I first encountered Damon Locks’ work in 2013, when I was a fledgling curator at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum in Chicago. I was putting together a show about radical home economics and a colleague suggested I take a look at a poster Locks had designed for the Center for Urban Pedagogy explaining the rights of domestic workers. Social practice art was everywhere in Chicago at that time, a form that was always well-intentioned, but could sometimes feel didactic and blunt. Locks’ poster offered something else: it was a technically-spectacular, stunningly-beautiful, highly-political art object that evolved out of a collaborative, improvisational process. Over the next several years, these were some of the qualities I would come to think of as quintessentially Locks.
As I got to know Locks in the years following, I was never less than awed by the quantity and variety of his output, working in such disparate fields as music, performance, comics, pedagogy, drawing, printmaking, and digital collage. At nineteen, he founded and fronted the legendary, post-punk band Trenchmouth with other fellow Chicago luminaries Wayne Montana, Chris DeZutter, and Fred Armisen. After that band split up, Locks and Montana started The Eternals, a project that has continued for more than twenty years. In addition to his creative production, Locks teaches at Sarah E Goode High School as a part of a program run by the Museum of Contemporary Art and at the Stateville Correctional Facility with Prison and Neighborhood Arts/Education Project (P+NAP). In 2015, Locks started the Black Monument Ensemble, a performance project that combines original music, found sound, dance, costumes, and live vocal performance. All of Locks’ work is rooted in radical Black politics, a commitment to craft, and expansive thinking about audience.
In 2014, I was thrilled to be able to work directly with Locks for an exhibition I curated called “Unfinished Business: The Right to Play.” For that show, he worked with incarcerated artists at Stateville Maximum Security Prison to create animations that expressed how those artists felt about freedom and time. We have remained friends ever since, and spent several weeks this summer recording and exchanging various voice memos that comprise this interview.
THE BELIEVER: I think of you as a very Chicago artist. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with the city and what Chicago offers you as an artist?
DAMON LOCKS: I was born in Maryland and I moved to New York after high school to go to the School of Visual Arts. And then after two years in New York, I transferred to the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, and I’ve been here ever since, which is about thirty-two years. I have found that Chicago offers space to let projects build. You don’t have to be finished with a project to present it. New York had such a fast pace and so much competition that you really had to have the whole thing together. In Chicago, I feel like I’m able to create work and let it grow. And over the thirty-two years, I’ve also found that the community that’s still here—because young people grow and they move away—but the people who are still here are fully available to collaborate and to lend support. Chicago has been a good place for me. And currently, there is a vital political/activist/artist contingent that is also collaborative and supportive.
BLVR: Let’s talk a bit about the Black Monument Ensemble. Can you describe it for me?
DL: The Black Mountain Ensemble at its fullest version is movement and song and experimentation and beauty and rhythm. There are aspects of gospel in there. There are aspects of jazz. There’s electronics and samples involved. I think that there’s inspiration from a bunch of different places, whether it’s Eddie Gale, Sun Ra’s Arkestra, Archie Shepp, Phil Cohran’s groups, Voices of East Harlem. These are all touchstones for what I wanted to create. We’ve done different versions of it—scaled it up and scaled it down— but the full thing is really a beautiful sight to behold.
One of the things that I am very interested in with my art, whether it’s like visual or sonic is what I call the Black nod. It happens in many places—it happens on the street, it happens all over the place. But, you know, you might be in a Bed Bath and Beyond or the Container Store and you see another Black person and you acknowledge their presence in the Bed Bath and Beyond. And there’s a connection, there’s an acknowledgment. A moment where we say to each other: I see you. I was interested in what that would look like or sound like. How can you make work inside the nod? The black monument ensemble in its fullest version is kind of my way of operating inside the nod.
BLVR: What is the origin story of the Black Monument Ensemble?
DL: BME really started in 2015, right after I taught my first class at Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum security prison in northern Illinois. That was a transformative thing in my life because I saw what our justice system was like up close. It was also a time where more Black people began getting murdered in a very public way via social media. And I was trying to process and just deal with where we were in the United States when it came to race relations. I needed to do some self exploration around it, so I decided that I would start making sonic performances about it. I had not done that before, but it was time for me to do it.
My first performance was in December 2015. Sounds Like Now was an exhibition that Miriam Kaba, Rachel Caidor, and Essence McDowell put together and they invited me to do a performance. I used recordings of Black historical voices to create an audio experience. I used civil rights era recordings of Ruby Dee, Black Vietnam soldiers, Angela Davis, and Fred Hampton. I also used drum machines and delays and samplers. I didn’t have that much equipment then, but I created sound beds that these voices could come in and out of. I hoped the listener would hear these voices and realize that we’re still dealing with all the same things today as we were then. During that first performance, people sat on the floor and closed their eyes and listened. And then after the performance was done, people talked about what they heard. And to me, that was kind of amazing because that doesn’t usually happen. People engaged with the material. So I continued to buy records with all sorts of Black Arts and Civil Rights-related content. I was always interested in those records but all of a sudden I could utilize them in a different way and keep those voices moving through time.
