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December 30, 2020

Poetics of radical criticality in the work of Demian DinéYazhi’

by Anna Harsanyi

This is an examination of the work of Demian DinéYazhi’ by curator, arts manager and educator Anna Harsanyi.

In the work of Demian DinéYazhi’, language and performance are creative tactics for puncturing the United States’ long history of erasure and destruction of Indigenous communities. Using the performative and confrontational power of text, DinéYazhi’ engages with the continued resistance work of marginalized communities. The artist’s provocations form moments to call today’s socio-politics back into their contexts of settler-colonial systemic violence.

America in 2020 was consumed with many layers of devastation and chaos, including the Presidential election. Social media echoed the frustrations of many over a ballot of, yet again, cis white men. Circulating amongst social networks in the months before the election was Zoe Leonard’s 1992 poem I want a president, which begins: 

“I want a dyke for president. I want a person with aids for president and I want a fag for vice president and I want someone with no health insurance and I want someone who grew up in a place where the earth is so saturated with toxic waste that they didn’t have a choice about getting leukemia.” 

Leonard’s poem goes on to name those harmed by mechanisms of political inequality, demanding a President who represents her LGBTQIA+ community, and who has experienced struggle, and whose body has faced injustice. Though Leonard’s poem appeals to inclusivity and “we see you” empowerment, the feminist and queer artistic movements she was a part of also excluded Indigenous, Black, Brown, womxn of color, and non-binary individuals. Her statement, often looked to as an iconoclastic work of contemporary art activism, is furtively checked for its omissions by DinéYazhi’, who extends an alternative, more urgent, set of demands in We don’t want a president. (2018). These begin with: 

“We don’t want a president. We don’t want tribal presidents. We don’t
want a vice president or a congress or supreme court that does not
seek consent or guidance from over 562 Indigenous tribes in this
colonized country. We don’t want a nation state or a man-made border
that severs ancestral traditions of trade and migration, or imposes on
the sustainability of flora and fauna.” 

The text continues towards a detailed and powerful reframing of what it in fact means to desire revolution or representation within the format of American government: the Executive Office and all of its administrative bodies are ultimately tools that perpetuate illegitimate occupations of Indigenous land and culture, and continued violence against its people. There can be no perceived “change,” “freedom,” “justice,” or any other shift when these outcomes are linked to the United States’ institutional practices. Through these assertions, DinéYazhi’ breaks open the common framings of public discourse, even amidst the purported progressivism of so-called “radical” social and cultural frameworks. 

In another instance, a recent performance titled SHATTER///, a collaboration with artist and composer Kevin Holden, was live-streamed at Portland Institute for Contemporary Art in September 2020. In a dimly lit room cloaked in a red glow, the artist recounts personal experiences as well as histories of Indigenous oppression. Holden’s guitar and pedals emit raw intensity, that at times envelop the vocals in cacophony. At a moment of crescendo in both the oration and the musical score, a destruction occurs. Behind the performers is a collection of objects that represent racist Indigenous stereotypes – a VHS of Disney’s animated film Pocahontas, a porcelain “Indian” tchotchke, and more; these were gathered in preparation for the performance at local thrift stores and antique stores/malls in the area. Thrown to the ground, stomped on, broken apart, their shattering is at once physical and metaphorical. This is an act of confrontation of the oppressive systems that created such racist objects, alongside the communities who consume and distribute both their material objecthood and the harmful meanings they encapsulate. Their obliteration, realized parallel to a wall of piercing sound, is a symbolic rupturing of the very social and political fabric that upholds these value systems, and their justification as harmless relics of “another time.” Though SHATTER///  has been performed in several venues in previous years, witnessing such breakage is especially cathartic and fiery in the present day. As conversations unfold about the future of the United States’ racist monuments and cultural heritage, and the history of atrocities they represent, smashing the material culture of this history and diminishing it to residue signals a reclamation of power necessary for confronting all efforts towards decolonization.

Part of what makes the work of DinéYazhi’ so poignant is its intentional development outside of the boundaries set up by institutional structures. Their work does not “need” an institution or an exhibition in order to take place, in order to thrive and take powerful hold over an audience. Viewership is a relationship that the artist cultivates through a deep engagement with their practice as part of existing legacies of collective resistance. The magnitude of DinéYazhi’’s work becomes apparent through a delicate employment of the poetics of radical criticality. The work is often described by the artist as a gesture or an offering, an affective creative process rooted in deep intention and critical purpose. Such careful consideration allows for an experience of work that entwines form and context. 

