“I was (and still am) deeply indebted to fiction, graphic novels, albums and cinema. Making zines was a way for me to create ordering systems for my work. Although I don’t create linear narratives, I do think of my different bodies of work in terms of narratives.”
I understand that you fled a job in mid-management at Whole Foods to pursue your artistic dreams. Have you found the art world to be a more hospitable environment?
Well, I’m not sure I left that job with the initial motive of “following my artistic dreams”- I really just wanted to place myself in the pursuit of something I loved, follow lines of inquiry that would feed my endless curiosity and passion; I also wanted to feel like I was contributing to the world in a positive way, a way that might make a difference. I thought then, as I do now, that art can make a difference in our lives, even if it only connects with one person. It wasn’t really until I discovered other artists lives and the myriad conceptual/formal approaches one could utilize that I began to see a way for myself to have an “art practice”—that’s when the possibility of an art career began to form in my mind. I suppose I’m still working toward that, 15 years later.
You have said that you frequently ask yourself these questions in relation to your work:
- How did our primordial origins as organized and intelligent beings deliver us to the particular ways of being we operate under today?
- Can we still draw upon the primordial, the ancient or even the renaissance-era human story as reference for self-awareness in 2018?
- Can history serve the present in a deep and meaningful way?
How would you answer these questions today?
I can’t really answer all this succinctly, and I think of those statements as being partly for the imagination, and partly to inspire people to look at the connections of the present to various points in the past. Spelling it out seems so…limiting. But I’ll expand a little bit just to give you a better idea of my thinking.
I think of the primordial in terms of the utter beginnings of our psychological and sociological organizing, a sort of (perhaps non-historical) awakening of the systems of logic that we implemented at the onset of the species and have been revising ever since. This is how I ask myself about the roots of big problems. I DO believe that we write history intending it to serve us, to teach ourselves about ourselves, where we come from, how we got here, etc.—sometimes it does. Of course, the trouble is that record was often written to serve the masters and victors. That’s only part of it. I find it utterly fascinating that most of us don’t know much about even our own family’s history beyond, say, our parents’ generation. This could be for a number of different reasons…not knowing how our grandparents lived, what the times were like for them, what culture(s) they identified with and constructed their lives around. Then there’s the simple matter that most people don’t even give a shit about history, or they fail to make the synaptic connection between cause and effect. I don’t know. I have a BA in art history and often still think about pursuing a PhD in history, but I think my time/energy/brain waves are better spent making art. I think that humanity is just deeply flawed, individually and collectively. That our formative systems were first about self-preservation is one thing, that they morphed into massive, sprawling belief systems of all sorts that justify and venerate hierarchical paradigms built on slavery, imperialism, greed, oppression and power is such a radically foul reality that it overwhelms me completely. Cops (and citizens) are killing unarmed people (and CHILDREN) with no consequence. People are committing mass murder daily—yet we don’t change our laws. Our f***ing president…The President of the United States…is accused of rape and sexual assault by multiple women, makes disgusting comments on every conceivable topic nearly every hour and favors heavy industry over the environment–this is our leader? It’s horrifying.
Here’s a quote from Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi:
“Today’s decision to shut down the Intelligence Committee’s investigation is part of a disturbing pattern by the House GOP to obstruct and interfere with investigations into the Trump-Russia scandal.”
She mentions a disturbing pattern. I get hung up constantly on patterns. Although this line of inquiry is just a bit more ambiguous in the specific work I’m presenting with Gates of the West, I have other bodies of work that are literal pattern drawings that refer to power and form, agency and time; a century old diamond pattern I found on the floor of the Vatican, window patterns in oppressive concrete buildings, patterns of repeating symbols. What’s really “disturbing” is when a pattern that is noticed isn’t simply the appearance of the pattern, it’s how deep the roots descend, how long the pattern has survived and thrived despite the damage it does. I love the Vatican pattern (which has since become the name for a pattern I repeatedly work with)–it’s literally a repeating diamond. Diamonds are symbols of class and power, (also men give them to women as symbolic placeholders prior to marriage) yet many of these very diamonds have been dug up and sold to finance warlords. The Vatican has been the epicenter of Christian power for essentially 2,000 years, and this history is oversaturated in blood, oppression and injustice.
