This is an interview with Martine Gutierrez, Van Lier Resident at ISCP from August 2016 to February 2017, by Houda Lazrak
Houda Lazrak: Is JEANS, at 37th Street and 9th Avenue in Manhattan, on view December 5th, 2016 through January 15th, 2017, your first large-scale billboard project?
Martine Gutierrez: Yes! I have been wanting to do a billboard for a long time. Two years ago, I produced a large-scale installation called RedWoman91 with RYAN LEE Gallery for their window space on the High Line in Chelsea. The piece was a site-specific video that read somewhat like a billboard due to its scale and color. It addressed the digital interrelationships of online personas related to social media and chatrooms, but also individuals’ acts of curating their online presence. The title RedWoman91 can be interpreted as an email or username for a web persona and the character’s performance is congruent to a livestream in a chatroom. There is a noteworthy shift between RedWoman91 and JEANS. In RedWoman91 the performance is mirrored back to the character as she performs for herself in a live camera. With the adoption of a supermodel role in JEANS though, the performance is directly geared to a large and unpredictable audience. There are more similarities than differences between the two campaigns. I am using the mechanisms of billboard advertising and marketing color schemes to host performances of non-binary gender representation in a consumable way. To the unsuspecting eye, JEANS is a real billboard that puts forth an existing product by a seemingly cis woman—it’s all very stealth. If I hadn’t already been wearing a red catsuit in RedWoman91, I would have used red; pink is such a gendered color.
HL: So the color pink was not the initial color of choice at the start of your creative process?
MG: Well, initially the billboard was going to be a different fake campaign, a boots campaign that I am also working on for my magazine Indigenous Woman. The boots are called ‘identified boots,’ and have almost every queer symbol inscribed on them. I shot that campaign and later learned that the proposed billboard would not fit the image. So I shot the JEANS campaign. Originally, I wanted the image to be black and white, which is very classic, very Calvin Klein 1990s—but noone looks up in New York, including me. I had to find a way to pull viewers’ attention away from their phones and get them to look up five stories. That’s when I knew I had to show some derrière cleavage and infuse a bold marketing color to attract attention. I still wanted to have the campaign be in black and white though. At the time, I was looking at makeup ads, such as Maybelline or Cover Girl, and saw a lot of lime greens and hot pink colors—acidic shades that were reminiscent of fruit, like watermelon and oranges. I came to be satisfied with the pink backdrop, like it is now, but had the text in lime green. I didn’t like it. My aesthetic is definitely ‘less is more’ as opposed to sassy and loud so I decided to revert to black and white text.
Also, you can see paint strokes on the image, which I photoshopped in. I knew the mark of the hand would be missing in the billboard’s mass printing and installation but I wanted to make the nostalgia visible. I pre-fabricated romantic gestures of dripping glue, brushstrokes and other accidental human residues to counter the mechanical precision of digital work.
HL: You’ve touched upon this already but are you referencing any specific ad campaign, particularly in your choice of jeans as the product you are selling?
MG: Denim as a fabric and the way denim has been used in the history of fashion advertising is so interesting to me. Denim is often looked at as the poor man’s uniform, in part because of the large Latin community who wear denim while working in the United States’ agricultural industry. There is a history of blue jeans being distributed in prisons to identify convicts. It is also still prevalent in terms such as ‘blue collar’ to identify the working class. Jeans remain a strong iconic American status symbol though. I have friends who have travelled through South America with only a suitcase of name brand secondhand jeans, such as Levi’s or Tommy Hilfiger, so coveted that their sales financed the entire trip!
The reality is that I’m not selling jeans. When you strip away the jeans, you are left with only ‘Martine.’ My performance as a supermodel is convincing but I am just as immaterial. I am not a brand or a celebrity. My work has always stemmed from the reality that it does not serve as a definitive statement on gender. Instead, my art has been cultivated into a language for self-reflection and understanding of how I identify in the world. This is partly because of the tension between my gender and my Guatemalan heritage, which is challenging to navigate in a genuine way. Unfortunately, much of how we perceive ourselves relies on others’ perceptions: validations of beauty, gender identities, self-worth, success, etc. Society perpetuates these normalcies as truths. Without care, we end up performing echoes of historical characters and hollow stereotypes.
HL: In a lot of your work you embody a specific persona or role. Did you come up with a particular character for JEANS too? Who is she?
MG: She is definitely a supermodel. But I don’t think it’s the farthest stretch to say she is more familiar to me than other characters—but very sexy! I was trying to play an ambiguous model. Someone who is cool enough to be seen in today’s media without referencing one particular supermodel.
HL: You also speak about her as both the product and the consumer.
MG: Yes, I am actually referring to myself when I talk about being both the product and consumer. I am confronting control to have ownership over my body and how it is used as an underrepresented identity—and to have authority over what I’m selling and what the advertisement looks like. I am fully versed in the confrontations that follow the spectacle of my gender. I therefore utilize large public installations such as JEANS as an opportunity to take back my power. It is rare for the media not to use the label of ‘brown, transgender woman’ as buzz words as they project upon me the stereotype of my own exoticism.
I know my distinct identity has given me many opportunities. People are interested in placing me in a box and saying, “look at this person, isn’t she interesting to figure out?” But I know a lot of people, with whom I share parallels, who find themselves in positions with few opportunities to be heard. Even if a platform is available, they have little to no control over how the content is used. As a minority entering the mainstream (the straight white world) we find ourselves labeled as the other. I would never create a billboard that said “she or he?,” or something equally lacking sensitivity. Even though last year was considered the year of transgender awareness, the undertone of many trans-themed features still read along the lines of ‘look at the beautiful freak.’ The focus was on the individual’s gender, and the transformation to becoming a woman. When do we ever say, “Kate Moss, white model, born female”? It shouldn’t feel necessary to describe me, or any another LGBTQ or non-binary person of color, by my gender or ethnic background.
HL: What about the makeup? Were you trying to achieve a specific look with it?
MG: The makeup… I had a lot on! I had smoky eyes, a glossy lip, gelled brows, and some contouring on my nose and cheeks. For years, I compiled binders full of my favorite fashion magazine pages with little idea of why I found the imagery compelling, whether it was a color palette, the makeup, or the inspiring locations on private estates. They now serve as tools to learn how a model holds her body or references product placement. Though makeup trends vary, depending on the era and the brand, I see definite similarities between how makeup is used on a woman’s face —which shapes and features are celebrated and considered feminine.
HL: It is obvious that JEANS is in the middle ground between art and commerce. Were you thinking of incorporating the two while creating the work?
MG: I think this confluence has been gradual with time. The first video I made with a real connection to commerce was a music video for my pop star persona where I feature a white BMW convertible—the video could easily be mistaken for a BMW advertisement.
I inherently have an aesthetic that could be paralleled to fashion imagery or product merchandizing; I depend on my constructed fantasies to convince viewers that they should rest on their preconceived notions of what they are seeing. In reality, things aren’t what they appear to be: locations are sets, people are mannequins, I was not born female. Up until two years ago, I used predominately male pronouns. I am interested in how the fashion world builds glamorous settings. The transformation of products and models, specifically women, have always escaped reality in a way I find aspirationally inviting.
HL: Can you speak about the gendered visual cues in the image? By this I am mainly referencing your derrière cleavage and what it represents in terms of gender politics.
MG: The fastest way to answer this is: “kiss my ass!” If your question had come from a seemingly entitled, straight white male, that would have been my answer! I would flip my hair and walk away. But I’ll delve a little deeper here…
When selling anything, there is an unspoken commitment to selling sex at the same time. This is true for fashion, cosmetics, cars, and produce. I mean, don’t get me started on Chiquita Banana! It’s part of marketing anything – it’s sex sex sex. In the past, I’ve shot several portraits wearing feminizing makeup and I showing my boy chest; it was quite jarring. Since I started hormone replacement therapy, I feel less and less the need to feminize my gender because features that were once masculine are now veiled by soft round flesh. I feel the need to nurture and protect myself as I am only budding—my derrière at the moment is the most familiar currency I have to showcase.
At first I shot a lot of images with the pants buttoned. Only in the last couple frames did I unbutton the pants and pull them down. Comparatively, the last images felt much more dynamic and a lot riskier. The small of a man’s back doesn’t have the same currency that a woman’s does. Because my body reads so feminine in the JEANS image, it becomes more charged. If I had my scruff and my happy trail and was poised in the same position, where would the viewers’ attention go? Would they still see me as feminine? Probably not. Does it make me an activist to use my gender to say, “Look at me, I’m non-gender binary?” I don’t know, but I don’t want my identity to ostracize the conversation.
HL: So why do you want people to look at this image?
MG: Well, I want to be famous! No, I’m joking… I want validation. I want to feel extraordinarily ordinary. I want this billboard to address the obvious: public gaze and self-exhibitionism, and my use of mechanisms of consumerism to fabricate a non-existent brand. The craftsmanship with which I execute my practice should be at the forefront of the conversation. These topics would be the meat of the press if I was a straight, white or cis male artist.
HL: Finally, can you explain the campaign hashtag #martinejeans. Are people going to find anything if they look up that hashtag on social media?
MG: #MARTINEJEANS! At first I was thinking about putting one of my websites on the billboard but I don’t want to promote myself in that way. Modeling is not an aspiration of mine, though it is a skill I am interested in honing for my work. The hashtag seemed like the best navigator to produce content for the project and guide curious viewers to find more information about my practice. #martinejeans leads to a collection of images on Instagram. It connects to all my other posts regarding JEANS, like #behindthejeans. If anyone uses the hashtag when posting an image, it will automatically be part of the project on Instagram. The hashtag could even link to this interview, making it evident that it isn’t a real advertisement for jeans but an installation brimming with commentary.