Critics Page In Conversation
Monsieur Zohore with Claude Wampler
I invited the artist Monsieur Zohore to discuss his recent exhibition MZ.25 (My Condolences) at M+B Almont, which reimagined the format of the solo show as an opportunity to invite ninety-three artists to make a portrait of the artist. In Zohore’s choice to redefine the gallery space and the solo show as a freeform space of curation-as-performance, the artist refused reduction and commodification while challenging the inclusive limits of curation. Monsieur Zohore invited the influential performance artist Claude Wampler to discuss the tensions and negotiations presented by the exhibition and recorded the following conversation that also covered the current state of performance, the role of hosting, and the market pressures that seek to overdetermine and simplify artistic practices.
Claude Wampler: Alright so, you made this show…
Monsieur Zohore: I made this show. It took me four years.
Wampler: Yes, four years. The gallery keeps saying you asked people to make “portraits” which I don't think is exactly correct. They don’t seem like portraits so much. Did you actually use the word portrait?
Zohore: So the process starts with an email that everyone gets, or we meet in person.
Wampler: Yeah I read that email I think. Or skimmed it.
Zohore: Like everybody else, they skimmed it or didn't open it, or yeah, different things like that.
Wampler: [Laughs] Sorry. Yeah, yeah, many times I didn't look at it at all and then, about the fifth time it came I was like, “Oh I need to skim that shit!”
Zohore: [Laughs] Skim it and then get back to that as soon as possible.
Wampler: Which was more than two months later. Sorry I’m so lame.
Zohore: No, no it's fine. I mean literally some people didn't even bring their piece.
Wampler: I think if you were not my friend, I would have read it the first time, probably paid it more mind.
Zohore: Right, or attention.
Wampler: Right, because I knew you would remind me.
Zohore: [Laughs] yeah.
Wampler: I didn't feel the pressure of professionalism beating down on me.
Zohore: Most of the show was organized via text, so it did end up working that way. I think a lot of people had that same feeling.
Wampler: Which was nice actually. I think, if we are going to talk about the professionalization of the art world and how it’s a contaminating factor, the fact that these emails, these invitations, were followed up by friendly text nudges is very much like what I remember New York was when I first moved there. It was like, “Hey we’re putting on a show!”
Zohore: “Let's put on a show.”
Wampler: Let's put on a show.
Zohore: That's kind of what I was hoping to create with this project. It did really start with me being at a bar and saying “Hey would you make a portrait of me?” or some kind of something; I think the language was “Let’s make a portrait within any media you see fit.” It can be anything. The idea is that we are challenging the question of representation.
Wampler: Right, and whatever a portrait means to you.
Zohore: And so initial invitations took place at airports, bars, like “Hey I'm doing this crazy thing and you should do it too,” and that's how it all started; but I think I was trying to get to that thing. You know that art world, that ‘New York’ that you were talking about. You know, like walking down the street and seeing Christo and going to the studio afterward or something like that. He used to be my neighbor, and sometimes he would invite me to his studio when I was young. I've never felt more connected to a system—
Wampler: I don't know about you but when I'm teaching, the students always ask me what's the most important thing to do after you graduate and I always say, community. Create a community. Stay in touch with your satsang. Do not rely on the structure of the art world to sustain you. Really don't do it. Because, A) it might never happen and B) it's boring as hell. And vicious. Think back to high school, and then one hundred times worse. So you need to have a community where you look at each other's work, make shows and dream up ridiculous shit. Which is how I remember it being, accurately or not, and then, if you were lucky, the art world caught on to what you were doing. It wasn't like you had to have a gallery to create your thing. You were already creating your thing. And then maybe somebody would find out and jump on it.
Zohore: And give you space and support to keep doing your thing. Yeah, exactly. I tell my students the same thing. The art world exists in this room right now. Whatever you think the world looks like isn’t always the case. If you hate the people you're graduating with, try to make sure you can talk to them the next day or something. Or even if you do hate them forever, who cares?
Wampler: But it doesn't even have to be those people here and now. Whomever you determine it to be, y’all have to be self sufficient. Because there’s not necessarily a there there. There could be many years down the road. Perhaps never will the art world pay attention to you or sustain you.
Zohore: You know I met Laurie Simmons at a friend's wedding. And then we stayed in touch through COVID talking on Instagram. And then when I built up the courage to be like, Okay, I guess, let me ask this lady to be in the show, and then she calls me. I'm sitting at a TGI Fridays, in an airport, running down my spiel of, you know, my little baby project. And she's into it and it's really rewarding that there are still no actual limitations in the art world other than the ones in my mind. During COVID, I did so much work like this. Communicating with people, connecting with people on the phone, on Instagram, doing those weird things like karaoke Zoom nonsense; just to maintain my relationships, build new ideas, and communities online. You didn't need to be at some opening for a show in the blue-chip gallery or be doing anything to prove to people that you were worth paying attention to, who cares about a blue chip gallery anyway? The free food is generally not worth it.
