I had a very good editor, superlative for me — Bob Gottlieb. What made him good for me was a number of things — knowing what not to touch; asking all the questions you probably would have asked yourself had there been the time. Good editors are really the third eye. Cool. Dispassionate. They don’t love you or your work; for me that is what is valuable — not compliments. Sometimes it’s uncanny; the editor puts his or her finger on exactly the place the writer knows is weak but just couldn’t do any better at the time. Or perhaps the writer thought it might fly, but wasn’t sure. Good editors identify that place and sometimes make suggestions. Some suggestions are not useful because you can’t explain everything to an editor about what you are trying to do. I couldn’t possibly explain all of those things to an editor, because what I do has to work on so many levels. But within the relationship if there is some trust, some willingness to listen, remarkable things can happen. I read books all the time that I know would have profited from not a copy editor but somebody just talking through it. And it is important to get a great editor at a certain time, because if you don’t have one in the beginning, you almost can’t have one later. If you work well without an editor, and your books are well received for five or ten years, and then you write another one — which is successful but not very good — why should you then listen to an editor?
These Hollywood archetypes and cultural stereotypes — a lot of that was used as propaganda. It keeps us from connecting with other people, because we get stuck on the historical stuff that’s supposed to keep us separated. We’re really not that separate. I have to work on that in my day-to-day life, because even as an artist, it becomes so insular. My work keeps me connected to something bigger than myself, where I can connect with people and have a dialogue.
I am hopeful that my mother will be around to share many more years with us. But I’m now attempting to find some comfort in the idea that I can keep her close to me for as long as I live by struggling to remain decent, the pursuit that I’ve seen conjure up incredible power during the course of her life. The world takes from us relentlessly. It takes our friends and first loves. It takes our parents. It takes our faith. It takes our dignity. It takes our passion. It takes our health. It takes our honesty, and it takes our credulity. To lose so much and still hold onto yourself is perhaps the most complicated task human beings are asked to perform, which is why seeing it done with aplomb is as thrilling as looking at dinosaur bones or seeing a herd of elephants. It’s an honor to exist on Earth with these things.
Depending on what stage of the project I am in, the process differs. Early on, I am sketching, doing drawings, working out characters, relationships, and connections between the paintings. That goes on for a few months in the beginning. [For this work,] I had just come off of a more research-based online project (John Brown Song! for Dia Foundation) and the paintings needed to absorb that material in a somewhat removed and tangential way. I don’t think of the two projects as explicitly related, but similar questions inform the works.
In terms of what happens in the studio, over time my activity becomes more regimented, more precise. An entire day could be mixing a background color and doing tests of that color, or a day could be devoted to what [the characters] are wearing on their feet, and cross-checking feet. I work on the paintings as a group so they are all brought along at the same time, and they are all finished at about the same time.
What’s the best way to watch it or interact with it? I can tell you, I did not watch it linearly. I watched the first two, then I went to all thumbnails and I clicked around there, then I went back to the original one and clicked through, then I went to the last page. So I was all over the place. You obviously put in a lot of time thinking about how you placed that, and then I just disrupted it.
I suspected that people would go into it in wildly different ways, though I suppose I do have my preferences for viewing it. I think it is also okay to mess with my usual ability to control things—as I would with paintings—because a premise of the series is that they’re asking artists to work in an unfamiliar medium. I mean, I didn’t even know how big a pixel was. I didn’t know what the refresh button was at the top. I worked with a technician who did the programming that made it all work. I designed what you are looking at on each page, all of the details, and how you move through the site. I chose the videos and the archival material and did some minor editing. The videos were made by the participants so you are seeing each person’s individual choices once you start playing the songs. Like YouTube, I wanted a button to get out, a button to pause, simple ways to give you maximum control. I wanted to give you choices because if you’re trapped with someone singing for that long and you’re not happy with it, you won’t want to stay. I went with what I like about looking at things on the Internet, and I have to be able to stop things. I don’t like being trapped, and I don’t like things that have a long load time.
One of the questions, given its simplicity: is the user experience going to be enough to hold someone who’s younger? My aesthetic is really pared down. If you look at my paintings, that carries over. Having it on a white background was a big decision. The guy I was working with was suggesting I could have things moving or changing or blinking and I came out of that conversation asking, “But could I have it on a white background?”
The older you get the more you think about what your beginning was like. So that I think the South has a lot of influence in my work. You can see that you’re responding to an environment that you may not have necessarily thought was still present.
I think of the color of plants, spring plants. The color and the presence of trees. Things that were outside that I discovered. If you live in Washington you discover azaleas or you see forsythia for the first time. And at some point of discovery, you think back to the first time that you noticed color in landscape. What were the colors that you see? In the South it would be evergreen, or particularly in Mississippi, that evergreen forest. And it becomes the models for instructing you to do things.
Well, I’m a daughter of the [G]reat [M]igration as, really, the majority of African Americans that you meet in the [N]orth and [W]est are products of the Great Migration. It’s that massive. Many of us owe our very existence to the fact that people migrated.
In my own family’s case, my mother migrated from Georgia, from Rome, Georgia to Washington, D.C., and my father migrated from southern Virginia to Washington, D.C., where they met, married and here I am. Had it not been for the Great Migration I wouldn’t exist, and yet I felt that the story wasn’t really being told from the perspective of the people who had lived this.
We didn’t know why they left or how they made the decision to leave. What were their lives like before they left? How’d they get the courage to leave the only place they’d ever known for a place they’d never seen, for an uncertain future in a place that was often cold and forbidding, anonymous and not welcoming to them, and how did they make it once they got there?
Those were the kind of questions that I had, and those are the questions that really help to give us a sense of how the cities came to be and how so many African Americans ended up in these cities – Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York.
I actually refer to them as immigrants. I refer to them as having the same kind of immigrant heart and motivations and desires and goals and dreams for themselves as any immigrant, as any person who might have crossed the Atlantic in steerage.
So what I’m looking at is the fact that what is it that propelled them is a human story, a classic American story, and how tragic is it that they ended up having to go to far reaches of their own country in order to find the freedom that they really would have been born to.
So when I use it, I’m using that, in a way, as a provocative term to get us to think about this migration differently. They were doing what so many other groups of people are often lauded for doing. In other words, they came to these cities without really any backup at all.
They lived in neighborhoods where they were confined to. They doubled up and tripled up in homes or apartments or cold water flats. They took multiple jobs and ended up often making more money in the aggregate than the people who were there already.
In other words, they were working very hard in order to survive, which is the classic American story, a classic immigrant story, and yet they had to do that within their own country, within the borders of our own country, and yet they were not immigrants.
My Vassar College Faculty ID affords me free smoothies, free printing paper, paid leave, and access to one of the most beautiful libraries on Earth. It guarantees that I have really good health care and more disposable income than anyone in my Mississippi family. But way more than I want to admit, I’m wondering what price we pay for these kinds of IDs, and what that price has to do with the extrajudicial disciplining and killing of young cis and trans black human beings.
You have a Michigan State Faculty ID, and seven-year old Aiyana Stanley-Jones was killed in a police raid. You have a Wilberforce University Faculty ID and 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot dead by police for holding a BB gun. I have a Vassar College Faculty ID and NYPD suffocated Shereese Francis while she lay face-down on a mattress. You have a University of Missouri Student ID and Mike Brown’s unarmed 18-year-old black body lay dead in the street for four and a half hours.
“We are winning,” my mentor, Adisa Ajamu, often tells me. “Improvisation, transcendence, and resilience—the DNA of the Black experience—are just synonyms for fighting preparedness for the long winter of war.”
Adisa is right. But to keep winning, to keep our soul and sanity in this terror-filled coliseum, at some point we have to say fuck it. We have to say fuck them. And most importantly, we must say to people and communities that love us, “I love you. Will you please love me? I’m listening.”
