RUSSO | "Pressure Palace" / "Aqua Vitae"

Multi-disciplinary artist Ari Russo bends the visual detritus of our immediate past and DIY lines of code into sneakily gorgeous instrumentals and eerily disaffected videos.

Russo closed out 2014 listed amongst XLR8R’s top 50 tracks of the year and manning groundbreaking 3D visuals for Torn Hawk and UK duo Psychemagik in London. 

Pressure Palace, Russo's first single/video for New Ancestors, adds skittering electric guitars and chiming harmonics to the outstanding synth-led workouts of the Wild Metals EP (Valcrond Video, 2014). It’s an altogether more human realization couched in static and tightly propulsive.

Pressure Palace is a wild outgrowth of sub-realities and subliminal desire, a close look at the secret sex-life of objects and a sardonic glare at the authoritarian over-stimulation of modern life. Images are culled from his deep archive of VHS and laserdiscs through his self-made VZ program. The result is an ephemeral cinema of dystopian erotica and consumption set to a slow-pulsing futurist soundscape.

The single is paired with Aqua Vitae, a previously un-released video amalgam of distorted and hypnotic synth work accumulated between 2005-2008, "touching on tape-manipulation textures and fuzzy Boards of Canada environments; and, stick around until the end and you’ll even get some erotic-painting NSFW action.Tiny Mix Tapes

“Russo’s music captures the human interface between manmade textures and bodily life... emotionally gripping as it is texturally weird.”  -Dazed Digital

“...heavier and more technoid than your typical home-listening electronica; it balances between genuine expressiveness and purposeful anonymity."  -Spin

“Through the eyes of NYC video artist, programmer and musician Russo, the world is cast as a spinning menagerie of artifacts...” -The Fader

placid, frond-filled corporate lounges and other atmospheric exotica... popping up periodically as the starkest invocation of the same sense of networked universalism that fills his music" -Decoder

"You might get pulled into the same daze." -No Fear Of Pop


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In Conversation | Abdul Abdullah

(1) Good Muslim Boy, 2013. C-type print, 155cm x 330cm

Abdul Abdullah was born in Perth, Western Australia in 1986, and he graduated in 2008 from Curtin University. In 2009 Abdul received the Highly Commended in the NYSPP at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra and was named a Perth Rising Star by Insite Magazine. His work is included in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia, the University of Western Australia, Murdoch University, The Islamic Museum of Australia and The Bendigo Art Gallery. Most recently his painting 'I wanted to paint him as a mountain' of Richard Bell was selected as a finalist in the 2014 Archibald Prize. Abdul is represented by Fehily Contemporary in Melbourne, Australia.


N|A:  This summer, you have your first American show coming at the Chasm Gallery here in Bushwick. Tell us about the work you'll be presenting.

Abdul Abdullah: I haven't made it yet.  I should have more information, but it's going to be at the end of July, beginning of August.  Based around similar things that I've been working with before but for a new audience.

N|A:  Your work deals so specifically with politics in Australia, is this show going to attempt to deal with American race conflict directly?

AA:  A little bit.  I had a show in London and the series the Siege that I made for London, was a bit more international than my previous Australian show.  And I think I'll continue with that with the American one, give it more international access points.

N|A:  That makes sense.  There's so much in your work, that I can see myself getting ahead of myself.  What I really wanted to focus on, talking about Siege and maybe use that as a jumping off point for where you're going and the things that you're using, to connect to that work, explicitly.  I've got random notes here, so I'm trying to make sense of them as I'm asking them.    For me, there's the image, there's the text as it is the title, and then there's obviously the poem.  And all three form the body of the work, but each component sort of functions differently for me.  So I wanted to start with just the image.  Where did that originate for you, the idea of it?

AA:  How it started, I'd been thinking about all these different things.  The idea of global colonization, and its effects, the byproducts of that, reading things like Franz Fanon and all these things influence my practice, books and that sort of thing.  In regards to the imagery, what started it off was quite a fortuitous meeting of two different images where I was sitting there watching the original "Planet of the Apes" on my laptop, and on the TV in the background it was old footage of the first Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  It was images of the Mujahedeen, who are now the Taliban, I guess, riding along on these horses with Kalashnikovs across their backs.  And on my laptop there were these images of gorillas or apes with these Kalashnikovs across their backs, riding along on these horses chasing down the humans.  And there was a really direct link; I couldn't help but feel that this depiction of the other was a correlation that I couldn't ignore.


(2) Seige, 2014. Ten type-C photographic prints 


N|A:  Really interesting. In the newest of the new "Planet of the Apes" that came out last summer, in a lot of ways they made that link far more directly to Native Americans and white American settlers.  Some of the images of the apes on horses were straight out of a western.  The whole narrative of the humans in their little bunkers, was totally like the settler narrative from westerns.  It's an inescapable thing.  It's funny, I think the original "Planet of the Apes" creators of that film thought of it as somewhat progressive.  So it's kind of interesting, I wonder what they really felt about the complex imagery that they were presenting as time went on, or if it even occurred to them?

AA:  It's interesting what you say.  The depth of the political narrative in those original movies is really surprising by contemporary standards.

N|A: Did you ever hear the stories of the making of that film?  The actors, when they went to lunch, no matter what their star status was, they would go and eat in their groups of ape costumes.  Like all the gorillas wanted to bond together, and the orangutans with orangutans.  There was like something deep inside of them, "That's my tribe," and it transcended their status as actors.  Humans are weird.  What about the framing of the image itself, when you came down to actually producing them?  Obviously you could paint that, so what was the decision to do that with photography?

AA:  I found photography a really useful medium, in that it comes with its assumption of evidence, maybe an assumption of proof, a bias of proof.  By that I mean, a painting is from someone's head, it can be complete fantasy, while photography seems to capture something that's real, even though you can mess with it just as much as a painting with Photoshop, do whatever you like with it.  I mess around with my photos quite a bit, but it keys into something like a memory as opposed to a fantasy.  Does that make any sense at all?

N|A:  Totally.  Obviously, even the image that you have, the painting that you have that is a very similar sort of ape face, it's not as confrontational.  It just doesn't jump out at you in the same way, because it is this mixture of the real and the abstract.   To me these photographic images are connected to early anthropological studies.  I pulled this book off the shelf, which is African Photography from the Walter collection.  Distances and Desire:  Encounters with the African Archive.  It's all these early photographs documenting Africans and you can really feel the European gaze.  Here even that kind of framing...

AA:  You can see a direct link there, totally

(3) Various archival images held by the Walther Collection


N|A:  So that kind of jumped out at me, especially the ones where they have the photographer making a point of focusing on traditional dress.  It's similar as well to Edward Curtis who documented native Americans and a lot of similar 19th century ethnographic studies. I'm sure there must be equivalent images of Aborigines in Australia. Was this a reference point for you?

AA: I can't claim that it was specifically, but I think it is inherent in the work.  I must have come across work like that, images like that before.  Because I can see exactly the link.  I didn't have it in mind when I was doing the work, but it has to have been an influence.

N|A:  It's also like the Natural History museum tableau, that same kind of dramatic lighting.

AA: Yeah, I really wanted to have that theater, that drama.

N|A: Which definitely comes across.  How do you go about staging them?  They're so well done.  What's your background?

AA: I work with a particular photographer, and we've known each other since art school.  Actually I'm at his house at the moment.  David Collins.  He's a magnificent photographer.  We have a really good shorthand with each other, and he really understands the type of processes, the lighting effects that I want to produce.  When making it theatrical like that, I don't want to present a documentation of something that happened, but really make it clear that it is a bit of theater as well.

N|A: That leads me to what is striking on the images, first is, I don't know if you've been following the Ferguson Missouri, and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice that's going on in the States.

AA: There's not as much on the news in Australia, but online, I've been watching it.

N|A: With Ferguson, Darren Wilson, the cop, in his testimony to the grand jury, the way he described it, was that Michael Brown "looked like a demon" coming at him.  And what the jury finds then is, well, he “reasonably feared for his life.”  But the whole premise of what his reason is has to be considered unreasonable, because it's founded on that kind of racist iconographic imagery.  So when you're confronted with the images, it's almost like a racist's nightmare.  It could be straight out of the Nazi newspapers.  So it's Siege, and who's under Siege.  But it seems that it's like that white fear primarily, because you're in that position, you're putting me in the position of someone who's viewing in.  How do you think about that relationship between the gaze?

(4) Bugi man, 2014. Giclee print, 145cm x 110cm 

(5) The Re-Introduction of Australian knighthood2014. Giclee print, 145cm x 110cm


AA: I like the ambiguity of the title.  My brother, who's also an artist, he hates ambiguity.  But I really love it. I like a sort of flux in what I'm trying to put across.  Siege is an example, talking about this colonized group as under siege, but also the audience is under siege by these works, by these large groups, and sort of playing around with our flux.  And I'm not putting my foot solidly in either camp.  Does that make sense?

N|A: I'd like to unpack that a little more, because obviously I know the work was kicked off as well with the London riots; you said you made it for London.  So can you go into that in a little more detail, who these characters are, what that mentality of watching is?

AA:  The characters that I'm portraying, one of the works about halfway through the series is called "A Disaffected Byproduct of the Colonies."  And that pretty much sums up who these figures are, and what I'm trying to represent.  The riots, an example like the civil unrest of the Arabs, the Arab uprisings; they sort of, appeal is the wrong word, but I am attracted to them in that they are these efforts by a frustrated mass of people that potentially don't have the access to means and ways of changing things, making things better for themselves.  Like a last-ditch attempt.  What really got me interested in them was the Cronulla riots in Sydney.  I don't know if you've heard of those riots in Australia, but they happened in 2005.  You can see it on YouTube, it was a race riot, like 2-3,000 white people marching up the beach attacking anyone who's brown, dark skinned.  That happened while I was at art school, and that really stuck with me.  I've been keeping a close eye on those things.  I don't know if I skirted your question.

N|A:  It's not really a direct question; obviously your work challenges everyone to think about these things.  I was just thinking about it, how it worked.  You've got the affectation of the mask; the clothing choices from the track suits to the religious garments.  How does that work in the work?

AA:  The track suit for me is the uniform of disaffected youth across the world.  It's a signifier that I can latch onto and I think it's immediately effective, playing with contradictory signifiers.  So getting a couple of signifiers in the one image and the tension that it creates, people can engage in that tension and can push people into different directions.  The work in Siege is confrontational and has the potential to be quite insulting to people.  I’ve had a lot of discussions within the Muslim community with people finding the work potentially offensive.

N|A:  Which is that first point of confrontation that I’m talking about.  It is a visualization of that racist image, I mean, horrifyingly.  So there’s been an interesting conversation in the community itself.  How’s that played out?

