Spencer Sweeney

"It’s like that moment when you can feel the roller-coaster lift off the tracks, right before it goes down. That’s inherent in any act of creation."
Interview by Asher Penn 
Self-Portrait by Spencer Sweeney

Spencer Sweeney has done a lot of different things since moving to New York in 1998. Painter, DJ, and nightclub owner, Sweeney’s engagement with New York’s broad creative pool has led to distinctly memorable experiences for all participants. Sweeney believes in bringing different crowds and scenes into one place- both in art and life- an inclusiveness characterized by the melting pot of New York itself.

I wanted to start off by asking you about John Giorno. You told me he was the reason that you moved to New York.
I had found a copy of The Dial-A- Poet record called Totally Corrupt. He had this recording on it called “I Don’t Want It, I Don’t Need It, And You Cheated Me Out of It."
Cool. 
That’s how I was introduced to his work. I went to TLA Video store, where I was working, and found this one Giorno Poetry Systems video tape. It was a tape of him performing at a club in the 80's. He was surrounded by a crowd just hanging off every word. This was in a nightclub scenario.  His reading was so radical, the crowd was so engaged and enthusiastic. I thought to myself "That's where I should be."
When did you move?
’97. I went straight from college to New York.
Did you study painting?
Yes. It was a really strict Figurative Studies program at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. The oldest art school in the country. You draw plaster casts for two years straight, and then you get to draw a live model.

Boom Boom, 2006

Why did you choose to go to that school?
I wasn’t interested in the art school scene. I didn’t want to have any part of it, so I opted for this really traditional figurative studies school. That’s what I wanted to do. It was just me and a bunch of housewives painting naked people all day.
Why figurative work?
I just wanted to further my studies in painting figures and in painting in general. A lot of art schools weren’t even teaching painting then. Painting was considered a dead art when I was in art school.
Did you master it as a craft?
Yes, I mastered that shit. 
Do you come from an arty family?
My mom was an avid painter and she designed resort wear professionally to put the kids through school. She did it in a real painterly way. She’s an artist, and that’s how I got turned on to painting.
What about your siblings?
My older brother would go to punk shows and he would bring me along. I was in fifth grade.
Fifth grade?
I was exposed to all kinds of great music through him and his friends. Punk stuff, Captain Beefheart, The Velvet Underground... early Pink Floyd. I got into some really cool music at a really young age. Then when the Indie rock scene started happening, I was contemptuous of the whole thing, I didn’t like it. I was like, “These guys are mumbling into the microphone, this is bullshit.” I wasn’t down with the informal approach.

Shit Storm II.5, 2004

Kinda like figurative painting.
Yeah. At the time I didn’t want to go an art school with a punk / goth art school scene, and I didn’t like the schlubby vibes of what was about to be called Indie rock either. Now I kinda like some of that shit though.
What did you first do when you moved to New York?
I had worked at TLA Video in Philadelphia. They opened a branch in New York, so I went. It was a video store job.
Cool.
It was right next to Electric Lady Studios on 8th Street. One night Ric Ocasek from the Cars and Alan Vega from Suicide walked out when I was changing the window display. I introduced myself and said I was a big fan. They were so nice. Alan gave me a big hug.
Did you start Actress soon after moving to New York?
Yeah.
What exactly was Actress?
Actress was a performance group that explored the identity of being a band. It was pretty aggressively noisy and fucked up musical experience. We worked a lot of different concepts into the performances. I was the only male member along with four girls, two of which, worked at American Fine Arts where we all hung out. It was Jesse Holzworth, Amy Gartrell, Sadie Laska and Lizzzi Bougatsos. The performances were very spontaneous. It was balls out improv all the time. No one aside from mice elf had been in a band before. So we relied entirely on musical intuition.
How did it start?
Well, Actress was a collaborative effort in every way. I got to New York, looking for this really crazy scene. I wasn’t able to find it; it all just seemed so homogenous. There was your Indie rock scene and your hip-hop scene, and then your gay scene. That’s not what I was looking for. Actress was also a way to start shaking things up. We did these performances to try to bring something to life that we really wanted to see happen.

