“The pressure is for you to make yourself available/visible but in that process you become static…fixed… it means you stand in one place in a way that is so tangible that you can easily be bypassed or placed … as opposed to being as mobile as you always have been. It’s a tricky thing. People are saying to you – I want to see you, but this is the lens I have. And then you say: that’s your lens, I don’t know what I have to be to be seen… but I think I want to go there.”
Sasha Dees interviews Christopher Cozier.
That Tree, mixed media on paper, 2012. Courtesy: David Krut Gallery / Artist
I myself don’t know why I’m doing this…
I went to meet with Christopher Cozier for this interview at ‘Gas Men’, his first solo exhibition at the Francoise Heitsch gallery in Munich, Germany. The exhibition features Gas Men – Globe, a new video installation accompanied by drawings investigating “the ongoing environmental and sociopolitical challenges presented by commercial expansion and political opportunism.” Since our time was limited a big part of the interview took place in a car, driving from one city to the other.
The drawings in this exhibited unfolded from the 2013 Miami Basel exhibition at The Betsy, called “The Arrest “ and that was a conversation about “hands up, hands down.” That conversation goes back a long way, all the way, in my work, and talks about the regimentation in the post-colonial school system which was taken up in projects like the Attack of the Sandwich Men video, in 2004 as work that keeps being recreated. I did another version again in Berlin at the DAAD in 2013.
Attack of the Sandwich Men, installation, Rows and rows of packaged sandwiches in wax paper with flags on toothpicks stuck on them, 2004. Courtesy: Artist
So in 2013, the hands came back again in reaction to the ongoing instructional lyrics in Soca – that are perpetually commanding a reaction – hands up, put your hands in the air over and over and so on. It feels like there’s a system, a power dynamic to which you have to submit – one of control and constant instructions. The piece called, “the Arrest” (1)is talking about us being arrested by the social condition or structure. I had no clue that it would be happening at the same time as the recent problems in the US, as with Ferguson.
Put your hand in the air and jump and jump Dig it up and down Watch the plates shake Silicone bit head snake Pump to the right and … ,2013. Courtesy: the Betsy / Artist
For me coming from outside Trinidad, my entry in the work is the universal aspect of it. In order to understand it better I want to know about your issues and perhaps solutions to problems. So much of it translates to what is happening elsewhere. Your work not only talks to the Trinidad context but also to the Caribbean at large as well as in an international context.
Interesting that both societies face the challenge of so many murders and also summary executions of black youth. What struck me, if you look at Facebook, in Trinidad, for example, you see longer conversations and “likes” etc. around these murders that come to us through US media but not a lot of interest in the ones at home, or in other islands, where its either to keep the oil money flowing or to protect the middle class consumer fortresses or in the some places to ensure the comfort of the tourists. You cannot help but wonder if is it a displacement within social media where the things that are the closest to you become remote or indistinct.
The young people dying at home just vanish daily and do not have names that register widely. It’s not exclusively a race, or complexion thing at home, it is also a class and access war. As we are not “minorities” here at home. In the US, the upraised hands now have a particular meaning. In my work, since the late 90’s, it had to do with regimentation, elation and despair, from the party space to the elections meetings – the general state or condition of arrest.
What is the new work in Munich about?
This work is about entanglements… about the crawly creatures that you never see or that you never see the whole of…they are fast, slithering, crawling and hiding in a corner between spaces… You second-guess yourself – are they there? …did you just see that?…over there under the table… under the bed? Things that bite and that hide in
those in-between spaces. Things you see as you walk or drive along or that you see on the news, out the window and doubt yourself…did I just see that?
Dem things does bite too? Ink on paper, 2015 (detail). Courtesy: Michelle Eistrup
The drawings consist of text, my hand writing, “taking notes” as Annie Paul once said, of things that I feel, see, think or observe around me… a sequence of thoughts about a particular time and moment that’s passing quickly …there’s a narrative going on, I write things out, thoughts, in my own handwriting, each line says something, the second line of text goes over it and it becomes obscured. The minute it appears it disappears.
Political intrigues gossip, lots of libel, and also lost stories, histories. Creepy scary stuff too, like the crawling creatures, they are somewhat menacing, they appear and disappear at the same rate.
We are witnesses so to speak of your path to make sense of how fast the world is changing. Your work can be used as a tool. We can have a dialogue with it and try to get a grip on the world and participate and have influence on it?
In some way, I prefer or aim for joint or mutual speculation, I’m trying to figure it out myself as I go along basically in the same way that the viewer is, I myself don’t know why I’m doing this… it’s a struggle between a clear idea of what is right or wrong about what going on around me .. We are all experiencing this… we all trying to figure out what is going on and what is the appropriate response to it.
This may sound weird, but I consider myself to be of the sneakers generation. A post-Brit-Colonial space with US consumer drives. As a child I made one sudden shift from Toad Hall to Bedrock…overnight. In the sixties, from the forties to fifties we still had this Englishman’s brogues and Clarks shoes thing etc. In the seventies we also wore Converse sneakers, an upgrade of the local brands…etc. Some still wore slippers (flip flops), this is referenced in my work and you see one leg with a converse and one with a slipper, it is two kinds of situations. There is a whole politics to shoes and barefooted-ness around class and race. No darker person of a certain age would be seen barefooted or without socks in public in the past. I remember being in the US as a student and finding the courage to just wear sandals in the summer. Barefooted-ness was something only white people could get away with in the Caribbean suburban space…of course in the rural areas these dynamics would be different and also through cultural and religious practices. Then there was a political, sandals period, in the sixties as well.
(Left to right, top row) : “reaching and & foot”, “blooming blood red hibiscus” & “she foot”.
(Left to right, bottom row) “ketch-ass stepping” , “ bouquet, she foot & silicone bit head entangled” & “sneakers man stepping” mixed media on paper, 2015.
Yes so I come from an urban socks and shoes creole background…good lord. Things have changed significantly. The Converse is back as hipster global gear with a totally new meaning….
I see red blobs all over the new drawings? Flowers? Blood? How do I read that?
Blood and garden flowers, it is not a new thing in my work. When I worked on the Tropical Night series I had this blob of blood in 2005 becoming a flower….In the 90’s I used real blood, mine and mixed it with oven soot… I had hummingbirds digging in the blood as if it was nectar, because of how aggressive and territorial we all know that those cute little hummingbirds are…
Tropical Night Series, 2005 – ongoing, mixed media on paper. Courtesy: Artist
All these new drawings started with the blood blob, it had a lot to do with a lot of the pictures in the media of all these people having been murdered. To understand what this blood was saying… like a divination when they sacrifice a chicken or read tea leaves in the bottom of a cup…I was thinking of the flow of oil and blood in this economy, there is some kind of ritual sacrifice being made but in favor of what? So how to read the blood and oil flow?
In Greek Mythology the character of Laocoon fascinated me. It transferred to images of the victim’s feet sticking out from under the cloth, the gas hoses and the legs, the gift from the Greeks, and the gift of oil… why do all the oil economies have so much violence…what’s the connection…..Maybe that was what the world was also like in the era of sugar…that ugly violent moment in the past when the Caribbean was an important industrial site… the pipes drilling deep underground between the plates to release the oil and gas….I think of the entanglements..
You are an artist in post-independent Trinidad. How have you navigated that in your work?
That was always what my work engaged. However, at home and abroad, there is a pressure to account for oneself in a certain way…a pressure to be readable. There’s an academic, historical push, too. So much of it is research-based and from the archive and not always based on direct real experiences of living in the islands or its transnational communities/diaspora. But, in a lot of my work, I’m not dealing with research-based circumstances. I’m dealing with what I’m experiencing right now. I grew up in the post-independence Caribbean in the sixties and seventies and in a way I’m trying to navigate what those personal vocabularies are… which doesn’t mean an abandonment of a historical foundation… it just means that it’s my direct daily reality that’s in the work.
I see the direct daily reality in the reoccurring images in your work. Your work to me has become a tool, a language really. Like how you use the breeze bricks and what it stands for.
You see terrazzo, breeze bricks, wrought iron decorative burglar bars, a certain kind of suburban aspirational middle class housing scheme space. These architectural features came from the time before and after independence when steady employment, access to education, property ownership and so on became more widely accessible. However, today, that space has a different meaning, as on the news, you see these elements in the background of conflict situations – protests, tires burning, murder scenes etc. I am doing these images now of tiny drops of blood on terrazzo. Is it from removing ticks from the dog or from a house invasion?
Which translates again locally as well as directly to a larger international conversation.
