OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Alexander DeMaria

Magazine Kora
2013
Magazine rack, banjo strings, hand made magnetic pickup, hardware

Artist and musician ALEXANDER DEMARIA’s creative practice incorporates drawing, sound, sculpture, performance and cut paper. His intricately detailed two-dimensional works reference folklore and heavy metal culture, emphasizing an experience of adolescent escapism. In contradistinction, his recent instruments built from found objects and collaborative, improvisational performances using the instruments reveal a mature version of play, wonderment and imagination. Alexander received his MFA in painting from the Massachusetts College of Art in 2007. He has attended numerous artist residencies including The Wassaic Project in Wassaic, New York (2011), Sumu Artist Residency in Turku, Finland (2010) and Ox-bow School of Art in Saugatuck, Michigan (2009). Currently, he is in residence with his collaborator James Horgan at Raumars in Rauma, Finland until October 2013. Alexander lives and works in Providence, Rhode Island.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Music and sound are central to your art practice. Do you also have a formal music background or a music life that is separate from your art practice?

Alexander DeMaria: I have very little formal training in music, but I've played in bands for a long time, often with other visual artists and always—at least initially—as a distinct activity from our art practices.

The first real sound art project I did was Under the Same Shadow, an ongoing sound and installation collaboration with artist Owen Rundquist. The project is rooted in our mutual interest in mythology, cultural research and heavy metal. Our first exhibit was at Fountain Gallery in Brooklyn, and we have since done projects in Boston, Richmond, Virginia and at the Sumu Residency program in Turku, Finland.

We were very clear when we started the project that it was sound art, not a band (though we do now play in a band together). Middle Kingdom, another collaboration, began as a band. Jamie Horgan and I started making experimental noise music with some very basic electronics I was building: guitars, disembodied tape heads, toys, recorders, drums, scrap metal. . . really anything we could get our hands on. That project developed slowly into installation and it was only after a couple of years that we saw it as part of our art practice. Until October 2013, we’ll be in Rauma, Finland together, building instruments, constructing temporary performance spaces, organizing music shows and working with school groups on both instrument construction and musical performance.

Currently, I play in a black metal band with Owen called Anicon (along with Nolan Voss and Lev Weinstein) and record solo under the project name Ypotryll. I have an upcoming release on the Different Lands label. I also run a small cassette label myself called Mineral Tapes, which I use to publish small editions of experimental albums. I have tapes by Sashash Ulz and Invisible Path coming out very soon.

Tuomiosauna
2010
Installation with Owen Rundquist: wood, tile, stone, moss, electronics, radio, sound
75" x 116" x 86"

OPP: How do you define the difference between sound art made with musical instruments and music?

AD: I think it's mostly about the intended context and suitability of the actual recording or performance to that context. When Owen and I started making sound together, we knew that we wanted it to be experienced in a gallery or art space, not at a metal show. Even though the form of the sounds bears a very strong resemblance to more traditional musical forms, it was never intended to be experienced in traditional musical venues. By contrast, the kind of sounds that Jamie and I started with were very abstract, often droning, dissonant and noisy, but we initially intended to play them live at music events. In each case, we were looking for something unusual for the chosen context.

OPP: Your instruments made from found objects are beautiful as sculptures. Were they originally created to be played or displayed?

AD: The instruments were definitely always made to be played. Most of the Ypotryll recordings are done with these instruments. Some of them play better than others, but none of them is considered a finished piece until I've recorded some music with it.

Performance at Shoot the Lobster
2012

OPP: When you perform publicly with these instruments, do you compose for them or is more improvisation? What do they sound like?


AD: Almost all the instruments are electric so I do use a number of effects pedals. This recording, made at a rehearsal for the performance Jamie Horgan and I did at Shoot the Lobster in New York, was made with the Yellow Two Neck, the Nomad, the Reverb Drum and the amplified Kalimba. I play everything live and use a loop pedal to layer up the sounds in real time; there’s no over-dubbing or anything. It's a really good representation of the live sound.

Also, in the photos of this particular performance you can see a group of people standing around me holding hands. The Nomad is a touch sensitive keyboard, so skin contact between the little bolts and the bike spoke at the bottom produces a note. For the performance, wires ran from the instrument to the audience. When the audience members linked hands one by one they built a big droning chord that started the set.

As for composition, I usually have a trajectory in mind for a performance and maybe some sounds that I know I want to hear, but everything is ultimately an improvisation.

OPP: What's it like to play them?

