Geo Wyeth: On Irreverence, Repurposed Land, a Mood Crystalized
Geo Wyeth is an artist and teacher, working in the realms of music, performance, installation, and video, currently based between Amsterdam & Rotterdam, NL and New York City. Here’s a few things Geo had to say in our conversation last year over video chat.
Where are you from? What parts of your past have brought you to where you are in your work today?
For me a lot of what grounds me in my work is thinking about history. For a long time it’s been my family history, but also it’s the history of the place where I am physically. I was in New York for a long time, and that’s where I’m from, and that’s where my roots are, and so a lot of my work was based around New York’s cultural history and history of the land.
Have those investigations come with you to where you are now?
Here in Holland, I’ve been thinking about what land is, because Holland is repurposed land. It’s basically just a big sand mass, and it’s highly engineered and controlled. And they are constantly renovating and fixing things, and nothing is ever deteriorated or broken down. It’s the opposite of New York City. It feels sort of suburbanized in that way, and there seems to be a lot of anxiety around decay and death and sickness and dirt here. It really feels quite colonial in its essence. The way history is marked here is very strange. You really have to look for it, cause they’re always just covering it and fixing it.
How does that affect crime and police presence there?
I think police here have a lot of control over people. Homeless people are immediately put into programs, which have various kinds of treatments to try to get people “back on track”. They pick people up on the street a lot. It’s really fucked up actually. On one hand it’s great, because people aren’t starving in the street, but I started to feel kind of wary about that after a while.
There’s a sort of halfway house behind my house in Rotterdam. Our balcony looks out into their backyard, so we see the people who live there hanging out. I’ve befriended one of them, and we’ve had some conversations with each other, and I would say that there is a strong value system that is being imposed on those people, and it’s about conformity. I feel it myself, and I’m a white-looking, English-speaking, male-looking person. They have a saying here that says, “Act normal, that’s weird enough”. It’s so funny cause it’s really the opposite. When I was little we were taught, “Express yourself! Be yourself!” Not too much, but, you know, be different.
It's like the norm core thing, where everyone became so weird that they were going back to normal in order to be really out there. You gotta wear your ugliest outfits to be the hot cool guy at the party.
Yeah, I think when I first got here, it was a relief that I was in a place where people weren’t struttin’ all the time. There’s these chain stores here that they only have in Holland and people just shop at them. It’s very uniform. And I was like, oh shit, in order to get to know people you have to really talk to them. You really have no idea about anyone. It’s not an image based culture. But now I’m like, no, I’m done. I think it’s oppressive. It tells people certain values, even on a subliminal level, and they’re values that are deeply cultural and specific. They’re not neutral. Nothing is neutral. They have an effect, especially on people who are immigrants or people of color here.
There’s a lot of people of color here in Holland, and I don’t think many Americans know that. I didn’t at least. There’s not just blond white people here. There’s a lot of different kinds of people that have lived here for many generations and are never accepted and never considered to be Dutch. They even have a word here- it’s considered derogatory, it’s called Allochtoon, which literally means “emerging from another soil”.
What projects are you working on there now?
I have a job here, as an artist, and I’m trying to use that resource as best as I can. I have funding through various institutions and through the city of Amsterdam. I have been able to focus on my work and now with eight other queers I’m starting a community space in Rotterdam. It’s very affordable here, so something like that is actually possible. We’ll have workshops and a small library and performance events, but kind of on the earlier side. It’s more on the women and trans end of the spectrum, culturally, whatever that means. My friend called it “lesbian adjacent”. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but it has kind of an identification with the word “female” embedded in it. It’s not a gay male bar, basically.
We’re very inspired by a project in Brussels a couple of our friends did, called Mothers and Daughters Lesbian Bar, which was a lesbian pop up bar over the summer organized by the people behind the magazine, Girls Like Us. They had murals on the walls and open mics, and it was successful and huge, and it was so needed. The space they created was very open, but at the same time quite particular and specific in its culture, and that’s what I liked about it. It wasn’t like “we’re open and everybody’s welcome”. It was like, this is a lesbian bar, and you can come in, but... you know… And they were very explicit about that. There were a lot of trans people involved as well.
