Traveling by Synecdoche: An Interview with Leon Johnson

September 8, 2011 · Print This Article

"I Cannot Be Saved Without You" at Fred Torres Collaborations, 2011

Leon Johnson is an artist and educator whose practice traverses poetry and performance, film and food. He is an avid researcher into the multifaceted nature of social relations, and seeks to engage with the world at large by cultivating situations that emerge out of myth and (re)enactment. If forced to fix a label to the liquid ebbs of Leon’s creative work, I’d have to take a cue from Liam Gillick, (episode 220), and describe it as discursive practice—a method of art making that involves the dissemination of information, and it looks to the structures that underscore the sharing of ideas as a space of productive art practice. Operating within the discursive framework allows Leon to go beyond the scripted role of reflecting, generating, or denying a problem in his work. Rather, it allows for problems to be projected within concrete, albeit temporary realities, which become situation-specific sites for ongoing interaction.

In essence, Leon is engaged in “the creation of new zones of intimacy and social possibility,” (to borrow from Okwui Enwezor), and he achieves this through installation, performance, video, photography, print media, and the production of discrete objects. Most recently, Leon orchestrated interactive spectacles in Detroit and New York, and he is currently working on a three-part film that will be shot in three locations. Leon is the operating Chair of the Department of Fine Arts at the College for Creative Studies in downtown Detroit, and is an aspiring beekeeper. We spoke over the course of the summer by email.

Discussed: Failure, problem-production, armies of unprepared debtors, beehives, Gatsby, Homi Bhabha, Naked Lunch, pleasure producing exploration

Niki and Koki in "Dual Site," 2010

Sarah Margolis-Pineo: I’ve heard you mention that failure is a place to begin creative labor. Can you articulate on that statement, and express how it might relate to your current practice?

Leon Johnson: In that unholy mix of intention, aspiration, reference, mimicry, parody, pastiche, mastery – an alloy that forms the foundation for many of our creative embarkations – we can, at best, produce an iteration of where we have already been, or someone else has already been – there is in failure the possibility for emotional contagion, produced by a not-knowing, and a non-recognition. Here is where the body’s imagination takes over, and creative galavanting for pleasure begins. Failure is where problems worth having are incubated. Where am I? Today? This moment? What have I left behind? Left out? Left in? What scares me? What in the work has activated my emotional curiosity?

SMP: If I’m understanding correctly, you envision creative possibility in the failure to communicate—it is where the systems of language, knowledge, reference and affect dissolve, where compelling work can be realized?

LJ: No, I am not a concerned about failing to communicate – that is never an aspiration of mine, to have people “understand” – but I am conscious of when “what I know” can no longer serve the act of creation – I am seeking for “not-knowing” to take over and lead me into new possibilities, new problems. Communicating, if at all, through process and problem-production rather than product and solution-production.

SMP: This notion of problem production—is this where mimicry, parody and pastiche are incorporated into your work?

LJ: No, it is where I hope to avoid those kinds of reflexes. The kind of traps one sees MFA art students lining up to dive in! Our job should be, in fact, the incubation of variables, and the production of difference. This suggests incredibly vivid spaces of making and learning, if we keep our processes porous and our conversations healthy and emergent via constant engagement. Sarat Maharaj states it beautifully:

“As we can­not quite know beforehand what form this will take–each instance is dif­ferent and unpredictable–we have to be wary about attempts to regulate artistic research, to knock it into shape of the academic disciplines, to make it a lookalike of their logic and architecture. What matters today is its ‘difference’–the distinctive modalities of its knowledge production.”

For the most part art schools are habituated through non-distinctive modalities of knowledge production, and  mimicry, parody and pastiche are set as default containment areas as institutions go about their primary business: the production of armies unprepared debtors.

"I Cannot Be Saved Without You" at Fred Torres Collaborations, 2011

SMP: These “non-distinctive modalities” have been so fundamental to theories of postmodern/postcolonial cultural production, and historically, have been related to difference in the deconstructuralist sense. How can the academia cultivate thinking and producing beyond the postmodern when that structure is indeed the default?

LJ: Students, faculty and administration have to be partners in, at least initially, de-stabilizing the default mechanisms of art history, notions of mastery, and the departmental silo system. We have to migrate across departmental boundaries often and pleasurably. We have to conjure new and exciting alliances – as mentioned above, more creative gallivanting for pleasure! Here, for example, it is critical that the art school be passionately engaged with the city of Detroit – with other artists and institutions, yes – but also with the urban prairie, the people and communities of the city, with gardens and with beehives, with retired auto-workers, bacteria and mushrooms, and all the other remarkable resources around us. Our world of ideas, and relationships, is infinitely richer than a few square blocks in Chelsea.

SMP: I’ve been interested in Nicholas Bourriaud’s recent thinking on what he has termed precariousness, which, (borrowing from Zygmunt Bauman), refers to the liquidity of contemporary social life, and the fundamental instability that is integral to compelling works of art. In a recent essay, Bourriaud wrote: “A precarious regime of aesthetics is developing, based on speed, intermittence, blurring and fragility… The contemporary artwork does not rightfully occupy a position in a field, but presents itself as an object of negotiation, caught up in a cross-border trade which confronts different disciplines, traditions or concepts. It is this ontological precariousness that is the foundation of contemporary aesthetics.” Thoughts?

LJ: For me the speed and complexity of contemporary communications, that produce uncanny new alliances, destabilizes the suggestion by Bourriaud of an order, or an aesthetic location, called “precariousness” – an artist like Vik Muniz and a project like Wasteland convinces me of that. Bracha Ettinger, moving beyond the defaults of empathy and sympathy, calls it “besidedness” – fabulous, no? – that conjures the potential of “almost-impossible borderlinks”. This suggest a rather remarkable notion of what the “classroom”, the “studio”, or the “city” might be for us.

"DEN / PYRE / THORN" installed at Lemberg Gallery, 2011

SMP: I’d like to get a better idea of your process. Was your most recent piece the work featured at Lemberg Gallery this spring? How did this work evolve, and what did it entail?

There were two concurrent projects most recently: the Lemberg project “DEN, PYRE, THORN” and a project titled “I CANNOT BE SAVED WITHOUT YOU” which was part of the Live From Detroit exhibition in NYC, at Fred Torres Collaborations. Both evolved together, both featured a meal for audience/participants, collaboratively produced infrastructure, and both featured variations on performance. The Torres dinner, prepared and served in the gallery, featured a custom built dinner table by Jamie Johnston, hand-blown glassware by Tim Southward and Dave Helm, commissioned dinner-bowls and pewter hardware, and a six-course dinner prepared by a crew of three, Christopher Biddle, Leon Johnson, and Leander Johnson, my son – for twelve guests. This project was initiated finally, after years of gestation, by a fragment of writing I did for a catalog being produced in Canada:

“A tentative intimacy of the kind sketched skillfully by Fitzgerald, as Gatsby regards Daisy; ‘They had never… communicated more profoundly, one with another, than when she brushed silent lips against his coat’s shoulder…’ – but the perfumed damage is not far behind, the sea-moist beard and the bile, the twelve-penny-dagger and the burnt-bone eyeliner.”

I imagined a dinner of intimate irregulars selected from the audience at the exhibition – for a kind of one-night-stand. At the head of the table, it turned out, was Alison Knowles one of the founders of Fluxus, and the author of the IDENTICAL LUNCH project. Amazing! The table with all the detritus, remained on exhibition for the rest of the month of the exhibition.

The Lemberg project marked the 25th anniversary of the death of the French author Jean Genet, and focused on three of his novels, The Thief’s Journal of 1964, Miracle of the Rose of 1966, and Funeral Rites of 1969 – each represented in the gallery by 15 first American editions of each book in a sculptural system including shelves and mirrors. I served a light dinner for 50 audience members, contextualized by a spoken word performance performed by Michael Stone-Richards, Morgan Marentic, and Sound artist, Dan Steadman. The performers were served dinner in custom porcelain dinner systems produced by Marie Perrin-McGraw. The project evolved from my study, and love, of the work of Genet for over 30 years, and in particular his book Funeral Rites written for the author’s lover, Jean Decarnin, killed by the Nazi’s in WWII.

"I Cannot Be Saved Without You"

SMP: Could you speak a bit more to your emphasis on multiple-fronts of collaboration?

