Studio visit with Assume Vivid Astro Focus
Natalie Kates: I think that the name Assume Vivid Astro Focus is the must wickedest name I have ever heard in the art world. How did you come about that name?
Eli Sudbrack of Assume Vivid Astro Focus: I moved here in ’98 and, I had to work with a pseudonym before, in Brazil, which was Dymantino - I used to take pictures, photographs, and I moved here and decided that I wanted to get a new pseudonym. One day I was at my favorite second-hand store in the East Village of New York and while browsing through some clothes, this guy who was working there came up to me and asked me if my name was Astro. I said “Astro?” I thought how bizarre and I said “No, my name is not Astro.” It’s not like he had asked me if my name was John or Tom, but Astro! I started researching what Astro was, like that Astro Boy – that cartoon from Japan, and Astro was also the name of the Jetson’s dog - a lot of, like, “Astro” things. I thought to myself, “You know, that’s a fun name, I am going to incorporate that somehow." At the same time there was a show at Artists Base, or Exit Art of record covers, and it was a super nice show and I was really amazed by the record covers, but I was also amazed by the titles. At that point I had in mind that a pseudonym should be a long, difficult name to remember, not necessarily like a sentence. And my reference was Exploding Plastic Inevitable by Andy Warhol. So, I went there and said “Ok, I’m going to pick some words and mix these words together with Astro and come up with something," so I went there and wrote down every single word that somehow appealed to me but I did not want to record where those words are coming from, so I wanted to be somehow free to play with those words afterwards, without any reference like “I love this cover," I wanted the word to speak for itself. Then, I mix them up, as I’ve had a few options, I worked for something that also somehow meant that other people would become what I was proposing, what assumes something, that they begin to also have the idea that other people would be come this project which ended up becoming Assume Vivid Astro Focus.
NK: Beautiful! That’s incredible! So, how many members are in AVAF?
ES: There are two main members. One in the beginning because I somehow founded it, and I wanted to work with other people and they in the beginning started collaborating for other people and I realized that was another reason why I would use a pseudonym – because I wanted to have a project name that would incorporate a lot of people under this name. So, I started working with other people pretty much right at the beginning – not exactly at the beginning, but very early I started working with other people, and I saw that it somehow became clearer that my function would be somehow like a curator, that I would somehow curate other people and collaborate with other people. But, the way I work with other people varies, and it’s varied since the beginning: sometimes I like somebody’s work, like artist Desi Santiago. When I saw Desi’s star made out of wood and I felt like incorporating it into the Jeffrey Deitch Show in 2008 at Lond Island City, New York entitled, Absolutely Venomous Accurately Fallacious. That was an existing piece and I felt like it was completely fitting. Other times, we contaminate the person with the ideas that we have for a specific show, and then, this person somehow reacts to what we’re proposing. In other times we work hands on, everybody together on something. So, in the beginning it was just myself inviting other people to work together with me, to do specific things, but it was never a fixed group of people. When I moved to NY in 1998 I met Christophe Hamaide-Pierson. But we started working together in 2005 as he moved out of NY in 2000, so we actually ended up working together 5 years after he moved out of NY, and since 2005 we’ve been working on every single project together, the two of us. So the two of us have always been there since 2005, and everybody else comes and goes, according to different things we’re doing.
NK: What is your fascination with transgendered culture? I see a lot of references in you artwork. Do you have a muse, and if yes is she transgendered?
ES: I had a few different muses. One of them is a trans and a very good friend of mine, we have known each other for a very long time. And I was quite fascinated by her, I’ve always been fascinated by her and those who are transgendered for reconstructing their lives, identity, body, looks, and being able to somehow reinvent yourself. From the beginning if was also quite amused with violence that was also a part of this – you break your nose, you change your nose, you scrape your adams apple, there’s a lot of really hardcore qualifications that transgendered people go through to become more feminine looking. I was always quite fascinated by this demolition – demolition of your body, demolition of your identity, and curetting anyone. And there was some combination that was quite revolutionary but also quite violent and still very undermining of the basis of our society. People talk about it more nowadays, but it is still hard for society to accept this sort of transformation. So that became a sort of reference for me to talk about demolishing the status quo, demolishing your current view of the world, and you set yourself up for challenges. That’s also something that is quite interesting in this subject, let’s say. The trannie became a symbol of challenge for me, a symbol of demolition, of creating something new.
