Digesting Place: Dean Erdmann Interviewed by Amanda Parmer

An artist explores the evolution of older technologies into the present.

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Installation view of Dean Erdmann: And, Apollo: A Laboratory, 2020. Photo by Dario Lasagni.

Dean Erdmann’s artistic practice draws out physical and libidinal relationships shared across working-class cultures domestically and internationally, experiences that may not otherwise be seen as similar. Over three nights we Gchatted, talked, and emailed about the roots of Erdmann’s And, Apollo: A Laboratory (2017–present) vis-à-vis their larger practice and the relationships they draw out across a broad constellation of archives, histories, and materials including wartime cultures, the Cold War Space Race, descendant technologies, genocidal xenophobias, the Magnus Hirschfeld Society, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), the meth epidemic, and the Mojave Desert. Erdmann is currently a fellow at the Vera List Center for Art and Politics (2018–20) and an artist fellow at Urban Glass

—Amanda Parmer


Amanda Parmer You refer to Donut (2008) as a Rosetta Stone in your work. How do you continue to find meaning and resonance in such a simple piece. When did you begin to recognize it as such?

Dean Erdmann Donut is an interesting place to begin, and my current project continues some of its inquiries. I grew up as a closeted, queer kid in a small working-class town in the Mojave Desert. And, Apollo: A Laboratory threads my biography through larger histories and events, expanding questions, networks, and associations through video, glass, and text to explore relationships between speed, the desert, WWII, the Cold War, meth, etc.

I didn’t recognize the transition my video Donut played until years after I’d made it. Donut allowed me access to a new kind of sensory experience around time, ritual, and transformation. It gave me a way to articulate meaning with more porosity than I could figure out through photography, yet it was bound to photography. I could create an experience, a feeling. And I could locate myself without being on screen.

AP This relates to how you’ve talked about using fragmentation as a strategy in your work.

DE I appreciate fragmentation because it feels honest. It speaks to the parameters of perspective and subjectivity. Fragments feel easier to maneuver and to rearrange, to put into new context. It helps me to think about the composition of things that seem inextricable but aren’t. If you can see how something is built, maybe you can change the way it’s built. 

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Dean Erdmann, Glass tire (front right), 2020, rubber tire chocks, found glass object from desert bonfire/unique glass amassed by fire, custom platform, 2020. Photo by Dario Lasagni.

AP In your work you highlight “descendant technologies” initially implemented by organizations like the military or NASA that transition to be used in new, often more pedestrian, ways.

DE Thinking about technology, I couldn’t escape speed. I started with familiar things. Crystal meth and the ATV have a place in my family. Invented by Japanese chemists in Berlin in 1893 and refined in 1919, meth was subsequently used by both German and Japanese militaries during WWII as a superhuman drug, a wartime technology. I’m exploring how descendant technologies continue to resonate and transform our current social and geopolitical landscape. I am interested in how certain technologies or inventions change shape or purpose over time. 

AP That’s interesting that you’re referring to meth as a technology.

DE Well, it has a prosthetic, mechanizing effect, compelling the body beyond itself in physical ability while disrupting the body’s emotional and intellectual capacity to be present with what its new physical capabilities are doing. I want to think through traces that have indelible impacts on culture but are transient or are undercurrents.

AP As with And, Apollo, you start with the effects of these technologies and materials and then work backward to locate and highlight their origins. In your public talks you’ve described the project as holding together wartime cultures, the Cold War Space Race, descendant technologies, and genocidal xenophobias against a background of the Mojave Desert. You also draw in an archive of your family’s letters, the Magnus Hirschfeld Society, and ATVs underpinned by a driving set of questions around gender and class. How do you locate entry points in selecting the material you work with?

