This past summer Edgar Arceneaux and I got together for an interview at his home studio in Pasadena, CA. I have been wanting to do a studio visit with him for years. As CalArts alums, students of the renowned conceptual artist Charles Gaines and Los Angeles based artists I have been following his work for quite some time. After attending a screening of his work Until, Until, Until… at USC Roski I was interested in unpacking many of the threads I have observed within his multidisciplinary practice over the years and to get a behind the scenes look at what he was currently working on and what he was thinking about in terms of future work. I caught him in the midst of preparing for the inaugural Current LA Biennial that has since passed. We were joined by Imani Ford a current graduate student at Yale, studying contemporary African-American artists in Los Angeles. She was gathering research for an upcoming project. Since our conversation Arceneaux has a newly released Art21, a new teaching appointment at the University of Southern California’s Roski School of Art and a current solo show at the MIT List Visual Arts Center. Our conversation organically revolved around The Calarts Mafia (1) and what it means to build a network of conscious thinkers and artists, music, vulnerability, making mistakes, issues of race and class, and navigating the art world and our interdisciplinary practices.
EA: The one thing that I am working on right now is the Current LA Biennial. I have one of the smaller projects. What I am doing is kind of merging together two different interests. One has to has to do with belief and religion and the other one has to do with water. Current LA is focused on water. It is the first Public Art Biennial in Los Angeles. It is taking place at public parks all over the city. Parts are centered around the LA River. Bloomberg Philanthropy is supporting it so it will be around for a while and it is international. Rirkrit Tiravanija is in it, Mel Chin and other artists. My project is called “The CENTER of the EARTH”. The idea is that beneath a drinking fountain is a complex system of beliefs that we don’t normally think about. In a modern developed nation like ours you are going to have clean drinking water no matter where you go, and when you go to a public park and access public facilities, to some degree it is sort of about the social contract, you know the public places where you will be safe, where you can use the bathrooms. Your tax dollars are paying for these facilities, but one of the things I have learned in the process of working on this show is that a lot of the drinking fountains that are broken or falling apart sometimes they are not fixing them and they will just sit there and you will try to turn on the water and there is nothing. Then they will be replaced with Pepsi, Coca Cola and bottled water giving way for private industries to take place. So I was thinking how do I talk about this idea of belief and conflict that is connected to water that is happening right now as a public property and the challenges that are happening right now in relationship to privatization.
EA: So I thought back to this experience I had when I was in Jerusalem. I went and visited the old city of Jerusalem about 10 years ago and I went and visited this church called the church of the Holy Sepulcher I don’t know if you have ever been. I have seen some beautiful churches but this one hands down was the most magical one. So it has no nave, it only has chapels and all of these different brands of Catholicism exist in this one building and it s a very conflicted space because the different branches of the religion don’t get along and sometimes they actually fight each other… The different priests sometimes knife each other but this is a holy site. This is where Jesus’ body was interred in the cave or supposedly where he rose, where his body was cleaned after being taken down from the cross. So it’s like really intense. So I was walking through one of the chapels, the artist who was showing me around and I were looking at this little altar and I said, “What is that?” and he goes, “That’s the center of the earth according to this religion.” This kind of blew my mind. But of course the earth is round so any one point of the globe will be the center of the earth. So I looked over and saw another one maybe about twenty feet away and I said, “What’s that?” and he goes, “Well according to that religion that is the center of the earth.” Then it just kind of struck me as both you know beautiful and it sort of said something about belief and about conflict at least within the Judeo-Christian tradition that is about othering other belief systems. So I knew I had these two fountains that I was working with in the park. I am basically remaking the two fountains in something of a design that is reminiscent of an arabesque pattern that will look something similar to this (showing KACH the design) it will look in this range and height. What is the name of the large stone that people circle around for prayer? Have you seen it? You know the one I am talking about.
KACH: I have never been to Jerusalem.
EA: Okay this is not in Jerusalem. So this is apart of the holy building.
KACH: Are there any links to the erosion of trust? I know you said that the water fountains are in parks and beaches and things like that throughout the years there has been distrust of free readily available drinking water in which we put more trust into these as you said private corporatized companies such as you want the Dasani bottled water instead of something that is a free flowing source that is coming from the earth.
EA: Yes you devalue one so you can sell someone the other. Getting someone to buy something that is free is how marketing operates.
KACH: And I am thinking about the erosion of trust too and when you talk about this idea of faith and belief. That you have to believe that you are being cleansed with holy water from this source that is taking these sort of ailments away. So I wonder if that is factoring into this project as well.
EA: (Begins playing National Geographic video featuring the holy fountains on his tablet.) So I am going to place these two things in the center. So bringing this arabesque pattern it won’t be a traditional religious motif it will be something that points to something from the Middle East and they will be colored and painted and dipped in chrome so they will be two opposite colors. Right now the goal is to cast them in aluminum and there are a couple of boulders in the park and I am going to try to locate those and if I can I am going to run water through them.
