. And I think also this element of escapism and fantasy is a really big thing that I aim for as well.

KUPPER: When you called, your number came up as Grand Prairie, Texas. Are you—

COPPOLA: [Laughs] Yes, I always explain this whenever I call people. So I grew up in Dallas, Texas, which is in Highland Park. I have a lot of family that is in LA, in the California area. But, my parents really didn't have an interest in raising a family here. And even though a lot of my dad's side is here, that was something that my parents never really wanted to do. So that explains my Texas area code.

KUPPER: It also explains why you're so enamored with The Wizard of Oz.

COPPOLA: Really?

KUPPER: I mean yeah, if you think about it, growing up in a rural community and wanting to be somewhere over the rainbow where you can make movies and images and everything's in color. That's sort of LA, right?

COPPOLA: Yeah I think that's a really interesting reading, but also it's funny that every time I mention that I grew up in Texas they have a very preconceived idea of what that means. But where I'm from, it's called Highland Park. I do describe it as the southern version of Beverly Hills. Except it's a little more heightened, if that's possible. Because everything's bigger in Texas I suppose.

KUPPER: But anytime you sort of feel like you're outside of LA or New York or these cultural capitals, you sort of feel like you're in the middle of nowhere.

COPPOLA: Totally, I understand, I think I was fortunate enough to travel a lot when I was younger. And my parents really stressed taking lots of trips and seeing different corners of the world. But it was always really interesting to do that and then come back to a place like Dallas. Where people are really content there, and don't necessarily want to leave. There's something really to be said about that. Just like there's something to be said about the fact that people have a really hard time leaving LA.

KUPPER: So the traveling thing, that sort of ties in with the whole idea of your love of hotels. Was that your first short that you shot at the Bowery?

COPPOLA: So that was actually, that wasn't my first short. I made that in film school at NYU Tisch. I made that my junior year, and that was our intermediate thesis. I just shot it sort of as a school project. It was my take on a fashion film, but I also kind of—in that time period, I was really drawn to this format of the fashion film. But I wanted to put my own take on it, so I wanted to add these ideas of nostalgia and real people, but also this idea of acting that wasn't necessarily acting and giving these characters—casting it in a way where these really beautiful people that I knew almost embodied the real people that they were playing. I cast my friend Dylan, he's from Malibu, grew up in Malibu and he kind of has this really distinct James Dean flair to him. The imagery was really beautiful, shooting in a hotel sort of offers this timeless essence. Yeah, of course, and I think that's what draws me to hotels. I love the idea in shooting in spaces that are so intimate and private, but also accessible in a way. Where every time you go into that space, or every time I go into a hotel room, I sort of imagine what happened there before me. Who was in there before I was. Just this idea of: if a hotel room could speak, what would it say? There's just something really magical, there's a really magical quality about having a story play out in a hotel room. Because it's not someone's home. There's a different set of rules that come with being in someone's home. But when you're in a hotel room where—you're not gonna be there forever. There's a time limit. It's almost like the Cinderella complex. Everything's gonna turn back into a pumpkin at some point.

KUPPER: What came first, photography or filmmaking? Because you're a great photographer, you've shot a lot of really great people, where did your interest in photography come from?

COPPOLA: I suppose what's always been at the forefront is filmmaking. Because I remember always making videos on my family's video camera. Just sort of obsessively running around with it, and never really editing the footage together. And it wasn't really until I got access to my own computer and the internet and iMovie that I really started to piece things together and realize that this idea of putting clips back to back and creating your own universe was kind of at your fingertips when you had this editing software. For me, the two were interchangeable. Filmmaking and photography are interchangeable to my creative process because whenever I go somewhere I always carry my point-and-shoot 35 mm with me. It's a personal way of documenting.

KUPPER: So your current project, which you just finished filming, can you talk about it?

COPPOLA: So the title of this film is Daddy. It stars Dylan Sprouse and Ron Rifkin. Obviously two really great actors. Essentially it takes place at the plaza hotel. It's about an 80 year old man, played by Ron Rifkin, whose wife has just passed away. And to celebrate their first anniversary apart, he hires a male escort to take her place for the evening. And they have this really beautiful, sad, interesting night together. Ultimately, I think it's going to be really special. And what's really really exciting is that I think a lot of people are going to be blown away by how these two actors—or what these two actors bring to the table.

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KUPPER: What is that process like, casting and choosing actors?

COPPOLA: We knew that we wanted Dylan, and we also knew that we wanted Ron. But Ron is such a seasoned actor. Not to say that either were an easy get, but Dylan had been aware of the script since the summer. It was really just about figuring out scheduling with him. He wanted to do it, he was on board. We were basically in the final stages of getting him on board, and as we were casting the older man, we knew that we wanted Ron. It was just a question of if he's available, and if he's even interested. Luckily we were able to reach out to him through our casting associate. And he read the script and he just had such a fantastic response in connection to the story and wanted to have a meeting. And I met with him and from there he was on board.

KUPPER: When did you initially start writing this story idea?

COPPOLA: I knew that I wanted to do it since around last year this time. And I had this other project that I was fielding, which is now kind of more of a feature that I am kind of still in the process of developing. But I knew that this was just the most sensible next step for me to take in terms of a project. A lot of people asked me, "Is it a feature?" For me I think, there's something really special about a short form piece. Because it's a little tiny silhouette that's just so—it's probably going to be around 15-20 minutes, but there's something to be said about a contained piece that is thoughtful and really just gets to the point and is succinct

KUPPER: So how fast do you generally want to get back to the drawing board after you make a film?

COPPOLA: My last film that I made, I made in film school. And that was my thesis project. And I screened it this past summer. That was Him. And that was a really great experience. I was doing a lot of traveling in the post-production process. And I sort of put it on the back burner and let the editing process go on for quite a while. This time I realized that it took me a couple of years to get to the point where I shot Daddy, and there was such a span of time spent where I didn't have a different narrative project. I definitely want to keep my momentum up. And I've spoken a lot with my producer about this and kind of everyone working around me. Ultimately my biggest drive at the end of the day is to just keep creating as much as I can and putting out thoughtful content. In a good span of time. It feels good to be in this place, because I know what direction I want to head.

KUPPER: Yeah, evolving and cementing yourself your vision as a filmmaker. It seems like each one of those films you're gonna start to see a style.

COPPOLA: And I think that's—creating a style is one of, if not the most important thing that you should be doing as a director. You have to create a universe that people not only are interested in, but that you're interested in. And that you feel passionate about. With Daddy, that was sort of the first project that I felt was incredibly specific to the world that I wanted to explore. Ultimately that's something that, whenever I'm watching a film or looking at a director's work, one of the main things that I look for and one of the main questions that I ask is: could anyone else have made this?

KUPPER: So when do you expect it to be ready, when do you expect it to come out?

COPPOLA: We're probably going to be starting the editing process within the next month. I'm thinking hopefully we'll have it done by the beginning of summer. That's our aim, our trajectory. But it's been funny because, when we were shooting this film, and leading up to shooting this film, I kept everything so secret.

KUPPER: So are you gonna premiere it in—do you think you'll premiere it in New York first and then LA?

COPPOLA: So, the goal is to take it to festivals and just travel around with it. It's interesting because we shot this film before—Dylan is moving to China, and he's doing a project there. But we kind of had to rush because we really wanted him. It's funny because we wanted Dylan and we really made it work to get it shot in time before he left. But that's our goal.

KUPPER: Well congratulations on that.

COPPOLA: Oh thank you very much. We're really excited about it and I think people are going to be very delighted and intrigued. Because there's a lot of nice little surprises that are lace throughout the project. Everyone is really fantastic in it, but I think specifically Dylan and Ron, just they created something incredibly special between the two of them. And I'm very eager to share it.


Coppola's upcoming film, Daddy, will be available in 2019. Text by Oliver Maxwell Kupper, photographs by Pierre Auroux. Follow AUTRE on Instagram:


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Bad Woman: An Interview of Katya Grokhovsky

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text by Abbey Meaker

portrait by Katya Grokhovsky

 

Katya Grokhovsky is an interdisciplinary artist, a curator, and an educator whose process-centric art practice combines installation, performance, video, photo, and collage. Through different expressions of each media, Grokhovsky creates immersive environments and captivating characters that assertively bring to fore issues related to gender, labor, alienation, and displacement, often using her own body to create a relationship between the personal and the political. 

Recently, I came across Grokhovsky’s video work titled “Bad Woman” in which an eccentric character wearing an animal-like mask, fur coat, and high-heels struggles with a stuffed parrot affixed to her shoulder, to situate herself comfortably on a wooden chair placed in a rural environment. Watching this, I felt I were witnessing something new, something authentic- an uncanny character whose discomfort was amplified, satirized. Yet I was able to relate to and recognize in her a sense of resolve, a comfort in her own skin, a resilience. According to Grokhovsky, “Bad Woman” is exhausted; she is many of us; she is what we whisper under our breaths, daily. She gladly fails; she is not here to please anybody; she is eccentric, wild, unruly, unmade, remade, deconstructed.

