The day before our interview, Jedediah Johnson stands in the gallery performing a sensory ritual with his work. A sort of laying on of scents that evokes old world alchemy and medieval philosophy. In another time and space, we might discover him in a dungeon lab transmuting base metals into nobler versions of themselves. But it’s 2016 and he is a conceptual artist applying perfume and cologne to a series titled This Tent of A Body, four 30x 22 inch works on paper that challenge his audience to partake in a more intimate experience with art. He’s very good at this. Internet famous for making out with his subjects and using photography to document the immediate aftermath, he began by asking politely at parties, “Hey, you wanna make out for art?” and was turned down repeatedly. Now he only makes out by appointment. Call him and he may be able to squeeze you in!
We sit together, Jed and I, filling the quiet room with laughter and articulating profound thoughts on smelling art, black Beyoncé, and why theory makes him sleepy.
What was the impetus for putting on make-up and making out with folks?
I’m really interested in intimate interactions being art or using it as a source material to make art. Just because I really like for art to have an emotional response as well as an intellectual one. So I try to start in an emotional place. And I had a lot of anxiety about kissing people. I’m still, to this very day, not a good starter of intimacy. I don’t initiate intimacy very well. And this was sort of like a...I thought this would be a thing people would be able to relate to, that people would get...and also I would get to make out with some people that I wanted to make out with.
Did you have a list of people that you wanted to make out with?
No, I didn’t have a list. The first person that I ever kissed for art was a girl that I had a crush on in the ’90’s that worked in the same mall as me. I was at Baskin’ Robbins. She worked at the record store. She got me my current job in the thrift store, so I work with her now. But yeah, it wasn’t like...you know when you kiss someone for an art project, you’re not really... the moment is real but the reason why we want to kiss people is not necessarily for that moment, but for the subsequent moments. Like when I’m on a date with someone and I kiss them, it’s like, “Yes I want to do this right now, but I also want to do this again tomorrow and maybe forever." This project, on the other hand, is often, very clearly, a one time thing. There are some people who haven’t thought of it as a one time thing. I kissed someone once in the attic of a party and the next time I saw her she was like, “Listen, I can’t make out with you again.” And I was like, “We already did. That’s cool. I don’t need to...” and then I realized, “Oh, that was real for her." Then it was a bummer, because I’d only made out with her for art.
So you hadn’t prefaced this attic rendezvous?
No, she knew that it was for this art project, but like a normal person, it wasn’t so easy for her to separate the art idea from the actual idea. Cause you do, in that moment of kissing somebody for art, you do enter into this intimate space. So it is real, but it’s a different kind of reality, if that makes sense. And she was thinking it was regular reality not art reality.
So when you take the photographs. When you kiss, how immediate is the capture of the image?
In less than a minute. They’re taken with 8x10 film. The camera is a huge thing on a tripod. I set up the camera. I compose. They stand in front of it. I have a stick behind their heads, so they can touch their head to the stick and know where their head is supposed to be to focus, which is an old photography trick. And then they lean away from the stick, we make out and they put their head back on the stick. I put my hand on them and take the picture.
You’re interested in art as an emotional response as well as an intellectual one. You’ve also spent a considerable amount of time in art schools, first at Art Center in Pasadena and later at School of the Art Institute of Chicago. People with that much immersion can easily find their work suffocating under the weight of theory. How did you escape that plight?
Certainly, there were some professors who were really bummed that I never bought into theory. But then there was Robert Clarke-Davis, this grumpy old man kind of a professor. When I confessed in front of a full auditorium that theory makes me sleepy, he pulled me aside afterward and said, “I didn’t like you before, but I really like you now.”