LJ: I treasure the conversations I am lucky enough to be part of – and I actively seek to incubate new ones all the time. I consider the nurturing of convivial discourse not only pleasurable, but a critical creative act. All my work emerges from these conversations, all production is dependent on collaborative engagements – some 20 years in the making, and some brand new. The process of making work for me relates distinctly to the “performance” of memory, to traversing the space between the past and the future and, ultimately, the ability to then be heard – even by one other. Homi Bhabha puts it this way: “I use the term the right to narrate to signify an act of communication through which the recounting of themes, histories, and records, is part of a process that reveals the transformation of human agency. Narrative is a sign of civic life. Societies that turn their back on the right to narrate are societies of deafening silence: authoritarian societies and police states”. To remember, to imagine, and to speak are all performative domains.

SMP: Bhabha was speaking to a decolonizing world, encouraging metanarrative and hybridity as acts of resistance. Do you conceive of a relationship between the postcolonial and the postindustrial in terms of cultural work?

LJ: If we book-end for a moment, my first twenty years of life unfolded in Cape Town, and my last 15 months in Detroit. Ok! In my cultural labor the experience of the place-after-colony is always twinned –  a dual site –  the real and the imagined, or the reMEMBERED. The mediating forces between the real and the imagined is my work, often fueled by a vivid on-call-prejudicial-image-index forged in fire, absence, violence and resistance. A strong translation of this for me is the work of William Burroughs, and particularly his novel NAKED LUNCH, and the work done many years ago on this subject by my colleague Peter Playdon. Burroughs describes a market-place called Interzone, which is understood as: “a transitive state, a city resisting total identification either as a vision of a real city or as an allegory of a mental state…neither an inner space nor an outer space…it is a between space, a crossroads at which textuality, alterity, and identity collide.” This dismantling of psychic defenses is imagined as ‘space-time travel’, a process of displacing the unity of the self and its relationship to place into different temporal or physical locations. The relationships between these locations, as social space folds into mental space suggests the production of a performative zone that is simultaneously real, symbolic and imaginary; what it produces is a material environment, a visual culture and a psychic space. I see it as the framework for negotiations I can work out as an artist, as a kind of social actor.

Niki and Koki, "Dual Site"

SMP: To what extent are your performances choreographed, and as the maker/maestro, how do you address the element of chance?

LJ: The performances inevitably develop as devised works: meaning the work emerges from other texts, sometimes many sources, and is orchestrated and re-calibrated.

A process described by DJ Spooky: “I guess that’s traveling by synecdoche. It’s a process of sifting through the narrative rubble of a phenomenon, an “indexical present” Like an acrobat drifting through the topologies of codes, glyphs and signs that make up the fabric of my everyday life, I like to flip things around. With a culture based on stuff like Emergency Broadcast Network hyper edited new briefs.”

I will give an example of a work-in-progress.  Bruno Abroad will be, finally, a digital video shot in three locations, London, Prague and Naples featuring the Renaissance philosopher Giordano Bruno. Three psycho-geographical drifts through contemporary cities alive with the evidence of both vivid histories and media-saturated “becomings”; three dinners (which reference Bruno’s dialogue, The Ash Wednesday Supper); at each dinner, three groupings of Renaissance visionaries, all victims of the political and religious orders of their time, with Giordano Bruno as principal guide. The three cities are imagined as temporary autonomous zones, Interzones, of radical discourse, ecstatic envisioning, and alchemical resistance. The project concludes in Naples the site of Bruno’s death at the stake on February 17, 1600, in the Campo De’Fiori. This film aspires to track intersecting arcs of power and resistance and is not a historical representation of anything “renaissance” except the politics inherited afterwards. The interests of the Church and the State, in our “renaissance” context, to control discourse and, ultimately, to silence transgression has powerful implications for contemporary culture. It is critical to understand that these voices of knowledge, silenced almost 500 years ago, can resonate powerfully nonetheless. I will attempt to temporarily situate these thinkers in contemporary urban contexts, as trans-time specters in a celebration of the poetics of resistance. While not a “period” piece, it is approaches the form of a multi-plane travelogue. The food, the actors and the locations will be formed and selected in each city – an improvised company – each time, and certainly to a large degree chance-based.