KACH: I think the functioning water would definitely be very important because in a way you would restore some type of function outside of the conceptual premise to bring viewers from all different perspectives. Because there is something that you are doing in which you are making something that is very ambiguous and specific at the same time… It will kind of have some of arabic as you said but not something specifically tied to a religious context so I think it would be interesting if it did have another element of water or the absence of water can be important to the piece to make a statement that the center of the earth is subjective. So it’s like a piece that is functioning with multiple layers. I was reading a lot of interviews and writings about you and your work and you create situations that cannot be naturally resolved by the viewer so if there are two fountains opposite of each other and they are both spewing the same water what does that mean? I am also thinking about it in this geography of Los Angeles and you are taking something that is from miles and miles away. I don’t know it’s kind of interesting how you are taking these elements that are pushing and pulling I imagine that when you see it you won’t really know how to connect them.
EA: Yeah and I think that what I am constantly trying to do is put people in a third position in which you have to draw a form of synthesis you know duality can be the enemy too. I don’t even want to call it progressive thought…It can be the enemy of critical thinking because it posits one side within a binary to the other so they are linked in a way that in some situations one can only be described by the absence of the other. So you know when Charles Gaines would talk about this in his Post Colonial class he would say that blackness is described as the absence of whiteness it is not its own thing. You know duality does that in lots of different things it is constantly ascribing difference to what it is not as opposed to what it is. So I am always trying to figure out ways in which the viewer always becomes the way in which the work is realized. You are being forced to think outside of this plus this equals this. So a lot of times I use the number three to organize my shows thinking about triangulation as a form of thinking.
KACH: I really love that concept and this idea of making the viewer do the work. Just thinking about this idea of triangulation of making the viewer work out the concepts on their own and to struggle with them. You do this really interesting staging. I wanted to talk about theater in your work and I am glad that you brought up how you think about a number to kind of setup how you want the viewers to engage with the work and the concepts that you are working on. So I was wondering if you could talk about that some more in depth because the materials that you use sometimes glisten, I have seen you use wind elements and different things that bring the viewer in and they seem like they are disparate elements but they are not. They have these threads but then they don’t so you are constantly going in and out of dislocation. Which makes sense with what you are talking about but in a sense you also have to work with the binary in order to get out of it. Does that make sense? I am interested in how you are grappling with and staging these concepts in your exhibitions.
EA: Well if you are trying to tell a story in a 3 dimensional space like a gallery then you have to figure out how to make the conventions of the gallery tell that story in a way that, I don’t know if I want to say true to it but recognizes how people typically engage with that space. So the way in which I try to do that at least in the gallery is to think about the full range of a person’s vision and how peripheral information lets people see things in relationship to each other even though they may not be looking at it directly. So I may have something on one wall to the left and then all the way across the room there is a conversation that is happening there but you don’t see it until you turn the corner and walk and then you are like, “Oh yeah there is something else here” There are certain kinds of geometries that I try to set up that allows people to recognize certain affinities that exist between different things. Because the difference may actually be an illusion they may be exactly the same but they may just look different. So, I am trying to remember what the question was again.
KACH: It’s okay it had a lot of layer and you are answering it. This idea of how you are setting up your exhibition space with this type of triangulation in the space and the different mediums that you are using to kind of create this kind of staging of these ideas to get people out of their binary thinking about these ideas.
EA: Oh yeah now I know why I brought that up. Because if you’re trying to to tell a story that does not rely on the conventions of storytelling then you need to figure out another of way for people to understand the progression of that story. I am using story in the sense of not that there is one way of being there is some experience that I want people to feel with the gathering there is a picture that I want people to get so I try to rely on archetypes for that. Because you know archetypes are ingrained within us through culture. Through our environment, through our relationship with our parents and how we understand power, through our relationship with our siblings and the way in which they are in some degree symbolic to the authority of the State and how that has certain echoes within the body politic. So I try to rely on archetypal relationships to give people a sense of how things relate to each other on a basic level. So something is big in relationship to something that is small. Something is hot in relationship to cold. Or you can see yourself in the piece. Or you can see yourself and the piece across the room at the same time. So like these are things that communicate to you without words. Then I have to figure out what the nature of the interaction is amongst those elements. Is one about creating harmony and balance? Is it one about creating a fracture or a fragmentation. Is there a thing about scale where it varies from big to small. How do I arrange it so that they are looking at themselves in relationship to the work so those are the types of archetypes that I think about when I am ultimately trying to organize a room. It is hard to think about these things in the beginning then you get a sense of it once you know where it is going to go. So the staging part for me is somehow reminiscent of you know how Socrates within the Republic would situate dialogues within environments because it was a necessary frame to understand what was at stake. Something that would take place of the stairs of the court, a dialogue would happen. It wasn’t until I realized that the republic was a metaphor for the soul. Even though it is a fictitious city there is some kind of allegory for the conflicting forces within us as individuals that I started to piece together with recognition. The forces that are raging within us as individuals to some degree manifests itself within the family body and how it manifests itself within the social body. Now these aren’t the same things but when you start to recognize these affinities you can see through these windows that stretch across time, space, people and materials. I just try to constantly show people that. With each show I try to think about what are the elements in this particular constellation that are going to tell the story differently than the one that I did before.
