Portland People: Interview With Modou Dieng of Worksound

Interview by Sasha Burchuk; Photography by Christine Taylor

Modou Dieng, Portland, Oregon

PDXP: When did you start Worksound and what was the inspiration behind Worksound?

To me it was like a process of years and years — I was in Paris, I was in Belgium, and then New York and San Francisco and New York again, and I grew up in Dakar and so I knew so much about cities and the art scene, and by then I'd shown my work in L.A. and New York and Paris, in Belgium. So I kind of did like the challenging things that you do as an artist to be discovered, to make a living. I wanted to just settle and do something I loved for a while, and study and go back to researching, and have a new era. So I found a space around the Montage but it was taken, and they showed me another space that was like this crappy plastic factory that was abandoned and it was 8 rooms and there wasn't even enough electricity. We had to do the whole thing — we took the walls down, we gutted the place and just worked with the skeleton of the place.

So I was like okay, let's see, in Portland there's this big music scene, like Kurt Cobain and Nirvana and the Satyricon, the indie years. So I thought okay, because I was a punk, I tried to grab that scene and bring that back to my roots and mix that with what I do, which is being an artist. So that's how I did Worksound. So you have a DJ booth, a stage and art shows.

I studied art from old masters, you know, old school, classical art you know, and I studied the history, as a teacher I'm amazed sometimes how much is lacking just talking about information and art history. To me it's an important part, that history. The Bauhaus movement, the Fluxus movement — it was just artists getting together, even like, you know, the absurd modernists in New York in the 50s were about getting together and confronting each other and creating this substance that is a part of everything else. So like for example if you think of like of like Rauschenberg and Kunning its like they had drinks together, they went to shows together, so to me its kind of like bringing that idea back, even though it sounds absurd to say that because who cares? But it's working.

PDXP: We all care because art fosters community, and as Milton Glaser would say, it connects us to each other because we can share in an experience and it has a pacifying force. And so art is a kind of social currency. And so Worksound is almost like a member of the community. Because you've surrendered creative control to other people to curate it.

Yes, and also, be the change you wish to see. It's true. If I want to do something like Worksound and think of like Fluxus or even Warhol and the Factory, you have to make people have an experience and develop their own perception. My generation is Generation X, and so we did a lot of consuming and producing, we had a new way of perceiving culture, a new way of perceiving modernity and postmodernity and now we are in our late 30s and we have a new generation that is coming up with their own way of thinking and perceiving the world. To me it's an opportunity to learn from that and to refocus myself, not letting time slip away. So that's why I really like to collaborate and let people explore their own ideas, whether its like Mark Wooley or someone who's 21 and has this utopian idea of creating. I let them do it to see how it works and what I can glean from it.

PDXP: As a teacher, as someone who has contact with the next generation of gallery openers, do you think that the gallery will reorient towards community?

If you look at the history of galleries, it was first, someone's living room, and then it became someone's closet because at some point the dealer took you in to their closet and would show you what was hot before everybody else so that you could invest your money and buy it. And then it became like a stock room. And from there was the white box, the gallery. And following that artists wanted to take it back, and so the loft experience, and then it went back to becoming a gallery or auction house, and of course now the artists are taking it back because like what can we do to be someone like Damien Hurst? Like the skull. If you look at the skull as an object, it's valuable. Let's not talk about the art aspect of it. So what's the point of making objects, because you know that in any case they don't have a value. So it's not challenging anymore to make an object.

That means that the gallery has to turn around and make art less of an object and more of an experience.

So it creates a subject instead of an object?

Exactly. I'm hoping that the next generation will work with that.

PDXP: You have this incredible knack for synthesis. I see it as being a marked trait of a visual artist. It's something that is often overlooked. It's the ability to take all of your experiences and inspirations and bring them together on a piece of canvas or in a space and transform them in to something that's the sum of its parts, but a new whole. It's not minimalist, in your style. I see a lot of influences that are recombined to be something really clever. You're using Picasso shapes in your collage work, and a repetition of image that is reminiscent of the Factory — but that's not the first thing that strikes me because your pieces are something new. How do objects move you to incorporate them in your collage?

For the last 18 years, half of my life, I've been to so many places. The longest I've lived somewhere is for four years, and it wasn't just here in the US but also in Africa and Europe. So I learned to pack. I learned to grab objects that I don't want to leave behind. Doing that I learned to appreciate the value of a single object whether its like a bar of soap or a matchbox or a postcard, they become very important because those things are the things that I can't leave behind. I had them in my backpack, you know? So that makes me understand the meaning of objects and their value. Its easy then to collect them and combine them because what significance does it have, the portrait that you want to create?

