At home, at work and at play with visionary artist-musician duo Delia Gonzalez & Gavin Russom
by Trinie Dalton
My boyfriend Matt and I arrived on our bikes to this chic Berlin restaurant that had no sign, and I wouldn’t have known we were at the right place had there not been a long dinner table set outside where a Stevie Nicks-ish redhead sporting a ’70s military jacket sat next to a semi-crusty, spaced out guy with really long hair and a beard that looked matted as if he had just gone scuba diving; his locks looked like they were caked with sea salt. I hope we’re eating with them, I thought, in awe of their awesome style. I also immediately liked them because we were gathered to visit mutual friend, artist AVAF, a.k.a. assume vivid astro focus, a.k.a. Eli Sudbrack, and friends of Eli’s are all jovial and talented. Eli had just come from Brazil via London and was in Berlin for two days before going to Barcelona, or something. Next to him was artist (and also, like Matt and me, summer Berlin resident) Terrence Koh, wearing a buckled-up Michael Jackson leather jacket. Then there was gallerist Javier Peres, the ultimate host, who’d just flown in from somewhere like Greece, England, or the U.S., and was stopping through before a trip to Estonia to pick up travel partner and permanent Berlin resident, Danish artist Kirstine Roepstorff. The other ten people at the table were French or Spanish DJs.
I locked up my bike, sat down, ordered some champagne and a bowl of white asparagus soup, and introduced myself to Delia Gonzalez and Gavin Russom, the most stylish couple in the world. They looked like a couple I could relate to: same age as me, creative, but with a way advanced fashion sense. I chatted with them while I waited two hours for the waitress to come out and tell me they were out of soup, and it was now too late to order more food since the kitchen was closed. Oh well, I enjoyed more champagne and listened to Delia talk about horoscopes and her visit to a highly-skilled psychic. It was a summery night and Delia and Gavin had only spent a few months thus far in their new Berlin apartment, where they moved to escape the New York art world and high cost of living. They met eight years ago in New York. Matt and I enjoyed discussing the beauty of discovering a new city with them. I felt a bond with Delia and Gavin, a sense of expatriate camaraderie, which imbued the rest of my stay in Germany with the comforting knowledge that other youngish American artists were living only blocks away. Even if I didn’t get to hang out with them, since they had an intense traveling schedule, they were still there, making the city cooler. Delia and Gavin made Berlin feel less foreign to me.
Therefore, I first met Delia Gonzalez and Gavin Russom as visual artists. They’ve worked as a pair for the past seven years, used to be a couple but aren’t anymore, and live separately, sharing each others’ apartments; Delia’s house is the art studio and Gavin’s is the music space. I’d seen their sculptures, knew they were represented by Daniel Reich, and seen another piece of theirs in a catalog for a group show in Austria. Their sculptures look like minimalist architecture, gleaming and pristine, hypnotically formal, and are either covered in cowrie shells or sequins. Sometimes they’re laquered or gold-leafed. They have a sort of punk-new age spirit, if one could mention the two together without extreme cheesiness. Their artwork’s punk glamour is cross-pollinated by a fascination with the occult. The sculptures are inspired by Art Deco, the golden age of Disco, and 70s Italian horror movie sets; some pieces have religious undertones, referencing Latin-American and African ceremonial totems and shrines, and illuminated manuscripts. Human-sized cubes and cones get cowrie shell eyes and mouths, transforming simple geometric shapes into magical talisman. Most of their sculptures are soundtracked by Delia and Gavin’s trance-inducing disco.
But Delia and Gavin didn’t begin as a collaborative sculpture team. Delia, originally from Miami, moved to New York in the mid-’90s to dance in troupes like Fancypants. Gavin, from Providence, was hosting magic shows under the name The Mystic Satin when the two met at a loft party. At first, Delia joined The Mystic Satin, while her and Gavin tinkered with prop making, set design and several varieties of modern dance. Since then, they’ve made videos, starring themselves, about zombies who wander Times Square; performed live magic acts dressed as a ballerina (Delia) and a warlock (Gavin); danced in their troupe called Black Leotard Front, and played in a heavy metal band, Fight Evil With Evil. Their first 7” single (and straight-up music project) “El Monte,” came out in 2004. Last October, hip electronic label, DFA (home of LCD Soundsystem and The Juan Maclean) released Delia and Gavin’s first full-length album, The Days of Mars. They’ll be playing some U.S. gigs while here for their art opening at Peres Projects Los Angeles in April. They’ll also be promoting the release of their single and video, “Relevee,” out this month.
Days of Mars is like Brian Eno, Goblin, and Kraftwerk combined into four long synthesizer tracks that are ambient but layered with pulsating rhythm. Gavin makes their analog synthesizers. When you listen to it you feel like you’re traveling to well, Mars. But their music is really more about life on Earth, Delia and Gavin each told me separately over the phone from Berlin. I spoke with them both as they passed their phone back and forth. Their wide range of interests reflect how limitless the idea of making art is to them. Genres don’t matter. Music, video, dance, magic show, sculpture, drawing: they love it all.
ON SCIENCE FICTION SOUNDTRACKS, HOT LESBIAN AUTHORS, AND HOMEMADE SYNTHESIZERS
Delia: Days of Mars is named after a Winifred Bryher book. She was Hilda Doolittle’s girlfriend. I had a little crush on her. It’s about WW2 in England. Bryher lived in Switzerland, but when the Germans were bombing England, she went back to support her friends, and kept a diary. The way she described people’s reaction to the war, the way they ignored everything that was going on, reminded me of Bush’s re-election. Everyone was threatening to leave the country, revolt, but when he was reelected, no one did anything about it. Everyone was in denial. “Black Spring,” the fourth song on the album, is also named after a book, by Henry Miller. I found out about that while reading Anais Nin.
