skype chat history with avaf and kate phillimore

Kate Phillimore: Hi! Thanks for taking the time to meet with me—I know you must be pretty busy right now. What is avaf working on at the moment?

avaf: Well this year is totally craaaazy. We have a solo show here in New York at Deitch Projects in May/June, and one in Berlin in early October. Towards the end of the year we are participating in the Sao Paulo Biennial, plus doing a possible stage set project for BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music]. We also just finished a cover for Ladytron’s next album, and we’re not even mentioning the smaller group shows!

KP: Can you say more about the stage set project for BAM?

avaf: Have you ever heard of the Brazilian singer and composer called Jorge Ben? He made some masterpiece records in late 60s/early 70s and was a big influence on all the calleTropicalia people. Red Hot are organizing a non-profit concert (all money goes to AIDS research) with younger artists—like like Seu Jorge, Bebel Gilberto—, etc singing Ben’s songs. Ben himself might also participate, together with Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso. We were invited to devise the set for that, but the project is really in its early stages.

KP: And what about your show at Deitch Projects?

avaf: We were working on a project for it that was supposed to happen last year. We wanted to create an arena for performances and video/movie screenings. We also wanted to create a functioning club/disco with guest DJs etc., in a different part of the gallery. Then we got super busy and postponed the show. Now it’s happening in the new Deitch space in Queens, super close to P.S.1. It’s a HUMONGOUS space, right on the water, with an incredible view of Manhattan. We want to transform the space into a destination, a place people know they can head to as there is always be something happening: performances, club, late night screenings dedicated to a specific theme or person (let’s say CLUB 57, or Anton Perich movies, etc). We still have the performance idea in mind, and the club idea, too (also because of the possible connection with P.S.1’s Warm Up series). We want to create a space that is based on the history of this huge warehouse/depot. So for that reason we are now looking into using containers as the basic structure of everything we create there, piling them up and creating stages, installations etc. We also intend to collaborate with a bunch of different artists we have worked with in the past, especially the people we worked with on our solo show in Brazil in 2006.

KP: It sounds like it will be spectacular. I’m curious about this idea of turning the gallery into a functioning club. There’s a picture on your website of the Space for Your Future installation at MOT in Tokyo with a lot of serious-looking Japanese people wearing black suits juxtaposed with this a colorful explosion on the wall. The people aren’t reflecting the artwork at all. In the past I’ve had this feeling of disappointment from working on shows where the events never lived up to their full “fun potential” because people’s behavior switches into a different mode in an art gallery. Do you ever find this to be a stumbling block or something that bothers you? How do you negotiate the gallery setting when the installations sometimes seem to call for more celebratory behavior than is normally appropriate in the gallery?

avaf: It’s a BIG challenge to achieve this celebratory ritualistic mode in an environment like a museum space. Art galleries usually give us more freedom but there are still other limitations and the stiff and guarded art crowd is not necessarily who we want to reach for these events. We’ve been able to make these spaces work in the way we want them to at openings, in which we mix parties, DJ’s, VJ’s, masks, costumes, our collaborators’ presence and ours. It’s necessary to have instigators. We’ve been realizing this more and more and are conscious now of the importance of our presence in this environment, but we also believe that other people can assume this role and take over the space – as we did in our show at John Connelly Presents in New York last year, in which we had a full-on schedule of performances four times a week. On many levels the traditional art space is a failure for this and we want to create a new space, a more democratic space, a space more oriented to a community. Usually though the openings of our projects epitomize this essence, and specially the one in Brazil at Galeria Triangulo, was very successful. Have you seen it online? There’s a video on youtube you can see some of it: HYPERLINK “” The Sao Paulo Biennial approached us to bring in this kind of energy to this year’s edition.

KP: I agree with you, I think a new space needs to be established. I think critically it must be difficult for people to understand the work of avaf and others who are asking for a different kind of engagement. I understand your efforts to try to offer people new perspectives—I think one of the interesting ways avaf deal with this is through the use of masks. Not only does a mask temporarily physically change the visitors’ appearance, but it puts him/her on an even plane with the artwork.

Avaf: Yes they totally became this magic tool for us. They do offer this detachment of your own self that is so important for us. It’s funny to think that we started creating masks to detach ourselves from the pressuring environment of art openings—we didn’t want to be recognized, we didn’t want collectors to come running after us, we wanted to make everybody equal.

KP: I have been thinking about your work as political in the sense of it attempting to supply an experience that encourages a different type of engagement with the work, but it seems as if it is also political in the sense that you are actually fighting the art world structures simply by installing the work. How or do you see avaf’s work as being political?

avaf: Oh my god you really said it all. These are very, very important issues for us, and some that people hardly get about our work—I mean critics. We sense that visitors are engaged in these ideas and also share this frustration with the traditional art space as being detached from their lives, economically, socially. Visitors want to be included not excluded. There’s a new generation of artists and art goers who are not fulfilled by the traditional art space. It’s incredible and people hardly realize this, but there’s so much politics involved in what we do although our actions are in some ways invisible and very specific. We are against the ruling state of the art gallery, the art museum, and the usual traditional behavior of gallery/museum goers. We usually say something about politics that is related to pleasure—we want to make people conscious of what gives them pleasure, so they know that exists inside them and they can somehow pursue it and perpetuate it. We want to serve as enticers. The environment we create is a tool for bringing people deep inside their souls, their bodies, their beliefs. We don’t see it so much as a trippy, druggy environment as people usually like to describe it, but as a space of inner knowledge. The rituals we propose are rituals of consciousness. With our opening rituals we want people to lower their barriers, besides also promoting a sense of community. You connect with yourself in order to fully connect with others. We want to entice alertness and consciousness, which are in our point of view also intrinsic elements of anthropophagia. The act of devouring the other means also knowing yourself.

