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
The two artists discuss their conceptual image-making, the paradox of brands, false narratives, and the “dynamic of consent.”
Arthur Jafa is an artist and theorist focused on furthering Black visual expression with works that are deeply inspired by twentieth-century Black music. A former cinematographer, his films and videos use found footage that may be intercut at dizzying speed (APEX, 2013) or to a pace and timing based on Black and non-Western music (Love Is the Message, The Message Is Death, 2016), thus disrupting cinematic structural conventions historically designed by and for the white gaze. As articulated in his theory of Black Visual Intonation, Jafa applies the “worrying the note” in jazz and the blues to the frame rates of his films, creating a sensory alternative Black representation and experience. His art is diverse, utilizing sculpture, photography, moving image, performance, and dialogue to reflect on the beauty, brutality, and alienation of Black American life.
Dana Hoey is a feminist and conceptual artist who employs photography, film, and performance to point out certain tropes regarding women, aggression, society, and power. For Hoey, the medium she uses is less important than what she directs her viewer to look at. There can be a forensic detachment to her approach—for instance in a photograph of a mother with her meth kit (Trunk Lab, 2002) or of a smoking horse rider (Pregnant Smoker 2, 2002)—and the provocative imagery seems secondary to the larger theme. Hoey has presented exhibitions ranging from live Muay Thai matches in gallery spaces (she is also a passionate martial arts fighter) to complex photographic collages incorporating pornography and depictions of aging, to images of postapocalyptic environments.
The following conversation was recorded over Zoom in October 2020 and subsequently edited by the artists.
Sascha BehrendtDo you two recollect when you first met?
Dana HoeyI want to say it was a party at John Currin and Rachel Feinstein’s where we first talked. AJ, I think you had eyeliner on.
Arthur JafaI never did eyeliner. (laughter)
DHIt looked like it. This super handsome guy …
AJI think we were both kinda assets in that context, wouldn’t you say?
DHI was attempting to be arm candy. (laughter) I think it was around 1999 and your piece at Artists Space had just fully stepped forward. It felt like you were saying, Look, I’ve been here, but this is who I am. You played an “untrained” drum solo loudly and wildly in a staid and quiet context. It was utterly dominant. I remember David Bowie was at the performance.
AJYeah. I also remember Kerry [James Marshall], a close friend, came in for the opening. He told me afterward that he had to physically turn my ex’s face to make her look at my performance. She couldn’t bear watching me come into being as an artist and a person. Power dynamics in relationship are often gendered anyway. Being a guy in the bottom position of what was, to a certain extent, an S&M dynamic, was complicated.
AJI remember, at one point having a conversation with an artist friend who said, “Do you think it’s an accident that there’s always a dominant and a submissive partner in every relationship?” And I was like, I dunno, which am I?
I laughed about it because I didn’t really mind “being” the boy toy or arm candy. I sorta live in my head, so other folks’ readings of me didn’t trouble me that much. It was like, just because I’m in the “bottom” position (in this symbolic arena) doesn’t mean I’m an actual bottom.
AJIt was largely performative being at these art world events. But it wasn’t stressful because, ultimately, it wasn’t about me. And I found myself in these incredibly interesting contexts, with folks I wouldn’t have otherwise known. I can’t think of many other scenarios where I’d have ended up at these particular art parties. Parties where, inevitably, I was the only Black person, apart from my ex.
I was having a conversation about Marcel Duchamp recently, about how a big part of Duchamp’s urinal [Fountain] results from it not being pissed in, and how objects with a high functionality quotient become pure signifiers when they’re not allowed to enact their function. So, as a Black person in that context, and not being whatever it is Black folks are supposed to be, you become a bit of a free-floating signifier as well.
AJThinking about this stuff is fun. My first public artistic achievement of any note was as the cinematographer on Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust. We were married at the time, so with Julie—who’s a touch older than me—I had already experienced being Mr. Dash. It could be mildly irritating but I was pretty secure in what my interests were. And generally, I was more than happy to be in the mix in those public contexts.
DHAt that time, you were traveling a lot. But then you also saw all the art shows whenever you were back in New York.
AJI was always traveling because I made my living shooting documentaries. Actually, going to art shows was a bit atypical for me, at the time. And no one else in my day-to-day social life who was doing that. I don’t only mean that as a Black person, but also as a southerner from Mississippi who lived in New York City. In the early ’90s, I didn’t have any sort of real art practice going on.
