“The Present is a Constant Reminder of the Past”: A Conversation with Ken Gonzales-Day
By Lindsay McCulloch for New Link Art
Ken Gonzales-Day is a Los Angeles-based artist whose interdisciplinary practice considers the historical construction of race and the limits of representational systems ranging from lynching photographs to museum displays. His book, Lynchings in the West, 1850-1935 (2006), was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and in 2017 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in photography. He is represented by Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.
Gonzales-Day’s powerful and nuanced investigations of intersectionality and racial violence stem from an almost-encyclopedic knowledge of art history and a desire to rewrite a more inclusive past and advocate for a more equitable present. The work has a gravitas that is often accentuated by a poetic manipulation of light and form, and exhibits Gonzales-Day’s dexterity in working in a range of modes from performance and installation to projects that are more documentary in nature. What is perhaps most profound about his work is that he invites inquiry and connections, but not without effort from his audience; the more open the viewer, the more the work reveals.
Gonzales-Day’s latest project, a collaboration with #XMAP: In Plain Sight, culminated in an impressive “mediagenic spectacle and poetic action,” with 80 artists uniting to protest Immigrant detention and the culture of incarceration over 80 U.S. detention facilities during Independence Day weekend. I was fortunate to recently talk with Gonzales-Day about #XMAP and a wide range of his other projects and interests in between his prolific interdisciplinary practice and his work as the Fletcher Jones Chair in Art at Scripps College.
Lindsay McCulloch (LM): Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview. I realize you are incredibly busy right now, especially with the recent work you have been doing with #XMAP: In Plain Sight. The project seems very much in alignment with themes you have dealt with throughout your body of work. Would you mind sharing how you got involved with it?
Ken Gonzales-Day (KGD): It began in January 2020 with an email invitation to participate in In Plain Sight from performance and visual artists Rafa Esparza and Cassils, who were collaborating on a project which they described as “An activist artwork conceived as a highly orchestrated media spectacle and poetic act, designed to inspire action in relation to the shocking number of migrant detention centers in the United States… hiding in plain sight.”
Their plan was to raise awareness of the humanitarian crisis represented by migrant detention centers across the nation which, according to the initial research, revealed that already by the summer of 2019 ICE held over 52,000 migrants in detention centers located across all 50 states.
As a Mexican-American raised in the Southwest, I was familiar with the kinds of traumatic experiences that come with being undocumented through stories shared by friends and family over the years. I was also drawn to the project because immigration was a central theme in my research into the lynching of Latinxs along the U.S./Mexican border in the 19th and early 20th centuries. That work grew out of what was then seen as the sudden emergence of vigilantes along the U.S./Mexican border in the early 2000s. These often heavily-armed civilians emerged in direct response and in support of the anti-immigration rhetoric of then-President George W. Bush.
Our initial instructions were to begin to imagine a short text or phrase, no more than 15 characters, that might be Sky-Typed over one of the many ICE detention centers, jails, and immigration courts across the nation. The complete collaborative art event would include phrases from eighty artists, writers, and activists and we were invited to assemble at the ForFreedoms Conference (FFCON), in downtown Los Angeles on February 28th, 2020 where they had organized a number of sessions to meet one another, hear a presentation from the Sky-Typing team, and to participate in an open discussion on some of the issues related to the project. The presentations also included information from PJ on the creation of an IPS Documentary and an open dialog led by Set Rongkiyo, the IPS impact coordinator, and Cristy Michel, the project’s producer.
LM: From what I understand of the #XMAP project, it is a multi-pronged awareness campaign that is ongoing. However, it seems that the synchronous poetic/artistic action culminated over Independence Day weekend with artists’ messages appearing in the skies over strategic locations. The message you chose to display was ‘Abolition Now’, in honor of Angela Davis’ writings on Prison Abolition. Can you speak a bit about the importance of identifying ICE Detention Centers as a part of the larger Prison Industrial Complex and addressing both issues simultaneously?
KGD: My phrase was paired with the LA Immigration Court on Los Angeles Street, but was one of several phrases that were scheduled to appear in a giant circle over downtown Los Angeles. Additional phases were authored by artists Beatriz Cortez, Bamby Salcedo, Yosimar Reyes, and Patrisse Cullors, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter. Their messages were paired with the Immigration Jail on Olive Street, the LA Field Office, the LA Metropolitan Jail, and the LA County Jail, respectively. I think for all of us, it was important to highlight and include ICE as the latest, and perhaps cruelest expansion of the Prison Industrial Complex because those detained have even less rights than American citizens and because it has led to the separation of families and the isolation of children from their parents and loved ones at such a critical time in their early development.
LM: Have you learned anything from working so closely with this project that you would like to share?
KGD: I think the project was a really interesting proposition because it really tried to tap into the collective cultural capital reflected by such a large group of artists to try to engage in a larger political discussion. Artists and artworks do have the power to influence and potentially inform public opinion, but unlike most art projects, this project is advocating for direct political action. Art is often characterized as a material expression of individual subjectivity, but Rafa and Cassils went much further and sought to imagine a collective artistic gesture that might also be a catalyst for real political change. By combining multiple messages, the Sky-Typing was also able to subvert certain notions of authorship, inviting reflection on incarceration and detention in language that ranged from the poetic to the political. I chose the Angela Davis phrase because as she so eloquently writes, the struggle against the Prison Industrial Complex continues.
LM: The history of racialized violence and the historical construction of race are recurring themes in your work. Has it always been that way, or did something in particular lead you there?
KGD: As a queer Chicanx of mixed-ancestry I was aware of intersectionality long before I ever knew there was a term for it. My specific interest in racialized violence as a possible subject for my visual work emerged out of my historical research into the lynching of Latinx people in the American West. I had been intending to write on portrait photography in the first decades of California’s statehood when I uncovered a number of little-known cases of lynchings in the state. I ended up documenting 33 cases of lynching in downtown Los Angeles alone, where it turned out that most of the cases involved Indigenous, Latinx, or Chinese victims.
LM: How did you first come to realize this was a historical blind spot that needed to be addressed?
KGD: I first realized that there was a historical blind spot when I came across the lynching statistics gathered by the Tuskegee Institute which at one point only identified lynching victims as either colored or white. Since Indigenous and POC can exist outside of those categories I began to realize that the many Latinxs, Native Americans, and Asians were brutally lynched but were not being recognized or memorialized by any historical, political, or activist group in the United States.
LM: Did your Erased Lynching project morph as it progressed, or did you always have a clear vision of where it was going?
KGD: When I began the Erased Lynching series, I wanted to make a project about whiteness and racial injustice but I didn’t want to revictimize those who had been killed. Since then, the series has helped raise awareness of the lynching of Asians, Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, Jews, and others in the United States. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, over 4000 African Americans have been lynched nationwide, independent scholars have documented over 500 cases of Latinx persons being lynched, along with Asian, Filipino, Jews, and Native Americans. While no artwork can address the ongoing pain and trauma of lynching to this nation, or on African American communities, I would like to note that my project was produced in solidarity with a wave of new scholarship that was coming out on lynching in the early 2000s.
By erasing the bodies and the ropes in the Erased Lynching series, viewers begin to see similarities between lynch mobs across the nation, and across time, which helps to visualize the relationship between vigilantism, violence, and whiteness in America. Scanning the crowd in one of the images, viewers might make out a pair of well-dressed young lovers, men in suits, young men and women, mouths caught wide open as if yelling or laughing out loud, and the ghostly pantomime of hands curled around a missing rope.
LM: I’d like to talk about your Profiled series, which you have said documents sculptural depictions of the human form from museum collections around the world as a way to address whiteness, historical memory and museum display. Did you discover anything that surprised you with regard to what was archived in the museums or how it was archived?
KGD: It was all surprising and not surprising at all. I have photographed at over twenty different museums and in collections of various kinds so there was a lot of variety in terms of resources and staffing. In general, I was not surprised to find that objects that are ethically problematic or racist, or could be seen as racist or insensitive to a specific community or group, were often removed from public view. In other cases, works were held in storage due to the frailty of the material, or due to questions about the provenance of the work or other mitigating factors. I have so many interesting stories that I could never summarize them all here. In some cases, works I photographed did go on view, or were already on view as with some of the Malvina Hoffmans or the Native American busts. In still other cases, I continue to work on addressing institutional concerns or community concerns before I can exhibit them.
LM: You chose to pair or group many of the sculptures in your Profiled photographs; what drove your decision-making in combining different statues together? Do you have a favorite pairing and, if so, why?
KGD: The initial idea came out of a residency fellowship at the Getty Research Institute. I used to watch the visitors walk and literally run past some of these works and I thought if only the visitors could really see these works, not as just a bunch of old sculptures, but as part of a dialog that reaches back across time. They represent discussions between artists, collectors, cultures and, of course, between people. So I started to pair some of the works as a way of thinking about the history of racial formation and to try to recognize how that very abstract idea was literally shaping our experience of race here in Los Angeles. The kids visiting the museum were being taught ideas about race and whiteness, and so perhaps it was no wonder they chose to ignore the cold gaze of the past for the bright sun-soaked gardens just outside the gallery doors. The cold gaze about what we think we see when we look at a human face.
As a Chicanx, Latinx, I was also looking for my own reflection in the museum’s collection. In a city and state that is majority Latinx, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would ever see the world outside this particular museum reflected on the walls and marbled plinths that reminded me that I was not really seen here. I wondered if there might ever be a cost for the countless board members, donors, and curators for the continued disregard of the institution for the BIPOC people who live in this place or if they would ever imagine the benefits that might come by acknowledging that the present is a constant reminder of the past.
At lunchtime I would go to the “Fiesta Station” and order a “Fiesta Bowl.” I would notice Latinxs cook a lot of the food, visibly maintain the gardens, and find myself wondering just where the Fiesta really was? And just what were we celebrating?
My favorite pair was of two works from the J. Paul Getty Museum, Antico’s (Pier Jacopo Alari Bonacolsi) Bust of a Young Man, and Francis Harwood’s Bust of a Man, which were combined to create a billboard image that was commissioned by the MAK Center for Art and Architecture at the Schindler House in West Hollywood as a part of “How Many Billboards, Art In Stead,” a city-wide exhibition of 20 billboards in 2010. The bust on the left is Italian from 1520 and since there were no Latinx busts in the collection at that time, it was the only “latin” I could find. The facing bust on the right is believed to have been a slave in England in 1758. We don’t know their names or who commissioned these busts. I brought them together digitally but left an expanse of white space in the center. I imagined this space as a kind of absence that would stand in for, or signify, their missing histories. It was space that in a billboard might normally be filled with text and in leaving it blank I imagined it as form of silence – a silence to mark the physical displacement of people through conquest, colonization, and slavery. It was about black and brown diasporas. It was about decolonizing the museum by bringing the work out of the museum and into the streets and, for me, it was also about the struggle for marriage equality.
Some may remember that in 2008 California’s Proposition 8 was approved by voters and banned same-sex marriage. The proposition was being challenged in the courts when I made this billboard. The proposition was actually overturned in 2010, just 3 months after the billboard came down and I would like to note that my work was just one of many responses in support of the queer community. In June 2015 the Supreme Court struck down all state bans and legalized same-sex marriage nationally, something I never thought could happen in my lifetime.
LM: I feel like there is a theatrical quality to how you present much of your work, in that there seems to be a lot of staging, grouping, deleting and confronting, in addition to the ways you direct the viewer’s gaze through formal techniques like lighting. Your methodology differs from how a documentarian might deal with history. Why is it important for you to engage with history in this way?
KGD: It is funny that you mention a theatrical quality because, of course, the art historian, Michael Fried, in his perhaps most widely-read essay, “Art and Objecthood” (1967), used the idea of theatricality to critique Minimalism. That is, to critique what he saw as a new artistic language when he wrote, “The success, even the survival, of the arts has come increasingly to depend on their ability to defeat theatre…” He had a great deal to say about it, which I don’t want to get into here, but I think we can say that his use of the term was highly problematic.
