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What is Natural?

G.C. Erenberg interviewed by Maxi Kim.

3:AM: You’re an artist working in linguistics through the medium of video & film. Can you tell us a bit about your background?

G.C. Erenberg: I was raised in a neighborhood where no one spoke English, so at home or at school I would take in all this unfamiliar dialogue. It came to a point where I found it all too necessary to find a language outside of my own upbringing. I started collecting foreign films, texts, anything I could find that I couldn’t understand in any immediate communicative form, but visually something started to happen. I also spent some time living in a tent and working with animals. These adventures and varied interests have contributed to my studies in behavioral disorders, through the collapse of domesticity. And yeah, I still use film and video.


3:AM: Can you also tell us a bit about your latest project, the novel/manifesto What is Natural (Co Je přrozené)?

GC: Initially I was interested in male prostitution of the Czech Republic. So the book started out as an abstract body of short stories commenting on varying perspectives on prostitution. Later I translate these texts from English into German, then into Czech. I would try to translate everything back into English, and would get this disassociation with the common or marked symbol, stereotype, or sexual innuendo. So I became obsessed. Why, I guess because I didn’t want to say what could already be said. There was something else kind of leering about, I just had to figure out how to lure it in. After a while I started building a more cohesive story line, then spread out each chapter and began to re-write once more. Started shooting some video and film segments derived from specific parts of the book. But it’s what happens naturally in public, in our ‘private’ and counter-public space(s) which aids in the transformation of perspective.


3:AM: I was wondering if we could hear a brief excerpt from your book?

GC: Can I start with the second chapter? [Reading] ‘Okay, A Cynic and a Wag’. ‘Osoba, cynický a Kunda’.

Breakfast is always wet. Gentlemen spilling their spirits down their skirts. What might one say of a harbinger? The son of neither steed nor pursuivant. For the weight of all things – as one’s experience with sudden endurance and survival; bring my own concerns to a rather diluted yet
state of cognizance.

Sydney bent over to set down his fishing poles and lay his shoes alongside young mudded feet. Sydney was actually a boy. But I could never tell. Like his father, he was never able to grow any obvious facial hair. He kept his company with anyone who would approach him. Yet he himself was at times too shy to admit that he was ever interested in you at all. The boys around him, they must have been twelve, some maybe sixteen. Prostitutes, singers of a gagged orchestra. Epilogues within and of their own generation.

3:AM: What would you say is the message or symbology behind your works?

GC: Re-invent yourself and channel your philosophy through direct experiences. Don’t be afraid to take adventure seriously, but I guess try and navigate more broadly on what process works for you, not what your family or your community is convincing you of. It’s at once or twice even about finding a place that keeps us consistently challenged. Not entertained, but interested. I don’t find an element of critique that necessary when it comes to ‘Art’, people shouldn’t take themselves so seriously, but rather use the idea of the critique to relate and configure other realms of perspective. Especially now, since art seems to be recycling the last thirty years of this celebrity-esque realm – it’s kind of a joke right? It should be somewhat about confidence, and being reflective enough to be out there in the dirt, in your own shit and blood.


3:AM: When you were younger, you started with audio recordings, then moved to photography and video. Where did that transition begin?

GC: I remember this one woman, she had six children, all from different men. She would come home with the needle pretty much still attached to her arm, jumping around half naked on her daughters bed. I watched the light fade from the window transcending her hairy thighs, mocking the tears of her eldest daughter. Understanding best I could, the similarities between animal and human behavior. Yet, public restrooms- that’s always where my sister and I would hear people say the strangest things. The home today can facilitate many uses beyond routine and a sense of comfort. It can be a transformative place, and it doesn’t have to be completely domesticated. Then again, it’s great to watch the American dream collide with reality.

3:AM: You often work with your sister. How did that start?

