INterview with May G N
We sat down with Alberta-based print media artist and Blasted Tree contributor May G N to talk art and life in Calgary's queer community. May's previous work, KNOWN FEMINIST DEALINGS was included in The Blasted Trees 2016 creative nonfiction series, Feminist Perspectives. Here, May lends us razor-sharp insight into digital print-making, political engagement, and the demystification of gender, discussing how these pursuits fit into our anxiety-inducing contemporary context. Featuring images from May's impressive creative oeuvre, check out the interview (after the jump) for a closer look at one of Alberta's most fascinating young artists!
Blasted Tree: How would you describe your practice to an art director, or someone working at the top of your chosen field? How do you pitch yourself?
MAY G N: The elevator pitch is funny, I’ve always said I’m a cheap, shitty Wade Guyton. He’s a print artist who was really prominent in the early 2000’s, though he still makes work now. Guyton makes these printer art objects like big formless blocks he prints on a huge plotter or large-scale printer. He would fold up canvas and shove it through, or he would print on book covers – he prints on beds currently. And so that’s my elevator pitch, just doing that on cheaper, crappier material. It’s about expanding the format, or expanding the tools’ capacity beyond what its limits are. I’m interested in complicating a well-understood process to access other, more intricate and less socially clear topics, like queerness. To confound clarity. I don’t know though, when I’ve talked to people with PhDs I usually wing it. My pitch is probably more like a fugue state where I’m sweating and talking and they somehow just get it.
BT: So is folding up the paper and putting it through a way of exploding the limitations of the print format?
MGN: Yeah, it’s a form of exploding, complicating, or generally breaking. Paper is a ubiquitous material and office printers are a ubiquitous tool, we all kind of get them, and so there’s this in that allows people to understand where you’re coming from. The material aspects of work are oftentimes the most accessible because material is a human thing, we get it, we know what material is. You see wood you’re like: “They build houses out of that, or they whittle small statues.” You see printer paper and you’re like: “That’s for communication, but you can also draw on it.” So we really stretch the bounds of what material can act in reference to or allow access to, which I think are actually two distinct things.
BT: What material do you work with most frequently (we would guess paper or ink), and what do you look for when acquiring it? Where do you go for it?
MGN: I think my most used material has nothing to do with paper, but with images. To use digital printing is to use every image in the whole world, because you can just have it. There is no one that can really stop you from going on Google image search, grabbing whatever you want, and then printing it. Digital painting is really interesting like that. It’s the greatest argument for skill versus conceptualism. For me, the layering and the ability to leverage imagery is more important than the way the imagery is constructed. That’s why I use printers; they’re everywhere, they’re understandable, they can get me what I want to produce the results I desire, which is just pragmatic. A lot of my art is born out of pragmatism, so I buy a lot of paper, but the chief material I’m looking for is images, and that’s in the moment. If I’m sitting there wondering, “What does this need right now?” then that’s when oftentimes I’ll find wrestlers enter my work, or UFC fighters, because at the time it’s like I need this figure, or I require this kind of look, like a literal, physical queerness inside my work. The third most important thing is flowers. I love having flowers around, and I dry them out and kill them. I have a battery of dead flower pictures that I draw from I’ve been building up over time. Now people just give them to me, for the most part.
BT: These are very different elements to bring into the work. Especially if you take an image of an MMA fighter, like your image of that guy with the broken nose…
MGN: That’s John Cena actually, which is funny because nobody really cares about him here in Calgary. He’s a huge figure, he’s been in a bunch of movies. I would hope that people would recognize him as a movie star and not just a wrestler, but he is a professional wrestler. I was sitting there one day in 2015, maybe 2016, and I did this rough Photoshop of John Cena with this broken nose. It’s a beautiful photo already, and it made me think that he looks kinda like a punk kid, like he just got roughed up at a hardcore show. So I did him up in makeup and gave him a shitty diamond earing, and that really describes how I think. I wanted to re-characterize or put layers of narrative over him. Like the flowers exist as a framing device, and the makeup is a framing device in reference to this body, so we can gain access to it. So I’ll go get John Cena, I guess.