Wampler: Right. And you don't know if a blue chip gallery will even exist when the waves come. Hopefully we will have our priorities straight! Actually, I was really hoping that the pandemic would sort of decentralize art and the way it's seen, somehow. I was thinking about all the empty schools, office buildings, the stadiums. Stages everywhere!
Zohore: I feel spoiled because we met in Baltimore. I think Baltimore did so much more for my career than any of the other cities ever have. I think being there, paying attention, becoming part of that system, being part of the community of artists that we're sharing, connecting, that we’re all drunk in a bar somewhere, you know, being able to talk to people, the people that the Mount Royal and Luca Buvoli attracted to Baltimore, like you [Claude] and all the other great artists that showed up that I would take to a bar and get drunk with. That did more for the work I make now and show in these museums. Honestly, the first museum that got really invested in my work was the Baltimore Museum. I met a lot of the curators of the institutions I work with internationally in Baltimore. And the relationships I had in New York and LA have only solidified again once I like, presented all this work that was made in Baltimore.
Wampler: Yes. So what I like is that you didn’t reject anyone, right?
Wampler: Any piece?
Wampler: Any piece, no matter how butt ugly? And, also, you invited some people who aren’t necessarily artists who were like “Hey I’d love to do that!” and you were like, “Sure!” So “curating” wasn’t happening?
Wampler: If you have enthusiasm, if you make an effort, then you will be included.
Zohore: Exactly. That's what I was aiming for when I was thinking about portraiture. There are a lot of different valences of portraiture that I was trying to speak to, but this was very much one of them. I was also to some degree, trying to make a portrait of what the art could look like and how big it could be. All the people that I invited to participate weren't necessarily artists, you know. They may have expressed an interest in being one but never really had the opportunity to do so for many reasons, namely lack of rigor inside of institutionalized or professionalized systems like the ones we had to matriculate through. And so it was like, Hey, I guess I can be the system for you right now. Show up, make sure the work gets here on time; that it is functional, or does whatever it needs to do to be presented in the space, and that it doesn't fall apart–unless it does so on purpose–and we'll go from there.
Wampler: Right, but everybody is not an artist. You're not going there.
Zohore: No, I’m not trying to say that.
Wampler: No, that’s a problem.
Zohore: No, I’m just trying to say that the art world can include as many people who want to be in it, not necessarily just the chosen few. The project took a lot, moved a lot, and got rejected by multiple galleries and institutions that were afraid to tackle this subject because of its relationship to Blackness, and portraiture, choosing instead to align themselves with the market cash cow than with actual art.
Wampler: Wait, so talk more about that. There are so many levels. There’s the invitation. You wanted to have a show, but instead of showing your own work you wanted more of a reflection of who you are, and what art is and what portraiture is, but especially through the lens of Blackness, you being Black, in America.
Zohore: And in the wake of this current epidemic of Black figuration. For me, this project is a performance project hands down. In 2019 I was trying to figure out different ways of making performance in a world where nobody could see each other, or go outside or talk to each other in person or experience a body doing something in front of you. This fueled by my growing rage toward the mediocre figurative portraiture problem… and so four years later, after a bunch of people said no to participating and a bunch of galleries said no to mounting the show because it was too big or too scary or too expensive.
Wampler: Well, also they couldn’t guarantee that the work is, you know, going to be saleable too.
Wampler: Because you’re not inviting artists because they are marketable. You’re inviting them because they are willing.
Zohore: Yeah—artists I have a relationship with or in some cases our relationship began inside of their willingness to participate. And then there were galleries that asked me to specifically include other artists that they may or may not have known I was friends with because they were more marketable. They had a higher market value than—
Wampler: And did you refuse? Or did you say sure? Why not incentivize?!
Zohore: I said, why not? Although I would mention that's not the point. I wanted them to realize that that is part of their job or the hope of this project would be that we can create markets for other people by way of the performance. Because what was that famous person before anybody else started liking their shit? Just some idiot making some nonsense? It’s really that simple. And at any minute, the clock could strike twelve and she'll go back to being Cinderella, you know? But then Cinderella literally owns that house that she's been gaslit into moving to the basement by a tenant, when she could move into another room anytime she wants. It's a silly metaphor for the art world, but I wanted to make that sensation of being able to manifest your own kind of destiny, but I needed a space to do so. I had the opportunity to make that space for myself, so I extended my invitation and let any artist come. I asked a lot of the famous artist's friends, and to some extent, a lot of them said yes. Some of them were too busy or, you know, didn't have the time, or wanted to take more time than we had allotted to turn around the project. I wonder if now, now that it's a success, I wonder how many people would have said yes? But that's not necessarily what I like to spend time on.
Wampler: Well you have plenty too, ninety-three is a good amount.
Zohore: Ninety-three was a very good amount. And there was a struggle to get ninety-three, there were at least three hundred invitations sent out. Sometimes I even thought I should ask my mom.
Wampler: Mmm. Mmm, yeah. Well, then that gets into the “everybody’s an artist” territory which is not really true.
Zohore: I've been obsessively rewatching Claire Bishop giving a talk somewhere about like—
Wampler: Oh Claire…
Zohore: I know… her talk questions if everybody is in fact an artist. She’s making fun of that Russian—who’s the guy that gave a talk called “everybody is an artist?” Whatever, whatever his name was. I literally just was watching that one too, but I can’t remember… And, she makes a lot of really interesting points about like, yeah it is not necessarily feasible for absolutely everyone to be an artist. There is an intention that has to be there. I tell my kids every day, it's like the only thing that really makes you an artist is if you wake up in the morning and say that you're an artist to somebody else. And actually, like stick into it every single day. Until you pass out, pass away.
Wampler: Well, I think being an artist is kind of like having Type 1 Diabetes—you’re going to have it for the rest of your life. And it’s a condition that you’re just going to have to deal with.
Wampler: I really don't think everyone's an artist. No. I believe that there's a special kind of person that views the world in a very peculiar way and they need to make stuff that doesn't already exist, or obsessively remake the stuff that does. You know. You could ignore the impulse, but to your own detriment. Or you can fully embrace it and take your insulin.
Zohore: Get that checked out.
Wampler: Yeah, no, I mean it's a condition. It's a condition. Maybe that's a bleak view. But really, the older I get, the more I can see it internalized in people and I’m thinking uh-oh, they have it, and they're doomed! Oh! The other thing I wanted to ask you about was sometimes the gallery, if they're touring somebody through the show, they'll say this is a “Monsieur Zohore show.”
Wampler: They won't say this is a group show.
Wampler: Which is an interesting—
Zohore: Yes, we had spent a lot of time talking about this—
Wampler: —differentiation. So tell us about that?
Zohore: Yeah, I was very clear with the gallery about that. The early language the gallery was trying to use was that this was a curatorial project, which I thought limited my performance to just being the curator of the show. But then we sat down and I explained to them that, yes, the show does take on the form of a curatorial project but that it was also masquerading as that—a solo show masquerading as a group show.
Wampler: Or it’s a group show masquerading as a solo show.
Zohore: For me, that action is my practice. The implication of masquerading, the implication of all these different kinds of misleading, and trickery, and all these different things, are words or ideas that I'm interested in and create in my performances. Questions like: Who's the author here? Who makes what is made? What is the work? Who really owns it? All those different things were definitely part of the idea of My Condolences as soon as I had it. We spent a lot of time talking about the language, making sure that they'd be like yes, although he is playing the curator of the exhibition, he is also its author and its subject at the same time.
Wampler: Right. I’m a participant, but I'm not a participant that cares so much about that. I can see it for whatever you tell me it is. I appreciate it because I've made similar work, very similar work, where I've, you know BLANKET, gone to other artists I wanted to have a reason to talk to and said, “tell me what to do for ten minutes!” And then that becomes MY performance. I made the Cult of Claude project. Everyone declared their allegiance to me and my Pomeranian, The Embodiment and offered a piece or performance in order to be in the cult. But anyway, what I'm saying is, I'm very flexible, in terms of what I consider to be authorship and I don't have a tight grip on my own work, necessarily. But I'm wondering if any of the people participating took issue with the fact that you were claiming it as a solo show?
Zohore: I don’t think so—
Wampler: Okay. So I also wanted you to talk a little bit about this: maybe you're not even aware of this happening, because you're on the other side of it, but your request kind of opened up the possibility that the artists make work outside of their normal practice.
Wampler: When I go around and look at the show (I know some of the artists' work and what they usually make) there is a kind of freeing quality where like, you know, when you make a gift for somebody for Christmas? You're not so concerned about whether it's good art or not. And sometimes those things end up being more beautiful and interesting than the work you normally make. So it has this really wonderful freedom. I'm making this gift for this person, this portrait or this tribute. It totally freed up some of the artists in the show where I felt like some of the work was really good because it is outside the norm of what they usually make. There's something adorable about that. I don't know, I, for myself, in particular, I would never have done what I chose to.
Zohore: Will you tell everybody about your piece?
Wampler: Yeah well, because the show is called My Condolences and because I knew you were staging a funeral for yourself, in a coffin, and it was a kissing booth coffin! People could come and give you a kiss through a glory hole in the coffin and they transformed the gallery office into a funeral home… That was really cool. It was quite austere and moving actually. Felt like a funeral. And they only let a few people in at a time so it had a hushed quality… Oh yes, okay, so I knew you were going to do that performance and because there's something about Black folks when memorializing someone's death, especially those who've died in an untimely manner. There's such incredible artwork, if you can call it that, that comes out of that - the face of the dead printed on the petals of roses or there are these really cool…
Zohore: The airbrushed t-shirts!
Wampler: The airbrushed t-shirts!
Zohore: All of the reproductions of the person’s likeness on everything.
Wampler: On everything. A cake with the passed person’s face on it.
Zohore: Where I’m from in Cote d’Ivoire, we make wax prints specifically for that person’s funeral that sometimes features their face on it. The family orders this custom wax cloth for the entire family to wear for the various events and ceremonies surrounding the funeral. The way it works is you get your fabric, and you have an outfit made, and you only wear it for the funeral, and sometimes the cloth has the deceased’s face incorporated in the pattern.
Wampler: That's incredible. I am not a historian, but in my experience, Black folks really do it up right in that particular way that you're describing.
Zohore: Yeah, I think it's cute!
Wampler: So what I was saying was you were staging your own funeral. So, of course, I wanted to do the funeral flowers, and so I did. I decided to be the florist and rethink what funeral flowers are. I wanted it to be a daily performance, bringing a new arrangement every day; freshen up the old arrangements and take them away when they are done, replace them with new ones, keeping the status of the space as a funeral home. Plus they were a gift to you. I ended up working with flowers, which I love to do, but in a much more sculptural than a floral design-y way. I don't think I would have conceived of this project without the freedom of this fun group show that is actually your show! So it took the pressure off of me professionally to have to do the Claude thing, and then I got to do something that now has become the Claude thing!
Zohore: Yeah, when I was designing the show, I was having a lot of conversations with other artists, especially the ones who don't have more expansive practices like ours. They end up doing the same thing all the time. The conversations would always get to a point where the artists would mention how they wish they could make something else, you know. At this point, their market forces, whatever, the art world, force them to continue making the same thing. So when I was talking with people like that I’d make sure to tell them that this was an opportunity for them to experiment, make something that wasn’t going to be scrutinized by the market, and without having an audience to say, Wait, when did you change up your whole practice? What was the other question you had about Africa?
Wampler: Oh the difference between, yeah—the pretty vast difference between the figuration of the Black male in America, and then what that means to somebody coming from a completely different place, the African National direction; and how immediately everything, everybody assumes that all, all racist rules apply to the color of your skin. You have to sort of absorb all of it. It does become your reality, whether it is or not.
Wampler: Because there are assumptions there?
Zohore: Being in this country kind of renders me a Black American, you know, because I mean I was personally born here, but even my parents who aren't born in this country, are rendered a Black American by being in this country, you know before they open their mouth and you hear their accent. Before they say anything, they're immediately misidentified—
Wampler: I don't know what that means for the show, but it's definitely a part of the conversation when making the show. It’s almost as if you are on the outside looking in too. You have to shift your sensibilities to frame your own work in the way that you are perceived?
Zohore: It's really interesting having to maintain this archive of references, of the kind of code-switching that needs to happen in order for me to understand what's happening inside of some of these works, and also understand how it's separate from what I like and what I have to deal with inside of these kinds of misunderstandings that happen a lot. You know, the Kayode Ojo piece, for example, in the show– that kind of sparkly spangly one in the sculpture room, he made that on as a joke about, a misunderstanding of my Ivorianess, through these kinds of fast fashions–which I loved. It's really, it's very important, the difference, for me in the end.
Wampler: But it's not like you have a choice.
Zohore: Exactly, for it to not be important or not. I mean, I guess I do have a choice.
Wampler: Ehhh I don’t know but…
Zohore: I've never met anybody that it's unimportant to, but I remember even when it wasn't important to me, you know, when, being African was the scariest thing that I could possibly be, and I was trying to be anything but that. It was, I guess, it became a choice at the end of the day, because I was trying not to be. You know it was something so important to me that I needed to get rid of–something more important about me, but now I don't know. I don't know. I think… I got stoned earlier. So now, I'm–
Zohore: So I’m thinking a little differently now. [Laughter] But yeah, I mean, what do you think? How does it, how does it appear in the show for you? What happens?
Wampler: Well, to be totally honest, and this can be cut, but I think in a way you feel somehow obliged to take that on, thematically.
Zohore: Oh, the African?
Zohore: Or the portraiture?
Wampler: The African American male you.
Zohore: Oh yeah, yeah. Yeah, that's true.
Wampler: And how it works right now, in the art world especially. The image of being that and how it works, or doesn’t. There's almost an obligation to include that, not that you always do in your work. I'm not saying that, but I'm just saying for this project, it feels a little obligatory.
Zohore: Maybe that feeling of obligatoriness is coming from the show. I wanted to blow open this Black figuration thing. I wanted to really get down and dirty about it and look at what it meant for people to be representing someone that looks like me, you know, and what it meant for collectors to be buying this, buying a lot of it. This was on my mind and my target throughout the whole project on top of wanting to build community. I was really trying to pull the pants off of this procedural we are acting in right now. And so, I think that my kind of blonde ambition, my aim is what maybe comes across in the parallel universe where the same show happens, I want people to be kind of not trapped or stuck, but aware of the idea that in whatever you're making for My Condolences, you're representing a body that is othered; or that is under some kind of scrutiny because that’s how it feels when I make something, you know? It's like even when I'm not showing my face or whatever, and you’re not seeing my body in the work, I know that other people are.
Wampler: So it’s not Black enough?
Zohore: Yeah, I mean I, I don’t know what the criteria is but I'm pretty damn sure that my work is Black enough. But you know, but I don't think it's celebrating or communicating the same kind of ideas that you would experience inside of this figuration thing–nor the kinds of work that I'm seeing collected by people of color. That's not to say that everybody's buying the same thing. It's to say that I see the work that is being sold, and I see who's buying it, and I see myself specifically left outside of that.
Wampler: And what do you think about collectors that are collecting just because it is Black figuration?
Zohore: Which is also funny, which I think because we've debunked that in MZ.25. There are so many Black figurative portraits in the show, you know, and a lot of them are going to go unsold. I think there's also now the stigma of my critique of the institution on these works, so the artists aren't going to experience the frenzy of them being collected for that reason which proves that the system—
Wampler: Ooooh yeah because nobody can talk about it. They’re scared to discuss. They will say the wrong thing guaranteed.
Zohore: Yeah. Exactly.
Wampler: What a minefield.
Zohore: So when was the last time you saw a performance?
Wampler: Two weeks ago, I saw this really amazing performance. An artist who did this really weird and wild piece. He was inside a coffin, and there was like a glory hole—
Wampler: —but not where his cock is. Where his mouth is. You get to smooch him. If you’re insane or had COVID recently, you got to smooch him! And his lips were warm! It was so cool. Such a good piece.
Zohore: That was pretty cool, wasn’t it?
Wampler: It was really anal—a juicy anus.
Zohore: I was giving a juicy anus, a plump and juicy anus.
Wampler: Plump anus. Oh yeah, those are two good words together. So no, I haven't seen much performance in the last many years because it terrifies me. There is nothing more frightening than live bodies trying really hard to do something. Painful.
Zohore: We saw that kind of miserable performance together in Baltimore. All that time ago, with those two dancers.
Wampler: I believe in those two artists though you’ll have to remind me of their names.
Zohore: I know their names… I’m just not saying their names out loud because we’ve called it miserable and we’re recording ourselves.
Wampler: But I do believe in them! I really believe in their project, but that doesn’t make it more tolerable. That’s the problem with performance—you can be all in and really believe in the artists, believe in the project, believe in the concept, believe in the fabrication, the performance and the mount—everything—still, UNBEARABLE. I would even say that probably about my own shows. If I had the opportunity or the distance to sit there and watch them.
Zohore: Same, same, and I think sometimes the better performances, in my opinion, leverage that unbearably.
Wampler: That's what I'm always trying to do. Trying to relieve the unbearable nature of it by planting fake audience members next to real audience members. That takes the stress off of the viewer because they have some choreographed spontaneity guiding them. Like oh, we can laugh! Oh, we can sing along! Oh, we can leave?
Wampler: Oh, we can make out with the person next us! Oh, we can eat fried chicken!
Zohore: Whatever it is.
Zohore: Yeah, exactly. I think my strategy always is to make use of an action that already exists in the world. I want to make the audience feel so comfortable knowing that they're participating in something they've already done before so that they don't have to realize they're participating in the performance at all. When I hire frat guys to organize a beer pong tournament, you know, everybody knows how to play beer pong. Everybody thinks frat guys are hot—
Wampler: No, I do not.
Zohore: Well, you throw, you throw a ball into a cup it’s really—
Wampler: And frat guys are hot?
Zohore: Frat guys are disgusting and hot at the same time. I think I don't know if it's the hotness that's attractive or if it's the disgustingness that's attractive.
Wampler: I think it's the arrogance.
Zohore: Yeah. Yeah. And then you put them in a toga—
Wampler: Everything you love to hate. Wait, hate to love?
Zohore: Yeah, exactly. And it allows you to diffuse your hatred of the game itself or what that culture is like, onto those other bodies, onto those frat bodies that are in these togas. And it's like, oh, yeah, it's not that I know how to play beer pong. It's that I only know how to do it because these people exist, and that's not true. You know how to do it because you know how to do it. And you just allow these other people to be your scapegoats
Wampler: And also, you can culturally appropriate frat boys. They won’t take offense.
Wampler: It’s one of the few groups that are left that won’t take offense if you appropriate their culture!
Zohore: I don’t think they know how to spell “appropriate” half of the time or could realize that it was happening to them. You know? I remember when I did that piece, they were just all thrilled to be like, wait, I'm getting paid to drink beer? And, like, flirt with girls?
Wampler: Well, that is frat life.
Wampler: Greek life. You’ve described it right there. I mean my God, the fundraising. They're rich. They own fancy real estate and they're able to give money to the brothers for tuition, for housing, for drinking and vomiting.
Zohore: In my research, I realized that frats and sororities are just elaborate development schemes. You meet at the college at these parties that are paid for. And then you get married. And then you start donating money to the institution, the place where you fell in love, and you bring your kids back, and so the school is just—
Wampler: A breeding ground. At UVA there are certain times of the year when the threat of Greek lifers parading about is intense. They are all dressed alike. It is some weird mating ritual. Like, what planet are these strange creatures from? Where the smaller ones can’t walk in their shoes and yet they still wear the shoes. Where the larger ones assume they are irresistible.
Zohore: Honestly, art fairs are the same thing.
Wampler: Yeah. All the same. We’re all animals trapped in mating rituals. It’s plumage. Bad plumage, good plumage, big plumage, micro plumage…
Zohore: The only thing I miss about the experience of being in New York and seeing performances, period. I don't have the opportunity to go be miserable somewhere looking at somebody do something asinine. It's so few and far between, especially because performance is now shifting to the entertainment space. Institutions are hiring nonperformance artists, artists who don’t make performances to make entertainment.
Wampler: There are so many people that make really good performances, and yet there's this sort of recent, contemporary tradition—well not that recent actually—where you take somebody from outside the opera world, for example. You bring in a famous artist or filmmaker, and you have them direct an opera. I think it's fun, but then it becomes a big focal point of the season and they spend a shit ton of money on it. I just wonder if the opera world, which I'm not that aware of, is offended by that because I'm kind of offended when all of the budget and all of the media is steered toward a famous whomever whose never made a live performance before.
Zohore: It goes back to the entertainment. It goes back to the Hamilton of it all. People want to be thoroughly entertained, but by systems that exist outside of that medium. Like musical theater becomes like a music video, and now people are going and pretending like they didn't hate musical theater last week, you know? [Laughter] I blame Hamilton for so much of what's happening to performance media right now. And it's like, well, if you don't—
Wampler: Or in education. I'm sure for school teachers Hamilton has made their job very difficult. Because now kids need to learn through “rap”.
Zohore: I have to literally play hopscotch with these kids to get them to learn about Agamben or something. Instead of buying a ticket, you have to get a t-shirt, or like it has to be able to produce a kind slogan or a catchphrase. Something that can be turned; that can be like trickled down into a Superbowl ad or something at some point. I remember when I first saw Baby Icky at the museum—
Wampler: You saw Baby Ikki?
Zohore: I saw Baby Ikki live!
Wampler: I never caught Baby Ikki.
Zohore: It was the last—
Wampler: I wanted to be Baby Ikki’s nanny so bad.
Wampler: I wanted to be Baby Ikki’s nanny pushing a giant man-sized stroller.
Zohore: It was during the last Whitney Biennial at the old Whitney. And he was programmed into it. It was in the evening. I was at a bar with my friend. That's when another friend of mine runs into the bar and goes, “We are going to the Whitney right now. Baby Ikki is performing!” And I was like, bet. We had to take a subway and cab just to make it on time. We got there and all my friends were like, wait what? This is all that's going to happen? And I’m like, yes, he’s not going to do anything. Just goo goo gaga in a diaper and run around the museum for a bit. At some point, they text me, “we left, you enjoy this, whatever that was.” And I was like, I’m having the time of my life!