I feel like there’s inevitably some confused straight people at the queer parties. Maybe because everyone knows queers throw the best parties, or maybe they don’t even know where they are.
Yeah, at this one party here, there was this straight couple really going at it. It was like, you really have no idea where you are, but okay, whatever, it’s fine… But... you can go outside and do that! But people probably look at me and think the same thing so...
Even when we created the space, we had to petition the housing collective that’s living in the building above the storefront, and there was one concern from one straight person who said they were worried that it would be too exclusive. And I was just like, don’t you think about how exclusive the rest of the world feels to certain people? Like going to the supermarket, or bringing your lover home to meet your family. Just think about it.
There’s a lot of that here. And it’s really unmediated, compared to how it is in the States at the moment. There’s not a lot of checks and balances, and the protest culture feels less confrontational to me. There’s a small political movement here and people having interesting conversations about identity and race and gender stuff, but it’s quite a minority. This is mostly because the Netherlands is a very privileged place to live in many ways, where the state takes care of people much more. So the white liberal elites still don’t wanna have those conversations. They’re like not even at the white guilt phase yet, haha. There’s a strong resistance to any conversations about race, but that is changing now. I feel engaged to be here while that shift is really happening.
I have a few straight male friends that confide in me and come to me. They’re kind of feminist guys, and I think in a weird way they think I have some kind of link, and they’re asking me, as a man, for company, and a kind of mentorship, in relation to how to be a man. And that’s complex, cause I don’t really know what it is to be a man. I wasn’t born a man, and I can’t speak for anyone else.
They all treat women with respect and they’re all working on it, but they’re all just so fucking scared, and they’re not sure how to be. They’re kind of parroting a language that they have no context for. No one ever knows what “the other” is experiencing, no matter who they are, but they’ll never know what it’s like to be born female, not to mention if they’re white, and middle class, and they just kind of run with this stuff without putting their body in the way or taking a real risk or giving something up. I usually just tell them to ask more questions and make more space and listen more. Like what would happen if all white men decided not to show their art at all for a whole year?
Let’s talk about some of your latest performance projects. Where do your characters come from? Do you think there are any unique ideas floating out there in the world?
No, no, definitely not. I was just listening to Lonnie Holley this morning. He’s a musician and an artist from Alabama, maybe in his 60’s, and he has a line that says something like, “It’s all part of one big recycling plan”. Right now I’m working on a character who’s sort of a dude who has a youtube channel that’s dedicated to recycling as a spiritual practice. He recycles and collects everything. He’s a hoarder. It’s partially based on some truths in my life, as all of the figures that I embody are. They’re all parts of myself. They’re like a mood crystallized, like an embodied mood or energy - not quite there, and a little see-through.
The ideas often start with a very short word or phrase. Around 2016 for about a year and a half I was obsessed with this word juice. I was trying to trace all the ideas around that word and what it could mean. That involves a lot of deep internet searches, but then also it’s a process of speaking the word and incorporating it into different poems, or lyrical breakdowns, or mapping it onto space.
The word birthed a character, the Lost Tourist, who was a teenage, gay tourist in Amsterdam, lost. It was inspired by my experience seeing mostly American and British people coming to Amsterdam to let loose and have fun and do drugs and find that juice. But Amsterdam is actually a very square place. It’s not juicy at all. And all of that juiciness that people come for, like the red light district, or the drugs, are kind of vestiges of the past. I mean, they still exist, but it’s very controlled and it’s very much pandering to tourists in its expectations. So the tourist was sort of born out of that clash of expectations, and in the show he fills a suitcase with water and gets in it and sings a song about being outside on the street, searching for a friend who he can’t find.
And then I sort of became interested in this word crossing, as in crossing the street, but with x’s in it - crosxxxsing, I don’t know why I did that, maybe because it’s sexy. And that gave birth to this other character, the CrosxxxSing Guard, who was a zombie crossing guard who stands at the crossing and is trapped in some sense between two sides of a street and waiting for children to come. She has a song that says, “What do I do when I cross, what will I wear when I cross my love, what do I do with my love”. So the culmination of those two characters - The Lost Tourist searching for juice, and the CrosxxxSing Guard - was a one person theatrical show called Juice CrosxxxSing. The two figures are sort of looking for each other. They’re waiting for each other, and they never find each other.