KACH: I definitely pick up on this idea of elements that cross across time and media because I am interdisciplinary but you say that you are multidisciplinary. Is that correct? Sometimes they are interchangeable.
EA: I don’t know they are interchangeable for me and I don’t know exactly how to describe it for everyone. I could describe it to you in this way because I know that you will understand it. Essentially I try to use the materials that make the most sense with the subject.
KACH: That’s it! I understand. You do what you have to do when you have to do it.
EA: Yes and I am always looking to put myself into a situation––when I can––that I don’t have as much control over the materials as much as I would like so I have to struggle with it.
KACH: Which you should be, because if you were too comfortable doing this triangulation it would just be “bada boom bada bing” you know it would be kind of like the same ole thing on a loop and as an artist if you don’t make yourself uncomfortable and put yourself up against the wall sometimes it won’t show in the work. That relationship that you are trying to have with the viewer, you can see that the audience will not be as willing to go through the same questions.
EA: Some of my favorite songs are the ones where you feel that the artists is so in the moment that they don’t care that they are fucking it up a little bit. There is one Lenny Kravitz song on his second album I believe and he really fucks up one of the verses and he left it in there. You know what I mean?
IF: He does that a lot though I feel like a lot of his music does that..
EA: Maybe he just doesn’t care. I don’t listen to his music much but Stevie Wonder does it. But you know there is a point where they listen to it and say you know what let’s leave that in there. It gives you a little window into their humanity. They make this great stuff but they are vulnerable too.
IMANI: I had a question going back to how do you strike the balance between. Like I keep thinking about Audre Lorde and using the same tools like the archetypes to kind of unravel the way we think about things. Are you pointing to the fact that we think in these binaries or are you pointing to the possibility for us to think outside of these binaries? If you understand what I mean. That is something really interesting to me. Whoever walks into the gallery space how are they cognizant that these binaries exist, like it’s a lot of different ones and I am thinking about it. Are you trying to do both or one or the other?
EA: Well I will answer that in a couple of ways. One is that I use pop culture a lot mainly because it communicates across cultures and different demographics. Because people kind of know the rules because if I use Spock in a drawing people kind of know who Spock is. The other part of it is is that I know—and science backs this up—is that the mind does not think in binaries. Thought is very fluid, it’s elastic and constantly shifting and moving away. Culture and society is constantly putting us into these categories and there are a lot of things that people take for granted without question. So I am always asking myself what are those things that people take without question? Then I try to subvert that. So the Book And A Medal show that I did at Susanne Vielmetter was my last exhibition. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the subject. When it comes to things that are iconic it becomes very difficult to show a different aspect of that. So you know history has turned Dr. King into a superhero. It prevents other people from being able to imagine themselves being able to follow on that path. Which I think is somewhat both consciously and unconsciously within society and ourselves kind of the way for us to mitigate our fear of that sacrifice.
EA: So I thought… can I tell a story that takes something iconic and turn that in a way that makes it totally fresh and tells you something that you didn’t know? So I just took that as a challenge to see what I could do. So I sort of developed that whole body of work around an assumption that everyone took for granted. So I mean duality is just a way of getting people through the door. Giving them something they know and then you try to take them some place else to get them to see and try to connect to them in a way that recognizes their intelligence. In some instances people say, “I don’t get it. I don’t understand what you are trying to say.” And they say, “ Is this what you are saying?” and I say yeah and they say, “Well, I thought it was something more complicated than that.”
KACH: I ask that question a lot as an artist about remaking with the master’s house with the master’s tools. Then I think well you show work in a white cube that is the gallery and there are all types of plays of power, whether there are objects trying to undo this system or whether there are not. The architecture of the gallery itself is wielding a type of power. Who will come in to see your exhibition, who doesn’t see it, where it is advertised, where it isn’t advertised. Sometimes when work enters these spaces to talk about colonialism and various structures of power, I wonder if the architecture of the space is doing the undoing as well which is why I am so interested in Edgar’s staging because all of the objects within this space are negotiating power. Even how much time you spend in the space with what allures you. You make a lot of beautiful objects you have these books that are glistening, even as you stated the viewer is expecting something more complicated or harder to get but really you are like no this is Spock and this is Tupac, but it is also trying to pull you in to do some dismantling for yourself. But then once you are sucked out of it you are still in the gallery…you are still in that space. I don’t really know how to navigate that as an artist, as a viewer, as a consumer…it’s like we are still bound to these constructs, but as an artist/creator it is important to create these experiments to see how you can do that even if it is impossible at times.
EA: Part of the reason why I decided to make a play as opposed to a performance art piece was because I wanted to work in a different milieu but also with a different set of rules then the gallery because of the very thing that you are talking about, because when you come to the thing with a different sensibility as a visual artist doing theater it was a way for me to kind of leave behind a little bit of that kind of feedback loop that you are talking about. We’re in the white cube so you have to do things that perform to the white cube.
EA: But the mind and creativity by its very nature will fill any vessel no matter the shape it is kind of like water. I wanted to not deal with the art community in this piece at least not alone. I am still trying develop that now and take the play on the road and connect it with other people that I think would be enriched by the storytelling in the way in which we told it. and I think it will make me a better artist when I do my next exhibition. I can say it already has. I don’t know if the work will be better but I can say it has made me a better thinker having worked within the profession of theater. I tell you if you ever get the opportunity to work with The CalArts Center for New Performance do it.
KACH: Definitely. It is something that I am interested in. When I went to the screening of “Until, Until…Until” and I heard about the work that you are doing, for me it felt like such a natural progression in regards to going to the gallery and the works that you are doing outside of the whitebox. I saw so many threads that excited me and I was like, “Of course Edgar is doing a play now!” And I attended the screening and it was so meta. It was mind blowing. You have Ben Vereen performing as Bert Williams and then you have this other performer [Frank Lawson] that comes in and is––
EA: Performing Ben Vereen playing Burt Williams.
KACH: Exactly. It just kind of loops into infinity and then I am looking at this theatrical performance that was filmed so it is all of these layers in how you work with time. Even when you work with drawing there is this kind of progression but it constantly even with these little heads they look back. There is this constant infinity element and then what you are talking about with this idea of vulnerability and you like to let a lot of the seams show so it was really exciting being in the audience and being like “oh there is Edgar right there telling someone to… Or the stagehands are slower as they go across the stage and at the same time that something is being built up it is also dissolving at the same time and it like how can you do something seamless when the subject matter is about this rupture.
EA: You know it’s funny because on the making side of it I am always trying to figure out this fudge factor and by that I mean if something goes terribly wrong you can still get something out of it essentially. So on the final night I don’t know if you saw this but um two of the curtains actually fell of the rod and landed on stage. Fortunately it was the last night of the show. But that last night I was so angry because there were so many things that went wrong and I kept telling myself that the audience doesn’t know, the audience doesn’t know.
KACH & IF: (Laughing)
KACH: Yes they don’t have a clue!
EA: They don’t have the sense of the show. It’s enough going on in the foreground and middleground and if something is not quite right on one of those layers it won’t sink the ship. Now if the actor had a heart attack and died on stage then that would probably not play out well… But that is sort of my critique of popular culture. That even that would be acceptable as far as turning it into a story that could be sold.
KACH: I mean you have Beyoncé falling down the stage and people filming it and putting it on Youtube and making memes out of it and it wasn’t planned or her hair getting caught in a fan and she is still singing. But then that is spun like “Wow she is dedicated! or She is a robot! Even though that was not intentional.
EA: Yeah but you know she also knew she had a team of people that would run over and you know. If she in the bathroom and runs out of toilet paper she will be able to get some in a second.
KACH: Yes, but she is not planning to fall down the steps in stilettos.
EA: Yes, but what I am getting at is that it is not just her. When we did the play it wasn’t just me. You know so that is just on the level of strategy but on the content side I am always thinking about how stuff comes back again and I am thinking about it personally and in terms of history. I remember when I did my first residency as an Artist In Residency it was actually at Project Row Houses and the Banff Center so I shot my work and then I edited it in Banff. It was kind of cool to go back and forth between two residencies at the same time. So I was going from like the snow to the sticky hot weather of Houston and back and forth, but I remember when I got there it really changed my life. I was in my mid twenties and I had just graduated from Art Center and I was really awkward and I never had any girlfriends and nothing was ever meaningful so when I got to Banff I was able to recreate myself. I didn’t know too many people there. Well I knew a few but not very well. You know I had lots of flings. I was making work but I had this situation with this woman that was the exact same problems that I had with a woman I just left in LA and it was deja vu and it was some dynamic that I brought with me.
KACH: Yep it’s always there. Wherever you go that is where you are.
IF: Yes, you can’t runaway from yourself.
EA: You can’t. There was something that I did. I don’t know why I picked her but it was something there and you start to realize that dynamics are produced and that there are some things that are affinities that happen between dynamism that shapes our perspectives and look a certain ways over time. You have a child and that is the most immediate and direct confrontation of the past into the present.
KACH: Yes, and I have this mantra that I use for my practice called the “Historical Present” and I see that within your work all the time with how you are reconciling the residue of these past moments and it’s like this push and pull or this infinity symbol you know.