On a snowy Vermont day I connected with Grokhovsky to discuss this work, her curatorial efforts, and her solo exhibition, System Failure at Martin Art Gallery at Muhlenberg College. 

ABBEY MEAKER: At what point in your life did you begin making things? Was there an inherent interest in art, or did life organically pull you in that direction? 

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: Ever since I can remember I was making something with my hands, drawing on all types of surfaces, designing costumes, writing and staging plays, deconstructing and reassembling objects. I have continuously made art in some way and have been interested in many creative disciplines ever since I was very young, including fashion, interior design, literature, theater, dance and all types of decorative and visual arts. My parents encouraged me and took me to drawing classes since I was 5 years old in the former USSR, in Ukraine, where I went on to art school for children from 10 to 14 years of age, and then onto art school in Australia, Europe and USA, and here I am, a fully-fledged adult artist. I guess I have never really stopped or truthfully grown up. Art making is the way I interpret and experience life and I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life.

ABBEY MEAKER: Of the mediums you employ – installation, performance, video, photography – would you say there is one that more holistically translates your ideas and/or an experience you aim to create for a viewer? How do they work together? 

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: I would say installation is the medium that brings it all together for me and creates the desired effect of a totally immersive environment. Video is another vehicle, which can incorporate all of my interests into one format and contain it within itself. I would love to make feature-length films one day, with a cast and a crew. In my installation work, I am able to position, compose and collage many of my works simultaneously and play with the site, size and space. I frequently include performance and video, sound, sculpture and painting, through various experimental propositions of complex situations and worlds within worlds, allowing the viewer to explore and experience a new ground, new system of being, fresh and absurd territories.

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ABBEY MEAKER: Your work has been called feminist - do you identify with this label?

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: I truly detest labels of any kind, however it is a label I do accept. In a perfect world, an artist would be an artist, not female artist or woman artist or a feminist artist, simply because she expresses strong opinions about her life experience on this planet. I am an artist, a woman and a feminist. I work with feminist themes and look at the world through this lens, so my work gets positioned as such. It is the way I live my life, the way I view the humankind and how I keep on. My views and the stances I take do affect my work and the leitmotifs I am interested in. That makes it feminist. Labels make it easier to digest, to create boundaries, to identify, to exclude and commercialize and segregate, I understand that. Being feminist lines me up historically with some of my favorite artists, writers and mentors, and that is an honor. I do wish we lived in a post-label world, where artists were simply expressing their views in different ways.

ABBEY MEAKER: What do you think 'feminist' actually means within the present context of contemporary art?  

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: I think feminist in the context of contemporary art means inclusive, equal, politically charged, questioning, rebellious, critical and non-compliant. It means not taking it lying down, it is a way of life, so it should translate into art that way as well. I am interested in challenging all notions of societal prejudice, standards, systems, hierarchies, specifically patriarchy and capitalism. Being a feminist and an artist has literally saved my life and continues to help me navigate this man’s world as a woman and a maker, so I firmly believe in both as vehicles of analysis, refusal, rage, protest, as well as acts of radical joy, acceptance and pleasure.

ABBEY MEAKER: Can you talk a little bit about the characters in your performances? I am particularly interested in Bad Woman and Bunny Bad.

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: Bad Woman is a character I initially developed for my last solo exhibition in 2017, as a post-election entity, a persona, who truly cannot handle this world anymore, and is gradually unraveling and de-conditioning herself. She is a bad woman, an angry, enraged woman. She is tired, exhausted, she is many of us. Internally, she is what we whisper under our breath daily. She is simply trying too hard, gladly fails, she is not here to please anybody. She is eccentric, wild, unruly, unmade, remade, deconstructed. Through her character, I began a lifelong project of deconditioning, feminine de-stabling, and decentralizing. Bunny Bad followed up, as the next, less gendered character, through which I am able to become a kid again, to play without any results, to explore, to be funny, grotesque, comic, stupid, uncoordinated, ugly. These characters help my own psyche and bring out the hidden creatures that live in me, and all of us, the ones we push away, or oppress, or pretend do not exist.

ABBEY MEAKER: Your installations feature prominently found objects- is the process by which you find these pieces an important part of the work? What are they meant to symbolize? 

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: I am naturally both a collector and a destroyer of objects. These traits come from a childhood in the Soviet Union, where materialism did not yet fully exist - as well as immigration, during which belongings were forever discarded and left behind. I am interested in consumerism, in greed and capitalism, where a surplus of objects of desire is not only the sign of our time, but is killing the planet, as well as personal attachment, longing and memory. Most of the objects that appear in my work come from the street; flea markets, thrift stores and online shopping. I employ both intuition and attraction and pull to a particular object as well as rigorous research, especially on the Internet. Each work requires a different approach and is catered specifically to every site and place, depending on the theme and subject matter, be it a brand-new, extremely large beach ball from Amazon Prime, symbolizing an exceptionally futile, wasteful, yet desirable and alluring object of fun, which is meant to last less than an hour, to giant, 8-foot plush teddy bears, to a discarded, old and broken musical instrument found on the streets of NYC, indicating loneliness, nostalgia and reminiscence.

ABBEY MEAKER: Do you consider your curatorial efforts a part of your art practice?

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: Yes, I consider my curatorial work to be an extension and expansion of my own art making studio practice, through which I am able to step out of my own pursuits and explore the community and art being made around me. I really enjoy going out to other artists’ studios, feeling the pulse of my city, envisioning an idea, putting works together, and designing projects. It is all a part of my existing in the world, my attempt at reaching out, at connecting the dots, facilitating for those, whose voices have often been unheard. 

ABBEY MEAKER: What are you hoping to achieve as an organizer supporting other artists?  

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: I hope to create a space for the less recognized and commercially viable works, for artists, who have traditionally been excluded and discarded by the art canon. I curate difficult to exhibit works, made by voices that are marginalized in some way. As an immigrant and a woman, I have often been excluded from the discourse myself and I simply try to correct the imbalance, one DIY project at a time. I am not very interested in the accepted, mainstream narrative, which has been fed to me all my life, that of the heterosexual white male artist. There are plenty of platforms for that, globally. I try to create an alternative that must not be alternative. 

ABBEY MEAKER: Are there certain ideas you can engage with as a curator more easily or more successfully than through your art practice?

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: Yes, I respond best to works which deal with process and are materially experimental and explore the body, as well as history, place and site. I often have a visceral response to art, including my own, so I need to be engaged not only intellectually, but bodily, somehow. I let my body speak before my head, when I am curating, but also when I make my own work. I trust my gut completely and rely heavily on my art intuition, which has never failed me yet. I am also interested in artists dealing and expressing their life experience autobiographically or through observation and research, as I do in my work. I don't respond well to extremely minimalist, or highly conceptual work without an engaging process involved in the making of it.

ABBEY MEAKER: You have a solo show titled System Failure at Martin Art Gallery at Muhlenberg College that just opened on February 14 (congrats!) What are you showing? 

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: I have been working on-site at the Martin Art Gallery as a visiting artist in residence at the college for the past four weeks and have created a new site-specific installation, comprised of found, collected and bought objects and sculpted assemblages, as well as several recent video performance works. The exhibition deals with the failure of the patriarchal system and society, through exploration of extreme overconsumption, desire and imposed stereotypes. I am interested in investigating gendered standards and structures, as well as particularly capitalist ideas of childhood, through color assignment (pink, blue), teddy bears, beach balls, inflatable unicorns and donuts, as well as plastic shop mannequins manipulated and sculpted with plaster and house paint. It is a complicated exhibition, which has evolved over a year and over the past month on site, through rigorous experimentation with materials, as well as my relationship to the place. I will perform live twice as part of the exhibition, in collaboration with students at Muhlenberg College, cast through the college-wide open all. I am interested in what the atmosphere of an academic institution brings to my work and vice versa, and am grateful to have been very generously supported by the college and the gallery with space, time and materials. 

ABBEY MEAKER: Any curatorial projects coming up you'd like to discuss? 

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: I have been appointed as lead curator of the Art in Odd Places festival and exhibition in 2018, taking place in October, the theme of which will be BODY and will be open for the first time to women, female identifying and non binary artists only. The festival is 14 years old this year and traditionally takes place along 14th street in Manhattan over four days, with performances, installations, sculptures and sound works in the public domain. This year I have also included a group exhibition at Westbeth gallery in the West Village as an extension of the festival and dialogue. I am very excited about this, as I was an artist who participated in the festival three times prior and not only do I know it well, but it is the first time an artist will curate this festival. The theme BODY stems from my own practice and curatorial pursuits and I am especially interested in the body of “other” taking up much needed space in the pubic imagination.


