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Obsessive Pop Tendencies: Kalup Linzy on YouTube, soaps, and art world anxiety

Kalup Linzy straddles unexpected genres, media, and spaces.

The Florida-born video and performance artist garnered considerable acclaim in the New York City art scene in the mid-2000s with his soap opera-inspired video series such as Conversation Wit De Churen.

Now living in Tulsa, OK, as part of the Tulsa Artist Fellowship, Linzy continues to use the vernacular and tropes of daytime television to speak on critical realities about the art world, race, gender and economics. Linzy’s work challenges the viewer to unlearn their assumptions about power through humour and melodrama. His award winning web series such as As Da Art World Might Turn, Ozara and Katessa and Melody Set Me Free often reflect back his own experience negotiating the art world and beyond. His success in video art circles even led to him getting a role on the legendary soap opera General Hospital, truly blurring the lines between the audiences and spaces where he and his work are presented.

This Saturday March 30th, 2019, Broken Pencil is excited to co-present Linzy’s 2006 video Conversations Wit De Churen V as part of Pleasure Dome’s Obsessive Pop Tendencies screening, curated by Rea McNamara. The screening series explores the meeting place of contemporary art practice and fan cultures, from shipping memes to pregnant Harry Potter.

Pleasure Dome will also be launching their own zine, with contributions from Daniella Sanader, Owen G. Parry, and McNamara’s interview with Catherine Grant and Kate Random Love. Catch Broken Pencil there as well, we’ll be selling some fanzines from our zine store, subscription deals, and other goodies!

Ahead of the event, Broken Pencil Editor Jonathan Valelly chatted with Linzy about his love of soap operas, YouTube, and the art world ecosystem.

With this new fellowship, you’re now based in Oklahoma, after years between New York and Florida. How is it?

I like it, you basically just make your work. We’re in downtown Tulsa, where there was a race riot in 1921. They rebuilt it, but it kind of fell apart again and was abandoned. So you have a lot of places that are recently opened, but you still have a lot of the old stuff, and they want artists here. I’m trying to connect to the community here. I could just go about that superficially, and just do a little community project just to fill that requirement, but I actually want to know some people. I’ve had some stressful moments, I’m curating a show in Florida, and part of me is still there. And I’ve got another short residency with the Camargo Foundation Fellowship in Cassis, France, so all of a sudden I’m busy again.

It sounds like geographically and psychically, you’re in many places at once. Not to mention Obsessive Pop Tendencies coming up in Toronto!

I wanted to ask about the screening. When I first watched your videos 10 years ago, I had no point of reference for watching YouTube or web series as I do today. But your videos kind of pre-figured that way of viewing. How does it feel to screen those videos in 2019’s media landscape?

My videos on YouTube are just as an extension of my studio. The reason I wouldn’t put all the Conversations up in their full-length was because some collectors had already started collecting them.

But I was actually a part of the early web series thing in the late nineties. I was in school then. You would find a response, but it would die out, because you would just kind of put your videos on some website. So then I wasn’t sure about whether or not YouTube was going to work. When the video clips begin to take off, I was getting more hits. Then the bloggers came in, and they weren’t always saying nice things, making minstrel comparisons and all of that, even though it was just these short excerpts. I don’t think they understood it was an extension of my studio, and that more stuff existed.

So with these screenings, it’s great that people who saw just the clips might see the whole thing. Hopefully that adds something to the synergy of it being in multiple spaces like online and in museums.

That fits well with the Obsessive Pop Tendencies screening, which is an in person event drawing on this online fan culture context. How do you see your work fitting into that conversation?

Well my videos have to do with fans because I’m a fan of soap operas. So even though my work is interrogating the soap opera, it is also for the love of the soap opera. So I don’t assume that every single person that comes across my work is going to get it or love it.

Have you experienced a difference in the way folks respond to your work? Like, do soap opera fans receive it differently?

The only time I had those kind of experiences was when I was actually doing General Hospital. There are only certain things you can put on TV when they were building a character for me, but I feel like they got it. My friend Maria Bell, she was the executive producer of Young and the Restless for long time, and she came to talk to my class at Harvard. She said, “Actually, you do make soap operas. You just made some for the art world.” And that’s how I finally said, yeah, I do make soap operas, and they don’t necessarily have to be on ABC or PBS or whatever.

They still are pieces for my video art as well. But I do have conversations with people about soap operas, and they do get my work. But we more often end up talking about the shows we watch on ABC and CBS [laughs].