KP: I know you are opposed to your work being referred to as psychedelic, but despite having a very contemporary way of engaging people, a lot of what you do seems to hearken back to things like Tropicalia, disco, and other poignant cultural or pop culture moments in the past. There seems to be lot of artistic focus more generally on past movements—especially late 60s counterculture and groups like the Situationists. During that time there was really an expectation of revolution on a major scale, which seems to have become a disappointment. I’m wondering about the need to always look back in order to make change, there is a lot of nostalgia around, and I’m curious about how we are really dealing with ideas of the present or future.

avaf: It’s the artist’s job to dig up the past. If we have to tell you a period of time we feel more related to it would be New York in the 80s. But we would NEVER live in another era rather than our own. We would never feel nostalgic about the recent past when a man could go to jail just for holding hands with another man. Our problem is usually with critics trying to label us as a recent past, an ‘-ISM’, trying to make our work understandable by relating to one specific influence or a few. As you can see in our “to do” lists there is not one single influence we are looking at but 100, and those influences change with every single project we get involved with. We’re sick of being compared to Peter Max for instance, so limiting! We don’t think there’s space in a review to talk fully about someone’s work and its past influences. Our proposal is for people to stop relating to the past when they write, and just talk about the present, what they experience and see.

KP: Do you mind saying a little more about why you feel more related to New York in the 80s?

avaf: I guess it’s this mythological image we have of New York in that era. In fact it’s more the end of the 70s and the very beginning of the 80s, before the art market took over and people like Keith Herring and Jean Michel Basquiat became super huge mega stars. Before that happened you would see this amazing very organic, amalgamation between different arts, music, performance, visual arts, graffiti, club scene. You had people like Ann Magnuson and Kenny Scharf responsible for Club 57, and doing incredible low budget performances there, and the space also functioned as a club, with DJs. A lot of artist run spaces existed, but we’re not nostalgic for that era, we think it’s very inspiring, it’s very much related to ideas that we bring in our own work. Our generation has better tools to achieve what they wanted to back then. Our generation is much more conscious politically of the art market than the people in the 80s. Of course, the art market in New York is such a presence nowadays.

KP: Can you say more about the tools that we have now to more fully achieve these ideas, and how you think the artists in the 80s stopped short? Do you mean using technology as a more viral way of dispersal, as a way of avoiding the art market?

avaf: Yes, technology is the key for us. Here is something we wrote for this magazine called DOMUS that is related to this: “The democratization of technology has offered us the possibility of spreading and sharing knowledge—and that equals empowerment. Knowledge is power, power to unfold, fight and direct your own life. The world we live in nowadays is a world in which ideas and information disseminate rapidly and reveal themselves in this infinite, accumulative, unfolding, looping process. You have the feeling of being devoured by this infinite swirl of information… But the power of the Internet and its sharing capabilities have improved exponentially not only our access to knowledge but also our perception, communication and expression capabilities. This has given way to a new kind of human species capable of absorbing and digesting loads of information at high speeds. A new cross breed between a human and a virus has been born, whose essence is based on the idea of contamination, and the existence in different dimensions and bodies… Obsession, curiosity, generosity and anxiety are also central elements in our projects—these particular mind sets are necessary to cover every single aspect related to the ideas we are discussing at a given moment. In our own way and in a very general sense, this is the core belief of all avaf projects: freedom to share/spread/absorb/assume/contaminate/inseminate/devour.”

KP: It seems that collaboration is absolutely key to your practice. Can you say something about the people you collaborate with? I’m especially interested in your relationship with Los Super Elegantes—what about them did you connect with and are you going to continue doing projects with them?

avaf: Nowadays avaf is in fact composed of two heads, we’ve been working together for three years almost. Other people come and go according to different projects we are involved with and that also depends on the space, city, context. In Brazil for instance, for our show at Galeria Triangulo, we worked together with a group of around ten people. But it is all very organic. Collaborations always happen out of friendship first. We meet people, we connect with them emotionally and creatively, and then we decide to work together. We never invite people that we have never met before to work with us. Some sort of similar ideas, similar views of the world, similar ethics, similar dreams link us all. With Los Super Elegantes it happened in a similar manner. Our 2004 Whitney Biennial piece, assume vivid astro focus VIII, was a homage to them, it sort of pointed to a collaboration to come. We made a song for the install out of ideas we had together, we contaminated them with funk music from Rio and some other things, and they developed a song from the collaboration. Throughout that year we engaged in different sorts of works together. But that was it. We haven’t worked together since the end of 2004. Somehow it also set the tone for the following collaborations we had, we became more aware of people we really connected with right after LSE.

KP: If you had the freedom to do your ideal project, anything, anywhere, no money limitations or rules what would you do?

avaf: We would establish a non-profit organization community that would provide a more permanent link to our ideas. We’ve been thinking a lot of having a space, which through installation, social interaction, or events could somehow provide more exchange with existing communities. We’re not exactly sure of what the actual form of it would be. Whenever we talk about this, we think of Gordon Matta Clark’s FOOD, or Beuys’ endless limitless lectures, or a simple collage night together with your friends. It would be a space that would become a destination, a gathering space for ideas and friends.
The Red Hot Organization is an international organization dedicated to fighting AIDS through pop culture. Since 1989, they have produced albums, television programs, and media events incorporating performers, visual artists, producers and directors to raise funds and awareness for HIV and AIDS.
Warm Up is P.S.1’s curated annual summer music series housed within an architectural installation created by the winner of the annual P.S.1 and MoMA organized HYPERLINK “”Young Architects Program.