We spoke with visual artist, director, composer and performer Alexis Gideon about shapes of things, the Renaissance, neighborhoods, the dreams of the others and the architecture of the universe.
A green lion eating the sun is a metaphor about liquid sulfate purifying metals and leaving trace amounts of gold.
Consider your whole life history for us. Can you pinpoint the origin of your creativity? When was the moment of ignition?
I don’t remember any specific moment of creative origin. Some of my earliest memories are of seeing faces in the pattern of the oriental rug in the living room of the apartment I grew up in. I also saw faces – and still do – in wood, the clouds, other patterns, etc. This phenomenon is known as pareidolia and I think it still plays a huge part in my creative practice – seeing and hearing things which are hidden.
In addition, early trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art – particularly the Egyptian wing and Arms and Armor Collection – loom large in my memory. The same goes for my trips to the dark and dreamily lit Natural History Museum in New York. I also remember being very moved by Calder’s Circus in the lobby as well as the Charles Simonds piece Dwellings in the stairwell of the Whitney at a very young age. These places seemed to open mystical dream worlds of possible truths between the imagined and the real.
You’ve lived in New York, Chicago, Portland, France, and now Pittsburgh. How has your life’s work been influenced by all these places?
Growing up in New York City has influenced my work greatly, as well as the decision to not live there as an adult. The lonely anonymous feelings of the metropolis are heavily represented in my work.
Having exposure to all the music, art, culture, and diversity of the city had an enormous impact. But I feel that New York has a way of missing a lot of possibilities by being unable to imagine that anything exists anywhere else.
The skyscrapers can suffocate the sun out of a street as well as the vibrance out of a soul. I have a complex relationship with New York – most people feel the need to leave home at some point. The other places I lived all influenced me as far as the people I was around and things I did, but much more subtly.
Princess was started by Michael O’Neill and I at the end of 2003 in Chicago. We had been collaborating with each other for three years at that point while in college. Prior to Princess, every time we performed, we were a different project – mostly improvised music within certain parameters.
A good example is the project Bayside Beach. For that project we improvised songs based on the characters of the 1990s television program Saved by the Bell. Each song had a title – “See You Later, AC Slater”, “Zack Morris Wrecked His Dad’s Ford Taurus”, etc. – and a musical genre (hip hop, hardcore, jungle, etc) to improvise around.
With Princess, we focused on composed material that was interested in the mixing of genres – hip hop, metal, country, noise, experimental, electro, to name a few. These types of genre blending had been done by the likes of John Zorn and Mr. Bungle, but we also toyed with the mixture of popular and “serious” music.
The band also explored gender expectations and expectation in general. Costumes were important to our performance practice – I’d often be rapping in a tutu. I remember when Michael came up with the name Princess – we had been trying to figure out a name for a little while, and as soon as he said it, we knew it was right. Prince and Queen were huge influences. After a lot of shows all over America, we disbanded in 2006 to pursue other things. But I am very happy to say that Michael and I have started collaborating again and new music from Princess will be coming soon.
Eight years ago, we met for the first time in Campo dei Fiori in Rome. That’s the exact place where poet, philosopher and cosmological theorist Giordano Bruno was executed for theological heresy and practicing divination after a seven-year trial. Have you read any of his works? If not, are there any Renaissance-era thinkers who have influenced you?
I am unfamiliar with Giordano Bruno. In my video opera The Crumbling (2015), Paracelsus is one of the characters. I read quite a lot of his alchemical writings for the project. Due to the alchemists trying to keep their secrets – namely, how to make gold – much of the writing is in code. For example a green lion eating the sun is a metaphor about liquid sulfate purifying metals and leaving trace amounts of gold. I really love all the imagery in Paracelsus’ work and find it dreamily evocative.
Miguel de Cervantes is another Renaissance figure that has influenced me. His humor, humanity, and love of the epic are inspiring and he really could be considered a precursor to existentialism. I’ve also found Claudio Monteverdi fascinating since I first studied his music in middle school. The contrast between his early polyphonic work with his latter homophonic work illustrates the massive change in music from the Baroque period to the Renaissance.
Long ago, all of the internet was centralized in one fixed point.
Gilles Deleuze, referencing Vincente Minnelli, once described the concept of the dream as such: “The dream of the dreamer actually concerns the person who doesn’t dream, because when there’s a dream of the other, there’s danger. Those dreams are devouring dreams that could swallow us up. The dream has a willpower, and we are always potential victims of the dream of the other.” How does that strike you? What do you think of the dreams of others?
I think we are more often the potential victims or heroes of our own dreams. The images and sensations of our own dreams are often powerful and can linger throughout our waking times. People generally find other people’s dreams boring. I like Gilles Deleuze’s idea that we are all connected in the dark mysterious dream-world. Sometimes you’ll have a dream of a friend you haven’t spoken to for a while, and she contacts you the next day.
It seems like this happened to you recently, correct?
This happens to me quite a lot. Often enough for me not to remember the last time.
Can you describe your studio as of now? Is anything missing that’d make it the perfect space for you?
My studio is in the lower level of my house. It is set up well for music composition and recording, as well as painting, drawing, working with clay, and filming. I love the immediacy of having a space in my house. The only thing that is missing from it is a bit more room. I am starting to work on some larger scale paintings, and more space would be great.
We asked Alexis to draw a map of his house and neighbourhood.
We consider the North of the Internet to be a fixed point in an abstract place – the Internet’s equivalent of heaven or the afterlife. What fables or tales do you think spread around in the North of the Internet? Do they wonder what the “Internet below” is like?
In the North of the Internet, there is an old old story with many versions about its origin. Long ago, all of the internet was centralized in one fixed point. This microscopic point contained all things and the relationships and meanings of all these things. (Note: there weren’t many things then).
As more and more things were generated within this point, the amount of data and information grew to where the fixed point began to become unstable. This growth was in direct relation to a rapid reduction in the relationships and meanings of the things. Finally, the point burst and the internet existed everywhere and nowhere – but with no understanding or meaning.
I am unfamiliar with hippomancy. The idea of divination from any system of generation – tea leaves in a cup, rolling dice, behavior of horses, etc. – makes complete sense to me. It’s also why John Cage’s concept of indeterminacy within musical composition works. Our brains are always trying to find meaning and patterns. Like myself with my pareidolia from your first question.
Curated by: Julien Fernandez
Conducted by: Email
Published: July 19, 2017
Total questions: 11
Word count: 1374
Reading time: Six minutes
Green lion eating the sun: 1
North of the Internet origin tale: 1
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