I Am The Monster
Trenton Doyle Hancock (b. 1974, Oklahoma City, OK) is a multidisciplinary artist who creates paintings, videos, prints, drawings, sculptures, installations, and collage. His celebrated work has received honors such as the Artadia Award and the Greenfield Prize.
When Trenton was in college, he intended to become a cartoonist, and that interest in comics, animation and sequential art has carried through his career. Much of his work is part of the mythic narrative of a grand battle between half-man half-plant beings known as the Mounds, and the Vegans who seek to destroy them. Over the course of a three hour conversation, Trenton spoke with LAAB about modern folklore, mythic structures, racial identity, family history, and the context of fine art and comics. That wide-ranging conversation is excerpted below.
Art & toy design by Trenton Doyle Hancock.
Ronald Wimberly: Tell me about your relationship with the idea of your identity as an artist. How did your family play into that?
Trenton Doyle Hancock: They played an integral role. They never tried to draw me away from that lifestyle, perhaps because they knew it was something that pacified me, it kept me busy, it kept me out of other types of trouble. So I just kept to myself and I did this thing, and it quickly became my identity, even before I knew it was my identity — people would say “oh, you’re the artist.” You hear that enough, you start to believe it. I come from a creative family but they’re not visual artists. I mean, my grandmother made quilts tho.
RW: Mine did too. That was the closest thing I had to being in superhero performance — that my great-grandmom made a quilt for me that I used to carry around on my back.
TDH: Oh, wow. It was a cape?
RW: Yeah, It was purple — maybe it informed my palate too! She made at least two quilts for me. It’s weird, man, these narratives that you find echoing around. There’s this running myth about the quilt — the quilt as a narrative packet that can contain runaway slaves, embedded stories. So it’s interesting that you recognize it as the creative legacy that you have in your family.
TDH: Yeah, man, for sure, and I think that’s a foundation in a lot of kids’ lives. I think a lot of people might just take it for granted. My grandmomma or my great aunt, that’s just what they do. And if the legacy doesn’t get passed on through the mom or through yourself, it dies, and it becomes this mythical thing. It was more than just keeping yourself busy. It was a meditative thing, especially in the Black community. The idea of the Black woman keeping the family together, there’s a kind of a meditative thing, when you’re shouldered with so much responsibility, we gotta keep everybody out of trouble, we gotta keep everybody in order, we gotta keep this house running, and then deal with all the sociopolitical pressures that were put on Black people. It’s like, OK, you’re shouldering all of that and then you have the quilts. The idea of quilting as this space that you can go to, meditate, and then kind of reformulate some of your thoughts into patterns. I think there’s a lot of emotional weight in textile design. Not just for the Black community. It’s a worldwide thing, that’s where art for a lot of cultures happens first. It’s not even called art, it’s just this functional amazing this that is multipurposed. But yeah, I definitely I want to acknowledge that every time somebody asks how I got started, that is a key component for me, because I would sit at my grandmother’s as early as I can remember, two or three years old. I’d sit there in her living room, me on the floor, drawing pictures, and she’s on the couch, knitting or sewing, and she’d have these squares she’d be putting together in particular ways, and she might be on the phone on the same time, gossiping with one of her friends, but I felt this sense of camaraderie because I’m down here making art on the floor, Grandmom’s up on the couch making art, and it just felt like, OK, this is what you’re supposed to do. And I think a lot of people, they don’t carry it on. I just happened to be one of the ones who was like, OK, I’m in a comfortable place and I’m just going to keep doing it, and before you know it I’ve developed my own sense of math and my own sense of how I want to order my life through the page.
RW: Kerry James Marshall did a talk in which he mentioned the functional quality of art — that right now maybe art is a little bit divorced from its more functional beginning. I’m thinking about the quilt, and thinking about comics, which — you know, it’s not a chair, but it does have an inherent function: reproduction, storytelling. Do you have any ideas about this theme of cartooning in a lot of Black artist’s work? Even Kara Walker, she worked primarily in silhouettes before. It has a sequential aspect to It. It’s not comics, but it has an element of cartooning if you think of it in regards to gesture and narrative. Do you think there’s a reason for that?
