Perspectives Profile: Talking Digital Culture & More with Artist Joseph Grazi
Unexpected, subversive, at times even subliminal—the work created by Brooklyn-born conceptual artist Joseph Grazi is, among other things, an exploration into digital culture, our personal and collective value systems, and society’s growing overvaluation of fame. Through his practice, which utilizes a wide variety of media such as taxidermic animals, acrylics, wood, and rope, we are challenged to consider our place in the world, our fears and desires, motivations, and to reflect on all we take for granted. Beyond that, Joseph’s practice invites us to look up from our phone screens every once in a while, to embrace the present moment because you never know what unexpected wonders may be right there in front of you.
You were born in Brooklyn, studied at the School of Visual Arts in NYC, and continue to live and work in Bushwick; why do you choose to base yourself and your creative practice in New York?
Joseph Grazi: NYC is definitely the place for me! Not only was I born here, and most of my friends and family are still here, but the majority of my artistic inspiration comes from this city and the people in it. The outrageous diversity of its inhabitants, the 24-hour life cycle, and the absolutely unprecedented cultural and ethnic mix that make up New Yorkers. Part of my job as an artist, I believe, is to be an anthropologist. I was lucky enough to be born into a world where you can walk around and see thousands of new people every day. I do not think I could ever live anywhere else. NYC is its own bio experiment, with something new and exciting to see every day. It’s my fuel and a part of who I am, both as a person and definitely as an artist.
Tell us about the genesis of your recent project Culture Cures; what did you set out to achieve?
JG: @CultureCures came to me out of a growing obsession I've been having lately with the conversations around social media, and the completely new digital culture that has come out of it. The new ways we communicate, and the unprecedented global access we now have to information and to each other. These conversations have become more complex, but social media has radicalized so many of us to the point that we have lost the ability to have these complex conversations. It’s tribalized us, guided us into ideological echo chambers, and given our voices more volume than ever before, but a lot less inner thought and reflection, as well. When you live in an echo chamber, there is no need to seek out new knowledge or think critically, because the power is in staying with the group, not whether one's right or wrong about something.
Culture Cures was started as a subversive way of adding nuance into those conversations. This is attempted by creating imagery meant to blend in with its surroundings rather than stand out. Artwork designed to look like an advertisement for something familiar, only to hit you with a completely different and often opposing message. Both the first campaigns were created in MTA subway styles, logos and all. This aesthetic approach aims to have the viewer give the artwork a double take and get momentarily pushed out of their own thought process for a moment long enough to hopefully allow them to see the idea from a completely unique perspective. It is when the viewer is most unprepared to see artwork, that it can have its most powerful effect. It catches the viewer off guard, where an idea can be seen from an altered lens that might differ from the lens through which they might normally see it.
The Influencer Free Zones were the first campaign to begin to go up. They were designed to look like the standard MTA subway stickers that normally plaster the inner sides of the subway. Stickers that provide information for passengers, and stickers that all have a very distinct MTA subway style. Since the "Influencer Free Zone" stickers copy that aesthetic and blend in with the others, the viewer might not necessarily see it at first. It is only when they notice it out of the corner of their eye that they give it a double take, momentarily pulling them out of their own heads for long enough to see the idea from a different angle.
What reaction do you hope to incite from those viewing these stickers and posters?
JG: The "Influencer Free Zone" stickers are a play on our obsession with fame, and the visual of the "verified logo," which has come to represent beauty, importance, and influence in our society. Our obsession with fame often comes from an obsession with access, something that celebrities and "influencers" have in spades. It's what most people think they want. The VIP life where all doors are open. The stickers toy with this idea by turning the tables on it and closing the doors to those VIPs. Existing in an alternate universe where celebrities and influencers are persecuted and rejected, rather than exalted and revered. The goal of the stickers is to get people to rethink their ideas of influence, our desire for it, and the people we too often eagerly accept it from. The campaign aims to do this in the simplest and most camouflaged aesthetic form possible, so the idea can hit as hard as it can when, and if, the viewer finally notices it.
The "Appreciate Your Commute" posters aim towards a similar concept. Getting the viewer to see what they think is a normal MTA ad, only to get them to give it that double take and jolt necessary to see the ad from that different angle of unreadiness. The idea of 'appreciation.' Reminding New Yorkers that while a few minutes delay might seem like the end of the world, in some parts of the planet taking the train is so dangerous that it could actually become the end of your world. The artwork aims to get the viewer to rethink their city commute 'road rage,' even if just for a second.
All of @CultureCures' upcoming projects and campaigns will aim to stay true to this goal, being subversive and subliminal, and hopefully offering up new ideas for new perspectives. Keeping the projects in public places further helps capture the attention of real viewers and their unpreparedness to see art. To me those are perhaps the best types of viewers, the ones that don't even know they're viewers till the idea has already snuck in and confronted them.
I initially offered free Influencer Free Zone stickers, (still do!), and within just a week or so I already had over 100 people from multiple countries around the world asking for them and identifying strongly with the image, eager to put them up in their own cities and towns. Those are being printed as we speak and going out soon. The goal is to spread our messages as far as possible and collaborate with as many like-minded creators as we can.
Following your installation earlier this year, which saw colored rope stretched across Black Diamond Gallery to create a rainbow bridge, we have seen rainbows popping up in public spaces across Brooklyn. What ideas are you exploring through these rainbow installations?
JG: The rainbows have indeed been popping up! They are a continuation of my desire to display art to people that are unprepared to see it; to the random pedestrian moving through the city, stuck in their own head unprepared to step out of it. An encounter with artwork that shows up unexpectedly and seemingly appears out of nowhere. To add just a little bit of wonder to the daily routine. Where did they come from? Why? And who put them there? The rainbows seem extra vivid because they are constructed in urban settings and against urban colors. The sudden appearance of the rainbow lets the viewer contemplate freely for a brief moment, and contemplate their own interpretations of the imagery.
The rainbow, for me, is used to get viewers to come to their own conclusions about the ideas behind it. The rainbow is such an anomaly in that on the one hand, it’s a completely dispassionate series of events that occur infrequently in nature, and on the other hand, it’s a massive symbol that has been a part of human culture for thousands of years. And in today's world it has come so far as to almost universally represent social progress in general. It represents the best in us. But again, it’s still also just a rainbow. It’s not actually beautiful or majestic; it’s just what happens when light and water vapor collide in a certain way. The way we see the rainbow is often completely subjective. The rainbow doesn't actually care about our feelings, but we care and feel deeply for the rainbow's. I find that fascinating, and even more so the idea behind letting the viewers determine the motivation behind the rainbows for themselves.
Your work has incorporated a variety of media including taxidermic animals, wood, acrylics; what are some of the more unusual materials you have worked with and what was the motivation behind using them?
JG: I have always considered myself a 'conceptual artist,' in that I try to never limit my ideas based on a specific medium. I’m not a painter or a sculptor or a photographer. I’m just an artist, which emotionally gives me the freedom I need to let my ideas take shape. I have often been drawn to unusual materials because I have often had unusual ideas that called for them.
The most unusual and controversial so far has been my show at the end of 2017 at Castle Fitzjohns Gallery in NYC. The medium for that show was live mice. I had raised the floor a good 7 inches above the ground for the exhibition and covered that floor in half-inch thick plexiglass. The mice lived underneath, and while the viewer couldn't ever actually touch the mice, they were able to 'walk on top' of them, forcing them to interact in an intense and uniquely physical way with an object that most New Yorkers irrationally fear and have phobia for. I had also wanted to explore the evolutionary roots of those phobias in general.
But the most interesting part, for me, was the outrage and protests that came with the exhibition. PETA condemned me (once I started to get press) and then set up daily protests. Their concern was that live animals cannot be owned and should not be used as art. The fact that the mice were all feeder mice saved from certain death was made public to the protesters, but it didn't matter. The fact that mice live under floors naturally in NYC and were being treated for just fine didn't matter. Because of our new tribalized and echo-chambered society, people stick together and only double down on their points, rather than think about them rationally at the risk of being wrong and losing the respect of their group. It's that new digital culture selling the illusion of cognitive safety that allowed the protesters to bond together and exist, and one that helped inspire the idea for Culture Cures.
Are there any specific ideas or concepts you find yourself returning to regularly in your work?
JG: A specific concept that I continuously return to is definitely our place in the animal kingdom, and our interaction with the natural world. I studied large predators in Africa when I was younger, and focused on reserve management and the complexity of keeping large wild animals in their large wild habitats, and the resources it takes to do that. The conversation is extremely nuanced, complex and polarizing, which is fascinating to me as an artist. Our relationship with animals in general, and the way we arbitrarily assign life values to this animal or that is something that comes up a lot in my work. How we irrationally value the lives of some animals but not others, with no actual science or reasoning behind it. Dogs are family but pigs are massacred. Rabbits are cute but rats are disgusting and need to be killed. We anthropomorphize and we devalue, we decide what lives and what dies, and it's often based on a feeling from the primitive subconscious that we didn't even know was there to begin with. I find this to be one of the more fascinating aspects of our species, and the one I tend to bring up the most in my work.
What do you do when you’re not making art?
JG: I’m very into biology and anthropology, so involving myself in those topics is a usual 'non-art' pastime for me. I love to read, but only when I have long commutes which unfortunately are rare in NYC. So podcasts and documentaries help fill that gap. I also play guitar and sing in the band Ferrari Truck. We're not a professional band, but we try and play monthly in the city, and the time on stage is extremely enjoyable. Having a microphone on stage in front of an audience is an amazing way to work on public speaking. This can get you better at communicating with crowds, and conveying your ideas in general. It’s an important part of being myself as an artist and as a person—so it’s a win win!
Lastly, what did I forget to ask you?
JG: You asked me all the good questions! But let's see... I suppose you forgot to ask me, the meaning of life! Unfortunately, I have not quite gotten anywhere with that question yet. My brain kind of shuts down right about the time that question seeps in.
See more of Joseph’s work—here.