EA: Yeah, and there is a way in which you can do it and I have tried it a few times to do it in the play. You can do a series of relays that can amplify so you can see all of the past and present and you recognize your position within it. There are these layers of mediation that echo within one body occupying all of these different presences because that is how we actually live in the world. Again we are constantly being convinced not to recognize those affinities. Like when Zora said, “Daddy, why does that person have to live on the street? Why does that person have to beg for money?” And how do you explain that? We become apathetic to it you drive past the homeless people. I mean living in New York I saw a homeless woman lying on the ground with her arms stretched out it was 20 degrees. This sister was wearing pretty much what looked like a potato sack, probably damn near death. Well she wasn’t dead. I remember walking past her and a I turned back to stop and look at her I was thinking what has conditioned me not to recognize her? What has conditioned me to recognize her and then not do anything?
KACH: To keep it moving. To go on about your day and do what you feel is urgent or a priority to you.
EA: Yeah, and what’s a part of it is that it’s something that has taught me that this person is totally separate from me.
KACH: Or you are conditioned to think that they are not a part of you because that helps you to keep it moving o do what you think you have to do.
EA: Yeah. I got mine you get yours and maybe if I become rich I can come back and help you. That’s the American way and it wasn’t always like that.
KACH: Not even that. Pick yourself up by you boot straps. Like Dave Chappelle says about Sesame Street and Oscar the Grouch. “ Get it together Grouch!” (Laughing)
EA: Thank God for Dave Chappelle.
KACH: It’s that same sentiment. We are taught that.
EA: That’s the reason why The Chappelle Show was so amazing because it actually did that. It recognized these feedback loops and affinities. His show was fucking amazing.
KACH: He is a brilliant man and I got a chance to meet him in Yellow Springs, Ohio and I talked to him for a little bit and he was talking about comedy and Paul Mooney and this idea that you have to have the audience laugh every minute or couple of secs. He just keeps the punches coming and what do we do when we shouldn’t be laughing at it but we have to but we shouldn’t be, but we are really laughing at ourselves and this condition. It’s this idea of nervous laughter because you know you could help that lady. Even coming back from Nigeria and seeing so many people in so many conditions and knowing that I am somewhat of a millionaire with the dollar exchange but it’s a situation that is bigger than you and me or outside you of me and I have to take care of my family or I am not rich. This idea of wealth is subjective to who you really are. You are very privileged beyond a doubt.
EA: Yeah and depending on where you are at. There has to be some sort of base that a just society has to have in order to live. When I was in Sao Tome you know this small island I saw one or two homeless people––a handful–– but everybody else because they did not own any property built their own homes so that they could live off the land and fish in the sea and they had a community. It has it’s own problems and some places do not have plumbing at all but if someone needs a home people around you are going to help build it. So it wasn’t this type of criminalization of poverty that exists here so to me that was something reaffirming about humanity and also recognizing how violent our society is on so many small levels especially around this maldistribution of wealth. Of course as artists we show in galleries, we make our work but there is also another layer of our practice which is how we talk about it and how we talk about it too and you know I try to be involved in conversation with my peers, you and having Imani come and stay or try to write about work that in a way, tries to humanize and have people understand what it is that we do and the value of it and to also recognize the stuff that we make that intersects with how we make it. The creative force produces the objects but then the force goes away and the object stays with us.
KACH: Yes. That is the art.
EA: That is the art.
KACH: Yes when collectors or museums own the work and you can only see it when you go to someone’s home or all of these things I am more interested in the conversations that were produced. Because you are influenced by the research that you are doing and the travel that you are doing, that is the art that produces the object. Because essentially it’s an object and a conduit to get the conversation sparking. Once the conversation is out in the world and after we leave the theater… what we just witnessed that is the work. The work getting inside of you.
EA: That’s right.
KACH: Because the experience is ephemeral. It’s never again. And so that is the thing that excites me about being an artist and maybe that is a way of dismantling the kind of tools, not putting so much stake in the actual objects but what the objects bring to the forefront.
EA. 1 Yeah and if Charles and myself and Andrea and Rodney and Olga and Sam are all considered to be a part of the CalArts Mafia the glue that holds us together is what you are describing.
KACH: Yes I definitely agree! Across all of ya’lls practices. I agree.
EA: The other critical part of it too is recognizing what these institutions do to you as a person.
KACH & IF: Um hum
EA: Imani and I were talking about this in the car and over dinner. As soon as Imani told people that she was accepted to Princeton she lost a lot of friends.
KACH: Even I was like OOOO because it is the name.
IF: Yeah it changes us.
