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Space, Snakes, Existence: George Henry Longly in Conversation with Mx Justin Vivian Bond

The British artist and the 'trans-genre' performer discuss their ongoing show and performance at Red Bull Studios New York.
July 3, 2016, 11:50am
We All Love Your Life installation view, George Henrly Longly. All photos by Lance Brewer unless noted otherwise. Images courtesy of Red Bull Studios New York

Inside the multifaceted, multilevel art space that is Red Bull Studios New York, there a deconstructed spaceship occupies the main gallery. No engines, complicated control panels, or oxygen tanks surround it; instead, the room is filled with wall-mounted hospital bed parts, a dissembled sculpture of Dionysus scanned from an original at the British Museum, and a large projection of snakes slithering across a desk, amongst other constructs. George Henry Longly's first solo exhibition in the United States, We All Love Your Life, is by no means a small show.

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So how do these objects—which also include a spherical surveillance camera sculpture and a prosthetic hand—relate to a spaceship, in any sense of the word? Unsurprisingly, the connection is a bit abstract. Longly’s installations are inspired by the Skylab space station in Henry S.F. Cooper Jr.’s book A House in Space; more specifically, they are inspired by the book’s “existential thrill of viewing Earth from a floating vantage that is moving through space.”

We All Love Your Life installation view, George Henrly Longly

Recently, Longly invited “trans-genre artist” Mx Justin Vivian Bond and fellow performance artist Nath Ann Carrera to perform on the lower level of the space. Bond donned a neoprene veil while Carrera wore what looked like an “astronaut suit for everyday wear." Longly, in collaboration with James Long, designed both the outfits.

With Bond's booming voice and Carrera accompanying on guitar, the performance alternated between listing off dozens of food items and belting songs on space, the future, and longing. After it concluded, I met with Longly and Bond outside Red Bull Studios to talk about everything from space exploration, to snakes, to the performance nature of contemporary existence.

Mx Justin Vivian Bond and Nath Ann Carrera performing live. Photo by Andrew Nunes

The Creators Project: George, could you give us a rundown of your exhibition and Justin, could you talk about your performance for those who missed out on the spectacle?

George Henry Longly (GHL): The show uses the Skylab space station that once existed to talk about a contemporary condition. The station spun around the earth 17,000 miles per hour, orbiting the Earth like four times a day. It was close enough to not see Earth in its entirety, but still, they were not on Earth. That was the model I used to deal with the architecture of this space.

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The show is based off of A House in Space, Henry S.F. Cooper Jr.’s book about the space station. It’s a gossipy, bitchy book that kind of demystifies the space revel. It demystifies everything—it talks about eating, shitting, and what they are up to with downtime in space. It’s this kind of crazy situation that enables me to think about the contemporary condition.

We All Love Your Life installation view, George Henrly Longly

Mx Justin Vivian Bond (JVB):  I talked to George about what his piece represented to me before setting up the performance. I heard a lot of talk about isolation, and what it’s like to be an outsider looking at the rest of the world. So, as a queer artist I was interested in talking about this nuts and bolts, mundane part of the everyday life of being an outsider. I hit on the idea of finding the list of foods that were in Skylab space station, and so we found a list of 72 food items that were in Skylab, so I read those in my performance and I chose three songs that had to do with being in space, or about the universe, if you will.

So the first song is "Planets of the Universe," which is this Stevie Nicks song that's about a relationship that doesn't work out and being alone until you die, which is something I think many young queer people think about, that they may never find love. So I thought that was a good choice for this particular performance.

The second one was "Calling Occupants," a Carpenters song from the 70s which is about reaching out and trying to make a connection with aliens and trying to have a positive interaction with them, to say "we are your friends.” It's just a simplistic, almost childlike song, and that is the sentiment: the hope that you will somehow find a way of connecting.

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We All Love Your Life installation view, George Henrly Longly

GHL: I've been listening to "Calling Occupants" forever. It’s part of the playlist for the show, because I make a playlist for all of my shows. "Calling occupants" is a really poignant phrase. The characters we inhabit, the people we inhabit, the identities we inhabit… It just really touches me.

JVB: And the third song is called "22nd Century," which was written by Exuma, a Bahamian voodoo priest, in the early 70s. He was writing about the future, and as somebody who lived through the AIDS crisis, what he said in the 70s was right all the way. He kind of gives what ends up being a timeline of queer people—how we survive and get past trauma and hopefully move into a future where we are not limited or oppressed because of who we are, what our gender is, because of religious extremism or whatever. I like that that song sort of brings in an idealized utopian future in a way.

How did the two of you meet and what led you to collaborate together?

GHL: We met at Central St. Martins on the critical theory part of both of our courses. Mine was fine arts and Justin did scenography, which is now called "live art installation" or something, they've renamed it.

JVB: Yes, George remembers things better, because, although I'm in the same class, I'm a bit older. [Laughs]

GHL: Yeah, so that's how we met. That was like 2004–2005. I've seen Justin perform many times, and it still moves me every time. I really wanted to see if this performance could happen, where she can speak the words I'm not capable of speaking. I work in static sculpture and film, but she can perform the emotions and the narrative that needs to be spoken.

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We All Love Your Life installation view, George Henrly Longly

Was it challenging to use Red Bull Studios New York’s enormous, but less-than-conventional exhibition space for your show?

GHL: Yes, it was very challenging. I'm not very interested in doing exhibitions in conservative, white cubed spaces, it’s such an old fashioned way. I mean, I still do those shows and I'm complicit in that structure and I enjoy them on one level, but at the same time I want more from a show. I want to know what an exhibition can actually generate and produce.

The kind of quirky parameters of this space—being a threshold space, an entryway, having a cigar shape, an egg shape, it really challenged me in a very good way. I'm very happy that I had the opportunity to do it. But it wasn't straightforward. It wasn't like I was just popping items in a space.

We All Love Your Life installation view, George Henrly Longly

Would you say that in this case the space informed your work more than a regular white cube would?

GHL: Yeah I think so. I suppose everything you do is site-specific, but it was definitely more challenging here. But also, it’s [with] Red Bull, a corporate company with a very interesting program. That’s absolutely new for me, too.

We All Love Your Life close-up detail, George Henrly Longly

Both the exhibition and today’s performance emphasized the performative aspects of contemporary existence. Do you think that people today are “performing their lives” more than ever before in history? If so, do you think this will be the case indefinitely and should we full-heartedly embrace this?

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Both: Yes.

JVB: I always felt like my life is a story I’m telling to myself. I think a lot of people now live their lives like a story they are telling to other people. Part of my life, because I am an artist, is to share my story with a lot of other people, but I think the reason that this has happened is because on a certain level other people are interested in my story. But if they weren’t, I would still be telling the story to myself in one way or another. So my answer is definitely yes to everything.

GHL: I think on one level I'm dealing with things on an ethnographical and an analytical [level]. I'm so glad v [Mx Justin Vivian Bond] could do this tonight, to hit things on an emotional level in a different way. When I do shows I'm not actually talking to anyone or saying words. I'm not saying a script. I'm using analogy, metaphor, and sentiment in sort of an architectural sense. I feel like what I've got in the exhibition is a very elaborate set that I would like to punctuate with narrative and this performance was an amazing beginning point of that.

We All Love Your Life detail, George Henrly Longly

Snakes are a prominent and recurring subject matter in your works, George, and this exhibition is no exception. What is it about snakes that keep drawing you to them again and again?

GHL: For me, the interesting thing about snakes is all of the symbolism they’ve had throughout humanity, whether in culture or religion, whether they signify wisdom, wealth, or fear. Snakes challenge the “subjective position” because they are everything and they are opposites to themselves, and it happens again and again throughout different cultures and histories.

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But also, snakes are really beautiful and terrifying creatures. We’re mammals so we have an inherent fear of them connected to our ancestry as being part of nature. I like the way they eat things whole, the way they sniff out sex and pray, their forked tongues… I’m just very curious about nature and they’re one of the apex predators within nature that I get very excited about. They’re linear creatures, the way they propel themselves through space is all about pressure and intention. They’re really cool. They swallow things whole…

Photographytill from We All Love Your Life, George Henry Longly

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Didn’t you make a piece about snakes swallowing things whole before?

GHL: Yeah, I did a piece a long time ago about an 8-year-old boy who was on YouTube talking about feeding his snake live prey. He broke down everything. He was saying, “Don’t give me shit for posting this video about my snake eating live prey! She won’t eat dead prey! What am I supposed to do?” Big fish eats little fish.

Then I did another film of a snake eating another snake alive. I’m terrified by this imagery, but it's interesting imagery on a level that goes beyond the visual.

We All Love Your Life close-up detail, George Henrly Longly

To finish up, let's return to the idea of space that was prominent in both the exhibition and the performance. Space exploration feels like it is more important than ever in a time of so much global instability, yet it feels a little under-discussed relative to its importance. Why do you think few artists engage with space?

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GHL: I think it has to do with the climate we are in. It has something to do with this anthropocene moment. Like you just mentioned about the perception of the diminishing resources on the planet, the fucked-up politics. I think it’s just something of the moment.

JVB: We’re living in a very "anti-science" age. We have this religious extremism and climate deniers and that sort of thing. On one hand I think it’s great to explore space, but if you are looking at it as some sort of potential way of escaping the ongoing slaughter happening around us, it’s not such a good idea. I like the idea of "options," but I think the main option should be figuring out how to preserve Earth and our own space.

We All Love Your Life close-up detail, George Henrly Longly

GHL: But that’s why I liked and used the Skylab space station idea, because it’s orbiting the Earth and it’s not about fleeing to Mars.

JVB: It’s about scientific research and I think that’s why it’s not interesting to most people. They know what the experiments are and how they are benefitting from them and I think the romance is gone. It’s not about "somebody going and walking on the Moon."

GHL: But going to the Moon was all about Earth. Suddenly we saw the Earth as an image, as a symbol, as something we’d never seen it as before. We’d never seen Earth in such a self-reflective way.

JVB: And we finally dispelled the “Earth is flat rumor.” [Laughs]

We All Love Your Life will be on display at Red Bull Studios New York until July 31, 2016. George Henry Longly will be organizing an edition of Anal House Meltdown, a large party imported from the UK, on July 21st at Red Bull Studios New York.

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