Julian Louis Phillips and Sean Pressley In Conversation: Lived Experience in Art

Interview and Photographs: Sean Pressley

Julian Louis Phillips and Sean Pressley are Brooklyn-born black artists. Phillips, a multimedia artist, has exhibited and performed throughout the Northeast US, and has received fellowships and residencies from More Art, Jamaica Center of Arts and Learning, and NARS Foundation. Pressley is a photographer whose clients include the New York Times. The two met and worked together, over the course of a week, to produce the OPC-exclusive conversation, images, and motion work below.

Ed. Note: In running this interview, I have elected to include the conversation in its entirety– edited for clarity, but without cuts. I feel strongly that the entire conversation is valuable and worth digesting as a whole. Additionally, because cadence and voice provide additional context for this discussion, both artists have consented to releasing the entire recording of the original interview, located in the media player below.

Hear the conversation:

 Sean Pressley: The first question I have is, can you describe the current project that you’re working on– give some insight as to your process, from beginning to end. What kind of mediums are you using, and what’s the objective?

Julian Louis Phillips: I’m always working on a few things simultaneously, allowing different parts of my practice to work themselves out– so I primarily use performance, sculpture, along with other mediums. I’m working on new performance work, which I started when the city started opening up again, and was reflecting on the summer. The protests from the summer, the lockdown, all these different things make up the performance base. I work a lot with performing for the camera, whether it be video or photography. Sometimes that means making props, which becomes sculpture– rigid static work to be performed with. And then there’s this aspect of film, so making photography, but with the performative element. All of this new work that I’m making has something to do with the conversations around policing, and around the carceral state, but also with how we perceive our involvement in both of these things, and how someone becomes radicalized or exposed to different ideas and how they incorporate these ideas in their lives. 

I’m a big fan of, like, Arthur Jaffa– his artist talks and whatnot. In his video, he basically says, when he makes a work, he’s speaking to Black America, and I took that mantra [for my work]. He’s speaking to Black America, but everybody else’s is invited to listen in. I want to pose that question to you — who are you speaking to through your work? Are you speaking to somebody specifically? And are there any inside references that you can enlighten us on?

Yeah, I love Arthur Jaffa. I think that his work obviously does speak to that. I don’t have in mind exclusively Black people when I make my work. I make work based on my experience; based on my trying to figure out what this world means being in a cisgender Black male body. So what sort of tension does that existence create? I’m exploring those different things, but I definitely understand that when I speak to my experience, Black people are going to respond to it differently than someone without that experience. I’m inspired by absurdity, and I’m trying to almost tease at the liberal nature of the art world. I’m really challenging that intellectualism, saying that “I understand if you want to look at race as a concept, you can do that, but understand that these aren’t just concepts, this is experience, reality, lived life”.

Right, right, because everybody’s experience or perception is different, you know what I mean? Especially as it pertains to race.

Yeah, the act of looking is really important to me. I’m really interested in “what happened”– that reflex between that viewer, looking, and what they perceive and how they internalize. I can’t necessarily have control over that. I’m interested in that process, and I engage in that process with the viewer.

It’s super interesting that you said that, because a few years ago, I did a portrait series that was based on people looking at things. I would say the major concept was the looking, as opposed to the subject, and the intrigue that that particular consumption provides. So I’m, I’m definitely on the same page with you as far as how people consume the work. 

Yeah. I think that the more I grow into the work that I’m making, control is very important to me– controlling how someone interacts with the work, how someone walks into the room, what they see first, what they read first. I think photography and theater are good examples of creating a framework of interaction; what you see on stage, or what you see within the frame of an image. That’s your role as an artist– to create a framework for viewing. When someone enters that framework, they have to enter your realm of thinking, your way of internalizing this information, whether or not they asked for it. I think about exhibitions almost as total artworks. The individual pieces are important. But overall, what you put in the room with someone to interact with, creates a thesis from beginning to end. You’re proposing something for someone to interact with and see, and by that you’re saying that this [experience] now is true. And so, especially with conversations around race, when we put something into the room, when we put something there to create a framework, that can say a lot of different things. You can create a framework that’s completely false, but in that falsehood, you’re speaking to a truth that we interact with and that we know every day. That is like a really sort of fun thing. 

[Ed. Note: In the following paragraphs, JLP references a work in which he simulates police sirens using party lights and patriotically colored gels, which SP and JLP interacted with earlier in the week, and made a short digital video of, embedded below.]

 You saw the police type of thing: sirens aren’t party lights. Sirens aren’t strobe lights. They’re not an actual thing that people use for emergencies, the way that police sirens are, but when you sort of put them in this framework, these individual lights with red, white, and blue colored gels on them, you’re now pointing at the absurdity of what a police siren is, by creating the feeling of sirens in a room, or around your body– you’re creating that feeling through this sort of absurdist notion of just using party lights to ask, “what really are police sirens? what are they truly?” 

