OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Ian Deleón

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Prolific performance artist IAN DELEÓN is inspired by "the grotesque, transgression, mortification and ecstasy." Through a rich vocabulary of props and appropriated media imagery, he repeatedly places himself and his audience firmly inside the political and cultural context of Post-colonialism. Simultaneously he explores the more personal, universal human experiences of vulnerability, endurance and submission in collaborations with other performance artists and even his own father. Ian earned an AA in English Literature from the Miami Dade College Honors Program and a BFA from the Studio for Interrelated Media at the Massachusetts College of Art & Design in Boston. He has performed and been included in film festivals both nationally (Boston, New York, Detroit and Miami Beach) and internationally (Cuba, China, Vancouver, The Netherlands, Puerto Rico, Berlin). He is the recipient of a 2015 Art Writing Workshop slot, coordinated by the Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program in partnership with the International Art Critics Association/USA Section. He is currently working towards a 2017 solo exhibition in Fort de France, Martinique at Tropiques Atrium. Ian just kicked off a monthly performance curatorial project with Tif Robinette. Look for the next event, I Had to Watch Them Bleed, on Saturday, March 19, 2016 at PULSAR in Brooklyn, where he lives and works.

OtherPeoplesPixels: How would you define performance art in general for Average Joe on the street?

Ian Deleon: I’m actually actively engaged in a profound investigation of this very question with many colleagues in New York. What performance art was and what it currently is are often vastly dissimilar. Also, how and why we should distinguish between performance and performing is a key question. Every conjugation of this word carries its own particular contexts; what institutions tout as the embodiment of one format may be precisely the opposite of what young artists in the underground scene would call it.

For someone who is completely new to performance art, perhaps the most productive explanation of the term can simply be: "the experience of watching visual art created live." Whether that's actually useful, I'm not sure. As with any other question dealing with an embodied identity, Average Joe should ultimately prepare themselves for a lengthy response—something that attempts to acknowledge and wade through all of the inherent contradictions of our language and our culture. So if Average Joe follows up by asking if it's anything like action painting or public tree carving, you can say “yes” with confidence. That's when you jump in and ask Average Joe to define painting or sculpture himself. If you have him up until this point, it's a good bet Average Joe will let you take him on a brief journey while you discuss the fluidity of these terms and introduce an example that challenges his preconceived notions of what visual art can be.

Child of the swollen sea
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OPP: How would you describe your own work for that same person?

ID: I've explored many avenues in trying to explain my own work quickly and concisely to people. My favorite and probably still most confusing remarks tend to highlight the interconnectedness in my work between the body, poetics and architecture. People you are meeting for the first time rarely want to hear in-depth responses to a question so vague. So I try to say something a little intriguing. If they still want to know more, that's when I begin actually describing a piece to them and how it relates to other forms of expression they might be more familiar with. For OPP readers who are still with me, I will add that my work is currently greatly inspired by ideas concerning the grotesque, transgression, mortification and ecstasy.

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OPP: You are a prolific writer in edition to your performances. You describe them well on your site for those of us who don’t have the opportunity to see them live. Is writing a tool for explaining performances, a tool for documentation?

ID: The writing as documentation definitely began as a way to solve a very real problem, which is that a lot of performance work goes unreported in terms of journalistic criticism. After university, I found myself craving that critical engagement with a work that I regularly received from my studio classes, but rarely found out in the art world. Performance has largely been relegated to spectacle in the media, which means a 'slow burn' of a work has little chance of receiving a thoughtful appraisal or any appraisal at all. Compared to the film industry, even the most banal of movies gets some kind of commentary in the press. The same publication will likely have someone who covers the visual arts as a whole, and 90% of the time you are going to see a review for a show of 2D and 3D work. In Boston, there was this almost laughable common knowledge that the most renowned arts writer in the city would refuse to go to art openings, thereby greatly reducing their chances of catching a live performance in a multidisciplinary group show. They certainly weren't coming to performance-only shows.

Thus, the writing became a way for me to assert a place for the work myself. It was an attempt to look at it objectively, to assess its strengths and weaknesses—so that I can grow as an artist—and to share these thoughts with others. It should appear curious that my resume reads the way it does while I have barely a press listing to my name. I firmly believe that this is due to the strength of the work, which has presented complex ideas that resist the simple and sentimental narratives, while also espousing an economy of images and spectacle. I myself find the most intriguing work to be the most difficult to write about.

In addition, finding photo/video documentation to be largely unsuccessful (although necessary for the grant-seeking game) at capturing the essences of performance, I relied on my skills with the written word to tell the story the images might have been unable to tell.

L’odeur du père
Excerpt of a performance with my father, in my mother's backyard in South Florida following a week of intense and heated political discussions

OPP: Do you conceive of your performances as poetry?

ID: Before I came to performance—or fine art for that matter—I had writing. If there was one thing I excelled at throughout early schooling, it was creative composition. In that way, I feel myself aligned often with performers turned architects such as Vito Acconci, who considers himself, above all, a poet. For me the work absolutely begins with language––an interesting phrase or title of another work. I then embark on an exploration of how to visualize such poetics and in the end find that the writing about the performance is my favorite part of the process, where I can unravel all of the elaborate connections I was referencing in the piece. The performances almost resemble a draft for a literary work to come. The brief and never repeated performance 'tweets' and 'essays' I have been producing may thus one day lead me to develop a long-term project with novelistic ambitions.