BT: The piece you sent in for our Feminist Perspectives series, KNOWN FEMINIST DEALINGS, makes reference to the work of Jenny Holzer. The main focus of her work seems to be the delivery of words or statements in public spaces, and that makes it an inherently political project. How politically engaged would you say your practice aims to be?
MGN: My practice before Trump aimed to do nothing, which sounds brutal, but I think it was true. Now, post-Trump, I’ve had many conversations with artists reframing. Basically any queer show at this point is activism. Any externalization of transgender peoples’ output, making it noticed by creating value ecosystems around it – I talk like an economist sometimes – is really important to me. It was always important to me, but now in this more charged era it’s integral to engage with Calgary art and art in Canada in a way that is directly active. The point is that I don’t think I can avoid a political aim anymore, I’ve been activated in that sense. Before trans-ness was personal, and still is, and then there’s that second wave Feminist notion that the personal is political. But to expand that, then the political will come and find you in your fucking basement apartment. Politics is no longer up for negotiation. There’s been a sea change, everything is different. You wake up like, “Oh god, everything I do now has been recharacterized, whether I like it or not.”
BT: There seems to be a measure of tension between the identities of “queer” and “Albertan” in that Alberta tends to imagine itself as a bit of a conservative stronghold, and social conservatism and the queer community are oftentimes at odds with each other. Is this a productive tension for your practice, or an obstacle?
MGN: That’s funny to ask. It’s also worth asking, even before that question, “Who are these imagineers we’re talking about?” Because it’s probable that this notion exists in the minds of people whether you’re queer or not in Alberta, so it’s a propagated notion, like: “Everyone is this thing.” And so, there it is. “Is it a productive tension?” is another question that you ask yourself in your undergrad degree a lot. We were like, “It’s good, it’s good to be in this place because you struggle,” or whatever that romantic notion is. Right now things are easier. Errr… I feel I’m about to make a really broad statement that I don’t fully understand, so I’m going to stop. I don’t like doing that. I almost said something to the effect of, “It’s easier to be a queer artist in Calgary right now,” but that’s just because I’m noticing how much activity there is. It’s easy only because there’s a lot of people doing work. There’s two dance parties that are actively seeking out space, and then there’s people working outside of that to produce structures for the use of queer people, though those structures are predominantly white and a bit limited. Make no mistake, just because these are dance parties doesn’t mean they have nothing to do with art. They are productive. Production is a ridiculous term, and one that’s steeped in economic work, but they are productive in that they facilitate the meeting of queer minds, who then go do stuff afterwards. So there’s a lot happening, and I’m inclined to say that despite that tension, things are easier to make. There’s more drive, there’s like this queer uptick in Calgary.
BT: Do you think that uptick is being valued by people outside of the community, or valued enough?
MGN: I somehow doubt it, but I don’t know if it matters if it’s being valued. Value is another weird term. Value in money? No, absolutely not, there’s no more money than there’s ever been for queer artists or their output. That being said, there’s no more money than there’s ever been for not-queer art in Alberta either, and it’s a question of what are we looking for when we think of value when we think of art. More stuff is happening, it looks a lot more like 2012 than, say, 2014, which is a weird thing to say, but I missed the original Wreck City, and I missed the original Nuit Blanche, two really inspiring events that happened when I was younger as an artist and not fully understanding where I was at in terms of queerness. Now, as I’m getting older, it feels like there’s that potential again for something big, something interesting, and something new, queer or otherwise, to happen. I’m just feeling a little bit more optimistic.
BT: That’s refreshing to hear. A lot of people are feeling more and more negative about our present situation. The day after Trump’s inauguration I saw a tweet saying something to the effect of: “Yesterday there were a bunch of artists who had writer’s block, and now they have a million things to say.”
MGN: I can’t help but mention that that’s a very privileged point of view: “Oh good, now the art will be good and the punk music is gonna be great!” Ok, well, I’m not someone who’s going to be deported, or someone who is going to be openly persecuted more than I already was. I don’t catch a lot of flak in Calgary, and when I do I’m pretty resilient and surrounded by really lovely people who cushion me from any transphobia, and I can always go back to those communities, but there’s people out there who do not have that option, even inside of Calgary. The queer community is not this open door all the time, especially if you consider the queer creative community, which I think are two different things. Or even in the creative community in general, there are these gates that are being kept by people that are very difficult to leave unwatched. Maybe that’s just how things work, a human fabric problem that requires a little more of our attention to open those doors, but tweets like that bug the shit out of me. They stress me out. There are real actions, big and small, one could take beyond tweeting or just hoping the punk music gets good.