Katya Grokhovsky's SYSTEM FAILURE is on view through April 10th at Martin Art Gallery, Muhlenberg College 2400 Chew Street Allentown, PA 18104. The artist will be performing live in the gallery on March 14th at 5pm and at the closing ceremony on April 10th. She will also be conducting a lecture in the space on March 21st. Follow Katya on Instagram @KATYAGROKHOVSKY. Follow Autre on Instagram @AUTREMAGAZINE.


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Baby, Will You Fix Me Again: An Interview Of William Eggleston In Memphis

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text and interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper

portrait by Bil Brown

 

When legendary photographer, William Eggleston, whiskey on the rocks clutched in hand, is telling you a story about Dennis Hopper saving him from falling off a 1000-foot ledge at the Continental Divide, and then asks you to stay for Chinese food, it's hard to say no. What else are you going to do on a Tuesday night in Memphis? 

In Memphis, you learn about romantic and tragic things: The last song Elvis ever played before dying was "Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain" on his upright piano in the over air-conditioned racquetball courts at Graceland. In Memphis, the cicadas grind like jammed gears in flooded engines. On a dime, the sky can turn from sunlight to shade, like a sheet pulled over a half-living corpse, slowed to a dull kind of subsistence by the tepid humidity. This is the ecosystem, the hallowed Southern environment where William Eggleston's most well known work was born and gave the world a glimpse of its hard edges, saturated colors and sad geometries. If you look closer at his work, you are looking at a microcosm within a microcosm, the moments where the mind drifts and imagines mortal uncertainties - the fragmented glow or nuclei of sunlight reflected through a glass of Coke on an airplane, a girl laying on the grass zonked out on Quaaludes, or the tailfin of a Cadillac and some kind of unaware Americana on the horizon. But, if you look closer still, you will see hidden things, secret things, lost perspectives, living shadows, forlorn personage, but always on the periphery or just under the surface. Indeed, his photographs are very plainly obvious, but there is a certain kind of gossamer stillness that is poetic and serene, and reminds you that life's simple details, the ones that are oft overlooked, are the most important ones. 

I’ve wanted to sit down with Eggleston for a few years now, and sit we did, in his Memphis apartment – crowded with a looming Bösendorfer grand piano in one room and gizmos and gadgets in another. Eggleston has always been obsessed with mechanics and the way things work – lately, his new obsession is quantum physics. Over cigarettes and the intermittent break to play piano we talk about everything from classical music to photography to the films of David Lynch. Our interview ended after day turned to night and there was no more whiskey.

Oliver Kupper: Do you enjoy classical music?

William Eggleston: Quite a bit. Mostly. My hero is [Johann Sebastian] Bach. 

Do you listen to rock & roll music living in Memphis?

There’s not much around Memphis right now. I like all kinds of music. 

You grew up with your maternal grandfather, he was an amateur photographer?

My grandfather? He did a little bit. 

And did you learn about photography from him, or were you first introduced to photography through him at all? 

No, most of the things he did long before I was around. Most of the things he did were of our family.

I saw a few portraits maybe he took of you when you were really small. Was that in Sumner, Mississippi? 

Mmhmm.

What was it like growing up there?

The whole family grew cotton and it still goes on.

You didn’t want to go into the agriculture trade? 

No, well there’s not much to do. Running a plantation – that just gets kind of boring, sitting around watching cotton grow. It’s not too interesting. 

Of course, so you turned to more artistic pursuits. Classical music and photography.

Yeah, I’ve played the piano since I was about four years old. 

And you play piano every day? 

Yes, and the night too. 

And you talk about Cartier-Bresson having a big influence on your work.

Yeah, I still think the world of him. He was one of the greats. 

When did you first discover his work?

I suppose around the 50s. His photographs were all black and white and he worked in black and white for a while. 

So how old were you at that point?

Oh, I had a best friend in prep school, we went to Vanderbilt together in Nashville and he got me interested in his work, and this was 1957. 

I wanted to talk about another photographer that I’ve always sort of loved and reminds me a little bit of you because he started taking pictures of his friends and family. His surroundings. His name is Jacques Henri Lartigue, do you know his work? 

Oh yeah, Lartigue I know his work. 

Yeah, there’s a lot of kindred similarities between his upbringing and also his introduction to photography that is really interesting. 

We never met, but I know his work.

I read somewhere that you were given a Brownie at ten years old to shoot with, and he was given his first camera at seven years old. Did you study his color photography, because he took a lot of color photography too.  

I don’t have any around here right now, but in the other house, I have his books. 

John Szarkowski, the curator at MOMA New York who put on your first show, he showed Lartigue’s work a couple years before your show actually. I think he saw something too, which I think is really interesting.  

Yeah, me and John were very close. He died a couple years ago. He would show me a lot of things I didn’t know about. We spent lots of time together when I was in New York. 

Did he teach you a lot about photography or the history of photography?

I suppose. 

And when you first showed those color slides, what was his initial reaction? What was your reaction to showing your work for the first time? Did you feel hesitant at first? 

We never much talked about it. I was quite happy to show it at MOMA, a good place to show it. 

And that show got a lot of really interesting reactions. Because I think people were confused about fine art photography in general, not just color photography, but fine art.

Yeah, it was something, photography as fine art had to be in black and white – primarily large negatives. And that didn’t much interest me.

And one of the critics was Ansel Adams.  

I didn’t care for his work to begin with. 

When you first started taking pictures you were largely self-taught, technically speaking. Was it difficult to get the exposure right, did you have sort of a hard time clicking into what you were doing...or you latched onto it pretty quickly?

At first I had to use a meter, I don’t really anymore. Film is very forgiving now. 

Can you remember those first few pictures that you took with the Leica camera? Do you remember that experience? What that felt like? 

No, but I was happy with the results. There weren’t really many other cameras out besides Leicas that I could use. 

Are there fine artists outside of photography that inspire you? 

Lucian Freud was a friend, he died too. He does great paintings. I was in London and I saw one of his last shows. I think when I saw that last show, it was probably right before he died but it was some time ago in London. 

So, speaking of legends, I want to talk about your meeting with Cartier-Bresson for a second. You got to meet him once, right?

Yeah, we were sort of friends. He was absolutely not interested in color.  

Do you believe in photographic masterpiece? 

Not much. 

They’re all masterpieces. 

I really don’t have any favorites,  

Because there is one work by you that sort of sticks out – the glass on the airplane, I know that a lot of people talk about that one. What was the context of taking that photo?

Oh, that was an ex-girlfriend of mine having a Coke, I think we were coming from Dallas to New Orleans.

It’s a really gorgeous photograph. 

Thank you, I liked it too. 

How did you come up with using your particular process or did someone mention it to you?

Do you mean by that, the dye transfer? I saw it first when, I forgot where, but it was commercial advertising pictures and fashion pictures. The process was really so good that I should use it for my own work and still do. 

And C prints but not as much; you try to stick with dye-transfer. 

I use both. I use dye transfer and pigment.  But the transfers are really, well whoever is doing the lab work, exposes them through three primary filters, black and white, big negatives of the exact sizes of what it’s going to be.

Interesting. 

And it’s just...I’ve been around and watched them be made but I’ve never tried to do it. They’re using black and white film, true to the size of the final print. 16x20 inch negatives, three negatives of that same size. It’s really just black and white through filters. 

Right, which is why your images are sharper. 

Well the filters are there to separate, rather than to mix together, all of the colors in the picture. The lab technician really had to know what they’re doing. 

Winston was saying that you’ve been studying quantum physics. What turned you on to that?

That’s right. I can’t figure out how to answer that, I don’t know. It’s just physics and then quantum is, of course, close to physics but it’s, I don’t know how to put it, but it’s...the end result is what probably will happen, not what accurately will happen, but will probably. 

Do you apply those thoughts to photography ever? 

I don’t know. 

There’s something about capturing a moment that was moving before, on film, you know? 

That could be related in some way. It’s like Mr. Einstein once said: no such thing exists as a point absolutely in one place. That’s kind of what quantum is, the probably but not exactly, if that makes sense. I feel probably close to quantum because I think it’s related to my own work, because whatever that picture is, it’s what I thought probably should be there. Not anything exact. 

One of the documentaries that these people have done, at the end of one, you were talking about a dream and then waking up and then the dream being gone completely... 

That happens so many times every day. I’m dreaming about music and I’ll get up and rush to the piano...(snaps) Gone. 

Wow, full compositions and such? 

Yeah, every note, it’s just so beautiful in the dream and then I sit down and face those 88 keys, and I don’t know which one to push.  

That’s really interesting. Do you ever think about music when you’re shooting? Is music related to shooting at all? 

I think that’s probably true, there’s some connection. Whatever that is, I wouldn’t even begin to talk about it. 

There’s a mysterious aspect to how music relates to making pictures.  

I look at it that way a great deal, probably. Working in quantum physics and theories about pictures – it’s not a bit unlike a symphony or let’s say a set of symphonies or sonatas. 

