Karl Erickson in conversation with Esther Ruiz for Field Projects.
Esther Ruiz sat down with Karl Erickson to discuss what he’s been working on as Field Projects’ resident artist this past year. Here they discuss his current body of work and his upcoming exhibition We Could Be Transcendent Apes at Field Projects.
Esther Ruiz: What have been your major influences on this new body of work you plan to show at Field Projects this winter?
Karl Erickson: The videos have lots of referents, especially the texts that serve in the place of more normal text in movie trailers and title sequences. These texts are a mixture of self-generated aphorisms, commonplace sayings and quotes from visionary thinkers, all cut up and more or less randomly assembled.
In addition to the party flyers (and the music!) and the film Robot Monster, the main influences would be Harry Smith's short animated films, flicker films, the title sequence for "Alien," raw electric gospel music, and the myth of short attention spans.
ER: Do you consider your video pieces extensions of the original film, Robot Monster from 1953?
KE: Good question. The film is certainly a jumping off point. This project is more a "what if?" adventure, rather than an extension. If the events in the original film occurred, mine couldn't, and vice versa.
ER: Do you think about what the original producer would think of your films? Are they still alive?
KE: Phil Tucker, the filmmaker, died in 1985. He was kind of a hack, but made several burlesque films and edited some episodes of "Wonder Woman." I don't think he would like it: it is too Apollonian.
ER: You dress up as the main character in the same monkey costume featured in his film; do you see yourself as the character in the monkey suit? Has this allowed you to communicate things you couldn't normally? Does the suit allow you to act out of body experiences, ideas, feelings, because you're in a costume or do you act that way always?
KE: Weird! The suit gives me a reason to dance and to sit in strange landscapes to meditate. I haven't had the occasion to dance nearly as much as I would like, though I did go to a Hackers anniversary party awhile ago where I danced my face off. But it is largely me. I think I must identify with the character. Its name is “RoMan,” or “XJZ,” depending on who is talking when in the movie. Being in the suit seems to let me really narrow down my thinking: I dance, I walk, I meditate and occasionally just stand. Those are the only actions I allowed, or scripted, for myself. No other actions. So rather than letting me express something, the suit and character were really limiters.
ER: Interesting, so the suit sort of dictates your actions? Do you enjoy being in the suit?
KE: Well, the suit and helmet are what make the character. And for me, the character “Ro-Man” is hollowed out, bereft of purpose after deciding not to be part the genocide of humanity. It latches on to the slight hope of losing itself through dance and rave culture, following that to a higher level of being, which leads to a sort of meditative stasis.
But I don’t particularly like to be in the suit: it is hard to see out of, it is hot and cumbersome and all of the usual issues with costumes. I like being the character though.
ER: Do you enjoy the filming or the post production more?
KE: Post-production. 10,000x more.
ER: Interesting! How long do you typically spend making a short film?
KE: Well, I had the original idea for this in 2001. Over the years I sketched out ideas and played with dialogue and scenes. I finally started shooting this in 2013 while in the Arctic. But I usually spend months rather than years.
ER: Do you ever print stills from the films?
KE: No. Do you think I should?
ER: I do! This may just be a personal preference, but I think having stills could highlight precise moments of importance you’d like the viewer to hone in on. And could be a nice take away for collectors who wouldn’t normally buy experimental film. I especially enjoyed the more obscure shorts without figures or text. I think they were still in progress in your studio. Will any of those make it into the show as is?
KE: Yes, there will be abstract elements, moments of pure text and moments of the character action, sometimes all at once.
ER: We talked a bit about techno and "rave" culture when we met. What role have these interests played in your practice? (If in the past, do they still play a role?)
KE: More than my practice, techno has really influenced my life, especially the more minimal forms. The layers of loops and cyclical evolution of the music is a strategy I use in nearly everything I make, whether it be process or a formal quality. Plus, the aesthetic: to be able to be urban, gritty and futuristic, polished, yet rusty means a lot. And dancing. The intense focus of the music, for me, shuts down all thought. In the 1990s when I was going to warehouse parties and raves, I could just move. I would feel like I was the bass line some nights. Other nights I felt like I was a race car driver from the future...
