Christopher Kojzar received his BA from George Washington University and his MFA from University of Maryland- Baltimore County. He has been awarded residencies at La Napoule Art Foundation (Mandelieu-la-Napoule, France), the Creative Alliance (Baltimore, MD), the Santa Fe Art Institute (Santa Fe, NM), and volunteered at the Agency of Artists in Exile (Paris, France). The Deutsch Foundation and the Walter and Janet Sondheim Prize awarded he and his collaborators for their oeuvre ‘Renovations’ while the Maryland State Arts Council granted the group, known as strikeWare, a Regional Individual Artist Award in 2021. Kojzar was recently awarded the Andrew Harris Fellowship at University of Vermont and is currently serving as a faculty member in the college’s School of the Arts.
His ongoing project ‘Plainclothes Agenda’ was also recognized for the 2021 Sondheim Award, has been noted by the Washington Post, and has been presented and published for conferences across the United States.
For 2022, he is designing and collaborating on two public art projects in Maryland: The Lexington Market Public Art site known as “Robert & Rosetta” and the “McDonogh Memorial to Those Enslaved and Freed”. These public monuments document the United States’ history of slavery and stand as acknowledgements to the realities of our every-day ancestors.
1- You are a multi-disciplinary artist who works primarily in drawing but also in mixed-media work. Can you tell us a little bit about your trajectory as an artist?
I’d say it all started when I had more hair and more naivety. But I guess if I were to pinpoint a moment that could relate to ‘trajectory’, I’d say my residency at the Creative Alliance in Baltimore, MD set stuff in motion. The residency provides artists up to three years of live-in space in a multi-purpose building to produce a solo exhibit. I focused on creating a wide array of media that included large-scale drawings, weavings, sculpture and video work. Truth be told, I didn’t really know what I was doing and just turned down an offer to attend grad school in California. The Creative Alliance, in fact residencies in general, gave me a chance to explore mediums without marrying the work to the canon that academia proposes. And to be more honest, I couldn’t afford private university, and was really uncomfortable to take on the risk of non-federal student debt. I needed to work, to produce, and started with what I considered fundamental in the field of art, which was drawing.
After the solo show closed out at the Creative Alliance, I was professionally acclimated to the ideas and conversations happening in the art world, and had fully realized that my momentum couldn’t continue without some formal educational background. Apart from oil painting classes in undergrad, I had no context to conceptualize work, and that’s what I was beginning to make, made obvious by some of my sculptural pieces. But still, to give more context, the work was all over the place; that word ‘multi-disciplinary’ rubs me the wrong way, but it was exactly what I was doing, and still do. I would spend months working with six different kinds of medium – digital photo-collages, poetry and creative memoir, short films, wood sculpture, installation, painting on glass; it was a total shit storm of process work. I was also horrible at writing proposals, artist statements, grants (the whole lot really) because in reality, I just wanted to focus on the visual work, on the making; it was all emotive and didn’t really have substance, save a focused theme about the liminality between work and leisure. When I had one year left at the Creative Alliance, I was holding a full-time job as a set builder on some Netflix and HBO shows, and again, came to terms with the acute situation surrounding the word ‘career’. It was either constant freelance hustles and union work in the film industry, which became exhausting, or hunker down and apply to school. So that’s what I did.
University of Maryland – Baltimore County offered me a great funding package to get my MFA in their three-year program and I just taught myself a whole new set of skills, with the support of the faculty and my colleagues. All the while, I held dearly onto the idea of draftsmanship, which got relegated to an intuitive-and quite involuntary-performance of just drawing in public. It all kind of started with a sketchbook, a pencil, a smartphone, and a 360-degree camera. When a professor threw out the term ‘flaneurism’ things started to meld. I just latched on to the concept. The recording with a camera or with audio and the idea that it was a performance had its roots in my hobby as an improviser with the Baltimore Improv Group. I was never really roll-on-the-floor funny, definitely not one for references or punchlines, but was able to dig into situational humor or stereotyping on stage, which manifests as bias in its real world application. It was like the humor surrounding our biases, our fear of one another.
