The Meme Is A Virus: An Interview Of @JERRYGOGOSIAN

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Misery loves company, and the art scene is full of miserable people. In our vast, virtual memetic culture, @JERRYGOGOSIAN is dissecting the great unregulated art market and its strange ecosystem of fear, lies and egomaniacism. Everyone knows she, or he, is on the inside, but the constant guessing only fuels the fire: Who is @JERRYGOGOSIAN?

 SUMMER BOWIE: You’re making memes about a very niche world that takes itself very seriously, but do you think it’s the very fact that you’re allowing serious people to laugh at themselves that makes it resonate so deeply?

@JERRYGOGOSIAN: At every level of the art world I’ve ever occupied, I like to remind myself that I’m not curing cancer, disarming landmines, or figuring out what to do with nuclear waste. When I was an intern, there was this other intern that would cry everytime we got bitched out by the director of the gallery. I would stand there holding my breath and pinching my leg so I wouldn’t burst out laughing. Like I’m spending my time working for you, for free, on menial tasks so you can go to Nobu for lunch and get a pedicure in before your event tonight at MoMA and then you talk to me like I’m an imbecile and expect me to obediently serve you? LMAO. I might just make a “few more mistakes. Oops!” I’ve always been irreverent to the art world structure, especially the hierarchy because it is genuinely absurdist.

BOWIE: Which of your posts has garnered the most engagement, and do you have any theories as to why? 

@JERRYGOGOSIAN: People love the character profiles that I write. They’re all amalgamations of real people I know in the NYC and LA art world. I don’t have to try to be witty or smart. As we all know, the more you observe it, reality trumps fiction any day. For every character profile I write people either comment “that’s me” or “I know her.” Despite these descriptions seeming pretty specific, there are some overarching caricatures in the art world that may or may not have been articulated until now. Some people have accused me of being harsh on my characters and I’m just like “no, no, that’s like the combination of four people I love.” I write about each one with so much affection. We’re all idiosyncratic and predictable at some point. I think it’s cute.  

BOWIE: Have you noticed any topics that trend more than others?

@JERRYGOGOSIAN: Like any good propagandist, I’m tapping into an unconscious, herd mentality system of fearful, false beliefs. In essence, this page wouldn’t function without insecurity. People are obsessed with the following: exclusivity, FOMO, class, financial competition/disparity, and the art world pecking order. Ironically,for me to make these memes, I’ve got to be pretty honest with my own internal dialog about the art world. I don’t exclude myself from insecurity, but I’m highly sensitive to what it looks and sounds like because ultimately I’d like to spiritually transcend this rung of middle school hell. The realer the post, the bigger the response I receive. Insecurity is trending on the semiotic level disguised as cultural cache, flippant coolness, excessive wealth, recklessness, art world privilege, and jet setting.

BOWIE: Like anyone who indicts with mockery on the Internet, you’ve received both praise and angered criticism for your posts. What are some of the assumptions people make about your identity or perspective?

@JERRYGOGOSIAN: I keep trying to remind people that Jerry’s page is not the court of public opinion. I’m one person putting images to text based on my lived experiences and observations. If it read any other way, it would be disingenuous. I’m not going to larp in the digital realm to please every demographic that comes across

To date, I’ve been called a misogynist, racist, sexist, a MAGA supporter, a white feminist, a classist rich bitch, an art bro, and the list goes on. Bare with me here, but there is some major “Yanni/Laurel” cognitive dissonance going on politically which spills over into the art world. I’ve had to nicely try to explain to people in my DM’s that if they can’t decipher the court jester pointing his finger at the king and calling him an asshole, then I really can’t help them develop a sense of humor.

BOWIE: Do you take any of those criticisms into account, or do they affect your perspective in any way?

@JERRYGOGOSIAN: Someone attacked me the other day for not investigating whiteness enough. I had no good response other than to challenge them to make a funny art meme page which they felt better “investigated whiteness.” What else could I say?

My skin is pretty thick from all the angry gallerists I’ve worked under. I can also play rhetorical gymnastics like the best of them. At the end of the day, none of these people know who I am IRL. They can project their feelings onto this fictitious character, but alas, it’s all micro-fiction coming from one subjective experience. My therapist tells me I’m not responsible for other people’s feelings. She's making more money than me, so I’ll respect her authority.

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BOWIE: The role of the art critic has changed dramatically now that we live in a world dominated by social media. I constantly hear the critics referencing art history, theory, and words of wisdom from venerable curators. However, this is a rare occurrence with artists or even gallerists. Do you feel like artists and gallerists are still reading criticism—apart from what’s written about them personally?

 @JERRYGOGOSIAN: I don’t think people honestly read art criticism anymore unless they’re in grad school or they’re an actual art critic. I think people use art journalism like Yelp reviews, skimming it over for a few names and key buzzwords before clicking over to PornHub. I mean with rare exceptions, isn’t most art journalism and fluffy “critique” pay to play at this point? Don’t get me started on Artsy, Artnet, Art Forum, Art in America, etc. In the “deep fake” state we live in with 24-hour news media cycles and all-consuming social media platforms, I’m not sure you can really trust anyone other than yourself to truly be critical.

BOWIE: Your Instagram handle is clearly an amalgam of @fuckjerry, Larry Gagosian, and Jerry Saltz. How do you feel about these titans of the Internet and art world, and what do you think the future holds for them?

@JERRYGOGOSIAN: I’m sure they’ll all be human centipeding in hell, but in this life they’re living like gods. Larry Gagosian is the scariest man on earth and I wish he was my father. I’d like to inherit his empire and then slowly, but surely, dethrone half of his artists and celebrate alternative versions of the art world narrative. His gallery has constructed what most people believe contemporary art to be through market manipulation and monopolization. I admire and resent him for that achievement.  @jerrysaltz I met a few times in NYC. One time he walked up to me and asked me if I was (me IRL) and I said “Yeah, why?” He said, and I quote, “You’re a real artist, ya know that? You know how to frame perversion and that’s a gift.” I’d have wet my panties if  John Waters or David Sedaris had said that to me, but I guess that was my Jerry Saltz review and I’ll take it. He’s got charisma and hates Trump, but he could tone down the pussy stuff on his Instagram.

BOWIE: I want to talk about the phenomenology of the 21st-century meme. Do you think it’s a sign of human advancement that we’ve whittled complex ideas down to a few words and an image, as opposed to a short fable like Adam & Eve, or is it a reflection of our devolution that the average reader no longer has the capacity to weigh the many complexities of our world?

 @JERRYGOGOSIAN: I love this question! First off, never underestimate the power of a cave man’s grunt, Cesar’s thumbs down, or a death stare as powerful and effective forms of communication. Simple is always best. Why should the efficacy of a meme be classed any different? If anything, it takes high forms of cultural literacy to put together the puzzle of each piece of micro-fiction that writes each joke.

I think there is an art to reading and writing memetic language that reminds me a lot of “reading people, style, or situations” a la Paris is Burning <3 If you can keep it real, do it fast, and crack the funniest joke it feels like a genuine discourse (on Adderall.) It’s semi primitive in its output, but highly effective for spreading information quickly and sharing sentiments.

BOWIE: Do you feel like you have any agenda when it comes to your participation with the art world?

@JERRYGOGOSIAN: I used to want to be Larry Gagosian’s arch nemesis, but I’m a little more zen about it these days. My only agenda is to make people laugh and give people a gentle reprieve before they’re demeaned for misprinting a price on a checklist while working for minimum wage or being asked to give a collector free psychotherapy on a sales lunch.

Some of the lesser liked, but very real memes tend to be about my spiritual connection to art and my inability to escape it. Despite all the shit I talk, paintings regularly make me cry, I read poetry out loud, real artists are angel/aliens I’m blessed to know, and I watch long, boring European cinema with great delight; allowing it to depress me for days. I am a sap who loves art more than anything else in the world. It has completely taken over my life.

So my agenda is basically to just talk about all my complicated feelings to an audience that needs a chuckle.

BOWIE: If there were one thing you could see change within the art market, what would it be?

@JERRYGOGOSIAN: Only one? (sigh, ok) I’d cancel fake art. Andy Warhol was a genius, but I think he was intentionally misread by a bunch of morons who basically turned the zeitgeist of contemporary art into a market-driven hoax manipulated by charlatans. People, in earnest, are always telling me they want to “start the career of a fake artist” and I’m like “why don’t you give a real artist a fucking chance?”

And don’t get me started on the CIA creating abstract expressionism as a ploy to play Cold War espionage games and then I’ve got people telling me there’s something wrong with me when I feel nothing at the Rothko Chapel. I’ve sat there and done the staring thing for long enough. I once licked a Rothko in Washington DC. It did nothing for me.

CANCEL FAKE ART. Buh-byyyye.

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Bad Sin Frutas: An Interview With Painter Morgan Mandalay

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text and photographs by Summer Bowie

Are you staring directly into the mouth of the beast, or are you indeed sitting inside said mouth, observing the surreal landscape below? This is just one of the many visual homonyms that are ever-present in the works of Morgan Mandalay. For his first solo exhibition at Klowden Mann in Los Angeles, the Chicago-based artist has painted worlds that are rife with reference to human figuration, though only vaguely, in the form of phantom hands clutching at tree branches, or humanoid eyeballs peeking through leaves. Traces of our existence are evident in the still life formations of pitted fruits, or in fish hung by twine, and most conspicuously in the presence of a large brick wall. Otherwise, these worlds seem to be inhabited by fruit and flora that rot and burn on the vine, trees that seem to bear both lemons and pears simultaneously; a world where omniscient angels are standing by for either the sake of protection and salvation, or eternal damnation. Bad Sin Frutas tells a story of exile using the memetic power of the Garden of Eden as a template for processing the Mandalay family’s exile from Cuba, and it does so in a time of global refugee crises. As far as its temporal grounding, Morgan sighs with a reticence to use the term “post Anthropic” when he points to what this world might be gesturing towards. The mild humiliation on his part seems to come from two places. The first might be a feeling of sounding trite, knowing that the post Anthropocene is a well-explored subject in contemporary art. The second might be that he and I have known each other since we were teenagers in San Diego, or perhaps, we only know each other as teenagers, and having only recently reconnected, he knows this is a term that our teenage selves would find grossly didactic. To me, it seems a perfect paradox for this parallel universe we seem to be inhabiting where the past is constantly colliding with the present, further perplexing our sense of the future. I got a chance to preview the show with Morgan and talk about his perpetual use of quizzical homonyms, his nomadic life as an artist, and the interdependent qualities of one’s creative and administrative efforts.

SUMMER BOWIE: Let’s just start with the title of the show, Bad Sin Frutas. Can you tell me a bit about it’s meaning? Is it Bad Sin [Spanish pronunciation] Frutas, or Bad Sin [English pronunciation] Frutas?

MANDALAY: (laughs) Yeah, I mean that’s it. Well, my titles are generally a play on language and scrambling language, or a play with the mutability of meaning, as an extension of understanding a fluid self. Language, in whatever form, be it written, spoken, painted or whatever, as a kind of marker of self. "Norman Amygdala" was an anagram of my name, "Scene of Shipwreck", "Thank you squash banana. I'm not an ape, you are"…they’re all plays on homonym or mistranslation. Originally I’d been thinking the show should be called “Sin Frutas,” but I was also toying with “Bad.” My partner (Kim-Anh Schreiber) is who suggested the merger and I think it was way more effective. Bad Sin Frutas

BOWIE: You have a multi-pupiled demon that started showing up in your work in 2017, in this series of works they appear but are hidden in lean layers, can you tell me a bit about where that came from?

MANDALAY: Right, the cherubim. They come from the book of Ezekiel and they appear to be demons, but they’re actually angels who guard the gates to the Garden of Eden with a flaming sword. They’re described as having multiple faces, and the multiple pupils convey the motion of their eyes, which are all-seeing, and constantly observing and judging and protecting.

BOWIE: So, they were basically like the Biblical Big Brother? (laughs) When you say cherubim, the image in my mind is that of a bored, chubby baby.

MANDALAY: Well, yeah we have a very diluted idea of angels nowadays, but in the order of angels there are cherubim, seraphim, the throne, archangels, and four others. The seraphim are usually depicted with six wings and the cherubim have four wings. They all have different purposes that they serve, and were we to have grown up in Europe during the Middle Ages, we would more likely be familiar with the types of angels represented in these Biblical paintings, and the roles that they play in the Bible. However, we grew up on Touched By An Angel, and City of Angels, and Michael, and Angels in the Outfield, so at this point most of us are imagining someone sexy with washboard abs or, yeah, the like…Rococo fat Cupid baby.

BOWIE: Can you talk about Géricault’s “The Raft of the Medusa” and how that fits into your work?

