800K images in 3 1/2 minutes.
Over empanadas in The Mission, I sat down with Oakland based visual and performance artist Bessma Khalaf to talk about immigrating from Iraq, burning things, and Bay Area art. Khalaf exhibited at The Lab's 2008 show, “Détourned Menu: Food in the Form of Activism.” Bessma has also exhibited at Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, NY; Steven Wolf Gallery, San Francisco, CA; Southern Exposure, San Francisco, CA; Gallery Four, Baltimore, MD; 18th Street Arts Center, Santa Monica, CA and the ISE Cultural Foundation, New York, NY. She’s also been in publications such as Zyzzyva, Artforum, the San Francisco Tribune and Baltimore City Paper. – Esther Willa Stilwell, Summer 2016 intern at The Lab.
So, what have you been working on lately?
Lately I have been really fascinated with landscapes and burning. I always [start with] the concept, I have a weird idea triggered by a dream or a weird thought I have and I will write it down and then kind of meditate on it and think about the best way to illustrate that idea without diluting it, working from the conclusion. [I’ll] come at it at from different perspectives and mediums. Would it work better as a sculpture or performance? Sometimes they develop into multiple works.
You tend to use mediums in unconventional ways. Can you tell me more about your relationship with those mediums?
My videos are not fancy, very still. This comes from a photography background – I think about it as a moving photo. My films tend to be silent because I want them to live with other things and not draw too much attention to them. So I like that idea and still play with it, but now I sometimes add nature soundtracks. [My photography] is really a process. I have been working a lot with collage, with old travel books. I rip out iconic places from them, just go to a crappy old bookstore, and take the very American places. I’ll burn them in ways that mimic the landscapes so it's like a controlled type of burn, obliterating these beautiful landscapes.
What is your relationship to the landscapes you burn?
I’m originally from Iraq, and I moved here when the first Gulf War started. I was a 12 year old when I left. I have some images, but not landscapes. Babylon was an hour away, with beautiful ruins that were a thousand years old. I think these new pieces I have been working on are almost an act of terror on these beautiful places but they start to create these little landscapes where you can’t tell where the landscapes end and the burn begins. I love the abstraction. I don’t know, it's peaceful, new things come from it. Burning things is so cathartic.
I want to….. wait, there are some naked men! Hello, they are waving at us. Oh, it’s naked bike riding. Make sure you use baby powder on those butts. I don’t think it looks comfortable.
Haha! So anyway, what was it like moving from Iraq to California?
I migrated to the place that's actually destroying the place I came from. I’m seeking safety in this place where... I don’t know, like seeking shelter at your abuser’s house. I think that's really what fuels my art making. It comes from a conflicted place, but I will never go back. My family is Catholic, so there's just no way for us to go there safely. After landing at LAX I went to a [U.S.] supermarket for the first time and I was like, holy shit there is so much food. I had never seen anything like that before – Iraq is not like that. I still get weirded out by it. Just the abundance. Food and indulgence is fascinating to me. It really is the land of plenty, but it's so over the top.
Does that indulgence and abundance influence your work?
I’v always been attracted to convulsive beauty. I love gross things being beautiful. So [in grad school] I made the eating video. I made the food sculpture. it was really fun. At first it was just a sculpture and then I was like--I could eat it. Then I made another one, but bigger and I took a video of me eating it. There is lots of self punishing and pushing my comfort. I want to see if I can do it. It's part of a challenge like if I can do this, I can do that. I just did a piece at Southern Exposure where I stared at a painting for 8 hours for the 8 hour work day they had. I kept on tasering it every hour. At the time there was a lot of protest in Oakland about police and guns and tasers.
What is it like being an artist in the Bay Area?
I have lived in the Bay Area for 11 years. Its really hard here, it's conservative if you’re not making the right kind of work or schmoozing with the right people. It’s small. Here there is a theme with work because people know it's popular. So I took a break from making actual work. I was having these ideas, but where am I going to show it? Will it just sit in my studio? There is so much money up here, but no one wants to give it to the arts.
Can you tell me about the show you did at The Lab?
The show at The Lab was all based on food, so I used chocolate. I had this weird idea of regurgitating oil because I’m from Iraq. It was kind of a joke because I was like an Iraqi oil fountain: all this black matter coming out of my mouth from above the screen that just never ends. There was a lot of cool stuff. I’m pretty sure I got drunk, but it was fun. It’s a cool space.
Okay, one last question. When did you decide you wanted to be an artist? Why do you make art?
I didn’t get into art until my third year of junior college. I realized I enjoyed it so much and I was good at it. It was getting something out of me. Not spiritual, but it made me feel good. Making things with your hands, maybe because I’m a Taurus.
