Interview: Allana Clarke on Conceptual Art, Critical Inquiry, and the Dynamics of the Art World

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Today's interview is with the conceptual artist Allana Clarke. Her work is so incredibly varied, covering many disciplines, and is used as a conduit to explore colonial theory and the body. Allana's expressions of herself and the work she creates are intelligent, thought-provoking, and passionate. Read on to find out more about how she creates, the stories she wants to portray, and the realities of working in the art world. I hope you feel as inspired by Allana's words as I do.

Magic & Musings:
Thank you for taking the time to answer some of my questions, Allana! First of all, for any readers who don’t know your background, do you want to tell me a little bit about yourself and where you are today?

Allana Clarke:
Well, I’m a twenty-nine year old, single, black female. Just kidding, but I am. I grew up in Queens, NY and I am of Caribbean descent. I am an interdisciplinary conceptual artist. My work speaks to discomfort. My practice incorporates colonial, post-colonial, political, and art historical texts through video, sculpture, printmaking, photography, and performance. Searching -- not for answers -- but to feed my obsession with this idea of being unbound, being more than my body. Ironically, I must look to my body if I want to escape its limitations. I must engage in the dynamics of voyeurism in order to wrestle with spectacle. I am an educator, for the last 3 years I have taught 35mm analog photography at New Jersey City University and taught at an amazing non-profit in New York called the Lower Eastside Girls Club. In the fall I will be transitioning to a new position at Williams College as Visiting Professor of Art specializing in performance art theory and practice.

 Then and Now Seem to Shift Inside Me, and I wonder How Do You Imagine We Can Live Together in the Future. Digital Print 4x6, 2016
Magic & Musings:
When did you first get into art? What first drew you to the field? Did you study it formally or come across it as a hobby?

Allana Clarke:
I suppose it was a bit arbitrary. I never went to museums as a child, I didn’t grow up in an artistic household per se. My father is a musician and I dabbled in piano, drums, and guitar but I was so very terrible at all of it. I can’t make two dimensional representations of the three dimensional world or three dimensional representations of the three dimensional world for that matter. Which is all hysterical to me but I bring this up to reveal the extreme improbability of me becoming an artist. I was a high school senior looking at colleges, not knowing anyone that had gone to college before, and not really knowing what I wanted to do with my life because up until my discovery and participation in art I was moving through the world, basically, dead on the inside. I had no purpose, no direction, life was a bit meaningless and looking through college catalogues I came across the photography department at a SUNY school and in the catalogue they displayed some student work and I just felt so drawn to it. I can’t really explain why but I decided to become a photo major and I enrolled in a community college in Queens and it was a huge learning curve for me, being forced to think critically for the first time and being forced to slow down and deconstruct my environment was life changing for me.


Magic & Musings:
Did you have to find yourself overcoming any hurdles regarding your confidence when you first started displaying your art?

Allana Clarke:
Sure, but I think for me the biggest hurdle was making the decision to actually become serious about art and to do that I had to make so many huge changes in my life. I grew up in a really abusive and dysfunctional home with my mother and younger brother and discovering art and finding purpose in life gave me the strength to escape that situation and use art to heal myself from those psychological scars. After that as far as my art work I was making photographic images that were rooted in formalist street photography or work about my community which had been beneficial for me, but if art and photography’s purpose was to function as my salvation or liberation then I had to continue to push myself and my boundaries and tackle the things that made me uncomfortable and scared me. So I started making work about and with my body. Reflecting on myself as an individual but also myself in terms of a collective cultural identity. So when my body entered the work I was terrified to show it and I didn’t really have a vocabulary yet to discuss it I was working very introspectively and intuitively without a very sophisticated background in art necessarily so that was very difficult.

Magic & Musings:
Of all of your work, what are you the proudest of and why?

Allana Clarke:
I am most proud of a series of letterpress works that I’ve recently created. I am proud of them because I, for the first time, made language the forefront of my practice. It was always in the background and conceptually aided my other works but I never revealed my writings to anyone because I was afraid. Writing and language has always been difficult for me because, for me, it epitomizes my anxieties about my intellectual capacities. I think I had a better education than most within the New York City public school system but I wasn’t socialized in privileged spaces so I wasn’t formally familiar with the language and critical inquiry that is provided to individuals that have access to elite institutional spaces. But I used my art practice as a way to investigate my cultural and social environment this type of inquiry lead me to build a research based practice in which I looked to philosophy to contextualize and deconstruct and make connections etc. So I’m always stressed about my ability to understand philosophy because it seems as though to be a part of that realm your arguments, thoughts, and perceptions have to have a certain air of pretension, vagary, and exclusion that accompany your intelligence. But again my art practice motto is, if it makes me uncomfortable I have to engage, so I’m using my practice to engage with these internalized anxieties. If I want to feel comfortable with language I have to take control of it. Language is used to describe and understand. If I can not control and manipulate language then I can not control my narrative. And I can not be an author if I can’t control or create meaning. My work conceptually has always been interested in doing these things, an examination of signs, signifiers, and meaning so the addition has been natural and extremely fulfilling and enjoyable.


Magic & Musings:
This is a question I like to ask purely because of the variety of answers I get! I’m really interested in how people work and get things done. Do you have a particular place you work or find yourself the most productive? Are there a particular set of things that need to be in place for things to get done, like a milky cup of tea or a particular album of music you listen to? 

Allana Clarke:
Ideally, I love to work outsides barefoot in nature, which I get a lot of if I do artist residencies. I have a studio in Brooklyn that I work from when I’m back home in New York so any 'making' of objects happens there. I need a cup of coffee of course. I need music to work. Usually jazz, Coltrane, Mingus, but also FKA Twigs, Esperanza Spalding, and Johnny Cash. And of course I must have a hardy studio whiskey on hand for when things get intense and I’m a night owl so my best moments happen at 3am. If I’m just doing research I love to work from the Poet’s House in Lower Manhattan. It’s an extremely beautiful open space overlooking the Hudson, so I like to read there.

To Negate/To Negotiate, Digital Print, 40x80in., 2015

Magic & Musings:
What do you do if you find yourself stuck in a rut creatively?

Allana Clarke:
I question my entire existence and purpose on earth. And then I find a good book and everything usually falls into place.

Magic & Musings:
That sounds like something a lot of creatives can probably relate to.
What are some things you like to do in your spare time when you’re not working?

Allana Clarke:
Lay in bed.




Magic & Musings:
If there was one thing you could want to say to the world if you knew everyone was listening, what would it be and why?

Allana Clarke:
Here’s a list:

There are perspectives outside of your own. 

Nothing is absolute. 

We only exist in the known universe. 

We are insignificant. 

We all have bias 

Capitalism is a system that benefits from global iniquity

I’ll stop there.

ThatinItself, Video, 2016
Magic & Musings:
What tools do you use to keep yourself organised?

Allana Clarke:
Oof, I’m not problematically unorganized but I could be a lot better. Especially as a video artist I have so many copies of the same works, documentation in so many different sizes partially because when I apply to things there’s no uniformity so I’m constantly resizing and exporting clips of work at different lengths etc. So I got a Dropbox, I have spreadsheets so I can keep track of deadlines, and I try to date things obsessively to keep track but that is the extent of my organizational skills.

Magic & Musings:
What one thing do you wish someone told you when you were first starting out working in this field?

Allana Clarke:
I wish people were honest with me about the realities of the dynamics of the art world. I think the art world benefits from the myth of the starving artist making it and rising up from adversity when in fact this is just a hierarchical mechanism to maintain exclusion. Because the truth is many of the people who are at the top of the field were already independently wealthy or had access to wealth and privilege so yes they were and are able to dedicate undivided time to their craft because they can. They do not have to worry about income or working to just support their existence as humans. This enables an exclusion because if you are comparing yourself to these figures and you’re not gaining status and access like they are you might feel it’s because you’re not good enough but in reality the game is rigged. Of course this isn’t unilateral but it’s a definite truth. 

Magic & Musings:
Onto a fun question! Can you recommend everyone reading a book you've enjoyed recently, as well as a film and an album or song? 

Allana Clarke:
Oh yes yes yes. Maggie Nelson's The Art of Cruelty, such an incredible text. and S.C.U.M Manifesto by Valerie Saleres. The Administration of Fear which is an interview with Paul Virilio and anything by Chantal Mouffe.

Magic & Musings:
Is there anything else you would like to say before we finish? How can people find out more about you and your work? 

Allana Clarke:
I think I would like to say we can find joy as humans on an equitable platform and we should strive for that and I want to give a shout out to my mentors Deborah Jack, who was my photography professor, thank you for always letting me borrow your books and enabling me to push my artistic boundaries and to Frances Barth for being honest with me and always leading me to the edge of emotional breakdown and picking up on my every insecurity and bullshit. These two women have greatly helped shape my career and voice. A shout-out to my father for his part in bringing me into the world, my stepmother, although she didn’t bring me into the world she and my father have been the biggest support in my positive growth as a human being and believing in my crazy path. and last but not least to my sister Trystal, my nephew Mekhi, and my niece Isabelle who have all shown me what it means to have the love and happiness that comes with having family.

I have a website www.allanaclarke.com and a Vimeo you can keep up to date with my going ons.

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