This is an interview Chris Stain and Josh MacPhee did with artist John Fekner:
Chris Stain: About a year ago I got lucky for a few months and had a studio separate from my house. it was in LIC. I had heard from my friend Josh Macphee that it was an old stomping ground of the legendary stencil artist John Fekner. so I decided to look him up. just a year before that Josh and I were showing in Brooklyn at Ad Hoc and John stopped in posing as a vandal squad detective. i had never met John before so I didn't know the difference. After he revealed his true identity we all had a good laugh. Until then i thought the shit was gonna hit the fan. Below are parts of the conversation that josh and i had with john. you will be able to read the whole sha-bang later when johns book drops from powerhouse. i’d like to personally thank Mr. Fekner for the interview and his continuing inspiration. His work is a prime example of how much difference one person can make.
Chris Stain: What originally inspired you to cut stencils, get out there in the street and put it up?
John Fekner: It goes back to when I was a teenager. I grew up in Queens and like most street kids spent a lot of time in parks, hangin’ out, doing a lot of different things…it was the 60s. That’s ten years before I started doing stencils at the age of 26. The first outdoors stencils began during the winter of 76-77. In 1968, for some bizarre reason, I came up with the idea of calling our park ‘Itchycoo Park’ referring to the title of the song by the Small Faces that was a hit in 67 about a park in England. My hang out park was Gorman Park at 85th St. and 30th Ave. in Jackson Heights referred to by the local kids as just ‘85th’.
I said to my friends, “Let’s paint the words Itchycoo Park on the front of the park house. So undercover of the night with white paint and a few brushes in very large crude letters we did just that. The phrase just stayed with the park and it became known as Itchycoo and the local football team was called the Itchycoo Chiefs. It was really a strange thing. Little did I realize that this was going to be my format for quite a few years.
Another use of text was done on the night I left for the Woodstock concert in August 1969. Again, it was at Gorman Park. On Friday night as we were getting ready to leave, I cut letters out that read WHITE LAKE OR BUST. The text referred to the town of White Lake/Bethel where the festival was held as the concert was not in Woodstock. I taped the white letters on the inside windows of a Chevy station wagon that belonged to my friend’s mother…kinda like a Volkswagen hippie bus all painted up with colored flowers.
One other time I stole a wooden highway sign that was painted green with white letters that read: CONSTRUCTION UP AHEAD-GRAND CENTRAL PARKWAY DETOUR. I told my friends, “Let’s hang it in the handball courts.” Moving the sign into the park was plain old teenage antics with a twist of surreal displacement. We just hung it high up on the top of the fence with wire. I was always at that park playing handball, street hockey and doing whatever.
CS: Any specific influences in regard to stencils?
There are a few. I remember my uncle’s WW2 Army canteen that had a stencil that I played with as a kid. When I was in my junior year at college I was impressed with the work of Daniel Buren from Paris. I saw his outdoor stripes that he did right on Bleecker Street near Lafayette that was on the cover of Art News magazine in 1971. That kind of knocked me out. Buren sited his work perfectly. There was a bit of an association with beat up old Bleecker Street from the album cover of Freewheelin’ that had Dylan with his girlfriend walking down the street in the snow. The look of that Buren piece always struck a chord within me. A few years later, I was around a print shop where Jasper Johns’s Numbers was in production being silk-screened and that also left a mark.
In August 76 I was still in Jackson Heights, driving back and forth to my studio at PS 1. Incidentally, the first stencils were done with light chalk on the PS 1 blackboards. Driving around, I was reading the landscape, which had a heavy industrial presence. I traveled through all the backstreets of my old neighborhoods like Woodside and Sunnyside where I grew up about a mile from Long Island City. I was connecting with my local environment. I started with the Random Dates, a series of dates that were cutout stencils. I had been working with the concept of memory with my paintings from 73-76. My portraits were composed of little faint ink lines that you could hardly see on the canvas, the series was called Barely Visible Portraits. I always felt that memory was something hard to grasp or see and you’re not able to relive events or moments in time. Whether it’s a painting or a stencil…how vivid can a memory be? Whose memory is it? After that series of portraits, I was interested in doing a conceptual piece about memory outdoors. I thought the best way to do this was with dates that did not relate to me. Somebody driving down the street would see a date that was on a lamppost, around a bend on a highway or at a stop sign. Perhaps the date might trigger some memories for the viewer. Maybe their parents were married, or it was the month and year they were born. I chose sites that were alongside highways and roadways. My car functioned as a studio for quite some time. The stencils started small (8.5” x 11”) then slowly grew bigger (about 3’ x 3’).
