“They are about 65 per cent planned. The rest is a bloomin’ mess!” says Geo Wyeth, answering my question about the role of improvisation and planning that go into the live works. In the run up to Lausanne’s Les Urbaines Festival, running December 1 to 3, we catch up with the multimedia artist and musician who will be performing JUICE CROSXXXSING at the event.
The self-described ‘hoarder’ works across video, installation, performance and sound, where the “thing never quite becomes a thing” and is “always moving, or stretching, yawning, reaching.” While Wyeth’s practice is one of collecting and intersecting, music is at the core and is the glue that holds the fragments together; a ‘carrier of the mood.’
Based between New York and Amsterdam, s/he was a recent residence at the Rijksakademie van beeldende kunsten for the years 2015/2016 and has performed internationally at Amsterdam’s The Stedelijk Museum, New York’ MoMA PS1 and Los Angeles’ MoCA to name a few.
“Like where can I put it where it won’t hurt anyone I love and care about, and how can it be useful and spiritually generative?” In a conversation about his practice, Wyeth opens up about the ideas behind his accumulations; from dolls and puppets to rage, aggression and playing out narrative through dress up and performance.
** You work across so many mediums with a DIY ethos, and in an interview I read you said you were interested in “struggle and experimentation.” What do you think about technique and the concept of “Jack of all trades, master of none” – is this something you relate to?
Geo Wyeth: I have a hard time being still. My mind is overwhelming to me sometimes. The only way I can sublimate that is to work it out, materially, to make my mind work. I try to let my anxiety be the engine in a way, to use it, and let it heat up everything, but it needs somewhere to go, it can’t just sit. Thinking can also be working out, turns out, but thinking to me now looks like painting and sewing. That’s just me thinking. There is a battle in my mind between a really intense work ethic person who thinks they can handle everything and anything and wants to make the world better, and then someone who just wants to lie around on the beach, and then this awful someone who just wants to “fit in.” The ‘interest’ in struggle that I have professed honestly was me trying to make light of the actual struggle I feel in a daily way. I’m not really interested in struggle anymore, it’s just been my habitat for a while so I don’t know what it means to live without it. Even now that I am supporting myself on my art, turns out good ol’ struggle is still there! Glad I can rely on them!
** I think about formlessness and impulse a lot when encountering your work. Can you expand on your interest in these in between spaces?
GW: Sure sure… well there is a certain zygote quality to a lot of what I make, like it’s about to be something but it’s not quite there yet because I’m always just dropping things as I go – you know, whatever I’ve snatched up cause I think it’s pretty or sad or gross. I’m a hoarder, I collect stuff, etc. So the thing never quite becomes a thing. It’s always moving, or stretching, yawning, reaching… Like when a smile slowly stretches into a scream. Haha! Lately I love old balloons!! And crushed cans! I pick them up and then have no idea what to do with them. Then when I finally start to go nuts with the amount of crap, I just sort of bump around in it to whatever song presents itself, and then that’s where the art comes from. Like Charlie Chaplin juggling kitchen appliances or something, except less skilled. Oops, there’s a knife in my eye! Like when I clean the house, I pick up a book and then on my way to putting it away I also pick up some dirty underwear and then also an old carton of Chinese food or something… I follow all the impulses without always thinking through how to exactly deal with them when they fully accumulate in my arms, then I’m like oh noooo and I have to improvise and figure out which things go in which boxes, and I hate boxes. I’m so deluded, I think someday I’ll really have it “under control” whatever the hell that means. Someday I’ll just swim in my soup of shit and enjoy it but until then I will try to organize all these things, I know someday I’ll figure it out (bangs head on computer).
** What is it about toys, dolls puppets etc that interest you and draw you in as a place for making narrative and working through your ideas?
