WILDING Continued: a Conversation with Aria Dean

Too often radical debates become reduced, or settled with representational politics. Without dismissing the severity and damage that the lack of representation means to communities under siege (as we are intimately invested in the stakes of representation here), we’ve increasingly become interested in expanding the horizon beyond representation, canon-interruption, and inclusion.


In The Reorder of Things, Rod Ferguson describes the ways in which universities managed and subsumed the radical activism of the 6os and 70s by creating Ethnic and Women’s Studies departments. He writes, “Hegemonic power denotes the disembodied and abstract promotion of minority representation without fully satisfying the material and social redistribution of minoritized subjects, particularly where people of color are concerned…” The creation and continuation of ethnic and women’s studies departments have not resulted in the material and social redistribution of communities under siege–rather it’s shifted the conversation to remain within the realms of representational politics. Similarly, more representation of Black, nonblack, queer and women-identified artists is not the end goal, it’s one hurdle among many. How to think and fight for all that’s required?


In thinking about the closing of Wandering/WILDING and our conversation with curator/writer Legacy Russell, we reached out to the author of the catalog essay, Aria Dean, who writes about the tensions of representational politics and inclusion, while problematizing pre-existing aesthetic and activist strategies in novel and unsettling ways.


Aria Dean is an artist, writer, and curator based in Los Angeles. Dean’s position was important to us as we have found ourselves drawn to the voices of writers and art critics with an exhibiting art practice contending the purity–assumed “objectivity”–of the historically white male “Art Critic.” Is the emergence of the cyber, woman/queer of color artist-writer through online platforms a response to and a field critique of the gap that has existed in art criticism: the absence of an empirical (materialist) AND theoretical approach? We wonder if the new perspectives extended by black/qoc artist-writers is one potential to rupture the status quo–puncturing the ways in which standardized art criticism reifies taste-making and value attribution to specific artists, practices and genres while depriving Others of such “worth”, deeming them “not there yet”, “not marketable”, “not serious enough”, etc.


In our conversation with Dean, she describes the under-noted racialization of the erotic, the complications and uneasiness of canon interactions, the stakes of critique and the essentialness of the embodied critic–with a kind of clarity and openness that can’t stop swooning over:


contemptorary: We asked Legacy Russell about “an erotic of the black crowd” and wanted to start with you from this question as well. Could you talk to us as well, about how you began thinking about the relationship between the Black crowd (movements?) and the Black wanderer (the artist?) Or have we misunderstood and these two forums were not split for you in your composition?


Aria Dean: I don’t think that they are quite split nor do I think you’ve necessarily misunderstood. I think that what I’ve become interested in in my writing and my work is exploring the inseparability of the black artist from the black crowd. There may not be such a thing as “individualized artistic production” for us; we’re automatically situated within and against this larger collective body. I believe that when it comes to our capacities to be ‘wanderers’, or to be part of a crowd, it might always be both/and, neither/nor. Both a wanderer and a part of the crowd. Neither an individual, nor fully with-others. This is for better or for worse. I’ve spent–perhaps wasted–a lot of time trying to find a way to affirm an “individuality.” But these days, I’m interested in how that kind of understanding of the self and its output is a western configuration of subjectivity that I might never attain. But this is also freeing and exciting in the sense that I think it makes the project of black artistic production a very different one.


contemptorary: Audre Lorde and the Central Park Five are anchor points that are seldom connected clearly. We think about the move to separate theory and writing from the violence it contends with–this is the violence that we too, wish to address. In putting Lorde and Central Park Five in conversation–and conversely, Carson and THE POLICE into another conversation–so much is clarified. Are we thinking about the connections the way you are wanting us to?


AD: Ah, it’s all really messy. I think I am thinking that, for the purpose of this essay, Carson and Lorde are counterpoints to one another. Carson talks about the erotic as something that comes from an awareness of the boundaries of self, and like, traversing that. It seems to me that Lorde is working from a framework where those boundaries are not presumed. And I think that this framework is a very black one, where selves are not so easily delineated. So that is what I mean when I say that Carson’s perspective is some “white people shit,” totally mired in an erotic that depends on white, western selfhood. And then from there, I suppose the connection to the police and to the Central Park Five is that the black crowd is a threat in its eroticism, in the chaos of its feeling and apparent unruliness. But also that maybe this erotic, and the chaotic look and feel of it, comes from the condition of blackness as it has been created by white thought. The blurry relationship between self and other comes in part from the historical violence that has rendered us fungible. Despite (but also because of???) these horrific origins, it also gives way to this erotic of the crowd.


