Rehan Ansari Interview with Mary Mattingly and Roberto Visani
In an ongoing series on social justice and art in a time of crisis sponsored by The Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation Rehan Ansari, Brooklyn-based writer, playwright and artist, along with Sara Reisman and George Bolster, sat down with Mary Mattingly and Roberto Visani, to talk about their use of guns in their art.
Rehan: As we were thinking about this interview with the both of you because you use guns in your artwork, the massacre at the synagogue in Pittsburgh happened. I feel like beginning with that and asking you how you feel as an artist who refers to gun culture, when a mass murder occurs?
Roberto: The timing is really odd for you to ask us to be here today.
Roberto: A number of sculptures that I've made related to fire arms are not based on current events. And not based on this context, like what's happening in the United States. However, the work that I have downstairs at The 8th Floor in the current exhibition is primarily referencing the proliferation of these objects. The sculptures are based on the idea of a mold and being able to reproduce something.
We are saturated with information all the time, so when it's not in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy, oftentimes people aren't thinking about this subject. A motivation to do this work was that sculpture has a presence to it. It's always there. And these things are kind of heavy, so I like the idea that it serves as a reminder or continuous presence. When these events happen and then they fade away, and then they come up, and they fade away, perhaps my sculpture can fill in some of that space.
Sara: What was the context when you started making the gun objects? I mean there was the context of their proliferation and their circulation, but you went to do this fellowship, the Fulbright fellowship in Ghana?
Roberto: Sure. Though there is a context even before that. I grew up in the Midwest hunting with my dad. He's a firearms enthusiast. I learned how to take weapons apart and clean them and reload shotgun shells, and we built a black powder rifle. So I had a hobbyist perspective on guns. And then there were the movies where guns have a prominent part. In movies starring Charles Bronson, or Clint Eastwood, or in westerns, guns were a character. But it was a movie so it didn't feel so real. And then, when I was in West Africa I was learning about the history of the slave trade and how the culture had been changed through western contact. It was during this time that I discovered improvised guns Africans had made during the colonial period and that slaves were traded for guns.
Rehan: Improvised guns? And what do you mean about the slave trade and guns?
Roberto: In a museum in Kumasi, Ghana, I saw several improvised firearms made during the colonial periond. Some had initials carved in them or good luck charms. It was almost like a form of portraiture. It told me something about the individuals who made them and the context that they lived in. I was sharing this with a friend, an American who was also there doing some research, and she said "Well, I don't know if you were aware, but during the slave-trade guns were traded for people." That was a really disturbing implication that it had been an environment where there was already infighting between various tribes and groups. Weapons were introduced into this environment where there was a lot to be gained and lost.
Rehan: How did that affect your thinking about guns and art?
Roberto: I started to think about the larger issue of guns at different times in different places and what they would say about the culture they were put in. How the object itself could be almost like a form of portraiture and a reflection of culture.
Mary: Yeah, that's interesting in terms of handmade versus mass production of guns. We hear about massive gun sales here anytime there is a big attack. People feel like it's going to the last chance to purchase their guns.
Roberto: Yeah, there's a kind of desperation about it. Fear seems to be a motivating factor to all of this. This idea of mass production versus handmade is interesting to me. I became aware of it when I started to make the cast metal gun sculptures. Previously I was working with found objects and then my brother gave me a dummy M16. He went through basic training as a Marine and they gave him this dummy rifle that is the same size and weight and appearance as an M16. When he finished he had this thing and he knew I was making sculptures based on firearms and so he gave it to me. I was concerned about him going into the military because I thought it's kind of taking away some individuality and replacing it with this kind of groupthink. And weapons started to represent that for me. The Marines in basic training all had the same weapon since it's standard issue and mass-produced. They stood in stark contrast to the weapons I was making because mine are one of a kind. I'm not going to find the same rusty piece of metal or a part from an old broken chair to build something out of that like I did the first time. I started thinking about mass production and how industries have such an influence on our lives, the way things are manufactured, and how we lose that hand touch, and could I make artwork from that point of view, instead of this tactile improvisational process that I had been working in. And that's what kind of led me to these cast weapons.
Sara: So, like Paterson Stack that is currently at The 8thFloor?
Mary: I wonder if there's a different relationship to an object that you buy, I mean obviously I'd say there is, to an object someone makes. If you handmade a gun that really worked, you would know all the details about how it works, versus if you bought one you might not. There's probably a deeper relationship to something that you make.
Roberto: And I think that time is also really important. I'm thinking about the amount of time that somebody would take to make something as opposed to buying it, and how that might affect them. I’ll give an example. I've been studying what's been happening in Chicago around guns. I have a friend who's a police officer there, so we were talking on the phone the other day about some of these shootings that are happening with really young kids, junior high school age and sometimes younger. He said that a lot of gun violence is coming not from gangs, but because of online posts. Somebody might post something negative on Facebook or Twitter and then somebody else reads it and gets upset, not necessarily because it's geared at them, but because everybody reads it because it's in this public forum. And now it can't be erased and it's floating out there. It is something that disrespects them in some kind of way. Some kind of conflict that probably starts in school, you know, face to face then grows online and becomes something else. Guns are so readily available in that community. It’s all very quick. What if the time was longer? It might cause some people to change their minds, or something to happen where violence wouldn't arise. So I think that time is a really critical factor that we're dealing with now. Everything's speeding up.
Mary: Time, the time it takes you to acquire a gun, or even to buy it from a store.
Roberto: Yes. Or even to use it, when you're talking about this idea of bump stocks and things like that. We're in a hurry.
Rehan: Mary, when did you think of the impact of gun production on the environment?
Mary: I was thinking of the metals that are alloyed with a steel to make weapons and then I was researching cobalt specifically. I was looking into cobalt mining and it's mostly happening in Congo and Australia and Finland and, sometimes, in Brazil, but for the most part it is in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 70% of the world's cobalt is mined there because it's the least expensive. Cobalt was also of interest to me because it was in almost all of the equipment that I use for photography. I learned that the U.S. military was the largest buyer in the world of cobalt and that it was mostly coming from the Congo indirectly, through companies that held permits there. It was being smelted there, and then going to China. Companies based in China at the time of the research were the biggest permit holders for those mines. The military was buying the pure cobalt and then using that to make different weapons, whether it's for nuclear weapons, permanent magnets that power all of the stuff, or guns, or protective shields on trucks. Cobalt has all these uses because it can heat up to 3,000 degrees before even bending. It is used in gun barrels for automatic weapons because if the barrel shape changes due to the heat generated from firing then it doesn't fire directly anymore. Bump stocks and cobalt go hand in hand. Cobalt makes its way into the consumer market when people are buying AR-15s, or whatever. I was thinking about it in terms of chains of violence that start with mining and then don’t end with shooting, but cyclically go around and around, back to the new need to mine more materials to make more copper bullets, and how much of a role the military plays in the perpetuation of that cycle, and then how almost every technology, computers, the internet, and guns, trickles down to consumer markets.
Rehan: And phones.
Rehan: I was shocked to see in your work the link between cobalt guns and iPhones. They are all made of cobalt. Does it mean that an iPhone and a gun are very similar in a way?
Mary: Like, do they contain the same violence? One is very actively violent and the other is passive, in way, because you can't really see its effect.
Sara: The violence is also in how the cobalt is sourced, right?
Rehan: Roberto and Mary’s point is this violence is clearly also because of the accelerated nature of our culture right now. The phone is how it gets to us.
Roberto: The foundations have been here for a long time for what we're seeing. And now we live in a very competitive environment, which is also a very tribal environment. The idea of tribalism has always been present in American culture. I remember introducing my work years ago and using this metaphor of cheetahs and gazelles, saying every generation of cheetahs is slightly faster than the previous generation and every generation of gazelles is slightly faster than the previous generation, because the old ones either get eaten or die of starvation. As human beings we have this dual nature in that we're competitive on one hand and cooperative on the other. I think that our competitive side is leading us to these kinds of more destructive places. We're not keeping it in check. And in that sense I think a cellphone is very similar to a gun. I was resistant to adopt some of this recent technology when it came out, and then you get to a place where you say, “Well, I kind of have to in order to continue to function the way that I want to in society.” We're in this competitive environment so that you have to move along with the flow of things.
Mary: People do resist it. Maybe resistance can be a form of competition in that sense. Sometimes people become even more competitive when they don't have those things.
Roberto: I agree.
Mary: I've been reading so many more stories about people who say no to social media and different technologies and it helps them write more books and so on. The market for guns is based on a capitalist structure that enables, or justifies it. And it's hard to escape from.
Sara: The fact that the gun lobby has such a hold on the political structure has to do with the market and the market's relationship to political funding.
Rehan: What is it like to teach people about art in a place that's not an art college? At John Jay College where you teach most people are going into [professions in] the criminal justice system.
Roberto: Most students that I have, like the general public, think of art as a form of entertainment. It seems an innocuous idea. When I go look at art I am looking for other things. Part of my work with them is initiating that kind of relationship with art, so it's not just fun. Fun or entertainment can be a motivating tool to get from one place to another, but I want them to get a sense of the intellectual exercise. Oftentimes they do so after a semester. It doesn't take that long to introduce art to somebody that way, and for them to start using their brains in that way. Most of my students are not going on to be artists or curators or art historians, but I want them to understand creative problem solving. Art can easily introduce people to that in a way other fields like the humanities or sciences can’t do so easily.
Sara: Do you know how long John Jay College has had an art program?
Roberto: From very early on they did have art and it was always part of the general education requirement that students would have to take. I had a question for Mary. I know that in your art practice research is a really important component. So, as you're learning about cobalt and the mines it's coming from and who's purchasing it, and then ultimately what it's used for, that's information that the general populace doesn't necessarily have.
Roberto: But there's some very powerful entities that do have that knowledge for a reason.
Roberto: How aware do you think that those entities are of the implications of their actions and how it trickles down to others?
Mary: To some of the organizations it's not really clear all the time where the beginning is. If you're talking about a company that's harvesting cobalt as fixer for jeans, to make that blue color, they are probably going wherever it's cheapest at the moment and they might go to a different broker, or they might go to the same broker, and then go to different sites all the time. So they might to go this mine on this year, and then, if the stock market changes, they might go to a different mine. And they might not even know. So they might be working with someone in between who works with the military. The military definitely knows who is who and what is what. They can't work with everyone and for their public relations they change the way that it's framed. So cobalt is, instead of a conflict mineral, a strategic mineral according to them. Then it's okay to be harvested from Congo, where everything else that's harvested right now is called a conflict mineral because it's starting wars. They call it a strategic mineral because it's so necessary, and they started harvesting it here in the US, even though it's more expensive, for public relations, but also as a backup, in case something happens to that supply chain. Naming something a strategic mineral, and the fact that EPA rules are slack, makes it really easy for the Trump administration to open up public lands for harvesting minerals. It was really interesting to learn that the one place we're harvesting cobalt in the country it can't be smelted, but it can in Canada. Then it can come right back here. I think it's really important to share this but it also stops me from really being able to make things sometimes. Maybe it's not worthwhile to make what I was thinking about making because it might not be an ethical medium. Photography uses cobalt. But then I also tell people that getting past that is really important and then it's back to the competition conversation. All of us in this room are people who are thinking ethically about the world around us and are coming up against these pillars of power and we are sort of implicated in that, and it's hard to escape. There is extraction on this side, and people thinking about how to have less extraction on the other side, so that’s important because otherwise we would have been extracting a lot more, the world would be completely extracted by now. It isn’t because there are people protesting. So it's important to do this work to build protest strength. Build protest coalitions. Because the other side that's extracting is getting stronger all the time.
Roberto: What is the real efficacy of art?
Rehan: Is that a rhetorical question?
Roberto: We're articulating our motivations through art, and then, all of a sudden, these issues seem so much more important. I don't know if that comes through in looking at a work of art. And there are so many people speaking. There are 24-hour news channels where you have people just saying things over and over, so all the voices tend to drown each other out. I think I can articulate myself much better by making objects. So that's what I do, but I don't think it's the most effective form of communication by any means. You know, like I said, it's a form of entertainment, so. A lot of people might say "Oh, cool, guns!" or "Oh wow, that's a beautiful photograph of a mine," without going beyond that.
Mary: Right. Yeah, I guess I would say I don't know that any of us will ever find the most effective way, and maybe it's not about that, but it's about multiple forms of potential efficacies.
Rehan: Mary, it made me feel dismay looking at your piece that's in the current exhibition at The 8th Floor, in that part where you're showing a lot of those directional arrows of how many facts and organizations are linked to each other when it comes to cobalt and guns. I am not sure whether I should reveal this response! But I do want to talk to an artist who evokes helplessness in the face of such overwhelming networks of awfulness.
Rehan: It made me feel helpless since I felt that these networks cannot be disrupted by artists.
Mary: Right. So hopeless! I was reading Donella Meadow's work and she writes about system science. She said, and I haven't found anything that I've related to more, there are four ways to change a system, and the first way of protests might not always be effective, as the other side may get stronger with that. A more effective way might be to change an element in the system, which could be like the president. And then, the third way is through communication. Like what we're doing here right now. And the most effective way would be to change the purpose of the system. That would take everyone changing, and changing course. That last possibility motivates me enough to get beyond the helplessness that that work is about really. And it's nice that you said that, I guess because it really came out of thinking about if this is what there is then at least there's questioning, or at least there's poetry, or at least there's something that's not the trauma that exists in the system. I'd also like think that's there a way around the trauma existing in the system. I like thinking about her writing as illuminating that.
Sara: One way of communication as one way to change what it is to work in collaboration, like Roberto with his Paterson Stack worked with the New Jersey Police Department. And that required some negotiation with the police?
Roberto: I used decommissioned guns from the Paterson, New Jersey Police Department.
Sara: And for Mary, your Eagle Mine installation involved active engagement with an outside entity, and a lot of your work requires organizing in a public space or with public entities. When we are talking about competitive system, and how does one survive. Like, survival and sustainability for the self, or the community, it’s interesting how sustainability has got inserted into public life in New York City because of the water pod. People are encountering this work and understanding something different about what's possible in how we live. And all these conversations with the police or city hall, with getting permits to do what you're doing, there a communication that does probably change, ever so slightly, policy thinking or policy implementation.
Roberto: Yes. There is something I am wondering. The people that are seriously engaged with art, contemporary art, tend to be left-leaning and they have a really strong anti-gun sentiment. Some people have voiced opposition to my work because they think I'm glorifying guns. I hope that my work isn’t for or against, but talking about what is happening, a mirroring of facts on the ground. But there is entrenched position on all sides. I don't get a sense of that when I display something in an exhibition, but I get a sense of that when I start talking to people, especially people outside of the art world. Often times when I'll show my work to somebody who does not have an art background the conversation can be much more substantive about the issues.
George: Do you feel that the laws here need to change in terms of gun control?
Roberto: There are some really common sense things that should change, absolutely. These objects are really dangerous. Anything that's really dangerous and can create a lot of harm to others should have some kind of regulations. We don't let anybody drive a car, we don't let anybody administer pharmaceuticals.
George: Going back to the competitive side of things and the tribalism behind competition that's intrinsic within us, just about anything that I've read about the Congo in terms of trade says international governments are directly involved with tribal conflicts there, in order to destabilize it in order mine the vast natural resources. And we're all complicit in it because we're all buying all of these products all the time. My iPhone, for example.
Rehan: How are iPhones then different from guns? They are built from the same material. One uses bullets another can be used to incite mob violence. I had an old fashioned idea of a demagogue, that he has to harangue and you have to be in a mass audience in a physical space and only then does it become a mob. I did not think that it'll happen through tweets and posts.
Sara: And things can escalate so significantly and so fast.
Rehan: Guns and tweets and posts led the alleged gunman to declare war and shoot up a synagogue. As artists who work with guns, do you think we are in a war?
Roberto: Depends how you define a war. (Laughs). But we're definitely fighting with one another.
Mary: You mean who is at war?
Sara: With egregious racial profiling, policing that has led to death, some might say we're at war with ourselves as a country.
Roberto: I think we're losing a lot of intimacy with one another. If I am walking by somebody on the street and they walk in front of me I'm probably not going to start cussing at them, but if you see a car do that to another car, they'll beep and they'll start swearing. I think it has to do with the distance that bodies have from one another. As we lose that intimacy, as we're using this technology, more and more of our communication becomes mediated through phones, or a pane of glass, or what we see on a screen,and we're raising the potential for violence. I mean, if I say something that hurts your feelings, and I can see your reaction, I may apologize. But if I say something that hurts your feelings and I don't see your reaction and I don't have a way to see your reaction, then I probably won’t. Our interactions are more mediated now.
Mary: Weapons are now used from afar too. With drones and unmanned aerial vehicles, the operators are behind a screen. I was reading the other day that a drone was used to spray pepper spray at people who are protesting somewhere in the United States.
George: Also, iPhones are the perfect tracking device for surveillance.
Roberto: Are we going to be able to sleep later? (Laughs)
Rehan: All of the things that we have been referring to have happened very recently. The use of drones and kill lists, our awareness of surveillance, and the National Security Agency, because of Snowden. And we had a candidate who used social media to incite a mob, and now as president is doing the same. I'm recently realizing that there can be this kind of surveillance, this kind of use of drones, this kind of incitement, and this kind of use of these kinds of technology.
Mary: I was reading that in Australia it was just made illegal for people under ten to carry cell phones. So, are you suggesting that there should be, akin to stricter gun laws, laws against harmful tweets?
Rehan: What I'm feeling is a clear and present danger. If a person can target a synagogue because that synagogue supports an organization that's helping refugees, and this person understands that these Jews are helping Muslim invaders come in, and he's going to go into battle, he said he is ‘going in,’ then I'm in the circuit of that danger. So that is my feeling coming into this interview about art making where guns are involved.
Mary: Yeah, it feels like an escape.
Rehan: Roberto's comment about the acceleration of time feels a good insight. How much time will it take for you to make the art and for it to get out there and for it to change people's minds? That now feels peculiarly crucial because is there anything else that we can do?
Roberto: I agree. I was reading about this shooter and that he was using this website called GAP, which I had never heard of before. It's become popular because they don't censor anything. I was thinking there's dollars to be made in all of this. They're probably rushing to get the platform out there, get the advertisers to bankroll them for as long as possible, crossing their fingers that the government doesn't step in and say, “Hey, you know, you have to do X, Y, and Z.”
Roberto: Congress recently had all these social media platforms come and testify, so these guys are starting to hope that the government does not put any regulations on their activity that might cut into their bottom line. Related to speed is also this idea, “Let's make as much money as quickly as possible.”
Sara: Listening to all the various reports on the radio last night about that attack on the synagogue I had this weird feeling that maybe these things do need to be regulated in a more aggressive way. But is that censorship?
Sara: I am conflicted about censorship. I’m not in favor of it, but I do think that hate speech can take on a life of its own.
Roberto: I'm not a policy maker, so George, when you asked me earlier about gun laws, I'm always a little bit hesitant to say, “We should do X, Y, and Z.” But your question is an important one. I think it has to be the body politic, the citizenry, to buy into laws and regulations. You really need to develop some kind of consensus. If it is top down people feel left out, or feel the government is controlling life, and feel censorship. If we identify some common concerns it’s a way to move forward. And that's really why I'm interested in making art, to sort of initiate that kind of conversation, rather than say "This is what I think," or, “This is what is what.”
Sara: When you talk about time and the need to slow down I was thinking that in the constitution there's the second amendment right to bear arms, but those arms referred to a bayonet and it took time to load and shoot. In that time the other person could flee. The reaction time is now zero.
Roberto: Yeah. Guns were a defense against British tyranny. The colonists wanted to feel they could protect themselves from a political system that was being imposed upon them. I don't think people are purchasing guns for the same reason now. Maybe a few are.
Sara: Trump's response to what happened [in Pittsburgh] was it would have been a better result had they had an armed guard outside of the synagogue. The implication is that we now need guns in order to survive.
George: It's like the idea of arming the teachers after Sandy Hook.
Sara: Trump was advocating for the idea that teachers should be trained in self-defense.
Roberto: I don't think it's a rational argument.
George: Gun sales exploded after Sandy Hook.
Mary: It would be interesting if laws could be activated through social media. This kind of initiative would be consensus-based, crowd-sourced, in the way that Roberto is talking about?
Roberto: I think that's a brilliant idea. Why not use social media to do those kinds of things! To initiate legislation.
Mary: We should.
Rehan: Thank you all.
Rehan Ansari is a Brooklyn-based writer, playwright, and artist who also works as a political pollster and measures impact in the field of art and social justice. He recently performed political standup for Martha Wilson’s Activist History Teach-in at The 8th Floor in New York and for Little Injustice at Galéria HIT in Bratslava, Slovakia. In 2016 his play Unburdened had a staged reading at Meet Factory, Prague in 2016 and inspired an installation as part of Enacting Stillness at The 8th Floor in New York. He is the lead in Ayesha, a fiction short about a hate crime, that was recently screened this fall at Anthology Film Archives in the East Village.
Mary Mattingly is an artist based in New York City. She founded a floating food forest in New York called Swale and recently completed Pull for the International Havana Biennial with the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de la Habana and the Bronx Museum of the Arts. Mattingly’s work has been exhibited at the International Center of Photography, the Parrish Art Museum, the Seoul Art Center, the Brooklyn Museum, deCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, and the Palais de Tokyo. Her work has been featured in Art in America, Artforum, The New York Times, Le Monde, New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, and on Art21. Her work has been included in books such as the Whitechapel/MIT Press Documents of Contemporary Art series titled Nature, and Henry Sayer’s A World of Art, 8th edition.
Roberto Visani is a multi-media artist residing in Brooklyn, New York. He has exhibited at such institutions as the New Museum of Contemporary Art, The Studio Museum in Harlem, The Bronx Museum, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and Barbican Galleries, London. Visani has been awarded residencies from Art Omi, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and Abrons Art Center. He is a former NYFA Fellow in Sculpture and Fulbright Fellow to Ghana where he began his iconic gun series of sculptures. His work has been reviewed by The New York Times, Art Forum, ARTnews, and Frieze, among others. Since 2004, he has taught at John Jay College, City of New York where he is an Associate Professor of Art.