AESTHETICS, SOCIAL EQUITY, AND MODERN-DAY VIGILANTES: AN INTERVIEW WITH KEN GONZALES-DAY
Oct 25, 2015
Read article and see images at The Other Journal
Excerpt from the interview:
Ken Gonzales-Day is an internationally recognized artist based in Los Angeles, California. His interdisciplinary work envisages historically constructed systems of race and the limits of its visual representation. In one of his recent projects, Gonzales-Day addressed matters of trauma and social racial consciousness by combining images of a reconstructed lynching scene of a Latino man in 1920 with images of recent protests surrounding police brutality. In this interview, Gonzales-Day discusses the history of transracial lynching in the United States; a societal consciousness in approaching traumatic events; his recent projects Run Up, Searching for California Hang Trees, and Lynching in the West: 1850–1935; and more.
The Other Journal (TOJ): Your work has a reputation for addressing controversial and challenging subject matter, both through image and through word. What has been your impulse, or perhaps your influence, to make work in this direction?
Ken Gonzales-Day (KGD): That’s a great question because there are so many different ways to answer it. In hindsight, even though I have always tried to create works that critically engage with history, art history, and Western assumptions about human difference, I also have to admit that the many years I spent working on the history of lynching in California have probably changed me forever.
As a practicing artist, I am interested in aesthetics and social equity, and I often produce projects that question the construction of race, notions of beauty, and the interdependence of whiteness and modernity (or the avant-garde) in the twentieth century. Like many artists, research is a big part of my studio practice, as well as my teaching, lectures, articles, and other published works. So it is not uncommon for my work to be related to a specific historic, conceptual, or aesthetic question. That is not to say the work is didactic; rather, that like formalist, conceptual, or relational aesthetic models, there are visual or cultural cues from which to enter a given work or body of work. Acknowledging the work of Dr. Juli Carson at the University of California in Irvine, my work often takes the form of a “proposition,” which invites the viewer to engage, to question a priori assumptions, and to encourage a shared or potentially sharable experience.
To give one example, my Erased Lynching series began in part as a response to the anti-immigration rhetoric that was increasing in the 1990s during the aftermath of Prop 187 in California, particularly as vigilantes began taking up positions along the US border. Those vigilantes are still active along the border, by the way. Your readers may also recall the case of Samuel Blackwood who, in May 2000 in Texas, shot two undocumented men, killing Eusebio de Haro and wounding Javier Sanchez, when the two men approached his house to ask for water. De Haro was shot from behind and died in front of the house, and Sanchez was left bleeding to death on the ground. It was an extreme case of race hatred, but for many Latinos it reflected attitudes that were already present in the media and in the national political debates about immigration, which continue to this day. So it was when I began working on my first book, Lynching in the West: 1850–1935, in 2000 and made my first Erased Lynching image in 2002 that my practice made the greatest shift toward this type of work.
At the time, Without Sanctuary had also just been published. For those unfamiliar with the publication, it sought to raise awareness about the history of African American lynchings and their bloody aftermaths in the United States. The book reproduced over one hundred lynching postcards and was accompanied by a series of essays on the history of lynching, mostly concentrating on the American South. The exhibition and publication revealed for the first time how deeply lynching was engrained in American popular culture, as was evidenced by the multitude of lynching photographs that were included, in both the exhibition and publication. My project began quite independently of that publication, but as the years of research continued, it also became a kind of response to it. In the end, Lynching in the West raised awareness of a parallel history: the lynching of Latinos, Native Americans, and Asians in the American West, and in California in particular.
Scholars like Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak have asked, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Anne Cheng has written on The Melancholy of Race. Numerous universities offer concentrations in violence studies, peace studies, and trauma studies, so perhaps the question being posed by this issue is how trauma might also be seen as a generative model for the study of art. If so, I think that the trauma of lynching in the United States and its representation is a good place to begin, particularly because we see the legacy of such racialized trauma echoed in the protest marches and news reportage on police shootings today.
TOJ: There seems to be a photojournalistic sensibility in your work, in which you bear witness both to past and to present issues of racial consciousness—or perhaps, racism’s unconsciousness—in the United States. How do you distinguish your work from photojournalism and what is viewed in the rapid-fire news reportage?
KGD: I have great respect for photojournalists and the documentary impulse, but I have never worked as a photojournalist nor done what might be considered a strictly documentary project; even when taking photographs of events that are transpiring before the camera’s lens in real time, I am often guided more by the concept or the pursuit of a sequence of images rather than attempting to capture a singular decisive journalistic moment.
For example, my Searching for California Hang Trees series is often cited as a documentary project, but in fact, it isn’t. It isn’t for many reasons, but the primary one is that these events transpired long before I was born. But it is not aftermath photography either because of course searching for and even finding these sites can never document the events that transpired there. It is much more about bearing witness to a history that had otherwise been forgotten, unrecorded, and unremembered by all but a few, a history that mostly lives on in the stories passed down through families and memories of stories told.
Nevertheless, in consideration of recent events I felt it was important to go to Ferguson to be a witness. I thought it was important to photograph the site of Michael Brown’s death, as I had done for hundreds of lynching victims in California, as well as for Omar Abrego and Ezell Ford to name a few other recent victims.
TOJ: In your recent project Run Up, you combined images from a 1920 re-created lynching of a Latino man with images from recent protests in Ferguson and Los Angeles. Can you share about the meaning of that title?
KGD: Run up was a phrase that appeared frequently in Western newspapers and referred to a lynching. It was often employed as a kind of literary shorthand for running the body up a tree, much like one might run a flag up a pole. It was distinguished from a hanging, which could imply a legal execution, and it informed readers that a particular killing was the result of vigilante or extrajudicial proceedings.
TOJ: Through these particular images are you constructing a bridge to the past by boldly asking viewers to acknowledge the similarities between this lynching, our history of violence, and the unwarranted deaths of African Americans by police brutality?
KGD: As a nation, we are more aware of the African American struggle for equality and freedom because that struggle exists in our history books. We are less aware of the history of transracial lynchings that occurred in the United States. And we are less versed in the realities of inequality that persons of other descent—for example, Mexicans—face in the United States. This includes police shootings and extended periods of incarceration.
For the specific exhibition to which you refer, Run Up, I created a short film and a series of still images re-creating elements from a 1920 triple lynching in Santa Rosa, California. The film and still images only re-create the image of one of the three men, a Latino known only by the name Charles Valento or “Spanish Charlie.” The film and stills were shot on August 6, 2014; the police killing of Michael Brown took place on August 9, 2014, just a few days after the shooting of the film was complete.
Then in November of 2014, I photographed the protest marches in Los Angeles that surrounded the police killing of Ezell Ford on August 11, 2014, and the killing of Omar Abrego, a Latino man who was reportedly beaten to death by police on August 14, 2014. I included documentary photographs of a memorial created for Ezell by the community near the site of the shooting, and photographs of the memorial erected on the site where Michael Brown died. It was an incredibly moving experience and put a new light on how I saw my own experience of revisiting and looking for forgotten lynching sites in California.
TOJ: Can you say more about the significance of juxtaposing the re-created lynching scenes of a Latino man with images of contemporary protest surrounding the recent deaths of African American individuals through police brutality?
KGD: I wanted to explore the difference between collective violence, represented by the lynching and lynching mob in particular in the nineteenth century, and collective resistance, represented by the burned and decimated businesses in Ferguson, which were also included in the exhibition. If you recall the news coverage from the time, there were many media outlets that described these collective acts of resistance as acts of collective violence, and I wanted viewers to think more carefully about how they interpret such events and to consider what distinguishes the lynching mob or vigilante action from acts of civil disobedience. Does race play a factor? And how might trauma—collective or individual—play into such a question. It was my hope that by exploring these two questions, we might better recognize how complex and multilayered trauma can be, both individually and collectively. My goal was not to equate these histories but to consider the nuances of which histories get told and which do not.
TOJ: As a man with Mexican heritage, would you mind sharing how your personal life story intersects with the universal work you do as an artist?
KGD: When I was growing up, I had experiences in which students and adults addressed or referred to me as a wetback or a greaser. In college, I had a fellow student say that I was only there because of my ethnic background. As a college professor, I have been complimented on how well I speak English. Likewise, I have been told by fellow Latinos that I could pass for white. Or I have been asked for details regarding my specific racial or ethnic heritage. Since I was very young, I have been regularly asked to identify my racial and ethnic background.
Some of this may be part of a bullying culture, which I think everyone has experienced on some level, and part of it is also human curiosity. To the best of my knowledge, I was the only Mexican-American of mixed racial and ethnic background in any of my undergraduate classes at Parsons School of Design or Pratt Institute in New York when I went there. In addition, I did not have a Latina or Latino professor until I moved to California for graduate school. As recently as 2014, a study in the Chronicle recorded that only 2 percent of tenured faculty members are Latina or Latino in the United States. I am one of them.
These are biographical details, but I think it is reasonable to assume a connection with my art, particularly given how much of my work has looked at questions of race and the historical construction of race in the nineteen and twentieth centuries
TOJ: Now that you have invested so much of your career into work that deals with historically traumatic racial events, do you ever feel restrained within the category of trauma art?
KGD: As any art historian, publisher, or product designer will tell you, our relationship to objects and the work we make—aesthetic or otherwise—is constantly in flux. So I have actually never thought of myself as a trauma artist, and I have produced bodies of work that do not address trauma in any direct manner, such as my Profiled series, which looks at sculptural and other three-dimensional depictions of race.
TOJ: In your work as a professor, how do you encourage your students to view, experience, and make visual connections to events in our day, such as police brutality and racial profiling? What wisdom do you offer young artists who are trying to approach ways of visually representing the traumatic events and the daily injustices they witness or experience?
KGD: I encourage students to engage with contemporary events in their work and writing, and this also makes for a great way to engage with historical issues. We spend time discussing the notion of photographic violence and considering how students might engage critically with their images, as well as their various expectations of the medium. Photographic meaning, like linguistic meaning, contains conventions and standardized forms, but what have been termed as genres can also be undermined or transformed to the artist’s advantage in a given work. My advice to artists who are using their work to confront injustice is that they try to imagine that someone directly involved in the traumatic event will be going to their exhibition or event. The artists should ask themselves whether they will be ready for that; they should try to imagine how they might explain the work to those viewers.
TOJ: Speaking of the ways that viewers might interpret art, do you think there is a growing awareness of the multifaceted layers of trauma that might make your work more approachable to the general public? Or do you find that people generally have a difficult time processing your work when seen in an exhibition?
KGD: Yes, there is a growing awareness in all of us of the many layers of trauma, as contemporary media coverage and social media continue to transform our relationship, not only to the world around us but also to historical patterns of behavior—for example, abuses of power, underrepresentation of marginalized communities, and the oversimplification of individual agency. The way we receive and interpret contemporary events (and images) has changed for all of us, and perhaps because of that, trauma might more easily be seen as part of a historical continuity that resurfaces in our daily lives in ways that it could not have in earlier eras. We can increasingly see traumatic events in near real-time on sites like YouTube and Vimeo, where people can post videos, nearly instantaneously, from their smart phone videos to a global audience. If you want to see the brutality of a beating or what it looks like to die of a gunshot, there is real footage online every day. More people know about lynching today than in any other historical period, and likewise, racial profiling, once construed as an imagined phenomenon, now confronts us on a daily basis in the news media and on wiki sites, Twitter feeds, and other social media platforms.
That said, since my work often embodies a critical relationship to images, interpretation of my work can sometimes be jarring for viewers whose expectations of art objects are grounded in traditional approaches to artistic production, photographic conventions, or alternatively, educational display—approaches which are not present in my work. But to further complicate your question, it is not impossible to imagine that a presentation of my work might generate its own form of trauma for the viewer. That is to say, a public lecture is a kind of public forum, but it can also be a site of subjective experience, and I have certainly seen members of the audience break out in tears, or experience triggers of various kinds during a public lecture or viewing of my work.
TOJ: I imagine that your efforts to bear witness to such difficult subject matter could be felt deeply on a personal level. How do you take care of yourself in the process of bearing witness? Have you ever come across a subject that intrigued you but that you were unable to work with because its effect on you as a person?
KGD: Yes, I have certainly turned away from histories or issues that were impossible for me to imagine as a subject matter I could work with. And the work I have done on the history of lynching in California keeps coming back to me, and it continues to impact my life in ways I still do not fully understand, and yet I would not undo a single day that I have lived with this history. I know there are those who overlook or question the merits of my work, but I also know something of the treacherous power of erasure and denial, because I have seen it in gory detail, in hateful acts, and in the darkest testament to human cruelty. But perhaps my work also suggests that erasure can be a generative act, and I have tried to use erasure as a way of generating a critical response to trauma.
The process of making this work has spanned a fifteen-year period, in part because I was unable to process all of the information, or a particular case, until many years into the process. This was the case with my recent series, Run Up, and I recall one moment in particular, when I was deep in the bowels of a historical archive reading about a particularly gruesome lynching of a Mexican American. I was alone in a cubicle, alone in my research, questioned by scholars, and yet I did carry something of this history within my person. I take care of myself by creating art works, and perhaps in this way, my experience of the research can take on a new form. There are those who see value in what I have done, in the questions I have raised, and in the ways I have raised them. They sustain me and fill me with the sense that it is possible to share, process, and go on.