Justin Randolph Thompson in Conversation with Jessica Holmes
For multidisciplinary artist Justin Randolph Thompson, history is burning and vital. Drawing on a broad variety of political, cultural and aesthetic considerations, he orchestrates immersive experiences that underscore how our collective past continues to critically inform our present. “Moldy Figs,” at Momenta Art in Bushwick (May 22 to June 28, 2015), sought to “undermine the classifications of folk traditions as outdated.” Against an aural backdrop of traditional working songs, a team of six propelled the handles of a shoeshine merry-go-round. Viewers were invited to sit aboard the machine and have their shoes gold-leafed by the crew, who paused at intervals to attend to the intimate task of ministering to the feet of strangers. Born in Peekskill, New York, Thompson has made his home in Florence, Italy, where he is Professor of Art and Theory at the Lorenzo de’ Medici Institute and at Santa Reparata International School of Art, for the past 15 years. In July he was a resident artist at Centrale Fies, a working hydroelectric power plant between Milan and Venice. I caught up with him there via Skype last month.
JESSICA HOLMES: What are you working on at Centrale Fies?
JUSTIN THOMPSON: I’m working on a big performance, “Mi Daran Tomba…e Pace…Forse [They will give me a grave…and peace…maybe],” which is a dialogue about Leontyne Price, the first African-American opera singer to sing a lead role at La Scala, in Milan. In the 1960s, she performed the lead in Aida. This piece is a way of thinking about the layers and implications of this woman in Italy, singing the aria “O Patria Mia,” about how she’ll never see her country again, and the politics that allowed her to step into the main role of an Ethiopian princess. I created a triumphal arch out of scaffolding that’ll have musical instruments attached, and I’ve got a local marching band, the Banda Sociale Dro e Ceniga, who will perform the instruments. We’re also pulling from Price’s farewell to opera, where after she sang she just stood there while people applauded. She didn’t move for 10 minutes; she didn’t break her pose, she didn’t do anything. I’ve sort of expanded upon the idea of controlling the audience, not allowing that release. We’re playing with this kind of anticlimax.
Many of your works, including “Moldy Figs,” involve collaboration, most often with your brother, saxophonist Jason Thompson, and the artist and filmmaker Bradly Dever Treadaway. Can you talk about how the three of you work together?
The collaboration with both of them was born as an undergrad at the University of Tennessee. I’ve played music with Jason since we were kids, but in college I took a filmmaking class where I had to create movement and gestures. There was performance involved, and I had to create sound for it. I first collaborated with my then-classmate Bradly on his films, and he’d collaborate with me on mine. Jason also performed in those films and was involved with the sound explorations.
Unlike Jason, I’m not a musician. If I have to do something vocally, or with my guitar, I can, but working with Jason has opened up a world of collaboration with musicians. Generally, I’ll provide a driving concept of the piece, reference points that I want to touch on, and usually some sort of feel — awkwardness, or whatever it is that I’m interested in — and he has free reign to interpret that. Sometimes he’s really literal, sometimes not at all; and we’re able to discover things together. I trust him 100% with whatever he comes up with, and most of the time I don’t hear it till we’re going live.
With Bradly, we have two different branches of how we collaborate. He works with me to develop video, which creates a new experience that is not the same as the live performance. The other branch of our work is going head to head, which we first initiated when he got a Fulbright Fellowship to Italy in 2005-2006. We show up in a space with our own tasks to do and we just make it happen. I’m making his stuff, he’s making my stuff, and it’s completely fluid and interchangeable. We’re able to push each other in a way that I haven’t been able to do with other artists. I always find it amazing how different we are in our language. He often pulls from an idea of identity that is much more rooted in specific lineage, images and archive, while I think of my work as much more abstract, a collective identity. A visual clash happens that makes me uncomfortable and I thrive on that. I enjoy more and more what happens when I’m not in control. There are often things I absolutely would have never put in a piece that are in the piece. But I appreciate the way it wakes me up.
When I went to see “Moldy Figs,” the painstaking, homespun effort of the many assembled parts impressed me. Tell me about your process.
For every show I make the centerpiece; everything else is stuff I’ve made over time. In “Moldy Figs” there are some pieces that date back even six years. No individual object took all that long: I sewed the hundred pairs of shoes in a month. The five shoeshine boxes I did over a period of a couple weeks. The pieces I developed onsite were the centerpiece — the merry-go-round, which I just built out of wood, and the DJ booth. That was a more abstract thing that I initiated while I was in the space. I think a lot about the ways in which doing things by hand creates a sense of ritual through repetition.