I mean the Democratic Forest, it is like a symphony in a way; it is like a multiple part symphony. 

I think of it that way.

It seems, artistically, you’re driven by pure intuition and you don’t over-think things, and you leave all of that to the quantum physics and the mechanics.

That’s right.

Inside the Eggleston Trust, Memphis

Inside the Eggleston Trust, Memphis

I want to talk to you about another photograph of yours that was used for the cover of a Big Star album. 

Oh yeah, that red one? 

The red one, yeah. 

I can’t explain it.

Yeah, you knew Alex Chilton’s mom, right? She had a gallery. 

Mmhmm. Well they lived here. Her husband played the piano and is in the staged lighting business, but as a hobby. He also plays jazz, which I don’t like. 

You don’t like jazz? 

I think jazz musicians are really good. In fact, they’re so good; I don’t really know why they’re playing jazz.

There’s a myth that you gave Peyote to Alex Chilton from Big Star. Is that a true story? 

I probably did. I don’t remember that but...I think he was a teenager and he was just starting to play music. 

That was probably a big moment for him. Then there’s that other famous photograph of the girl lying on the grass and she was on quaaludes, right? 

Mmhmm. It looks like she’s asleep, but back then they were so popular. 

And I want to talk a little bit about your time in New York because that was important. A lot of people don’t imagine you in New York, especially at the Chelsea Hotel. 

Yeah, the person I was mostly with was Viva, the Warhol actress, we both lived at the Chelsea. The old Chelsea. 

What was that experience like?

It was fun, but now the hotel is being re-done. 

Did you ever meet Andy Warhol?

He was rather a distant kind of person. 

Did you ever appreciate his work, or you guys kept in your own separate...

Basically, probably, no. He’s not at all one of my favorite artists. 

Did you ever go to the factory?

Mmhmm. 

You did. Who was around at that time?

Oh people like Paul Morrissey, Edie (laughs).

Malanga? 

Oh Gerard, yeah.

And Viva, she lives in Palm Springs now. Do you talk to her?

She lives in both Palm Springs and LA now. I see her every time I’m out there. 

William Eggleston at home in Memphis

William Eggleston at home in Memphis

And you’ve shot photographs all over the world? Is there any specific location that you enjoy shooting the most?

Not any particular one.

Yeah, it’s democratic. 

It doesn’t make a bit of a difference where, physically, I am on this Earth, most everything is the same picture.

You were just recently in Sao Paulo. 

In Rio. 

Oh, in Rio. 

It was an exhibition and I took pictures of people all around.

Yeah, and you get a lot of assignments. You’ve been commissioned to shoot a lot of stories. 

Well, but they’re not assignments, I don’t do those. Those are what I call "open commissions" without any guidelines. It’s quite open with what’s going on right now. The people at Cartier let me do whatever comes to mind. 

You shoot in Paris? 

Anywhere in the world. 

Oh anywhere in the world. And that’s for a show coming up.

Mhmm.

It seems like Cartier and Agnès b, they’re sort of great supporters of the arts and your work. 

Agnès and I have been very close for decades.

Decades?

Yes, a long, long time. She works with my daughter right now. 

You’ve always been very fashionable. Do you find it important to have good style? 

I never really think about it. I don’t know what to say.

Did you get your suits made in London at one point?

Mhmm. Several designers, and Stella McCartney just made one for me. She’s just a very swell person.

[William Eggleston takes a break for approximately 20 minutes to play Bach and improvise on the piano] 

Do you improv more than you play specific pieces and numbers? 

Probably, yes. Probably more. I love to improv.

There’s something jazzy about that.

It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s got to be the right tune and if you make too many mistakes it just falls apart.

Where did you meet Allen Ginsberg?

Oh my god, I don’t know exactly where or when but a long time. 

Yeah, Allen would have found you, you all would have found each other. It would have been circular...

That’s sort of the way it was.

Where did you meet David Lynch?

I don’t know. It’s been a long time, but I don’t know where or when it started. Or what it was even about. But we just get along easily.

What’s your favorite film by David Lynch?

Probably a cross between Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet

Blue Velvet is up there for me. 

I don’t think there is a better film than Blue Velvet. I’ve said this before to a lot of people, I consider David the new Hitchcock. 

Yeah, I agree. 

Because most horror films aren’t scary. David’s are scary.

Untitled, 1970-74 (Dennis Hopper) by William Eggleston ©Eggleston Artistic Trust

Untitled, 1970-74 (Dennis Hopper) by William Eggleston ©Eggleston Artistic Trust

Yeah, without even trying, it’s sort of natural...

Exactly, and my old late friend Dennis Hopper. Dennis and I were very close. 

I heard a story about Dennis Hopper saving your life?

Yeah, he did! In the Continental Divide! 

Did you almost fall?

He bought some land up there, but there’s nothing there but rocks. I stepped on the wrong one and he grabbed me...it was about 1000 feet down. 

So, he saved your life.

Yes.

Blue Velvet – especially Dennis Hopper’s character - was one of those films that I saw when I was younger that really changed the way I saw film. 

I completely understand you. Also, I don’t know whether it was an accident but it was perfect that he found Dennis. That’s the key ingredient to making it so scary because Dennis was just...

Terrifying. 

He was the sweetest person in real life – he was just a superb actor. 

You know what he said about that role? He said, “That character is me. That character is inside me.” 

I guess what you’re saying is that he wasn’t acting. 

Essentially. He played those really bad-guy roles but there’s something really natural about that intensity for him as an actor. 

If Blue Velvet was the first, well he’s been filmed so many times, but the first place where he really did that character to the nth degree. 

Yeah, definitely. 

Terrifying. That was a truly scary movie. 

Yeah, atmospherically too. Even the silent moments were scary.

That’s right.

It wasn’t just the ear – the graphic moments, the actual silence of that film was terrifying. 

It was Dennis and David Lynch, no other two people could have gotten together and done anything like that. 

Yeah, no one will ever listen to Roy Orbison the same way.

I have a funny story about David. David was with a screenwriter friend – do you know Michael Almereyda?

I know the name, but I don’t know the person. 

He’s a very close friend and he was telling me about this person that David had a falling out with who had written, in what David’s hands, could have been a wonderful script. Guess what it was about? I could just tell you, but it was about two cows dreaming. 

That seems like a David Lynch painting come to life, in a way.

Mmhmm.

Are you looking forward to Twin Peaks?

Mmhmm.

Did you watch the first iteration of it?

Mmhmm.

There’s nothing like that out there.

What ever happened about that, did the public not like it or something? Something happened, that it was canceled or stopped. 

Well, I think there's a new one coming out. When you were watching that show, there was a subconscious sense that what you are watching isn’t like television. 

Exactly. Hey, you know what – I have to say – it’s so nice to have people visiting me that are so nice and smart.

Well, thank you! It’s rare these days. 

Well, good.

Good, right? I feel that way too. 

That’s the way maybe it should be.

I agree. 

Baby, man, it is hard to be an artist in general and anywhere. Memphis is not kind to the arts.

It seems to have this weird idea of what the arts actually are.

This goes back to quantum. We’re probably never supposed to figure that out. But you’ve only made one mistake while you have been in this city: you went to Graceland.

That was more like an anthropological...

That was a lesson, we can put it that way. 

It was very sad in a sense.

In many senses, yes. In fact, I don’t know anything better to describe it than ‘sad,’ can you?

No. A decorating tragedy. 

Just the word 'sad' is enough. It means so many different things at the same time. Priscilla hated the place. Elvis was not kind to her, she said that, very privately, and that was reflected in her taking me to every little square-inch of the place, which took several days, afternoons. And she knew what a horrible, sad place it is and she didn’t say it quite plain, but she had no happy memories of being there.

Are family members that still work and maybe even live there?

There are not any left. They’re not allowed there. The last person, she was very nice to me, was Aunt Delta, and she was the last person allowed to live there. She had one big room.

Someone said she would come down and yell at the visitors.

She was very nice to me. The only thing I remember about her, she would cook enormous amounts of fried chicken, I mean enough for 40 people and I was pretty hungry – and she would not offer me a scrap. She was not a gracious lady. There’s a certain tradition around here: to be gracious is next to godliness and without it, you might as well not exist. 

I agree with that. 

It’s hard to disagree with that. That’s what I was raised with. 

[Lighter flicks. William Eggleston requests another drink: “Baby, will you fix me again...”]


This article was originally published in our Summer 2017 print issue. Go see William Eggleston: Los Alamos on view now at The Metropolitan Museum of Art In New York. On view until May 28, 2018


Untitled, from Los Alamos, 1965-68 and 1972-74, Dye transfer print, Private collection. © Eggleston Artistic Trust

Untitled, from Los Alamos, 1965-68 and 1972-74, Dye transfer print, Private collection. © Eggleston Artistic Trust

The Underside Of Glamour: An Interview Of Kia LaBeija

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text and photographs by Annabel Graham

In her vibrant, dreamlike self-portraits, Kia LaBeija offers us a keyhole through which to peer into some of her most tender and fragile moments—yet she peers right back, engaging with the viewer, watching us watching her. Her gaze is direct and unflinching, often laced with grief, or defiance, or whatever emotion might have been coursing through her body at the particular moment when the shutter clicked—at once reminding us of the ultimate artifice of posed portraiture and stating, simply, "Here I am."

