Interview: Memes & (Im)materiality with Rayvenn Shaleigha D’Clark

I DON’T SEE COLOUR (2018)

Rayvenn Shaleigha D’Clark is a multimedia digital sculptor, writer and curator based in London. She explores hybridity, form, and the reframing of black anatomy and autonomy in her work. The lifelikeness of her sculptures belies the handmade and crafted elements at play; the attention to detail in the Nylon plaster, the machine-grooves, the application of hair and make-up. Underpinning her work is a commitment to exploring the commodification of race and gender, with her most recent exhibition at the Aylesham Centre in Peckham unpacking the contemporary ‘meme’. Interested in textuality and temporality, her sculptures pack a political punch and are accompanied by impactful pieces of writing on her website.

Check out the exhibition Black + White = Grey, in collaboration with Picnic Gallery & @TheWrytr, occupying the long window at the Aylesham Centre in Peckham (31st March – 25th May 2019) .

______________________________________________________________

1.   Could you give us some insight into who you are and what you do?

My body of work is an act of elevation; exploring ‘positioning(s)’ where the fictions surrounding black bodies can very easily been seen either in heavy contrast / parallel to the everyday ‘collective’ experience of black people(s); a nuance which is seldom discussed. Under this I consider myself a digital sculptor – as an image maker / artist – but also a writer, with a focus on figuration. To me, within my oeuvre it feels necessary to defend manifestations and the interests of blackness against its ‘systematic misuse, assimilation and containment by the culture as a whole […] to define its own autonomy as art in the face of these constraints’. This becomes fundamental to what I hope to achieve in my work; a reconvening of history. To explore at the way characterisations of PoC has been (traditional) curated with aggression/censorship towards black bodies and then to repurpose that narrative into a contemporary, modern – highly digitally technical – aesthetic. It them emerges in a cross- disciplinary practice embedded in everyday collective experience, as ‘the singular- discrete artistic object is dissolved into the functional demands of material transformation’ (Kattenbelt, 2008, p.91).

My admiration of discourses related to simulacra through the ‘hyperreal’, grounded within the illusion of depth and they very real impact it has on black bodies is a constant tension in which we can examine the space between objects modelling the real, and its ability to usurp/question the original – or historical narratives – as a self-sustaining fictions. These features of our surrounding culture inexorably and involuntarily alter our sense of what does and what does not count as reality, and of the various categories to which things can be assigned (Benson, 2013).

2.    What does ‘craft’ or the ‘decorative’ mean to you?

Craft – when defining the ‘act’ of making is centred within my practice. However, it is not so easy as task to identify due to the fact that primarily I am digitally based and technologically driven.

However, within my practice, the meaning of ‘craft’ can be applied in to different ways: On the one hand, as an activity involving skill in making things by hand: By this definition aesthetically, my artwork(s) borrows from the decorative traditions of Renaissance sculpture that typifies classically ’white’ busts, figures and ‘decorative traditions’ that contemplate key figure throughout the period of antiquity. Thus, working on this (sculptural) format, it can be related to craft in physical manifestation of these aesthetic ideals, as embodied by I Don’t See in Colour (2018). On the other, craft a type of ‘skill’ used in deceiving others: By this definition, I believe that such objects – my artwork to some extent –despite their very absolute materiality are simulacra; its connection to the real thing ‘severed and replaced by its connection with a string of 0s and 1s stored in a computer file” (Benson, 2013), both “an utter transparency, yet the presence of a ‘thing’ in its absence” (Lechte, 2012).

MY HEAD HURTS, MY FEET STINK AND I DON’T LOVE JESUS (2017)

3.    Why were you drawn to the process of digital sculpture?

When having to specially contemplate the hybridisation within my work – where science meets technology (digital) meets aesthetics – there’s a duality in my critique of the online real in its manifestation of black bodies, yet a certain amount of utilisation of the same material process that is used to create – and spread – the artwork. In my opinion, the way that the internet continues to be a ‘white’ space – carved out on the spirit of the white imagination – (online) ‘autonomy’ against the proliferation of images of black bodies online – similarly, it is a discussion of the presumed ‘factual’ nature of digital artefacts despite the ‘non-status’ of its creator as they emerge upload artefacts into the digital realm. I employ digital technologies, processes and platforms to attempt to reframe the way people interact and perpetuate images of black peoples (memes for example which contain a specific dimensionality around the black bodies (blackness) they depict, often for comical effect) in a more positive way, especially in its relationship to whiteness and the way that white viewers (non-black peoples) perceive that very particular nuance of that body IRL, to explore at the way characterisations of PoC has been (traditional) curated with aggression/censorship towards black bodies and then to repurpose that narrative into a contemporary, modern – highly digitally technical – aesthetic.

They belong to no one, and yet the culture that they often depict remains very necessary and relevant to someone from that particular culture. How then does ‘fictionalisation’ relate to how blackness as seen in a digital world? To what degree are we given simulcra and fictions of black bodies – and what does that do to a black person’s experience of life?

4.    You’ve theorised the idea of ‘Objecthood’ – something that sits between the digital and the handmade – as being abstract from the tradition of figurative art. Could you explain a little more how this comes across in your work?

My arts statement contemplates a ‘practice exploring digital hybridity of sculpture following the affirmation of media, chronicling black anatomy through the mediation between three- dimensional processes alongside the handmade aesthetic within an extended analysis of ‘Objecthood’’. The resulting objects emerge contextually abstracted from traditional representational aesthetics and figurative traditions. Such an ideological positioning shifts the normative function of figurative practices within this mode of self-referential questioning, which engenders a self-sustaining (non-) fiction rooted in authenticity and criticality that allows audiences to break free from reference once and for all in a new form of hybrid realism.

The truth is that for the past 20 years we all have been adapting to a new set of rules that we are barely conscious of – something natural and therefore unnoticed – and it has fundamentally changed us. We are increasingly participating in society that is entirely mediated by digital images, and my body of work is taking part in this tradition. The ‘Internet’ has however endowed us with one important additional factor: technological selection means, which means that we only deal with the ‘mediated image’. With all this in mind, the genre must now make a very difficult and important decision; Where next? What can this look like? Who will it favour?

Whilst the tide seems to be turning towards a more equitable future, similarly, media co- relations have resulted in new forms of representation; new principles of structuring and staging words, people, stereotypes, gender and class boundaries etc. and within that developing new modes of aesthetic perception within the everyday, generating new cultural, social and psychological meanings – irrevocably subverting aesthetic and this how is what I try to emphasise within my work.

UNTITLED, 2016

5. What do you hope an ideal viewer (if there is such a thing!) would take away from your work?

I’m of the opinion that once you make the work it no longer belongs to you. So, whilst I hope that audiences are going to find something tangible and relevant within my sculptures, I also recognise that same relevance may not resonate with me, and I’m OK with that. I believe that there’s more than one truth. And everybody has their own perspective and rationale.

More recently ‘naming’ my artwork has become very important when creating new work as it offers so many vantage points in which to begin the discussion. So, take for example the title of my recent solo show BLACK + WHITE = GREY which describes the intersect between they in which whiteness engages with blackness and how the resulting outcome(s) leave us in the uncomfortable grey-area; where 3D / digital technologies have birthed a world without references – what is imagined can be made possible, thrust into a world of tones of grey, each illuminating the world in new and unexpected ways – hence, I was very particular in naming the show in a very considered way.

When deciding to make new work I am in many ways trying to ‘fact find’ (theoretically and aesthetically) for myself more so than the viewer, because in many ways I cannot account for what the viewer feels or how they will react to the work; a large part of my thesis surrounded the notion of the body politić ([black] bodies considered collectively) which remains a key research interest within my body of work. The way images and cultural nuances related to black bodies survive – thrive almost – in the online digital realm, I want to shift the expectations of the formal arrangement – visualisation / manifestation / transmission of black figures – using figuration as a tool.

UNTITLED (2017)

6.  How do you play with technology and temporality as both an artist and writer? Is this ‘play’ political?

The intersect which bind these two factors together is always political; if you choose to view them through the perspective of figuration – and ‘centre’ black bodies into this narrative the image of black bodies, it is undoubtedly political. The praxis between the past and the present, where intersecting identities (individual versus collective) come together within my oeuvre in my self-exploring the inherited legacy of trauma and history, ultimately reconstructing the narrative of race within narrative history that departs from cultural traditions where misconceptions and distortions of the truth are omnipresent.

I wrote an article recently that opened with the following statement: ‘Information, from afar possessed knowledge which gives it authority even without verification…’ In its relationship to questions of power, hierarchy and undoubtedly race, this includes imagery directly related to or depicting black-brown bodies and the presumed (digital) dimensionality of ‘blackness’ in its direct relationship to ‘whiteness, I ask, when will the black body truly escape [from] the guise of the white imagination?

The vey temporal nature of black bodies and the way that they manifest and spread online is a perfect dimension in which centre my practice as a millennial. It is in this duality that a strict contextual change occurs – where the human anatomy is reinterpreted and transformed, redefining the black aesthetic towards a more positive – heroic even – portrayals of black people(s). I attempt presented to black bodies abstracted from bias everyday externalisations and race-based gendered stereotypes. Hence, each artwork informs each other, maintained within its own unique narrative history and theoretical underpinning, that I similarly explore within my writing..

7.    The piece ‘I Don’t See Colour’ is powerful. How does this / your work more broadly explore the dynamics of race, gender and commodification?

I Don’t See in Colour’ (2018) was a response to discourse surrounding the commodification of women; imposed upon them through consumerist trends and unrealistic capitalist idealisations and visualisation, this work was an exercise of turning the system inwards, on itself. The inherited legacy of trauma and history, ultimately, I wanted to reconstruct the narrative of race that departs from cultural traditions as seen in ‘I Don’t See in Colour’ which reconditions stereotypes and mediated reflections of the black body (politić) within the duality of invisibility versus hyper-visibility where it resides.

In making such work, I felt to be engaged within the process of keeping the black figures at the forefront of our consciousness; the image of black bodies becoming lasting and impermeable by being sculptured into objects, through extending the practice of manifesting black bodies into less traditional mediums. It begs the question what the body politić is moving towards in the present. The work itself presents the duality between objects modelling the real and its ability to usurp the ‘original’ as self-sustaining fictions; of past and present. The print stands smaller than life size, a proportional mirroring of the sitter – on ode to… Concurrently, colour is removed from the object; somewhat a more objective attempt to discuss issues of blackness, race, hyper-visibility vs invisibility, absent the visual cues of black bodies which remains a loaded symbolism is the present: ‘What is Black in Visual Culture…?’

In taking black figures and reconfiguring the narrative, I wanted to explore what does it mean to repurpose the lens of whiteness on black figures, no longer subjugating them to positions of inadequacy. It becomes fundamentally ideological position of framing. The piece exemplifies the outer limits of the virtual platform afforded by the internet and digital technologies – and several kinds of digital manipulations – as a sculptural tool, shifting expectations of the formal arrangement of figuration by questioning traditional self- representational practices.

8.    Finally, could you tell us a little more about your exhibition at Picnic Gallery, Black + White = Grey (on until 25th May)?

Black + White = Grey – in collaboration with Picnic Gallery & @TheWrytr– is a brand new installation of 3D lenticular prints exploring the shifting viewpoints of race online. When it comes to how the lives of black people are portrayed online, these fictions end up spreading at rapid pace through the online world, having real life effects on the people they depict.

My work seeks to breaks down these biased and un-thoughtful visualisations to reveal the fractured nature of ‘truth’ in the web-space. Created by using a body scan which is digitally rendered, the digital file is layered into a lenticular object which allows for multiple viewing points to be present within a single image. As the world of internet memes and viral images continues to grow exponentially and without accountability, the figure in the lenticular is a ‘non- object’ or more simply a ‘copy, of a copy, of a copy. However, through centring the black figure as a constant from every viewpoint, I seek to positively reframe the way people interact with and perpetuate images of black peoples.

The inclusion of the short poem by @TheWrytr titled ‘hooked.’ – written in the style of the ‘Imagist’ which is intended to capture a moment in time to draw the reader’s attention introspectively – really helped to reinforce the narrative of the show. The undertone of the poem – much like my own practice – explores shifting viewpoints and as such well placed within the thematic investigation of the show.

Words: Rayvenn Shaleigha D’Clark and Jade French

https://www.rayvenn-dclark.com