MANDALAY: Sure thing. I think I alluded to my interest in homonym before­––a thing that looks like one thing and means another, or can hold two meanings at once. Lots of people seem very certain in their beliefs, and part of those beliefs is that the opposing beliefs are certainly wrong. And hell, some things are wrong, of course. I’m not some extreme moral relativist but…some things can look like one thing and mean something else. “The Raft of the Medusa,” previously titled “Scene of Shipwreck,” is a painting that could be two events. It could be sunset or it could be sunrise because there’s nothing in the painting to tell us which direction we are pointed. The ship on the horizon, silhouetted, could be coming closer or going away. The people of the raft are either being saved, or they’re being left to die. It all depends on how much you know about an obscure piece of 18th century French history that at the time seemed important enough to be commemorated on a giant canvas, in basically Géricault’s only well-known painting, and then travelled around England.

BOWIE: And what about the role of still life in these works?  

MANDALAY: Kind of the same answer. But also I like that still life painting was, and in many ways maybe still is, the “lesser-than” form of painting. When I started making still lifes I would do it with my leftover paints on my palette, or with the pigment sludge at the bottom of my turpentine jar. They’re….I don’t know, humble.

BOWIE: Sure. There’s definitely something to be said for Manny Farber’s “termite art” approach. After living, studying and working in San Diego, San Francisco, Portland, New York and Chicago, do you feel as though the dramatic change in settings/scenes has affected your work?

MANDALAY: Yes and no. I think not knowing what I am, or stability has definitely shaped my work. I think my work often doesn’t know what it is. My paintings, I hope, are always similarly trying to locate themselves, or asking the viewer to join in that attempt.

More directly I can say, I’ve certainly picked up nuggets along the way or been affected differently by where I was. San Diego is my home and everything I guess stems from there. In San Francisco, I think I always go back to studying with Keith Boadwee specifically as formative. When I dropped out of SFAI and moved to Portland, that’s where I guess I really dove into paintings as my primary mode of making, and then spent the next 5 years learning more about that in San Diego. Somewhere between San Diego and Chicago probably taught me everything about being a part of a community of artists, and running a space as a way I enjoyed being a community member.

 BOWIE: That’s right. You went back to San Diego and opened your own gallery, SPF 15. Can you talk about the intention behind that gallery?

MANDALAY: I wanted to have a space that spoke to the locality. In terms of programming, I wanted to create a program that would bring people to San Diego, and show artists from San Diego alongside these other artists that are doing interesting things. Obviously, I benefit from that as well. I wanted to be able to be in San Diego, and be an artist, and not disappear. There was a talk that Tyson Reeder gave when I was living in Chicago. I often would harken back to on this—talking about all the projects that he and his brother Scott did in Milwaukee in the early 2000s. Really before the easy access of Instagram, it was a way of being visible, doing these projects and inviting people to this city that they potentially aren’t thinking of as an “art city,” but one that has abundant resources. To me, that was part of it too, he referred to it as a telephone line to the outside world. SPF15 was a telephone line to the outside world.

BOWIE: What does it stand for again? I remember you telling me once that the intention was to do exactly 15 exhibitions... 

MANDALAY: It was Sunday Project For 15 exhibitions. We’ve done 14, so there’s still one to go. We did a few fairs and things like that too, but those don’t count as proper, nomadic beach exhibitions. 

BOWIE: Do you think you’d ever like to go back to curating and running a gallery space?

MANDALAY: Yeah, I think about it a lot. To me it’s a part of being in a community. It’s really hard for me to separate that from my overall practice, or I don’t know, personhood.

BOWIE: Was it ever weird, switching hats from being the artist to the dealer?

MANDALAY: No, it should be weird, but as an artist, one of the things I get to do is make decisions about what I want to see in the world, and as a gallerist or curator, that’s part of what I’m doing too. Hopefully, creating thoughtful exhibitions, working with artists that I really believe in that add to the overall diversity of aesthetics, but also...that I want to see. Seeing is a big part of it. Both have these invisible administrative arms to them. Being an artist, there’s plenty of administrative work as well. I learned a lot about being an artist, in terms of the professional side of it, from being on the administrative side of running spaces. I don’t think of them as all that different. One hand washes the other.

BOWIE: What brought you back to Chicago?

MANDALAY: My partner is getting her PhD at Northwestern. It’s good…it’s cold. But our apartment is beautiful and my studio is next to our bedroom. And I’m working at a radical progressive studio here, Arts of Life, working with an amazing group of artists with developmental disabilities.

BOWIE: The color palette of this series of works feels very different from previous works, almost like Southern California after a massive fire. Can you talk about that?

MANDALAY: I live in Chicago now. I needed some color. No, for a while I’ve been making somewhat monochromatic paintings or just…darker. But I used to use a lot of color and I think I couldn’t tell if I was making good paintings or just pretty colored paintings so for a few years I thought I needed to strip them of candy sweet colors. But I feel really confident about these paintings. I’ve tried to deploy color meaningfully and more as a lure than as the fish.

BOWIE: I remember you being a drama kid in high school, how were you introduced to painting?

MANDALAY: It’s true! Oh my god, yeah. I don’t know if you remember this but I got to direct this one act that Neil and Serop, and I (to a lesser degree) wrote together called Schizophrenia. I think that had a really lasting impact on me. It really was like, the only art I did, and then I went to art school at SFAI. Which is its own long story.

It took me a long time to circle back to theater in my work. I think I was having a conversation with someone about the history of canvas, like, the material and realized that canvas had played this massive role, not just in art but in globalization (as sails), and theater as well, as traveling set pieces. Like, canvas is all about nomadism. I started imagining my paintings as stage flats and got to realize this in Italy with Kim-Anh Schreiber, my partner and amazing writer. We collaborated on a piece called “Meatloaf,” in which a ghost couple float from home to home for 500 years trying to decide what to make for dinner.

BOWIE: That’s hilarious. Do you see yourself branching out into other media at any point?

MANDALAY: Not really. I think the past few couple of shows, this one and the recent exhibition at BWSMX in Mexico City, are the first shows in a long while that were just rectangles hanging on walls. Pictures. And I quite liked those shows. Maybe I’m getting more boring, or maybe I’m getting a better idea of what I want, or I’m maybe just feeling more confident. Like, I love working with other people, but it’s been really nice to just trust that my paintings are doing enough heavy lifting all on their own, thank you very much. Ha.

BOWIE: What’s next?

MANDALAY: To quote a line from “Meatloaf,” “the future, the future, you’ll never be ready.”

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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 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.

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.


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!


Synesthesia From A Higher Power: An Interview Of Double Diamond Sun Body

text by Summer Bowie

When Miles Davis scored Louis Malle’s Elevator To The Gallows, he took a wild approach that was as daring as it was genius. He simply watched the film from beginning to end, took some notes, wrote a few themes in his hotel room and then handed them to a small band in the morning. From there they followed his lead as he improvised his way through a second screening of the film. He didn’t read the script, he didn’t speak French, and he certainly didn’t know much about French new wave. Miraculously, the result was uncanny in its ability to capture the very essence of loneliness and desperation. He had an incredible facility for processing an image and then giving it a sonic projection that glides past the intellectualization process and rings clear as a bell right in the central nervous system. Thus is the facility that is immediately evident in the work of Robbie Williamson, otherwise known as Double Diamond Sun Body.

He is a musician first and foremost, but his work has expanded into a multitude of mediums over the course of his lifetime, and right now his creative juices are bursting and radiating in all directions like a newly born star. Though, that’s definitely nowhere close to the way that he would describe himself. He’s a humble soul with a genuine sense of curiosity, all of which is underscored by a mystical je ne sais quoi. He spent over a decade scoring films and television before he started experimenting with performance and making his own films to accompany his soundscapes, or maybe it’s the other way around. Either way, this work has proliferated and evolved to include installation, sculpture and paintings, and is now finally culminating in his first solo show at MAMA Gallery in Los Angeles, entitled Saffron Crow’s Associate. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself feeling a little dissociated while experiencing the work. If you submit to that feeling, it becomes an otherworldly adventure that allows you to zoom out and observe Earth from a bird’s eye view. We had the chance to sit down with the artist and talk about his musical beginnings, his spiritual investigations, and the wonders of human nature.

Summer Bowie: Let’s start at the very beginning, where did you grow up?

Double Diamond Sun Body: I grew up in Seattle.

Bowie: What was the atmosphere like at the time? Did you always have creative ambitions and were they always nurtured while you were growing up?

Double Diamond Sun Body: Yeah, my atmosphere was music in Seattle. I grew up just skateboarding a lot and playing in bands. I would play shows during the era of Nirvana and Soundgarden, and a lot of punk bands from D.C.––that Dischord label––people like Beefeater and Fugazi.

Bowie: Wow, so you were fully in that world while it was happening in Seattle.

Double Diamond Sun Body: Yeah, I was really entrenched in it. I was in a record label called C/Z Records and playing a lot of shows and touring.

Bowie: What kind of band were you playing with at that point when you got signed?

Double Diamond Sun Body: I was playing with a band that was very math rock, super intense, just very complicated arrangements mixed with punk––that kind of music.

Bowie: That’s amazing! What were you playing?

Double Diamond Sun Body: I was playing bass.

Bowie: And when did that start?

Double Diamond Sun Body: I started when I was fifteen. And then from there I moved to Portland and played in a band called Hitting Birth.

Bowie: Wow, what kind of music was that?

Double Diamond Sun Body: It was very theatrical. Sort of industrial, but very light. Not industrial aesthetically but sound wise it was very rhythmic and heavy, but aesthetically it was lots of white clothing and colors, and the opposite of what you’d think industrial would be.

Bowie: Crazy. And how’d you get into composing music for films?

Double Diamond Sun Body: I wrote a film called Dandelion that starred Vincent Kartheiser from Madmen. I wrote that with my friend and we got it made. It ended up doing really well, went to Sundance and winning a bunch of awards in different festivals around the world. That was the first film I scored. That film did pretty well and a lot of people started asking me to score their films based on that movie, so that’s how I got into it. I just kept going with it and never stopped for a decade.

Bowie: I love that. And there’s really a spiritual aspect to what you do––something kind of ‘other­worldly.’ When did you first get introduced to this side of yourself - or was it always there?

Double Diamond Sun Body: It was always there - since I was around twelve. You know, it started normally with Carlos Castaneda books and stuff, then it just kinda grew and never stopped growing. I don’t know, it was something that was always with me. It came from reading. Then I joined a lot of different groups that were studying various esoteric things. And I never really expressed it as much as I do now because I was always doing things with other people.

Bowie: Wow, and were your parents a part of this or was it just completely your own thing?

Double Diamond Sun Body: It was my own thing, and then when I was around twenty I started to do some things with my mother.

Bowie: That’s so beautiful. And then your name Double Diamond Sun Body...where did it come from and when did you decide to adopt it?

Double Diamond Sun Body: I took on that name from something that I read a couple years ago. It’s hard to explain but it has to do with the Christ embodiment or sort of like a Christ consciousness or Christ energy 2.0.

Bowie: Heavy.

Double Diamond Sun Body: Yeah, I really resonated with the ideas around that and how that energy integrates into modern life. So the name just really resonated with me.

Bowie: It seems like a lot of that ethos was evident in your former band, We Are the World, but that work was much different than your current work. What was the creative mission behind that project?

Double Diamond Sun Body: I don’t think there really was a mission. It was a group of creative people coming together and going off the cuff, ya know. There wasn’t a mission but a lot of people interpreted it that way, like they would see us as a cult, or see our performances as very cult­ish and always wanted to know what it meant. I think it was just the right combination of people that exuded that kind of impression, but there wasn’t an intention, you know what I’m saying?



Bowie: Yeah, just a performative exploration as a group. And do you like being in a band or do you prefer performing solo?

Double Diamond Sun Body: I think that all the different projects I worked with I really enjoyed, but they’ve each served their purpose in getting me to where I am now. I couldn’t really foresee being in another band, but I’m really glad that I was for so long.

Bowie: You blend music and performance in a really unique way. What kind of emotions are you trying to convey or evoke through the energy of your music and your performances?

Double Diamond Sun Body: I think in general I’m trying to express the utter mystery of life and what we’re all doing, while embracing very traditional actions and very traditional institutions in terms of very basic spirituality. Trying to hone that down to a basic thin––not making it very complicated. Traditional values of family, physical labor, children, simple colors, and combining those energies with the ambiguous, ethereal nature of the music. When you combine those two you get something interesting.

Bowie: And do you feel that you’re on a journey or a spiritual path that you’re exploring with your work that’s separate from your own life trajectory? Or are they both one in the same?

Double Diamond Sun Body: I think they’re absolutely one in the same. One couldn’t exist without the other.

Bowie: Your show at MAMA is very unique because it’s the first time that your pursuits as a fine artist will coalesce into something much grander. Can you describe the show and its meaning? Particularly, the meaning behind its title?

Double Diamond Sun Body: Yeah, Saffron Crow’s Associate is about an entity named Saffron Crow and his associate. They are off­planet entities that visit Earth to basically just check it out. They’re flying by to see what’s happening. They get here and are immediately enamored with the way in which races coexist and battle each other more or less. They’re also very interested in the way the media perpetuates this sort of battle. They find it really unnecessary and sort of comment on all of this, while presenting simple solutions to the problematic way that the races react toward one another.

Bowie: Can you give us an example of any of those solutions?

