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Ken Gonzales-Day

#43 by Ken       Gonzales-Day

interview transcript

Date of Interview: Aug 20, 2002
Location: USA
Topic: Interview with Ken Gonzales-Day
Interviewer: Bill Kelley Jr.

LatinArt:  Ken Gonzales-Day's work is a well thought out blend of critical investigations and beautiful photography. He is our first artist to be interviewed for our newest section, simply called Emerging Artists...we hope you enjoy it.

As a photography professor at Scripps College, you’ve written academic analysis of photography, but you have also explored the narrative with your novel and photographic works entitled "Bone Grass Boy." Can you talk a bit how this project evolved?

Ken Gonzales-Day:  "The Bone-Grass Boy," a digital reconstruction of a 19th century frontier novel started from a genealogy project. I began to follow my family’s genealogy and other Latinos in the New Mexico area. My grandfather was born in Taos and most of his family resided in that area since the 18th century. I particularly used a lot of church records to research the city and town where he grew up. I ran across a lot of text, especially Charles Lummis’ and others, written about Mexicans during that time period, and of course, the depiction of Mexicans was rather disparaging. Rather than doing an academic study of 18th century racism, which everyone already knows about, I thought I’d replace that history with the history I was looking for and give voice to those characters. There are Native American, Spanish, Mexican, mixed race and who knows what from New Mexico and I tried to create characters for each one of those identities and give them a voice in the narrative. Because of its complexity, I chose to play these roles and tie it all together, as opposed to getting a student or a model. Obviously, people will make comparisons to people like Cindy Sherman and others of that generation. I often say, "the only difference between my work and hers was that she was not Latino" (laughs)...which is a big difference, and does change the meaning of the work and make it about more than certain notions of performance art.
So that’s how I got started and the stories ended telling themselves and the images are from those stories.

LatinArt:  So, all the different characters in the photographs are you...

Ken Gonzales-Day:  When one deals with cultural issues, there is always the question of authenticity, and who is allowed to speak on a given topic. Using myself, in part, was a way of asserting authenticity which opens the work up in a certain way. From that point I could challenge question of authenticity. In other words, as all the different characters, I have no authentic subject position. I’m not Native American, I’m not purely from Mexico, nor from Spain, I’m not purely white...whatever, so there is no position of authority to speak from. I discovered that people found it difficult to understand what it was like to be...hybrid...multiracial, cross know, all of the terms that get thrown around rather disparagingly. Nevertheless, when you embody that subject position you have to find a way to speak...that essentially was the strategy.

LatinArt:  You have written how your own work is greatly influenced by the historical uses of photography.

Ken Gonzales-Day:  While working on the Bone Grass Boy project the use of digital technology got me thinking about what is photography and what is digital photography, and does the method of production change the reception of the work? The question of Modernism or Formalism and the idea that abstraction is argued to be a transcendental form is interesting to me. My question is, can it be transcendental if we take an abstract painting and we replace it with something that is coded culturally? Can we replace a reference to a landscape with a certain shade of skin? How will the viewer read that? Who is the viewer? Those quickly lead into questions of cultural differences. Can you address the issue of culture, in any way, into a Modernist argument, or is it by its very nature forced outside the Modernist project? My challenge for that work was to set up a more complex and richer view of Modernism. Its terms are very Utopian and there is certainly no reason to suggest that it’s a "for Europeans only" aesthetic. Benjamin Buchloh wrote in the past Documenta catalog that multi-cultural artists are mandated intellectually or formally to create works that address class issues because their identity has been shaped by class. I really disagree with that. I believe that we should do anything we want to do. If class oppression is oppressing us then it’s the job of the first world to address those issues, even the jobs of museums and curators to address this. Don’t always leave it to the artists to change the world. That’s the dilemma I find with this...there must be room enough in Modernism, in its foundation, for all these other voices - and in fact you find them in Surrealism. You find them in Dada, Pop and other moments.

LatinArt:  I’m always fascinated by how the Americas, as a whole, going back centuries, has affected and shaped European thinking. The whole history of interaction has been of a kind of Cabinet of Curiosites...Modernism is no different.