GW: I feel a sense of freedom working with objects as puppets, probably in a sort of therapeutic way. I find it easier to come up with ideas, because it’s not quite me speaking when they are performing. There’s a lot of listening involved, through looking and touching the object. I love the way puppets, masks, and dolls have connections to theatre, spiritual practice, and childhood. These are three main elements in my own work! There is also this way that the puppet can become a foil for the characters I am playing but then shift into more autonomous beings, interrupting a hierarchy – the human no longer controlling the puppet, the puppet introducing humans to another perspective. Can we understand something that sort of looks human but isn’t human? Do we have to understand something to love it? I don’t think so. Narrative emerges often through a process of me playing dress up to music that I made, or using dolls to imagine other worlds and scenarios, often colloquial in nature. Like, trying to imagine Beyoncé as president, sometimes it helps to have a doll handy.
** What are some past and present obsessions/inspirations that make their way into ur work?
GW: I have what in American english they call an “addictive personality.” Lately, I’ve been having some major emotional ups and downs… kinda in regards to political and ecological shit storm of the planet now… so I need different things to help me channel my feelings around that. I’m sort of just working out my thoughts and feelings around stuff in general, and if any art comes out of that, GREAT. I’ve been on repeat listening to Cardi B’s song Forevabecause it helps pull up this really generative rage in me that I had when I was a teenage girl and that honestly was the best tool for getting a lot of shit done. Most of my characters in the last three years have been tender and tragicomic figures, but I have a lot of rage in me and aggression that I need to express, and it’s a lifelong journey to find the right channel for that. Like where can I put it where it won’t hurt anyone I love and care about, and how can it be useful and spiritually generative? I am so mad about shit sometimes in the world it’s just a big pile of bricks in my eyes.
I like studying things – right now, I’m learning a lot about pre-1930s cartoons from the US and their connection to minstrelsy. I’ve always been drawn to cartoons and music from that era, even though a lot of it disturbs me. I’m a white passing person, but I was raised by a black mother who taught me not to respect those images. But I am often drawn to horror, especially when it’s in a context where it’s supposed to be doing something else, like making people laugh, because it holds a lot of important information about the surrounding culture. I generally don’t like pretense or the feeling that something is being glossed over. I’ve been really into the swans and cranes in the slimy industrial harbor near my house, I run past them every morning. I’ve become more involved in some anti-racist political activity here in Holland, mostly around the figure of Zwarte Piet. I live near the industrial harbor, and I sometimes walk there at night in a long black leather coat and sunglasses, like a vampire, and listen very loud to Katy Perry on headphones, wow it helps a lot. All this enters into the work in some strange way.**
Liv Wynter and Emily Pope will each perform the night of the launch. The evening includes video and installations with an after party at The Victoria in Dalston, which includes music from Poppy Tibbs and PUSSY MAFIA.
The one-night-only mini-festival An Evening of Poetry takes place on Friday 22 April in a living room by the canal on the city edge of Molenbeek. It’s full of people probably lured by Brussels-based curatorial project Buenos Tiempos, Int.’s motto, “faggotry as it is today”, or by the e-newsletter heralding in seductive serif: “We would be very gay / To have you between us …”
Hosted in the shared home of Buenos Tiempos, Int. founders Alberto García del Castillo and Marnie Slater, the evening comprises spoken and sung poetry by international artists Olivia Dunbar, Benjamin Seror and Geo Wyeth, all of whom could be said to operate in the sprawling domain of queer performance and/or poetry, though each with very different approaches. Contrary to the rest of that particular week’s commercial gallery-oriented proceedings (thanks to Art Brussels and its various self-consciously ‘independent’ offshoots), the event is graciously not an extension of the work day in the guise of a party.
