Interview with Black Maths Artist Adam Holofcener

Adam Holofcener || Sound Artist, Composer, Performer  || Black Maths October 31-December 10, 2016 at The Stamp Gallery || University of Maryland, College Park || Interview by Sarah Schurman 

This is the first installment of the Black Maths artist interview series.

Black Maths embodies a visual and auditory conversation between the works of two Baltimore-based artists. Holofcener’s quadrophonic sound installation Upresting configures field recordings from the 2015 Baltimore uprising into a new sound installation that evokes a body navigating a protest. Visitors are encouraged to speak into a microphone to experience their voice join a multitude.

To start with some context, did you grow up in Baltimore? Did your upbringing and schooling bring you to art?

That’s a good question. Well I grew up in Baltimore. Nobody in my immediate family were art makers. Definitely grew up in a sports household. I’m a white suburbanite, I wasn’t good at sports so my angst sort of channeled itself by playing punk rock music. My first engagement with art actually was somewhat through my grandfather, he grew up in East Baltimore and he got me hooked on jazz and literature. My schooling: I was extremely fortunate. I went to a school in the Baltimore called St. Paul’s school. That school was full of fascists, but the academics were really good and the guy teaching jazz there (I believe he still teaches jazz there) his name is Carl Grubbs and he was actually John Coltrane’s cousin. Carl, he’s rich, he’s as sick as can be, and he’s also sort of an artist. He was wasting his time with stupid white boys; we weren’t worthy. I feel like the combination of literature and jazz pushed me into thinking of art making in a more concrete way. Having access to intellectuals…a lot of teachers in my high school were intellectuals. Part of my neuroses got me to this point where I needed to then hear, listen, read, and see everything. Then it was just a slow matriculation on the course of avant-garde (all art media), it’s more grounded in the more bizarre subcultures out there.

Your sound installation Upresting reawakens the 2015 Baltimore Uprising in a way that invites the individual to experience collective emotion outside of its’ original context. How does Upresting explore the relationship between the individual and society?

That’s a good question. I look at all things on a continuum. On that continuum, things like the Uprising, they manifest the expression of the many and the expression of the singular all at the same time. For many of the people at the Uprising– there were a lot of people in Baltimore, they’re not from Baltimore, they don’t care about Baltimore; they weren’t gonna care about it later. Then, other people were not from Baltimore and trying to give a damn about something. For a lot of people it’s hard to separate their Ego (Ego with a capital E here): they are bringing to fruition whatever their compulsions are. Even myself to a certain extent, my whole career outside of art making has been in the public interest and I never even really did any protesting because a lot of my own pathways had put a narrative in my head that ‘well you know, you’ve got to use your skills and privilege to sort of operate within the system.’” Protesting is an extremely important part of that process, I just didn’t know if I was the one to do it. If you’re protesting I think you really need to be there as a vessel. You really need to remove your ego.  It’s definitely one of those aspects of my privilege of white male-dom…It’s hard to really work in that space where you are just a vehicle. The Uprising was such that even those who didn’t feel compelled to act that way normally, everyone just felt crazy compelled. Everyone just felt like there was there was a magnetism in that way. It was an intense feeling. Then that sort of groupthink mentality that kicks in. I thought about it a lot: so much that got me thinking about Upresting while I was in the protest, especially the really long ones that would last all day long. It really helps me, the sound that operates in the protest is what joins everyone together. This exhibition is strange for me, when I first got funding to do the piece, it was sort of a community art piece. Nowhere really did I say “Upresting by Adam Holofcener.” The piece for me has kind of come full circle because I conceived of it as this very aesthetic, intellectual thing, and then I had the opportunity to make a piece of public art about it,  and because those things interest me very much I took that opportunity. Then, when the opportunity came to bring it back into the realm of this more intense aesthetic it came back. It involved the many and the few; it gives you the opportunity to look at it from either of those perspectives. In contexts like this it’s worth diagnosing it from both sides.

People tend to dichotomize individual identity and society. Does Upresting suggest that collective voices can diverge from society’s message?

That’s an interesting question. Cecilia and I were talking about this before the exhibition. One of the things I thought a lot about is how you organize a collective message. What are the other opportunities that people have in such large numbers, you know thousands of people, to try to channel a good message at the same time. To me the most premiere counterexample is a sporting event; something like a football game. You have 60,000 people chanting in unison. They’re collectivizing their message but their message is a lot easier to package, and why I think that football games happen all the time and a protest happens a week after someone gets killed and then they  dissipate. It’s hard to chorale the thoughts of two people of any complexity, let alone 60,000. The really amazing thing about protest or trying to organize collective people, like community organizing too (God bless anyone who truly is grassroots organizing), even people from the city council and they have to have meetings where they have someone come inside and they start screaming that the cracks in the sidewalk are yelling at them. It’s hard to chorale. Complexity, obviously, an honest protest or rally or something that is trying to bottle that very nuanced magic, I think that’s what adds to the heightened, almost spiritual nature of the event, but it makes it harder to contain. A lot of people there are there for a lot of different, but converging reasons. After the sports game people can be like “we all won;” “we all didn’t”. After you leave a protest and you’re  like “what occurred?” Other times you might be like “I felt solidarity.” There’s multiplicity of feelings. It’s very important that people continue to act in that way–protest–it’s a very important part of the organizing process.