What are your latest phrases?
Right now I have two phrases in my head. One of them is Muck Studies, and another one is Touch the Bank. I don’t know what they mean, but….
There’s another figure I’m calling Muck Studies Department. She’s like an investigative personality. I don’t know what her profession is exactly, she’s just investigating. She is inspired by the Muck Rakers of the 1890s, like Ida B. Wells and Upton Sinclair, but equally as inspired by Inspector Gadget... She’s collecting soil samples from around the neighborhood, and going around to the water and the mud, and studying it in a vague but declarative scientific and academic way, and then writing down the results of these findings in a code. They are meant only for future scientists, meant to be unearthed at another time, with another language. I think these two figures are sort of related, and I have an idea of making a video installation that has these short videos with those two figures, that will go along with a soundtrack that I’ve been making for the last year.
Can you trace your phrases and characters back to some moment, or some Wikipedia article?
No, a lot of it just comes from my own desires that I try to rationalize, or invalidate, or validate, or tell to go away, but that I can’t stop. I have a complex relationship to my own impulses, and at some point, instead of asking myself why I wanna do something, I decided to not question certain impulses. I spent a lot of my life not doing things because I was afraid of consequences or I didn’t wanna take up too much space, or I thought, who am I to do that… or that might offend somebody... It’s these things which come from being socialized as female and trying to take care of everyone and thinking about what people are gonna think of me.
My first reaction with your work is often to laugh, because I think there’s such a humor in it, but then as I hear you talk about it more it’s also so touching and very serious. What’s the role of humor or gravity in your work?
Humor is extremely important to me. And irreverence. There’s a moving back and forth within myself between feeling really self righteous about something, and then feeling really ashamed and embarrassed. There’s a doubting of myself, in a constant conversation. I sometimes feel shitty, or not good enough, and so instead of fighting with those things and trying to psych myself up and be my most fully transformed version of my artistic self, I try to also be in touch with my feelings of inadequacy. I think it keeps me on the ground sometimes, in a weird way. I’m sort of a skeptic about lots of things, but also the first motherfucker to like jump in the river with all my clothes on out of nowhere. I’ll go to a party and be like oh this party sucks, I hate it, I hate these people, no one’s doing anything fun… And then someone’s like hey let’s go jump in that river and I’m like “Okay!” [Splash.]
Even with transitioning, like two weeks before I started taking hormones I was like “No, absolutely not”. I was like, that shit’s the plan of the patriarchy and they’re trying to fuck us all up and make us take all these drugs. I don’t really believe that at all, obviously, but I was like, I don’t wanna be a man, who wants to be a man? My mother pointed to the men on the D train one difficult day many years ago and she said “Look at them, they’re a dime a dozen! Don’t be one of them!” One day I was walking to the clinic like, I’m not gonna do this, this is crazy, and then I just got the needle and stuck it in. It’s sort of a process of denial, sounds scary but… I’m used to it by now. Doing something and saying something are two different things. I mean I try to always speak my truth. But there is a conflict in that truth.
I wanna do something because it tells a particular story, or it has a resonance with me that’s deeply personal, or I want to share something with someone, you know.
I think if I could live in a perfect world I would want to be recognized for who I am, with the realization that no one ever recognizes anyone for who they are completely, outside of the tools that they’ve been given or learned to recognize. So the more tools we have and the more we deprogram or shuffle around different parts of our brain, the more we can recognize. I love it when someone clocks me as a light-skinned black trans man, cause I’m like, yes, that’s right. I feel good about that. Still don’t know why it matters so damn much to me.
I read in an interview with you that your mind is never still, and I really identify with this battle between anxiety, laziness, and the need to “fit in”. What do you do when you don’t know what to do, or how do you push through those parts of yourself when they’re trying to block you?