TDH: I think the reason, as far as I can tell in the people you’ve mentioned — and I could name a few others, including Jacob Lawrence, to go backtrack to the Harlem Renaissance — I think accessibility has something to do with it. It has something to do with an oral tradition being very strong in the Black community, the kind of directness that has to happen in order to get knowledge passed down, to keep things moving. The legibility of imagery in comics — it’s very straightforward. If you want to tell a story, you can do that in painting, you layer from front to back to tell a story. In comics you go from panel to gutter to panel to gutter to panel, and of course when you look at it all from an objective aerial view it does become a quilt. You look at all the blues together, you look at all the yellows together, and you see these connections. So in some ways it’s a perfect art that fuses painting, fuses writing, fuses other types of image making together, to create a very efficient multi-functional hybrid way of delivering information. I would say that is one of the reasons I gravitate to it.
RW: I think that the common viewer, when viewing art created by Black people, tends to think, “This is Black art.” But your work has a way of subverting that perception through use of proxies, like in your Garbage Pail Kids piece. And I think you using those proxies allows me as the viewer to examine the work outside of that context and maybe even to abstract it and deal with issues of identity or pop culture or even the underlying ideas inherent in Blackness, without it being connected directly to Black bodies.
TDH: Okay. Yes. And I think, by design, that is, how I’ve wanted to move through space and create an artistic identity was that the byproduct of me presenting my own body and my own skin, and is about Blackness to some degree. The fact that I made it, people can always move out one more step and see that the whole project is, well, made by a Black American man, and so we can regardless of what I make talk about it in terms of that too. But once you get past a certain point, my interest is in examining pop culture, it’s in examining all these structures and institutions, in my orbit that has affected me. And it’s a very personal kind of a journey. Often times, Garbage Pail Kids didn’t have much to do with Black or white. It had more to do with an abject critique on purity in the Reagan era. So it’s like, that’s how satire operated. It wasn’t made by children. It was made by grownups, and they were thinking through your pimples and brushes, creating the media they wish they had when they were kids. They had it through Mad magazine, they had it through a variety of underground sources, and they wanted to continue that tradition and they were able to Trojan horse that into our lives, luckily for us, through the satire of these dolls. Every generation has it, every generation has parents that hate it, and that’s just the way it’s going to be, especially in America, where, I feel that’s part of the motor that keeps this country going, it’s satire and humor, and criticism.
RW: I’m thinking about your particular type of practice and what you’ve taken as a palette to create. How do you feel about being a fine artist — and maybe this is the difference between what you do and comics, which is mass-marketed?
TDH: I feel like the speed of the mediums is very different, what you can get done in painting versus what you can get done in comics or some other speedier format. There’s a richness that can happen in comics that’s just as rich as in painting. But it’s harder to get that crossover appeal to music, to fashion, through fine art. I think the pathway’s a lot clearer… if there’s a spectrum, comics are closer to Hollywood, closer to film, closer to animation than they are to painting, which has its own more sluggish viewing rate. But there are people who play with that viewing rate, obviously, like the pop artist Kaws is a perfect example. Takashi Murakami has created this blueprint, a millennial blueprint as to how these things can be merged and you can actually have your cake and eat it too in some ways. I’m trying to make toys, to dip my toe into animation, obviously I’m jumping into comics now and trying to figure out that space for myself. I really do want to get to Hollywood. I really do want the Mound saga be in the space that George Lucas or Spielberg has occupied for so long. I see it finally happening now, it’s funny, there is this renaissance of Black creativity that’s starting to crop up — it’s always been there, but it’s starting to get a platform — you know, Get Out, is one of the highest pound-per-pound grossing films ever, and that’s amazing. And it’s a film that’s much needed. And he was thinking the same way we are: how do you innovate this space and get a voice in there that’s been long since forgotten, that people maybe didn’t even know they needed? And then you go see it, and it’s like, I can’t believe we lived this long without this voice.
