Artistic Fusion: Interview with Multi-Media Artist Elliot Reed

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By: Paula Neeley, Freelance Journalist

Elliot Reed, a Minnesota native, is an artist and director. He assembles bodies, movement, and narrative within exhibition space, wielding performance as a tool. Their projects span video, dance, performance, and sculpture highlighting the ways seen (and unseen) actors make their mark.

In the world of “the starving artist,” along comes an individual who is not only NOT starving, but is surviving and thriving. Elliot paves a road that weaves the arts together holistically and his process pioneers a new way for future young artists.

Elliot is a 2019 danceWEB scholar, 2019–20 Artist in Residence at The Studio Museum in Harlem, and recipient of the 2019 Rema Hort Mann Emerging Artist Grant. Exhibitions include a commission with JACK Quartet (2021), Metro Pictures (2021), MoMA PS1 (2020/21), OCD Chinatown (2021), The Getty Center (2018), Hammer Museum (2016), Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (2018), The Broad (2017), and performances in Tokyo, Osaka, London, Mexico City, Vienna, and Hamburg. Their next show opens Fall 2021 at Kunsthaus Glarus.

What do you know now that you wish you had known when you first started?

Hmm … I guess the classic one is: don’t wait for permission. If I felt like I needed to direct something, I just [directed] it. Then, I found people to help me do it. Just do the thing that you want to do. Once you can accept that, you’re free [to create].

Do you intentionally seek opportunities to add to your tool belt? 

The strongest tool of all is desire. So, similar to the permission thing, if I decide I want to do something, figuring out how to not allow anyone else to dissuade me from doing it. If I can imagine it for myself, then it’s possible. And selectively seeking out opportunities to match what my goal is and focus less on what I think I’m qualified for. I feel like the world is kind of designed to make you feel like you’re always under-qualified to do something, until you do it. Then everyone’s like, oh wow, you did it. 

Your piece on display at MoMA “End-to-End Encryption: Lot’s Wife” addresses some of the despair you felt during the pandemic. Proverbially looking back, do you have any regrets?

There’s a ton of things that frustrate me, that I wish I could change, that I wish I had more clarity on, but as far as, like, a day-to-day thing, I’m pretty happy with where I’m at right now. Everybody’s reactions to living is different, but I don’t have many regrets. It’s actually through reflecting [that I’m] more conscious of [my] choices. I really try to think about what might happen. I can’t know, so it’s not a looking back. It’s like a looking forward.

What funding trends have you noticed for artists?

I’m not anti-grant, but I’m trying to set myself up where I can just sell [my pieces of art] work and live off that, which isn’t too much of an ask. I’ve had enough experience with people who’ve done it. 

There seems to be a cognitive disconnect with the arts where you’re expected to buy supplies. You’re expected to pay for your studio and, like, do all this stuff [with no funding]. And it isn’t until the work is done that, if you’re lucky, someone might buy it. Whereas if you’re a producer on a movie, it’s considered normal that, in order to make a certain quality of production, you would require a budget that allows people to show up to work. So, I’m trying to keep that in mind and not listen to the prevailing thought that you have to starve first. It’s like, no, that’s not how most people live. And I don’t think that should be on artists either.

In the world of storytelling and theater, what do you wish you had known starting out?

Storytelling is next to theater, so it’s not so different either [from movement and visual art]. And, you know, art is something you can look at and experience. It’s kind of like … reflection: oh, I wonder what brought me here? I don’t carry the same institutional baggage [as a lot of artists]. It’s just not in my background. I’m realizing how much of a gift that is. I was only limited by myself, my confidence. I guess I was lucky enough to always be in spaces where I could try things.

I cannot help but to wonder if the artistic space that Elliot inhabits is precisely because they don’t have institutional baggage. They exist in a self-created, innovative space and it comes through in work that is fresh and unencumbered.

What about music?

I always had [a kind of] adversarial relationship with my piano teachers because I didn’t like to practice that much. My last piano teacher was the only one who, instead of forcing me to do the thing I wouldn’t do, she encouraged me to compose. She cultivated my lack of interest in learning other people’s music and just sort of tapped into my playing ability and my creativity and tried to get me to be more excited about that. 

