Scott Turri Talks With Artist John Sims
John Sims is like a modern-day quilt-maker who weaves together at times seemingly disparate threads of media and ideas: mathematics, performance, video, music, and text, among other things. His work is layered. Although he often approaches it through a personal lens, from his lived experience navigating the world as a black man, he adroitly addresses issues that emanate outward from this experience. Therefore, the scope of the work widens to encompass broader socio-political issues which embroil our culture. Sims courageously confronts these challenges with an acute sensitivity and awareness to expand the vital conversations needed to effect change.
ST: Okay. Well, here we go. I am interested in how you got involved in math and what led you to think about math in relation to your artistic practice. Some artists may think that the use of math in art was somehow antithetical to art-making. All of this ties into your lifelong investment in education, dating back to your days at Antioch. The work that exemplifies the confluence of these pursuits would be your Mathematical Art Project, which was made up of Square Roots: A Quilted Manifesto, Rhythm of Structure: Mathematics, Art and Poetic Reflection at the Bowery Poetry Club in NYC in 2009, which traveled later in 2011 on to Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida, and Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio and Math Art/Math Art. Could you discuss how this came about?
JS: In grad school I got really interested in doing art and then I moved into studying math and then moving into art getting a position at Ringling College of Art and Design to actually teach or create a visual mathematics curriculum for art students. But I’d already been interested in doing art particularly from a design point of view. My very first show was to DFN Gallery in SoHo, right on Prince and Broadway. I was interested in making clocks and conceptual clocks. It was a natural movement to think about things more abstractly and think about math from a design context. So, I became very active in a lot of the math art conferences, Nate Freeman up at the University of New York at Albany and these various conferences where mathematicians, artists and writers would get together and conference and do work and show work. Whereas a lot of that was more visual mathematics, I became more interested in looking at the metaphysics of math and art as a metaphor to think about and guide strategies for conceptualizing and creating metaphors for the reality around us. So, I wrote a chapter in a book called, I think it was called the Metaphorical Foundation for Mathematical Art which centered around the relationship between math and art both as math supporting art and art supporting math, then this kind of more lateral equal brain left brain, right brain kind of dynamic. Conceptually this is what guided my work both as the educator, artist, writer, kind of a theorist in this kind of way, thinking about how do we move beyond visual mathematics? How do we move beyond the simple ideas of taking simple geometry and inserting them. You saw a lot of that in the geometry, in the art of the 60s with Frank Stella and all kinds of folks who were using geometric vocabulary and painting like the piece behind you, which is very interesting. But also, how do you take it to another level to be able to embrace the full scope and language and process of mathematical thinking? So, I became very interested in that, hence curating that first math art show with Kevin Dean, who is the friend of Derek, called ‘Math Art’,Art Math’, and that show was based around a classification scheme that I developed for classifying mathematical art, thinking about the taxonomy, but also this landscape of math and art. What would be the different kinds as it relates to the classification of mathematics, the classification of art, where they intersect, where are the missing gaps? Which neighborhoods are being worked on which ones are not? So I started thinking of it in that way as this landscape of mathematical art possibilities. And then creating a show, and also creating a curriculum to inspire young artists or even old artists to move beyond the fright and alienation about mathematics that has persisted in the art community. And then I started to get involved in ethno-mathematics looking at how mathematics is encoded into the material culture. How do you encode/decode mathematical ideas also looking at mathematics in a cultural political context? How does this mathematical education or math in general connected to issues around intelligence, white supremacy, like it gets really political very quickly when you start looking at it very deeply and so in a lot of ways that kind of informed some of the work and so at some point I started looking at it as a curator, as an educator; I started build up ammunition about creating my own mathematical art, hence the quilting Manifesto, which was to use Pi, the Pi quilts, the Pythagorean quilts using things that are accessible but are rich in terms of metaphorical possibilities to get people to think about these higher, higher relationships.
ST: Obviously there’s a huge scope to what you just said, but one of the things that I thought was interesting was that you reached out to the Amish quilt-makers for the project.
JS: Absolutely. The idea was that I wanted to visualize Pi and I did that as a digital visualization first but then I saw the Gee’s Bend quilt show at the Whitney. I think it was at the Whitney way back when, early 2000s. Like wow, I need to do this as a quilt, right? And so, I reached out to a quilt shop here in town just to help me put these squares together and it turned out that the owner of the Amish/Mennonite quilt shop had a strong science background and so she was excited about doing something different. So that shows you how math literacy, science literacy, could be very connected in terms of people having more to talk about and negotiate around. Had she been alienated by mathematics, hated her math teacher, it would just have been a very different kind of relationship and then we went on to do 13 quilts together.
ST: That’s amazing
JS: So, as part of that project with the Pi and the Pythagorean work I did dresses and Pi music, so I used that project as a way to show the expansiveness of mathematics and how it relates to design and how it could be very a fertile place for connecting these disciplines in very dynamic ways. Then I created that character Johannes Curtis Schwarzenstein, the AfroGermanJewishMathArtPoet. So, this quilted character, right? Now quilting becomes an organizing principle process that allows me to stitch things together, remix it and kind of tiles the tessellation of some sort, right? It’s a tiling process that has its inner geometry where symmetry is important, aperiodicity, all these kinds of things that I’m very interested in are very adaptable and interesting. So that project in itself is very expansive – you have text, you have fashion, you have music, you have the quilts, you have the installation work, the performance, so the idea was to create this work that in itself exhibits and exemplifies the kind of universality of mathematics as a language.
ST: In the Sorrento project, the work is very personal since it was based on returning home to the city of Detroit and, in particular, the neighborhood where you grew up and confronting the fact that many houses are now gone.
JS: Right, right.
ST: There is a sense of desolation. You are essentially coming to terms with urban decay and the economic collapse of Detroit and your home. As in many of your projects, you work with a variety of media to encapsulate your experience. Could you describe the process for this project and how you shape it?
JS: Yes, I’m glad you were able to check that project out. You know, I had returned home after being away for a while and Detroit for a while was going through a very tough time economically. I mean rebounding now, but when I returned it was horrible. I couldn’t even recognize my own block. The houses were empty, gutted, vacant, dilapidating – but it wasn’t just the houses. It was the corner stores, the pizza place I used to work at, the cleaners I used to work at. The elementary school completely gutted and emptied and vandalized. Another school torn down. So, then it became very clear to me how important the architecture, the houses and the buildings frame and shape your memories and shape your grounding to the neighborhood.
JS: I remember walking up and down the street and how I used to ride my bike and pop my wheelie over a particular bump in the sidewalk. You know what I mean? It’s like you do this over. So, it’s the periodicity of traveling these spaces to become ingrained in your nervous system in ways that you don’t pay attention to until this loss. Gone – it’s not there. And so, I was very moved and hurt in some ways by this loss. When people die you expect this. So, I go back to my block and the various people that I grew up with, I’ve been there since I was super young child first day of kindergarten walking that block to go to school which is three blocks away and most of the people that you know over time are going to die, but when you see the structures die it creates a different kind of paralysis. So, I decided I needed to do a project that will memorialize my block and we had a very special block too because we have a church, like one of those one-room churches on a nice lot of land that we used to play in the churchyard – baseball, football, frisbee. So, a lot of the kids were around the same age. It’s a real neighborhood story. And so, to see the neighborhood begin to collapse, decay, and die and not even transition to something else is interesting, but just to really die.
ST: Yeah, that is rough.
JS: Yeah. What I wanted to do was to go back and do portraits of each of the houses and write little small stories about each of the houses and my relationship to the houses and what I remembered and the people who lived there. I went back and had a residency and within a week of coming back and you know, I’m going to interview people and then my mother dies.
ST: Oh man that is just piling on.
JS: So, my residency turned into organizing a funeral and memorial and so people came and showed up and it was also an opportunity to reflect about the block because my mom was one of the last elders standing, living in that space. So coming out of my more abstract space dealing with mathematical art and very political art to come back you realize there’s a clock ticking. You got space, you got time and there is this relationship between two. I was glad I was there. My mom died. It was unexpected and that type of thing, but I’m glad I was there. Right before the pandemic hit, I was planning to spend 2020 working on that project.
ST: Oh, OK.
JS: But when the pandemic hit things moved in a different direction with the coronavirus, with George Floyd’s death. Also, with this incredible pushback on the Confederate iconography and flags and monuments and statues that had been part of my work for a very long time. So, I definitely had to get in front of that.
ST: Yeah, definitely.
JS: So that’s kind of what I focus on in 2020, but underneath that the plan was to finish up, so, I’m going to return to that project. The plan is to do copper plate etchings because they’re stealing the copper out of the houses so bring that back into it and then also doing a book that would through illustration restore the houses back to their dignity. I have the photos as they are now and as they used to be. Yeah. Thanks for bringing that up because that’s a very important project. So hopefully that could inspire other communities that are going through similar things.
ST: It is happening around Pittsburgh. I’ll tell you what.
ST: Sometimes your work is funneled through the personal as in the one I just described, and, in a lot of ways, the most recent at Ringling. In The Proper Way to Hang the Confederate Flag, the work is much more overtly political without much there about you on a personal level. It is confrontational, and I am assuming you intended to provoke all of those who admire and embrace the confederate flag and its values. There seems to be a definite target audience, whereas with some of your other work it seems projected toward a wider audience. Can you talk about how you consider the audience when making your work and in particular, this piece?
JS: Well, here’s the thing: that piece was designed and created for my exhibition ‘Gettysburg’ at Gettysburg College and before that I had a show in Harlem which was basically recolored Confederate flags.
JS: Black, red and green, black on black, bumper stickers that type of thing. So, there’s an incident, and maybe you saw some of the videos, but there was an incident where there was a guy walking down and saw the works, saw one of the recolored flags outside the gallery and he was really upset. He didn’t care that it was recolored. The structure was enough. And then I also remember being at a Klan rally where I had my Afro Confederate flag there passing out bumper stickers and there were some people there that were a little upset. They just still saw it as a Confederate flag and it wasn’t very clear to them what my politics were. Like am I being pro-confederate?
ST: Hah, right?
JS: I am trying to mitigate and trying to arbitrate some sort of reconciliation. So that was one of the interpretations that I hadn’t expected.
JS: Yeah, but it was valuable right? So that made me really go backwards. Wait, maybe I rushed this too much by doing this. Because if you don’t know what black red and green means and it doesn’t affect you emotionally, you still just kind of see it as a Confederate flag. Or if you really like the colors black, red, and green, you’re going to think that I’m bastardizing those colors by intersecting it with the structure of the Confederate flag. So, you have a problem there. Basically, what I needed to do was pull back and really create something that would express my position but also be much more direct about what am I trying to say? Not only interrogating the Confederate flag and playing with it and making it seem less hostile – I think what needed to happen, I needed to bring this flag to justice. And so, this idea of hanging the Confederate flag and calling it the proper way to hang a Confederate flag, which is a nod to Dred Scott’s piece, his famous piece out of Chicago. It’s a title that you don’t know what exactly I mean but when you see it, like I’m hanging this but it’s not a lynching right? It’s hanging with the idea that it’s been brought to Justice and then after that you can resurrect, you can confiscate the corpse and resurrect it and it can be something else. So, I think doing that piece The Proper Way to Hang the Confederate Flag was inspired by the kind of response I was getting. So actually, I was moving back and, in that project, I also rewrote Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. I took the song Dixie and redid it in a very different way. So, this idea of re-transformation or righteous mutation, right? It’s this idea of creating perturbations and processes and to create possibilities for new meaning and some level of process evolution. Right? So, this idea now, I’m not just recoloring the flag, but going back to the text like the Gettysburg Address, going also to the music and the Dixie stuff because in some ways that’s already happened in the black community. We’ve taken the n-word, taken the flag, the music, now we’re moving into monuments and part of my work now is moving to plantations. It’s this idea of moving into these spaces that have caused trauma and sort of remixing them and creating a complete reorientation, repurposing. So that’s part of the work which sets up for a transformation on some level.
