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Daniel J. Martinez

Retrato del artista by Daniel J.       Martinez

interview transcript

Date of Interview: Feb 04, 2002
Location: USA
Topic: Interview with Daniel J. Martinez
Interviewer: Bill Kelley Jr.

LatinArt:  Your new work is so visually different from your earlier's so strongly rooted in research and intellectual thought that it doesn’t reveal itself on first glance. A little research reveals the many different visual languages you have worked with.

Daniel J. Martinez:  And I still consider myself very young...I've barely begun to scratch the surface of what I think I should be doing. I've been putting work up for over twenty-five years in a lot of different countries in a lot of different periods of time. I was very active in the 70’s, and then 80's when Reagan came along. Then the 90's and the culture wars and the defeat of progressive ideas and ideologies, and now here we are in 2000. Those were interesting periods to have been working in the US and thinking about some of the ideas that were important at different times because today there's almost no comparison in the conversation. Anything that anyone believed in in the 60s and 70s is irrelevant today. It doesn't mean those ideas aren’t good it just means that we just have to come up with new ideas.

LatinArt:  Times have changed, I'm thinking of the conditions under which form and artistic creativity are discussed. I interviewed an artist who told me that any discussion outside of art is not art. It becomes sociology. It becomes anthropology. It becomes something else. It's an interesting push and pull on either side.

Daniel J. Martinez:  It’s a Greenburgian argument. It's a modernist argument. Talk about a typical, in my opinion, boring discussion, which is this question that form and content separate themselves. The only discussion of aesthetics is about the nature of its existence due to a manifestation of its form and its aesthetic value. I differ. Let’s talk about form and content for a minute. When you have a lightbulb, which is form, its understanding is intertwined with its formal content. When you turn the switch on it emits light. That is it content. The form and content of light is synonymous, same thing, they’re inseparable and I would therefore argue the opposite- that you can't separate them. How is it that you can only talk about the form of what you make and suggest that it has no construction of meaning? Is it absolutely separate from everything else that goes on in the society? That's impossible. [Dave] Hickey is the reason these ideas have reoccurred...Hickey is the next Greenburg.

LatinArt:  I was just about to bring him up...

Daniel J. Martinez:  This is all very predictable. In the late 80s, in the 90s, in my entire life- as short as it’s been, I had never seen a more euphoric moment then there was in the late 80s and 90 s, because quite simply, progressive people with classically applied knowledge were able to situate themselves in all of the positions of power in this country and to upset policies at both a national and local level. It was the first time that radical progressive politics were able to actually create a kind of force to be reckoned with and it lasted (snaps his fingers) that long. But it was long enough for people to go, "Wow! We can really do is possible. Finally, we began to believe we learned something from the sixties. The 1993 [Whitney] biennial was the beginning and the end of the last battle of the culture wars. That’s the reason why everybody now mentions it - because it’s tough not to mention it. It was a single glorious moment of victory. What was most important during that exhibit was the acknowledgement of everybody that had been made invisible. We had moved out of modernism and post-modernism and into something that we had not figured out yet. There was not a theoretical label to describe the moment at that time.

LatinArt:  There are so many references to that biennial. It's like the marker.

Daniel J. Martinez:  For everything...actually, even for the previous Biennial.

LatinArt:  I was reading some of the lectures and discussions about your museum entrance pins that you made for the '93 Whitney Biennial.

Daniel J. Martinez:  And people always mention it. Even now at this Whitney Biennial [2002] they mention it. They don’t even mention my name anymore. They just mention the work.

LatinArt:  And how do you view that piece now?

Daniel J. Martinez:  They were a time and site-specific performance. They were designed around Saussure, who was the father of linguistics, and it was about making language (and the meaning of language) change in relation to the behavior of individuals as they performed within the museum-- knowing it was trying to dissect power through various codes that we make assumptions about. It was so clear. If I ever do another piece as clear as that, well, I’d be lucky to do two in a lifetime. Because, whatever the zeitgeist was, it did what I believe it was supposed to do. Which is, it was supposed to foster and to generate complicated dialectical discourse around the meaning of who we are as individuals and our existence within a society. Period. I personally do not believe that art is decoration to hang on a wall to be viewed, looked at and loved because I own it and it has an investment value. I’m not saying that art can’t do that. I’m not saying that art shouldn’t do that. I’m saying that I believe that I don’t want to make art that does that.

I’ve changed a lot over the years in the sense that I don’t stand on the table and yell and holler like I used to. There are different strategies these days. But you know, I was in the Whitney Biennial and the Venice Biennial that same year (1993). Any other individual, being in both of those Biennials in one year, could theoretically write their career the way they wanted it. I couldn’t get another exhibition after that. It was impossible. I couldn’t beg my friends to show an exhibit of my work. I had people who came to me afterwards who said, "Daniel, why did you do that? You could have anything you wanted if you just wouldn’t be the way you are." I said, "Really, don't be the way that I am. What do you mean? "Well, don't be so angry all the time. Just calm down. What are you upset about really? You can't fix it anyway." Can you imagine? What you’re supposed to do in the Whitney Biennial is take the best work that you can make, that can then be plugged into a gallery and marketed. So basically the purpose of the Biennial is a marketing tool for galleries to help promote people’s careers. Well, if there’s an opportunity here to break open a discussion of a type that had not been discussed in a major museum before, when you know that you have national attention, then why not make art that is active, that is part of a culture rather than imagining oneself as a marketing tool? People said that I blew it; that I just threw my career away by doing that. Well you know what? If it was the same time again, knowing what I know, I’d do it again in the blink of an eye. I wouldn’t change it.

I’m not smart enough to give it the necessary political analyses because it’s my work. I can talk a lot about it and what it means to me but there are people much smarter than I who will hopefully analyze it sometime. CuauhtŽmoc Medina and David Levi-Strauss did an open discussion for their curatorial program at Bard College last week where they actually discussed the Biennial and mentioned the piece. You could look at it two ways, that it’s bad they don’t mention my name, but the more interesting way to interpret it is that what has happened is that it’s become a sign within the culture.

LatinArt:  I find that what you said, the cyclical swing of the pendulum sort of thing, very interesting. It just fascinates me where we find ourselves now in the arts.

Daniel J. Martinez:  The results have narrowed. It was orchestrated. The Right used extraordinarily sophisticated political techniques, by which to assassinate art - a stab at great progressive ideologies, using progressive ideological strategies. They strangled us with our own ideas. Having done that, they were able to wipe out the urgency of the notion of a multicultural society- and the fact that you can move to a place where you can deny that you live in one. They were dying to get free from the yoke of having to be politically correct, in terms of the way the exhibitions were being curated, the way moneys were being distributed, the way the infrastructure and mechanism of the art world functioned. They were looking, they were waiting, to give in. Dave Hickey constructed a set of ideals, which came out of the Art Issues magazine, that points to the publisher David Kornblau, which points to Christopher Knight and David Pagel. They needed someone like that to be able to lay down the theory- that everyone else uses in a diluted manner- and articulate the position they were all afraid to say. He wasn’t afraid to say it. "What’s all this trash? It didn't mean anything while it was happening and it doesn’t mean anything now. These are the new rules." Every cultural institution in this country threw its hands up in joy and then from the mid 90’s until now it’s all you hear about. At the same time, access gets tighter and tighter until there’s nothing other than a mainstream profit based gallery discourse on contemporary stuff. There isn’t anything else offered. It doesn’t mean it’s not being made, it doesn’t mean there aren’t people individually talking about it, but there is no platform allowing for that kind of production, dissemination, discussion, you know, theorizing.

LatinArt:  People have talked about this while at the same time discussing how the Right has forced their political agenda.

Daniel J. Martinez:  Absolutely. They construct the agenda, they decide what they want, they decide how they want to articulate it, they decided then how to put it into action in terms of lobbying and all the other things that are done: corporations, investments and then they make it happen. Progressive movements are organizationally weak. They are not funded in the way that they could be. It doesn’t allow for seeing itself beyond a very particular period of time. I mean they’re still talking to me about Lenin and 2002! So what happens is that it’s going to fall back on the same place it always falls back on- the artists. It’s always the artist, one-way or another, leading a discussion; they’re the only ones with a little bit of imagination to try to think through the circumstances that we live in. Art is so conservative right now. Its just a question of time before it turns into something else- where people will be willing to take more risks rather than making everything so definite, making everything so safe, so calm. The Whitney Biennial [2002] is basically boring because no one takes a position. They’re afraid it will hurt their sales, their opportunity to get into a gallery, that it will upset a curator. Everyone functions from the point of view of fear. If you only function from that point of view what have you done? You’ve done nothing.

LatinArt:  You have spoken about Radical Beauty earlier. Can I ask you about this, about the concept? I found your most recent images stuck in my head and those two words seem to connect very well to them.