When I introduced the digital media that was entrained through school to real world situations about racial profiling, I caught on to a very serious cosmic joke of constantly being called out while being ‘black at rest’ in public space. The work cut into my soul, and became a sordid response to the constant barrage of news and real-life events about excessive use of force, police brutality and murder, loitering, protest, surveillance, body image; all these transgressions against us just trying to exist in America. Looking back at it, even though I tied all my work to theory and historical traits of dandyism, in practice there’s this core hidden element of absurd humor. I mean, to go out in public with my little sketchbook and draw the pretty buildings and birds, all while being called a terrorist when someone catches an air of suspision that a black man shouldn’t be out on a April Tuesday drawing in the square of Any-ville, USA I mean, it’s just deft, if I say so myself.
You’ll have to look at some of my art and the narrative on my social media and website, but the terrorist thing is very real, very visceral, and sadly funny, well, absurd. Just last week, in May of 2022, a woman was screaming bloody murder for twenty minutes at me to get the fuck out of the park because I represented the “Middle East” in her mind (her words too, among other things like ‘fucking asshole’, ‘terrorist’, etc). She may have been off her meds, but the level of disdain when she took notice of me was unparalleled, unreal. I don’t mean to say that poor mental health predetermines that kind of behavior, but I wasn’t provoking it. I didn’t even notice her until she pointed me out, fingers wailing at me and all.
I’ve scaled back to record many of my performances as just audio coupled with the drawing because I’m more inclined to show only a romanticized flair of an event that shouldn’t exist, shouldn’t need documentation, to leave room to this ‘oh, he must be making things up’, or ‘oh, this can’t actually be happening’; but it does, to me. It’s this racist displacement of time and space that slows things down to make me stop drawing. And that’s what I do. After every interaction I have, and I have had several along the spectrum from lovely to shitty, the drawing stops and the performance is complete. If I’m proving a point, it’s just to sit there and let my pen be mightier than a sword.
2- How did drawing lead to experimenting with other art mediums like interactive art projects? Do you begin with drawing, and then develop mixed-media works?
As of late, the drawing is very much about technique and skill building but there have been many instances where it commanded the creation of interactive sculptures, like as a statement about drawing. The interactive sculptures that relate to the subject-matter of drawing conceptually juxtapose the act itself, so there will be like ‘interactive sketchbooks’ that instead of being made out of paper are handcrafted to look like smartphone-leaflet book hybrids, as a commentary on how we draft ideas in the 21st century. The larger sculptures are all some variation of how form is brought from concept, but I rarely sketch out what they will look like, as a mode of planning or sketching out ideas. I compose the idea of an object that already exists as itself in the world and remix it from source imagery from the internet so that I can build it, piece it together, and push a narrative. So for instance, I crafted ‘a tower viewer’ as a tangible object to reference how we used to peer from atop skyscrapers or out to sea. I mean, there are several conceptual layers to it, but that’s the most obvious because it just looks like what it’s meant to be. There’s this crossover then into using new media or video to access the sculpture as a touchable object about ‘document’. Not like a piece of paper document, but more like a registry that’s marked a time, an era, a person or an idea pulled out from the annals of history to resolve how we see and understand things today. So ideally, the interactive art, the installation, the entire exhibit is a touchstone, and one that can be accessed at different levels.