NK: I see and understand the reference now, the way you've explained it, how to deconstruct and make something beautiful out of something that already exists.
ES: As for the Dietch show in 2008 from which some of these masks and figures came from. If you look closely to the surface of their skin that actually comes from construction sites, and in that show we worked like with the idea of city being demolished, and the city also being reconstructed - that show happened in Long Island, there was a lot of demolition going on in that area to give room for high-rises and then we were quite interested in making this connection between the demolition of the typical Brooklyn with it’s cheap houses and to give wage to beautiful high-end high-rises, so if you look at the surface, that surface is actually from the demolition sites. I mean construction sites, but we call them demolition sites.
NK: The Dietch show was amazing. Like most of your work it was a sensory overload. You felt as if you were entering a new reality or psychedelic dream. Much of this was experience was accomplished by the AVAF mask that were provided at the show. Were these masks apart of the installation, where did you come up with the idea of masks?
ES: The masks were a tool. The very first time I came up with the idea for giving up masks for people was at Rose Villa de la Cruz when I did a big project for this collector in Miami, and it was a super high-end event and she has a house where she displays her collection. And we took over the whole second floor of this house which is something that is too, actually, up, and it opens with Art Basel, old collectors from the whole world, all the curators, everybody goes there. I felt a bit intimidated by that and I did not want to be set up hard as an artist for using the pseudonym: I wanted the pseudonym to incorporate other people which are not just me, because I work with other people, I wanted for everybody to be on the same level, and also because there’s a lot of the work which is so much based on people’s participation and there’s a lot of generosity, things you can take home with you, and I did not want to be singled out as the artist, as the person who is special, who is like more than anybody else because the thing I’ve had in mind is equality. So, what my way of dealing with that point was “Ok, I am going to give out masks so that everybody becomes the same”. The mask also allows you to become something else, something different.
NK: And then they can become the pseudonym, they can become a part of the collective. It’s beautiful!
ES: So it was like a tool for participation, a tool for performance, a tool for people who are there to feel more like one with installation ceremony.
NK: In 2012 you collaborated with Lady Gaga. It was a massive installation at Barney’s, New York. What was it like working with her?
ES: We had very little contact with Lady Gaga. Most went through her stylist, Nicola Formichetti. She was quite busy at that time, she had just released her new album and she was travelling a lot, doing participations in different TV shows, etc. And she was also going through a sort of style change where she was more or less like a weirdo, sort of like crazy girl, like monster sort of look, and at that point – it was something that was brief to me, she was changing her look, she wanted to become more like high fashion. But, the very first thing I had to develop was the logo. That was the first thing I had to come up with. My take on it was more of like that monster sort of, like, connection, it made her more like those trannies, which is something that she did not want - she wanted something more high fashion. And then they brought those references from the 70’s and then I got it what they wanted to get, and then I came up with that logo. That was the only time we’ve had some back and forth conversation because otherwise, I’ve had so much freedom to do whatever I want. Because at one point we have set the tone “Ok, it’s going to look like this” they sort of freed me “Ok, now you are free to do whatever you want.” Of course, I had to show them what was I working on, but that was the only conversation not so much like the one we had at the very beginning, relating to the logo. I mean, Barney’s New York has an amazing team, and they helped us so much, there was a bunch of people involved, we are dealing with someone who is a superstar. People are often quite protective of their looks and the way they’re represented and she gave us all the freedom. She was really brave. I ended up meeting her just at the day of the opening, we had something like a date – we met at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, before everything opened, she was also being interviewed for ‘Good Morning America’ I think, so she came in this amazing Chanel dress looking like a bride or something. Of course we did not have that much interaction, she was absolutely protected, she had, like, five bodyguards with her, she had a whole entourage of people that work with her, but beside those restrictions she was very warm, she was very pleased with everything. And I became closer to Nicola - that’s the person I’ve been working together with the whole time.
NK: Perfect. I mean, what a perfect vehicle – you know, the Lady Gaga brand – for you to exercise your art. I think it’s a perfect marriage.
ES: I was also quite surprised. I don’t think I would have had so much freedom if I had to work with another star like her. She gave us so much freedom.
