A conversation with Deanna Erdmann

by Nikki Darling

I met Deanna Erdmann in 2009, either at a party on my lawn or on the couch of a mutual acquaintance. It has never been decided or confirmed one way or the other. She did however leave a tiny vial of cologne in my yard. It must have fallen from her pocket, found the next morning when picking up empty beer bottles and can tabs from the grass. For weeks after I asked friends whose it might be, if someone had lost their signature scent. If they knew of anyone bemoaning the loss of what was a nice somewhat pricy collection of little drops. Eventually, I’m not sure how, D was identified as the owner, and it was returned to her. I had labored under the impression that it was someone else’s, discovering it was hers, I knew immediately I had pegged her incorrectly.

Deanna gives good first impression. She is funny and a bit self deprecating, has a bright laugh and likes to touch people in that way that makes everything feel gooey and intimate. A brush of the hand, a hug that goes on a few seconds longer, a nice shoulder smack for emphasis. She makes you feel good, heard. Like you might also be very smart and charming, based on her active listening. I remember thinking after the party, my that Deanna is a nice person, and indeed she is, but the cologne told me something different. The cologne, a spicy floral musk, was the kind of thing I imagined some very head strong, confident, man might wear. In fact I had been convinced upon first discovering it, that it must have belonged to one of the boys who attended. My own gender bias coming into play. It was not the cologne of a selfless listener, but of someone listening, always, taking in what’s said, politely, but not necessarily letting everything they encounter sway or dismay them. Deanna is not a people pleaser, she does however find a way to always appear as if being pleased by the company of others. This I have come to understand is one of her greatest strengths.

I like this anecdote about D and the beginnings of our friendship because in a way, it perfectly mirrors the qualities of her art-making that are most vibrant and dynamic. Each time I encounter her work I am struck first on a visual level, an aesthetic curiosity in which I try to situate myself, place myself in some environment I can understand. Often her pieces feel intellectually tangible, familiar, but upon closer inspection are something entirely different and puzzling. Cosmos for instance, looks like that for which it has been named, but is actually a super-cut of graffiti used to replicate the stars. And then what does that say about our understanding of the unknown? That in fact, we know the thing all to well. We pass it all the time and never give a second thought. These are not stars, these are the scrawlings of kids we pretend to ignore, teenagers we bypass as immature and incapable arbiters of Art. Deanna creates a way to find or place the fantastical in the everyday. The same way your idea of interconnectivity is widened when you first discover patterns in nature, how cacti resemble coral reefs, or the veins in oranges could just as easily be of our own bodies. Deanna makes everything appear knowable and able to pull apart, until you’re not sure what is and what is not manipulated by her own hand. Her work is a funhouse mirror only made to resemble something real, what it actually does is challenge us to really look.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, La Grande Odalisque, 1814

One of the things I like about your work is that it resists being didactic but clearly has something to say. I was wondering if you could expand on your relationship to ‘meaning’ and how you try to establish it, and if it even factors into your work. Is it important that the viewer ‘understand?’ I know from watching an earlier interview where you discuss your 2008 work Donut, which played at Patrick Painter, that you like to futz with editing but not always in a way that is immediately obvious. I’m thinking specifically of the donut itself, which you elongated through repetition. I know you’ve used this technique in other works. This seems like a leap but in this sense your work has always reminded me of La Grande Odalisque, with the extra vertebrae added to increase sensuality but not intended to bring attention to itself. Only when looking closer do we notice that the spine is not anatomically correct. La Grande Odalisque is not an exercise in questioning our perception, rather it simply wants to achieve increased sensuality. It’s aesthetic, not conceptual. So maybe this goes back to the ‘meaning’ question, but are you at all interested in those edits being known? Or are you invested in tweaking our perception without our realizing it?

I think of “understanding” more broadly than an intellectual understanding. It’s important that my work has a visceral, physical quality - so you can feel it. Feeling is important, its one more way of making sense. I think the body is more than a brain telling other parts what to do. We are embodied mediums, walking seismographs. So I wanted to speak to all the parts. But also, I want to leave space open in the work, a kind of porosity that allows room for the viewer - to inhabit their body and experience. To drift. Sensation is populist – everyone can do it.

Sensation and pleasure make way for other kinds of content. What does your body feel like, think like in a sea of changes? Images take on a morphing or transformational quality, where seemingly, the same thing, or a repeated gesture can take on different meanings or appearances within the same space, and that one idea can drift or morph into the next.

My work is process based. I come to “know” by touching, even when it's digital media, I find ways to work slowly, by hand - to fondle the material even though, or especially so, because it's digital. My way of touching is time - working frame by frame. Thinking about the way material touches other material or itself. I want to know it intimately so I experiment to see what it, we can do. It's very tactile for an image based practice.

I think about the fold and folding material a lot, that is very prominent in my work. The fold itself is reminiscent of time - things touching one another across disparate geographies. The fold also being an edit; the place where one section touches another, a juxtaposition. The fold contains memory of where something was before it shifted.

In response to Donut: I was also thinking about sound a lot. Drone music. I really wanted the rider to become a full bodied musician. Sound is also important to me. The elongation is political and in response to certain forms of masculinity. That a never-ending extension/performance of self, gesture, strength and masculinity could only be achieved through digital prosthesis. In this way the structure is political. And with Donut, pleasure needed to be foregrounded as well, creating space for the viewer to really stay, enjoy, become immersed in this time, and that it could lead to waves of understanding as I described earlier. Bodies - corporeal or geographic- have histories that we cannot be immediately aware of. I think the kind of subtle shift in time in Donut and in it's silent complement Blow Sand speak to this both through a slippage in vision and through accumulation. These works poke at the reliance on vision to create understandings - and it is a reliance that betrays. Meaning or understanding accumulates, and it changes. I think that’s why my videos have so many holes!