AA:  It does take a conversation.  If people were to see it out of context, it could go either way.  But I like that risk, that danger, where if you didn’t have the context you might read it completely differently.  In a way I think that’s more exposing, useful that saying “This is what its about.”  I did a work in 2011 based on an Australian bumper sticker, and you’ve probably got them in the States as well.  But it’s in the shape of Australia, and it just says, “Fuck off, we’re full” and you see it on the back of cars, and it’s a xenophobic thing.  I find it quite offensive, maybe it’s talking about me, about my mother.  And to engage that I turned it into a lightbox, I made it really big and made it glow in the dark so people couldn’t ignore it.  But I also provided it without context.  And at the opening this old guy came up to me, saying, “You’re right, we are full,” and that’s not at all what I was trying to put across.  But I liked that that potential reading was there.

N|A:  That’s what’s interesting to me in the images in a piece like that is that you’re bring that out in the conversation in the open, sort of forcing people to choose sides.  And the title is what gives it its context and flips the title Siege into something else.  It’s described on your site as being a poem.  Was it written as that and then attached to the work, or written for the work?

AA:  They sort of came together at the same time.  There were a few statements, like “You see monsters,” the first one, “The Disaffected Byproduct of the Colonies” is another one that wasn’t necessarily going to be part of it, but then just sort of floated in.  Those were the basis for sort of filling in in-between, and the images were married to those.  I had the first titles and the brought them together.

N|A: How do you generally view these intersections between image and text in your work?  It’s a common thing you’re playing with.

AA: I think it’s vital.  The text or the title is as important as the work is.  I came across a New York painter, I can’t think of his name, but he did these really beautiful paintings of the city, cityscapes, very quiet paintings, no figures in them, just these buildings.  But the titles of the works were the headline of the day, which were quite graphic and full on.  And with this peaceful image combined with a full on title—that stuck with me ever since, that these two things can work together so strongly to shape the context.

N|A:  So it’s been something that you’ve always played with.  What you’re working with is so text based, like conversations, directly linked in that way.  And you give speaking tours.  Do you find yourself as you become more well known as this political artist?  Forcing you to talk about things more?

AA: I think I have a responsibility or at least an obligation to speak on behalf of the work.  I could never be a spokesperson for anyone else, I’m clear stating that, I’m not going to speak on behalf of the Muslim or the non-Muslim communities.  My work is coming from me based on personal experiences mostly.  I find it useful to speak about it, it’s interesting to have these conversations with people that I might not have.  I find it kind of funny that people want to hear what I have to say.

N|A:  Your work, especially this series, is really present, really dealing with things that have come from your context and things that are going on now.  Are you looking at historical representations, like those pictures of, the historical ideas of marginalized people and race and identity?

AA:  More and more so.  When I was first engaging in political ideas in 2011, something I was always interested in doing but really started feeling more confident with it more recently.  At first I was looking at the Australian experience, but now I’ve been reading more and getting a broader understanding of the historical context of it all, understanding the history of colonization, the history of the other all across the world, but looking more at people like Edward Said and Franz Fanon, and the autobiography of Malcolm X, these pivotal historical figures and their discussions,  these are becoming more and more of an influence.

N|A: Are there contemporary writers of similar stature that you’re reading? I’m thinking of something like  “Fanaticism:  on the uses of an idea” by Alberto Toscano?

AA: I guess the focus is really on writers of a few decades ago.  I’m catching up.

N|A:  I had a question about the marginalization.  Every one of the images is the lone figure.  I was wondering how that related; was that an accident, or is that something conscious?

AA:  There a couple of shots with a man and a woman.

N|A: Right, the one, the woman is turned away from the camera.

AAIt’s not an accident, but there’s no specific contextual or perceptual reason why I’ve done individual shots like that, other than compositional.  When I’m constructing it the way I want to construct it, to have a particular focus point, I want to limit the signifiers that are in there.  Contain them in the one body.

N|A: It makes them so powerful as a unit, because of the individual units comprising the larger 10-piece poem.

AA: It’s seeking to control the audience’s gaze.

N|A:  The whole work, that’s what it’s really about, controlling gazes and what it means to control gaze and who has agency in that regard.  So what is the work you’re shooting today?

AA:  This is a little broader, using the motif of the bad guy but not looking at any marginalized or ethnic group, religious group, but using a balaclava.  The main image that I’m working on is a bride on a beach, with a white wedding dress with a white bouquet, but also a white balaclava.  It came from a comment I heard recently on the news, in regard to what was happening in Gaza, someone talking about terrorist babies, that their choice has been removed.  It led me to the idea of a terrorist mother and father, with a terrorist child.  So it’s my roundabout way of getting to an image that I quite like.  I’m still working out the nuts and bolts.

N|A:  How long does it take to construct a piece like this?  What is the process?  Does it begin with drawings, sketches?

AA:  It begins in my diary, I scribble away and draw things and write a lot of notes.  Once I’m happy with the composition and the elements that are going to be in it, I sort the material.  And coming from Perth, which I think is the most isolated capital city in the world, there’s not much going on here.  So a lot of my sources are from overseas, I get it online, then join together with my photographer David Collins, and we produce the work.

N|A:  And you hire actors?

AA:  I’ve got an actor here at the moment who’s going to help me, she’s going to be in the bride image, but the male figure is usually always me.

N|A: Is that a practical choice or is that part of the composition?

AA: You could say it’s a bit of both.  It is for me part of the conversation in that I feel that to maintain that sense of integrity I need to be in the work.  The risk of the work needs to be shouldered by me as opposed to an actor.  There is a lot of criticism of it, and I’m very wary of the idea of exploitation, and I figure that if I’m in the work and it’s me that’s presenting myself, then I’m only exploiting myself.

N|A: Does that become trickier when you talk about going to England or America and sort of adopting things that are more international?

AA: I think it is.  I was looking at the London riots, and for me none of the images were specifically English.  When I go international, I have to be careful of the signifiers that I use.  Like the Australian flag or the Southern Cross or images that I’ve used before, they aren’t accessible to a foreign audience.  So I have to open things up a bit.

N|A:  You said you haven’t done any of the work for the New York show yet. But have you begun research for that work; is it going to be photography based?

AA: It will be entirely photography.  And I’ve begun researching.  It’ll be on the same sort of themes.  This bridal work might be part of that series.  It’s all up in the air at the moment.  With this American show it’s not like I’m softening what I do.  Like someone told me before, that what I want to do is punch people in the face beautifully.  Like slapping someone with a velvet glove.  At the moment what I’m trying to do is work out what I’m trying to say, but maybe make the glove a little more velvet-like.

N|A: With the Ferguson thing going on and the protests now in New York for that, and the recent six year study on American torture that finally came out detailing the numerous ways Americans tortured people.  These things, Ferguson and the war on terror are so directly linked, because it was essentially 9/11 that has allowed the U.S. police to become so heavily militarized.

AA: It amazes me how much military equipment American police seem to have, the images I see online, tanks.  It’s crazy.

N|A: It all came directly from 9/11 and these police forces in the middle of the country getting money for that stuff to defend us from terrorism.  It’s so heavily related that I kind of wondered, especially since your work deals with riots, about whether that’s where you’d be looking.

AA: I’ll definitely be looking at these sorts of things but I don’t want to reference them too specifically.  I want to tread very carefully about what images and signifiers represent.  I’m also worried about getting into the country.  Or getting out of the country.

N|A: One thing that you said, track-suits are the international costume.  I think it’s maybe not as much true in America.

AA: I suppose, yeah, that it’s a different theme.  I’m imagining like a young French Algerian or someone in London.  In America I guess it’s quite different.

(6) We Watch, 2014. Giclee print, 150cm x 140cm

(7) It Doesn't Matter How I Feel2013. C type print, 155cm x 110cm


N|A:  Yeah, it’s a different kind of uniform.  It’s interesting that there’s that link globally.  Americans are just in their own heads.  It’s interesting that it jumps to Australia and not to America.  There’s no question there.  But maybe it’s because America doesn’t think of itself as a former colony but mire something exceptional willed into being. Which is of course a very convenient narrative if you’re looking to gloss over little details like subjugation and genocide of native populations. And as Americans we still can’t talk about it, we don’t have any way of truly dealing with that history.

AA: There’s definite room for reflection in Australia about our treatment of the Aboriginal people.  It’s appalling and ignored, but the massacres that happened here, everyone here is sort of implicit in that invasion or occupation.

N|A:  In America you’ve got that and also the history of slavery.  Now the current climate that you get when race comes up, like with Ferguson, is that you have the newscasters saying that people who talk about race are the racists.  It’s very circular logic, but that’s how it is.  We’ve spoken about the reaction of the Muslim community, what is the general reaction to your work in Australia?

AA:  Generally it’s been pretty good.  The people that I’ve come across react quite positively to it and see where I’m coming from.  Very rarely is the criticism of my work based upon the work itself or based on the technical aspects of the work or what it looks like, or even conceptually what I’m trying to put across. 

N|A: You’ve won these or you’ve competed for these prizes, that obviously brings you to an audience that’s beyond what you might find in an art crowd.  That’s putting you on the front line of something.  Is there a lot of heavily political art going on in Australia?

AA: There is a bit.  But it’s primarily coming from contemporary Aboriginal artists like Richard Bell or Tracey Moffat. Their work is at the front line.  To me that’s the most interesting work in Australia right now. The most negative things that I get in my emails are based on my name and my religion and their assumptions about my religion.  So all of the hate mail that I get doesn’t have so much to do with my art as with my name.

N|A: Really?

AA: Yeah, it’s a strange one.  I’m sure there have been people who’ve disliked the work for conceptual reasons.  But the ones who write to me are the ones who think I just shouldn’t be in the country.

N|A: Do you get a lot of that?

AA:  Not in the last year.  There’s a prize called the Archibald Prize in Australia, it’s the most popular exhibition they have in the country.  The first time I was a finalist in that I painted a guy called Waleed Ally, who’s a political commentator in Australia but is also a Muslim voice, he doesn’t like using the word Moderate, but he’s really a smart guy, not full-on at all.  But there’s a segment in Australian society that hates him.  He’s on prime time and they just hate his guts.  And then they saw that there was this painting of this guy the new and hated painted by some unknown named Abdul Abdullah and it set some people wild.

N|A: That’s kind of remarkable.

