conversation with paul laster for artkrush

The artist collective assume vivid astro focus burst onto the art scene in 2001, spreading its love of free expression through provocative, colorful conceptual installations and videos. Artkrush editor Paul Laster talks to the two core avaf members about their relationship to the Summer of Love — both the exhibition and the spirit of the ’60s — and their current show at John Connelly Presents in New York.

AK: What does the Summer of Love symbolize to you?

avaf: Contrary to what people think, we don’t feel particularly related to the Summer of Love era. From that period, we’re more interested in the street manifestations for various political causes: women’s and gay rights, protests against racism and the war in Vietnam, etc.
The Summer of Love era symbolizes a burst of hippie utopias that had reflections throughout the whole world, but the reality was much more layered. That general time does represent the birth of many political fights and beautiful struggles against ruling powers, but those movements were rather naïve. The ’70s and ’80s solidified those revolutions in many ways, but nothing’s finished yet.

AK: Are there any artists from the Summer of Love exhibition or from the late ’60s and early ’70s that directly influence your work?

avaf: One of our main influences from that time — though not represented in the show — is the Cockettes. Our video Walking on Thin Ice is an homage to John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s ’80s disco song, Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” video, and the Cockettes. Joshua White, who’s part of the exhibition, gave us some of his original light show footage to use in that video — he’s another link to that time for us.

It’s difficult for us to relate to one single era, artist, or movement. Our influences vary according to each project’s concept and change significantly over time. It can be medieval unicorn tapestries one day, Memphis and the Cockettes the next, and then Urs Fischer, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Gelitin the following week.

We most relate to the accumulation of information in some of the works in the Summer of Love show. We work with a zillion layers of concepts and visuals. Today, we have much more access to information. We believe in sharing and digging, not expanding our minds with drugs. Our drug is the Internet.

AK: When the Summer of Love exhibition opened at the Tate Liverpool in spring 2005, avaf was commissioned to create a project to complement it. Can you tell us about that companion show and its evolution through your practice?

avaf: We weren’t initially happy with the pairing, but it was an opportunity to clarify our differences from that scene, so we agreed to do it. We had previously curated a video program called butch queen realness with a twist in pastel colors for a 2004 project at Rosa de la Cruz’s collection in Miami. The main concept was the extension of moments of climax, and we curated a series of videos that related to that idea through color, music, dance, and performance.

While we were working on bqrwtpc, we came across films by James Whitney, Jordan Belson, Stan VanDerBeek, the Boyle Family, Nam June Paik, Paul Sharits, Gustav Metzger, Robert Breer, Bruce Conner, and Jud Yakult and Yayoi Kusama’s Kusama’s Self-Obliteration. Discovering these works, which were unknown to us before, was revelatory and inspiring — like discovering the missing link between László Moholy-Nagy, Oskar Fischinger, Lillian Schwartz, John Maybury, Takeshi Murata, and Forcefield. We had the strongest connection with the Summer of Love films, though they didn’t change us or lead us to any specific new path.

bqrwtpc is open-ended, and we’ve continued to add videos in its new exhibitions. The first version had about 70 videos and was four hours long, featuring young artists such as Forcefield, Cory Arcangel, Devin Flynn, Black Leotard Front, LoVid, Takeshi Murata, Frankie Martin, Michael Bell-Smith, and dearraindrop; others, not so young, including Kembra Pfahler and Miguel Calderon; music videos by Les Rita Mitsouko, Sylvester, Blondie, Jefferson Airplane, Devo, the Residents, and Kraftwerk; documentation of nightlife and performances by Nelson Sullivan, Sister Dimension, and Lady Hennessy in ’80s New York; anonymous footage of contemporary vogue balls in Harlem; dance excerpts from music programs aired on TV in the ’70s and ’80s such as Soul Train and Graffiti Rock and from movies such as Derek Jarman’s Jubilee with Adam & the Ants.

The program is partly a commentary on the general inaccessibility of these works, which often were never released on video or are out of print. Some of these materials are sourced through continuous Internet research — we find bootleg copies off eBay, Yahoo! Groups, etc. We started the project before YouTube, which we absolutely adore.

