On a freezing winter day early in 2006 I showed up for a sparsely attended event at the Studio Museum in Harlem showcasing a few performance artists from the museum’s Frequency exhibition. Between performances, an R&B song piped incongruously throughout the room, presumably signaling intermission. Instead, heads in the audience gradually swiveled around toward a grown man behind us, barefoot and in a black leotard, crooning a Toni Braxton song into a microphone. He crept down a staircase and commanded the stage. It was the first time I saw Kalup Linzy.
Kalup is best known for his bombshell narrative videos (soap operas, really) in which he and a cast of artist-friends act out melancholic melodramas, routinely dressed in drag, often lip-synching to Kalup’s wildly manipulated prerecorded vocal tracks. Most recently, he has just finished a full-length album, recording a music video for each song.
After curating Shades of Black and White, a solo exhibition of Kalup’s black-and-white videos at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, also in 2006, I asked Kalup and Shaun Leonardo (a recurring character in Kalup’s videos) to collaborate with me on a performance at NurtureArt in Brooklyn. Shortly after, Kalup asked me to host(ess) his birthday party performance, also at P.S. 1. This openness toward collaboration, toward other’s ideas and interpretations, is one of Kalup’s exceptional qualities. Another is how his work cuts through the murky terrain of stereotypes—of blackness, gayness, normalcy, and the art world—without being cynical. Like John Waters’s films, Kalup’s can be uncomfortable, raunchy, and outrageous. Also like Waters, he makes them with love.
Nick Stillman This is a lamely conventional first question, but biographical details are pretty interesting in your case. Where did you grow up?
Kalup Linzy I grew up in a small rural community in Florida called Stuckey—not really a town-town, but a close-knit community where my great-great-grandmother and great-grandmother settled in 1898.
NS 1898? You know that?
KL Yeah, they all migrated there from North or South Carolina to work at a steel mill. Originally, the man who owned the mill and another man who owned the gas company donated land in Stuckey for people to build houses on. So they built shanties around the mill. We had a railroad track and everything, but there were no more trains by the time I came along.
NS So trains were like phantoms. I asked about where you grew up because the ways in which people organize as groups—family and churches, most obviously—are so relevant to what you’re doing. In the Conversations Wit De Churen series of videos, Taiwan won’t marry Harry because he’s freaked out about how the church and his family will react to him being with a man. What was your family situation like growing up?
KL I want to say “weird.” It’s not at all sad. In earlier interviews, I wasn’t comfortable with talking too much about my family situation. I never wanted to play the sad part—
NS Like Kalup the victim.
KL Because I am not a victim. I had some shitty situations when I was younger, but…I’m burping, not choking up. (laughter)
NS We’re printing that.
KL Okay, when I was around four years old my mother had my sister. We were taken from my mother because she was mentally ill. She was a victim of the crack epidemic of the ’80s, so, through my whole childhood she was on crack and other drugs on and off. I was living with my grandmother, and my sister was actually adopted by my aunt and uncle. I wasn’t adopted by my grandmother. Our father lived another town over, and I would go see him on the weekends. He was a migrant worker; he used to go to New Jersey to pick apples during the season. He was a crew leader—maybe that’s where I got some of my leadership skills from—and when he was in Florida he was very much the go-to man. My grandmother was deaf, but she raised her kids, and there were always people around like my aunts and uncles and cousins. My cousins, if they had a falling out with their parents, went to my grandmother’s house.
NS Sounds like she was the family leader.
KL Yeah, but then when I was 14, I went to live with one of my aunts and an uncle. I went there one night, just keeping a cousin company, and somehow I never left. I was still going to see my grandmother every day, but my aunt became the mother figure. My mother would go to jail, get out of jail, would be in mental institutions…. The longest I went without seeing her was four or five years. I didn’t see her at all during high school. I guess there’s always some type of void there. She’s emerged back into my life, but it’s a little different.
NS She’s emerged how? Tenuously? Carefully?
KL I’m 30 years old, so I don’t know what to make of it at this point. You just get used to a person not being there.
NS True. Rewatching your videos — KK Queens Survey, Julietta Calls Ramone, and a bunch of other pieces — I noticed that alcohol is this constant, though casual, presence. Julietta breaks up with Ramone and before they’re even off the phone he’s hitting the bottle. In KK Queens Survey people are draining beers while working as telephone surveyors. Was there alcohol around growing up?
KL A lot of the drinking in the videos comes from the clichés you see in soap operas; the dramatic alcoholic throwing bottles against the wall. In Stuckey, you saw people who every day at 5:00 p.m. were on the bottle, but it was fine. People were just drinking, laughing, ki-ki-ki-ing. You find this with a lot of men. They’ll drink and socialize; then they’ll go home and take care of their family, wake up the next day, go to work—
NS and that’s life.
