The following conversation took place on February 25, 2017. The participants were Aram Moshayedi, a curator at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, and Sohrab Mohebbi, of similar trade at REDCAT, Los Angeles. Organized by Ruth Estevez, Geomancies, devoted to the Los Angeles–based artist Miljohn Ruperto, forayed into “concepts of possession, opposition and metamorphosis.” To this, we can add that there were additional excursions into demonology, exorcism, eroticism, OOO, B-boying, and Suprematism.
Sohrab Mohebbi: When I walk into this exhibition, what stands out is the unexpected shape of the video room. You don’t see it at first, but when you walk around it, you realize that it is a long triangle. What do you think of it, Aram? I found this functioned as an exhibition device, and a prelude to Ruperto’s film in collaboration with Rini Yun Keagy Ordinal (SW/NE) (2017).
Aram Moshayedi: It is strange. The unfinished exterior resembles something that might otherwise be considered “architectural,” and this for me is out of sync with what I expected from the show. This feeling stays with you when you’re inside of the video room. It’s tight, it’s uncomfortable, and I found it hard to breathe inside the space. Did you also have this experience when you were inside watching the video?
SM: Yes, and that claustrophobia takes us to the film. The main character, Josiah, drives the narrative. He believes he has valley fever, and coughs throughout. Valley fever, caused by the soil-dwelling, pathogenic fungus Coccidioides immitis, is a disease of dust, of industrial farming’s treatment of the earth, but Ruperto and Keagy take it further, to Assyrian mythology and the figure of Pazuzu, the demon of the southwest wind. This extension suggests that the disease, and its cause—capitalist exploitation—is the contemporary incarnation of the demon. Does that make sense to you?
AM: The use of Pazuzu as a foil is a way of addressing the environmental and political turmoil that takes place specifically in a place like Bakersfield, California, where the film is based. California’s Central Valley might be a context where the demonic mythology of Pazuzu and Lamashtu takes root in the form of valley fever. It’s not unlike the recent film Under the Shadow (2016), which relates the anxieties in Iran during the Iran–Iraq war to the mythological Jinn, a world of demons—from the Islamic tradition—living alongside us. While the ideas of possession and the spirit world seem to be from a bygone era, there are signs that remind us that they are still among us. This exhibition seems to take on qualities of being possessed, or maybe it’s a form of incantation, don’t you think?
SM: Yes, and the show is possessed by art history as well. Ruperto and Keagy’s protagonist is not possessed by the disease, but rather by a black square that hangs in the top corner of his room and at some point in the film rotates, turns into a circle, and goes right into Josiah’s retina. The film teases out a few parallel narratives. One is the disease, one is Suprematism, and perhaps another is how bodies are conditioned by these various forces. The dance scene is probably dealing with the question of how bodies are affected, but also how they can respond and resist: “What is the relationship between choreography and freestyle?” asks the protagonist, while Josiah is busting moves with his buddies in a warehouse. For whatever reason, it reminds me of the scene in Michael Jackson’s video “Smooth Criminal” (1987), with the kids dancing outside the bar in the alleyway. The film is wack all the way to eleven, the pigs falling off the cliff, the weird animations of Pazuzu and Lamashtu, the artist’s eroticism of the breastfeeding scene of Grapes of Wrath and its full restaging. If anything, this is an art B movie at its best. It’s as if The Thing was made for a gallery presentation in the possessed Americana of the Central Valley, with its economic and social depression, its perversion and sickness.
AM: Did you mean wack or wacky?
AM: Either way, yeah. You’re probably right. The content and the form of the film merge. It reminds me of what Jean-Pierre Gorin would say in his lectures about the importance of filmmaking having less to do with the story than how the story is told. It would be strange if the work was more refined than it is. Its disjunction performs as a metonym for the tumult of the region. Can we talk more about the main character, Josiah, who is apparently a college student whose partner has valley fever and just had a baby? He is really key in all of this.
SM: To start with, he is very attractive and has a compelling presence, but what makes the film is his lack of competence and how he performs it. His confidence is undercut by his constant coughing, which makes him a vulnerable character. In his mind he is the mascot, but on the dance floor he stumbles, in the classroom he’s out to lunch, and he is sort of failing in his relationship. He is possessed but he doesn’t know by what. It might be the disease, the dust of capital, Pazuzu, Suprematism, or perhaps a combination of all these demons. The film suggests, just like Kazimir Malevich did, that airplanes are grains of dust circling the planet; it just depends on your point of view and your scale.
AM: Care to elaborate?
SM: At some point Ruperto talked about his interest in Iain Hamilton Grant’s lecture “Romanticism and Ontological Suprematism,” and perhaps while the airplanes are grains of sand, they also are infecting the lungs of the planet. I am just riffing here, but Ruperto’s interest in the relationships between ecological time, historical time, and the timekeeping of us mortals is something that we can see in his other projects, such as the Voynich Botanical Studies (2013 – ongoing, a collaboration with Ulrik Heltoft), Mineral Monsters (2014), or his rock pieces. I am curious what you think of that dust-storm piece.
AM: The dust storm is a perfect loop. It becomes an eternal repetition. This is something technically very difficult to achieve. It’s a work that is GIF-like, even though it is longer than the typical two to six seconds of most GIFs. Have you ever seen a GIF that was seamless, that slipped in and out of time in this way?
SM: Sadly, I’ve never seen a GIF quite like that before. [both laugh]
AM: Well, the Otolith Group once gave a talk in Dubai that dealt with the problem of the GIF. They scrolled through a Tumblr site of animated GIFs while reading a text on the inherent present-ness of what I think is an otherwise disposable form. I appreciated their attention to this and their ability to theorize its logic. I’m not saying that Ruperto made a GIF, but certainly the repetition is key, and the cyclical nature of the work heightens the quality of being possessed that I think the exhibition as a whole seems to approximate. The lights pointing at the corner of an empty stage also have this quality. And the lenticular of Pazuzu has an inherent two-frame stutter. It’s like we’re not supposed to be here. The media player that the dust storm is on appears to be broken, and the space is oriented according to its own internal logic (that is, the ordinals), pointing our attention in directions beyond our control. The exhibition space is possessed. And before we go into an eternal loop of our own and start repeating ourselves as usual, I think it’s best that we conclude here.
Aram Moshayedi is Curator at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles.
Sohrab Mohebbi is Associate Curator at REDCAT, Los Angeles.