So we like making beautiful objects, functional and tactical things. When I see a beautiful chair I’m like who who did this? I touch it and i’m like, Ooooh. The thing is with my work I tend to make it beautiful somehow to hook people. It’s like my cheap trick. If you can capture their attention then they will stay. That's very American, learned from commercials. Nature is so beautiful and it is not ignored.
Oh! Lately, as I’m getting older, I am getting into more meditative shit. So I started doing these accent bonsai plants. You take them and strip the dirt from the roots... and encase the roots around this clay. You take that and wrap the clay in moss and then wrap string around it and they survive like that. I love them. I’m kind of obsessed with them. So Taurus, beautiful objects. I even have some in my shower.
Bessma and her partner make silk screen scarves: lightdarkstudio.com.
Remembering our friend, the reverberant Bill Berkson. With tremendous love to Connie.
On January 28, 2015 Jacqueline Kiyomi Gordon and Zackery Belanger collected sounds from the then recently closed UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive at 2626 Bancroft Way. Described by many as a Brutalist masterpiece, the space was shuttered only a few days before. Its future continues to be uncertain but Gordon and Belanger captured a representation of the buildings acoustic soul. In Gordon's words "a document to better understand the performances that were [at the BAMPFA] over the past 40 years." Those sounds and the resulting interpretations from artists Ingrid Lee, Matt Ingalls, and Maggie Payne are Acoustic Destruction.
"In a lot of ways this is about engaging and educating the public. Allowing them to hear the sounds of the 2626 Bancroft Way. Even though we cannot fully reproduce those sounds, we can retain some sort of memory of it and present these remembrances to artists and audiences" - Zackery Belanger
Acoustic Destruction is the first publication on The Lab's new label aptly labeled The Label (alliteration, folks). The LP is also one of many rewards available as part of our currently active Kickstarter campaign, Keep It Experimental feat. Kembra Pfahler. This campaign is part of an ongoing effort to empower artists to realize ambitious ideas and to invite the public in on that process. Join in and Keep it Experimental.
Las Sucias is a feminist noise duo formed by Danishta Rivero and Alexandra Buschma. The Oakland based group's chaotic mix of influences range from old school Caribbean styles such as Reggaetón, Dembow and Dancehall, to Noise, European 1960's vanguard, Goth, Riotgrrrl Punk, Free Jazz, Experimental and Industrial. Additionally their sound was shaped by BOMBA and GAITA DE TAMBORA DE VENEZUELA, styles that already contain a blend of the cultures of Venezuela and Puerto Rico respectively.
Amongst their biggest influences are Latina queens: LA LUPE, IVY QUEEN, CHAVELA VARGAS, RITA INDIANA and CELIA CRUZ, and non-Latina queens DIAMANDA GALAS, LAURIE ANDERSON, PATTY WATERS, and ELIZABETH FRASER.
Still they have other big aural guides that are perhaps less obvious. Las Sucias gave The Lab a little homework as preparation for their live recording for a new LP this Saturday April 23.
Can't make the performance? Las Sucias' vinyl record is one of many rewards included in The Lab's Kickstarter Keep It Experimental. Watch and learn, you will be quizzed this Saturday.
M. Lamar is a composer who works across opera, metal, performance, noise, video, sculpture and installation to craft sprawling narratives of radical racial and sexual becomings. We asked them a few questions in preparation for their and Hunter Hunt-Hendrix performance this Thursday, April 14.
The Lab: M. Lamar, we're excited to have you at The Lab this week. Tell us a bit about the show and your collaborator.
M. Lamar: I’m super excited to have a show at The Lab. I’m also super excited about Hunter Hunt-Hendrix my co-composer and sound designer. He’s performing live with me; he’s a brilliant musician and philosopher. He’s really famous for being the author of Transcendental Black Metal and has this whole thing about the Transcendental Black Metal, as an American thing, as opposed to Europen Black Metal. He has a very sophisticated way of thinking about what he is doing in music which I would like to think we have in common
He’s a metal musician that is classically trained and also into western philosophy which I think is really exciting. It was clear that we are like-minded. He has a solo project Kel Valhaal that people should check out as well as Liturgy, an amazing band.
The Lab: For those folks that caught your performance Surveillance at San Francisco Arts Institute (SFAI), how does DESTRUCTION differ from that experience?
M. Lamar: Well DESTRUCTION is a new piece and a very specific story. What’s different about DESTRUCTION is that it takes place 100 years from now, and and represents a shift in my work from a focus on the past –to better understand our current moment to a focus on the future where when we can finally destroy white supremacy.
About two years ago, I started performing what I called Doom Spirituals. I was exploring spirituals, specifically My Lord In The Morning. I’d been listening to it since I was a little kid; I hadn’t realized there’s all this stuff about the end of the world, the dead coming back to life, and Jesus coming back. It was really interesting that slaves would be writing these words longing for an end of the world. They’re predicting the end of this particular world that was oppressing them. I liked that idea, and I liked the idea of setting it 100 years from now and that the music for this spiritual would have a very destructive and doom like setting.
Surveillance was a historical piece that happened in 1947, then it goes back to 1847, then back to 1947 and is meant to reflect back on today. Spirituals were not so much a focus of Surveillance. I think that is really distinctly different.
DESTRUCTION is my response to all these deaths we’ve witness from Trayvon Martin to Kalief Browder, to Mike Brown and Sandra Bland. It’s really a protest piece about police violence. Narratively we start at a funeral and this place of mourning, a loss of the most beloved. Though the century–from now to 2116– there is this carrying of the coffin of the most beloved. Ultimately we are waiting for them to return. All these themes, mourning, remembrance, resurrection, and return are really different from Surveillance. It’s a really romantic piece and in a way a more hopeful piece.
The Lab: Would you dare say optimistic?
M. Lamar: Ah, well I don’t like that word but I like the idea of hope. I like the idea that we can, in a very romantic way, carry the fallen on our backs. There’s imagery in the show of a coffin carrying, its like saying “We will never, ever, ever, ever forget you.” We’re devastated by it in such an unjust way but your death is it’s not in vain. I was so moved when Tamir Rice’s mother; when it was decided that the police would not be indicted, It’s just the most illogical thing I can think of. It’s angering and upsetting. I remember seeing her on the now defunct Melissa Harris Perry show saying that she needed the death of her child to mean something. That she would forever fight for justice for victims of gun violence and justice in terms of his particular death so no other child could die in this way. Really DESTRUCTION is about all that. Another example is Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley. She decided to have an open casket and said effectively “I will fight for justice for the rest of my life.” It’s that kind of moment, you know; it’s horrifying but also hopeful. I want to give a voice to the dead, so that there is a resurrection and a rising. They need to have a moment.
The Lab: What sounds are shaping DESTRUCTION and what are some of your musical influences that go under recognized?
M. Lamar: Free jazz composer Cecil Taylor is great. I was in a class, where they screened a lecture of him speaking and it completely changed me. Right now Cecil Taylor is really on my mind because the Whitney Museum of American Art is doing a series of events with him! Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson–all those black opera singers were a huge, huge deal to me.
I love a lot of funeral doom bands like Winter or Envoken, or Skepticism. I think my metal influences don’t get as much attention. One of the things Hunter and I have been talking a lot about, we’re really interested in opera and we’re really interested in metal. We want to blend a kind of black metal sensibility musically with an operatic sensibility. Or like Dartkthrone or Sunn o))) in terms of bands that I love.
I also love like campy stuff like Marilyn Manson. I completely love.
The Lab: OOOooooo
M. Lamar: I think his influence on me more in terms of style, like walking around bringing irreverent goth into the everyday. That’s probably surprising or maybe not surprising.
The Lab: Did you go to The Lab when you were here as a student at SFAI?
M. Lamar: I did. I remember seeing a lot of great things at The Lab. It’s always been a San Francisco institution. So yes absolutely.
The Lab: What your perspective on San Francisco, creative spaces?
M. Lamar: I left San Francisco almost 10-years ago. It’s a different place now than it was when I was going to school because of the tech thing that happened. The tech boom, Google, Twitter, Uber. It’s become a lot less of a place for weirdos and freaks to thrive. I think that was what San Francisco had historically been about and those people have been priced out of San Francisco. Strangely I think a lot of people have moved to Los Angeles. Of San Francisco, William S. Burroughs said (now they say it about Portland), “San Francisco is the city where the young go to retire.” It has famously been a city, not of ambition. Unfortunately San Francisco kind of depresses me now. The culture has completely changed. All the culture that I knew is almost completely gone. I think that’s why it’s great that The Lab is still standing. I think Dena is doing a great job. I’ve heard amazing things about what Dena is doing, in terms of programming, Charlemagne Palestine was there doing a show recently as well Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe aka Lichens. I'm excited The Lab still exists and that I am playing there!!!!
M. Lamar and Hunter Hunt-Hendrix perform DESTRUCTION, this Thursday April 14. Not in San Francisco, M. Lamar: Funeral Doom Spiritual opens at ONE Archive in Los Angeles, April 15 to July 30, 2016.
Changes were made to this interview on April 12, 2016 to more accurately represent the artist. The title of the blog is based on lyrics and concepts associated with the spiritual My Lord, What A Morning.
"All good performers seem to feel they are a transmitter; music doesn't come from you, it moves through you." Ellen Fullman interviewed by The Lab's Jackie ClayRead More
Have you seen our new digs yet? The below demolition time-lapse was captured in September 2014, and somewhere between pulling 45K staples from the wooden floor, the sanding and refinishing, the all-night acoustic "sound cloud" construction parties, we somehow managed to rebuild The Lab over the following four months. We are indebted to each and every volunteer that helped make this happen!