Another one of DinéYazhi’’s projects, AN INFECTED SUNSET, serves as one such offering to the resistance work of marginalized communities, work that has been ongoing for centuries. A self-published long form text which is sometimes accompanied by a performative reading, it was conceived of in 2016, when large-scale violent injustices occurred in quick succession: the PULSE shooting in Orlando; the uprising at Standing Rock; the police suppressions of Black Lives Matter protests; the contentious election of Donald Trump. Though the artist could not join these movements in person, AN INFECTED SUNSET, which they wrote between 2016-2018, served as a means to contribute their energy towards these actions. It was delayed and shifted in style and content due to Trump’s election. The text is personal and reflective, critical and observational. It speaks of interior and exterior, but also historical and contemporary, lived experiences. The second half of the book, LIBERATED POEM, is unbound and the pages are not numbered–free from book form. When performing a reading, the artist leaves the pages to fall to the ground as they read from it, to be taken away by audience members or linger where they fall. But these words and messages are not discarded. They remain, as the artist recently stated, “a ceremonial offering to community…I think of poetry and performance and writing as gestures of that continued role and dedication that the artist has to communities. I may not always be able to show up or be there physically, but my work will…create space, opportunities and awareness about these atrocities that are happening and that we are actively resisting.” 

Image caption: Demian DinéYazhi’ and Radical Indigenous Survivance & Empowerment (R.I.S.E), We don’t want a president., 2018.

Image alt text: Red typewritten text on a white background that reads: “We don’t want a president. We don’t want tribal presidents. We don’t want a vice president or a congress or supreme court that does not seek consent or guidance from over 562 Indigenous tribes in this colonized country. We don’t want a nation state or a man-made border that severs ancestral traditions of trade and migration, or imposes on the sustainability of flora and fauna. We don’t want corporations or an economic value system based on European dominion. We don’t want to be consumed, commodified, or held prisoner under the tortuous, deathly grip of capitalism. We don’t want a white academic critique of settler colonialism and genocide unless it centers Indigenous, Brown, & Black livelihood. We don’t want a revolution unless it involves Indigenous Sovereignty, the destruction of extractive industries, and the dissolution of the concept of wealth associated with power, oppression, assimilation, slavery, or death. We don’t want a relationship with the earth that doesn’t give back whenever something is stolen, lost, or contaminated. We don’t want a sexual and gender empowerment movement that does not take into account missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, trans/gender-gradient/non-conforming, femmes, queers, and 2spirit kin since the founding father and their ancestors pillaged this land. We don’t want to support a society that cannot function without the implementation of a paramilitary police state or the prison industrial complex. We don’t want to be dependent on the western medical industrial complex in order to survive or live in harmony with our bodies. We don’t want a white future savior. We want to die of natural causes and hold our loved ones knowing that heteropatriarchy has lost its own war against itself. We want to create on our own terms, in bodies of our own choosing. We want to restore our relationship with the cosmos/earth and move beyond the concept of western “truth”. We want to be fearless. We want decolonization. We want to exist never having to comprehend the need to defend ourselves. To worship only the earth. Part of the exhibition A NATION IS A MASSACRE. Demian DinéYazhi’ R.I.S.E. : Radical Indigenous Survivance & Empowerment.”

 

February 03, 2021

Subjective Thinking for Subtending Mediums, Producing Spaces as Otherworldly Engagements, and Extemporaneity: LaMont Hamilton in conversation with Katelynn Dunn

by Katelynn Dunn

This is an interview by writer Katelynn Dunn with 2020 artist-in-residence LaMont Hamilton.

Katelynn Dunn (KD): I’d like to jump right in and start with the first question: What does limitation mean in your work, or how do you surpass its idea in your practice?

LaMont Hamilton (LH): How can I answer that? Limitation. The first thing that comes to mind is an aversion. I kind of love this idea, because it’s so subjective. Limitation compared to what? If you were to have a very specific will or idea, limitation doesn’t really come into play. It speaks of a lack. And if you are operating with a sense of lack, then of course you will have a ceiling or walls with which you will have to contend.