Double Diamond Sun Body: I think that they really are of the opinion that races should try to have more pride in their race, versus trying to shove their race down other races’ throats, and say “accept me, accept me!” That goes for white races too. All races should. And simultaneously I think they really say that you should have mad respect for all races while letting them be sovereign entities and not give into this forced assimilation constantly. Again this is all their opinion. They think it just causes more problems.

Bowie: Do you believe in a higher power or spiritual enlightenment? Do you think that humans have lost sight of this side of themselves?

Double Diamond Sun Body: I don’t think that question can really ever be answered––in the way that I think any answer to that question would be a complete assumption. So yeah, I would leave it at that. But I think for someone like them and me­­because I feel as though I’m channeling them­­there’s something going on. I would be absolutely floored if this was all a result of stars colliding into each other and bacteria growing.

Bowie: So if you were an alien that came to this planet are these the first impressions that you believe you would have regarding human nature?

Double Diamond Sun Body: I think I would. If I really imagine another planet or another race of beings that live there, the last thing I’m gonna do is think, “Oh there are these beings living on this planet.” I would think, “Wow, there’s several types of beings on this planet and they don’t get along? They have bombs pointing at each other, and still don’t understand each other, and are still fighting for equality?” and I’d be completely enamored by this.

Bowie: How does sound play into that aspect of the show?

Double Diamond Sun Body: I’m working with colors and tones in the notes. Specific notes go with specific colors. So the sound of the show is going to be very meditative and very different than the music that I’ve been performing live. When there’s a certain message or certain subtitle, or color, there is a corresponding tone to accentuate the message.

Bowie: It’s almost like you’re sharing a sense of synesthesia with us.

Double Diamond Sun Body: Absolutely. It’s subjective to the most of my ability. But work like that is highly mathematical. Somewhere in the universe of Earth there are objective equations that can get information across better via color and tone. However, I’m no expert at it, but I’m trying to incorporate that to the best of my ability, which will work for some people, but it might not do anything for others.

Bowie: I guess we won’t know that until the show.

Double Diamond Sun Body: Yeah, I’m sure it’ll be very different for everyone.

Bowie: Well, where do we go from here? What’s the most important lesson that we should learn as a species?

Double Diamond Sun Body: In my opinion, I think there should be less identification. That’s what Saffron’s talking about in the intro of the film when it says, “come with me to observe the animal.” I think that that’s what the show is about, observing the animal. And the animal is only an animal when it has lots of identifications. And when you can observe yourself and not identify with everything all the time, then you’re opening yourself up to some potential.

Bowie: My last question is why is Saffron Crow’s Associate the pointed figure?

Double Diamond Sun Body: Because Saffron Crow only speaks when he really wants to speak and he’s busy. So his associate does most of the commentary, but Saffron does appear a few times.

Bowie: Gotcha­­I like it. So sort of like the way Double Diamond Sun Body is just channeling something higher.

Double Diamond Sun Body: Yeah, maybe Double Diamond Sun Body is someone else’s associate.

[laughs]

Bowie: Yeah. Awesome, thanks so much.

Double Diamond Sun Body: Cool, that was nice. Thank you.


Double Diamond Sun Body "Saffron Crow's Associate" will be on view from November 5 to December 5, 2016 at MAMA Gallery, 1242 Palmetto Street, Los Angeles. Text and interview by Summer Bowie. Photographs by Oliver Kupper. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE


Pennies From Heaven: An Interview Of French Actress Turned Film Director Maïwenn

Maïwenn is little known in the United States, but in France, she has made an indelible mark on the world of cinema. Most Americans remember her as the seductive, singing alien, Diva Plavalaguna, in Luc Besson’s cult classic, The Fifth Element. However, her future acting and directing endeavors have indisputably eclipsed this small role she played as a teenager. As a director, she has a remarkably intuitive gift for creating masterful scenes that are powder kegs of emotion – with the fuse often lit during the first frame of the movie. The pacing, the chemistry and the fluidity – there is a preternatural authenticity. Over the past ten years she has directed four feature films and one short. Her most recent films Polisse (2011) and My King (2016) – the latter of which will be released next week in theaters – have won her critical acclaim and a multitude of highly coveted nominations. These accolades include, but are not limited to, the Palme d’Or, the César for best film, best director, and best screenplay. Her film Polisse won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Her latest film, My King, starring Vincent Cassel and Emmanuelle Bercot (who won best actress at Cannes for her role), is an incendiary, piercing tale of love and loss and disillusionment weaved together with tender humor and joie de vivre. We had the chance to sit down with the French Actress turned Director to ask her a few questions about her unconventional upbringing (which includes bringing fistfuls of collected change to see movies at her local cinematheque), the joys and the trials of being a movie director, and some of the techniques that she employs in her films.

Bowie: What do you think about the movie industry in Hollywood, as opposed to Paris?

Maïwenn: I don’t know if I’ve spent enough time here to form an opinion. In Paris we always hear about people in Hollywood being all about money and superficial things. And I’ve met really interesting people. Very free-spirited people. So, I don’t get all the things that people say, but maybe I haven’t spent enough time here.

Bowie: I read that you had wanted to be a standup comedian at some point, and there are a lot of hilarious moments in Mon Roi, despite its being a rather tragic film. Has humor always been a part of your craft?

Maïwenn: Not really. I did a show, but you couldn’t call it standup comedy. It was a show that was both funny and dramatic, but I was never trying to be a standup comedian. But all my movies are a little bit funny. I like to treat dramatic situations with funny dialogues. I like to mix both for balance. I have a passion for funny people, actually. If I could spend all my time with funny people - even if they’re silly - I would do it.

Bowie: They’re the best people.

Maïwenn: Not really, but they make me laugh.

[laughs]

Bowie: You’ve made several movies now, but I’ve read that you started writing Mon Roi about a decade ago. Why did it take so long to put it into motion?

Maïwenn: First of all, I was feeling much more than I do now. I needed to have many experiences before doing this film; as a woman, as a director, as a mother, as a friend – everything. And I think it’s really much easier to do a dramatic story first, then a love story. Because in a love story you have to start with happiness. I didn’t want to make a movie about love and have it stop when they’re fighting. I wanted it to stop when they love each other. And to do that, I needed a lot of experience. François Truffaut says – whatever, I don’t care about François Truffaut, but he says - “les gens heureux n’ont pas d’histoire” (happy people don’t have stories to tell). And it’s true. If it’s a couple, and they’re happy for two hours, I can’t make a movie out of that. So, each year I kept saying to myself, “I’m still not ready to do this movie.” I needed to create distance from my own life experience. I needed to be emotionally independent.

Bowie: Your lead character suffers a knee injury, and her therapist says that it might be the result of some kind of psychological trauma. Do you believe in this theory, and have you ever experienced such a thing?

Maïwenn: I would believe it if I had to. It depends on my mood, and it would depend on what kind of injury I got. But not especially. But the book exists and I was so inspired by the whole thing about the knee. The thing is that I spent 10 years writing the script and when I presented it to my writing partner, Etienne Comar, he said, “I don’t see the movie. I don’t see the point.” And then a few months later I told him I found an idea to help us move more quickly through the story. It’s about the knee, so we can jump back and forth throughout the ten years of the relationship. Otherwise, without the accident, I didn’t know how to explain why we were jumping ahead from time to time. And also, I like the idea of creating a puzzle, so that we start the movie with the knee and we don’t know where we’re going. Also, I wanted to give myself a challenge in the narrative writing process, and I wanted to make it difficult to understand, so that it’s a bit like a thriller.



Bowie: Your movies are packed with emotion and life. Do you have a technique that you employ to imbue your films with that much drama?

Maïwenn: It’s the writing, the actors, the cinematography, etc. It’s really all connected, and maybe it’s just my personality. I like when it’s intense. I like when it’s excessive. And I like when the energy is a little bit close to hysterics. So, I try to transmit a sense of oppression to the actors. And I like when we laugh and we cry. I like when we don’t know what’s going to happen next.

Bowie: You’ve said that you know all of these characters in your personal life, but you don’t judge any of them. However, is there one character in the film that you relate to the most?

Maïwenn: Yeah, her [Tony]. Of course.

Bowie: And you mentioned that Vincent Cassel had a long list of critiques when he first read the screenplay. Can you give an example of one of his critiques?

Maïwenn: Well, he had a problem with the first part when they meet and they fall in love. He thought it was too sentimental – a chick flick.

Bowie: What do you get from directing that you can’t get from acting?

Maïwenn: Ah good question. The love from the audience is really different. I feel love and respect from people in a very different way. As a director I feel they respect me intellectually, and as an actress they might like me or even love me, but it’s a lot more superficial. When you say you’re the director it’s like “Oh, okay. Respect.” But it makes sense because directing is so much more difficult.

Bowie: And you have to be more demanding of yourself as a director.

Maïwenn: You know when you’re on the set as a director, every fifteen minutes someone comes to you to tell you about another problem that you have to deal with. That’s your whole life for ten weeks. It’s like – oh we don’t have the set anymore, or the actor isn’t free anymore. So, you have to find another set in ten minutes. Or an actor is late, or he’s on drugs, what do we do? It’s always like this.

Bowie: That’s a lot to manage.

Maïwenn: And also to deal with the whole crew on the set, usually they’re all men, and usually they’re all older than me. So when you’re the boss and you have to tell a bunch of older men what to do, believe me, it’s not easy to deal with them. And it’s not just because I’m a director, it’s because I’m a woman.

Bowie: Yes, so even though women having been taking on executive positions and hiring men…

Maïwenn: It’s in the blood!

Bowie: Yeah, the psychological shift is still so difficult for them. Is it different promoting a movie in the U.S. vs. France?

Maïwenn: Yeah, it’s different because of the language, so it’s hard to find exact words in English. But also, the people don’t know me here, so they don’t start the interview with any preconceived notions. In France I have such a bad reputation that everyone says, “Oh Maïwenn, she’s crazy. She’s hysterical. She’s crazy.” So that when they arrive, they’re already shaking like, “ahh what’s gonna happen?” So, I have to expend a lot of energy to tell them that I’m normal and nothing’s going to happen. But with journalists I’m not very generous, because I don’t like to analyze my work, and they think that I don’t analyze because I’m being lazy. And I keep saying that it’s not in my nature to do that. I don’t know why I’ve done this movie. I’ve just done it. And I think that all my answers are in the movie. I don’t want to dissect myself to find all the answers. So sometimes I can give a very short answer and I can feel their frustration.

Bowie: In the film she was reading La Vie Devant Soi (The Life Before Us). What was the choice behind that?

Maïwenn: I like the title.

Bowie: It’s very appropriate for the film.

Maïwenn: And I like the book as well, but I chose it because of the title.

Bowie: And the watch that he gives her in the film, is that the watch you’re wearing?

Maïwenn: Yes! It’s my watch that I put in the movie because I like it so much.

Bowie: Yeah, it’s beautiful. What was your artistic background? Did you have artists in your family?

Maïwenn: Yeah, my mother, my father also kind of, but we were a really bohemian family. Very hard times. No money at all. They were cultured, but they didn’t know how to transmit it. They never really taught me how to communicate.

Bowie: And when did you discover film?

Maïwenn: My mother thinks it’s because of her, because she’s an intellectual. She’s a cinephile, but when I was living with her I couldn’t stand all the movies she was watching. It was so boring. So I started watching movies on TV, and then I started ditching school and one day I went to a cinema in Paris and I had collected all the change in the house to buy a ticket. And the guy saw me counting all the coins to buy one ticket and he told me, “Starting now, any time you come to this cinema, you’re never gonna pay.” So I started going every day and it changed my life. And I want so much to say thank you to him, but I don’t how to find his name. I asked a girl at the box office once and she said she didn’t know where he is, so I never got to thank him.


Maïwenn's newest film, My King, opens in New York on August 12 and in Los Angeles on August 26. text and interview by Summer Bowie. photographs by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE


The Interminable Apprentice: An Interview Of Fine Jewelry Designer Elie Top

Elie Top may just be one of the most glamorous men in Paris. Working silently under the likes of Yves Saint Laurent before his passing, and Alber Elbaz for Lanvin before Elbaz left the helm of the fashion house, Top has gained a keen and sharp insight into the world of luxury jewelry and accessory making. Elbaz’s exit was a perfect excuse for Top to take what he learned as an interminable apprentice and start his own eponymously named label. His new collection, entitled Mécaniques Célestes, is an insight into the ornamental aesthete’s lifelong fascination with all things baroque, classical and talismanic. Gold, diamonds, precious stones and other metals reinterpret the armillary sphere – tiny universes atop a finger, atop a breastbone; perfect and encapsulated. When we met Top, we ambushed him with an interview proposal during a cigarette break from hosting his recent pop up at Maxfield’s in Los Angeles (it was his first ever visit to Los Angeles). Our conversation oscillated between his memories of working with Saint Laurent, his love for jewelry and his new collection.

SUMMER BOWIE: So when you were much younger did you know that jewelry design and accessories were going to be your career path?

TOP: What do you mean by younger? Which age? [laughs] 

BOWIE: A child.