And then I just love the aesthetic of more goofy rave culture (as opposed to techno, if you want to start delineating genres). Giant pants, day-glo, glow sticks, crazy Photoshop graphics. Oh the graphics! Plus, the mythology of dancing to change the world, partying as revolution.
What about you?
ER: I’m totally on the same page as far as techno being a lifestyle in some ways. I see dancing and ‘losing’ oneself in the music a kind of religious experience, much like the whirling Dervish of the Sufi path. It’s transcendent. This is also a recurring theme in your work, transcendence. Do you feel like you’ve transcended any particular states of thinking or being when you’ve finished a work? And, do you hope the viewer has transcended with you, or would you like the viewing experience to remain separate?
KE: Definitely while I am working, I feel outside of time and sometimes physicality. When I’m finished, I don’t know. I can feel cleaned out, which is good. I would like viewers to feel transformed after the experience my art, for sure. It couldn’t be the same experience as mine, but the hope is that the physicality of it, the colors and lights and the humor and all that goes in, resonants and gets the audience to feel at least a bit off kilter from the daily lives. Then they can have a different perspective, actually be different than they were before.
ER: Where did you say you’re from?
KE: Michigan originally, just outside of Detroit. Then I lived in Detroit for a long, pivotal while.
ER: Aha! Detroit! The home of techno! We called going to the DEMF festival every year our “pilgrimage”! Do you have any religious associations with music culture like I obviously do?
KE: Sure, yes. Dancing and music is a spiritual experience, and a lot of the music I like, secular and religious, are appeals to a higher state of being, from gospel to Spacemen 3 to Juan Atkins to shape-note singing. It is all a call, a desire to move beyond where we are at.
ER: I see you also make collages; what relationship do your collages have with the short film, if any?
KE: Another big question. Both share the big themes, and sometimes aesthetic: spirituality, preparation, thoughtfulness or mindfulness (I don't know Mindfulness, though). They each use repetition, humor, brevity. The film is much more specific though.
ER: I see. Do you ever work on them simultaneously?
KE: No. I originally started the collages as a physical/mental break from a longer, larger work. I was really into old LA punk flyers at the time, and I thought making self-help posters with the punk aesthetic would be a creative outlet while I also worked on the larger thing. I was just going to dash them off, photocopy them and be done. Of course, I immediately started making each collage into highly involved constructions that were about texture as much as the content and that took days to produce rather than hours. I am not good at working fast.
ER: Interesting that something you’d hope to be a break becomes another detailed process. But we can’t really deny our natural tendencies in the studio I guess. Is there any part of your studio practice that is really quick and somewhat “thoughtless” for lack of a better word?
KE: Nope. Maybe just when I press “render” and get to watch the blue bar grow across the screen for a while. But some of the things, from drawing letters to cutting strips of paper to keyframing elaborate sequences in the videos are nearly thoughtless, and require a form of automation that is like losing oneself dancing.
ER: Where did you study?
KE: Wayne State University in Detroit, then, later CalArts in Los Angeles.
ER: How long have you been in New York?
KE: Seven or 8 years.
ER: How long have you had the FP residency? What has that been like?
KE: Nearly a year. It has been good. I have been able to be involved while it is undergoing a very energizing transformation. It is great to see an artist-run space evolve.
ER: Anything else you'd like to share?
Esther Ruiz received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Studio Art from Rhodes College in 2011. Her work has shown nationally and internationally at various galleries including Field Projects, Platform Baltimore, Vox Populi, Fridman Gallery, Regina Rex, and The American Center for Physics. She was born in Houston, Texas, and currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. You can see her work at www.estherruiz.com or at New Release Gallery, opening January 10th, 2016.