Self = Portraits…part one

“You are very open online,” a friend said to me after viewing my website. I explained the necessity of a strong web presence as a tool to promote myself, network and to archive my intellectual property, but sometimes I wonder if it has to do with the fact that I am obsessed with myself, like any good artist is.

Gypsy, Transient, Nomad, Vagabond. Recluse, Misanthrope, Narcissist, Rogue, Recluse. Innovator, Philosopher, Satirist. Artist.

The moniker is always changing though the theme always stays the same. I’ve dubbed myself a Renaissance Man above all else, in a cheeky expression of my right-brained tendencies. Though I am more interested in the whole sum rather than its parts, I feel that the curse of the artist is to have an inexplicable need to discover new ways to create and this coerces one to constantly reinvent themselves.

One of my primary individual projects while I have been in Berlin involves my chronicling this self-imposed rite of passage with my habitation here in Europe.

I have always had an interest in making film based on my obsession with writing and dialogue and character development. I am not the most avid story teller, I am much more interested in exposing characters and it is a common theme in my work. Many times I’ve been criticized for my lack of plot, beginnings or endings. I feel as though this is a unique talent, to have the ability to break the rules of conventional theater and fiction. Many writers struggle with the traditional structure of “who what when where and why”, but for me the most important open-ended question to develop is “how”.

It comes naturally for me to combine theater with dance. There can be this seamless marriage between the two but when one outweighs one more than the other, the end product can become this convoluted, pretentious mess of words mixed with random compositions of movement, leaving the viewer asking themselves the wrong questions. Art is for entertainment. I try my best never to lose grip of that fact. It is not my job to challenge the audience or force them to adhere to my dogma. If they learn something new, great, but it is my job to make it interesting.

I am no stranger to self-portraits. Because I am constantly changing my moods, personalities, and physical appearance (due to internal and external factors), I have always had this habit of photographing myself in various states of dress and distress in the hopes of capturing a moment for archival footage of my personal development.

Inspired by the work of the modern photographer Tyler Shields, I started to strongly consider some ideas for doing my own film work. He is know for his edgy, satirical and sometimes political works, all of them sassy and sexy, many times done with simple compositions and a preference for harsh lighting and unorthodox technical specifications. I was most intrigued by his video portraits. These are short films that are like caricatures of various artists (mostly with a B level following) that are expository representations of their characters. One method he uses involves backward motion photography. What is so compelling about the way he uses the reverse motion in his short films is that there is always some surprise because he sets up a scene to trick the eye into thinking that what is happening backward has a reverse effect, as if the scene is playing forward in the correct order.

I wanted to play around with this device so I took some of my videos I recorded on my iPhone and uploaded them into iMovie. Since I tried and failed to comprehend the complex and overwhelming interface of Final Cut, iMovie has always provided me with an easy, approachable way to edit film. I made a special, very arty film for my Philadelphia Live Arts & Fringe Festival show “Human Error” that was a compilation of rehearsal footage, corporate logos and mugshots of famous celebrities that I juxtaposed together and added special effects to. I then projected the film on the ceiling of the theater during the performance (and I also had a man sitting on the stage next to the dancers while surfing on a laptop computer and eating Doritos) to make a not so latent statement about the constant obsession with technology and pop culture in society.

That was over three years ago when iMovie was a little less user-friendly but provided enough editing options to make your film overwrought with unnecessary transitions and adjustments. With the newer version, the options were more limited in a botched attempt to make the interface more user-friendly. I hated using the newer version and struggled with the idea of buying a program that would allow me free range with my editing. And then it happened.

You have access to all the frames of your film down the the millisecond on iMovie. When you import video footage into the program, a project is created and the film is split into and displayed as many thumbnails. Since I did not have the ability to play everything in reverse (or at least I haven’t figured out how to do that yet), what I did was I started to cut and paste the thumbnails into the project starting from the end to the beginning, creating this choppy, randomized effect that inspired me in a big way. I was on to something.

The first film I did a test with was of me eating a banana. I staged and choreographed the scene so that I was doing what I wanted the fist thing to be seen done last. Also I had to make sure that the last thing I wanted to be seen was done first. So I wanted to trick the eye into thinking that I was eating the banana, but the film would go from end to beginning. And that is the video editing process I use when I am creating these new films.

Because I have a background in theater and dance, making film is a pleasant challenge. The good news is that you have so many chances to create something as perfect as you can; movies are not a live performance. I played around with the banana video for a while and then when I added the music it all came together.

I describe these self-portraits as “Choreographed movement narratives exposing satirical self-portraits of a gay, black artist navigating his way through various tumultuous and auspicious affectations of society.” It is a pretentious way of describing something that I don’t take so seriously, but as time goes on and I am in this never ending world of self-discovery, the issues that I broach in the work is augmenting the brevity of what I first set out to do.

I am trying to exhibit the unique experiences of introspection according to my ideas of how I fit into society at large. The first four films were made during my stint in Philadelphia, between sojourns to Berlin. I was in this foreign yet comfortable environment, sleeping on my best friend’s couch, reuniting with my friends, coming back to a place that was so strange and familiar and I was suffering deeply from reverse culture shock.

The most important aspects of these films is not only the satirical aspect, but music plays a big role and also the intimacy. I wanted to capture all these intimate things in my life in the most frequented environments when I was doing things that are important parts of my character. The funny thing about the environments is that they are never the same – a statement about my amorphous lifestyle.

Racism, homophobia, class-ism, sexuality, addiction, phobias, loneliness, desire…they are all subjects that are subliminally addressed in all of these works.

The ideas come very randomly to me, especially now that I am in Berlin where my inspiration runs at 100 miles per hour (how ever much that is in kilometers). I live in this city where sometimes I feel like my brain is going to explode because just being here makes me feel like I am possessed with a demon inside that just wants to create all day long. I have never really been one to suffer from writer’s block or anything of the sort, inspiration comes very easily and naturally to me. But here in the best city in the world, my creativity is hyperactive in a way and I feel constipated sometimes. So much that I have to keep myself from doing anything, I am so distracted by my ideas I can never think of what is happening right in front of me.

There are still sociopolitical issues to deal with in Europe, though not as abundant as what I went through in America. There are still the cold, mean stares from other gay black men. I am still treated differently because I don’t have a lot of money. I am still objectified by my suitors based on my physical characteristics. I am still plagued with stupid questions about my lifestyle and experience due to the ignorant curiosity of others. It is all just different. No matter where I go.

My recent issue with immigration authorities in London has spawned another heavy flow of inspiration. The more horrible or wonderful the experience, the more fodder I have for my art.

I’ve never been a big fan of force-feeding the pith of my work to my viewers, but this blog is here to expose the artistic process and to document my professional and artistic development, so here goes:

1. Banana
I have always had this fear of eating a banana in public. It is not so much that I am scared of it, but for me I think many people know that visually, it is a dead-ringer reminder of a certain sexual act. I kind of think it is an inappropriate thing to do while someone is looking (unless of course you are trying to seduce this someone). This first video was a very strong statement about the things I do for love (read: lust) and how sometimes no matter how uncomfortable I feel about a certain situation, I somehow manage to suppress my initial fear in order to achieve some sort of zen from being sexually desired. When I finished the film I was incredibly happy with it. I liked how raw and intimate it was, and kind of hilarious. I submitted it to a short film contest when I got to Berlin and it was accepted and shown at a vernissage at Alexanderplatz for the launch party for a new artist networking platform that was insanely well-attended. It was the driving force behind my desire to keep creating these videos.

2. Punch
I hate water. I’ve always had a sugar problem growing up and one of my addictions is fruit punch. This film was inspired by my fascination with gay online cruising websites, and how everyone engages in these fantastic and unrealistic expectations of dating. In it I try to comment on fitting into those little checkboxes and in the process I show my sweet and my sour side.

3. Razor
I knew early on I wanted to get video of places where I spend a lot of time and what better place than the bathroom. It is the ultimate environment to do the most self-examination you can do in private. I tried a lot of different options with brushing my teeth and shaving my face but they were a little to vague to capture what I wanted to convey. So again I made this very blatant statement about sexuality and the things you do to try to “make yourself pretty” not only for yourself, but (primarily) for other people. It is shocking what the gay community does to promote what they feel is conventional beauty, and the pressure to fit into a pigeonhole is something that every gay man faces, no matter how hard we try to deny it. A prime example of this social suicide is the popularization of bear culture. By trying to avoid being marginalized by the gay community at large, these alternative people segregated themselves altogether in a specific, prescribed subculture- a constant contradiction of minority groups.

4. Smoke
I’ve been addicted to nicotine for over 15 years but I’ve gotten very good at quitting. There was a little alley outside of my best friend’s house that was the designated smoking area. It was always a nice break…since for me smoking is always this trip away from the world where I can reflect on things I don’t want to think about. This film was another part of me exhibiting my history of burlesque…with much of the choreography I use in my Modern Dance idioms, I blend the burlesque style, using the clothes in the movement as a homage to the striptease.

5. Thirst
This was the first video I made in Berlin. Due to the huge amount of gentrification and the tourist season in Berlin, it was almost impossible to find an apartment in the city, but I teamed up with a friend and we shared a one room apartment in the notably more upper-class neighborhood of Charlottenburg, an unwelcome change to many of the more eclectic neighborhoods I have lived in during past stays in Berlin. When Amy Winehouse died there was this obvious viral dissemination of her work and also the opinions of people who were sympathetic. Along with that there was an overwhelming amount of people out-crying their complete disgust with the world’s obsession with her. This devastating event coincided with the Norway terrorist attack in which over 80 people were killed. There was so much rage about these deaths in varying levels of respect. This lead me to the making of the video where I may or may not be celebrating the current events of that time. It is the least edited video out of all the videos I have made thus far, and I tried my best to keep the sense of humor going, something indicative of my style when I am faced with tragedy. Another important aspect of this film is that I am well aware of the power of tagging when it comes to online entries. When searching for something on a certain site, a tag can make the difference between 12 hits and over 100. I usually don’t tag a lot of my work unless it is something I think might be relevant to a total stranger, but I took a leap of faith almost as an experiment about the power of pop culture and media (a constant theme in my work) and this film that I tagged with “Amy Winehouse” is the most viewed film of the entire collection.

6. Flip
This was and will probably be the only video in the collection that I did not film myself. The idea to film me was mine, and the editing process and the concept of making the film, but my best friend took the pictures. In a way, it was almost an homage to him and our time together. When I decided to make this part of the self-portraits, not only was I refreshing my technique, but I was going through all of my old pictures on my storage drive and reminiscing about times spent with my friends, most of whom I have known for 17 years plus. This was a great day at the beach, and the funny thing is, I hate the beach. This film is a montage of memory and nostalgia for me. When I was young I spent so much of my time teaching myself gymnastics in my backyard and it became an important factor in my dance vocabulary. Also, growing up I was always in close proximity to the beach – being in Germany does not afford me that option anymore. Also I love the texture of the film here, with the clouds and how barren it is, it almost creates a dreamscape. For me a loss of innocence and the discovery of a new reality is vividly portrayed here.

7. Clöses
This is where shit started to get real. I have always had this latent content in my work that revolves around topics that are taboo or not readily discussed so much in gender issues for men. Rape, sexual and physical abuse, eating disorders, negative self-image and poor self-esteem. These are all problems I am well familiar with. This video addresses a few of those situations, and while I am not trying to prove a point or find a solution, I just wanted to expose the truth about my experience with things that are not commonly accepted in society. To me it is one of the more visually arresting of the films and I wanted to have this flamboyant edge to it while maintaining my dark sense of humor. I chose the music because it is not only my favorite band, but the elements of the lyrics really speak volumes about self-image and the environmental factors that can have a negative impact on it. Seeing myself almost naked on film was also sort of therapy for me, though I have been scantily clad in so many different venues when I was doing burlesque, I have not yet made peace with all of my insecurities and this film is a quintessential demonstration of this contradiction. The title is a reference to my increasing acclimation with German (or Berliner rather) culture. It is a play on words, something Germans spend a lot of time doing. It’s supposed to be called “Clothes” but since Germans pronounce that word “closes” I decided to name this film that and add am umlat for good measure. The umlat is used to stress things, so it was totally appropriate.

8. Sünset
This was a random decision to make this film. I was half passed drunk and feeling especially lonely and confused about my choice to come to Berlin. I was feeling a little bit lost and per usual, tremendously inspired. I NEEDED to make art at that moment to assuage my insanity inside. The scene was choreographed in my head, mostly over the past few weeks when I was thinking about what I wanted to do next. It all came very naturally to me, and though a lot of the elements and moods are very dark, at the end of making it I felt relieved and almost happy. I believe I made a thoughtful representation of that specific moment in time and it was my goal to reference the earlier works of Cindy Sherman who has also been a big influence in my inspiration for these films. The light effect in this film was an accident, and when I started editing I fell in love with the overexposed beam of light behind me coming from that under the cabinet harsh light fixture. It was a great play off of the sunset that was happening outside. Again, the umlat was a clever little title adjustment.

More film descriptions in the next post. See the entire collection here.


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