Constellation is a cohort of seven artists, Constellation: Video Storytelling, each creating a short video to be presented in a looped series that will be projected onto the downtown Saint Paul Public Library – George Latimer on Rice Park. Videos shall interact with the architecture of the library building, transforming it into new visions for public space and public knowledge. Artists include: Za’nia Coleman; Boo McCaleb; SEE MORE PERSPECTIVE; Witt Siasoco; Miko Simmons; Jonathan Thunder; and Moira Villiard.
This is Boom-Bap from the stars at the pyramids. A dance party with indigenous kings, quantum physicists, and your little cousins. These are lyrics that school, uplift, capture the imagination and reprimand wackness. This is the love story between heritage and irreverence, the make out session between education, rebellion, what is and what’s possible. A heavy blow from sound logic upon hateful ignorance. Love over fear.
Can you tell me about your background?
I do all kinds of stuff. I’m a poet, a spoken word artist, a hip hop artist, which for me means that I rap or engage in the art of emceeing. I produce music, engineer music, I do video, and I paint and do visual art. I also teach visual art, writing, performance and a lot of social justice stuff.
What did you start with? What do you first remember doing creatively?
Knowing I was an artist is one of my first memories in life. Being in the water and knowing that I was an artist, and knowing that if I had music, it felt possible. I was always with the boombox, doing chores, cleaning my room, whatever. The boombox was always going to be on blast.
I really started as a visual artist but steeped in music. Stuff my papá was listening to, stuff from México, musical traditions like rancheras and different things. My mom was a huge Beatles fan. When I was young, there was always radio, there was MTV, so I was embedded in music, and hip hop was always there. It wasn’t until way later that I realized, “Oh, wow, hip hop has always been there,” because there was a time where I didn’t associate with hip hop because of what was happening, the machinations of politics and radio and that kind of thing. They were playing stuff from ‘96 on from the Telecommunications Act. They were playing what record labels wanted you to hear, but when I got on the other side of that, I had rediscovered hip hop. I reconnected with it, and my poetry had turned toward rap and stuff. During this workshop I did in Chicago, they had us go backwards in time. You pick a point, and you go as far back as you can. I realized that hip hop has been there from the beginning. Because of the way that culture works with media, you were made to experience that as the only thing that’s going on. Then when I started to reconnect with it, there was a whole world of artists and people still making music that you just didn’t hear on the radio anymore, because it was different from what was being marketed and promoted, which was a direct response to capitalism.
You bring all that together and, sometimes it’s heavy for one stretch on visual art, heavy on production, or writing. What I’m really trying to do is bring all of those things together. I’m more and more disinterested in compartmentalizing the different aspects of myself and my creativity.
As a young kid you were absorbing a lot of stuff. When did you decide you were going to start outputting stuff? Was it gradual, or was there a specific time you can point to?
I had written a few poems. I started in early high school, maybe middle school. I started writing as a way to orient myself in the world – to understand what was going on around me and inside of me. I started playing percussion, so I would be doing poetry, rap and percussion. I knew different musicians, we would have jam sessions, and we would be in a cypher where we’re in a circle of MCs, rapping. And it’s funny to think back on it, because it’s kind of endearingly naive.
Eventually I got some turntables, and then I started producing music. I had no idea what types of music there were. At the time it wasn’t like it is now. We didn’t have all these devices where you can just dive in; you didn’t have all those options. You got one thing that was really used, and it wasn’t even used as intuitively as we do now.
This new thing came out—and this is when it all changed—it was called Sonic Foundry Acid. It was a digital audio workstation. That really changed the whole game. My big brother Danny [told me about it]. Both of us went to Guitar Center, and I tried it out, and I was like, “This is tight.” I bought it and then I put a bunch of money into getting a decent sound card from my computer and all this stuff. And it was just over at that point.
Right away, I started recording and producing beats and stuff, then I would record over it. I had a band called the Super Sound Soul Clique. We would record on an old reel-to-reel. I’m in this downstairs kitchen area with a 16-track mixer from the early ‘80s. Then this computer with this program on it. It had some samples and you could record stuff into it. Then an old reel-to-reel from 1965 or so and a drum set. All of those pieces started to come together at that point.
It was just so natural for me to make my own album cover art. It was literally something I did at Kinkos. Kinkos had this honor system, you go in and make your copies. Then it switched to having these weird counters for how much you were printing. I always used to tease that I was the cause of that, because I was a kid who just went in, and it was all cut and paste, blowing it up, bringing it down. When I made tape covers they were straight from the Kinkos, drawings, and a photo.
I think I was always inspired by this sense of being an artist and knowing that was my identity. That’s what I was here for. I think that putting music out independently seemed like the only way because all the other artists that I listened to, for the most part, were super independent, or had started that way, and maybe they blew up or something. For me, D.I.Y. was really the only path. I had no interest in catering to the pop music industry.
Tell me why it’s important for you to put out art. What does it do for you?
I really believe in creative expression, in imagination and craft. It’s really just a practice, I’m always doing something new, I’m always finding a new form. It’s like a constant, evolving as a human. For me, being human and being an artist are the same. Everything I do, I’m doing it because I’m an artist first. Then there are different crafts and different media and different things, but that’s really where it’s all coming from.
I think what drives me is to communicate, because communication has so much manipulation of language, and so co-opting of language or ideas. Now I’ve learned through poetry and hip hop, writing performance art allows us to develop our own voice in a world that is trying to tell us who we are. Not even just telling our stories—I say this to my students all the time—not just telling our stories for us, but back to us. That’s nefarious. It really is a practice of liberation, in some ways. At the most basic level, it’s a practice of liberation of my own imagination.
I’ve always believed that if I make something that’s authentic to me, that is true and real for me, there’s always somebody who will feel it because of the nature of the world and humanity and human experience. There’s always somebody who needs it. When I started, I would leave cassette tapes—this was like, 1999 or something—I would see somebody on a bus and I’d be like, “Hey, do you want a tape?” I was following my intuition. I would leave them in random places. At one point, I designed a couple of boxes. You opened the flap up, and there would be this cool, intricate drawing, in this box of cassette tapes of some project, and it would say “support independent art, listen to a free tape.” I remember going back to one of the coffee shops in Lowertown and the tapes had gone so fast. I didn’t expect for them to all be gone. I was like, “Hey, what did you guys do with my tapes?” They were like, “They all went away immediately.” There was just this empty box, and somebody asked if they could have it. That was really beautiful. It was kind of eye opening.
Did you ever hear back from people?
Well, they didn’t know who I was. They didn’t know anything about me.
You didn’t put any contact information in there?
Oh my god, no. It was completely anonymous. That’s how it was until I went to Chicago. I went to Chicago with the purpose of connecting with artists. That’s kind of where I made a name for myself.
So tell me about Nightlight, the first video projection event that was put on by Public Art Saint Paul. How and why did you get involved in that?
It was kind of like a bullseye. You hear me talk about how I don’t want to compartmentalize, and I want to bring all these different forms and crafts together. That’s what it was. It was the perfect opportunity for that. I was like, “Yes, I want to learn this!” It’s a significant toolbox for me moving forward where I can integrate all these different ideas. It just seemed so clear to me that it was the next thing for me too. It just presented itself, and I was just like, “Yes.”
What was the learning curve for you? Did you already know how to work with video mapping?
I didn’t. I had peripherally been seeing it for a few years in different places. There was a really cool festival in Mexico City, somewhere in Yucatan, I think. There was this street festival that had these cool projection mapping installations from block to block. I didn’t really understand what was happening. It was like, “Okay, they’re projecting. They’re manipulating things.” For me, it’s pretty intuitive with almost any editing software, whether it’s audio or video. Editing audio opened the door for video editing. Having both of those things made the MadMapper app easier. A few key things made it very intuitive. Obviously, you have to figure out what exactly happens. A big part of the learning process is that I end up breaking it by accident, because I don’t know what I’m doing. I think it’s the best way to do it. Because if you don’t know the limitations, you don’t know the way you’re supposed to use it, you can really do something unique and cool. I really started imagining things like, “I want this to be a cinematic experience in space with people.”
How do you pivot when you break something?
I think it’s the same as anything. Sometimes when I have this spark, or I want to write something, I want to start thinking about a new project, I have some notes of some rhymes or something. It tends to be something that I’m working toward, I have an idea for an album. I populate the idea of that album with song concepts. Then I start writing rhymes and that kind of thing. Maybe I already have some beats, identifying those and that kind of thing.
For me, I think that at this point, it’s just going to work. Not in a bad way, because that’s something that can get in the way or can really be supportive for artists. I have an album, or somebody’s contacted me to collaborate, so I’m sitting down and doing it. It feels less of a pivot. What I’ve really tried to do—and this is another thing I tell my students—I make myself available to inspiration. Whether that’s on the Notes app, in a notebook, taking a road trip, and dictating to my phone, or pulling over and writing it down. I’m always making my life available to that inspiration, so that I can catch it whenever it comes.
Do you ever think, “I’ll write it down later and then use it?”
Oh, my God, yeah. That’s a big thing. That’s part of the big lesson. Make yourself available, because you’re like, “Oh, this is so good. I’m not gonna forget it.” Then you wake up the next day, and you have no idea. Of course, it still happens. I’m just trying to mitigate that as much as possible.
Tell me about Constellation. Why are you excited to be part of this cohort? What do you want to be sharing in your message?
There’s kind of a dream logic at work in my visual work and in my video. It’s tapping into that dream logic. It’s trying to plant seeds, it’s really just, “What is possible for you? What is possible in this world? What can I challenge that is keeping us sick or making us sick in all these different ways?” For me, the visual style, the movement and the color is all kind of its own cosmology. Then I start inhabiting that with language. Sometimes it’s a mantra, one word repeated or several words, or it’s layers of words. There’s a big block lettering or bubble lettering, but when you look close, the outline is another statement, or maybe it’s a rap verse going all the way around each letter of the word. Then inside of it you find different things. I really think about trying to make the art into what it wants to be, so I fall on that, if that makes any sense.
How have you progressed in how you work in video mapping since Nightlight?
I’ve learned a lot. Like I said, I kind of broke it at first. I showed up to the first tech run and I’m working on a newer desktop. When I brought my files to kind of a humble laptop, the system was like, “What are you doing?” I couldn’t even run an image from what I had planned. That was a huge learning experience because I used a video editing tool, and there was this narrative and different things. I loved having this multiple surface cinematic experience. Like, it’s the drive-in, but you have all these different things, and they’re all working with each other. There are things moving to different places within that and all that stuff.
How do you feel about the Constellation project at this point?
I feel really excited. This is going to be, in literal and physical ways, the biggest project I’ve done, and that is so exciting. This is somebody who started in these little notebooks with tiny, tiny details, and now I’m doing murals – more and more murals and that kind of thing, bigger installations and stuff. It just feels like that natural progression where this opportunity came up. It’s like a lock and key. It just feels like I couldn’t have ended up anywhere else, so I’m just super excited to have it continue to materialize into a rich, cool experience.