A few weeks back, Julie Niemi of VIA Publication, and I caught up with Jibade Khalil-Huffman in his quaint studio–a small bright space nestled off the noisy Figueroa Street in LA’s Highland Park. Over cold IPA’s, we chatted about video pet-peeves, the crossover between writing and art, and distinctions between the visual and the conceptual.
Jibade-Khalil Huffman: I don’t think I could ever do anything interactive. I’m too much of a scaredy-cat as a performer, which is why I usually drink before…
Lindsay Preston Zappas: Do you have to rev yourself up a lot? What’s your pre-performance ritual?
JKH: Well, It’s similar to giving readings. It’s funny because with teaching I don’t get nervous at all, but with readings (which I’ve been doing for ten or twelve years), I still get nervous, and have to have a shot before.
LPZ: I think that’s a good tactic.
Julie Niemi: Is it the vulnerability in performing your own written words?
JKH: Yeah, I guess I’m not totally extroverted in that way. But sitting down in a room and teaching, I’m totally fine.
LPZ: It’s also what comes with reading your own writing aloud–it’s this thing that came from an internal place , but when you read, you have to discover the voice of your own writing then try to project that to the audience.
JKH: It is easier with the performances, because it’s a character. In my performance coming up for Step ant Repeat at the Geffen, I was thinking of myself as an adjunct professor. It’s a kind of talk that devolves into a poem. I’m making a video with both myself and different people dressed as me in while button down shirts – and it’s sort if this talking head, expert at a desk, and I’ll just be performing this text. It’s like a poem essentially, but also a lyrical essay.
LPZ: Yeah, I’m interested in how your writing exists singularly, and then sometimes decides when to cross over into the “art.”
JKH: I find these distinctions really funny, though I get why they are there or why its important to people I definitely think of everything I make, photographs, poems, etc, in the same terms. For me the state of how this work is received is the most important thing. Some works need to be in book form, while still other pieces and ideas only really work as installations. But that decision about reception or spectatorship is key for me.
LPZ: What is the decision making process behind choosing the various mediums you work in? Do you feel like you are telling a larger story that connects the various bodies of work, or the writing to the visual?
JKH: Depends on the project. Or maybe the answer is neither?
LPZ: Your work definitely negotiates the space between words and photography. Can we talk a little more photo based work work?
JHK: (pointing to a piece) Yeah, I mean this series is totally the most straightforward thing I’ve ever done…
LPZ: You say that in a way like you aren’t totally embracing the piece.
JHK: No, no no, they’re just purely visual. They are framed without glass, and they are printed at this size so you get closer to it, and you’re overwhelmed with it. I’m only weird talking about this, because all the other projects are super conceptual.
LPZ: You don’t think that the visual can be looked at conceptually?
JHK: I just mean, within my own practice, that there is more happening conceptually in the the larger scale installations, performances and projections. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a lot happening conceptually in the photographs, but rather that the installations (usually involving multiple projections and monitors) have more room for these kinds of gestures.
LPZ: Right. where this is more, straightforward visual field.
JKH: Yeah, so I make these pieces on canvas and plexi, and I don’t show these. They are studies for the slide work. They’re sort of about dealing with my own limitations and layering and depth. I feel like a thing that I’m making by hand, and not showing, there are certain things that I can do with that that I can’t do in other bodies of work. But it’s like this perverse inversion. Usually a study is a quick sketch, but these are like really labored paintings…I actually sort of like this painting… But I’m not a painter.
JN: It’s always weird when you start fucking around with other mediums. I recently started–and I’m more of a wordsmith myself–I’ve been going over to my friends house recently and just sitting down and painting whatever is on my mind.
LPZ: Yeah Julie and I both started painting out of the blue in the same week.
JN: Right. and we’re not painters, and you get really insecure about things that you don’t own, or feel like you own.
LPZ: Painting’s heavy.
JKH: Painting’s hard. But you’re a writer, which most people shy away from.
JN: Well, I feel like at a point you have to own writing, because it’s so vulnerable. It’s so vulnerable. Especially if you do reviews, it can be a really really subjective process, which is something that you have to confront and own.
JN: As a subject change, how did the space given to you in the Made in L.A. show [at the Hammer Museum] affect your work for the exhibition?
JKH: Well, they gave me the room before we decided on the size of the central screen, and this while i was still writing the piece, and i hadn’t shot any of the primary scenes with the actors yet. It’s this narrative about therapy and tele-marketing, so I wanted there to be this tight claustrophobic space. And also, you could never see the entire thing.
LPZ: Yeah, I thought that was the most successful part of the piece: that you can see flashes of light and things like this. You can hear the projectors clicking in the other room.
JN: I had a friend with me at the show, and he just sat in your room and took it in. The space created a very quiet sanctuary.
JKH: Yeah yeah, I mean, I don’t know about the word sanctuary, but that kind of focus is what i wanted out of it. But at the same time, I think a lot about spectatorship, and how we read videos – whether it’s on a computer or projected. And, I’m very aware of the timing of things.
Like, you go and Sarah Rara (which is one of my favorite pieces in the show), but it’s 65 minutes, so you either go just to see that, or you walk in and see a little of it. It’s the type of film that lends itself to that, there’s no narrative really, whereas Mariah Garnett’s video is only 20 minutes, but it’s really tight, and I think it’s so much better when you see the whole thing. It’s like a really fucking incredible piece. But, I wanted to make a piece that could be experienced as 2 minutes of it, or you could see the whole thing. It’s 13 minutes, but it’s broken up into kind of 8 sections. So within it, you could experience the discrete sections, and glean meaning from that. Or, of course, get a different meaning out of the whole thing.
LPZ: So, I can sort of guess from your response, but what’s your opinion, then on lengthier video pieces? Particularly in a show like that–it seems like you made a very intentional move to address the type of show this piece was situated within. I personally have sort of an aversion for really long video work because its demanding so much, and you know, we are pretty generous viewers, but it’s still so demanding to require that amount of attention.
JKH: Yeah, so you have to be responsible about it. The reason i think Sarah’s piece is so strong is she really is conscious of the viewing space. She set it up as a theatre. She set it up for you to sit. So the flip side would be to not have any seating, or for me to have had an hour long video where you have to stand in this claustrophobic space. So I think it just needs to deal with that, and be aware of that. I remember in grad school, that would always be my thing with people making video work–like, why is this like that? Why is this being shown in here? So, I think it just depends.
JN: It’s the staging of it.
JKH: So, yeah, videos that are like three hours long… [lindsay laughs]… where you have to stand….and the other thing is like, for me, I see all of this anti-aesthetic, kind of shitty quality videos. And, that is a bigger pet-peeve for me. Unless you’re harry dodge who does that really well.
LPZ: But that’s always been the case across different mediums. Like there’s these cycles in art, where, you know suddenly there’s like a shit ton of bad craft art. And it’s always kind of a statement against the alternative. I mean, of course, that’s a pretty one-to-one move that’s pretty tired at this point.
JKH: No, it’s true. But, I feel like it’s so easy to shoot HD video, so you don’t even need something crazy to shoot good video, so there’s no excuse. I have this pretty reasonably priced camera, you know?
LPZ: And, you are also using slides (like in your piece for the Hammer), which have a nostalgically beautiful feeling about them. Is this perhaps to counter all of the cheap and quick uses of technology that are happening? Slow things down a bit?
JKH: Oh no, the slides come out of necessity. When I was in grad school the first time (for poetry at Brown) I didn’t have access to a dark room and so started shooting slides because you didn’t need a darkroom. I became pretty quickly obsessed with projection, however, in layering and experimenting with light. I still prefer slides because, unlike HD video, projected digital still images still look awful.
Jibade-Khalil Huffman is an artist and author of three books of poems: 19 Names for Our Band (2008), James Brown Is Dead and Other Poems (2011), and Sleeper Hold (2014). His art and writing projects, which span performance, photography, poetry, and video, have been presented at galleries and museums including MoMA PS1 (Long Island City) and the Hammer Museum (Los Angeles). His work was recently included in the anthologyThe &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing (2013). Huffman received an MFA in Literary Arts from Brown University in 2005 and an MFA in Studio Art from the University of Southern California in 2013. He is based in Los Angeles.
Julie Niemi is an organizer, arts administrator, editor, publisher, and writer living in Los Angeles. She think about, writes about,and works around contemporary art, curating, publishing, and tech. She wears many hats. Check out her website and VIA PUBLICATION