(8)Fuck Off We're Full, 2013. Enamel and resin on board, 90cm x 90cm

(9) Our land our country our way2013. Enamel and resin on board, 90cm x 90cm


AA:  Yeah, it was really weird.  That exhibition toured regional areas, regional galleries on the East Coast of Australia.  And there was a place called TarraWarra which is a really big gallery or museum, and the gallery sitter said when I visited the show that he hadn’t come across a more polarizing painting.  It wasn’t like it was a crazy painting; it’s quite a safe portrait of a person just sitting there.  But he said that people either liked it or just hated it.  And the reason they hated it was the person who was painted and my name.  Another thing about the Blake Prize, which is a religious prize.  I won the Human Justice portion of it, and a guy called Khaled Sabsabi won the main prize, and the fact that two Muslims had taken up two prizes really shut people off.  It really annoyed people; they wrote to the newspapers.  Even politicians wrote about us.

N|A: Does that make you fearful?

AA: A little bit.  But we don’t the same kind of gun culture; I’m not too worried.

N|A: Fair enough.  That’s intense.  I was listening to something today that was about how shockingly sexist our line culture is, which has been a very much belatedly emerging conversation.  Basically just anytime a woman says anything, whether it’s political or not, the amount of abuse, and death threats, and graphic horrible statements are thrown at them.  We’re told that the Internet is an inherently liberating concept that spreads communication, openness and all these things but really it’s at least equally a tool for spreading vitriol and using fear to control people.  But aside from the fears in getting this kind of  mail, is it frustrating that people aren’t engaging with the actual technical side of your work.

AA:  No, not really.  It sort of justifies what I do.  When I first got some stuff I was really offended.  But now I see that it’s just fuel for the fire.  It proves its relevance to me and that I’m going in the right direction.

N|A:  So this photography-based work you’re doing now—do you feel that you’re moving away from painting?  Or is it just two sides of something?

AA: What I want to do is not be specifically just a painter or photographer—I just want to be an artist.  I want the idea to be privileged over the medium.  To use whatever medium. I want to figure out how a person can just walk into an idea as opposed to being presented it. And I want to move into room-sized installations, that’s my goal over the next couple of years, communicate my ideas by taking up the space.

(10) I Wanted To Paint Him As A Mountain, 2014. Oil on canvas, 180cm x 150cm

In Conversation | Meriem Bennani

N|A: Humor seems to be a big deal in your work and I wanted to start there, how humor works.  Because it seems there’s more complex and more trans-humanist weirdo things that are going on in elsewhere but they all circulate around these really playful ideas.  What is that intersection?

Meriem Bennani:   It's something that comes back in art that I like, I’m drawn to things that make me laugh. When I started making art I never thought that humor was something that would qualify my work. But little by little it became something that obviously I was interested in. I really don't like art that is elitist, although I think it can be conceptual and still be valid but, I have a real problem when it can't be understandable to everyone, I think that's arrogant. Humor is a great way of communicating with everybody. It's such a gateway to a piece. for me humor functions almost like aesthetics. I think the aesthetic aspect of a piece can draw you in or out. It's also a way of coping and a passport for dealing with uncomfortable ideas.

These are obvious things but when you put humor in things, you kind of put them in a parallel reality. So, it's the idea of cartoons, it's the different version of everything, where everything is synchronized. So you'll be talking about death but in cartoons, death doesn't really exist, it's just the idea of it. Because it's the idea of it, you just have the idea on it's own without the physical drama behind it. And then you're able to talk about it, talk about it with emotion, but without the drama. Just looking at the fact itself. But also, more simply, if I see people laugh, it just makes me so happy. It's a great way to engage with people. I also think in general, not from my work but people in general, if they make me laugh, for me they have a very specific point of view in life that their humor is a very specific representation of. It’s a sign of intelligence, so I think if you can make things funny, you can communicate the way you structure your thoughts.  And it’s like you make it accessible for other people. 

N|A:  Those are great points, but it’s often downplayed, comedians are very rarely thought of as being intellectuals for instance.  Even though they oftentimes poke at things that are in fact complex and we really don’t know how to talk about, particularly about race and gender politics.  As you say, difficult concepts are often made much more accessible in a more comprehensible way through humor.  Channels like the Daily Show end up being such cathartic outlets for incomprehensible violence and frustration. In a way it almost vents the real frustration from turning into real frustration.  Is there a danger in humor being too pacifying?

MB:  I don’t think humor is pacifying; I think it’s a way of pointing out the worst and confronting it so, I don’t think that humor is a danger as a pacifier.  It’s really important actually, and it’s only great… unless it’s offensive just to be offensive. Of course, I do have a problem with humor that abuses or makes fun of vulnerabilities, like race and gender problems.  Or humor that’s based on accents.  I think it’s a great challenge to make people laugh.  You have to find the humor where it hasn’t been before, so instead of making a joke of someone’s accent or the culture cliché of someone, make it specific to one situation, because then it becomes creative. It forces you to re-approach subjectivity to look for the universal and the absurd.

N|A: It’s not always easy, right? Even with the best intentions humor is always going to be subjective. Have you ever produced something and accidentally felt like you touched on something that was out of bounds or completely missed a potentially offensive subtext?

MB:   Yes actually, I had this moment where I realized that this video of a joke I made could be really offensive.  I took this music video that everybody knows, the very sexy Chris Isaak video on the beach, and I covered the woman on the video with a burka and you see how the video loses its point, like she’s being sexy but she’s covered, and there’s shots where she pulls on her bathing suit, but she does it on the black mass of the burka. For me it was a joke; as a woman from a Muslim country I feel a little bit allowed because I talk about these things from the inside.  

I made this video and it’s been part of this TV show that I’ve done for awhile, and people thought it was funny and also we talked about things that could be important.  But then I showed it at this thing at PS1 that friends of mine do regularly. Everybody submits short videos and we watch them together.  That was the first time I was actually with an audience watching it, and I realized that it could be horrible. I talked to a friend who was in the audience, she’s Iranian and thinks a lot about all these questions, I asked, if this was terribly offensive, I never even thought about it.  She said, “because I know you and I know you made it, it’s OK, but it would have been a very different story if it was someone else.” And that was the first time I tasted the danger of the things that I could have created.

N|A:  So you feel maybe in that case, because context is everything, that it didn’t have enough of that subjective context to translate, so that I could watch it without knowing who you are and get that, it didn’t have enough detail from within?

MB: First, I think it’s very important that art stands on its own and you shouldn’t have to know me to make my art acceptable.  That’s where I was worried, because you shouldn’t have to know who made it, it should just work.  You asked about the context; the context is really important, but it should give it’s own context.  Right now I’m working on this project that deals with the scarf and humor is important in this project.  So, I’ve been thinking about that, that you shouldn’t have to know me, to know that I’m from Morocco to find it acceptable.  This is where I found that humor became even more important, because I think of humor as a way of having tenderness towards things that I could actually be really critical of.  But humor is a softer way to approach these things.  A way of approaching them that is not judgmental.  It’s not humor that is critical or satirical, it’s humor that is enthusiastic and positive, to get closer and understand them and just show them as they are.  To give people the space to have their own opinion.

N|A: That tenderness becomes the crucial moment.  It’s the difference between laughing at something or with something.  Understanding what the points of reference are.  You have that video “Fardous Funjab”, a little excerpt of a film where two women are looking at clothes on an iPad.

MB: That’s a teaser for this project I’m speaking of, one of my main projects this year.  This is the one I was referencing when I said that humor was a way to approach things with tenderness and not judgment.  I’ve been wanting to talk about the scarf, the Muslim scarf for awhile now because when I grew up in Morocco you know, only a few women, older women or people who live in the countryside would wear the scarf. It’s a fashion, not necessarily religious. 

But with everything that’s been happening in the world, I would come back every year and notice that so many more women are wearing it now, and I was always having a violent reaction to it.  And I wanted to talk about it, but I realized that violence was just pure judgment and a lack of tolerance, and I couldn’t possibly say anything interesting about it, because I was only judging.  And that comes from frustration in wanting to see women show that they’re free to wear whatever they want.  I came from a good place of caring about feminism and women, but it was done the wrong way, and it seems like a teenage rebellious way of looking at things.  I think America helped me a lot in that, because it has a different vision of the Islamic world.  I was coming from the French way of thinking, where in public spaces you can’t wear any religious sign or anything. 

I realized that if I wanted to talk about it, I had to approach it differently and get rid of the judgment.  The only way for me to do that was through humor.  So I started playing around with PhotoShop, making hijabs and scarves that were next level. Not just to cover yourself, but that could also be useful.  So I had a birthday one, and a Halloween one, all those things.  I started watching the Kardashian show, realizing that it was the quintessential reality show, and looking at the language of reality TV and thinking it would be interesting in doing that at my house at Morocco. I thought maybe I could reate a fake reality TV show and create characters.  And then I realized these could be connected, what I was doing with the hijabs and then the reality TV show.  I thought I should meet someone who makes hijabs and maybe document their life.

N|A: Wait, that’s a real documentation, it’s not a fictional one?

MB: I leave it up to you to decide.  So this project, it uses the language of reality TV, documentaries, languages that I’ve developed in my web series that are humorous, and you never know what’s real and not magical, what’s funny, what’s gross, what’s beautiful. 

I documented the life of  Fardous Funjab, who is this woman who made a million dollars designing hijabs that are very creative and magical.  And her world is like a Disneyland of the hijab.  For me, I've been very judgmental of these things, but now instead of judging it, I’m just going to go right into it, into this woman’s world which is all about that.  She’s plays mini-golf, and her mini-golf course is hijab designed.  Everything is just overt and it’s only that.  And at no point will I talk about religion, because it’s not about being offensive, it’s about keeping it open for everybody to watch it.  There’s a lot of humor, a lot of colors.

N|A:  Wow, it seems that piece is doing everything that you said was missing in the Chris Isaak piece, because you have a much more direct tenderness toward the subject matter.  It’s also much more like your perspective as being familiar with the trashiness of American culture, that kind of subjectivity as well as this other context.  I think it’s much clearer in there.  I mean, some white American dude is not going to make a piece that is that perspective.

MB:  Thank you. I’ve been working on it; I’ve shot a bunch in the summer, and I think it’s going to be little episodes.  Talking to friends, it has a lot of potential.  It could have the website that sells the pieces that she makes, have an event where she’s there, there could be sculptures, I could show the videos in different ways. I could wear the pieces in the street and document that.  I could pitch it to American TV, show it here and in America, see the differences.

N|A:  That’s great, it’s walking a lot of different lines of thinking. And you are developing a real clothing line as well, right?  Tell me about what you’ve been developing.

MB: It's with my older sister. She's been working as a fashion senior account manager at Cosmopolitan magazine. She lived in Paris for ten years now she's back here in Morocco. So we decided to do a big project together starting our own company instead of working for other people. My grandmother has always made clothes. She's a fashion designer but more you know Moroccan traditional clothing.