Daniel J. Martinez:  Alot of the people that I hang out with say, "How do we as artists create, fund, and solicit a space for ourselves and the work that we want to create?" How do we do that given the context of what we just articulated? We know that it’s a good thing to do. It’s not about liking it. Whether you like it or not like it is irrelevant, but it’s a good thing to do. It’s an interesting thing to do. It’s a challenging thing to do. How do you make space for yourself rather than beg for space? The only way to do that is to chart out a piece of territory and then start articulating what you we started collecting books. We read every possible thing that has been written about in the past ten years, on beauty. Believe it or not, Hickey isn’t the only one talking about beauty. People like to make the suggestion that if you’re interested in content somehow you’re not interested in form and therefore your work isn’t beautiful. Well that’s just simply not true. We never said that we didn’t want anything beautiful. We want to use beauty like everybody else. But we don’t want a benign beauty. So we started creating, curating, and writing articles, and articulating the position around a radical beauty beyond beauty. Radical beauty was something that had the potential to slip into several modes of expression utilize Caravaggio and Titian and Goya and anyone that you want to start to attribute a specific style of aesthetics- to go all the way up to Duchamp, Warhol, Joseph Beuys...whomever it happens to be. How do you take advantage of aesthetic history and compress that into an ideological position? Radical beauty was merely giving us license to use beauty as a tool and a weapon simultaneously rather than it just existing as a modernist state of beauty. There are lots of things about modernism that we like, lots of things about all of the movements that we like. But we don’t want to do that. You know? So radical beauty is a gesture towards freeing ourselves from being trapped by the languages that basically hold us down.

LatinArt:  One of the things that I think about when thinking of your work is the role of the artist.

Daniel J. Martinez:  There would have been times where I would have said to you, if you asked me do I believe that artists have a responsibility, I would have told you yes. Because I would tell you that outside of my door was a crisis that needed immediate response, that artists were therapists and artists were political all at the same time. If you look outside the door, the crisis is still there, but there is no capital to be gained by operating in that model. That model only traps you to a point of having no mobility whatsoever. When I say mobility I don’t mean upward mobility, just the ability to move with the culture in order to have an agency, to be effective and have the freedom to act aesthetically. So now, do I have an ethical position? Do I function with a set of principles? Do I have a way of being myself? Absolutely. Is that important? It’s the most important thing. My ethical position is the most important position. Am I able to say exactly what that is?..perhaps not very specifically. Do I personally believe I have a responsibility? Yes. What that’s to, I don’t know...any know?

In terms of these images- sometimes people get upset because of what they appear to look like, but these are simulations. I’m not perpetrating violence on people and if people would remember their history, art history, I am by no means the first person to make images like this. I mean, oh my God! Let’s just go back to the Renaissance!

LatinArt:  Or the baroque!

Daniel J. Martinez:  Yeah! So I find it a bit hypocritical for people to blame me for the production of these images. The effect of these images do precisely what I want them to. They create a situation where people have to face themselves, not me. Given the Internet, the proliferation of magazines, books, images and the entire visual culture we exist in- television, 100 stations on the satellite dish... How in that quagmire of images is a single visual artist able to project just a single image and still has the potential and the power to try to form the person that is engaged with it? How do you make an image in the year 2002 that possibly could linger with an individual for not just those thirty seconds that they’re looking at it but for a day, a week, a year, ten years later- they still remember seeing that one image. What happened to the discussion around creating powerful visual images that were complicated in their existence? I’m interested in trying to figure out what that is rather than making art that is absolutely completely benign.

I mean how many times have you been through Chelsea where you check out forty galleries and you can’t remember a single thing you saw? What’s it about then? What’s the production of culture all about? What’s the point? Oh, I know. Did you sell it? The work doesn’t even matter. What matters is where the show is in terms of the prestige of the institution and does the show sell and does it get and garnish the accolades of success that are necessary for that to catapult them to the next level. So I guess we’re beyond a discussion of what the actual art is about because that doesn’t matter to us anymore. That’s so sad to me...we might as well go back to Plato.

LatinArt:  These images also work on very human terms and I’m fascinated by the study of using the human body, and it being a receptacle for all sorts of ideas, not only by 1970s feminists but even going back centuries...

Daniel J. Martinez:  I was about to say, even referencing 13th, 14th, 15th century kinds of positions. The work is based on Nietzsche. It’s based on the last piece he wrote before he died, when they said he was completely insane: In the Twilight of the Idols, How to philosophize with a hammer. It’s perfect for me. I’ve been a Nietzscheian for a very long time. The proposition is this: if the human species is going to evolve beyond the point that it has, it has to destroy everything that it believes in. It has to evolve. It has to die to be reborn. It’s just that simple. Well, the only way that I can do that is to kill myself over and over and over again, so what I do is I dismantle the human body. I dismantle myself in front of everyone. So it is me and it’s not me at the same time. It’s a simulation, a clone. Did you know they’re building in Las Vegas a scaled replica for a hotel of the Grand Canyon?

