Death Production the Archive of Janna Flessa
Executed by Nick Flessa
Feb 10-March 24
Opening Footage Feb 10, 7-10 PM
Filmed by Keith Belmont
Interview: Nick Flessa
By Keith Belmont
I'm here today with Nick Flessa, a Los Angeles based artist, musician, and filmmaker. We're going to talk about his exhibition at LACA (Los Angeles Contemporary Archive). Death Production: the Archive of Janna Flessa (Executed by Nick Flessa) is on view at LACA from February 10th – March 24th of 2018.
Keith: How did this project originate?
Nick: I started this project about a year ago. When I began at LACA I was programing music and other events. Very much just serving in that capacity. During that time I became more interested in this archive of my mom's stuff that I had been collecting. She passed away in 2010 and I gradually gathered these materials, basically over the past eight years, during visits back to the Cincinnati area. I didn't really know what to do with them. I started transcribing all of her journals and writing, but that became too intense for me. Originally it was supposed to be a project of writing, transcriptions of all her writings, but this developed into an exhibition.
Keith: If I'm on the right track, with your intent and motive in being the curator for this work, to me it seems like the work presented was your mom's work. What do you think was informing your mom's art practice?
Nick: A lot of different things. I think some of the stuff she didn't even consider art making. Stuff that takes on an artistic value to me or spectators of the exhibition, actually was more personal writing which she didn't necessarily intend to show publicly. Things like diaries, journals, personal writings and objects that are mixed with an art practice that never really came into fruition. I think the artworks that she finished are kind of mysterious. Sort of spiritual and kind of feminine, mostly concerning female figures and movement and seem well executed and kind of intense and a little bit unsettling as pieces of art. I think they were explorations of personal feelings for someone who... was in .... a place where she wasn't.... getting the help she needed. They're kind of like transcendent art in a sense, or an attempt at transcendent art, but I don't really know. Part of what I like about them is that I don't really know what it is theyʼre saying, and that I'm just kind of situating them in someoneʼs life and personal art making practice, with an attempt to look at things as like... these are works that are not that different than a lot of art that's being made now, a lot of visual art and in a sense coming from a similar place to people who are more within the actual body of the "art world". What I tried to do is use this other perspective on her life, situating that art practice in a sort of poetic or suggestive way with what my perspective on her life is, which is more thinking about history, region, and gender issues in the Midwest and that generationʼs relationship to mental illness and seeking help for it, obsession, and taking on different roles. In a sense my mom was also a poet and had published writing. She worked as a prosecutor. She shot videos. Made cassettes and what not, sort of all under the umbrella of documenting her life. There were a lot of things going on that were somewhat limited by a social role she adhered to, within the family. There's a whole other narrative that within the exhibition is suggested. Part of the exhibition that I think is important is that the full archive is available. Everything I have, even things not on display, is available through LACA. If people wanted to they could look through the system that I made and spend time with these other materials that I haven't selected. The exhibition is one version or iteration from that material, but anyone that comes into LACA can view the full archive and come up with their own iteration.
Keith: One of the pieces archived was also presented at UCLA. You had something that was actually a part of the archive, but you had another separate showing for this piece. How did that tie into the LACA exhibit?
Nick: Well at UCLA I actually did a presentation on this project and the previous project, which is Case # 87447. Thatʼs a collection of public records for a death penalty trial in which my mom served as assistant prosecutor while she was pregnant with me. These were a part of, rather than being personal records, these were a part of a public record. They were found on the Internet. It was a death penalty case that was overturned as being unconstitutional. The guy committed the crime, but wasn't given a fair trial because the jury selection was determined to be racially biased, in that it was all white people from the suburbs and the prosecution team really pushed to have that racial make up. Anyway my mom retired after that and was generally traumatized by the experience, including how violent the crime was. So that book is just an exploration of bureaucratic language, surrounding the judicial system.
Keith: Did that trial influence your mom's work at all?