Now twenty-seven years old, Kia LaBeija (née Kia Michelle Benbow) was born HIV-positive to an untested mother, who passed away from an AIDS-related illness when LaBeija was just fourteen. Much of her work explores her own firsthand experiences: reimagining and rejecting rigid cultural stigmas about those living with the virus, laying bare the beauty and pain of existing in—and learning to love—her own body, with all of its complexities. Born and raised in the heart of Manhattan’s theatre district, Hell’s Kitchen, LaBeija trained as a professional dancer and soon became involved in the underground subculture of voguing—which is, in her own words, “a style of cathartic movement or dance birthed by black and Latinx LGBTQ communities in New York City.” She worked her way up the ranks, walking and competing in balls, and now serves as the Mother of the House of LaBeija, which was founded in 1977 by ballroom icon Crystal LaBeija.

In all their thrilling, glittery, performative glory—their multilayered explorations of persona and artifice, identity and womanhood and trauma—LaBeija’s self-portraits faintly echo those of Cindy Sherman. Yet while Sherman plays a whole host of different characters in her images, LaBeija plays just one: herself. “Glamour dresses up the oldest wounds,” writes David Velasco, editor-in-chief of Artforum, in the letter that opens his astonishing inaugural issue (the issue is aptly titled "Uses of Power," and features Kia LaBeija alongside the likes of Nan Goldin, Adrian Piper, Johanna Fateman, Sable Elyse Smith and House of Ladosha). The trope of glamour throughout LaBeija’s work pays homage to her roots in voguing, yes; but it does more than that. It expresses, symbolically, just how beautiful an HIV-positive body can be. Above all, glamour represents one facet of who Kia LaBeija is: an actress, a chameleon, a performer, a ballroom queen, a daughter who loved to play dress-up with her mother. An artist. A woman.

I sat down with LaBeija, who is currently in the process of relocating to the west coast, in between her apartment viewings one morning in early January. It was a rare overcast day in Los Angeles, the sky a dull muted gray, and I was nervous about the flat lighting—I’d be shooting some portraits of her after our conversation. Curled up on a velvet couch in the home of her half-brother’s mother’s partner (say that ten times fast), a mug of hot tea warming her slender hands, LaBeija was thoughtful and circumspect as she answered my questions—barefoot and barefaced, her voice resonant and clear. She was kind, open, calm, forthright, remarkably deep—and considerably more down-to-earth than I’d anticipated, especially after watching her vogue fearlessly and persistently through the streets of Bogotà in a baby-blue dip-dyed spandex jumpsuit (in the electrifying music video for Pillar Point’s “Dove”).

ANNABEL GRAHAM: Could you talk a little bit about the dynamic between power and vulnerability in your work?

KIA LABEIJA: It’s just a part of who I am. I think that dynamic is something that happens naturally. It took a long time to share these pieces of me. When I did it, I took one photograph, which was the first photograph, which is in Artforum. I’m in my bedroom in my underwear. I took that one, and then I had these ideas to make a series based off of these moments of my life that felt very private and quiet, because I felt them starting to creep up on me in that way that’s like, “If you don’t start talking about this stuff you’re going to explode.” A lot of these images are my way of exploding a bit.

GRAHAM: How did you originally get into voguing?

LABEIJA: As a dancer, I knew about it—and also just being from New York, I knew a little bit about it. I had seen Paris Is Burning when I was sixteen. It’s an incredible documentary. There are a lot of queer people all over the world that don’t know that that exists. Then they see something like that and they feel like, “Oh wow, I can just be whoever I want to be.” I got into voguing because I met someone who was in the scene. We worked together at Webster Hall in New York. She brought me into a house, which was the first house I was in. Once that house closed, she joined the House of LaBeija. Basically I followed her. I call her my gay mother. She taught me everything I know.

GRAHAM: And now you’re the Mother of the House of LaBeija. How did you become the Mother? In Paris is Burning, they say that the Mother of a house is the person with the most power.

LABEIJA: I mean, for many years I had been kind of mothering the House of LaBeija in a way that was just kind of helping to guide it. I became the Mother this past year, in 2017. That’s when I kind of made it official.

GRAHAM: How, if at all, did growing up with HIV affect the way that you work as an artist and the kinds of images that you make? And conversely, how has your work as an artist, if at all, helped you navigate life as a queer woman of color with the virus?

LABEIJA: The first time I made art around HIV was after my mom died, when I was fourteen. I had this jean jacket, and I painted an AIDS ribbon on it and put her name on it, and I remember I showed it to my dad. It kind of hurt his heart a little bit, it was just kind of hard for him. He didn’t like it. I remember I went into my room and cut it up and threw it out. When you go through traumatic things like that, you don’t necessarily want to be reminded of them. So for him, his way of dealing with it was to not have that be a focal point in our lives. But for me, I needed to explore it, because this was something that I was growing up with, and will continue growing with. Being able to make these images and being able to say, “This is what’s going on with me,” because I don’t tell a lot of people what’s going on with me. That was one of my big things growing up with the virus—feeling really lonely. You don’t see representations of young people living with HIV, or children living with HIV. Women living with HIV. People of color living with HIV. People are so secretive about it, so quiet about it, that it’s hard to find your people. I found my people when I met my gay mother at Webster Hall. She invited me into a world where there were lots of other people around my age that were living with the virus. Being around other people that were living with this thing, but also being so alive, and being able to have this space to perform in any kind of way that I wanted to, just felt like the most amazing thing.

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GRAHAM: Do you also feel that making your work has helped you with the loss of your mother—understanding and moving through that?

LABEIJA: The thing about talking about people, and speaking them into existence, is that they don’t go away. It’s hard because, physically, you can’t experience them. But they live here, [points to her heart] and they live here, [points to the walls] and they live in my photographs, and they live in the hearts of other people that see the work too, because they see the story and they know the story and they feel it. Talking about her, putting her in my work, because she’s so much a part of me, and I am so much her. It’s crazy when you start to get older and you’re so much like your parents. I remember there was this one day that my mom was taking me to the school bus and we were walking, and she said something, and then laughed and went, “Oh my god, I just sounded so much like my mother!” And I laughed at her, and she said, “You just wait, one day you’re going to sound exactly like me. And you’re going to think of this moment, and you’re going to go, ‘Wow, my mom told me this was going to happen.’” And it happened. And it seems like it happens more every day. It’s this beautiful, sad thing, because part of it feels like, wow, I can remember so much, because I’m feeling all of her physicalities and the tone of her voice, or I’m laughing in that similar way, so it’s like this way of her being so close to me—but it’s also kind of sad, because sometimes I’ll do things and think, “Whoa, I’m so much like my mother,” and then I’ll remember, “Oh, she’s not here.” It’s this kind of dueling thing.

GRAHAM: I read in an interview of yours that you’ve learned over the years that you can’t hold on to physical objects. As an artist, and as someone who has experienced loss at a young age, what is your relationship to physical objects and spaces, especially the ones that you photograph?

LABEIJA: We take on all this stuff, we build up all these stories in our heads, and then it becomes all this junk and clutter, and we can’t move forward, or past, or move through anything else because we’re just stuck. So in my head I was just like, “I need to get unstuck. I need to be okay.” I took this drawer that had all of my mother’s things in it and threw all this shit on the ground and was like, “What is all of this stuff?” In the midst of being in that moment, I took a photograph of it. And after I took the photograph, I threw a lot of that stuff out. Because that clears space for new energy, for new things to exist, and prosper, and come into fruition. But space and objects are so important to my work. That stuff really interests me, because those things, those kinds of energies—they stick to walls. They stick to all this stuff that’s not living [knocks on wall] and make it alive.

GRAHAM: Can you talk a bit about your Artforum cover? In your own words, what did you intend with that image?

LABEIJA: I love this question. The piece that’s on the cover of Artforum is part of a series of images. That one is very different than all the others. I’ve never released any of the others, besides those two. There’s the one that’s on the cover, and there’s the one that’s inside, with David’s statement. The one with David’s statement is a little bit more like the rest of the images. It’s hard to talk about it because the image, unlike my other work, isn’t something that’s so specific that it’s like, “This is what it’s about.” It’s kind of an accumulation of a lot of things. The original idea for the image came in that moment where I was feeling unpretty, unloveable, tainted, all these kinds of things, and I wanted to create something where I looked like an X-Men character. It took me a really long time to finally create the picture. I made the image and funny enough, the one that’s on the cover was just a test shot.

GRAHAM: Oh my gosh, that’s crazy.

