interview with loren momodu

Playing with the Rules, Pushing to the Limit, Inverting the Position:
a conversation with assume vivid astro focus

avaf’s installation environments of wallpaper, sculpture, balloons and projections have featured in prominent contemporary art institutions across the world, such as MoMA in New York, Tate Liverpool, Galeria Triângulo, São Paulo, Kunsthalle Wien project space, Vienna, and Hiromi Yoshii, Tokyo. At each of these locations avaf have presented projects that require a dialogue and negotiation with the elusive internal structure of the institution, and the tangible structure of the existing architectural space.

Aesthetically, avaf’s work has been likened to the psychedelic of the 1960s, and yet this analogy sits uncomfortably with Sudbrack who associates this era with escapism and disconnection, and his own work with the contrary experience of awareness and the presence of the individual. This conflict, in part, creates the tension against which avaf must push in order to achieve their work. If not psychedelia, then my response to avaf’s installations is that they evoke more the ‘free party’, ‘rave’ scene of 1980s and 1990s Britain. A movement treated with animosity and heavily legislated against towards the turn of the century, rave culture and the space it created for freedom of expression, dance, euphoria and transgression of all kinds has largely dissipated. No longer existing on the outskirts of society it has largely been gentrified and assimilated, as free parties become licensed festivals, finding avenues through which to operate from within societies given structures.

With the spirit of these outsider groups and certain guerilla tactic, by choosing to operate within the sphere of contemporary art avaf force a reconsideration of what is presupposed. For every loud and lewd phallic symbol, sexual position, controversial statement and intervention into the fabric of the museum or gallery space there has undoubtedly been something silenced, something censored or something sign posted.

Nothing censored, Something gained?
(obama Lady images)
avaf are constantly pushing the institutions they work with to the limit of what they will allow, resulting in a kind of transgression with the rules of acceptability. Obama Lady was the proposed icon of the avaf work created for Turner Contemporary’s Silent Disco event that took place as part of the inaugural festival You Are Here. However, Obama Lady never quite made it to the ball. Diplomatically refused entry, by a suggestion of something ‘suitable for all age groups’. Her replacement was an abstract statement of multiple colours, and the look of a digitally created camouflage, dripping with paint. Obama Lady had been censored; the figure deemed a step too far. The willingness of the audience to positively embrace Obama Lady, and all she stands for was predetermined by the institution, myself included. The political ‘correctness’ of the institution had overruled the overtly politicised statements inherent in a work that is pushing boundaries of acceptable statements on race, gender and sexuality. There was no doubt a question of context, and whether an arts institution in Margate, was the right place at which to have the conversations that Obama lady inevitably evokes. It is this confrontation with what is unaccepted, and the presentation of an alternative view point that avaf insert into whichever context they find. I asked Eli if he has examples of other works that have been censored, or deemed to be un-tolerably at odds with the institution.

ES: One example we had was actually with Tate Liverpool. They wanted to do a show that would run parallel to that Summer of Love show that Christopher Grunenberg curated. At one point I realised that a lot of people were labelling my work through the 60s, Summer of Love connection and I thought that it was quite a superficial way of looking at my work. Of course that is part of my references, I was born in ’68 I grew up out of that generation. But at the same time I feel much more connected to New York in the 80s or late 70s, rather than San Francisco in the late 60s. And I never liked the word psychedelic for instance, because it always refers to colour, drugs and a disconnection from the world, and one of my strongest beliefs about my work is that it’s about being aware. Being aware of your environment, it’s never about escaping from what surrounds you.

I had curated this video programme called Butch Queen Realness With a Twist in Pastel Colours, which was like a compilation of films and video pieces from different sources. Film, music videos, artist films, young artist films, old artist films, documentation of performance in the 70s, people dancing in clubs or people ‘vogueing’, not necessarily art. I told him, I have done this video programme and my proposal is to incorporate film pieces or video pieces that are part of your show, and insert them in a longer version of my video programme. It was a bit challenging, I was proposing to do a curatorship on top of his curatorship.

HM: This shows a kind of repositioning of what you had been asked to do, and with the boundaries that had been set.

ES: Exactly, so we had a conversation about it and I told him that I need to have access to this material. This is pre YouTube era, so a lot of the stuff I was using in the original programme was illegal stuff that I had not paid rights for. This is the way I wanted to show them at Tate, you don’t have to pay to get in so we would turn that into a big screening arena that people could visit whenever they wanted. I wanted to make it really long. The first version of this video programme was four hours long. The version I made for Tate Liverpool was 17hours long. The individual pieces are not long, like 6 or 7 minutes, so your attention is constantly being renewed. I went back to the source that I had and found almost every single film that I was interested in as a rip off video or film. For me it was fascinating cause the videos were pixelated, they were never 100%.

