In June 2013, I conducted a brief interview with the brilliant conceptual artist, Torkwase Dyson in order to continue my project of bringing together the languages or poetics and other art forms.
DLM: I love how much of your art involves the physical body, yours. The word “labor” comes to mind. In a recent phone conversation with the poet Ronaldo V. Wilson, we were talking about the required labor of the black body in certain settings, how that labor has a different gesture from what’s expected of other bodies. To witness the black body at work in the “natural” environment—be it swimming on 180 feet of bubble wrap in Lake Michigan as you do in “Crawl” or diving into the Gulf of Mexico as you do in your current piece, “Black Light” produces striking and resonating effects for me. I’m curious as to how you think about the labor of your own body in your installations and performances. Is there, to paraphrase Ellen Gallagher, a relationship between labor and joy?
TD: I struggle with the notion of labor in my work, always have. My grandfather was the President of Local 1 Hotel and Restaurant Union in Chicago in the 80’s. My father eventually became the Secretary of Local 1. I grew up in union offices were I saw Black Chicago labor folk filling grievances, organizing strikes, building alliances and resisting, resisting, resisting conditions of labor. Last year my mother (also influenced by her father) produced a performance tittle “Labor Right” at North Western University addressing the history of organized resistance and labor practices in the U.S. Theaster Gates, who has supported my practices often referred to labor as protest. Needless to say systems of labor are indelibly planted in my mind. The images, sounds, text, sites and scents……….
When I think about labor I automatically think about resistance. From this perspective until I began to view my recent work Black Light as something physically radical, ideas of labor really had never come to mind.
In this work I experience toil, intensity, pressure, exertion, danger, (things I associate with labor)—specifically in relationship to technical scuba diving in the Gulf of Mexico. In the Gulf tides are really high, diving is difficult and the oil rigs I’m documenting are like bad monsters. Ironically, bad monster with pretty feet because of the coral reef that forms on the surfaces. http://searchingforblacklight.tumblr.com/post/52803465207/june-the-galveston-dive-we-left-from-free-port When diving I also feel fear, resentment, exhaustion, disgust and physically ill. When I’m done with the actual dive and documentation then joy/happiness peaks in for a moment to tease me. For a moment I feel some liberation, some good altitude, some good love. But really I think this small mean gift comes because I’m really happy I didn’t fucking die near oil these rigs. (Dramatic I know, but that’s really how it sounds in my head) Most of the time I feel perfectly safe. So joy in labor is only related to the push through of anxiety, fears and physical illness. It hangs over me only for moments until I decide I’m going to go under water again. Joy in my work is some cruel condescending prize I get. I’d rather just a mild instances of relief. But I don’t have a choice.
DLM: Your description of “Black Light” is as follows: “Black Light is a series of moving images taken of underwater neon sculptures illuminated by sunlight temporarily located in Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean. Immersed in water I manipulate neon sculpture to produce minimal moving images that consider the metaphysical links between the history of climate change and the formation of black pluralism due to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.”
In my thinking, the logic of illogic (or the bringing together of concepts that do not upon first glance appear to be connected) is an extremely productive art making process. In the case of your work, for example, there’s not an immediate rationale apparent connecting climate change and black pluralism. There’s a kind of uncomfortable tension there, perhaps, the opposite of safety or knowing or academic scholarship. How do the spaces of unknowing contribute to what you make and how you make it?
TD: Great Question.
The first oil well was drilled in 1859, four years before the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. By 1910 submerged drilling was underway and the Atlantic Ocean was again a site for exploitation and destruction. This shift to fossil fuel would set off acceleration in climate change never seen before. If we do not back off of fossil fuel (and by evidence of my documentation of oil rigs in the gulf, fossil fuel extraction will continue) environmental conditions will become increasingly fragile for people of color who are the most vulnerable but have the least power over natural resources. The Atlantic was a medium used to explode black, it may be a medium that washed part of it away. Just ask Lake Pontchartrain.
DLM: How is your imagination organized?
I put together a book.
I create a tittle, i add chapters and then an index
Sometimes is works.
I’ve gotten the farthest with this tittle:
The Black Eco Imagination (BEI):
Under this tittle gather empirically data, then I translate it through abstraction.
Next I build and document equation for myself.
The most important task is to place this all on a wall in my studio so that I know my thoughts are real when my mind is completely lost and overwhelmed in exploration and curiosity.