Additionally, the sense of excess that you relate to aesthetics in the case of the elongation of the spine and your question about the elongation of the temporal space of the Donut can also be related to the sublime – which is a form of excess that wrenches us from normative time.

I am deeply invested in pleasure through aesthetics. But the pleasure I am interested in is not immediate or of a single note. Sensuality and pleasure are radical and deeply experiential. They relate to forms of excess. For me, aesthetics are conceptual – structure is political. If the aesthetics are apolitical or seem to be, that is a form of politics.

Lastly, I can’t help but think about the myth that Marilyn Manson removed a rib so he could suck his own cock. Aesthetic or conceptual? Go!

So this one is much shorter. Repetition, you like it. Expand.

I am interested in methods of denaturalizing movement, of troubling time. This creates a response or the encouragement of a response to think and feel one’s position, how is it oriented and how is this current experience working in relation to that. It reminds that whatever may appear the same, or have the same appearance, cannot be approached as the same. It leads to trance-like or meditative states. Sensorial ways of understanding. I want the work to be multi-layered; that someone with no prior knowledge of the work might find some pleasure or sensual experience while engaging. In this way the work is quite populist, which is a political gesture for me. I also don’t think of the duration of any of the works as simply the running time is the video. All things echo out.

Your work takes many forms, you started as a photographer then moved to film, and now are making more sculptural pieces. I feel as though your film work is most known, but was really excited to see the pieces at the Irvine show, they’re so incredible and unlike anything you’ve done before. How do you know which medium to use? How did you decide those pieces were glass? Can you talk about them? And with that in mind, what made you switch to film in the first place, so many ancient moons ago?

I started as a photographer and moved into moving image works when I felt I had reached a limit with still imagery. I realized that still imagery moved, or had the capacity to at least in terms of perception over time. The new work acts like a sculptural film. It is composed of multiple images and image fragments that interact in space and time. They are understood through one another. The fold is the stack.

These new works are activated by the viewer. Whereas the film might move through time, changing images over time, these new works utilize the body of the viewer as the machine, the object and subject through which the images are active. With these new works, the viewer moves along the surface and also topographically, while navigating relationships between depth. This depth is echoed in the movement between the object itself and the body as medium. I am interested in the role of the viewer - evoking/provoking a perception model that moves and is specific to each person. I am deeply invested in other human beings. Politics, activism, working against oppressive institutions. All of this intersects the structure for the work. The structure is political. Meaning or understanding accumulates, and it changes. I hope the work acknowledges this, and in some way addresses it. Part of the queerness of the project is a commitment to a shift that is constant – queerness is not static. The acceptance of difference. Difference as constant but without the desire to tame it, change it, fit it into knowable paradigms. I am interested in turning people on, being generous with sensual pleasure, sensual experience. Sexuality and sensuality are radical. They resist capitalist modes if they are not serving the function of procreation. They become extraneous, additional, gratuitous and absolutely essential.

Yvonne Rainer, Duet from Terrain, 1963, Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown performing at Judson Memorial Church, New York

Extra bits! Outtakes! Gristle yum:

I think a lot about the title of Yvonne Rainer’s early autobiography. Feelings are facts!

Ruptured time allows the space to wander - wandering unlocks unknown potential.

Relationship to the sublime - the sublime as a queer project - Sublime - leaning toward things that have no words. The sublime is the perfect queer subject - boundless therefore always moving and never settling on a landscape.

If I am asking someone to engage, its because I am engaging with them. Our perception and consciousness are corporeal or embodied. In practical terms this means the body is our standpoint of and for perception (Crossley, 1996, p. 28). We are each somebody who perceives from somewhere. Embodiment also means perception is characterized by intentionality and action. Intentionality means perception is directed—focused upon one’s situation, environment, or world (Ihde, 1983, p. 53). And perception is not passive spectatorship divorced from a situation. Embodied perception is “creative receptivity”. To perceive is to performatively engage in a situation with and through one’s senses.

“Action frames perception whilst perception calls forth action” (Crossley, 1996, p. 28). Perception is a dialectical interaction between the body-subject and its environment that is constitutive of both (p. 27). Perception neither precedes nor follows consciousness. Perception and consciousness are intertwined with the body-subject. Consciousness is incarnate, and perception, mind, and body are abstract components of the body-subject.


Nikki Darling is a student in the Creative Writing/Literature PhD program at the University of Southern California. Her poetry, performance, and experimental essays are based around subjectivity, persona, and post-structuralist methods of deconstructing literary form and meaning. She is a columnist at KCET Artbound and is currently finishing her first novel, Fade Into You, a story of mixed-race identity in the San Gabriel Valley during the 1990s. Her criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Art Book Review, Tomorrow Magazine, and Public Books, among others.
Her essay “Appropriate For Destruction” was included in Best Music Writing 2010.


Deanna Erdmann is a Los Angeles based artist. She has presented work at the Hammer Museum, ONE Archives, Luis de Jesus Gallery, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, and OUTFEST. She is the recipient of a California Community Foundation Emerging Artist Fellowship and was recently granted a Metro Artist Commission for the Crenshaw/LAX project. Erdmann earned an MFA from the University of California San Diego in 2008.

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