We'd always play around with fabric and making things so, we decided it would be a great thing to start doing. It's all print based, prints I designed, and then we're meeting a lot of people for the tailoring, printing there's just so many details. We’re launching in March or April, and we’re shooting everything now­.

Jnoun Studio

N|A: A lot of your work deals with objects, materialism, specifically with objects that are loaded with ideas of production. The hijab piece and he clothing line obviously but also the language of production in reality television. It seems like it has a lot of your work deals with cultural detritus, music videos, pop culture.  Can you talk about that?

MB:  When I was growing up I always thought I wanted to be a music video director.  I’d watch MTV and be like, “I really want to do that”.  I did a couple of music videos that were really fun, because music is one of the top things that I think about, it’s a big part of my work.  All my collaborations are with my friend Flavien Berger who lives in Paris, he does all the music to my visuals.  His work is such a big part of mine.  I realized that after the last music video I did, I really wasn’t interested in music videos.  Some of them are interesting because there’s real content there. But there’s a big part of music videos that’s just about needing to have visuals that are cool right away and that flatter the music.  To me it’s just exhausting and not that exciting anymore.

Pop culture for me is about making things accessible and gateways to concepts that might be hard to approach but using things that everybody is familiar with.  I’m also really interested with videos in the process of building a sequence of images with music. And also doing post-production and knowing how to make things look different than what they are, and how to flatter.  I’m very interested in very mainstream videos—the whole way that things have been made—taking that back, and maybe pointing out where the director has failed, or behind the scenes at the technical aspects of making music videos look good.  

That’s you know something that I do with myself and music videos of other people.  Exploring the medium of video and what it offers in terms of transforming reality.  That’s something actually I’m interested in with all the projects; it’s kind of something that makes up the background in my work.  I think it’s interesting to make things where you don’t know what’s real and what’s unreal.  Because I feel like in that space, there’s room for people to project whatever they want.  I think art is boring if it’s very prescriptive and everything is obvious and there’s no room for people to add part of their experience and interpretation.  That’s where music videos bother me.  I like taking a Beyoncé video where everything is just dance, very visual, efficient, at that frantic Internet pace, and maybe stopping and changing one detail, and then the whole video becomes a joke.

N|A:  So in away, subverting the structure of these very attractive surfaces are made.

MB: [laughs] It’s just so overproduced.  So you add a layer to it. And you make it even more produced in that way. You add your one little layer to the long line of layers. But with that layer you revert everything, and break it apart.  Actually I have a few videos, a Beyoncé video, a Kanye video, where I manipulate things as a joke.  I decided to call it “AAAE” which is After-After-After-Effects, because I do a lot of after effects, playing with things and that’s just taking one step further.

N|A: That idea of layering, it seems like that’s there in all your work, where you can see different articulations of things.  Those photographs of the paper doll in the pool, and then drawings of the paper.  Transforming from one material to another, and also showing the different layers of its construction.

MB: It’s like a representation, and then a representation of that representation.  What happens when we go from something real to like the image of it, what remains and what is added?  The possibility of taking something away and adding something, it becomes something new.  That’s where as an artist you have agency, and that agency becomes part of the piece.  Then there’s the viewer’s agency.

N|A:  What you’re talking about in music videos, they’re denying that agency by flattening it to this level of over-professionalism that makes it impossible to relate. Beyoncé gets a lot of criticism for maintaining every aspect of her image.

MB: The HBO documentary, did you watch it?

N|A: Yeah.

MB: It was such a disappointment. I don’t know what I was expecting.  She’s sitting on a couch, the lighting is perfect, and she supposed to look like she’s not wearing any makeup, and she’s so natural.  You’re supposed to think you’re getting a real piece of intimacy with Beyoncé but it’s so controlled, it’s scary.

N|A: Because we’re getting better and better at creating that artificial layer.

MB: We all do it every day, like Instagram!

N|A: All your work is circulating all these ideas:  identity, agency, methods of production.  Are there other ideas?  The work that you did at Signal with Hayden Dunham, that seemed to have a more ecological bent to it.  Am I misreading it?  I guess a lot of your work circulates around these ideas of plastic, and paper, things that seem almost like waste products that are being transformed into something else, including music videos.

MB: It’s funny.  When you work with someone, someone that you know well, what will come out of it will overlap, what both you and that other person have been thinking about, and you create something new that you didn’t predict.  That’s what’s interesting.  I think my piece, the slides, also dealt with representation, like water and how it’s been represented, but Hayden’s piece was exploring the ideas of cyborg bodies.  Maybe together they may have had that thing that made you think of ecology.

N|A:  Possibly.  But even the idea of the water in the pools; there is no water present, which I guess is the representation.  But you’ve got the plastic pools and the paper.  They seem to question these ideas, to me.  They go to the heart of something, because water politics is always so important right now.

MB: Well, I’m glad you thought about that.  [laughs] But, I guess I was thinking more about artificial nature, the way we create swimming pools. You’ve got pool tiles catalogues, tiles after tiles. They really are there to recreate water as we see it in nature.  It’s this very absurd idea that we’re really going to recreate that, but in this artificial environment.  It also shows you the limits of our perception.  How do you represent water?  You can’t really see it.  You can only represent it in a recipient. Pool tiles are a really good representation of that.

N|A: There were these incredible aerial photographs in the New York Times dealing with the California drought that really contrasted that relation between the plastic and natural, but also these unnatural divisions.

MB: I could also talk about parks, when they have fake waterfalls, or wallpaper that looks like marble.

N|A:  Central Park is that entire idea.  We’ve flattened the natural topography of New York, then recreated something that’s much closer to a Victorian ideal or a Victorian idea of spectacle.

MB: Of course, of controlling nature. French gardens are even more radical.

N|A:  Do you think the Highline offers a completely different notion of that? The grass and all the plants there are all wild and indigenous, but a controlled wild.  And the structure there is this man-made structure that’s also run wild, winding through the city like a weed.

MB:  The historical reference of the Highline is not actually Manhattan island full of nature.  It’s New York, and that’s where it’s successful, because it’s not trying to be something else.  But I don’t want to say that Central Park is not successful! [laughs]  I’m thinking it’s one of the most beautiful parks.  But in that way it’s closer to what it’s supposed to be.

N|A:  So, one final thing, to double back. There’s another side of your humor that can be a bit gross at times. So, what is that idea in humor of the deviant or gross? And it seems maybe it touches on this idea of the controlled or the repressed side of nature.

MB: For me it’s just enduring.  That’s another thing about humor, it’s a way of talking about things that are hard to talk about.  In my web series there’s different characters, but they all build one character.  All the piled-up, put-aside, gross feelings about your body or other people’s bodies, and about life, and all the things you don’t want to look at, the drawings you don’t keep, the notes you don’t keep, the dreams you want to forget, leftover things that are really the most interesting.  Put together to build stories with different voices.  Because it’s everybody’s voice.  Humor is like the sip of water that helps you swallow things.

N|A: The anti-Beyoncé video.

MB: [laughs] Thank you for claiming that, yes, the anti-manicured reality.

In Conversation | Elisa Van Joolen

(1)  Rockwell by Parra x no label x moniquevanheist    

 All photography: Blommers / Schumm  

In the Projects 11”x17” & Invert Footwear, designer, artists and researcher Elisa Van Joolen de/re-constructs mass-produced clothing questioning notions of production and value consumers often take for granted. As brands overlap in forced dialogue, Van Joolen re-presents and defines the aesthetic and hierarchal identity of brands proposing new methods for approaching the fabrication of basics and luxury items alike.


N|A: How did the 11”x17” project begin?

Elisa Van Joolen: I initiated 11”x17” in New York in 2012. At the beginning of 2013—when I moved back to Amsterdam—I started contacting different labels located in the Netherlands by email requesting garment and footwear donations. I explained briefly what I intended to do, which was to reuse a selection of the donated pieces, combine them with different brands and make them into 11”x17” sweatshirts and another project called Invert Footwear. I explained that the intention of this project was to bring together different layers of production and value from the fashion industry.

N|A: In inverting the shoe and re-configuring the sweatshirt you bring out an unintended aesthetic which both compliments and subverts the original construction. What is your process for designing this work?

EVJ: The aesthetics of the project are not ‘designed’ as such; they are the outcome of the procedures that I use to re-configure the items. The sweaters I make are all made with the same procedure. Which is: I cut 11 by 17 inch, tabloid size, pieces out of a sweater and swap those pieces with other sweaters. I do not draw or sketch beforehand, the cuttings in the sweaters define the shape, fit and look of the final sweater. For me it doesn’t matter if it a Kenzo sweater of Gap sweater I ‘treat’ them the same.


(2) Russell Athletic x Rockwell by Parra x G-Star RAW    

N|A: This almost makes it like an Exquisite Corpse or some other ideas of subliminal dialogue. A lot of what this project highlights is a process of collaboration we don’t usually think about. How is the idea of exchange important to understanding 11”x17” and Invert Footwear?

EVJ: The ‘original donated garments’ represent on the one hand the outcome of the many conversations I had with representatives from different brands, and on the other hand the starting material (=fabric) for new assemblages: new sweaters and footwear.

I am very interested in collaboration. In the fashion industry it is very much ‘in’ to collaborate. There are many examples, like H&M collaborating with Comme des Garcons, Opening Ceremony with Levis. Yet it is always a one-on-one collaboration, in that it is always a designer/label that works with a multinational to make a series of new products. It’s never a plural collaboration. That’s what I was really looking for in this project: to combine different categories from the whole scope of fashion into one piece of clothing.

N|A: The basis of the work is so highly conceptual even as it is totally presenting a do you consider yourself a designer or something else somewhere between design/theory?

EVJ:  I always find being called a designer a bit problematic because I am not really looking for straight solutions. I pose questions. I see 11"x17" not solely as a critique of the fashion industry, but rather as a way to draw together diverse components. It is a proposition. So, I would describe myself as an editor, someone who specifically combines material and makes new compositions.

N|A: So, do you then see these pieces as functional or as art objects?

EVJ: I see the sweaters on the one hand as functional objects; I love it when people wear them. On the other hand, I see the sweaters as theoretical objects: they pose questions and allow for critical reflection. Perhaps you could call them ‘conversation pieces’.


(3) G-Star RAW by Marc Newson x Giordano x Rockwell by Parra x Fruit of the Loom x O’Neill   (4) Fruit of the Loom x G-Star RAW by Marc Newson x Rockwell by Parra x Giordano    


N|A: This idea of mix-matched, high/low, expectations is really prevalent in fashion since at least the early 1990’s, but what you’re suggesting is something a bit more deceptively radical.