NK: So, what are some current projects you are working on? Every time I e-mail you are travelling to Brazil, you are travelling to Miami, you’re really ajet-seter.
ES: It’s happening. We have a solo show in Brazil at the end of this year in our gallery there. Next year, MOCA in Miami is going to be reinstalling our Whitney Biennial 2004 solution, I think in April. They have, like, 15th anniversary, and they’ll have a bunch of special installations. It’s really important because the work Whitney Biennial happened in 2004, and the project with Rosa, which is also in Miami, happened at the end of 2004. Rosa became aware of her work through the Whitney Biennial, so it is going to be funny to have those two installations in the same city. So, that’s happening. We will be doing a bunch of new prints, we are actually collaborating… this is something new that I’ve been doing, this is sort of a performance lecture: I do a book tour, a live book tour, in which I flip the pages of our monograph and explain every single image that’s in the book and I talk the backstage stories about the installation, what happened, ideas behind it. I did that at the MCA recently, at Portland Northwest College of Art, and I am also doing a series of Obama ladies prints related to that new fear that Obama is the antichrist, and those ladies are the Horsemen of Apocalypse.
NK: That’s fabulous. Does fashion ever play a role in your art?
ES: It always somehow reflects on it. Either on fashion, as it is funny we’ve had some amazing collaboration last year with Comme de Garçons. This was one of the best things that ever happened to us, and it was such an amazing collaboration.
NK: Was it the accessories?
ES: No. Kokubu the head designer saw our monograph and she fell in love with the work, and every year Comme de Garçons chooses an artist that will become sort of like a face of the company. And then for whole year, they work with this artist and every single printed matter they put out – a flyer for the opening of the new store, or arrival of the collection at the store in NY or whatever – anything that’s related to the brand has this artist imagery, not even related to something that we did together, you just incorporate that, and actually the idea is that they remix this artist’s work and turn that into something else. So, I gave them my hard drive, worth of many years of work - every single image I’ve ever worked on, every single anything - and they remixed it, created their own Assume Vivid Astro Focus.
So, it’s funny because I really appreciate fashion, I really appreciate the fact that they can actually just walk out with something that I made and wear it. It’s sort of like the ultimate performance for me. Of course, I’ve being very utopian about it, they do not know even what my work is when they wear something of that, but that’s how it’s happened: we’ve done stuff with LeSportSac, we’ve done stuff with Melissa, of the shoes, and there’s so many things. We’ve done things with Elis Von Sac, and I’m really into it and I look forward to do more stuff, I’m dying to make shoes now.
NK: I love it. Would it be shoes for sensible girl, or there will be stripper-hooker shoes?
ES: Well, I don’t know. I feel women’s shoes are quite wild and the new “it” accessorie. From Christian Louboutin to Balenciaga, they are quite incredible. I think there’s a lot of room there nowadays, to play with it.
NK: Where do you live and spend most of your time now?
ES: I’m doing pretty much half-half between New York and São Paulo. I come here, I spend three months, I spend three months there, come back and spend three months here and so on.
NK: The couple of times I’ve been to your studio or to your opening, there have been massive installations, and music plays a big role in your language – whether it is visual language, your audio language – it’s a part of your experience. What’s on your iPod playlist?
ES: First, I wanted to say something about that. Music, for me, is the ideal work of art, the ideal media, because it’s abstract, it’s not material, gets to you and you absorb it, and you have a body reaction to it. And what I try to do with visual stuff – is music. I want to try to do the same thing that you get with music, with visual. That’s always been in my head. My iPod is really outdated now. Usually, I research a lot of music, I like electronic music a lot but I haven’t actually had chance to do that so I’m just copying...
NK: What are some words that would describe your art to you? What adjectives?
ES: Well… Overwhelming, encompassing – like whenever you’re in it… like, you just take hold of the person… I don’t know, an adjective is really hard. I think more like verbs.
NK: Verbs then? Ok, you can use verbs.
ES: I think it’s a lot of devouring, it’s a lot about absorbing, it’s a lot about becoming one with the installation, with the work. It’s about sharing… Yeah, it’s funny . It’s more like verbs for me.
NK: Beautiful. Thank you so much Eli.
ES: Thank you!