Kalup Linzy’s New Turn in the World

Performance artist Kalup Linzy released As Da Art World Might Turn Season One on YouTube two years ago and since then, his characters have continued to evolve in separate video shorts. But today at PULSE Contemporary Art Fair in Miami, he is bringing back the series as a whole with the debut of Season Two, which addresses issues ranging from Occupy Wall Street (“Occupy Nuts”) to the concept of biennials, criticism, and the institution. While Season One featured cameos by seasoned actors, including Natasha Lyonne, and artist, gallerist, and actor Leo Fitzpatrick, this new season welcomes a cast of newcomers, largely culled from the graduate program at the University of South Florida, Linzy’s alma matter for both his BA and MFA.

Following his graduation more than 10 years ago, Linzy moved from his home of Florida to New York, where he soon became immersed within the contemporary art world. Now, his work lives both online and in gallery spaces, most recently Garis and Hahn in New York, as well as in the permanent collections of museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Studio Museum in Harlem, among others.

“It’s interesting how as an artist you keep evolving, but if you can get into the contemporary art space, if the works are in institutions and museums, they keep living on and on and on,” he says. “Even if you move to a different space, that work is still operating.”

More than his recorded characters and personas, Linzy also performs live and creates two-dimensional collages. Aspects of each medium are intertwined and add new layers to existing characters, but each piece can also be viewed and understood separately. It is the continuous layers, however, that make Linzy’s work captivating. His work isn’t limited to insitutions and YouTube, though. The artist has also collaborated with other actors, such as James Franco, and fashion labels like Proenza Schouler. Prior the debut of As Da Art World Might Turn Season Two, we spoke with Linzy via Skype, when he was sitting in a classroom at the University of South Florida.

EMILY MCDERMOTT: I want to talk about Season Two. I love some of the themes that come up, especially the Biennale and the play on Occupy Wall Street. How long have you been working on the new season? How did you choose the themes to address?

KALUP LINZY: I started writing season two late in the summer. I was like, “Oh, since I’m hanging out in Florida I need to make some work. What should I do?” and so when PULSE came and asked for the commission to do a performance I was like, “Why don’t I ask them if I could show season two of As Da Art World Might Turn?” So I had done Season One, and then I was like, “What would be relevant now?” I thought why not play with the idea of occupying, because everybody occupies something these days. So I came up with the character Dick, who was referred to, but never seen in previous episodes, and played with the idea of Dick being a name, or you’re dicking people over, screwing people over, or you’re actually having sex, the physicality of it. Being in Florida, watching the squirrels play, the idea connected, “Oh, occupy nuts.”

MCDERMOTT: What about the “Iennial”?

LINZY: You have biennials, you have triennials, you have something every five years, so I took the number part out and just called it the “Iennial.” It happens whenever a group of people decide to put together a show. “The Institution” represents the idea of an institution. Because the characters are almost on the verge of a nervous breakdown, it also can refer to a mental institution. I was playing with those ideas loosely. My character Katanya just got married in a previous episode, and by now she is an art star and an artist, so she gets invited to the Iennial. You’ll see her just hanging out with her work. I’ve been in some biennales, and some I haven’t. I always like the idea of how you meet the curator, hang out, and figure out who you want to work with.

MCDERMOTT: What was shooting like? How were locations chosen?

LINZY: It was similar [to participating in a biennial], shooting in Florida. I have a friend who has this big warehouse, so we went there and mapped out places in her warehouse as a main set and shot pieces there. She has a restaurant, so we shot the private screening there. The room I’m in right now is where I shot the critique-aholics meeting.

MCDERMOTT: I started cracking up during that scene.

LINZY: That idea comes from how sometimes, when you get a critique, people think you’re criticizing them but it’s really an intellectual conversation. You can’t get emotionally attached. As artists, we deal with these feeling and emotions, and when someone comes in and critiques it, that might trigger this emotional experience. But then you have some artists who make work from a place of intellect, and then it doesn’t trigger that [emotional response] as often. So, I’m playing with the idea of intellect and emotions, how they go back and forth, and the idea of how you gain control over that and continue making your work without feeling emotionally abused. It took me years to figure that out, when I was coming from an emotional place and when I was thinking about it too much.

MCDERMOTT: When did you realize you could separate your emotional standpoint from your intellect?

LINZY: One of my collectors said that to me years ago, probably 2006 or 2007, so I started thinking about it. He’s kind of right. Some of the pieces came from this emotional space; I was trying to release emotions, exercise emotions, and then I entered the art world. Even after grad school, some of [the earlier works] were still lingering in my head. I realized there were some pieces where I felt that I had to respond to the criticism. Katanya was created to deal with the anxieties of an artist, but I realized what really made me a performance artist was that I was able to step back and assess. I’ve always had [that ability], but it was coming to an understanding.

MCDERMOTT: Not just being able to step back, but actually understanding what you’re seeing when you step back.

LINZY: Exactly. I started having a conversation with myself. I was reading some Eckhart Tolle books early on, but then years later, I read The Power of Now. There was a statement that says, “If you want something in life, step back and start watching your life as if it were a movie, and then you have a critical distance.” I realized that was what was happening in my work already. I think that’s where, as artists, we begin to master our craft: when we’re able to step back and understand things.

MCDERMOTT: When you’re creating works now do you find that you step back while making them? Or do you step back after they’ve been made, to digest and realize what they’ve become?

LINZY: After the piece is finished I might step back and look at it, but when I’m going through the process I’m mostly stepping back as the characters and having that discourse. If I step out too much while in the process and don’t allow myself to get into it, the piece may not get made. You can talk yourself out of doing something if you start to think about, “How would this person see it, or that person see it?” So sometimes it’s allowing myself to be in it and not talking myself out of it.

You’re trying to see it from the character’s point of view and my point of view as the artist. Now a lot of it happens more naturally, but early on I consciously would always put layers on the characters. If something was touching on a stereotype, I would make sure the character had other dimensions so it didn’t feel like it was trying to ridicule anybody. We all, as human beings, have different layers, and if we become one-dimensional or really superficial, then I still think there are things that happened that got us to that place. Sometimes you divorce a part of yourself to save yourself emotionally. But what happened for that person to get to that place of superficiality?

MCDERMOTT: I want to ask about your feelings towards the art world in general. You used to have a gallery, then you stepped away from it, and you still don’t have one…

LINZY: When I stepped back from the gallery I was in a phase where I thought I wasn’t going to be making work for a gallery context for a while. People were like, “You should never leave a gallery if you didn’t have somewhere else to go,” but I wasn’t trying to disrespect the gallerists in that way. I didn’t want it to be like I’m leaving for something better; I just didn’t see myself making work in that context for a while. It was almost like I couldn’t string anybody along. I just needed a minute.

So I’m actually looking for another gallery now, but the thing is some galleries just want to show the video work and some are just interested in the 2-D work. It has to be a gallery where I can do the 2-D collages, the video, and live performance, where it’s not this weird conflict, where it can all move forward. If I want to do something in the TV industry, I should be allowed to explore that, but not in a way where it has to cancel out or ruin my visual art career. I have the dream to continue being in an art context, but also be able to continue doing stuff in television on the web. It’s not that I’m shunning galleries; it’s just about finding the right one and making sure the work is shown in the right context. If I have a piece that’s solely based on the web and it’s going to also exist in a gallery, it needs to exist in a gallery where it doesn’t feel redundant. That’s where the “Queen Rose Family Tree” comes in. You have 2-D collages and the families on the tree in the gallery, but you can also go watch episodes that feature those characters online. It’s trying to find that balance where people don’t show up and say, “Well, we saw this online.”

MCDERMOTT: How do you choose the people you work with?

LINZY: Normally it’s the pool of people around me. Some people come and express interest, but you can dwell on things, and if you open your eyes and pay attention to it, those things start popping up around you. So often there are people around me that fit a character, so I’ll approach them, or someone will say, “Kalup, I really want to be in one of your pieces, will you put me in one?” It comes from who’s around me, who expresses interest, who actually fits the characters, and who I think would be interesting in certain roles.

MCDERMOTT: What about the cast in As Da Art World Might Turn Season Two? It is a lot of grad students at USF, right?

LINZY: With the Art World Might Turn, it’s not about race or anything like that. It’s just like, who can step into this personality and interpret this particular voice in an interesting and fun way? I cast people from right around me. I was at my alma mater. It’s special to have most of the graduate students in it [and] one professor, because I feel like in terms of this school, I was one of the few students lucky enough to break into the art industry or the contemporary art world. A lot of the artists are really good, so hopefully they can go on and create their own paths, but I thought it would be good to include them so they can have this experience, to exist in this space, because every artist’s world is an individual experience and no one thing can prepare you. You have to go in and go where those roles lead you—just allow it to happen and follow your path. I tell students that if you want to be somewhere, you should go to that place and check it out.

MCDERMOTT: Your characters consistently change. Even those who are in As Da Art World Might Turn evolve outside of the series. What is it like for you when you see older works?