DHBack then, I was working in the art world, and I was a gallerina. I don’t know if I knew you at the time, but in those days, you would go see every show and come back and discuss all the exhibitions, what’s good, what’s bad. It felt super structured. But I prefer your method now, seeing what you really want to see. It’s not about the art map, it’s about what actually pulls you toward a show or a certain work.
SBYou have had a close friendship for many years. In which ways do you feel connected through your artworks?
AJI think of Dana’s work as being in dialogue with everything, not just my work. It wasn’t like we were on a public bench whispering classified information to each other like spies or something. More like whispering art-world party gossip if anything. (laughter)
DHI do remember that stunning shift from you being that “bench person” to you performing at Artists Space and me having my hair blown back. I had not seen your work before, but you were quiet and you became very loud. You were dressed for the drum solo in denim overalls, one shoulder undone. That piece set into high relief biases about “innate talent,” and raised deep questions about improvisation and its relationship to race. It was so powerful in a way that was really inspiring.
When I did that fifty-foot mural of a prison at night at Petzel Gallery in 1999, you were the only person to like that particular piece and to talk to me about it.
AJThat mural was amazing.
I remember the night lights of that maximum-security prison. It was monochrome, right?
DHIt was black and white, but mostly black. I shot it in Arizona, outside Phoenix. It was the epic context for a show about a manhunt in the western style. I showed conventional photographs in black museum frames but torched the gravity of that “MoMA photo presentation style” with an overwhelming billboard. That mural is painted over now.
AJLike I was saying earlier, I think of your work as being part of multiple conversations. And I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the majority of the work you’ve shown publicly. Most of it is super vivid to me, and hyper-provocative conceptually. I remember a conversation we had a while ago about one of your photographs. It was of a woman with a portable meth lab or something in the back of a car. Was she making a bomb?
DHYou’re talking about Trunk Lab from 2002. It was a portable meth lab. I read it was a typical housewife’s economic support. It’s very efficient. At that time, the statistics were showing that over fifty percent of meth purveyors were moms.
AJBad moms! It sounds like a spin off of Breaking Bad.
DHThe next thing that comes to mind for me is the ArtPace residency you did in San Antonio. I didn’t see the work in person, but I recall a full-size car, possibly smashed—was it a Thunderbird? The sculpture was stunning in ambition, scale, and gravity.
AJThat was in 2002, and my “art practice,” such as it was at the time, felt very fugitive. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. It seemed like most artists had some sort of learned methodology—like studio visits, critique, and all this kind of stuff. I just didn’t have any of that. It was all pretty free- floating in my head. I always felt like I was a bit of a charlatan. (laughter)
DHThere’s also that immaterial process of generating your art. I think we both are idea-driven artists.
I externalize first in drawings, you maybe do it through image collection, I don’t know.
AJI remember reading about Lawrence Weiner and people like him, and I was like, Yeah, I’m a conceptual artist. It’s all in my head. Black and formerly enslaved Black people were conceptual artists because they lived, significantly, in their heads. All the fantasizing about running free, the drapetomania—a pseudo-scientific term for the observed impulse that black people had to run away from slavery—was in their heads. The idea that the thing doesn’t have to be materialized for it to be real, for it to have affective and catalytic capacity in the world, seemed obvious to me. In any case, I was always a bit of a dreamer. I can remember in the third grade, the nun who was my teacher whacking me on the knuckles with her ruler and telling my parents: “Arthur is always daydreaming, looking out the window, and not doing his work.” So these shifts from being in my head and then manifesting something always felt like eruptions, like vomiting, or ruptures of some sort.
SBTo bring a thought to a point where it becomes real and tangible in the world is a very powerful act. Sometimes these thoughts that become art seem to anticipate important forthcoming shifts or events.
Dana, I wanted to ask you about Experiments in Primitive Living from 2010. In light of what we know today about our global environmental crisis, this series of photographs—which also became a book—feels very prescient.
I wonder if it has added dimensions for you now.
DHI wish it wasn’t prescient. It sort of creeps me out how prescient these photographs were. Ash, is of course 9/11, and then in the scope of later climate disasters, there is a big explosion where things Freeze, and then there is a Flood. Once you have a rebirth after such disasters—after being liquefied and then restored—things can get very warped. So, I’m somewhat afraid of the post-pandemic period. Hopefully some of the warping will be productive.
I have been revisiting some of those pictures, but I wouldn’t make them again because that was then. AJ asked himself the question, “Can I make something material?” I live in my head a lot, too, so the most material thing I ever made was to shoot tons of pictures for Experiments in Primitive Living like a regular photographer would do. But I was never a street photographer. Experiments in Primitive Living was something that departed from my head and became material.
