I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
I’ve been a great admirer of Simone Leigh’s work for some time now, and more recently a growing fan of American Artist, an emerging cultural producer who deftly explores the digital information age through the lens of blackness and African American culture. So it was with great pleasure that I learned the two would be in conversation for this issue of BOMB.
I found the pairing surprising, since their respective practices are so different. Leigh is celebrating a remarkable year: the artist was prominently featured in the Whitney Biennial; her sixteen-foot-tall Brick House was installed on the High Line; and she presented a solo exhibition, Loophole of Retreat, at the Guggenheim on the occasion of winning the 2018 Hugo Boss Prize. She works primarily in sculpture with a focus on black female subjectivity and the aesthetics of Pan-African art.
Whereas Artist, who legally changed their name in order to rethink the “traditional notion of what an American artist is in the canon,” works in installation, video, and new media. While often incorporating sculpture, they frame their conversation around new technology and the digitized world.
What follows is Leigh’s first visit to Artist’s studio, where the two spoke about Artist’s recent solo exhibition I’m Blue (If I Was █████ I Would Die), their current projects and research, as well as generating community and public engagement. Their poignant intergenerational exchange, in which Leigh offers pointed feedback and advice, reveals the similarities in their approach to artmaking, including an unwavering sensibility that is personal, thoughtful, and deeply political.
Simone Leigh Tell me about your show at Koenig & Clinton.
American Artist For I’m Blue (If I Was █████ I Would Die), I was looking at the development of the Blue Lives Matter movement. I was inspired by this essay by Tiana Reid and Nijah Cunningham called “Blue Life,” which thinks through this notion of blue life as an identity the police force seeks to embody that doesn’t actually exist. It’s an attempt at a corporeal manifestation of state power.
SL Can you send me the essay?
AA Definitely. And I was also thinking about the pedagogical aspect of police identity, how this fraternity-like mentality gets instilled in officers. That’s why I became interested in the format of the classroom. With the shielded desk sculptures, the idea is that the police would be sitting in them, but they aren’t able to receive any information. So it’s this nullified classroom experience, but also the notion of blueness is reified by the structure of the classroom. So when they look at the blackboard, it’s just covered in this blue police fabric.
SL It’s like a reverberation of itself. Mirroring. There’s a lot of formal interest in this installation, especially the blackboard. There’s something lush about the fabric. Is it used for uniforms?
SL It’s so soft.
AA That resonates with the video, Blue Life Seminar (2019), in the installation as well. Both these spaces of looking are sort of hypnotic and mesmerizing. With the video, it’s partially because the music is so soothing, or at least that’s how many people received it.
SL Where does this being who appears in the video come from?
AA This character is a combination of two different people: Christopher Dorner, the real-life ex-LAPD officer who in 2013 killed four people, including two police officers and was subsequently hunted by police. And then the other character is the fictional Doctor Manhattan from Watchmen. I was drawing a relationship between their biographies. Doctor Manhattan comes back from the dead after a freak laboratory accident as this blue person who’s then employed by the state as a weapon during the Vietnam War. And then he grows frustrated with being placed in this role, and he rejects it and goes to Mars to be away from society. There’s a similarity to Dorner witnessing the racism and problems within the LAPD and having this moment of feeling betrayed by the system, and then he turns on it by shooting police officers, their family members, and associates. I also wanted to make this relationship between the blueness of police identity and blackness, for a black police officer. So there’s this tongue-in-cheek aspect of Doctor Manhattan being a literal blue person. The script takes parts of Dorner’s manifesto that he posted on Facebook outlining his motives and juxtaposes them with Doctor Manhattan’s story.
SL Have you heard of Charles Oscar Etienne? Or the Chaloskas?
SL The Chaloskas are masks that come out for the Carnival in Haiti. They’re named after Charles Oscar Etienne, Port au Prince’s chief of police under President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam. There was a coup staged in 1915, and overnight Etienne killed 167 of Sam’s political prisoners. Haitians reenact him using this mask apparatus because he was famous for his big, broad teeth. In the Caribbean and the larger Global South, there’s the idea of embodying an evil presence as a way to purge yourself of it. It reminds me of the process you’re engaged in. In Namibia, the Herero women wear outfits derived from missionary dress, and the men wear uniforms that mimic the German colonial uniforms. This type of reenactment is interesting. Although, Dorner is such an ambiguous character. Do you feel he was a hero?
AA I think he was still a police officer. I’m interested in this inability to reconcile blackness and blueness—that’s how I envision his breaking point, the impossibility of reconciling the two. So I wouldn’t say he’s a hero, but I am trying to reframe how he’s been positioned publicly, which is as a domestic terrorist. Because from my perspective, all police officers are domestic terrorists. So I want to think of his actions as an intervention within the police force. Along the lines of this embodying something in order to purge it, I was living in Los Angeles at the time that this happened. And talking to people on the East Coast, it sounds like it wasn’t so widely talked about there. From what I can tell, in Los Angeles, the main reason it was widely publicized was so citizens could help police officers find Dorner and kill him. As soon as he died in a shootout with police, there was no more coverage on the news.
SL They found a way to really silence it.
AA So in that way my memory of it was sort of faint. The Dorner case happened in early 2013 before the Black Lives Matter movement really came to prominence. I wanted to think about this again, within the context of Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter.
SL And Blue Lives Matter came after Black Lives Matter, right?
AA Yeah, it’s a direct response to Black Lives Matter.
SL I’ve been researching Julian Carlton, a Bajan man who was a servant in a Frank Lloyd Wright house. The “Love Cottage,” where Wright’s mistress, Martha Borthwick Cheney, lived with her children. This servant attacked them with a hatchet and set the house on fire. You ever heard this story?
AA Wow. No.
SL I’ll send the article to you. “The Murders at Taliesin.” It’s another one of these interesting moments where someone stepped out of their position to everyone’s great shock. I mean, it’s shocking to me how few incidents there are of true retaliation. We’re such a nice people. You know? (laughter)
AA And when there is retaliation, it’s so epic. It’s sort of a retaliation on behalf of all that has—
SL —gone before.
There was a man in Crown Heights [Abner Louima] who was assaulted and raped with a broomstick by police officers in the late ’90s. And I made this piece in response called Giuliani Time (2007) that involved these plungers. I liked the piece, but I got really exhausted from it being described so literally in criticism. It seemed particular to me—even today, people try to describe my sculpture, in a way that I don’t think they would ever a Richard Serra. Or ask questions they would never expect an answer to if I wasn’t a black woman artist. I wonder what your experience has been because you’re of a different generation, if critics are subtler about your work than they have been previously.
AA That’s a good question. I’ve been lucky that a lot of the people who have written about my work have had a sustained interest in it. So perhaps they’re more generous than if they were just assigned to write about it. And if they follow what I post online, I talk about what I’m reading and other things that come into the process. So they’re able to refer to those things for additional context. As far as criticism surrounding the show, I was mentally prepared for some backlash because I’m critiquing the police in a pejorative way, and I was surprised—
SL —that it didn’t trigger more public protest?
AA Yeah. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it made me realize how insulated an art-world conversation is, or perhaps the show was too coded to be read as something overtly critical.
SL I think it might be too subtle compared to other things I’ve seen done on similar topics of late.
AA Let me show you the books dispersed among the desks in the classroom installation. This one has Bible passages associated with different aspects of police life—to guide them about their day.
SL Oh my God. The Proverbs 31 Police Wife.
And this one—is it written by a black man? Black Lies Matter by Taleeb Starkes.
AA That one might be self-published. It’s really poorly done.
SL Is there such a thing as a hotep cop? (laughter)
AA Definitely. (laughter) Though can you be a hotep if you’re anti-black?
SL Well, I think a lot of people argue yes. There was Rachel Dolezal. She’s a good example of the embodiment of anti-blackness. I can’t remember who—maybe Greg Tate—described her presentation of self as hotep white supremacy. She’s doing that though. I mean, her hair is completely on point. (laughter) So I guess, there’s that possibility.
Do you ever find, in your travels through this darkness, an interesting perspective? Have you found an eloquent cop who actually has something interesting to say that’s subtler than Blue Lives Matter?
AA Well, that’s what was interesting about Dorner’s manifesto: it was quite eloquent. A lot of the points he was making would make sense to most people. And that’s also what was frustrating about him being cast as a domestic terrorist. Of course you can’t separate his writing from his killing these officers. But it says something that someone who felt they needed to do that was writing, for the most part, pretty reasonable things about the racism and white supremacy within the police department.
SL Did you ever read or go see A Soldier’s Story?
SL It’s a film based on a Charles Fuller play about a sergeant who’s like Charles Oscar Etienne, or all these compromised characters in Chinua Achebe’s books or Ngu˜gı˜wa Thiong’o’s books. They’re not exactly Uncle Toms, but they’re enforcement for the state or patriarchy or colonizers. The black enforcers. So he’s awash in self-hatred and has lots of interesting soliloquies about his conflict about being a soldier in World War II. He takes his rage out on other black soldiers. It’s devastating but really well done. And I think it would interest you.
Is there a reason why you wanted to have a conversation with me in particular?
AA Yeah, I’m really inspired by black studies and black feminism, based on many of the thinkers your work responds to—Saidiya Hartman, for example. And I also admire the presence you maintain in the art world.
SL (laughter) I always wonder what that presence is.
AA I know Nomaduma [Rosa Masilela] and Julia [Phillips], who have worked with you, and you inspire and mentor many black women artists. I admire you as an artist who is able to materially manifest the concerns of black studies and also build community around that.
I was watching some of the “Loophole of Retreat: A Conference” footage from your show at the Guggenheim.
SL Oh my God. That symposium is the highlight of my career. As long as that was done, I’ll be okay. Just remember me for that! (laughter)
AA It was pretty amazing.
SL I mean, some people are so fire: Simone White. Oh my God. Sharifa [Rhodes-Pitts]. Fire. Rizvana [Bradley]. And Christina Sharpe. I was in tears after Christina’s piece. Were you familiar with Grada [Kilomba]’s work before?
SL The last speaker was Annette Richter, who is Annetta M. Lane’s great-great-granddaughter. Annette is eighty-five, and she still works full-time at the State Department, doing security clearances. Annetta Lane was the founder of the United Order of Tents. She was a former slave when she founded the Tents, which basically functioned as a black women’s insurance policy.
I hope a lot of people see the video of the symposium. I was trying to make a display of our intellectual power, and I feel like whenever the subject matter is related to race or racism, people get distracted and kind of dismiss it. So I was trying to leave it open.
AA This felt so rich. I found myself taking many notes. When Rizvana said, “Pure form is a consequence of perfect black death,” I felt that. And I loved Zakiyyah Iman Jackson’s piece so much; I wasn’t familiar with her work. The way she spoke about your piece trophallaxis (2017) and the mechanization of black female mammary labor provided a lens I hadn’t seen these relations through before.
SL We have to do another one. I’ve joined this group, or actually, I participate with this group—I’m not an actual member—called Practicing Refusal Group, which Saidiya and Tina Campt have organized. And we’re meeting in South Africa this fall. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Generating community is a struggle, but you’ve bitten off perhaps an even more difficult struggle: whiteness studies. Which I find particularly tough, personally, because that takes me away from thinking about things that will help me, and often feels like doing labor, bridgework, for the public, which can be agonizing at times. What has your experience been?
AA It’s definitely been that. With this show, speaking about police violence and trying to think around the mentality of that violence was a painful mental position to occupy, and taxing to maintain. It’s something I hadn’t approached as directly in the past.
SL I find your work really inspiring, but I also worry about you a little bit. Occupying such an anti-black place for long periods of time seems like a tough place to dwell. I know I couldn’t do it myself. There’s a certain amount of immediate pleasure I want to have when I’m making work, which wouldn’t be possible with this kind of investigation.
AA Yeah, I see what you mean.