I made the new version, which had these other films in it, sent it to them, and I never heard from them. Then the day before the opening, the installation was done, I went back to my hotel, and there’s a letter from Tate saying that I was responsible for any kind of law suits that would happen in the space because of the videos I was screening without copy rights. Nothing happened. But I found out later that Oskar Fischinger’s estate had a problem. I inserted some of his films in the video programme, and that for me was like a prelude to the summer of love people. In a way I was critiquing Christopher’s curatorship, that was completely centred in late 60s and early 70s era, not making a connection to what happened before that or after that and my intention was to add this information. Oskar Fischinger made these films in the 20s, I wanted to bring his films in. Tate ended up cutting a whole section off the video programme without telling me. I fight all the time with institutions.

Through this process avaf acted to make an intervention into the curatorial process that had taken place as a way of countering the dominant narrative. The tactics of inserting films relating Summer of Love into the video programme, allowed avaf to play with the curatorial structure, creating a meta-narrative. Sudbrack’s approach to the laws of copyright show a concern for the rights of the viewer to have access to these works, over that of legal stipulation that rights must be gained before public viewing. This renegade tactic proved a manoeuvre too far from the given law and rules for the institution, forcing a brutal cull of material, a decision that can only have been detrimental to the work of art.

By creating environments that retain little semblance to the ‘White Cube’ of the gallery space avaf play with the rules of engagement, transferring the viewer from the position of looking on, to standing within the work. The desire to create spaces that absorb the viewer places avaf in constant dialogue with the existing space and architecture.

ES: It is very intrusive and museums are often not used to that kind of intrusion. I am changing the way people come in the space, I am changing what people do in the space, I am challenging their existing laws, sometimes its not even laws that the institution has made, it’s a law that comes from above them.

The concept of freedom is present, in one way or another, in all the various installations we have done in the past. I think what we actually make is not an object, it’s energy. The combination of different elements that we put together ignites this sensation of freedom, which is an abstract force. And that only happens if people are engaged physically in the work. They are not just looking at the space, they are somehow becoming one with the space. That is absolutely necessary for this energy and the sensation to be created, which is I think, the actual work we make.

Projections, coloured gels, ramshackle sculpture existing as a clash between technology and D.I.Y in some way captures elements of the free party, rave aesthetic of 80s and 90s Britain. Renown for creating a sense of freedom of expression, equality and ‘good vibes’, such events could only exist outside of the mainstream. In contemporary times this kind of arena for transgression has fractured, probably into high street clubs or squat parties, and yet it still appears incongruous in the gallery space.

ES: Well, it’s best when it happens outside the mainstream, there’s no doubt about that.

That era that you mention was a very important era for me, and London was very strong. It was radiating a lot, music wise, everything I liked came from London, or in the States Detroit and all the Techno and Acid House, all this sort of rave scene music, and environment was very inspiring for me.
We create this environment to set this energy in motion. I have no assumption that what we make is better than the real thing. I do think that at a rave or party people feel really great, dancing non-stop. I think that is actually the real experience and I am inspired by that. The recreation of that in an art gallery is more about telling the gallery that they can’t have 100% of what they have outside the gallery space. There is a lot of that talk, from my point of view. Of course people feel free, but the gallery environment is not the best environment for that. I think most of the time we are pushing it, saying “look what you don’t have”, “look at what you can’t have here”, it’s more about that. Some people criticise us, and say “I would rather just go to burning man”, yes burning man is great for what it’s created for. As this sort of energy igniter, it’s the perfect thing. They actually get to do it. What I am telling you is that “we can’t do it here”. Of course, we make very lively events and you have a glimpse of what you can’t have. I never quite expressed this in this way, but I’ve been thinking a lot about this.

HM: It also pushes towards changing people’s behaviour in the gallery space, so it’s interesting in that way as well.

ES: Also, art people are so stiff, you know some people free themselves, but you don’t have the same physical freedom as people that are in a club, or a rave have, unfortunately that’s a given and I wish it was different. I don’t think its ever going to be different, because I don’t think that’s what people want when they are at the gallery. What bugs me the most about art spaces, is not only the pre-existing structure of if, but also the preselected range of people that you end up reaching. A museum space is already so much more broad than the gallery, and of course the public space is even broader than any thing else. And the more public we go, the more we feel satisfied. But of course the more public you go there are also more rules and more restrictions to deal with.

Whether it is through a rupturing of dominant narratives, or a confrontation with the limits of what we deem acceptable to think, do, or see within the gallery institution assume vivid astro focus creates spaces that invite the viewer to move freely, in new directions. Sudbrack believes that “architecture sets you free, you can go upstairs you can go downstairs you can sit on the mezzanine, you can lie down.” And by creating new structures, and environments avaf are able to alter our understanding of conventions by changing our vantage point and creating a new perspective.