RW: (laughs) Well, you know, it’s funny, speaking of oral traditions — maybe we don’t have the structure to make it into a film, but how many times have you come out of a relationship with a white girl if you’re a Black man, and you could have told that story? Like, how many times were kids sitting around a campfire telling the story of Jason or something before it coalesced into those films? Like Freddy? Like, how many times was that a collective nightmare before someone came along and wrote a script? I think it has a lot to do with aspects and structures. How many generations had to pass before there was someone who was given both the tools and the wherewithal and the supportive environment to be like, hey, yeah, make a TV show. Make a movie. Here’s the camera. It’s a delicate, fine line to walk. Because I do think there are outliers who just go and do the damn thing. But then where is the outlet for that particular piece of media or voice? In this time and this place, like you said, it’s starting to come together where yes, someone can make that film, it doesn’t have to fit within that stereotypical, the lane we have for Black creativity, maybe like some sort of a comedy or lampooning — no, you can make a serious horror or psychological thriller — and yes, this is the place, and as we evolve, maybe there is a place for more and richer or different types of expression.
TDH: I’m just going to jump off what your were saying. I totally agree. I also would say that it’s not a new voice, it’s just particular stars lined up. We had Jordan Peele, he’s fluent in so many different aspects of the industry and he was able to navigate and get that in there. I don’t know much about Hollywood, I just love film. But I think some of the politics might be that, well, we’ll put X amount of dollars into this, and if it makes its budget back, which was a modest one, it’s still a success as an indie film. What happened was, just like Rocky and a variety of other films that were more like indie film, they had a lot of heart, it was all about the acting, and then they turned into blockbusters. Outside the politics of race, it’s just that kind of thing where you can’t underestimate the underdog. In indie film, in indie music, in indie what have you, there are all these great ideas that are happening because they’re raw. They can do what they do because no one’s looking, until they are.
RW: It’s interesting, because that has been the story of Black performance. Separate but also overlapping — there’s this space where you’re not expected to perform, going back to the Blaxploitation era. You’re not expected to perform, even going into places that had been in the purview of Black performance. It’s not unacceptable for conventional notions of what a Black body can do or a Black mind can do to excel in athletics, for instance. But actually at one point in time white supremacy didn’t even give space to Black bodies to perform [in athletics]. On another level. So you get a Joe Lewis or a Jack Johnson — that had to happen in a way that was undeniable. In the course of what you’re talking about with film, which is first and foremost a business, these films had to perform at such a level for it to be seen as viable. And I’m wondering, will what happened, with, say like basketball — not in regards to the look of the sport or the sector of commerce, but more in regard of “ok, can we exploit this?” And in a way it’s already happened with TV, where it’s lucrative. The spectacle of Blackness is lucrative, especially in hip-hop. One of the things I struggle with is the ways the market grinds up Black artists, or even commodifies Black identity. So what I struggle ith is: OK, I’m an artist, I happen to be Black. There are things in my work that will be perceived as Black, and I know that a lot of markets and a lot of spaces, institutions — what they’re interested in is that aspect. What they can commodify about my work, particularly given my package because I can’t change my package. Once I’m in the room, once you see who I am, there’s that incentive there to lean into it. And something that may be part of my character is to be radically Black sometimes, but it’s not something that I want to leverage and sell. And I’ve been really struggling with seeing that happen, maybe others using that, leveraging that Blackness to sell as a a commodity, not hating the player but hating the game, just wrestling with that. I don’t even suppose this is a question, man. Maybe like, how do you feel about that, how do you see it? We’ve already talked about formally how you’ve managed to eschew by creating these proxies, these literal visual devices to subvert that. Do you have any words on that?