One could say my approach to sonic work for the past few years comes from a place of limitation. I do single takes, and I deal from there. I work with what I have. I don’t go into Ableton, pull up all these things and have a surplus. I don’t even start from an idea. I start from a gesture. I utilize the idea of improvisation in my work almost as a principle. I have a photography background, and my photography was very much the same. I would work with a large format camera. I would work with one or two shots, one sheet of film on each side. It makes you think more about what you are going to do. You really have to make a connection and see deeply. Then, trust your instincts and your feelings when it’s happening, when you know it is right. I know when it feels right, and then I work with that. And that is my abstruse answer on limitation.

KD: That mirrors these conversations in a way. When you approach an art practice and fix these factors, such as refusals, into your process, it’s like writing out the uncontrollable limitations which turns everything towards your agency’s purpose instead.

LH: Something that is inherent in limitation, in my opinion, is a silence. With that silence opens up a space of reflection. If you have surplus, it’s like you have too many options, too many things to deal with. Then, you have to figure out what you’re going to use. I think it opens up more than what it hinders. Not to get too crazy in this, but it’s kind of where my mindset is right now.

The beautiful thing about limitation is that it has room for expansion. Limits are never, or I don’t think, physically, if you think of any realm, if you think of science or whatever, an end all be all. Limitation always has room to expand, whereas something that is limitless is almost impossible to fill.

KD: I agree with the parallel to silence, which is something that is in itself of the environment almost at a zero baseline, if that makes sense. If we think of those as equivalents in the way that you spoke about them, then it also means that a limitation could be a starting point. I think that is a positive way to think about things.

Going into your approach to your medium, I am wondering how you decided to use feathers in the work, J.W, R.H, H.D, E.R, NHP (whispering of the self to the self), 2019. I felt that it was an interesting choice visually, from a sensorial viewpoint, and maybe sonically as well.

LH: There are historical references to ostrich feathers especially in mythology, but I can’t profess that I am fluent in that. The whole idea was sensorial. The idea was to build off of a piece I did at The Drawing Center for my Open Sessions residency.

I made a large-scale poem titled On a Stairway Beneath the Eyes, 2018. It is written fully in braille, and it expands maybe 60 or 75 inches. It’s a pretty considerably sized piece. From top to bottom, the writing was probably a good four feet. For the braille, I punched holes into foam paper then placed it onto the wall to create the text. My main idea was to invite a different type of perspective into The Drawing Center, which is very sight-focused. I wanted to invite the blind or visually impaired to come into the space. Principally I wanted them to be able to engage with the artwork from their own perspective. The braille opens up another type of understanding. It completely allows us to dive into this other abyss of imagination. I really like the work to be ephemeral, and I really like the work to be multi-sensorial.

With the feathers, it’s kind of similar. This installation was at SculptureCenter. People engage with sculpture as a hard object that you cannot touch, but this was something that had to be engaged. To go to the next part of the exhibition, you had to walk through them. This was about the softness or floating of the feathers as you move through them. You could barely see anyone walk through it. These are huge feathers. It almost felt as if they were not there. However, they are there if you really close your eyes and go through them. The idea was to open up the senses and allow more people to engage with the work.

KD: There is another recent work titled, To Hear the Earth Before the End of the World, 2020. What actually constitutes the end of the world? I am asking this from an understanding of the sensorial aspect that is considered when making an environment. From that perspective, would the end be a means towards another world?

LH: I expanded the title of Ed Roberson’s book, To See the Earth Before the End of the World, with the author’s blessing. The implication is not actually the end of the world. It is to hear, because there are many worlds. I’m not talking about in a multidimensional way. We may be here on the same Earth, but my world and your world are completely different. What I am envisioning as I compose these pieces is not to open up to anyone. I would rather them be able to draw their own conclusions from what they hear. It’s been really amazing to hear what the audience hears and experience when they listen to the work. 