A new but not unfamiliar garden snakes, mixed media on paper, 2015. Courtesy: Michelle Eistrup
The premise of universality is that there should be some essential core, way of being, and some fixed inherent or known self. It’s a very strange. To me it’s always about who’s setting the terms. What’s interesting is this game of varied relationships and shifting contexts especially in the Caribbean, for example. Where somebody says my name is John, but my friends call me Fred. You go to visit them and you ask for John? And they say – Oh you mean Anthony? It’s not that we don’t know he has multiple names based on different relationships – based on power relationships and intimate ones or both…all based on how people know him or think they know him…so they say this is how we here at this moment or in this place know or acknowledge him, which is not the same in another context. Within the construction of respectability, of citizenship that’s considered to be kind of shifty, irresponsible. Why does one person cast all these different signs? … As a Caribbean artist that impacts heavily on us…to the point that we do not even bother to argue with it anymore…its like watching a sport as people keep inventing who we are and what the Caribbean is…it’s an ongoing sequence of competing expedient fictions being played out daily and for centuries now…I am always astonished at each new player on each new expedition thinking that that we are not aware of the contest.
So how do you see the Caribbean? Who are you?
In the Caribbean we started as property, after emancipation, as a subjects of the Crown, and then, after independence, citizens. Trinidad, unlike many other islands, became a republic in 1977. The question remains do any of these prospects, permit, accommodate or register everything which we may be, or are? Do any of these arrangements provide real liberation? All are transactions that happen between parties on our behalf. And very often if you don’t conform you face extreme violence. Now we are struggling to extend the rights of citizenship, equality and protection under the law, beyond just race to gender and sexuality. In the region, oddly, many of these biases are rooted in 19th century Colonial laws that we failed to abandon at Independence.
What’s left for people to do? It’s a difficult relationship….the longer history is that of transactions that happen around you …the space to which you are assigned or placed remains an owned one…. Your passport is like a passbook… you still need permission, visas, to travel… In the Piketty sense, you are in spaces that other people have owned and through which you have to navigate… either you walk on the boundaries or you kind or transgress them. In my early growing up years, independence meant the end of history, naively… you had to bend yourself into that. Anything outside of those parameters was either indulgence or intransigence especially if you wanted to study abroad, travel, live abroad, read books by people from other places, look at art from other places etc. everything was considered in some ways bad behavior…
The bricks? These all mean something to me.Terrazzo, a certain style of tiles, this is where I grew up seeing the world through these conditions and place. My work has a direct link to my personal experiences.
Breeze bricks project, 2102. Courtesy: Artist
With the Breeze bricks project (2) I was trying to navigate this space and understand it and find out how other people deal with this space like there’s a Nigerian artist that uses those kinds of bricks in her work Njideka Akunyili Crosby. I would have liked to see the Breeze bricks project grow into a wider dialogue about how people in different places respond to these elements. I am reading a sequence of essays of Teju Cole’s now, a double spread in the book is a photograph that shows a view from through these kinds of breeze bricks… obviously the blocks are an indicator…it represents something we all, in different places, had to navigate within a certain political moment. Breeze blocks came from a time where we had a different relationship to each other and to ideas of development/progress in tropical spaces. Trinidad, now, is locked up in air –co. shoeboxes, big walls, electric gates, burglar bars, watching cable TV – an alarm comes on when a moth bounces the bulb outside and they panic and run to the secret room with their children and valuables.
This is kind of where my head is… I started the breeze brick project in 2012… I gave it a rest but now I want to see where it is going again… I haven’t probably pushed it. The weird thing is with social media they all jump on it at first and then move on to the next thing. I have to figure out how to work with this new way of communication and the meaningful use it….over time. Lot’s to figure there.
You seem to work through the changes and move to where the country and its people are now independently. What is your process and where and who are you in the international landscape?
My earlier work, called “cultural autopsy,” in the early ’90s looked at the nation space…etc. I’m thinking of something else right now, my head is thinking about these drawings, about why I am using the text. I’m looking at the text and trying to understand why my head got back there. The way I’m saying things… the minute the thought comes up, it disappears. To me, it’s a really metaphor for a lot of things. The experiences of people like myself and how we move through the landscape. I can’t even read the text myself once the drawing is done. Now, I just remember the state of mind I was in, it’s like a freestyling, rapping. It does say specific things and the way it disappears in time outside the moment avoids responsibility or maybe just liability, which is not the same thing perhaps? … Did I get it right or accurately? I don’t need to be right as it has disappeared. People wonder – what he is talking about. It is also autobiographical… it’s about time and circumstance. I returned to the writing in 2013 and it turned into the light box installation in Miami and then I kept at it back home, and then when I went to Chicago… I’ve been writing across Atlantic – travelling…
Then it got me back to video. When I see the video, practical things come to mind – this video was shot in Chicago, being disturbed by the fact that Lake Michigan looks like a Caribbean beach but much colder, of course. A lot of my ideas have come from watching the horizon line at the beach or from being submerged in water with just my nose out of water, since my childhood. It was a physical manifestation of something that is in the drawings. I also made a lot of photographs of the nozzles and hoses. I’m trying to figure out what to do with it.