TDH: I do. And I appreciate you sharing your perspective on that, because as curious as you are about how this stuff is working on my end, I’m the same with you. In the comics world, if you step in the door, they expect something from you. You told me that story last time we talked about you presenting this very complex idea dealing with, I think it was Dracula, or vampirism, and its relationship to race. And they didn’t want that, they were like, we were thinking Wu Tang with some monsters or some shit. (laughs) So that’s what you’re fighting against. It’s the same thing where I’m at, where I think the spaces are opening up increasingly year by year, especially since I started out. It’s been about a 20 year arc of a few Black examples of abstractionists, you have a few Black figurative artists that are visible month-to-month at a certain level — Kerry being one, at one point it was Michael Ray Charles, Kara Walker whom we talked about, these go-tos… you can format yourself that way to get leverage or get agency in the fine art world, or you can try to craft your own thing which might be a hybrid of all this stuff. I wanted to have the kind of art that at the drop of a hat could make a 90 degree turn, and I hoped that people would begin to expect that the work at some point does that. When they get far back from it, they can see mounds, the black and the white and the paint, but the further you get in, the more complex it is. Within that big umbrella, you’re seeing all this stuff happen. I was very careful at the beginning of my career to tell people, no, this is who I am, you have to get used to this — to the fact that I’m going to be making prints, I’m going to be making paintings, I’m going to be doing performance, I’m going to be doing a lot of different types of things, and mixing it all up. And that’s who I am, and I didn’t even know what that was supposed to look like, an artist who had that kind of dexterity, especially that was the same color as me. I think I had it through a few white artists that I was looking at, especially West Coast characters.
RW: Is Jasper Biggers in your generation?
TDH: He’s a little older than me but we became visible at the exact same time. We were in the Studio Museum in Harlem Freestyle show together. I think that was 2001.
RW: You know, now that I think about it, I know his performances but I don’t know about his paintings. Does he do paintings?
TDH: He does, but it’s always on a non-traditional surface. He took quilts and painted on them. That’s the most recent painting project. He’s multidisciplinary too, he’s always jumping back and forth.
RW: I really want to see sculpturally what you’re going to do or what you’re doing. You could make some really good toys, you know what I mean? And I’m also curious: thinking about toys and sculptures, how would you get them out? Like Murakami Takashi, when he had his show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, it was so great and so funny and I’m hoping it was tongue-in-cheek, but the gift shop felt like it was part of the exhibition. There were things that you could buy now — and if you had bought them, you could probably now sell them for a mint — but these little knick-knacks, you know, if you were a kid and you wanted a button you could buy it. It wouldn’t be any more than it would cost at a Boscov’s or some sort of funky bookstore. And I thought that was great. I’m on the other end, right? I’m in the gutter. Right? Like, I make comics. But wow, I would like to generate work that would require bigger space and more time and funding to do on the scale that I’d like, but I don’t ever want to give up the idea or the opportunity to put something in a mass market’s hands if they want it. The little boy who was me, that subversive sticker bubble gum card pack. So how would you do it? Is there a way that you would present the toys as sculptures, or when you say toys do you literally mean toy? Because inherent in toy to me is mass marketability.
TDH: Right. Mass marketability and availability. That’s what I’ve been struggling with for the past few years. It’s all the R&D and behind the scenes where I’m trying to work on this thing basically in the basement, trying to figure it out, and how I want to strategize presenting myself as an artist whose practice has now branched off into both sculpture and toy design and maybe other types of objects. Really, it’s like Santa’s workshop here. Right now I have projects going on all around the world, India, Qatar, Canada, action figures, textile design, rugs, Halloween masks.
TDH: I’m going to have this big show in 2019 at MASS MoCA and it’s going to be my version of Disneyland. I have this huge basketball-court sized room and there’ll be giant sculptural things that you can enter into and experience from all different angles. There’ll be painted work. There will be pages from my comic that I’m doing that are displayed. It’s really to break down this idea of the mound for people who may in the back of their head think, “Oh, he does these things called mounds, we don’t really know what they are.” That’s something that’s filtered into people’s . . . it’s part of my identity package.
RW: I think about the way you walk that line in your work and I think of certain fictional characters… The Goblin King of The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates, for instance, or that evil little kid from Doom’s Venemous Villain, or Duppy’s, the Jamaican weird little mischievous goblin creature.
RW: Yeah, which is very interesting, because of the connection between the word imp. Are you familiar with Windsor McCay’s imp in Little Nemo?
TDH: I’m familiar with Little Nemo and Windsor McCay but not the Imp.