LABEIJA: It’s kind of about facing your darkness, and being able to be your darkness. It’s also about being powerful in that and being vulnerable and still being sexy in that. It’s really awesome, because my work has been so HIV-centered, and I’m moving past that now. Not to say that I’m not going to still be making work that thematically goes through that, because it’s a part of who I am and that’s a part of my story, but I don’t want that to pigeonhole me. It’s not all of who I am. The fact that this particular image could be on the cover, and it’s not an image that is so HIV-focused, felt so empowering to me.

GRAHAM: Where or what do you draw inspiration from?

LABEIJA: Yeah. Love. I get inspired by all different types of things. When I started really doing photography, I was going off my own thing, but I did have one big influence, Philip-Lorca diCorcia. I saw his “Hustlers” series a long time ago in school. What he did was he came out to LA and he photographed different sex workers and he paid them the amount of money that they would get paid from a client. He asked them how they ended up here, and he would take them to a set and photograph them. It was this balance between reality and something that's kind of manicured and posed, but also the beauty and the pain. I wanted to do something that felt similar to that.

The thing about Cindy Sherman is that she plays different people, different types of women, characters. Whereas with me, I play one character, which is myself. I had a period of time where I was like, “Should I stop taking pictures of myself?” It started feeling… not selfish, but narcissistic. That’s not what it is. It’s an exploration of this body, of this person, and saying, “Who am I? Where have I been?” One of my photographs [in the January 2018 issue of Artforum] is called The Greatest Aunts. It was in front of my great-aunt's house. I used to go visit them all the time when I was younger. My great-aunt had a diner where Langston Hughes used to come. That was the first time I started exploring identity in terms of race. My 24 series is more specifically about living with HIV and being a young woman of color, but this was like, “Wow, I’m photographing this space that was important to the women that came before me on my dad’s side. My dad’s black, and my mom is from the Philippines. You’ll probably see that coming up in a lot of my work. I identify as being a black artist, but I’m also a mixed artist too. I’m Filipino, and African-American, and Polynesian, all different types of things.

GRAHAM: What made you decide to move out here (LA) for the second time?

LABEIJA: I went back to New York, because I was like, “There are a lot of things that I haven’t done yet.” And in those five, six, seven years… I fuckin’ did all of the things that I needed to do, and then I was like, “Okay, I can go to LA now and just chill.” It’s a lot about quality of life, and New York is just really hard. It’s intense. I’ve lived there forever. New York is in an interesting space right now. My community, which is like the underground queer POC community in New York, everyone feels it. Everyone is like, “It’s dead out here.” Everyone is moving. People are going to Atlanta, a lot of people are moving to LA. People are going to Canada. There’s a lot of budding artistic energy that’s out here right now. It just feels like the place to be.


Purchase the current issue of Artforum to experience Kia LaBeija's art cover and photographic essay. Text and photographs by Annabel Graham. Follow AUTRE on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE


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Rebuilding the Model: An Interview of Contemporary Choreographer Chris Bordenave

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text by Summer Bowie

 

How could anybody forget Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings of Loie Fuller at the Folies Bergère, or Picasso’s myriad costumes and set designs for the Ballets Russes? Even if they've become less household over the years, those images made an indelible mark on mainstream society. Then there's the almost completely forgotten gems, like the stage set that Jasper Johns created for Merce Cunningham’s Walkaround Time, a pastiche of images from Duchamp’s “The Bride Stripped By Her Bachelor’s” in clear plastic pillows. The 20th century offered a spoil of fantastic collaborations between the visual and performing arts: Eadweard Muybridge’s iconic photos of Isadora Duncan, Léon Bakst’s costumes and set design for Nijinsky’s Afternoon of a Faun, or Isamu Noguchi’s set for Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring  – just to name a few. Unfortunately, I find myself hard-pressed to find any similar contemporary examples, which is why I was so pleasantly surprised to discover Chris Bordenave.

A classically trained, multi-disciplinary choreographer, who is one of the 3 founding members of a dance company called No)one. Art House., Bordenave has recently been working with a number of musical artists, such as Anderson Paak, Mayer Hawthorne, and more recently Solange and Kelela. He has also been creating site-specific works for institutions such as the California African American Museum, Hauser + Wirth, and Solange’s SAINT HERON House. I caught up with the young choreographer at the Annenberg Beach House, one beautiful autumn day, where he was rehearsing. We discussed his early training, the current state of dance affairs, and dance’s ceremonious relationship to visual art. Whether this current century will bear witness to dance and art finally renewing their vows is still a mystery, but if it is the case, Bordenave is one choreographer making a clear gesture that he's ready to meet in the middle.

SUMMER BOWIE: I want to start by asking you about your performance this past weekend at the Hollywood Bowl with Solange, how did it go?

CHRIS BORDENAVE: It was good. She brought me on to help with coordinating the additional performers that she had. She had twelve or fourteen extra horn players and she had a full string arrangement. I was just helping out with getting their choreography and their entrances and exits together. Just kind of helping out with whatever else she needed.

BOWIE: Is that your first time choreographing musicians in their movements, or is that something you’ve been doing?

BORDENAVE: I’ve been doing it. I’ve worked with Mayer Hawthorne, Anderson Paak, Empress Of, and a few other artists, just choreographing them in music videos. It was my first time doing a live performance — actually no that’s not true, I did Anderson Paak on the Ellen Show.

BOWIE: What are you rehearsing for right now?

BORDENAVE: Right now we are doing a performance at the Bootleg Theater. It’s going to be me with a vocalist and she made some songs out of these old black poems about the Great Migration. So this performance is one man’s journey through these songs, dance, theater, and projection mapping. It’s about their experiences moving from the South to the North during that time, what they went through, and how layered the experience is.



BOWIE: Since founding No)One. Art House, you’ve been performing and collaborating with a wide range of musical artists and art institutions. Is that bridge between musically driven work and performance-art driven dance what you were originally aiming for with No)One.?

BORDENAVE: Yeah, we knew that we wanted to educate and also challenge audiences in LA, because LA is a bit new to concert dance. We figured bringing it physically closer to the audience would impact them a bit more. Doing it inside of a proscenium stage doesn’t really connect, especially with contemporary dance. So, we found that when we do it in galleries, or unconventional spaces where we can physically get closer to the audience. They feel more connected to the work.

BOWIE: On the music side, you’ve been working with everyone from Solange, to Kelela, to Mayer Hawthorne, to Anderson Paak. How do you approach those kinds of commissions from a choreographic perspective?

BORDENAVE: First it goes off of their original vision. Right now I’m working with Kelela, and it’s nice to be working with her at this point because it’s really the first time she’s headlining shows, and it’s going to be her first album. It’s kind of a new arrangement for her, it’s very fresh and very new. So, it’s nice because I’m able to bring my concert dance art sensibility to this kind of commercial, mainstream element.

BOWIE: On the art side, you’re going to be presenting work at Hauser & Wirth in LA, the California African American Museum, and the SAINT HERON house. Does your approach change dramatically in accordance with the different types of venues that commission you?

BORDENAVE: Totally, it’s all about the space. It doesn’t really benefit anyone if we keep doing the same thing in different spaces. We want people to feel connected. We want them to feel like they are the work, that their role is as vital as that of the performers.

BOWIE: So, let’s go back to the beginning, you started dancing when you were about nine. What was your training like at that age?

BORDENAVE: I started at the Lula Washington Dance Theatre here in LA, and we did a lot of modern, African, jazz, and hip hop. Kind of everything, she wanted us to have a lot of tools under our belts so that we could work and do whatever we were asked to do. Then I went to the Debbie Allen Dance Academy once she opened up her school. When I graduated from high school, I moved to New York and went to the Ailey school, then I graduated from the LINES Ballet BFA program in San Francisco.

BOWIE: So you went to Ailey then came over to Alonzo King and finished your education?

BORDENAVE: Right. I was part of the inaugural class for their joint program with Dominican University. That was mainly contemporary ballet and I danced with the LINES company for a little bit after I graduated. Afterwards, I danced with Morphosis in New York, and then Luna Negra in Chicago. I moved back here because the state of affairs with dance companies in this country is failing. A lot of the most prominent contemporary dance companies have closed because people don’t care anymore about dance and they don’t want to give money to it. I basically started this new company with some friends as a way of rebuilding the model, because the old model clearly isn’t working. We thought that LA would be ideal, not only because it’s our home, but because it doesn’t really exist here. There’s definitely a void, but concert dance in LA is quickly becoming more popular.

BOWIE: It seems like your dance practice itself has been moving stylistically as well as geographically. From the examples you just gave, you’ve gone from ballet, to latin-based contemporary, to contemporary, to gaga-based movement…and I’m sure you’ve done a whole wealth of work in between. Would you say there’s a single motivating factor behind your overall trajectory?

BORDENAVE: The direction. It was always really important for me to work for someone who I knew could change a dancer. Every time I would go and see LINES, I had no idea how the dancers were doing it. I wanted to learn from whoever was directing. Gustavo Ramirez Sansano (who took over Luna Negra before it closed), he really trained me how to dance and how to work with different choreographers; to not only be true to what they’re doing, but also to be true to myself.

BOWIE: When we look at dance history, at least from a Western perspective, dance and fine art really developed in tandem, especially over the 20th century from the avant-garde movement, to modern, and finally the postmodern movement. Then we get to contemporary, and it seems like contemporary art has gone in a very conceptual direction and contemporary dance has been very commercially driven. Do you have any theories as to why that phenomenon may be occurring?

BORDENAVE: I think contemporary jazz dance has gone commercial for sure. But true contemporary dance, I wouldn’t say that it’s gone commercial quite yet. I think people just get confused about the differences between the genres. A lot of people think what they’re doing on So You Think You Can Dance? is contemporary dance, and it’s not. It’s contemporary jazz dance, which is very different. A big aim for me, and the reason why I always try to perform in these fine art institutions, is because that’s the only way that people will understand it’s at the same level as fine art, as visual art. In this country, unless you’re doing ballet or commercial dance, there’s no funding. The level of what you’re seeing on stage is usually very basic because the funding isn’t there. But when you go to Europe or when contemporary companies tour here, you see the scale is so large, and so much more than what we’re doing here. It’s sad that we have to bring outside companies from around the world to show us what the next level of dance is.

BOWIE: Do you think that academically, our institutions are doing justice by American dancers?

BORDENAVE: No! I’ve found that the institutions that have dance programs usually keep the same faculty for decades. Decades upon decades upon decades. People who have not worked, people who have not been in the field for years. So, of course, if you have this outdated information that you keep perpetuating to your students, they’re not going to know what’s going on. I would say there are about four conservatory programs in this country that can compete with companies outside the U.S.

BOWIE: Which would you say those four are?

BORDENAVE: I would say they are USC, Juilliard, San Francisco Conservatory, and SUNY Purchase… and LINES. So, five.

BOWIE: Do you have any predictions for what the future of dance will look like, both academically and commercially?

BORDENAVE: I think people are starting to wake up to contemporary dance for sure. It’s becoming more prevalent with people like Ryan Heffington. They’re bringing it into fashion and music videos and to film. There’s definitely a slow progression, it’ just... slow.

BOWIE: What do you think is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned as a performer?

BORDENAVE: That it’s important to see dance, to see all forms of art, to let it inform you, to be influenced, and also to copy. I feel like I’ve only been able to be so versatile because I’ve been able to really observe and listen and then copy and then let it influence my work. People are always scared like, “Oh no, I can’t be like them.” But Michael Jackson stole the moonwalk. All these influential people steal. Beyoncé steals... she does. It is a form of flattery. I don’t see why people get so upset when Beyoncé steals their work. Their work would never have been seen by that many people unless someone like her was to do it. Of course, there’s artistic integrity and all of that, but I still think that there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s okay.

BOWIE: Finally, I feel like we see a lot of young people who’ve fallen in love with dancing but then they don’t know how to continue the practice as adults. Do you have any advice for young adults who struggle with feeding that passion?

BORDENAVE: That’s a great question. As soon as I moved back here, people came up to me like, “Oh are you still dancing?” You know, of course. It’s what I am. It just goes back to arts education. I know USC is definitely teaching them the business side of it, because that’s a reality. Especially now with social media, you have to be able to market yourself. You have to be able to know what you look like, what to post, you have to know the avenues you can go down. You can be an arts manager, you can be a publicist, you can be a gallerist, you can do so many things within the art world even if you’re not the one performing or creating the work. I taught myself how to curate, how to reach out to magazines, how to do all of these things just by seeing what other people are doing and trying. I think it’s important to know that you can’t just dance anymore. You have to be able to promote yourself, promote your work, promote every aspect of what you’re doing. Even if you’re not that good.



No)one. Art House will be performing at 8pm November 9 at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, as well as 7-9pm December 19 at the California African American Museum. Follow Chris Bordenave on Instagram @chrisemile, follow No)one. Arthouse @no_one.arthouse, follow AUTRE @autremagazine. Look out for this interview, as well as interviews with Yayoi Kusama, Agnes Varda, Harmony Korine, Judith Bernstein and many more in the Winter 2017 issue of AUTRE. Available for pre-order now! This is a limited-edition issue, get your copy while supplies last!


My Kind Of Heaven: An Interview Of Polly Borland On The Eve Of Her First Solo Show In Los Angeles

Polly Borland’s idea of heaven isn’t your average person’s idea of heaven. Her heaven is a dark heaven, where the angels are fully-matured adults in soiled diapers, sucking away at a binky through a stubble-lined, razor-burned mouth. The Australian-born Borland, who spent half her life in London and is now based in Los Angeles, has the uncanny ability to make the fetish of adult infantilism look strangely playful and romantic. She spent five years documenting the lives of adult babies – photographing their every nap and nappy change. Tomorrow, she will be showing The Baby series as part of her first solo show in Los Angeles at Mier Gallery – her long-time collaborator Nick Cave curated the first ever showing of The Baby series at The Meltdown Festival in London in 1999. Shortly after exhibiting the Baby series, she was commissioned by Buckingham Palace to shoot Queen Elizabeth II’s portrait to commemorate her Golden Jubilee.  Borland has commissioned UK prisoners to turn the images into intricate tapestries, which will also be on view. We got a chance to catch up with Borland at her Downtown Los Angeles studio to discuss her solo show and her life on the road with adult babies. 

OLIVER KUPPER: You are essentially new to Los Angeles, what prompted the move out here from London?

POLLY BORLAND: Well I came here kicking and screaming because my husband is a movie director. He’s not a gun-for-hire, he did The Proposition and Lawless. He kept saying, “We’ve got to move to LA,” after The Proposition and I kept saying, “We’re not moving to LA.” So, we showed up and then the culture shock…. I know every city is pretty tough. London is pretty tough. But everything here seems to be overshadowed by the movie industry and all of that is really smoke and mirrors, kind of secrets and lies. That’s what kind of hit me first. And it kind of freaked me out.

KUPPER: Have you guys come out of that culture shock?

BORLAND: Yes, and my main focus now is looking at human connection, and I didn’t know anyone here, so then I started creating figurative images out of stuffed stockings and things like that, which sort of connected to my previous work.

KUPPER: Is that the Smudge series?

BORLAND: And the Smudge series, but this was the Pupa series – and Wonk where I continued stuffing things. I think I’ve got a book, I’ll show it to you.

KUPPER: You are about to have your first solo show here, are you excited, nervous or is there an emotion that you didn’t expect having?

BORLAND: I’m nervous because Nino [Mier] suggested I show all ‘Baby’ work, which has never been shown in its entirety. It’s 80 photos, they’re very confronting and a lot of them are x-rated. They’re not easily digested and universally, people just think they’re creepy and disgusting. And even when I first took the photos to the publisher, Power House Books, and Susan Sontag, who did the essay, thought I was going to be a superstar, and when the book came out everyone was just freaked out by it.

KUPPER: People view things at face value.

BORLAND: Even Susan said, “I just didn’t expect it,” that’s how much she loved the work, so I’m very nervous. At the same time, I’ve realized that going through this trauma and coming out the other side and with Trump being voted in, I’ve kind of re-found my voice again. I was in kind of fear and terror for quite a long time. It culminated in Trump being elected, and me having a show, and then seeing other people and me having to find our voices. That’s really what art’s supposed to be anyways. So, I’m kind of excited for it.

KUPPER: What about the Queen series?

BORLAND: I feel like the Queen tapestries are equally subversive but not as in-your-face. I’ve had them stitched and show them on the wrong side because on the right side, they all look the same. The backside is just wild.  I was talking to this Italian dealer and he loved the tapestries and I said, “The problem is I don’t know how to do it.” If I were to learn, it would take me years to do one. I was researching, researching and I ended up contacting the craft association of England. Then I found this charity that’s been going since the 70s - it’s called Fine Cell Work. Prisoners get paid to make certain arts and crafts. They provide cushions to the Victoria and Albert Museum, they do cushions for the Catholic Church; it’s a really well-established charity. And apparently, they like doing my stuff because my work is so unusual. But, the prisons have started complaining about the content. The Queen’s okay with them, even though she’s the one that’s locking them up.

KUPPER: I want to jump back into talking about the Baby series, because I think it is some of your most important work, how did you get introduced to this world?

