I don't want to do too much throat-cleary description of Clyde Petersen, the Seattle artist who won one of two $25,000 Arts Innovator Awards this year from Artist Trust. Right over here you can read what I think about Clyde, but let's just get to letting him talk.
What is “innovation” to you?
I define innovation as the loss of fear. The fear of visiblity. The ability to speak bluntly and honestly, regardless of the outcome.
For me, innovation and perversion are closely linked. Most of my heroes are fantastic old perverts: John Waters, Pee-Wee Herman, Alan Cumming, George Quaintance, Dolly Parton, and Courtney Love.
Innovation skips the pleasantries and goes right to the meat. It’s fucking dirty.
The pleasantries of the day-to-day are just the skin that holds in all these guts that are amazing, nasty, horrible and will eventually fail and kill us. Why not hold the guts up in the light and look at them as equals? Look at this horrible broken innovative shoulder, tense from being called a faggot on Capitol Hill. Look at this carnivorously innovative liver that drinks all my alcohol. My organs are innovative, unafraid to do what needs to be done to survive.
What does winning the award mean for you?
It has been an awkward-growth-spurt kind of year. Tripping over myself, getting close to many awards but not quite making it, learning so much. This award makes it possible for me to go to rodeo school at the Fort Lauderdale Gay Rodeo in April. It also means I will have uninterrupted time spill my guts out into my animated feature film Torrey Pines.
Okay, I want to hear about the rodeo. But first I want to hear about your work itself. Are there specific decisions you make to channel perversity, that kind of perversity that’s about survival? You talk about innovation as, essentially, adaptation through wounding. Am I getting that right?
This is an interesting way of saying it, adaptation through wounds. Innovation can go so many ways. In the culture of art grants, that word is really thrown around a lot, but often when the chips fall, I would say it’s more likely that something refined and square is chosen over something really out of the box, or “innovative."
I make a lot of work that hasn’t seen a gallery space. It will surface in a DIY queer art show or a random gay film festival in Tucson. Most of the bigger work that was shown this year and last year was in publicly funded spaces, where they don’t allow “pornography.”
They don’t want to see an animated guide to flagging, or a series of paintings featuring "places to jerk off." I make a lot of queer propaganda art, which is often a response to some cultural homophobic event. I also make art that reflects the ideas of building community. Even with something like Boating with Clyde, most of the guests are queers, weirdos, Satanists, or cult bands.
I want to say whatever I want and only do things that I want to do, for the rest of my life. I don’t want to tiptoe around things. I don’t want to play the social games of being polite. I don’t have time. We have a saying at my house. "Put your fucking balls on the table.” It means, just fucking go for it. Don’t ask permission, don’t wait for funding, and certainly don’t wait for anyone else to understand and approve of your idea. By the time culture catches up enough to support you, if it ever does, years will have passed. It means you have to stand up and be brave and spill your guts out. I think all of that is innovative in a culture where we are all asking for permission.
Do you think the people who gave you the Innovator Award know you're making what certain venues call “pornography”?
I don’t think so, but it’s not hidden. I have a lot of super-queer videos on my Vimeo site and stuff. I did talk to them a lot about perverts. Gary Hill was on that panel and I think he thinks about all that stuff, too.
I always wonder whether there's a certain version of the artist who wins an award. It's sort of like the question of whether people like you for the right reasons. Which version of you did the Innovator Award go to?
That's a great question. I don't know. I was excited and had no expectation to get it, and had a fun and amazing conversation with the panel. Whenever that happens, I feel like that was worth it in itself. I’ve had really awesome conversations with panels and really not-awesome ones. The one for the Neddy, the person that was like the visiting judge or whatever, that was not awesome. But the one for the Innovator Award, I just had a really enjoyable time talking to them.
Do you remember what that conversation was about? I think people wonder about what goes on in those private rooms.
We talked about Torrey Pines and we talked about who my influences were, and they were like, You know, your art is kind of childlike and crafty, are you trying to do that? And I was like, No, I want to be in awesome museums and have a gallerist! I don’t want to be in, like, Portlandia and put a bird on it, and they were relieved to hear that. I was like, oh, this is an interesting conversation that's happening right now. I was like, what do they think of me?