SBI was thinking of the power dynamics that you both deal with, especially in recent portraits. AJ, I am curious about the relationship between your large-format portraits from 2018 and your film work.
AJIt all exists in the scope of things that I’m interested in. People are always trying to brand you, and I’m very aware of that. I guess having a brand—whether you’re trying to brand yourself or whether somebody else does—is one mark of a certain kind of success. Even though I’ve always been wary of it, I’m still someone who loves a great brand. I’m really fascinated by the reanimation, or resuscitation, of the Hood By Air fashion label; it was such a thing at a certain point, then it went out of business, and now it’s kinda back.
I liked Public Image Ltd more than I liked the Sex Pistols for a lot of reasons, one of which was because they had a fucking cool logo. And I always have a deck of race cards in my back pocket that makes it impossible not to read things in certain ways.
If your sense of selfhood is bound up with being an asset, being owned or controlled, being the property or tool of some other entity, then that entity is a brand. You can’t operate under your own citizenship, your own freedom as an individual. You’re operating under their brand. For Black Americans, branding yourself is a big deal, whether it’s in hip-hop, like G-Unit or Roc-A- Fella, or Motown. For Black artists, a brand, under capitalism, functions differently than it typically does, like, say, Apple, which just wants to make sure that you can identify and buy their product. For the Black artist, or for me at least, the brand almost precedes you into certain spaces, because what it’s really trying to do is preclude or limit the anticipated assault, the assumed ill will, the inherent danger that comes with being black in a white supremacist environment. It’s signifying that you aren’t alone, that you’re operating under the auspices of, in association with some greater entity. It’s a self- minted slave pass.
DHIs this subject of self-ownership or branding bound up with still images more than moving images then?
AJWell, no. For me, it’s like there is the brand, and then there is what the brand is supposed to represent. I would just say, I don’t want to get stuck in a castle (of my own design) that becomes a prison. I’m super wary of, “He does video art,” or “He does found-footage video,” not because I don’t like these things, but because I don’t want to be boxed in. I just want to be able to do as I wish. At the end of the day, the handful of people who really know my trajectory know that the big, chained wheels [Big Wheels, 2018] weren’t, conceptually at least, a big step for me. It’s a big leap if you only know Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death . A lot of people were like “Wow, where did these big wheels and chains come from?” Well, it came from the same place everything else came from, it’s just a matter of having the resources and space to put this shit on. Frankly, how could I have done the Big Wheels work before? There would have been no exhibition space to show them, no place to make them, and no place to store them. So having/not having that space starts to impact the kind of work you make—and I’ve predominantly had the traumatic experience of not having it. I almost want to make a movie about an unsuccessful artist whose whole life is bound up with trying to pay the storage on unsold (for me such a charged word) stuff. I think it’s not that unique.
DHIt’s totally common.
AJIf you don’t pay your storage and let your stuff get repossessed, it becomes a psychodrama. It’s like, if you don’t value your shit, how can anybody else value your shit, you know what I mean? It creates a tremendous amount of anxiety about your work and your value. My friend Fred Moten said it best. Someone once told him Black people are under- valued, and he said: “No, the problem is not Black people being undervalued. The problem is Black people being overvalued, of having a price tag put on them.” All this anxiousness about one’s worth, one’s value—for people trying to make it, a lot of it just comes down to anxiety about your place and legitimacy in whatever space you’re trying to move into, whether it’s music, film, or the art world. In the beginning, I had anxiety around ideas, like: Am I not going to get credit for it? Or, That’s just derivative of x, y, and z? But ultimately, I realized I have less anxiousness about that than I do about not being claimed. It’s like the opposite of anxiety of influence, it’s anxiety that nobody will claim you.
SBAre there individual examples of those who influenced you that you might wish to be claimed by?
AJThere are a lot of artists I consider “AbDads.” They influence and engender you, but they don’t know (or care, or value) that you exist. And if you approach them, they look at you like, Little bastard, get out of here! I do not claim you, I do not acknowledge any sort of influence or paternity of you. (laughter)
There are all these pictures I wish I could have used in my upcoming show. I was trying to get one by the Danish photographer Jacob Holdt, whose work American Pictures I really love, and also some from William Eggleston. They both made these indelible photos of the South that I grew up in, but each in very, very different ways. Holdt was an outsider, and he took the rawest, most unflinching photos of Black southern life I’ve ever seen. Eggleston was a genteel southerner who, even when he’s taking photos of the most Black bottom context, has always aestheti- cized everything, a tough, genius aestheticization, but always through this southern genteel lens. Charles Ray made a giant sculpture of a family holding hands [Family Romance, 1993]. I’ve always wanted to do a picture like that: me holding both Jacob Holdt’s and William Eggleston’s hands, like my two daddies, you know. (laughter)
SBWhat a beautiful image. I hope we get to see it for real someday.
Dana, you’re known for your photography and yet your exhibition Dana Hoey Presents came as a surprise, with a live Muay Thai fight held in your gallery and for which you worked with performer and fighter Marcela Torres. What is your relationship to fighting and why are you so fascinated with it?
DHI never wanted to be a person who just does one thing well and for me that comes from Martin Kippenberger’s example. I will change forms in my work, whether you like it or not, and I will find a form that meets my interest in the most intense and expansive way. Sometimes that can be the small photograph that’s very loaded, but in the case of that show it was a big live event that was somewhat dangerous. The current that runs through my work, and probably is my “brand,” is the discomfort of being female, particularly around other females in American culture. In white female culture in the US, there are behavior patterns that fascinate me: they are manipulative and complicated, even backward. I don’t always understand them, so fighting is kind of in opposition to all that—it is direct, complex, beautiful, elegant, but it’s also very clear what’s going on. It’s a part of my art to be in my body, to practice martial arts, to deal with people trying to hit me, to hit people, so all those crazy moments where you’re out on the edge of perceptual and physical existence are fascinating to me. I wanted a high level of mastery for that project and for the art aspect of fighting to be clear, so I had a professional matchmaker get the best female fighters possible, and because fighting is often anorexic, I also wanted big-bodied fighters.
The fight world is an amazing place where you have Republicans and Democrats yelling, hitting each other and laughing about it. It’s very mixed—ethnically, class-wise, and politically—far more than anywhere I’ve ever known previously, so I wanted to take that culture and bring it into the white box of the art world, a place that is very fancy and very elite. I have done other live events, but for me that fight night at Petzel Gallery was about torpedoing the art world, which my gallery luckily was up for. It’s unnerving, there can be blood and it’s dangerous. We had an Emergency Medical Technician there. Nobody got hurt, but you risk your life when you fight. It’s rare, but it can happen.
I wanted to bring in the crowds—there was a line down the block, hundreds of people didn’t get in. I know that this was scary for the people working in a high-end gallery space, imagining all these fight people, who are assumed to be dangerous. In fact, they’re far safer to be around because they know how to control their impulses. They’re polite, gentle people and usually crazy dog lovers. So, the project was about that jarring, living, combination of people.
It was also a way to honor these fighters. There was a twenty-five-foot billboard of this world champion fighter, Alicia “Slick” Ashley, a remarkable Black woman from Brooklyn, born in Jamaica, who had four world titles at the age of fifty and is a three-time Guinness Book record holder, yet nobody knows her. I wanted to paper the gallery with photographs of magnificent artists like her. I had her come and shadow box in the studio, I had chills the whole time because she used to be a ballet dancer before she became a fighter. Her movements are stylized and controlled yet unpretentious and functional, with so much elegance and grace built into them.
AJThe boxing world, too, is a place where a lot of these class differences collapsed, where everybody has to occupy the same space (a space where a Black man can become a millionaire by beating up white men), which reminds me a little bit of the S&M universe where similar kinds of things happen. The biggest crisis in the S&M world is a lack of tops because every- body wants to be a bottom. (laughter) Generally, it’s these white men that are masters of the universe in their day-to-day life who want to bottom in these spaces. It’s a psychic equilibrium thing—to experience all the things that you can never feel when everyone is deferring to you.
DHIt’s fascinating to hear that the white man as a top is becoming rare. The dynamic of consent applies to every environment now. Most people think it’s just evil to love the violence of Thai boxing, but it’s consensual just like S&M. I love that in fighting there’s always a winner and a loser. You experience humility in losing, by someone being better than you. There are a lot more white-collar fighters than there used to be, but traditionally it’s not been about wealth. Rather you had people trying to work their way out of a bad economic or immigration situation. Becoming a strong fighter was often just a desperate way of making a living.
SBYes, that imperative to always be a winner.
AJ, in terms of making images, are there technical innovations going on that you feel particularly drawn to?
AJAlways. Everybody thinks everything has been done, but cinema is only about a hundred years old. We’ve got to stop thinking we’re in the future and understand that we’re like primordial blues people in 1910, making jazz even before recording is in place. There are no recordings of Buddy Bolden, barely any of Robert Johnson or Charley Patton, even fewer of Geeshie Wiley. So that’s where we are in terms of what the twenty-first century is going to look like in retrospect.