Gavin: To make this album, we used synthesizers. I always related to music, and I wanted a more fluid relationship with my instruments. Building synthesizers was something I really wanted to do. In 2000, we were doing performances, and I wanted to make more synthesizer music. I made connections with people in NYC and over the Internet until I figured out how to build analog circuits using parts from Radio Shack and mail order electronics catalogs. I even etched the circuit boards in our apartment, until I figured out a more efficient way to do it. We use regular keyboards; since a lot of what we do is based on pulsing rhythms, the synthesizers allow us to separate out parts of the sound and give them their own rhythms. The sounds are mechanically generated so they interact with what we’re playing.
But really, I don’t know anything about electronic music. The only person I’ve been inspired by in that realm is David Tudor, John Cage’s pianist. He did the “Silence 4’33” piece, for example. As a composer, his basic idea was that the score is a circuit. He built what he called Black Boxes, so that the music he composed would serve as connections between them. Then there’s Louis and Bebe Berron, they made the soundtrack for Forbidden Planet. They felt that a soundtrack should not only be a soundtrack but also the sounds of the events in the film. There was the ongoing score then action sounds. They built a lot of their own stuff, and had this idea about the Cybernetic, that all instruments should have a life of their own. You’d turn the instrument on, it would create sound for a while, then it would die.
What’s interesting about making soundtrack music that isn’t a soundtrack for anything is that it becomes an analog to experience. It’s not fixedly about something visual, but to me it’s a way to be very expressive. Also, it articulates something about living in a time of war. People are in weird states of mind. Critics make this surface comparison of our music to ’70s synthesizer music, whether German or Vangelis, but that music is about escapism, creating an alternate world, whereas what we do is more about an describing an inner world.
Delia: Since we make the instruments, there’s already a story in them. We interact with the instruments. And since we’ve worked together for so long, we work so intuitively that we really just sit down and start playing. We think up themes for the songs on our own, but together we just play.
ON KENNETH ANGER, PERFORMANCE ART, DRESSING UP, AND STAGEFRIGHT
Delia: Style is important to me. I’m definitely motivated by beauty, as well as Gavin. No contemporary styles fall into that category, though. Our pieces have entertainment value because we grew up watching TV and movies. Hollywood has influenced us. In that way, we are like Kenneth Anger.
Gavin and I always have a dilemma of how to look on stage. When we performed in the past, we made all of our costumes. Now, when we play, we feel like it’s really us, so it’s harder to come up with a visual. We’re used to performing live in galleries. But our music now is more personal. Before our record came come out, I was nervous to tour because I get so embarrassed. For our shows coming up, we are for sure renting costumes! Then, I can totally perform.
Everything I do is extremely personal. For our sculptures, we take more into account what people will think, but really, we’re not even interested in that. Living in New York, it bothered me that so many people make art for commercial value, to get ahead. So we both made work against that. Our work is personal on purpose.
Gavin: Kenneth Anger makes me think of the aesthetics of magic. The most important thing is that magic or religion works. So in that sense, it doesn’t matter if art is made to entertain others or if it’s for yourself. You can look at Anger’s movies as Egyptian Magic Tools, or Hollywood Spectaculars.
There’s this over-saturation to the point that it becomes ecstatic. What inspires me about Afro-Latin-American religions is that they take from everything. If some image from pop culture works in a magical context it becomes integrated into the system. The cool thing about music versus art is that music functions as entertainment even though it is really personal too. It’s high intensity since it’s social.
ON MAGIC, CUBAN CULTURE AND THE OCCULT
Delia: I have a definite interest in occult systems. My parents are Cuban, and Santería has an impact on Cuban culture whether you’re into it or not. When I met Gavin, he was interested in Santería too. We’re not involved in occultism, but we’re interested in expanding our consciousness. We’re interested in both the supernatural and natural ways of looking at things. There’s a lot of struggle in our music. While we were recording Days of Mars, there were so many things I was holding inside that needed release, and I couldn’t put them into words. Music is spiritual for me.
Gavin: I’m interested in trance phenomenon. As a kid, I wanted to put myself into trances. Going to punk rock shows as a teen was ritualistic for me. So I started researching occult ideas, and how they manifested themselves in other cultures. I was interested in meditation and the psychedelic experience, because in my mind, the function of music is to access some deeper state.
ON COLLABORATION, MINIMALISM, AND FINDING YOUR CORE
Delia: We have conversations and come up with ideas together. Since we’ve been working together for eight years, it just happens. At first, it was hard for Gavin to work with someone else, and it was easier for me. There was a power struggle. But then we spent every second of the day together. We’d never spent a night apart, so we became in tune with each other. We exchange ideas all the time, so in some sense we’re one entity.
Gavin: At first, we introduced so many things to each other. Then we searched for things together, and now we’re back to showing each other things from different directions. Delia brings literary influence. She knows about 20th century literary social circles, like the Surrealists, like the poets Hilda Doolittle and Edith Sitwell, and she’s also aware of fantasy stuff. We’re both hugely into cinema.
Delia: Our work is somewhat ‘visionary,’ but mostly intellectual because ideas come out of conversations we have. The reason our work looks so bare and stripped down is because we’re collectors, so when we lived together, we had too much shit. When you walked in, everything was about to fall in on you. That affected our artwork. We almost have too many ideas, so we want to strip everything to its minimal essence. Individually, our instincts are to make crazy, elaborate stuff. If we made things separately, everything would look way different. Our aesthetic is shared. We want to find our core.
Excerpted from Arthur No. 21 (March 2006).