Gaspump, photo, 2013. Courtesy: Artist
Gasmen – Globe seems to grow into a new body of work you will explore in different ways?
The first manifestation was a performative Ipad video with myself alone in the studio at night swinging the nozzles reflecting on those jab jabs cracking whips above their heads. I thought a lot of Jeanette Elhers and the whipping of the canvases and the connection of her gesture to the jab jabs and the whips in 19th century Carnivals in Trinidad – in some areas it has come back. I sent some footage to Jeanette and Alanna Lockward (producer of the whipping performance-SD) in turn sent me footage of similar things in Santo Domingo and someone else sent me stuff from West Africa also where they use the same stripped costumes as well. So, you realize it’s a practice or a tradition that resides across geographies.
Gasmen becomes part of larger conversation that way?
I don’t want to recreate it. I’m interesting in the male spectacle and assertion… it’s very menacing as they just stand there, faceless behind masks and crack their whips over and over. I slowed it down when I did the video; I wanted a beach landing… I thought about the helicopter scene in Acopolypse Now. What it got down to is this male spectacle, men in suits. It’s very phallic, aggressive and then they start also playing the cowboy thing. It became a fascinating sequence of accidents. I was not working with highly briefed or rehearsed professionals, just people with whom I had built a relationship, and who were willing to be part of the experiment.
What is the ideal way of viewing the videos is a question that has been coming up for me… what experience or awareness am I trying to produce? The distortion I used, talks about my vantage point to the B-movie spectacle. In Trinidad, as a boy, watching the cowboy or Kung Fu movie was, mostly, from what was called “Pit,” the cheap seats right up front …
The video installation is a two channel piece, two sequences, you can enter at any given time and then you get trapped and get confused… Is there an end to this? Should I leave? Do I wait for the clue?
Some of the viewers indicated that it never ends. No matter how intelligent or sophisticated we think we are, when we submit to Hollywood, it’s a distortion of reality – we expect a resolution – that evil will be conquered. In this video, you, the viewer need to submit to the spectacle – so you start to become entrapped and entranced by it and then you want resolution but you are not getting it. The odd thing is the character, the alleged heroic manifestation, is also caught up in the frame… We are both caught and trapped in this repeating cycle and then it starts to turn on you as it never ends. It seems meditative and beautiful, at first, and then you realize it goes on and on and on…
Globe (on the left) & gas men (on the right), video, 2013.
Like life itself and our never-ending desire for control?
Its geography is everywhere. Is it Mexico, Nigeria, Venezuela, Libya? It’s not ending… good God, this is horrible, it’s a denial of narrative tricks… it tricks us into thinking we may get somewhere. Both we and the heroic character are mutually trapped since neither of us can arrive at a resolution. There are other things that fascinate me – the fact that the music is produced improvisationally, while viewing projected raw footage for the video in Alice Yard, Bollywood-style almost, and by a Trinidadian singer Caroline Mair Toby and Trinidadian sitar player Sharda Patasar and recorded and mixed by Corey Burnham.
Do folks recognize the music as from Trinidad?
Outside of places like Trinidad not everybody is that informed. They may not be able to distinguish between Indian and Arab Music. So, it’s Asian Music, but the irony is that it’s not – it’s Trinidadian. It dismantles something about how we understand the Caribbean as a place. The siren juxtaposition with the music brings up a whole other series of associations as it interrupts the music. The Ambulance was passing while we were recording. I decided to leave it. It made sense, this accident – the ongoing entanglements of modern day life.
There’s a lot of things that I’m navigating and that are becoming more and more interesting to me right now… for example…as I had said before it’s the vantage point to view the videos, because the distortion brings up our relationship to the frame… What is my relation to the frame, to the heroic spectacle in the video? What is the ideal vantage point from which to look at it? – that’s the idea I’m gravitating toward more and more as I look at it.
Things that crawl between spaces, mixed media on paper, 2015.
With showing the work internationally, there will be different points of entry, different POVs, frames of reference… Who are we? Where are we? Do we have any influence? And on what?
Yes. Another odd thing about the geography behind this production is that we are talking about transnational companies sitting on the landscape competing over the world’s raw materials and assets. But as an artist now, I’m also in a sort of game of transgressing geographies and culture. Because, in a way, the institutional structures are trying to say: You are a Trinidadian/ Caribbean artist, this is where you are supposed to be. But as an artist now, just like the multinationals, we are transgressing boundaries but of course for different reasons and in my case within a very different economic engine. What does it mean for the individual now as a migrant or a traveler, especially a black subject in the Western World, to imagine across geography where the pressure to be readable pushes you to be from a someplace that has to be very specific…
So I was in Chicago – I began this video experiment coming from of my own personal way of looking…I also take photos of the video projection and convert it into to rubber stamps and I stamp and look at these little men, these little heroic silhouettes in a stand- off. I realize that when I was younger my first notion of art was in a book on the Harlem Renaissance. I was fascinated by Aaron Douglas and the influence he had, on artists in Trinidad, of a certain generation, who taught me in the ’70s. In Chicago, there were these conversations about the Great Migrations and the Harlem Renaissance and these statuesque-looking figures came back to me and the distortion starts to look like one of the silhouettes by Douglas. I am thinking that all these things are being channeled in the pieces… that it’s part of my visual DNA – my own visual consciousness. You can run but you can’t hide – but now it’s taking on new meanings. That’s really kind of cool… it’s like the thoughts that I’m writing that appear and disappear… things try to hide and but also get revealed. Like the creatures, they slip under a rock. It’s a thing to think about.
You want the Caribbean and its people have their role as an independent, valued, equal player in the world arena? How do you see that play out?
It’s an interesting thought in the moment now where everything is being rationalized…there’s an excitement about the Caribbean but is it really a new excitement or is it just refashioned? The Caribbean is the place where everybody thinks they can be God; it’s one of the oldest sites of and for exchange in the western economy. It’s a under a tremendous pressure to be remade, remodeled…so every time an anxious moment comes along when someone dangles money and plane tickets, the place gets anxious and the old story of plantations, overseers, ports and forts resurfaces or reappears like these nasty bugs that bite… they all start revamping, remodeling…I’m now kind of old enough to have watched that game over and over and very often people like myself are the last people to be useful in that transaction. It’s not a new history.
How does that translate to the present and future?
The pressure is for you to make yourself available/visible but in that process you become static…fixed… it means you stand in one place in a way that is so tangible that you can easily be bypassed or placed … as opposed to being as mobile as you always have been. It’s a tricky thing. People are saying to you – I want to see you, but this is the lens I have. And then you say: that’s your lens, I don’t know what I have to be to be seen… but I think I want to go there. And then they say no, we want you there so I can see you and you say I don’t want to be seen, which is ironic. I’m making things. Where is the platform for what I’m doing? Is it on the islands? Is it out here in this discourse or cultural landscape? Are they separate, interwoven or as seamless as they look? But wherever you are, you are constantly in this kind of engagement with a sequence of critical devices that require you to stay fixed… That’s why I once used that phrase, in the past, “conditions of visibility” a lot because things, internally and externally, are constantly shifting combined with the demand that you stop long enough to be seen.
Until 30 April 2015 , Gas Men, Francoise Heitsch www.francoiseheitsch.de , Munich, Germany
June 2015, TEOR/ética, San Jose, Costa Rica
August – October 2015, Cannonball Residency and Exhibit, Miami
Cozier is represented in New York by David Krut Gallery http://davidkrutprojects.com/artists/christopher-cozier
Sasha Dees is an international cultural producer and curator. Sasha is currently producing the art films: Witte Dieren (Simone Bennett, Russia) and Lorca/Casement Project (David Antonio Cruz, Ireland), is a guest curator for Centrum voor Beeldende Kunsten, visiting curator for Residency Unlimited and Art Omi (NY), juror for Akrai Residency (Italy), editor -with Rob Perrée- of the planned publication “I wonder if they’ll laugh when I’m dead” on Tirzo Martha (Curacao) and contributing writer to ARC Magazine and Africanah.org.