BT: You’ve said that performance is a consideration with the art you make, and many artists cultivate a public persona in tandem with their material production. In some ways claiming the label of artist is performative. You’re filling a role that society sort of already has an idea of what it is you do. The same could be said of gender, and especially about the depiction of gender in art – it’s a construction of a construction. As you said, there’s a distinction between the queer community and queer creators, and there are some artists who go out of their way to break down traditional barriers. At the heart of these issues is performance, and how one presents themselves or their art, and how their audience accepts or reads it. How do you approach these issues in your work?
MGN: Most of the people I associate with are performance artists in some fashion or another. They all operate in a performance capacity, so it’s something that I’ve always considered, but you wouldn’t be able to find a recorded performance of mine. The way that I think about performance is enforcing responsibility upon the viewer. That’s something that I’m really interested in. It’s this notion that your own viewership is under your control, and that by recognizing it you are accepting the ideas within the artwork. So you’re going to come up to my artwork, and you’re going to peer through it, and you’re going to see some stuff, and you’re going to signal to everyone else that you’re not only interested, but you’re allured, you’re attracted, and by performing that attraction you are completing the piece. The first exhibition I got to give at one of the artist-run centers, Truck Contemporary Art, was called Red Adam. It was based on a story by Jorge Luis Borges. You go inside this mirrored hallway and you read this text which is the summation of a human body as I record it off of Wikipedia. You are replicated, you’re made. I want people to be aware that you are constituted, you are built of language, and you are understood like that just by viewing it. You are just one of many iterations of a self understanding its place in that one sliver in time. Kind of nihilistic, that was some early days stuff for me. But I love when you can go into a work and just feel encompassed. You end up doing what the art wants you to do, you end up performing. I wanted to enforce a performance.
BT: Sometimes artists will attempt to conceal things within the work, whether it’s the labour required to produce it, as if their creativity were totally effortless, or how an autobiographer will almost invariably produce a revisionist history of themselves, playing up the good things and scaling back the bad. Every artist hides something of themselves in their work, in both senses of the word hides. So what are you hiding?
MGN: I love covering stuff up in work so much, it’s one of my chief goals. Covering requires an action, like “Oh, I’m here for this, to peel back this sticker,” not that I’ve ever used a sticker in my work. But I’m not really hiding anything. My production process, the ubiquity of the printer, its accessibility, is important. You need to know how it’s made, you’ve got to, and then the work can transcend that, because you’re not worried about how it’s made, you’re not caught in your own lack of understanding. You can get that out of the way. I had a show where I got to put a big, red light up in a gallery’s window space, and I love the idea that the beyond can be referenced by a work lamp from Home Depot, that you can propose it, and there is no mystery to how the beyond is being presented here. There’s no magic outside of the situation working together, it’s not like you don’t know where the light is coming from. It’s this tacit understanding that there is a beyond to people, to situations, to queerness, there’s something mystical and not easily understood, and the fact that origin is so concretely trackable is really important for that. You wonder where it came from, it’s human to complicate things. That’s where queerness comes from – it’s so simple when you realize you just are this other thing, you’re not operating inside established boundaries. So we force a complication, even though we know it’s fine, we know that it’s ok, we don’t reason around it not being accessible. And so you don’t have to hide something, people will invent a meaning. They have to! When I write, I write particularly. Most of my writing is on Facebook – I talk about gender, what my current gender is, what gender is to me today, and it’s about explaining simply. It’s like when you’re sitting in the booth at an IHOP watching TV and the coffee’s cold, and that’s it, that’s what gender is to me today. That demystifies it, because it’s not something that is obscure. It just isn’t. To relate gender to something that is not obscure creates the hidden, because people want there to be something they don’t get, so that they can dismiss it, or call it weird, or call it other. So yeah, you Xerox print it and put it out there. It’s not made of some magic material – it’s paper, it’s colour, it’s ink – but it takes on magical characteristics from being easily understood.
Featured by The Blasted Tree: June 21, 2017
MAY G N