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Lemony Obscenity, 2015, gif. Image courtesy the artist.

Virtual Queerness / Queering the Virtual: A Conversation with Gently Used

Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man (I Am A God), metallic print. Image courtesy the artist.
Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man (I Am A God), metallic print. Image courtesy the artist.

Gently Used is an intriguing up-and-coming artist in Atlanta. Currently completing a BFA in photography at Georgia State University, they’ve gained some recent recognition including being named one of the top Souther ALT artists to watch by Wussy Magazine. Gently’s work engages the virtual space of the internet and mobile phone apps as a critical practice. There’s something extremely funny — and hard to pin down — about Gently’s work. The work entices the viewer while simultaneously denying access to a backstage. This may have something to do with the flatness of the image, its existence on the screen and its virtual life.

Gently and I sat down one weekend afternoon to talk shop. Here’s an edited version of that conversation.

ArtsATL: Let’s start with the hotdog, the Videogramme you curated at Low, and humor.

Gently Used: I think there’s humor in repetition, the repetition of things. We can look at how history repeats itself, but it still does it — it still keeps doing it. I think this is why I like memes. They just keep getting funnier and funnier. Similarly with hot dogs. They get funnier and funnier the more and more I see them.

ArtsATL: There’s a material dimension of the hotdog alongside its metaphorical realm. I don’t necessarily want to say it’s post-Internet, but I do want to ask you about your relationship to the Internet and post-Internet.

Gently: I’m thinking a lot about dematerializing art, so I think the Internet and using the computer is an interesting way to do that. Right now, Internet art, computer art, Instagram art, are things that live on the Internet and they’re not considered substantive. They require an extra step — to be taken out or printed — put into the real world before it’s considered a serious something. Work that lives on the Internet has a life on the internet that is unfinished.

ArtsATL: Why would it be considered unfinished?

Gently: I think it has to do a lot with materiality and that maybe with the Internet, it’s elusive and doesn’t really belong to anyone, but when I print a photograph it can be sold, commodified. Someone can own it.

ArtsATL: What does it mean to dematerialize something? I think there’s a difference in what it means to dematerialize something and making something accessible to somebody.

Gently: It’s then a question of who is it accessible to, accessible for.

ArtsATL: Dematerialization has been a major consideration of art since at least the ’60s. What draws you to dematerialization? What is compelling about it?

Gently: I’m drawn to it more so because materialization or things being material seems to be such an immediate desire or need. When I show my work, memes, do they need to be printed to be finished? So, I’m really interested in why materiality is so important or might feel like such an inherent desire.

ArtsATL: How would you characterize your Instagram account? Is it performance? What is it for you?

Gently: It’s something that’s ever-changing. It’s kind of just a collection of images, every post is sort of similar but different and maybe the only thing that ties them together is that they come from the same account, the same person.

Definitely with Instagram, Facebook or any social media outlet, I’m curious about how they build a kind of personality, or build a person, especially how Internet friends, people that I don’t know IRL, understand me purely off posts. Posts as maybe actions. Posts as concrete actions. Whereas if you’re interacting with someone IRL, it’s more fluid, but then maybe it isn’t…

ArtsATL: There’s an interesting relationship of the selfie as portrait and object as portrait in the photographs, in the way that they’re composed. In the feelings … maybe i’m contextualizing it too much with the GIF still lifes, but there’s movement and life, a vibrancy, in these things.

Gently: Most of my GIF still lifes, if not all of them, have or depict organic objects, mostly food, and there was definitely a pull for me when making still life images to use objects that were not immediately symbolic of bodies, but maybe the way that I’ve contextualized them or put them with something else can be read as bodily objects or can comment on the way that maybe symbols of bodies are created or understood.

ArtsATL: Thus the hotdog … Can you talk about your GIF still lifes and the body? Your series Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man (2015) is so about the body, the body as experiencing different things. What is your interest in the body? Finding different objects to represent the body or stand in for the body in some way? That’s hyper-materiality, especially in relation to your interest in dematerialized immaterial presentation. How do these things live together? What kind of life does materiality take on in an immaterial space?

