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Study of Waves: an interview with SCRAAATCH

Still from digital re-performance of SCRAAATCH No. 8 (2015)

We have been following the work of Philadelphia-based artists SCRAAATCH aka E. Jane and chukwumaa (E+c) since crossing paths at an event at MoCADA in Brooklyn. Recently, they came back to New York to prepare for an upcoming performance at The Kitchen. We had the chance to sit down for a conversation in Chelsea. After parting ways, we were struck not only by all the common ground between our teams, but also by the divergences. We realized we wanted to talk more about how they work and where their practice is going. E+c will perform their work SCRAAATCH no. 9 at The Kitchen as a part of the S/N series this Friday, June 5, between 4 – 6 pm.

M+K: We've been working together almost 20 years, so we are always interested in how teams function. Why do you choose  to collaborate? What does it make possible for you as individuals or what are you trying to say by collaborating?

E+c: One thing we loved hearing in Kanye West's Zane Lowe interview was his idea of having multiple outlets. He described how having different containers for different creative impulses prevents you from clouding up one project by trying to put too many ideas into it. We're both really generative and are engaged with conversations around a lot of different fields, ideas, inclinations, audiences and questions. SCRAAATCH allows us to channel some energy that might cloud our individual work, which can sometimes be much more project-centered.

colon:y (Wilmer Wilson IV & chukwumaa) The Airborne Leaflet Campaign (2012) Photo: Joshua Yospyn

colon:y (Wilmer Wilson IV & chukwumaa) The Airborne Leaflet Campaign (2012) Photo: Joshua Yospyn

M+K: We know you both have studied a number of different disciplines (for example poetry, sculpture and engineering) and have solo practices in addition to the collaborative practice. How did you come to do this work? How has the studio practice evolved and how does it relate to the online projects and live performance works?

E: My work comes from trying to be intelligible. I went through periods of having a large inner dialogue without the ability to communicate the theories rolling around in my head with the world around me. Poetry was an early attempt at engaging the world existentially. The studio practice really came from the furthering of that attempt. I really love what Kanye said about his early attempts at painting and how he couldn't turn the canvas up louder. My practice evolved out of the poem being too quiet, then feeling like the photograph wasn't enough and turning to video and sound, and ultimately performance. Online projects are a way I can employ all mediums in tandem and make sure those mediums are actually engaging the world they derive from.

E: I think a lot about that scene in Luis Buñuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie when they're in a dream sequence and you realize that the space they're in is part physical space and part painted set. The internet feels like that sort of space, one that is real but is also an elaborate construction that requires some sort of artistry to finish (coding included).

E+c: We both grew up spending an extended amount of time online, being raised by a computer and a television. We also both share a deep interest in theater (we met in a drama class at high school). People generally see the internet as a platform. Websites can be sets.

c: Performance, tinkering and pranks predated my formal art practice. I once convinced my high school that I'd lost a leg. I did a documentary video when I realized how tragically ableist the prank was. Funnily enough, E. was one of the few who saw right through it! I owe much thanks to folks like DJ rAt and the Anthology of Booty crew, along with DJ Underdog for convincing me to do more than just dance to the music. I also owe a lot to early mentors Jefferson Pinder and Hasan Elahi for providing a formative exposure to performance and conceptual art. These approaches made the most sense of my disparate and non-linear impulses and feelings.

c: I'm always trying to collect these impulses and feelings—well, more like hoard them! However you name it, this meant that much of my earlier work was spent exhuming collections of things from before I "decided" to make art formally. I was turning a 40 pound drawer of those promotional letters colleges send into a two floor sculpture of a step; mining all of the emails I'd ever sent myself for word pieces etc. This hasn't really changed, but I'm trying to be more focused and thoughtful with how and what connects my experience with that of others. I want to show care when I make. No. I want to use care when I make. In the studio, this means a lot more taking in than putting out. A lot of Twitter and Soundcloud. There are a lot of wonderful folks out there taking time to ask deep questions about specific things and I really want to respect that through my work. When ILoveMakonnen dropped "Tuesday," the nuance of making a club song about the experience of going to work when most were sleeping or partying struck me! There's so much of this going on and I can't ignore it.

