Interview-X Americana X and moreInterview
“Yes, I feel it was important to contribute to the education within our communities about the pollution and other ecological matters.”
I would like to know a little bit more about your series X Americana X. What threats to the environment are you reacting against?
In 1985, my series X Americana X addressed global issues including the proliferation of nuclear weapons and its potential for mass destruction. Environmental issues at that time in America included acid rain, toxic wastes in the contaminated ground water aquifers and buried in the ground, as well as man’s personal disregard for the environmental.
Are the pieces describing a reaction that you felt towards your environment or do you hope that they will inspire others to notice the danger our world is in?
In the late 70s, there were huge cover-ups about the disposal of chemicals and other toxic materials (see Love Canal & Lois Gibb’s efforts) Yes, I feel it was important to contribute to the education within our communities about the pollution and other ecological matters.
Where did you come up with the idea for this series?
In 1975 I was already using recycled materials, at that time it was 100% cotton paper pulp. The idea of not ‘adding more ‘stuff’ to the environment included reworking found objects and recycled materials such as 45 rpm records and later in 1988 with cds in the Technoplaque series. In X Americana X, I used ‘found paintings’ thrown out in the garbage and thrift shop items.
Which image is your favorite and what does it express?
Dirt bike Sunrise as it depicts the chaos/confusion we impose with a complete disregard to the environment and the ultimate consequences.
Your warning signs project is very interesting, and I think it is a very powerful group of images. How did people react to your work?
For the general public a word like “Decay” might seem negative, but my expression was all positive for me as I felt I was helping to “point out” and help clean up environmental problems. Most communities appreciated the work as they felt someone cared enough to do and say something. On the other hand, some delinquent property owners at an abandoned warehouses and vacant apartment buildings would sometimes block/barricade the message and not cleanup their mess.
How did you decide which locations to put these powerful statements on?
Actually, I did a lot of driving through industrial areas of Queens. I lived in Jackson Heights and my studio was at P.S. 1 in Long Island City when I started stenciling outdoors in winter of 76/77. At that time there were a lot of closed up warehouses, industrial factories-just abandoned. When I was at those sites, it was extremely quiet, at night, most of the time no one was there, and I had the place to myself for contemplation. It was similar to a studio artist who works quietly in their studio painting or sculpting. The exception being it was outdoors. I was ‘scaning my surroundings’ almost like a Native American connected to his landscape. This concept led to my Indian Tribute projects a few years later.
Most of these images seem more political rather than environmental- although they kind of go hand in hand because of the relationship of the environment we create in relationship to nature. Can you tell me a little more about how you feel about this relationship?
There were other social problems like housing and AIDS that I addressed which might appear to be urban problems but have continued to grow in rural areas, something like nine of the fifteen states with the highest HIV diagnosis are in the South in 2008.
Your website does not really get into great detail about your “Technoplaques.” Could you tell me more about these?
Again, found discarded objects in this case, Old cds glued, stacked like a paperweight. I then collaged them with juxtaposed imagery and coated them with a hard plastic acrylic. I wanted the work to be like a confusing time capsule/object that someone might discover in the future and had to decode it. I felt like as objects, they exist like a nutshell at the end of a chapter reading about a school history book, but one that is confusing; reflecting the time period in which we live. They were an extension of a previous series entitled Industrial Trophies where I used tar and other industrial materials. I will be uploading the Technoplaques to the site eventually.
Your video, “Toxic Wastes from A to Z” is haunting and disturbing on a few different levels. Could you help me explain this project to my class? How did you come up with this concept?
Toxic Wastes from A to Z (coming after you and me) was developed during the summer of 1981 when I was invited to experiment on a new computer system at NYU. Basically I created ‘still image’ graphics that I then animated with primitive forms, cuts and transitions. I had gotten the list of chemicals from the NYS EPA newsletter. The piece functions as a warning with bright colors and the disturbing soundtrack was created with a distorted music toy; later mixed down with kids from a South Bronx school doing the repeat rap of the title.
A year later, I recorded the following song and it was not a rap.
I tend to explore similar concepts and themes in different media.
Toxic Wastes From A To Z
©1982 John Fekner
No one told me long ago
Don’t fool around with chemicals
I found out they make your brain go slow
I fell down and threw up
Mom stood there with a stare
What do they put in food
Swallowed bits of instant doom
Paralyzed in my bedroom
I broke out in a sweat
My tummies in a mess
All I had was a cup of soup
It made my brain go loop de loop
I could no longer lift a spoon
There’s BHT and BHA substances with cruel names
MSG and PCB what do they do to me
So put on the TV set don’t bother to read
In ten years see what the results will be
No more soda pop and cake
My stomach deserves a break
My insides are filled with food that’s fake
Mom bought a pie for the park
I saw it glow in the dark
It’s my life that’s at stake
The food I eat is a big mistake
A toxic world is our future fate
Glowing kids in your yard
Don’t forget to pray hard
The kids were digging near a tree
What they found they could not see
Here’s a list of what they found
Sure enough to knock you down
Toxic wastes from A to Z
Coming after you and me
Bis (chloromethyl) ether
Potassium silver cyanide
Another of your videos, “The Sight of the Child,” appears (to me) to be a commentary on industrialization and urbanization in our country. The child states, “America always changed to fast.” Could you elaborate on this idea for me?
The Sight of the Child was done in numerous and different media. It was first recorded for my Idioblast album in 198 and obviously you are referring to the video of 2008. The text, written in 1984, is set in the future approximately in the year 2010. There was a nuclear war and there is no electricity, complete annihilation. In the text, the teacher is comparing the problems of the great depression via John Steinbeck with their current state of deprivation.
As an artist, what do you think about the role of activism in art?
I think there is some great works by current artists: Mara Haseltine www.calamara.com or Swoon’s Swimming Cities… http://www.deitch.com/projects/sub.php?projId=248
In particular, the role of environmental activism?
I am impressed with online communities such as treehugger, current and even twitter in eco-based information being shared worldwide through social networking.
What do you think the role of human beings should be in the world? What kind of responsibilities do you think we have towards our planet? What do you think about the current state of the environment and how we are handling it?
The environmental awareness appears to be prominent about current issues, but to implement them though global legislation seems to move slow. But at the same time, I am encouraged in the small steps we are taking.
Interview by Cara Lynch