The environment is domestic, the crowd loose, the entry unexclusive (read: free). The beer is cheap and the works play out on the same floor on which the attendees stand. There is no facile gesture of participation (though we are implicated), no price, no waiting list and no extensive documentation (for a hoot, see BTI’s website ‘documentation’, “About An Evening of Poetry …”, a 10-minute real-time capture of the setting sun taken from the venue’s roof on the same night). Buenos Tiempos, Int. would distance itself from the need to be negatively defined by what the art market does (speculate, voraciously consume, exploit). That said, this evening does mark itself as vastly different (just look at the lighting) within the context of the fair week, the oppressive sameness of market booths and of fluorescent white cubes.
First up, Brussels-based Seror gives a synth-infused performance mixing poetry and pop music, while his ungainly dance moves and increasingly enthusiastic, near head-banging sincerity leads to an electric guitar solo and thundering applause as he completes his last song. Somewhere between amateur rock and heartfelt emotional folk, Seror is succeeded by an absent yet personal reading by Dunbar, who begins with a discussion of her dick, her boyfriend, and his hot rod magazines. The Canadian artist could not be in Brussels and thus her voice is remotely emitted from speakers; nonetheless, attendees stand and listen, facing where her presence would have been, towards the stage. At some point Dunbar breaks into song and her stunning voice is a shock (though there is no final evidence it belongs to the artist herself, one assumes so). Juxtaposing varied references and images via text and music, Dunbar’s collage-like piece consciously and explicitly recalls the current tendency in contemporary art for text-based, quasi-autobiographical, technology-contingent and somewhat emotionally distant poetry.
This constellatory approach to text is reflected in US-American Wyeth’s live work, which compiles vignettes of physical performance, including costume changes (or removals, as it were), with song (another breathtaking voice), and poetry. The performance commences with a disquieting baby-like voice coming from a disoriented, sunglass-wearing Wyeth, crying repetitively as he wanders about, dragging a small carry-on size wheelie suitcase: “Daddy, Daddy? Where are you, Daddy?” One can’t help thinking of the lost father, the metaphorical authority, which is supposed to keep our subjectivity in check. One can’t help thinking of all those adult children in their 20s and 30s wandering around airports waiting for low-cost flights, wondering what the hell their life is about. Wyeth’s specific ‘Daddy’ becomes the generalised ‘Daddy’, the dead father; we killed him long ago but neglected to replace him, and there is no more ideology to believe in; we are lost.
Shortly after, Wyeth enters a vignette where he lifts up his long pullover to reveal the word ‘juice’, written in some sort of brown fluid. Juice for children; juice for sex; juice for power. The meaning remains ambiguous but Wyeth uses the repetition and visual representation of this word to assert its affect. Towards the end of the performance, he enters an intensely physical phase where he dry humps the floor, microphone in mouth amplifying the carnal sounds of this increasingly violent action. At some point Wyeth grabs onto an attendee and makes his way into this man’s arms, like a baby. By now the sounds have changed to a much more disturbed, even tormented moan, child-like in its tone. The image we are left with is this sexualised child, deprived of dignity but triumphantly clinging to the man. With this image, the presumed innocence of our spectatorship falls away completely. We are complicit and only too aware of the pleasure/unease we derive from this trans man’s revelation. Do we also feel compelled to cry for Daddy? Thundering applause.
It’s no surprise Buenos Tiempos, Int. have garnered a faithful following both locally and abroad. This is their second poetry event, the first, in May 2015, featured Kathy Acker and Dunbar, Hadley Howes and Brad Phillips. Their regular online exhibitions, usually presenting the work of one artist, include video works, documentation of performances, text pieces, images, etc. These shows give concise insight into artists whose practices are often difficult to categorise. Shows by artists as varied as Vava Dudu, Juliana Huxtable, and CAConrad, reveals BTI’s interest in queer visual art, music and experimental literature, as well as their effort to trace a certain lineage of queer practices and chart connections between artists not normally seen or thought of together.
This is certainly the case at An Evening of Poetry. Living up to their motto, Buenos Tiempos, Int. (which, after all, means ‘good times’ in Spanish), made faggots of us all. Though most were probably already quite open to it.**