AD: Each instrument is pretty idiosyncratic. Because they're all found objects and kind of scrapped together, learning to play them is really interesting. I always think I know what it will sound like, but I'm almost always wrong. If I'm disappointed by some aspect of the sound I thought I'd find, I'm usually pleasantly surprised by something else I didn't expect.

Portraits of Pain
2008
Cut Paper
78"x 36"

OPP: The motifs of ritual, folklore and heavy metal permeate your work, connecting the music and performance to the visual work. Many of your drawings evoke album cover art. Skulls and burial-related structures appear repeatedly, representing rituals related to death. It got me thinking of rituals associated with music. For example, the ritual of listening to a breakup song on repeat is a way to process loss. And going to a huge, blockbuster concert is as much about being connected to the other fans as it is about listening to the music. Is a jam session a contemporary ritual? 

AD: Music is connected to tons of contemporary rituals, both private and public, from listening to it in our homes to playing it on stage. The imagery in some of the drawings and especially in the work from Under the Same Shadow is definitely trying to identify some of those small rituals and relate them to specific, older cultural references like burial poles or saunas, for example. That being said, the word "ritual" has recently been over-used, particularly amongst metal bands. It seems to be used simply for dramatic effect or it is often confused with pagan or new age cliches that rob it of its power.

OPP: I know what you mean about words being over-used—and often mis-used!—but I’m also a believer that things become cliché because they are universal, because as humans we need to experience them over and over again. The cliché is a site of a shared human experience. But that’s my interpretation. I’d love to hear in your words what you love about music and why it is such a big part of your life.

AD: I agree, cliches exist for a reason and often do get at something really universal. And really, although the word gets bandied about too much, all music is a kind of ritual. There's no need to burn sage or wear a mask to make it so. I think that actually gets to your question about music for me personally. I really enjoy making all kinds of things: art, music, furniture, dinner. . . that "ritual" of creation is the most pleasurable part for me. The time that's spent working on something and figuring it out is often much more important than the finished product; sometimes it's really more beautiful. With music, that creative moment can be the entire thing and the recording, (if there is one) is simply a record of the action. Whether improvising or playing something composed, there is something fragile and uncertain about creating music that I really love.

2009
Ink on Paper
30"x22"


OPP: The Forest in the Basement (2010), a series of densely-detailed ink drawings, seems to be about cycles of death and rebirth. The title evokes for me the image of a fertile, untethered wildness growing in a contained space where it shouldn't be able to grow. At first it seems awesome; then it seems sad because maybe the forest will die in the basement where there is no sunlight. Will you pick your favorite piece from this series and talk about how it relates to the title and to your overarching intentions in this body of work?

AD: The Forest in the Basement for me refers to the growth of a young person's imagination in an environment that might not be the most inspiring. The forest is a place of enchantment, magic and endless possibility and the basement refers to the spaces were I would hangout as a kid. My family had a finished room in the basement which was always where the kids would go to play, so that's part of the imagery. But I also used to love digging through attics and basements for lost treasures, which is another part of the reference. Finally, a lot of the music I've been involved with also takes place at basement shows which was a part of my thinking in the title.

Fantasy has been important to me since I was very young. In both art and music, I tend to make things that allow me to escape reality. The drawings in this series are about creating a world that I would have loved as a teenager but can still return to again and again as an adult. In a number of the drawings characters are built of many small things or have rooms hidden in their clothing. Each character's "inner bits" have a mood and feeling that represent for me that more complex network of feelings and ideas that surround the larger theme. In Age Old Hymns, for example, the character represents an adolescent image of a goddess of sex and death in a variety of really obvious ways but also in the endless maze of rooms that make up her structure. She is church-like, baroquely complicated and full of small surprises. So while the nude breasts and corpse paint have their role in setting the theme for the drawing, my hope is that all the tiny details allow the viewer to share in the intricate web of associations—desire, mystery, guilt, wonderment—that go along with that fantasy. I hope in this drawing, as in the whole series, that there is some feeling of the adolescent fantasy, and also of my adult reflections on the psychology of that fantasy and on act of imagination itself. But that feels like a really dry, academic way to put it. . . Really, I just hope people will get lost in this world with me.