Nick: Possibly, but I'm not really sure. I think it's more the other way around. It's like, the stuff that my mom was working on shows up in the language of the trial. There's a lot of poetic language. She wrote the opening and closing statement for the trial and there's a lot of that language that ends up being used in her poetry. She even writes about the victim from that trial in some of her poetry later. There are a lot of connections between her as a writer and how she presented as a prosecutor within that trial, as a writer in court. None of the work seems... I mean there's a lot that's influenced by the trial in terms of the things she's thinking about in a spiritual capacity, about broad issues like the possibility of gruesome violence and stuff like that, which she writes about a lot for the rest of her life and she thought about for the rest of her life, but itʼs not really especially visible in the visual art, which is a little more exploratory. The visual art is sort of an unfinished body of work. I tried to emphasize that in the way it was presented, by showing images like paintings that have writing in the margins about being a draft. I don't think she really accomplished fully what she wanted to accomplish as a visual artist, nor as a poet really. I think it all kind of got cut sort, both by other responsibilities and also by her illness at the end. I presented it very much as an incomplete body of work.
Keith: I guess one of the realities that I picked up on, when you were mentioning the trial that your mom was a part of, is that you mentioned the county she was in for that trial. Was that Clermont County, or Hamilton County?
Nick: It was Hamilton County.
Keith: From your perspective can you describe the types of people she might have been around or any pressures she might have had during that trial? Do you think there were any expectations other than the county totally trusting her with what to do with the case or do you think she was pressured in any way?
Nick: I think that she had a pretty particular role in the trial as far as I can tell. She was working under a prosecutor. She wasn't the main person involved in making it a death penalty case, but she was in a sense the mouthpiece of the prosecution because she was the person who wrote the opening and closing statements and presented them. I think itʼs because she was a good writer and public speaker and I think it was also because she was a generally charismatic and attractive person. I think that had to do with why she was chosen as being the person being the one making the appeal to the jury, because they would like her when they saw her. Also she was pregnant at the time with me. I think very early, so I don't know if she was visibly pregnant, but I thought a lot about that. Jerome Henderson, who she helped sentence to death, shares my birthday.
Keith: Look at notes*
Nick: In terms of societal pressure, I don't really know. I don't know what that workplace was like. I know that it was largely republican. That is was the late 80's, so it was Reagan time or maybe George Bush by that time, I can't really....
Keith: I think it was Bush senior
Nick: Ok, yeah I think it was...
Keith: It was Bush and Quail 88', maybe it was Reagan haha
Nick: Ok, it was the tail end of Reagan and everything that goes along with that in relation to Black communities in the United States. I think that as a prosecutor, she was with a group of predominantly white people working for Hamilton County who uh, and again this is generally an assumption because I don't know about everyone who was working there at the time. I think in way thatʼs a good line of research to pursue for future projects. To get an even clearer picture of who was around and what was happening with that. But basically the majority of the crime that happened in that county was due to poverty and mental illness and lack of resources within some of the poorest communities in the country. The prosecutionʼs line of argument creates the conditions as if those people are middle class citizens in the suburbs. So, theyʼre just kind of carrying out an act of sadism on behalf of the state. Theyʼre treating a symptom rather than a cause. I mean granted the crime that happened was really brutal and I think thatʼs part of what is interesting about this, is that the guy actually did commit the crime. The crime is definitely really fucked up, but the prosecution was still pushing the death penalty on someone without a fair trial, which is still a deep institutional problem even in a case where the person definitely did it.
Keith: From my perspective, youʼre basically archiving material that could really connect with the times that were living in, because it shows the progression of that social position. You were able to represent to the public a world that time hasn't necessarily forgotten. There are other trials similar to this up to present day, and while there are people who are trying to remedy that issue, there are also others who want to keep that status quo. Do you think that holds relevance for audiences outside of the "art world" or Los Angeles scene?
Nick: Yeah definitely. Part of the point of the exhibition is that the Los Angeles art scene is rather complacent in general, without having political conviction, which is a broad statement but a lot people in fine arts are kind of like that. Itʼs something from CalArts that I've been a little bit fed up with. Elitist pseudo-critique of institutions that benefits from said institutions and actually reinforces oppressive hierarchies. I think that this exhibition is presented in such a way that it is somewhat for that audience, but certainly I want and wanted it to be accessible to anyone really. I mean the book is a little dry and a little more difficult to parse at first glance. I'm working towards merging the concepts about the trial in the book with the materials that are in my mom's archive. I think itʼs relevant. Part of my role is just bringing these documents out of the dark and presenting them, and thatʼs kind of the performance. That's sort of the art process, by drawing attention to them through my status, or position as someone making art in Los Angeles. Bringing those issues to light and bringing up specific historical examples of them. Certainly the judicial system in the United States has functioned as an instrument of an incremental genocide. It has basically served that function and is completely susceptible to linguistic manipulation in favor of whoever is in power. Itʼs not an objective thing and by looking at the way that it uses language throughout history that seem shocking, we see that those are still things that are happening now. Itʼs historical in a sense that itʼs about personal/familial history in relation to me doing it, but itʼs also about public history, and about the way history presently lives. Another thing about it is that itʼs activating the archives. Death production is kind of contradiction in terms, death implies stasis and an end, static, but production implies to me the opposite and that's whatʼs happening. Itʼs activating the past towards a new vision of the present and looking forward into the future, through materials that come from the past, from the recent past. I think one of the main things people are responding to is that the materials in the show come from the recent past. These materials don't look like what one would expect to come from an archive. Some of them are from the early 2000's. The last document was from 2010, the first in the late 70's, but just the idea of the majority of the stuff being somewhat recent in terms of the personal archive, also has that impact.
Keith: You included some audio and video, multimedia works for your exhibition. What was that meant to add to the show?
Nick: So the cassette tape is something that my mom kept as a document. I didn't know about it till I found it, but itʼs basically records of my sister and I learning to talk. She made a cassette tape of these processes, but also within that recorded her daily life, in the late 80's-early 90's, and you get a sense of the dynamic between her and my father, and her relationship to being a mom and that kind of being her main job or thing she was doing. That all comes through in that tape I think. To me it was interesting. I duplicated the original tape and pulled an excerpt from it and looped it to a new tape, thatʼs kind of pretending to be the original tape, but really I had a hand in editing the audio to be more specific stuff, which is a really subtle move and I don't think people know. Itʼs another way in which the exhibition was controlled by my hand, though it was content originally generated by my mom. One of the videos, the one in the corner, the black and white video, is a slideshow that Chloe Ginnegar put together from a binder in my momʼs archive that is full of photographs and reference images for drawing and painting, as well as a few other scattered materials from the archive. The video Chloe edited together is a little more subjective than other material in the show. Stylistically it has more of a heavy hand, in a good way. It feels like something someone else edited together and is very much just using my mom's content to kind of create an impression or picture, based on the materials. Finally, there's the color video in the middle of the room, which consists of a document of the house in the Milford, Ohio area where the majority of the archive was constructed, that my mom filmed shortly after moving there. That includes footage of my dad, my sister and me sleeping in the living room and also footage of her playing with the family dog "Carl," a Newfoundland, with a giant yellow ball. Those two clips are solitary in a sense that she's the only one awake, or the only human. These are moments when she's home alone filming things for posterity with some artistic attention. She uses a piece by John Williams called "Liberty Fanfare" as kind of a soundtrack thatʼs playing in the background while she films in the living room. It definitely has an attention to detail and nature and documenting the space, kind of in an aesthetic way but also just generally to document for posterity. The TV where this video is displayed in the exhibition is facing a mirror that my dad helped ship from Cincinnati, which was in my mom's studio in the garage of our house. In that studio she had a TV that was angled towards a mirror, so that she could see it while she was drawing and writing. That's where that sculptural component comes from. Itʼs actually a very light recreation of her studio space, where she made a lot of these works.
Keith: What I find interesting is that, more often than not when youʼre going to see art, when youʼre looking at film, things of that nature, you don't really get a chance to see the interworking of real families presented, or people from that particular part of the country. Do you think that you've basically created a folk art niche for more artists to present circumstances of where they're from or have that become a part of the language of the "art world"?
Nick: Yeah, I think so if itʼs done in an interesting way. I wouldn't say that it was my goal to develop something in particular or a particular space for that. On a certain level that is one of the concerns of this material is that how I gathered it, but its also, you know, all archives are about identity and about the material that help construct personal and cultural identity, just like things we keep and photos we take. Things we do on that level. I don't know if I necessarily think that it's folk art or outsider art or if any of those distinctions even necessarily matter anymore. I'll put it this way, I think that art thatʼs in sort of the.... That the "art world" is this thing culturally defined by art markets, collectors, a kind of neo-liberal elitism. I think it faces a pretty uncertain future following just whatʼs happening in the United States and maybe whatʼs happening globally. I don't really know. The agenda of this exhibition, for me, is essentially to show that whatever that distinction is, is arbitrary. That the distinction between my mom's art being a personal art practice and existing in the "art world", just has to do with a question of my personal access to presenting that work within the context of the "art world,” due to geography, education, etc. That's been a discussion in modern art since DuChamp put a toilet in a museum. This is a slightly separate thing in terms of art practice and looking at art thatʼs being made now, that I'd say is kind of a... some of it can register as like, where does the performance of amateurism have this space within actually a very deliberate and contrived type of art discipline and when is that just kind of making fun of or co-opting the real thing. I guess in a way I wanted to present this art that I think is stylistically in line with a lot of stuff that is happening now but that itʼs the real version of what that type of stuff is inspired by, and to present that in a way that isnʼt condescending. To present that in a way thatʼs not making fun of it but rather elevating it as being art that exists because people need to make things to communicate and to work through individual and social problems and some people are focused enough to do that work, without a social or monetary reward in sight.
Keith: I think the spirit of the work kind of challenges the idea that in order to have an exhibition, that you need to be building a fantasy room full of conceptual art, some theoretical argument on mathematics influence on the human psyche, gender, chaos in the urban life. Your opening showed me that an audience that is understanding, socially conscious, responsible, and inclusive of communities who want to see this work. They want to allow you to do your thing. Sometimes going out to an opening doesn't have to be about going out and drinking wine, or looking to hook up. It can be about something more educational, intimate, and it seems that these times sort of allow for that. I kind of think this production is hitting at an important time. In my mind there hasn't been a more opportune time. Speaking on things like abuse, femininity, etc. Something about your exhibition carried this reality strongly. It's a cultural moment, where we're now able to share, whereas before it wasn't given the time of day.
Nick: Yeah. That's definitely an aspect of it or something that it's responding to. I'd like this idea of like people being able to... I like it as democratic art, basically. I think itʼs relevant to convey that type of experience and I'm happy that I was able to work with people who also viewed this as being a worthwhile thing. Who found the materials themselves interesting and engaging. I think in some ways it does contribute to other voices. Not that this is necessarily a social justice show, per se, or that it only exists to make a point about that. Itʼs about my mom's position in society. On a variety of levels, both the ways in which she was privileged and in a sense an oppressor, but also the ways she was on the other end of that too.
Keith: Anything else to wrap up the interview?
Nick: Yeah, so this is in some of the literature, but when I was in elementary school, my mom designed a bunch of giant posters and bulletin boards for the school, and organized a number of fundraising events, and worked for meals on wheels. Some of the work thatʼs displayed on the wall to the right when you walk in are studies for posters or flyers surrounding those projects, which I think in their own right constituted sort of an amateur art practice of a different kind, a hand crafted thing, which is cool and just another thing I wanted to note as an element of the show.