New works and art galleries: Matthew Mottel
curated by Daniela Veneri
"The level of culture and human interactions anywhere in the world is where I go forward with inspiration, as opposed to thinking that it has to be central to these cultural production towns. The optimism of getting lost somewhere and discovering that newness from that, collaborating with others and making artworks, that's how I wound up."
- Matthew Mottel
Matthew, as a performer and as a visual artist, what do you like most of your work?
I didn't grow up as a studio artist and my training comes from more observation and experiential happenings and being part of New York City's culture from a young age, as opposed to starting with pen and paper and doing figurative drawing and then moving into abstraction, sculpture and all of those sort of things.
I observed the art around me and then started seeing it as a format, and reflected on how if you see how you can communicate within a format, your technique is not the purpose. I believe that it is the same in music, because musicians often time wind up with so much vocabulary from their training and their conservatory relationships that they then don't know what to do on stage if the music is taken away. The main focus I do as a musician is with improvisation and making decisions in real time.
When I went back to graduate school in 2016, which was in a program at City College called digital intermedia art practice, this program was based on research and research methodology and on being able to research a topic and expand on it, then make a presentation as an artist. In 2017, when I was traveling across Europe, after playing at music festivals and visiting art biennials, I was very much struck with the way artworks were presented at Documenta, because the works were about a history, and I was interested in telling cultural stories through my art. We apply facts to a space or a site, and I felt that as a musician I had an advantage, because as musicians we are making decisions in real time. I pay attention at how the audience is actually reacting to what I'm doing and I make decisions in real time, which is for me a form of editing.
When visual artists are in their studios by themselves, they have an existential amount of time to make all of these decisions about their art, while as a musician you really have to make decisions at every moment. So I felt that it was an interesting advantage for me, not having a studio art background, to still be able to set a room with the materials that I was using to build an artwork.
In 2019 I attended the Salzburg Summer Art Academy, with the idea to watch through a new window at how other artists make their own work. I went with a basic plan to continue what I had been doing, which is applying my father's photography from 1960s and 70s political and cultural imagery to either my own performances or by inviting other people to use the work for their own creations or research. Once there, I was invited by the teachers to cultivate my own way to be an artist, and make art about my own life. It sounded like a beautiful blessing and it opened me up, even more, to my own creative mind, allowing me to participate as myself, rather than being an artist representing my father's material.
What projects are you currently working on?
‘The eye behind an eye and lenses‘ - this will be a set of sculptures and installations that is about familial metaphysical influence and transference of knowledge.
‘Deja reve is the view'. For the last two years, I have experienced the physiological phenomena of witnessing my point of view at events, and daily life experiences and recognized them from past dreams. This feeling used to be in tiny hints of ‘recognition’ and in the past two years, it expanded and turned into full visual awareness that what I was living in the current moment, had happened in my dreams, sometimes many years earlier. There is no predictive quality in my witnessing of my dreams in my present. I will make an artwork about this deja reve, in its endless elliptical loop.
'Geodesic artwork as a teaching artist'. For the past fall semester, while living in Moers as the music ‘improviser in residence’ I worked with a high school art class and facilitated their creative actions, by giving them a conceptual framework to make artwork about their own life and the town they live in. These artworks were placed in and around a dowel rod four-meter geodesic dome. This gave the students a confidence that their artwork was ‘part of something ‘ rather than the usual; just the flat hanging on the classroom wall. One student, who added color, light and reflection panels to the dome remarked to me “you have given me the confidence that I am too, an artist.” I hope to continue building domes and inspiring creativity with artistic and creative education.
How did your works for the exhibition at Gallery Gundula Gruber came to life?
I decided to research about the 14th century keytar (with a 2am google search on a whim), as I play the keytar and I was curious to learn more about its history. The origins of the keytar come from Vienna, and the original version was called orphica, that looks exactly like the instrument that I play. I started wondering what were the touring conditions of musicians in the 18th century and I started making analogies with the current touring conditions of musicians. I go on tour, and often, my van breaks down.
The 18th century analogy is that the horse, leading the wagon, will have died when musicians were going between Vienna and Linz. I bet Mozart found himself schlepping his instrument in the mud across Europe because of dead horses exhausted from the conditions of the road. Musicologists and people that study classical music do not think about this, they only focus on the notes. I was starting to imagine a parallel reality that investigated the life and culture of Vienna around that period of time, and then it felt really unique and special that I could make an artwork about the history of Vienna, in Vienna, about the instrument that I play today.
For this show about the keytar in Vienna, I felt very much part of ‘art history’ by being the artist with ‘the idea’, working with the fabricator, which felt very similar to the composer writing the score and then the violinist playing the piece.
I took it even further than that, by saying that the gallery to me was like a band. The gallery was a stage and the other artists that I invited into the show were all making thematic artworks based on my theme. I felt like I was an artist with one idea that was central to this room and I recognized that I was not a painter, so someone else decided to paint; it was very much like each artist being a member of the band, and we were realizing my ideas.
What do you appreciate most of the interaction that emerges between your artworks and the viewers, as a visual artist, and between your music and the public, as a musician? What are the most significant differences for you between these two kinds of experience?
When you make an artwork that is then placed in a gallery, you want people to see it just the same way you want people to hear your songs when you are improvising. It is for you as much as it is for everyone else. There is something really satisfying in both cases.
I think that when visual artists work on a finished artwork presented in a gallery or a museum, that is most akin to being a composer, or a songwriter, when you have taken all of your steps and ideas and outplaced them in the space, and the work is finished and you want people to see it or hear it. To get to that point, there has to be a process where there is an epiphany. As an improvising musician, that epiphany often happens on stage, in the moment of the music making, and that is enough for the performance to have a purpose.
When I came to the conclusion that I was going to make an artwork about the history of the keytar, I had a visual idea in mind, and for almost 12 to 15 months all I wanted was to make these keytar silhouette frames, that are non sounding objects, that are just about the abstraction of the instrument, and that epiphany happened by just being in the world, then the fabrication of the objects became like being the composer, the songwriter placing them in the gallery. When I came to Vienna, I came, so as to say, as a composer, I had all of my finished artworks that then were placed in the gallery, and even then there were still decisions that were made in real time about the set up, and that was great. At the same time, as a visual artist there is also a sense of loss, if no one sees the work. How do you deal with that balance?
What drives you in your work?
What drives me is the idea that culture is supposed to create alternatives and solutions based on action, and the idea that an artist can lead culture to show alternatives to the status quo, as the status quo is just like the bare minimum of what we do in life, at least for me. The idea that the artist is offering alternative viewpoints is what drives me, in general.
What are your most important objectives as an artist?
Asking questions, communicating, having a good time, and creating a social space. For example, when I was in college, I was frustrated with everyone just partying at 80s nights in techno disco clubs, because I was interested in being in the present and didn't like the nostalgia of 80s, so I decided to cook rice and beans and sat on the street outside of this 80s night club and gave away the food, making food for a social space.
What role has the sensorial experience in your creative process?
When having a cicchetti and a spritz on the canal of Venice; nothing that the ‘artistic hand’ can make is more beautiful and open; the same is observing birds cruising above my head in the forest; or taking a hike up the mountain and witnessing the sunset. Nature is the greatest artist of all time.
Who are your most important partners and interlocutors in the unfolding of your own creative process?
Growing up in New York City, just the idea that I was getting lost every day in New York from the time I was 15, leaving my apartment on my rollerblades and rollerblading down to Fifth Avenue south of Central Park, and the idea that I was rollerblading through all of these elite places not as a trespasser, but as someone who could kind of interlope through them. As a young teenager, I had a version of access in 1996 or something like that, that other people might not have, and I felt my interaction with mainstream culture as something that I wanted to be more jagged and malleable.
The idea of discovery, anywhere, at any time, was what I was really keyed in on. When I came to Moers, everyone asked me what it is like being from New York City and now living in Moers, and I said it's actually totally fine, because this is new for me. Growing up in New York and living there almost all my life means that I can really see it in this topographical way, top down. There are new surprises, but when I'm out of New York City I don't miss it. I don't hold cultural supremacy of one place over any other place. The level of culture and human interactions anywhere in the world is where I go forward with inspiration, as opposed to thinking that it has to be central to these cultural production towns. The optimism of getting lost somewhere and discovering that newness from that, collaborating with others and making artworks, that's how I wound up.
Which of the feedbacks that you have received over the years have been particularly meaningful for you, or surprised you the most?
In Salzburg at the Summer Art Academy, I did a public performance at a central plaza that had a metal framed geodesic dome skulptur; no one had ever done a performance at it. A colleague from the class, from Russia, told me "I’ve never been to New York before, but this performance made me feel like I was in New York". To be able to hold a sense of place, wherever I am, and bring out that sense of location, aura and essence. Wow! Evidently my ‘new yorkness’ shines thru wherever I am!
What is the relationship between past present and future in your artistic practice?
I am trying to observe the osmotic relationship between the planet, my memory, imagination, and myself.
What kind of impact do you see emerging from the recent pandemic? How do you feel that it is affecting our ways to producing, sharing and experiencing art?
The first nine months, from March 2020 till January 2021, allowed me to really pause and have a self-growth that I was very fortunate to have in all aspects of life, and I was able to be grounded and happy and not feel like I was missing out anything; my internal world was set satisfying enough.
Since August 2021 things have sort of again returned relatively to a version of the status quo where gig life is busy, and what felt different is that people did not really asked themselves how long this was going to last. I've asked myself, is this the pause within the pause? Is there an ability to make plans for next year or the year after in the same way?
The thing that I think I've come away with most out of the pandemic is that wherever I live, or wherever my locality is and whoever the people that surround me in that locality can be, my artistic collaborators are my peers and my community, and that premise goes in a way back to lifestyle choices, that you just make your own zine about your own scene. I'm going to be developing my own life where I live and I can be satisfied more with that.
What do you feel needs attention now?
I think what's important is still that we're not only operating in our own internal clicks.
I went to see an artist's exhibition yesterday, and it was based so much on the artist's own academic methodology of determining ideas into formats and visual presentations, that you really needed so many codes to discern what you were seeing, under the premise of an institutional retrospective or presentation of the work. But as a viewer you don't have time, space or energy to decode anything, so it becomes only a closed circuit. Then there is a curator that thinks this person is important, and they are going to put their work, exactly as it is and a lot of it, in a building, and then someone like me, who has a version of understanding of these things is going to have a premise to care about it but can't even hang with it.
We need to really return or move to the idea that all cultures can be open formats again, versus needing the knowledge to interface with an artwork, or a music scene, or the healthcare industry or whatever it is.
What kind of contribution would you like your work to have?
I've started making artwork interventions with my father's photography. I really saw it as a format for other people to, then, use and apply the idea that your own family history is valuable. I was not working with these materials only because they are of socio-political and cultural value, but because of the idea that everyone has a history.
What I did not ask you that is important for you to mention?
I'm happy that people respond to what I do and I often see, as a musician after a concert, the same face of wonder on the audience, a face of imagination, of openness, of curiosity. I would really like to have a way of shooting portraits of people's faces after I play, and get a surreptitious secret photograph so they don't put on their face again.
The idea that I see that I'm making people discover something in themselves through what I do, and they feel joy from it, that's something I feel good about and like and take with me as a reason to exist, versus it being the accolades of reviews or expectations of awards or sales or acquisitions or whatever like that. If any of those things happen it is fantastic, but the process is now the purpose, and trying to remove the expectations about the results is also what I'm attempting to ground myself in.
What are three keywords that resonate with you right now, at the end of this conversation?
Optimism, caring, awareness, then also intuition and criticality.
Matt Mottel (born 1981, New York, NY) is an artist, performer and writer who enlivens primary source materials and creates collaborative artworks that amplify knowledge and provide access to subterranean culture. Social activism and cultural community are threads that run throughout Mottel’s extensive body of performances, videos, sculptures and music. Mottel’s comprehensive artistic foraging stems from his native New York upbringing.
His B.A. is in Political & Cultural Studies (SUNY New Paltz, 2003). He graduated from City College’s Digital Intermedia Art Practice program, receiving a M.F.A. in 2019.
Mottel builds geodesic domes as a performance architecture based on Syeus Mottel’s (father) 1970’s photojournalism of Loisaida cultural organization CHARAS, who built geodesic domes in collaboration with Buckminster Fuller. He is currently researching the 18th century era of the keytar and is also inspired by the 24 hour format that was HnH Bagels…
Note: This interview was published on Rondò Pilot, issue no. 2.0, 2021.