EVJ: If you open a fashion magazine this is already advertised as ‘mix and match’. But actually this never happens within one piece of clothing. It is always the second-hand, less valuable, paired with a designer piece. Why is there not a mix within one item? That is what I am investigating with 11”x17”. I combine different categories from the entire scope of fashion into one piece of clothing. I want to create this kind of plural connection between brands. 

N|A: And this plural connection isn’t only about an aesthetic surface but also examines a hierarchal structure between ideas of luxury and functionality and methods of production? 

EVJ: Wearing outfits without hierarchic distinctions between for example second-hand and high-end fits into today’s zeitgeist. Just like the way we use the Internet; everything exists next to each other. You could see this as a new concept of productivity: to reuse, sample and mix existing cultural expressions. It is almost like pushing the ‘shuffle’ button while playing music; you get a new, unforeseen order of songs. In my case I shuffle these relations and make a new fluid order - perhaps rhizomatic is the right term.

(5/6) Brand: Nike; Style: Dunk High Pro SB; Art. No. SP13-MNASKT-732/325568 PC; Made: Taiwan; Year: Spring 2013; Colour: Pn Grn / Mtllc Gld; Donated by: Jesi Small


N|A: How is the hidden language of factory workers in constructing the original garment explored in the objects you make?

EVJ: With regards to Invert Footwear: I turn the sneakers literally inside out and make new soles out of one-dollar flip-flops, while using the soles of the sneakers to create new sandals. The inversion process allows the stitch lines that are normally hidden within the shoes to emerge. These are the marks of factory workers—working in Vietnam, in Taiwan—and their presence in the production process is brought to the fore. The new incarnation emphasizes the handwork that is part of these shoes as well de-emphasizing their mass-produced elements. It raises the questions: What makes one piece of clothing or footwear ‘hand-made’ as opposed to another? And why is one more valuable than the other?

The handwork of the workers is not only literally laid bare it is also the hierarchical relationship between the brand and the contract workers that is inverted. It is the authority of the brand that conventionally obscures the role of the workers.

N|A: By and large, corporate fashion—especially as it is connected to the “on-demand” digital economy of desire—would really rather we didn’t think about who exactly makes our clothes. The project both acknowledges the hierarchical and exploitative relations between different players in these networks and proposes that these seemingly fixed relations can be re-ordered.


(7/8) Brand: Nike; Style: Dunk Low Pro SB; Art. No. SU13-mnaskt-604/333139 PC; Made: Vietnam; Year: Summer 2013; Colour: Deep Royal Blue; Donated by: Sheilah van Sisseren


N|A: Can you speak more about the relationship of value in your work both as inverted/re-made art-objects and as consumer products?

EVJ:  If you really think about it a ‘basic’ piece of clothing, any piece is already a collaboration in itself. It is designed by one person and then the sketch is sent, for example, to Vietnam, where one part is produced and then shipped to China where the buttons are put on, then it is shipped back to Europe and put in a store, so there is already a lot of collaboration within any piece of clothing.

With this project I intend to ‘open up’ ideas connected to value systems of the fashion industry. Why is a G-Star sweater worth more than an H&M sweater? Often garments from different brands are made in the same factory… What does that say about the value of a garment?

Value is constantly shifting, it is very much dependent on context. Everyone has a different idea of what makes something valuable. It is impossible to fix it, it is not static.
Therefore, for example, bartering the sweaters would be an interesting option to explore. So that the sweaters become some kind of fluid currency themselves…

N|A: Is this an antagonistic relationship you’re engaged in with the fashion industry?

EVJ: Not at all. I engage PR employees/designers from different brands in conversation and we talk about that. I like to emphasize that I like to work with, rather than against these brands. We have seen a lot of anti-fashion design or art in the past years, but it doesn’t lead us anywhere… I believe that a way forward is to find new ways to work together.


(9)  Tultex x moniquevanheist x G-Star RAW x Union Made

 (10) moniquevanheist x Union Made x Tultex x G-Star RAW       


N|A: Leftover, “slightly imperfect” and prototypes are often “recycled” in the developing world where a completely different hidden language of brands emerges, is this something you consider?

EVJ: It is fascinating to see what happens to our discarded clothing; the clothing we give away to charity. One would think that there is no money involved – it just helps people. Actually: the contrary is true. The BBC documentary: The Secret Life of Your Clothes, by Ade Adepitan, nicely portrays this. Ade literally follows clothing donated to charity in the UK, he tracks down the clothing to Ghana, and shows that our leftovers are a huge business! That intrigues me, and yes perhaps that could be something to explore further in the future.

N|A: In what way is your work focused on ideas of recycling and waste? 

EVJ: I always brings to afore that the ‘products’ I make are a result of conversations I had with different representatives from diverse fashion companies. I specifically name the parts of which an 11”x17” Sweater consist out of (for instance a navy Tultex sweatshirt (1995) combined with a navy sweatshirt from moniquevanheist (AW 2012 / 2013). The lining of the sweater consists of strips of a red G-Star t-shirt (2013) and a white Union Made t-shirt (date unknown). I feel we need to be specific and precise, especially in a time where everything is available to us. Ideas of recycling and waste are for me not only linked to materials. Rather in finding new ways on how to work together, how to collaborate.


(11)  G-Star RAW x no label x moniquevanheist    

Alex Taylor | Jason Friedman: Heap Cuts


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“Then she generated the light, and the sight of her room, flooded with radiance and studded with electric buttons, revived her. There were buttons and switches everywhere - buttons to call for food for music, for clothing… There was the button that produced literature. and there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.” – E.M. Forster, “The Machine Stops”. (1909)
“This is our destiny: subject to opinion polls, information, publicity, statistics; constantly confronted with the anticipated statistical verification of our behavior, and absorbed by this permanent refraction or our least movements, we are no longer confronted with our own will… Each individual is forced… into the undivided coherency of statistics.” - Jean Baudrillard
“Knowledge is now property of the network.” – David Weinberger, The Berkman Center, Harvard


Net artist Alex Taylor and musician/artist Jason Friedman (The Hundred In The Hands) collaborate on Heap Cuts: a modular composition without beginning or end. Heap Cuts presents a critique of digital absorption and waste from from a utopian plane of consumption. Within this environment, multiple  :48 second Soundcloud™ and Youtube™ stems descend hypnotically embellished with the idealistic slogans and language of Silicon Valley luminaries, the anodyne color-palate and ubiquitous cute pictograms of tech advertising. Both unquantifiable and locked to the homogenized constraints of the perpetual present and conspicuous computation of the corporate internet, Heap Cuts is an attempt to extend the digital horizon in order to examine the promise of, and consolidated power-structures for, de-materialized music creation and consumption.

In Conversation: Frohawk Two Feathers

Frohawk Two Feathers is the nom de plume for Los Angeles, by way of Chicago, artist Umar Rashid.  For more then a decade, Frohawk has been building a sprawling fictionalized vision of European colonization, systems of power, infrastructures of military and mercantile oppression infused with profane madness and violence. His paintings detail an epic story unfolding over centuries and across continents that questions notions of truth and inevitability to create a humorous and troubling reflection of the roots of our, very real, modern world.


N|A:  I thought we might start with just the actual aesthetic inspirations.  What were some of those?

Frohawk Two Feathers:  Basically it’s a whole lot of stuff.  When I was a kid, I grew up on Greek and Roman and Norse mythology.  To a lesser degree, Egyptian mythology.  What actually influenced the dialogue was feeling that I really didn’t have a place, as a black American, not feeling connected to Africa, not necessarily connected to the U.S.  But it didn’t stop my love for these stories; they’re timeless and transcend race, class; they’re just about people doing awesome shit.  I started off mostly as a writer.  Then after I moved to Los Angeles in 2000 I decided to start working on the Frenglish empire.  By that time all that mythological stuff had morphed into more of a historical dialogue.  It was like I was searching for myself.  When I didn’t find it, I decided to create it.

N|A:  That sense of questioning is really evident in your work. Can you expand a little on that, what artists you were looking at, before you left Chicago. I have read comparisons  to your work and Henry Darger, mostly owing to the water-color and the idea of an extensive narrative, but I gather that was not really an influence for you?

FTF:  No not really.  I’m familiar with Darger’s work and his narrative, but at the time I was starting to create this work,  I assumed I was creating out of a vacuum. Because I come from a photographic background, image-wise more of my direct influence would be James Van Der Zee the Harlem Renaissance photographer who photographed this black royalty.  Random illustrations, Géricault,  a lot of the French Revolutionary painters, some of the Renaissance romantic era painters, like Delacroix, Géricault, some of those people.  I couldn’t match their level of style, so you take these really amazing things like “Napoleon Crossing the Alps” and then you break that down with a Van Der Zee portrait, and then you clash it together with my skill level.  That’s what it is.  But I get Darger a lot. Sometimes it’s like, ’is it just because Darger’s from Chicago and I’m from Chicago?’  But I don’t get upset when I hear my work compared to his, because I respect him.  I think he was very good at what he did.  Also there’s a lesser known artist who really, a lot of the expats who went to Japan around the Meiji restoration period, the late 19th Century, there’s one painter in particular, Paul Jacoulet who did woodblocks, but he did them from a European perspective, watercolor portraits of people.  This is before Darger, I think he started during World War II, he was gay.  I don’t know if he died there.  I had a chance when I first went to Los Angeles before I started this particular narrative that we’re talking about now, I had a chance to look over some of his works at this framing gallery I worked at. So—direct inspiration:  Van Der Zee, Jacoulet, French Romantic painters, Napoleonic era.  And a little bit from the Victorian era.  Even though my story doesn’t venture into the Victorian era per se, I just took information from there anyway.  Visual and language.

N|A: What was the transition from photography to painting like for you?

FTF:  That was a real simple transition.  I moved to L.A. and I thought, “Yeah, I’m not going to get a job as a photographer so yeah....”  Not what I wanted to do.  I went to school at Southern Illinois University, and they basically taught us how to take really nice environmental portraits of the seal of a Fortune 500 company or they taught us how to make corn flakes look appealing.  But they didn’t teach us how to be artists until the last couple of years.  Then everything went digital.  I mean, I was a fucking Jedi of the old order.  When digital came down to photgraphy, I didn’t care to know anything about it.  So I became a painter. 

N|A:  Let’s get into the whole narrative of the Frenglish empire.  It’s so dense, it’s hard to even know where to begin pulling on the threads.

