“There’s then this unbelievable potential for imagination and escape and possibility beneath the surfaces” says Gray Wielebinski via an email chat when speaking about quantum mechanics and how ideas of alternate realities can be interpreted through a queer reading. From clowns, conspiracy theories and camouflage to podcasts, slime videos and atomic gardens, the London/Los Angeles-based artist, who is currently studying at the Slade School of Art, allows for a multi-dimensional set of influences to inform their practice, seeking strategies for subversion that can re-shape how we understand ourselves in a world of violent dichotomy.
Wielebinski’s work stretches across performance, animation, video and illustration, exploring gender and sexuality through collage and moments of ‘glitch.’ With a recent focus on sound, they are currently doing a residency on ilyd.nu; an online exhibition space devoted to hosting sound from artists who don’t necessarily have a background in working with the medium. The two part sound piece Maybe The Future and The Past is all The Present Is (2017), which runs May 1 to 30, is an exploration into field recording; Part 1 takes us into the violent landscape of tv/media, honing in on moments of the ‘gender reveal,’ whereas Part 2 becomes a chorus of conversation that brings power back to the voice. Each an exploration of language, the works together form a tension between the healing and the harmful and offer a way to “navigate conflicting realities.”
A conversation that moves between both the reality of power imbalance as well as the potential to re-imagine it, Wielebinski expands on the intersections at the root of their practice and “the infinite ways to have a body.”
**Is sound a new direction for you and how has it added a new dimension to your practice?
Gray Wielebinski: Yes, “sound art” specifically is a new direction for me, but the potential of sound in my work is something I’ve been thinking about a lot more in recent years, especially as I started making video works and consider installation spaces and wanting to create an experience or atmosphere. Sound ultimately has the potential to change a work completely, for better or worse. I actually think sound can be the most “manipulative” tool when it comes to influencing your audience to feel a specific way or understanding the context you’re trying to create, whether it’s music swelling in an advertisement to sell chewing gum or to sign up for a VISA credit card (something I’m particular susceptible to, unfortunately), or playing two notes to create a sense of dread and anxiety about what is ultimately an animatronic shark that has 4 minutes of screen time in JAWS.
Ultimately I was nervous because sound is this new territory that some extremely talented and capable artists are already using super successfully, but I was also really excited about the challenge to use the medium in a way that seemed relevant to my practice and build on some of the ideas I’m passionate about in a different way. So yes definitely it’s opened up a whole new dimension to my practice as I consider not only the potential to queer traditional notions of narrative, but my practice is deeply rooted in collage in various ways, and so thinking about the ways in which audio can use similar techniques of layering disparate sources and recontextualizing them into a new form, which can lead to new questions and understandings and experiences, seems somewhat natural.
** Both sound works are very conversational, there’s a tension between the two and how both are navigating language as a site of violence but also of potential.
GW: The close relationship between violence and potential for catharsis and joy is really central to the work itself, and also how I’m trying to think about my relationship to Queerness both in my art and my own life. A big part of this practice does come from seeking out and listening to/learning from other people’s experiences, particularly in moments of isolation. I’ve found there’s a lot of power, potential, and healing in exposing yourself to the myriad ways people express themselves and experience queerness, as well as sharing my own experiences, and I often find this can be way more meaningful than trying to box myself in to a singular identity or fit into specific narratives. In that way, both Conversation and Collaboration seem like a really organic way for me to work with some of these themes, and to let people speak for themselves and find meaning in our similarities and differences, which in some ways is a big part of what Queerness is arguably all about. This work also has a lot to do with the close relationship between power/agency and oppression in relation to Institutions, particularly for marginalized identities, as well as the power and pitfalls of language itself and the act of naming or narrativizing something so nebulous as “Queerness.” In Part 2, Edgar [Frias] comments that, at first, hearing terms like queer and non-binary felt so freeing to them, but eventually “[these terms] will become prisons again.” There’s something unbelievably beautiful and powerful in recognizing yourself in other people or in an experience or in a sub culture, but at the same time there is such a fine line between being recognized and being defined without your consent, for it to be used against you. So I suppose in some ways this piece is a recognition of the world-building that can occur in this recognition and community, while at the same time exploring the ways in which this can also be violent or limiting and that perhaps “freedom” is something to name for ourselves.
