Brice Peterson is an artist, poet, editor, and archivist living in Oaklyn, New Jersey. A dual fascination with women of the pre-digital era and archival sciences informs much of his practice and results in bizarre and luscious multimedia work and performance. I met with him in his studio and talked about day jobs, divas, and religions, new and old.
Todd: What are you working on now?
Brice: What I’ve been doing lately is revisiting projects I’d abandoned or that had fallen by the wayside in the past few years. Especially in my senior year of college and right after, I had all these ideas that I got started on and then put aside either because I was graduating or I was going to a residency or to grad school. So I’ve been trying to revisit a couple of things.
T: Can you talk about some of them?
B: For sure. Mina in a Sea of Thyrsi is one example of something I’ve had at home for the past couple of years that I haven’t been able to figure out. It started as a big, thickly-modeled gold canvas, and I wanted to collage some images of the female divas I’ve been working with. But I couldn’t figure out what to do because I hadn’t worked in such large dimensions in so long. Most of what I’ve been making has been kind of small, so I’m working to build up the paint on that a little more as a way of managing that dimensional gap.
The Eyes of La Carrá is another. I printed this at Anderson Ranch on canvas because it was really cheap to print things there. And I never got to do anything with it, so I finally got the chance to embroider around the eyes.
The Ecstasy of A. Tapp is the oldest thing I have to come back to and finish — it was part of my senior thesis show at Brown. In that show there was a big, central sculpture that almost looked like a tiered cake. There were two stacked pedestals that were covered in cotton balls and then coated in an iridescent medium, and in the center of the sides of the pedestals were paneled images of Amanda Lear, whose persona was central to the show. So this is one of the panels from those pedestals. I figured I would save one — the others I didn’t have storage for. So now, four years later, I’ve decided to transfer it onto canvas and give it a fully developed frame, embellished with the cotton balls.
T: What was the reason for making the frame?
B: I guess I’ve always been interested in creating frames or framing devices. It does act as a memorial in some way, and I also think that the frames maybe heighten the absurdity of these sort of iconographic devotional pieces. They’re adornment. It’s a way to decorate the screen image with something that can be precious and obsessive and cheap and sloppy all in one.
T: How do you title your work?
B: A lot of my most recent work I really haven’t worked out names for. And maybe that has a lot to do with the fact that they were scraps that have been with me over time and are only now getting put together. A lot of times the names come from titles of performances that the screenshots are grabbed from or lyrics or puns on those lyrics.
T: What is it like to go back to these ideas from four years ago?
B: In the grand scheme of things, four years isn’t that long ago, but I think when you’re young it really represents much more time than four years in middle- or old-age. Physiologically, psychologically, intellectually, a lot of changes can happen in four years in your early twenties. So, obviously, it’s a little strange to go back to these projects because they’re things that I was really interested in at some point, and now I’m reconnecting with them from a perspective that’s informed by years of growth. In some sense, it can feel like going through the motions, responding to tasks I’ve set up for myself, almost procedurally. But it’s also been helpful for me to reconnect to what I’ve done before and not forget what it was that moved me in the past. I think that’s important for everyone. I also have this tendency to come up with an idea, see through a couple of pieces, and then move on to another idea without having really developed the first idea. So it’s been a challenge to reconnect with the work, but it’s also been fruitful because I really feel freed up when I think I’ve done justice to something. Or I’ll learn something about the work that maybe I wasn’t originally paying attention to.
And then part of it is just that I’m being frugal.
T: Has your day job been manageable on top of all of this?
B: It has been!
T: Have you felt its influence on your work?
B: Yes, I have. I think becoming a librarian has shown me what it is in art that interests me.
I had never really thought about librarianship until after college when I was interning at Anderson Ranch. There was a summer student there who was a former children’s librarian, and she got to know me and knew that my background was in English and art. She suggested that I look into librarianship as a day career. I hadn’t really thought of it before, but it seemed to be a good, intellectually fulfilling career and also something that would leave time and mental space for an art practice.
But through my studies with archival science and my work as a librarian, I realized that a lot of my artwork had been a cataloguing of experiences with these diva figures, like Amanda Lear from my thesis show — divas from what we might consider the last moments of the pre-digital age. The 60s and 70s and 80s. So a lot of what my artwork has become about is memorializing those women and their performances, taking archival footage, and making art based on that footage through screen shots or through text pieces that in some way catalogue their moment in an archival sense. So in some very compelling ways I think my interest in art made more sense in terms of a librarianship.
T: It’s almost as if you taken these pre-digital artifacts, digitized them by capturing their images through digital means, and then un-digitized them again as physical things.
B: Yeah, that’s how I feel about it. I personally tend to connect most with these women’s performances that all took place before the advent of digital culture, or at least right on the verge of digital culture. But because I was born in 1989 my experience of them has always been mediated by the internet. So I relate to them, almost by nature, through digital media.
Some things we talked a lot about in grad school for library and archival science were that it’s very possible we’re living in a digital dark age, that the formats that we’re dealing with right now are very fragile, and that there’s so much uncertainty just in terms of storage and longevity of digital artifacts. We don’t really know if, 100 or 200 years from now, a lot of the media we’re experiencing will still be accessible. For example, there are a lot of legacy formats, especially from the 70s and 80s, that have become totally unreadable. There’s some data that’s lost forever.
Whereas an analogue recording is usually based on the grooves in a vinyl record or light passing through film, which will always be accessible. All you need is a light source or a needle to read them. You don’t need all this complicated technology that’s proprietary or impossible to maintain. The only problem there is that the materials themselves can deteriorate. Or if they were never valued, they’ll simply be forgotten and discarded. So for me, it’s been a way to celebrate these moments that I feel are at risk technologically and also because they represent a kind of sub-culture, a camp-culture that is not regarded with the same kind of importance as a lot of other pop-culture artifacts.
T: If digital media is in danger of being lost, why exactly do you work with performances from this era and not more modern performances?
B: The only reason I know about most of these women is because fans like me posted videos or images of them online. And they only have this footage because they recorded it or collected it themselves over the years. So now we live in this connected world where young people like me have access to all this cultural heritage that was saved sort of democratically from the ravages of time. But videos vanish from YouTube all the time. Who knows where an original recording of a certain performance from the 60s or 70s is? Chances are the production company no longer exists. You can never trust a company to preserve culture, especially queer culture.
Now I think celebrities understand the power of their own archive in maintaining some kind of legacy within pop culture. So you have someone like Beyonce who records and archives everything in her life because she’s a child of the digital age too. But it remains to be seen how long even that will last. I mean, I don’t know what kind of preservation work her team does. But basically, artifacts are only saved because people still care about them, and I want people to care about these more obscure divas as much as I do.
T: You use gold in a lot of the work. Is there something to that?
B: It’s definitely an esthetic that I connect to, simply put. But I also feel like a lot of these diva figures I’m working with are connected to the gold because of their divine presence. Gold has always signified that kind of divine presence. Then again, I’m also using liquid gilding or fake gold leaf or gold spray paint, so the gold always has a precious feel but also an artificial feel, which ties it in to the identities I’m attracted to. There is something goddess-like about these women, but something artificial which is heightened by my experience with them, and my experience of them is not as real people. It’s as these sort of artificial public figures that I only get to experience through the media.
T: How did you start getting interested in this era of divas?
B: It was during my senior thesis at Brown. My project was intended to be about St. Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle, which is a book that describes the soul as a series of concentric mansions. At the innermost mansion was the one closest to God, who resided at the center of the interior castle. At the time I was also making a lot of geometric work that was referencing the body while also resembling cathedrals and stained glass. So I was looking at sacred geometry, I was looking at cosmology, and finding a relationship between that line of work and the architectural space that this interior castle might represent.
But I was also attracted to Teresa as an interesting historical and literary figure — my other major at Brown was in English. The Interior Castle describes many of her ecstatic experiences with the divine, which could be risky for a woman at that time. So that got me thinking about radical women and women who interacted with the divine in a sort of subversive way.
At the time, I was doing a disco show on Brown Student and Community Radio and I became interested in the singer Amanda Lear, who has a sort of murky background. Originally, she started as a model and then became Salvador Dali’s muse and studio assistant, much to the chagrin of his wife. In fact, some of Dali’s later paintings were started by Amanda Lear — she did many of the under paintings, which is pretty fascinating to think about. And there are some paintings he did of her. Later on she met David Bowie, became part of the London scene, and wanted to start a disco career, so to make her more interesting in the public eye, she and Dali cooked up this story that Dali had found her and made her into a woman. That was her transformation story. She has a concept album called Sweet Revenge in which she sort of manifests the Faust legend — a version of Dr. Faustus who makes a deal with the devil to have a singing career and become this powerful woman. A lot of her music is about the murkiness of identity, especially the identity of a celebrity woman in the limelight. Another album — her first one — is called I Am a Photograph, and it features a number of songs about how she’s totally two-dimensional and not real, basically.
So I was really fascinated with her as a figure, and I saw a parallel between her and someone like St. Theresa of Avila in their gender-subversive relationships with the divine. I started making more work about Lear, and that’s where a lot of the collage and cotton ball work started happening, as well as video work in which I manipulated some of Lear’s videos. She essentially led me down the rabbit hole to these other iconic females, a lot of them foreign, a lot of them Italian. Women like Mina Mazzini, Patty Pravo, Raffaella Carrá. Being that they herald from a time before my own and from a country where I don’t understand the language, I can’t connect to a lot of their songs on a typical level. For me, listening to their music feels almost like a kind of mystical experience. I’m listening to this gibberish, almost like tongues, and it’s speaking to me in a non-verbal way. It’s a great space to mediate through art.
T: But it’s Italian, which is so intimately related to Latin and the Catholic church. There’s a close association to religion, to divinity.
B: Of course. Italian women often have a really intimate relationship with the Church, a fealty to the Virgin Mary. You see her everywhere in Italy. All of this sort of bleeds together for me.
T: What does it mean for your work that it takes women for its subject?
B: I always have this anxiety that these women and their work are more interesting than what I can do with it all. Sometimes it speaks for itself and there’s not much I can add through manipulation or trying to make something out of them. And for a while I was thinking it would be interesting for me to expose the underlying issues of that relationship, as a male artist with a female muse. That relationship goes back for millennia, and there are problems with that. This male artist who is the maker, the genius, who relies on this female identity for his creations.
T: How then does your sexuality, you being gay, affect that relationship?
B: I think it makes it more complicated. I think it ties it into a different sort of history. It ties it into gay liberation, drag, camp culture, which are all things that I’m interested in and certainly explain why I was attracted to a lot of these women in the first place. Most of them offer some sort of subversive alternative to living out your everyday life in normal gender roles. A lot of these women have really subverted gender roles in their own careers, either as portraying themselves as hyper-feminine or, like with Amanda Lear, confusing their own gender.
T: You see a lot of this playing out today. Rumors of Lady Gaga being transexual, Beyoncé as a dominating, hyper-feminine persona.
B: For sure. You can look at many pop stars today and trace these motifs back to the women who came before them. That’s another reason why I’m so interested in this particular era of women artists. I see them as almost-forgotten influences of contemporary pop culture. For a while I thought of this work as cataloging aspects of camp’s past that were especially going to be forgotten by contemporary generations, but it’s also been showing me how much queerness has influenced the wider culture that exists today.
Sometimes I think I make this sound more complicated than it is, but in a way it’s just something innate in me. It’s a fandom, in its permutations. An obsessive fandom. I think that plays a part in some of the work, too. I can get kind of obsessive with the technical details, like these cotton ball frames. Or manipulating and cutting the faces of these women is creepy and obsessive in another way. So I think that’s part of it. It’s something innate in many gay men to have this attachment to female icons.
T: Do you listen to music while you make them?
T: Their music?
B: Yeah. Pretty much entirely.
T: You do sort of have a shrine down here almost.
B: Yeah, it really sort of is… It’s hard to say that it’s on purpose. How it really works out is that they make the music that I listen to most, and I also make art about them. So chances are I’m going to be listening to them while I’m making art about them. And that’s another aspect of the work that kind of interests me. How the relationship works between their music and my visuals. I do connect to their music on a deep level, even though a lot of it is really cheesy and really bad, but I’m making art that has no musical component. It’s purely a visual interaction, so sometimes I wonder about that relationship, whether or not something’s lost. If someone who doesn’t know these women can really connect to them through my art without hearing their music alongside of it, without hearing what made me attracted to them most, which is their music.
T: Have you ever played with sound?
B: It’s come to play in some performances.
T: Could you describe one?
B: I did my most recent, The Martyr Awakened, while I was a resident at Anderson Ranch. It was about Dalida, an Italian-Egyptian singer, naturalized French, who became a French Icon. She was tremendously popular through the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s — really iconic, with a unique, a-typical appearance. But she also endured many personal tragedies. Lovers dying, committing suicide. Her own mental and emotional problems that ended up culminating in her committing suicide in the late 80s. And this is the biggest pop star in France. There was a poll taken in France of who has influenced French culture most post WW2. No. 1 is Charles de Gaulle and No. 2 is Dalida. It’s such a sad story, but it’s also so campy. There’s this tragic pop star who ends her own life once she’s past her prime. It’s such an iconic, French story.
T: That’s also recurring. I think of Whitney Houston as a more recent example, or Amy Winehouse.
B: Yeah, it fits into this pattern that we expect of our tragic pop divas. So this performance was basically a ritual watching of her performances. I set up a studio space, blacked it out, and had a set of videos of her being projected on the wall, big enough so that her image in these videos was more-or-less life-sized, and then I sat in front of these videos in my usual performance garb, which is my gold-faced mask, dressed like a painter. And then I watched her perform, with the audience situated behind me, watching me watch her perform. Sometimes I’d sing a long a little bit, swaying along to the music, motioning or feeling out some of the motions that she was making in the performances. That was really important to me because it was so much about her performances — it was almost as if I was forcing people to share in this with me, to share in what I was interested in of her. And that got me thinking about how we can use performance or art to enable this archival reenactment or reliving of these older performances. I think of it as a resurrection of Dalida in which she was not physically present but present through this digital, oracular device.
T: Did the audience have any way of seeing your gold face, or was that something that only she could see?
B: Yeah, in a way. They really couldn’t see it except for in glimpses from the side.
T: Can you talk about the importance of the gold mask?
The gold mask, for me, is a way to maintain some sense of anonymity or feigned critical distance. When I step into a performance, even though I have such deep personal feelings for these women, I want to remove my personal identity a bit and become a kind of archetypal male-priest-artist. The gold suggests ritual, but it also masks my emotions.
T: Do you do any religious research or reading? There’s a stream of the divine through all of this and I would be interested if that is something that’s intrinsic to working with pop divas, because we do make them divine…
B: For me it’s sort of innate. I was raised Catholic, went to Catholic school my whole life, I’m a librarian at a Catholic school. So it’s a part of my identity.
T: When I think of the Catholic church, one of the things I think about is the abundance of women figures and saints, like St. Teresa, and of course also of relics. And then we have relics that are perhaps linked to women saints.
B: Yes, there are so many permutations of the Virgin, parts of her body, things she wore or used. And it was only in the 1800s that the Church decided that Mary was born without sin, which they had to do because people would not stop worshipping her. It had to be religiously sound for people to worship Mary, almost on par with Jesus.
What’s really interesting to me is that there’s this undercurrent of archaic goddess worship that has never gone away in our culture. And it betrays this innate need we have to search for this mother goddess, even if that can sound kind of cheesy. We see it in Mary worship in the Catholic Church, it comes through especially in camp culture in all these female icons we have. As far as research goes, I can’t say I research a lot of religious history, but I am very fascinated with pagan cultures and mythologies.
T: Do you conceive of pop culture as a kind of religion?
B: I would guess so. There’s certainly idol-making and worship. And I think there are aspects of it that are almost rights of initiation. There are certain figures you’re expected to know as a member of pop culture. If you’re going to be initiated in pop culture, there are a set of signs that you should recognize. Shared cultural events that stand in for religious events.
T: I’m thinking of all my friends from college quoting Mean Girls all the time, almost biblically, as a means to responding to almost any given situation.
B: Yeah, in a sense you call upon this other thing to stand in for whatever thought you might otherwise face unaided. It can be a kind of social crutch.
T: Do you have reservations about making art devoted to pop culture?
B: I feel like a lot of the battles have already been fought for me in terms of recognizing low culture as high art. In some sense, it’s gone too far to the extreme that kitsch has been elevated so high that there’s no room left in it for sincerity anymore. And what I think has been important for me and for getting people to connect to my work is that there is a true element of sincerity. A lot of the work might seem glitzy and gaudy, and a little ironic. You know, the first show I ever had was a bunch of paintings of nuns in space, and I remember getting a question about whether or not I was being ironic. My answer was that it can be both — it can be ironic and sincere. I think that, even though all the pop artists and appropriation artists and people like Jeff Koons have opened up a lot of those doors unto irony, there is more room for sincerity now to work its way back into art making.
T: And what’s more sincere than devotional art, these frescos and sculptures and illuminated manuscripts that artists have made in reverence to religions they devoutly believed in? And if pop culture is a new religion, then you’re making devotional work. I see sincerity in it also because the pop culture you reference is obscure now. That’s what it is with pop culture. It’s a forgetful religion, but art can help to immortalize it.
B: That’s what I hope sometimes. Things like the Dalida performance or some of the other work I make can help to memorialize some of these moments and women who play our modern heroines, tragic or otherwise. I hope I can keep them remembered or shed some light on them or, at the very least, explore my own relationship with them in a way that mythologizes and pays tribute.