ST: Well for me, it seems like there can be some underlying humor in your work.
JS: Yeah. Absolutely. Yes. Yes.
ST: For instance, there is a character Johannes Curtis Schwarzenstein, the AfroGermanJewishMathArtPoet – the artist’s alter ego.
ST: Right. Even in the most recent piece, you used the game Space Invaders as a model for Korona Killas, a simulated video game about the coronavirus with a public service announcement featuring you wearing a mask and a kind of Darth Vader-like echo on your voice. Even The Proper Way to Hang a Confederate Flag has a sardonic wit to it. Could you comment on how and why you use humor if, in fact, this a strategy of yours? As a way to potentially break down barriers?
JS: But yeah, so I think any good comedy it’s a collision – taking things that you don’t expect and twisting it. It creates a surprise and the way you respond is by laughing. Because that’s like a trance language response. It’s sort of like you’re surprised and now what happens is if you cross the line then the laughter can turn to horror. It could turn into something else and depending on how you come at the piece so some folks can look at that and laugh from a position of yeah, that’s right, or someone else feels completely disrespected, right, and feels horrified, or somebody can come to that piece and feel like I feel disrespected but that was a good one.
ST: Hah yeah right – like you got me.
JS: It’s like all right, you’re talking about my mama, but that was a good mama joke. I think I might have to use that one.
ST: Well exactly, that can break down barriers for someone who may have never given that piece a chance.
JS: So, in some ways what you are really getting at is the target of my work which is the brilliance of the comic to be able to speak through you and talk to your core self. To permeate through your cultural guises, protections, all the armor that you have to prevent people being exposed to what you really think, what you really want and who you really are. So, there’s a performance element of how we move through space. Good comedy pushes through that and then you’re surprised that you know you shouldn’t be laughing but you laugh because you can’t help it because it reflects something that is speaking to you. So, it’s in that space with that spirit I try to create work that pushes through even the most hardened intellectuals who cased into their practice and their theories and techniques. All the most completely emotional folks that don’t even know what they think about anything but be able to do work that creates such a visceral response and reflects what’s really there, taking some real temperature. Sometimes it comes across as being like oh, that’s humorous and funny, but in some ways, it’s usually not funny to some people and super funny to other people. But the key is also that space of how something could have a terrible meaning but be very beautiful and something could have an incredibly important meaning and be very ugly. It’s that kind of space. So, when people listen to one of my Afro Dixie remixes being sung like a Billie Holiday voicing or arrangement, you can hate the song but you’re like damn it’s beautiful. The point you walk away with is that these images and this song should not have that kind of emotional stranglehold over you. So, it’s really negotiating power, the power of symbols, the power of words and you being able to have some space to have control over how you wish to negotiate your landscape. And be able to see it in a way to invite your own creative inclusion into the discussion.
ST: Let’s move on the most recent work. There has been a period of extreme upheaval recently pertaining to the intersection of politics, race relations, and the coronavirus placing the county in crisis mode. Your projects have been addressing these issues over your career. However, you confront the most recent developments during your Artist in Residency project at the Ringling Museum of Art 2020: (Di)Visions of America. For me, what made the work resonate is how it was funneled through the personal. Using the idea of a letter, which is often the most intimate of communications as the vehicle, was a perfect choice. The piece featured a black physician, Lisa Merritt, describing a black patient’s experience after having contracted the virus and their struggles along the way to recovery. Next, you read some of your op-ed pieces regarding your feelings about the police. Lastly, Chandra Carly’s account researched her lineage and her poignant letter to her enslaved relative, asking them how they felt in various situations that she had gained knowledge of through her research. And lastly, how all of this tied into the Gamble Plantation, a state park in Bradenton, FL. All of these things you were able to connect together and create that piece which was a super powerful piece. How did you figure out how to put that all together? Can you take us through the process of creating the work?
JS: Okay, so in some ways I’m like a quilt maker right. It is a quilting thing. I keep going back to that. On one level and if this particular quilt is based on these letters, more than that these op-ed pieces that I’ve written on three main categories: one the coronavirus, the George Floyd murder and police brutality issues, and the push back on the Confederacy. I wrote a couple of different op-eds in each of those areas. Then I responded with work. So, with the coronavirus I did this video game. That was my way of responding. I’ve already responded in text so now the next layer is responding through creating work. So, for the coronavirus it is the video game. But before that at the top you have these three different elements. But also, it really is this self-portrait. It’s the self-portrait, me with the mask where you see the elements of the coronavirus, the police, the pushback. So that’s the overall with all the elements mixed together. The self-portrait character shows up in the video game as the introduction explaining rules. Then we move to the idea of the video response to my dear police letter that I wrote as an op-ed piece. Then with the pushback on the Confederate iconography. The elements with the burning of the Confederate flag, but also the animation of re-imagining the slave plantation. So that’s the second level. The third level was to have an in-person performance response. So really you have the op-eds, then you have my responses, and then now you’re going to have these performance responses speaking to my responses. So, it’s these elements of responses of iteration. Dr Lisa Merritt is responding to my video game. Remember she says this is not a game. She starts it off by saying dear John. She’s almost talking to me like somebody who’s playing games and not really paying attention to the real deal and this is what can happen. And then with the police brutality part the George Floyd element is that I perform my own letter.
ST: Right, sure.
JS: The third is we found a descendant of a one of the African slaves to write a letter to her great-great-great grandfather and with her questions as a young girl. She’s in that space. Then we open up the whole performance and then you see this Confederate flag and then at the beginning I’m making this prayer to Mother Earth. And then at the end I come out as my character in my portrait and read this poem that I read at the very beginning. And so, it is very symmetrical in that way. It’s a response to the main trauma triggers, parameters of 2020.
ST: Yeah. Oh, yeah, definitely. Again, your metaphor of quilting.
JS: If you think about it, it’s a 3×3 quilt.
ST: Yeah, right. Yeah. I got ya.
JS: And then the border of it is the self-portrait.
ST: You have chosen to work within an arena that frankly has a very limited audience, the fine art world, or whatever you want to call it, reaches mainly people interested in art. You have a much better chance of reaching people through your op-ed pieces, but even there, fewer people read the newspaper.
JS: Yeah, people who would not necessarily go to a gallery, or go to a museum. Let me explain what happened, which is very important, a good kind of evidence of the success of why I do the op-ed stuff. I wrote that first Tampa Bay Times piece, and then there was an anthropologist from the University of South Florida who reached out to me. She actually worked on the Gamble Plantation, does research on the Plantation and has always felt weird about even her own place in that Plantation and the kind of work she did there and knew that there’s something not right in terms of not telling the stories of the slaves who lived there and worked there, the missing stories and then her contribution of trying to change. But she also worked with the daughters of the Confederacy who basically run that space still today. But anyway, she reached out to me and she goes, look, see if I could be of help in any way, you know I really appreciate what you are doing. I ended up developing a colleagueship – friendship relationship around this work. We ended up saying maybe we need to have a symposium in connection with my residency at the Ringling. We ended up creating a four-part symposium where I ended up doing the keynote and in it. I make a national call that we should confiscate American plantations and put them into a National Trust. I set it up to think about where do we go in regard to the pushback about all these monuments and particularly dealing with these slave plantations. This is an opportunity to really redress some core trauma issues in this country and I think the plantations speak to that particularly in terms of black genealogy, also in terms of dealing with racialized capitalism. It’s all these things that are right there so that’s what I talked about in the keynote. But the op-ed was a way for me to reach someone like her who might not have gone to a show or might not have gone to whatever. Sometimes folks are suspicious of how relevant art can be. The op-eds position my work beyond the traditional boundaries of the visual arts or even the performance arts. And it also gives me a certain kind of access that, say, traditional writers also don’t have. Also having this art thing that reaches people and so when you see the Proper Way to Hang a Confederate Flag that could be more powerful than a 20,000-word essay. You carry that with you forever. You’ll never look at a Confederate flag again the same way. So, to be honest, the art and op-ed stuff is really an extension of my math art dynamic. The writing is kind of like mathematics. The art is more like the visual stuff and they work together. Part of my math art strategy of being able to bring the text and the logic, and the system stuff, and also bringing the expressiveness, the aesthetics, and being able to marry those things together and in the context of an activism addressing some issue. Not all problems have to be bad problems. Sometimes you can address something that’s about honoring, like my Sorrento project is more of an immortalization. It’s not just let’s gentrify the community. I’m not saying that I’m saying look let us reflect and pay attention to the structures in our community and process it.