How do you think that that pairing your individual work with Antonio’s Counter Archive Project further investigates the relationship between the individual and collective? Is the message of Upresting different when in conversation with Antonio’s visual installation?

Another good question. I think Antonio’s work (this is my own reading of it), the photographs that he’s taking from Dubois really are attempting to not only distill the comments and the materialized form, between the whole category of people (individuals of color at the turn of the 20th century); they are primarily formulated by individuals. He’s commenting on the communal by exploring these individual presences. With my work, there’s a lot of different voices that come into play but it’s still somewhat focused on the individual experience. The opportunity for a singular voice to impress itself upon the environment that is embodying the many. When I first spoke to Antonio about working together we really thought a lot about–we both think a lot about process, these very academic ideas, sociological, anthropological, ethical, and then we were also like “how can we approach that from a unique form? A unique way of packaging that has a lot to do with conceptual processes.” My art is always based upon larger ideas and concepts. I’m not the type of person that if you gave me a cabin the woods, I’d be like “yeah!” I’d be like “I don’t know.” I don’t have an internal muse. I need to read five newspapers a day and be out with the people. I think Antonio is that way too, he’s really good at being inspired by all these amazing, ridiculous, horrifying wonderful things in the world has to inspire us. Being an artist is a very a selfish thing, you come at it from this singular solo page and then you attempt to take it back to your community and a larger whole.

By extending the life of the 2015 Baltimore Uprising beyond its temporal existence, Upresting challenges conventional notions of time. How is the ephemeral eternalized and universalized in your work?

To a certain extent I’m not sure. A lot of my practices involve improvised or aleatoric or experimental works. A computer program itself is on an improvisational journey. I think the universe operates on these types of irrefutable ephemera. I always get really nervous by anything that’s trying to put anything in stone. I really don’t want my reading of communal events or something like the Uprising to really have anything that is definitive about anything. It’s not my story to tell. Look, I’ve had these powerful experiences walking around the streets of this city that I care about and in which I live and work with a lot of other people, and I felt it this way and it was kind of ever-changing and different and to me, that’s interesting. In many ways, it’s inspired by an extremely emotionally politically and universally charged set of circumstances that demand a tremendous amount of respect from whomever is interested interacting with them. It all comes from almost the same impulse I have–it’s my kind of artistic practices. When I’m walking down the street and the car mixes with the sound of the, all the sounds mixing all the time there’s always that opportunity for you to sort, in an aural sense it’s without language so it’s tough. The mathematical complicated nature of the universe is such that when things sort of come together, to me that’s sort of like the closest that you’ll get to some kind of church of experience. Something like a protest is the closest you’ll get to a really intense of orchestra. There are so many opportunities and people and voices and places; things that are gonna make your hair stand on end. The form is very important.

What is the current relevance of Black Maths, especially post-election?

It’s really hard for me to even think about my own work right now. It’s been a little bit of a wild ride. We have our artists talk coming up and I haven’t really told anyone about the exhibition since the election. Anything I did is totally irrelevant. Even if this is possibly conceptually talking about something that might be Relevant (with a capital “r”) it doesn’t seem to be. How relevant is it? A lot of what I’m interested in…[being] on the vanguard of the newest most bizarre type of aesthetic criteria or a new media being created. I knew none of it really mattered because I disagree with most things that occur most of the time anyway. You fall really hard between “its pretty bleak” and the intense optimism–this is more important than ever people need to be thinking harder and empathizing more than ever. It’s hard to answer because everyone is still mining this particular existential crisis and will do for a long time. Something like the election is still so emotionally intense, a lot of work I was thinking about I wanted to not do anymore and I had a lot of new ideas for work I want to spend a lot of time thinking about now.

What do you hope visitors will gain or contemplate because of Upresting or Black Maths as a whole?

I think when you go to something like Black Maths, there’s part of me that’s like I don’t want to tell anybody what to do how to feel ever. What comes to mind if someone is like, really asking me. It’s one of the reason why I feel so obliged to try to utilize my privilege for other people. Black Maths does this pretty well, I think it might’ve done it better than I’ve ever done up to this point….My whole life of being an artist has just led from one continual opportunity after another to gain other perspectives. Every situation that you go in you should tear down into millions of perspectives that are attending to anything. It’s only been five years that I haven’t been outwardly hostile to my audience. I’m still on training wheels [laughs]. To me something like Upresting is just avant-garde music. It’s weird sounds doing weird stuff. It’s funny, especially coming from a music composition/performance background, I’m really used to standing in front of an audience and  people coming in with a brain that’s like “I like when people make sounds that are either difficult to listen to and I haven’t heard before, they might be out of my sonic palette,” or it’s gonna be such a difficult thing. In a gallery context people are so much more accepting. Sound is a full body experience. There is part of me now that’s thinking less that every act is a political act. It’s easier for me to be like, I want everybody to go, because if everyone doesn’t go then what’s the point. It’s a challenge because I’m never not gonna do weird shit. I’ll always never prescribe anything to anybody. Everybody’s just got to think hard about everything.

Adam Holofcener’s work is included in Black Maths in The Stamp Gallery of the University of Maryland, College Park, October 31-December 10th, 2016. Holofcener will be joining Antonio McAfee for the Black Maths Artist Talk Saturday, December 10th at 2pm. 

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