Actually, I was talking to the person who wants to do the show in Moscow and he was like, okay, why the vinyl? Why do you use vinyl? I was like, okay. I'm just going to be straightforward and tell you something that came back to me, something that I remembered like three months ago. The first time that I saw vinyl it was a Jimi Hendrix vinyl. It was the one with him with the Afro haircut. I was seven or eight and my uncle had it. And I was like, wow, they made his music [the record itself] like his haircut! (We explode in to laughter) And he was like No! It's a vinyl! They're all like that. It's not about Jimi Hendrix's haircut.

Because I saw the vinyl, how it's black, and how it looks like an afro, I thought that they actually made it like that for his music. He took me to the record store and showed me though that they're all like that.

PDXP: Photographer Christine Taylor chimes in: Are you making work that addresses race, consciously?

Modou Dieng, Portland, OregonYou know it's not like something that I think about every day. I think more of the idea of nation.

An example, I was born in an African country that was colonized by another country and being born after that period of time ended but knowing that my Dad is from the generation who got the power back from the French there is a lot of ambiance there in him that I would be affected by. And going to a French school, which is like a private catholic school, as a boy, but being born in a family that is mostly at some point in between Catholicism and Islam and Afrikaans and French and then also having a personal me, just being a boy, just to be a kid, so having all those different identities and ideas was like juggling with your own life, you know, and I thought I've just got to be an artist, that's what I'm supposed to be.

PDXP: It's all these tertiary elements that combine in Senegal, because Senegal gained independence in the 1960s but after that it was still post-colonial French. I've never been to North Africa or West Africa, or Senegal, but I feel like what a lot of people don't realize about Dakar or Saint Louis is that those places are famous for being international cultural heritage places. Saint Louis is a UNESCO world heritage site; they have jazz festivals, they have museums. It's very Western.

Absolutely, and that city was the first European city in Africa. It was created in the 16th Century. People have lived there and mixed, and for a long time, because it was a place where Europeans and Africans lived together because of trade routes — before all of the mess of slavery and war. The first modern black African painter is from my city; the first modern black African filmmaker is from my city. Until the year I was born it was a French city. So it was very much connected within the modern world and to western culture. But it's created its own identity, which is also my identity. But people don't know that — you have to know about the history of the place, which is remote.

And also, what does it mean to be a black man in Europe? It was different from being a black man in the US, because a black man in Europe was respected, because he was privileged to be able to be in Europe, as a black man and everyone would agree that his social status was higher. That's why Josephine Baker went there, and Miles Davis, and James Baldwin — because the black man had a status there that was deserved. But here it is a matter of knowing your place. So it's funny. Now its different because of immigration, and everyone in Africa wants to go there, but then it was different.

So then, my work, is, just what it is. I'm a black man, you know? I cannot make work and remove all of the blackness from it.

PDXP: Some of your collage has graffiti that references race. What can you tell me about that element?

When I make work I am very honest. It doesn't mean that it can't be bad or wrong, it doesn't mean that it's always right, but I make sure that I do what I feel. When I was making the piece that I called Charlie Parker, now its called Bird Parker because I was listening to a lot of Miles Davis and then I decided I'm going to listen to Charlie Parker to understand what Miles Davis is talking about. So I was doing that, and then, I got very much in to Raymond Sanders work, he's a black American, and all of that, Basquiat, his work was seen by Basquiat. His work is upstairs in the Portland Art Museum, near Basquiat.

So I was studying his work a lot then. And then, my girlfriend then, she's African American and she was a film-maker, and so here I had this thing with Charlie Parker, this thing with Raymond Sanders, and my girlfriend, whose black, and also thought a lot about Basquiat and then I was doing the piece and at some point my girl came to my studio and she said, you know, "What the fuck, what are you doing? This is like Rauschenberg. What about Basquiat? What about the hip-hop culture? Raymond Sanders, you're so in love. And you're black!" She was very activist, you know, black power. And I was like, okay, what the fuck. So I wrote, "What's up nigga" on the painting.

PDXP: Do you have any future plans that you want to reveal to us?

Right now I have an idea that I want to make happen for September, which is getting TBA to do an outside exhibition throughout the city that would be contained in PODs. Or maybe I would do a show where I would give eight or nine artists a POD. You know, you do an installation in the POD, and the POD is like your studio, and then you have like a week to have it around. And there would be one in front of like, Hungry Tiger, and one in front of like, My Father's Place, and another one at Worksound, another one at Ron Tom, and its like, let the artists do whatever they want, and at the opening we would walk from place to place, and then we can have a drink at each place.

PDXP: PLEASE DO THAT. That sounds so inspiring. Please do that.

So do you know me a little bit better now?


3 Responses to Portland People: Interview With Modou Dieng of Worksound

  1. Inspiration for Artists August 11, 2009 at 7:47 pm #

    ya, great interview

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