The concept of labor pervaded “Moldy Figs.” I participated in the performance held during Bushwick Open Studios. While sitting on the merry-go-round and having my boots gilded, a significant part of the experience was watching your crew perform physical labor: pushing the machine, stopping, doing the shoe work, then pushing again.
Labor has been at the root of social unrest forever. Black history in the US is frequently a dialogue about labor, and the social roles that are assigned through that. Gold-leafing shoes is one of my longer-standing projects. It’s had the most iterations, and each time I’m trying to find new ways to engage with it, and allow the old layers to show up and be represented. The gold-leafing is based on this minstrel song “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers” which was included in an anthology of poems my mom gave me when I was about eight. It’s followed me till now, this song, which talks about putting your best things away on a shelf, awaiting judgment. It’s a wonderful metaphor of preparation for freedom/death. Because of the class and racial associations linked to shoe shining, it made a lot of sense to think about what happened if it’s the shoe shiner that’s providing redemption. With the “Moldy Figs” crew, I assigned them each a very simple task. I said to them for example, “The only thing I want you to do is spray this on the shoe. That’s it! That’s the whole gig. But own it.” So the task is refined in the hands of whoever is doing it.
A lot of the gold-leaf work is also about creating a dialogue about fictional elegance. It’s striking and lush, but also really, really low-class. You see the gold-leafed shoes and think, “Is that falling apart?” I really love the ways in which this superficially elegant thing actually gains importance by context. When I was initially researching shoeshine stands I came across a newspaper article from the 1930s that showed a shoeshine merry-go-round. The poet Melvin B. Tolson wrote in the 1940s about his philosophy of hierarchies, the merry-go-round of history versus the Ferris wheel of history. In terms of the Ferris wheel, he spoke about conquerors going up, and then inevitably coming down, whereas on a merry-go-round everything is on equal planes but just keeps moving and shifting in space. He equated that to democracy. I really like how inadequate that metaphor is.
A lot of your work deals with history, most often African and African-American history. How do you see it situated in the contemporary moment, which, especially in the US, is so volatile? Is that something you’re thinking about?
I think that looking to elements of African-American history has always been something ingrained in me. My grandfather first instilled in me an interest in history, specifically African-American history, and literature, poetry, and art. Living in Italy, you begin to understand kinds of continuums, and that feeds me. I don’t think of my work as being about race, but about class and the hierarchies involved. In Italy, so much art-historical iconography is rooted in classism. I like to think about how to unsettle some of the traditional associations we have about class regarding work and folk culture, and the distinctions we make between those humble traditions and the more elitist sphere. I like when those things mix, completely contaminate each other, and perhaps become the same. Culturally, I miss the US. Living here and trying to remain connected to my American roots, it always feels good to arrive in the US. You feel you’re still in touch somehow and what you’re doing still has relevance. You’re not a foreigner.But in the US, dialogue about race is very narrow. It usually doesn’t go very far. All of the things that are currently happening, which aren’t new at all, inform some of the ways that I work. In my research for this current project, I was listening to an interview with Leontyne Price from the 1980s, where she talked about her experiences as an opera singer, and the interviewer asked her if seeing Marion Anderson sing helped her understand that she could also be an opera singer, despite being a black girl from Mississippi. Price said something like, “I never needed anyone to tell me that I could become anything. It was for other people to accept the fact that I could do this.” And she said that if he was trying to address race more specifically, she found it a boring discussion. I don’t even believe that, but I thought it was funny — I think her response does speak to some of the shortcomings.
People seem to have an inherent need to label others automatically: what “are” you? Why do you think that is?
I think about it a lot. In the visual arts, in particular, we’re not comfortable with simply experiencing something. We’re on a quest to understand. There are certain keys you can put in artwork that allow people to check a box that says, “I get it,” and that makes it much more comfortable. For example: most of the time people read it as a giveaway that I sing. I once titled one of my sound pieces based on the four–word critique a guy in Italy gave me: “Molto soul, molto black!” Once, after a layered, involved project I did in Spain, the first comment I got afterwards was a guy walking up to me and saying, “Oh, you do have a little Negro in you.” One of the reasons I don’t like to define my work through the lens of race is because I think it assists people in reading stuff in a way that is not constructive. The point of entry is there for everyone.