Stephen Deffet is constantly thinking of The Space. The Space is like a lover to the curator and artist, but it hasn’t been eroticized, at least not yet. Deffet is someone who spends time thinking of ways to create radical exhibition spaces. Perhaps a dumpster outside of an apartment complex that’s installed just before trash day, gone by morning. Or a bathroom, maybe even in the cracks of a sidewalk.
He doesn’t really separate the role of curator and artist, when he’s making something he’s already thinking of The Space. Deffet has a lot of views on what an artist should be: curator, historian, community member, educator.
Tall, thin, keeps to a rigid regime. When I think of him painting I imagine this figure in a loose white t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers pacing- maybe even crying- in fact, I know this to be true.
Mad Penny: Do you think you’re funny? Do you think your work is funny?
Stephen Deffet: I hope that part of my work is. Yeah, part of the goal of my work is so people can laugh at not only what I take seriously, but also what they take seriously, because there’s this idea of like, being pretentious or calling something pretentious, and I think it’s just people who are afraid to step back from what they’re doing and laugh at it. I can get so caught up in watching Abramovic and Ulay slap one another almost to the point of tears. But when I think about it later, I’m like, “This is so silly.”
MP: Okay, your art is often about the art world, about gallery spaces and museum spaces. Do you think that there was a shift in what your work is about/addresses as you got into curation with Station 116 and started working at the Kennedy Museum of Art? Have you always been interested in making work about the art world?
SD: I don’t think I’ve always realized I’ve been interested in it. I was never a great student in high school. A couple of years ago I was taking work that had to do with psychology and sociology and I realized I’m not interested in that at all. If you’re going to make work about that you have to actually be devoted to trying to become a psychologist or a sociologist. An artist is not just a maker, an artist has to be an educator, they have to be a supporting member of their community, they have to be a curator.
MP: Do you see any implications of being a white man in the art world?
SD: I definitely see it. It’s a hard line to cross and obstacle to get around. I could justify myself and say “oh I come from low class,” but it’s just skirting around the issue, it’s irrelevant, really. We need to do a better job of showing underrepresented artists [at Station 116] in the area, and I think that’s a goal of mine as the years go on.
MP: Where did “I Have Thought About What I’ve Done and Now I Cannot Catch My Breath” come from? What ideas were you trying to engage with, and can you give more context on the man in the video?
SD: Yes, so that’s Carl Andre, who is a very,very famous minimalist sculptor… I don’t like his work… He was charged with the murder of his wife, Ana Mendiata, in the late 80s, and if you read, I haven’t actually read the court transcript or anything but I’ve read some of the things that were said at his testimonials, and it’s very obvious that he was guilty. He definitely killed her. There’s never been an apology or anything. The custodian outside heard her screaming “no no no” before she was pushed out of a 30 story building. He had scratches all over his face and all this stuff, and yet still has retrospectives at Guggenheim and Tate Modern.
MP: They probably know this but disregard it, which is so fucked up.
SD: There were very large protests organized by the Guerilla Girls and other activists organizations within the art world in front of his retrospectives, and this is one of the only interviews that he’s done. I think he may have become a recluse after that, because there aren’t even that many photos of him, because he knew what he did, and so some people thought he looked kind of sad and he always looked kind of scared a little bit.
Originally I wanted to make it seem like he was having a panic attack. I don’t know how well that comes off.
MP: Would it matter to you?
SD: No, not really, I think in a sense it’s still so fresh. Nothing really matters to me. That’s a big part of how I work, I’m just going to take a risk on something and make it.
MP: Nothing really matters as far as interpretation? Or even your intention, does that shift with time based on perception people have?
SD:: I think once I make something intentions become irrelevant because the artwork is what it is. And I’m never going to tell someone “No no no no no what you’re thinking about my art is completely wrong,” I think I’m going to accept it, and I’m also going to take it on.
I think once I make something intentions become irrelevant because the artwork is what it is.
MP: You build off of people’s perceptions?
SD: Right, and then there’s this hierarchy of what is most important in an image and in that image what is talked about the most. Because somebody could say something that is so ridiculous that has nothing to do with the artwork at all and it’s still relevant.
MP: I guess it just comes to the question of why are you making work? Do you feel like you have to? Do you feel like you have to say this thing in this way?
SD: Yeah, I feel like artwork is an infinite amount of ways of communicating in an infinite amount of languages to start a dialogue. Writing a story about me dancing with a ladder or writing a story about me standing on my head in a gallery just doesn’t hold the same merit other than seeing it.
MP: Do you like making art?
SD: I think it depends on what I’m making. I’ve been thinking about how painting is so romantic. Every time I paint, I embody and adhere to these stereotypical tropes of painters. Listening to classical music and moving around my studio in a way that I think I’m a painter., but making videos by myself is very frustrating. Especially with the Dancing With Ladders thing, I don’t know how to dance. I’m honestly trying to figure out this thing and I’m trying to figure it out quickly where I don’t want anybody watching me do this, but I’m doing it in places where people can see me doing it.
I don’t think I’m really confident in anything that I’m doing in art making, which I think helps me make work. Because if I was confident, and the idea of the technique or a process that was perfect in my mind, I would just let it stay in my mind forever. I wouldn’t need to prove anything to anyone.
MP: Are you trying to prove something to yourself?
SD: I think a little bit.
MP: Do you think you’d ever be confident in your work, and would that change your work?
SD: Yeah, I think it would change it a lot, I think I wouldn’t be doing it. I think I would stop making art.
MP: But you were talking about Dancing With Ladders…
I think about the exhibition space more than anything, probably, at this point in my life. I daydream about it and I find myself pretty much talking to it.
SD: I could be critiquing me being a museum worker and fulfilling this traditional masculine role of installing art, which is almost exclusively dominated by men. And then revealing this moment of intimacy, shedding the masculinity, and not wanting anyone to see that that’s actually happening. And I think that’s also due to my relationship to the space. I think about the exhibition space more than anything, probably, at this point in my life. I daydream about it and I find myself pretty much talking to it.
MP: It’s a crush or a lover..
SD: There’s these moments of jealousy when I see other artists in the space. It’s not like, “Oh, you shouldn’t be with them,” it’s like, “I want to be doing this right now,” “I want to be installing,” “I want to have my artwork here.” I haven’t really eroticized the space, and I think it could happen, and there have been artists who have done it, I’m not crazy about it. I think the idea is interesting, but I’m not to that point.
For more Stephen Deffet: