by Emmanuel Olunkwa

Aria Dean (b. 1993) is an artist living and working in New York. She has authored a number of influential texts situating the art of the past decade within a social context, most notably with her essays Poor Meme, Rich Meme (2015), Closing the Loop (2016), and Notes on Blacceleration (2017), that focus on meme culture, body autonomy, examine the ontology of Blackness, and challenge conventional systems and signifiers of representation. She and I first engaged in public conversation in an "as-told-to" for Artforum in 2018, shortly after her first solo exhibition at American Medium in New York. For this conversation we talk about her practice, writings, and general musings and interests/frustrations with art.

Aria Dean. Figure Head, 2021. Drywall, aluminum studs, wood, acrylic paint. Dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Greene Naftali, New York. Photo: Zeshan Ahmed.

Aria Dean: People have always commented on my love for Robert Morris and white male artists more generally, and I’ve been read as someone taking on certain histories and combating them, but that’s not the case. I like to take what they’ve made and play with it.

Emmanuel Olunkwa: I feel like people forget that artists are often in conversation with themselves or with other artists. I wanted to start with a quote from another interview that you recently did for A Magazine Curated By, because I liked how you spoke about your practice. I hate to quote you to yourself, but you ended with, “In a way, I see the internet like a theatre, where the browser window is a scene. How can an exhibition be a scene? How can we cut into reality or cut reality out of an image?” I was wondering what your relationship to the digital is, and what is its relationship to you and Blackness?

AD: I came to art and theory by thinking through digital networks because it was something that I accidentally encountered while I was in college. I was working with art, architecture, and media theory. My relationship to all these things came together in the “post-internet art” moment—though no one likes to call it that. At the time everyone was very into this idea of the internet being banal and everywhere. Because I was just beginning to think about art and theory during this time these ideas are really baked into my practice; I take the digital for granted, it’s always a part of everything: infrastructurally and culturally. While working at Rhizome, I made it a point to clarify that my interest was not in fetishizing the digital or technology but in understanding how it functions–the same way that you can look at an industrial infrastructure in a physical sense, but looking at the internet as another layer of how we interact with the world.

EO: [Laughs.] It’s like what I’m trying to do with Editorial here, where we’re just acting as if web3 has always existed, which it has in certain ways, no? It’s a moral question about how we tell stories through objects, how these things are sold, and the kinds of narratives that are prioritized over others. The internet has always existed, it's just about using it as a technology and platform itself outside of these applications that we dote on and around. For instance, if we were a proverbial lumber yard, that company wouldn’t focus on the fact that they’re selling lumber to people, but they are indeed selling the narrative of the object to you and its quality. It’s not explicitly about the wood itself but it’s about the story of its fabrication and how that is ultimately going to make you feel.

AD: Yeah, fungible goods. The internet bred a lot of frustration for me when I was actively working with internet related practices, and now continues as I’m witnessing the culture of NFTs. Most of the stuff that we do online is enabled by a very small group of companies. There are minute differences between internet service and domain providers or platforms. There are false narratives about the variety of experiences and actual infrastructures.

EO: We dress the internet up in a drag of our own desires.

Aria Dean, Untitled. Courtesy of the artist; Château Shatto, Los Angeles; and Greene Naftali, New York; and Elissa Medina.

AD: Michael Connor [Artistic Director of Rhizome] and I did this podcast for Rhizome recently with the Jacob Horne [Co-founder of Zora], where he was talking about how all the NFT markets, Blockchain technology, and coin swaps are built on Amazon web services, which isn’t decentralized internet. Cosmetically, it’s decentralized but it’s based on the web 2.0 infrastructures. It’s unfortunate because if you deal with the infrastructure, which some may find to be the boring stuff, that’s how you change how things are done and what conversations are being had. I barely know how to talk about this stuff because I’m not a developer, but it’s the part that I’ve always been the most interested in.

EO: What is decentralization then?

AD: In an actual way?

EO: Yeah, if we’re to think about DAOs and smart contracts—the knowledge itself is being decentralized in terms of its legibility on the topic but the infrastructure itself has yet to change.

