A few weeks ago, I posted about an event featuring Juan Betancurth and Benjamin Frederickson in conversation with Allen Frame. This ended up being a really profound experience for me (it’s going near the top of my list of great art stories next to the one where, during a Clifford Owens talk—he was riffing on his score for Photographs with an Audience by asking members of the crowd to stand if things that he said applied to them—I looked at the woman I was dating and living with, and watched her look back at me blank and emotionless while other people stood, clapped, and even shouted to proudly admit that they have, in their lives, loved a black man #awkward). My mom was in NY the day of the talk, and my best friend jokingly suggested that I invite my mom. I thought for a second, and sent my mom a text that we were going to hang out for the whole day. I don’t have the best relationship with my parents. I’ve always struggled with how to share my world with them (what is my world?). In my head, it seemed like a good exercise. “Hey mom, this is what my life is like. This is what I do for fun.” I figured she’d passively experience it and we’d both leave the event knowing that there is still some space between us. Buuuuut it didn’t really happen that way. For those of you unfamiliar with Juan’s work, it’s got a serious core of psychoanalytic tension.
I interviewed a friend, and one of my instructors from grad school recently. Oddly enough, we started off by talking about this experience.
Daniel Johnson – I went to this talk with Juan Betancurth. It was kind of amazing. He was in conversation with Allen Frame and I took my mom which was pretty wild. She actually liked it. I mean, not surprising, I guess it was different because his work is—he basically makes a bunch of S&M fetish shit. Lots of leather. Sex toys.
Dalia Amara – Are you concerned that your mom liked it?
DJ – I’m not.
DA – I feel like I know something about you now.
DJ – I thought it was going to be worse. I don’t know. Having a kind of frank discussion about sex in front of your parents is a little odd. I wasn’t that afraid of it though. My mom is pretty cool. She buys me condoms for Christmas sometimes.
Randy West – That’s sweet. She cares.
DJ – I know she’s not too caught up in being all rigid about sex stuff, but it was still an unsettling experience.
He hadn’t been back to his home country, Colombia, in like 8 years or something. And he hadn’t seen his family. So he goes to his family and says, “Hey, I actually want to make some new work and I’d like for you to be involved. Mom, I want you to participate.” He gets her to say yes, then he sends this white dude, Benjamin Frederickson, down there with all these objects that he’s made. And the dude’s job was to photograph his mother with these objects. A lot of them are basically sex toys. And he has the dude stay down there with his family for a week. The dude doesn’t speak any Spanish, and Betancurth’s family doesn’t speak any English. So these objects—gag stuff, leather cuffs, really intense. He talked about some of the punishments?that his mom enacted on him and his siblings as children. Like, the dude had it pretty rough. One story, he told reluctantly, was about a day when him and his siblings were acting kindy rowdy, you know, like kids. And his mom was like, “You guys are acting like a bunch of animals, so I’m going to treat you like animals.” So she treated them like animals for an entire day. She put their food on the floor. She didn’t speak to them. This is some heavy shit. Like not just physical abuse. He worked through it though, and was able to talk about it, and even in a way admire her for what she was able to do—her creativity. To respect it. So it was really interesting to listen to an artist talk about all of this so candidly. He’s making work about his past and exploring his relationship to his family. And here I am trying to figure out how salvage my own relationship with my mother.
RW – In the same lecture, while she’s sitting right there.
DJ – Yeah, she’s sitting there in the front row shaking her head, like yes to all of this stuff. And I’m like this is so weird [and awesome]. I was expecting that this would be a normal, boring talk, and he’s going deep, just scratching at all of this shit between me and my mom while explaining this body of work that he made with his. I don’t have the best relationship with my family. Typical stuff, “Mom, you don’t understand me.” Artist bullshit. Cultural capital. Class questions. And I’m like this is a lot more than I bargained for. But she was totally into it. She even asked a question at the end. They have the video of it. I think I’ll write about it and post the video in another week.
Back to the story at hand though, Betancurth’s work is phenomenal. Explicit. Maybe stuff you wouldn’t want to take your mom to see. But who cares, I did. And it was great.
[The talk is linked below, so be sure to watch it.]
What was really great about the talk was Betancurth’s frankness and his willingness to be vulnerable. His work is heavy. There’s an urgency—a really deep sense of deference—in the work. But he didn’t muck around trying to sophisticate himself or the language that he used to described it (I don’t think Allen would have let him if he tried). There were times when Betancurth seemed a little hesitant, which I think actually just drew us deeper into the conversation. It was like it affirmed to us that he was right there in the room, and we were all participating in the conversation. My therapist always tells me that art is about communication. And I don’t think she’s too far off.
What drew me to the art world was a yearning for something else. I don’t know what I would have called it back then, probably something like creativity or authenticity. But I think what I wanted was vulnerability—an invitation to be exactly who I am. I wanted to find my community. People who I could know and love that are different than me (And people who could help me damn every person that owns one of those fucking North Face Performance Polar Fleeces). I wanted to get away from a life that was stale—a life where movement was orchestrated.
All this homogenization of the art world, much like New York itself, is killing me. Things change, I get that. But this kind of sameness clashes with everything that makes art worth doing. I’ve noticed that more and more artist talks are these super stiff and rehearsed lectures where some really talented and otherwise super interesting person just talks at you for 45 minutes while reading off a piece of paper. Or robotically repeating the same talking points that we heard the last time they dusted off their lecture notes to receive a speaking fee.
If you’re going to speak or be a part of a conversation, then actually do it. Show up. It’s insulting to read a paper to your audience. And an even bigger crime to mindlessly push your way through slides while reading your artist statement. You don’t have to have all of the answers. You don’t have to always be prepared. Just be honest, and to try as hard as you can to talk about the shit that you can’t always say.