Ken Gonzales-Day:  A kind of Wonderbox...well, yes that is a good link because my project deals with this very much. The earliest accounts of Latinos in New Mexico were accounts by the adventurer introducing the world, in this case by Lummis the newspaper writer, to this curious new world. In terms of photography the earliest accounts of Latinos, particularly in California, were as criminals in prison photographs or ruling class land owners who had been incorporated into mainstream culture.
Race is a fiction. It’s a fiction based on legal precedent, common sense, and scientific data. For example, Latinos were determined to be "white" in 1897. The term Mexican was used for Latinos in California but they were "white" based on the fact that they were granted citizenship under the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. At that time the only people to have U.S. citizenship were by de facto ruling Mexicans became white. It’s fascinating because it ties to this larger legal and economic structure and it’s not tied to what we might think of as a biological/anthropological model.

LatinArt:  I found the link to how race is constructed in your work and photography’s role in this very interesting.

Ken Gonzales-Day:  All photography is constructed. It’s all a language. It’s all constructed from a history of discourse, not from any individual authorship per se.

LatinArt:  Your work and writing seems to be very interested in the process of photography itself and the impact digital media has had.

Ken Gonzales-Day:  You can do things digitally that you can’t do traditionally. There are things you can do traditionally that cannot be easily done digitally. Artists have always embraced new technologies with the possibility of shifting the established dynamics of photography and its practice. That said, the digital is not a surprising development, in the sense that photography has always been manipulated. Photography itself is manipulation. It’s a language that requires you to speak. Your verbs and your nouns are aperture and exposure, your adjectives could be printing or cropping or something like that. You’re able to create very subtle evocative statements through technical mastery, but also through ideological constructs. What do we desire to see?
The idea that the digital is a new category is slightly deceptive in the sense that it is really just a tool and that the baggage for all photography pre-dates digital whether it’s fashion photography, re-touching negatives, or Man Ray’s work. What photography is today is not what it was like in the 1870’s, socially or mechanically.

To some extent, some of that is really quite academic. I don’t know that that’s really the issue for my work or for the goals you have set for your site. The larger question is "what is Latino art...and who cares," right? How do you create a space to have a dialogue? I don’t think that space will be enabled just through’s one aspect.

LatinArt:  It’s all really interesting. For example, if you think about the popularity of Cuban photography now and how technology means something completely different there.

Ken Gonzales-Day:  I think what underlines all this and what you’re touching on has less to do with the technological tools and more to do with the intellectual tools that come down to us. Structuralism, post-structuralism, feminism, cultural studies, etc. In other words, how we determine meaning. What is the meaningfulness of an object? Part of that is what is the object and in what context does it come into existence. Certainly there is a privileging for artists from the United States, of all backgrounds, because of the access to technology. I was at a show in Guadalajara, and the artists there were quite resistant to the digital technology and all the glossy prints and saw them as a manifestation of American capitalism. That’s also an interesting debate. We the artists saw ourselves as addressing Latino and cultural issues, and once we’re there they’re like, "what are guys talking about?"

LatinArt:  As our first "Emerging Artist", could you share your thoughts about the art scene here in L.A., particularly regarding collecting and exhibitions?

Ken Gonzales-Day:  Los Angeles can be a difficult city for emerging artists, and from what I can gather, it has its challenges for well-established artists too. There are several issues: one, Los Angeles has a relatively small pool of collectors so it can be difficult to get their attention simply on the local level; two, there is very little coverage of exhibitions in the national and international press; and three, perhaps the greatest challenge for nearly all Los Angeles artists is to get their work out into the broader art world, New York and internationally. I think it is fair to say that in general there are a limited number of curators and exhibition organizers who actually come through town, and when they do, they usually only have time to go to a few studios. These are general observations, and as one might expect, every artist will have a different experience. On the positive side, Los Angeles has a small art community, or rather a number of small communities, and it can be a relatively easy place to find some support, and given the number of galleries and museums in the area, it can be a great place to see a lot of art.

LatinArt:  What are you working on currently?...and any plans for the future you can tell us about?

Ken Gonzales-Day:  I am currently working on a series of images related to my writing project on the history of lynching in California. This work is still in the early stages, but basically, I have been driving around California looking for old sites of lynchings. I am also working on a series of male nudes, which is obviously unrelated to the lynching project but ties in to my previous analytic or composite work; and of course there is always the "Bone-Grass Boy" which continues to grow chapter by chapter with each exhibition opportunity.

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