The biggest part of going to grad school, really, is learning how to separate yourself from your work. So when someone says something they don’t like about your work, it doesn’t totally destroy you on the inside. I would almost prefer to be the kind of person that gets five likes for every one hundred hates. I saw a t-shirt once that said, “If they ain’t hatin’, you ain’t doing shit.” There are certain art works that people like so universally, that I wonder if they’re actually good or if it’s just human nature. Like if you built a fire in a gallery and people were transfixed by it. Are you a genius? Or are humans evolutionarily drawn to fire?
I’m evolutionarily drawn to Jedediah Johnson’s Worthless Websites. This collection of gifs you created are pretty brilliant, if not fire-genius status worthy. Who are the women in GuessWhoHadABirthdayToday.Me, a work that could have been in our current show “Bang Bang.” How do you find these co-conspirators?
Well, the woman on the right is Lauren Dodge. And the woman on the left is Leslie Dodge. They’re sisters. Lauren Dodge is a good friend of mine. She worked at the coffee house where I went all the time. She’s kind of a smart mean girl and I’m into that. One day I was with my friend Austin. He does the blog, Things Organized Neatly on Tumblr and he was stamping tags. He has these little tags with the Things Organized Neatly logo stamped on it that he leaves around town. He’s got like 100,000 followers and I guess he wants 100,012. So he’s stamping these tags and Lauren comes up, grabs one of the cards and says, “Oh, this is you. I’ve seen this before.” And Austin is like, “Ooooh, yeah that’s me.” He’s always like that and it works for him actually. But the reason why I love Lauren Dodge is because her response was, “I don’t want your fuckin’ tag. I know where the blog is. I just told you I’d seen it.” And I was like, “She’s awesome!” So we became friends. My very first gif work was LaurenDodgeHasaBoyfriend.com. And from there I was like, I should do a bunch of gifs and do url’s for all of them and buy domain names for all of them. And I did.
What’s your process for asking people to participate in art making with you?
It’s pretty much just, “Hey, do you wanna make some stuff?” Leslie Dodge is a ballerina in Little Rock with the Arkansas Ballet. So with her it was like, “You do ballet and I do photography, let’s make some stuff.” And she was like, “Cool, I’ll come over Friday!” I was lying in bed that Friday morning...in bed is when I do all my good thinking. And I was like, “Aha! Ballet lap dance. That’s what we’ll do.” And so we set up the living room of my parent’s house and we made IAmJustCulturedAsFuck.Com.
Tell me about your preferred mediums. There’s photography, there’s performance, but the performance is unintentional, no?
Yeah, I used to hate performance artists until I got to grad school and found out that I was one. Me and my friends used to be like, “Oh, wouldn’t it be awesome if we brought bean bag chairs to the mall and just hung out by the fountain in these bean bag chairs. Wouldn’t that be funny?” The only difference between post-art-school-Jed and the pre-art-school-Jed is that pre-art-school-Jed would say, “Wouldn’t that be a great joke?” And post-art-school-Jed would say, “Wouldn't that be a great piece?”
Art can be super academic but when you look at somebody like Marcel Duchamp, who was like the first big conceptual guy, he was doing stuff that was intelligent but were also jokes. A lot of artists think it doesn’t need that humor. Or that art doesn’t need some kind of emotional hook. Humor is an emotional hook, sadness is an emotional hook, intimacy and all of these things are emotional hooks. For me, art that has no emotional component is like a fishing line without a hook. A fish could grab a hold of that and probably go with you back to the boat, but why would it?
Clever. What other media have you joked around with?
Screen printing mostly. I do some video. I used to write and record songs but I put that as a separate thing. I’ve never incorporated music into my fine art. Though, that might come some day. It’s a weird thing, right? It’s oddly a separate thing. There’s no music art, it’s sound art. Imagine hearing the new single from Jeff Koons.
Ai Weiwei made an album.
I feel like I’m never going to a Guggenheim retrospective to listen to Ai Weiwei’s album. It’s like music is not for museums. Music is for the shower.
I always think about music as the purest art form because it’s so well integrated into our daily lives. I can imagine life without a painting, but I can’t imagine life without music. Speaking of music, have you watched the Beyoncé video?
