HOUSE OF LADOSHA with Laila Pedro
For the past several years, the relentlessly multi-tasking, reinventing, genre-blending House of Ladosha has drawn on a seemingly endless lineage of references and influences to produce immersive nightlife, performance, and installation experiences. Working across and beyond intersections of gender, race, humor and politics, House of Ladosha has created a world of meaning and connection that is fully embodied by its members even as it transcends its own social context. In early 2016, the Bruce High Quality Foundation invited the collective to create their first fully collaborative exhibition of new works, THIS IS UR BRAIN, to inaugurate the Foundation University Gallery’s (FUG) new space in Industry City. Featuring Cunty Crawford Ladosha (Adam Radakovich), Neon Christina Ladosha (Christopher Udemezue), General Rage Ladosha (Riley Hooker), Magatha Ladosha (Michael Magnan), La Fem Ladosha (Antonio Blair), and YSL Ladosha (Yan Sze Li), as well as collaborations from house members including Juliana Huxtable Ladosha, THIS IS UR BRAIN is at FUG January 15 – February 28, 2016. Dosha invited Laila Pedro for a brunch visit to talk about language, the ’90s, chicken grease, text messages, collaboration, YouTube videos, sisterhooding, and latex.
Laila Pedro (Rail): Your previous (and until now, only) gallery show, The Whole House Eats (Superchief Gallery, February 7 – 14, 2013), was a group exhibition; although displayed together, all of the works were independently conceived. What was the experience and intention behind THIS IS UR BRAIN as a collaborative, rather than a group show?
La Fem Ladosha: We started months ago, with a private Tumblr where we would post inspirational videos, ideas, etc., and then we’d meet and talk about it.As opposed to the first show, where it was just our own individual work shown together, this was complete collaboration. We got to feed off everyone’s energy and ideas, and it spiraled into what it became.
Neon Christina Ladosha: Even as we operate as a collective, we are making our own stuff independently; we use each other as inspiration, as muses, or for technical help.
The big switch for this project was: how do we turn this into an experience? We walked into this and had to really examine that fact. We’re a collective—what does that mean?
G. Rage Ladosha: When the gallery approached us, they framed the show as part of a series they were doing on radical artists’ collectives, and the show preceding ours was the Guerrilla Girls. That got me, at first, very caught up in the idea of being a radical artists’ collective: “What are our politics? What does it mean? We have to define it now.”
At some point, I completely abandoned that, and realized that it’s much more natural for us to just do what we do, and trust that those politics will bubble up in the process, because they’re so much a part of who we are. Individually, we each have areas that we are more or less passionate about, and letting that pool collectively felt much better than trying to force a specific idea early on.
YSL Ladosha: Clearly, we all share the same type of moral compass and beliefs, so it wasn’t hard for that to manifest itself.
All these videos we mention, for example; we’re not looking for a subtext, we’re more interested in sharing something with each other: “I live for this video! Ham!” We take a lot of inspiration from the most random things. It could be like, someone eating chicken—
Rail: I love how much chicken comes up—
G. Rage: That is one thing that happens naturally with us: something like chicken grease on the face goes from reality to metaphor like that. Suddenly chicken grease on the face is this metaphor for getting your life and having the traces and the remnants of that on your physical body.
Neon Christina: And that’s natural; it happens through experiences, and then it builds a life unto itself. “Ham” has become this huge world around us. The word “carrying”—everyone has coopted that, all around the world. Queer, straight, it doesn’t matter. Where did that come from? We obviously didn’t create the word, but creating it into another thing is something we’ve been doing forever.
La Fem: One word that’s really reached so many corners of people’s vocab is: “Girl, that was shade.” “Shade” is the one word where I know everyone knows what it means. Or, getting back to “ham,” “ham” means a bunch of different things. Or, going back to chicken grease, you could have also enjoyed yourself and said, “Girl, everyone had chicken grease on their face.”
Neon Christina: Pickle juice! Pickle juice!
Rail: [Laughter.] So there is a semantic fluidity there?
La Fem: It’s all about the way you say it: the inflection, the context.
G. Rage: It’s also about this idea of embracing the fluidity of language in relationship to the fluidity of gender or other identities. That is something that we all share on a really basic level that’s really manifested in the work we’re doing.
Rail: You’re all around the same age—you met at art school—and some of the videos, like Opening Sequence and the “Lurkin for Love” set, reflect that very ’90s-kid feeling: “I’m serious but I’m not; I mean it but I don’t; this is pretty funny but also deadly serious.” Do you think that’s a generational thing, or a specifically LaDosha thing? Or both?
La Fem: I think it’s generational. There are a lot of people who are creating things and don’t want to be too boxed in—
Neon Christina: It’s about no one dictating how you want to feel, or telling you what your work means, or what it’s referencing. At the same time, you’re like, “I wasn’t referencing that—but if you felt like that—”
Neon Christina, G. Rage, La Fem, YSL, Cunty Crawford Ladosha: “Ham.”
La Fem: With a lot of things, it’s not that deep. Certain things can be very deep. One video in the installation has an old lady in her apartment—this is like, someone’s grandma. And police officers come to her house responding to a noise complaint for a “violent woman.” And when they walk in, she’s blasting 2Pac. Gangsta party. And the cops say, “What’s wrong?” And she says, “It’s a massacre. That’s what it’s gonna be if you’re fucking with me.”
Now, they are invading her space. The only thing you could say about her was that she’s playing her music too loud, and she’s drinking in her own home. Yet two police officers and a film crew roll into her apartment. She says, “I’m the United States King. I’m higher than the President. Put that motherfucker down, and give me mine.” These were the exact words she said. Inebriated. Wasted. But that’s how she felt in that moment, she was raging—
Cunty Crawford: —against the machine! [Laughter.]
Neon Christina: That’s the perfect example. If you just watch it, it’s just a drunk lady on YouTube. But if you really look at what’s going on, it’s two police officers invading a black lady’s house. She’s having a drink, on her Sunday, listening to 2Pac, and these two are coming in saying, “What are you doing?” And she’s like, “This is my house. What the fuck are you doing? It’s going to be a massacre.” There’s so much politics just in that, and then at the end of the video, which is even more ham, they back down! They say, “Okay, just keep it down”—and she says no! It could be a fun YouTube clip. Or it could be a lot of politics that are really keyed to this day, to this moment, that are very intense and very dark. Or it can still be a fun YouTube clip.
La Fem: If those same police officers had arrived, and there hadn’t been a film crew there, and she’d picked up a stool in self-defense, would they have shot her where she stood? In her home? That happens all the time. So there’s the fluff of cop shows mixed with the darkness of reality.
Neon Christina: And then it’s still kind of funny, because she’s saying the craziest shit.
G. Rage: At the same time, she is unapologetic. She isn’t going to back down on being her.
La Fem: She’s ready to die to be herself. At any given moment, everything you have or love can be taken from you. And it’s always been like this. It’s always been all of these things, whether you’re a black person, or a queer person, or a white person who doesn’t want to play a certain role. It’s always been this way, because we live in America and those kinds of things have been set up from the jump. And it will never be any different, because that’s the foundation of this whole place we live in.
Rail: One thing I found interesting in the installation is the transition from the stacked TVs showing the videos, which are alternately hilarious and deeply upsetting, to the portraits, which can also be hilarious or deeply upsetting. Without exception, though, they’re very powerful images, so you do enact a sense of agency, of empowerment and possibility. Does this signal that maybe there is some potential for future change or progress? Or is there only the option of living your life the best way you can?
La Fem: I think it’s the latter. Especially with the portraits and the six videos. It was entitled Rage, whatever that meant to you, whatever you needed to get out, that’s what we did. There’s so much shit going on, you feel certain types of way. And it felt like an important, raw energy to capture. Because I don’t think things are going to get better. But you deal. And you create your own world the best way you can.
G. Rage: But what does “better” mean? Is there an overarching hierarchy? “Better” and “change” are really subjective terms and realities. A lot of what we do as a house and as participants in nightlife is create alternatives, and worlds. And with that world-building, and the experimentation with identities, and the creation of micro-realities, we can even avoid those questions altogether and offer something that exists totally outside of that reality. Even if it’s just for a night, or an hour, or a photo. That collective effort that we share is what built the world of this show.
Going back to the TVs and the generational question, it’s compounded by this nonlinear way of showing it, where the videos are constantly interrupting each other. The video of the woman being invaded by the police is tempered and contrasted by the videos happening around it. It’s a constantly changing relational dynamic—
La Fem:—“What are you drawn to? What’s going to grab your attention?”
G. Rage: The viewer has the ability to take it in so many different ways, because we put the agency in the eye of the beholder.
Neon Christina: If you want to see a voguing session, if you want to see Dosha beat her face down and be the baddest bitch, you have to also be sold some fucking gum, and also be confronted with police beating the shit out of a little black girl in a classroom, because it’s all integrated. We all are in this together. It’s ridiculous to ignore it, or to pretend that all of these things aren’t happening together in the same space.