We mounted a new version of bqrwtpc for Summer of Love at Tate Liverpool. Coincidently, the program already featured documentation of Josh White’s light shows for Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. We asked the curator for access to those films to make a new version of the program that re-contextualized the works. We hoped to free those videos from the usual psychedelic stigma and relate them to other eras and works — including a new generation of artists who are unaware of work by James Whitney; older pieces such as László Moholy-Nagy’s Lightplay: Black-White-Grey from the ’30s and Oskar Fischinger’s animations from the ’20s, ’30s, and ’50s; unknown artists from a similar period like Lillian Schwartz and the Cockettes; and Grace Jones’ ’80s video for “Love Is the Drug.”

We researched British materials for this new iteration of bqrwtpc and added pieces by Katy Dove, Giles Round, Mark Titchner, Dick Jewell, John Maybury, Pablo Bronstein, Sebastian Buerkner, Mark Leckey, Lali Chetwynd, and House of O’Dwyer, among others. The curator never gave us the materials from the show, so we displayed bootlegs instead. Thus, you had super sharp, professional versions upstairs and pixilated bootleg versions in our program. The bqrwtpc version for Tate Liverpool was 17 hours long and had over 200 videos and films in it.
We also paid homage to an artist whose work we came across while doing our local research: Dick Jewell, who documented several Leigh Bowery performances, made early Neneh Cherry music videos, and documented London’s nightlife in the ’80s and early ’90s. We screened two of his movies in the space: Kinky Gerlinky and The Jazz Club.

Lastly, we offered community involvement in our project by opening the space to local bands and performers. During these events, bqrwtpc served as a backdrop to the performances and resembled Josh White’s ’60s light shows. The performances featured invited guests as well as participants via open call.

AK: Your current show, a very anxious feeling, at John Connelly Presents is a truly multidimensional experience. There’s 3-D wallpaper with controversial four-letter words, a subterranean sound and neon sculptural installation, and a wild inner chamber for counterculture performances. What do you hope the viewer will take away from the exhibition?

avaf: The idea for the show at JCP was to reverse the rooms in the gallery and transform the basement into an exhibition space. We decided to make a new version of General Idea’s AIDS Wallpaper — based on Robert Indiana’s Love logo — and wrap all of the objects in the basement/storage space with this paper and bring them upstairs. We were fascinated by the range of objects in the basement, from personal ones (like a bike, table, grill, etc.) to the gallery’s usual supplies (paint buckets, vacuum, ladder) and other artists’ works.

The idea of making a new AIDS logo evolved into making a piece about George W. Bush. We started researching other four-letter words that were related to our current Bush administration: RICE, ROVE, 0911, FEAR, FOES, FUEL, TONY, HATE, BOMB, STEM CELL, LIES, DICK. Playing on the double meaning of DICK, we decided to associate sexuality and homosexuality with religious words to explore Bush’s ties with right-wing Christian fundamentalists. We chose words such as ANAL, BLOW HARD, BUTT PLUG, CLIT, COCK, DYKE, FAGS, FUCK, POPE, PORN, GOSH, HOMO, HOLY MOLY, PRAY, SECT, SINS, WANK, BOOB. We also added direct insults to Bush — DUMB, JERK, SICK, CRAP — and references to his enemies: EVIL AXIS, IRAN, IRAQ, HUGO (Chavez), ARAB, DPRK (Democratic Republic of North Korea). We also added AVAF and ARTY.

We wanted to take a stand against this administration, and the wrapping of the gallery was a cry against oblivion, a situation that spreads throughout our lives and the objects that surrounds us. We can’t be blind to the seriousness of this situation.

The enclosed performance room at JCP is a preview of our 2008 Deitch Projects show, Viewers penetrate the BUSH wallpaper through holes in the wall curtained by wallpaper-patterned hoodies. The interior space is a completely different environment — a place of freedom of expression. There are overtly sexual beings and objects, such as the bearded contortionist ladies and the Sodomy Is Not a Civil Right balloons.

The downstairs storage space has become an abstract representation of the unstoppable, climax-like energy we provide to the visitor upstairs — a burst of energy against the status quo, against conservatism, against censorship, and against fundamentalism. We present a tunneling project called Polaroid Homo Photo (PHP) in which we sample tiny bits of songs and loop them ad infinitum. It’s installed with a synchronized, multicolor, overlapping neon light sculpture.

There’s never one single message for people to take away from our shows; there are always many messages intertwined in the various layers of our installations. Sometimes we depart from one message/idea/concept, and from that starting point we expand to other areas. The world we live in nowadays is one in which ideas and information disseminate rapidly and reveal themselves in this infinitely accumulative, unfolding, looping process.