Interview by Ali Subotnick, introduced by Sid Feddema.
The way time slips away at the craps table and the way time flows when you’re immersed in a film are not so different. It’s a type of hypnosis, and it’s not an accident. In a casino, every element—from the garish architecture, to the labyrinthine, windowless casino floors, the conspicuously missing clocks, the bells and lights, the free booze—is calculated to get you in the door and to a table, and to make negligible the passage of time. Movies employ similar effects—stage magic, music cues, editing, lavish sets and costuming, beautiful stars—to absorb you into the fiction on offer. In both cases, if the effects are successful, you’ll never notice them.
Cayetano Ferrer’s practice lands somewhere at the intersection of visual archaeologist, media theorist, semiotician, culture-jammer, and artist. If there’s a way to unite his sprawling oeuvre, it might be through the constant exhortation to go beyond looking, and to actually see the visual noise that we’ve unthinkingly built around ourselves as a species, often rendered invisible through pure exposure but as omnipresent as the air we breathe—litter, billboards, signage, neon, tsotchkes, corporate graphics. He brings these things to the surface of our attention and excavates their hidden histories and the disruptions. Take for example, his contribution to Made in LA, in which billboards feature imagery of the landscape that they obscure, so that they become simultaneously invisible and hyper-present.
Cayetano’s heightened awareness of his surroundings might stem in part from the fact that, over the course of his life, they’ve shifted repeatedly. He was born in Honolulu to immigrants from Argentina. The family moved to Vegas when he was a teen, where the delirious artifice and layered histories of the city fueled his interest in illusion. He has since spent time in Chicago for his studies and is now based in Los Angeles, where advertising and the simulations of the film industry have further impressed themselves upon his practice.
It’s fitting, then, that Frieze Los Angeles has commissioned a Ferrer work for its Frieze Projects series, to be shown alongside pieces by Karon Davis, Barbara Kruger, Paul McCarthy, Tino Sehgal and others at the festival’s epicenter, Paramount Studios’ New York Street backlots—“a disorienting atmosphere where visitors are in two places at once: an artificial New York City within Los Angeles.” There, Ferrer’s “Psychical Apparatus Neon” will offer a nuanced examination of symbol and iconography in a neon wall piece that “will evoke New York’s vernacular architecture and signage.” All this before he opens an exhibition at the fearlessly pioneering Koreatown gallery Commonwealth and Council in March. Also fitting that we have eminent author and curator Ali Subotnick, who assembled the artists for the Frieze Projects (now blazing her own trail after spending ten years as curator for Westwood’s Hammer Museum and, more recently, for the 4th Berlin Biennial for contemporary art—as we said, eminent) in conversation with Ferrer to discuss his work and career.
Was there a moment as a teenager when you decided, “I’m going to make my life as an artist”?
Back then I was actually more into the idea of making films. I started art school doing experimental animation. I had seen some Jan Svankmajer work when I was young and all the weird stuff on MTV like Liquid Television and I’d be working in that mode, but I quickly got into video art. I remember watching Nancy Holt in Boomerang for the first time in a video class my first semester and being exposed to all that kind of work changed a lot. It made the moving image suddenly feel more like an object and nothing to do with narrative film. I was also shooting lots of video with an old camcorder when I was a teenager without any real purpose, but I would get good shots. I climbed onto a roof with a tripod to shoot the Aladdin Casino imploding when I was 15. But yeah I was always interested in the moving image, and I think the work still reflects that.
It reflects the way you see things and how you create sort of optical illusions in your work.
For sure. But also exposing the illusion. I remember seeing this French film when I was a kid, I’ve never been able to find it, but all I remember is it’s mostly in black and white and serious until it kind of breaks into these color scenes that are almost like commercial breaks, but still part of the story. Breaking the fourth wall kind of stuff. Living in Vegas definitely added to that. I was at a casino being a bad kid in the ’90s and I saw a seam in the carpet and pulled it up to see cement underneath. I thought it was so funny, I remember feeling like you could do that to any surface in that place. I’m still playing with that moment with Remnant Recomposition, these carpet works. But playing with illusion has to do with trying to understand the whole apparatus and a certain kind of self-awareness that happens when you break the illusion. Artists have applied this idea in various ways for a long time.
Creating an illusion, making things visible or invisible. Reminds me of your early work with the box in the corner that got disguised.
Yeah, that was the first work I did that was addressing these perceptual issues so directly. It was a series of about five works called Western Imports, named after some text that was on one of the cardboard boxes I used. These were objects that were made by merging photos of a box with the space behind it, and then using anamorphosis to stretch the image in a way that everything would line up if you stood in the same perspective from where it was originally shot. They were left in various places in Chicago and were allowed to deteriorate there. So the result was enigmatic on a visual level, but I think I was able to make an object that was perfectly confused about what it was. I suspect I was subconsciously informed by these effects in architecture in Vegas, these anachronistic movie sets.
Kind of bridging the film and video techniques?
Well, in a sense I see all of the architecture in Vegas as very much informed by Hollywood set design, and by extension by the vision of the camera. You see it in these moments where things are made to look much bigger than they actually are by using forced perspective. I started integrating this into some work, like in elements of Quarter Scale Grand Entrance from Made in L.A.
I was thinking about these ideas and your Made in L.A. billboard [MMXII, 2012] as we were considering sites for your Frieze Los Angeles project [Psychical Apparatus Neon, 2019], on the Paramount backlot. When you first went there, or even when I first asked for a proposal, where did your mind go initially? What were your thoughts?
I think the idea to work with neon came pretty quickly, but I’ve been thinking about those sites for so long that I was cautious. My main way of addressing these aesthetics is by bringing them into the art context where they can be reframed a certain way, so it was different to think about working inside the set itself. And I have conflicted feelings about these kinds of spaces. They have the ability to be...
It’s disorienting but, it’s also not just simply a simulation. It’s actually directing your thoughts in ways that usually reaffirm dominant ideologies. Like you’re still probably not going to see a particularly transgressive film shot on the backlot. It’s a safe place to realize safe ideas.
Like in casinos, where everything is mediated and planned out?
Yeah, exactly. In casinos you’re invited to transgress the boundaries of your normal life but within this very controlled environment with cameras everywhere. Norman Klein calls it a “scripted space,” you’re playing a role, living some kind of cinematic fantasy, yet you’re kept aware of the deception. You’re in on the joke so to speak, but meanwhile the visual space is sort of activating different basic desires. The backlot is different, it’s meant to be seen in camera angles so it feels disjointed to walk through.You might dress a single building up five different ways to represent that many different sites in a movie. As a sign, Psychical Apparatus Neon is in dialogue with the site, but it has its own internal structure that would allow it to resonate in other locations.
Do you put much consideration into what and how you communicate with your viewer? It’s like you’re creating your own language...
I’m definitely interested in the way things are going to be read but it’s not something I think I have any real control over. Part of my interest in visual art is that it sort of scratches the same itch that led to the formation of language, which is this incredibly complex system where you can communicate an infinite number of ideas, but still kind of insufficient. This neon piece is addressing that in the way that the text is enclosed in this outer form that has its own symbolic meaning. I’m using neon lettering from a collection made specifically for set dressing—they’re props essentially, and then the outline is a reproduction of this diagram used in psychology... let me show you something.
We’re looking at the diagram that you reference, a Freudian diagram of... what is it?
It’s the original sketch of the “psychical apparatus” which was made in 1933. It maps out different levels of consciousness into the id, ego, perception, these different drives that play a role in how thoughts and actions play out. I didn’t study psychology but I think most of Freud’s ideas are not considered in the field anymore, but what he’s trying to describe with this diagram still seems relevant.
Yeah, but some of his ideas are so deeply embedded in society now that we don’t even recognize where they came from or question their legitimacy.
Yeah, and that absorption into popular culture is what I’m interested in in playing with. All of the Warner Brothers cartoons I watched as a kid were non-stop Freud jokes. That’s what seems to have stuck around. But I was interested in how his work entered popular vernacular. His American nephew, Edward Bernays, popularized Freud’s theories at the same time that he applied them to manage public relations for politicians and corporations. I’m kind of digressing from the piece, but I bring it up because there’s something about this in this overlap between politics and psychology and commerce. It’s in the work.
Some of the words featured in Psychical Apparatus Neon are: “Fantasy. Celebrity. Agency. Cycle. Passion. Legal. Pleasure. Family. Horror. Action. Kids. Madness. Vicious. Adult Movies. Sin. Games. Psychic.” It’s kind of like you are composing a song or choreographing a dance, by revealing connections between the words through their placement within the diagram. And then there is the added layer of animation—with words lit at different times, in different combinations, creating a multitude of phrases and meanings.
I was building off of the structure of the different components that Freud was describing in his diagram, of consciousness and subconsciousness. For instance, the superego is the part of consciousness that is developed through learned social structures that controls the base urges of the id, so this is where words show up representing authority, like “Legal” or “Sin.” Since I was using existing signs the layout process was like a collage, trying to find a balance of order and contradiction that could be activated through the animation. I’m only using pre-existing signs from prop shops because they carry this slightly-unreal affect that replicas have. What comes through in the text is this psychologically charged vocabulary that has to do with desire, motivation, punishment, taboo. But you also recognize these signs as markers for actual places, imagined or fictional. The animation enacting a movement through these contradictions, like if a place had a consciousness. It’s the kind of work that I can look at after it’s finished and keep learning from. The billboard piece you mentioned earlier (MMXII) worked that way for me, I made a film of that and processed it for a long time.