Actress, 1994:(from left to right) Spencer Sweeney, Lizzy Bougatsos, Sadie Laska, Amy Gartell , Jesse Holzworth. Photo: Rosalie Knox

Was American Fine Arts an influence?
Definitely. We used to call Colin de Land, who ran AFA, our only fan. He would joke around about being the manager. Colin appreciated it, and it fit because his program was so open-ended. It would be hard to find a consistent string aesthetically that went through any of the artists who showed at American Fine Arts.
Really?
I think it was more about where people came from. Colin would pick up on different people’s ideas for completely different reasons. I remember before Matthew Barney was with Barbara Gladstone, he told Colin he wanted to show at American Fine Arts. Colin told him “if you’re looking for the fast lane to success, this is the slow lane.” It was people’s intents and agendas, or lack there of, that factored into how they fell into working with Colin.
Could you describe an Actress show that really sticks out in your memory?
Yeah. There was a show at Greene Naftali gallery. We had taped contact mics to the backs of these stretched canvases. They went into an Alesis drum machine with some bad settings. Really bad sounds. We put little artificial blood squibs in our hair and wore white and banged our heads over the contact mic canvases. That would trigger a horrible sound. We had worked out a procession and performance around that. That was one of the more formal performances. Others were total chaos. At First, we only played in art galleries. We did a show at Tonic. Then we opened for Will Oldham at the Bowery Ballroom. We played to a packed, sold out house. That one was fucking hilarious. We have some good pictures from that one.
I’ve seen those photos Rosalie Knox shot of you guys. It’s obvious image was an important factor in that group.
We were interested in all the ephemera that surround bands. We were into doing interviews and doing our own photo shoots. The music was really out there. We thought at the time that we were against music. You hear about bands being the reason that so many other bands started, that they spawned hundreds of bands. We wanted to be the band that would make people break up their bands or decide not to start playing music.

Actress, live at PS1, 1997

I remember 2001 as a year when all these albums that came out: Fischerspooner, Andrew W.K., Le Tigre, The Strokes, Peaches. They were all kind of ‘metabands’—self-aware projects.
Yeah, Actress was before that.
I always wondered if there was a connection.
I think that Actress did have an influence on some bands. We were very influenced by the No Wave scene and Throbbing Gristle and things like that. What was called “electroclash scene” for lack of a better term, That was influenced by the No Wave scene somewhat. Also an ‘80s aesthetic as far as new wave clothes.
Right.
Actress was very meta in a way because it was conceptual. We were out to create a conceptual punk band or rock band. We were more interested in the different formalities of it than the actual music. The music was an aggressive departure from musicality, but then again, inevitably, it would fall back into it.
What was your relationship to American Fine Arts outside of Actress? Did you show there?
My first solo show in New York was there in 2001, and I was in a group show there, too. I liked what was going on there so I had naturally gravitated towards it. I became good friends with Colin, and I hung out there basically everyday.
What were your paintings like at that time?
I collaged different styles. All my different interests poured in and became the synthesis of what I was doing at that time. I was interested in the layering of graffiti, and in how opposing styles came together. They were really energetic, aggressive compositions.

Passerby, 2006

How did you end up with Gavin Brown?
While I showed at American Fine Arts, I produced music and performance nights of performance and music at Gavin’s gallery. I threw parties. Like Andrew W.K.
How did you find out about Andrew WK?
My friend Ghazi Berekett had seen Andrew at Starbucks—
Oh, I’ve heard about that show.
Yeah, he saw the Starbucks show. He told me to check out Andrew W.K. He said he was like Rick Wakeman on steroids, using his keyboard like a pommel horse. I thought, I gotta meet this guy, so I asked him to do a night at the Passerby.
Passerby was Gavin Brown’s bar?
Passerby was a bar on 15th Street in front of Gavin’s gallery space. I DJed there on Friday nights for years.
Had you been DJing before that?
When I worked at the video store, I picked up DJ gigs here and there. I had always collected records. I DJed at some big clubs like Spa. For a long time, the only way I made money was DJing.
What kind of stuff would you play?
When I DJed, I would play Michael Jackson. I played Suicide. I played Slayer. I’d play what I was into, not a specific type of music.
What was Passerby like?
It was cool. It was an actual artist hangout when it started. We would have all the young artists of the day, and then Lawrence Weiner sitting at the end of the bar. Then you would have Rub n Tug and DJ Harvey on saturdays. Everybody was there. It was often very packed with a really special gathering of people, and they would really party. We would go all night and then pull down the gates and keep going. Passerby closed around 2008.

From Sex Magazine #3 Spring 2013
Labelled Art