A few days before the opening of his new exhibition, I sat down with Juanli Carrión at a Lower East Side café. After asking the barista to lower the music so I could record him clearly, he launched into a labyrinthine explanation of his elaborate, multimedia project 10.21-23: The Plague of Darkness, which opens on Wednesday, June 22 at Y-Gallery.
The Constellations series takes over the main room with 10 duratrans prints mounted on light boxes, serving as the main sources of illumination. In each of them, the viewer can discern a map of the United States punctuated by black spots, which correspond to the locations of the 10 biggest US corporations. The exhibition also includes a 12-minute video shot with an infrared camera, mixed-media drawings depicting American military activities in the dark, and a large photograph featuring a city’s skyline in the midst of a blackout. True to the exhibition’s theme, the gallery’s walls will be painted black, and the viewer will oscillate between literal and metaphorical approaches to darkness.
Juanli is currently an artist-in-residence at the International Studio and Curatorial Program (ISCP) in Williamsburg. He first studied audiovisual arts in Spain and France, and following a brief yet bewitching stint in New York City, he got an MFA in public art at the Polytechnic University of Valencia, Spain. After that, the first thing on his mind was to return to New York for good, which he did in 2007. During our 50 minute long conversation we touched on everything from the ideology behind his oeuvre to the crazy New York wilderness, as well as his total devotion to artistic process and participatory artworks.
Laura: What is the background behind 10.21-23?
Juanli: The project’s title is a quote from the Bible, which refers to the plague of darkness in the book of Exodus. I have worked with light in many of my previous works, making interventions on photographic landscapes. I’m interested in commenting on the socio-political aspects related to the landscapes or to the light sources I use. In this case, I decided to work with the human being as well. Normally I only work with landscape, objects, buildings, but I’ve never focused on the human being. So for this project, I wanted to talk about the human being in relation to his social context, and I decided to approach it through the theme of darkness.
L: I’m following you so far.
J: It’s very simple. Everything starts with the video, which will be on view in the back of the gallery. I created a fictive world in which humans, in the near future, are capable of seeing in the dark. In this world, humans can’t go outside anymore because the sunlight is so powerful. Yet they also lack enough artificial energy to continuously power indoor lights. Consequently, they develop the capacity to see in the dark, so that they can live in the interior of buildings. In the video, I used an infrared camera to film these human beings going about their daily lives in the dark. The entire video is filmed in complete darkness.
L: How did you come up with this thing? It’s like a weird hybrid between fiction and reality.
J: It’s based on when I’m on the subway, in a gallery, or in any space in this city, and I ask myself why this space was created to be dark. The human being has created artificial darkness in order to illuminate it. Macy’s has so many windows, but they are not made to illuminate. For that, they use artificial light. There are many reasons why we create these artificially dark spaces, and I’m interested in talking about that. The reasons can be fear, security, financial speculation, a push towards consumerism… all these reasons are implicit in these dark spaces. In a gallery or museum, the reason is evident: you can’t control sunlight in order to illuminate an artwork the way you want to. You use artificial light to draw the spectator’s attention towards a point. Your intention is to attract. But in Macy’s, they use light to draw you towards consumption. And in your office, the same thing. They illuminate a dark space so that you are unaware of daylight, of the passing of the day, and all you do is work. This is why I created this video. In our world, we continuously go from one dark space to another—from our apartment, to our car, to our office, to the store. If all of a sudden there is no energy for light, these spaces are useless. The video is attempting to document how the human being would continue to hold on to these routines, which in reality are not necessary for human life. I want to question everything. The video is looking at the superficiality of the first world. Our life of waking up, driving, and buying.
L: And I would guess you’re also talking about how hard it is for us to disengage ourselves from all that.
J: Exactly. It’s all very ironic. Even if there is no light, the human being will still find a way to continue doing all these stupid things, which are what drives the first world. If you go to Kenya, where I spent some time as an artist-in-residence, they don’t depend on artificial light. Even without it, they continue to live and do things.
L: Is that where your preoccupation with nature comes in?
J: Yes, I think about nature and about the human being’s behavior towards everything. Towards other human beings, space, landscape, and nature. We are constructing a reality that is completely anti-nature, anti-us, even. And that’s the origin of the video—to look inside the first world in its domestic sphere. After that, you exit the video and you see a large-scale photograph of a city skyline in the midst of a blackout. I turned off all the lights on the buildings, as if taking you out of the video and showing you how that outside world would look. The photograph places you in the city.
L: And then you zoom out even more…
J: Yes, and then I show you the constellations.
L: In those you seem to use darkness as illumination.
J: Exactly. I selected the ten largest and most powerful corporations in the United States. Google Maps offers you all of their corporate locations in the country. I replaced each location with a star, creating constellations.
L: But you use black stars.