ST: yeah. Well last thing – would you ever consider running for political office?
JS: Oh, that’s interesting. Maybe, I mean or getting behind someone or somebody’s strategy team. I like that. I like the idea of how to bring the art game to the legislative space. How to bring the art.
ST: That’s a tricky one.
JS: Right, right, to bring the art game to the legislative writing process. How to inspire. So, if I was going to be a politician, I would definitely be very different about it and I would sort of connect to the constituents in a way that reflects me as an artist and being able to inspire additional ways of connecting and also showing how the importance and the agency of the creative process and negotiating the fruits of democracy. Very often when you are living in communities and I mean bigger communities, statewide, nationwide, and you have 20 different views and ideas. And so how do you come up with unifying things? So, me as a quiltmaker I learned how to create connections around these very diverse things. That means you have to pay attention to internal patterns and being able to see through lines and being able to see what things might not look connected, but they are connected, and being able to express that inspire that. Looking at that through the eyes of a mathematician/artist/activist/ writer probably gives certain kinds of advantages. So, I guess I’m working and learning how to do that to be more effective around these very complicated ideas. Very often politicians end up just being polarizing or saying things they don’t really mean to get support, or votes. I think there’s an opportunity to be super, super creative. Through the magic of the creative stuff, I could get people on both sides. Let me give you an example of what I just did, my Square Root of Love event, that I do every year. Because I’m an artist in residence at a restaurant or we invited Republicans and Democrats, the mayor to sit down and read their favorite love poems in between courses.
ST: ha ha yeah
JS: So here we have Republicans on the spot negotiating and talking about love and then at the end of the day talking about what really, really matters. So sometimes you have to, like, do the reset. I think art does that in a very powerful way, poetry makes that argument, so what really, really matters?
ST: Plus, again it’s a way to break down barriers.
JS: Someone can easily look at that like wow, that should be a skit on Saturday Night Live. No, really it could easily become a skit. Or it could be a really strong opportunity. We need to break bread a little bit more and have some stability.
ST: To our humanity.
JS: And respect around negotiating our policy differences and being open. So that’s part of the work that I’m finding, in terms of community systems and also creating unsuspecting opportunities to connect.
ST: Yeah, that’s great. Awesome. All right, John, that’s about it for me.
JS: All right. All right, buddy, well thank you. I hope that’s enough for you. (hearty laughing)
ST: hah yes that’s plenty! (laughing)
JS: If you need anything, I gave you plenty of images so if you need anything else…
ST: I’ll hit you up for sure.
JS: Yeah, hit me up, because you know the New Art Examiner is such an important art platform, and I appreciate the opportunity for you to write about this work. Yes.
ST: It’s my pleasure, man. I really enjoyed talking to you. Enjoy the weekend.
JS: You too. Bye.
Volume 35 no 5 May / June 2021