Ven Voisey is a multi-disciplinary artist, working in sculpture, installation, painting, and sound. His practice, however, is unified by an overarching interest in communication — the possibility or impossibility of translation — between each other and one’s self, across circumstance and species, and through time and technology.
I know you grew up in California and I am curious, what was like to be a teenager in San Francisco in the 90s?
Well, I grew up in the east bay, specifically Hayward, a sprawling suburb of Oakland. My diverse middle-class neighborhood was triangulated between auto row, a Kmart, and a cemetery. While I wasn’t particularly thrilled about Hayward proper (although the hills are beautiful and some of the best views in the bay area, and the marsh land near the bay was one of my favorite hang-outs) the city itself is of the reasonably-drab-strip-mall-cable-television-addict-drive-everywhere-car-culture variety. Its close proximity to S.F., Oakland and Berkeley, however, exposed me to just about anything I could ask for and more.
I found myself diligently listening to independent and college radio stations like KPFA, KZSU, KUSF, and KFJC… I inadvertently stumbled upon a piano teacher who introduced me to composers like John Cage and George Crumb. I could readily visit places like City Lights bookstore during an era when William Burroughs was receiving a resurgence in interest through pop culture and I was subsequently introduced to the work & ideas of Brion Gyson, and Genesis P. Orridge who I found to be tremendously exciting and inspiring.
As soon as I was old enough to get out of the house on my own, I spent a large amount of my free time going to see live music in various warehouses, artist-run spaces, and colleges/universities: I remember being seventeen or eighteen and going to a warehouse show in San Francisco: I left early the next morning covered in liquefied corn starch or something, smashed fruit, wine, and unrecognizable animal parts while contemplating the near-nude woman I’d recently seen on stage who was wearing a dildo and thrusting it into a severed goat head. Looking back at it now, having spent most of my last 9 years in the sleepy town of North Adams MA, it seems much more extreme than it did to me at the time. Nevertheless, I feel pretty lucky: it was a culturally rich, diverse, beautiful, perverse, bizarre, and challenging place & time to grow up. I recommend it.
In your last exhibit “VS. An argument by Ven Voisey” you had a slideshow of photographs entitled “The Ship and the Whale”, a 20-foot-plus-long creature, part Ouroboros, part German Sheppard, part Muppet and a 5-foot-tall, illuminated photograph of a young woman displaying the skin of a coyote draped over her forearm. How did these objects come about? What is your relationship to wild animals? and what role do they serve in your work? Is this anything to do with your past job as animal rescuer in San Francisco?
Sure, you could say that. So, right, the back story, if you want it, my first real job outside of a bicycle newspaper-delivery gig began the summer after I graduated High School in 1994. I found myself with a strong desire to work with and learn about animals. Being fairly quiet and awkward, I think I felt I somehow related to them better than I did to people. My dad, a former Park Ranger for the city of Oakland, put me in touch with a woman by the name of Stephanie Benevidez, who was/is the main boss lady at the Lake Merritt Wildlife Refuge & Rotary Nature Center near downtown Oakland.
The refuge itself happens to be the first government-owned wildlife refuge in the United States, predating Yellowstone by a couple years. Anyhow, she immediately put me to work as a volunteer caring for the animals at the Nature Center. Not long after that I was hired on, and dabbled in everything from public lectures on the migratory waterfowl, to museum display design, to nature camp counseling, to cleaning the duck pond, to capturing injured wildlife and transporting them to rehabilitation facilities… I ended up working that job through college and well beyond (on and off for 9 years), and in doing so, I was able to really witness first-hand the clashing of natural and human-manipulated worlds. I also started pondering the complexities of that relationship: I began continually defining and redefining what the term “wilderness” meant to me. So yes, I would say that experience became a foundation for that metaphorical element of my work.
As far as the usage of animals in my work, I don’t presume I understand other animals’ experience of existence, but the use of an animal’s voice/assumed perspective as a story-telling device creates a being which is simultaneously “us” and “not us”. We, as a species, dominate other animals, keep them in cages for our pleasure, hunt them, destroy their homes to satiate short-term human wants/needs, use their bodies for tools, clothing, medicine, and so forth. We also, on the other hand, commonly anthropomorphize them, insert our voice for theirs, create myths around them, insert our consciousness/experience for their own. I find this discrepancy between domination and empathy to be a tell-tale hint at the absurdist workings in our broader methods of communication with each other and interactions with the world. There’s a lot there to play with.
I know you are a musician as well as a visual artist and sound is often a prominent component of your work. How would you describe your fascination with sound?
I really came into art through sound, but I guess more than that, in my youth I established a good portion of my identity through sound. At the age of 8 or 9 my dad got a dual cassette deck and some microphones and taught me to use them, and how I could layer sound with them. I multiplied my voice, I layered the sounds of some old horns my dad had laying around for decoration… I was hooked, and I still am. Listening and creating sounds became my primary pastimes, and it became a structure which I used to organize experience; a way in which I related to other people, and a means of finding community.
I also found sound to be a powerful tool in effecting or creating space and environment. Through experimentation, first in compositions, and later in installation environments, I became increasingly attracted to and fascinated by sound’s immediate immersiveness; it is a sculptural medium that exists in the same time and space we do, without observable borders or frames, that is, in its very nature, kinetic.
Simultaneously, I also began using sound, and its properties, as metaphor. Throughout history human cultures have wrangled sound into musical structures; we’ve continually delved further into the “wilderness” of untamed noise in search of new instruments and textures. I guess I see this as a sort of analog to the idea of manifest destiny, or perhaps human desire and drive in general. Which somewhat indirectly leads to the fact that much of my work itself tends to refer back to my own frustrations with human communication, meaning, and visceral vs. intellectual knowledge. Sound just seems to me to be an appropriate medium for exploring these subjects.
How do you combine your sound background and your visual expectations in your artwork?
The work I make tends to be concept driven, and I have a background in design, and fabrication as well as sound, so the works take the form of whatever medium is needed to realize the idea. Regardless, when dealing with visual and aural elements within a work, or within an exhibition layout, I use a combination of formal aesthetics, narrative structure, if appropriate, and intuition. In all cases, and all mediums and combinations thereof, I’m interested in creating a visceral environment with openings and possibilities. I aim for creating work that opens up dialog, and hopefully connects to and resonates with more than I’m even aware of.
You are about to move and spend some time in residence in Roswell, NM. What will you be working on?
I don’t entirely know yet. I’ve been thinking about rhythmic structures & patterns, and that they are something I would like to work with. I have some idea that I would like to create some tools for interaction that use a drum as the primary interface… But nothing is really to well defined at this point. As of right now I’m hoping to read a lot, experiment a lot, and let the work come.
I can’t even recall how many collaborative projects you have been part of. How did some of those collaboration come about? Did you know most of the artists you collaborated with? How did those conversations begin?
The ideas for all the things I make evolve out of conversations with people from various aspects of my life. I’m in no way the sole creator of anything. Collaborative projects take that influence a step further: away from personal ego, and further into a subject or idea; they are manifestations of a conversation about something, and they exist in a space created between people. Collaborations are an important part of my practice, in that they are experiments in communication, conversations, and explorations of other perspectives and ideas, and hopefully, they’re small glimpses into a slightly larger picture.
More info on Ven Voisey on v–v.net
Edited by Valeria Federici, Art Editor – firstname.lastname@example.org
All images courtesy of the artist.