The diamonds I found on the floor of a small room at the Vatican were all hand-painted, unique tiles, many of which were heavily worn down from hundreds of years of foot traffic. It somehow struck me as profound—this simple, hand-painted pattern wearing itself out literally and, hopefully, symbolically. I can practically see the artisans who made those tiles now, bent over wooden tables, painting diamonds by candlelight, maybe even sharing belief with those that commissioned the work, believing in the work.
History can serve the present in a deep and meaningful way, and it does for many. A person concerned with history and truth and the primordial roots of the human condition is a person committed to changing the architecture of both our practical and symbolic realities. That person might become exponentially more grounded in what we have actually done (for better and seriously for worse), where we actually are, and how we might proceed through the present and into the future in the healthiest, safest way possible, for ourselves as well as for our personal, social, and natural environments.
I like this 1864 quote from Hermann Lotze (I found it in Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, which he was working on up till his death in 1940):
“Nothing is progress which does not mean an increase of happiness and perfection for those very souls which had suffered in a previous imperfect state.”
I would argue that, though progress has certainly occurred, we should examine more closely the relationship between those it supposes to help and the actual results it manifests. Progress has become less about social change and more a catchphrase for commercial agendas, agendas that are more about selling people a new car or a new pharmaceutical or a new pair of pants.
Anyways, I have to remind myself all the time to breath, to step back but not out, to find ways to wash away my cynicism. I’ve been hiking and playing guitar and reading fiction. Sometimes it helps.
In answering: “how do we find, create, and sustain genuine hope for ourselves and others?” We do the work. We be good, decent people. We work hard to relate to others with empathy and compassion. We work hard to understand our own ignorance. We share that work with people, seeking and giving safety for the vulnerability that it creates. We speak from a place of humility, a place that allows for a multitude of voices and truths to exist. We work to build social systems that protect people from all forms of physical and psychological harm: hunger, lack of health care and the infinitudes of inequality, abuse, oppression and injustice. We work to build a system that punishes people for the harm they’ve inflicted. Cops, priests, CEOs, congressmen, whosoever puts a malicious agenda or action upon others. We realize that our apathy and lack of connection only causes more harm, that it bolsters a pattern system that damages us. We believe that while anyone suffers, we all suffer. But mostly, we do the f***ing work.
How has Donald Trump and the current political discourse affected your work?
Trump’s presidency is a horrible disaster. I didn’t think I could actually be more disgusted with the Republican party, or with the “elite”, but I was wrong. What a savage embarrassment he is to this country and to common human decency. At least it seems that some of the people who voted for him are regretting it now. My work has always been a response to the climate of the times, I see Trump as an apex predator, one who (perhaps quasi) legitimately won the White House and somehow embodies what a percentage of Americans actually want or are willing to accept in order that some of their own agendas are accomplished. That sort of myopia scares the hell out of me. Feelings of dread, disgust, anger, cynicism and resignation are driving forces behind my work. But, with that said, I am inspired by the voices of so many amazing people surviving and standing up against everyday barbarism—against sexual violence, against institutional sexism and racism, police brutality, against guns and mass shootings, against environmental disasters.
What does it mean to be an artist?
Wow. That’s a question! I think it means quite a lot. Being an artist is a calling, one that can feel as if it leaves no other path as a choice. Here in the U.S., intellectual and creative callings are often still the subjects of derision, viewed by many as a waste of time, artists treated as if they were pulling some scam to get out of “real work” or as if they’re all trust fund kids with nothing better to do. Of course, some are, and many artists do end up sort of gaming the system of the art economy, but that’s a whole other can of worms. Being an artist is a philosophical undertaking. It is a poetic undertaking. I’ve always thought of my work, the drawings, zines and photographs, as poems, as philosophical fragments, that exist to ask questions. Sometimes these works might approach conclusions, or answers, but finding the questions, articulating the paradoxes, discovering the patterns, this is all that is truly important to me.
I’ve always felt strongly that an artist can and should grapple with the human condition, that he or she should be concerned with the riddles of being. This has never been entirely the case, as artists are enamored of the beautiful, of visual efficacy, of formal rigor–the mastering of vacuous aesthetics seemingly a justifiable enough of a reason to call oneself an artist. I’m regularly disappointed when I look at work or talk to artists whose motives are largely about the mere manipulation of their chosen media, as if becoming a “master” didn’t involve important ideas. I really don’t care about what is possible with paint or whether film photography is superior to digital. I only care about good ideas, engagement with social/political issues, and that the execution of a work of art utilize the necessary decisions to achieve those goals.
Part of your practice includes creating zines and you’ve been participating in art book fairs for quite some time. How long have you been creating zines?
I joke that I went to graduate school to learn how to make zines. I made my first zine (Move Along People Nothing to Feel Here, Volume One) during my first year in UCSD’s MFA program. That was 11 years ago. I have made over 50 zines/books since then. I was exposed to zines from an early age through skateboarding. Many skateboarders made zines, some of whom have professional art practices today, notably for me, Mark Gonzales and Ed Templeton. I paid close attention to everything they did back in the late 80’s and early 90’s—the way they skated, the music they listened to, the artwork they created for their skateboard graphics and the zines they made—all of which I could experience at the skate shops I frequented. Zines would always be around, both in skate shops and at punk shows.
Can you tell me about the process of creating zines?
I should say straight off that I consider zines to simply be artist books. Most often (but not nearly always), cheaply self-produced books with comparably cruder production values, but artist books nonetheless. The process is practically as diverse as the people who make zines, and I approach my own production in a number of different ways. Sometimes, I just cut a bunch of paper down to the size of the zine I want to make, then I draw and draw and draw. Then it’s down to ordering the pieces, editing out one or two I don’t like, then copying! My friend Yerrie Choo and I are working on a collaborative zine right now, in exactly this manner.
Other times, I might dig through my hard drive and extract a series of photos to tinker with in Photoshop, sometimes pushing the values to extremes, other times just auto-levelling the images and going straight to print. Nowadays, I go on photo missions in different cities around the world to document the various motifs I’m interested in—anonymous pedestrians in front of abstract backgrounds, patterns in architecture, people sleeping on the street, urban curiosities, sublime moments, etc. and make various photo zine series via this practice.
Still other times, I might just show up to a copy shop with some collage and drawing materials and sit there fooling around with the actual copy machines until I’ve discovered something I’m interested in pursuing. The improvisational aspect is really fun and can yield unexpected results and rewards.
What drew you to the medium?
When I started graduate school, I was interested in the possibilities of narrative form, sequential form. I was (and still am) deeply indebted to fiction, graphic novels, albums and cinema. Making zines was a way for me to create ordering systems for my work. Although I don’t create linear narratives, I do think of my different bodies of work in terms of narratives. I think of them as non-linear, but that simply suggests more possibilities for ordering and reordering, which can suggest multiple narratives and meanings, create deeper nuances, unsettle conclusions, keep the questions open. Zines, like exhibition concepts, are empowered by endless potential, near infinite variation and deep possibility.
How long have you been participating in art book fairs and where?
I exhibited work from my first zine project, which was titled “Move Along People Nothing to Feel Here,” at the NY Art Book Fair back in 2009, at the booth of my good friend and collaborator, Darin Klein. I had a booth of my own there the following year and have since regularly participated in zine and art book fairs in New York, Tokyo, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Mexico City and Basel, Switzerland. My zines have been included in a number of national and international exhibitions and in a couple of very nice overviews of self-publishers, including “Behind the Zines: Self-Publishing Culture” (Gestalten, 2011) and “The Newsstand: Independently Published Zines, Magazines & Artist Books” (Skira Rizzoli, 2016).
Whose publications have you been influenced by?
Chris Johanson, Mark Gonzales, Ed Templeton, Raymond Pettibon were the first big influences as far as zines and art go. And after 10 years participating in art book fairs, my list is expansive! Of course, the masters: Daido Moriyama, Nobuyoshi Araki, William Klein, Robert Frank. Many others from that category. I have a great love of Bruno Munari’s books, as well. As for some more contemporary radical people I dig: Rick Myers, Tauba Auerbach, Taryn Simon…Broomberg & Chanarin are making amazing books, Mack Books is incredible. Heather Benjamin, Hamburger Eyes, Emma Kohlmann, Christopher Kardambikis, Jay Howell, Darin Klein, Chris Duncan, Nathaniel Russell, Café Royal Books, Nieves Books, Innen Books. They’re all doing fantastic stuff that I look to constantly for ideas and inspiration. I have so many more friends doing amazing stuff—I can’t mention everyone. Come to my table at the Independent Art Book Fair in LA (April 6-8) and I’ll run it down for you. Or find me at the Tokyo Art Book Fair this fall! Also, places like Needles & Pens (SF), Printed Matter (NY) and Ooga Booga (LA) have been a critical resource for me.
Last book you read?
Kindred, by Octavia Butler. She’s my favorite, a radical mindblower. I’m currently reading The Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison.