Interview with Carl Vaz

by Marc Gyselinck, August 2016.

i: What made you want to be an artist?

c: I kind of fell into it, I drew a lot when I was a kid, and I got into filming through, well, I guess it was partly teenage frustration. In Brixton I grew up with the feeling that we were excluded from the world and the media. You saw things on TV which didn’t reflect your own reality. First I thought that I wanted to be a politician.

i: So you weren’t exposed to art?

c: Oh, yeah, I was, sure. My mother often took me to galleries and museums, from when I was quite small. I saw incredible stuff.

i: Like what?

c: I remember some crazy kinetic shows, it must have been late 1960’s, early ‘seventies. I loved that: op-art, light art and early interactive things. I remember a Takis show, with his signals and magnetic pieces. I thought that being an artist was like being a scientist or inventor. I used to draw machines…

i: And later?

c: I remember seeing a lot of sculpture, people like Barry Flanagan. I found it boring at first, I wanted movement and noise. I remember a show of Alan Davie’s paintings, all these symbols like a secret code or a score for music, I found that fascinating – that an artist can conjour up a world, a system like that. And Paul Neagu I found fascinating in a similar way, using shapes and materials to make kind of ritual objects, spells… I met him later on. I didn’t know Beuys’ work until I got to art school, but I think Neagu’s work was incredibly close to Beuys.

i: How about film and video?

CV. I wasn’t really exposed to video art until I started experimenting myself. Someone at the film co-op where I borrowed gear introduced me to this guy Bruno, Bruno de Florence. He was screening videos at The Fridge, which had just opened…

i: The Fridge?

c: a Brixton nightclub, coming out of the punk tradition but they played very different music there – electronic pop, Grace Jones, that kind of thing, and they had this crazy installation of TV monitors around the dancefloor. I kind of… absorbed video art while dancing I think! He showed a couple of my early tapes too.

i: And music? Music seems always to have been very important to your work…

c: Brixton was full of music, incredible. My dad played his old records, my mum listened to Radio 3, but when you went out of the door you heard just about everything, everywhere…

i: but was there a particular music that grabbed you?

c: Punk. Definitely. I heard people talking about Punk at school but my moment came
when I turned on a radio and, well, this NOISE came out. It was the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK. I remember sort of staring at the radio thinking what the fuck? After that I listened to as much as I could, hanging around record shops, listening to John Peel… I was too young to get into most of the gigs but I followed it very carefully – and then the mutation into New Wave.. Bands you followed split up, reformed and then the music changed – Howard Devoto leaving the Buzzcocks to form Magazine, Johnny Rotten starting PiL… the Slits… it was like evolution – Punk was usually just rock on speed really but this new music started incorporating all sorts of other influences, other musical genes. It was a great time to be young and into music.

i: I’d like to talk about your work now…  What about the crowds, a recurring theme for you – Do they stand for humanity as a whole?

c: Usually, I think, I choose images that, however abstracted… you recognise an specific atmosphere or a particular group of people, you get the vibe, the energy.

i: Black or white?

c: Well, often they’re mixed. I’m interested in the historical, the political potential of the crowd, the energy of the crowd. So the identification of the viewer with, or against, the crowd is part of the piece.

i: Do you take the photographs yourself?

c: Sometimes, I do take a lot of crowd photographs but I prefer using archive images. Then the work of selection, framing, retouching and superimposing the forms becomes.. um..

i: More distanced?

c: Yeah, more like detective work, forensic work or archeology.

i: And the forms?

c: Well there are different series, but often they are constellations.

i: As in astrology?

c: Constellations of stars – astronomical – although the astrological reference is important too – crowds coming together on a particular… an auspicious date.

i: And the psychological connotation?

c: Of course this is the most important. Like Hellinger’s therapy. The fact that the individuals have a relationship that reaches further than…

i: Than the spatial?

c: Exactly – a relationship going back in time, and forwards as well. At the moment that the photographer takes the picture they are anonymous, representations of a greater whole, but from then on they persist, their images persist, the connections persist, and of course they are real people, with memories and desires. And they are stars…

i: “Every man and woman is a star” is one of your titles.

c: Exactly.

i: But… why crowds? from where comes this fascination?

c: Early experiences I guess, the Brixton Riots…

i: Did you riot yourself then?

c: Well I was mostly too young or scared.

i: But you filmed it.

c: I hid and filmed around the corner, and over the hedge! Later I went on demos, of course.

i: Demonstrations about what?

c: All sorts of things – cruise missiles, nuclear power, apartheid, the miners, sexism, racism…

i: You were politically active? as a student?

c: Active… I’m not sure that’s the right word. Many of my friends were deeply involved in politics. But there was always a kind of distance for me, I think back then I was sceptical. Not about the causes, but about what we could achieve.

i: You studied political science…

c: For a year. Enough to know the difference between theory and practice.

i: And now?

c: Now… is a turbulent time. I’m kind of.. conflicted. It’s obvious that the world is increasingly in the hands of a few large companies, which boils down to being in the hands of a few rich guys. I’m not convinced that Zuckerberg is any less evil than Putin. It’s not even capitalism any more, it’s gone way beyond that…. so… I feel a kind of desparation, I sense it in others too, a sense that no ordinary people – no popular movement, can stand up against that.

i: Occupy Wall Street?

c: Well exactly, that’s the other side of the coin. That’s why I’m conflicted – you feel that there is an incredibly creative counter-movement, but it doesn’t EMERGE, well maybe the problem is that it isn’t really a movement yet, it’s contained, policed and driven underground again and again.

i: And in this regard, can Art do anything?

c: I wish it could. I’m trying! but the problem with political art, and I’m criticising myself here as much as anyone else, is that half the audience are critical leftists who don’t need that message…

i: Preaching to the converted.

c: Yeah. And the other half is the fucking hyper-capitalist art world who simply commodify everything.

i: Do you see a link between the art world and the new economy, Uber…?

c: Jesus, don’t get me started on Uber (laughs).

i: That’s what we’re here for, I’m interested on your take…

c: It’s the capitalisation of the commons.

i: Can you elaborate?

c: Well, many of these so called services insert themselves into a network that already exists – Taxi’s exist, private cabs exist, people share cars, or their apartments. It’s the sharing aspect that gets me. People share and exchange goods in a horizontal peer-to-peer relationship which, when Air BnB or Uber come along, becomes triangular, hierarchical. Uber exploits not just the drivers but the passengers too. Consumers have to work at consuming. To buy an airplane ticket you used to go to a travel agent, then you would go to a check-in desk and someone would take your bags… These days you still have to pay, but you end up doing all this work yourself, it’s sold to us as choice, as freedom… Or take something like fresh air. Of course you and I wouldn’t buy “air” – air is free, right? but this is what happens in every large city. LA, San Francisco, New York City, London, the air quality is so bad that to live, work or relax somewhere with even slightly cleaner air, you have to pay a premium for it. There’s a clear correlation between poverty, pollution and school performance. Something that should be free, common, belonging to all can suddenly become capitalized… Companies patent a gene for Basmati rice, a pharamceutical buys the genetic information of the population of an Italian valley. I can keep going. Think of Tinder, Grindr…

i) The capitalization of desire

c: Facebook, Instagram – commodifying personality…

i: But their argument is that it’s just a new form of economy..

c: And they’re right, but that doesn’t make it any better. The other thing is, artists like me look at this with a cynical distance but we are so implicated. The whole bloody creative industry, Richard Florida thing… artists have become model workers, the new Stakhanovites… We’re the perfect example for the new economy: we work long hours, for little money, we’re flexible and it’s piece work: artists never get paid for their time.

i: Time Bank?

c: Yeah, that’s interesting, sure. The whole alternative currency thing – bitcoin – etc. is interesting but the art world resists this like crazy.

i: Are these themes reflected in your work?

c: well there’s a balance between instantaneity, the photographic instant on the one hand and the slow, craft thing in the production of the work. Some of the canvases, and the animations are very slow to make, but I like working! I’m not complaining about working! I saw an installation by this Belgian artist, Timmermans….

i: Ante Timmermans?

c: Yeah, I like it, both aesthetically and conceptually, the way it addresses artistic work and bureaucratic work. I just read this David Graeber book, the Utopia of Rules… Sometimes it feels like there’s this great struggle between creation and bureaucracy.

i: What is to be done, then?

c: Chto Delat! It’s a dilemma. A friend of mine calls it the multilemma. In the ‘states I’ve always had to work on the side, in these so-called creative jobs… sometimes in animation, art direction, copywriting, mostly for the hi-tech industry, because that was where the money was, around San Francisco. And in order to do that I used pseudonyms, to try to keep it separate from my own work.

i: Avatars.

c: Yeah, avatars. So, it became a natural thing for me to use avatars in art too, to produce different kinds of work under different names, to inscribe oneself into different circuits, different scenes.

i: Can you give us a clue?

c: (laughs) Of course not! The art market is based around, um.. a value-identity equation and it’s very difficult to work around it. If it’s not secret, then playing with it cannot possibly work.

i: So does it work for you? Financially I mean?

c: Not really! I’m not better off, and it’s obviously a lot of hassle, it slows me down, but there’s a huge amount of freedom gained by working in that way, it’s very liberating.

i: And now you’ve moved to Europe. Why?

c: Lots of reasons. I’m preparing some shows, one of my gallerists is retiring, and the other, well we have… a conflict. About pseudonyms as it happens, and there are personal reasons too. I want to be closer to family.

i: You had quite a big studio in the States?

c: Yeah, I’m definitely downsizing. It’s good for the imagination, and my bank balance, but I still have an assistant in the States, and a big storage unit of course!

i: Looking for a gallery?

c: No. Right now, I’m biding my time. There was someone interested, in Amsterdam, but something felt wrong… With a gallery, everything is about trust, so without that…

i: Why did you choose Brussels, over London or Berlin for instance?

c: Well, London is like home, and it has its particular patterns, its constellations, that I wanted to avoid. I wanted to be somewhere new, but close.

i: So what about Brexit?

c: (Laughs) I was bloody furious. I couldn’t vote myself. But in fact, now I’ve got over the shock, I see it more of a symptom of the wider political climate – people everywhere demanding higher walls and fences, protectionism, while in fact, these days the nation-state means less and less.
And personally, well everything here for me is new, unstable, so the citizenship issue is just another thing to deal with when the time comes. I just have to let go and see where it goes. Did you know that Gustav Metzger is still stateless? I always thought that would be the solution, to be stateless, not to be the subject of a monarch, but I’m afraid that I couldn’t stand the hassle at borders.

i: The Eurostar would be difficult.

c: Yeah, I’d have to swim, or buy a boat.

i: Thankyou Carl, I hope we can continue this conversation soon…

c: Yeah, when I’ve settled in a bit.