No, but I did watch The Saturday NIght Live parody. That was funny.
So you saw from watching SNL that people lost their minds. There was think piece after think piece after think piece about Beyoncé’s brand of blackness.
Humans as a whole like to compartmentalize. We like to categorize. And it’s super useful when you’re in the forest and you learn that red berries will make you sick and blueberries are good to eat. Or you learn, “that is a pig and it’s delicious, but that is a tiger and it will eat me.” Categories are super useful in those situations. But when you get into civilization and you’re like, “That is a Black guy and he will rob me.” That’s where shit breaks down. So if you are in this situation where you file Beyoncé away as female empowerment but also really danceable. I can see, with somebody like that, where the confusion and outrage comes into it. It’s like somebody has knocked at the door and they’re like, “Oh would you like to buy these nice shiny things? I have this silverware that’s really very nice?” And when they get inside they’re like, “Now, lets talk about race.” I can see why somebody would be like, “What’s going on? I did not sign up for this!”
Why am I dying from laughter right now? It all makes sense now.
I actually did a piece that was one of my only race pieces. I wanted to make a pie, put it in a gallery with forks and plates and see if anybody would eat it in the gallery. So I started working on pie recipes. Then one of the recipes was like, put a pie bird in the middle of your pie.
A pie bird?
A pie bird. It’s a little ceramic figure that is often just a little bird with it’s mouth open that vents the pie so you don’t have to cut holes in the top of it. It’s like a little funnel. It has slots at the bottom and a hole at the top and it lets the pie vent. And I was like, “That could be a cool thing to put in my pie in my gallery.” So I went on eBay and I was like show me some pie birds. It turns out that a lot of pie birds are like this little lady right here...
And so I was like, “Ok, umm that’s crazy.” Then I bought a pair and made a pie with them. As I spent time looking at them, I began to ask myself, “What’s racist about this lady?” And it made me think, “Could this ever just be a Black baker woman? Like if this were White, it wouldn’t be weird.” And it has the whole history behind it, yes, but kinda my point is that this object itself, if you erase the collective memory of the entire world and put this object on a pedestal. People would just be like, “Oh, that kind of looks like you.” I just had that thought. Let’s say then that if we do decide that this is always racist, then what’s the situation for if I want to make a pie bird that’s a black woman? Do all pie birds now have to be white because that’s neutral? That’s way more bullshit I think. This Black woman is gonna be the pie bird in my pie. And the whole entire idea of the piece is going to be, “Welcome to the gallery, have a piece of pie and in return I want you to have to think about race for a second.” It was called A Slice of Americana. Because Americana is the code word for all of this stuff. Go on eBay and search “Americana Pie Bird” and it’ll be a lot of this stuff.
Did people eat the pie?
Yeah. I only showed it at a very unorthodox space. New Capitol in Chicago was closing. They wanted to get rid of their gallery. So for the last month they were open, they asked twenty-four artists to do twenty-four-hour exhibits. And yeah, people ate the pie.
We should talk about the work that’s actually in the show. This Tent of A Body which is paper and scent. When I described the work as paper, scent, and embossed text you corrected me. Why?
It’s really just a matter of simplicity. When you sample perfumes they give you these little pieces of paper. They spray the perfume on it and then you smell it. The paper is just the thing that holds the scent and holds the words. The words are not printed on the paper. The words are the paper. There is a purity to it.
Do you want people to come to the sensory part of this work themselves? Or do you want them to be told to smell it?
It’s interesting to see someone read, “She smelled just like this... She smelled just like this... She smelled just like this...” and watch them stand there and think, “Yeah, I can imagine what she smells like.” Without thinking, “Maybe I should be smelling something for real.” People don’t always know much about art, but they know for a fact that they’re not supposed to smell it.
Interview and Header Image by Malika Ali Harding
All Photographs © Jedediah Johnson except the Pie Bird Lady