Conversations with Artists in Art Getting Art: Joseph Liatela
BY Audrey Deng, December 6, 2019
Conversations with Artists in Art Getting Art is a bi-weekly series and a play on Jerry Seinfeld's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. We interview artists about their art and 'getting art'.
This week we sat down with Joseph Liatela '21 to talk about being an introverted performance artist, the DSM, and the nuances of public touch.
Born in Connecticut, Joseph Liatela is a first-year student in Columbia’s New Genres program. Through a transgender lens, his work explores the institutional, cultural, and medico-legal notions of what is considered a “complete” or “correct” body. Using performance, sculpture, and photography, he examines issues of gender representation, biopolitics, embodiment, and questions of authenticity.
“I think [performance art is] a great place to talk about perception or social dynamics or human interaction in this way that’s very effective.” Some mediums lend themselves to communicating messages; in other cases, the medium is the message.
I read that you studied ‘community arts’ in undergrad. What is community arts?
Joseph Liatela: Like social practice, it’s community-based projects, like doing work that is in collaboration with a community. Art that has some sort of generous aspect to it. It’s actually quite difficult to define, but I think the best way to put it would be art that has a generous gesture to it. I started doing performance on my own, my senior year of undergrad. CCA [California College of the Arts] is a crafts school, so it’s very materials focused and they don’t have much of a performance course there. But I started two-dimensionally.
JL: Like printmaking. Mostly monotypes. A sort of painting on a piece of plexiglass, and running it through the press, and adhering the paper to the glass, and the image is transferred on the paper. It’s kind of this fusion between painting and printmaking.
Ok. Who does monotypes?
JL: MoMA a few years ago, in 2016, had an exhibition on Degas’s monoprints. Something that’s funny about printmaking is that it’s often used by artists who work in another medium, as an addition to their work. You don’t really hear a lot about artists who are only printmakers.
Have you also used printmaking in a similar way?
JL: I haven’t for now. I’m more interested in sculpture.
What classes are you most excited about right now?
JL: I’m taking Queer Performance Studies with Jack Halberstam. We’re reading a lot for it, which I feel is helping me articulate ideas around performance. I mostly work around performance and sculpture. I’m also taking Gabo Camnitzer’s sculpture class, because it also involves reading, so it’s pretty conceptually grounded, which I appreciate. We’re making things, but we’re also reading and talking about it—it’s like a seminar-based class.
Do you draw a lot of inspiration from texts? What do you like to read?
JL: I do like to read theory a lot. I’ve been reading Trapdoor, which is a book put out by the New Museum, and edited by Reina Gossett, Eric A. Stanley, and Johanna Burton, talking about trans cultural production and representation, and the current moment we’re in. I’ve also been reading Going Stealth by Toby Beauchamp, which is about post-9/11 surveillance practices, and how this impacts people who are gender-noncomforming, whether they identify as trans.
You mentioned you work with both sculpture and performance. I am curious as to how these two interface?
JL: They don’t always intersect in my work, but sometimes they do. Sometimes I’ll make specific objects for a performance and make it so that they can show on their own, outside the performance. I guess usually my sculpture and my performance are pretty “separate,” but talking about similar things. I’m interested in how bodies behave in public and private, male touch, and the expectations around touch.
Touching things seems to be a common theme that runs through your sculpture and performance art. On your website, I saw an image of two people carrying each other through the streets.
JL: That was a piece called Passage. I performed that over the summer at Stellar Projects Gallery in the Lower East Side. I’m glad you brought that up, because it’s talking about similar ideas of touch and intimacy in public between similarly coded bodies. That piece was more generally based off of Simone Forti’s Huddle, which is a score of a group of people taking one person and lifting them to move them to the other side of this huddle of bodies. It’s also based off of Bruce Nauman’s Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square. Which is, to me, a really decontextualized piece, it’s just him walking around in his studio. I was interested in taking these two scores and turning them into something that’s talking about masculinity and gesture, being a body in public, being a queer body in public. Me and my very close friend, we did this performance where we would carry the other person and walk around a city block. It was also very much about caretaking, community support networks, political exhaustion, taking care of each other during these politically exhausting times.
During the summer, you said? Not during the heatwave, I hope.
JL: It was pretty warm in July.
That was the fiery part of summer.
JL: It was challenging, the total distance we carried each other was a half mile. We also would rest. That was actually more of the potent parts of the performance: the pauses. While we were resting we held each other, maintaining eye contact. And there was a large amount of people around us, watching us have this intimate moment. I think some people were uncomfortable, and some people were very interested. Some people just kept walking.
Was this your first time performing outdoors?
JL: No, I did one titled Tremendous Burden in May of 2018. That piece was for an InterArt festival that takes place across all boroughs of New York. I did that with two dancers. It was a response to the trans military ban. As someone who is very against the U.S. military, and the project of the military, I still saw this ban as sort of this way to circumvent trans people being able to access healthcare. I’m not someone who’s really invested in trans people being able to fight in the military, but I am very invested in trans people having accessible healthcare.
For this I had two dancers in military-looking outfits. I was dressed in a hospital gown, and the dancers dragged me from the venue to the nearest hospital and left me on the steps. It was a procession, similar to Passage. The movements were based off of protests: the way they handled my body was the same way I saw in footage of protests. I was watching United in Anger, the documentary, and the way the police would sort of drag protestors out of the protests. So the dancers used those police motions. I just made my body very difficult to move. I wasn’t fighting, but I wasn’t complying.
A lot of violence in all this touch.
JL: I think between men in public, yeah. For that piece, I was just thinking about this contradictory moment in our culture which I think applies to many different people, not just trans people. I think we’re in this incredibly paradoxical moment where we have all this visibility for trans people, all this so-called inclusion in mainstream culture—I think our culture is very hungry for trans imagery—but there hasn’t been much of a cultural shift in the day to day lives of trans people. Visbility hasn’t led to healthcare being more accessible, or housing discrimination changing. There’s been this sort of liberal notion that because there is visibility, things are better, things are improving. It’s a very confusing time to be here.
How did this movement from the second to the third dimension happen?
JL: I usually have a project for an idea, and from there I sort of figure out which material makes sense to articulate that idea. WIth the monoprints I was thinking a lot about the surface, imprints, and memory, and transformation. I feel like all of those concepts apply to the printmaking process. If we’re talking about transformation and memory, it made sense to me. More recently I’ve been thinking about bodies, and how cultures and institutions shape what we think is a correct body. So I’ve been creating sculptural objects which symbolize the body or stand in for the body. To talk about the body, it makes more sense to use sculpture.
I was going to say something gross and cheesy about dimensions, like first you had two dimensions, then you added a third, and now you have a fourth: the body moving through time. To me, the more you move, the more you age.
JL: (Laughs.) I guess so.
Now I would like to ask you about these books behind me.
JL: They are DSM books, the Diagnostic Systems Manual. This I finished recently, I still haven’t titled it yet. The DSM is—do you want me to talk about the DSM at all?
JL: Ok great. So the DSM is this manual that psychiatrists use in order to diagnose people. It’s a sort of go-to to diagnose behavioral patterns or mental conditions, et cetera. This edition is the previous edition to our current edition. So in some ways it’s obsolete. It’s from 2004. The fifth came out in 2014, I think. This 2004 edition is the last one to have “gender identity disorder” in it. So “gender identity disorder” is a diagnostic that’s given to gender nonconforming or trans people. It’s sort of based off of these patterns that the DSM deems irregular gender behavior. Often, in order for people to get a hormone prescription, or surgery, or whatever, to get gender-affirming healthcare, they need to get this diagnosis as sort of a hoop to jump through in order to get healthcare. For this piece I think I have twenty-nine DSM books on this platform that resembles a twin-sized bed. I think adults are really only in twin beds in institutional settings. I’m thinking about hospitals, prisons. So all these books are the equivalent of my body weight, stacked in the shape of a body like a reclining nude. It’s a stand in for my body. And these books are bound by Shibari rope ties.
Those are impressive, complicated knots. What kinds of knots are these?
JL: More recently I’ve been combining fetish and BDSM materials with medical materials because there’s so much overlap, materially, between medicine and BDSM. If you think about silicon, stainless steel, latex, these materials have medical and queer connotations. I’ve been thinking about how the medical industry and BDSM have been really formative to my identity in these really contradictory ways. As someone who has roots in BDSM culture, and queer culture, and as someone who’s had to navigate the medical industry to get hormones, and how the medical system interacts with queer history, these are all contradictory things. One is pathologizing, the other is based on consent and negotiating power dynamics.
Where did you get all these books?
JL: They’re all used books I bought from students. It actually took me a while to accumulate them. But because they’re obsolete, they’re pretty affordable.
What do you like about performance art?
JL: Something happens in performance art that I find really fascinating. It creates a permissive space for people to show you who they are. I think it’s a great place to talk about perception or social dynamics or human interaction in this way that’s very effective. I think it’s an excellent medium to talk about identity because you have a body in the work, so it’s already talking about the body, it’s in conversation with how the body is coded. It’s also not a medium that’s easily commodified, so there’s no immediate market application, and I think in that way, performance art has a flexibility.
Do you have a favorite performance art piece?
JL: There’s this piece called A Vessel for Carriage by Maddie William Davis and Brian Gould. This is something I saw in Los Angeles, in 2018. Brian has Tourette’s, so the choreography is based on Brian’s tics, and instead of trying to control or suppress them, Maddie and Brian moved around them.
How about your own work? Of your work, which piece has been especially moving or successful, in your eyes?
JL: That’s a tough question. Being an introverted performance artist is kind of a contradictory place to be, but it helps me evaluate how badly I want the work to exist in the world. Since it’s not the most comfortable position for me to be in, in front of a crowd, I try to have something that’s very thought-out, something that’s going to be meaningful.
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