Yeah, I actually tested that theory because I spoke to sixth graders [this week]. I showed them the video that we created with the lights, and they immediately knew what it was, and could immediately identify with it. I showed them a second clip, I showed them the clip, and I said, “What does it make you think of?” and they all immediately thought about the police. And it’s just flashing red, white, and blue light! But those particular lights made them all get that feeling. So, you know, it definitely conveys the message, even with sixth graders. You know, it’’s intriguing and it’s kind of sad at the same time. 

Yeah, that sort of that reflex is there right? That understanding of what those lights mean is there. That’s always a good test, I think– if a kid can get it immediately, I think the work is good. You don’t necessarily need to speak, but when the instinct is immediately there, and they respond with, “Oh, this is what I feel. This is what I’m responding to immediately” It’s like, “okay, I’m onto something.” Because it should be that simple, it really should be as simple as pointing at something and saying, “Look at how ridiculous it is” or “look at what this actually means. Look at what this is doing to us” For me, as an artist, in that action of pointing, that’s me creating art. You looking at what I’m pointing at is you creating that art with me as you’re receiving it. I think that photography, video, performance, all these things do that really well, and were created to do that very well. 

I’m a big fan of music video formatted content. You know the art of the Jaffas, the Khalil Josephs. I really, really love those types of nonlinear narratives and whatnot, and I do that a little bit in my own video work. Speaking of artists– an exhibition like maybe “The Artist is Present” with Marina Abramovich. Are you familiar with that?

Yeah, I know Marina’s work.

Is that something that you would delve into or have delved into at some point – putting yourself in the art, in the performance space? 

Yeah, I mean that’s what I do with performance in general. I think, first of all, that Marina’s work created a lot of what we think about as performance art now–, that durational, created spectacle. I am in a lot of my performance work. I think that goes back to the work that I was making when I first started thinking about conceptual artwork, and it was photographing my body and putting myself within the frame, and I continue to do that. Now in photography and video, but also, obviously, performance work. The durational stuff is very important to me and it has been a big factor of my practice. I did this work, “1518”, where I was in a six by six foot cage with a baseball bat and a baseball, and was basically swinging the bat at the ball full force within this cage. I did this until one of the audience members counted 1,518 hits. This performance would take hours at a time. It was inspired by Jackie Robinson, and his quest to be the first African American to play “professional baseball” in the white league, and all the labor and all of the hard work that goes into being the first, and how it also goes into being tokenized. That [kind of person is] looked at as a savior of sorts. It’s the same thing for Barack Obama, or any type of “first” but there’s labor that goes into that. All of that work, exhaustion, and labor– all these different things are important to me. It’s very important that I perform the work myself for that reason– but I’m also thinking about, especially now during COVID and all these things, what it means for other folks to perform my work. What it means for people to look at a script or look at a score or instruction, and to perform these acts that I would normally do as an artist. Especially when I think about protests, and when I think about exercising rage and sadness around Black death. I’m thinking about how once again, that perception can be turned on to the viewer so they’re not simply just looking at me performing their work, and going through the process of performing themselves, and having an interaction with the artwork that way.

Right, right. I can dig it. How does your upbringing, where you’re from, tie into the relationship with art in the present?

Well, I was in a sense, raised by two artists. My mother and father met working at Billie Holiday theater in Bed-Stuy, right in Restoration Plaza. I was born in Bed-Stuy. My mom is from Newark, New Jersey. So, basically my entire life, after we moved from Bed-Stuy to New Jersey, I’ve watched my parents just work their entire lives. I grew up watching them work from a relatively “poor” situation to somewhat of an upper middle class one, within my lifetime. But conversation and critical thinking was something that was very important within my household. Conversations around current events, around race, around philosophy, and religion, were something that we would have a lot in my household, around the dinner table. Art was something that was very important in my upbringing, whether it be theater or museums, to jazz music — all these different things were very important. It’s still sort of a surprise to my parents that I became an artist. 

You didn’t go to art school, right?

Yeah, I didn’t go to art school off the bat. It was pretty interesting how it went. I didn’t go to an art school, right, I went to St. Joe’s, in Philly, and the plan was that I was going to become a doctor, or something with medicine science blah-blah-blah, and quickly, I worked myself into a situation where I was going to be expelled first semester because of drinking and drugs on campus. My parents basically sat me down and said,“What are you going to study at this university that’s going to help you succeed in accomplishing this goal and finish school?”  Basically, at this point in time– we’re talking about ‘07, ‘06– college is still something very important, especially for folks who did not go to college themselves, but worked their way into the middle class. They wanted to see their kid succeed, so they’re like, “What are you going to study at this university that’s going to help you succeed in accomplishing this goal and finishing school?” The first thing on my list was art. I knew that art was something that I had wanted to do, that would engage me intellectually and physically, in a way where I felt fulfilled by it. So I studied art and psychology at St. Joe’s and in that four years knew that I wanted to be a professional artist– I wanted to pursue higher education within the arts, possibly being a teacher, and teaching at the college level. So I pursued MFA at Social Practice Queens at Queens College. So all these different things– watching my parents work their way economically into the middle class, being “well educated” — they sent me to good schools, I was able to go to a small private college for undergrad–, and being in a Black cisgender male body during these times– all these different experiences rolled into what I was learning about: sensation, perception from the psychological standpoint, and then an arts education from a Marxist, anti-capitalist point of view at Social Practice Queens at Queens College, and it’s made so like what I am today. The subject matter that I talked about, how I talk about it. Theater is a big part of how I think about making a performance. All of these things are like being a handyman– building being a builder goes into being a sculptor as well. 

Absolutely. I can definitely identify with that, because in my profession, my medium is photography– it’s kind of like a loose business model where you create personal work until you share that person will work until somebody sees it, likes it, and they either hire you to make the same sort of work, or they purchase the work to hang on their walls. There’s different kinds of business models within the art world, but I guess that brings me to my next question. For a person who is creative, and thinking “Hey I want to be a performance artist, and, I want to figure out how to live an artist’s life”, some kid from the suburbs who’s creative and doesn’t necessarily want to paint or take pictures. When they see themselves as more of an abstract or performance artist– more of a non-commercial artist, how is that career path? Can you draw upon what you know, for people who have no idea? Personally, I would have no idea how that works.

I think that there’s a couple of different things there. I think that anyone who’s a young person coming up now, first, has a better opportunity of making performance art–in the way that you’re talking about photography; something that you continually produce and create and people buy either your pieces or ask for commissioned work from you. I think that’s what’s happening in performance art now, because of folks like Abramovich, Carolee Schneemann – those who’ve gone before. But performance artists now are thinking about performance very differently. Performance is a medium that I think is very now— it’s something that everyone is looking into. I think the art market is really trying to figure out how to sell it, because it’s so ubiquitous right now. I think that if you’re thinking about if you see yourself as a performance artist,–even as a photographer it’s hard to make a living, right? It’s hard to make a living doing one thing alone, especially as a beginner, starting out. 

Absolutely, that’s quite a huge thing.

You have to know that. But I think that now, there’s so many different outlets for performance art–you will create your own path, right? You will look at the tools that are at your disposal, and you will create your own way forward. It’s the same for people who are hustling taking pictures or painting. Good. I mean, they find their outlets, they find their voice, and they compete continually to develop and hit upon that voice. Performance art will be no different. Now we have social media, now we have YouTube, now we have live streaming, now we have and continue to have live performance venues that are DIY. And we still have the street, right? Some of the most important performance art is stuff that isn’t planned isn’t necessarily sanctioned, isn’t necessarily paid for, but you’re out on the street making something evocative that people digest and look at, and that’s how you build your audience, that’s how you create your work, that’s how you challenge yourself. The artist Chloe Bass said, who is not only my friend, but I’m lucky to call her one of my teachers as well, said that the most important thing to ask, as a performance artist is, “why is the audience there?” Why is the audience there, consuming your work, participating in your work, why are they there? Because you can create a film, if you can create a photograph, you can create a painting right, and that byproduct is then consumed by an art audience, right? But a performance, especially a live performance, you have to ask, why are they looking at this– what purpose is having an audience? Because if we wanted to moan and rub chocolate on our faces, we can do that. But why is an audience consuming that, as an artwork– why is it important that they see that? I think that is always where you want to begin, and then, in that question, you start developing your own performance art practice. 

For anyone who’s young and thinking about this, look at what’s happening now. Look at what artists your age are doing, and look at what artists 10 years older than you are doing. Talk to them. This is an exciting time for performance. 

Definitely, there are more outlets than ever. Because I’m looking at something like TikTok, and it’s primarily a performance art platform. It’s pretty much just a series of short videos, performing art, so I see the wave. 

Yeah, that’s something that I share with you. I basically started in photography, with the camera. One of my friends said to me that the camera is what preceded conceptual art– when you can take something that is supposed to be real, photograph it, make copies of it, and disseminate those copies, then people are now not looking at the real thing. They’re not looking at a rendering, or a painting, which is an object in itself, they’re actually looking at a photograph. This is what created conceptual art. This also is what helped start performance art– artists have been creating selfies for a very long time. A performance for the camera is something that I think about a lot in my own work, but as you’re saying, with social media– things like TikTok, Instagram– performing for the camera has become ubiquitous with living in our modern time. We are always all performing, in some sense, for the camera– in some sort of framework of consumption. That’s why I think performance art is very important, because it takes an action that we see as common, and questions it. Especially now, during this time and place, we can’t gather for live performances anymore. People are having a relationship with their camera in a new, different way. It’s almost necessary that we create work in this way, whether it be old school, new school, or somewhere in between – this is where we’re at. 

Definitely…that was rich right there.

Leave a Reply