This neon piece is an interesting continuation of some of the ideas from the first work I saw of yours, in your MFA show. It was your dream casino, right?
It’s a casino based on–I don’t know if I would call it my dream casino because I never actually wanted it to be realized—but maybe it’s my image of what the city itself would build if it could dream. It’s speculative design for a casino that would be hyper- aware of its historical context. That idea became two main works, Casino Model 3 and Quarter Scale Grand Entrance. So the main feature was this façade that had a video loop of other casinos being imploded, which was was a common spectacle during from ’93 until about 2008. The rest of the design is a pastiche of symbols from elsewhere in the city, so it’s a composite of different periods represented there. The façade was similarly a sign where all the symbols are turning on and off, playing out this movement of art historical styles in an ten-minute loop.
What was it like ‘coming of age’ in Vegas? Being in that stage of your life, how did it affect your perceptions of the city?
I moved there when I was around 14 and it was great at first, but as I got older I started to feel like I would never develop a sense of agency there. I think that had a lot to do with the situation I was in. It’s a city that profits from some weird idea of transgression, but it’s culturally conservative, at least back then. It’s definitely changed a lot since the ’90s.
Is it because it was geared towards tourists?
Yeah, exactly. I’ll say that I learned a lot really quickly by wandering on the Strip a few nights a week for a couple years, but that lost its appeal. It’s changing a lot, but back in the ’90s there were no institutions in the city, no sites of civic engagement, no high-speed internet to escape into, just this monoculture of casinos, housing developments, call centers, military bases. I did find a creative community in the punk scene but all the clubs would constantly get shut down by the police, so the one record store became kind of a hub. Sometimes bands would play out in the desert. It was like you really had to fight to have any culture that wasn’t involved with gambling. It was always a struggle, and I was always more serious about visual art, but there were no art museums there. I could go see the fake Apollo Belvedere at Caesar’s Palace, but I didn’t know what it was.
How did the project in Buenos Aires come about? And what lead you to work with gelatin initially in that show?
I was looking at the architecture in Buenos Aires to get a sense of the specific kind of hybrid forms that developed there. At some point on the trip I visited an architectural ornament factory that uses gelatin in their process as a temporary mold. It’s used to pour plaster into and once it’s finished it gets remelted to use the next day for something else. It was interesting to think how one batch of gelatin would be reconstituted into all these different forms, sort of playing with the status of an object. I had this idea that if I inverted this process and made the art object out of gelatin, that I could play with this idea of an evolving language of forms within the time scale of an exhibition, really change the subject of the work.
And how did you find the molds?
I did all the work back in LA and the molds came from a few sources around here, from second-hand slip cast molds of decorative tchotchkes to architectural forms that came from older movie sets. All the stuff that modernism wanted to do away with, but which still found some life as a lamp or a movie set for a period film. At one of the studios I found this really incredible collection of forms from old films and I worked with them on a series of vacuum-formed plastic trays. These trays act as vessels for the dripping gelatin in the Melting Units in that show.
You also have a connection to Argentina?
It’s where my parents are from. Things were pretty tumultuous there in the ’70s and they basically went on vacation in Hawaii and never went back. I was born in Honolulu a little more than a year after they got here. All of my extended family is in Argentina, mainly in Rosario. I have a really big family out there.
A lot of your ideas sound like impossible dreams initially, but then you usually find a way to realize them, like when you first thought of making a video of an imploding casino. I’m always impressed with how you turn these fantastical ideas into viable projects.
I’m really interested in art as a site of speculation, how those speculations touch reality. I’m often just showing framed sections of these ideas. As a result there’s an inherent fragmentation to the work, just showing pieces of things. The more recent work is addressing fragmentation on a more sculptural scale. I’ve been thinking about museum restoration, and how they often incorrectly clean or fill missing fragments of sculpture.
Like color? The Greek and Roman sculptures we see now, for instance, look completely different from how they were originally painted. Most people are shocked by the bright, almost garish colors used originally.
Yeah, exactly. In the 18th century [The German art historian] Johann Winckelmann popularized the notion that painting a marble sculpture was crass. He promoted the white Greek sculpture as the highest achievement of classical art but also tied this notion to a modern idea of European identity, making an argument that this society should be rebuilt in this style. He was pretty successful with this, but of course he was wrong. The sculptures were painted. The buildings were painted.
It’s funny thinking back to Vegas, that maybe Vegas’ aesthetic is actually closer to the history of Western art.
I definitely wouldn’t say Caesar’s Palace is any less authentic to those origins than, say, the White House.