Well, it’s a fight. I wanna use all of myself. I wanna use everything, and it’s just too much. I wanna use the weaknesses I have and the strengths. I think some of the best performers know how to use both and to understand how they are related. They aren’t just relying on their strengths. I do think it’s important to understand where your strengths lay and to develop and cultivate them and learn, but also I think it’s important to understand what your supposed weaknesses are and to try and use them as well, because they’re funny and they’re true. Also, we are moving into a time where different abilities and strengths are being recontextualized and actualized and celebrated and its amazing and I am feeling really good about that. I think people often act very confident but everyone has moments of doubt, or moments of self consciousness, and I think tracing those patterns is useful.
We can try to hide those parts of ourselves, but that’s ourselves too.
Yeah, I’m very inspired by DIY punk and drag performance from New York in the 80’s and 90’s. There’s always a lot of moving between those spaces, let’s say trying to beautify one’s self, and then undercutting that and saying fuck this shit, I don’t wanna be beautiful. But actually I do wanna be beautiful, but no I don’t. I find this sort of cycling very generative and honest, and that’s what the irreverence is. That’s where a lot of the humor comes from.
The performer, Dynasty Handbag, is very influential to me and someone who was able to do that. And Divine David, he’s an English drag performer - David Hoyle is his name, and he’s incredible. And Vaginal Davis. These are folks that kind of use all of their insecurities and anxieties in a way that I find inspiring. I wasn’t taught to do that. I was taught to refine my talents to help me achieve success, which comes from an aspirational upbringing, mostly from having a fierce black mother I think.
Now I’m back to the music stuff pretty hardcore. It’s almost a full cycle back to what I originally started with. The characters will come again, but for the moment it’s just some sounds and lyrics. And that’s been cool cause I can go back to that mode of expression that I feel comfortable in and strong in technically, and use everything I’ve learned.
Does that change your relationship with the audience? Not having a persona, or a mask, between you and them?
Yeah, for sure. Most of the performances I’ve done have been interactive, and the characters are often directly addressing the audience, so there’s this sense that we’re in a room together, and that we’re gonna do something right now, together… we’re gonna make something happen. Getting deeper into sound and music is quite different. I almost can’t do both. I kind of have to just go inside of the sound. Really it’s about focusing on the sounds and the lyrics and allowing myself to be watched.
How do you want to be recognized in this world?
I transitioned when I was 21, and I’m 34 now, so it was kind of a long time ago. At the time, the prospect of being a “man” in the world was very exciting to me, but I think it was also resting on some ideas of wholeness that are kind of dangling glittering objects that don’t exist. I don’t think anyone feels whole, and the ideas around seeking that, especially in the United States, unfortunately, are deeply mired in capitalism. Even ideas about “holistic” I think can be really problematic - the language and the pursuit. Sometimes I say I’m anti-health. Of course it’s good to take care of one’s self, but that can mean a lot of things.
I had a moment about 4 years ago where I was like, ok, fuck this shit, I’m not a man, and I hate men, and I don’t wanna be one. I stopped taking hormones and my body felt very different, and I had a lot of emotional ups and downs.
I was also sort of pushing myself out of my comfort zone, I was wearing dresses outside, and lipstick. I remember one day I was like, I’m gonna go out in heels today and fuck these people’s minds up. And I did, and my fucking feet started hurting so fast, and I was like, you know what, I’ve always hated heels. When I was a girl I hated them. I don’t need to fucking wear them. I’m much more of a lesbian culturally. I’m more butch than that, let’s just say. I think queerness can be a lot of things, and it can also be about subtleties and a sensibility. I love all the varieties of what queer can be.
The truth is I’m a transgender man, whatever that is, and that’s just the language we’re using in this era, and I will use it because it’s useful for me. It’s like an architecture.
I had a dream the other night about Geo. He said he had something for me and lifted out of his pocket a small wooden sculpture. He held it up into the foggy light, and the object started to take shape - it was a kite that danced in the wind. The object floated here and there around us, and slowly it transformed again. The object then transformed into a large ship floating above a flying kite. We talked about the symbolism of a small kite sailing a large ship. We embraced and parted ways.