WATCH: Performing Art with GAZR
Miami born artist/poet/rapper James Allister Sprang is recreating poetry as a visual, psychical and interactive experience, all with the help of his not-so-alter-ego, GAZR. After graduating from Cooper Union, Sprang was looking to do more than make art, he wanted to make it a conversation. With his residency at the not for profit Bruce High Quality Foundation University, the poet found GAZR, a performance art version of himself who explores “how voices are appropriated, amplified and/or suppressed in our society” through rapping and live performance. Watching GAZR is a multi sensory experience; the audience is at once a witness and accomplice in a clashing of forms. Recordings mesh with live discussion, rap intertwines with poetry, and high brow academia flows with low brow Internet memes, creating a conversation that is impossible not to join.
We spoke with Sprang, aka GAZR, about his art background, his thoughts on theorists and rappers, and his upcoming shows at Dixon Place.
How did you get started doing performance art?
I was very lucky, I went to art high school which was kind of like art boot camp. So we were all preparing to get our BFAs and whatnot, it was very important from moment you walked in the doors. I was lucky to have had great teachers who influenced the way I think in a great way. As a sophomore in high school I took performance art class with Fernando Calzadilla. It was a class of four people… it was super intimate and I learned a lot about myself and about the form At the same time, I was painting in school, and doing all these poetry slams outside of school. All these things started to compartmentalize. When I went to college at Cooper Union it started to mesh a little more, but I kept myself out of the work.
Portraits by Carlos Monino.
When I graduated I realized I wasn’t having fun with the work that I was doing. I thought it was beautiful, I was proud of it, but it was performance work where I curated the area and then let whatever happen. I wasn’t involved. But when I got this residency at Bruce High Quality Foundation University, I decided: I’m going to rap. And it all came together.
What was it like when you got up in front of people to perform?
I started doing poetry because I was a young, angsty kid and I could get up on stage and deliver a poem with this “heartfelt” delivery, and someone would give me a 10, and it was like, Yes, I’m on stage to the fullest and someone approved my existence! But I was always a character. I was embodying a character, something I had imagined up, something that I didn’t really identify with. Now, as GAZR, it’s the first time I am performing as a person I identify with, or a person I identify as.
Is GAZR you? Or a form of you?
GAZR is me. Not all of me, but I identify with GAZR. My friends call me GAZR…some of them. Its’ a very vulnerable place I put myself in when I do that. It’s a very genuine thing.
They say that only poets read poetry. Most people seem to get freaked out by the form, but they tend to really like rap. They can identify with music but not poetry for some reason, do you feel this is a problem?
When I think of poetry I don’t just think of textual language. But if we are defining it as that, I think it’s just about making people feel comfortable. That poetry exists in a very academic environment and people are either not interested in interacting with that language or they’re tired of it, or ambivalent or opposed. The way I approach it is halfway through a song I pretend that I stumble. I’m going with the beat and bring my lyrics up on my computer and everyone is reading with me. I know the lyrics, and after a second I’m looking them in the eye and mouthing it, giving them the option to engage with me or engage with the text.
It’s a happening, together. Not just performer and audience.
I’m a very firm believer in art that is a part of life as much as it represents it.
There’s this great visual component to your work. You’ll have the computer screen projecting what your are looking at on the Internet, and it usually has to do with what you’re rapping about. It’s like a second voice.
A really long time ago, this will come back around I promise, a long time ago I was just done with school and I decided to take a year off. I went back to Miami, where I’m from. I wrote a collection of poems called Navel Gazing in a Hallway and I thought they were good but they hadn’t reached their full potential, they weren’t living in the way they should live. So when I got back to school I started a project, which I’m still working on, called The Poetics of Gesture. I organized these performances where other people would read my words because that’s ultimately what’s important to me. I’m glad you said voices, because my thing, my elevator spiel, is my work is about how voices are appropriated, amplified and/or suppressed in our society. Thats totally what I’m thinking about when I’m on the Internet.
With the Internet we’ve been given this window into a lot of peoples homes, people’s lives, people’s stories. If you think about rap in this context too, the way this history has been appropriated. I’m interested in where it goes, I’m just trying to inject myself into the conversation as much as possible.
What is your relationship with the Internet? Do you feel your identity online is different than yourself?
I’ve been considering this term a lot lately: post-genuine. In terms of how people present themselves on the Internet and the relationship between that presentation and our existence in life. In terms of my relationship with the Internet…it’s a hard question…okay:
The other day I was like, Should GAZR have a twitter account? And I made one. The first tweet was: FUCK.
Maybe that answers your question?
What are some of your influences for your work?
Some dope rappers, Mikhail Bakhtin, he has this joint called the Carnivalesque Theory, which is poppin’. The Primacy of Perception by Merleau-Ponty. And Kant has this joint that’s poppin, called The Critique of Rational Thought. Grew up listening to Mos Def and Method Man, Judgment Day is amazing. I know it’s an esoteric thing but I’ve knocked down a lot of these walls. I call Adorno my Timbaland! I consider a lot of these theorists to be rappers, people who are presenting how they navigate through the world and present it to others where they can rock it like a theme song.
I’m informed a lot by performance poetry, performance art, and art history, not necessarily how it has been written in history books but how it was.
Being from a performance art background what is your relationship to the art world? Do you feel accepted?
Well thats the thing. You’re not the person who decides whether you’re accepted or not. I really don’t give a fuck. I’m concerned with sharing what I’m making and I’m interested in making work that reaches as many different types of people as possible. If the art world helps me do that thats great but you never know, because it all comes down to what can be sold, and how it’s sold.
Can you talk a little about your show at Dixon Place coming up?
I was curated into a show that is part of an OBIE-winning series called Little Theatre. On the 10th I will be performing an excerpt of Life does Not Live, my one man show. GAZR! It is a great opportunity to get a sample of what I am doing. I encourage everyone to come check out some really inventive shit. It’s gonna be fun. Drinks on you!
What’s your WILD Wish?
My WILD Wish is to live for a living.