Artist Interview: Asa Mendelsohn

Weinberg Newton Gallery: Your contribution to the exhibition is a HD three channel video titled Instrumental, which echoes throughout the gallery. As someone whose work focuses on the intimacy of power structures, this reflects the solitude of the guards on film, especially when coupled with the singing of “You Will Be Found” from the Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen. Airport security, and airports in general, are places of anxiety on a number of levels, yet Instrumental is almost a reestablishment of autonomy by the subjects. Was that the intention of this piece?

Asa Mendelsohn: While I was working on this, a friend shared a text by Simone Browne, who refers to the airport as a “security theater.” That made a lot of sense to me, as a way to describe the intricacy of the security work that takes place at the airport — where long checkpoint lines, escalators, scrolling info screens, build a fragmented, moving stage — but also as a way to describe how that people who work in these spaces are enlisted as its actors. 

When and where is it possible to claim autonomy from the state, or from your manager? The instability of autonomy is normal, and is its own kind of horror. I wanted the work I did at the airport to address that instability. In that way it felt important to include not just sequences of singing, but the moments leading up to song, and the moments after, waiting around, setting up. 

There’s a moment right before Joe starts singing “You Will Be Found” when you can hear the airport music in the background. Joe’s getting ready to start singing, but at this point we’ve been filming for awhile and he’s already warmed up, waiting for a second camera. He starts singing along to the airport. He laughs: “I wish I knew this song.” 

WNG: There’s a lot of “dancing” in the piece, whether seemingly more choreographed (as with the wheelchair) or in subtler fashion (I’m thinking of the movement of the escalators). Were you thinking about these actions as something that occurs by happenstance in an airport, or as motion with which to pair with singing?

AM: Tieri’s dance with the wheelchair was actually a lot less directed than the sequences on the escalators. It was more spontaneous. He started dancing that day as a way to loosen up, in order to sing, and then his cumbia moved across the floor. We were filming at the far end of Terminal 2 near an area closed off for construction, and it was relatively quiet. There happened to be these wheelchairs, and having already gotten over there, Tieri took one as a partner. After he did this once we were like yes of course, so then he did it again. That was one of the days it was just me and him working together, and we’d already met a few times, so I think it was more possible to feel out the space. The image of Tieri pushing the empty dancing chair came through that process of play. The shots on the escalators were a bit different, these aspirational moments of music video choreography that I included in iteration, to show the process of trying to make the image. 

WNG: Being in their day-to-day job, were the security guards more comfortable performing in front of their colleagues, or did you have to goad them a bit? Were any permissions involved, in terms of their bosses consenting to their being recorded?

AM: There were a lot of permissions involved, and separate conversations with each performer about what kind of singing they’re into, what they needed to feel comfortable. I knew I wanted to work one-on-one with people, so the process of directing was pretty idiosyncratic and came out of conversations. With another performer, this guy Lou who’s actually a retired TSA agent who made a cameo at the airport to sing Frank Sinatra songs, we created a karaoke setup in a food court. I ended up being most interested in how these two performers, Joe and Tieri, bounce off each other, so I edited the three channel version of the work to feature their songs.

I was granted permission to film there within the framework of creating a public artwork, commissioned by the airport. I had support from curators and security managers across the different companies working under the umbrella of airport security. I was able to work with performers while they were on the clock. A single channel version of the work was on view in two locations for a year, on the same monitors that display ads for Clinique or CNN or whatever. There’s a real tension in the work for me, between my intention to talk about about precarity and alienation, and what I think the airport liked about my proposal — the possibility to humanize airport security, make it more musical. I’m interested in that tension — is it legible viewing the work now, in the gallery, in the context of a show about surveillance? 

WNG: Considering the above, what do you intend to address next in your work?

AM: While I was working at the airport I made a performance with security staff at the Blanton Museum of Art at UT Austin, that felt pretty directly related. For the duration of a free, mostly musical public performance event, gallery assistants roved through museum spaces, narrating what they observed. Their voices were miked and carried across the museum mezzanine and lobby, while also running through a voice to text software displaying fragments from four performers speech on a monitor. Like at the airport, at the museum I was interested in the seams of a performance, and how the labor of security procedures might be re-ordered by their seams. 

Recent collaborations have involved working with voice in different ways, writing screenplays for operatic voices, and I have been working with an amazing singer, Hillary Jean Young, on the score for the film I’m working on now. The film is pretty different in form than anything I’ve made before, a feature-length essay reflecting on relationships between coalitional organizing and passing, and between activism and fantasy, looking, in part, at the legacy of a grassroots movement that successfully resisted private military development in Southern California in the mid-2000s. I’m editing right now, working through really challenging questions about my own voice.