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Not Only the Magic of Things

A conversation between Marsha Pearce and David Gumbs

Artist David Gumbs
Artist David Gumbs in Martinique 2020. Image courtesy Chamika Germain.

Marsha Pearce: David, how are you doing in this unusual time? It’s been a while since we have had a chance to catch up. Are you at home or sheltering elsewhere?

David Gumbs: Thank you for asking. I am fine – at least I am doing better. Last year was a tough year emotionally, and I worked a lot. I had some great exhibitions. I was able to do three projects in the U.S., back-to-back, for two months and a half. I was selected among 1300 artists to do the Art Omi Residency. Thirty artists were selected. I was thankful to be among such a great pool of artists – really well-integrated with diverse works. I made some new friends. That residency was located in the New York region. After that, I went directly to the Currents New Media Festival in Santa Fe New Mexico, where I installed work for about 10 days. I exhibited Xing Wang (Blossoms), which was shown at the Jamaica Biennial in 2017, but with some new graphics and compositions and a new sensor. After that, I was also selected for the Vermont Studio Residency.

It was awesome to have those three opportunities, but they took a toll on me physically. They challenged me in the sense that I had to travel with three really huge suitcases with materials, sensors, the screen. It was interesting going to the U.S. with all of this and managing on my own. However, I did it and I am really proud of myself. I am in Martinique now. My family is in St. Martin. I am taking this time to focus on what I have gained from these past experiences and how I can grow from them.

In April 2020, your multimedia work entitled “Digital Blossom” was exhibited at TODTOWN, a new mini-city in Shanghai China. Tell me about this opportunity. What is the work about and how does it resonate symbolically in the context of COVID-19?

In April, I was selected from approximately 100 digital artists around the world by MANA (, a corporation that works with a lot of artists in different fields – in different media – to respond to events that are happening in Shanghai, or in different places in China, but mainly in Shanghai because it is more cosmopolitan and more open to the world than the rest of China. I met the people from MANA during my 2018 residency in Shanghai. I had a meeting with them, and they loved the work. They wanted me to immediately subscribe to their website and upload my work, but I was a bit cautious because China is China, meaning my previous residency in 2016 with the Davidoff Art Initiative revealed an aspect of China that I knew but did not realise was so bad. They copy a lot. Whatever seems interesting and eye-catching they will copy it 10,000 times and they will sell it better than you can. Therefore, I did not respond to MANA’s invitation for a year and a half. I explained that I did not want my work to be copied and for other people to gain from it. However, an opportunity came. They told me they chose my work. They said: This is the event, this is the space, and this is the project. Are you interested? I thought about it. Few original works are being done today. People are often inspired by other people’s work so maybe I can inspire someone with my work. I needed to determine if I could respond technically to the project because it required huge screens. My work is computer generated but not in 3D. It is generated in real-time, so it needs powerful computers to be able to generate 2K resolution images. Once I got that out of the way, I accepted the opportunity.

As we talked about the work I would show, they really resonated with the Blossoms series, especially those that I did for the 2017 Street Art Contest that I won. They were interested in these patterns but wanted them to be a bit slower because they are quite hypnotic and intense visually. I therefore had to find solutions to make them smoother so the general public could accept it. And as we talked, the chief coordinator of the project told me that she was happy to work with me on the project because, for her, the work symbolizes spring and the renewal of life. It was good to have her give her impression of the work and how she thinks it can relate to the public now. The work relates to the Covid-19 conditions. It was chosen as a work that gives hope, that empowers the public that will be passing in this mini city and hub that usually transits 80,000 people per day but in these times, it is less because of the China’s curfew. People cannot circulate without tests. Before being able to go somewhere they have to fill out a lot of forms – more forms than we do in the French system – to control every step of their journey to make sure that they have a good reason to be outside.

It was awesome to see my work at such a large scale at a venue. This was a great opportunity. It was beautiful to see how the work resonates in a concrete, cement, glass, mirror-reflected environment that did not have any plants or linked connotations with nature. I think my art works the best in that kind of setting because within the Caribbean, or within Martinique, people will look at it and say, “oh yeah it’s pretty but…” and that’s because we are in a tropical environment. Whenever I travel to places, even though they have nature it is not as lush, intense or graphic as ours can be with all the vibrant colours. They have to go to a botanical garden to see what we have all the time.

It was touching to see my work welcomed by this team of young visionaries who link companies with artists. This company makes connections with architecture, interior design, new media, digital video, 3D video, interactive video and so many other possibilities. It was a good experience but also challenging because, in this era of Covid-19, the internet was down at my place. I struggled to send huge files. This is the backend that people don’t see. To get my files to Shanghai I had to upload them via but I could not send files bigger than 2GB, so I had to find ways to cut down the files and still get the image quality that is necessary. And on their end – well they were in lockdown – the project coordinator had to download files at her home because she did not have the same connection at work. It took 8-10 hours to download the files. So, in the Covid-19 situation, there is not only the symbolic aspect of the work; there is not only the magic of things or the purpose of things, but there is also the technical challenge both of us, on each side, had to go through to make it happen.

Digital Blossoms by David Gumbs
David Gumbs’ Digital Blossoms, Shanghai China 2020. Image courtesy the artist.
Echo Natures by David Gumbs
David Gumbs’ Echo-Natures, immersive and interactive video tunnel, 2019. Image courtesy the artist.

Last year you created “Echo-Natures,” a commissioned interactive video installation for the Déesse Verte exhibition curated by Dorothée Dupuis. Every step made by a visitor caused a real-time transformation of the sound and nature-inspired patterns in your work. I’d love to hear about this. It seems especially relevant in this moment, given news reports about the effects of the lockdown on air pollution and as we think about human impact on the environment.

Yes, Echo-Natures was my second commissioned work after the 2017 Jamaica Biennial. The whole process took about six months: email exchanges, drawing 3D plans and making revisions, making fabric choices for the screens in order to project on both sides. There was a great technical team from lille3000 – an association that does this sort of biennial. Every two years they have curators come in and transform the spaces. Most of the time they do projects around a certain theme and you have to respond to that theme. It was awesome being invited by Dorothée Dupuis who I met about three or four months before. The theme was Eldorado. I submitted two immersive projects for a tunnel and another project for a more square/rectangular space with images envisioned on the four sides – which I like to do. The people from lille3000 were more interested in the square installation because it looked like the square set up from Blossoms, but as I developed the concepts and design, and explained that as you walk through the tunnel your feet would be triggering animations with certain patterns and sound in real-time, Dupuis found this was a good idea and convinced the team from lille3000 that she could integrate it perfectly into her exhibition.

My whole idea about the Echo-Natures installation was to talk about what we call in French: “la traversée (Le commerce triangulaire),” that is, the slave ships moving between the West Coast of Africa, the city of Nantes in France and the Caribbean. All of this traveling changes you psychologically. I wanted to reflect on this transitional state of mind – to convey a mental space that you can go through. I was thinking about the unpredictable situations you can find yourself in as you travel through this sort of mind tunnel: you know where you are coming from, but you don’t know where you’re going to reach. I found the tunnel interesting for exploring this idea of seeking Eldorado; seeking this perfect magical place where you can install yourself and live and take the benefits of the natural resources of the space. I was thinking about creating a utopia – in my case a nature-inspired utopia. At one point, when you walk through the tunnel, there is a secret tile that you step on. When you step on it, it transforms the patterns negatively: it reverses the colours. For me this was a way of talking about the visible and the invisible aspects of our culture, the magical realms that we have – such as the Santería in Cuba or the Vodou in Haiti – but without necessarily using those symbols, without using the vèvès for example. The idea was to reflect on the conquistadors who travelled by sea and entered the islands, and how they had to navigate a powerful natural environment to build colonies.

Most of my work has always been inspired by, as you know, natural patterns of leaves and flowers that we find in the tropics. I think there is a spiritual aspect of nature that is speaking to me and comes out in a vibrant, hypnotic, repetitive way of doing things but I don’t really talk about it because I don’t feel at ease speaking about spirituality. I think it is my personal journey. I prefer to let thinkers and writers, such as yourself, give their interpretation – this feeds me and the work because you will have a unique perception of things. So that is what I am more interested in: How the public and how you thinkers perceive the work, and how it speaks to your body and your mind – whenever you get a chance to experience it in person. You can see it on a screen but there is something in having the work cover your body, being bigger than yourself or as big as your body and reacting to it physically – there is really something happening there most of the time. So, thinking about the environment and our relationship to it, I believe my work – by using these plant-like patterns – reflects on nature; the importance of preserving nature.

Viral challenges have been keeping a number of people busy during this pandemic, including the Vogue, push-ups and pillow challenges. I see you’ve been inspired by the #coldsummerchallenge issued by North American rapper Fabolous. The challenge taps into what Fabolous calls “quarantine creativity” and participants are asked to create freestyle lyrics or other artworks using Fabolous’ song “Cold Summer.” You produced a video experiment. How have you used images from the Caribbean to interpret Fabolous’ track?