It was super-funny.
Tell me about Torrey Pines.
It’s a stop-motion animated feature film that I’m working on, with cut paper. It’s a story about growing up with my mom, who’s schizophrenic, and a road trip we took when I was 12.
Where did you go?
We drove from San Diego to New York. We went to visit the president, I’m putting that in quotation marks.
It’s a little complicated because my mom’s family did grow up across the street from Hillary Clinton, so they were friends as kids, so when my mom developed a lot of schizophrenic ideas, that played into that, and she was like, We’re going to go talk to the president about the problems in America.
So she got me out of school and we went to DC. We never talked to the president. It was a two-month road trip. The movie’s kind of about that, and also it’s about growing up queer, and the ocean, and popular culture in the 90s. I hope, I mean, I don’t know, I don’t know what it’s gonna turn out like.
I hope I will be done in a year. We’re about to start heavy production on it in January. I’ve just been storyboarding and thinking about it and working on soundtrack stuff this year. January 2nd is shooting. I’m excited.
Going back to what the panel asked you—I never thought you wanted to put a bird on it, but I always thought your childlike craftyness was very intentional. No?
Yeah. It's just, I think they were, like, asking me if I want to sell my stuff at craft fairs or something and I’m like, no.
I enjoy making things that are extremely colorful and vibrant and rough around the edges. Just because they look like that doesn’t mean they’re not well thought-out, or there’s not a lot of plotting behind them. I try to capture the raw energy in making stuff. You can collect some of that initial kinetic energy or whatever’s there when the idea is first formed—if you can get some of that, I think you’re in business.
How does that style help you build up communities of people the way you like to do?
Like the rawness?
I'd say it's just capturing those emotions that are felt in communities and being able to express them in ways that invite conversation. It seems like a lot of activism—part of the importance is it being of-the-moment, of the time, so when you start to run things through the grinder, you start to lose stamina, you start to lose people based on their beliefs.
I’m just so in love with what John Criscitello is doing up on Broadway right now. He’s this guy who’s been putting up the big cocks on Broadway, the "We Bash Back" posters, the paintings of frat boys making out. It’s very of-the-moment, he’s just handpainting them and wheatpasting them, he’s not even photocopying them, he’s just like, I have a piece of paper and paint. And I’m just like, thank you so much.
Tell me about the rodeo.
I’m going to the Sunshine Stampede in Fort Lauderdale to see my first gay rodeo. I’ve really been excited about gay rodeo for a while, ever since I learned it existed. This year a documentary film came out about the gay rodeo [Queens and Cowboys: A Straight Year on the Gay Rodeo], and I was like, Oh my god, we have to go this year. They have something called Rodeo School where they train you to work the chutes; it lasts a day. I'm going to do it. The gay rodeo is all volunteer, so I’m going to help out. I don’t know what’s going to happen but I’ll report back.
Are you making any art there?
I don't think so, I think I’m going to be soaking it in. But here's some related art: Delmas Howe, he’s this 85-year-old gay guy who lives in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, and he paints rodeo pictures that are amazing, beautiful portraits—classic-style painting—but they're totally gay rodeo paintings. I’m fascinated by him.
What about Torrey Pines? Do you want it to be shown in the film world or in the art world?
I want it to be shown everywhere. It’s actually a really confusing question because I have all these copyright questions about characters I’m using. I was thinking about this this morning—I was thinking about Todd Haynes’s movie about Karen Carpenter [Superstar], and how it’s totally not able to be distributed but it’s an epic cult film.
I would be extremely happy if my film ever became that. But my main goal is, I want to take it to the Baltimore film festival and I want to meet John Waters.
At this point, it's weird to have a lot of people know you’re making it, have people asking, like, how’s the movie? I don’t know! Who cares? I hope you like it! I just watched Wonder Boys and they ask him how the book's going every five minutes.
I won’t start asking you until January 3.