By MC STEVENS, AUG, 2017
John Sims, a Detroit native, is a multi-media artist, writer and producer, creating projects spanning the areas of installation, text, music, film, performance and large scale activism. His main projects are informed by mathematics, the politics of sacred symbols/anniversaries and the agency of poetry. Sims’ projects are informed by the vocabulary of mathematical structure, the politics of sacred symbols and poetry. Sims is currently completing Recoloration Proclamation, a sixteen-year multi-media project featuring: an exhibition of recolored Confederate flags, multi-state flag funerals, a documentary film and a music project featuring thirteen black versions of the song "Dixie."
Last summer, I saw a post on social media about a gay wedding between a Union and Confederate soldier. This summer, I read about the Confederate flag burning in Detroit. I realized that it was time to talk to him about these long-term projects and other bodies of work. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I still have an opportunity to experience the AfroDixie Remixes Listening Session this month at Martha’s Vineyard.
I became interested in your work when I found a video clip of the Dixie Remixes. I then found out that you have been working with the Confederate flag for years. Why did you choose the iconography of the Confederacy as the subject of your work?
This work started in the late 90's after moving down to Florida where I was confronted regularly by the Confederate flag. So, in response to that, and the fact that the Confederate flag was still flying on the dome of the State Capitol building in Columbia, South Carolina, I recolored the rebel battle flag into a black, red, and green square bumper sticker. A few years later I did it as a four-by-four-foot nylon flag for a group show at DFN Gallery in SoHo.
This initial response turned into a mission to examine the symbols of white supremacy in the context of the Civil War and the problematic slogan “heritage not hate.” Through this work, I wanted to make the statement that you cannot talk about southern heritage without also talking about the African American experience.
Can you tell me a bit more about the Dixie Remixes? How and when did you decide to incorporate music into your practice?
Remixing Dixie was a natural progression from recoloring the flags. The first AfroDixie track was done in 2001 by Twinkle, a Sarasota legend who had a big Warner Brothers deal in the 90’s and played with Gregg Allman and Dickie Betts; she did a bone-chilling spiritual version. Then a year or so later I organized a jazz bebop version with the late Kenny Drew Jr. on piano. That set up a sequence where I knew I had to capture Dixie through the history of Black music.
I saw that the performances were called “Listening Sessions”. Where and when did they take place? Did the performances change with the locations over time?
The first listening sessions were in 2015 in Florida, in Orlando at the Cornell Museum of Art and at the Blue Rooster Jazz Club in Sarasota. Then I took them to the Bowery Poetry Club in New York featuring Reverend Billy, Mahogany Browne, Steve Cannon, Adam Falkner, Karen Finley, Heru Khuti, Kristin Prevallet and Kate Rushin. That was a great line up.
Since then it has been to Detroit Institute of Arts, and out west in Oakland at the jazz club Geoffrey’s Inner Circle and Antioch College. So far it has been to the north and south, on both coasts, and in the middle of the country.
The listening sessions now incorporate musical animation, making the presentation more dynamic. I have also started reaching out to the broader community, getting responses from preachers, community activists and politicians.
Flag burning has always been an act of protest, a rejection of the values assigned to the symbol. As children, we are taught to pledge allegiance to a piece of cloth on a stick. The raising, lowering and folding of the US flag are patriotic rituals. Does the burning of the Confederate respond to the rituals associated with other flags?
The idea of burning is very ritualistic. I feel there is a need, especially for African Americans, to have a strong ritual that addresses the historical trauma of American slavery and contemporary global white supremacy. In 2015, in connection with the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, I organized 13 Flag Funerals, which used the idea of a belated burial or cremation and focused on the 13 states associated with the stars in the rebel flag. But after the Charleston murders, where nine folks were shot to death, there was a need to turn it up a little. I organized the Burn and Bury action as a nationwide annual event – or ritual – where we can reflect on and never forget this painful and unjust part of America’s history and present.
After the Charleston murders, states and institutions began to remove flags and monuments for Confederate ‘heroes’. I recognize the similarities with South Africa’s removal of monuments. What was your experience living with this imagery, being part of the conversation, and witnessing the removals?
My initial experience was abstract since I am from Detroit and did not see rebel flags in my everyday life. Around 2000, the Confederate flag became a national flash point because of what was happening in South Carolina. After moving to Florida, I felt like I had to use my voice as an artist to do something, hence the recoloring of the flag and then presenting my Proper Way to Hang a Confederate Flag in Gettysburg in 2004. The Charleston murders created an empathic moment for change, but this moment has come at such a terrible cost. I wish there was a better way for the Confederate flag to come down in South Carolina.
Are you planning to continue working with this theme?
First I am planning to wrap up this book – a political art memoir – and a documentary film, while I push to promote the annual Burn and Bury Memorial Day event as a permanent ritual.
Where else is your work taking you? Are there any other bodies of work planned for the near future?
Well, I am moving more in the direction of writing, experimental film, performance and conceptual music. My current project took me to France, where I collaborated with a vineyard in Saint Emilion to create my own wine. This led to the Square of Love: Valentine’s Day in Paris 2017, a series of events featuring my wine, films, and love poems by expatriate American poets. I am doing this again in 2018 with a more expanded program. I am seeing it being as a Love Festival of sorts, with poetry readings, wine tastings, pop-up exhibitions and film screenings at venues like Shakespeare and Co, Paris Lit Up, SpokenWord Paris, and Berkeley Books. And on the U.S., side I am excited about working with The Rumpus again on a companion online program.
Also, I am working on an installation specific to Detroit and the block I grew up on, focusing on larger MathArt projects.
Can you explain the concept of MathArt?
MathArt is a subset of conceptual art focusing on the sensory presentation of mathematical ideas and process. There is a spectrum, of course, in terms of the math-art mixture. On one end, there is visual mathematics where you have things like fractals and minimal surfaces that themselves produce stunning and beautiful images. On the other end, you have works that are more about ideas: For instance, many of Sol LeWitt’s combinatorial drawings are about iterating through the different ways of connecting points. M.C. Escher is a nice example where the mathematics and art elements are more balanced. I am interested in building on this with a MathArt that connects the mind, hand and heart through the structure of nature. So, in some way I see Nature as the ultimate MathArtist. Recently I addressed some of these ideas with an exhibition called SquareRoots: A Quilted Manifesto:
Here is where I introduced my alter-ego character Johannes Curtis Schwarzenstein, the AfroGermanJewishMathArtPoet.
How did you initially become interested in the relationship between math and art? Did you have a math background?
I started connecting the two while studying mathematics in graduate school. At my former job as Coordinator of Mathematics at Ringling College of Art and Design I developed a visual mathematics curriculum for artists and curated numerous mathematical art exhibitions, including the show MathArt/ArtMath featuring work by M.C. Escher, Max Bill, Sol Lewitt, Al Held, Howardena Pindell and others. Doing projects like these made me begin to think critically about the pedagogical, curatorial and creative relationship between mathematics and art.
Are there upcoming exhibitions or performances to look for in the coming year?
Yes, I will be bringing my AfroDixie Remixes Listening Session to the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center on August 21, 2017. Two weeks later, I am doing a special film screening at a Poetry and Wine Festival in Kosovo. Then, for Valentine’s Day 2018, I will be in Paris for my Square of Love: Valentine’s Day in Paris. WM