Interview with Lee Gusman

Maya Simkin


CONTENT WARNNG: graphic nudity in videos, discussions of sex and assault

American darling official artist photo! Also I would like to be called that? Is that okay? I promise I am not ripping off ladybird ha! Its political for me, every form of media and pedagogy is telling me that i am not an American sweetheart or darling, but i choose to call myself it anyways. Its a form of rebellion!!! 

Lee Gusman is an artist based in Chicago focused on a community-centered queer practice with an exciting new project in the form of a grant that he started: The American Darling Project (or Foundation). He’s a student at Columbia College Chicago and also went to AU for a hot minute a few years ago. Lee and I met up at a coffee shop where he was teaching his friend and roommate French, which he’s been doing for months in exchange for her teaching him modern dance.

So what have you been working on?

I have like my personal practice and then a larger thing I’m working on. This summer has been really, taking a break from making and really thinking about what I want my art to be. It was a lot of looking at the work I created last semester and being like “ooh I don’t know if i really respond to this anymore” and not because I’m not proud of it it’s just that I don’t know if I was making this for other people or for an institution or if I was making this for myself. Am I just checking off contemporary art bullet points? Does it have a concept? Cool. You know what I mean? And it’s also been trying to understand my position. In art school you learn about all of these movements and you’re like “what will they say about us in a hundred years” and “what is the artistic climate right now” because art is such a large market so it’s hard to pinpoint. It’s kind of accepted as a career, it is commodified, and it’s been co-opted. It’s not an off the beaten path thing to do anymore.

Yeah you can be a very chic artist, damn Jeff Koons in his freaking suits.

Yeah, damn Koons, it’s all his fault. But yeah, I’ve just been thinking about what my position here is as someone who has a queer art practice. What kind of community am I trying to build? This is what brought me to understanding that our school, or maybe just institutions as a whole, currently want us to hold this idea of authorship with our work, which never really interested me. It was never really about this being my piece. It doesn’t interest me to have bodies of work on walls and have people be like “oh this is Lee Gusman’s work.” It is more interesting to me to operate in creating spaces without  a gallery or institutional context.

Contemporary institutions really encourage “diversity” and for you to “try new things” but they want it in very safe frames of reference. Which is a problem because for some people it’s like a question of survival. Like you’re putting these things into the earth, into these tangible spaces because you don’t know what else to do to deal with your struggle. Especially when you come from a sort of like queer or any minority identity spaces you haven’t lived a very glossy life, and then the themes that these schools say they want to see, have to be touched up. It’s like, you want the diversity but they don’t want the baggage.

I submitted a curatorial proposal for a group show at a school gallery that had to deal with masculinity as performance and they basically rejected it saying “yeah this is a little too politically activated, this is a little too risky for us.” To this day they’re avoiding sitting me down to tell me this to my face. None of the pieces involved in the show were necessarily like even graphic. The most controversial thing in the show, which isn't even controversial, is one of the artists was doing interviews with their father who is in prison. That was the most controversial thing.

At that gallery and at others, what they’ve accepted - and not to discredit any of these people’s work - but it’s very much people who are exploring themes that are accepted and mostly artists who are cis and White. Their art deals with themes that are like you know, abstraction of the body, dealing with like the ephemerality of our position and like lines and things like that.

I’ve had a very privileged life, but I am a sexual minority and I am a racial minority too, so things did not always go so smoothly. Should I sweep it under the rug to get grant money? I have the privilege of scholarships and a family that supports me and a job that pays me well, but what about these other people that aren’t in this position who are like “damn I’m going to create something because I need this money” and it isn’t necessarily true, and is kind of a result of censorship.

Yeah you sort of have to compromise your work to survive

Yeah it’s this weird compromise where you have to create work that fits the frame of the institution. I have all of these friends who are dealing with interesting subjects in their art and I’m like “wow! Are you going to submit this? It’s fucking awesome!” and they’re like “no, because I’m not going to get anything.” So I’m like damn, how do I change this? What if I started funding these works?

But how can I do that while still paying my rent? But then I decided I can do this. I have to make sacrifices, but that’s totally fine with me. I also have the privilege of not feeling limited, like getting a grant for myself would be great, but I can still produce my work without it because of the mediums I’m exploring, so I will still make work, which is liberating.

I started to think about what funding school works meant, about queer and minority art practices, and how it could destabilize the institutions current hold on those practices. Also the project would challenge the idea of what a beneficiary or a patron of the arts looks like. But yeah, I am raising money by bartending and serving, which is pretty ludicrous… lucrative.. it’s ludicrous and lucrative… So I’ll be using some of those funds and moving them over to creating grants for students hence the American Darling Project or Foundation or whatever you want to call it was born. So yeah, that’s a part of my practice right now, that I’m funding school work and I’m supporting experimental practice in my community.  

How does that align with your principles of removing authorship and getting “Lee Gusman” out and making it a community practice? How do you do that while funding projects? Do you fund other people’s authorships?

I don't want ownership over this thing because I would be so happy if someone stole the idea and did it in their own school. I don't own this idea, do it, you want to fund work, do it! If everyone's a curator and beneficiary, great!

Authorship is present for me in the idea that I’m creating this BFA thesis where I’m collecting and funding art. I don’t own any of these works. The only reason why there’s a “transaction” is so that I can include these works in the name of the project. There are multiple aspects of the project. There’s collecting, where I really like someone’s work and I’m like “hey can I include this and I would love to compensate you because I want to support your practice.” There’s funding of experimental stages, where I go to someone and I’m like “hey I really like what you’re doing and when you’re ready if you think you want to experiment in different mediums and don’t have the capacity or resources to do it, let me know and I’ll fund it” and their first reaction is like “oh what if I mess up or have nothing to show” and I’m like “well then you have nothing to show and that’s what process it.” I’m not interested in a final product, I’m interested in you expanding out and having a liberty to do so without being like “oh shit, this is my own money,” like use my money to do it. It could be a zigzag process, it could be ready in ten years. The grant aspect is me raising $500 right now for an artist to create a work. They can take that money and go take a trip or take that money to pay their rent, whatever gives them the space to create something. They do have to create something, but they can be like “hey I went on a trip here with that $500 and then I drew on the back of a book and that’s what I have for you” and I would be like “cool, awesome.” Anything that comes out of it is a $500 body of work.

Do you think you’re contributing to a movement then like you spoke about earlier where some people would be in a basement in New York or something and create a practice together? Are you choosing people who are part of a unified movement or by a certain identity? Does that create an artistic movement?

I think yeah, and it redefines what a movement is too. Eventually because we are operating in capitalist spaces, all of our art will be commodified. But before that it’s living in those moments where it isn’t, and it’s pure and great. If by any means I acquire any sort of success, which is not the point, but if I do, I’m not gonna pretend like my art is not going to be commodified or some White critic is going to talk about it. In terms of creating a community, I think it does. We are so trained to think of ourselves as artists in the singular, and I think it creates a sense of community when I understand that art isn’t just about myself. Starting a conversation like “I believe in you and your practice,” that gesture creates a bond. And maybe more people will do that and it’ll build into a larger community.

So how is the community you’re building different from the whole 50s 60s thing, with the exception of obviously being led by queer people and racial minorities

Thats interesting, hm, what is changing…

Well I think there's obviously digital spaces. Communities can exist now in these non-tangible or physical spaces. I don’t know if it’s going to be any different, but it’s hard to say because we can’t have any context yet. That kind of goes into my personal practice, like the idea of missing context. I don’t think these are conversations that haven’t happened before, I don’t think I’m coming up with anything revolutionary, but I do think that I’m trying to find different ways to create communities and art, and that is important. I don’t know yet how it’ll be different or similar, but I think that having this access to information and how quick communication is, how quick interactions are facilitated or not, really makes everything blurry. You’re not able to see the bigger picture because there are so many micro situations, does that make sense? I’m confusing myself.

Lee and I talked about how curation and arts administration is also art, and how setting limits on what art can be is typically elitist. Then I asked him if he thought that including unlimited definitions makes the art market too saturated, making the unheard even more voiceless. Then we talked about Lee’s other works and interests:

It’s so weird to have a body right now. I lived a very promiscuous life through the internet, through apps like Tinder and Grindr and there was a point in time when I was sending out pictures of my naked body to like five people a day but not caring, because it doesn't mean anything to have it in that space. People are like “whaat you're sending those out?!” but why is it so serious? It’s so weird that our bodies are just floating through a virtual space and I know it’s technically not our bodies but really you will never die because your body - people will constantly see it. It will only die with the demise of the internet.

