Interview: Kalup Linzy In Between Acting and Performing

Commenting on a creative relationship that was at the beginning of its end, a 2011 New York Times article quoted Hyperallergic editor-in-chief Hrag Vartanian as saying, “I don’t know whether [James] Franco is using Kalup [Linzy] for artworld cred [or] vice-versa, in terms of Kalup getting pop-culture cred.” Several years since the collaboration fizzled out, it’s still difficult to untangle the dynamics of that social transaction-cum-creative partnership. Still, what’s key to understanding Linzy’s practice, or at least to making peace with it, is not speculation on the intent behind his work but the ambiguity it exists within.

Linzy has been creating video and performance work that has heretofore defined his career for more than a decade. Characters and narratives that span works evolve rhizomatically and find form in melodramas, music videos, concert performances, and, above all else, soap operas. Linzy situates the work as teetering uncomfortably between the artworld and the entertainment industry, adoring emulation and biting caricaturization, fan fiction and satire. Since 2009, when he appeared alongside Franco on the soap opera General Hospital, distinctions between contemporary art and show business in Linzy’s performances became hazy. Indeed, when addressing two ostensibly oppositional themes or elements, Linzy’s body of work often seems to commit to neither, or more accurately, commits to both. This ambiguity is frequently read, perhaps unfairly, as ambivalence or even naïveté (for instance, in the same Times article quoted above, writer Tim Murphy reflects, “It was hard to know if Mr. Linzy was in on the joke, which could also describe the artworld’s amusement with his work”).

After speaking with Linzy, however, it’s clear to me that he’s mindful and at ease with the seemingly contrary aspects of his work and practice, content with manifold meanings that aren’t easily reconciled and even, perhaps especially, with the unblushing artifice of high camp.

Linzy received his MFA from the University of South Florida in 2003 and now returns to the school’s Contemporary Art Museum for A Family Affair, a group exhibition also featuring the work of Renee Cox, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Jacolby Satterwhite, Hank Willis Thomas, Corine Vermeulen, and Deborah Willis. The exhibition frames modes of self expression within family frameworks, as the artists look laterally at present filial relationships and back at family histories. Notably, all but one of the artists include pieces created in collaboration with a family member. Also marked is that six of the seven artists are African American, though the curator explains this race majority as less a focus than a secondary product of her interest.

Linzy introduces two new large installations in the exhibition: Queen Rose Family Tree (2013-2015), a family-tree diagram composed of 83 painted collages; and Heavenly Serenade (Taiwan Braswell) (2015), a video installation featuring a “hologram” performance of the song “Asshole.” I explored the exhibition on a Friday morning, and then met with Linzy at a café near campus.

When charismatically performing his characters Taiwan and Kaye Braswell, for instance, Linzy belies the soft-spoken artist behind his protagonists. In person, he regularly pauses at length to consider his responses, and in a group often quietly settles back into an observational mode. Nevertheless, Linzy’s Florida drawl adds a certain appropriate drama to nearly every sentence (despite my growing up less than ninety miles from Linzy, I continue to find this accent ariose). When discussing his high-school drama experience, for example, Linzy speaks about the die-rector and the the-ay-ter. Like the dialogue in his videos, it’s easy to get caught up in his cadence. We conversed about him performing as Taiwan Braswell, his foray into daytime television, and the ways he reconciles outwardly antithetical aspects of his work and himself.

One of the first things I noticed about A Family Affair was your character, Taiwan. The installation Heavenly Serenade (Taiwan Braswell) features a ghostly “hologram” of you performing the song “Asshole” as Taiwan in a dark theater-like setting. Though it was the last work I saw in the exhibition, I could hear the song faintly from anywhere in the museum. I found the installation and the character of Taiwan affecting. For you, though, I would guess that it would be rather intense to perform as him a lot of the time. Do you feel like the character makes its way into real life?

Yeah, because the things we dwell on, the things we visualize, we end up attracting those things or summoning those things. You realize you can exorcise it but you need to know when to release it, because if you dwell too much on it, it’ll keep showing up.