GC: My sister and I had relocated to our third grade school location. We might’ve been living in that smelly Las Vegas apartment, or maybe it was Van Nuys, California. We were keen on the idea of using what you have available to you, as a journalist, as an artist. I’m reminded of about two separate incidents from my childhood. This might have been 1993, before the camera, we had this large brown suitcase. It’s straps were torn but the zipper still worked. I would get inside the suitcase, which sat on top of our bed. Jamie (my sister) would zip me up, and take me for a ride around the house, into the front yard and sometimes across the street. I would do the same to her, and that was how we had fun. Once video hit, it started with our grandmother. She would often come over to watch us, and would fall asleep around 5pm. We would set up the camera across from her and zoom in so that only her head was in the frame. We would take dog treats or pieces of bologna from the fridge, and place it on top of her head. We would wait there, hiding behind a table or a bookcase, waiting to see what happened when she would wake up. But in-between the experiments, my sister and I started playing the male role in our videos, starting a dialogue on inequality. We performed in our videos as men who were also women, we were hermaphrodites. We thought that was the way it should have been.


3:AM: You’ve worked in many institutions of higher learning. What is your take on education?

GC: I was talking with this man from České Budějovice (South Bohemia) who was telling me how countries like Germany and a few others, the Czech Republic paid for their people’s education. If there were people taking classes to become a doctor, the school(s) would only allow a certain number of students to take the class, depending on how many doctors were needed in that city or country. Perhaps a bit restrictive, but at least realistic in a sense. Whereas in the United States, everyone is working to become a doctor or a teacher, when there are not enough of those jobs available. So people are skilled or ‘trained’ mind you, but there is not enough work available for them.

3:AM: What is your experience with art institutions? What is your take on art school?

GC: Lately I’ve been collaborating with older disabled women doing these ‘food therapy’ sessions, where a new language is formed through the dismissal and re-construction of their own routines and strengths. Yet I also feel very much affected by these hypocritical groups popping up everywhere stating ‘We are a Permaculture’ ..come on. Life is so much more simple than placing boundaries on ourselves and calling it a revolution. You’ve got to bring people together, not group them off into sectors. If you don’t dress a certain way, and can’t afford to shop at the expensive local organic market, then you are rejected.

I’d like to create a space for scientists and linguists who might find themselves as musicians, caretakers, writers – the blind or deaf or homeless. Not that I have the ability to teach for everyone’s needs, it would be instead a space that would meet up in different parts of the world each month or so, where people meet and educate one another. Or maybe I just like hanging out with homeless people. CalArts provided a ground for meditations into subjects and studies that didn’t seem to be available, in my own community. I didn’t graduate from high school, and won a scholarship through the Boys and Girls Club, then went to study at CalArts. I took classes that discussed masturbation, then after lunch I would take a class in animal behavior, then German from 7 to 10pm. Shoot a weird movie in my parents bathtub, walk around ghost town suburbia from midnight to 5am recording the different calls of the coyotes, and the homeless in the hills. What I got out of CalArts is a novel in itself. It’s about a space that supports an entire community to expand and re-invent itself, and remembering to branch off into other parts of the world. Any school or a place that can function as a school, is a grounds for motivational happenings. And yes, I took out loans.


3:AM: How do you decide on what to research? Do you have specific sources for your studies?

GC: Ever hear the story about the kid who was breast fed by their mom until he was fourteen? I think that’s someone my dad used to know. What fascinates me is the discovery of these outsiders; people whose lifestyle consists of things deemed as socially inappropriate – when undoubtedly these individuals embrace differences and give the world its true culture. Television commercials! I still am guilty for staying up until 5am recording late night infomercials and it’s been a huge influence on my work. This mix between being told what to think, and then representing the ‘thinker’ as some completely different entity. Certain areas of the city have specific commercials that are played throughout more rural community or a neighborhood where there tends to be more elderly people. Contradict yourself, sure. But also pose new questions.

Within the basis of my studies, It’s also about a sense of time travel. Where can you take yourself, where you haven’t been and how to make sense of those kinds of moments. I come from a family of white trash on one side, and the founders and performers of vaudeville on the other. So there was this sense of self-sufficiency but also a glimpse into this self-abusive mind set that so many people get locked into. The fanatical Christian’s swaying their company. The symmetry of a leaky hose; streaming along down a path of old trash and a pair of long-johns. You can’t change what you’re born into, but you can make light of it and apply the pressure elsewhere.


3:AM: At the moment you’re doing a lot of work with individuals in San Francisco. Can you tell us about any recent collaborations?

GC: Right now I’m working with venues in San Francisco like Periwinkle Cinema, as well as Jefferson High School. Filmmaker Lindsay Laven. Recent performative works with Vitamin Wig C, while incorporating the HONEY TALKS with poet Jenny Galipo. I think my main concern now, is to find a home for a few homeless dogs in the neighborhood. But we can get more into that later. My grandmother once described to me a dream she had, where she gave birth to a flea, and then to a feather. Every week she’s either working on a new painting, sculpture, or re-arranging the backyard. She never lets a man or woman hold her back. She represents what real feminism should be about. So we did a few performances together, alongside my sister, at CalArts a few years back. Other than that, adventures with anyone whose willing to be involved.


3:AM: You’ve worked alongside self-described “feminists” – and you yourself have sometimes avoided that term. How do you perceive sexism and feminism here in the states?

GC: Just be yourself and make it work somehow, you’ve got to. Even if we just for once had a woman as a president, so many things could unfold. For once. I’m not saying that women don’t have affairs or make selfish choices – I just think it’s time to try something different in politics. But growing up, I thought I was a boy. I really did. Boys just seemed to have more fun, they’d get dirty and it was expected of them. But then later I started to notice the issue with boys being trained by their own parents and public education – trained to be emotionless, to be in control, to be the master and the keeper of it all. But to be a young girl was also nightmare. Both sides still need attention. [Laugher] I didn’t start shaving until I was eighteen and I had more hair on my chest than most boys my age. But I’m Italian, so that’s my excuse I guess. My first sexual experience was with this girl who would hump away behind these trash-bins. I had no idea what was going on, she was older than me and looked kind of sad by the trash and the shit. Her father was an alcoholic, and I think he molested her as well. So back to the trash bins; I would just lay there and watch the sun fold between her puffy head of hair and the ants crawling on my shoulders. To be a kid, when sexuality wasn’t an identity crisis, but an element of our development.

In the end, no matter what your preferences are, it’s your mind that truly captivates. I see women outside walking the streets, dressed like whores and then they get pissed off because guys howl at them; what did they expect? A pastrami sandwich? But it goes both ways. Because not all men are like that mind you. I think that it’s important to be around those who you can relate to, who you can’t relate to, etc. There are idiots everywhere. Most of the men and women that I feel support an exchange of truths and equality, are those who don’t perform their gender, but rather, just live their lives. As for the Castro in San Francisco, I see kids searching for a family to fit into, and store-fronts with giant hard-ons, which is great, but where are the vaginas? Guess I’m really not into sexual snobbery. With such an emphasis on sexual preference, the Castro risks not being cultural at all. I once worked at this grooming shelter. It was a whole group of really sweet ‘lesbians’. One morning I had to bathe a 120lb dog, yet I could not lift it up into the tub to give it the usual anal squeeze and a bath. So my boss said it was okay, and that I should just bathe the dogs that I could handle. The next day, she replaced me with a girl the same build and size, yet she was dressed like a man. Hmph. ‘He’ll’ get the job done. God, that was hilarious. I had to run out before I shit my pants with laughter. Sexism is enabled by both genders.

3:AM: Any other specific influences on your artistic practice?

GC: My admiration for the cinema all began after I saw the film Capricious Summer. I started to have these dreams where I was playing baseball with (Czech Director) Jiri Menzel himself. Except we were hitting tomatoes with our baseball bats. I’d love to be able to describe that to him without having to go through a translator, or sitting there with my language books. Breaking in to old abandoned houses with a good friend, getting chased by dogs on our bikes and climbing the tops of trees. Neighbors brawling in domestic misery. Back in 2004, I was working on this project with a long-time collaborator, painter . We always had our differences, but when we would meet up once a year for about 9 or 10 days – it became a playground for research.

3:AM: Final words of wisdom?

GC: So if anything, brush your teeth while you take a shit, and eat your eggs while the flies watch in glory. Be yourself.


Maxi Kim is the author of Une Pause, Mille Coups!

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, February 23rd, 2012.