I think I’ve only had one drawing shown both as a piece of undeviating fine art in and of itself and as an entry-point to something interactive. As part of the show “Renovations”, Mollye Bendell, Jeffrey Gangwisch, and I worked together as the strikeWare collective to produce a whole series of interactive art pieces that reimagined the history of the Peale Center in Baltimore. The exhibit traced the history of the first nine Black high school graduates of Baltimore City, then spun out into a larger multi-sensory retelling of several buildings that housed Black-American educational, eccliastical or societal influence. I’m thinking particularly of a drawing of Bethel AME Church done with pen on vellum, which by way of an augmented reality app designed by Jeff reveals a digitized lithograph and an architectural model created by Mollye. Bethel AME was one of those drawings where if you walked closer to it with your phone’s camera pointed in its direction, Mollye’s digitized 3D model would pop out, and the lithograph would be unveiled when your phone got right up against the vellum. These ideas to use new and traditional media along with the subject matter, however, wouldn’t have been a success without the three of us collaborating. And the exhibit needed some guidance, we kind of served as our own docents to direct people how to move about the space, meaning for those who wanted to go deeper and had or showed interest to experience the sculpture with the technology, could access it. The full narrative was realized with the sculptures for sure. But new media definitely gave the story its edge, made it compelling for an attendee to hold on to the show.
3-Your work is also performative: exploring the themes of race, surveillance in public places and the relationship between observing and being observed. How do your experiences of being a multi-racial artist inform your work?
I usually bring to light that I’m a multiracial man who’s the son of an African-American artist and a Czechoslovakian asylum-seeker. Still, I attended universities, artist residencies, service missions, and traveled abroad to find that I was mostly navigating a lot of white spaces, and I think that it compelled me to create art that responds to these spaces.
Speaking in terms of access, I’m granted certain ‘liberties’ that I can’t take for granted in the United States. It’s difficult to describe but I consider little instances that I can immediately contextualize as racially engendered biases specific to every black man, and in spite of my mixed race, in spite of the way I’ve normalized movement as a mixed race man, I can navigate issues surrounding the concept a little more unassumingly. It’s to say that I can be momentarily unaware of my presence as a Black American, and even though I’m Black-presenting, I don’t think about things like wearing a hoodie while walking into a convenience store or worry about wandering through the county on other people’s property, because in reality, it’s what I’m used to doing. It’s how I grew up.
It’s impossible to say that I can separate objective racism and race-bated fear from how others perceive my identity, but, despite all matters, that identity, both the Black and East European heritage is a commonplace of my pride. I’m also separating American Whiteness and Slavic Whiteness as two different concepts. I’m overgeneralizing a bit, but for me, American Whiteness has a deep-seated nature to assume race as an entangled system of marginalized stratification, and that’s something I take advantage of in my work. This is a specific, albeit subjective supposition that I immediately peg as the root problem of our American mentality towards skin color. There are few instances in America where I can withdraw the race card. And the race card is an assumption based on being observed as a Black American when I do my work. And it’s something I can never rule out and never want to fall back on when someone gets all out of sorts when I’m just existing while black, but I often have to do it when I navigate public space not only with my work, but in my life. For example, in America I’ve been immediately pegged as a loiterer – a term entrenched with racial historicity – whereas if I travel to the Czech Republic or to France or even to Morocco, I am exocticised and oggled at not as a loiterer, but as a stranger to the land.
This is all to say that I haven’t resolved the perplexities of race, and class for that matter, in the United States. I am a light-skinned black man who was raised in a diverse suburb of Maryland and the sentiment towards racism or segregation or othering, all that, made itself more apparent when I took on the arts professionally in Baltimore. My friends and partners are all jokingly like, “You’re white,” knowing that I am always seeking out cultural markers of ethnicity, race, and language in my work. People look at my last name and want to know what part of me is a little more black than how I come off, which, even saying, feels kind of socially inept. But in my work, especially in my work, I try to step out of the victim-victor mentality as someone who needs to be consistently reminded that drawing, or existing, or being black in public space has to be trumped by the ire of suspicion. I imagine that this work makes me take identity politics too seriously, especially in regards to race, especially because I justify the performance or being observed or surveillance in general as a response to the color of my skin. I think it’s right to assume race is a factor, but more importantly, surveillance tends to affect the entire American population. I found my mixed background to be somewhat unique, not special, but unique enough that I could access different levels of patience for race related transgressions that came up in my work. This project takes an incredible balance of both patience and levity, and there is an element of veracity in what I do, meaning I’m trying to prove a point.
