American Artist is a lot of things — a multidisciplinary maker, a designer, writer, and educator, as well as a consummate tinkerer. Often working with interfaces — physical and metaphorical — their projects toggle between diverse media, using everything from video, photography, old software, and even an odd propane tank to consider the nuances of Black labor and visibility in this age of constant connectivity.
Originally from Altadena, California, Artist is currently based in Brooklyn. They are a 2018–2019 recipient of the Queens Museum’s Jerome Foundation Fellowship, a former resident of EYEBEAM, and a graduate of the Whitney Independent Study program. They have exhibited at the Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco; the Studio Museum in Harlem; the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and Koenig & Clinton, New York, among others. Their work has been featured in the New York Times, Artforum, Huffington Post, and made our annual “Best of Brooklyn” exhibitions list not once, but twice in a row (in 2018 and 2019). Their writing has been published in the New Inquiry and Art21, and they are a part-time faculty member at Parsons. They also teach at the School for Poetic Computation.
For this seventh edition of Meet the NYC Art Community, we chatted about the disconnect between image and experience, the challenges of “generating something new” while in self-quarantine, and the feeling of starting to see the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.
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Where do you consider home?
I’m not sure how to answer that now, I guess I have two answers, I was born and raised in Altadena, California, near Los Angeles. It’s the same place Octavia Butler is from. I found out recently that she attended the same high school I did so I feel really cool. I moved to New York as an adult and I’ve been here for about seven years so it’s starting to feel like home. I don’t think New Yorkers would like it for me to call it home though — it sounds like I’m fronting. It’s kind of like when people ask me “what’s your real name?” My real name is American. If they don’t like that answer they ask “did your momma name you that?” And the answer is no.
What brought you to New York/what has made you stay?
I applied for graduate schools on the East Coast because I wanted to live near New York. Even though I was near Los Angeles, another major city, I felt like I was outside of some thing. I don’t know why, but I felt like whatever I was looking for was in New York. It’s the same stereotypical impulse that drives a lot of young creatives to move here. I think it’s worth challenging because there are a lot of important things happening in every city across the US, and it’s unlikely that you will move into a new city affordably without displacing someone, but I didn’t think about that when I was younger. I ended up moving to New York to attend Parsons. In some respects New York was exactly what I was looking for, but now I’m trying to understand the nation in the big picture. I met my partner in school and we’ve been living together in New York since then.
Tell me about your first memory of art.
All my early memories of art are children’s book illustrations or animated TV shows. I really liked books that explained things with illustrations. This had a lot of influence on me and got me drawing at a young age. I was really good at it and I was shy so being the kid that could draw became my thing. I don’t really remember how I got interested in ‘Art’ with a capital A but in high school I went to see [Jean-Michel] Basquiat’s show at MoCA and it really changed my life. It took me a while to realize the art I wanted to make was nothing like Basquiat’s but I didn’t know many contemporary artists at the time.
How would you describe your practice?
I would describe it as ideological critique. I’m concerned with Black labor and visibility and questions of Americanness, Black radical imagination, digital performativity, time (travel), captivity, veillance. I use sculpture, video and software as my mediums.
Last year I had a couple of shows about the police. I’m Blue (If I Was █████ I Would Die) was about police identifying as “blue” and the #BlueLivesMatter movement. The sculptures and video in the installation made it resemble a classroom, a critical view into the defensiveness and fragility of the police.
Prior to that, my first solo show Black Gooey Universe was about the creation of computer interfaces. How they changed from having a black background to a white background in the 1970s. This is sort of a metaphor for anti-Blackness. I made sculptures about computer technology with alternative values — slowness, transparency, Blackness, etc.
What are you working on currently?
I am finishing a piece for the Whitney Museum website, where everything in the collection will appear to be stolen (or perhaps repatriated) with only boarded up windows remaining — it’s called “Looted.” You’ll have to be on the website at sunrise or sunset to see it.
I’ve been self-quarantined for the last several months so it’s been hard to consider generating something new without any external stimulation. I underestimated this aspect of my daily life. However, I feel like I’m starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel and I’m thinking about something new regarding interfaces, the pandemic, Octavia Butler, and everything else I’ve ever said.
Creatively speaking, what keeps you up at night and what makes you get out of bed in the morning?
Communing with others to imagine the world we want to live in, and whether that necessitates the end of the world we know, and what the end of the world looks like.
What are you reading currently?
I just bought a copy of Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity by C. Riley Snorton and The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins by Anna Tsing.
What is your favorite way of experiencing art?
I like reading a description of an artwork and seeing photos. Art seems perfect in photos and written descriptions but it can be disappointing in real life. I want to like art more in real life, and sometimes I do, but it’s usually because I like the people around it. One of my favorite exhibitions is David Hammons’s Concerto in Black and Blue, even though I’ve never seen it. I can imagine it and the concept is beautiful. In actuality it may have been clumsy. I don’t know because I never saw it.
Favorite exhibition you’ve seen in the last year?
I saw photos of Lauren Halsey’s recent exhibition at David Kordansky in Los Angeles. Even though I didn’t see it in real life it was my favorite exhibition because it looked explosive from every angle, every image I saw contained the energy of the entire show. There were illustrations, signs and ads about a Black community owning itself, and it didn’t feel like a fantasy because it was life-size, it was factual, it would engulf you if you were in the room. Lauren also began a mutual aid food bank to get fresh produce to the people of South Central Los Angeles during the pandemic. I didn’t even know an individual could make that happen. I am inspired. And it also made her show my favorite show.
In the creative circles you’re part of, what questions do you want to see more people asking?
People often ask artists “who is your target audience?” but I think this misses the point. First of all it sounds like a corporate marketing survey, but secondly, artists don’t always control who sees their work. What I think artists should really be asking, when they ask themselves “who is the work for?” is who is your work creating space for? Who is your work extending the life span of? Whose ancestors is your work defending? Who will see an image of their self in your work and what kind of image will it be?
Editor’s note (7/13/20, 1:33pm EDT): A previous version of this interview misrepresented Artist’s teaching roles. They teach at Parsons and the School for Poetic Computation (these are separate institutions).