Josh MacPhee: In that context of abstraction, the first thing that comes to my mind is some of Robert Indiana’s work. Did you have any relationship to that?
Not so much. Indiana did some great totem sculptures with stencils in the early 60s. It’s the same font, the Roman style font that was in the Jasper Johns’ Numbers and Alphabet series. It was probably the simplest and easiest thing at the time. Go to a hardware store and pick up a set of generic stencils.
CS: How did the Native American connection develop in your work?
Seeing all these areas of Long Island when I was going to college. Places like Southampton, Matinecock, Shinnecock Bay, etc… then looking at certain paths and old maps: Long Island City, Newtown Creek, Blissville, Dutch Kills, etc. Maspeth comes from Mespaetches; Rockaway derives from Rechquaakie and translates from the native language to land of sand. I did some research on it —again, only paying attention to my specific environment. My work slowly shifted to more ecological themes. First, a project in 1977 called A Tribute To The Green Grass That Valiantly Grows Through This Asphalt where I outlined with spray paint, the places weeds would break through the concrete. From there, it led to this idea that we’ve paved all this stuff over and who lived here before us? It’s kind of coincidental, but it connected back to Jackson Heights, as there was always this talk about an Indian burial ground between two garages near a bodega. There was a mysterious air about the spot — was it truth or legend? Ten years later, I started to investigate Indian territories, treaties and background stories. I went to the Queens Library Research Division on Merrick Blvd. in Jamaica and took out all this stuff on Indians, land and their local environs and mimeographed a bunch of newspaper clippings, came back home and thought where would be the best place to do a project that related to Indians? I picked the Queens Midtown Tunnel location on the Pulaski Bridge overpass for the WHEELS OVER INDIAN TRAILS and ASPHALT INDIAN TRAILS at the end of the Long Island Expressway in Manorville, tying the whole strip of Long Island to the Native Americans from one end of the island to the other. 13 TRIBES was a tribute to all the Indians on Long Island in different areas. It was like being a community activist and focusing on the important issues. Like Leonard Peltier, the American Indian who is imprisoned, I became very interested in all that stuff. Just like you guys respond to certain issues.
JM: Each one of those letters is about what 2’ or 3’ tall?
CS: As for the video work such as “Trail Markers” and “Concrete Concerto,” was that done by yourself or put together by somebody else?
In the 70s, obviously the technology wasn’t there yet; the Sony Portapac was not easy to use. That was considered new technology and I was around it when I was at college in 1975. You needed at least two guys. One guy had the camera and the other guy had to carry this heavy tape recording deck. You also had to juggles with the sun-gun lights and stay close to the camera guy because the cables and power sources were all connected while tape was rolling. It was a mess. So we rented the equipment and brought it along on a few nights. I worked with Fred Baca who was a film/biology major from NYU. Fred always carried around a 8mm camera. Our fourteen-minute video Environmental Stencils 77-79 was extremely raw. We tried to make it look and feel like a Soviet propaganda newsreel with a bit of WPA [Works Progress Administration] thrown in there. We were drawn to the Soviet Revolutionist poster style. We used some of Alexander Mossolov’s Steel Foundry (Zavod) music that really worked great with the desolate factory imagery. Some of the segments in Trail Markers come from that original videotape. Jeewon Shin is involved with some of the digital remixing of the videos. But back to 1979/80, that was a watershed period for me with a growing interest in multimedia including audio, video and music and on and on. Then, once the Reagan/South Bronx thing happened in August 1980, it’s almost like I put stenciling on the back burner for a bit. Here I was doing this work for three years and then all of a sudden there were curators, museums, etc. How do you keep your vision intact when you are dealing with a complex level of notoriety?
CS: Can you tell that story?
Basically the first DECAY stencils were small letters (5”) on the 59th St. Bridge in 1978. That got some attention in the New York newspapers. The bridges were deteriorated and in bad shape. I was looking at the environment and noticing how city agencies would give the bridges a superficial coat of paint instead of doing structural repair. To the commuters, it looked like there was nothing wrong and something was being done. Part of the FDR Drive around 60th Street was crumbling and concrete was hitting the cars. So basically I commented on the situation with GROWTH DECAY, STRUCTURE PROBLEMS, etc. I identified and drew attention to problems, which was the basic concept of my work at the time.
CS: You mentioned you were doing these DECAY pieces then you did some in the South Bronx right?