BORLAND: Yeah, that’s the bulk of the work. The Babies were introduced to me by a friend of mine who was at Saint Martin’s College of Art and one of her lecturers told her about this phenomenon, and this was in the early 90s. And I’m like, “No,” and we both kind of laughed and she double-checked if they exist because I was like, “where can I find these people?” She said why don’t you Google Kim West? It’s not rubber fetish, but fashion. She was wild and I rang her and I was like, “Do these people exist and where do I find them.” In those days, the Internet wasn’t a big thing, and she said that I had to go into a Newsagent, which is where you buy magazines and newspapers in England, and go to the top shelf and look at the English sex magazines for the classifieds. So I did that and looked in the back and saw this Hushaby Baby Club phone number. And I thought, “Oh my god, I lucked out!” I thought I’d have to write a letter.

KUPPER: So this is a fetish and they want people to be in their world.

BORLAND: Yeah, when I rang this woman called Hazel Jones, she said, “Sure, come and have a look.” And I was working for the Independent, which was a newspaper with color supplements and they were known for their photography. So I went to the senior editor and he laughed like they all did and went, “sure.” So me and a journalist went to go check it out, and she was one of their top journalists, and we spent an afternoon with Hazel and, you know, huge babies are crawling around because she was a mommy, but she also ran a bed and breakfast and she’d make huge cots and huge cribs. The whole thing was set up like a giant-sized baby land, but she also made big baby clothing for these people.

KUPPER: So, she was like a madam, but also their mummy. 

BORLAND: How it happened was she was making bondage-wear and she kept getting requests for baby-wear in mail order. She was doing that and then she realized there was a whole market for adult baby-wear that no one had tapped into, so that’s how her business developed. Then, she built the bed and breakfast baby land and then formed the Hushaby Baby Club. So, then we were invited back to do this weekend-long party, I mean it was really surreal. The journalist couldn’t deal with it because it was pretty full on. They were drinking alcohol, but then they’d regress. They’d be dressed up as babies, be adult for a few minutes, but the majority of the time they were babies. Some of them were purist so they wouldn’t drink alcohol, but some of them went to and fro between being a baby and an adult.

KUPPER: You became fascinated by these adult babies.

BORLAND:  I became totally fascinated because it had every element that I loved: the surreal, the pathos, the seedy-ness. Everything about it was my idea of heaven. I had to disguise their faces; they didn’t want to be seen in a national publication. I rang Hazel Jones and said I’m thinking about doing a book on this, which ones would I contact and do you think they’d reveal their identity?” because I couldn’t do a book without seeing their faces and she said, “Well, you can try.” So, I contacted them directly.

KUPPER: How long did you spend with them?

BORLAND: It became a five-year journey. We traveled to LA to go to Disneyland and we did a road trip down, whatever highway it is, to San Francisco to meet the adult babies in San Francisco, there was a club. Then I went to France and did the same thing. I showed up, had to meet the guy, I got picked up, him and a couple of other adult babies went to the Swiss border to stay in a chalet for the weekend. And this was full on, it was defecating - the smell in the car, I was full-on carsick. Full on. But you know again, in the interest of art…I don’t believe now that I would have the guts to do that…I don’t know if I would.

KUPPER: Did you ever feel in danger?

BORLAND: No, because that’s the thing, they were the sweetest, kindest, really passive sort of people…they’re babies.

KUPPER: Did you talk to them about their fetish?

BORLAND: This is the thing, I thought there was some big psychological secret to it, I was trying to figure it out and I had a lot of empathy because I lost my mother when I was young. So, I kind of understood what it was like to not really want a tight responsibility and not be 100% focused on, all of that. So, I kind of got it on that level and identified, and I think that’s why I got along so well with them. I think the intensity of the photographer’s gaze, it’s like the mother’s gaze. I’m really 100% focused when I’m looking through a camera. We all got along extremely well, but I did a lot of talking. The other interesting thing is that it was very individualized. Some of them were into terry towel nappies, and some of them were into disposable nappies, and some of them were into being girl babies, some of them were into being boy babies.

KUPPER: Susan Sontag’s introduction is quite amazing—how did she come to write that?

BORLAND: I was photographing her for The Guardian and she said, “What else do you do? I can tell you do something else.” I said, “What do you mean? Well, I’ve got this series of photos.” I didn’t say anything to her - she prompted the conversation. Later, I told her about the babies and she said, “Oh, I’m coming to England next week, I want to see the photos.” When she came to England, and I had a portrait show over the road from where she was staying, we had breakfast together with my husband.  She went through the photos and kept saying, “Who’s writing the essay?” She kept hinting at it, and I finally said, “Do you want to do it?” She said, “Of course I want to do it!” Incredible.

KUPPER: Nick Cave curated your first showing of this work, what was that process like and how did you meet Nick because you have collaborated quite a lot together.

BORLAND: We’ve known each other since we were 19 years old. The first time I met Nick was at a party but it wasn’t until later that we became friends, when he collaborated with my husband on writing Ghosts…of the Civil Dead. Incredible prison drama, Australian drama and Nick co-wrote it and did the music. He was amazing in it, he had a little cameo, and we became friends then. Then he moved to Germany and England then we moved to England. I sort of documented him for 40 years or something and we’ve been really, kind of like, best friends. Nick saw the baby pictures and loved them, still loves them. He didn’t show all of my work but he was the first one to publicly show it.

KUPPER: Where was that show?

BORLAND: He was curating at Meltdown Festival at the Southbank Centre in London. Nina Simone played – it was incredible.

KUPPER: Back to the history of photography, it seems like Australia has a less notable photographic history – there have not been that many fine art photographers to come out of Australia. Helmut Newton’s wife, June, she became a photographer under the Alice Springs name and I’m wondering why that is. 

BORLAND: There are a few amazing photographers.

KUPPER: But we don’t know much about them…

BORLAND: I’ve got a lot of Australian art and I think another part of the reason is Australia, in the old days before the Internet, was so isolated, but you’ve got to look up Rennie Ellis, he’s fucking amazing. We always used to make fun of him when we were students. We’d say, “Who’s that old guy,” you know sort of creepy, why is he here, he was at every music event, always there, in any night club. Then this huge book was produced of his work and he photographed ACDC, like documentary style and they’re incredible photos. There is this photo he took at a Saints concert, some people think that Saints were the first punk band in the world, and Nick Cave is a teenage boy in the audience looking focused, like analyzing this guy performing. There is another woman called Carol Jerrems that died young and she was really incredible. So Carol Jerrems, Rennie Ellis, well… Helmut Newton lived in Australia, that’s where he met his wife.

KUPPER: Helmut Newton was imprisoned for a while, right?

BORLAND: He fled Germany, and then him and his parents ended up in Singapore, and then he went to Melbourne where he became a portrait/wedding photographer. He took my parents’ wedding photos. I’ve got all of the wedding photos that he took and his name is embossed, because you know wedding photographers used to emboss their name?

KUPPER: Oh yeah, of course! I want to talk about your Queen portraits – what was your reaction when you got that call and how did that commission come about?

BORLAND: That came about because of the show at the National Portrait Gallery. Basically, it was coming up to be the Golden Jubilee so it was the end of the 90s and a mediator said to me, “The Golden Jubilee is about to happen and we’ve decided to give a lot of different people a go at photographing the queen. Would you be interested?” And I’m like, “Well, yeah.” And they said, “The only catch is you’ve got five minutes.” Eventually it all worked out and I was contacted by the palace. We were allowed as much time as we needed to set up, but before the shoot, they direct you around the palace and you pick the room that you wanted to photograph her in. I took two rolls and I had two different setups, one backdrop in front of another, one camera in front of the other. At one point I was about to manhandle her ankles because I was trying to get her to stand to the side and move to the left, but apparently, I don’t even remember, but Prince Philip was in there standing, saying inappropriate things as usual. I got two good shots.

KUPPER: There’s kind of a novelty about shooting the queen especially now that you get to sort of play with the images.

BORLAND: Exactly. And look, a lot of my favorite subjects were politicians because I knew that they never did what they said they were going to do. They never really followed through on what they believed. It just felt to me like the embodiment of hypocrisy. Everything’s about money, it’s not about helping people or social responsibility.

KUPPER: As A photographer, what is the greatest thing you’ve learned about the human condition?

BORLAND: I think it would be that most people are craving attention or recognition of some kind, but I really see parallels between… to me I could really see the link between the famous and various subcultures. I don’t know if that’s so true anymore because I think the disparity between rich and poor is so bright that I think you know that this is a real disconnect. So, there’s this kind of a weird thing going on that I’ve found… I think I’m going to have to think about that one. I mean “the human condition” what does that mean to you?

KUPPER: It’s different to a lot of different people, but the human condition in the sense of not the meaning of life, but sort of what our wildest pursuits are in a sense, our pursuits as humans.

BORLAND: You know, and I heard this, actually Kendrick [Lamar] said it recently – really it’s all about love. We just want to be loved and to be a part of something, and being part of a community is really important. I mean for me, I can’t understand differences because I don’t think there are any, all our blood is fucking red.


The Babies and Tapestries will be on view from July 22 to August 19, 2017 at Mier Gallery, 1107 Greenacre Ave Los Angeles, CA. Text and photographs by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Follow AUTRE on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE