Interview with Chelsea A. Flowers
Based in Detroit, Chelsea A. Flowers is an artist who holds an MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art (2017), and a BFA from Denison University with a concentration in Black Studies (2013). In this interview she speaks to Masha Vlasova about making politically charged work, the joys and struggles of making autobiographical work, and practical advice for artists.
MV: Describe your practice to someone who has never seen your work in person.
CF: I would describe my work as intuitive responses to live experiences that come in the form of sculpture, installation, and most commonly a performance that is participatory. I use these forms of expression to address race, abuse, nostalgia, and visibility of People of Color and more specifically Black people. If I had to define my work I would say it’s multidisciplinary. My work is really just a physical collage of things I like, karaoke, comedy, and game play. And things that I think people should be aware of such as racial and socioeconomic equity.
MV: There is a big participatory or interactive element to many of your projects. Do you see these works as collaborative? What are some of the challenges of collaborating with the audience?
CF: Yes, audience plays a huge role in my work, especially in performative and interactive projects. A major challenge is getting audiences to forget museum/gallery etiquette. So much of my work is participatory and without audience interaction it falls flat. Or it’s appealing to look at, but the message can get lost without the interaction. In an attempt to combat this I’ll display instructions for how to interact with the work, or I’ll have suggestion bowls for people to contribute to ideas to the work. I do this mostly in Check Point--a piece that is all about playing with the props that I have created. The game consists of a spinnable wheel, a giant die, and game cards about Black popular culture.
To encourage participation during performances I put on my cheeriest and most inviting self to make people feel comfortable and let them know their contribution matters. And if all else fails I encourage people to drink alcohol. That usually helps.
MV: Can you speak to other instances of collaboration in your work?
CF: In a second rendition of A War On Partying, which is an installation that includes the videos, Why I Can’t Sell My Eggs and Zombies; I invited the artist Heather Mawson to create a piece in response to the theme of Reagan. It was my first time really opening up my work to see how the overarching theme could be interpreted. That experience was stressful because I have slight control issues (that I hope I hid). Really trusting another artist to do their thing and contribute to the installation was a task. But it turned out great, Heather’s work added another dimension to the project.
MV: When I watched Why I can’t Sell My Eggs and Zombies it struck me that I wasn’t sure whether I was watching a documentation of a performance, a video piece, or both. This tension illuminated for me this collage quality of your work that you mentioned earlier. What was your thinking process with these pieces? Where do you locate your voice in relationship to text, audience, and screen?
CF: In creating these video works, I think about the components of a karaoke video, a visual narrative and a beat. In the case of Why I Can’t Sell My Eggs the graphic is from the “Just Say No” campaign of Nancy Reagan. The campaign was a program in tandem with Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs. It was a failed advertising initiative that targeted children and attempted to deter them from use of hard drug by telling kids all they have to do is say “No.” Which is laughable because Ronald Reagan’s politics was one of the causes of crack addiction and mass incarceration of many Black and Brown people. His government and politics caused generational trauma for individuals and families. Which is really what my current work is about. The processing and acknowledgement of this generational trauma from the Crack Crisis.
In Zombies, I talk about seeing a relative shooting up drugs. I choose not to name the relative and give them anonymity because the story is about my experience, and my cathartic release over the actions of my relative. The graphic I use in Zombies is taken from one of Reagan’s generic election speeches. In both videos I treat the laugh track as the underlying beat that acts as the tempo. The laughter is cut from my previous performances. And the text that acts as the main beat. The text is from jokes that I have written but never performed. So my voice has a strong presence in the videos, but also has an absence that allows the audience to put themselves in the work as well.
MV: You and I talked about the criticism artists get for working autobiographically. A common critique is that such work only serves a therapeutic purpose for the artist. How do you respond to this critique?
CF: I think everyone should experience therapy, it is such a revealing experience. As living empathetic humans I would hope that the audience would be able to empathize with anyone that works autobiographically. Typically I believe artists that do work in a personal nature are highlighting larger themes that can be accessible if you exercise empathy. And even though the work is autobiographical, I love learning, and hearing about people’s experiences. Throughout performances I’ll pause and check-in with the audience. I’ll ask how they felt about a joke, and I’ll ask them to share any experiences they have with the topic I’m joking about. I acknowledge my platform and want to extend it to others to share their stories. I do this in the Roast of Ronald Reagan performance, and in any stand-up comedy I’m performing. There was a really beautiful moment when I was performing in Kansas City that an audience member shared their memory of Reagan, but the generational trauma for them was the AIDS crisis. They shared their remembrance of crack’s impact, in addition to the widespread of HIV/AIDS from unclean needles.
MV: What is the role of documentation in your process and what are some of the challenges of documenting interactive, time-based work?
CF: Documentation is very important, not just for capturing the work but also for learning from my performances. I’ll listen or re-watch performances to see what I can do better, to hear how a joke sounds, to determine if it was successfully delivered or not. Yet I don’t feel like I have resolved or am anywhere near resolving documentation of my work. Some of it is due to my not being able to afford proper documentation. I believe that it is important to pay artists. As artists we provide so much labor without pay. When it comes to hiring someone to document the work, I’m getting what I pay for. Sometimes this means I cannot afford great documentation.
Another big challenge is communication. I wear so many hats in my projects especially in the middle of the performance that I often can’t stop and check to make sure the person documenting is getting the shots I want. So it’s something that I am still working out.
MV: What are some of the spaces where the work lives or performs well?
CF: Because there is so much exchange and back and forth between the audiences and myself, the best space for my work is in an untraditional art space, where all can feel like their voice matters and that their contribution is valuable. So I see these spaces being in a library, in a home, in a park, really any community or communal space in which convening and conversation can happen.
MV: Do you have a dream space for a project?
CF: I would love to do an installation in the Ronald Reagan Library California branch. It’s this institution that appears to be rooted in a romanticized idea of Reagan’s policies. With little holistic acknowledgement of how his policies affected people in this country and abroad. Additionally it’s location, just north of LA, is in a closed gate community. I would be curious to hear/see how audience members interacted with my work. It’s such a bizarre place that caters to a specific crowd that I am curious about. I feel like I need to do something there.
MV: Often artists derive inspiration from other formats, forms, places, not necessarily within the fine arts realm. Do you have something like that?
CF: I’ve been doing a lot of driving to shows and performances, or to drop of work, and when I get tired of listening to music I’ll change it up and listen to stand-up comedy. I also really enjoy listening to cast and production commentary on DVDs of sitcoms, specifically the creator, cast, writers and producers of Community are brilliant, on the DVD they break down every joke and really go into depth of the writing process. That’s been really illuminating to listen to someone else’s process, as I relate it to my own writing.
I’ve also been listening to Serial season three. It relates to my interests in race and equality and takes place in Cleveland, where I’m from. Throughout the season, in all but one case, the defendants are Black people. With visibility being a major issue I explore in my work, I feel contention when listening to it. The repetition of hearing how the justice system actively works against marginalized people makes me sensitive and protective of the depiction of the city and its people.
I’m also listening to Solange’s When I Get Home. It’s different, a bit more experimental than her first album A Seat at the Table. I recently saw Beyonce’s Homecoming, the art direction and performative quality is amazing. And I’ve really enjoyed revisiting Jeff Chang’s We Gone Be Alright and Who We Be.
MV: What was the most recent thing you saw that affected you deeply? Fine art or not.
CF: There are two pieces that I’ve recently seen that are sticking with me. They both deal with emotional labor and the process of experiences. One being a performance/installation titled You Are Next to Me by Leslie Rogers and Mark McCloughan. The levels of care and comedy and awareness of oneself and others is really interesting and something that’s stuck with me. The other piece that is really sticking with me is Arthur Jafa’s Love is the Message, The Message is Death. The work is a video collage of immense Black joy and Black pain playing to Kanye West’s Ultralight Beam. The degree to which Jafa portrays this suspending and really draining, it requires numerous views to take it all in. I actually first saw the piece back in 2017, and it wasn’t until New Years Eve of 2018 that the work fully hit. Ultralight Beam came on during the party and I lost my shit. I ugly cried for a while. And while the degree of pain viewing this work puts on me, it’s aspirational for how I want my work to affect others. It keeps me thinking and just trying to figure it out.
MV: Holding Love is the Message the Message is Death in mind—and maybe this relates to an earlier question about discomfort and comedy—I’m wondering how you think about the spilling over of tragedy into comedy, slapstick into religious ecstasy in your own work?
CF: There are a lot of slap-sticky elements to the videos Jafa is using in Love is the Message, the Message is Death and it could be interesting to think about the video under the scope of slapstick. There’s almost a perversion to it. But I mean, if slapstick is this continuous action that results in failure as the outcome, then Jafa’s work addresses the continued manner in which our society fails Black people. But I really think that tragedy can be funny if you know how to deliver the punchline, and how to navigate the sensitivity to it. Comedy really is a precarious line and crossing over to tragedy, ecstasy, or political change happens when you find that line and test what happens when you go past it.
MV: I’d like to end by asking you to share an advice you’ve been given that you found meaningful or impactful.
CF: A brilliant piece of advice I wish that I’d followed better and heard earlier in my career is to ask artists you admire for studio visits. Deborah Roberts shared this advice during out studio visit. I was in Austin, TX on a residency and struck up this conversation with an art collector. He suggested that I reach out to Deborah for studio visit. She was so busy it almost didn't happen, she even offered to do a Skype visit if all else fails. I was eventually able to join her and her assistant at her studio. She was kind and generous with her time. She really pushed this idea that the internet makes us so interconnected and if there is an artist whose work you like let them know and try to get a studio visit even if it’s over Skype. From her advice I've had the chance to virtually and physically meet a myriad of amazing artists.