Wampler: Would they have liked it if he had waxed first? If it was more realistic?
Zohore: If he was maybe bopping around to Baby Shark or like Rihanna or something maybe then it would have been more palatable. But the silence of that room, except for you know, the rattle and like the squishy diaper. I can imagine that to other people that was unbearable.
Wampler: God, I really appreciate that. I love that direction of things. Regression! There's nothing worse than when commercial media makes babies more sophisticated. They have them talk, dance with coordination, sing in little suits.
Zohore: Or be bosses.
Wampler: Or they know all about the economy. I love the reverse.
Zohore: The ingenious “Hey, I am a baby, I cannot move. I just learned to walk and that's as much as I can do.”
Wampler: Or, “Hey, I’m here in front of lots of colors and patterns. I’m here and I just shat myself.”
Zohore: In undergrad, a friend and I wanted to do this piece where you could drop off your baby at the museum. And it would just be us babysitting all day. Anybody could bring as many kids as possible all day, and they would just be running wild. Clearly no one ever—
Wampler: Or you know, what would be even better—doggy daycare.
Zohore: Just shit everywhere.
Wampler: I had an idea I thought was just brilliant: I would teach a daily dance class in the museum. But like you know, one that’s not so difficult, not so rigorous.
Zohore: Like a Zumba?
Wampler: I don't want to go there. That's trademarked. Yeah. My version of what that is. Get their bodies moving! Send in the husband that isn’t really into art, or the grandma who can do a chair version of it, or the kid who's bored out of their mind. I would get all of the strays and I would work their bodies, work their bodies!
Zohore: That sounds like Olivia Newton-John. I'm sorry.
Wampler: No totally! Legwarmers!
Zohore: “Let's Get Physical.” The whole thing. Yeah, like, you know, like members and member preview hours, nine o'clock to eight o'clock.
Wampler: Every day.
Zohore: You could do it twice a day even.
Wampler: No I could not.
Zohore: Just a beautiful class on that third-floor mezzanine. There’s that mirror because you have to walk up the stairs anyway. And people can hear the class through the museum. Oh, that sounds beautiful.
Wampler: You want to help me?
Zohore: Yes, let's do that. Let's do that. If any museum is reading this, we are very interested in mounting a Jazzercise performance.
Wampler: And also, I want to, for the record, announce: if any young artist tries to co-opt this idea, for the record, Claude Wampler came up with it first mother fuckers.
Zohore: Exactly, this is in print. Do you remember when I wanted to make all of these performances of me exercising in my house alone, during COVID?
Wampler: You and everybody else! No, but I saw some photos of that right?
Wampler: You had a whole gym.
Zohore: I had a whole gym set up.
Wampler: Flashy lights and…
Zohore: The whole thing. I got tracksuits, and I think you said it was some kind of porn.
Wampler: It was fitness porn?
Zohore: It was fitness porn—I think that was the word you used? Or no it was productivity porn.
Wampler: Oh that’s what it was!!!
Zohore: Productivity porn.
Wampler: There was sooooo much productivity porn during the pandemic. I felt so useless. People were writing scripts and filming nature, breathing a sigh of relief that the humans were finally going extinct. Poor nature.
Zohore: Making sourdough starter.
Wampler: Making sourdough starter! And um, planting victory gardens.
Zohore: Victory for who? Whose victory? I don’t know her.
Wampler: Oh it felt like sweet sweet wartime. Yeah. It felt like back in the day when sexy women went to the factory to make bullets and families were growing victory gardens and shit like that. It had that same flavor.
Zohore: Yeah it did definitely have that. We were rationing paper towels. There were rations at the Costco, it did definitely feel like you know, “Bring our boys home!”
Wampler: Yes and the clapping! [Claps]
Zohore: Which they stole from me actually! [Laughs] for the record! Also, everybody owes me 25 cents. If you clapped for a frontline worker between the years of 2019 and 2021, you took from my performance which was initially performed at the BMA a year before, and you owe me 25 cents for each time you clapped. Because you know what happened after that? I pitched that same performance to so many institutions. And they said no. I pitched that performance to so many people. And they all said no, because of COVID.
Wampler: They're like, “It's been done.”
Zohore: And it would require too many people in a room.
Wampler: Oh, well, of course. You can’t really trademark applause though. Just saying.
Zohore: I tried. And I will keep trying…
Wampler: It existed before you.
Wampler: And it will for a long time after you.
Zohore: I know. I know. But like, so why are people so comfortable doing it? For other people? Not for me? [Laughs]
Wampler: That is a good question.