No. It was a three-year span before I actually went to the South Bronx in 1980.
JM: But then you do the BROKEN PROMISES piece that Reagan does the press conference in front of. Can you tell the story of how your relationship to your work being used in this context, which I don’t think that you expected and didn’t probably feel that good about?
Moving from one borough to another was a slow process. I knew of the abandoned buildings in the South Bronx, but because I wasn’t familiar with the area I didn’t think it was the time to go there at first. I was born in NYC, lived in Queens my whole life; this was my area. When we first started to do a few stencils in Manhattan in 1978 that was an easy transition. GROWTH DECAY and INSTANT THIS-INSTANT THAT were small stencils on the Park Avenue drive-through overpass. INSTANT… was also on a Merv Griffin TV advertisement billboard in Queens. Other media warnings included SOFT BRAINS WATCH THE SCREEN AND BUY THE JEANS and ABCDEFGHIJKLM-NOTV.
I went to the Bronx in 79 when Stefan Eins opened Fashion Moda, an extremely ‘out there’ cultural space and quite an interesting place to work and create. My first project in Moda’s window was NO TV/READ in both English and Spanish. The Charlotte Street Stencils happened the following year in 1980.
JM: I have an old zine that you did that’s called READ, with install shots and it has “READ” stenciled on the walls…
That was published in 1979 by Jean Sellem at his Galerie S:t Petri Archive of Experimental and Marginal Art in Lund, Sweden. That’s the first time I used the circle-slash symbol over the letters TV in an installation. I was doing quit a lot of different things at the same time, indoors and outdoors, as obviously you guys do. I was working with paper pulp from my connection to a print shop at NYIT. At PS 1, I did architectural relief impressions by placing wet paper pulp into old tin ceilings and on peeling wall surfaces and then let it dry. It sort of captured a moment in time. Then I took the paper pulp outdoors placing it on a rusted cars and metal surfaces; the paper pulp would dry and I would pop it off and there would be all this discolored and rusted oxidation. That is what led me to the concept of decay; inspiring my WALL BLOOD and MEMENTOS series. I was always interested in things falling apart. Both Gordon Matta-Clark’s underground urban explorations and Robert Smithson’s Land Art were influential; as well as his entropy thing and his “Blue Chemical” stencils.
JM: Can you talk more about how you got involved with doing work in the South Bronx?
My first connection with the Bronx was with Don Leicht. We met in grad school in 73 at Lehman College, becoming best friends and collaborators. Don was teaching kids at P.S. 161 on Tinton Avenue in the 70s. In the spring of 1980, I took a ride with Stefan Eins from Fashion Moda up to the Charlotte Street area. There was all this talk about the People’s Convention, an alternative political action that was going to be held there. We went up and took a look at the buildings and the six stencils were done over the course of a few days and nights. LAST HOPE was stenciled on the last building where people were still living. Among blocks and blocks of desolation, they were the last holdout. When thing improved years later, the building’s name was changed to New Hope on the canopy. I did it with Don and residents from the building. The other stencils were done with help from William Scott, a teenager who was a director at Fashion Moda. Leicht did small painted metal sculptures called Birdfeeders. His pieces were designed specifically for the kids living and playing in the rubble; my work gave some dramatic impact to the convention and its’ issues. Others who were at the site were building makeshift wooden shacks and small versions of the White House and US Congress. The American Indians were up there, Hispanics and Latinos; it was a counter convention to the Democratic Convention that was at Madison Square Garden. Republican Presidential Candidate Ronald Reagan suddenly appeared and he did a press conference in front of the BROKEN PROMISES/DECAY stencils on August 5th 1980. The next day I was sleeping and the phone started ringing with friends telling me that he was there and people were seeing the work.
JM: It seems to me that by putting up BROKEN PROMISES, the implication was that the city had failed to live up to the expectations of taking care of the buildings and dealing with the people living in them. But Reagan turned it around and used it as this way to accuse the liberal establishment. Like he tried to turn it into this right wing thing….
Well it began with Jimmy Carter visit there in 77. He said he was going to fix it up—and never did. But he has done so many other good things since those days. That whole idea of what was a promise really wasn’t a good situation in terms of being able to move forward quickly. It took many years for that whole thing to be corrected, five years or so. Its been rebuilt and people put a lot of energy into the area now known as Charlotte Gardens. There has been improvement.