SL I’ve always been fascinated with Cady Noland’s work, which reminds me of yours. She’s also someone whose work largely doesn’t provoke reactions from the police or others, even though it’s much more cutting than some more obvious things that do provoke a reaction. It’s really a compliment that they didn’t figure out what you were doing.
AA There was one suspicious character who apparently called the gallery and—
SL —put them on notice.
AA (laughter) Yeah. But I don’t think he ever showed up.
Looking toward the long-term trajectory of my work, I’m thinking about how to speak more broadly. Rather than just pointing to a specific moment and saying, “This is fucked up,” I want to allude to the reality I would like to inhabit and what that might look like. Thinking about abolition or moments of political upheaval, what do we want to make after that? I want to explore that, so the work can still have this grittiness, while there’s also a healthy aspect of being able to imagine another reality.
SL Have you ever worked with a scholar? Or collaborated with a theorist?
AA No, I would really like to do that.
SL That might be a good idea. Like Christina Sharpe or even Saidiya Hartman, in the way she talks about social death. That could be a really interesting way to situate your work.
AA I’d like to show you an older body of work, where I was thinking about this notion of social death—through high technology—and the way the interface of screens always posits whiteness as neutral. In the ’70s, there was a transition from black screen command-line computers to the white screen graphical user interfaces we use nowadays. I was reflecting on that as representative of racial erasure and exclusion. Making these sculptures for my show Black Gooey Universe, I was also looking at black virtual space as this habitable location that exists in contrast to white supremacist, capitalist technology. So I made this computer out of dirt, Mother of All Demos (2018).
SL That’s a compacted dirt computer?
AA Yeah. The sculptures have qualities that are opposed to what we associate with high technology. So something sticky, something unrefined, something that would appear hard to use is in fact entirely usable.
SL I love the haptic quality of this whole piece. Did it have a strong smell?
AA Yeah, it’s tar. And this piece, No State (2018), was this grid of broken phones. I was thinking about the swift obsolescence of technology and how a broken phone represents a class denomination. The phone with a broken screen is this entirely usable object; for many people, that’s how a phone is.
And then with this one, Untitled (Too Thick) (2018), I took a phone and extruded it to the point that it’s not physically practical to hold it.
SL That’s amazing. I didn’t know you could extrude a phone to that level. Is it ceramic?
AA No, it’s foam with asphalt poured on it.
SL Oh, I see. I used to dip objects in tar early on. A lot of black artists use tar at some point. Or slave ship iconography. If you make objects, you get around to it one way or another. (laughter)
AA Yeah, there’s a great meme about that.
Thinking about where I would go from here and how to have a healthier approach, I’m wondering where you see the work for artists of my generation being located? And where does it need to go?
SL Hmm. Well, it seems like you have a desire for public engagement. And that you would not be bothered by a more immediate response to the work. Like the way you were saying you were surprised that the police didn’t pick up on this exhibition of yours and what it meant. So I wonder if you’ve considered doing something more performative or with direct social engagement?
AA I see.
SL This is something I tried and decided not to do anymore. In the end, I wasn’t comfortable with the out-of-control part of it. But when I look at your avatar in the video, Blue Life Seminar, there’s a blur, to me, between it and masquerade—Caribbean or West African masquerade—where the mask is a way of communicating with ancestors, an object/embodiment that’s used for transmission. I wonder if you’re interested in that direction, locating the work in a larger context of material culture related to blackness or Africanisms. Or a more performed work might be interesting. You keep a great distance in the work right now, and I wonder if you always want to do that, you know what I mean?
AA Yeah, that’s a good question. I’ve been doing a lot of public conversations because I am interested in this idea of public pedagogy. Whether by my design or just inherent in artwork, I always feel there’s a limitation to what can be communicated. I really value public conversations where things can enter that space of performativity or unpredictability, and I get to see people’s minds crack open over these ideas. But I do want to consider how the work can break that threshold of distance you’re describing. That current distance comes out of the work I made early on, which was so personal and didn’t necessarily apply to the logic of a larger social context. It’s been important for me to think about how to address a larger context. There’s something that shifts in that transition from the personal, which would be interesting to try to reintegrate into the work.