J: Yes, they are black because in reality these corporations are black spots on the map. They are not good spots. The installation itself is not this explicit, I don’t think, because a constellation is supposed to be something beautiful. Throughout history they have represented something beneficial to humanity. They represented gods, things meant to be worshipped. But in this case, they are black. They manifest the fact that these corporations are responsible for our present global situation, both in economic and political terms. They dominate the world, in the end.
L: I would guess that the fact that they are superimposed on a map of the United States adds a further geopolitical aspect.
J: Yes, I’ve concentrated on the US, mainly because it’s where I live and work, and it’s what I observe on a daily basis. Many of my other projects deal with the United States specifically as well.
L: And I understand that this darkness project also includes drawings?
J: Yes. After the constellations there are a series of drawings based on still frames from YouTube videos that American soldiers have filmed during the war in Afghanistan.
L: Wait, they recorded these for you?
J: No, no, they are public. You can look them up. The title of each drawing corresponds to the title of the video on YouTube. Soldiers filmed with infrared cameras, the same type of camera that I used to record the video in my installation. Soldiers have recorded operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, all the wars.
L: Is that… legal?
J: Oh yes. There are bombings, everything.
J: This is like Wikileaks.
J: I selected stills from these videos and used an acrylic transfer technique over paper. Then I framed the drawings and installed them in the bathroom of the gallery.
L: In the bathroom.
J: Yes, in the bathroom where they are in complete darkness. At the door, I will hang a pair of infrared goggles for seeing in the dark. You need to enter the bathroom with the goggles on and look around as if you were one of those soldiers. You need to search among the drawings. So then, I’ve looked at society from a domestic, daily standpoint in the video. I’ve gone outside and seen the city in a blackout. I’ve gone further out and seen the country, the representation of the first world with the black constellations, and in this bathroom installation, I look at the closet of society, at what no one wants to see.
L: So you’re trying to communicate a holistic experience, not only an aesthetic encounter.
J: Yes. I wanted to present a discovery of what no one wants to see. People don’t want to see the fact that these corporations are financing the wars because of their interests. Exxon, because it has interests in oil; McDonald’s, because it has interests in agricultural plantations in Africa. The United States isn’t waging these wars to help these countries.
L: Well, I don’t think many people believe that anymore. But what I’m interested in with regards to the bathroom installation is the irony – no one wants to see it, but it’s all on YouTube. Which is what’s interesting about our society – so much is already exposed. But you suggest that we insist on living in darkness.
J: Exactly. If you enter the bathroom by yourself, you can’t see anything. Once I give you the goggles, you can see. I wanted to approach darkness in different ways. I’m using literal darkness to talk about darkness within society and within ourselves, basically.
L: Can you walk me through how you conceive of your projects? What propels you to carry something to fruition?
J: Normally when I work, I start with an idea, and that leads me to read, read, and read. Years pass from the moment I start a project to when I end it. From the idea I move on to documentation and investigation, finding what has been written about it and what hasn’t been written about it. Once I know how to approach it, I begin to decide what I want to say about it. And the artworks emerge from what I want to say.
L: So you don’t necessarily know what your work will communicate or how it will look until after you research?
J: No. My work is 100% based on process. Everything is process. Many times, when I submit a proposal with an idea for a grant or residency, they ask me what exactly I’m planning to do. My answer usually is, “I don’t know. We’ll see.”
L: Would you say that the experience you try to evoke in the public is more or less similar to what you underwent while developing the project?
J: Exactly, it’s all meant to be participatory. For example, with the bathroom installation and the goggles, I’m trying to say, “No, you have to get into that bathroom yourself and search. In some way.”
L: Changing gears a little… why did you decide to hop across the pond and settle in New York?
J: I wanted to have the experience of living in New York City. In Spain I wasn’t able to really center myself professionally. Now my work is completely influenced by my experience in the US, although I still do shows and projects in Spain. When I first came to New York I wasn’t really sure what I was doing. My cousin lived in New York, and I came to check it out. Once I got here, I realized it was a place I needed to explore, and I came back in 2007 after getting my MFA in Valencia. Now I hope to stay for good.
L: Let’s talk about the Lower East Side. How does it influence your relationship with New York and your experience as an artist in the city?
J: My life is very linked to the Lower East Side. When I first moved to the US, I worked at a place on Norfolk Street, and lived on Orchard by Canal. My life was 100% Lower East Side. I also had a show at White Cube, which is right around here. Later on they gave me the residency in Williamsburg, and now I live there. But I’ve never stopped having a relationship with the Lower East Side. Historically, it was always been the most political neighborhood. Now it is less so, but still. That has kept me active and interested in social and political relationships, which are visible here.
L: It’s easy to have a broad world view here, and in New York in general.
J: With the amount of different cultures that coincide here, it makes everything easier. I’ve always needed to move around because I need things to change around me. Here I don’t need to move – I stay still and the world changes.