c: I'm always impressed at how E. balances intake/output. And also naming/framing things. I'm always the last to know that I did a "thing." Someone else has to say "that was a great drawing!" or "is that sculpture going to be shown anywhere?" or "are you doing a performance on Twitter rn???" The main development in my studio practice is trying to not leave too much hidden away on the cutting floor. Or even to keep so much away from the studio in the first place. I'm in a period of reconciling things I've spent a lot of time treating as separate just because they're disparate. In a way, that's what SCRAAATCH has been teaching me.

Still from E. The Avatar Ep. 5 (2015)

M+K: When we made online work many years ago we thought of the work we were making as public art. The internet was an alternative space for folks whose practices did not fit into the pre-existing "alternative art spaces," and a public space ripe for experimentation.  Much of how we experience the internet from the US today seems incredibly privatized a space dominated and heavily framed by corporate platforms and designed for distraction. Even with all of these radical changes in the landscape, many artists still find ways to make interesting work online. How do you see the internet as a space for artists today and how do you use it?

E+c: In the world, distraction and focus aren't mutually exclusive anymore. For us, they never were.

E+c: The internet has an "and" relationship to the IRL space for us. We've grown up spending our time loving, hating, hurting, exploring, etc. as much online as off, if not more. Working online is a given for us. But in some ways this is really the experience of our generation and not really specific to us.

E+c: Sometimes we wonder what an internet without corporate or government interests would look like, and we recognize that this doesn't invalidate the many experiences we've had on this one. We probably have a relationship to the internet that some kids have to malls, or rec centers, or that one back yard or corner that everyone played in. We find ourselves most in love with a lot of work that is kind of aware of the context or medium. Like the phrase "slides in DMs" or "link in bio" or y'alls eBay piece. Dan Harmon's show "Community" does an entire episode about the two brands whose commercials play during the show.

c: But this isn't really unique to the internet, a lot of Black cultural products use self-reflexivity and intertextuality so perfectly! In most rap songs, you'll know who's rapping, who produced it, where they're from, what they're going through and how long they've been at it without liner notes or an interview. It's like a book whose text is the colophon. That's huge to us that we're drawing from a lush history.

E: When I started putting ads into our mixes, it was because of this need for reflexivity. I've bought ad space on Facebook, made work from their demographics info and have started constructing video art in the commercial format. I feel that if corporations want to force me to consume ads so they can gain revenue, then I can sample and mimic and derive art from those ads as I would anything else.

c: We also try not to let any specific interface, frame or context become blinders.

M+K: The group name SCRAAATCH invokes both mark-making and sound-making. In No. 7 you all seem to be playing a game and making sounds in response to each other. Was this sonic and visual process always important for the SCRAAATCH series of works? Do you call it music or sound art? It brings to mind the history of artists (from Wadada Leo Smith to Earl Browne) making graphic scores or artists playing games in public (see Reunion by Teeny and Marcel Duchamp with John Cage, David Berman David Tudor & Gordon Mumma).  In what historical context would you place your work?

c: It's funny how far that name goes in terms of connotations. It was originally inspired by Hennessey Youngman discussing originality in art. Recently, when we were taking a course with Massimo Bartolini, he taught us about Cornelius Cardew and his Scratch Orchestra and we kind of giggled at not knowing but being so close to his intentions of improvisation and un-learning. I first started experimenting earnestly with sound in my performance practice in a residency with Coco Fusco at the Atlantic Center for the Arts. When I was there, she put me on to Pamela Z, whose sound and new media well runs so deep! Senga Nengudi, pope.L and David Hammons' sculpture and performances really animated me early on. A show of Arte Povera sculpture at the Hirschhorn maybe 5 years back had a similar effect. colon:y (a collective consisting of E, Wilmer Wilson IV, Samuel Hindolo and myself) is always my rock, though.

