One day in the summer of 2010, my roommate Amber left our shared Columbia Heights apartment without warning, never to return. Months later, I discovered her diaries as I was cleaning out her abandoned belongings, trying to make sense of a person who had quite literally left her life behind. The act of reading the journals of this young woman, my former roommate and friend, felt like the ultimate betrayal; yet she’d left them in plain sight. The knowingly theatrical tone she invoked in her stories ultimately confirmed to me that she had intended them for an imagined audience.
I began developing Pieces of Amber in early 2011. Coincidentally, on the first day I started work on the project, the real-life Amber walked into the coffee shop where I was drafting production notes and we spoke for the first time since her abrupt departure. She knows I’ve created a work based on writings of hers that she claims as fiction.
The diary is a common trope in adolescent literature, one that has masqueraded as documentary in order to teach a real-life lesson: Go Ask Alice, the “diary” of a young homeless drug addict from a good family was used in schools to frighten young readers into complicity with societal norms during the American 1970s. Forty years later, Pieces of Amber debuted to explode cultural conventions through engaging a participant audience in Amber’s several competing stories while provoking them to question both her intentions and their own assumptions about the relative value of truth over dramatization.
This immersive art experience is intended to enable an audience to uncover, identify, and question the many complex identities of Amber through artistic multidisciplinary presentation of the fugue in her diaries. The audience enters and interacts within an exploratory set of artifacts and other personal effects installed as an abandoned domestic space once alive and inhabited by Amber, chock full of the discarded scraps and relics of her daily life, in order to provide them with the experience of uncovering/constructing their sense of her person through the traces and objects she has left behind, much as we do when sifting through our own memorabilia – photos, letters, objects – and, in a more formal, ritualized sense, when summoning the life of a person in absentia, either due to their death or their departure.
As the lead generative artist behind Pieces of Amber, I have created an abstract character representation of Amber envisioned by a guiding chronology I interpreted from the pages of her abandoned journals. My artistic intent is to empower the audience to form their own subjective, individual understandings of Amber – and to decide what judgments they, in turn, want to make of her (and, ultimately, her decision to abandon her life and possessions) through an accrual of voices gathered from her various diary entries ranging from the comedic absurd (e.g. Amber’s hyperbolic idolization of Paris Hilton) to the hidden, cursive-filled pages in the back that document childhood sexual abuse and traumas.
In my adaptation of them, Amber’s journals contain the classic dramatic elements of tragedy and comedy as she represents hubris through a strong face for her imagined audience – and at other times private shame, divulging violent recollections of encounters with partners and relatives of both genders. In her writing, she assumes several distinct voices to retell her lived experiences, to the point of seemingly alternating genders as she challenges their respective norms thrust upon her.
The character abstract of Amber is presented through experiential engagement of dramatic narration embodying the various voices identified in her writing. The installation is fully exploratory and activates all five senses – like perfume misted just before the audience’s entrance (signifying the wearer’s recent departure), to the intentionally extreme temperature differences in some rooms (affecting the intimacy of the spaces) – with audiences able to move freely and inhabit the apartment as Amber would have (perhaps even helping themselves to an apple from the fruit dish, or trying on clothes in the bedroom). Getting back to my initial feelings of trespass and voyeurism when I first encountered the diaries, I aimed to cultivate similar responses in my audiences by enabling them to navigate their own impulses in the context of a multimedia performance installation utilizing pre-recorded audio voiceovers, visual projections, and other new media art forms (including abstract sculptural pieces by Bahar Jalehmahmoudi related to themes of artifact and artifice) to reveal a character while framing inquiries of storytelling versus performance, narration versus enactment, and conceptual art installation versus theatrical set design – simultaneously questioning to what extent one is capable of assembling a cohesive story and/or persona from the abandoned pieces of ephemera that once constituted a life.
With Pieces of Amber, I sought to confront the performative nature of gender and how a director can interchange the dual concepts of femininity and masculinity to the extent in which they achieve a particular effect upon an audience. This informed my first casting choice in Jason Barnes (a male-identified genderfuck performer prominent in DC’s drag culture as his alter ego Pu$$y Noir) to dramatize monologues that represented certain aspects of my interpretation of Amber. Other parts of the character are presented from diary entries that reveal insecurity and vulnerability, which is what I sought in first-time performer Blaire Boston. Because she’d never acted before, Blaire brought authentic insecurity in herself that she consciously worked to repress in her performances – something I intended to illustrate the influence of social environments on human identity.
I spent nearly three years creating this original artistic installation as a vehicle to enable an experience in which an audience dynamically constructs a character rather than passively receives a traditional one-way theatrical presentation. My work as an artist is to expose, depict, and engage the basic truths of human relationships and the communication that forms them, becoming patterns of behavior that frame our selves. Naturally, like scientific truths, these basic truths are forever in flux – meaning my art has to alter, interpret, and expand our current collective mentality. The character of Amber as I see her is a reflection of me, as well as that of my audiences. We are all complex in our layers of identity, and our identities have been shaped by our human interactions. I want my audiences to experience empathy not just for Amber, but also for the realization that everyone struggles with the fundamental uncertainties of human existence.
Many of the societal constructs separating us in our daily lives stem from things at the core of our character that we don’t (or can’t) talk about – quite possibly because we haven’t figured out how. I believe revealing or enabling insights about others can set a baseline for broader dialogue in the ongoing struggle to define our own personal values in relationship to those of our peers and our society. With Pieces of Amber, I’ve constructed ways to identify with the character by additionally forcing questions of morality and commonalities despite differences in experiences – experiences created both inside my performance installation, and outside of it.
In homage to French New Wave cinema (and inspired by Alphaville from director Jean-Luc Godard), ALT CTRL is a short film I co-produced and appear in that tells the story of an unassuming Capital Hill staffer named Andrew, who has his life changed through meeting the enigmatic Marisol — and discovering a secret she shares with her friend Drosef and the residents of DC’s Columbia Heights neighborhood.
Principal photography for ALT CTRL was shot during the summer of 2010, with reshoots and additional scenes filmed in the spring of 2011. Post-production continued throughout the end of 2012.
A short film that premiered in January 2013 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s inaugural MobileMovie Film Festival (and winner of the audience award), FAUX MOT is a clinical study on the origins and symptoms of a contemporary pandemic, discovered in spring of 1921 by Viennese psychoanalyst Dr. Hagenstürmigweinerbrunstein. She called the disease Fear Of Missing Out, or “FOMO” for short.
In FAUX MOT, I portray legendary inventor Nikola Tesla.
Using the very broad ”Indian” signifier, TAINT, Pt.1 explored the appropriation and defamation of symbols tied to the multifarious histories of cultural imperialism — specifically investigating the complexities of participation within this hegemonic system of imposition, appropriation, and consumption.
TAINT, Pt.1 is inspired by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s Neo-Marxist classic, Empire. The book was adopted for guidelines to liberate the collaborating artists’ own approaches to art and co-creation, in the hopes of transferring the experience to an audience. The piece was highly collaborative and involved both 2-D and 3-D art, performance, and dance. TAINT, Pt.1 was premiered by VESTIBULE at The Fridge arts space for the gallery’s invitational “Fresh Produce” series in the fall of 2012.
Audiences entered a gallery installed with art of various media by artists HKS 181, Joseph Orzal, and Deshaundon Jeanes surrounding a suspended six-foot likeness of Indian peace icon Mohandas Gandhi (created by Joseph Hale) in the center of the room. Also included in the exhibition are three performers (Melinda Diachenko, Jasmine Heiss, and Catalina Lavalle) on a stage doing yoga exercises narrated by an iPhone app projected on the wall behind them. The performers struggle to keep pace with the robotic and stiff routine before the projection changes to a raucous Holi celebration in an Indian town square. The performers’ movements become more fluid and take the form of dance as they “taint” themselves with colored Holi powders.
Following the performance, I entered the gallery pushing a cart of Bud Light flavored margaritas, distributing them to the audience while shouting, “Do you call this art?” I closed the performance installation by brandishing a crowbar and bashing the Gandhi sculpture — inviting the audience to be complicit in the destruction of the piece, which is eventually revealed to be a piñata filled with several pounds of salt and plastic margarita glasses.
Our Nation’s Capital is quickly emerging as a cultural capital — and just across from the Capitol along the banks of the Anacostia River sat a vacant, unused warehouse in a revitalizing neighborhood.
Through a partnership with ARCH Development, and partially funded by an ArtPlace America grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Lightbox shined a spotlight on DC’s emerging creative community — and the neighborhood of Anacostia — by serving as a host site for The 5x5 Project initiative of the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities, hosting the launch party of the inaugural LUMEN8Anacostia festival, and providing the home of Cherry Blast IV as part of the National Cherry Blossom Festival’s centennial celebration.
The Lightbox remains the District’s largest-ever temporary art and culture emporium (“temporium”) with more than 20,000 visitors during its two-week activation. The space included a pop-up café from the venerable Busboys & Poets, a four-story multimedia installation by Bluebrain in an abandoned elevator shaft, and a fully-interactive exploratory installation created by internationally renowned artist Monica Canilao that extended onto the roof. Programmatic partnerships were formed with L’Alliance Française de Washington, The Washington Ballet, The Fridge art gallery, and jazz presenters CapitalBop, in addition to a performance by 2010 GRAMMY Award nominee Christylez Bacon, among other contributions of over 50 artists from the DC metropolitan area and abroad.
#OccupyDCart was a public installation of artwork created by DC visual artists who collaborated with Occupiers on taking the signs, banners, and other materials used in communicating their messages and reinterpreted them into a cohesive social protest art aesthetic aligned with the ethos of the Occupy movement. Artists spent two weeks connecting with activists at both Occupy DC encampments in Freedom Plaza and McPherson Square in an effort to better understand their cause and message.
I commissioned the installation’s mobile exhibition structures from architectural designer Evan Howell, and they were created to share many characteristics that reflect the shared values of the Occupiers. They are utilitarian, with a “DIY” mentality. They are piecemeal, made up of individuals committing to bring their lives to a public place to advance their cause. They are communal, with Occupiers working together to utilize space safely and efficiently, to provide basic services for their community, and to work through their many political and social concerns. This is perhaps best signified by the horizontal structure and transparent nature of the governing body, the General Assembly, and the many committees that report to it. The design for the gallery emulates these traits. The materials — 2x4s, wire mesh, rebar — reflect the raw, unpolished look of the camp, as well as a movement that focuses on content over image or branding. Each module stands on its own, yet is stabilized by those around it, in the same way that each individual Occupier has her own concerns and reasons for Occupying, yet gains strength through the ability to unite in an activist community. The modules’ obtuse angles of 120-degrees mimic a hexagonal pattern when joined together, reminiscent of the honeycomb constructed through the natural collaboration of a community of bees. The wire mesh creates transparency between the modules, reminding the viewer that there is always someone on the other side, looking differently at things. Lastly, the form of the triads allow people to view art on all sides of the structure, creating a truly open gallery, approachable from all sides, as inclusive as the movement itself. And, just like the movement, it is mobile, ready to Occupy the next space should it be evicted from its current home.
#DCRESIDENCE was an activation of four empty storefronts at the Atlas Lofts, owned by Potomac Construction Group and Michael Hines, along the H Street Corridor in DC’s Northeast Quadrant during DCWEEK 2011. #DCRESIDENCE presented various aspects of what makes DC the best place to call home, creating temporary “third places” that were filled with an atmosphere designed to inspire creation and dialogue around the theme of bringing DC’s underground to the foreground.
THE HOME was a two-day showcase of local social innovators in indie fashion, emerging arts curated by the Capitol Hill art gallery The Fridge, and DIY retail from creative entrepreneurs.
THE PARLOUR hosted a week of programming that continued conversations focused on cultivating DC arts & culture, and featured a special exhibition of video art presented by the VESTIBULE artist collaborative.
This “pop-up” photography exhibition — which also launched the VESTIBULE art collaborative I co-founded — took place at the Moishe House co-op in Adams Morgan, and featured work from several of DC’s emerging photographers including Chandi Kelley, Chris Eichler, Dakota Fine, Ben Droz, Liz Gorman, Rachel Carrier, Victoria Milko, and Lindsey Hart. Over 500 young arts appreciators attended the opening, where art was also purchased on site. The show was intentional in its accessibility to audiences, with sponsorship/donations from the Washington City Paper and Pabst Blue Ribbon.
In May 2010, after establishing my work as an arts organizer in the Columbia Heights neighborhood via CHARTS, the organization I launched that January, I was invited by the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities to design a mosaic mural as part of a permanent installation along the newly-revitalized 14th Street.
Clean Slate is meant to represent a chalkboard – as a “clean slate”, if you will, which is exactly how I perceive the dynamic revitalization of Columbia Heights – the messaging of the design encourages residents to leave their mark on the mosaic’s black tiles using sidewalk chalk, while simultaneously reminding viewers to also leave their mark on the creation of our community here in the neighborhood.
Additionally, I thought of the rebirth of the streetscape along 14th Street NW as being the “hub” of community life in Columbia Heights – noting that all great communities seem to have a centralized meeting place for neighbors to mingle (in this case, pubic artist Jann Rosen-Queralt’s beautiful Resonance promenade at Park Road and 14th Street NW), as well as a space for community bulletins to facilitate communication and underscore interaction among residents.
I firmly believe that this specific design, able to be chalked/changed many different times and subsequently washed away by rain or foot traffic, will always reflect the changing nature of Columbia Heights – allowing for the community to constantly redefine the space as they see fit. Additionally, as just one person, it is virtually impossible for me to create a design that will resonate with everyone in the neighborhood the same way it does to me, so with this concept, I’m making my artistic statement about the “clean slate” and rebirth of Columbia Heights and how residents can – and should – get involved in guiding the narrative of our neighborhood, while still allowing room for my public art to be interactive to the community.
I envision this mosaic to be used for everything from being a space to promote neighborhood events organized by local community groups (like the Columbia Heights Community Marketplace and the Columbia Heights Day festival), provide a dedicated area for schoolchildren to doodle in the summer months, and a spot where neighbors can advertise yard sales.
The beauty – to me – of public art is that once it’s put out there in the public domain, the public should own it. And with this design, I want it to be my lasting gift to the neighborhood I love so much. I know the transformative power of art on our community, and I want my concept to speak directly to my neighbors – and have them, in turn, speak back to me.
A fully-integrated arts arts activation of neighborhood homes hosting multimedia and performing arts created by local artists. The idea for The Columbia Heights Salon Series came to me when I realized I had many art-making friends in the neighborhood, and thought many other people living there around us could probably benefit from sharing access to that.
So I organized everyone — from my artist friends and their friends, to neighbors I had never met before (all I knew about them was their big houses) — to produce a seasonal series of salon showcases in various homes (and the BloomBars community arts space) that brought together over 2000 people. Each salon was curated to a specific medium (performance, painting, photography, installation, etc.) and staffed by volunteers who served as docents, stage managers, and in other support roles.