Hearing is an opening that is to sense. That is why the stillness of the work has a slowness. It has an undulation. It has stats and various sounds and frequencies that are modulated in unfamiliar ways. It is all to create a space in which one does not have anything that is recognizable to say “that’s water,” or “that’s a bird.” It really allows one to be in an abstracted, imaginative space. I am far more interested in those very places where people go rather than people getting my perspective. Everybody is telling everybody something. There are a lot of opinions in the world. This is to let people formulate from their own perspective. The reason why the work has such low frequencies, and high frequencies, low sound and high sound, and inaudible, and infrasound, and all these different things, is to conjure just that, feeling. You see that as being a theme in my work. I want people to engage in my work. I don’t even think of it as my work, it is what is coming through me. I want people to feel the works in a way that enhances and furthers my sense of feeling. Them being able to experience this, they get a sense of my feeling, and it creates an expanse. That is what I am more interested in.

KD: As you were talking about To Hear the Earth Before the End of the World and its expansiveness, I am wondering why you decided to have the piece performed, and how did that come about?

LH: It was supposed to be a live performance, but I had to open up another way of imagining how to deliver the piece to people. It builds on this performance that I did at Issue Project Room with a good friend of mine and collaborator, Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste, with a composition by Julius Eastman. While imaging the live performance, I thought about how I wanted the sound to really move into your bones. It is a fact that sound can actually do so. There would be no visuals or anything like that. 

I wanted to think of another way in which that type of feeling could be delivered. I invited another really good friend of mine, Brontë Velez, to perform–I don’t even want to use the word “perform”–to engage with the piece. It was improvised in the most beautiful way. There were no rehearsals. We had discussions about what they were feeling. We listened to the recording before the show, but there was no direction, nothing like that.

Image caption: LaMont Hamilton, J.W, R.H, H.D, E.R, NHP (whispering of the self to the self), 2019, feathers and bells
Image alt text: Dozens of human-sized white feathers are hanging down in a orange-lit room.

February 03, 2021

Language Independence, Media Performance, and Accessing Contextual Specificities for Livelihood: Carlos Franco in conversation with Katelynn Dunn

by Katelynn Dunn

This is an interview by writer Katelynn Dunn with 2020-21 Ground Floor artist-in-residence Carlos Franco.

Carlos Franco (CF): I am actually interested in how to think outside of language. What spaces can be opened up that are not bound by the rules already set for us? I always think that we could use the same words to explain radically different realities, so it’s always tricky with an interview, or just conversations in general, specially if they’re leaning on linear. 

Katelynn Dunn (KD): I went to your website, and the whole page is covered with a lot of artworks. I wouldn’t call them videos.

CF: See, that is what I am looking for. This is where language fails.

I work project to project, and definitely wouldn’t call myself a video artist. The videos you’re mentioning from my website are pieces from earlier this year. They’re usually one second long loops with content sourced from Instagram, mainly ads, and then dropped back into that bucket. I do them on my iPhone, which like for most, has become the space to be throughout the pandemic. You know, social media, the seedy spot that’s the only one open after hours. That workflow and distribution feel right. I think they deal with attention span. Not quite sure, words are failing me. 

I’ve enjoyed working from my mobile devices these last years during the in-betweens of life: commuting, before zzz, the bathroom, in the mid, between more time/space consuming projects. I’ve been inclined to play around with these devices for a while now, but from around late 2016, I was traveling a bit and started investing more time in them. The earlier projects that share the same genealogy as these, used to last up to 1:00 min, which has now collapsed into 00:01 sec. Got rid of all the saturated fats. 

That series, which has overpopulated my website, as I had mentioned, was created throughout the pandemic. I like that it has overtaken the site. It’s like a mob, and it reflects the design approach to this iteration of the website: a democracy, a digital flattening of my work, no hierarchical values in the relation between things, just stuff.

KD: I think there is an overall wave of a narrative when we view the condensed clips together. However, each one of the smaller pieces works individually as well. They all seem pretty critical of our social situation.

CF: I see them as micro essays. The content and information being so collapsed into each other creates an interesting cognitive effect where the relation between signifier and signified gets scrambled. Recently, another curator, Margot Norton, called them paintings, which I find interesting. It makes me think how that gap between the static and the moving image can collapse: at the end of the day it’s either your eye moving or the image, but there’s always movement, even when seeing a painting or reading a page. I love to use a phrase: ‘how many moments are there in one second?’ I think these pieces start to reflect that.