JM: Around the same time you were working on a lot of pieces that were dealing with media literacy. Whether it was the READ in contrast to televisions work or the early digital work that was dealing with the advent of computers… was that work in part influenced by the 70s when politics entered the world of the TV screen where you have politicians making these promises on everyone’s home TVs and then none of it is true? What was the genesis of that?
You’re talking about the small READ/NO TV pieces in 78/79 that focused on how the tube has a controlling influence on viewers. It related to what was happening with new devices and the sudden surge of video games and Atari’s popping up in homes in the mid ‘70s. It invaded our entire culture: instant this – instant that. People living their lives glued to this small box in their living room. First you have television and then video games manipulating our minds and keeping our kids distracted from learning in school. So I moved into using media to reach larger audiences. I did records; I made videos that challenged people in their thinking. It was hard to be doing political stuff at the same time doing work that was so media-oriented. It was a challenge and a fun thing to play with. Sometimes when I was interviewed, a friend would stand in as me. I tried to keep a very low profile to the point of invisibility in terms of publicity. Now you may say “Wow! You’ve got all this machinery ready to go. Your work is all over the New York Times, AP photographs, in every newspaper!” How do you use that? Where do you go from there? I had to make a turn around and look into different types of things because stenciling was only one component of what I was doing. Was I gonna start crankin’ out big pieces of Ronald Reagan? I wasn’t interested in making editions or prints based off of ephemeral art. The work always, and still, revolves around transformation and perception; the idea of memory, connected to a sense of place or just for the people who saw it in person. The idea of moving into different scenarios was more interesting to me. You have the issues that relate to people and you want to keep that component alive. I think that’s always an intriguing to relate to individuals who are not going to galleries or museums.
CS: Do you see a correlation in the things that were going on in society in America when you were first starting your work and what’s going on now?
I think there are a lot of similarities and it’s just as big a problem now as it was back then. Like the lyrics of Once in a Lifetime by Talking Heads’ “Same as it ever was”. There’s so much that people are unsuspectedly fed; like giving something dirty a cleaner name like brown fields instead of toxic dumps! The fact that nothing has changed is kind of frightening. This is something that I am going through…does it need to be done outdoors or on the web. What is the most vital way to communicate? There are always good components of street intervention: what you’re addressing on the street as it happens, immediately, in a specific community. And now we have environmental polluters growing profusely in other countries. It’s like, “Well, America did it, now it's our turn!” If you just walk out in the street, it looks like a great new facade, a brand new building here and there, it looks like everybody is successful but it continues to be superficial. As you know, it’s a rapidly changing complex world but the major problems still exist: economy, energy crisis, health insurance, pollution …AIDS is just as big as it was and it's coming back very intense. People say it's gone. It's not gone! It’s in the South, other states and countries around the world. These things are still out there. Somebody might say “Well, John, don’t you just like to make art?” Well, I do. But we are still faced with social conditions that you just can’t walk away from. People still need to keep learning, be taught or retool their skills. I believe the Internet is a channel to explore, as new material is new thinking at any time or place. When my work was out on the street it wasn’t for sale. and that now extend to allow free downloads of my music, photo images, etc.
CS: Having done work on the street for so long, do you feel that it really does make an impact on people or is it something that you don’t worry about? Do you feel like art is a good platform for change, individually or even on a larger scale?
For years, my work was all about reducing the value of an art object to that of a shared visual experience for the community and general public. Where do you grow from that? I believe that people recognize the value of that concept. In terms of the audience and who that audience was, and is, are not the main issues. For me, I just wanted to do the work and let it be open for interpretation. The purpose of the work was to affect somebody to think or see in a new way; that was, and is, still the most important. That is what I was ultimately hoping for. In a perfect world, most street art is about freedom and making an impression. People need to have compassion for each other, realize certain issues and problems still exist within a dysfunctional society and the situation may not improve. In that case, grab your paint, roller or brush and address those issues.
CS: What are you currently working on these days?
I did a new installation with Don Leicht at Exit Art in New York called THE END OF READING IN A STRAIGHT LINE. Personally, I’m still working with the concept of decay but it’s different. DECAY jumped right off the side of the building into the heads of politicians and family homes. Each day we’re faced with more stories of greed and hypocrisy. Temptation to make a fast buck is tough to resist when you don’t have to even step outside your door. The seedy arcades of old Times Square are right there next to your bed. Gambling, porn, mindless games before you have a cup of coffee. I can say three words: Jack…Perky…Aces…and the brain goes crazy-just keep em distracted and anesthetized. The kids, you and me, grandpa and grandma all online!