TOP: When I was really young I was more into architecture and was sketching very precisely in a maniacal way. Mostly churches and castles. I was very inspired by the 18th century French style and Italian and Austrian things, and was very obsessed with the Baroque period. So not very modern.

BOWIE: Where in France are you from originally?

TOP: I was born in the very north of France, close to Belgium in the countryside. So really a very small village. There were factories because it’s kind of an industrial area, but at the same time, there’s a lot of farms and animals. So it’s a strange mix between both.

BOWIE: So not that many Baroque influences.

TOP: Yeah, I don’t know why I’m obsessed with that! I went to Italy for the first time when I was quite young. I was maybe nine the first time I went to Rome, then I went to Venice, then I went to Bavaria, and I used to go quite often to Versailles and places like that. But around eleven or twelve I decided I wanted to work in fashion and I started to sketch more fashion things...but not especially accessories. It was more general - but then I went to fashion school in Paris at seventeen. I went to work at Yves Saint Laurent when I was around nineteen as a general assistant in the studio when Yves Saint Laurent was still there.

BOWIE: How did you get that job?

TOP: Thanks to school. I went in as an intern for two months and they kept me around which was quite cool. I was doing illustrations. Then Alber [Elbaz] arrived because he was doing the Rive Gauche collections. It was late 90s and that’s how I met him; when I was twenty-one. I think he didn’t know exactly what to do with me and he didn’t have anybody to work on the jewels and accessories in general, because Loulou de la Falaise was no longer doing the jewelry at Yves Saint Laurent. So he just asked me to start working so I started doing sketches and working with manufacturers, which is how I got started. He encouraged me and pushed me to work in this direction. And I was working at the same time on handbags and leather goods. But progressively over the years, I just gave up everything but the jewels because it’s what I liked the most.

BOWIE: What is it about jewelry that makes it so appealing?

TOP: I think it’s quite close to what I used to sketch when I was a child. It’s the same way that I’m looking at it and the way I’m imagining it. There’s always so many variables, and it always involves these architectural problems. As I like to sketch very precisely, everything is the same thing, actually. Like all the castles and all the jewels are the same. I’m very passionate and precise so I can really sketch for hours.

BOWIE: And then you worked for Lanvin as well?

TOP: Yeah, when Alber arrived at Lanvin, he called me and we started to work together immediately.

BOWIE: And do you prefer now working on your own better than for these major fashion houses like Lanvin and Yves Saint Laurent?

TOP: Hmm… It’s very different for me, because for me Alber, and Saint Laurent - and LouLou as well because I worked with her too - they felt like a continuation of my school years and they were really great mentors, because they really helped me. Alber and Loulou encouraged me and taught me a lot. And now I’ve grown up and I can do my own thing. It’s more about that freedom to do something for yourself and not for somebody else, which is very different. It’s more difficult in a way because when you work with my state of mind - I was very devoted to those people - I would do my best to please them and now I have to please myself which is something very different. [laughs]

BOWIE: Were you nervous at first about doing your own thing?

TOP: Yeah. It also took me a long time to find my own aesthetic, because it was so mixed. Like for instance with Alber, I had a lot of freedom but he was always there, so it was a mix of him and me, and it was very connected to the theme of the fashion show so we could do something one season and the opposite the season after. So it was always attached to the collection. Suddenly we were without clothes, and we were without a theme. It wasn’t coming out of me. So, I had to look at my previous work to find the elements that were really me. Because I could see how all the ribbons were completely Alber, and everything which was more Baroque and with all the mixes of materials was more my story. I realized that my story’s all about system and structure, so I tried to extract that. It took me a long time to realize and to find myself. For fifteen years I was working for so many people and a lot of clients and it became more of a mathematical exercise, where you have to find their aesthetic and then create it yourself. It was a sort of a game. But then suddenly I didn’t have anybody else and I didn’t have any other variables to work with.

BOWIE: And what was the difference between what you learned working with Alber Elbaz and Loulou de la Falaise, and what you learned working with Yves Saint Laurent?

TOP: Oh they’re all such different people. [laughs] For Loulou it was more about her own personality. She had a lot of freedom in the way that she could mix things that were very cheap with things that were very expensive. It was more about the way she was thinking about style and the way that she was mixing a lot of ethnic and Bavarian shapes. African themes mixed with Parisian couture. But she used to do it in such a free way because it was completely her own personality; very intuitive. I don’t work like her at all, because she wasn’t really sketching. She was more about taking the elements, mixing them, and it was more organic and a very sensitive experience. And actually Alber is a bit the same in his way of working because he’s not really sketching, but always doing fittings and fittings, and it’s all about words. He talks a lot as he’s trying to find the story and trying to find some keywords to define what he wants. And then he is really all about the body of the woman and...many fittings. But Yves Saint Laurent was the opposite in the way he was working. He was always sketching, very precisely, and if it wasn’t looking exactly like the sketch, he didn’t want the clothes. Alber would just be sketching basic silhouettes, and then he was progressively transforming everything and doing everything directly on the body in the fittings. He wasn’t attached to the sketch.


"At the end, sometimes, there would suddenly be one thing that was so moving, people would really start crying. And this happens so rarely because it is beyond fashion...you’re not talking about fashion anymore. You’re going somewhere else."


BOWIE: And it seems like you have a more specific vision that you put on paper, and then you try to realize it very directly, as opposed to this very sensual experience where you have an idea, and you play until you find it. 

TOP: Exactly. I’m really sketching exactly what I want to see with the jewels, and I don’t move from that. Whereas Alber was working like a lot of women - Vionnet, Chanel, Grès - all those women weren’t sketching, but just doing fittings.

BOWIE: Do you have any great memories of Yves Saint Laurent? Any in particular?

TOP: Sometimes. It never happens to me anymore but sometimes--and I think it’s why people are so attached to him--during the fittings we’d have goosebumps. Sometimes when the model would come in and do a twirl in the clothes it was just so perfect, so impressive, so moving that everybody’s jaw dropped. It’s impossible to describe the experience. Even when I’m talking about it I remember it so clearly.

BOWIE: You start to get goosebumps? [laughs]

TOP: And some people would be crying during the show which was really strange because the show, to be honest, was very old-fashioned. At the end, sometimes, there would suddenly be one thing that was so moving, people would really start crying. And this happens so rarely because it is beyond fashion...you’re not talking about fashion anymore. You’re going somewhere else.

BOWIE: It’s very transcendent.

TOP: And I think that’s the reason people were so attached to him. Because it was something else, not only about clothes. He was doing something else. 

BOWIE: And did you feel that yourself too?

TOP: Yeah, once I was really crying.

BOWIE: Well can you tell us a little bit about this collection?

TOP: This collection is the first I’ve shown and now I’ve developed a few new pieces and I’ve done some variations on those themes. It’s called Mécaniques Célestes. It’s all about the armillary spheres, the planets, and globes. Actually my work in the beginning was trying to unify my two aesthetic tendencies, which are from my childhood and my industrial side. And I thought it was coming from living in the middle of all these factories, and mechanical and industrial landscapes. Then my fascination for something more Baroque, more precious and narrative came, so I tried to find a way to put these two opposites together in the same piece. So that’s the reason there is this thing that you can hide or show. And when it’s closed it’s a bit more radical and pure. When you open it, for me, you’re telling something more poetic and more narrative. Then I found inspiration from the principles of globes, for instance from the sugar bowls you see in Parisian bars. I saw the way it opens and closes and I was looking in and thought, “oh that’s perfect.” And that was really my starting point. [laughs] 

So I had already sketched a few things but couldn’t find exactly what I wanted to put inside, so I was always looking for the perfect matching thing about the system and the mechanical on the inside and outside and what would be the good unity between everything. Then I found an amazing book with the same title called Mécaniques Célestes about the whole collection of these armillary spheres from a really great antique store in Paris. It’s exactly what I needed so when I found it, I sketched everything and that was really the start of it. What I also really liked was how you can always hide the most gorgeous part to give something more playful, but it depends what you wear with it. It all has to do with your own attitude and clothes.

BOWIE: Yeah it’s really quite romantic, this combination of the celestial and the industrial element. If you could describe your work in three words, what would they be?

TOP: Talking about my collection? Strangely, when it came out it was a mix of futuristic and medieval at the same time, and structure is important as well.


You can visit Elie Top's website to see more of the collection and stockists. Intro text by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Interview by Summer Bowie. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE


A Dark and Fluffy World: An Interview With Galen Pehrson

text by Summer Bowie

 

Watching one of Galen Pehrson’s films, like his most recent, The Caged Pillows, starring the likes of Jena Malone and James Franco, is like stepping into a psychedelic cartoon where you can’t help feeling a tinge of déjà vu – you’re not sure if it was a dream, a childhood memory, or an omen. It’s as though a mixture of real life memories and old movie scenes were plucked from your brain and rearranged into a brilliant new narrative. They’re the renderings of a world that most of us have inhabited for all our lives, but for Galen, who spent the first 12 years of his life in rural Nevada City, without access to cable TV or any other means of consuming pop culture, this world can be seen from a slightly outside perspective.

His exposure to MTV was a wild awakening that led him into making music videos and working as a cartoon artist. His harrowing tale of running away, moving to New York, studying at RISD and eventually spending the first 7 months of his life in Los Angeles at a halfway home for dual-diagnosed criminals with psychiatric disorders in South Central is one that deserves a film in itself, but it certainly set the stage for the world of Caged Pillows that he has been creating for the past several years.

Former iterations of this world are clearly seen in previous projects such as El Gato, a collection of hand-drawn, animated vignettes that was part of James Franco’s Rebel project, a multi-artist exhibition presented at MOCA during Jeffrey Deitch’s sadly missed reign. You can also see further developments of this vacuous, celestial world filled with characters that behave like humans but look like ducks, dogs, cats, wolves and mice in Mondo Taurobolium. This short film that is as much a music video for Devendra Banhart’s track Taurobolium as it is a film that carries its own, not only features the same starring cast and characters as his other films, but the score is also masterfully mixed and produced by the brilliant Noah Georgeson.

His new film, The Caged Pillows, is a short that was originally intended to be a feature, but Galen says this introduction is just a pinprick into a world that will encompass several mediums and film projects in the future. Until then, in under ten minutes, this short is a vortex of mind blowing musical and visual narrative that will be premiered this Wednesday night at MAMA gallery alongside a celebration party for Ruins Magazine, an editorial content site that produced the film and will be launching online with the premiere. We sat down with Galen over green tea in his Hollywood Hills home/studio to talk about his process, his inspiration for the film, and the meaning behind the Caged Pillows.

AUTRE: Do you consider yourself a cartoonist, an illustrator, an artist, or none of the above?

PEHRSON: I think of myself as a director. But the art is cartoon art. I more closely align to cartoon art than animation. The style is taken from my memories; when I was a kid and would watch DuckTales. I’m interested in how those worlds could mature with you. So as an adult, what would that be like? You can always trust cartoon characters. You don’t have to build up characters like you would in a film. There’s this consistent moral overtone. It’s very light. If there’s a bad guy, it’s clear he’s a bad guy. With a cartoon-style arch, you can get away with a lot that you couldn’t get away with in a shorter amount of time. It helps with the compressed stories.

AUTRE: Are you drawn to any other mediums?

PEHRSON: Cartoons are just one facet of it. I have other projects that I’m working on. I produced a bunch of audio on this, like music stuff. I see it as all under the umbrella of this world of Caged Pillows. 

AUTRE: What mediums were you drawn to when you were a kid?

PEHRSON: I’ve been painting since I was a kid. But then painting seemed pointless. As though everyone had already done everything you could possibly do with it. What could I contribute to this? It’s a medium that is so deeply covered. And it didn’t resonate very deeply with me. We’re in such a pop culture-driven society that paintings feel like something people do to remind them of the past. It seems extremely irrelevant. For me, the excitement of creation is bringing out people’s imaginations, immersing them in a different place for a while. I think that’s what the old painters did, like Heironymus Bosch. They had these whole worlds. During that time, it was very contemporary and edgy. For me, it’s trying to be innovative with technology and to create a reflection of our current society.

AUTRE: It’s interesting that you feel Caged Pillows is a reflection of the present. It feels like an ambiguous representation of what could be the present, or likely a dystopian future. It makes sense that you’re working in a medium that is present/future.

PEHRSON: I wanted to be reflective of our current society, which has fascinated me since my childhood. I was raised off the grid until I was twelve years old. I didn’t have television, electricity, any contact with popular culture. We had a Magritte book, and a few others. That was my connection to art. Besides that, we had nothing to do. I drew, painted, or played with dirt. That’s all there was.

AUTRE: Was that a conscious decision that your parents made?

PEHRSON: There was nothing else to do. We were really poor, so we had pens, paper, and dirt. It was something I always did. There are photographs of me, in diapers, smearing paint all over something. I never thought, “Oh, I want to be an artist.” Most of the time, I wished I could do something else.

AUTRE: What was your first introduction to pop culture?

PEHRSON: MTV.

AUTRE: What was that experience like?

PEHRSON: To me, it seemed so bizarre. Pop culture in general does this. Imagine landing on Earth and seeing people singing and dancing like this. That never went away for me. A lot of my work is coming from this place of being young and seeing all these images on TV. “Dress like this to be cool.” I think it’s different if you grow up with it naturally and slowly. It becomes something you adapt to. But at 12, I was like, “I don’t have the right shoes. I have to wear these pants.” There was this extremely fast rush of information on how to fit into society. Plus it was so limiting to be an individual. There were these groups you could be in – nerd, jock, bad guy, whatever.

AUTRE: When you first started watching it, did you feel indoctrinated in it? Or were you immediately critical?

PEHRSON: I loved it. I went on to do music videos.

AUTRE: How long have you been developing your style, these psychedelic, celestial, animal worlds?

PEHRSON: The first time I used the duck characters was 2005. That was for the cover of Adam Green’s Jacket Full of Danger. I didn’t know what to do with it yet. I sat around with a lot of ideas, with a very particular aesthetic in mind, for a while. In 2012, for the Red Bull exhibition, they wanted to commission an animation. So I was like, “The ducks!” That was the launching pad for it.

AUTRE: That one was very erotic too.

PEHRSON: Yeah, each one has its own experiment to it. That piece focused on the erotic. What’s interesting, all the dialogue in that is dialogue from Rebel Without a Cause, just mixed up. That was the first iteration of the characters. They’ve become more and more human over time. I think eventually they’ll just turn into humans.



AUTRE: Your work deals a lot with Hollywood, fame, and money worship. Where do you see yourself in this landscape?

PEHRSON: I have a pretty patronizing point of view. I was never asked to be a part of society. I find myself with all these rules, conditions, and responsibilities that don’t make any sense to me. I constantly feel like I’m walking through a preset maze. It’s so limiting.

AUTRE: It seems like people don’t know they’re in a maze, and that's the scariest part.

PEHRSON: Yeah, it goes back to pop culture. The best artist is not the most popular. Everything is essentially a commercial, even music, and now in art. We’re in an art renaissance. There’s so much content. But it’s all funded and propelled by how and who is making money. Art, to me, has been an honest, accurate reflection of society, without commercial interests. That’s the kind of stuff we get from design. Though they are close, design is for a purpose. Art isn’t necessarily for a purpose.

AUTRE: In many ways it seems like artists are starting to ask themselves how they can commodify their own work before they've even made it. Or a brand is already finding ways to commodify it for them.

PEHRSON: Exactly.

AUTRE: Originally, this was going to be a feature length film, but then Ruins came to you?

PEHRSON: Yeah, I was really excited. I thought of it as an introduction to the world of Caged Pillows. What started as a very linear feature film morphed and grew in many directions that go beyond the film. They gave me a lot of freedom to do whatever I want with it, which is rare and very refreshing.

AUTRE: Who are the Caged Pillows?

PEHRSON: We are the Caged Pillows. Our world is very comfortably jailed. We’re sedated, distracted by television. Everyone is on medication. Our society as a whole, Western culture, has completely driven itself away from the natural human state. That’s such an interesting topic. The Caged Pillows are us. I’m susceptible to this. We’ve been programmed to respond to what success, beauty, and happiness look like – and from a young age. The film is about that. People get these ideas, that success is a beautiful pool, a Bugatti, probably some gold chains.

That’s what the gem in the film represents. At one point, he says, “I’ve been with you since you were a baby. Touch me and I’ll go crazy.” It’s the phones, the screens, touch-touch-double-tap, the instant gratification. There’s a line, “I fed you a lifetime of lies. I can’t even look in your eyes.” The screen can be talking to you, but it’s a one-way communication. There’s no singular accountability because it’s a culture.

AUTRE: We’re all victims inflicting culture on one another.

PEHRSON: Exactly. That’s the overarching idea of the film. There’s a fantasy that we will someday break that and learn more about ourselves as individuals rather than an idea of a society.

AUTRE: Did these ideas become more pronounced when you moved to LA?

PEHRSON: Yeah, definitely. This is Los Angeles. Everyone here is here for a reason. You can separate your friends into two categories: people you would actually call if you had a problem, and people you call for a drink or to go out with or whatever. It’s not a negative thing. Everyone here is ambitious, and acceptably so.

AUTRE: It’s a superficial fame factory. Your work really dives into that.

PEHRSON: The whole film in itself is commercials and the commercials are starring so-and-so. Everything is tied to the celebrity. Even unconsciously, we’re drawn to these figures and the meaning assigned to them.

AUTRE: And the isolation on the other side of that.

PEHRSON: Yes. I made Mondo from a very personal experience. All I had been doing was sitting on a screen. The only experience I had to tell was the experience of sitting on a screen.



AUTRE: Do you ever have to go through a digital detox?

PEHRSON: Every time I finish a project, I go hiking to the Sierra Nevadas for a week. Or I drive through the desert. I go out there and there’s just nothing. I have to hear my own voice. It’s a very strong contrast from, like, literally listening to top forty while I work, because I’m so fascinated by pop culture.

AUTRE: What’s your work process like?

PEHRSON: I’ve worked twelve to fourteen-hour days for the past few years. I wake up at 4[pm], I work from 5[pm] to 9 in the morning. Working all night, I don’t see anybody. It’s all done from a very isolated place.

AUTRE: When people do voiceover, do they have to conform to your schedule?

PEHRSON: No. I do all the voices first. There’s a fun version, which is just me. I send them that version and then they work independently. This piece being so much about pop culture, celebrity, dreams of “being something,” I wanted to involve people that live that lifestyle. I don’t give them much direction. They’re collaborators. They all seem to find joy and release in it. And all the actors are able to find the cracks in the system. They are involved with other things. They appreciate the art. But still, it is pop culture. If that’s the palette we have to work with for people to see it, that’s the right medium.

AUTRE: What about the process do you enjoy the most and the least?

PEHRSON: I enjoy all of it. The hardest part is sitting still for so many hours, and the isolation of not having connection or touch for weeks, or months even. I also feel like this piece called for it. That’s what it was about. It was a bit of method animating (laughs). The best part about it is working with my friends and people I’m genuinely a big fan of. Bar none, to collaborate with a community of ideas and artists who are like-minded.

AUTRE: Is this world going to keep developing?

PEHRSON: Oh yeah. This is just the entrance. It’s a primer to a much larger narrative, extending across music, film, sculpture. There’s a whole set of stuff. As a creative person, it’s all communications – writing, music, art. Any time you can take your vision and make it work in a different medium you’re improving that communication. I think that’s so important, to set outside of one channel of expressing something. I think everybody in the project feels that way. The Caged Pillows world is going to provide a place for people who are stuck in a genre to come and do something completely new.

AUTRE: Are you excited to share it at MAMA?

PEHRSON: I’m very excited. One side is that I made the piece in isolation, as I wanted it to be viewed in isolation. I asked people to call a 1-800 number when watching the film, and I got over 20,000 messages. They’re all about people feeling isolated, feeling like an alien. There’s this disassociation from the world around them.

AUTRE: Can you tell us about Ruins Magazine?

PEHRSON: Yeah, this film is kicking off the launch of Ruins Magazine. It’s a cultural digest that focuses around urbanism and the future of cities. It’s architecture, design, prose and imagery that all somehow express the human condition in present urban environments.

AUTRE: Like a crossover between urbanism and art?

PEHRSON: Yeah, urbanism, art, and culture. And it’s an amazing set of people. I think they’re going to publish a lot of content that otherwise wouldn’t get made.

AUTRE: When does the site launch?

PEHRSON: June 1st.


The Caged Pillows will premiere at MAMA Gallery on June 1st, in conjunction with the release of Ruins Magazine, at 7pm. Follow Galen Pehrson to learn more about the world of The Caged Pillows. photographs by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Text by Summer Bowie. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE


Transcending the Blues: An Interview With Legendary Record Producer Daniel Lanois

Daniel Lanois lives and breathes music in a very literal sense. As a true audiophile, he seems to be marinating in centuries of sound waves, honing in on some of history’s most visceral musical compositions. It’s as though he pulls rhythms directly from the ground and resonant frequencies from the stratosphere. This description may seem over the top, and while it comes from a place of genuine reverence, I can say that over the 3 hours that we spent together, I witnessed this phenomenon with my very own eyes and ears. When he tells a story, it doesn’t suffice to tell it in words. His life story wouldn’t make sense unless he sang it to you, played it for you, and punctuated it with his signature, “yea, man.” Which is why I had to compile all of these bits in an audio file to give you a real feel for who he is and how he communicates. It’s really quite elevating.

Growing up in Hamilton, Ontario, the steel capital of Canada, he was raised in a community that was directed by the shifting of the harsh seasons. A community that gathered to play traditional French Canadian folk music; the true salt of the Earth. The melodies he heard as a child stuck with him and he felt that he needed to capture them, so he made himself a recording studio in the basement. Pretty soon he was recording music with the likes of Rick James and was determined to find the roots of the American soul. He gravitated south to the Mississippi delta where he found the guttural rhythms that live in your hips and the pain and the suffering that gave birth to the blues. But when the Mississippi River spills into the Gulf of Mexico most people stay put, singing their woeful stories of yore. Nevertheless, Lanois took those symphonic lessons and synthesized them with his Northern roots to produce music with some of the 20th century’s most groundbreaking artists: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Willie Nelson, Peter Gabriel, U2, Brian Eno, Sinead O’Connor, and the list goes on. He’s been nominated for 7 Grammys, 4 of which he was awarded, and yet, his humble beginnings are invariably evident in his unpresuming temperament. 

These days, he’s making music with the free wheeling musical outlaw, Rocco Deluca. They have a friendship that is bonded by their two major loves, music and motorcycles. Together they create a sound that is at once arresting in a way that makes one feel buoyant and unencumbered. When you spend time with the two of them, you get a sense that their lives are filled with nothing but positive, creative vibes, and it seems impossible to abate the longing to just tag along and pretend this is a normal day for you too. We met them at a café, followed them back home, and continued the night with several friends who tagged along and indulged in the privilege of a private listening party. Here’s what we took away.

AUTRE: You were just singing a gospel song, and I’m not familiar with it specifically, but it seems like it comes straight from the slave trade.

LANOIS: Yeah, “Once I’m taken away, I will not fold” is the message.

AUTRE: I think that is the roots of this country. Everything that this country has been built off of has been the elbow grease and the blood and the sweat and the tears of the black community. So for that to be the source of our strength is no surprise.

LANOIS: For that church music to reach the top of the charts in the early 60s. Sam Cooke was not a pop singer, Sam Cooke came from the soulsters and from church. It was that beautiful church harmony that made its way into popular music. We were just talking about James Cleveland who is from the LA area, he’s not from Chicago.

AUTRE: And Bo Diddley, I mean he invented Rock n’ Roll. And Big Mama Thornton.

LANOIS: All that. Well the Bo Diddley beat is an old African beat. But I’m Canadian. So for a Canadian kid to come south of the border - I went to New Orleans and made a great record with the Neville Brothers - for me to actually work with the Neville Brothers? As a white French-Canadian kid? That was the cherry on the cake of my PhD.

(laughs)

AUTRE: Absolutely. It seems like you’ve had an autodidactic approach to music. Or have you?

LANOIS: Without any doubt, every day I learn something new. And I hope it keeps coming my way. I never went to school for any of it, I’m self taught. But when I was a kid I got to work with Rick James in my mom’s basement. I didn’t have to come up with any tuition money. For Rick he came in by himself, and in 20 minutes there was a fully flourishing piece of music coming out of the speakers and I was practically in tears. Oh my goodness, I could not believe this was happening. I was in the presence of a Beethoven.

I was talented, I knew what I was doing, but I had never before been exposed to anyone like Rick. He came in, and I recorded him some demos – mindblowing. I realized that I needed to go somewhere where the bass was good, so I went to New Orleans. I got to work with the Neville Brothers and George Porter from the Meters. Leo Nocentelli, perhaps the funkiest guitar player out of America. To be in that place, to hear the parade bands, where so much music had come from – that was amazing. The music of the North was so stiff. The music of the South had funk.

AUTRE: Going back to the beginning, what was your initial experience with making music?

LANOIS: As a kid I played slide guitar and I played woodwinds as well. I started a little recording studio at home, so that was the basis of the whole thing. I was in and out of bands up in Canada. I got to be a good player as a teenager. But I always had my recording studio and that was the mecca, the crossroads for so much. I was connected with a gospel music association in Canada, and they brought acapella groups in from across the world to tour Canada. One of the touring stops was my studio. So I made acapella quartet records - dozens of them.

AUTRE: Oh that’s amazing.

LANOIS: They had great singers too. So imagine this white French-Canadian kid sitting there and hearing the four-part harmony. Tell me that’s not an education to hear all that, and then that related to all other four parts of any other genre. Funk music has four parts, you know. The intertwining of these four parts provided me with a really great understanding of how music communicates. How significant the harmonic interplay is. That was kind of it. Plus on top of that, the Pop music on the radio was the best stuff.

 AUTRE: Back then, yeah.

LANOIS: You heard Sam Cooke on the radio, you heard James Cotton, The Jackson’s. Psychedelic stuff. It was kind of amazing. We didn’t hear any fluff, you know we had to listen to some of that British music, but I didn’t mind that.

(laughs)

AUTRE: Yeah, that was before they had found the algorithm for selling commercial products with pop music.

LANOIS: The force was certainly different, it just belonged to that time. It was a cultural revolution on the rise. The Poet’s Society, rebellious Rock n’ Roll, psychedelic. It all came to a head - how special is that? Plus, also the front end of a medium, not everybody had a camera so if you shot pictures it meant that you were involved with something special. You know, you look at photographs from the late 50s and 60s and they all look significant, because people were discovering something. Not to criticize modern times or anything but there are so many pictures now. Now we’re not at the front end of the medium - but when you are at the front end of a medium, things are more special.

AUTRE: I think that’s a good point you make though about the fact that we didn’t have an image associated with the music. There wasn’t a music video for every track. So when you listened to an album, you had a listening experience - just listening. Now musicians have to sell themselves as more than just a sound. They’re a sound and an image. Plus, their social lives are on blast through their social media. So, you have their personalities to judge as well. There is so much less focus on creating amazing music and leaving it at that.

LANOIS: The other concern is including merch. You know, “how’s your merch going?” Merch?!

AUTRE: Exactly. You have to boost your T-shirt game.

(laughs)

AUTRE: You’ve worked on some incredible records. And it seems like you’ve always been innovating your sound. This music you make with Rocco - you sit there and if feels like you’re floating in sound.

LANOIS: We try and break new ground on every project. I didn’t come up through a referential time, so coming up as a kid everything was new. We didn’t think jeez let’s try to make it sound like a 1948 tune, that would be a cool sound, no everything was new. So I’ve never bought into the referential aspect of music making. Even in these modern times where it’s easy to say - the grunge and the punk thing in the 90s, that was cool, lets adapt that look and that sound - well no I’m not interested. I’m glad that it happened and I respect that it did, but in regards to anything we’re going to do from here on I want it to be original.

AUTRE: Who are some of your Rock n’ Roll heroes?

LANOIS: I’ll always appreciate pure forms, sometimes I go to the Thirsty Crow on a Monday night and there’s a guy there who plays a lot of old records. We always appreciate hearing Electric Mud from Muddy Waters. They play a lot of 70s R&B on that night, a lot of stuff from San Francisco. That era of the 70s where things were getting funky but experimental.

And you know we have modern day heroes as well. I listen to some of the Hip Hop out of the Long Beach area. And the D’Angelo record that came out a couple years ago, I enjoyed that a lot. Any pure form. Anything strong that qualifies as soul music ultimately. And we’re not talking a genre of R&B particularly, but something that seems to exist for the right reasons.

AUTRE: There seems to be this reemergence of soul music, of traditional 60s soul music coming in through a lot of newer pop music these days. It’s being revisited, which is really interesting. I talked to a young woman who I really respect and she said “you know, in some ways I feel like maybe Hip Hop is coming to a close.”

LANOIS: Maybe a certain aspect of it.

AUTRE: A certain aspect of it, yeah. But in the same way that Soul music had its own era through the late 50s, the 60s, and a little bit into the 70s but then it kind of veered into Funk. Which then veered into Hip Hop. I feel like it is kind of coming back, and that there is an urge to find its roots; to get back a little bit of that heart that was really pulsing through it originally.


"Miley Cyrus naked with her bare cunt on a cannonball – is that all you got, baby? You know go up the flagpole and back down, bare cunt. I’ll throw some confetti. So, I kinda like that whole thing that’s happening in America right now where the girls are just in charge of fucking pop. I say, take more clothes off, have more hits, own the fucking country, get to the top of the charts and I’ll be eating popcorn."


LANOIS: You hear it a little bit with Alabama Shakes, their recent record is pretty adventurous. I hear some shades of 70s experimental Soul, but I wouldn’t offer a lot to support the theory. But I’m ready to be educated.

AUTRE: Where did your love of motorcycles come from?

LANOIS: Since I was a kid I just loved everything that went with it - freedom, and to feel that wind on your face. When I was a kid I got my first Harley and me and my brother rode from Canada all the way down to Florida.

AUTRE: That’s a long trip! How long did it take you guys?

LANOIS: Oh it took a long time. We could only ride so long because it was freezing, but by the time we got to Kentucky and Tennessee it started getting warm. I love wintertime riding.

AUTRE: You grew up in Ontario right?

LANOIS: I’m French-Canadian but I came up as a teenager in a place called Hamilton about an hour from Buffalo on the Canadian side. It was a steel town and a real working place.

AUTRE: Do you go back much?

LANOIS: Yeah! I still keep a place there; my mom is there still. I have a soft spot for what I call the Great Lakes of Culture.

That part of the world is very harsh in the winter. The harvest comes in and the root vegetables will keep all winter. And I love that - you wouldn’t dilly dally through the fall. You cut your wood in the summer, make sure you can and jar in the fall. That way you can have some fruits through the winter. That’s sort of long gone now because of the coming of Whole Foods. You can get a tangerine in Toronto in the winter, that wasn’t the case at one time.

AUTRE: So how long have you been living in this house?

LANOIS: 14 years. Nobody wanted this place 14 years ago. At the time I was working with Melanie Ciccone, Madonna’s sister. Madonna looked at this place, and Melanie knew about it and she said “well my sister doesn’t want it but you should get it” and I came here on a rainy day and I loved it.

AUTRE: It’s beautiful.

LANOIS: I came up with a mix today I’m very excited about. The performances for this record were all done here, and I took them back to Toronto and I manipulated them and added some new ways of looking at the works. Some of it is very pure form hand played, and some things are more built. It’s not a point of bragging but I’m a sonic specialist so I get in there and I build things. One of the things you’re going to hear that was built is one called “Low Sudden” and it’s more of a trance. It visits some of what I was doing in the early 80s and touches on some of those sounds you’ll hear in a minute.

AUTRE: We’re excited to hear it.

LANOIS: Some elements are a little crazier and symphonically driven - I’ve gone into harmonic places that I’ve never known before. Now this is significant because you might think “well we’ve done it all, and same old chords” but there are a few turning points in this music that provided me with a glimpse into the future.

AUTRE: So where do you think that inspiration came from?

LANOIS: Perhaps, I might have gotten disillusioned with the usual chords. It’s not a rhythmic record; you’ll hear the strangeness of the chords and the textures. It will conjure up feelings you’ve never had before. One has a very Italian melody – things that I would never come up with, because I see myself as a rocker. To bump into this whole way of looking at harmonics has really opened up a new side of my imagination. Crazy ass shit.

AUTRE: The devotion you have to music is astounding. Your collection here is amazing.

LANOIS: I have a couple of comic friends. Jim Carrey is one of them. He is so smart; he could do a routine at the drop of a hat. He walks in here and says, “This is how to live! Close to your passion! What are you passionate about? You can’t take that to the grave! You could take this to the grave!” He gave a whole sermon to justify the mess I made in the front room.

AUTRE: Well it seems this is your living room, and this is how you want to live.

LANOIS: It’s better than buying yachts and going to St. Barth’s.

AUTRE: How did you get a hold of this piano?

LANOIS: If you’re lucky enough to have an acoustic instrument that sounds beautiful, you can always restore it back to its former glory. Even if it gets funky or messed up, you can always return it to the sound. It will maintain the sound. When we found this barrelhouse of a piano, it needed refurbishing, but we could tell it had heart. We resurrected it.

AUTRE: There’s kind of a similarity to motorcycles in that.

LANOIS: Yeah, a little bit. It’s nice to respect a tool, to imagine what it was like in 1915.

AUTRE: Going back again to your beginnings, how did you get into music?

LANOIS: In the beginning, my father and my grandfather were violin players. They played some of the traditional music of their French Canadian culture. There were no nightclubs back then, so people would gather around their houses. They would whip out their violins. There were piano players. All my uncles sang. I was exposed to that as a kid. The melodies really got in my brain. There was nothing popular about them; they were just old songs.

AUTRE: What was your first introduction to rock and roll music? 

LANOIS: [Sings.] “You’re so young, and I’m so old. This, my darling, I’ve been told. You and I will be as free as the birds up in the trees. Please, please stay and be mine, Diana.” That’s the guy who wrote the theme song for the Tonight Show. A guy named Paul Anka.

Where we lived was between Detroit and Buffalo. We got great broadcasts out of those cities. I got to hear all the great Motown stuff on the radio. We had some cool DJs in Toronto. They were stoned out of their brains. This was a time when they let disc jockeys do whatever they wanted, late nights especially. And they were beat poets, spinning some yarn, playing an entire side of an album. Back in the day, there were no pictures of anything. I would sit in my mother’s basement, listening to the crazy music on the radio, imagining what it would be like out in the world.

AUTRE: Was there anyone in particular who really influenced you?

LANOIS: Rick James.

AUTRE: Were you invited down to New Orleans, or did you go there to seek out music?

LANOIS: I saw a piece in Life about the architectural significance of New Orleans. So I thought, I think I’m going to go down there to finish my record. I took a train from New York down, going through all the backwaters of the cities. I got to see industry in America. I got to see its decay, the decline of manufacturing and the steel industry. I was practically in tears – there is so much poverty. We grew up in North America thinking everything is great, but I saw the opposite when I went down there. It was a real eye-opener for me. It was a musical journey to go down there, but I was just as interested in everything else that was happening culturally.  

AUTRE: What was it like being a Canadian kid down south?

LANOIS: Amazing. You would hear stories about this crazy river, the bloodline of creativity. It’s called the delta, where different influences come in from different parts – blues, bluegrass, Texas swing. All these different forces. What did it add up to? Rock n’ roll. I got to work with the greats. I got Rockin’ Dopsie to play on a Bob Dylan record. Are you kidding me? I’m a dumb French Canadian.

AUTRE: How do you feel about music now?

LANOIS: It’s fine. You’ve got Maroon 5, force-fed rock. I kinda like the thing that’s happening in America where girls are just fucking in charge of pop music. So, Miley Cyrus naked with her bare cunt on a cannon ball – is that all you got, baby? You know go up the flagpole and back down, bare cunt. I’ll throw some confetti. So, I kinda like that whole thing that’s happening in America right now where the girls are just in charge of fucking pop. I say, take more clothes off, have more hits, own the fucking country, get to the top of the charts and I’ll be eating popcorn. I won’t make records like that, but I’m kinda glad somebody else is.

AUTRE: You keep coming back to real, pure form, for the experience of music rather than whatever movement you might be a part of.

LANOIS: We have a responsibility in these referential times. It’s easy to be spot-on with style. I don’t want to make a referential record. There’s nothing stopping me from sampling a song, but will that fill us? I don’t think so. I don’t want to do referential. I don’t care if I’m penniless. I want to do new things. I want to see the future of music. I may not get there, but I’m going to damn well try. 


Autre will be releasing Daniel Lanois and Rocco DeLuca's track The Resonant Frequency of Love with an accompanying short film on Valentines Day, 2016. Text and interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper and Summer Bowie. photographs by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE


Stoned Immaculate: An Interview With Azalea Lee, A Minimalist Crystal Healer Who Makes Metaphysical Fine Jewelry

Speaking to Azalea Lee is like talking to that wise aunt who has all those otherworldly insights that she wraps in easily accessible metaphors so that you don’t have to work too hard to arrive at the answers. Whether you actually have that aunt, or you always wished you had that aunt, when you walk into her crystal shop, you immediately feel that sense of comfort and familiarity. Her space is in an old building in the fashion district of Downtown Los Angeles. There’s a weird old elevator that you take to the 9th floor, walk down a short dark hallway, ring the bell and the door opens to a bright, white room with a sweeping landscape of the city and a friendly woman who asks you to take off your shoes. Entering Place 8 Healing is like walking through the pearly gates in a dream where you know you’re not dead, and this isn’t eternity, but somehow you feel lighter and more at ease. There’s a cubby station next to the door with a cushion that you can sit on where we eventually held the interview. She explains that we spend so much time wearing shoes and clothes that we lose our grounding; that removing that barrier between our feet and the ground is an essential part of rooting ourselves with the Earth.

We start with a crystal consultation. Azalea asks us to walk around the space and take a look at all the stones, making note of one or two that we find pleasing and one or two that we find displeasing. However, she urges us not to read any of the descriptions – to just go by our gut reactions. Azalea’s practice is all about intuition, and it’s how she leads her life. There are about 4 large, glass cases with crystals arranged on shelves according to their respective gemological families. We slowly walk around each case in perfect silence until we both spot a small, oblong pink crystal that is vibrating on the top shelf. We decide that it must be calling us. Once we’ve each selected a few crystals that we do and don’t like she explains how they may apply to our lives in very specific and astute terms. We tell her about the pink stone that was vibrating and she giggles, “Oh yeah, the mangano calcite, that one’s not in a very stable position so it tends to shake a lot.” She has a great sense of humor.

