The Crying Game is a series of conversations with artists whose works evoke senses of nostalgia and with them notions of sentimentality and an exaggerated tenderness or sadness for the past.
For this final installment, curator, Christina Millare speaks to New York based artist Conrad Ventur. Between 2009 and 2011 Ventur restaged a number of Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, inviting Factory superstars such as Taylor Mead and Mary Woronov to re-perform their tests from 45 years before. The result was a series of new films, which serve as a contemporary reflection of Warhol’s originals in which the mythology of the past is considered from the perspective of the present.
Ventur’s recent series of expanded portraits have seen him immersed in collaborative relationships with radical icons including underground film star and drag pioneer, Mario Montez and 50’s supermodel and Warhol Superstar, Ivy Nicholson. These collaborations spanning vast extended periods consequently bare portraits which reveal an intimacy and trust that are personal documents of both subject and artist.
Christina Millare: Your working process has been described as mirroring that of an ethnographer yet your works are not only deeply personal documents of your ‘subjects’ but equally, self reflexive and revealing works about you, the artist.
Conrad Ventur: A friend told me I’m like Andrei Rublev, the medieval icon painter – going from town to town doing my work. It’s true, I work in the field and I’m rather migratory. Because I have been drawn to colorful characters, a pattern emerges where I highlight certain figures and raise them up. If artworks are the icons of contemporary (consumerist) society, then perhaps I seek those who I think should have the chance at further recognition. Maybe I’m a portraitist as much as an ethnographer. I’m interested in notions of originality, reproduction, and biography in an era of copies.
My last few projects were attempts, almost in a traditional way, to bring light to lives that were cast in shadow. I tried to bring back to the stage a long-ago loved yet under-recognized Puerto Rican-American drag performer Mario Montez who had disappeared for 30 years. I also worked with former top fashion model Ivy Nicholson on photographs that might bring back some of the fame she experienced in the 1950s. And after my friend, the artist Rafael Sanchez lost his partner, painter Kathleen White, to cancer, I moved into the apartment they had shared together – to help organize her belongings, but also to document the traces of the life these two artists had together. This experience resulted in photographs, photograms, video and sculptural works (200 1st Avenue).
Someone recently called my practice “retroactive socialism” because a portion of works that I sell I send to the subject of the work.
CM: How does your work engage with notions of originality particularly within an ‘era of copies’? Many of your subjects for instance are icons who have shaped our contemporary understanding of ‘originality’ by challenging the way in which beauty, gender and sexuality is defined. Notably many of your subjects subverted the norms related to these concepts in the 60’s, a time when youth culture was still very much a new movement viewed with great suspicion.
CV: From 2003-2011 I published a zine called Useless. It was a magazine on newsprint. A physical object. I didn’t make it available online until the very end, and actually no one liked its digital form anyway. Part of its success was that it was physical. It was tabloid-sized, so the photographs could be big. There were lots of advantages – I consider the effect a printed image or physical document or material has on a person. I still publish zines, but less frequently, and always a physical object.
That I take more time on projects than before is my way of resisting the dictates of technology. I make photographs of one subject over years, not just one sitting. If you’re interested in the notion of originality, part of that is looking at how things change over time and what occurs when influences and copies move from one form to another. Corporations figured out how to monetize the underground. If they can erase as much historical context as possible, what’s left is more attention on their product, with a little bit of the style they took from. So if I’m looking at under-appreciated cultural histories, these aren’t there for me to raid like a cave of goodies. I’m going into a situation, staying a while and seeing where it takes me.
CM: Over time your works evolve into completely new projects and manifestations. Your project on Mario Montez for instance is continually developing and taking on new filmic and photographic forms. Could you tell us a bit about your new documentary work exploring his VHS archive?
CV: The documentary is a ride through the archive of 1960s drag performer Mario Montez, from the perspective of our friendship. Through ephemera and archival footage, I’m sharing as much as I can about Mario: his theatrical performances with The Ridiculous Theatrical Company, film appearances, spotlighting some of his romances and the challenges of being a drag performer at a time when it was illegal to cross-dress. Although appearing in over 24 films (13 were by Warhol), Mario had been overlooked to a great extent, in spite of his influence on and contributions to underground performance and cinema. And it brings his interests and gestures out of the analog and into the digital.