Zohore: Exactly. If it already exists. Why can't we do it? You know, I really hope that now that we’re pretending that COVID’s over, you and my little kids will hopefully invigorate other freaks to be doing whatever kind of nonsense performance art that doesn't necessarily need high production value, or whatever. Just, you know, let's go back to like Sharon Hayes with a megaphone on the street.
Wampler: Boob curtains?
Zohore: Yeah. Valie Export.
Zohore: Let's come back to Valie Export boob curtains. But, I don't see performances anymore at all. You know how you can always see when a student has the performance bug in their body, I will be like, Oh, I just saw you move your hand, talking about this boring thing that you're talking about. And that hand gesture was so much more exciting. And every time you talk about it, you do this weird thing with your body, whatever. So maybe you should have worked it out physically. And they look at me like I just tried to slap their mother! They're like recoiling from the idea because there's this atmospheric pressure on them to be palatable, which I think is caused by this accessibility of painting or whatever.
Wampler: There are people that are making performances where I just feel like, “Why would you ever make a performance? You have absolutely no skills.”
Wampler: To mount, to conceive, to activate something live—there's like no skills. And yet they feel like performance is just there for the taking. Just go and flop around. I mean even flopping around takes a certain amount of skill.
Zohore: A je ne sais quoi.
Wampler: You know what I mean?
Zohore: Exactly. No.
Wampler: I feel like performance is at the bottom of the hill. The things that didn't have the strength to climb up, just rolled down and ended up sitting at the muddy muddy bottom. That's why performance is so fragile. Because at some point, everybody and their grandma was making a performance or calling it a performance, and then it got all water logged. I know what you mean. There's a young artist or a student that's clearly on the performance track, but they would never ever dare. And then there are people that are performing and you’re like, “How dare you!”
Zohore: Honestly, I mean, I feel like I have to lead by example. This is what education is about, right? You’re supposed to see those “How dare you” performances. And then that's supposed to fuel you to make something else. I think what happened is I saw a bunch of objects at Dia:Beacon, and I was like, Ew, why the fuck are people making THINGS? I can do performance instead. I can, like, literally twist my wrist and elicit the same response as one of these giant, heavy metal sculptures. So I went that route, and I was pissed, you know? I was wondering what it was gonna take for people to start respecting the craft of performance again, enough to give the people who want to engage with it an avenue to do so; that will foster that deep love for this type of viewership. Because when my body’s not there, that means there’s more room for someone to put up a painting. And there's nothing standing in front of that painting, for the people trying to see it and for people trying to buy it,
Wampler: It’s a ruse. Come see these paintings but really just to watch me do this! I hope you know you're a model of success right now.
Zohore: Well, I hope I can use that model of success as a conduit to host other people, to follow these ideas. Like we were talking about how my invitation to produce in the show gave people a pass to explore making work more playful or making work inside of specifications; that existed outside of their practice that made them, that took a chance, that took a leap, did something. I was really hoping to be able to host those kinds of spaces, that kind of space with the show at M+B.
Wampler: Yeah, Benjamin Trigano is awesome. This is not necessarily his territory, but he is so curious and so delighted. He’s wonderful.
Zohore: He’s wonderful. I love him. He was offered, when we first talked about this I offered him a smaller project, a very small performance that I will not describe because y’all hoes will steal it—it’s that good. But he thought it was too smart for Los Angeles and wanted something bigger. And I was like, well, here you go! And look at this, now two years later, you know, we're still here smiling, you know, and it worked. Nobody took the chance on this, and to have someone who really doesn’t understand the kind of history and language of performance, but is willing to take the chance on it is a miracle.
Wampler: Well you know, what you have in common with Benjamin is generosity. There’s a generosity in the invitation that you extended. And there’s generosity in his extension of his invitation to you even though he didn’t know what the hell he was getting himself into. It’s pure generosity.
Zohore: I think the origin of my practice extends from that, with my mother being a host/caterer person, you know? Like watching her throw parties and effortlessly moving through all of these stressful tribulations, like the fire, the people, the seating, the this, the that; and watching all of these offerings that she provides to her audience and then the way that they consume these things, in the same way that I offer my body to be consumed in this coffin or in any of the other ways. You know, it's because of Benjamin’s relationship to hospitality that he also can see that and is able to make space for it. That’s the language he understands—the hosting and the generosity. And I hope that our dear readers find a sense of generosity next time they come across some old man in a diaper in a museum. I don’t know, maybe if we can get anything out of this article, it’s bringing Baby Ikki back.
Wampler: Bring Baby Ikki back Mr. Smith!
Zohore: Yeah, bring Baby Ikki back!