There’s a shelf of stones carved into the shapes of penises in one case. When we inquired she said that she doesn’t use them in her healing sessions at all, she just saw them at a gem show one time and started to collect them because they make her laugh. Thus is her affinity for crystals. If she feels any kind of reaction to them, she sees them as useful. She says that the crystals you find pleasing are important, but the crystals you find displeasing are even more important. They carry the lessons you need the most; the ones you avoid like the plague because they’re the hardest to face. In the case of Oliver and me, she was pretty dead on. In the following interview, we talk to Azalea about how she discovered her vocation for crystal healing, some of the more extreme reactions her clients experience, spirit animals, past lives and what she says to skeptics.

Summer Bowie: When did you first experience a calling toward crystal healing?

Azalea Lee: So it’s a kind of circuitous story. When I was born I had always known that I had a purpose in my life, but I had no idea what it was. So as the years went on I kept asking myself, "'What’s my purpose?' I met the love of my life. Great! That’s nice. What am I supposed to be doing with my life? Got a house. Great! What am I supposed to be doing with my life?” I had always been interested in spirituality. I had always been a seeker and studied metaphysics. And so the years went on and then when I was about 37, I started looking into making metaphysical fine jewelry, but I couldn’t really find anything that was of quality, and that was my aesthetic. In general, the most common metaphysical aesthetic is much more bohemian, and as you can see from the space, that just is not my aesthetic at all. I’m just much more minimalist.

So I just wasn’t finding metaphysical jewelry that appealed to me. But in the meantime, my husband and I started rockhounding. We went to this mine in central California, which has benitoite, and it’s actually the only place in the world where gem quality benitoite is found. It’s the California state gem. So we found a crystal that was big enough to cut, but I needed a gemstone cutter and I didn’t know any at all. And then my friend said, “Oh I know a gemstone cutter.” And she showed me a gem of his that was like a sculpture – I had just never seen anything like it. So I said whoever this person is, he’s going to be huge and I want to meet him as soon as possible. So I met him, his name is Jean-Noel Soni, and we became fast friends. Soon after I started making metaphysical fine jewelry for myself and then at some point I asked him if he would like to collaborate on something, and he said, “Yeah!” So I decided to take this crystal healing course because I don’t want to read from some book that this crystal means this or that; I just don’t know how they got that information. It’s very “for the Bible told me so” which doesn’t work for me.

SB: Can you describe your first crystal healing experience?

AL: So in that first course I had to do a crystal healing on my instructor’s friend with my instructor watching just in case I got stuck anywhere along the way. And at the end of that she said to her friend, “Can you believe this is her first time?” And I just felt like, “wow I totally get it!” I mean I just totally understood what we’re supposed to be doing. It was like somebody handed me a guitar and I could just riff. So I sort of walked out of that space in a daze and it was like “this is the thing that I’m supposed to be doing” and it just completely landed and I just ran with it.

SB: You were a costume designer and wardrobe stylist in the past. Can you talk about your transition into crystal healing?

AL: Well when I got into costume design and wardrobe styling, I had always known that that wasn’t what I was going to be doing, but it was something I was good at. When you’re working with commercials you just take the idea of what the advertising agent wants, and what the director wants, then look at the actor and find that middle ground. You sort of intuit from the face of the actor what kind of clothes that person would wear. So it was a job that was very easy for me and I was doing a lot of different jobs, although the jobs weren’t always coming together. And in very weird ways a lot of these jobs would fall apart. So I said the universe is telling me this is not the direction I’m supposed to be going. It kept on leading me away and I was getting intuitions to try other things and go a different way. It was as if I was hearing:

-Keep going that way!

And I kept on going that way.

-Keep going!

-Really? I’m getting really close to this edge!

-Keep going!

-Really?!

And then one day when the crystals came it was like the football landed in my arms and I was like, “Oh I better start running!” So that’s how it really felt. It was as if the universe asked me to go to the end of the world, and even though it was scary, I listened. Then all of a sudden out of nowhere this thing landed, and I had the ball, and I just had to run with it, and I did.


"I’ve had sessions that felt like Merry Melody cartoons, sessions where people are in outer space, and ones that are more abstract where people are just seeing shapes and colors. It’s like going to the movies and seeing people’s personal stories."


SB: Wow, that’s a serious calling!

AL: Yeah, if you really listen, it will take you farther than you think you can go. Because it’s really terrifying, but if you are trying to forge a new path, you have to go where no one’s been before.

SB: So you did a crystal consultation with Oliver and me just now, but in a healing session, how do you choose the particular stones that you employ?

AL: Well in the same respect that you were gravitating toward certain crystals, certain crystals are resonating for me to be placed on you. So in a crystal healing session there could be hundreds of crystals placed on and around you. And they’re not static, it changes throughout the duration of the session; what crystals are being placed on you. A lot of it is intuitive, for instance during a session, the only way I can describe it is, you know in cartoons how you see exclamation points coming out of somebody’s head? That’s what the crystals do to me. They demonstrate this: me! me! me! And I go okay, you’re supposed to be the next one, and sometimes I don’t even know what that crystal is about and then I learn about it in this reverse engineering kind of way; seeing how the person reacts to it. Then I see over time with several people what this crystal does for them. So that’s one way the crystals speak to me, and then on the other hand there’s this very left-brained side where I will choose a crystal because I see what the person needs and I know exactly what it does. And so it’s a combination of the two approaches.

SB: What’s the most significant change you’ve felt in yourself since you developed this practice?

AL: There’s definitely a parallel between the themes that resonate with my clients and the themes that resonate in myself. The inside joke among healers is that we’re really just trying to heal ourselves, but we’re doing it in tandem. Each one of us on the planet shares the same stories and we’re all working to heal those same stories. That means that when somebody has a healing in my space, and there’s something that is close to me in that, I also get healed too. It’s such a great situation to be in; it’s really just such a joy to do the work that I do. It’s like when you watch a movie and you really resonate with a character, then when the character gets what they want, you feel really great too.

SB: Yeah, it’s amazing how much we get out of that. So, which stones are resonating with you most right now, and how often does that change?

AL: Well people tend to have theme stones that they resonate with, and I resonate with phenacite. It’s the stone I’m wearing around my neck right now. Phenacite is a very high vibration stone, and it’s about channeling a lot of the spiritual consciousness into the world. It’s a little off-putting if you’re not grounded enough or if you haven’t done the work that I’ve done. It’s like a high wattage stone that I really gravitate towards. I also gravitate towards black tourmaline, which is one of the top three stones that I really recommend for everyone. Tourmalines, if you squeeze them, will develop positive and negative poles with an electrical charge.

SB: That’s right, they have pyroelectricity, and I think they have applications as pressure gauges in electrical devices.

AL: Yeah, if you heat it up it will develop a polarity. But from the metaphysical corollary, black tourmalines have a lot to do with the root chakra. And so what it does with a lot of the negative energy that’s coming toward you is that it can turn it into something that’s neutral or something that’s positive. So it’s basically like, you’re driving down the street and somebody got upset at you because they thought you did something and it helps you to recycle that energy for yourself. It’s like taking the poop and composting it to grow something wonderful.

Oliver Kupper: Can you describe some of the extreme reactions people have had in a session?

AL: Oh yeah, I’ve had some people ask me if they were screaming in the middle of a session. And I say, “Oh yes! You were screaming.” I mean I never know what’s going to happen in a healing session. I always say that I’m not actually doing the healing. You’re doing the healing yourself and the quality of the healing is always dependent upon how willing you are to engage with whatever needs be engaged. That’s the biggest factor. So if people are ready and prepared to go all in, we will go all in. And even people who are kind of like, “I don’t know, I’m just going to try this out and see what it is.” They have some really surprising and intense responses.

Most people describe it like lucid dreaming. They’re fully somewhere else, but they’re able to communicate to me what they’re experiencing, and I’m able to ask questions to help them journey wherever they need to go. And the crystals are like resonances – it’s like being at a soundboard, and I’m adjusting the frequencies as you’re going along. If you need more heart support, I bring the crystals that are more geared toward heart support. I’m constantly adjusting as we go along to see what you need and eventually it all settles. There are a lot of people who resolve a lot of grief, a lot of people will cry, and in my sessions there’s often a lot of humor. I’ve had sessions that felt like Merry Melody cartoons, sessions where people are in outer space, and ones that are more abstract where people are just seeing shapes and colors. It’s like going to the movies and seeing people’s personal stories.

People often meet their spirit animals, which they love, and people often experience past lives. I often ask people if they believe in past lives, and it doesn’t matter to me at all, but it’s just more helpful for the client. For example, I had one person who didn’t believe in past lives, and they ended up in a castle, and they just couldn’t stop saying, “I’ve been here before. I’ve been here before!” So I asked if they’d traveled there before, and they said, “No, but I’ve been here before” and they couldn’t get over it for about 15 minutes. It was really bothering them. But what people often say is that they get clarity. So when you come out of the crystal healing session you feel like, “now I know what I need to implement in the next 6-12 months.” So most people come back after about a year, because that’s about the time when they need another check-in. And the sessions are just far too intense to do more than once in 6 months.

I had one artist who came in and she said, “I wanna know what my next show is going to be about.” So I said, “Okay,” and she had this vision and saw exactly what her jumping off point was for her next show. Which was like, “Ha! Rad, glad to be a part.” So, it’s really fun and always surprising.

OK: What do you say to skeptics?

AL: Honestly, if you can walk out of my session and you have some insight in your life that makes you happier or fulfilled, I don’t care if you feel like it was a placebo. Did it make you happier? Good! That’s really the most important thing to me. Whether or not this is something valid to you, whatever you decide is a measure of truth to you, that’s your own personal decision. I’m not here to persuade anybody.

SB: I’ve read on your site that you’ve been a crystal healer in many past lives. Can you describe one of your past lives? And how do you know it’s a past life?

AL: Sometimes what happens is you travel to a place and it feels so familiar to you and you don’t know why, and it’s because you’ve lived there before. Or you have some karma that you’re working out of that particular place. It’s like you have to come back to the scene of the crime and work out what you didn’t work out back then. For me, one of my favorite ones was when I went to the Sacred Valley in Peru, and I realized I had one of my happiest lives when I was a poor sheepherder. And I experienced me just being on the hill and I had this sense that I had this happy little family. I just had what I needed and my life was just simple and happy. Whenever it was, there wasn't any political drama, so I could just focus on the simple things. And sometimes for people who have had a very traumatic life, what happens is that in another life you’ll have a break life where things are a little easier. Just to give you a moment before you go back deep again. And that was the case in this life. There wasn’t anything really significant in that life. I just remember feeling the sunshine, my sheep, my family, and just all the things that were important to me.

A lot of people have memories of being royalty and skeptics say, “everybody thinks they were kings and queens, but how many could there be?” But when you think about it, there’s been a lot of royalty over the years, and it’s not just kings and queens. It’s dukes, marquis’, lords, etc. And of all the lives to lead, it’s not the most fun. There’s always a lot of political intrigue where everyone’s watching their backs and there’s endless responsibility. There’s so much drama in those lives – I haven’t experienced that those were people’s best lives – those are always the more complicated lives for people to have, which is why those lives come back up and are in need of the most resolution.

But yeah, crystal healing…It’s like trying to describe what it’s like to be stoned to someone who’s never been stoned. I’ve just never heard anyone who could articulate that very clearly. 


You can visit Place 8 Healing for a crystal healing session or a crystal consultation at 120 E. 8th Street, Suite 902 Los Angeles, CA 90014. You can also learn all about the various properties of a wide host of crystals and buy crystals from Azalea online at www.place8healing.com. Text and interview by Summer Bowie. Photos by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Follow Place 8 Healing on Instagram @PLACE8HEALING.  Follow Azalea's jewelry line @ASABOVESOBELOW. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE


Casual Burnouts, Lovable Weirdos: An Interview With Actor, Artist and Jack of All Trades Mel Shimkovitz

About a month ago, Autre was asked to cover the second Summer Sacrifice for How Many Virgins? at the Ace Hotel. If that doesn’t make any sense, it’s because it doesn’t. Little did we know that we would be introduced to one of LA’s most enigmatic, energetic, and multifaceted performing artists by way of a hilarious mock acting reel spanning 10 years of highly varied and absurdly captivating film projects. From parodic audition tapes for films like Pretty Woman, to the superimposing of her character on iconic ‘90s infomercials, to abstract layerings of sound and industrial imagery, Mel Shimkovitz’s work is at once arresting, captivating the viewer with a chameleonic quality that leaves you anticipating the next impressive transition. It is perhaps that chameleonic quality that makes Mel so fascinating. The moment the reel finished playing, I immediately scanned the audience for this curious specimen in hopes of a handshake and the prospect of an interview. Little did I know the magnitude of the Pandora’s box I was about to open.

