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New York based American video and performance artist Kalup Linzy is a creative machine. His extensive lo-fi video work can only be described as well executed story telling borrowing heavily from soap opera performances and narratives that truly pushes the boundary of gender relations in video. His video work chronicles the melancholic melodramas of his characters, often played by Linzy and friends dressed in drag, as they deal with family, sexuality, acceptance, the art world, and community.
After moving to New York in 2003 and inclusion in breakthrough exhibitions at the Studio Museum Harlem and Taxter and Spengemann, Kalup went on to receive acclaimed reviews by the New York Times and high profile grants and fellowships such as the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship and Creative Capital Foundation Grant. He has since shown at The Whitney Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, Prosepct 1, Birmingham Museum of Art, and MoMa. Amongst his list of friends and collaborators are James Franco, Macaulay Culkin, Michael Stipe, Chloe Sevigny, and Tunde Adipembe of the band “T.V. on the Radio”. Kalup has also lectured students about film at Harvard University, Columbia University, and New York University.
We had the pleasure of interviewing Kalup to talk about growing up in Florida, working with James Franco and Macaulay Culkin, his web series, and drag.
Tell me a little about growing up in Florida. How has this shaped you as an artist and influenced your video and performance work
I grew up in a small close knit rural community. I was raised by my grandmother in my early childhood. Then I lived with my aunt and uncle who helped my grandmother with me. I was also close to my father who lived about 10 miles away. He had a stroke when I was twelve, which left him paralyzed on one side. My mother had issues with drugs and mental illness. Things could be challenging, but I was surrounded by lots of family and community. I was creative and had a very active imagination. I started watching soap operas as a child. I also spent a lot of time going to church and singing in the choir. I was also in chorus in middle school and high school. All of these things combined gave me a sense of family, community, and outlets to express my creativity.
When and why did you decide to pursue art?
Around 1997-98, I decided to major in art and concentrate on film and video. I wanted to be a filmmaker who wrote and acted in his own films. I was required to take other courses in the department, which also influenced my practice.
Why is drag so important for you especially as an African-American male?
I never thought I would be incorporating drag in my work. However, I remember older cousins telling me about drag shows at the gay night clubs before I had ever gone to one. Once I discovered the drag show, I entertained my cousins and close friends privately. They enjoyed them so much that they egged me on by tipping me or planning a party with the intention of me performing. I was never really in full drag. The closest was when I would put on a wig and dress for my Tina Turner impression. Mostly, it would be me, some towels and a song bumping on the stereo, which made me put emphasis on the mannerisms…gestures…quivering lips…and so on. One night I wore a long straight dress, almost a gown, when a friend told me I had some Rupaul going on. I never thought that much of it until I was in graduate school. I remember going to some elaborate ball type shows and seeing a lot of effort being put into them. I watched Paris is Burning and met a few drag queens and realized it was an art form, not just a subculture. Then there were relatives telling me about Tyler Perry and I should do a gospel play on the chitlin circuit. I had already been influenced by Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence so I always viewed Perry in relationship to them, but in a different market. This was before the Madea movies. Then there were my professors telling me about Flip Wilson, who I had forgotten about and then there was Richard Pryor, Sylvester, and Lyle Ashton Harris, a visual artist who also incorporates drag in his work.
The first time I ever appeared in drag in my work was in my 2002 video Ride To Da Club. In 2003, for my thesis, All My Churen, I played a family of characters. I spent a year and a half developing it. Mostly working to embody each of the characters in a way that their identities didn’t become confusing and making sure the script had an arc. I played four females and two males with one of the males, Taiwan, being a gay, feminine, inspiring soul singer, who wore a leotard and a flower in his hair. This excited some and confused others. From my perspective, my work is an exploration of identity, masculinity, femininity, and sexuality. Most mainstream African-American males, way back in the day, who appeared in drag were never gay, which created the obvious distance. Things are different now. I agree with Rupaul. We were all born naked and everything after that is drag. I love to dress up and play characters, but I have no desire to walk around in a dress and heels in my everyday life. I hardly ever wear heels in my videos, which is why you rarely see my feet. But I love to perform characters and figure out what their face should be, what they should be wearing with some comfortable shoes or flip flops. Most times when I’m live on stage, I am barefoot.
What sets you apart from your contemporaries? What do you share with them?
That’s difficult for me to answer, because I would have to spend time analyzing their work, in relationship to myself. It would also depend on who is considered my contemporaries. As for contemporary visual artists, perspective, personalities, sensibilities, how one processes information, and regurgitates it, sets them apart. Some of us have the same influences. I look at other artists works with the desire to be inspired. If that doesn’t happen, I move on to something else. We’re all in a process. Not only do I feel a connection to visual artists, but I also feel connected to singers and musicians. And then there are my collaborations with celebrities, actors, and fashion designers.
Do you consider your work at all political?
My work is political because I belong to groups that have been historically marginalized. The work is intended to be inclusive and everyone is welcomed, but we live in a world where not everyone believes in equality. The world is my home too regardless of my skin color, gender, sexual orientation, and other preferences. I will not show up to your house that you built uninvited, which means you shouldn’t be trying to burn and tear down mine, just because you need to feel superior. At large, we all are here and it is our birth right to have space to love, be loved, bear and enjoy the healthy fruits of life.
How do you develop your characters?
Sometimes it starts with a name. Other times, it begins with the desire to address or explore a particular topic. I include archetypes in relation to stereotypes. In addition, I include parts of myself that I identify with, connect with in terms of empathy and what I feel others may connect or empathize with. At the moment, I am creating a character family tree. With the newer characters I am giving them a zodiac sign out of the box. With some of the old ones, they are being matched with a zodiac sign based on how they have behaved in the videos.
Your video work borrows heavily from soap opera narratives and aesthetics. Can you please explain what your interest in the stylistic cues of soap opera is? What is it about the story telling aspect of soap operas that allows you to achieve your creative goals?
I love serial storytelling. One of the cues is thinking about sister soaps like The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful, which often have characters crossover to visit relatives or business colleagues. It opens up the story. I turned As Da Art World Might Turns, which is based on the 2006 installment of my Conversations Wit De Churen series, into a web series that serves as the sister series to Melody Set Me Free. KK Queen, from Melody Set Me Free and her cousin Lisa Braswell from As Da Art World Might Turn, commissions the artist Katonya, also from the latter series, to create a collage family tree featuring all the members from their lineage, which is the Queen Rose Family. It will reveal how many of the characters from previous videos are related and introduces new ones.
Another striking feature of your videos is how low the production looks; as if they were made for community access channel. Is the production aspect something that arises by virtue of limited access to resources or do you just enjoy the quality of it versus high production materials? This is also evident in your lo-fi music especially in the work “Romantic Loner”.
I want the work to feel D-I-Y. I have access to resources and I have purchased software and equipment with grants that can help me obtain a certain slickness if I ever choose to do so. I also have people and friends at my disposal who can advise me. I’ve chosen to light and process the visuals in a particular way to obtain certain looks. The camera settings also affect the look.
In Romantic Loner, I used a mixture of professional bulbs I purchased from B&H with domestic bulbs from Home Depot. Kaye is a D-I-Y video artist and singer, who I wanted to be experienced through the art making process and how it can unfold for some. I actually shot the entire film myself and didn’t let anyone else touch the camera. I was by myself with the camera on a tripod and allowed myself to be completely alone accept for when I shot his love interests. Even then, the camera was on a tripod or I was holding it. I really wanted the feeling of a loner dreaming of being with the perfect mate or best mate, but also soul searching and trying to come to terms with experiences that prevented it. With the music for Romantic Loner, I used Logic, which isn’t the cheapest software, but my approach to it is still D-I-Y. I love sitting down at my lap top, composing a track then singing, either in my art studio or room. I then process the vocals and attempt to arrive at something that I imagine an artist might listen to while working in their studio. Sometimes I imagine a person in their car or at a club. I could go to a professional studio or build one to obtain a particular sound, but because my music has been character based, I prefer to have a sound that isn’t too mainstream.
Radio formats or even club formats need sounds and tones of related artists to be consistent or similar to appeal to a demographic or the masses. This is can be great business wise collectively, however, it can be difficult for an individual artist to find a cult following and maintain longevity, if they sound like 90% of the other artist on the current landscape. When all the artists sound similar, in a world that is driven by visuals that are marketed to a young demographic, it makes it easier to replace the older artists with fresher faces. Now it is shifting because youtube and reality shows allow recording artists who disappeared to reconnect with an audience and be seen in a different light and not be restricted to just a slick, over the top glamorized, bling bling radio and television music video format. The same can be said for new artists and internet artists.
How did you begin your collaborative relationship with James Franco? Was there anything in particular you were trying to address with your projects?
He saw me giving a lecture at Columbia about my videos that were inspired by soap operas. He had just finished his first arc on General Hospital and thought I would be good a fit for the second arc. We were never trying to address anything. It has always been about exploration. Exploring and experimenting with the soap opera genre, film, music, and art. Last fall, when I was at Harvard, he skyped my class twice to discuss these processes.
You’ve also recently collaborated with McCauley Caulkin and his collaborative troupe the Pizza Underground for the episode “We KiKi” on the fourth season of your web series “Melody Set Me Free”. Why did you decide to approach and include McCauley and the Pizza Underground?
Deenah Vollmer, who went to Columbia with James Franco, who I met through him, formed the Pizza Underground with Macaulay Culkin. She approached me about guest performing in one of their lives shows and in exchange they agreed to be in one of my upcoming videos, which turned out to be “We KiKi”
Who do you want to collaborate with the most?
Tracee Ellis Ross, Tyson Beckford, Chan Marshall, David Alan Grier, Lynn Whitfield, Kadeem Hardison, all of whom I have spoken to and one point or another. Those who I have not met , but have imagined being in my work are Chris Millington, Ricki Hall, Meryl Streep, Susan Sarandon, Vivica Fox, Victoria Rowell and Angela Bassett.
What are your biggest challenges as a creative individual?
Not always knowing the price tag to put on what I feel I should be giving to the world regardless of a budget, because being an artist is a gift. At the same time, not feeling like I am being exploited, eaten alive and not grateful for the opportunity and platform to share.
Do you consider yourself a romantic?
Yes and it is even more magical and fulfilling when things actually manifest in the physical realm.
And enjoy Kalup’s YouTube channel here