I first encountered Clayton Woolery in a basement on Ossipee Road by Tufts University, during his performance Removing Targets in our final Pokykhroma exhibition. I had been unfortunately under the weather for his previous performance with Polykhroma, so I was delightfully in the dark about Woolery’s work. All I knew was what the other curators had told me– that his work was both simple and complex, utilizing simplistic, repetitive movements to unravel multifaceted ideas. Removing Targets was no exception.
He began by unpacking a large plastic shopping bag and setting up its contents on the floor. Woolery brought with him a mental contraption, a long stretch of green Ikea packing paper, white paste, and folded clothing, amongst other items. He then began setting up the paper on the contraption, so that the front of the paper was stretched across the metal and onto the floor in neat folds. Then, the writing commenced. Take a look:
Woolery would write in thick, capital letters on the stretch of paper until a certain amount had been filled with words. He then removed the paper and stood to attach it to the posterior wall.
By the end of the evening, Woolery himself was caged within the metal contraption, layers and layers of inscribed paper all over the walls and floor of the space. Phrases such as “REMOVING ENGLISH” and “BURY ME” overwhelmed both his figure and the space, taking on a louder voice than the harsh din of the exhibition opening occurring behind him.
The entire experience was mesmerizing. Woolery moved with a quiet fluidity, seemingly unaware of voyeurs. There were six other (wonderful) concurrent exhibitions and more than fifty people in the basement at time, but Woolery remained in his space, only concerned with the world he was building on plaster and stone. A small group of us stood for long stretches of time, watching him. It felt meditative to follow his smooth, repetitive movements. The build-up of materials also carried a hypnotic weight. The more Woolery himself was covered up in paper the more I craved an understanding of these cryptic texts. Simultaneously, the more I attempted to decode these texts, the less alphabetical they seemed. Though they signified what I instinctively knew those words to mean, their entire meaning became clouded. The sheer amount of words made it difficult to zero in on one verbal idea. Instead, the entire mass of words seemed to be the subject; the concept of language as a whole.
After the show, I was eager to hear more from Woolery about Removing Targets. It had been a spellbinding experience for me, but I was curious if my interpretation matched what Woolery had walked into Ossippee Road hoping to impart on viewers. I also had many questions about his perspective on the art world– after all, millennial/Gen Z artists are carving out the future of art-making and consumption.
We met for tea at Diesel Cafe and discussed all the above. It was important to me to connect with Woolery on a human level. If we involve technology in every interaction we have, we dilute their importance int he moment. It can come to feel like every action we take is made for the purpose of documentation. And so, my conversation with Woolery was unrecorded. It flowed naturally in all directions, leisurely making its way around to all my questions.
I followed up with an email asking Woolery to answer questions that related to our discussion the day before. And so, before you is a condensed version of our free-form conversation at Diesel Cafe. Read on to discover the truth behind Removing Targets and the details of Woolery’s artistic practice.
CH: Tell me more about your performance piece at Polykhroma! What inspired it? What were you hoping to accomplish? I’d love to detail for my readers your explorations with language.
CW: Removing Targets stems from a longer term incrimination of language that inflects my art practice. Embedded in every language are the cultural mores of the society developing that language, and American English is a prime example. From polarized gender expression to phonaesthetic regimes (i.e. “this is america: speak english!”) even the most radical explorations of meaning making must tread the fraught space of language, which flattens the relationship between signifier and signified. I first came in touch with these ideas in the context of queer theory and incorporate them into an abject, provisional art ethics.
In performing a durational “exorcism” of language I wanted to explicitly place myself and my presentation of myself in the paradoxical dimension of western ideas of utopia/dystopia. I caged myself in my nicest clothes, accompanied by many indicators of conspicuous consumption (swell bottle, DSLR, tablet, “Madewell” bag) and began to work tirelessly unpacking these contents from a laundry bag that illustrates a certain cluttered world view in the form of a red, white, and blue target. In truth the material elements of the performance are selected specifically but treated anonymously— the experience of the performance, im sure, was that of watching a hunched, billowing scribe attack long swaths of green ikea packing paper.
The language I graft, paradoxically, too, was a free form treatise on how best to achieve utopia, a line of thinking that quickly falls apart. I was left to sift through my tattered science fictions and face the apparent long-windedness white men are afforded in magisterial and abject spaces. Here I’ve gone on for so long!
CH: How did your work change once you got into the space?
CW: Performance art in my experience always feels like a circus I am stubbornly staging alone. It was important in terms of labor and exhaustion for the actor in this piece to be myself, and therefore I didnt want to have myself elevated or removed in my original conception of the work.
When viewing “Art” people have accepted the training of galleries and museums and, in this scenario, even being in a basement could not counteract the formation of spectacle. The work became highly dissociative, with a clear ring of people several feet from me. I felt no ability or desire to draw them closer, and allowed this to free me from attempting to be legible in the ways I had planned to be. I let the action take center stage and released myself from an obligation to posture their experience. It became about execution and in many ways simplified helpfully the extravaganza of content i had prepared.
(Quick note: I was a dedicated member of the ‘ring of people’ watching. I can attest to the strange energy between performer and voyeur during Woolery’s performance. It is true that he made no attempt to invite us in, in fact seemed completely oblivious to our existence, and yet we were too mesmerized to turn away. What resulted was an uneasy balance, like a rope tied tightly between two points, vibrating from the tension.)
CH: We talked about how your work bridges the gap between wall-painting and performance art, as you enact the application of art to wall surfaces. Tell me more about this middle ground you’ve created.
CW: The terminology that is sticking the most for the work I’m doing is “performed composition.” I am presenting a collection of abject materials and material applications that deliver a sense of provisional and incomplete gestures, thus opening a space for this completion to occur in the form of live or instructional interventions. This then creates a space beyond indication for the labor of creativity — you see the activity of painting in a Pollock, but never is that labor performed and examined as the painting itself. This is to say that painting is an action and never an object. Furthermore, such actions that result in aesthetic (performative) objects are yet another form of labor. I am highlighting a critical need for a reevaluation of labor. Who is doing the work that makes this industry possible? What meaning can be derived from being delusional about this labor, and the cost of supporting the arts but not the artists? The space is really one that seeks to excavate work from an artwork, and place it coyly in the gallery. It is also a post-studio space that problematizes ideas of finish and rarification that make the art world a beacon for ridicule.
CH: What generally inspires you creatively? Who are your influences?
CW: Creativity is a box full of lenses with which seeing can be filtered. I get inspired when I am able to identify something between two previously separate elements that the lens of poetry, theory, activism, etc. may make apparent. So it can be anything, most often occurences in my daily life are the beginnings of my favorite pieces. There can’t be an end or border on the creative practice. But these thoughts have sources, such as Joseph Beuys and J. Jack Halberstam. I take particular interest in and support works by established artists such as Sarah Sze, Janin Antoni, and Edgar Arceneaux, as well as emerging artists like Jesse Kanda and Puppies Puppies.
CH: What do you think is the role of the artist in society today? How do you see yourself fitting into that role?
The artist has an identity crisis on their hands. Some art theorists and practitioners believe, as Donald Judd put it, that the ideal artist is “original and obdurate; they’re the gravel in the pea soup.” However this breaking of homogeneity operates from a space of art as a service for or against society rather than as a labor intrinsic to it. Do artists seek harmony or discord, and is seeking either through art only a swinging pendulum? I am inticed by more collective action in the art world, allowing for the tyranny of the artist-ego (Foucault’s “author-function”) to be subsumed into a symbiotic relationship with radically earthy art institutions. I am wanting everyone to feel inclined to say “I am an artist” or at least understand the importance of establishing an ecosystem for the consumption and recapitulation of art.
CH: What do you think is the role of the curator in society today? We discussed how positive the dialogue was between artist and curator in the Polykhroma exhibit. Tell me more about how you envision the relationship between the two to be.
CW: Developing an active and attentive community that balances artist and audience, resources and risks, taste and tact, has always been the admirable and impossible task of curators. Igniting an appreciation for engagement with ideas is crucial; placards and pacing and replication of the white cube, however, are hindering this endeavor. Curators must really open artists, technicians, and audiences to the possibility of doing things differently than how they believe they must do them, and in turn reap unexpected and surprising results in the pursuit of inventive solutions to the problem of the gallery.
CH: We talked about spectacle art and blockbuster exhibits. Tell me a bit more about your thoughts on this trend.
CW: I have heard about 15 different takes on the Whitney Biennial. As someone who decided, in light of the protests of Black Americans against the showing of Dana Schutz’ Open Casket, to abstain from visiting as an act of solidarity, I have yet to hear a review that is positive and descriptive. People no longer know why they go see the things they go see. Institutional loyalty precludes the mass acceptability of exhibitions— and there is money to be made. And we see even further surreal elements of the same show: Katy Perry promoting her singles by hiding beneath a silver serving tray to the beguiled response of visitors to the Whitney, who have paid $18-$25 dollars to believe they are spending an afternoon devoid of such marketing. In late capitalism this form of collective cognitive dissonance is not surprising. Art cannot settle for its current place as a condensation of social-media-informed modes of escapism/inspiration. There is no community, no real stakes, only a self-aware act of conspicuous consumption.
(Quick Note: Dana Schutz is a white female artist whose graphic depiction of violence against black bodies was included in the Whitney Biennale. This created a huge controversy last year. Read more here.)
CH: You told me about your desire to participate in a larger artist collective. Tell me more about that! What would this entail ideally? How has your knowledge of past collectives informed this decision?
CW: Ideally it would entail utilizing technology at hand to create an engaging and accessible space of committed and regular collective creative practice. I’m talking rotating collaborations, conference presentations of ideas, and streamlined collective decision making. These goals could be achieved through first a smaller team of people that develop this space as an inaugural iteration of this. I am wanting an art government, essentially! One that erases borders that limited collectives of the past through open enrollment and collaborative spirit. In addition, I am seriously interested in the VR potential for exhibition “space” and making the production of the collective as public as possible.
In reality, a collective could exist just attempting to illustrate this ethereal realm i’ve dreamt up in the paragraph above.
CH: What are your thoughts on the Boston art scene?
CW: I am still exploring it, but do believe that it does not know how to incorporate the energy of young artists into a cohesive space with the galleries and museums here. I do think art institutions are strong but almost entirely leashed to their percieved clientele (students, brahmins, etc) rather than to a specific goal or movement of art.
That said, I am particularly impressed by organization in the audiovisual scene and believe there is potential in a coming together of music, visual art, and tech-savvy creatives. Boston holds back so many potential convergences, the social structure is made of countless interlocking bubbles and such social carbonation is disorienting and difficult to navigate.
CH: What are your thoughts on art at Tufts?
CW: There is certainly a great deal of potential in the hands of an administration that has very little track record in pushing for an integration of art on or for campus. I find the estrangement between creative student organization and adequate resources to be a hurdle in need of overcoming before this potential may be accessed.
I would say many things are special for what they are. Maker spaces like Crafts Center have been influential in my appreciation for collectivism in art; the museum school has yet to lose its radical energy for me in the wake of all the money suddenly coming its way. I deeply cherish the flash collective I participated in with Avram Finkelstein in 2015 that resulted in the billboard on the Lower Campus Center lawn, despite it no longer existing.
CH: What’s next for art? Where do you see artistic trends going in the next few years?
CW: I see event based art organizing at critical mass: controversy in other creative arenas such as Fyre music festival and Noma Mexico luxury dining display a serious tone-deafness to global issues of disparity and neglect. In its wake all sorts of radical activity could take an unexpected center stage. I would be very keen to see socially engaged art practices recieve more coverage and be more fully inducted into the canon of art as artists working in this way such as Pablo Helguera and Paul Ramirez Jonas are allowing people to feel welcome in the art world that may previously have been disenfranchised. I am also for an art world that empowers and better documents performance artists and art of protest.
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Thank-you so much to Clayton Woolery for participating in Polykhroma Presents: Utopia/Dystopia and for sharing your ideas with me (both over tea and email!)
To my readers: I hope you enjoyed reading Woolery’s insights into art and its global significance. It was especially exciting for me to take part in this conversation after seeing his work live. Woolery will be exhibiting his work next spring in a thesis exhibition at the SMFA. In the meantime, check out his instagram to keep up with his work. And if you find yourself in the Boston area, keep a look out for exhibitions occurring through Polykhroma. There’s a good chance you’ll catch a performative piece by the hypnotic artist, Clayton Woolery.
Until next time!