DE And, Apollo started very intuitively, but was an expression of an accumulation of concerns, experience, research, and attention to interconnections. I began re-creating glass objects I’d found and collected years ago from desert bonfire pits that ATV riders had built. These early excavations reflected a growing personal archaeology, examining my history and inheritance of violence. The longer I reflected on these glass objects, I could see them connecting with gender, speed, technology, outer space, militarism, and family. 

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Dean Erdmann, Untitled (Phytochemicals), 2020, Ephedrine installation: modified glass vessels, Ephedra sinica (Ma Huang), Ephedra distachya, Sida cordifolia (Bala), Pinellia ternata (Ban Xia), grow lights, soil, desert sand, rock. Photo by Dario Lasagni.

AP It seems like you’re laying out a field of relationships and leaving a lot of space for viewers to have agency in determining what connections are meaningful to them.

DE Yes, deeply! Space for radical difference. I arrived at the project’s elements because they entangled themselves in my biography in some way.

AP The way you describe these events and materials as bound up with your biography implies an agency in these forms that have found you in some way or another.

DE I needed an agency for things that were difficult, things that felt impossible to break down, momentums that were building out of my control. I try to build a sense of agency for the viewer in my work. I was trying to create that for myself in the materials and histories that touched my biography. How do I digest the places I come from?

AP I like how you used the ATV to set up relationships between glass, the desert, and otherworldliness. You’ve said that the ATV in the desert is like the moon buggy from the Apollo mission, which was a precursor to the ATV. How do you think about making things strange as well as producing new norms in your work or in this project specifically? For example, the ATV in Donut makes the earth seem strange, and with the moon buggy it makes the moon seem familiar.

DE I often consider how to make strange my own experience because I find the process of reorienting and reconsidering deeply generative. Within my work, I think a lot about looking out to look in, looking back to look forward. The glass ATV is an example of this: it holds together many latent relationships. As someone from the desert, surrounded by sand, I’m interested in the transmutation of sand into glass. Glass is also a nickname for meth. The ATV connects deserts, both ones I grew up riding in and the distant lunar desert that we look back at ourselves from. Images picturing the moon translated through a glass camera lens. There are many more facets to these relationships. I’m interested in ways of thinking them together without forcing them into a singular narrative. What emerges, how and when, changes with each viewer.

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Still from Dean Erdmann, Untitled (Sand), 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

AP In the past you’ve mentioned a passage from Paul Preciado when talking about gender and technology—hormones as technological instruments.

DE Yes! “There can be no war without biochemical supplements to subjectivity that compel the body and consciousness beyond themselves, in the same way that there is no postwar situation without biochemical supplements that induce amnesia.” Preciado’s commentary helps me to think through the perpetual postwar war period in which the US finds itself, from a policy standpoint to a civilian one. I think about technologies implemented and instrumentalized during WWII. Crystal meth, rockets, and the radio each transformed in the Cold War period of Apollo. For instance, rocket technology gave Germany military advantage and was further developed by Nazi scientists invited by the US government immediately after WWII. This advanced propulsion technology launched and landed the Apollo missions. The descendant technology from the Apollo missions and Cold War has given us the modern-day internet and personal tech devices—phones, computers, cameras.

AP Do you see these as prisms to view history through?

DE They’re a reminder that things that seem ephemeral have an impact on infrastructure, and in this way take physical shape.

AP This is a significant move you are making in your work to highlight and articulate these infrastructural relationships we would not otherwise see. You’re naturalizing new connections, socializing them in a way.

DE I’m looking for resonance in unexpected places. I hope my work finds the same.

Dean Erdmann: And, Apollo: A Laboratory is on view at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center in New York City until February 11. 

Amanda Parmer’s work as an artist, curator, and writer focuses on community through pedagogy and elected affinities. In 2014 she inaugurated parmer—a space for exhibitions, programming, and writing that focuses on queer, feminist strategies and postcolonial analysis. From 2018–19 she worked as the Director of Programs at Independent Curators International and previously served as the inaugural curator of the Vera List Center for Art and Politics.

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