RW: The Imp is the little pickaninny character that he has. I did a cartoon of it. Actually, Josh who is helping me put this newspaper together, he’s part of this collective and publisher/comic book store out of Philly called Locust Moon. They did a to-scale Little Nemo book where they got I don’t know how many cartoonists to each do their version of a Little Nemo cartoon. And they printed it at the size of the original Little Nemos — massive, right? So I did one. It’s pretty heavy-handed, but I felt I had to address the Imp. One of the things I struggle with is sometimes when I find myself in a space — let’s be explicit: comics, right? — nobody ever addresses the imp.
TDH: Right. Because they don’t see it. They actually don’t see it, it’s invisible. For them, it’s part of a truth. And it’s like, well, this is what we see and if you are trained, you know, this is passed down as a legacy to see the other as something smaller than you. With that comes a belittlement that might be humorous, it might turn you into the grotesque. It becomes normalized. You don’t see it. And of course, from the other’s standpoint, I don’t look like that, no one I know looks like that, we don’t act like that, and we don’t talk like that. It’s these two conflicting realities, that if you’re not led into the space to change it — are you given the power to change it? It may never happen. They could just fire you. You have the power to actually point those things out, whether it’s through guilt or… they can just say “Oh, we just never saw it,” but they have to face it once you point it out. For me, with Kerry James Marshall and Michael Ray Charles, for sure, he head-on jumped into that. His work was so strangely amorphous and direct that no one knew if it was serious or if he was into the images or if he was critiquing them. Ultimately that’s why those images failed — or maybe they did their job. I don’t know. I still see a lot of Black artists working through the pickaninny, the big lipped characters …
RW: This is something that’s really interesting to me, because this is something I often got when I was starting out: “Oh, what you’re doing is racist imagery,” or “oh, I felt some type of way about your drawing before I found out that you were Black.” And to me this says a lot about what cartooning does and what it’s really good at. What those Sambos do is they reduce certain character traits and qualities and demonize them, to the point where it’s like “Aw man, I don’t like this character, he’s got big lips.” And I’m like “What the fuck is wrong with big lips, man? My uncle’s got huge lips.” Some people with big lips are beautiful — and there are motherfuckers out there with pink lips! And they’re big! So what’s wrong with it?
TDH: Sometimes I don’t know where the line is. I draw myself so many types of ways. Sometimes I exaggerate my lips, sometimes I’ll exaggerate other parts of me, I don’t know what I look like anymore because they all look like me. I’ll draw a million caricatures slightly different. When people look at my work they know I don’t draw a lot of different people. I’ll draw goblins, the vegans, the mound is an amorphous blob. Sometimes it has a head and sometimes doesn’t. And then I draw myself. Basically those are the key characters. Right now I’ve introduced a Black woman who’s a goddess into the work. And that’s been interesting just again, I talk about trying to step out into that water on my own terms and figure where this line is for myself. Can I draw a respectful Black woman character who is somehow related to my mom, my grandmother, my cousins, my aunts — can I do that? Really infuse the kind of power I see in them in this figure without it dipping into being overly sexualized or caricatured in a way that I don’t feel is respectful.
I think it’s all a natural evolution. There was a moment in the narrative of this story where it just called for the creation. There was a creation myth where this character came to be. It just happened to coincide with a time now in my life when I need to speak about these things. I’m thinking about it more, perhaps because I have nieces now and I’m watching them grow up, and taking account of time and all the things they’re going to have to face. Well, how can there be this corresponding journey of a character I’ve created, since I don’t have kids myself? In a way it’s like me putting my nieces in the work. What do I want to protect them against? What kinds of things do I anticipate them facing that then I could turn into narrative fodder? I could exaggerate those things and turn them into monsters in my own work, and then have them deal with those monsters. Perhaps it will be a bonding thing between me and them: look at what Uncle did, this is about you.
RW: So that’s artist’s practice as community or familial practice. That’s like building a quilt.
TDH: Yeah. That’s where I’m at now, that generation of my grandmother all the way down to this newer generation. How things have changed, post civil rights, moving on up through the ’70s and the ’80s, and I’m using my own counterparameters as a guide. Like OK, here’s the things I’ve experienced, here’s the particular types of racism that I’ve experienced myself. I can’t speak for anyone else.
RW: Would you say that’s one of the essential features of your work and your practice, that it has to be personal?
TDH: It has to be. That is the irreducible factor. You’re always going to land back on something that can be traced one-to-one to an anecdote about my life.
RW: Yeah, man, I find that too, but I get called out. I’ve gotten called out before.
TDH: Oh, really?
RW: Yeah. [laughs] Because sometimes it happens, like “oh, shit, this is exactly what happened and I need to work through this.” To put it down to the page, to exorcise it.
TDH: I think the best start comes from there, from that space. And when I teach, when I’m talking to students, I don’t speak academically, like “here are the theories everyone’s talking about now.” I don’t give a shit, actually. I’m like, we’re going to take everything back to the personal. It almost becomes a lesson of psychology — or some might say therapy — but to get to your center, and figure out where that is, and from there? You may figure out you weren’t a painter at all, you might be a comic book artist, you might be a sound artist, you might be a writer. Once you get back to the center, figure out what’s that clear pathway for you, you can get back to what you’re really supposed to be doing and your real voice. I love pop media. I’ve been looking at Spielberg films. I just finished Close Encounters again. Every time I watch it I see something different. Jaws is my favorite film. It’s one of the first films I saw in the theater as a child. But looking back at his oeuvre, you can see maybe what he was struggling with in his life at the time. If you look at Jaws, it’s man against nature. You can think of it in terms of Moby Dick, you can be drawn to literature or all these different things. Maybe this was him against the film industry, him against expectations, and it just took the form of a shark, of Peter Benchley’s model, and he’s like, oh, that’s the perfect script for me right now in my life. Close Encounters is about relationships, about following your passion, and for him as a filmmaker, who are the people who are going to go with you and who is going to be left behind? In that movie you have Dreyfuss’s character, his wife taking the kids — we’re out man, you’re crazy — and then he finds kinship not only with the aliens but with this other woman whose life has been affected. She’s painting mountains and he’s sculpting mountains so through art, through their hands, through their vision and passion and obsession, they found each other. There’s several moments in this film where — and I wish I could talk to him about this, I mean maybe there’s a way we’ll end up in the same room, or maybe I’ll write him a letter — but there’s two moments in that movie where Dreyfus’s character is standing in front of something, and he’s in the foreground and there’s things in the background, and the things above his head happen to line up where it looks like Mickey Mouse ears. It happens twice. And there’s two moments in the film where John Williams’s score gets into “When You Wish Upon A Star”, which was a Disney theme, and there’s a little music box that plays this theme and John Williams plays it very faintly and subtly at the end of the movie. And I feel like this whole film was this love letter from Spielberg to Walt Disney, who must have been one of his heroes.
RW: I’ve been writing about THX-1138 for this paper. There’s so much with so little in that film. It’s my favorite George Lucas film. It’s the one for me. I’ve never been a real Star Wars fan. I remember some of the imagery from some of the second Star Wars, like all three of them I remember bits and pieces, but if you were to ask me what George Lucas’s lasting contribution to me and how I think about things, it would be THX. There’s this Black character who comes out and he calls himself a hologram. The only time you see Black people in the film before he appears is on television — there’s this one scene where Duvall sits down and he’s watching TV and he’s jerking off and there’s a picture of a Black woman doing a little dance with some drums playing in the background and they flip through things a little bit and there’s another one with a guy all oiled up. So when you finally see the only speaking role of a Black character, he says he’s a hologram, I’m like, wow, let’s unpack that shit, right? [laughs] Because you’re saying something, man. And like you said, is that deliberate? Or not? And how is this the same guy who did Jar Jar Binks?
TDH: I feel like there were a lot of artists back then, post-Vietnam, reactionaries, governments have failed us, we’re just rogue artists making things. But it’s hard to accident up on stuff like that in film, because you can maybe do it in a painting because it’s immediate, but film is a deliberate medium. I have THX here, I’m going to have to revisit it.
RW: I’m going to have to check out Close Encounters because I haven’t seen it since I was a child, but the funny thing is something about the film, the way light works in the film and the way, being in the city and cars going up and down the street, that film was particularly terrifying to me. I remember the blue light coming into windows, and the wind, and something about it thinned the barrier between the fantasy of the world he’s creating in that film and my world as a child, moving from place to place. My mom was staying with some friends and I would stay with my great grandmother often, getting picked up and moved around, and something about that movie was terrifying to me. But also captivating. I need to go back and revisit it and see what it was. Maybe in hindsight I can understand why that film in particular of all his earlier films affected me that way. I used to love Jaws because I feel like when you’re a kid you root for the monster. There’s something about the strength of seeing a dinosaur, seeing a shark — this is stronger than adults, you know? This is power. When I was a kid I loved lizards, I loved snakes, I loved sharks. I’m like, eat those people. And then when they shoot the shark at the end, it’s so sad. I kind of feel this way now, man, going completely off topic, if I were a Lenin or some shit, a guy in control of things, I would make it so that there were no zoos, if you wanted to see some of these crazy animals like an elephant or a lion, you’d have to take your ass out there to see it. You have to see them on their terms. Which means, yo, you’re in their hood. They can take you out. You need to go there. There’s something about the mystery and the majesty of some of these animals. And I’m not a bleeding heart type of person. I love hamburgers, you know what I mean? I can see how problematic meat is environmentally, but like, damn, I like to eat so many different animals.
TDH: I’m with you. That’s why they there. (laughs)
RW: So just context, that I’m not that type of person, but as an adult I just hate zoos, I hate circuses when they have the animals out there. I shouldn’t be able to see this. Little children shouldn’t be able to take pictures with a full-grown silverback gorilla. That’s some shit that artists should have depictions. Maybe somebody went out in the jungle and took a photo or something, and every fifth one got beaten to death or eaten or some shit.
RW: But that’s how it needs to be! The city is where we are. If a bear comes into the city, he fucked up! Animals need to have that space too, where it’s like, if you go out there, go at your own risk. You want to see a giraffe? All right. Go at your own risk. Anyway. Off-topic.
TDH: That’s amazing. What you’ve articulated is a utopian world, which ultimately — there’s a history of art where animals take over. I think it has that spirit underneath it, and Jaws is no exception –
RW: Jurassic Park.
TDH: Jurassic Park. It’s what happens when we go too far. We think we really own these things. No, they really own us. That’s how it works. That’s fascinating. I’d love to see what you come up with, as a narrative. You said you wished you were — Lenin?
RW: (laughs) Yeah, Lenin!
TDH: I was like, oh, ok!
RW: I feel like if you’re on my political spectrum you’re always flirting with the notion of “Fuck! Why can’t these people all get this shit right? Naw, yeah, we need to stop doing such and such shit.” And the democratic side of the Trotsky anarchists saying “Oh, the people need to decide that. The people need to come to that.” But then the Lenin side is like, actually, this is bad for the earth. You don’t actually get to decide. You don’t get to keep using oil. That’s the Lenin side, which is like, naw. But then of course that person is also like, well, I gotta kill everyone who wants to kill me too, and by the way I said that there is no god but I’m God now. (laughs) That’s what always happens. But they were talking about AI, right? AI getting to that level where all these scientists — most of them white guys — saying “Oh, we’ve got to have checks on AI, we can’t let AI get to this position where it could be a threat” to mankind. What you really mean is white mankind, right? Honestly, if AI gets to that point and puts us all in booths, then like — I’m not talking about AI like face recognition AI, that’s basically built on the same white supremacist structures that round us up as is. They’re going to do some racist shit. But I’m talking about a literal synchronicity AI that looks at us all as biological organisms and is like, “Wow, we all live on this planet, and I gotta make sure this planet is sustained because I’m on this planet, so let’s solve this fucking human problem, right?” I’m not really worried that that’s going to wind up exactly like white supremacists do, because honestly I believe so much in the intellectual invalidity of white supremacy or colonialism. I don’t think a hyperintelligent AI, or even for that matter aliens, would act like European colonists did. I want to believe one of two things would happen — either they wouldn’t even look at us as intelligent life — they wouldn’t differentiate between us and slime molds — or they would be too intelligent to do the shit that Europeans did when they came to the Americans. Truth be told, many other human beings were too intelligent to have done that shit. I don’t subscribe to that fucking theory. So if an AI comes about that is more advanced than us intelligence wise, I would assume that whatever they were going to do would be equitable. And in a terrifying sort of way, maybe that they are able to understand that we are completely out of control. “Yeah, four or five or six of these dense population centers need to go.” And in that sense, that’s terrible for mankind, terrible for many people, but maybe at the end they have all their fucking math and it says like for mankind to exist as a species for a long time, it needed to happen! I know we got really morbid all of a sudden –
TDH: No, it’s really interesting. This abstract AI sounds like it’s outside the conversation of race, it’s even outside the conversation of humanity. It’s like, well, yeah, I feel like in all popular sci-fi there’s stuff that addresses what you’re talking about, it doesn’t go well for humanity. The writers that be want to infuse some sort of intelligence based on the tenets of white supremacy into it so that “we” get protected. And Black folks, people of color, they all get protected because it’s the byproduct of that layer of whiteness being protected.
RW: Could you elaborate on that? Because that’s very interesting what you just said and I want to make sure I understand exactly what you mean.
TDH: Well, just the movie A.I. itself. I feel like the Spielberg/Kubrick mashup, we follow the white synth, or whatever you want to call him, through this story. He’s the bouncing ball that we have to follow. So from the jump, who is this story appealing to? Who are we trying to protect? It’s this idea of purity. We think of purity as white skin, we have our protagonist, and anything that happens to this character we need to feel it. Okay, so, all the characters in the film that represent the others — it’s the AI and the way that they’re treated, and I think there’s this sense that this is how we’ve been treating Black folks and immigrants. It’s that we don’t offer them the same humanity that humans get. So there’s that sort of play in it. I see it from time to time in different films and it always plays out the same, until some Jordan Peele comes along and says, OK, let’s look at this from another angle. I don’t know how to unvalue white skin, or to bring the playing field equal, even when it comes to fantasy spaces. That’s something that I think about, because I’ve been programmed to think about it. So I’m not even sure how an artist would approach it where, well, take this story on its own terms and we’re going to present a new kind of reality.
RW: I think about in my work how that’s the sort of practice. How do you present alternate futures or alternate realities, whether or not race is a part of them, that by design are subverting these racial norms, and even the concept of race. Something that really bothers me when I see a lot in films is, you touched upon it before, the idea of other, the proxy, the other proxy. And I think the root of it, whether it’s like — what’s the one with James Cameron that’s like Smurfs except they’re on a planet and they’re all blue –
RW: Yeah, it’s like Avatar. Robotech and Smurfs. Meets Ghost in the Shell. (laughs) So I think there’s something embedded in all of those things which is the white supremacist idea that the other is legitimately different, and somehow not human.
TDH: You just gave me the springboard to say something crazy. I have always identified with the monster in horror films. In horror movies, people are always critical, saying “Oh, the Black person dies first.” No, the Black person lives to the end through the monster. I have always identified with the monster. Freddy Kruger’s Black, man! They’re all Black to me, because they represent white fear. They always take place in suburban spaces where white people feel the safest, you know? And that was white flight. We got away from the urban center, we got to the suburbs, we’re safe. And all of a sudden — it’s not about monsters, it’s not about ghosts. To me it really is this space to speak about the receptacle where this energy has gathered in horror films. Like, that psychic terror that, quite frankly, you walk past those doors and you hear the door lock. And it’s like, oh, I am the monster. So, I mean, I’m going with it. And it’s something I’ve never said about my work really publicly, these characters I create, we do not share what their motives are, “Oh, I thought this was a kid’s thing, there’s all these bright colors,” and then all of a sudden there’s something really strange or grotesque or threatening or jagged on closer scrutiny. Well, that’s that aspect where I’m drawing you in. I’m drawing you in to the house. Just like in the horror films. Come on in.
This interview originally appeared in LAAB Magazine #0: Dark Matter, published by Beehive Books, 2018.