Stills from Gusman's Am I man enough? which you can watch here. (CW Nudity)

So you just transpose your physical body into pixels?

Into pixels and spaces and people, like we are all gonna be fucking cyborgs one day, and won’t have claim over our bodies or physicalities. We will be put in situations what we never wanted to be in. Does my body mean anything anymore because people could reproduce it over and over again? I think it’s an interesting conversation to have right now, like the idea of the queer body that is already weaponized enough, but is also being projected into this digital space. I don’t understand the internet but I think it’s really funny. I started creating these weird visual poems about my experience with and misunderstanding of the internet. They’re like instructions for when you turn my body into a cyborg about human characteristics that should be considered.  If they're going to make me a cyborg they better do it right and remember that my shit was not perfect and that I smell bad.

One is like, me talking in this really romantic way about this picture that this guy took of me giving a blowjob and I don’t know where it is in the world anymore. I’m talking about it as if I’m waiting for my lover to come back from war. I built this body for the internet and built it out of very tangible physical things like sweat, to be put on these platforms to be fuckable.

Watch Gusman's Love Letters to my nudes here. (CW Nudity)

So to use it for a physical thing?

But also to use it for the White male gaze. I’m creating this body for digital spaces so that I can get likes from strangers to drown out these voices of like “am I White enough to be loved?” which are very prevalent thoughts. So yeah they teeter between humor and that. One them is  imagining people saying like “oh what about your grandkids seeing your nudes” and I’m like “yeah let them know that their grandad had a huge dick!” So yeah, stupid things like that.

How do you think the queer identity in digital spaces different from other identities?

I think in any queer spaces there's this desire to form communities because we all, no matter how privileged or how much adversity you’ve faced, you are always, as a queer body, with a queer way of viewing the world, you'll always be a minority and feel alone in certain spaces. That can then bring you to do things out of desperation to feel wanted, to feel loved. For example in my instance, the way it translated is that I crave the validation of strangers. Sometimes they're not even real and you're getting catfished or they're robots! This society was not built for us which is why queer spaces are bigger on the internet. Even like physical spaces like gay bars are built within straight frames of reference. Courtship in those spaces isn't on our terms, like ways of forming relationships, and creating them, they are handed down to us. They're like “you take someone on a date and that's how you build a relationship” or you go to a club and that is how you meet. And all of those things are built from a heteronormative point of view because they are visible spaces which isn't how things work for us a lot of times.

Sorry, can we take this interview outside because my meter is about to expire.

Sure, yeah!

So, I’m reading this amazing bell hooks book, it’s making me cry, and it’s making me call my mom every day because it’s about finding love in midlife and I’m like mom “what is it like to be in your midlife?”

Yeah? What does she say?

Well she kind of validates what bell hooks is saying because it’s not like I can speak to that female experience. bell hooks describes this second puberty like a rebirth and so yeah she kind of validates that.

This is now a moving interview.

Yeah this is kind of nice. I don’t have a license. I don’t really have an interest in driving but I do have an interest in being driven around.

That can happen. Also you can lower your seat, aw your head is hitting the ceiling!

When telling me about an independent study he’ll be undertaking next semester, Lee said he will be exploring queer identity in digital spaces.

I think it’ll be a lot of taking a lot of readings about other queer art practices. What a queer practice is then is not what it is now, because things have been normalized. The history I come from, artists that are like me, I want to learn about how and what they were doing.

I think the most influential artist for my practice is Felix Gonzalez Torres, because his art is extremely democratic. You can choose to read into these highly conceptual aspects of it, but it’s also just beautiful gestures. Granted, he was creating this to have his art survive because the Reagan administration sucked, and wouldn’t fund or allow works about same sex identity and love. His work is beautiful and minimalist but also you can take what you want from it.

Also other people like Theaster Gates and Amanda Williams who have really invested in communities. I get this idea of investing in a city and communities which is what they're doing from them, and the idea of that gesture being an art form. It seems like a Chicago thing to really invest in a community. I want to invest in this city artistically.

Yeah like Chance!

Yeah like Chance! They come back, they come home, after success. Fuck you Kanye!

You can hit up Lee on Instagram to learn about the American Darling Project, and maybe start your own!