Right, your work is not necessarily “fan art” per se, where folks are working through their fantasies or own ideas about, say, Harry Potter. You’re more using the language of the soap opera, which some people know more than others.

I still watch soap operas every day for my own entertainment, but I’m not necessarily studying them in that way. I’ve often had critiques, especially when I was in school from professors, from those people who did not watch soap operas, and they did not understand everything.

Take the re-telling of the previous episode. In this era, you can binge watch, so you don’t need that. It’s like, you missed the day before? Well, you can go watch it. I remember a professor saying, “Kalup, the re-cap segment is a little redundant.” But on soap operas, they repeat things over and over to make sure you remember. Now, you’d watch it all in one sitting.

Yeah, there are a number of soap opera standards that recur in your work, and they kind of change meaning in today’s media landscape. For example, you depend heavily on conversations over the phone in your work. But phones are different now, they’re these computers we take everywhere. How has that change played out?

The thing that I’m not into yet is when people text and and you see the message pop up on the screen. I have embraced at 100% but I may start playing with that more. I do like the mystery of somebody send a text but audience doesn’t know what it says. But sometimes, when I can’t get two people in same room, I put them on the telephone so we can use that as a way of moving the plot forward. But you can’t have the climax happen on the phone, you have to have the characters be in the same space together at some point.

I don’t think the audience is paying attention to the aspects of soap operas like the phone, I think they’re looking at the types and the layers and how it relates back to the art world, they follow it and laugh. I think they do get the melodrama but that’s not the main thing.

Well I do think that one of the key emotions in your work is anguish or melodrama. But you map that onto the art world in a way that is both critical and really raw, and speaks to what it can be like negotiating those spaces.

Well the character Katonya was intended for me to put my anxieties as an artist into. Like whatever I was feeling about my art life, I could release into that character and then release it into the world. David, my dealer, did make a funny joke at the Art Basel before last one where Katonya did a performance at the booth making art, and he was like, “Girl don’t nobody feel sorry for Katonya now, ‘cause she made it!” [laughs].

But people have responded to the anxieties of the characters. It was intended to be about Katonya’s anxieties as an artist, but also sometimes use weird situations that you might find yourself in through the art world. Back then it was just like a free-for-all. But my thing was, I like soap operas, and I do want to be a filmmaker, so I did it.

I also watched some of those Nollywood films, and I knew that in Nigeria, some people would make these films and some would be high production values, some would be low, but people would just show up in the community spaces to just watch these movies without trying to do something big like some film festival circuit. So I said if folks could show up and engage with them, I’ll keep doing them, that was always my approach. And then YouTube happened, and I found myself on a real soap opera, getting invited to all these different spaces.

Yeah, in your early work you had this very clear DIY spirit. Some production values have gone up, but you have also stuck with the playfulness that has also that is part of DIY over the years.

The only reason the production values have gone up is that whenever I get grants I could get a better camera or sound equipment. At one point I was just using the microphone from the computer… Some collectors and curators and had the nerve to want me to go back to that look. But that needs to stay in a certain period of time. I want to grow. But it has been frustrating, although I’m grateful, that in the museum world a lot of my videos they’re showing are from the mid-2000s. I feel like I’ve already been encapsulated in a certain time, so hopefully that will get updated soon.

Well thinking about the joke about Katonya having made it, it’s funny but it’s also a bit shady. I wonder, how is your newer work, or this newer phase of your work being received after your early success?

People responded positively to the stuff at Art Basel, and people loved it. Like why had anyone thought of this before? To put this character in an art booth and let her make her work… It was the weirdest thing and I was like oh my gosh, you mean to tell me I wrote all those songs and all the other characters, and then you put me in a booth and I paint an hour in a day and it’s like all over the media?

So I feel like I’m going to be getting another boost. I have some other characters some new characters and I’m working on an album. It’s a big DIY approach here to with a lot of artists around here, so I feel like I’m at the beginning of something new that is honoring that tradition.

You’ve also worked with some celebrities like James Franco and Macaulay Culkin. Thinking through that framing of fan culture, does working with them require you to take different things into consideration?

I mean with James, his fans follow me hardcore. They put me in these Facebook groups and DMs.They are far more fanatic than anybody else’s fans.

But they’re respectful right?

There are a few that cling. With James it has gotten weird with his fans but I also will fanatic out when I meet a famous person so I kind of understand it from that level.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Obsessive Pop Tendencies is this Saturday, March 30th, at 7pm at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. Tickets are $10, or $5 for members and students — no one turned away for lack of funds.

Check out the Facebook event here

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