Gently: I think of the series Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as subtle performative images. They’re all sort of performing these masculine acts or masculinize acts. Wearing pants and skate shoes, I think of the Tony Hawk skateboarder game. They’re all sort of goofy and silly. Certainly, I’m interested in gender as a performative thing. The GIF still lifes, the first few that I did, were all maybe making fun of photography, or at least contemporary photography. New new new new photography. How many news can we put into it?

ArtsATL: What did you want to make fun of about photography?

Gently: Definitely what is kind of claimed to be the current movement of photography: Photography is magic. Thinking a lot about Charlotte Cotton’s recent book Photography is Magic that describes what she claims is this movement in photography as being magic and speaks about tricks and likens photographers to magicians, playing with performance. The conversation ends up being about the performativity of images and how that photographer got to that image, the performance of creating that image versus just maybe the image itself.

ArtsATL: So how is that magic? Because of illusion?

Gently: The mechanics, the techniques, are invisible. I’m interested in the idea of photography as magic or these images are magic in that their magic is heightened by showing a little bit of a mistake, kind of inserting, making intentional mistakes as a means of heightening reality. It’s curious making mistakes on purpose.

For example, Lemony Obscenity (2015). Lemony Obscenity is a lemon that is censored. Censorship is a means of suppressing something that may be unwanted or inappropriate, but it in fact does something very much the opposite. It calls attention to the lemon. It defines it as a gendered breast. It produces it as the axis of discourse as opposed to suppressing it.

ArtsATL: Would you consider that the intentional mistake?

Gently: Yes, I’m more interested in applying intentional mistakes to power mechanisms. Kind of larger things.

Cick of the Sircle Jerk, 2015, video. Image courtesy the artist.
Cick of the Sircle Jerk, 2015, video. Image courtesy the artist.

ArtsATL: Let’s talk about the video Cick Of The Sircle Jerk (2015).

Gently: I’m interested in language. These bananas acting as parentheses and this kind of breathing, pulsating, heart of a balloon. Bananas are very much tied to humor, and are quickly associated with …

ArtsATL: Super phallic objects.

Gently: I’m interested in these circular presentations and how history repeats itself. How we see in this art market that it’s clearly dominated by white men, but there doesn’t seem to be much active movement in that.

ArtsATL: What do you mean by by that — active movement?

Gently: The issue is seen or that it’s maybe identified, but there doesn’t seem to be any actual tug or movement or change.

ArtsATL: It seems that there’s all these ladies only, women artists, events and shows, work that is not cis male gets put into a particular space that’s not the “general” space.

Gently: Right. Why then is the general space considered a general space? Categorization and identification are interesting. I think they can be really productive things to utilize in community-building. I hear a lot in maybe the music scene, very loudly, maybe bands that are comprised of only girls are very adamant about saying we’re not a girl band, we’re just a band, but I think it can be a productive thing to identify your band as a girl band. I think the issue comes in when it’s someone else identifying what you are instead of you self-identifying.

I think that maybe the ways to change the art scene is for other groups of people to build up communities or build up museums and then to work within their communities versus relying on these institutions that are still run by white men, maybe putting a hand down to pick someone up. It needs to be more of a grassroots type of thing.

ArtsATL: Your work is doing something complex with what images are and how they live in virtual spaces. Maybe there’s something about Internet art that’s inherently queer…

Gently: I think art can function in a lot of ways and I think that there’s something that can be very productive about even looking at certain works of art or things that maybe have always been read, or their dominant reading, is heteronormative, patriarchal, but then reading through a queer lens, or a lens other than its dominant lens. I think that’s a really fantastic thing about art. It doesn’t have a linear meaning. It’s a very circular thing.

And, if queer is maybe used as a definition that queer is anything that deviates from the normal, if we’re talking maybe about a queer art world, then the Internet is a good place to have that. It’s a quick way, an easier way, to exist outside the gallery. It can be an open, relatively open space in relation to current structures.

ArtsATL: I’m compelled with what you’re saying about open structures of the Internet. Is that getting at what queerness is? Potential? Possibility? What you’re saying about artworks on the Internet as not being finished, process …

Gently: It can be a new frontier maybe … using programming as a kind of different space.

ArtsATL: What is the life that your works take on? For a lot of your work, it needs to be in a virtual space. These objects in the GIFS are taking on something new, experiencing a glitch that does something, and they way that you access these works and these objects is through a virtual space that can be hyperlinked, it can move, looked at in different forms, changed, shifted by whoever. So, what are the lives that you think your images might be living in this space?

Gently: Gordon Hall said something interesting: “Gender is virtual.” And that’s something I really caught on to. It can be very productive to the way we understand gender now.

ArtsATL: Can you say more about gender and the virtual? Earlier you were talking about gender as performative, what’s the relationship of gender as performative to gender as virtual?

Gently: The computer can be body. Gender is tied to a body. It’s something that is very ephemeral, but still tied to a body; you can’t have gender without a body. I think that posts and social media lives can provide a new understanding of gender.

ArtsATL: How does that figure into your still lifes?

Gently: Maybe that my images can live in a circular way. Avoid or disrupt a linear understanding.

Cick of the Sircle Jerk, 2015, video. Image courtesy the artist.
Cick of the Sircle Jerk, 2015, video. Image courtesy the artist.

ArtsATL: In Cick Of The Sircle Jerk you’re using these totally phallic objects, but now they look like vulva.

Gently: Really? That’s fun. I think of the bananas as parentheses, creating an incubated space.

ArtsATL: Bracha Ettinger, a psychoanalyst and painter, talks about matrixial border spaces. She’s trying to shift from a single point of signification, which is the phallus, a unified symbol, to a field.

Gently: Ok yeah, that’s fantastic.

ArtsATL: In philosophy, in the history of philosophy, that is openly discussed in relation to the womb space. There are different problems with that, essentialism, and etc. I think what’s happening in this piece, Cick Of The Sircle Jerk, is production as opposed to reproduction of an open space through the use of the phallic symbol shifted.

Gently: I like disrupting categories, not expanding and breaking them apart. With the hot dog Videogramme specifically, the hot dog was sort of representative of a dick but I was also thinking about it more specifically and more broadly, as more representative of a cis white man, and it even being used in the past as a joke, calling someone a hot dog. So looking back at that.

ArtsATL: Let’s look at some of these GIFS.

Gently: (Capri) Cum Shot (2015). I like the idea of decorating power. Cick Of The Sircle Jerk, (Capri) Cum Shot, these heteronormative power structures, maybe flipping them or making fun of them a bit, it’s kind of childish, it’s Capri Sun … it’s kind of a childlike depiction that is highly sexualized.

In After WW3 There Was PineApple And Cheese (2015) I was thinking about plastics, wartime, preservatives, Kraft singles and putting objects next to each other that maybe shouldn’t be next to each other.

With Cherry/Cherry Baby (2015), it was about making a connection between these things that are both called cherries — cherry tomatoes and maraschino cherries — but they’re entirely different and should never really exist on the same plate.

(Capri) Cum Shot, 2015, gif. Image courtesy the artist.
(Capri) Cum Shot, 2015, gif. Image courtesy the artist.

ArtsATL: How do you decide on the materials of these? What draws you to getting at these pretty complex concepts and structures through food?

Gently: I like to go to the grocery store often. Look for things. Collect a few things in my grocery cart. Food is easily recognizable and can be talked about by anyone. Everyone has memories and associations with food. Personal symbols maybe with food or objects, so I think that it can be a good way to speak about more complicated ideas. Now, I’m moving into more negative presentations.

It’s about speaking about objects without showing the objects. Like in the 52 Hot Dogs To The Head piece.

ArtsATL: How do you produce the object for the viewer when it’s removed from the visual experience? Through titling?

Gently: It’s certainly through titling, but I also hope that it’s through the color red which will be projected through a sheet of white paper that has the indexes of the 52 hot dogs.

ArtsATL: How did you get to this absence of the thing?

Gently: It would probably be my GIF work and directly making work that depicts objects and sort of wanting to move away from that and see how else I can speak about objects.

ArtsATL: How does absence figure into this? Loss?

Gently: I don’t think it’s loss, maybe rather a hinting at something. Maybe the hint functions as a way of saying that this is here, maybe not right now, but it has been here, it was here, but not at this present moment; it could be here later on.

ArtsATL: What’s your goal with this installation-based work?

Gently: I like that maybe it could be pulling the glove inside out. I feel art is usually talked about either as the image over the object or the object over the image, so I certainly want to look into that.

ArtsATL: You have this video of the hotdogs and audio plays a major role in it. Can you talk about audio as opposed to visual?

Gently: I think sound is a really cool thing. It’s very virtual in structure. It’s entirely intangible. It’s hard to grasp, so I like having the sound as a video, gives it a little bit more visualization. I filmed the performance of the hotdogs being thrown at my head and I think that removing the image of the hotdogs being thrown at my head allows the mind to consider what the hotdogs are doing a little more. By removing the image of the hotdogs, I can distance the humor of hotdogs and maybe in that distance, look at hotdogs differently.

ArtsATL: The goal then, is to show the work as installation with the paper and not just the video.

Gently: I think it has to do with being in a space with it. A sound, if it’s being so ephemeral, can be experienced in a different way if you’re with it, projected onto the thing that created the sound.

ArtsATL: The thing that’s sounding, what’s being impacted, contacted, is there, but the active agent is not. You said you’re working towards a solo show in September at ….

Gently: Nasty Cowboy run by Jordan Stubbs and Alessandra Hoshor. They’re also organizing the performance I will be a part of at ACAC.

ArtsATL: What are the plans for the exhibition?

Gently: I’m working on shadow sculptures for that.

ArtsATL: Like shadow theater? Magic lantern type, pre-cinema, shadow puppet theater?

Gently: It will be more installation-based. Pedestals with sculptures that aren’t there, and the only way we know the sculptures are there is maybe by their shadow using lights that I will shade or unshade.

ArtsATL: Is it documenting the sculptures that aren’t there, what remains? How can there be a shadow in real-time for something that’s not there?

Gently: Logistically, i’m manipulating the way that the light shines down. I’m interested in gallery lighting and how lighting manipulates artwork in a space versus in a virtual space when artwork is lit, there is no shadow — the goal is no shadow. In museums and galleries though, it’s all shadows.

ArtsATL: This is a different kind of absence. In the hotdog video, it seems to be about presenting the meaning of the object in all of its dimensions through its absence, and circumscribing it with different things that are not visual. For this, I guess I’ll have to see it. I’m intrigued. Well, I guess I won’t see it because I’ll see shadows, but … maybe it doesn’t really matter, but were there ever these sculptures casting these shadows?

Gently: No, there won’t be, no.

ArtsATL: Do you have a working title for this?

Gently: Gently in the Shadows.

ArtsATL: You play with spelling a lot. Incorrect spellings. Misused homonyms. I’m interested in how language factors into all your work.

Gently: I’m particularly using the English language which is a structure that i’m interested in. Misspelled words still function as the words I intend them to — that’s interesting to me — it’s a way of queering language, re-situating it.

ArtsATL: How does this relate to images? For a lot of the images on Instagram, the title is doing the work of the piece.

Gently: I think titling gives me a little more control. With the way that I’m moving into these more negative presentations, I’m trying to let go of controlling the way that my art is perceived, but certainly with my titled work, they’re highly contrived.

ArtsATL: It’s kind of describing what it is but at the same time not. It’s determining but not over-determining. Where’s the slippage? Where’s the open? The between? What emerges out of that relationship between the image and the titling? Is this where meaning is generated? That’s what I see in your Cick Of The Sircle Jerk video. It’s almost like that video is showing the meta-process of your work. There’s this parentheses shape, something that is creating the space, where something is emerging but deflating and then emerging again, and there are gaps in this. There’s something else that is coming in or something else that is escaping. Maybe I’m just thinking weird thoughts … So what’s the performance going to be at ACAC?

Gently: It’s going to be with the group Pretty Boy for the “I’m Alive Tour” — Abdu Ali, :3ION + Dylijens. Pretty Boy is me, Yancey Ballard and Kale Swick. I think the show is an act in bringing together music and art as they’re usually separated.

ArtsATL: What do you play?

Gently: Guitar, synth and I sing.

ArtsATL: How would you characterize Pretty Boy’s sound?

Gently: Probably health punk … positive health punk. We change every couple of songs. We all come from different music scenes and different cultural scenes.

ArtsATL: Well I’m looking forward to that!