(Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared on NeoAztlán in 2014.)
By Esteban Peralta
I courted Daniel Joseph Martinez for about six years before he finally agreed to interview with NeoAztlan. Martinez has a brief history in the Chicano civil rights movement and perhaps had preconceived notions about what an interview with a publication titled “NeoAztlán” might mean. It’s a common misconception and is the only time it will be addressed here.
The first time I spent a significant amount of time in Martinez’s presence would be, fittingly, in a white passenger van on our way to an art retreat during his residency at Artpace in San Antonio. During that 45-minute road trip, we discussed the merits and details of the social movements centered around ethnicity and race. It was a tense, but refreshing discussion in a tightly packed vehicle made up of local contemporary art denizens. Anyone familiar with the nuances and the awkward formality around a visiting and well-known artist might understand the faux pas of a discussion around topics such as social justice and populism.
I knew next to nothing about Martinez before that day. The more I learned, the more that I felt that we were perhaps two sides of similar ideological coins and the more the discussion that we had that day would cement my own evolving thoughts about what contemporary art and the art establishment would eventually mean to me. Martinez would challenge me, in the exchanges we would have over the next few years (and in this interview), to look at the world in ways that I hadn’t imagined.
It’s his M.O. He was seemingly born to do it. He knew from a very young age that making art was his function in life. As a child, he organized an exhibition of his work in his Los Angeles neighborhood. Some local kids showed up and promptly issued a beat down.
Undeterred, Martinez, at the 1993 Whitney Biennial, would put together a piece titled I Can’t Imagine Ever Wanting To Be White that would prompt a critical beat down from the art establishment. “People went batshit,” Jerry Saltz wrote, “Contempt was everywhere.” Martinez admits privately the time after that exhibition was difficult, however, as he’s wont to do, Martinez persevered and would be invited back to the Whitney Biennial (and many others since) in 2008.
Martinez is described routinely as a “provocateur” and “activist.” This might be true and the thought is presumably okay with Martinez. There isn’t much to labels in Martinez’s work and universe. “What is true,” he asks. Indeed.
What is true for me in the years that I’ve known him and in the nearly four hours I had the pleasure of spending with him for this interview, is that Martinez is a man who is ceaselessly committed to his work. He’s unbending. He’s also a man full of grace and vision and it’s an honor to be able to share with you our conversation.
In this interview, Martinez discusses Los Angeles, the west coast, and manifest destiny while briefly touching on the nature of truth.
Esteban Peralta: I read the interview you did with the Brooklyn Rail a few years ago. It talks a little about you growing up in L.A. and I’m curious about why you’ve never spent an extended period of time somewhere else.
Daniel J. Martinez: That’s an interesting question. L.A.’s a very pro-artist town in a sense, not necessarily from an institutional point of view, but as a place to make art in the 20th and 21st century. It really has everything that you need in abundance here to start with. Living almost anywhere (for the most part), you can be from a place and not be stuck there. I lived in Mexico City for a year; I lived in Paris for a year; I lived in New York for a year; I lived in Chicago for two years; I lived in New Zealand for a year…
EP: Was it always with the intention of going back to Los Angeles?
DM: Oh, yeah. I never intended on going anywhere to stay. It was always to go to investigate something or find a new way to think about working on something or expose myself to new sets of ideas or a particular point of view… meet other people… do work. It’s the difference between being a tourist and being a traveler. I see myself as someone who travels. Traveling informs who I am and what I do and what I think about.
I do love L.A. I think it’s a very good town to make art in.
EP: Do you feel you would have been a different artist if you would have spent a significant time someplace else? Is L.A. part of your identity as a person?
DM: I don’t have any family. Family isn’t something that has grounded me into a particular geographic location. I’m an extremely urban individual.
I’m not a fan of the country at all. I’m not a fan of nature, in particular.
It’s a tough question because I have a whole number of biases about L.A. New York is a town for business. It’s a very hard place to live in. What I have in L.A. – my studio and my home and everything that I have – is acceptable to me as an artist in L.A. I could never be the same artist in New York. It would be impossible. It’s economically out of bounds for me.
The other thing that seems prohibitive is the intellectual aesthetic confinement in New York. New York is done. New York is over. New York’s been over since the 21st century began. It’s a dead city. Manhattan is one big shopping mall. For me, New York is like Paris was at the turn of the last century. It might be the center of art commerce, but it’s not the center of art for cutting-edge, paradigm-shift in ideological suspicions – in thinking about the nature of art and what art is.
Instead of thinking of L.A., think of California.
DM: This is more of my attraction here. California is an extremely schizophrenic state. On one hand, it has birthed some of the most radical leftist movements, Marxist movements – from the Black Panthers, the Brown Berets, the free speech movement… At the same time it has Ronald Reagan, Arnold Swarzenegger, the type of laws that are against immigration… It’s both radical and extremely conservative, simultaneously.
Think of the things that have been invented in California. Essentially, everything having to do with technology has come out of the west coast. Aerospace comes out of the west coast; NASA, in terms of the corporations that fund that, come out of the west coast. Disneyland has influenced the world. Hollywood…
There are more universities and art schools on the west coast than anywhere else in the United States. It’s the edge of manifest destiny. It’s the longest singular coast there is going from the tip of the Bering Strait all the way down to Tierra del Fuego. It faces west looking at opportunity and a future rather than looking east and looking at the old European model of the way the world is constructed.
There are all kinds of extraordinary potential and opportunities that exist in the state of California and L.A. just happens to be the center of that.