I was not really aware of challenges. I was seeing things on Instagram but did not realise they were challenges. I discovered Fabolous is on Instagram, so I subscribed to his account. This “challenge” popped up. I decided to do it mainly because I was experimenting with 3D plants in Isadora. It is not the easiest software to use to do this so I was trying to see how I could innovate more in my work by using 3D elements, and using this as a transition to virtual reality or augmented reality work – but mostly virtual reality work using the helmet. At that time, I was already experimenting and researching how to add my patterns. I was inspired to use the generated patterns from the Blossoms and Digital Blossom series and see how I can make them fit on these bird’s-nest ferns that I used in 3D. Once I heard the melody of “Cold Summer” from Fabolous, I felt it fit well with this new direction of experimental work I was doing.

I noticed most of the people who responded to the challenge were singers and rappers. There weren’t any visual artists at that time – I don’t know about now. His challenge was open to any form of art. I wanted to stand out in this sense. As I kept working with the melody as a loop in my studio, I realised that the 3D set up I was using was quite colourful and I automatically started to remove the colour from it to move into this bluish, greyish colour palette. The work started to build from there – to something I would like to do in virtual reality as an environment where you are in the middle of this spinning 3D space and maybe as you go closer to some of the plants, you have some sort of interaction with them.

Inner Child by David Gumbs
David Gumbs’ Inner Child at Tropiques Atrium, Martinique. Images courtesy Jonathan Timos & Samuel Ersin.

This time of social distancing has altered how we connect with art; how we connect with each other. As an artist who consciously includes interactivity as part of your practice, how are you now thinking about the relationship or interplay between a viewer and an artwork?

With interactivity there are many possibilities: you can use voice, footsteps, body movements, someone blocking a beam of light. You don’t necessarily have to touch objects, and this is a strong point in the type of work I am shaping. Some curators have contacted me to show some work – the works that do not need to be blown into, such as my piece with the conch shells – where your body movements in space tell the story. This encourages me in Isadora, which is the software I mainly use, to have more collaborations with dancers; dancers transforming sound, rather than videos, in space. I realise that whenever I have a dancer in a venue, the focus is on the dancer and not the video work. So, I am thinking more about interactions with sound and light, but not video as I did recently with the Inner Child project at the national theatre Tropiques Atrium in Martinique.

The relationship with the viewer is going to involve pieces that track the viewer’s position in space – things that I already do but I am going to try to push it further and focus on works for a younger public; those who do not have an issue moving their bodies and dancing in front of a sensor. I may also explore augmented reality where viewers can use their tablets and smart phones to view content that is not physically visible. So, there are many possibilities and I guess a lot of artists may also turn to these options, especially augmented reality because the work can be printed out and you are not necessarily there – it can be printed out, framed and put on a wall and the viewer has to download an app. Last summer, I taught my students the subject of augmented reality, but I have not developed any work with it yet. The ideas are there.

I am committed to learning new tools to track body movements like the recent Dunes project I did at the visual arts school during open studio day. There was a ceiling projection on the floor and as viewers entered the space, they were tracked in real-time and their position triggered sound and altered the volume of music and revealed animations that were not visible – the images were only made visible where the viewer stood. So, I am exploring a user’s bodily experiences.

I am also thinking about my relationship with my art practice. I am focused on a more intuitive aspect of my work; accepting that I am not among those artists who have something international to talk about. I don’t necessarily talk about identity; I don’t talk about feminism; I don’t necessarily talk about the mainstream topics that are really important today. I am more someone who goes intuitively, as the work speaks to me. This is what makes it difficult for me to talk about my work sometimes because it all makes sense when you look at the whole work, but I cannot always talk about one piece, individually, because it comes organically into my studio. It comes as an inspiration, as a colour, as a voice, as a note, as the way a woman’s hair is plaited for instance, the colour of her eyes – the work really comes in a peculiar way and I don’t know if it is because I do these daily, inner-perspective, automatic drawings that are at the base/core of my practice.

What I like with my drawing work is that I listen. It makes me listen. I want to concentrate on this automatic drawing process as a meditation on my condition as a Caribbean artist. I think in the future I will go into work that is even more personal, focusing on my interests and not what can please a curator or someone inviting me to do an exhibition but really accepting that my process is not political – at least I don’t see it. My work may not conform to these times; in the areas where everyone is talking about gender, politics and discrimination. Maybe those things will come into my work, but they will come organically as something triggers them – as an experience triggers them.

See David Gumbs’ video work:

View Digital Blossom

View Echo-Natures

View Inner Child

Stay connected with David Gumbs:

Instagram: @gumbsy


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