Art as a Practice of History, Memory, and Education: In Conversation with Chelsea A. Flowers

How has the move from Cleveland to Detroit affected your art practice? Has it shaped your thinking in any way?

I don’t believe my movement between Cleveland and Detroit has influenced my practice in any particular way. Cleveland and Detroit are extremely similar. Detroit is a bit bigger, more Chocolate, and from my experience has a larger art scene than Cleveland. I will say that I haven’t really lived in Cleveland since 2009, so I’m somewhat removed from the Cleveland scene. But I still have my favorite art spots in the city. 

And actually before I moved to Michigan I lived in silicon valley for a few years and I wasn’t making any artwork. I was just working to make money. While I was in silicon valley I took a side gig as a birthday party entertainer for childrens’ parties. It was wild seeing how lavish parents wanted their kids birthday party to be. The opulence and ridiculousness of that experience influenced the concept and visual aesthetics of my work A War on Partying. Which is essentially an installation utilizing party aesthetics, thanking Ronald Reagan for his “War on Drugs” policies.  

Could you talk about the exhibition you hosted digitally earlier this year at Neon Heater Gallery in Ohio, under the title What About My “Social” Practice? As someone interested in the successes and failures of social practice over the last few decades, that title really caught my attention, and I’m curious how it relates to the work, and also why you chose to put the word ‘social’ in quotes.

This exhibition is scheduled to open at the end of 2020 featuring work that was created in response to how we “gather” in art spaces during the pandemic. I derived the title thinking specifically about my practice, how it values and thrives off of social interaction and participation with the audience. I utilize stand-up comedy and incorporate didactic gameplay in my work. And having to navigate these interactions on the internet has been a tricky experience. For me, it makes it difficult to distinguish, as you said the success and failures. It’s different to not experience it in “real time”. 

I put ‘social’ in quotes because the work that I make is social but it differs from some of the characteristics that social practice utilizes. Also from my experience, social practice has a particular (sometimes negative) connotation and association to it, and I’m not interested in navigating that conversation.   

History and memory seem to play a big part in your work, both on a personal and political level. Could you talk about how these concepts shape your work?

Yea, certainly memory and history are elements in my work. Through my work I speak to what I know and what I’ve experienced. I think history and politics naturally become a part of the conversation in my work because my Black fem body is already policized no matter what I do. And because of the lineage of whiteness and systematic oppression, history also becomes a part of the work. So for me the work becomes a translation of familial intergenerational experiences and storytelling. 

Along with memory and history, “education” is the driving force of my work. I subvert history in an attempt to tell it from a non-colonialistic perspective. But to do this there has to be an awareness of the disparities in the white colonialistic popular narrative. Thematically it’s a lot to undertake and can be very emotionally draining but creating comedic videos and performance works helps diffuse some of the weight.

You’ve also done comedy variety shows, hosted a trivia night about black culture at Red Bull Arts during Black History Month, and performed standup. Do you see these endeavors as part of/connected to your art practice or as separate from it?

I lightly touched on it in the previous question, but yes, comedic performances are a part of my art practice. Each performance, from the jokes and stories that I tell, to the environment of the space is highly curated. Most of the comedic performances that I’ve done have been in galleries and art spaces. I work to transform the spaces from a gallery or studio space to a comedy club. The shows accompany an installation that plays with simulacrum of a comedy club. I paint the walls black, use found materials and make props like tables, a bar, and a curtain to further transform a gallery space.    

What do you consider to be the social role of your work?

Creating community is important in my work. Providing a platform for people to engage with taboo or tough subjects such as abuse, generational trauma, family dynamics, racism, the crack crisis, etc. During the variety show and stand up performances I invite the audience to participate in the storytelling. I’ve had people come up to me after performances to inquire if what I shared was real, and then they share their own nostalgia.

As I previously mentioned, education is an important aspect of my work. My Trivia Night and Check Point performances also rely on community, trust and being able to be uncomfortable. The pieces require people to be on teams and have trivia and physical components to them. The questions and challenges pertain to popular (Black) culture (movies, music, historical figures, etc). Players must answer questions as correct as possible to “win”. Questions can have various responses and players can explain their answers, enabling players to engage in conversation. 

An example question is “what day did Beyonce turn Black?” 

In your opinion, do you think it is possible for art to ever exist outside of politics (“art for art’s sake”) or do you think all cultureis implicitly political?

I find the notion “art for arts sake” to be boring. Like I love a good story behind the work or searching for its social or historical context. Acknowledging art solely for its formal qualities takes away any sociopolitical context of work. I also think creating art just for it’s formal qualities is a privilege that most artists of color are not afforded.    


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