It’s been a whole thing about how to present these works outside of the social media context from which they’re created. In April, Galleri Nos in Stockholm commissioned an exhibition for their Instagram account of this work, which I quite enjoyed working on from the comfort of my bean bag and couch while quarantined. More recently I was working with a curator to have them in a show in a monastery in Rome which got cancelled, or postponed, who knows these days. The structure was based around a media player I designed which is linked to a folder on the “cloud.” Each time a person comes into a spot, the media player gets triggered and chooses one of the pieces from this folder at random and loops it until that person leaves the spot, at which point it goes blank, until: loop.

I don’t want to treat any of these videos as objects by themselves, or treat them as is usually done with art pieces: precious objects. These, I want to treat as a full set. The relationship with the video ends up being a mathematical or data set. Currently there are about 170 of these videos, give or take.

KD: The presentation of the multitude of fast flashing images makes the work feel a bit larger than life. You throw a lot of content and information at us. The images are disassociated enough that they then create new associations as they are presented, and it happens so quickly that we might not even realize what is being shown to us. There is also the sense that you don’t allow the media to limit you, which also speaks to your approach to language. The way you use material now, utilizing the digital content, is much different than your other, I would say, physical, pieces. What is your perspective on materiality and medium?

CF: The medium is the message. To put this into context, we could refer to media theorists Marshall McLuhan, Friedrich Kittler, or more recently John Durham Peters. If you put a video on an iPad, it will take a lot for me not to see the video as a sculpture. Even more so if it is in a white cube. I remember Sharon Grace once telling me “There’s no innocent space, everything is designed.” If I’m going to put an image on a wall, that has its own history including the architecture and the act thereof, then I think about how to acknowledge cultural cues as well as interesting ways to contextualize them within theoretical frameworks from which to work. Nothing happens in a vacuum, we are the vacuum.

Referring to my work, S.01, Ep. 02-03 (2020), in relation to media specificity, I ask the questions, what does it mean to keep time? What is a landscape? How do those two relate? Connecting those two is basically the basis of modern societies, or agrilogistics. I think about Hesiod’s poem, Works and Days. I think about how much of societal structure was choreographed around the seasons, about harvesting, about surplus of grain. Then I extrapolate that to the country of my origin, Puerto Rico, where season means a wholly different thing. There is hurricane season, and that’s about it. I think about those first Europeans in the Americas and how they contended with the phenomenon and the concept of these massive storms; how European ideologies made sense of American ecologies while sidequesting into colonialism… so on… so on.. so on.. and now binging.

Those “stories” emerge from the node that is the work S.01 Ep 02-03, which at the end of the day is a clepsydra. This is just a fancy word for “water clock.” However, I wouldn’t expect any viewer to make the same connections or have the same experience. I’m reading what I see within the space such as water tanks and plantain trees from my own nexus. This goes back to media specificity. How do you create a space for brains, and sometimes bodies, to play within? In the most obvious sense, that depends on awareness and capacity to frame these materials and their composed realities. I used to compare my work to designing video game levels. For example, you have a world that is built and designed. It seems competently coherent, but it’s up to the player to find her or his way through it. I would never say that my work aims to be coherent. That is too easy. However, I do aspire to nourish agency within the viewer by creating work that is captivating enough to entice the viewer to enter it within their own “within.” 

KD: I like the idea of thinking about non-physical space, and this touches on your point about what kind of systems we work for. Spaces are also for thinking, imagining, or perceiving things, which is a reason why I wanted to conduct these interviews. I wanted to hear from artists how non-visual space is shaped in times where our physical capacity is restricted, and how these impediments in movement affect our abilities to create. I also want to know how artists are devising their own spaces for creating right now.

CF: That’s a good leeway for one of the projects I am working on which may be my last “media as media” project, because I need to back away from my mind. It is a VR piece which will allow you to have a new kind of relationship with a media library, with a tint of my own style spread into the mixture. I don’t want to talk too much about it.

 

Image caption: installation view of Carlos Franco’s ISCP studio in the Ground Floor Program, November 2020.

Image alt text: In the front of a white rectangular room, a long, disorganized wooden desk is visible with a computer, laptop, monitor, water bottle, glasses, phone, and other items. To the left. a rectangular fence with rounded sides holds 6 funnels each with different color soda bottle connected to clear tubes filled with soda. A rod is suspended horizontally in the center of the room by a yellow chain. Close to the rod is a plant in a white plastic bucket. Three geometric posters hang on the right wall. In the back of the room, a black curtain covers the bottom half of the wall, with an air conditioner hanging above.

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