EA: Yeah. We recognize how it changes us. Within the arts it is so problematic at least at the level that we are engaged. There is an expectation that part of success is a transformation of class and that you need to look a certain way and to talk a certain way. These things go back to early models that came out of France, you know the creative class is some aspect of this problem. There is a certain expectation that you should look like the wealth that your work is acquiring and you should travel in the circles with the people who are able to then champion and support your work. I never was able to fully embrace that.
KACH: Because when you look around you’re like okay so the things that got these people to like me now. When people say, “Oh you are doing so well!” and I say, “No it’s just new people who like me now.” It doesn’t mean yeah now I am doing well! It doesn’t mean that those things that you carried around with you your entire life and influenced you and then all of a sudden you wake up at this seven course dinner and all of a sudden that is supposed to change things. It’s really kind of uncanny and then you have to form alliances and loyalties because you don’t want to bite the hands that feed you but then that is problematic because some of these hands are problematic because you don’t know where they have been or what they want with you or if you are just going to be their pawn for the system and if you are making political work, work that is about these power structures and ideas then you become what you hate you are replicating it and you get lost in it. I have had a few friends that have succumbed to that and you’re like “What the hell?” But I always think about how can we go back to the reason why you make the work. Once you start losing that or forgetting that the kind of criticality/ what you are trying say and what you are trying to impart becomes lost.
IF: Well all of that is about where you came from. You become alienated from that. Because the things that are instilled in us the upward mobility others us. So it’s this weird kind of…
EA: It’s a dilemma. I think this is the dilemma of any creative person unless you are super rich and you don’t have to think about your class position in the same way.
KACH: Or you should be.
EA: You can decide not to. You know I was thinking about Stevie Wonder. I used to be a huge Stevie Wonder fan and one of my rituals I did in undergrad was get my paycheck from work-study and I would go buy Stevie Wonder album and sit and listen to it for like a week. I would buy them chronologically. I went from his early music to the stuff he was doing in the 70’s to Living For The City to that funk opera he did The Secret Life of Plants.
KACH: I love that album!!!
EA: Which is amazing but then something happened in the 80’s. I don’t know what happened in the 80’s but I attribute it to the kind of malaise that happens when you get older but also I think it does have something to do with his class position because he didn’t have to prove himself. He became an icon and didn’t have to prove anything anymore. Even when Michael Jackson was being attacked in the 90’s his music became increasingly self conscious. Why don’t you just leave me alone? A lot of it was him reflecting upon his own position and I think that the work suffered for that not to say that they are not both incredibly talented people but the challenges that they took on formally with the work became more autoreferential.
KACH: But then I wonder. I am a true believer that art imitates life and life imitates art once they did acquire this certain recognition they are trying to talk about their life and the life that they are living and want to live and sometimes I think about that too if you are in another class bracket you are talking about the life you want to live too. I recently read Citizen by Claudia Rankine I love her work I think it’s an interesting follow up to Don’t Let Me Be Lonely have you heard about that book? It’s an American lyric talking about pharmaceutical corporations and antidepressants, police brutality and all of these instances in American society in which we are just like in this constant malize or depression. When I read Citizen I was like, “Oh this is Claudia’s I am rich now hip-hop record.” Because it was like, “Now I have made it, I am now this well respected academic, I have this amazing house, everybody around the world knows me but when I step outside of my house or my office or this campus where everyone knows me and where I am revered at I am just another Black woman and the cashier is asking me if my card works before I swipe it at the grocery store.” So it’s about all of these microaggressions but it’s not really class conscious like okay I am a top dog in the academic world although I know that is not the only positionality that I am speaking from because it is layered which is why I am writing this book in the first place so I kind of felt like that. It was like “Oh I have made it but I still won’t accept all of those politics of race and things that are put onto my body.”
IF: Kanye says, “Even if I am in a Benz I am still a nigga in a coupe.”
KACH: Exactly! That’s like this album once rappers make it big it’s about how much money they have and how many friends they don’t have. It’s like this paradise of being accepted and being known for your work is not the paradise that you imagined. Toni Morrison says that we can only have paradise with the exclusion of others. Even in your paradise someone still has to scrub the toilet or take out the chamber pot. That’s what I am thinking about in all of this. I was also talking to my writing mentor about Ta Nehisi Coates’ Between The World And Me he has that same “I made it out of Baltimore and the hood and now I am in France/I made it out the hood I don’t have to think like that anymore it’s a past memory and now my circle is different.” I love his work though.
IF: That is so funny because my aunt told me yesterday to accept who I am now and to stop controlling the way I am viewed but it is hard.
KACH: But the other side is an illusion that’s the thing and the other thing that you are aspiring to be is outside of yourself but It should be constantly evolving too.
IF: And it is.
EA: But I think the part of it is that there is always a frontier in which you can make a mistake and people don’t know if you can succeed there or not and I think that when you get to a level of financial security it can scare you even if you don’t recognize it. America is one of those weird places no matter how affluent you become particularly if you grew up poor or middle class that your wealth is going to be taken from you. That is just something that indicative to this culture. There is no real respect for people that are poor and there are no real resources for you to even get help. The shit is real. There are places where you can still find challenges. If I had the opportunity to work with Stevie Wonder I would do a straight a cappella album I would be like leave all of the electronic shit behind it’s gonna be just you and a piano. Oh did you hear Bobby Womack’s album that he did before he died?
KACH: No, and I am so upset about him passing away and Prince
EA: It is amazing. The Bravest Man In The Universe.
KACH: The Bravest Man In The Universe?!
EA: Yeah, and he alienated a huge section of his following. It is an electronic album he just got a bunch of young people to write for him and he sang over the dubbing.
EA: It’s amazing.
KACH: Yeah, I was going to ask you what are you listening to right now?
IF: That is so important.
EA: Cody Chestnutt I want to work with him on something.
KACH: You know I just learned about The Secret Life of Plants three years ago.
IF: Good because I am writing down these names.
KACH: That is how you start.
EA: Yes, that is how you start.
KACH: I mean we both studied with Charles (Gaines) and it’s like slow down Charles I am trying to understand!!
EA: Oh I still do it. You need to have someone in your life like that.
(Starts playing Bobby Womack)
I been trying to say I am I sorry
Do you know the pain I am feeling and it just won’t let up
KACH: Which speaks to what you were talking about with bringing this body with you and being on this loop. What I tell my friends who are going through things I tell them you have to forgive yourself first of all and then you can see what your role is that you played in it and then you can see all these layers of healing and manifestations. That is what I saw in “Until, Until, Until…” That last scene in which he is taking off the make up. Forgiving himself and being like,” I am not going to allow people to treat me like this anymore, I am gonna do me.” I think that is like allowing yourself the joy that you need to feel whether you are in that make up or taking it off. I thought about that really deeply in that scene and asked myself what does it mean to claim your joy through so much trauma?
EA: Also recognizing that it takes a long time to get there. Sometimes it take years to get there. Sometimes it is two steps forward and two steps back. You know when I went through therapy and then I did this really great program called The Rockwood Leadership Program it is one of the best things I have ever done. If you ever get a chance to do it you should do it. It is basically for people who are in a field where they are trying to be a leader for social change and they help you to understand and sort of ground you in your own purpose to basically state it all at once. You go in there for five days and you say that’s not possible to do that shit and then by the end you can. They have you go down the elevator of your own trauma.
KACH: That is intense.
EA: Yeah it is super intense. People were crying and shit, and going out of the room. You do it with a group of people and it is really amazing. I came out of it and within a year I realized that I had taken those two steps back or even four and I recognized that even though I knew what my issues were it didn’t mean that I was going to do anything about them. They say knowledge is power.
IF: They say knowing is half the battle.
EA: Yes because you can build go arounds. You know people who get their stomachs stapled and now they are like I can’t eat solid foods. People will start eating soft foods and start gobbling soft foods as a go around. There is a chemical in our brains that will kick in when you try to change to stop us from changing.
EA: Oh let me play this other song this is something else that I am really into right now Do you know Roman GianArthur?
EA: He did an album that is a mashup of Ok Computer by Radiohead and You’re My Lady from D’Angelo. This album is free on Soundcloud. He made music with Janelle Monae. (Plays album in the background.)
KACH: Wow. I have always wanted to ask you if you feel like your work is related in any type of way to Afrofuturism?
EA: It is content in some projects. I have done work about Sun Ra. I would say that I don’t know within the orthodoxy of Afro-Futurism if I fit within it but I would say that some of the projects that I have doing have explored the subject. I wouldn’t say that I am though. I have a friend named Julie Myers who said that Afro Futurism to some degree has a utopian aspect to it that I am not necessarily invested in. But you know like with Sun Ra he is a fascinating figure because of how he thought about the world. Which documentary is it that he did on him? Not space is the place… Basically at the end he said he thinks that his project did not go as far as it should have. He was recognizing the limitations of his vision and getting people to come along with it.
KACH: Yes and that is hard. Afro-Futurism wasn’t even a term when he was around it kind of came in the 90’s and I think that now any African American that is working with spaceships or Star Trek or any type of space cosmology I think it is easy to group people into that and it is something that I question a lot as an artist because you want to define your work and what you do but you also don’t want someone to just slap a tenet or what your work is about and what it encompasses. I have the same issue with utopia. I am shooting for this peace and I don’t think that I should have to go to space to find that but peace is subjective some people can have peace like ISIS in eliminating people who don’t believe in the same way as they do. You know what I mean? So it can take on violent instances. I wouldn’t describe your whole practice as Afro-Futurist, but I am learning as I am trying to disassociate with the term that I am actually learning a whole lot more about. Just in relationship to how you talk about time, that is a major component of Afro-Futurism. That the future is now and now is the future and all of those concepts and this kind of infinity loop. Like in your work people are not really sure what time they are actually in. Even in Until, Until, Until… and a lot of the drawings. I don’t know, so maybe some of the components but not all of the components and what does that mean too?