To see more of Alexander's work, please visit www.alexanderdemaria.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and spiritual significance of repetition in her cross-stitch embroideries, remix video and collage installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her work is on view through September 2013 in Abstracting the Seam (Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago), and she has two upcoming solo exhibitions: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (Klemm Gallery, Adrian, Michigan) in November 2013 and Right Here, Right Now (Heaven Gallery, Chicago) in January 2014.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews David Kagan

An Interview with David Kagan: By OtherPeoplesPixels
The Year In Review (Live Performance)
2011
Mixed media

OtherPeoplesPixels: For your recent series The Year In Review you composed music with an electronic producer, shot short films to accompany the tracks, pressed vinyl, and staged live multimedia performances. For your previous series, The Redacted Bunny, you incorporated painting, installation, photography, and video into the structure of episodic television. How do you select the combination of media you use for each project?

David Kagan: I spent a long time trying to separate my “lofty artistic aspirations” from my “lowbrow” pop cultural interests, and found I wasn’t having very much fun making art. The Redacted Bunny was a turning point: I was finally able to openly acknowledge how pervasive the influence of television, especially bad television, had been on my life (my earliest memories are probably of The Love Boat). Hence, the work took the structural form of an episodic show. The other media included in the project followed on the basis of necessity: a cast of actors was required, therefore I fabricated costumes to alter my appearance and created a chorus of puppet co-stars. I needed sets, so I collected objects from thrift stores and I painted backdrops. A series of photographs were taken of myself and the various characters to serve as conceptual “film stills.” In exhibiting the video work, these additional elements sometimes served as installation environments. 

With The Year In Review, I sought to fulfill a nearly life-long ambition to record an album. But I didn’t want to do a half-assed job, so I set out to fully mimic the entire structure of a proper pop album ad campaign. My first love is video, so of course each of the tracks had to have its own short musical film. I’m an avid music collector (especially of electronic disco from the 70s, incidentally the style emulated in this project) and wanted to create a beautiful, fetishistic, and perhaps useless object. Hence, I had a limited run of records pressed with colored vinyl, full jacket artwork, and inner sleeve liner notes. The most exciting part of the project, however, ended up being the live performances, which I think of as “promotional appearances.” I had never sung live in public before, and I have terrible stage fright, but I wanted to push my art further outside of where I feel safe. I call these events “un-performances,” as I make no claims of having a good voice or any sort of stage presence; when in the gallery setting, I stand rather motionless and expressionless, and blend in with the other installation elements, my voice having no more importance than the projected videos, records, or other objects.

Still From "Patron Saint Of Collapsing Art Markets" (part of the The Redacted Bunny series)
2009

OPP: You star as yourself in each aspect of The Year In Review—using yourself as a test subject to explore your interests in identity construction and iconography. You also star in The Redacted Bunny but as the character Bunny Boy. Can you speak about your performative role in each series and how performing as yourself may have differed from performing as Bunny Boy?

DK: There’s no difference for me between playing “David Kagan” or a man in a rabbit suit. The two main characters in The Redacted Bunny, the transsexual mother and human-animal hybrid son, were basically my id and super ego, respectively. I never viewed them as anything other than myself in drag, playacting wild fantasies and darkest self-doubts. Eventually, though, I did come to see that the style of this work—the bright cartoon colors, camera hamming acting, and ceaseless, rapid-fire editing—created a distraction from what I was actually interested in: identity construction.

I found a more direct route to this line of inquiry by dropping the masks and wigs (well, not completely…) and using the material at hand-myself. In The Year In Review, I am “David Kagan” throughout the project, but it’s actually no more or less “acted” than the work that’s come before. Some of the song lyrics are culled from actual email exchanges with curators or quotes from art critiques I’ve had. I had to say the line (which is a quote of myself) “I do primarily video work” over and over a while back when I did a live performance of The Whitney Biennial Song. It sounds really awkward or trite to me, and yet the phrase still comes out of my mouth from time to time in daily life. It’s funny when I catch myself actually saying these things that I’ve used as song lyrics. It makes me realize that I’m acting all the time. I’m very intrigued by the prospect that I might actually be an incredibly insincere person.

OPP: Do your live performances and performative videos incorporate improvisation or do you stick to a predetermined script?

DK: I tend to be very scripted, in general. In my art and my life-it’s when I say things without first practicing them in my head that I get in trouble. Generally, the end product ends up being about 90% planned with a 10% margin for error. I guess I’ve set this strategy up for myself, almost unconsciously, so that the work has a system of internal flaws (the beauty is in the defects after all). Case in point, I shot a video, All The Conceptual Art I’ll Never Make on a rural road in Wisconsin last summer. Basically, I had to walk up and over a horizon line and traverse the better part of a mile up to where a video camera was positioned, and then sing a chorus.  The whole endeavor took about ten minutes. The landscape in the camera lens was perfectly desolate—a lonely road cutting through rolling hills of corn. The only problem was that I couldn’t stop the flow of traffic, which occurred arbitrarily: sometimes three cars would pass by in two minutes, then half an hour would go by with nothing. I had to accept that whatever was going to happen was out of my control in this respect. 