Researching Mel’s work before the interview, I found a wide range of recent, mostly acting work (she’s popped up in skits on Funny or Die and has made cameos in varied televisions series), but struggled to dig very deep into the past. She would later explain that this is due to a slew of pseudonyms she used throughout the early naughts in order to protect the Shimkovitz family name—a nice Jewish family from Chicago. In the following conversation, Macho Mel (as she is known in some circles) covers a dizzying gamut of work and life experience. There was her meeting with William S. Burroughs as an adolescent in Lawrence, Kansas. There was her founding of the Voodoo Eros record label, which released music by the likes of Devendra Banhart, CocoRosie, and Antony and the Johnsons. Voodoo Eros also took the form of a retail store that she ran with CocoRosie’s Bianca Cassidy—it was more an elaborate conceptual art piece than a real retail experience. But next year may change everything for Mel, because she will find herself in a reoccurring role on Jill Soloway’s groundbreaking series Transparent, which just cleaned house with five Emmy awards. We can’t wait to watch.

Indeed, Mel’s approach is wacky and unbridled, yet focused, professional, and somehow she seems to be completely devoid of pretension. She is familiar, but also alien in her virtuosic comedic talents that have an almost vaudeville vibe, but maybe it’s just her willingness to fall over to make an audience laugh. It’s the best kind of comedy, because it’s real and authentic. Who’s never fallen? Most comedy these days seems put on or manufactured. In the following interview, we have a long chat with Mel about Trans vampires, her Zelig-like position in the music, art and Hollywood worlds, and the media’s sudden shift in focus toward the lives and rights of the LGBTQ community.

Summer Bowie: So, I loved the video screening of the Melvira work you produced with Amy Von Harrington at the Ace Hotel. Can you talk a little bit about how that came together?

Mel Shimkovitz: Ben Lee Ritchie Handler and Ava Berlin have a project called How Many Virgins? They asked me if I had any videos I wanted to be shown, because I had been making videos with Amy for a long time. My former life was all music and art. But I’ve always been an actor. I grew up in the theatre. So, I had all these years of work and I thought it would be a nice opportunity to dig into the archives. We had some extra time, so we made a new reel that was really influenced by the Hollywood vibe. When I came out to LA, being an artist quickly transformed into being an actress. Not just in art stuff, but in the semi-mainstream as well. Amy has been making reels for me for a while, and we got the idea to make a fun reel for once. She’s obsessed with Elvira, so we created the character “Melvira”—Elvira’s cousin, who came out to LA wanting to make it. She’s an awkward trans vampire—Melvira: Mistress of the Stage and Screen. So the video screening was Melvira’s acting reel.

SB: That seems pretty surreal. How did you meet Amy Von Harrington?

MS: I was running a record label at the time. I was doing a huge mailing of promos in Brooklyn. She was standing behind me at the post office, deciding if she hated me or not, as I spent an hour holding up the line. Later that night, she showed up at a party that I was throwing with Bianca Cassidy for our project Voodoo Eros. We had a fried chicken party that night and I recognized Amy from the post office. That was it. We just started hanging out and working together. And it’s been like that ever since. We’re casual burnouts. Lovable weirdos.

SB: Can you tell me about the Voodoo Eros project?

MS: Yeah, we had a store on the Lower East Side called the Voodoo Eros Museum of Nice Items. This was 2007. We were a record label, so we would record in there at night. But during the day, we sold XXXXXL sweatshirts and sweatpants that we had hand-painted. Our thing was “the biggest clothes on the Lower East Side.” It was such a small store that we could only put up one thing on each wall. They were all horribly priced. Some were $2 and some were $2,000. We also sold items from the 99¢ store across the street, but we would mark them up about 1,000%, but with really nice price tags. The only people who came into the store were Japanese tourists and dudes who would come in to gay bash us. Bianca and I decided that we were going to play shopkeeps for a year. To be a shopkeep, though, you have to have a long attention span and a will to make money. We didn’t have either of those things.

SB: Where are you from, and when did you first know you wanted to become an actor?

MS: I grew up in Chicago, but I left when I was 17 and went to Kansas. I was really obsessed with the Beats. I was obsessed with William Burroughs. This was before I knew what misogyny was. I was happy to meet him; he wasn’t happy to meet me. But he was very happy to meet the very good-looking guy I was hanging out with. Lawrence, Kansas is really a cultural mecca in the Midwest. There’s a legacy of major progressive hippies out there. It’s a major abolitionist town. That’s not to say that the Westboro Baptist Church isn’t down the street, and didn’t protest every play when the Harlem Choir Boys came to town.

Growing up in Chicago, you do a lot of improv and sketch comedy. I grew up doing community theatre and plays in school. When I went to Kansas and didn’t know what to do with myself, they took me in. There were so many communists teaching at the University of Kansas in the theatre department. That was a really political education—political theatre. I went from there to New York.

I was there for a number of years before I met Bianca Cassidy. We started this feminist collective called “Wild Café Theatre,” and no one was coming. But then Bianca and her sister started this band, and I started doing performance art for their shows in front of thousands of people. We were making videos and fictional worlds. We were queering the world. That time in my life, everything was a creative choice.

SB: Tell us about your period with the CocoRosie. 

MS: Our first album that we put out was just for fun. It was a box filled with tapes that friends had made. We put it out as an album called “The Enlightened Family.” We had songs by CocoRosie, Antony and the Johnsons, Jana Hunter, Vashti Bunyan, Metallic Falcons—just before anybody knew who these people were. All of a sudden, people were buying it! It was a cool project; we were doing whatever we wanted for a couple of years. It was a pure aesthetic project.

SB: Wow, that's amazing. Now, let's fast-forward to your life in LA for a second. As a performance artist, it seems like you’ve become this integral part of LA’s creative community, but it also seems like you’re gaining footing in the more mainstream Hollywood industry. Where do you feel most at home?

MS: In the past, I always would have said in the art world, because of my interest in all things beyond theatre and narrative — I’m super interested in poetry, abstraction, and psychedelic visualscapes, etc. But amazing things have happened in the past year. I’ve met such a great community of writers, directors, and performers. I have this super amazing TV and film community that I never had in the theatre and music worlds of New York. I found a really good tribe. Now, I would say I feel really good in both places, which is so cool. So, I don’t know, I’m really just trying to be very charming, super polite, show up on time, do whatever’s asked of me, have no ego at all moments, and be ready to humiliate myself. I think that’s it.

There’s this idea that nice guys finish last, but I’m getting the feeling that nice guys are getting ahead. In the art world and the Hollywood world, the thing that they have in common is negative competitiveness. The art world is held back by its own self-reference, which makes it super exclusive. The Hollywood world is held back by its own nepotism. Which doesn’t work for anybody who isn’t a straight white cis male — there’s no community for them. People are realizing the patriarchy of that doesn’t work for them. We’re seeing change now. When the first Whitney opened, there was not one woman artist. In the new Whitney, there is amazing work by female artists on every floor. It’s a mindful and purposeful choice, but that’s how equality happens. The cameras are finally being put in the hands of women, queer people, people of color, trans people, people of different ages even. I’m working on a short film written, directed, and starring a 16-year-old girl, and it is more professional, and there’s more heart in this than anything I’ve done in a long time. And this story of a 16-year-old girl – which is not something often made through the gaze of a 16-year-old girl – is so fascinating. This isn’t just because more people have access to these instruments. People are getting bored of seeing the same thing. How many white, ex-skater photographer dudes are making work about process and the sunlight? How many of those can we see before we demand to see more emotional stuff? Some of us want to see more important things.

Film is an emotional medium. So, why have we given all the cameras to the men when we’ve been told our entire lives that women are emotional? Why aren’t we telling our stories? The dudes don’t want to give up the cameras. It’s a frat house mentality, especially in New York.


"I’m really just trying to be very charming, super polite, show up on time, do whatever’s asked of me, have no ego at all moments, and be ready to humiliate myself."


SB: Have you noticed any differences coming to LA from New York?

MS: Coming here, people are starting to collect and to pay attention. All kinds of people can be a part of it. It’s so optimistic out here. Being an artist in New York feels like you’re part of an industry, part of the company. But being out here, especially for the first few years, it felt like being an outsider. And isn’t that who should be creating new culture in a community? The people for whom the current culture isn’t working? 

SB: Definitely! And clearly these days, there’s a lot more acceptance and embracing of queer roles. What would you say has been the catalyst for the boundary pushing we’re seeing in regard to gender and sexuality in the media today?

MS: I want to say that it’s been people who identify as queer rising up and forcing their voices to be heard. But nothing happens without the majority paying attention to it. So that makes me think the majority of people just want to see different stories and experiences. The thing that’s so interesting about the civil rights movement of the LGBTQ community, versus the racial civil rights movement of the 60s, is that queer people are born into your family, which forces us to face it. In recent years, numerous legislators have had to contend with their children coming out. How can they go and say their child doesn’t deserve marriage equality? And so it was passed. Also, when an American hero comes out as trans—that really pushes things forward.

I wonder where we would be in gay rights if AIDS hadn’t happened. Not only did we lose so many great artists and leaders in the community, but all of the resources had to go to screaming for help and taking care of each other.

In the trans community — which is related, but separate from LGBTQ in a lot of ways — trans people have fallen in and out of being accepted throughout humanity. Being trans is something that indigenous communities throughout time have upheld as a shamanistic trait. It’s only been a few hundred years in white society in which a trans person has been an unacceptable thing. We love Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, but 20 trans women of color have been murdered this year. I’m all for marriage equality, I’m happy that went through, but I’m kind of like—fuck getting married, can we save these lives?

My family—who didn’t want to talk about me being gay—is suddenly so interested in talking about trans people. I was on the show Transparent, and these old Jewish people are in it, which really helped my parents with understanding the show. I did a short documentary (which is part of a series of short documentaries) called “This Is Me,” produced by Wifey.TV. They were nominated for an Emmy. I star in one, and my family saw this. Suddenly, I’m getting phone calls from my sister, who has never talked about my queerness. Now, she’s asking me what I want my niece and nephew to call me—Aunt or Uncle. We’re having this conversation now.

Everybody, all of a sudden, decides that they have to be cool with it, because it’s not cool to not be cool with it, and then everybody just gets on board. These days several of my friends have kids, and six-year-olds totally understand trans people. They don’t get separated by boy’s lines and girl’s lines anymore. I’m going into more spaces that have gender-neutral bathrooms. Even for me, hearing a guy peeing in the stall next to me feels like a radical act. It’s not a radical act, but it feels so radical. We’re all just people peeing now.

There are all these new stories to tell. There’s a huge society of people that haven’t been telling their stories. We want to know what their stories are about. I mean, look at how many stories about gay couples and trans people are coming out in Hollywood this year. So many! Everybody is really into it. I mean, I’m already hearing people say things like, “Isn’t it enough already with all the gender stuff.” But this is the first year after 100 years of filmmaking history that these stories are starting to emerge - a lot of people have had enough with the same straight love story.

SB: Are there roles that you feel more comfortable with, or do you jump into all of them with an adventurous attitude?

MS: If the camera’s rolling, I’m there. I’m ready to perform. I’ll jump into anything. I’m lucky now that I’ve been given really fun stuff to play. I didn’t grow up like that. I’m a writer because I had to write my own stuff. I couldn’t get casting. I’ve always been like this. My mom got my ears pierced when I was one so people would stop calling me a “cute little boy.” I’ve been told by so many people that this was going to limit what I was able to do. But recently, I’ve realized it means I can do anything. I’m performing male and female all the time. What I love doing now — which horrifies a lot of other butch lesbians — is to wear a dress. I have a bunch of stuff coming out where I’m the ugly best friend, or I’m the prostitute, or whatever. That’s drag to me, but I can get into my femme side. I feel like an artist when I do that. It’s so powerful.

I always used to stick to comedy. Now, there are parts written where I’m playing a character closer to my own experience. That’s really challenging, and totally new.

SB: So, what kinds of projects are you working on at the moment, or in the near future?

MS: I’m finishing up shooting the second season of Transparent. I have a really cool, fun, scary role in that. I’m finishing writing a feature that I’m supposed to shoot next year. It’s called The Sangres. It’s a dark, comedic, anti-Western with queer themes that Devendra is writing the soundtrack for. It’s influenced by Bob Dylan and Sam Peckinpah. And the fucking desert. I’m doing anything people ask me to do. I starred in a webseries. I’ve been drawing a lot. Just creating my own content.

I’m doing embarrassing things all over town. If anyone has anything embarrassing for me to do, I’m there. If you want me to cry, I can do that too. I’m always on time…congenial…I’m always sober on set.

SB: There’s definite progress being made in terms of acceptance and rights for those within the queer community, but is there an ideal destination and what does it look like to you? 

MS: The part of me that came out in Kansas—the person who had to hide for so long—wants to say that the destination would be to not have physical violence done upon you because you are Other. The more optimistic thing to say would be that there would be no Other. Or rather, that we would all be Other. I see us opening up our gaze on gender, and seeing it as a broad spectrum. But I think that’s only one little domino to knock down. Okay so we stop seeing people of other genders as Other, when are we going to stop seeing people from different countries and religions as Other?

I would love to see a year in which people who have consistently been at the back of the line take a move to the front. I would love to see them take over in film and in art. Just for one year. Take the director and turn him into the PA—see what happens. That would be a good short-term goal. Just a year, just sit down, shut up and watch!


You can catch Mel Shimkovitz in the new season of Transparent on December 4, 2015 on Amazon. Click here to see more of Mel's work. text and interview by Summer Bowie. photographs by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE