The multimedia works of Danielle Dean are as multifarious as her own identity. Born in Alabama to a Nigerian-American father and a British mother, Dean was raised in government housing in Northwest London after her parents separated. The experience of being raised by her mother in the working class neighborhood scaffolded her artistic practice, which often examines, appropriates and recreates various interior spaces that she says resemble details from environments of her youth.
Now located in Los Angeles, Dean creates video pieces that provide observational and often sardonic insights on American culture filtered through her distinctly global perspective. Her video works challenge expectations of advertising, filmic narratives, and the fragmented media consumption in the age of Instagram. Dean's installations often include household items removed from their context, framing ordinary objects in an uncanny environment, and casting light on the hidden implications of mundane consumer goods. Fashion and beauty conventions play a central role in Dean's pieces too, as her videos include dialogue taken from magazine advertisements and commercials, infused with abstract or absurdist pacing.
Artbound recently caught up with Dean to discuss her influences and her project for the Hammer Museum's Made in L.A. exhibition she says, addresses "advertising, political rhetoric, and soap opera aesthetics."
What artists/creatives/author/filmmakers influenced the works you make? How has their work affected the way you make art?
Charles Gaines, Cauleen Smith, My Barbarian, Sharon Hayes, "Eastenders" (British soap opera), My sister Ashstress Agwunobi, martha rosler, Robert Bresson, Brecht, Mike Kelley, Stuart Hall and "Secrets & Lies" by Mike Leigh.
Charles Gaines continues to influence my work, he taught me the importance of "de-essentialising" identity and other "essentialisms." The reason that I am interested in taking stuff from the world, like advertising and political language, and assembling it in abstract scripts was influenced by Charles's discourse of how meaning is constructed. Basically, bringing arbitrary things together to create meaning, even though there is no real connection between the pieces; meaning is still generated. Narratives are constructed by conflating signifiers; learning that there is no essential relation between the elements of the conflation leads one to question the narratives that are created. This way, truth can be deconstructed and a space of contingency can be opened to see relationships in a different way.
In addition to this I worked as an art director in an advertising firm in London -- this had a huge influence on how I make work.
You come from a multicultural background with a British mother and a Nigerian-American father. How did your upbringing in London inform the art you make today? Do you identify with being transnational?
I grew up in Hemel Hempstead, which is a suburb of north west London. My mother brought me up with the help of various other women. We lived in a council flat (government housing) with a lodger in my room to help pay the rent. There were often groups of women hanging out in the flat or in the communal spaces of the flats. Men did not have much to do with my upbringing; they were just the source of gossip or causing problems in some way. I do remember our neighbor having what she called her 'toy boy' -- a young man a quarter her age who had an obsession with setting fire to things. He built me a go-cart, which was the envy of the area that summer.
My mum loved decorating, she would often pull the wallpaper down and choose another scheme to decorate a room. I guess this has influenced my interest in interior spaces, and the use of simple materials such as Con-Tact paper to transform the space. Once I was having a hot bath, when I noticed red liquid running down the walls. I shouted to mum 'the walls are bleeding!' -- she came in, shocked "oh no, I mixed red food coloring in with the emulsion paint to make it pink." The red food coloring was separating from the paint on the walls, making it seem like it was bleeding or crying blood.
My upbringing has everything to do with the work I make, a combination of sitting in the living room, with a nice cup of tea discussing and gossiping about friends, family problems and celebrities as if they are also part of the family. The TV constantly on in the background, making it hard to distinguish whether what is being said is what has just been said on the TV or just read in the newspaper.
The U.K. can be very nationalistic and this is propagated in the media. Moving away from that culture helped me to see how subjectivity is constructed.
I am not sure about identifying as transnational -- it sounds a bit pretentious although my background is definitely multiple. I am very aware of this, perhaps some people are not so aware of their own multiplicities.
What role does the fragmentation of everyday life by digital interruptions -- iphones, social media, etc -- play in your works?
I was interested in the use of narrative structures for the dissemination of information regarding consumer goods and its history such as commercial TV and the move to digital/internet-based commercials and content. Melodrama has a direct relationship with advertising, for TV's temporality was constructed alongside commercials: the same products where featured in the set, and patriarchal subjects where constructed as the perfect consumers. Now, with the collision of online and TV, there are moments of fragmentation as commercials clumsily interrupt the episodes at abrupt time intervals. Underlying this are spatial divisions of capital, everyday life is permeated by spaces of capital, and social interactions and activities become labor, even and especially emotions.
What one piece of art that you've created do you feel represents a good cross-section of the work you do?
The new work I made for the "Made in L.A." is currently more on my mind.
Five women perform scripts assembled from political speech and Nike slogans. Drawing from advertising, political rhetoric, and soap opera aesthetics, the project's focus is on exploring the material and psychological effect that the commodity fetish of trainers (sneakers), in particular Nike trainers, has on subject construction, dealing with a desire to be identified and how this plays out socially. Trainers were originally for sports; for the physical enhancement of the body to win sporting competitions, but have subsequently become about fashion and urban wear. The word 'Nike' comes from the Greek god for victory, to win. The focus on trainers is looked at through neo-liberal capitalism and how we are being interpellated ("trained") into being competitive consumers. I was interested in exploring the effects this dynamic has on social relationships. Scripts were performed within a soap opera structure, emotions were applied arbitrarily to the script -- I wanted to look at emotional behavior as labor.
The use of particular camera set ups, which I am directly quoting from an archive of Nike commercials, is really interesting to me; it is another language that constructs power and meaning around the subject. In particular in the case of many of the Nike ads, this was focused on male power, on masculinity and race. The Mars Blackman character in early Spike Lee Nike commercials was shot in such a way that saw him as a child who has the desire to be large, to be grown up, to be powerful, things he may be able to attain if he buys a pair of Nike sneakers. By re-performing the camera set up I wanted to both draw attention to how such meaning is constructed, but also play the game of appropriation that branding is involved in for commercial ends, such as the commodification of revolutionary discourses.
What role does commodifcation and consumerism play in your artistic practice?
I look at the marketing, the fetish, and the fantasy constructed around particular products as objects to be examined in themselves.
How does the cultural landscape of Los Angeles affect the art that you make?
Los Angeles feels like the American dream, utopia and dystopia, it is like being in a film sometimes. Los Angeles feels a bit like the heart of western subject construction.
When I was in Nigeria I was struck by how much influence the films of Hollywood have on people, how they affect social aspirations. And this is not just in Nigeria, obviously it is very widespread.
I grew up watching Disney films; my family was obsessed with them. Then going to Cal Arts was interesting, as Disney founded it but at the same time it was a hot spot for countercultural production. It's a fascinating and problematic relation - between cultural power and critique; a culture that is generated by capital and reproduces patriarchal views.
How does the theme of colonization appear throughout your body of work?
The theme of my work is the colonization of the mind through language and experience; what is it that we are speaking, where is it from? It's not essential to our self; it is coming from, among other things, imperialist politics and the system of capitalist production. From a political standpoint, our opinions are often based on what is represented on the media, so depending on what media you are reading your views can become conservative, to the point that people end up upholding positions that are arguably outside of their own interests. The fact is that I exist because of colonial history -- the relationship that England had to Nigeria and the aspirational pull of America (which is why I was born here). I grew up with my mother in a working class town in England and only recently met my father who is Nigerian. He was the son of a tribal leader who had 12 wives, and now lives in Houston Texas with my half-sister Ashtress (who features in my piece "Training"), all these things tie my work and my life to post-colonial realities.
Top Image: Still from Danielle Dean's, "Training." 2014
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