I think the best I can offer toward a more grounded explanation is that jukebox challenge example at the end of the essay. I feel like those videos encapsulate this if you picture it happening in real time, envisioning the (hypothetical) white people outside of the frame watching in vague horror. It’s a horror that is a likely descendant from the kind of fear and paranoia that led to the lantern laws that Simone Browne writes about in Dark Matters, that forbid slaves to move about the city at night unless equipped with one lantern to every three bodies present. Maybe it’s also related to the use of the toyi-toyi dance in the fight against apartheid, and the dance’s banning at various junctures. Maybe it’s related to the video for Young Thug’s “Best Friend” where Young Thug encounters himself in different versions, most greeted with friendly recognition. Or Busta Rhymes’ multiple selves that clash along shared space-times throughout a number of Hype Williams-directed videos–ooh perhaps echoed in the recent Travis Scott video by Williams as well.


contemptorary: This is a two part question that we also asked Legacy Russell. In “The Privatization of Culture,” Chin Tao Wu sites Frenchie Bourdieu in stating that “Cultural Capital…thus serves as an ‘instrument of domination.” Curation, particularly museum curation is tied to the historical dynamics of the evaluation, and valuation of a particular kind of culture: white nationalism and white cultural production. Wu states that, “Art has long been patronised by those with power and status in society, and artistic products have thus always functioned as a status symbol as well as objects with market value.” We would add that white art has been patronised, and that these objects become “instrument[s] of domination.” Like Russell, your curation, art practice and your writing offers us something different. The first part of our question: Could you talk to us about how you tease through the tensions of valuation in your art and writing practices?


AD: I think it is important that I came to writing and curating first as an artist myself. The writing was always in the service of figuring out how to make objects, how to make art that would serve as proofs or experiments for these ideas. So, now, working as a curator affiliated with an institution, at Rhizome, I’m trying to approach the work with as much of an artist’s perspective as possible. To me this means privileging artists’ words about their work, among other things. Approaching artworks as a writer and/or curator might carry with it a near-inherent violence. Curating is a prescriptive and regulative task in a lot of ways–quite literally ordering, placing objects. Writing as well, at least coming from a somewhat academic background, unable to shake many liberal-arts-taught tendencies in my writing, can feel really gross. Am I acting in the service of Order? If I write an essay, who is it for?


Thinking about this often, maybe weirdly, leads me to Kerry James Marshall, whose work I do love, but whose position I might disagree with. He talks so often about how his work inserts figures of black people and black life into the art historical canon–which is a beautiful task to undertake, and he’s done it with such vigor, poetry, and thoroughness. However, I wonder if this should be the goal? Marshall’s practice accepts and takes as its grounding these formations of the Museum and History. He privileges figuration and representation so heavily and talks shit about abstraction sometimes. And I am just like what????? But then he does something like “Black Painting!” Or like there are these moments in his more straight-up figurative paintings where his subjects look back at the viewer from their position of total darkness–that deep black paint, and I’m right there with him again.


Anyway, I am now waxing poetic about KJM, and have really glossed over the finer points of what he is doing; I also won’t pretend that I have more to offer than he does in talking about the work. Just in responding to this, I’m revisiting an interview with him and I am like *foot in mouth* Anyway, this is a decent segue to return to the question of valuation. Some of KJM’s greater moments like the above are of black women looking back, like in “Untitled”, (2009).


Which leads me to: I think that being a black woman hopefully brings some sort of ‘oppositional gaze’ to the work that I am involved in. It’s not that by default, as a black woman, my writing or work is subversive or anything. But, I suppose that the hope is to consciously apply a different process of valuation to all of it. Written into the texts of the black radical tradition are the building blocks of a black (feminist, maybe womanist) oppositional gaze when it comes to dealing with the art institution, art world, etc.


I suppose that is all just to say that I am not interested only in the what and who–perhaps elements that would figure into a tactic of “increasing representation” or something. But also an engagement with the how. In this essay I wrote recently, I used Laruelle who has this whole thing about “u-chromia” and the universe and the world and thinking about everything through and against the black. Here, he’s speaking very abstractly and seemingly about color in a very genuine sense, but I think that it’s quite possible to repurpose the way he considers chromatic blackness toward a racial blackness.


Tangentially: I’ve had a really embarrassing obsession for a few months with putting together an exhibition about white male psychology. In my fantasy version of this project, my curation of this work would apply some sort of oppositional gaze or black female spectatorship to the work, doing something more than just putting work by or about white men in a gallery space. In a way it might be more of an artwork that I want to make than a curatorial project. But anyway, or in some ways this might be irresponsible because it is giving more space, time, and capital to white men. But I am interested in whether it is possible to provide a black feminist or afro-pessimist-informed reading of like, Chris Burden or something. Maybe a lot of people would probably say that that is a waste of time and maybe it makes me a schmuck, but I am sort of interested in Chris Burden’s apparent determination to destroy his own body, you know? Is there a way to productively think Chris Burden through and/or against the black? And not in the service of rehabilitating or adding value to Burden’s already high stock, or re-narrating him as #woke, but just asking like “why tho????” Maybe in the service of interrogating, like, my own disinterest in thoroughly annihilating myself.


I feel like I’m offering an impoverished version of some stuff many others have said before me. But it reminds me of a great moment in Moten where he makes this disclaimer, like (paraphrasing): “I love Kant, but Kant doesn’t love me.”


Knowing that someone doesn’t love you allows you to milk them for all they are worth without too much worry about maintaining their integrity. It’s fun!

contemptorary: Part two: What you’re saying about KJM is fascinating as Rod Ferguson has written that the university system is often, “producing formulas for the incorporation rather than the absolute repudiation of difference, all the while refining and perfecting its practices of exclusion and regulation.” And in many ways, how much of this logic (approach) been validated and encouraged by other cultural institutions–such as museums, publishing houses, etc. Additionally and however, we’re particularly interested in questions of incorporation and commodification because in the contemporary art world there seems to be expectations of people of color, and mainly women of color artists to always have “resolved” everything in their practice, to have “coherent” bodies of work that are ready for exhibition that fully address questions of co-optation, or successfully resist them somehow. Which leads us to ask: what is the value of experimentation in this sense? And do you see this exhibition as an experiment in manifesting different ways of being an artist, or collective being on the internet or IRL?


AD: So, I kind of just did the above–this expectation of coherence–to KJM, right? I just skimmed his body of work and lamely indicted him for maintaining a position other than my own when it comes to the ~task of the black artist~. Marshall’s work is full of internal contradictions, perhaps built upon contradiction as much as it is built upon the institution and history.


I think asking artists of color–black artists in particular–to come to the table with a resolved body of work is a part of this same attempt to squash unruliness and restore order that I wrote about in the essay. Squashing the contradictions is the price of ~a seat at the table~ as things have been formulated thus far, right? Messiness is rarely tolerated; if tolerated, it is instrumentalized.


I wrote this other essay about the video artist Ulysses Jenkins and how his work has, for years, been written about as “challenging negative representations of blackness” blah blah blah. I feel like so many black artists’ work gets cast as some version of that, and so many are not working through just that. Jenkins, just as an example, is engaged in a series of experiments that are more about escaping representation and asking questions about the ontology of blackness. But Art History has narrated so much of what we’ve done as being engaged in this really oversimplified singular problem of representation.


And so it sounds really inane but, for me, art’s primary value is as a space for experimentation. Viewing it that way frees up space for internal contradiction. For me, the work that I make and the things that I write serve as proofs and experiments for each other. It is a way to deal with the chaos, certainly on the level of caring for oneself, but moreover on the level of picking through the debris and constructing something for ourselves. Of course Kerry James Marshall and I have different perspectives on art-making and who we are in the world. Perhaps it’s the fault of history that I’ve ever thought otherwise, that I should desire for him, Jenkins, Young Thug, myself to fall into line.


So yeah, I think WANDERING/WILDING was an experiment in manifesting different ways of being an artist. The experimentation here isn’t an attempt to find a new question to ask, but to map the same field we’ve always been pacing–one that I cannot imagine tiring of. I think that all of the artists here are asking in one way or another: What does it mean to be in this body at this moment? (What is this body? How does this body inhabit space and time?). For us that question is philosophical, it’s political, it’s emotional, it’s technical, it’s ethical and so on. And I think that this is also my interest in Lorde in the essay–this becomes chaotic, all of these elements and sorts of inquiries colliding in the same space in a way that defies the way that the world is supposed to be ordered. And that could be the black erotic space, I guess? I would like to think that it is a space beyond Identity Politics. It is a part of this idea that blackness could be or could facilitate the end of the world (as we know it?). I think it’s at least in part because of the chaos that it brings to the table.


Please start 2017 by seeing Aria Dean in conversation with Erin Christovale and Ulysses Jenkin at Human Resources this Wednesday, January 18!

Aria Dean is an artist and writer based in Los Angeles, CA. She currently holds the position of assistant curator of net art & digital culture at Rhizome. Her writing has been featured in Artforum, The New Inquiry, Real Life Magazine, Topical Cream Magazine, and X-TRA Contemporary Art Quarterly. She also co-directs Los Angeles gallery and project space As It Stands LA. Currently, Dean’s research, writing and visual work explores the relationship and resonances between blackness, media, and communication and information technologies. She works primarily through text and sculpture to hypothesize an apocalyptic blackness.