You know Taiwan walks around in a leotard. I remember being in New Orleans in 2008. I was riding in a cab to Prospect New Orleans. I guess it was a red-light district or something. I remember seeing this person standing in a doorway in a leotard with a flower in their hair. They looked like Taiwan. He is real – visually, not just the feeling. He’s a vision that exists in the world. Or: I did really want to be on a soap opera. I never really thought I would be. But I ended up being on General Hospital.

What was acting in General Hospital like compared to your video work, such as Conversations wit de Churen, in terms of process?

I write the story, record all the voices, and edit the sound and the soundtrack; [then] I give it to the performers and we learn it because everyone is lip-syncing. So with the soap opera you get your script. Sometimes you get the script the day before. You go in and you get three takes, four if you’re lucky, and then they just move on. Then you just sit at home and see what they put in and what they didn’t [laughs]. I had no control. I have so much control over my own work. So it’s like giving up that control and just sitting there going, “Ok, how are they going to present this?” If I was in L.A., I’d probably totally be working on the soap operas.

It seems like the entertainment world, specifically movies and television, has a particularly difficult time connecting with art, while fashion and music perhaps overlap with contemporary art with greater ease. I wonder if it’s because music, fashion, and contemporary art all especially value authenticity whereas acting, in a way, is about being unauthentic. I wonder if you’ve ever found that to be a challenge, developing a practice that involves a lot of acting but exists in a sphere that especially prizes authenticity?

I’ve heard people call it performance then they say I’m acting. I’m like, “Ok, well, which one am I doing?” But it’s a little bit of both, because once I put that fictitious character in a storyline then that’s where the acting exists. But because it’s all my voice, then it is like a one-man show or a performance because I am writing and directing and throughout the entire thing I have some distance. Even when you look at good actors, like Meryl Streep, you say, “That was a good performance.” It’s this thing that just comes together and it feels authentic. A performer kind of understands where you almost have to let the conflicting selves go and just let that one self emerge. I think in a lot of art – when you’re painting a painting or taking a photograph or you’re singing a song, trying to take what’s here and make something be there that represents something – to me that is a type of performance. But it’s not necessarily acting.

Your work often draws comparisons with that of director John Waters, so, of course, the word “camp” comes to mind. In “Notes on ‘Camp’” Susan Sontag wrote a few things that really made me think of your work. Specifically, she writes, “Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style – but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the “off,” of things being-what-they-are-not.” It brought to mind your videos and the ways in which things are “being what they are not.” For example, people appear to speak but it’s your voice, or you perform parts in drag or you play the part of several characters in a single narrative. Do you feel like camp or a camp sensibility resonates with your work?

Yeah, I think especially the character Katonya was influenced by John Waters. I remember I had just come back from [a residency in] Skowhegan. Ok, I don’t know if I should say this on record but whatever. I had never really smoked marijuana. So I’m doing this work. I was saying how much I like [the 1994 John Waters-directed film] Serial Mom. The other artists said, “Oh you need to check out John Waters.” So I get back to Tampa, I thought maybe I should smoke some weed and watch a John Waters movie. I was trying to get that feeling and I didn’t do that at USF. So I get some weed. I probably shouldn’t say this on record [laughs] but I don’t care. So I get some weed. Someone gave me the Desperate Living tape. I sit on my bed, totally stoned, and I put in Desperate Living. And it totally changed my life. I said, “You know what? I’m going to do whatever the hell I want to do.”

Katonya is totally campy but I play her with emotion, not just satire. I do think there are elements of camp, but I think even though camp humor is there I try to approach it with a certain type of empathy where sometimes it feels more real than it is. So people are like, “Why am I laughing because it’s not really funny, but it is funny,” or “Why do I like this because I’m not supposed to like this,” or “Why do I identify with these stereotypes because I’m supposed to hate stereotypes?” It does have those campy stereotypes but I’m also putting archetypes in there as well. In Desperate Living a lot was based on archetypes. They have the queen of the trailer park, there’s this royal hierarchy in the trailer park. I don’t know if I would’ve connected with that movie in that way – I just had to have that experience to set me free. When we get stoned or drink we try to find these spaces of complete freedom. So I experienced that sitting on my bed watching this movie that’s so fucked up [laughs]. So it was a transformative thing. I hardly ever do it [smoke], but that particular day I needed something to get me going or maybe unblock something.