4- You were among some of the artists in the diversity panel from NMC’s Border Control symposium. In your presentation, you spoke about the 19th-century French literary archetype of the “flâneur,” “which was used to describe idleness, leisure, and strolling through Parisian streets. How do your performances of drawing in public draw from the flâneur, and in what ways do you depart from it? How do you choose the public locations to perform your interventions? Would you call them interventions?
I picked apart Keith Tester’s “The Flaneur”, a compendium of essays written about the archetype in various modes of action. Three articles that stuck out in the book were written by Bruce Mazlish, Rob Shields, and David Frisby. There’s also an interesting take on the flâneuse and domestic interiority by Janet Wolff, which expands upon two women artists, Gwen John and Rainer Maria Rilke, who were employed by Rodin. Walter Benjamin’s “The Arcades Project” is a deep account of street wandering and has a section that outlines the habits of the flâneur, while Shantrelle Lewis’ “Dandy Lion” examines how the overlap of masculinity, subversion, and fashion contextualize the role of black men in their display of streetwise sensibility and eccentricity. In a very literary sense, Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” uncovers who the flâneur is and what he does, in a poetic form.
The nineteenth-century ‘dandy’ figure was just known to be like this kind of myth who penned what Baudelaire describes as ‘feuilletons’. We don’t see many instances of flâneurs drawing, but they could definitely be associated with the underbelly of society, as made apparent by Poe’s work, the bohemian lifestyle of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and the connotative translation of the verb ‘flâner’ into English, which is taken as ‘to loiter’. I think there’s a strong association about a queer lifestyle, about being around everyday people in the streets, and even as a complement to anitquated terms like vagrants, prostitutes, gypsies, trouble-makers, third-class citizens, and the like, though I’m not judging these groupings of people. In Haitian Creole, it’s a term reiterated to describe gigolos if I’m not mistaken. And it’s just a bit ironic because the flâneur is always casted an upper-class man of leisure with a lot of time on his hands.
I take on this documentation trend in my work, this idea of ‘penning feuilletons’ and inscript it as a drawing exercise rather than a note-taking experience; and instead of getting lost in the crowd as Poe wrote, my invisibility is never as shrouded as it should be. The flaneur moves about, constantly blending in urban environments, in the crowd so to speak, whereas I am seen, I am approached by the onlookers in the cities I go to. In fact, as a call and response method, the person who approaches me while I draw is more an embodiment of the flâneur than I am. They survey the crowd, they see me, they take note of me, and they reveal how I stick out like a sore thumb among the movement rather than the other way around. I rarely notice or take notice of the people, which is a trait of the flâneur.
When I first started doing this, I was very stuck to the boundaries of my habit to document places of business, where people were working, to juxtapose my working – the act of drawing – with their job – which I codified as the opposing force to my leisure. That ‘man of leisure’ as a connotative descriptor of flânerie, I objectively place in the act of drawing, as it is meant to be seen as the ultimate act of leisure that someone might take on.
Some of my early work could be described as interventions but I never defined them as such. I started in real tense work environments with that idea to place my body beside the tenseness. Airports and government offices in Washington DC were some of the first places I went to, then documenting day laborers soliciting for work outside of Home Depot at 6 or 7 in the morning; the Department of Motor Vehicles; transit stations like the Oculus Hub in Manhattan; picket lines outside of auto plants in Detroit; these have served as my most critical testing grounds. I’ve also sketched at casinos, car repair shops, strip clubs, stores, hotels and subway stations, visually discerning for myself a balance between artistry and loitering. I speak French and have gone throughout France, in Paris, the countryside, Cannes, just to see the reaction there.