FTF:  I happened to start the narrative in the mid 17th Century just because I didn’t actually want to change history.  A common misconception about my work is a lot of people think I’m attempting to change history.  But I leave a lot of it intact because I have to have some backbone in it.  It has to have a structure for me to base my fictionalization upon.  So I leave the structure up until after the English Civil War.  When you look at things historically, and I know it’s about to get really boring right now, but historically, in my opinion, after the Elizabethan Age, England just kind of went to shit.  It really went down.  ‘ Yeah, we just defeated the Armada, we’re good, Sir Francis Drake, fuck shit up, get money, we run the world, Rule Britannia and all that.’  At the same time France is trying to work things out on the Continent.  I know that historically the French and English, despite having common Norman ancestry, were always antagonistic with each other.  So I use them, a combined French-British power, as my superpower.  Once I came up with superpowers, I thought, England is in a bit of a flux, France is trying to work their muscle on the Continent.  At the same time you have this horrible institution of slavery.  Every body is getting all these commodities, like teak and sugar and spices, salt--motherfuckers didn’t even have salt.  No Morton’s, no Lawry’s, no seasoned salt, no Mrs. Dash, nothing.  These simple things that we take for granted everyday.  So, I have it there was this French merchant named Bertrand who grew up in Haiti, so he decided, he had this slave force. Now I’m not trying to create this benevolent white man who comes through and saves everybody.  He had this labor force that was good at sugar harvesting and they were good with machetes.  So he decides to start this army military force called the Sugar Cane Army, much in the same way as Switzerland, how the whole state of Switzerland is based on their mercenaries, their ability to fight.  Which most people don’t know.  They think it’s all Swatches and international banking, but originally the Swiss were mercenaries.

N|A:  Yeah, they were brutal.  

FTF:  They had these Swiss pikemen that were able to stop knights, that’s why the Vatican uses the Swiss Guard. They exported this, rented it out. So, Bertrand exports the trade of his slaves.  Eventually they become free and become his fighting force.  They help Louis Quatorze—my favorite monarch of the last 1000 years—just because of the balls on that guy.  Louis XIV, called himself the Sun King, built Versailles to distract everybody, it’s awesome.  You couldn’t make that shit up.  So anyway, Bertrand goes to help Louis XIV, Louis betrays him, Louis dies.  Actually, I’ve never done the beginning of the story.  I started it in the middle.  I started at the end actually.  Now I’m starting in the middle, going to the end, then I’m going back to redo it.  The old shit is like chain mail and horses and a lot of curtseys and bowing and shit.  I ain’t got time for that.  It’s really hard to draw armor, it’s a lot of white, a lot shadow.  I’m not Caravaggio, man.  I’m still learning as I go along.  So they take the force to Europe, fight, come back and realize they could do the same thing for themselves, they could liberate themselves. I had this fighting force become the backdrop for the Haitian revolution, which almost happened in a similar way.  The French were not necessarily lax, but in contrast to the puritanical or English way of doing things, the French put guns in the hands of people who were meant to serve them.  And that was their eventual downfall.  The Haitian Revolution was something I did my own version of.  Right now I’m in the northeast, doing a narrative about that and the Native Americans there.  Doing an exploded diagram of the conflict between the Iroquois and the Huron and their relationship with the Dutch, the English or the Frenglish, in my case.  I think I answered your question with a lot of other questions.

N|A:  That’s what I’m saying, it’s so dense it’s hard to figure out.  Where you are now in the Northeast, America doesn’t exist as a country in your narrative but do Europeans arrive in the Americas at the same time?

FTF:  Yeah, they’re already here.

N|A: Right, you’re starting in the 1600’s.

FTF:  There’s your puritans, the Dutch are here, the Swedes are here, like Delaware, Jersey, New Sweden, New Netherlands, New England, New France.  Because there’s no French and Indian War again.  No Queen Anne’s War.  That conflict doesn’t divide everybody.  And there is no religious persecution; even though there are some puritan elements that are here, it’s mostly in the form of the Dutch Reformed Church instead of the English puritans.  Because Frengland, the way that I made it was a very liberal society based on freedom of religion.  And most of the religion that they really adhered to was this kind of invented Egypto-Christian-Muslim-Jewish religion.  Basically, I’m not only writing this story, but I’m writing a history that I would have liked to have seen.  Just for shits and giggles.

N|A:  You said you’re not rewriting history.  You also talk about not seeing yourself in the history and the connection of points when you were younger.  What is this intersection, what is the theme?  Are you just playing with history, or is there a larger question of what is history itself?  The grand narratives and storytelling that is history?

FTF:  The overarching story that I want to tell is, I actually wrote the beginning, the middle and the end to this story.  So let’s start there.  The beginning starts off where I set it, the middle part will be my version of the Napoleonic revolutions, and then the end would be the abolition of slavery in 1880.  So I ended on the exact date I know this story ends in 1880.  I  could go further; maybe my kids might write it for me later on in the future, like Frank Herbert’s kids continued the Dune books.  But it’s hard to say; when I created it again, I created this story so I could search for my own identify, which is also very complex and because there’s a lot that I don’t know about myself.  There’s a lot that without a lot of money and free time that I probably won’t know, because the slave records weren’t well kept in this country, so like, even if I could, my only connection as a black American is , ‘go back to Africa’, I mean, where?  Where should I go in Africa?  They do these genealogy tests; ‘you’re 15%, it’s 98% sure you came from the Mende people.’  Yeah, they’re from Sierra Leone and a couple of other places, but how do you know who you’re related to?  So there was just this feeling, this gap, and there was this hole in my heart that I needed to fill.  But, at the same time I also thought that I could talk about other things, like how at the end of the day most of the problems that we face, they’ve always existed.  Class warfare, racism, prejudice—we’ve dealt with these things as part of the human condition.  I’m not saying we have to accept it, but you have to understand it and move forward, understand how it all went down.  So basically I’m giving people a kind of condensed, very hyper-violent but cool and at times funny way of looking at history.  So I don’t know if I have an overreaching story arc.  It goes in and out.  It goes from day to day.  By the end of this, I want the whole world to fall into a long march against government.

N|A:  You’re dealing with things like lost history, unknowable history.  But you’re also dealing with completely invented history.  Which in itself, is what historiography is.  But there is just something really simple about the way you’re presenting it, that somehow those things come up to the surface.

FTF:  I’m not trying to Clausewitzian on people, break it down, have my own philosophy around it.  The philosophers who talked about it, you know, they were good enough.  [laughs] But, I reference Hegel a lot in the work.  Even Machiavelli with the duplicity of most of the characters I write about.  And everything comes out because no matter what we call it, at the end of the day it’s still just fucking life.  Life that we’re dealing with, that people before us dealt with.  I’m just a storyteller.  

Hopefully I’ll get a chance to finish it.  But it’s long;  I’ve been working on this North American narrative for 2 years.  I have a lot of other narratives planned but it’s just so hard when it’s a global narrative, it’s hard to talk to people.  And also, another mission statement of mine, and this is important, is that I want to give everybody a voice.  It started out with me searching for my own identity as a black American male in the world.  Then I thought, ‘Well, there’s a whole lot more highly marginalized history that you never hear about.’  You never hear about that one dude from Madagascar who fought a whole French division in the jungle.  Now with the prevalence of the internet and the sharing of information, you have access to these narratives.  They exist, but they’ve just been suppressed because history is always written by the victors.  So if you lose, your story is lost.  Maybe passed down orally, written down in some rotting manuscript in a chest locked away in the British Museum, whatever.  It’s just gone.

The Spanish Main 1794 (3BB) Blanca, the motherfucking Queen of Spain Jacinta, Queen of the Tairona (Deceased) Carlota, Queen of Santo Domingo (Deceased)2012. Acrylic, Ink, Tea, and Coffee on Paper. 44.75" x 60.5"

N|A:  What’s interesting is that you’re presenting variations on what could have happened.  Even when we discuss atrocities like what happened in the Americas with Native Americans and the ideology of Manifest Destiny, as a country we really still can’t deal with that topic.  We have a holiday, every year, but we still can’t deal with it.  Most people would admit to the atrocity or the genocide here, but there’s still a sense that it had to happen that way.  We’re not prepared to actually say it could have been something else.  There is still a deep belief that Manifest Destiny had to manifest itself in exactly that way.  Which you still see in discussions about technology now.  There’s that similar conversation about a certain ideology of progress being inevitable, you have to embrace this.

FTF:  The way I understand the inevitability of certain things like technology and the inevitability of a quote, un-qoute ‘advanced’ race of people coming in and saying ‘Hey, you’re uncivilized.’  But, life is cyclical.  No matter how civilized you think you are, eventually you will revert to a state of un-civilization.  It’s not a conspiracy theory, but I have this interesting idea about the creation of the universe.  People talk about these ancient cultures like Atlantis and Lemuria, and I think we’ve been on this kind of loop, never-ending.  We’ll reach the apex of our technology, our military power, whatever, and then it’ll just collapse.  And then those people will keep going and will come back and formulate some new society and the same thing happens, because we never, ever, ever, ever reference the past as much as we should.  Like that quote, ‘If you don’t know history, you’re doomed to repeat it.’  I feel like this has been going on for a very, very long time. And also, you must forgive me, I watch a lot of science fiction films, and that’s another part of the story that you’ll start to see more and more.  The science fiction part of this history, because now I’m having so much fun with it, but I’m tired of killing off my friends.  Because I only use my friends, and I say, ‘Dude, I’m sorry I stabbed you twice, had you poisoned…you got the real Rasputin treatment.’

N|A: How does technology itself work its way into the narrative?

FTF:  Through mainly the manufacture of goods, but most importantly through the military.  I was actually studying what happened during the French and Indian War, why the French were unable to defeat the British.  First, there just weren’t that many French people but also, simply, a lot of it was because the cannons weren’t powerful enough.  But following this, in the late 1760’s there was a guy named Gribeauval who came along and invented this system to make this cannon, which was lighter and really mobile, and that it’s a big part of what happens with the French becoming such an imposing military force.  Napoleon was an artillery officer, his claim to fame not only being a great tactician was to use artillery very effectively and this Gribeauval gun was crucial.  Within this story, my version of the narrative of our history, most of the advancements come in the way of military rifles, pistols, swords, and kinds of cooking.  I invented a couple of products, they’ll get more shine as the narrative goes along, but I invented the first canning process to feed soldiers on the march, well, I shouldn’t say invented, I introduced this process to my narrative.  I also introduced a way of making sparkling rum.  I get a lot of influence from my hip-hop and stuff.  So there’s that element of my personal history that I like to bring into it, so there is this hip-hop element.  Not only to do with liquor, but also the swagger, the characters, the bandanas, the overall visual aesthetic.  There’s that.  Also different hair-care techniques that I’ve invented or introduced.  I think I will invent the Jheri-Curl in the next chapter.

N|A: There does seem to be a line that runs through gang culture, hip-hop, the cut-sleeves era of Bronx style and I’m wondering how that connects to the Zulu nation and also the tribal nations.  

