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Artist & Poet Rindon Johnson on the Need For Speed During a Time of Global Disillusionment

Rindon Johnson
'Venus in Vaseline 4' by Rindon Johnson (2017)

"You’re just a white person in fascism, you finally have pain."

Rindon Johnson is one of those artists who's constantly hungry. You'll often find Johnson juggling multiple projects at once, each of them in perfect harmony and each of them systematically pertinent to the historical moment in which they are created. With a formal training in photography, Johnson superimposes the camera lense with the eye, oftentimes shedding light on the harsh realities that memory makes apparent.

Based in Brooklyn, Johnson has spent numerous years exploring the black experience in the United States through the intimate portrayal of family life. But more recently, Johnson has used family as literal subject less and has, instead, taken to both virtual reality and the pen to express a different kind of reality. OUT caught up with the artist to learn more.

OUT: When and why did you decide to start working with VR?

Rindon Johnson: I got into VR early last year. My previous practice used various devices for viewing slide photographs. I liked this idea of being alone to look at work, of being isolated and taken out of (if only briefly) the surroundings one usually finds themselves in when looking at art. I started teaching myself the basics, working towards making my VR poetry book, Meet in the Corner, which will be released this spring. I've made plenty of VR films since I started and now it's just another medium I work with.


Meet in the Corner

As a trained photographer, is there something lacking in the medium that pushed you towards VR?

I think I just needed the change moving into VR / 360 video (and soon video games). This move doesn't mean I've left photography behind, in fact I'm working on a series of tapestries of Obama's life without us or 2017 right now and all of that is photographic work.

You've also taken to the pen and started writing poetry. How important is it for you to associate word to image?

I have to be honest, I don't think about the visual implications of the things I am writing. I just write. Mostly, I write from things I've heard in passing or things that people in my life have said. Writing helps me join together all the disparate aspects of my practice, so that when I do make something sculptural or a film, I have a much better handle on the slippery visual and linguistic possibilities within the work.

Why is a multimedia practice important to you?

I think a medium is an extension of an idea. Sometimes, working in video is the best way to act something out, sometimes it's a painting, sometimes it's just a text and that's all it needs to be. I spend a lot of time on the internet getting to know materials that interest me linguistically (for example: mahogany, metal basketball nets, obsidian, petroleum jelly). Once I know its layers and history, I start to figure out what mediums would best serve that lineage and go with it.

I've got an ongoing series of sculptures right now that use metal basketball nets and ebonized pine. Metal basketball nets were used on playgrounds in the '70s and '80s. When the police wanted the young people playing basketball to scatter they would come and take down the nets. I always wondered what happened to them.


Nets and Pine I, 2016 & Nets and Pine II, 2016

I also became interested in using wood in my sculptures and, as I studied mahogany (a wood often harvested by slaves in harsh conditions), I came across an interesting fact: slaves were generally buried in pine coffins while their masters were buried in mahogany coffins. I began ebonizing pine in consideration of this paradox about bodies and resting places. Once I started to learn more about nets and pines' histories, it was like an immediate click that they'd slide into my work and now they're just a part of the visual language.

Can you talk about your vaseline works?

I was reminded of Vaseline as a complicated quasi-object when a friend of mine showed me Tyra Banks' Vaseline Frenzy. It put a bunch of really interesting pieces into place for me. I thought how funny, that this product is used so readily for everything-we are literally rubbing oil into our skin. I also have really strong memories of my grandmother always rubbing Vaseline on her hands; she would say it made her skin impossibly soft so I thought ok this a loaded material both personally and socially, let me really dive into it. I think it's an interesting thing to work with given the way that it looks and feels and sounds. I use Vaseline to look at the different ways that oil permeates our lives.

Has your work acquired an urgency it didn't have before due to the current state of affairs?

I just wrote this poem the other day that has this line: "You're just a white person in fascism, you finally have pain."

It seems like a lot of people are waking up to the insane happenings of the daily life of people of color, Native Americans and immigrants in this country, but I'm black in the U.S. This current state of affairs is an overt manifestation of the systemic issues written into the fabric of the country This rightward swing towards fascism, towards white supremacy has been brewing all over the country for a very long time. If you're black or brown or queer or anything perceived as other you know that it has had many faces and has been here all along. The irony (in a 10,000 spoons kind of way) is that the people who think they stand to benefit from these policies will find themselves again wanting and lacking. It's business as usual with less human rights and more threat of all out war... not to mention that guy in the white house.


Still from Haunting

All this to say, I think if anything I'm just working faster. I'm drinking less, I'm exercising more. Meanwhile though, I'm trying to understand how, I, as a person can help on the ground level. I'll call a senator, I'll protest when I can, but ICE has been in the subway station around my apartment and two of my neighbors got deported last week. It's very scary to be so helpless and as much as I believe art can make change, I want my neighbors back and I don't think any art I make will be able to have as a big an impact as policy change.

What are you currently working on?

All sorts of things. Some of my Vaseline work--video and stickers--is part of a group show curated by Teriha Yaegashi at SPRING/BREAK Art Show (Room #2345), with work by Kate M. Blomquist, Nori Morimoto, Giovanna Olmos and Darryl Westly. I'm working on a VR YouTube show, where I ask my favorite writers and poets to read me some of their work outside. I have a reading coming up at the MoMA library with my friends from Sorry Archive on March 13. I'm about to release my VR poetry book this spring. I'm working on a series of tapestries. I've got another book of poetry in the works, as well--maybe too many things, but definitely keeping myself busy.

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