EA: Yeah there are some parallels and affinities I think. Essentially what creative people are trying to figure out is how to maximize the space for them to explore and play around and create without any determinacy that some other force might sort of impose upon them. You know in Black music that is where you can find at least the most pervasive data set of how people have played around with certain tropes. At least in Jazz where it is about improvisation and interplay between these immersive elements do that kind of synergy building over time so it is not so much what but when it comes together. That is where I can see the ethos. It is not of like an escape as far as the extent of being true to how we actually think and breathe and how we are wired as humans. At least that is how I try to understand it. But I haven’t done any research lately into what Afrofuturism is or how people are coding it today I just know it is popular.
KACH: It’s really popular. That is my kind of issue with it too. I don’t want it to be placed onto me so soon. I don’t know I feel like it is kind of trendy right now and anybody that does something with space is grouped into that.
EA: Yeah it’s easy to do. I mean I was in that show…
KACH: At the Studio Museum? (The Shadows Took Shape)
EA: Yeah the catalogue is around here somewhere.
KACH: Which I think that was an awesome show and the thing that I like about the shows that they put on is that some artists are like yes this directly responds to the them and other artists are brought into question the specificity of the theme. I like how a lot of their shows like Black Romantic, which challenged ideas within Black figurative painting, which is what I think these shows, should do. They are posed as questions instead of answers and that is what I find the most fruitful as a viewer. That is what I enjoy so much about your work. I left the screening of “Until, Until, Until…” with so many questions and I don’t know if you can answer those questions. Those questions are for the creator or for me and my role in society. Like I said that is where the art is.
EA: Yeah, it is not for me to answer them but to continue the dialogue about them.
EA: That is the goal. That is why I was talking with Imani and we were talking about going to BAR (2) and screening the film. I just texted the organizer to see if that is something that we can do because I really want to have a conversation, some conversations with Black people around this film to see what people will say. Just the stuff that I would never think about. I have had some people come up to me and say, “I wish Ben (Vereen) would have never did that performance. I just wish he never did it.”
KACH: Yeah. But I think that is the easy route to go with something like that. It is really intense but he challenged the limits of himself and the audience and I was on your vimeo and seeing the clapping videos. Knowing that that would occur but that you have to do it anyway because you have something to impart and it could have went so many ways but the way that it did happen the fact that the public didn’t get to see those last instances but the people in the room saw it. They saw it.
EA: They saw it.
KACH: They saw those last five minutes that we ––well you have seen it–– but we as the general public will never know and like I said when you reach a certain level you don’t want to be Stevie Wonder in the 90’s as you say and when you work with certain tropes those troupes have the power to bring the baggage of that history, but for him to get up and say I don’t care i have to do this even though it’s like “What the fuck are you doing?!” It is still at that age and stage in your career you put yourself in a situation where people can say “What the Fuck are you doing?!” And to think that you would come in your generation to pick that back up to make this really compelling work that keeps these conversations alive. I mean we are still capable of wearing the blackface without the black face.
EA: Do you want to see it?
EA: Okay let me set it up.
After the conclusion of the interview Edgar showed me the second half of Ben Vereen’s performance in which he honored the legacy of Bert Williams at Ronald Reagan’s inauguration dinner. I saw the performance reenacted by actor Frank Lawson but it was truly haunting to see Vereen perform it within the original context. I did not record the footage of course because Edgar does not want it to be released due to Ben Vereen’s wishes. After the viewing Edgar allowed me to snap some pics of his home studio and writing space and our conversation concluded.
- Prior to the interview recording I proposed that Edgar was a part of the CalArts Mafia which is a network of CalArts alum that support and nourish each other via resources and moral support that have a huge presence in the LA art scene. However at first our opinions differed about what it actually is. Usually the CalArts Mafia is seen as an elitist underground informal network of graduates with a pay to play mentality in terms of the art scene.
- The Black Artists Retreat [B.A.R.] is an annual convening of black visual artists held in Chicago, IL. As an artist led initiative the Retreat is guided by the tenets of fellowship, rejuvenation, and intellectual rigor and strives to create time and space for an intergenerational community of black visual artists to engage outside of the institutional environment. Initiated by Theaster Gates and Eliza Myrie in 2013 [B.A.R.] is advised by Carrie Mae Weems and Sarah Workneh and supported each year by a variety of artists fulfilling the Retreat’s programmatic ambitions. Info taken from http://blackartistsretreat.com/info/
Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle is a Kentifrican-American artist who focuses on questions of race, sexuality, and history through a variety of visual, performative and textual mediums. Her artwork and experimental writing has been exhibited and performed at The Studio Museum in Harlem, NY, Project Row Houses in Houston, TX, and The Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, CA.