FTF:  Where I grew up in Chicago, maybe it’s the curse of Al Capone, but Chicago’s always going to be known as The Gangster City.  So where I lived and where I grew up, there were always gangsters and the gangsters were people you admired.  I would never join a gang because my because of my parents. My dad’s a playwright and my mother’s was an educator and she was also in theatre as well.  So I grew up in this theatrical world.   Kind of a no-brainer where I ended up.  I grew up in this household that was very cultured, and not even middle class.  We were broke.  Welfare broke.  But that didn’t stop my parents from taking us to the museums and going to see things.  My dad always made sure that was important, my mother as well.  They were both really good at doing that.  But still, when you’re a kid, you don’t give a shit about the good intentions of your parents for your future.   You want to be like that guy with the really cool hair and the car.  
So, despite all the greatness, all the great things my parents did, I was always intrigued by this gangster culture and I glamorized it over and over in my head.  That was my royalty that I looked up to.  It’s Reaganomics, the ‘80s, I was born in ’76, and so, I grew up in the worst part of the crack epidemic.  So all these people had everything that I wanted at the time, with the exception of the high death rate, which I did not want.  I stayed in the house, but I was always aware of who was doing what, and what was happening.  So they became the archetype for a lot of my more successful yet tragic heroes in my narrative.  Despite all their wealth,  they might go good for a couple of years, then one day I’ll see them getting carted off to jail, or somebody putting a sheet over somebody or whatever.  And some of the guys I’d totally despise, some of them were total assholes.  But the real businessmen, the movers and shakers, they were always gentlemen, always chivalrous, as much as you could be in that particular business.  And it’s no wonder they wielded power, maybe on the lower end of the spectrum, but where they were, they were kings. All of this really influenced a lot of the characters that I portray in my story.

N|A: Because your work deals explicitly with the historicity of representation, how does this romantic notion intersect with fraught concepts like that of the ‘Noble Savage’?

FTF:  Before I got into photography, I was into film and the concept of the Noble Savage permeates a lot of the films that we watch, even today.  Except now the Noble Savage has been replaced by the Magical Negro.  Like Will Smith in “The Legend of Bagger Vance,”  Michael Clarke Duncan in “The Green Mile.”  I’m blanking on a lot of the classic examples, but of course, to a white Hollywood structure, “King Kong” does represent the Noble Savage.  I hate to reference simians when speaking about black people because it’s just fucked up in a lot of ways you already know.  Maybe the reason why I can’t think of these films right now is because there are just so many examples. There are a lot of Magical Negro characters in this story, but I haven’t expounded on them yet.  But, definitely it’s there, a couple of my characters, especially Pompeii in this particular narrative, who is the guard/slave.  While all the other black people around him are free and free to choose their own destiny, he’s still enslaved and tied to the Bonnie Prince Johnnie, and he has to follow him around.  He has to leave his woman, has to, you know, go make all these contacts.  He speaks Iroquois, he speaks Algonquin, all these languages, and he’s a brilliant man but relegated to this position of servitude.  In pretty much every tale that I do write, there’s always a character like him.  Before that it was Cicero.  A lot of this comes from European history, in that a lot of Europeans tended to name their slaves after famous Roman statesmen.  ‘This is my slave Spartacus, he is the strongest man, and he can lift 80 bales of wheat.’ ‘This is Cicero he works in the house.’ But, this actually happened, this is real history.  I take it and try to make light of it, because I want people, not to be reactionary, to just take it as a story but then eventually—because it assaults you from so many different levels it starts to seep in and get into the psyche.  Not that I want to mind-control people, because I would be ill suited to that particular task.

N|A:  Do you think that doing it in your own way makes it easier to discuss some of these more complex ideas?

FTF:  Exactly, because the way it is presented to us, well I would have to ask a Caucasian about how they feel about history but, the way it was presented to me was, ‘Oh yeah, we’re real sorry about slavery but… we got past it, and now we’re in post-racial-shoot-an-unarmed-teen-in-the-back-choke-a-man-in-the-street-America.’  The signals are all mixed up. 

N|A: Right, and even in this fictitious rendering, which utilizes humor and, as you’re saying, certain contemporary reference points which come from pop culture and music etc. this process alone, being playful, being fun and evocative in this way draws attention to the ways narratives always get woven into ‘orthodox history’.

FTF: And at the same time, you can’t take the Haitian revolution and mire it with all this shit, because it was really hard.  The Haitian Revolution, I don’t think people realize how difficult that battle was.  So I also don’t seek to lessen peoples’ pain and conflicts, because I’m taking from actual history, even though it’s my own take.  I do not seek to lessen anybody else’s conflict. At the end of the day, that was somebody’s ancestor who probably died unjustly. When you’re writing, as a responsible human being, I think it’s necessary to consider what I’m creating in the global context.  I don’t want to hurt anybody, but people have to get hurt sometimes.  What I want to build is cohesion, not drive people away.  

N|A:  Does your version of the history change religion as it develops in the Americas?  I imagine that would be a fun thing to play with.

FTF:  Oh, yes, it does.   Well, religiously, I’ve probably been every religion under the sun, I switch religions like I change my underwear.  Every day I find something new and I think, ‘this is such an amazing faith… oh wait, no it’s not.’ ‘This is great, this is… but yeah… I’m not really down for this end part.  So what I’ve ended up doing is, everything is syncretic. So, it’s voodoo mixed with… which voodoo is actually as it exists in North America, it’s just  basically African religions mixed with Catholicism.

The Siege of Santo Domingo-1974 or, through Papa Legba the way has been opened or, The bigger army always wins eventually. 2012. Acrylic, and Graphite, on Deer Hide. 49" x 54" 

N|A:  That’s what interested me about it, the way that religion develops in America is almost exactly what you’re doing:  a reorganizing of history, this bit taken from there, conflated, and takes on almost science fiction bend.

FTF:  Yes, it’s true, this is science fiction.  We’re living in a crazy world.  But I think it was necessary to put religion in because I wanted to talk about it. Around the same time I’m working in now there was that Egyptian revivalist movement, when Napoleon invaded Egypt and they found the Rosetta Stone… well that’s another thing, all these books, the way we look at history, even the titles are all completely misleading.  Like ‘Discoverers of the New World.’  Shit, it was always there.  There people here with better civilizations than yours, but you were just tired of living in shit over in Europe and decided to come over and try to get to Asia to try and spice up the meats.  There’s an interesting book called “Seeds of Change” which I use, I think a college textbook, I use a lot as a reference.  Like just the flavor of food.  Why sugar was important, why salt was important, cumin, turmeric and all of this stuff is important.  It’s amazing.  Just so people could have a monopoly on things to have their food taste better. That is the dumbest shit in the world.  Here’s a quote that was attributed to Napoleon:  ‘You would think that the whole fate of Europe turned on a barrel of sugar.’  Because at first it was sugar.  That’s how Bertrand enticed the British to join his cause after they got rid of the Stuart monarchy.  They basically offered this lucrative deal in sugar.  The proletariat, the people were won over.

In Conversation: Alex Taylor

Alex Taylor's web based, 3D and real-time multi-media art both comments on and builds off of the infrastructures of the corporate-internet to create hilariously poignant critiques of virtual detritus and the behavioral mechanisms built into network hierarchies.


N|A: We often think of the Internet as not having materialism but your work focuses attention on the detritus and remnants of digital culture. Often, these are images of consumable goods both virtual and physical and refracted layers of Internet self-reflection, (e.g. cell-phone cases with emojis and other memes, All Cell Phones Go To Heaven etc.). Can you speak a little about the types of images you collect/produce and why?

Alex Taylor: Feel we are in the last days of there being any meaningful distinction between digital and 'IRL' culture -- though the changes the internet has made to the world can't be understated, to 'use the internet' on a human level is generally something that's still done consciously through  a portal device (smartphone, desktop, tablet), and as a result there's still a chasm between the online/offline worlds (and a disconnection between the self and digital self) -- it still feels mildly sensational on some level to see abject references to internet-based phenomenon in the 'real world', with social and monetary profit to be had by performing web-to-IRL excisions (such as in the case of Ellen Degeneres bringing Youtube stars onto her show as guests, or meme t-shirts & bumper stickers being sold at music festivals). Wearable technology and the 'internet of things' seem set to close this gap, but until then it's the interplay between the two sides that I find interesting & worth exploring – they're touching, but not quite united.

N|A: Information networks are frequently presented as inherently humanistic, enlightened and analogous to freedom. Eric Schmidt’s often quoted line that, “everyday we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization to 2003,” and Kevin Kelly’s devotional worship of the “Technium” are two examples of this. What do you make of intersection between the infinite accumulation of informational garbage and this utopian vision? If digital networks are better at generating nonsense than organizing inquiries are they enlightened?

AT: I think there's something vaguely utopian about the idea of the internet as a 'collective conciousness' composed of our (trivial and non-trivial) thoughts, movements and desires – but the fact most of this information is fragmented and sat on by private companies eager to algorithmically refine it into 'actionable' data is disconcerting. If a company like Target can predict whether a visitor is in the early stages of pregnancy by analysing seemingly unrelated shopping patterns ( it's hard to know what we will be able to do in 10 years with the seemingly trivial data being collected today – like real garbage, informational waste has the potential to be sorted and processed into something more valuable than the sum of its seemingly worthless parts.

N|A: Given that Internet is a by-product of the military industrial complex, maintained and organized by an alliance of corporations and governments, is there a meaningful distinction between the Internet and the Corporate Internet?

AT: I don't think there is a meaningful distinction – the internet was built with the principles of a public service (open, neutral, decentralized), but its backbone is still largely comprised of privately owned infrastructure. Even if you were to set up a non-profit ISP to access the web it you would still be required by law in the US to build in surveillance capabilities to comply with CALEA. However I believe it's possible to act within it in its confines in a way that's legitimately undermines corporate and/or government interests, be that on a personal scale (browsing through an anonymous VPN, using ad-block), acts of mass electronic civil disobedience (e.g. DDoSing), or to use a recent example, ISIS recruitment via social media. Even Tor, a tool that subverts the interests of the corporate internet at their core by allowing the user to browse with near anonymity, was developed and released by the military.

N|A: Does the Internet have an ethics or is it intrinsically amoral?

AT: It was built to be neutral and amoral, but I'm reminded of this piece on 'inadvertent algorithmic cruelty' -- an amoral piece of code acting in an immoral way due to its failure to factor in and prevent certain outcomes. The principle of 'universality' that the internet was built on (a focus on neutrality and decentralization) has arguably led to the direct transfer of real world power hierarchies – in decentralized networks power will inevitably accumulate on specific nodes – so we have the case of a seemingly neutral technology in one way leading to what seems to be unavoidable negative outcome.

