You spent November and December of 2019 in residence at Wassaic, and now you are installing a show here in January. Can you tell me a little bit about what you were working on in your residency, and how that led to what you wanted to do in this upcoming installation?
While I was in residency, I didn’t go in with a specific thought. I kept myself open, and I wanted to see what would come to me there. I shy away from site-specificity, because my installations necessarily have not been site-specific, they were more space-specific.
But as I spent more time in Wassaic I kind of fell in love with the town and certainly the mill, and we took it upon ourselves as residents to do work in the mill. Previously, I was on the first floor. There were no windows, and with that installation I was thinking about space and color, focusing on joy more than trauma. I’d been making these sculptural forms, which are graphic equivalents based on my broken heel bone, sand I use the MRI to create these cross-sections, these rings, hang them in surgical netting, and wrap them in orthopedic casting gauze that we use in the hospital to cast broken bones and things like that. And then, later, I project on them in an installation. They're a metaphor for myself, my body. The queerness in my work is not the iconography, but more about a shape.
But then when I came back, I started thinking about visibility, which was a 90s thing for us queers. I usually have this process where I look at a picture of the place, and I start imagining, doing digital sketching, doing research, and I started to think, Oh no, this could be site-specific.
Why “oh no”?
Remember I mentioned I get nervous?
Yeah, but can you say a little bit about the difference for you between site-specificity and space-specificity, and why one scares you more than the other?
Yeah, one scares me more than the other. It’s personal and ridiculous, but it's because there's somebody that would use the term in my graduate program, and every time that person said the word it was like a hammer to my head. I didn't believe what the person was saying, and they were owning this term, and it just polluted the thought for me. Which is, again, personal and ridiculous.
Sure, but I think that speaks to the fact that “site-specificity” is a term that’s thrown around unthinkingly a lot of the time.
Yeah. And that's exactly where I was with that. I was like, Is this a site-specific work? What does that mean? My takeaway was that if I was going to do a piece in the mill, that I had to engage the history of the place, the history of the site. That's my simple reduction of site-specificity. I'm happy to think about the people that were like myself that have lived and worked in this town, in this mill, who had to sublimate their desires and their beliefs and their loves. In this situation, I can give those people a chance to shine. Queering architecture can be surface-level, or it can be conceptually deep.
I want to talk specifically about the improvisatory nature of your process. We’re having this conversation a few days before you’ve actually installed, so can you talk to me a little bit about what happens when you enter a space?
It is dance-like. I love dancing, and I use that metaphor a lot. So I move through the space and arrange the sculptures which will exist in the space, which are those bone rings. Once I kind of have one or two things set, that's when I start with a projector, and that becomes another dance. That's when I move around casting these throws of light around the room, imagining what I could feel or what is in the light. And once I achieve what I believe is a good theater of light, then the hard part begins, which is mounting the projector. It seems like, “Oh, it’s no big deal, just put a projector up there,” but I just want to get to the content and the building imagery and stuff like that.
But once the projectors are set, that's a benchmark. Then comes — I need to find a better word for this — the money shot. Whatever that word means, I'm going for the best framing of the space, and then I can start what is called “mapping.” That's where I started outlining any of the architectural shapes, the actual sculptural shapes, and creating these mesh skins on them so that I can project my videos and animations and imagery.
Step three is the fun part. It's kind of like coloring, in a way, or collaging, which is part of my two-dimensional practice, and that's where I start toggling together these visual poems. It just becomes like this visual flow, this imagery projected onto these things.
Once I'm happy with that, I'm now in the editing phase. I just sit in my house for a few hours, or a night, and do a lot of video editing. The last process is making sure that everything maps right, which is always a challenge and could be a failure. There's always a huge chance of tech failure with these, and, you know, I live with that throughout the whole process. You asked about improvisation, right? There's always glitches, and you have to figure out a workaround. Although I do initial video sketches, I'm not beholden to any drawing that I may do beforehand.
Can you say more about the phrase “visual poems”? Both how it operates in your collages and your projections.
So I call a lot of my projection work and a lot of my video work visual poems. Because they have the structure of a poem. There's economy in their word use. Whereas I have made long videos, these are short vignettes, so to speak — they're like little videos, and I think of them as poems.
I write a lot, too. I write a lot of poetry. So my collages have a title like You Move Through Me. I want it to have the impact of — not a novel or novella, but you could imagine reading three or four lines of a poem and being just as sated as having read a novel.
Frequently more sated.
Yeah. I’m all down for long looks, but honestly, especially with this technology, you just can't give it more than 30 seconds. You do get enraptured, but I just find these little 12-second thoughts and I use that as a guide. Because the video work is durational: you can clue in to one of my projections, look away, and then come back another time and see something you didn't see before.
And that's like a poem, right? You read it the first time and it's about an onion. And then you read it again. You're like Oh, crap, no: that onion is about geography and boundaries. It just takes on new meaning the more you look or read.
Are you thinking of a specific poem there? I want an onion to geography poem in my life now.
No, but I think we could write one of those.
Yeah, that'll be the new exhibition text for this installation, that poem.
Geography as an onion. But I always like to say that I am an investigator of ideas. This is where I'm at right now, but don't count out my paintings or my drawings. My drawing practice is how I wake up. Tomorrow you may see, I don’t know, a landscape sculpture. I love the diversity of my practice.
I want to ask about something you mentioned pretty early on in the interview: joy rather than trauma as a guiding thread of your practice. Can you say a little bit about how that operates?
I can use specifically the example of breaking my foot. Last summer I was in Greece studying abroad. While I was there, I tapped into the Icarian myth, and I was taking photographs and filming myself in the air in various locations throughout Mycenae and Greece. When I got back to Athens, I needed that one shot. And unfortunately, I slipped and fell off a roof deck floor of an eight-story building, but only shattered my heel. But as I'm going down, as I was falling, I remember this: my thoughts were that I could see the quarry from which the pentile marbles for the Parthenon were quarried from. And so even though I knew that something terrible was happening, I was more interested in, Oh, yo, look at that mountain range! And then I hit.
So I want that in my work. I could show you me hitting the ground. I have the video. And you might see references to that, but instead — through light, through color — I choose to celebrate the beautiful things that were lying around the actual moment of trauma.
Same thing with this mill piece. Like, I don’t need to show you guys getting beat up for being gay working in a mill or anything. But I'll show you light and patterns that will allude to something more beautiful laying at the ground of the problems. I find more intervention in joy these days. I’m just tired of trauma. And, plus, you know, my history as a nurse. I've seen enough of it.
I feel like that would in some way dull you to the immediacy of trauma.
It does, and it has. Certainly in installing you think, Oh, you can engage with it more, but I'm making a conscious choice with these projections to — I’ll still talk about heavy things, but I don't want to show that.
Yeah, I think there's a lot of rhetoric these days about, like, Oh, just enjoy things! Just be happy! Why do you have to be so glum all the time? That’s an uninteresting form of joy, but I think your work speaks to a far more interesting, considered, thought-through form of taking joy from the world, if that makes sense.
Listen, joy is there at the periphery. It is. It's just that the bad stuff is — if you thought of it as sculpture, the big, bad stuff is monolithic, but joy is like beautiful little daisies growing out of this crushing boulder. It’s ever-present. It's just overlooked.
Joseph Lazaro Rodriguez is a multidisciplinary artist. He studied Fine Arts at Pratt Institute during the late 1980s and early 1990s. He graduated the MFA program at The Pennsylvania Academy of The Fine Arts in 2019. He resides and works out of his studio in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Won't You Call me By My Name
2019–2020 Winter Residency