E: Jayson Musson was one of our first shared influences (also one of the reasons we went to Penn). We watched a lot of the Art Thoughtz videos. In How to Make a Art, Hennessy goes into a postmodernist rant about originality. He says, "This the future, internet, and talent ain't got naught to do with artistic production [...]. Art's not [sic] about making a sculpture out of scratch. I mean, where do you even find scratch in 2011? I thought we ran out of scratch like, in the '60s after the Vietnam War?" He then starts talking about readymades. I saw this completely aligned with the thoughts of the Fluxus movement and liked that the name alluded to it. In that way, it's funny that you mentioned mark making and people like Cage and Marcel Duchamp. The Fluxus movement definitely shapes the way we think about SCRAAATCH. Last summer, we taught a workshop at Hishhorn's ArtLab+ on paper sculpture and sound art and I taught the students about Cage's 4'33" as an introduction to sound art. The class called the piece they eventually made together Water Walk II after Cage's piece.

E: There's this video with Yoko Ono and RZA where they're playing chess and then they break out into this avant-garde duet, "Life is a Struggle." We saw this video in 2013 and it lead to us thinking about how to work together, Yoko and RZA being two people we look up to. We've also done research on the work Yoko did with John Lennon, esp. some of the sound pieces they made together and found the work very influential. Yoko Ono being a performance and sound art legend and RZA having an extremely experimental music practice, we realized this video was the best of both those worlds. Yoko has always been inspiring for how she tried things that were considered absurd or ridiculous to some but daring for many others. She's a real trickster.

c: We also studied you two's practice from afar. It was like a course in the possibilities for this type of conceptually-driven, sustained inter-media collaboration. And from folks who looked like us.

c: We're also really interested in certain DJs and their live performances. PC Music's Dead Or Alive Stream live video performances were perfect, especially the movement in A.G. Cook's set. Lotic has literally made me knock things over. I watch too many Boiler Room and 10-hour youtube videos.

M+K: Can you tell us more about your piece for the Kitchen, SCRAAATCH no. 9 and the S/N series?

E+c: We can, but we'd rather use that cliche about coming and finding out. ;) As for S/N, it's a sound-centered exhibition put together by the The Whitney ISP Curatorial Program. We were brought in by Curatorial Fellow Blair Murphy, who previously headed programming at Washington Project for the Arts. She does awesome work! We wouldn't be in this show were it not for her thinking of our work, so it feels good to be in a beautiful catalog among many much more experienced artists and musicians!

M+K: You both worked for some time and presented projects in Washington, D.C., a city where art-making, just like everything else, is understood to be deeply political. You are now based in Philadelphia, a city with a rich Black avant-garde tradition (from Sun-Ra and Sonia Sanchez to Hprizm and King Britt). How have these cities, local art communities and institutions affected your practices?

c: Go-Go and much of the culture surrounding it were erased from the face of the city.

c: My performances after undergrad all touched on various facets of this process and E [had produced] a trove of street photography that within months became documents of D.C.'s huge shift.

E+c: We don't make the mistake of thinking we know enough about Philly to speak on its ills, but we were definitely aware of MOVE long before we got here, and of King Britt!

M+K: We should also mention that you are both in an MFA program at The University of Pennsylvania. The great artist and Penn professor Terry Adkins was a major influence and Jedi master-like guide to us and an incredible number of artists in our generation. Did you have any interaction with Terry before he passed away?

E+c: We never got to take a class with him but we met him once when we visited Wilmer [Wilson IV] for Final Reviews:

c: I complained about not being able to get my application fee waived and Terry simply said "Look man, you have the opportunity to be where this guy (Wilmer) is at. Just come up with the money!" E. met him having a cigarette during a break and…

E: I plotted on having a cigarette that whole day. Finally, he went out for a break and I did too, and I told him who I was and that I was applying. He asked where I was from, I told him D.C. and he said he was too. We talked about where he grew up. Then he told me to tell him about myself and I did. I told him a short essay about my artistic life journey, how chukwumaa and Wilmer got me into the 21st Century. I was really nervous. When I was finished, he threw out his cigarette, looked over at me and said, "I look forward to seeing your work." Those are the final words Terry Adkins ever said to me.

c: And to me, "Come up with the money!" ha ha. But seriously, we glean as much as we can from our encounters with his work, his legacy here at Penn (the Lugo Land Residency he initiated, stories from other Penn folks) and his interviews online.

M+K: Describe your studio or work space. Why do you like it that way?

E+c: We have two spaces. Individual studios and a home office. The individual studio acts as a personal headspace, the home office is a shared brain. This allows us both to be expansive and reflects our practices as both individual and deeply intertwined. It allows us to store art objects in our studios–

E: Although I have prints and sculpture work that just hangs out at home, or gets hung as decor, and leave the heavy duty computing for home. I have an iMac we call The Space Station permanently installed in our home office. It's my digital studio for production and design work. It's nice to have this space set up in our house because it's where I spend the most continuous time. Editing and production take serious time and patience and so it's nice to never want to put it off like you can hanging a print.

E+c: Most of our work is so conceptual, it requires many thinking and editing hours. The physical making or construction of things that takes up space is secondary.

c: My set-up is heavier at my individual studio than at home, and features monitors, sculpture materials and such. I'm much more sparse at home. I shuttle tools back and forth when needed, though.

E+c: Over all, the home office is designed for ease of reconfiguration and productivity. Hindolo once made the funny observation that our room is set up like a startup. Our bed is usually folded up into a couch.

M+K: Favorite tool? Why do you like it?

E: My favorite tool is probably my iPod touch, which I affectionately refer to as an apparat. My professor, Jamie Diamond, told me to read Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart and I loved the way he theorized the direction of the iPhone to the apparat. In the story, the main character gains personality points by confessing things to his apparat, and I see our social media devices as an extension of that.

E: They kind of function as an extension of our bodies. They can hear, see, and speak. I have the 2015 iPod touch model w/64GB of storage space. It's basically a smaller iPhone that no one can call me on. It isn't a burden to carry, so it allows for rapid generation. For our anniversary, chukwumaa bought me a tripod and wireless shutter release for it, so now there are even more possibilities.

c: I love my sound system, because it took a while to get all the pieces and the opportunity to feel my sounds is so important to the work (and play). But I also think my obsessive connecting of events, people and such is my real favorite tool. Since that isn't exactly an externalized object, the first answer works best.

M+K: Tell us what you are currently reading/listening to.

E: I'm currently re-reading Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. My reading habits are very sporadic, though. Generally we both have at least 8 tabs up with essays in them that we've been meaning to read. I have master essays I go back to over a period of months, like "ART & COMMERCE: Ecology Beyond Spectatorship" by Christopher Kulendran Thomas and Hito Steryl's "Politics of Post-Representation."  I started a separate Tumblr this semester, as an appendix to my mood board just for quotes and media I come across that inform my practice. I also just bought a copy of Pandora's Camera by Joan Fontcuberta. I'm looking forward to reading his essay, "I Photograph Therefore I am."

E+c: We're trying to read more Foucault and Fanon this summer.

c: We just got Elysia Crampton's Moth/Lake! I've heard earlier versions of "Moth" for a while and the poem has taken a very important place in my heart. And I'm always going back to Kemistry and Storm's DJ Kicks, I only have tangential connections to the history of Drum'n'Bass and Jungle but I still get worked up over the passing of Kemi Olusanya. I mean to learn more about Glissant, I saw the phrase "right to opacity" and flipped! One day, I'll finish Sonic Warfare by Steve Goodman, the Hyperdub releases go down a lot smoother. Also, someone on Twitter recently helped me find the source of my favorite GIF of all time and it turned out to be a surreal children's yoga video, so that's a victory. My older cousin recently sent me an exhaustive collection of zouk and kompa that she used to play while we did chores as kids, even bigger victory!

 M+K: What's next for you all?

E+c: Next are ongoing/upcoming gigs in Philly, NY, LA and DC, a residency at Vermont Studio Center for chukwumaa, a slew of E's online projects, the next mandatory software update, then the Crown Fried down the block, or whichever comes first.

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