LatinArt:  Oh, I didn’t know.

Daniel J. Martinez:  Yeah, and you know I can stand in Las Vegas and throw a rock and hit the Grand Canyon. They already projected that more people will go to the simulated Grand Canyon than ever go to the real Grand Canyon.

LatinArt:  Pre-packaged and ready to go!

Daniel J. Martinez:  Yeah, and the irony is that we prefer the simulation over the reality in all forms. So I’m merely feeding people with what they desire most, which is a simulation based on a philosophical and ideological proposition. These images are so prolific on one side, and yet so productively beautiful. I say that not as a compliment to myself, but this is a point I’m trying to get at: how do you create something that is so horrible and so beautiful? How do you create simultaneity and multiplicity to function as aesthetic tools while you actually look at them? I think they function on a micro/macro spectrum rather than isolating itself on any one. They don’t vibrate on one spectrum but oscillate constantly. I’ve only been making them for a few years and they’re very, very difficult to make on all levels.

LatinArt:  Yeah. I can just imagine.

Daniel J. Martinez:  You might not have read it anywhere, but they’re not digitally constructed. They’re all done by hand but they are what I refer to as digitally informed. I have very well developed digital and technological skills. I’ve read everything on digital theory. I know a lot, a lot about it. I don’t use it though. I only use it as the foundation for which to think about things. So instead of the digital trying to fool you to think something else, I’m using the analog- which pretends to be digital even though it isn't. It’s a simulation of digital technology. You have to look at the image closely and it will begin to reveal to you that it’s fake. The release of thinking. It’s the emergency switch for people that get too panicked. You saw the piece at The Project in LA called Happiness is over-rated.

LatinArt:  Oh yeah. It was interesting to catch people’s reactions to that piece at the opening. I think a lot of people were caught by, "Oh, what do I do?" There was a fear of getting close, like, "He’s got razor blades in his hands." It was really interesting to watch.

Daniel J. Martinez:  The room [where the sculpture is installed] is a wondrous architectural structure and you don’t notice but it’s a cube within a cube. The light is a special light. It’s a metal colloid light that produces a color of light that is missing portions of the spectrum so what it does is it gives off enough so you can’t tell it’s off but something’s wrong with it. It produces a color feeling in the room that is just strange enough-and it’s very much based on California light and space art. The manipulation of space and the room creates a metaphysical environment that is transformative.

Fear and wonder are a powerful combination to use. I could reference the sort of sculptural aspects of it: performance as sculpture and Cyborg as clones, or replicants out of Bladerunner. Isn’t it interesting to go back to the earlier part of our conversation of, "Is it possible to create artworks that affect people?" That’s it. That’s the goal. And not affect people without a point, but to affect people strategically and with purpose. The question is to be self-reflexive, to consider one’s position in the world based on having experienced what is being produced by artists, poets, writers, intellectuals. That’s theoretically what the job is -to create something powerful within the culture.

LatinArt:  At this point in the conversation I find myself thinking about materials, and thinking about their use in these processes and the very strong symbolic connotations in the use of materials as well. I also like the irony of using "artificial" prosthetics and using them to talk about very human and emotional questions and concepts.

Daniel J. Martinez:  For all the stuff that we’ve been talking about...I am a modernist and a complete formalist. Look at the way the thing’s built. Look at these photos. These are all based on proportion, composition, and light. I control and manipulate them like paintings. All the questions around materiality, production, perfection, imitation, display. All that stuff, clearly are found in my work. It screams it and that’s the irony...I could talk about the form all day long. I just choose not to because I want to talk about something else. People should utilize every tool necessary to produce work that they need to produce. I’m a minimalist, a formalist. I use all that stuff. I would be stupid not to. Why would I deny myself, why would anyone deny themselves, the ability to articulate themselves in the way it best serves that particular artwork? I mean the whole point is to be effective however it is you want to be effective.

I grew up my entire life with Catholicism being shoved down my throat, so imbedded in these latest images are the obvious. They’re about religion. They’re about the body. They’re about class. They’re about all the things I like them to be about but they don’t appear to be that on the surface. They’re coded. They’re encrypted- utilizing all the things that we’ve been talking about. And I would always suggest in the end using beauty, whether it’s the horror in beauty or the beauty in the beauty, still the main goal is to create beauty, something really, profoundly beautiful.

LatinArt:  Can you talk to me a little about the exhibition space you help run in downtown L.A. called Deep River?

Daniel J. Martinez:  Well, Deep River was started as a five-year project. It began in 1997 and my two collaborators are Glenn Kaino and Tracey Shiffman and we pay for it out of our pocket. We don’t get any grant money. We produce everything there because we thought there was a need for a private space to exist that was not encumbered by the tenets of how funding works or having to ask permission to do things. We just do what we decide is best and we don’t have some hidden agenda. We’re just interested in promoting LA artists and giving people opportunities to put out their works again. It began in 1997 and the idea was to have it run two years before the millennium and two years after the millennium. In December 2002, it would close. It’s a temporary autonomous zone were we've already produced 32 exhibitions. It exists in a world where there are lots of rules and we understand the rules but we tend to do what we want and go by our own rules. We’re being evicted in the end of June because a new person bought the building last August and he’d been fighting with the new landlord, the owner of the building, in order to have the restaurant next door take our space, so we’re subject to the greed of real estate right now.

LatinArt:  Downtown, all over downtown.

Daniel J. Martinez:  Deep River was one of the highlights of things I’ve done so far in my life. At the same time Deep River has been painfully difficult to do - it's a different time and people just want to know when they can get a show. "Can you get me a review?" And they have very short-term desires, which is interesting, that’s what people want- short time desires. It might be satisfying for the moment but the game is a long-term game.

LatinArt:  Do you have any future plans for Deep River? What are the future plans for your work and is there anything you’re working on that you could tell us about?

Daniel J. Martinez:  Deep River? We’re going to transform ourselves into publishing anthologies of critical writings. We didn’t do any online stuff for Deep River purposely because we wanted to exist in this analog mode back a long time ago. We started a website in the early 90’s called Favela, like favelas in Brazil. We got on the internet in ’91 and ’92 when it was squeaky clean. This crew of young hackers- I look like an old man compared to them- we came together and did Favela for years. We won all kinds of awards and as soon as the internet got commercial, I said, "We’re done. We did our project. Now it’s time to move on. We’ll see what it does in the next ten years and then we’ll come back to it." And that’s about where we are- ten years later. Along with our book thing we’re going to launch a new intervention as a critical art ensemble with electronic civil disobedience. I’m going to continue working with the Cyborgs and continue the photos. The photo projects are changing to showing diseases. I have some friends with the CDC in Atlanta, the Center for Disease Control, and I’m going to start changing my body into being infected with the most horrible viruses. Ebola and things like this and give myself advanced stages of diseases.

LatinArt:  Are you going to still be working with the same collaborative work?

Daniel J. Martinez:  I’m working with different people and I’ll probably move on again to a new group of people. They keep changing and I’m sort of the common denominator and its about constantly looking for people that have skills that add to my skills.

I grew up on Situationism. I grew up on the Punk movement. I grew up on Beuys– he’s one of my favorite artists. The Latin Americans, Lydia Clark, Helio, that kind of stuff. I love what Warhol was able to do. Warhol, Duhamp and Beuys are huge major figures for me in terms of trying to understand how to be effective within the culture. Again, if all you’re able to do is this (pointing to a museum catalog), what do you need me for? There’s a million people that can do this. Do you know how many galleries are in this town? Do you know how many artists are begging to do this? What do I want to do that for? It’s not about making shows, but making ideas and manifesting those to become reality. Can you set the bar to a place and challenge yourself to produce something you’ve never produced before? Irrespective of all the other constraints that trap the art world, do I care if it sells? No. Do I care if it makes money? No. Do I need money to make my ideas? Yes (laughs). Do I need access to technology? Yes. Do I care if it sells or make any money from it? Absolutely not. The most boring part of the art world is the selling of art. That doesn’t mean I don’t need it. I have a gallery. A private gallery is great. Christian Haye and Jenny Liu are fabulous...fantastic. In fact, Christian was the first person to give me a show in New York City since the Whitney Biennial in 1993. I give him and Jenny Liu all the respect and credit in the world because they were not afraid to not only represent me but to give me that access. I had another kind of access that I was already constructing on my own, but they gave me something else. It was brilliant on their part because they were fearless and they were a straight-up 100% commercial gallery and that was unusual.

LatinArt:  And your stuff sells!

Daniel J. Martinez:  My stuff sells. Yeah, so go figure, how would I ever have known that?

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