** In many ways, there seems to be a collapse going on in a lot of the work, where bodies/voices/signifiers morph into each other, while glitching in and out of harmony at the same time. Could you talk about why you’re so drawn to the glitch?
GW: I’m interested in expanding the potential of what “glitch art” could mean, as I think it can be about more than just the exploitation of (usually technological) “mistakes” in a purely visual sense; we can push its meaning to embrace any type of amplification of the moment of rupture of binary systems or the status quo. A Glitch is ultimately a struggle with binaries, a snag in the fabric of any of the myriad binary systems that dictate our social lives and order. The glitch can therefore serve as a powerful metaphor, for example, of the infinite ways to have a body, to identify (or not) with gender, to explore the endless complexities of human sexuality, yet always with recognition to and in direct resistance to the systems and classifications against which these realities are meant to seem impossible.
I’m also very interested in notions of queer temporality in relation to the glitch, and the potential to “step out of the straight present,” collapsing time and space, explored by theorist Jose Muñoz. Muñoz uses the idea of the horizon as a strategy of hope within the confines of our present context, that can have the power to collapse time and space, reaching back into the past to animate it and allowing us to imagine a hopeful future. Just as the horizon is always visible and out of reach, the liminal space created by the glitch is often temporary and fleeting, a moment of joy, reflection, and even sometimes unease between the cracks of the rigidity around us, serving as an invitation and provocation for action.
** In a lot of your works, and especially the sound (for its obvious capabilities to transport us in a different way), theres a trance-like energy happening where I feel i’m really getting drawn into something and almost not at will.
GW: I do think Sound in particular is queer in a lot of ways, but I was particularly interested in trying to queer narrative storytelling and how we are used to processing information in a straight, linear way and trying to play with that framework which hopefully relates a bit to this trancelike feeling. I also think you could argue that Sound in this context is “freeing” in that we are in some ways divorced from our physical bodies and all the baggage that comes with them. While of course this isn’t totally true, ultimately there is an uncanniness in this disconnection, a sense of agency in what information we choose to divulge and how we choose to define ourselves, and how the viewer is left to imagine (or not) what we may look like, where we may be, when we may be…
Particularly in reference to the “trance” you’re talking about, I was also interested in the process of listening and how each person may latch onto different parts of the piece, they may recognize themselves in one thing and their mind may wander with that and drift back in a minute or two later, they may get bored and doze off but remember a feeling they had while listening, or they listen to it again and pick up on something totally new they didn’t hear the first time, a layering of understandings.
** It all feels like a search – like you are following something, going deeper and deeper to find a clearing – perhaps a place where we can be ourselves fully, in a deep and meaningful sense. At the same time, there’s an equal exploration of the violence. What role does dichotomy play in your practice?
GW: I think ultimately a wrestling with dichotomies is at the root of my practice and a very strong impetus for me to make work at all, as I process how to navigate conflicting realities and the emotions that come along with this feeling of fracturing or contradiction.
I read somewhere that some scientists really hate when laypeople butcher complex theories to fit their own interpretations of the world, but here we go. Quantum Theory has actually been a huge influence on my interest in the glitch and the expansion of my exploration into queer theory as I find a lot of quantum phenomena to be really inspiring and exciting, particularly when it comes to this tension between the “real”/rigid/logical world and the potential for the surreal/otherworldly.
In quantum mechanics, unlike in classical physics, there’s a difference between what we see and what actually exists; the smallest things in our universe exist in both an infinite superposition and can be quantifiably measured in space and time, depending on our interactions with them. There’s then this unbelievable potential for imagination and escape and possibility beneath the surfaces in both quantum and queer theory in different ways, but both are always still tied to our everyday world and all that entails in one way or another. Similarly, in this work there’s always still a recognition of the pain and trauma and reality in the past and present (and future) on queer/racialized/marginalized bodies and identities but hopefully provides a framework for recognizing and crafting moments of subversion, of community, of freedom, of imagination beneath the surface that we can hack in to.**