I’ve always defined the performances as ‘activations’ because they start with a neutral stance. The provocation that my body extracts from another’s point of reference, in effect, makes the act of drawing the activator; the public, the need for other people, they figure my body as a solicitor, but they are intervening. In the U.S., particularly on the East Coast, the performance has led me to believe that the right to observe freely is mired in what Nicholas Mirzoeff calls “a policing of visuality” and the fact that the gaze is systematically obfuscated in this era of escalating surveillance and mistrust.
That surveillance factor I teased out, but it was so, so unintentional. I uncovered specific guidelines on the Department of Homeland Security’s website that insisted that when someone sketches, observes, or pays “unusual attention to facilities or buildings beyond a casual or professional interest,” the act should be reported. This mandate to investigate sketching interfered with what I considered drawing. In September of 2020, the DHS quietly removed these words from their description of terrorist-related activities, but it remains on the websites of local and state agencies.
5- In the past, there have been works of art, especially performances, that address the inherent bias and dangers of surveillance technologies. Artists relied on video and CCTV technologies like the Surveillance Camera Players and Julia Scher. What is it about advanced surveillance technologies that demand that we think of other strategies of resistance? Is resistance even possible?
I don’t have a great answer but I think the one strategy of resistance that would never work is disassociation. Meaning, complacency to let the system resolve itself. In one’s own life, a person should look at how an ‘advancement’ can be flipped to interrogate the current state of affairs, how the technology can be re-framed to critique institutional power. Kind of to jump at this idea of ‘advanced’ surveillance technologies, that word advanced makes me consider that the technology is always trying to play catch up to a supposed need to intervene the status-quo, a supposed threat, which actually may be justified, but it makes a threat out of us all. Historically, surveillance is meant to be one step ahead of those surveyed. How can we build bigger watchtowers, use more lights, segregate populations, exterminate and classify populations? There have always been ways that the institution and the oppressor have tried to curb what they perceive as problems with the population they are meant to serve, and the system is always introducing new ways to catch up, always trying to advance.
I’m not wholly an expert of surveillance culture and I’ve been digging into it in an analog sort of way, but any kind of action-oriented resistance does mitigate how the technology denotes power, and complacency considers that we don’t collectively have power. One thing that’s still being resolved in Congress is the regulation of facial recognition software, and it’s a real issue, moving along a pendulum in the courts, and affecting the everyday citizen.
Taking into account what drives societal biases, the technology has an eerie pre-condition to the standard we place on our own safety. What becomes unsettling is that, yes, we feel helpless to its ubiquity, but we want it to serve us, in a utopian kind of way. In fact, the storage of personal data has yielded an unsettling white noise that disproportionately affects non-binary, women, or darker complexioned people. Technological advancement can also come at the expense of the power of examination, for example, the phenomenon of algorithmic-biases so complex that they are increasingly difficult to troubleshoot, resulting in pre-existing biases becoming a permanent, hard element of digital infrastructure, an invisible wall. Timnit Gebru and her collaborators kind of inadvertently point this out in their study of search engines in the article “On the Dangers of Stochastic Parrots-Can Language Models Be Too Big”. For me, the purpose of art, interactive and new media is to disarm users from the perceived notion that technology is neither inherently bad or good, but inaccessible if you let it be. A lot of the tools that are being prescribed to analyze the population are available to us as artists and as everyday people.
On a note to the artists, I love that you bring up Julia Scher because I think the way she was thinking about surveillance in the 90s, the way she presented the series “Predictive Engineering” – it had a lot of forethought into how surveillance is trending today, how it’s solely about codifying the human body to be the nexus, the center of attention, the subject who both loses agency and brings agency as an escape mechanism. Fast forward to now, I came across the Dazzle Club and read about their monthly outings organized in London, how they paint their faces, hiding prominent features and shadows to combat facial recognition cameras in the streets. It’s a choreography, also much like Jill Magid’s “Evidence Locker,” again a choreographed method to prove how surveillance culture, how cameras, and how police are effectively becoming patsies to train everyone to be suspicious of one another and to dissociate from one another. All the technology needs is a particular subset of the human population in order to spot the invisible among us, to focus on who and what provokes the visibility. Ultimately, the purpose of resistance is to bridge a gap between new systems and infringements on our civil rights, which is real, and to self-educate on how the technology is used, so that we can robustly understand these intersections in a broader cultural landscape.
6- Your upcoming public work, “Robert and Rosetta,” with Oletha DeVane for the Lexington market plaza in Baltimore makes reminds us of the history of slavery in Maryland through sculpture. Can you tell us more about the importance of public art and how you use new media to design work like this that recalls black history?
For me, art as public sculpture is conditional on the culture that surrounds it. I think that site-specific work should proportionally re-invest ideas, imagery and resources of the people who frequent the area, today and in the past, and who seek comfort and leisure. There is a need for monuments, memorials and public art to move us from within, move us in their legacy and give us a conduit to reimagine the world. At my core, I believe we are at a crossroads in our nation, in our public spaces, and within our principles, to reimagine these sites off a clean slate, and to accept the interconnectedness we share when we come upon the areas where public art stands.
The work requires active participation with community, under a guided understanding that aligns us closer to principles of communal-actualization; in the de- and re-activation of institutional coda and societal structure; in the space where one’s body is a monument in itself, connected to what we connotatively define as “monument.” We are also in a time when these memorials insist upon a crossover between new media and storytelling, which tends to be at the forefront of my artistry.
The inspiration to design the Robert and Rosetta piece came from conversations with historians, other artists, and the open call that Lexington Market, Seawall Development Firm and the Municipal Art Society of Baltimore City put out. Oletha DeVane is my mom, also an artist based in Baltimore, and a past collaborator. We went into this project to build upon a message of generational legacy and wanted to design ‘Robert & Rosetta’ as a team. The site will reveal the stories of the two modest, yet notable individuals who seismically shift the principle idea behind ‘exchanging goods’ in Lexington Market. In both instances, Robert and Rosetta are commemorated, and we chose to work with NI Metal Design to fabricate forged metal panels that sit under a canopy-like steel structure. The panels of Robert and Rosetta stand as an acknowledgement to what one would advertise as ‘value’. In 1838, The Baltimore Sun ran an article, which may perhaps be the only known recorded instance, of a woman named Rosetta being sold by the City Bailiff in this Baltimore market. Robert’s narrative from an 1833 article in American Commercial & Daily Advertiser places him as a runaway with a fifty dollar reward for his capture. Both of these articles will be etched into granite pavers and positioned on the ground in front of each panel.
The design actually started from drawings that both Oletha and I did. Instead of building a scale model, I took a lot of the drawings into design or 3D modeling software to produce something that was actually a little bit of an engineering feat. We had several discussions with structural engineers and with NI Metal Design to figure out how the piece would actually stand, structurally. It’s not really rocket science, but there’s a point when drawings and 3D imagery give just a prospect for what’s to be created. A lot of the source imagery was inspired by ornamental cast iron that can be found speckled throughout Baltimore today on doors, fences, spiral staircases, loft overlooks, monuments and intricate outdoor treasures.
When I was designing the model, I had to play between the loose conceptualization of the drawings, the constraints of the engineering, and the exact aesthetic of the vector-based or 3D modeling programs. I took in several considerations from Oltetha as well as the fabricator when we were in the development phase because quite frankly, there was a point when this work stepped away from looking like art and became clunky if it was meant to hold up. There is a wispiness to the work that we hope to achieve, especially since it realizes an invariable and heavy history of how the market was used, and more specifically, to the people who had been assertively noticed on its grounds during the relegated times of slavery. In all, We set out to follow a vision that holds a conviction to the reclamation of space.
www.chriskojzar.com | IG : @christopher_ko