SL Are your lectures ever performative?
AA Not really.
SL Do you have works that live online?
AA Yeah. There was a project I did in 2015, which was very personal. It was this year-long online performance where I redacted the images and texts that I would normally share online. So here is an email I wrote to my mom. She lives in California, so she’s one of the main people who has a personal relationship with me through the Internet and really relies on my social media. For a year, all the images I would post would just be this blank blue image. And it was a refusal to do the sort of labor—
SL —of constructing an identity online?
AA Yeah. And a refusal to be the product of social media websites. And also not relying on this performative projection of what you might imagine my life is like. If you want to know what’s going on, just reach out to me and we’ll talk.
SL And why this blue color?
AA This is the blue you see on a screen when there’s no signal. So I was thinking about it as a sort of political image for the potential of representation. I also wrote an essay about this color, contrasting it with the blue of the American flag, which is the complete opposite. It’s very material. It’s these pigments and dyes, and it represents these old values. To me, this ephemeral, digital-only blue had the potential for broader representation.
SL Is this project still living online?
AA All those images are still on my Instagram and my Facebook.
SL Almost as an opening salvo, you changed your name. Why did you start there?
AA Before I entered a career as an artist, I was unsure how to manifest that reality for myself. It felt crucial for me to create this space: by defining myself as American Artist, I am that. It was also about redefining the traditional notion of what an American artist is in the canon. For most people, the stereotypical American artist is Jackson Pollock or a white male AbEx painter. Taking up this title questions that by centering my identity rather than—
SL —decentering it. Recently, I was doing an interview with a European newspaper, with a guy who seemed to be very knowledgeable and I’d say had interesting politics. I was finding it to be a comfortable interview, where the questions were not expected, but they made sense, and then at the end, he was like, “Well, I’m interested in your use of stereotype, with the large lips and the big afros your figures have.” And I had to say, “It’s not a stereotype. Hair is just hair.” I couldn’t believe I had to say that. Sometimes I can’t fathom how difficult it’s going to be for people to decenter themselves. Because I really do feel that it’s their job at this point.
So what are you working on now?
AA An exhibition about predictive policing software. Basically, the premise of the software I’ve been looking at is that it gives cops geographical locations where crime is more likely to take place. PredPol is a private company that markets this method as being effective, even though there’s no real way to tell if it is or not. And it’s been used in many large cities. Since everyone is saying the police are racist, they feel like they’re becoming irrelevant: so in order to rehabilitate their image, they want to use this software and say, “We’re not racist; we’re just using an algorithm.” But all of the data is based on past data created by the police.
SL It’s an archive they created, with obvious bias.
AA The show, for the Jerome Fellowship, will be at Queens Museum.
SL That’s awesome. How is it working in the museum? I’ve been struggling with the amount of extracurricular work that’s expected of an artist. Do the audio guide. The video. Wall labels. Press releases. Once again, over-explanation of the work itself.
AA With Queens Museum, it’s been pretty manageable. But I’ve done other projects where there are interviews and caption writing, etcetera.
SL Responding to the archive of the museum itself, as, for example, Fred Wilson does, is a whole body of work in and of itself. It’s not something every artist should be able to do on the side. Although my experience at the Guggenheim was wonderful. I was super supported in every way.
AA That’s what I’m most surprised by: how many skills you have to master in order to just be viable as an artist.
SL But some of your generation have been saying no really effectively. I’m excited about that. We’re counting on you to change the game.
Simone Leigh is an artist working with sculpture, installation, and video, as well as social practice, to foreground black female experience. She has had solo presentations at The Kitchen, Creative Time, the New Museum, and the Hammer Museum, among other venues. Loophole of Retreat, an exhibition on the occasion of Leigh winning the 2018 Hugo Boss Prize, runs at the Guggenheim Museum through October 2019. Her sculpture Brick House will be on view at the High Line Plinth through September 2020.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee