Interview with Daniel S. DeLuca

In early March, Art Fair season hit New York City, causing a frenzy of artists and galleries getting their work ready for prospective buyers.  Grace Exhibition Space, a gallery devoted to showing performance art in New York decided to wrangle their resources and participate at Fountain Art Fair.  In Grace’s “Go Big or Go Home” fashion, all bases were covered.  They teamed up with Boston’s Mobius Artist Group to organize performances to happen throughout the day and then Grace Space invited other performance artists to make performances in the evening.  I had the pleasure of participating and witnessing performance art taking over a space traditionally reserved for product-based artwork.  This event was appropriately named, “Infiltrate”.

A piece that stood out throughout the 4 days of “Infiltrate,” was Daniel S. DeLuca’s “demur”.  DeLuca, a Boston-area and Mobius artist, installed himself in front of the space where galleries had created temporary spaces on Pier 66 in Manhattan.  DeLuca seemed unassuming, blending into a pile of scrap metal and a forgotten caboose.  He held a sledgehammer in one hand, standing in front of a steel plate he foraged from the immediate environment.  A second sledgehammer was attached to the plate.  A few feet away, he installed a “Contract for Sale” for this performance piece.  For 8 hours for 3 consecutive days, DeLuca repeatedly hit the sledgehammers together, building a steadfast and cacophonous addition to the sonic landscape.

The Present Tense recently interviewed DeLuca about this piece, his process and practice.  Enjoy!

photo by Sandrine Schaefer

TPT:  Who are you?

DD:  Great question.

TPT:  How did you find performance art?  How did performance art find you?

DD:  It kicked me in the face one day during a class I was taking with Denise Marika at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Denise was in the middle of making the distinction between performance art and theater and she suddenly  stood up from her chair, raised it over her shoulder, then forcefully threw it into the floor.  It was at that moment that the concept of performance art became clear to me. Her action had real force and impact. She wasn’t pretending.  Looking back it was a powerful moment.  The whole platform of performance art practice really opened up in my mind.  I saw the potential of the medium and it felt honest to how I wanted to make work.  That was six years ago.

TPT:  Do you have an ideal context for your work to be experienced in?

DD:  I make a real effort to be sensitive to the context my work is shown in. Sometimes I will think of an action or material I want to work with and a suitable context is sought in relation to those elements. Other times I’m invited to a particular context or one is  discovered and the work becomes more of a response to or collaboration with the site.  A starting point seems necessary. It is hard to work outside of time and space.

TPT:  How did you choose the space in which you performed in?  Why did you choose to stay in one location?

DD:  I went through the authorized locations for performances and selected a spot that was open enough for me to swing a sledge hammer without worrying about impeding foot traffic.  Honestly, there weren’t many options.  Staying in the same place established a constancy and focus on the action. It was practical too.

photo by Sandrine Schaefer

TPT:  How did the context of being on a barge inform your experience?

DD:  It led me to consider my balance on a gently swaying surface.  While I was performing I was able to work with the sway.  When I wasn’t performing it made me feel clumsy and a little uneasy.

TPT:  How did the context of an art fair inform your performance?

DD:  It led me to consider the commercial market for art and in particular, performance art.

PTP:  You created a Contract of Sale for this piece.  What was the role of this Contract?

DD:  The contract was created to position the work more closely to the context of the art fair. I couldn’t ignore the fact that people would be selling artwork, not just at Fountain, but throughout New York as well.  I was thinking about the position of performance art among all of those commercial art fairs. I wonder how many performance art pieces sold?  It was an honest attempt to draft a contract that would act as a catalyst for the sale of the performance and was an interesting conceptual platform to work with.  I’m still working through ideas that came up while working on this aspect of the piece.  I think that its important to note that most people didn’t look at the contract. My action with the sledgehammers became the whole piece for the majority of the audience.

TPT:  Is there a relationship between the action of hitting sledgehammers together and this document?

DD:  Yes, the contract was an example of the metaphor of the action. The piece became self-referential because of it.

TPT:  Why Sledgehammers?

DD:  I liked the weight and force associated with them.  It was a good match for me physically. I wanted to work with an action that  would be challenging both in terms of strength and balance. I also wanted to work with a hard material. Steel is pretty hard. Their familiarity as a working class tool was important as well.

TPT:  Are these objects (Sledgehammers, Steel, and Contract of Sale) familiar to your work?  Are they new to your work?  Do you predict that you will work with them again?

DD:  I have worked with hammers once before. But the steel and the contract were new elements for me.  I was inspired by the weight of the steel and the complexity of the language in the contract.  I have already begun to revisit the role of the contract in my work.

TPT:  What is your relationship to your performance objects in the broader scope of your work?

DD:  You could use the same action to do a thousand different pieces by changing the material. You could also use the same material for a thousand different pieces by changing your action.  Context is another variable. I typically select objects that I feel are most appropriate to the concept and context I’m working with.  However, there have been some reoccurring interests with certain materials and I could see myself beginning to work with more closely over a period of time.  I’m still at a point where I’m exploring and discovering my relationship to the materials in my work. The way I work with gravity is becoming more clear to me. Its one of the major threads in my performance work.  Natural light and sound play a significant role too.