In 1977, after a film and theater career spanning the 60s and part of the 70s, Mario packed up the ephemera he had collected from those years and disappeared from New York. He was presumed dead for 3 decades. As it turns out, he didn’t die, he just moved to Florida because he wanted to live somewhere warm. Though he gave up drag during the Florida years, he continued another practice for which he was known in New York. In the 60s it was Mario who would record sound off of television and these recordings would be used by peers like Tony Conrad to make the sound scores for underground films like Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures. While in Florida, Mario recorded television programs onto VHS tape: his favorite old Hollywood movies, music videos and cartoons. And VHS bootlegs of films he appeared in. I have been working with these VHS tapes and ephemera ever since. There are moments when cutting to a clip of a Florida-baked cartoon or Hollywood film he recorded does the work of narration better than a voiceover.
CM: You’ve described your work as a platform upon which you activate yourself, your experiences and the people you work with. How would you define this ‘activation’?
CV: For a few years I was drawn to performance documentation I found on YouTube of mostly female musicians singing their songs from the heart. Sometimes on the edge of tears. I’d be watching these low resolution files on my computer, the sound hollowed-out from all the compression. It’s like watching something beautiful decompose. I figured out a way to project these files in installations through cut glass prisms, turning the rooms into a kaleidoscope you could walk into. It brought the performance back into physical space. In one of these installations I found inspiration in a song Nina Simone performed. The person she wrote the song for must have had a tremendous affect on her. Nina performed and it was recorded and then years later someone put it on YouTube and then I downloaded it and put it in space in a different, affective way. That to me is an example of activating.
I returned to New York after living in London for 2 1/2 years and began to think of a project that would include Warhol superstars like my friends Billy Name and Bibbe Hansen. Ultraviolet. Ivy Nicholson. Taylor Mead. Mary Woronov. Mario Montez. John Giorno. Most of the films they acted in are hard to get access to unless you are a researcher or academic. These people are very interesting on their own – they write, act, make art, continue to perform. Though I began to notice there was something burdensome about having been part of that period of the 60s for some. To Bibbe and Billy it wasn’t this heavy thing, but for others it is.
Andy Warhol and his assistant Gerard Malanga had done the “Screen Tests” in the mid 60s. These were 16mm film portraits of several hundred people from the time. I decided to update the series by recreating those recordings with the original sitters, 45 years later. Same lighting. Same frame. In doing so, I thought this brought the project forward in time. The project was also something that Warhol couldn’t do because he was dead, so I felt this realized an idea that he could have tried if he’d still been alive.
CM: The depth with which you explore the past and present lives of those who feature in your work demonstrates a strong synergetic process. How do your conversations with ‘subjects’ begin and how do they shape your works’ final outcome?
CV: For example at 200 1st Avenue, after photographing for a while I discovered that the problem of moving forward was a big part of the story as I entered it. Photographs led to photograms (cyanotypes). Around the apartment are dozens of hanging bouquets of dried flowers that were bought at the time of Kathleen’s death and after. Rafael hung them around. He intended to take them down and move the energy in the apartment, but after a year, and then a few more months went by, the flowers stayed. I suggested we do something together. I shared the idea that I make photograms of the flowers. I could do them one at a time, and he could pack the flowers and put them away. It would be a methodical way to approach change in the space, and art would come from it too. I sensed the stasis in the apartment was becoming a problem for him. So around 8 months before I moved, I did one. And then another. But he did not put the flowers away. Eventually I did cyanotypes of all of the flowers. Each weekend in the sunlight in a nearby public garden I would take one or two of the bouquets out for a ride- take them down off their hooks momentarily and into light. The cyanotypes move through the world in ways that the flowers can not.
CM: The risk of being ‘forgotten’ is a common thread in your practice. Why do you feel it is important to ensure the people you document are not ‘lost to history’? There are I feel, also multiple understandings of loss explored and conveyed. Particularly, loss within the prism of grief and bereavement as well as loss within the prism of success in its coupling with youth and celebrity.
CV: That’s a promise of the work though, isn’t it? I am responsive to these complex subjects. The outcomes of that reflect what they value, including what is at stake. People can view these artifacts through the prism of their own lives. In a way, your question is answered by the viewer. Does the work put a mirror up to a viewer’s ageism, classism, racism, or other assumptions, about gender?
Christina Millare is an independent curator based in London. She is a graduate of the Curating Contemporary Art MA at The Royal College of Art and was formerly based at Abandon Normal Devices Festival and Cornerhouse (HOME) in Manchester.
Christina is currently devising a year-long cultural programme which takes place across London and Birmingham in 2018/19. The programme features live performance, film and visual art created through a strategically devised series of community engagement and education projects developed in collaboration with Birmingham City University, Grand Union, Hackney Showroom, Regent St Cinema, The University of Westminster and The Centre for Research and Education in Arts and Media (CREAM).