KL I don’t know if they’re really alcoholics. People like my father—he used to drink and socialize every day, but I didn’t see it as something intense. My father used to have house parties; so did another one of my aunts, all this in a really small community. Here’s where we socialized where I come from: church on Sundays, some Friday night event, Bible study, the nightclub, or the juke joint. As children we were taught that drugs were the worst thing to do. But the drinking—the adults were having so much fun doing it. To watch them let down their guard and see your aunt become the nicest aunt in the world… (laughter) Until the next day—
NS when she’s the meanest aunt in the world!
KL It was so entertaining. Those aunts and uncles who were always so into discipline would disappear! But other people in my family—like my mother—she’d drink and do drugs and then there was a fight. We’re talking Pam Grier type of stuff; that’s what I always witnessed. People predicted that my mother would be dead because she was mentally ill. Somebody asked me once in a lecture how my work related to blaxploitation films.
NS A lot of those films are really smart.
KL Since then I’ve realized that it relates somewhat on a conceptual level. When I was a resident at the Marie Walsh Sharpe studios I sat down and watched some. Nobody showed me that when I was growing up. It was hard for me to take because of the violence. I remember one scene where this woman with razor blades in her hair was fighting this one dude. Growing up in Stuckey…some of the people that were on drugs used to get violent, so seeing that brought back some of those memories.
NS Speaking of memories, when did you start to think you might be gay?
KL I was always attracted to little boys when I was little, if that’s safe to say—
NS Interesting response. (laughter)
KL Oh, that’s my grandmother’s book right here.
NS That’s her picture on the book? (grabs book from TV stand in Linzy’s living room)
KL Yeah, and this is the house I grew up in, and this is Stuckey… Here it is. That’s my grandmother and my little cousin. Check out the photo caption: “Stuckey, Florida, October 1993.”
NS That’s amazing, man.
KL This is the yard I grew up in, and this is the trailer where my aunt would have house parties. I used to stand out there in the yard and not really eavesdrop, but just listen to the music and stuff like that. I was always into what grownups were doing.
NS What is this book?
KL A Communion of the Spirits by Roland L. Freeman. It’s a book about quilting.
NS Your grandmother is a quilter?
KL She was a quilter for a long time, but she’s dead now. She died at like 97. Anyway, where was I?
NS We were talking about when you first thought you might be gay.
KL So, my grandmother bought a health book, and it had a definition for homosexuality in it. And I read the book, because I knew. The book said that if you feel the attraction when you’re around like 12 or 13, it most likely means you’re gay. That’s the age when I was feeling a real strong attraction.
NS Did that freak you out at the time?
KL It didn’t freak me out, but it put me in a position where I could have had sex at a young age, because I wanted to act on it. Hormones were raging, but I grew up in the church, too, and I was learning how to play the piano. I loved being in the choir. I loved to sing, so I was having these images of going to hell—the conflict was so deep. When I really was attracted to a guy, it was like all in my bones, but it was also something I had to turn off, because if you don’t confess it, or if you don’t exorcise that impulse before you die, then you’re going to hell.
NS The openly gay characters in your videos have pretty honest relationships with their families. Was that true for you as you got older?
KL My family has its religious beliefs, but with my cousins, especially—there was no way we would reject each other. My aunt’s biggest concern was that I might get diseases, but that can happen to anybody. So they were concerned in a protective way. I’m sure there was a conflict with their religious beliefs; we had those conflicts within ourselves—I’m not the only cousin in the family who is gay, so that’s why I say “ourselves.”
Some Guiding Lights
NS Viewed against the majority of contemporary art, your stuff is totally bonkers—way out. I mean that in a completely complimentary way. You’re a video artist who has been making an ongoing series of soap operas for a while now. You once told me you wanted to act in soaps.
KL I did. I was obsessed with the Spaulding family on Guiding Light. Soap operas were a part of life. Every house you went to had the soap opera on.
NS So it was a method of social organization, a way for people to hang out?
KL People would talk about the characters as if they were real people. There was so much pride in them, especially Guiding Light. I’d hear things like, “Oh, you know, your great-grandmother, Mama Zada, used to watch this.” It got passed down in the family, so when you watched Guiding Light, you felt you were a part of a lineage. Then I got fascinated with the acting and intensity of it. When I was a small child, my aunts would go, “Kalup, how does so and so act?” And I would imitate them. I already had that in me, and it was nurtured, watching these soap operas and thinking that I wanted to be in them someday.