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OPP: In 2015, You’ve collaborated numerous times with AGROFEMME in performances like And our bed is verdant…Incorruptible Flesh, Night of Faith and Estas navidades van a ser candela. How did this collaboration start? What does each of you bring to the table? How would you describe the gender dynamics of your performances?

ID: AGROFEMME and I met at a performance event, and we immediately developed a connection that blossomed into many professional collaborations and an intimate relationship. This latter aspect is certainly present in the work, and I suppose we play with the gender dynamics through a commitment to mutual discomfort and trust. In our performances, you see two people who alternate between trusting one another with their safety, sometimes literally bearing the weight of the other person. Working this way came naturally to us. We're just both very interested in physicality, endurance and the ability to harness an intimate relationship into creating work that neither of us would feel comfortable partaking in with anyone else. In thinking about our process, you could say that AF has a natural ability with materials that surpasses mine. So AF chooses and elaborates a lot of the objects in our performances, while I tend to refine a shared interest into an overarching concept for us to explore.

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OPP: Many of your earlier performances are political allegories that comment on the long history of colonialism and American policies and invasions of Caribbean and Latin American countries during the 1980s (Panama, Grenada, Nicaragua, Cuba, etc). There are numerous recurring symbolic props, including bars of Hispano soap, Ronald Reagan masks, a necklace made of children’s shoes, Domino sugar and American flags. Could you talk about the language of props in your work?

ID: That body of work very much came out of the identity crisis I faced after moving away from my hometown of Miami Beach to attend college in the "godless and frozen North" (Massachusetts). I had an inner need for self-discovery and self-making, which started to become informed by the technical skills I was picking up at school. Having been trained in my undergraduate years in film editing, I soon grew acutely aware of how modern visual culture is heavily constructed [full stop] and bent towards the consolidation and normalization of power.

Hollywood tropes, consumer product packaging and travel advertisements became my source material, and I began exploring this language of propaganda media in relation to my own familial stories. I felt the need to cut, splice and re-edit my people's histories just as I had done on numerous film/video projects. It was a way of reasserting control over them. . . of ensuring a place for myself in those histories. This vivisection of imagery and text led me down a path, which has created a tangible bridge between myself, living in the Northern Americas and my kindred spirits to the South. I drew on the 'trop-iconic' materials in various marketable stages (like sugar cane stalks and processed table sugar) to talk about the very different, although interconnected ways in which these objects continued to affect those in the colonies and in the metropole—and yes, those terms and that relationship most certainly still applies to the Americas. I wanted to break the cycle of "diasporic amnesia" and evoke what the Caribbeanist Shalini Puri describes as a "volcanic memory"—something that would prompt a reconsideration of the authenticity and ethics operating within every spoonful of bleached sugar, every imported not-so-ripe pineapple, every cocopalm-laced travel postcard and every holiday cruise.

¡Te conozco bacalao aunque vengas disfrazao!

OPP: It seems you've since moved away from this content in recent years. . .

ID: I've moved away from this type of work mostly because I have said all I can from my current point of reference, which is that of someone who has never actually lived in the Caribbean or South America. But I've also noticed a palpable attitude in the U.S., which for the moment is correctly lending primacy to the voices of the historically under(mis)represented. I believe this translates to the work I have been doing being largely overlooked in the U.S. because of the fact that I appear "white.” In the Caribbean, conversations around race and identity tend to be more fluid, so I have yet to feel my work invalidated there because of the privileges most societies accord my body. In the Caribbean, I am without a doubt Caribbean. In the U.S., most of what I am is doubt. Thus, in order to survive as an artist living in the U.S., I have begun taking more cues from the worlds of literature and cinema. The incorporation of narratives that deviate from the strictly autobiographical have lent my work a broader appeal that I believe has a better chance of being judged on its merits.

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OPP: What role does discomfort play in your practice?

ID: For me discomfort is at the heart of performance and personal evolution. I impose discomfort on myself and the audience as a way of disrupting the quotidian flow of life. The Myth of Sisyphus has been a guiding inspiration for me for several years now, and Camus' interpretation of that myth asserts that struggle is the quintessential state of human existence. I don't see this as a resignation to a doomed fate, but rather a way to acknowledge the tribulations in life that propel us further as individuals. Inspired by this, a lot of my work has dealt with enacting an obviously contrived, though nonetheless real, experience of discomfort. My commitment to discomfort in the moment, whether I am carrying a 50 pound bag of sugar repeatedly up stairs, or chewing through sugarcane stalks for over two hours, is indicative of my eschewing of theatricality and sentimentality. I have no interest in alluding to a personal connection to sugarcane harvesting, for example. But I am passionate about the idea that someone like myself, who rarely encounters this pervasive substance in its raw state, would choose to experience this trial of endurance. It's a way for me to remind myself and the audience, that comfort never comes without a price.

To see more of Ian's work, please visit iandeleon.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent 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 solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan), Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery (Chicago) and When Things Fall Apart, a durational, collage installation in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (Chicago). Form Unbound, a two-person show, also featuring the work of Aimée Beaubien, closed in December 2015 at Dominican University's O’Connor Art Gallery (River Forest, IL). Most recently, Stacia created a brand new site-responsive installation for SENTIENCE, a group show on view at The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art until March 27, 2016.