[She’d say] well, if you just want to sit in front of the piano and play, let’s talk about what would it look like if you were going to write this down? or What if you wanted to make this something that someone else can play? or How can we make this into chords? So, in a way, I was still learning those [musical] skills, but through the back door. 

How do you build your network?

Through making work, mostly. I don’t really think about it because it’s always so organic. But then just through talking about what I wanted to do, I kind of was able to make it happen in a different way. [For example,] I was performing around [the Twin Cities] with younger artists who were making work dealing with identity and whatever other things. Then I met this person who saw me perform and she was really excited about [my work]. [Turns out], she was faculty at the University of Minnesota and invited me to do a talk for her students. I did a performance for her at school. A year later, she curated this performance series through the Walker Art Center. [By that time,] I had already moved to Chicago, but I flew back to Minneapolis to perform at her event. 

It was this 21st anniversary for a Ron Athey performance in 2015. Afterwards, I moved to Los Angeles which led to another connection with a filmmaker/performer, Vaginal Davis, who invited me to Berlin to work with her during the 2018 Berlin Biennial. In 2021, Ron did a solo show in New York, where I currently live, and invited me to perform the opening poetry reading for it. It’s like the more I do, everything kind of overlaps. 

What would you tell a young artist?

Don’t wait for permission. If you want to make something, just make it. Work with your friends if you feel like it. If you don’t want to, don’t. Sometimes [people] can’t understand something or believe it until they see it in front of them, which isn’t their fault. No one knows what you’re thinking, so you kinda just have to do it sometimes. They can’t tell you to stop doing something after you already did it. But, if you ask for an opinion too soon, it’s always going to be “too complicated”, “too expensive”, or “it doesn’t make sense” or like, “why is it like this?” 

What are you reading?

The gift of a well-written book is that it gives you the ability to sort of learn, develop and kind of self-reflect, which is normally a process that takes years, or like more realistically a lifetime. And to get … even a taste of that in a couple of hundred pages … gives so much depth, you know?  And I feel like I can learn a lot about myself and also other people through the words of others, even if I haven’t experienced what the other person’s talking about.

There’s a theorist I read named Dr. Marek Oziewicz, who writes about … he calls it speculative fiction, but now he’s a PhD and writes about literature, like critically. And his thing is that the memetic impulse and the non-memetic impulse are both responses to reality. Or fiction is not actually fiction because the person who writes a book is human. And I think his argument is that it’s impossible to write something that doesn’t involve your personal experience. So even if you’re talking about dragons, you’re not actually talking about dragons. You’re kind of interpreting some other struggle or even a feeling or an experience. So even storytelling, as “out there” as it [might be], it’s still made by people who have the same kind of problems that you know a lot of us have.

Interweaving Movement and Music

I think about how choreography applies to the way I think about art-making. So, in the way I work with movement, the way I work with direction … the body factors into visual arts and dance, too. I think the secret for me is figuring out what it is I went through in the past or what I experienced or what attracted me to certain things and highlighting that. I believe in constantly being able to change. It’s valuable to shift, develop, and change. There’s something to be said about the things that excited me when I was younger. There’s a reason for that, even if it was like pre-language or precognition. Maybe it’s not so weird that I’m interested in dance because I grew up playing music and music and dance go together.

In September 2021, Elliot Relocated to Montpellier, France to begin a Master’s in choreography at ICI — centre chorégraphique national de Montpellier – Occitanie.

See links below to other Q&A profile pieces by Paula Neeley:

Career Counseling: The Impact of Ethnicity, Gender, and Class on Career Options, Career Choices, and Career Opportunities – An Interview with womanist, Lyvonne Briggs | The UpTake

Career Counseling: The Impact of Ethnicity, Gender, and Class on Career Options, Career Choices, and Career Opportunities – An Interview with Millennial and Spoken Work Artist, Pastor Malachi | The UpTake

Career Counseling: The Impact of Ethnicity, Gender, and Class on Career Options, Career Choices, and Career Opportunities – An Interview with Emerging Artist Chavonn Williams Shen | The UpTake

Career Counseling: The Impact of Ethnicity, Gender, and Class on Career Choices, Career Options, and Career Opportunities: An Interview with My Father. | The UpTake

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