You mentioned that you utilize both stereotypes and archetypes in your work. I’ve read reviews that refer to some of the characters in your works as “alter-egos,” while other articles describe those same characters as ironic portrayals of stereotypes. It seems like those two characterizations would conflict with one another.

When I make these characters I will put a stereotype in there, I will put in an archetype, and then I will put something in there that is on a personal level so I can identify with the character. I think we all have a stereotype in us. But it’s when you take it and use it as a one-dimensional thing to ridicule a person or you try to diminish who they are by taking that one thing out of context that can be perceived as a negative thing or something that is so humorous that you wouldn’t take that person seriously, that it’s bad. The way the character is built, I don’t think the stereotype ever completely takes over because there are things there to keep it balanced. Personas seem to be more identified with real people in a performance, while characters are mostly identified with acting. So it goes back to that whole thing.

With stereotypes it’s also about who is in control of it. If I portray myself in a particular way, then it might seem less diminishing because I’m the one doing it. I never take myself out of the work. That is why I always put myself in there, because I know some stuff is walking the line. It’s always a tricky, tricky thing – I’m just always really trying to find a balance. So it’s just about understanding those histories and not being afraid to confront those histories. For example, if I want to do a certain character with a flower in his hair then maybe I do need to look closely at Gaugin’s paintings or Manet’s paintings. I’ve seen Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues, but maybe I need to research Diana Ross a little bit more and Billie Holiday to understand the tradition.

Is there anything in pop culture right now that has been informing your work or on your mind a lot?

It was interesting to watch that Nina Simone Documentary [What Happened, Miss Simone?] and see that she aspired to be this classical musician – I feel like sometimes I aspire to be this important filmmaker. It might be that I started pursuing one thing but because of the setup of the culture I became something else. So watching her story kind of shed light on it. I hope I don’t end up not accomplishing what I set out to be even though I accomplished a lot. And that’s how I feel that documentary was framed. I don’t know. It was kind of sad. I feel like I haven’t accomplished some of the things I wanted to, but I’ve accomplished more than most artists have. I totally understand that: setting out to do one thing and then it doesn’t happen the way you thought it would. Because she was taught to perform classically.

She had the potential to do even more.

Yeah, so I wondered that about myself. I know there’s still things in me. If you set out to do certain things, people will blackball artists or put them in a place and won’t exhibit their work. So I felt that way, of being excluded from certain things. I have a lot to say. Not that I’m all that, but who really benefits from the powers that be when they decide they don’t want someone in a particular context or a certain show? A lot of people lose out. I’ve been thinking a lot about that. It happens today with a lot of artists.

What about A Family Affair, how do you see yourself fitting into this exhibition?

I felt like, a lot of times, their [the other artists’] work was more documentary than mine. My family was in my videos when I was growing up, but I didn’t put one of those videos in there. A narrative of me and my characters, though it involves a lot of performance, has always been told in the context of family.

This exhibition does seem to be largely situated within the context of family, and particularly focuses on identity-formation within that context. Do you feel like you explore your own identity through family structure?

Yes. The first piece I did, All my Churen, is where Taiwan and the Braswell family come from. Taiwan was created because I was this gay child and I felt like I had been quieted, so I thought I would give him voice. I had a close relationship with my grandmother. I was raised by my aunts and uncles. I think some of the mother-characters take on the characteristics of my aunt, like sometimes being really protective and almost taking on the dominant role. The matriarch becomes the lead of the family. So it happens that way. That’s where the work started. I thought about my relationship to my family and wanting to grow up to be this and that and the other thing, so I told that story within the context of a family. The character was expressing how I felt. I always think about my relationship to my family.

But I’m no longer trying to please my family the way I used to. I want to think about my career and where I want to live and how I want to exist throughout my life and my career.

When going back [to Stuckey] I was thinking that maybe I should really look at my daddy’s house because my father passed away. I remember coming home for mother’s day, going to see my mother in rehab, because she had been having health issues. And I said to myself, “Let me go drive to my father’s house, just to get a peek at it.” So I drove by and the house was gone. They tore the house down. That did something to me that I think I’m still dealing with because it’s something that I’m still holding onto. I don’t know if I felt totally homeless, because I had a place to go home to with my aunt and uncle. But that did something to me.

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