Variation and Repetition: Aria Dean

Aria Dean and Hanna Girma in conversation


Aria Dean’s work is not for the idle spectator. Often employing seemingly mundane, mass-produced—yet culturally weighted—objects and proxy-sourced images, the viewer is forced to consider the encumbrance of the material but also the fraught realm in which the corporeal exists. Dissecting and discrediting the object itself, Dean beseeches audiences of her work to pursue more from what is presented to them, creating pieces that rebuke their virality and previously encoded meaning.  Dean’s projects as an artist, writer, and curator have acted as markers to a larger multifaceted practice that encompasses an overarching, poignant, topical commentary. I sat with the artist in the time leading up to her first solo show at American Medium to discuss her practice as an art-world Anansi character of sorts, how her past writing and work deviates from her upcoming projects, and the state of black critique.  We also discussed her parents growing up in a communist housing collective in Jamaica, Queens and convincing her that her life was a TV show in Finland, but that didn’t make the cut.


HANNA GIRMA: Okay, it was really annoying to have to research you because you’ve done so much. I was like, ugh, Aria knows I hate reading and she has an excessive amount of writing. So I was wondering, how do you make the time to run a space, write, work as the assistant curator for Rhizome, and still make work?

ARIA DEAN: Most of the writing that I’ve done was before I had a lot going on. Now, I have no time to do anything. I’m constantly over-extended, so I’ve decided I don’t want to write stuff for a while, outside of work. Just spending time making work for shows and for myself. We’ll see how well that goes.

HG: Your earlier essays, both “Closing the Loop” and “Poor Meme, Rich Meme,” are very much putting into words what everyone was feeling at the time. I feel like most of your writing very clearly articulates a lot of black net artist discussions.

AD: Thank you. It’s weird because I revisited both of those texts recently and I was struck by how, at the time, I’d felt like, this is what I’m seeing all these people seeing and feeling and I feel similar things. I want to sort of summarize and theorize what that is. In retrospect, I think that there has been this widespread reading of them as prescriptive rather than descriptive texts. Some people—mostly white people— seem to think the point was: “White women should stop doing selfie art. Or white people should stop using black memes,” but that wasn’t my primary interest. I was more interested in what’s out there and exploring why it’s happening in this way, in theoretical and philosophical terms. This communication gap is something that, looking back, I feel regretful about; I was aiming for an intellectual dialogue with my black peers and not a call-out.

HG: Can you talk more about revisitation and repetition in your work, especially with the ribbed cotton undershirts and, more recently, cotton branches.

AD: I have this obsessive way of working, so it’s that in part; I can’t let something fade into the background. But also, I’m interested in repetition’s place in black cultural forms at large. So with jazz, for instance, the way that repetition functions, how there’s repetition and then there’s room for variation within this repetitive structure. Around the time that I wrote the meme essay, I became interested in that as an endpoint for how memes related to blackness as well. It’s this repetitive, iterative structure but then there’s this variable within the repetition of the object. Regarding repetition of forms and materials, I was obsessed with this idea of cotton and its feigned neutrality—it’s very generic presence—for a while. But of course, it can also be read as having this relationship to blackness and to rap and, in turn, also some sort of carceral aesthetic. Then eventually, I became interested in taking this manufactured, processed version of the material, and then backtracking to its natural form and the historical associations that it brings —slavery and plantations and so on. Right now, I am obsessed with this river in Mississippi where my paternal grandfather was from, called the Yazoo River. In the folklore of that area, the story goes that Yazoo means “death” in the language of the tribe that originally inhabited the area. I was reading a lot of Afro-pessimist stuff on blackness and social death when I discovered this. It’s this river that literally is called Death and it’s loaded with crazy morbid histories—for my family and at large. So, I’ve been doing a lot of work involving the landscape down there, just the basic building blocks—the soil, plants, water—partly because I have no other way to access it. My grandfather’s not there anymore; he was driven out, and so was his brother. So the landscape felt like the most honest and simplest way in—earth, landscape of the American south. I didn’t want it to be this thing where it was overtly narrative, like, “I went down to this place and I interviewed so-and-so.” I’m very bored by work like that. The work I’m making is all very procedural, all about enrolling people to execute a very simple idea, acting in concert with me as proxies. I’m not interested in an emotional attachment to this place or a person-to-person community-oriented artwork kind of thing. I’m interested in extending my reach through these proxies. So maybe like that, sort of dehumanizing in some way, but I’m interested in that. It’s very mechanic.

HG: I think it’s only dehumanizing if you’re already looking at it through a lens where these people aren’t humans.

AD: Yeah, like, there wouldn’t be a need to humanize us if you weren’t working from a perspective of us not being human.

HG: I’ve talked with you so much about how you are kind of annoyed at how much people impose their preconceived notions onto your work, but you are clearly using very culturally significant, weighted objects. And touching upon your Ulysses Jenkins article and your point that yes, his work is about positive and negative representations and stereotypes of black life, but it’s so much more, yet it’s been flattened. So given that you think of your work in “essay form,” how have you been grappling with people’s perception of only one section of the “essay” that is often misconstrued?

AD: The objects, the articles, and essays kind of imprint on each other and inform each other in roundabout. I feel like the meme essay kind of came out of the sculpture that I did with the FUBU sneakers, where I was like, these are the leftovers of this person flying through cyber-space and their shoes are burnt from going really fast. It was sort of like this funny, embodied version of the ideas that I wanted to get at in the essay. I’m frustrated that I’ve been making objects in this sort of essayistic form, though, because it’s not how I have worked in the past. And it’s because of having this sense of being watched or whatever, but I’m trying to perform some version of myself or something like that. It’s really frustrating; there’s this way that the art world will read any action by a black artist or a black writer or curator often as being in response to (or resistant to) the white structure that the person is nested within, reducing the black artist to playing the role of the ethical check for the art world. It’s like, well, what about the larger epistemological, philosophical world of black art, black philosophy, black literature, and all those things?  I’ve been reading this book of Ad Reinhardt’s writing and interviews, and one thing that he says is that, “The artist should once and forever emancipate himself from the bondage of appearance.”  And, “The laying bare of oneself is obscene.”  And there’s this other quote—and I can’t remember where it’s from—but it’s a line about “denaturalizing the labor of appearance.” When I make objects, I’m interested in trying to figure that out, denaturalizing even my own feeling of the necessity for me to appear in excess, in connection to my work. I’m working on letting the works live on their own and not controlling them. For me, those cotton pieces were this joke about presence, fetishization, and history. It was all about cliché for me, and people expecting that object (the cotton) to mean something, and throwing a wrench in that. I kind of got the setup right but didn’t land the punchline, I think. So next time I’ll try to let the joke breathe a little bit.

HG: I feel like a lot of your works fall into the category of, “Oh, you thought!” You deal a lot with secrecy and trickery from the show you curated at As It Stands—to the signal jammer in the cotton, to the hidden tablets, and even when you’re thinking about the Wata piece. What role does deception play in your work?

AD: I think about the trickster figure in folklore fairly often—like Anansi the Spider or the Signifying Monkey. But for a long time,I was like, that shit’s corny. But more recently, I’ve realized I’m into it, and a lot of my work is about inhabiting that position. How can I use excess and over-performance to land a trick? Is absence and non-performance better suited to the occasion? Sometimes I worry that I’m over-thinking it, too worried about how a work is postured rather than making the thing I want to make.

HG: That’s also something I’m always thinking about. It seems right now, white people/white artists are being held to a certain amount of accountability that they never have been before and they’re all freaking out. And just thinking about your work and most black artists that I have worked with and how much they think about how to navigate space and how their images, their objects, their bodies are read at all times.

AD: Yeah, I think another way of phrasing what I’m chasing is: How do you activate that forced double-consciousness to make an object that is doing the most and doing the least at the same time? Like, this object has kind of sandwiched itself between two poles and is kind of pushing out on the audiences or something like that.

HG: I feel like that’s a form of new black minimalism. It’s doing the most and doing the least at the same time.

AD: Yeah! Doing the least is hard; I run my mouth too much. If I wrote less or was more withholding, then maybe I would be able to be doing the most and the least more. I’m really working on this continued practice of letting it sit and being okay with people experiencing the work for themselves. However, it’s annoying when white people look at the cotton branch piece and are like, “Wow! Sad!”

HG: That’s also interesting. It makes me think about how Kara Walker just put out that press release where she was like, “I know what you all expect from me and I have complied up to a point. But frankly, I am tired.” Her decision to give that pretext and explain that is interesting to me, you know?

AD: Yeah, that was cool. Like, if you don’t speak for yourself, it’s not gonna result in, “Well, she didn’t say anything; I guess we’ll just see what the show is.” It’s like that line people love to quote: If we don’t tell our stories, they’ll kill us and say we enjoyed it or something like that. You know? It gets into this sort of this territory that is really popular to circle now; it’s this question of visibility. Some people are like, “Telling our stories is not going to save us.” But other people are like, “We need to tell our own stories.” And it’s a constant negotiation of not wanting to constantly be like, “This is what I think,” but it’s like, if I don’t, then no one will know and people will say that I think something other than what I think. I’ve seen that happen in my short time being in the art world. I’ve encountered numerous situations where I’m sort of ventriloquized. I’ve also had conversations with multiple black women in the art world, about how, regardless of your credentials and your level of activity in the art world, people often want to you to be “calling out” so-and-so. And it’s like, no, I wrote a piece of criticism is what I did; I didn’t call anyone out. Sometimes I feel like a piece of art criticism written by a black woman has to come with a neck roll and a snap. I’m not against call-out culture in any way. I just think it’s a bad word for critique. And maybe it’s because black women, black people, POC, doing it—acting as an ethical check again—it’s a call-out. But when Clement Greenberg was doing it, it was “criticism.”

HG: I wanted to delve more into critique because I feel like that’s something that we’ve talked about a lot in the past. And I recently went to a talk with Ava DuVernay and the director of Gook (Justin Chon), and she was like, “I’m gonna talk to you about your process because as a black filmmaker, there’re not that many black movie critics out there, and I want to know what they think about my work, and I want to be asked about my process.” So I feel like I’ve asked you about your process, but I want to ask you about your work as a critic as well, because I feel like you are one of very few—at least in the public sphere, because a lot of it happens online—published, young, black art critics.

AD: In terms of criticism, I wish that there was more space; I would write so much more criticism if I felt like there was more space for black artists and critics and writers and curators to have divergent opinions on works. There’s this worry that something is endangered when a disagreement amongst black artists is inadvertently seen by the white art world structure. Because then they’re like “Oh, they don’t agree so we don’t have to pay attention to these black people anymore.” Like, “They’re working it out. We’ll talk to them when they figure out what they think.” Like, we’re some sort of congressional black caucus. I made this half-joke once… I wonder things like, can we do a black feminist reading of Chris Burden that doesn’t say, “Now we think he’s actually useful to everyone.” But where we say, “Well, what happened there? Why was he doing the things that he was doing and why do so few black artists do things where they put their bodies in situations like that?” I mean, we know the answers to these things amongst ourselves in some ways, and a lot of people think we don’t need to spill ink over these dumb white guys. But I’m still interested. If you have a splinter, you don’t ignore it: you take it out. You examine it and the damage done. I just think I’m interested in figuring out what those practices are: the good, the bad, and the ugly. The history of art, of modernism, of white supremacy, of capital, and so on—we’re all tangled up in it.


Aria Dean is an artist, writer, and curator based in Los Angeles. She currently holds the position of assistant curator of net art & digital culture at Rhizome. Her writing has been featured in Artforum, Art in America, CURA Magazine, Mousse Magazine, The New Inquiry, Real Life Magazine, Topical Cream Magazine, and X-TRA Contemporary Art Quarterly. She has exhibited at Arcadia Missa (London), Knockdown Center (New York), Chateau Shatto (Los Angeles), Foxy Production (New York), and Air de Paris (Paris). Dean has spoken at the New Museum, UCLA, The New School, and Machine Project. She also co-directs Los Angeles project space As It Stands LA.

Hanna Girma is a Curatorial Fellow at the Studio Museum in Harlem and MoMA. She previously worked as the Assistant Curator at The Mistake Room, Los Angeles. Exhibitions include Lost Wax (2016) and Analog Currency (2017). Her writing is featured in Kaleidoscope and Rhizome. She has contributed exhibition texts to in lieu, Los Angeles and has lectured at UCLA and the Museo Taller José Clemente Orozco.


Originally published on Mousse 60

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