The art historian, Amelia Jones, has taken Fried to task in her own analysis of his text and his use of the term “theatricality.” In a recent interview she noted that at the time of Fried’s essay “…both art and theatre critics express pretty explicit homophobia in relation to the idea of theatricality.” Her argument is detailed and rich, and more than we can cover here. But it lays a bit of groundwork in terms of thinking about queerness and theatricality in my own work. Like Minimalism, which Jones emphasized, got people to walk around and experience an object in space, my early work often was part of a series or installation, but not always. Can any photograph really be seen as a single fully self-contained object? There is the subject, the framing/cropping, the processing, the selection, the material object itself, and the context in which it is experienced over time.
I found myself asking if there could be a link between my own practice and these very different readings of the theatrical. I photograph people, places, and objects. Sometimes I photograph in places that are not easily accessible. The photographs are records, documents, artifacts, clues, performances, and so on. I think sometimes the work also draws on the idea of looking, bearing witness, but it might be fair to say that my work is often less about an action or an event than conventional humanist documentary practice.
LM: What draws you to photography as a tool?
KGD: I began as a painter and also have done a number of mixed-media installations that incorporated different kinds of objects, with both painted and hand-built elements. I guess I am drawn to photography because I remain fascinated with that liminal space that exists between the real and its representation.
Roland Barthes, Alan Sekula, and Susan Sontag each invited us to reconsider the indexical nature of the photographic image but my understanding of photographic images was also informed by later scholars like Martin Berger, Maurice Berger, Shawn Michelle Smith, Deborah Willis, just to name a few. Many of these scholars emphasized that photography must be seen as an extension of material culture that could be evaluated from a number of perspectives. Not just what was captured within the camera’s viewfinder, but also who was taking the picture, for what audience, and mediated through language.
From its very origin, and I am thinking of Fox Talbot’s nineteenth century text, The Pencil of Nature, photographs were proof, evidence, archives, but they were also objects in and of themselves. Or what I always tell my students, photographs are just really skinny sculptures, which is funny — but it is also true. That is to say that a photographic print has mass, it has a front and back, it may show signs of its making, or wear and tear. It can be signed, numbered, and so much more. Each of these elements reveals an added truth that points to a single vantage point, for example. But material clues are only one layer of photographic meaning.
Photography has been characterized as violent. Sontag, writing in the late 1970s, helped us to see the symbolic and metaphoric violence of shooting, aiming, and photographing human frailty, but she also helped us to see how we share the photographer’s privileged view.
Lens-based photography, digital and analog photographic techniques, archival and vintage prints, screen grabs and social media, are just a few of the forms today’s artists have embraced. The work often begins with an idea or a particular historical question, concept, or proposition to explore. Unlike much of the conceptual work I was taught in art school, the exact terms of art making and who gets to interpret what constitutes a “conceptual” practice remains a point of contention for many BIPOC artists, scholars, and activists.
Given such a contentious history, how do we even know what constitutes a photographic practice? In fact, there are some of my own works that exist digitally and have no permanent material form. So rather than thinking of the work solely in terms of photographic prints, it might be more accurate to think of these works as images that are more often experienced on a monitor or hand-held device than as a physical print. Or to put it another way, the idea I learned in college was that the photographic image (signifier) could direct a given viewer to a specific person, place, or thing (signified), and thus to a larger cultural meaning (sign), but social justice movements have changed the discourse around cultural signification, who or what gets to signify for whom, and under what conditions (equity).
Unlike a historical text which may eventually become outdated, an artwork may not in that new meaning may be found in different contexts. The meaning of an aesthetic object is never fixed. Sure, there may be a timeliness to the reception of the image but receptions cannot be fixed over time. Think of all the Confederate Monuments whose meaning has changed as a result of BLM. No form can be truly timeless if its design was intentional. In my own work, I have tried to create images or experiences that allow the viewer to experience a given topic in new ways, even if that topic happens to be the very history of photography itself. The work isn’t didactic but invites the viewer to enter an image, series, or installation from a particular vantage point. The reception of the resulting artwork can never be completely controlled, nor can one anticipate a singular response. There might be a desired response but the “read” will change as the context or framing changes.
My art practice has employed the use of original, archival, and vernacular forms of photography but I have also done projects in ceramic, drawing, film, mosaic, painting, and even public art along the way. I have also done projects that are more documentary, as was the case with Surface Tensions, which sought to create a visual record of the cultural and economic tensions that inform and shape the city’s many murals. As you note, other projects have been staged, lit, and more formally constructed narrative photography in which I performed for the camera, or cast individuals to restage historic events. On the other end of the spectrum, I did a series entitled Dysmorphologies which sought to undermine the indexicality of the photographic image, but of course that was nearly impossible because in the end even abstraction is a representational system.
LM: You mentioned teaching, and I wanted to explore that in relation to something you said in a lecture at Anne Arundel Community College in 2018. During that lecture, you talked about the ways that art educators have historically taught figure drawing by referencing a normative measurement system for modelling the features of the face and proportions of the body. You then asked the audience to think about what race of person best fits that ‘average’ reference model. I felt it was a profound moment in a room full of professors and students. What are some other ways that you see inherent bias in how art and art history are taught in the U.S.? How do you address those sorts of biases in your classroom?
KGD: Art isn’t made in a bubble but sometimes it can feel like it is. One of the hardest things for students can be to identify seemingly neutral elements in their work that draw from outdated or biased cultural references or traditions. One can think of the Surrealists’ use of the female form, or the Avant-Garde’s invocation of Primitivism, to know that artists are often very much a part of the times in which they live. As I noted in the lecture you mentioned, many European and American encyclopedic museums and art academies grew out of the enlightenment project and early modernist notions of progress. These institutions helped artists to develop complex visual techniques that reflected and embodied then-dominant racial and gender norms in what can now be seen as part of racial formation.
This doesn’t mean we can’t learn a lot from the past but as instructors we don’t want students to internalize outdated visual conventions. For example, many students can easily recognize some of the ways that race and gender intersect in Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, which has influenced generations of artists through textbooks and visits to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But there are also many other elements that further complicate those histories that it can take a great deal of time to begin to unpack.
When looking at an image in class, we try to identify as many visual or cultural elements as we can. As a gendered and raced pictorial space with a very specific historical, colonial, and art historical context, there are any number of elements that can make a discussion on this work challenging. Readings, historical and biographical information, and other contextualizing materials add greater depth to the students’ understanding of the work. Then we have to wrestle with what to do with all the information. One assignment that usually comes out of this is that I ask my students to read the current MoMA label for Les Demoiselles and then to write a version of the label that they would like to see instead.
LM: What do you have coming up on the horizon?
KGD: I am working on a new piece that will be a wallpaper installation. It is currently under the working title of Monumental, 2020. It is a work that draws exclusively on works in the Wende Museum collection for a group exhibition to be held there this summer. I was thinking about failed monuments and the question of what to do with them, both symbolically and politically. It is a question that comes out of my longstanding interest in rethinking the ways that historical absence is articulated and visualized by artists and cultural practitioners.
I began by photographing works in the permanent collection. Monuments to Lenin were ubiquitous in former Soviet Bloc countries until they came tumbling down with the fall of the Berlin Wall. I saw parallels with our own time as moments pointing to slavery, colonialism, and the Confederacy are being removed across this nation. I wanted to create a work that might begin to suggest a new kind of history-making or history-marking, which doesn’t erase the past but transforms it. In this case, I replaced Lenin with domestic objects depicting workers, laborers, and tradespeople. The composition itself draws on the traditional depiction of the Virgen de Guadalupe, but places a female worker at its center.
I hope that this intervention encourages viewers to image what monuments they would leave for future generations.
To learn more about Ken Gonzales-Day and his work, visit his website at https://kengonzalesday.com/.
To read more about #XMAP: In Plain Sight and to find out ways to get involved, visit: https://xmap.us/.