TPT:  What were some of your expectations/ hopes (if any) of your audience?

DD:  I hoped someone would buy my performance.

TPT:  Were there any moments that surprised you?

DD:  I was surprised by how loud the sound was.  The first day I didn’t wear ear protection and my ears rang for a few days afterwords.  I could have really damaged my ears if I hadn’t worn protection over the last two days.  It was startling for many people who walked by not expecting such a loud sound.  Some of the artists close by were annoyed by it. Others who were farther away said that it was kind of comforting to have the consistency of the sound coming from the distance.  I swung the hammer when I was ready to.  This was around every 30-60 seconds.

TPT:  Why did you choose to create this work over the duration of 3 days?

DD:  I wanted to have enough time to really experience the physicality of it and to see   the impact in the material. I wanted to flatten the sledgehammer, disintegrate it if I could. One swing at a time.  I have even given consideration to continuing the action for many years until the hammer really did flatten or the piece sold.  If the piece was sold and re-performed then I would’t have to do the work myself! I also  wanted to reach a wider audience and to be a constant element in the environment.

TPT:  How did the piece evolve for you over that time?

DD:  I developed a whole breathing cycle, physical acuity, and mental focus that I had not fully anticipated. I became more efficient with my swing pattern the more time I spent with it.  The concentration became clear to those watching in the subtle moments between the fast part of the swing. I began watching the shadows of people in my periphery. I tried to wait until them had passed by before I made a swing.  The sound was so loud I didn’t want to catch people completely off guard.  I also became more sensitive to the swaying of the boat.  I tried to work with the sway for each swing.  My legs were extremely sore after the first day and the second day was colder than the first.  I had different conditions to work with each day but I was able to get into and sustain the focus on the action more quickly after the first day.

photo by Sandrine Schaefer

photo by Sandrine Schaefer

TPT:  What is your definition of “durational”?

DD:  Honestly, I look at it like a relative grayscale.  I don’t have a notion of “durational” that I am trying to champion. Colloquially, I would use it to describe work that is several hours, days, or years long.

TPT:  What is the role of repetition in this work?

DD:  The repetition brought subtleties  to the surface and allowed for a visible impact in the material.  At first glance the action is kind of Sisyphean and not very entertaining.  However, unlike Sisyphus, there was gradual impact and change in the material over time. The hammer heads impacted each other and formed an imprint in the steel plate beneath them.  Despite the perceived futility of the act there was actual change taking place. Thinking more about the imprint broadened my understanding of the metaphor I was working with. Also, for me, it was the pace and duration of the repetition which alluded to a feeling of slow, constant, time.

TPT:  Can you describe your process for realizing this work?

DD:  This piece evolved over a month and a half before it was shown at the Fountain Ar Fair.  Initially, I was going to focus solely on concepts around the commodification of performance art.   However, I was having a lot of physical anxiety at the time so I decided to incorporate a physically challenging action. The action of swinging a sledgehammer is what I came up with.  This was also when the series of revolutions were taking place in the Arab World and senators were fleeing Wisconsin.  There seemed to be a lot of social and political unrest going on nationally and internationally.  This piece was an attempt at grappling with some of the skepticism I had around those issues. I questioned the way we use the same tools and systems to achieve our own ideals as the people and systems we ideologically oppose. Are the political and social systems at fault? Are the people at fault? At fault for what? Instead of placing blame and in light of offering an alternative I  created a metaphor through “demur.” I felt more like an observer and time keeper than a problem solver. What I discovered was the importance of the imprint left behind on the steel plate. The impact of the collision of steel on steel was one thing. The shape it left behind was something reflective of the original but completely different.

photo by Bob Raymond

photo by Bob Raymond

TPT:  Define “Demur”?

DD:  “The action or process of objecting to or hesitating over something… raising doubts.” (My computer’s dictionary)

TPT:  How was performing in NYC different from making work in Boston?

DD:  It was farther away from home.

TPT:  What is your interpretation of the “Boston Flavor”?

DD:  I don’t think Im qualified to answer that question.

TPT:  What is inspiring you at the moment?

DD:  Wonder and Reason.

TPT:  What are you studying?

DD:  Ideas, animals, space, and matter.

TPT:  Who/What is influencing your work presently?

DD:  Necessity.

TPT:  In addition to creating performance art, you are active in organizing art events, art research projects, etc.  How does this piece fit into the rest of your work?

DD:  I go through periods when I am more extroverted and have the drive to work collaboratively with larger numbers of artists and organizations.  I have other periods where I am more introverted and make work individually.  I am in an introverted period at the moment and am focusing on artworks like “demur.”

TPT:  What’s Next?

DD:  Three doors and a guillotine that cuts watermelons in half.  I am  also in the beginning stages of another artistic research project that investigates Mexico and the celebrations for the end of the Mayan calendar.  It would be similar to People in Space.

TPT:  Any words of wisdom?  Words to chew on?

DD:  Chew on words.