"Bruno"

SMP: At what stage are you at with the filming of this work? Do you often use video to unite performances and create a narrative of sorts?

LJ: The skeletal script is complete, permissions to film at certain sites are in place, and the production crew of three is assembled. Then there are the dreams, visions, and psycho-geographical speculations  - years of image-accretions, memories of the Nicholas Roeg film Don’t Look Now, conversations with friends and colleagues - that will inevitably seep in once on site, and, happily, displace what is actually there.

SMP: Given the thematic arc of Bruno relating to power and resistance, how do you see contemporary artists addressing the notion of resistance?

LJ: I see people living fully, talking, cooking, making, raising children, growing tomatoes, writing books, being conscious of all the other endeavors of their communities, friends, lovers – lived resistance – I am not compelled by “notions of resistance” practiced by artists or art students.

SMP: Do you mean the notion that it is the artist’s responsibility to create interstices—new spaces of visibility that can serve as sites of resistance?

LJ: I would think demarcating “sites of resistance” would merely make them precious, or targets, or boutiques. Or worse, installations. No, we must do our best work in alliances with convivial constituencies, with cities, ecologies and systems, and without privileging artists and art practices. I would rather have bee-hives in the Eastern Market, than another art interstice.

SMP: You’ve spoken quite a bit about your role as an educator. I’m wondering how your praxis as an educator influences you as a maker, or are the two not exclusive?

LJ: I am influenced directly, intimately, thrillingly. No, not exclusive. Many of the most compelling contemporary creative makers and thinkers understand that 21stC engagement is one, inevitably, of hybrid practices and multi-site conversations, and collaborations. So to, I believe, should the academy be thus engaged. Alas, not so – we still have the discreet silo model, perpetuated by faculty and administrators. Clearly we must foster pedagogical templates that are not only founded on the demands of one’s craft, but also explores an intertwining of trends, debates, and practices in the humanities, sciences, politics, and worlds of commerce and communications. Our place in the world and how we can create meaningful relationships between others and ourselves is the challenge that faces us, and should motivate us to action and certainly to change. Most of this kind of creative labour is happening between students and communities, not between departments and colleges – so yes, this informs the kind of work I want to make directly and, of course, feeds back into my classrooms. The pedagogical imperative for me is to have students understand learning as the conversation that creates our cultures – in real-time, no deferment – participate now. Their lives, loves, and labor defines culture, and culture leads commerce. I wish to operate—and equip our students, citizenry, and colleagues to thrive—at the nexus between art, culture, commerce, and science. I want to support and encourage students to become authors of new subjects in the world: new subjects that celebrate the unique qualities of their relationships and aspirations within families, communities and global networks. An open-ended, porous, responsive and pleasure producing exploration – what an idea for an art school!

"Dual Site"

SMP: Site seems to be a reoccurring point of engagement in your work. Can you elaborate on your decision to relocate to Detroit and what you find compelling about this locality?

LJ: Your question has been much on my mind at the conclusion of my first year in this remarkable place – or dream, called Detroit. My current thinking? I’m not certain it has to be, any longer, a question of “leaving” in a definitive way, to go somewhere else – maybe it is closer in spirit to expanding, or re-forming. The world offers us an amazing set of options, and technologies, to engage nomadic ways of working and living. It feels simply like matter-expansion, and a very exciting one. My family and I will be triangulating between Maine, Detroit, and New York. The best way to understand this past year might be in my “articles of faith” - the pleasure of working with 45 incoming first-year students over the last three terms – amazing group of citizens – I have produced three complicated projects with a range of collaborators. And in October we open Signal-Return, a storefront press and print shop in the Eastern Market, to be directed by my partner, MeganO’Connell, produced with Team Detroit.

Detroit, past, present, and future, and the opportunity to participate in reinvention and innovation in a field I love. Regarding location, the potential of place has always been a compelling force for me. What can I make of the past, of material history? What is just beyond the visible? What is the space of potential between the claims of the past and the demands of the future? I have made the acts of reading, walking and sensing place, priorities – I was born in Cape Town, remember… complex, volatile, vivid. Detroit looms very large for me.

 Sarah Margolis-Pineo is a curator and writer. She is currently the Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow at the Cranbrook Art Museum.

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