LINZY: Sometimes I just cringe. I can feel the emotion, that whole anxiety of being in this new world that I sort of evolved into. I would just do it, put it out there, and go for it. Some of the feelings are good and bittersweet, and some of them are like, “Oh wow, I was really in my feelings when I was creating that piece.” I guess I cringe, because sometimes I don’t even watch my live performances back. When I edit, it’s this feeling of seeing my mistakes. It’s always a mixture of loving characters, but being the artist that created it and not trying to go too deep in criticizing myself. When the other people enter the room and start engaging with it, that’s when I get really anxious. Sometimes you’ll have people that love it and a few people roll their eyes. Some of the older generation has something to say about it, but the young kids, because they’re so used to the web, they have no real strong [opinion].

MCDERMOTT: That’s an interesting point to make. How do you feel making this kind of artwork that is incredibly intelligent, knowing that there are also kids making random soap operas that might have similar, but maybe unintentional, meanings?

LINZY: I remember when I first started putting things on the web and people were writing about it. I totally didn’t keep up with what was going on because I wanted to present stuff in museums and galleries and have some presence on the web. I feel fortunate to have posted stuff in the beginning. Had I really tried to jump into that as an industry, what would have happened?

I almost feel like if I didn’t have the gallery and museum content it would be easy to get lost. People’s attention spans are so short in that space; they see something and it trends for a few days and then it goes away and something else comes. People have to constantly be working to trend. Even though the art world goes through trends, you do know that it’ll come up again. With the internet space, I don’t know. There could be some way to start curating shows 10 years from now on highlighting stuff that happened.

MCDERMOTT: Do you feel like the reception of your videos online has changed from when you first started?

LINZY: I guess. I don’t get millions of hits or anything like that. It’s hard to tell. I feel like my perception has changed a little because when I was posting stuff online it was an extension of my studio and then it started getting some of the attention. Now it’s like, “Oh, this is actually a place where you can make money,” but I’m not interested in competing in that space. It seems like too much to deal with. It’s people all over the world sitting in front of their computers or phones, and it’s great when people randomly come across it, but then I realize as a professional artist, some of it has to be structured in a way where it’s beneficial.

A lot of us sit in our studios and create alone. I guess it’s not that different from sitting in front of the computer and engaging in stuff alone, but I don’t know… I think I’m aware of entering my late 30s versus being in my late 20s, when the web was coming out as this new thing. It reminds me of how people used to tell me about my great-grandmother and how they used to gather around a radio listening to soap operas. Then the soap operas went to television and all of sudden, when the web came, they started canceling soap operas. The actors were not into just being on the web and now it’s totally fine to gather around the web and watch something and engage with it.

I was in that generation where I was torn if you should put it on the web because you’re giving it away for free but you also want people to see your work. Then all of a sudden this industry is created where you have internet stars that actually work just for that. So I’m happy that I did put stuff up in that particular space; had I completely rejected it, it might have been impossible to put stuff in that space now and not seem like copycat or jumping on it because it’s trendy. I was really trying to figure out how to utilize the internet in complement with [the gallery context] without one surpassing the other.

MCDERMOTT: Touching on what you said about interacting with things alone and creating alone, why do you bring in other people but still use your own voice?

LINZY: Around 2005 or 2006, I realized [using my own voice] is what creates the performance in the performance art and that’s what helps creates the distance for the viewers, like the distance that I get when I step back. Sometimes people don’t realize it’s my voice, but when they start to pick up that it’s coming from one person it changes how they look at the piece. It’s like a novelist; sometimes they have voices in their mind while they’re writing. I think that’s what creates that distance in most performance art. Sometimes there’s this distance between the artist and the work, and the artist and the audience.

When people say, “Oh you’re just an actor, not a performer,” I’m like, “Why does every performance piece have to be endurance?” It can be different genres of performance, just like there’s different genres of painting and photography. Why can’t performance be respected and part of that conversation? Using my own voice keeps me present in the piece.

MCDERMOTT: What is a struggle you faced while making Season Two and what did you take away from it?

LINZY: I’ve learned that I need to learn how to direct without making the person distracted and keeping them comfortable, and pay more attention to lighting… People are under the impression that I want to be doing all of this stuff by myself and that’s not the case; I need a certain type of help. It’s helping me realize how I need to organize my projects in a way where I can communicate enough to get help and support. As artists, sometimes our work is chaotic; we don’t easily communicate our needs to other people in a way that they understand. I became more aware of that because I wasn’t playing as many characters. I was thinking about how am I going to direct, and learning color balancing…People say if you keep making work and keep putting it out, better things will come. I think artists should never forget that. I think that’s what you have to be committed to if you’re an artist, that’s where the good feelings come from. It’s so easy to get caught up in other stuff, like the business part of it. If you just have to be aware, just keep putting it out there.