So yes, I’ve been thinking about the latent potential of Black artists for thirty years and I used to get depressed, as I’ve just not been in the position to do certain stuff. But I’m still here, decades later. And the vein is still largely untapped.
DHFor me, new technology is a straightforward tool that can make my life as a mother more functional—no more spending time going back and forth to the lab. It’s great to have these technical means now in the hands of the people, and not just with specialists. It frees up so many possibilities.
AJI was always fascinated with how you manage or negotiate or resist the triggered aversion to overdetermined, falsely naturalized (and ultimately constraining) ideas about one’s relationship to (ultimately weaponized) generalizations about who you are.
The double, triple, quadruple bind of these antagonistic generalizations. When, say, as a Black artist I do “Black things,” there’s a certain impulse to not do Black things. Because if you just do Black things, you’re being narrow, or provincial. But then I see white artists doing what seem to me to be patently obvious “white things” without being deemed provincial. Or, perhaps even worse, white artists doing things that strike me as being super Black—like using images of basketball players, or utilizing misnamed Black aesthetics—without being declared derivative or second rate.
There’s this weird thing that happens, a whole manufactured aversion to what comes natural to me. A part of me that I get angered by sometimes—even though there’s nobody to be angry at, because it’s systemic—says, Oh, if you eat that watermelon, you’re going to be verifying the stereotype that Black people like watermelon. And by implication, all the other stereotypes about Black people. So, faced with this conundrum, you don’t eat watermelon (even though I like watermelon), or you’re dark skinned but don’t smile (even though you have beautiful teeth) or wear red. There are just so many of these things that have been pathologized. If you are five shades darker than me, and you have white teeth and you smile, it’s—
AJIt’s one of the miracles of the universe and just physics, you know.
It is not an accident that the first star of sound movies, Al Jolson, was a white man in Blackface. If you’re not pretty dark, your smile isn’t gonna do that. So what, you’re going go stigmatize everybody who can do something you can’t do? It’s anti drag. It’s catastrophically infuriating on one level, but what I’ve found over time is that it’s not about running away from it, but how you circle back, and actually interface with what you’re being taught, with the malformation. There’s a reason this well is being poisoned in the first place. How do you make work that embraces the stereotype, or the pathologized subject, in a way that refuses the remedial understanding of it, the false narrative about it?
There’s the political dimension, too. As a Black person in a white supremacist environment, or as a woman in a misogynistic environment, how can you be a living, experiencing, human being out here and not deal with it? I’m not here judging people, but to not deal with it on any level is just weird. It’s very, very weird. So I was always fascinated with your feminism, or whatever term you use, Dana. Your subject matter has always been female experience, not narrowly so, or limited to that, but central to the work. It never feels rote, or doctrinaire; it’s always interrogating.
DHI feel a bond watching you navigate those issues. And, like you, I explode past the expectation of the watermelon or the smile. The categories can’t contain you and that’s intense. I aspire to deal with the dilemmas you described, and you inspire me in that, for sure. But I also do have a pretty strong aversion to being boxed in, so that’s where the aggression in my work comes from. It’s not only what I shouldn’t do as a woman, but it’s a quite intense aggression that I have toward any categories of being and the limitations of being myself, too. Mainly, because I can’t fulfill the expectations that come with them.
When we met, I was attempting arm candy like I said. I had four-inch heels and tiny dresses, and it was super fun. But I cannot sustain such a role. I do identify with you in regard to being a member of a category in that way, and I do aspire, like you did with the burning sun in your video works, to making a sort of magnificent and expansive blast, both as an artist, and as a human being.
Sascha Behrendt is a lecturer and writer based in London and New York. Her writing has been published in Artcritical and Reflektor Magazine. She is currently working on a series of artist interviews for Curator, an online platform exploring art, design, and technology.
Originally published in
Our summer issue features interviews with Mel Kendrick, Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, Kader Attia, Arthur Jafa and Dana Hoey, Quntos Kunquest, Katiana Rangel, and Anne Anlin Cheng; fiction by Jenzo DuQue, Dylan Landis, Anthony Veasna So, and Sophie Hoss; nonfiction by A.V. Marraccini; a comic by Ronald Wimberly; poetry by Arthur Solway, Rickey Laurentiis, and Alina Stefanescu; an essay and portfolio by Kalup Linzy; an archival interview with Suzan-Lori Parks; and more.
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