AD: Yes, it’s the democratization and consolidation of power at the same time. Only the people who really know how things work, the developer class, know what the truth is. Jacob was saying that there is basically a movement of people in the programmer world who want to make these protocols actually decentralized, which is a tedious and problematic process itself. If you want to put stock in the idea that a decentralized internet is sort of a radical way forward, then we would need to work towards that direction.

EO: What is Rhizome?

AD: Rhizome is born-digital institution that was founded in 1996 by Mark Tribe. It focuses on internet art and digital culture, while commissioning, exhibiting, and publishing about the internet.

EO: What is a born-digital work?

AD: A work that requires or self-consciously considers the internet and different technologies as part of the material basis of its existence, but again, it’s an expanded definition of the work. When we did the Net Art Anthology, it was about featuring work that from its inception has some sort of alliance with or relationship to zeros and ones.

EO: What is digital culture?

AD: When Rhizome started, the digital culture at the time was about how computers—personal computers—were entering into people’s lives and readily available internet services. While I was there, I was working under the premise that pretty much anything could be digital culture because everything we do is touched by it.

EO: What was your role at Rhizome?

AD: I was hired as the assistant curator of net art and digital culture. Then I became curator and editor.

Aria Dean. King of the Loop, 2020. Steel, acrylic, polyester window film, monitors120 × 144 × 144 in. (304.8 × 365.8 × 365.8 cm). Courtesy of the artist; Château Shatto, Los Angeles; and Greene Naftali, New York.

EO: Do you remember your introduction to or first encounter with Rhizome?

AD: There’s a professor of media and studio art, Julia Christensen at Oberlin, who introduced me to the work of Oberlin Alumni Cory Arcangel, and Lauren Cornell [former Director of Rhizome] and Jacob Ciocci [Artist] who all went to Oberlin College before I did. The school had this weird history with net art and Ryan Trecartin shot his first film there. My friends and I ended up taking Julia Christensen’s class on media art practices, which focused a lot on net art history. I remember seeing Olia Lialina’s My Boyfriend Came Back from the War, (1996) which was the first piece of net art that I ever saw, and it was a browser-based montage-y thing. I’m sure pieces from Rhizome were assigned readings at the time too. Also my childhood friend Christine Jackson was studying at UCLA, and she and her friend Jesse Stecklow were making work together and he was in Jogging, a Tumblr-based loosely-affiliated collective that included others like Brad Troemel, Lauren Christensen, Josh Citarella, Artie Vierkant, and others. Christine was friends with these people who were making a lot of net art works, so in terms of contemporary Rhizome publishing, I started following that scene, kind of. I have this distinct memory of watching a panel with Amalia Ulman, Hannah Black, and Michael Connor in conversation on some stage. Around this same time, I got into DIS Magazine, so then, we started reading DIS and Rhizome every day. We were in the middle of nowhere in Ohio like, “Oh shit, there’s a new issue of DIS, there’s a new essay on Rhizome.”

EO: What happened next?

AD: Summer 2013 I stayed in Oberlin, Ohio and I did a research project. I got this fellowship which was geared toward getting me into a PhD program, and I applied with a project on the ethics and aesthetics of the built environment. I was doing the fellowship and writing about phenomenology and somehow found Mark Fisher. I remember that I had Capital by [Karl] Marx and Capitalist Realism by Fisher, and I remember thinking that CR seemed more interesting, so I started there and worked my way back to Marx. From there I found Nick Land, and witnessed the conversation around his work online…

EO: What was the conversation?

AD: It was about Accelerationism—I don’t know that I really understood the larger argument but what I did know is that everyone was saying that capitalism is not going anywhere and that the only way out is through, you know, that basic Accelerationist premise. Then I started reading Mencius Moldbug and all these dark neo reactionary people who were on the internet who I later learned you weren’t supposed to read. I was reading all this stuff with no context.

Aria Dean, Suite!, 2021. Courtesy the artist; Château Shatto, Los Angeles; and Greene Naftali, New York.

EO: But what about your interest in art? When did that crystallize?

AD: After my first semester of Oberlin, I interned at Ooga Booga in Los Angeles, and I spent a lot of time reading random art books because the afternoons were quiet. There I learned about Mike Kelley, Isa Genzken, Semiotext(e), etc. I also met Martine Syms there because she was an old intern of Wendy’s [Yao] and we met in passing. I didn’t really know who she was but then I think we ran into each other at the LA Art Book Fair and we exchanged information. I saw what she was up to and heard whispers of her work— "The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto". Also at this time, Facebook groups were big so I was able to witness the different waves of aesthetic movements and participate a little even from Ohio.

My junior year some friends and I decided to create this Women in Experimental Media Symposium, which was called "Don’t Unplug Me". Basically there were a lot of music guys doing a lot of stuff at Oberlin and we were into music and art too, but it was feeling a little dude-heavy. And there wasn’t a lot of media art going on, everything was very low-fi—like let’s make a book or a zine. It was very 1990s vibe and there wasn’t much else happening. So Spring 2014, we got Martine Syms, Anicka Yi, and Jennifer Chan to give talks, and Juliana Huxtable and Junglepussy performed, and Casey Jane Ellison did stand-up. We basically imported DIS Magazine and Rhizome people to Oberlin and hung out. We did this exhibition project at a space that was in town behind an antique shop. We invited Martine to present a microcinema selection of films, alongside some students. And there was an exhibition of student work. After the school year ended, I went back to LA to intern at Eckhaus Latta and that was when Zoe Latta had just moved to Los Angeles and was living with Dena Yago who was a part of K-hole, and the “Normcore-”coining-thing had either just happened or was about to happen. I went back to Oberlin and started a permanent space with my friend Casey Silverstein in the same spot that we did programming the previous year but this time we got the additional space upstairs. We got money from the school and then imported more twenty-something year old art people from New York and Los Angeles to give talks like: Amalia Ulman, Devin Kenny, Hannah Black, Rozsa Farkas, Andrew Norman Wilson, and Bruce High Quality. There was this group exhibition, "Initiative" that Claire Read oversaw that was this ongoing curatorial project. Claire started this monthly newsletter for Exhibition Initiative called "Rabbit Rabbit", so when anyone would come to town, we would catch them for an interview or ask them to write something—it was a broadsheet that was released on the first of each month. Then when we were really starting to feel ourselves spring 2015, we did this big show "Post-Internet is Dead" and mad people, maybe 500+ submitted work for the show via this single facebook event–we ended up not being able to handle the shipping for a lot of stuff, but the show had a bunch of Oberlin kids in it as well as artists from elsewhere: Devin Kenny, Tabita Rezaire, and Tony Chrenka and Flynn Casey who were living in Portland at the time running this space called Muscle Beach together. That same year Amalia Ullman came to screen her porn that she made, and I interviewed her for Topical Cream, which is the first thing I ever published about art, and amidst that, I was still reading about accelerationism and wrote a review about Laboria Cuboniks collective’s "Xenofeminist Manifesto: A Politics for Alienation", (2015) which is the second thing I published.

EO: What happened after you graduated?

AD: I did a residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida then moved back to Los Angeles. I emailed Martine Syms asking if she knew anyone who would hire me. She put me in touch with Marco Kane Braunschweiler who was the Director of Digital at MOCA Los Angeles; he needed an assistant, but when I applied for the job, he asked if I wanted to be the museum’s social media coordinator instead.

But through those Oberlin connections and working, this essay that I pitched and wrote while I was finishing school got picked up by The New Inquiry. The essay became "Closing the Loop", (2016) was published by TNI almost a year after I graduated in March, and then "Poor Meme, Rich Meme", (2016) came out in August. Michael Connor [Artistic Director of Rhizome] saw both of those pieces and reached out about the assistant curator job at Rhizome.

EO: What did the MOCA role entail?

AD: I read everything that was written about what was happening at the museum. For instance, for the Matthew Barney show I read nearly every essay and interview ever published on him and then would pull quotes and make a spreadsheet of planned posts. The whole point was to make social media in a more interesting way to get people to have actual information and conceptual conversations—we were trying to do different things to engage people. It was research heavy, and I just looked up a lot of stuff and learned about the history of the museum. Marco wanted it to be intelligent and not just *insert Barbara Kruger post*, “Happy Fourth of July”—he wanted to be thoughtful and engaged. We figured together that the best thing would be to make it a research project. It was cool because I hadn’t studied Art History in college, so it was like this modern to contemporary art history class because I had to familiarize myself with the entire museum’s collection, so I learned a lot that way.

Aria Dean. I Think We're Alone Now/Hillside Casablanca v. 1 (1.0), 2022. Hard foam, MDF, coated and painted. (60.3 x 38 x 26 in / 153.2 x 96.5 x 66 cm). Courtesy of the artist; Château Shatto, Los Angeles; and Greene Naftali, New York.

EO: You wrote "Poor Meme, Rich Meme" (2016) while you were working at MOCA Los Angeles. Did you figure writing was a critical part of your practice?

AD: I did it as a talk first at The Museum of Moving Image.

EO: What prompted you to submit a proposal to give a talk at the symposium?

AD: Everything that I’ve written I’ve written because I’ve seen something and found it interesting, and wanted clarity about how we might narrate its functioning. One of the things that’s frustrating about that piece and my writing in general, is how often people have read me as someone intervening and stopping people from working in specific ways. With the meme piece I was interested in the actual economic imbalances and the imbalances of the attention economy, but there was also this thing, at the time, where memes were being circulated and accelerated because of Black teenagers. I’ll go on the record here saying that right now I don’t believe in a lot of the stuff that I said in that article–or maybe it’s more the way I said it. It was me musing at twenty-two years old, which I think is good theory-fiction, but I don’t think there’s any defendable claim that ontologically memes are Black. The real premise there is that Blackness isn’t anything. Black people are good at accelerating things but then the technology itself has to fall off the wheel.

EO: I agree but I don’t think that your argument doesn’t hold. I just think its subject has changed form.

AD: If I were to go back and remaster the song, so to speak, I would design it so that different instruments would be more prominent. It’s like: the way that the vocals are mastered right now, they’re too high. At the time, I was quite young, and the way I, and other people, were writing was different.

EO: What was the context?

AD: The conversation generally centered around cultural appropriation. Like Kayla Newman, known for coining “On Fleek,” wasn’t making any money, and everyone had thoughts on Black people mastering Vine and not being compensated. There was a very 1:1 conversation about theft and staking out cultural boundaries, kind of the apex of a (very limited) conversation brewing on campuses like Oberlin in the earlier 2010s.

EO: Although that conversation might have been cringe, a lot of women started occupying positions within art, culture, and publishing.

AD: Right. Doreen [St. Felix] was writing about these topics and Lauren Jackson, Hannah Black, and there was a real cohort of people in the weeds trying to figure it out. These conversations were happening on a cultural level, but I was interested in this question of, “Why is it [Blackness] so bad at protecting itself?” Memes were a great object lesson because there was already a body of thinking around what memes do and how they move, on what Blackness is and how it moves, and these are memes that Black people are making—so it was about looking at what they were doing. In that essay part of what I was trying to say was that the economy of it is not one of supply and demand or scarcity. It was an accelerated abundance; spread and reach were what people wanted.

EO: Power? Where would you place these theories in the current content? TikTok, Twitter, or Instagram?

AD: Yeah, well now things are so thoroughly monetized.

EO: For whom?

AD: Everyone.

Aria Dean. Eraser (plastic phenomena). 2021 Cryogenically engraved crepe rubber, aluminum (36.25 x 13.25 x 0.88 inches) (92.1 x 33.7 x 2.2 cm each (36.25 x 41.75 x 0.88 in) / (92.1 x 106 x 2.2 cm overall). Courtesy of the artist; Château Shatto, Los Angeles; and Greene Naftali, New York.

EO: Instagram had also just started to pick up as a platform around 2014 and 2015. Most people started shifting from Facebook around 2015-16.

AD: At that moment, prior to 2015 and ’16, you couldn’t be actually cool and be an influencer; that didn’t really work. People were becoming micro influencers and cultural tastemakers, but still maintaining credibility. It’s not to say that everything was commodified because that insinuates that there was something pre-commodification, which isn’t the case. Everything is/was commodified but now everything is monetized. It was all happening very quickly, and I believe the last line of the meme essay was that this was more of a “homecoming into our homelessness.” Meme culture as it related to blackness at that moment, illustrated a necessity for us to become comfortable with dispossession, the fact that we can’t hold onto anything, especially when it comes to Black culture. It’s important to keep pushing and lean into the fact that it’s something that we’re good at.

EO: We as in Black people?

AD: Yeah, we’re good at getting a hold of a technology and doing something exciting with it that other people can then learn and continue to manipulate…

EO: I was watching the P. Diddy documentary on Netflix the other day and there really is a tragedy to being the first to do anything successfully. He was this prolific music executive and mogul in the 1990s and then started his own label which is culturally and socially what we know to be dubbed Rap and R&B music today. Those people who he signed and whose sound he honed are the purveyors of this culture who were sacrificed because they flew too close to the sun or like didn’t innovate or implement long-term strategy because the cart was moving so quickly, and success seemed like a promised virtue. It’s funny because it made me think about how Kid Cudi or even Kanye West aren’t representations of Black music because they’re two different things. Kanye is a visionary who uses the medium to create a new sonic palette—it’s an entirely different demand of him and his work, the socioeconomic and generational differences that inform the break and reception of his work to executives like Damon Dash and Jay-Z of Roc-a-Fella Records in the early 2000s. All I’m going to say is that sonic cosmology took place in the 1990s in terms of production, reception, and invention in acts like Biggie Smalls, Tupac, Faith Evans, Lil’ Kim, and Mary J. Blidge. It’s all the difference between cultivating and creating Black art and making contemporary culture.

AD: I was watching the This is Pop, (2021) docuseries Stockholm Syndrome episode you suggested, and I think that we overinvest ourselves in there being an authentic pursuit in any cultural production. I think yes, they’re making sounds and they’re vibing but the whole point was for the sound to be infectious.

EO: That reminds me of Jay-Z’s presence in Kanye West’s Netflix documentary where he says that Jay approves tracks of his records while the music blasting in speakers in a room—that he doesn’t use headphones—it’s about how sound registers in space. I always thought that was an interesting bit because it speaks to the necessity of the architecture of the sound that’s being produced. It’s a sound built to reach the masses, it’s something you bump to that is meant to move you.

AD: Think about how many people who were involved in the production of the music and image of the sound of major Black artists. A lot of those executives were white people. Which isn’t to say we should thank those white guys, most of them in suits, but we shouldn’t pretend there is anything 100% pure either.

EO: We wouldn’t have R&B arguably without Clive Davis, who signed P. Diddy aka Sean Combs at twenty-three years old, neither would we have Whitney Houston. The individual politics of appropriation and Black sound have always been murky. Houston was held hostage to the beliefs that her music didn’t yield to a Black enough audience.

AD: It goes back to what we always talk about with long-term versus short-term games, where people don’t understand the scope of things.

EO: It’s largely to do with how the history of things and how they work doesn’t always reach people. We understand that things occurred, but rarely do we inquire what made that thing work in the first place. We should be more in the business of questioning if the outcome was the intended result. Varying kinds of alienation on the front of any person involved. [Laughs].

AD: Anything that has made it to the top of culture that everyone knows about took a large team, even if they’re dispersed. It takes a significant body of people to create something that has that much cultural staying power in most cases, after a certain point in history. This can be like a proper creative direction team, or simply a community of people thinking together.

EO: What’s a reference point?

AD: Michael Jackson. He didn’t just pop out of nowhere and write all of his songs. There were a million people who were behind him, not to say that he didn’t have natural talent but more to highlight that it’s a machine and a lot of these questions and conversations people were having between 2014-17 were kind of naïve, and I’m implicating myself as well. Another example is Donald Glover’s "This is America", people act like he woke up one day and decided to write that song himself, made the video, and no one was involved. I’m saying for better or for worse, there’s a conversation behind closed doors that results in the things that pop off. Maybe every 20 years someone makes something utterly resonant in total isolation…

Aria Dean. Little Island / Gut Punch, 2022. Hard foam coated and painted. 85 x 32 x 32 inches (215.9 x 81.3 x 81.3 cm)(AD.028). Installation view, Whitney Biennial 2022: Quiet as It’s Kept, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2022. Courtesy the artist, Greene Naftali, New York and Château Shatto, Los Angeles. Photo: Ron Amstutz.

EO: It’s a strategy. Glover decided to communicate an idea, but I think it’s largely to do with people thinking that everything has to be for them and is made specifically for them. I was really obsessed with this idea of cultural amnesia in college, which was during this time where we were having the conversation as if nothing ever happened or there weren’t other cultural touchpoints to work from or reference. We’re in a massive cultural amnesiac reconfiguration.

AD: At this point, figuring out what people are interested in and how much they give a shit…, it’s the wild west. Other than analytics, which we know are their own kind of fictions, there isn’t a way to gauge culture because of how rapidly things are developing. I was talking to a friend about the notion of a permanent crisis being a savvier economic model than like trying to reach stability. He was saying that the cultural model for now is a permanent crisis—you can’t try to make something that will appeal in the long-term based on demand. The only way you can effectively do this is if you do what you want to do and you get lucky and people like it which has probably always been the case. For instance, with Seinfeld, no one thought that it was something that people wanted, right? People are trying to make stuff across marketing, art, and culture that play to the consumer/audience, but the consumer is the most volatile it’s ever been.

EO: I think we need to get back to a place of experimentation, frankly. From where people are forced to do a reboot of the same series in order to get greenlit. It’s funny that you mention Seinfeld, because I recently watched David Letterman’s My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and she was talking about her relationship to the show and her career. It made me think about our personal and cultural relationships to culture and the specific touchpoints that we encounter in culture and how they then become our new standard or whatever. Like Seinfeld is our main reference point for Louis-Dreyfus, but she had a career and story before that show's success that structures how she approaches finding work. It was nice to learn about her finding comedy in college in Chicago, and then doing Saturday Night Live in the 1980s for three years.

AD: Oh, she was on SNL? I didn’t know that.

EO: Yeah, she was there and wasn’t really being written into the acts as much and it just kind of fizzled out and then she moved to California with her boyfriend. [Laughter.] And she started picking up series work out in Los Angeles and just like gave it a beat and then went to New York to shoot the series pilot and was like who knows if they’ll pick up this weird show that they had given this new form. Apparently, she knew Larry David prior to SNL and then, as they say, the rest is history.

AD: That’s the thing, everyone should be doing things where they’re like “Damn, I don’t know if that’s going to work, but I’ll try.” When people talk about the “radical,” the “new,” no matter the industry, if you read any article, it’s always using the past as an alibi, everything is necessarily conservative when framed that way...

EO: Where does humor sit in your practice?

AD: Most things that I make or write come from a joke I make to myself. [Laughter.]

EO: When does the joke happen? While you’re making or writing the piece or is it the entry point?

AD: It’s the entry point. It’s a question like, “[Laughter.] What if I made a sculpture of me punching myself,” and then doing that, then forgetting the joke along the process and it becomes something else. With Flat Stanley, (2017) I was thinking about double consciousness, two-way mirror, duh! [Laughter.] I guess a lot of the work is presenting material puns. I think humor is the most potent affect in relationship to ideas because it opens up the space between you and other people. For me it’s like, I think this is funny for these reasons—does that appeal to you? I think a joke about double consciousness is funny but someone else might think about it being important. Even with the "Dead Zone" pieces, that was a big joke—it’s a pretty object that does the thing well.

EO: What you’re saying reminds me of what a writing professor of mine taught me in college, which is that everything should pass the “everybody test,” where no matter the concept or the theory it can have the reach to punch at every level. I never understood explicit exclusivity or gatekeeping in that way, I wanted to be funny to everyone, not just a select group of people. [Laughter.]

AD: That’s the thing, humor allows these objects to pass. Making objects that are funny to me gives them a level of dimensionality to myself, even if they just exist in my head, I’m having multiple experiences of it. Because they’re physical objects with an aesthetic dimension that adds a layer for those people who might not be interested in the theory. I try to make cool-looking objects so that if you’re from a place where art didn’t reach you, and you don’t get the discourse, I at least want you to engage with it and walk away thinking that this shade of green is sick. I don’t believe in things being beautiful as some sort of moral good, but things should have an aesthetic appeal and be sexy and cool. It’s the same principle with the writing, film, and television work that I do. If I want to make something boring, it’s usually an exercise to try to pull something specific off, to isolate a function and test its operations. The "slaughterhouse" piece I’m working on is probably going to be boring, but the music is going to be really fun and have a narrative to it. I’m working on this experiment of questioning where the interesting stuff has to be located in the image in order to work. Do I have to make it interesting to watch, or can it be compelling through a sonic dimension and keep someone there?

Aria Dean. (meta)models: fam, first unit, 2019. Two-way mirror glass and metal. (40 x 16 x 3 in / 101.6 x 40.64 x 7.62 cm). Courtesy of the artist; Château Shatto, Los Angeles; and Greene Naftali, New York.

Aria Dean. (meta)models: fam, stigmata, 2019. Two-way mirror glass and metal. (29 x 17.4 .25 in / 73.7 x 44.2 x 6.4 cm). Courtesy of the artist; Château Shatto, Los Angeles; and Greene Naftali, New York.

EO: Right, where does the encounter happen? Does it happen in the idea, physical space, or in the writing?

AD: Exactly, and this question of what makes someone feel something when they watch a video or film? I don’t know if people know what feeling something means in the same way they once did.

EO: When I think about feeling something I personally think about music or sound. With the instrumentation of music paired with images, let’s call them movies, you know when to cry because sad music plays, or specifically in comedy, for example, you know when to laugh because you’re conditioned and invited to do so with the laugh track.

AD: It’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot with the work that I’ve been making. I have this pet interest in melodrama as a historical format in cinema. Melodrama used to be a genre, but is now the prevailing structure for how sound interacts with images in film and TV. It all kind of goes back to popular melodrama between America and Germany in the 1930s or so, and of course before that in silent film where you needed music to animate the story that was happening.

EO: What is your relationship to language?

AD: Historically, it’s the medium that I’ve had the most access to and control over. I can express myself through language fairly precisely.

EO: Has that always been the case?

AD: Yes, I read a lot as a kid. I read and wrote very early and was really fascinated with storytelling when I was younger. I wrote a lot of screenplays, radio plays, essays for school, short stories, and songs—I wrote all of the time. It’s always been the thing that I have immediate access to and doesn’t require any stuff. I painted a lot, but I would get to a point of frustration with it because I would reach the physical limits of not being able to get it to look the exact way that I wanted it to. With writing I could get everything to look and feel the exact way that I wanted it to. Part of the reason that I don’t consider myself to be a writer foremost is that, for me, the act of writing has not so much been about expression; I don’t primarily express myself through doing it but I’m able to control things outside of myself using words.

EO: It’s a practice of being able to focus someone’s attention by guiding their eye to look at and through what you want them to see.

AD: Yeah, I know that I can communicate and create a framework that will produce the exact results that I want.

EO: I was speaking to Bob Colacello the other day and we were talking about the art world and culture writ large, and he was saying how I was an editor and interviewer, but that I wasn’t really in the practice of writing. [Laughter.] I was like “No Bob, the interview is the context in which I’m able to produce a certain discourse and get people to see things they want that I want them to.” The interview is my format or context for theorizing.

AD: Right. In the "Staten Island Art Review", they wrote about the state of criticism in art, and how people are approaching publishing differently and linked to an interview that you did for November with Hito Steyerl. They were talking about interviews that are about the interviewer which is interesting because it’s not just you, but when you think about it, an interview should be a portrait of two people in conversation. It’s like being in a relationship with someone where certain parts of yourself are highlighted by being in conversation with different people. For instance, you read the interview that I did with Matthew Barney, and suddenly it appears that Aria Dean only wants to talk about materials and what an object is and can be. While, sure, that’s a part of who I am. Talking to him, I’m able to focus on those interests. When you put two people together who should really be in conversation with each other you get a real exchange and not an interview because both people are sparked by what’s happening.

But to return to the idea around writing, the reason I don’t feel so inclined towards it —and particularly critical writing— is because it’s a control thing. As a kid, I wrote a lot of fiction and screenplays which was fun for me, and that’s a mode I’ll never tire of. Writing critically and editorially was a control mechanism and a way of lobbing grenades into the discourse, which then shifted things into a different territory, which then set and primed the stage for my own expression. It was like sending out an exploratory mission where I would test the waters through these gestures to see whether the art world was hospitable to the work that I wanted to make artistically. Exploratory mission and interference running.

Aria Dean. Mise en abyme 1.0, 2020. Blackened steel with stainless steel standoffs. (43 x 36.25 x 2 in / 109.2 x 92.1 x 5.1 cm). Courtesy of the artist; Château Shatto, Los Angeles; and Greene Naftali, New York.

EO: How do you know when something needs to be a video or a sculpture?

AD: For me, It’s less about necessity and more about the desire to see the thing in the world in a certain format. I think with all of the stuff that I am doing the inquiry is the same, I am doing the same things that I am trying to do in a sculpture than I am in a video.

EO: Do you lead with the form or the material?

AD: The conceptual material?

EO: Yeah, in the early days of your practice when you didn’t have the means to produce a certain kind of work, how did the material constraints compromise the idea?

AD: It was really hard, I think I was drawn to video in the beginning and working with found footage was because my sculptural desires financially outpaced my capacity to make certain kinds of work. I knew that I didn’t want to burn work or cobble things together anymore. I was more interested in minimalism and structuralism and realized that I needed to make unitary forms in some sense. If I can’t make something that is just itself, then I have to use a different format which is why video worked at the time to process the questions I had. Usually, I can envision what something looks like and then I’ll write down the characteristics and aspects of it like height, dimension, texture, material, and color.

EO: You write to yourself about your work?

AD: Yeah, I have this log for all of the work sculptures and action figures that I’m making and ideas that I have, and I’ll write down, “A cube that has been banging its head or self against a wall,” then I’ll simplify it to “A cube head banging,” and will assign these phrases to the actions. I wrote to myself, “two cubes that are fighting and kissing at the same time.” I like the action figure series that I’ve been working on because they’re the perfect joining together of sculpture and cinema. I’m making these little movies that have a story and then you get a freeze frame of it, which goes back to the image and reality thing, where making the simulation is real/unreal and then slicing a piece of it and then rendering that in reality. The sculptures are only what they are, they give nothing other than what you see: movement and material. [Laughter.] I finally did it and it’s all I ever wanted to get to.

EO: Right. The description of the action is the figure.

AD: Nietzsche has this quote, “But there is no such substratum; there is no 'being' behind doing, effecting, and becoming; 'the doer' is merely a fiction added to the deed–the deed is everything.”

EO: [Laughs.] Is the artist merely a fiction?

AD: The subject is not real—there’s just action and a deed. The subject is a fiction for us to square the concept of things happening in the world. Psychologically, we have to understand ourselves as agents. These sculptures that I’m making are just simple forms executing actions titled exactly how they are. What’s interesting to me is that there's an interpretative element to making the work, where Max Schmoezer, the 3D modeler I work with, and I have to have a conversation, where I’ll send him a video as reference for the visual impact or movement of the sculpture. “Something between this and this…” and I’ll send him two clips. The work is not algorithmically generated.. There was a bit of confusion when I was at Basel Statements, where people were asking me if it was computer generated. It’s not generated—that’s a computer term—we make these. I design them in my head, I tell him as best I can, he interprets what I’m saying and then he designs them, and then I make edits that are even less precise. “A little sadder; a little more PLOP,” and so on..

EO: It’s like a sculpture.

AD: Yeah, it’s a simulation based on the material, vibes, and effects that I’m talking about. I’ve had to find terms to communicate to him their action, saying it’s more like a “Boom! Then swish and sexier.” There’s a very human element to it that’s created and then in physical space, it seems like an object that’s come out of nowhere.

EO: Do you think of yourself as someone who is confronting "representational systems"?

AD: I think I was, whatever I was trying to figure out and was questioning then. I think I’ve kind of figured out a way forward with the action figures, which isn’t to say that I’m done. The anti-representational stuff, being caught in cultural signifiers, thinking about what Blackness is and isn’t— I’ve found a way out. That’s both with time and being able to navigate my practice differently by having a “career” and being able to find out what I actually want. With film, for instance, there’s a version of this question that I haven’t explored in the world of cinema, but also what I realized is that fundamentally I’m not as concerned with it as I thought, because I’ve realized that not everyone needs to believe what I think. It’s now just the base material for things I, Aria Dean, make. I do want people to have a better toolkit around what’s happening and what things mean, but I’m working around and in spite of representational systems now instead.

Aria Dean. Ironic Ionic Replica, 2020. Engineered wood, latex coating. (136 x 71 3/4 x 48 inches 345.4 x 182.2 x 121.9 cm). Courtesy the artist and Greene Naftali, New York. Photo: Zeshan Ahmed