OPP: How do you think the concept of “endless hope” that you speak about in your statement for The Year In Review shapes your work and your artmaking process more generally?

DK: My knee-jerk reaction has always been to declare myself a pessimist but for some reason I am continually putting myself in situations where rejection or failure is a very possible outcome. Whether it’s applying for funding or a residency, submitting work for curatorial review, or doing a live performance with little practice or experience—I seem to just keep going regardless of what happens. Indeed, I guess my mantra is “turn your liabilities into assets.” That’s why the subject matter of much of my work is the absence of success: in The Whitney Biennial Song, an invitation and submission to a museum exhibit inevitably yields the sound of crickets chirping; Epic Pfail is about contacting a prominent artist after I’ve had a workshop residency with him and never hearing back. I’m seeking to infuse these events with a sense of purpose, by incorporating them into my work and seeing them not as mere disappointments, but key components of my art career.

OPP: The Redacted Bunny, was recently included in the Art Video International Film Festival at Cannes—congratulations. When screened at festivals is the series shown as episodes interspersed among other work or edited together sequentially?

DK: Actually, thus far it has always been screened as a single piece, but with the episodes playing non-sequentially. I chose this format as a strategy to more actively engage the viewer, forcing him to make sense of the work and construct it as a whole for himself. By nature, an episodic serial demands passivity: the spectator gives himself over to a narrative (if properly engaged) and lets it wash over himself from episode to episode, week to week, year to year. There is a sense of familiarity and stasis, especially in the sit-com genre. This is the antithesis of what the type of art I’m trying to make does; I require an obstruction, a visible thread that if pulled could unravel the very world I’ve painstakingly created.

Post x 5 Modern Tea Party
2011
Single channel video
5 min.

OPP: One of eight short films made to accompany the album tracks in your series The Year In Review features your parents and your partner. Tell me about that film. What was it like making work with your family?

DK: This is the short video Post x 5 Modern Tea Party. It was filmed over the forth of July weekend last year—the hottest two days of the entire summer! Conceptually, I’m sort of flippantly addressing the impossibility of there ever being another over-arching art movement (too many cooks in the art kitchen I suppose). It’s made all the more ridiculous with the visuals of my parents, John and I doing a synchronized dance routine in our bathing suits throughout. My ulterior motive was really to share my art making practice with the family—to include them in the process. I was attempting to foster an interaction that was outside of our normal engagement, and I wanted a record it for posterity. Of course, they might beg to differ, and see it less as collaboration and more as exploitation! My parents, though, still break into the dance moves from time to time when I see them…

OPP: How do you seek out support for your work in the form of feedback from other artists having recently graduated with an MFA from Hunter College? Are you rooted to a community of artists where you live and work in New York?

DK: This is something I’m currently sorting out, as I’m just out of grad school. A large part of why I did an MFA was to build a network of artist friends and associates. I value these relationships with former classmates and professors—and try to be diligent in supporting their exhibitions, lectures, open studios, etc.  Some schoolmates have been organizing a series of studio visits, which I plan to get looped into soon, though I guess I am still taking a break from three years of art crits!

I live on the Lower East Side, and will be doing a studio residency in my neighborhood early next year (AAI - Artists Alliance Inc.). I'm definitely looking forward to meeting some new faces and making art locally, but I have a hunch that the base of my community will remain tied to my alma mater.

OPP: What is next for you? What are you working on now?

DK: I’ve started work on more music—I’m fairly invested in that endeavor right now. It picks up thematically where the last album left off—crawling from the wreckage of an MFA program as it were. I’ve been reading books on the evils of religion (Christopher Hitchen’s God Is Not Great, Sam Harris’ The End Of Faith). It’s coloring my world right now and I’m sure it will influence the work. Love songs for atheists, perhaps?
 
I’m also very pleased to say that I’ve received a grant from Art Matters funding a project in Ghana early next year. I’m fascinated by the country—it’s where my partner is from and I’ve been just once before. I’ll be collaborating with musicians, both traditional and pop, on a filmic/music project. It’s still a bit loose as to what final form the work will take, but I’m interested in continuing to push myself further outside of what’s familiar, comfortable, or easy.

To view more of David Kagan’s work visit davidkagan.net