Rail: What gives you the confidence to look at things in this way, and not accept the realities that are presented or offered to you?
Neon Christina: As dark as things are, we found each other. We made communities that give us safe space and agency to support each other. Shit’s fucked up—but we got this opportunity to do this show.
La Fem: The realities of the world are really intense, and that’s why you have to build these communities of hope, and of sisterhooding.
Neon Christina: If you see a sister going through it, you get her her coat and you get her a cab.
Cunty Crawford: I think that’s something people see in us—the family rage. People have friends, but we are so close-knit, it’s very apparent. We’re always together, we’re always being loud and carrying. And people are drawn to that. Because New York can be a lonely-ass place. I feel very lucky to have this core unit here.
Neon Christina: Stamping that is also important. It’s one thing to have a group of friends, but we are outwardly saying, “We are House of Ladosha,” a family, and we always mention that first. That’s something people need to hear. It’s not some fluffy idea like “Oh, ham, voguing, cute!” No. Family, and the idea of sisterhooding, is a real thing, and you should take that back and think about that.
G. Rage: Obviously it’s a reference to ball culture, but we’re not an actual house, in that sense. We’re looking back at that point in history and recognizing how radical that gesture was, and how progressive they were in terms of gender and social structures and non-traditional family structures.
Neon Christina: If you watch that documentary [Paris is Burning, 1990], it’s all about the eye of the beholder. Sometimes I watch it and it feels really dark, and sometimes it feels really ki, or I feel really sad, or I find a look inspiration. It’s a whole reality.
YSL: I met Antonio when I first moved to the city, and I didn’t know anything about gay culture—I didn’t even know I was gay myself.
La Fem: —When she says she doesn’t know what her sexuality was, I knew.
YSL: —And he accepted that. As all of us grew as a house, we realized we shared this collective passion for being weird, for being ourselves. We have so many spectrums of not only visual cultures, but also sexualities. We evolve in so many different directions.
Rail: Having been around you all, it certainly feels like a family, and a big part of that is the language. The way you speak is consistent or decipherable—within the house, only. [Laughter.] It’s instantly recognizable.
La Fem: As a tribe, you have to communicate with each other. Once you can develop that language, everyone understands each other. I’ll go to another place and they won’t know what I’m talking about, so I have to come back to la familia, because y’all know my language, we’re from the same planet, we’re from the same tribe. If I bring something in, and the family doesn’t know what it means, we learn—however it is that someone learns to speak, we’ll all pick it up. We also wanted to be able to talk to each other without anyone else knowing what was going on.
Neon Christina: That’s a real thing.
Rail: So there’s a code aspect?
Neon Christina: Definitely. You’ll be in a situation. You’ll be in a bar with spiraling Matthews, and maybe it’s not safe—
G. Rage: Perfect example. “Matthew” is a straight white male, younger—
Neon Christina: —And I’ll call Dosha and say “What’s the tea, I’m headed to where you are,” and she’ll say, “Matthew’s spiraling,” and I’ll say “Ham. Let’s go to the next turnup.” And that, AKA, means, “Bitch, we need to go. Somebody called me a faggot, I don’t know what’s going on.” To someone on the outside hearing that conversation, they’d have no idea.
G. Rage: Sometimes it’s not a means of shade. Sometimes it’s a means of survival.
Neon Christina: And tea-spilling.
La Fem: That’s on the Real Housewives of Atlanta. It’s so funny how gay slang has permeated straight culture. “Shade” was an answer on Jeopardy!.
G. Rage: For us, it has everything to do with cadence and delivery.
Neon Christina: Like “ham.” Ham becomes a lot of things depending on how you say it. It can have an ellipsis, it can have a question mark.
G. Rage: It’s essentially an accelerator of meaning.
Rail: That importance of language is manifested in the press release, which is written in pure Ladosha and is also an artwork in the show—it’s literally the first wall you encounter when you enter THIS IS UR BRAIN.
G. Rage: We see language as a form of cultural currency, and as a house our most tangible product is language. We have a very particular and subjective way of using it—not unlike the art world—and we thought it would be really revealing to lead with that. Most press releases are opaque and confusing; we just did the same thing on our own terms. We refer to real-life scenarios that inform our work. Rather than indulge Marxism as a political stance we wanted to indulge our collective nausea towards half-baked political notions that ultimately serve to reinforce outdated cannons for the avant-garde. It was also just really funny.
Neon Christina: We’re not talking about the food, or even about the acronym that Kanye and Jay Z did. We’re talking about the lifestyle that is ham—
Rail: —And all the things that ham could, or might, mean?
G. Rage: Exactly. The other day I was in a coffee shop, and some Swedish dude walks in with a black-on-black embroidered sweatshirt that said “Ham.” And I was like, “Ham is dead. Long live ham.”
YSL: But then there’s the evolution of ham, which is “prosciutto.”
G. Rage: Prosciutto is our attempt to take ham to the next level. It has a lot to do with subjectivities, with accepting things as being malleable and fluid, rather than as singular, settled objects. The performativity of saying the word is as important as the word itself. That can also apply to a lot of other things: the way that something is presented is often also the content.
Rail: The malleable subjectivity really applies to the generative potential of nightlife, which is a big part of Ladosha, as you touched on earlier. Nightlife is when anybody could be anybody; it’s when, for a moment, everyone is who you want them to be.
G. Rage: That’s a great way to put it.
Rail: But you also have several subjectivities within the show. There are the ’90s- “Lowered Expectations”-style “Lurkin for Love” dating ads. As with the Opening Sequence, there is a visual evocation of ’90s nostalgia that also feel very contemporary.
G. Rage: The opening sequence is a warped version of the intro for the ’90s sitcom Martin. We wanted to play with the idea of putting on a show, and performing our identities in these short repetitive loops. In the same way that our memories have collapsed our experience from ’90s TV until now, the visual world of this video never fully becomes retro or contemporary. While it resists a sense of place, it also anchors the hallucinogenic mix of video styles with its Ladosha-ness. This is where you see the idea of family really play out.
Rail: And the idea of performing your identities is complemented in the “Rage” videos, where each of you embodies both yourselves, and also different aspects of your history.
Cunty Crawford: I used to love when girls would put Vaseline on their faces to fight in high school, which was the inspiration for doing that in my black-and-white “Rage” video.
Neon Christina: And just like with the show itself, with the “Rage” videos we had to figure out how we wanted to present individually, but also how the videos worked together as a collective.
Rail: There is a set of portraits on latex—one for each of you—on the back wall of the exhibition, which are taken from stills from the videos.
Neon Christina: Having individual portraits in the final space was important. You got to see the individual person framed by the collective show. They have individuality, but ultimately blend into a family body of work.
G. Rage: The materiality of it was interesting. We were planning, at first, on taking photos and putting them on the wall. Once we collapsed everything, all the videos, into this interrupting brain thing, prints didn’t make sense anymore. The brain is a biological reference, so we liked the idea of latex as this skin-like material, this membrane. And there is a shared formal language that links all the portraits.
La Fem: It was a way for us to stamp ourselves as individuals within the group rage. I thought it was legend; I thought the imagery was iconic.
G. Rage: You see the light-source, and because of the light penetrating the surface, there was a real intensity—
La Fem: Like, “I see the light shining through you!”
Neon Christina: When we were first talking about it, just the idea of stretching latex over a frame, and putting a person on that, had a lot behind it. It’s sexual, but it’s very aggressive; it’s skin-like and intimate where the rest of the show is more mechanical.
Rail: Latex is also an interesting medium as both a conduit—really a survival necessity—and, intrinsically, a barrier to intimacy.
G. Rage: I liked the idea that it could potentially be stretched to the point of obscuring the image. Also, with our visual references, we felt more comfortable—more honest and real—bringing it to something that felt more like a club than like a museum or a gallery. To go the way of the gallery didn’t feel right. We go to a lot of galleries, but that’s not our natural environment. It’s not the world we want to move in. We took intentional steps to make it feel like a dark, potentially seedy space, which provided more opportunity for multiplicity.
Neon Christina: You come out to the middle of nowhere in Brooklyn. You go into this huge factory building, find the elevator, find the floor, and you hear this intensely aggressive soundtrack we worked on with our sister Juliana. And you walk down this black hallway up to this red poster with a bunch of weird words about meat and Diane and spiraling and chewing off kneecaps. It’s kind of terrifying. But think about nightlife. You pop your first pill and you find the club and it’s dark and then you walk into this space and have an experience. Ham to the white-walls gallery space, but that’s not us. Walk into this dark hallway, and enter our brain.
La Fem: I live for mystery. I think that mystery is the cutest device that any bitch could use for anything.
LAILA PEDRO is Managing Editor of the Brooklyn Rail. She is a scholar and translator, and holds a PhD in French from the Graduate Center, CUNY.