We say that most profoundly with our work. We say that most profoundly with our lives. The question is, can we mean what we must say with our work and our lives and continue working at institutions like Vassar College.
I’ve really come to believe that, as an artist, the work sort of tells you what you’re doing, you’re not in the drivers seat, the art sort of tells you. My practice is what it is and if I tried to force it to be something else, I think it would not be a good thing, honestly. That realization took a long time to come to, frankly.
The other thing is that I have taught for a very long time. I teach now. I actually really like teaching, weirdly enough, and it gives me enough of an income – it hasn’t always – but, at this point, it gives me enough of an income that I’m not dependent on gallery sales or commissions or honoraria for my income. God knows, I’m always happy to get them. This is not to say I don’t need them or want them. However, I’m not dependent on the solely, and that gives me a lot of freedom.
The third is that, having taught forever, there were times when I felt like, ‘Oh, I should do like some of my artist friends, I shouldn’t have a regular teaching gig.’ I teach part-time in two different places and have done for a long time. And, I thought, ‘I should drop this. I should just try to make a go of it as an artist’ because I see peers careers getting bigger. But the truth is, once the economic crash hit, I was so thankful I kept those jobs because so many people now who have had bigger careers would kill for my teaching gigs these days.
It’s weird, too, because in Los Angeles there’s much more respect for artists who teach than there is here in New York. In New York, I think it’s because the commercial gallery scene is such a driver of the art scene that there’s still that notion that if you’re not making a living on just your art you’re not really an artist. And that’s so not a part of growing up in Los Angeles where everyone assumes of course you’re going to teach if you can.
You obviously take the practice of creating art seriously, and on one level, critique is really important to keep art relevant. But at the same time, your critiques, especially Art Thoughtz, touch upon exactly what seems silly or irrelevant about Modern and Contemporary art. How do you maintain this balance?
Making art/stuff is the only thing I know how to do. So even if I ridicule it, that ridicule comes from a place of deep love and engagement. I think people should understand that if someone spends time engaging in a critical battle with a thing, they are tethered to that thing. What is Batman without Joker? What is Seinfeld without Newman?
What is the role of language in your work, especially the relationship between slang and jargon?
Language is a massive part of my work. Too Black for BET and Black Like Me are bodies of writing. Even my paintings Barack Obama Battles the Pink Robots and other visual works begin with phrases that dictate what the paintings will end up being. The works of Halcyon Days began as a joke I made in a Tumblr post about Coogis that I decided to carry over into the creation of my first fiber work. Everything begins with words for me. Words, phrases, and narratives come before picture and form for me.
What about slang vs. jargon in Hennessy Youngman videos specifically? One thing that strikes me about them is how part of the humor in the videos, unfortunately, is hearing someone decked out in chains and Coogi sweaters explaining Relational Aesthetics.
In terms of the vacillation between slang and jargon, I mean, this isn’t something new to blacks. Black people and other people of color exist within multiple worlds; they’re hybrid cultural citizens who develop methods of speech in order to traverse the white man’s world while still maintaining the voice of their own culture. It’s a survival tactic that precedes me by a vast amount of years.
I only recently realized that it’s been about a year since the last Art Thoughtz was recorded. Was it a conscious choice to stop filming? Do you think Hennessy will be back?
Yes, it was a conscious choice to stop. I honestly get bored pretty quickly, so the Hennessy project became personally unfulfilling after doing it for [two] years. The joy in that project was not knowing what I was doing; once I figured it out I knew I’d stop. And besides, I enjoy making art, not being an art pundit. I’m not cut out for that shit. It would just be pure hell to me to be an art critic. Jerry, Roberta, how the fuck do you do guys do it? Not that one can’t be a critic and an artist, but that split lifestyle isn’t for me. I much prefer the sloppy, dumb, pig-headed, Wile E. Coyote-running-out-over-the-cliff’s-edge, path of being an artist.