EP: How do you think some of your contemporaries from Europe would think about you’re saying about California?
DM: You have New Yorkers who come to L.A. and they don’t understand it at all and they want it to be like New York. You have people who come from Europe and they don’t understand it because they would like it to be like Europe. It produces a conflict in their minds where people find L.A. to be… You hear people with very little experience in this city characterize it as a very shallow, very facile type of environment which I’m not sure is true by any means.
Why does Jean Baudrillard come to Los Angeles and change his entire way of thinking about the nature of philosophy? Why did Jacques Derrida come and spend all his time at UC Irvine every year? When he died, he gave all his papers to UC Irvine as opposed to any other university in the entire world.
We have powerful intellectuals who have come here and who are attracted to it for some peculiar reason.
People want L.A. to be what they’re familiar with and L.A. is exceptionally defiant in only being what it is and it’s not about to change its attitude or its demeanor for anybody because they don’t want to get in their car and drive.
I’m attracted to that kind of tradition, I think.
EP: Do you think people have a binary view of where you live and where you come from?
DM: Do I think people have a very “black and white” view of L.A.? Yes. Think about it, Steve: L.A. is five and half hours from New York; It’s eight hours plus from anywhere in Europe. Even by flying standards, it’s still a bit of a trek.
I can be in New York and get to anywhere I want in Europe in a second and people in Europe can get to anywhere in Europe in two hours.
The west coast is still very far away from a western European model of thinking and behaving. So, it makes sense that this is a “far away desert.” Generally speaking, western Europe and New York don’t have a comfort level here. It’s about comfort.
EP: So, you’re lumping western Europe and New York together?
DM: I am because they’re inter-connected. New York and Europe are so close. The way they have influenced each other historically in the past hundred years, you put them on very similar footing.
Even in the origins of this country, the idea of going west was something that crazy people thought… “Moving across the country to find what?”
The east coast was developed. It was sophisticated. It had its intellectual institutions. It had its literary history. It had its artistic history. If you go from Virginia eastward, the history of this country from its origin was written on the east coast.
There are time and space relationships that separate the understanding between the operation of the east coast which inherited from Europe… What we have in the west is not inherited from Europe, in my opinion. What we have in the west is inherited from Latin America; It’s inherited from being in a place where its geographic and political histories are completely different… There’s no comparison… I think it’s another country, if you really want to know, Steve. I think the west coast is another country because of the language. We don’t have much to do with New York.
EP: Do you have an allegiance to the west coast?
DM: I’m not sure I have an allegiance to anything. Maybe it’s a love affair.
I live in south L.A. In the 40s, Crenshaw Boulevard was lined with jazz clubs – the best jazz clubs in the country. Everybody from Miles Davis to John Coltrane to Chet Baker played on Crenshaw Boulevard. In the early 90s, rap music was born three blocks from where I live now.
This area’s social nature is very different from the one that you’re speaking about. L.A. is very complex. If you just look at L.A. on the surface, you don’t see anything. There are no big buildings here. We don’t have a center. There’s none of the qualities that make up the traditional nature of what a city is. But if you look just a little bit, the texture here is overwhelmingly rich. What has taken place here in terms of social political history or geo-political history – if it happens in California, it’ll happen everywhere else in this country. It’s still the marker for everything else that goes on.
EP: Do you really believe that?
DM: It’s not a matter of whether I believe it. It’s what’s believed by people in this country. People watch what happens in California. I think it’s a very interesting phenomenon.
EP: It seems fantastical.
DM: You and I can debate, but it really doesn’t matter on an individual level whether we agree or disagree with the statement. There’s a larger cultural phenomena that exists in the media and in the news. In other words, if you hear it in the news, then it’s true, but it doesn’t mean it’s (factually) true.
EP: I’m surprised you would bring up the news. What news are you talking about?
DM: There’s what is true and there’s what people hear and what they believe. Say there’s Texas, New York, and California and say that those states have an independence of mind. What about the other 47 states? What are they basing their opinions on? They’re basing their opinions on getting regular, everyday news… whatever that means. They’re getting their news from somewhere. If you have CNN and Fox News saying that, “California does X, Y, and Z,” then the majority of this country, whether they believe it or not, that information floats out into the world in a strange mythological state. It doesn’t have to be true.
You and I can trade the mythology about something. It does not have to have any basis of truth whatsoever. It doesn’t mean that that information doesn’t change people’s point of view about it because that’s what’s presented to them as fact whether it’s true or not.
I think there’s a misnomer about truth. Truth is irrelevant in the 21st century. There’s no truth. I’m not sure there ever was any truth.
EP: Why do you feel that way?
DM: What’s true, Steve? What concrete piece of information can we find and agree upon that is factually true? Do you go to science for that? Creationists wouldn’t agree with that. Do you go to God? Medicine? Corporations? Where do we get facts that are true? I know people that will argue with me until they’re red in the face that we didn’t land on the moon. What are the facts? If we don’t know what a fact is, we don’t know have any idea what a truth can be.
EP: Do you think the truth is more elusive now than it’s ever been?
DM: Absolutely. One hundred percent.
When the Internet exploded, you had a democratization of individuals and information. As soon you do that, you erase the line that previously existed. Before you had a line that existed between experts and pedestrians.
EP: Some people would call that evolution.
DM: I don’t disagree. In the democratization of information, everyone has the opportunity to put their opinion, regardless of the content of their opinion, out for public consumption. As that is consumed, we have no idea the basis of their statements.