NS You also take the midlevel production values from soap operas. So many video artists—actually all visual artists—have become so polished that their work comes off as deadened and corporate. Not yours. A lot of your videos look like community-access cable television; their accessibility parallels the values and concerns of early video art. People don’t talk about this aspect of your work enough. You’ve been making music videos in two days, tops. You’re the writer, performer, editor, and producer. What was your really early work like?
KL They were like ten-minute soap operas. I was teaching myself the basics, and I rejected the slickness that was available, editing-wise. For me, just being able to sit there and do everything myself makes the character of the work more defined.
NS A Kalup Linzy production has, above all, its own style. By staying so low-tech you call attention not only to the editing and production process but also to your hand. For example, you manipulate the pitch and speeds of the character’s voices. Some are made slow and brutish, like Big Dick Johnny’s. Some are sped up almost to the point of unintelligibility. You’re a gender manipulator; both through the voices and through the way your characters are often dressed in drag.
KL Early on, the Conversations pieces were intended for my family and friends. The dialect that I used was one that they would understand. People always used to joke about my father’s side of the family; they talk so fast a lot of people can’t understand them. Somewhere in me, I carry that tongue, too. I hear it. I totally understand it, and I can go into it, because I was around it. So, I push that dialect in some of my work. I’m not mocking them, but playing those characters, I do sound like some of my cousins. It’s the intonation. If you raise the pitch, I sound like some of my female cousins; we have the same speech patterns. Families do.
NS What about drag performance? When did that become something you wanted to work into the videos?
KL When I was a resident at Skowhegan. I played a male character in the first art video I did, Ramone Calls Julietta. I was Ramone in the black version of the videos, and then in the next version I had two white characters lip-synching to the recorded voices.
NS Was it then that you decided that you would star in your own videos?
KL At that point I was only dealing with language. When I got to Skowhegan, they pushed me to do more videos with prerecorded voices. And I was like, Okay, if I’m going to do this, it doesn’t need to be all black people, and what would happen if I played a female role? When the person I had in mind wasn’t available for the mother role, I cast Whitfield Lovell and told myself I would have to play the daughter, so it would just be that thing! Two males playing two females. I wasn’t so deep into drag at that point. Before that, I would do lip-synching performances in front of my family and friends at parties. I could listen to a Whitney Houston song, for instance, and channel her, but it wasn’t something I considered an art form. I just knew how to perform. I used to do a James Brown impersonation, too. That’s how I saw it, but, of course, when you’re in an academic situation, all these other questions get raised and then you start asking them yourself. So I dug deeper into what that was all about.
NS You have this constellation of familial characters you’ve developed, specifically in Conversations, your most sustained series of work. You play the whole family. We’ve talked before about how those family characters might represent black stereotypes. Taiwan—in my opinion, the most developed—being the “brooding sulky one,” Labisha being the “sultry diva,” Jada the “career woman.” Are you combining stereotypes with autobiographical elements?
KL The original characters—Jada, Labisha, Taiwan, and Nucuavia—all came out of my thesis. We had to look at family history, pop culture, art history, archetypes, and stereotypes. At that time, I was having my own frustrations about how people assumed I was pissed off all the time if I wasn’t smiling. My face just changes dramatically. You always hear about this stereotype of the “angry black man.” I went, You know, I’m not an angry black man; I’m actually gay. (laughter) There was also this pressure to be the family man. So I had all this stuff going on. Taiwan was the residue of that feminine child that I decided to reclaim in the work.
NS So maybe all the characters have an element of something personal within you?
KL Yeah, they all do. I always say that from the jump; otherwise I couldn’t play the character.
NS You feel like you couldn’t play a character that didn’t have your personality traits?
KL There has to be something for me to connect to for it to come across as real. I could play anything from a point of artifice. A lot of times you have to say, If I was this person, how would I act? That’s an acting technique, but these were my own characters that I was developing, and because it was my thesis’s requirement, they had to relate to me.
NS That’s a difficult requirement for an art student—for any artist. To bring the personal into art and avoid being corny or trite is a tall task.
KL Yeah, before that none of my work was personal. It was just about reworking the superficial stuff you already saw being done in television. But in graduate school you weren’t getting your degree if the work didn’t resonate as yours.
NS Is this assignment why you know so much about your family history?
KL My family was always telling us stories, but also in 1998 I co-founded a festival in Stuckey to celebrate its 100th anniversary. I was always into history.
All My Churen
NS You’re a writer, performer, editor, and producer. A lot of those roles involve improvising with the talents and qualities of other people. All of your videos use mostly friends with no acting experience. How do you consider people for specific roles and how do you convince them to dress in drag and lip-synch?
