A chat with Geo Wyeth on rage, hoarding + never reaching ‘the thing,’ ahead of a performance at Les Urbaines Festival

, 27 November 2017

“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.

Geo Wyeth, ‘Juice CrossxxxSing’ (2017) Performance Documentation. Courtesy the artist + Frascati Theater, Amsterdam.

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! 
Geo Wyeth, ‘Juice CrossxxxSing’ (2017) Performance Documentation. Courtesy the artist + Frascati Theater, Amsterdam.
** 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?

Courtesy Geo Wyeth. Photo: Alice O’Malley ​
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 Foreva because 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.**