N|A: Contentbot brilliantly examines the attention economy not only taking it to its absurd conclusion but also exposing the futility of that economy. Can you speak a little more about the attention economy?

AT: IRC it was this article that finally pushed me to make Contentbot –  It's a terrifying read because it seems so inevitable. Behind Web 2.0s emphasis on the social was the platformization of everything – the realisation that if you can leverage yourself into a position where you own the battlefields that people and brands fight for attention on, an endless stream of unpaid, user-generated content awaits. It's a landscape where the new and the easily digestible have a concrete advantage –  the fight for attention itself leading to either extreme measures to get noticed (eg gamergate trolls sending death threats, Dennys bizarre Tumblr) or (sub/)conscious self-curation to become more palatable/likeable/shareable.

N|A: Is Contentbot an ideal citizen of the attention economy or does it subvert its potential?

AT: Contentbot commits the mortal  sin of being unpredictable; the ideal citizen has interests and biases which can then be quantified, profiled and catered to.

Profile: D/P/I

In Present Shock, Douglas Rushkoff’s book-length examination of compressed attention in the age of the perpetual present, Rushkoff lays out two understandings of time understood by the ancient Greeks: chronos and kairos. “Chronos,” writes Rushkoff, “is the type of time registered by the clock… this is time of the clock, meaning belonging to the clock…” [112]. By contrast, kairos belongs to an elusive, metaphysical, sense of opportune and qualitative introspection.

“Kairos is perfect time relative to what is going on, where chornos is the numerical description of what happens to be on the clock right then. Chronos can be represented by a number, kairos must be experienced and interpreted by a human.” 1

More often than not, digital music consumption resembles chronos; it is condensed to the cult of the numerical order; it is binary and static. The cloud implies fluid and volatile eruptions but in fact crystallizes in flat metrics: play-counts, likes; the pixilated stream prioritizes the present without regard to context. As methods of efficient consumption and attention seize the inter-textuality of modulation and multiplicity, flexible distribution becomes the anodyne, passive ingestion of apportioned content: music becomes pure metronomic entertainment: a decorative art which anesthetizes the listener in order to produce the ideal consumer.

The stream—the interface built upon rapidly expanding networks of surveillance to stabilize mood and taste—organizes attention to fixate on this crystallization of time; the perpetual present, the node of action, vital to the task of organizing capital toward data miners. Anesthetized consumption is capitulation to the corporatization of the individual and co-option of the spiritual into this hidden exchange of data. In the terrain of the digital mediator, the scope of body is reduced, affixed to its digital extension and mined for profit.

The view is myopic, there is no before or after, the new arrives and is immediately replaced, a trajectory accelerated until even the permanent present appears a relic, what Paul Virillo terms the picnolpetic from the Greek word for frequent: non-time in which, “the senses function but are necessarily closed to external impressions. The return being just as sudden as the departure.” 2 Or as the artist Fatima Al Qadiri puts it, “there’s no such thing as the most recent update. It immediately becomes obsolete.” 3

“With digital technology, the environment created is one of choice. We hop from choice to choice with no present at all. Our availability to experience flow or to seize the propitious moment is minimized as our choices per second are multiplied by a dance partner who doesn’t see or feel us.” 4

Whether subliminally or overtly, the music of Alex Gray confronts these expectations producing a necessary mutation that confirms and refutes the tyranny of the now. An artist of constant collaboration and prolific output—he works with Sun Araw, HEAT WAVE Dreamcolour, DEEP MAGIC among others—Gray develops perhaps his most extreme refusal to surrender to the anodyne when recording under D/P/I.

“There are so many concepts that are ready to be mined,” says Gray as he sits in his Los Angeles home on a slow-lit evening to talk about his latest D/P/I release “Ad Hocc”. “Computer music or something like that, something very stark and quote unquote 'cold' can be a lively emotional piece if represented in the right context and the right way. Putting people in this place where they get experiential value out of it instead of just expecting the recording to be enough.” He reaches periodically to drink heavily from a gallon plastic jug of water, the ideas flicking from him enthusiastically. “Whether they are spur of the moment ideas or multi-dimensional ideas and dealing with different time frames and the presentation of sound or a record. I'm just not interested right now in doing anything, or even being immersed in anything that doesn't have some catalyst or guiding link to the piece that makes it meaningful.”

The sense of moment, the attempt to foster shared and communal experience, to push the capacity for infinite absorption made possible in digital space back into the physical where time, introspection and awareness regain their primacy, these are the ideas that resonate most in Gray’s music. “I want to be creating things,” he says, “experiments, half-experiments in all their high and lows points and also be creating artwork that people can input and feel a certain way about.”

In D/P/I’s renderings, this moment of binary capitulation is flipped and inverted, samples ingested into a propulsive articulation of shocked rhythms and fractured textures place the listener on uneasy footing generating a lack of comfort that necessitates conscious engagement. The impression of the digital terrain is made visible, the logic of modular attention a fluid ingestion of multiple trajectories and assumptions. It is music that demands participation and contextualization precisely because it makes both positions so untenable.

In keeping with the willfully misspelled name of his recent album, the music is ad hoc; it mutates and re-organizes in a volatile state free of permanence uneasily co-opted by the strategies of mobile consumption.

"I wanted this to be something that would be different, that would make you engage you as sound and make you aware of how it was input into your ears, and get away from laptop speakers. It's a conscious decision to emphasize that more but also it fit the spirit of the record. Everything was recorded on-sight in random locations with voices and things caught in the heat of the moment. This was like a year's worth of work on individual pieces and chiseling away at ultimately thirty or forty pieces, weaving those together over a years time with new field recordings from last week and stuff I worked on in the band and all these different time frames. It didn't fit into the idea of an LP, you can't really listen to two sides of this, it has to be this giant amalgamation of sounds.”

On Ad Hocc, the source material becomes consumed in the act of re-combination, obliterated into senselessness. The temporal imprint of his encounter is both consumed by the act of re-configuration and made fluid in the present. It escapes the terminal velocity of the binary horizon by engaging the language of potentiality, of absolute freedom to demarcate qualitative time and resist easy compartmentalization.

That his music itself can illicit these types of heady inquiries is inspiring but it is in the method of delivery that Ad Hocc suggests the greatest potential for re-imaging the act of listening in the age of digital consumption. Inspired in part by a series of private multi-channel concerts organized in his house, the album—released on Zona Music, the label Gray started with friends—comes on a business card USB drive filled with randomized artwork and six variations of the album the listener is encouraged to play from multiple speakers.

“I've been feeling this really present blurriness between the media this “thing” is being represented on and the music itself; the work itself and how it actually sounds. I feel like people aren't really trying to understand that distinction. The idea of multi-channel and the flashcard is really about giving people a flexible way to listen to the record and go further with it, open other dimensions of the experience.”

It is a gesture that in part calls to mind Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet: an installation that separates out forty choral voices into individual speakers arranged in a circle. Like a sonic exploded axonometric, Forty Part Motet makes the listener inescapably aware of the physicality of music and space. The individual voices contracting and expanding to form both individuality and unity: the architecture of the now and the intimacy of the original act that has been documented existing on a simultaneous plain. In Ad Hocc, as with Forty Part Motet, the moment of spectacle or the staging of the event becomes boundless; a performance without end, an artwork without frame.

It is surprising that even though digital work stations—with the capacity to engage the studio using methods that even recently would have been impossible—composers are still limited by stereophonic imaging developed half a century ago. A paradox of regressive innovation wherein even as digital capacities have rapidly grown, our engagement with the physicality of sound has for the most part tapered to the sonic precincts of the stream and the narrow spatial organization of laptop speakers. In short, we’ve gone backwards.

“Yeah, it’s strange that quadraphonic sound never took off. That multi-dimensionality is really a phenomenon that when you're in it feels really strange and really abstract. A lot of times it will communicate things you can't predict. In getting the different speakers to all be the same volume and everything involved, there's always some sort discrepancy. When you find the mid ground, not too loud, not too quiet, each sound hits but its not overwhelming when the little things are going around you, you really feel the sense of that; there are multiple sounds moving around you. You can be subtle with it.”

“The three different versions that are not including the dry signal are only computer processes, so those to listen on their own are more interesting for me to listen to because I'm not fully in control of them.”

D/P/I posits queries into the nature of improvisation, commerce and metaphysics that suggests an engagement with composition that goes beyond the narrow scope of digital awareness and materiality.

“Free Jazz is what got me into anything, that's some of my favorite stuff. When I heard Albert Ayler's “Spiritual Unity” that was kind of the first one, the sparseness, just the recording, I heard that when I was 17 and it did something to me... I couldn't believe there were records and music made like that. There's a really weird dimension to that record. It's a mono record, but you're hearing the room and it feels so alive. That record introduced me to the idea that something can be so abrasive and yet represent so much human emotion, so much human soul... Just a lot of pain and struggle and bliss coming out at once. It's just about listening really. It's musicians that can actually listen to each other and actually react in a linguistically and musically conscious manner.”

As with the precedents of Free Jazz, and installation art, music that re-territories the event away from the capitalized networks presents a way to think beyond the corporate internet, seeking to free the body both toward infinite territorization and localized awareness. It’s aggressively out music posited as a fissure between noise and epiphany and it is with this gesture that Ad Hocc so empathically rejects the notion of chronos; the album becomes an invitation to engage with the act of construction, to keep the moment oozing forward in a molten state. In this sense, it becomes absurd to speak in the language of social metrics; what constitutes a play when each return is inaugural? It is an eloquent reminder of the physicality of music, post-digital in its refusal to be quantified.

At a moment when our sense of time has retracted to the sub mono, Gray’s efforts using his own label to experiment with multi-channel releases and re-imagine the physicality of music feels full of promise; earnest in it’s hopefulness for the listener to escape passive engagement. This remains the potential for independent labels and why it necessary that as listeners we reward that hopefulness by engaging fully, both monetarily and with our time to become more than consumers. Artists and labels that emphasize exploration, collaboration and community are vital for discovering methods we can use to regain the digital terrain from corporate appropriation.

The promise for music in the digital era remains in this capacity, to transcend the limitations of the sedentary, of chronos, developing digital mutations that resist quantification and demand qualitative expansion. To unlock this potential, time must be regained from the mono-optic toward the continuous, away from the banality of the permanent present and pointed instead toward the future.

  1. Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, (New York, Current; 2013).

  2. Paul Virilio, The Aesthetics Of Disappearance, (New York, Semiotext(e); 1991)

  3. Fatima Al Qadiri , Quoted in The Guardian, 26, February, 2015.

  4. Rushkoff supra note 1