KL Some just tell me they want to be in a video. Sometimes friends make suggestions. I also might cast them if I think they will be visually interesting.
NS You also make characters live outside the context of the soap operas. Katonya’s drawings are the best example of this. Do you always use her character to make the drawings? Are they Kalup’s or Katonya’s? What came first, the character Katonya or the drawings?
KL The drawings came first, and then I wrapped up the idea of Katonya with them. As of now, they’re all going to be done through Katonya’s perspective. In the beginning they were Magic Marker drawings on regular paper. I started them mostly out of frustration. Video wasn’t selling, and I went, How am I going to sustain myself?
NS I love it. So the drawings started as kind of a hustle?
KL And people were like, “Well the drawings are really good but we don’t think they’re archival.” I was running this by Whitfield Lovell and Fred Wilson, mentors of mine. Whitfield told me to get Arches paper—hot press, not cold press. Then I started making the drawings with gouache, not knowing where they were going. I showed them under my name at Taxter and Spengemann. I also made the video As da Art World Might Turn where Katonya’s character has a solo show of the drawings. In the video you see some of the gouaches and the marker stuff. It’s to show her transition, but it also represents me trying to figure out how to deal with the economics of the art world. Even if I had never done a video with the character, I could always continue to do the drawings through her. I’m never sure when I’m going to get the inspiration to explore a character.
NS The first time I saw you perform was at the Studio Museum. You were singing as Taiwan, and I had no idea that was happening—like who the hell is the guy in the leotard? How do you translate characters into performance?
KL I remember that night; there weren’t many people there.
NS I was one of maybe eight people. It was really cold outside.
KL I totally remember that. (laughter) That performance was picking up where Da Young and Da Mess video left off. It was called Da Young and Da Mess #2: A Performance, and I was performing Toni Braxton and Babyface songs. Everybody said when Toni Braxton first came out that she sounded like a man. I knew some relatives who didn’t like her for this reason. I sang “Let It Flow” and “When Can I See You Again.” They were both in a key that I could sing in without straining my voice. I took those two songs and then wrote the continuation of what happened to Taiwan and Harry, once Harry left town after Taiwan said no to his marriage proposal. I was just continuing the story of the soap opera with these contemporary songs. I’m doing the same thing with this new album I’m working on now. Harry’s moving on in his life and Taiwan is responding. That’s why you have “Asshole,” a delusional song.
NS It’s an angry song.
KL Yeah, but I actually wrote it a while ago. Maybe it was a premonition for stuff that I would use later—that happens. Sometimes I write stuff in a sketchbook and then later I go back and incorporate it. “Asshole” was performed at P.S. 1 for my birthday as an extension of my solo exhibition, Shades in Black and White. It was going to be part of Taiwan’s story, but I didn’t know an album would come out of it. Most songs are Taiwan’s, with other characters stepping in to break things up a bit.
NS What other live performances are you planning?
KL I’m going to be doing a performance at The Kitchen called Comedy, Tragedy: Sketches of Me. It’s more about me, Kalup, and then you’ll see traces and elements of my personality in the characters. The play is set in my room. I read scripts and play different characters and record them into a cassette player, and then I’m going to lip-synch to some En Vogue songs, you know, artists I listen to. It’s not too revealing, but I hope people can connect the dots, that this is how some of the work develops. Even though it’s about me, it’s still conceptual, experimental—
NS It does sound like it gives away a little bit more.
KL But I don’t think I’m as deep and complex as the characters.
NS Well, you’re capable of making characters with that complexity come to life.
KL It’s going to be totally based on me, but with a fictional story running through that will be representational.
NS Is that scary for you? Everything up until this point has happened through characters.
KL No, it will show more of my vulnerabilities. It’s going to open with a scene in which I’m going to be dressed like a young version of my mother. This character appears with a baby, then that baby gets abandoned; then I come back, dressed as the grandmother, and the grandmother takes the baby. That’s how it’s going to open, because that’s basically how life began for me. It won’t be too teary-eyed. (laughter) I don’t think it’ll be scary.
The Young and the Mess
NS It’s another lame interview strategy to pop the influences question, but yours are so different than conventional art world reference points. Obviously soap operas, slapstick comedy, and YouTube seriality, like R. Kelly’s operettas, are influences. And, of course, early John Waters…that’s a very disparate array.
KL Yeah, those are pretty much them. Definitely soap operas. John Waters came later. R. Kelly is just a coincidence, because I’m in the art world and he’s more mainstream—
NS But there is something similar happening between—
KL Yeah, I listen to a lot of R. Kelly—his music that came before the operetta. MTV also had an operetta with Beyoncé years ago called Carmen.
