Very Bad Clowns- An Interview of Anthony Aziz and Sammy Cucher by Richard Meyer



RM:  I'm currently co-teaching a graduate seminar called "Contemporary Art in the World: A Global Itinerary." It comes out of a certain frustration with all the talk about globalization in the art world, but the relative lack of attention to the conditions of what life is like on the ground for contemporary artists in specific locales, whether that’s Dakar or Lahore or, for that matter, east Los Angeles.  So we're looking at concrete sites of production rather than at globalization theory per se.  And so my first question for you is why was it important for you to go to Israel, Lebanon, and the former Yugoslav Republic for the work in Some People?  



A+C: Even though we had both been to Israel before, we had never been there together with the idea of making work about the place, so it was important to go there with a more purposeful (collaborative) eye. This was a research trip with the sole purpose of collecting images, stories, interviews, audio recordings, and emotions that would be used as a poetic foundation for understanding our relationship to the Middle East. We went to Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia because we have always been fascinated by the music and films of the region—especially films by Emir Kusturica (director of "Underground" and "Black Cat, White Cat"), which have a mixture of irony and dark humor that we felt was quite appropriate for the kind of language we were trying to discover in this new body of work. We thought that going there would add a new perspective to our understanding of ethnic conflict. We specifically wanted to visit the city of Sarajevo because of its cosmopolitan history of co-existence between Christians, Jews, and Muslims. More than anything, it was an irrational attraction that led us there.



RM:  In terms of "irrational attractions," can we talk about the use of costume, make-up, and theatricality in By Aporia, Pure and Simple?  By theatricality, I'm thinking specifically of artifice that draws attention to itself as such rather than attempting to render a seamless illusionism.  Different techniques of theatricality seem to me a hallmark of your work going back to the Dystopia series of 1994. I'm thinking here of your use of scale, color, and the "rubbing out" or spectacular eliding of bodily orifices to comment on post-human conditions at the time.   The theatricality of the current work seems to function in a quite different way—not hopeful, exactly, but humorous and at times almost humanist. I also want to think about the way that the theatricality insists both on the importance of the fact of your traveling to the Middle East and the impossibility of knowing what it is "really like" to be there.


A+C: The idea of the clown costumes for By Aporia came out of the desire to literally wear our contradictions on our sleeves and to expose our own feelings of insufficiency in addressing such overt tribal or nationalistic affinities. We both feel deeply implicated and at the same time confounded by the urge to define a clear identity based on familial and ideological upbringing.

We saw ourselves performing a comical role as artists trying to make sense of our own emotional distress resulting from recent geo-political events and how they directly affect our shared sense of powerlessness in relation to this ongoing conflict.

If indeed there is a theatricality in our earlier photographic work, it came out of our understanding of gesture and body language that we appropriated from established visual genres codifying gender, power, and identity. But rather than a theatrical strategy, we thought of it as a kind of fictionalized representation of the body.

In By Aporia, we are creating a self-portrait for the first time, and that imposes an inevitable humanism on the process. Earlier, we were interested in making a commentary on society at large; in this new work, it is only us, and our own specificity, which are caught in the conundrum of history.

RM: One of the things that interests me most about the works in Some People—and here I'm thinking especially of By Aporia and Report from the Front—is the way in which location is put into question: framed and reframed, placed and displaced.  So for example, we see both video and photographic footage taken in the Middle East that you are working on in your studio in New York.  We see you dressed as hilariously costumed clowns—each with powdered wigs, satin ties, and symbols representing his ethnic or religious identification—even as we also see you as a collaborative team working together and walking down the street past PS 1 in Queens.  We hear about the war in the Middle East on the radio and we see pictures, but they are mediated through the distance of photography, video, and clownish farce.


In Report from the Front, the report issues from a site of archaeological excavation (rather than of military combat).  So it's never a straightforward claim that you guys are making to be documenting the reality of the war in the Middle East.  And this, paradoxically, is what makes the work effective as a response to something that would otherwise seem virtually impossible for artists to address.


A+C: One of the biggest challenges when we took on this project was how to deal with the issues metaphorically. We all live with a constant barrage in the media of graphic images about war and violence in the Middle East, which paradoxically have desensitized us about the human dimension of the conflict. As artists, it is impossible to compete with the spectacle of the media, but it is possible to attempt to create a poetic vision that depends more on allusion and nonlinear thinking, rather than on fidelity to a documentary truth. If you were to take out the narrative soundtrack from A Report from The Front, you would end up with fairly conventional documentary footage of an archaeological dig, but by superimposing this sort of science-fictional report on it, it displaces the reality of the excavation, but at the same time brings up loaded questions about territory and history that would not otherwise be visible. These strategies of framing and re-framing are the essential tools of our poetic thinking, and they also allow us to build layers of narrative complexity that we hope reflect the layers of geo-political and existential complexity that characterize life in the midst of this conflict.


RM: I want to return to something you said earlier that I am only now coming to grips with.  You said that in By Aporia you were creating a self-portrait

for the first time.  This seems like an important statement both about your preceding work and about this piece.  I guess I'd never understood the absence

of self-images in your earlier work as a self-conscious choice or withholding. Indeed, I don't think I knew for sure that there were no extant self-portraits of Aziz + Cucher prior to the current work. So can we talk about the absence of self-portraiture until now, and the decision to delve into it in this particularly theatrical manner in By Aporia?


A+C: Sure. Right from the start in 1992, we felt that through collaboration we could overcome the tired mythology of the individual artist struggling to unravel his ego through artistic expression. And so we embraced the position that even though the work was filtered through our subjective individualities, it was ultimately a response to the world outside and not about us so therefore we deliberately did not include our own image in the work.

In 2006, we realized we could no longer ignore our profound attachments to the Middle East. But it was only later during the process of making the work that we realized that we had to put ourselves in the work so as to make it our own, and not a mere appropriation of someone else’s struggle. By doing so, we felt downright clownish; the foolishness of even trying to address conflict as a subject matter led us inevitably to portray ourselves in this way. It seemed entirely appropriate and even necessary to expose the extraordinary pitfalls involved in such an effort.

We feel it is important to point out, however, that we are not “acting” in this piece; rather we are just going about our day, in drag. Yes, it was set up shot-by-shot, but we are not attempting to theatrically portray anything other than who we are and what we do. The fact is, we make for very bad clowns.


RM:  I think that’s what makes the piece so effective—the disconnect between the outrageous pomp of the costumes and the cool dispassion with which you comport yourselves while wearing it.  It seems important too that you do actually “wear” your own cultural affiliations on your costumes, with the Star of David emblazoned on Sammy’s wide, wide tie and Anthony’s keffiyeh wrapped into a oversized bow.   I’m wondering, though, whether being a “very bad clown” isn’t also an appropriate response to (or embodiment of) the failure of contemporary art to address the most pressing social and political conditions of our moment.



A+C: It was never our intention to make any sweeping commentary about the state of contemporary art, vis-à-vis society and politics, but rather to laugh at our own deeply felt sense of inadequacy. However, it does seem sometimes that a lot of contemporary art is content to merely exist in an insular bubble of formalism or an empty repertoire of post-conceptual gestures. At the same time, there are a lot of artists working individually and in collectives who are embarking on a kind of art-activism that seeks to redefine the boundaries of art and politics, but in the bargain, this type of work seems to lose all sense of metaphor and the possibility for addressing these things from a poetic perspective. While we have not always worked directly with social and political issues, the works in Some People come from the same impulse that lead to the very first project we made together in 1992, Faith, Honor, and Beauty. It came out of an urgency to respond to the absurdities of the Culture Wars, the controversy over decency in art and queer visibility. We felt compelled to address this matter not so much because we felt censored as artists, but because it seemed at the time to embody a great betrayal of the founding principles and civil liberties of our society.


RM:  Let’s talk about the origins of your collaboration in the context of San Francisco and the culture wars.  When I met you guys (which was way back then) we were all necessarily thinking a lot about the censorship of homoerotic art in the context of the AIDS crisis and the conservative attacks on the NEA.  The Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective that had been cancelled by the Corcoran in June 1989 travelled the following year to Berkeley; Gran Fury’s “Kissing Doesn’t Kill” poster appeared on San Francisco city buses and muni trams (after having been defaced throughout Chicago), and local chapters of the activist groups ACT-UP and Queer Nation were extremely visible at the time.


One of the things that strikes me about your early 1990s work (and I’m thinking of both Faith, Honor, and Beauty and Dystopia) is the way in which censorship has become literalized on the surface of the body, as though the body itself were being sutured closed by the prohibitions imposed upon it.  At the same time, and cutting against this dystopian effect, is a sort of photographic sublime in terms of color and scale.  Can we discuss the ways in which you were thinking about form and content in relation to the culture wars at the time?



A+C: It is true. Living in San Francisco in the early ‘90s, it was impossible not to be influenced by the circumstances that you describe; however, in our first project at New Langton, Faith, Honor, and Beauty, we chose to appropriate the rhetoric of the mainstream “other” and take it to its illogical extreme instead of insisting on the aggressive representation of the queer body. This required, of course, that we not just censor but over-censor the figures, and in the process of turning them into inflated Barbie and Ken dolls, we also rendered them comical and powerless in spite of their scale and hyper-perfection. The color palette and the realism of the representation came directly from marrying patriotic themes with the visual language of advertising. Additionally, we did extensive research into the relationship between art and totalitarianism as it found expression in the 1930s and ‘40s in Germany and later in the USSR.


The motivation behind the disappearance of the facial features in Dystopia is quite different, but not completely unrelated to issues around censorship. We were deeply concerned about the increasing dependence on new technology and its disruptive threat to traditional social space and ways of communication; this trope of technological domination over mind and body is also portrayed in many well-known works of science fiction that imagine societies under a techno-totalitarian control.


Furthermore, fear of disappearance is traditionally discussed along with ideas of the sublime in psychoanalysis, but in truth we only discovered this as something relevant to our project after we made the first images and were astonished by their power. As for the larger-than-life scale of the Dystopia portraits, we wanted to exacerbate the paradoxical tension between the lack of individual features and an overwhelming sense of humanity.



RM: I’m struck by the large insignia/banners hanging at the entrance to Faith, Honor, Beauty, at New Langton Arts, an alternative art space, in 1992.  Already in this first collaboration there is an address to the pageantry of power but also, in a sense, to its absurdity, since the pictures in the show hardly accord to conventional ideals of faith, honor, and beauty. 


A+C: With the heraldic shields, we were adding to the deconstruction of the symbology of power by putting these very common surfaces and objects into an exalted form.  It was an ironical stance which has not always been present in our work, but which has come to the surface from time to time—for example, in the prints of the Naturalia series, which appropriated the visual vocabulary of the Natural History illustration—and most recently in A Report from the Front and By Aporia, Pure and Simple.


RM: One of the things that doesn’t seem ironic to me about By Aporia—notwithstanding the clown suits—is the fact that it is a portrait of a couple.  I met you guys shortly after the two of you got together in 1991 and here we—and more importantly here the two of you are—21 years later.  So I see the work as a highly crafted self-portrait of a middle-aged (sorry) queer couple who are working at the intersection of video art, performance, and photography but also within the context of their own long-term relationship and ongoing day-by-day dialogue.  


A+C: Yes, the fact that we have reached, as you say, middle age, has perhaps given us the freedom to look at ourselves with more humor and not to take ourselves so seriously, throwing caution to the wind.  Whatever intimacy or tenderness between us that comes through in this piece was never in any way planned but is very much the inevitable result of us spending virtually every moment of every day together for the past 21 years, “in sickness and in health,” enduring the ups and downs and bumps and turns of living an unconventional life as artists.


RM:   Great. I think the interview is basically over. But I do have one more question to ask. I heard that you guys "left" the artworld for a while and wondered if you’d be willing to discuss the circumstances of this departure with me.


A+C: We did not exactly leave it as much as take a detour. In 2005, our Chelsea gallery closed its doors, and soon after we received an unusual commission from a collector who invited us to create an exquisite hand-knotted carpet based on one of our prints at the time which represented nature abstracted through a digital lens. The work was done in Nepal, and it led to an amazing opportunity to develop a relationship with a workshop in Katmandu which then went on to produce a small collection of unique hand-woven rugs. For a while, we moved away from our fascination with pixels and virtuality and set our gaze on this ancient handcrafted tradition. But already by 2006, our interest in land and landscape shifted toward a more political direction, which culminated in the creation of Some People.