I first came across multidisciplinary artist Santiago Mostyn’s work on a visit to Moderna Museet in Stockholm. His video performance Delay (2014) followed the artist through the streets of the Swedish capital as he encountered affluent white men and addressed each racially charged interaction with the simple touch of his hand. It is in this way that Mostyn approaches his experiences, by becoming a character through which social forces are reflected, that drew me to his work.
Eric Booker: When we first spoke you brought up this idea of the American diaspora, which is an interesting point to start with, given your international upbringing.
Santiago Mostyn: The United States is now old enough, its immigrant populations long-enough established, that we can start thinking of it as the origin point from which a multiethnic diaspora now emerges. I was born in San Francisco. When I was five months old my parents moved to Grenada to support Maurice Bishop's revolutionary socialist government—when American troops invaded in 1983, they were airlifted out against their will. My mother and I relocated to Zimbabwe, newly independent after a long civil war, and then to Trinidad, where we lived until I left for Yale. It’s this experience of having gone back and forth between all these different places, the reversed triangle of the African diaspora, that stays with me. After university I started traveling and living between New York and other cities. I ended up coming to Sweden to study, and it’s developed into a good place to work from and to make sense of some of the strange forces in the world right now.
EB: This experience of movement and migration has really tied your work to place. Your photographic project All Most Heaven (2008) documented your travels throughout the United States. How has travel motivated your practice?
SM: There’s an obvious rupture that occurs when you've been taken out of the place you consider home. It was something that I felt was missing inside of me, that I needed to make sense of in order to figure out who I was—not that there’s ever a final answer to that question. When I first started thinking about making artworks, it felt like I was trying to fill this space with the images I was making or the projects I was doing. Early on, the Mississippi project was part of this. It wasn’t just documentation of this underground, radical train-hopping community; this was a life and a community that I was deeply committed to, with friends who were like family.
EB: How long did that project last?
SM: Initially, two summers. We built rafts in Minneapolis and charted them down the Mississippi River, performing in each small town. I guess I'm always trying to make sense of space and face certain topics that are important to me with . . . some kind of lightness of touch. I always think of Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988), where he talks about a delicate touch being the most productive way to face these massive, heavy subjects, and to really register their weight, which is not to belittle them in any way—I think that’s the most effective way to get across how severe these things are: questions of race, belonging, sexuality. Now, I’m just facing up to things that happen in the world, that have happened here in Sweden and in Europe, and trying to make sense of them and confront them with some sort of conscience. I’ve just finished doing two public commissions this year with the state public art board.
EB: This isn’t your first foray into the public sphere. You had some billboards up in New York in 2014, one of which was a text-based sign that read, “I Need A Miracle.”
SM: The current public project consists of a sculpture and a performance. It’s the final realization of the work you’re referencing, but this is a very large neon sculpture that forms the word “miracle” in Swedish. Mirakel (2016) is installed in the middle of a busy square in the center of Malmö, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Sweden. This is a piece that I think people see in very different ways. Some see it as just a simple description of multiculturalism and what it means to be in this city, in this place at this time. I also think it’s somewhat of a tongue-in-cheek critique of that. There’s this great idea of the Scandinavian miracle where everyone has free healthcare and free schools, and it’s wonderful and everything is provided. There are really positive things socially here that are available, but it’s also one of the countries with the strongest and fastest rising support for far-right politics. There’s a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment, which is only getting stronger. There’s real segregation between native Swedes and people who have moved here from other countries, who are essentially put into ghetto-ized areas far from the desirable city centers. So there are all these issues that are swept under the rug because the image of this place, which is propagated by the people who live here and also assumed by people who do not, is one of peace, serenity and happiness. It’s really not as simple as that. I like that my work can be read as ethereal and fluctuating, but at the same time have a monumental physical presence—that contradiction is something you face when you confront the work.
EB: That relates to what you mentioned earlier, how you approach these issues with a lightness of touch, which literally happens in Delay. In describing the work you reference the race scholars Tobias Hübinette and Katrina Langstrom, who talk about this duality that is the cultural fabric of Sweden. While the new Sweden is open to immigrants, the old Sweden remains a deeply homogeneous culture.
SM: Yes, more extreme views are being normalized or people are just more comfortable saying things that they weren’t comfortable saying a couple of years ago. The third largest party in Parliament, the Sweden Democrats, is actually the same as the Neo-Nazi party of the nineties, they’ve just rebranded themselves. It seems like some sort of reflection on that is required, so that we can see things for what they are.
EB: Did you experience any type of censorship with your proposal due to it being a state-sponsored project?
SM: Yes. I ended up doing a different public performance than the one I originally proposed, entitled The Repetition (2016). I stood on a stage in the square with the text of the Swedish national anthem and sung it again and again until I knew it by heart. I sung it once, then I would try without looking at the words and fail and would have to look again, repeating this process until I could finally sing it from memory. It was a minor but symbolic suggestion that I could perhaps suddenly become Swedish if I knew these words by heart. Obviously not, but the absurdity (and embarrassment) of the attempt developed some real meaning for me and, I believe, the audience watching.
Since my original proposal for the performance was turned down, I made a work out of the image instead. Jimmie's Tango (2016) shows me dancing with the leader of the Sweden Democrats, the former neo-Nazi group that is now the third largest political party in the Swedish parliament. Many people hate the man, but he has a lot of support as well, especially in the south of the country, where Malmö is located. Since I was working with the state public arts organization, I thought I could invite him to appear on stage with me to dance to a Swedish folk song together. This was something that I wanted to do with absolute sincerity. I think there’s something really strange about these types of figures, who are made bigger than they really are by the media. The fact that in America, Kanye West is somebody who everyone has a relationship with—who they love or hate in a personal way—but have no idea what he's like in person, his physical tics, what he eats, things like that. I basically wanted to collapse the image and the actuality of a controversial public figure into the performance of one act. I was thinking about the reaction of the crowd as well. The Sweden Democrats do these strange performances of their own where they go into public squares in left-wing cities and set up speakers and couches to debate one another out loud, saying what they think about immigrants and such. Then they record the crowd's reactions to them, people being blocked by the police or throwing eggs, and upload these videos so that they are seen as underdogs. It’s a very strange but smart use of public relations. The National Socialists in Germany made use of this tactic in their rise to power in the 1930s.
EB: It’s really quite incredible then that the performance you conceived of uses this same tactic to expose the perpetrator. This relates to something that I’ve noticed in your work, especially in the performance and video pieces, which is that you’re creating this space for your body through coercion.
SM: When I started out, it was work that I needed to do for my own sake, but I think this has started to lift off and become something which is much broader in its necessity.
EB: What are you working on now?
SM: I’ve been working on a project called Citizen. Like Delay, it’s an “act” that takes place in the real world and is then documented on camera, in such a way that the documentation is both a record and an original work in itself. The act, in this case, was rowing a small boat from Turkey to Greece—to Samos, one of the nearest Greek islands. Essentially, I made an illegal crossing into the E.U. across the quite heavily defended eastern sea border.
EB: Similar to your performance in Malmö, this required a great deal of your physical being.
SM: Exactly. It took the full physical capacity of my body in this expanse of water, needing to survive by getting to the other side. The work was the physical exertion of having to row that distance, unaided, between two land masses that are actually not so far away from each other but have completely different political realities—inside and outside of Europe. It was an illegal crossing but obviously it was much less of a crime for me than for others. I would have been arrested and taken to jail if I had been caught, but I would not have been put into a camp. I’m not trying to take away from the extreme tragedy of the journeys that so many are forced to make across those waters, but I felt that I didn’t have the right to take part in the European experience myself without risking and recording this passage that others have had to take. This body of water and these two land masses have a great deal of historical significance. It was the same two thousand years ago and the same in the 1910s and 20s when Greece and Turkey did a massive exchange of peoples between the islands. All of this has been written into this body of water. You see my tiny little boat disappear and you realize the scale and fortuity of things, the absurdity of borders—all these embedded histories.
EB: I’m interested to hear your thoughts on Harlem, as a place that’s at the crossroads of so many diverse black worlds, and specifically as it relates to your relationship with the United States and your identity?
SM: Actually, one of my first shows was at an old church in Harlem. It was an empty building that was going to be swept up in the process of being rebuilt and resold, the way Harlem has been over the past few years. I showed a film I made in Prospect Park. I used to live close to the park and would ride my bike through there quite often, always seeing these shadowy figures hanging out among the trees at dusk in an area called the Vale of Cashmere. This part of the park is beautifully gardened, just a strange and wonderful, dreamlike place. I started going in there and meeting these people, who I found out were mostly gay men cruising, and—like me—were almost all black and brown men from the Caribbean or Central America, places that have extremely homophobic cultures. They came to New York, which is more tolerant, but still had that sense of shame within them from having grown up in these repressed places. It was a strange combination. They’d come from lush tropical places to the one exotic place they’d found here where they could meet and hook up. So I made friendships with, and eventually video portraits of these men that I developed into a film called Walker Association (2009), which resonated with the strangeness of bodies and landscapes and place that I myself felt at the time. Even then, the film had all the elements that I’ve been developing in my work ever since.
An excerpt of this interview previously appeared in the Winter/Spring 2017 issue of Studio magazine.