NS Beyoncé always does it first.
KL Yeah, for this generation and a particular audience, but I wasn’t consciously influenced by that. I think how I sing naturally sounds a little bit like R. Kelly on some songs. Some people say my work reminds them of Richard Pryor, but I grew up on Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence, who were influenced by Richard Pryor.
NS Richard Pryor was our parents’ generation. Martin is ours. Anyway, my point is this: your influences don’t have much to do with the art world. Are you happy confined to that subculture or do you have your eye on something broader?
KL I was thinking about The Rocky Horror Picture Show in terms of my new music videos—about how images function in their day. Art and sexuality resonate differently in the black community. If I was just singing or creating for the mainstream, I would be constantly watering things down. As far as addressing issues in the black community, you can do that when you’re straight. If you’re RuPaul, who I love, then you’re most likely to be pigeonholed into just being queer. But if you’re Martin Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, or Tyler Perry doing drag, you get to be this black hero or icon. So that’s where things get a little complicated for me.
NS I was happy to see that all of the music videos you made for Sweetberry Sonnet, the album you just recorded, are still pretty raunchy. The art world is at a conservative and polished moment; what you’re doing is neither.
KL I need some off-ness. Taiwan is still walking around videos with his hair uncombed, you know? The audio doesn’t pretend to be perfect; it actually can help maintain that raunchiness. Compared to other R&B, mine can probably pass, but it’s not intended to be overcompressed and slick. In the Chewing Gum video, some of the edits are kind of off.
NS One man’s technical glitch is your way of forcing people to remember that a human made it.
KL Yeah, it’s obvious when the grit isn’t there. I don’t want to lose the grit. Even if people don’t know every single detail or every single reference, they can feel when it’s gritty. They can also feel when it’s slick.
NS You’re writing a feature film. How will you treat the production? And what’s the plot?
KL Well, it’s the character Katessa, who has been introduced, on and off. A short video was supposed to premier at MoMA’s Modern Mondays series, but I didn’t meet the deadline. I’ve approached you to be in it; I’ve probably talked about doing this for a year. Katessa is dramatic, obsessed with soap operas. I can’t decide if I want it to have warm, dramatic lighting or a clean, commercial, boring look. I like to be involved from the writing to the editing. It gives the work character. If I give it over to a cinematographer who does a certain thing—
NS You mean you’re considering giving the camera over to a cinematographer?
KL That’s why it hasn’t been done, because I don’t know yet.
As the Art World Turns
NS In KK Queens Survey, the artist character you play is grilled by a phone surveyor on whether she’s happy with her role in the art world. This isn’t the only piece you’ve done about art world metapolitics; As da Art World Might Turn also delves into its competitiveness, its petty dramas. Are you satisfied with the role you play in the art world?
KL Some days I am, some days I’m not. I’m just going to guess what my role is, because you can never really know. From my perspective, I’m an emerging video artist who people see as having some relevance to what’s going on now. But I have moments when I look around and realize, Damn, there are just so many artists. I see myself keeping the same themes, but now I’m making these music videos, and next I want to make a feature film and an episodic telenovela, and then there are Katonya’s drawings, and other work that evolves out of the characters. I try to keep it open and organic, but sometimes I wonder if I’m changing too much.
NS What are some conscious changes?
KL I’m shooting with a different camera, something I would have done years ago if I had had the money. The audio has changed in that same way. Like maybe I’m feeling something when I’m making it, and after I do it I may question it, but in the moment I can get totally into it and be totally whisked away. The production values change, but the place of creativity is still the same as always: me locking myself up in my room and just letting whatever comes to my mind come out. That’s how I was in high school; that’s just who I am.
NS Is your stuff ever discussed within a discourse that you’re uncomfortable with or isn’t representative of what you’re doing?
KL I learned early on that I can’t control every single context. I don’t want my work to always be thought of as gay this, gay that—black this, black that. I can’t stand that—those are not the only elements going on in my work. While this work may make people who connect to it feel liberated, it can also keep me and them marginalized. That’s what annoys me about politicizing. But I am happy when people connect and respond to the work. I come from this religious position where some people haven’t concluded that homosexuality is right. It creates a tension or a distance in those relationships, but that’s something that I accepted would happen. So I’ve had to learn how not to dwell too much on those opinions. I’m in the space I’m in because I can’t do what I’m doing and have it be accepted in other communities.
—Nick Stillman is an artist and writer living in Brooklyn. A regular contributor to Artforum, he will give a performance titled The Best Art Today at Exit Art in Manhattan this summer. Stillman is managing editor of BOMB.