Then, I began to work with dancers Onye Ozuzu, Anna Martine Whitehead and Move Me Soul, a young person’s dance company who arranged for me to work with five young women from the Austin Neighborhood. Together, we created a piece for MCA in response to the Merce Cunningham exhibition, and that was really a beautiful experience. And then I was in New Orleans and I saw a choir sing for a Martin Luther King related event and I realized I would love to have singers and that it was necessary to add that component to what I was doing because gospel was the soundtrack of the Civil Rights Movement. I wondered: what would happen if multiple Black voices were again addressing civil rights issues in a contemporary setting? So I dedicated myself to figuring out how I would make that happen, how I would join what I was doing with drum machines and samples of spoken word snippets to Black voices and dance and movement. And that was kind of the birth of it.
BLVR: I had heard so much about the performance of BME at the Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago before I heard Where Future Unfolds, the album that came out of that performance. I have to say, as a former Chicagoan, I was so sad to miss the performance and worried that the album might be, in some, sense a mere copy of that performance. I was so glad to be proved wrong. I wonder, though, if you can talk about how you think about the album and the performance. How are they different from one another and how do they complement each other?
DL: The album is a different thing than the performance. I love listening to records. I think that a record is a magical container of imagination. As a young person, when I first became fascinated with records, I would play a record and just sit and stare at the record jacket and it would ignite my imagination because I didn’t have the internet to reference the musicians and learn more. I only had the record cover. So I would just sit there and stare and imagine what the musicians were like. Because of that, I thought a lot about the people who didn’t see the show. I hoped that if they were given music they could sit there and look at the artwork and look at the photos and read the lyrics and try to piece together what happened at the show. I was really excited that the record included images from the show and included my own visual art. I think that the album is a wonderful container that holds a lot of potential and creates a lot of curiosity. I think that the record is something that sparks the imagination. You’re not getting the whole picture and that’s okay.
BLVR: You said you felt like the performances were a way to process what was happening in the US at the time. What were you processing and how did making work help you process that?
DL: Yes, the performances were a way for me to to process what was happening in the wake of Mike Brown and Freddie Gray and all of this very public murder available for viewing. And I had just co-created an animation about freedom and time with incarcerated artists for the exhibition that you put together at Hull-House. That was a profound experience. Absorbing the lives of all of these people consumed by the justice system in what looked like a prison that was 90% filled with Black people. It was a lot to take in. I felt changed forever by the experience. Six years later I am still working with P+NAP at Stateville (even though we can’t go in right now). I was like, I can’t do less than this. I need to create work that’s on this level. So in order to process my feelings about where we are and where we’re going as a country, I need to be in dialogue with the things that are happening. Not like a back and forth conversation about the murder of Mike Brown, but I need to be contending with it in my artistic practice. So in order to do that I needed to build a new way of doing things. I didn’t know what that was going to look like, but I knew I had to start. And so I did that first piece and when people did have conversations, then I knew that I was on some type of track. The Black Monument project really did take on something that felt larger than anything I’ve done before because the community that makes up the Black Monument Ensemble feel really connected to the project and connected to what is happening in the project. Not only is the project addressing issues, but it’s also filled with layers of expression. I think that’s why people have said when they come to the Black Monument that they were moved to tears. I think the tears might come from the intensity of some of the subject matter. But then also the beauty of the art and the artistry on display. And in this moment of civil uprising, people are listening to the Black monument, and it’s really an honor.
BLVR: One thing I really admire about your work is that it is political, but it isn’t didactic. It does not feel preachy or obvious in the way that a lot of social practice art can feel. I’ve always found that to be very difficult to achieve. How do you think about didacticism in your work?
DL: It’s something you really need to keep an eye on if you are going to make work that pushes the needle forward on the conversation. Work that doesn’t just doesn’t just tread water or tread around an area that has already been trodden on. This was easier many years ago when there wasn’t as much language around Black art conversations. It was easier when there were less people having that conversation. Now Instagram is filled with it. So how do you see what’s out there and try to come up with a take or come up with art that cuts through that and delivers the intention and the message in a way that feels fresh, and is generative and additive? It takes a lot of thought and consideration, and I tussle with it a lot. I might change a lyrical line back and forth several times, for example. In the song Sounds Like Now, I had to really think about these lines: “The crumbling buildings, oh the city’s killing all it’s children right before our eyes. There goes another one. There goes another one. (repeated another 14 times).” When I was writing, I was trying to figure out if the desired impact would be there or not. You gotta stay open to changing things as you build. Luckily, I didn’t have to change it cause when the singers hit it, it was beautiful.
BLVR: Something that I’ve always loved about the Chicago art and literary world is that so many artists are also teachers. I think this comes from the fact that fewer artists in Chicago come from money than in New York, so they actually need jobs, but also from a long history that situates the artist as an integral part of the community. In New York, I’ve noticed there is a lot of resentment about having to teach, whereas in Chicago, artists and writers often see teaching as a privilege. I wonder how you think about your teaching practice and if you see it as a part of your art practice?
DL: Teaching is definitely a part of my art practice. Mostly because I feel like my art practice is really about communicating ideas and I use whatever medium will work best. So when I do work with Students, whether it’s Stateville or at Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy, I feel like a collaborator. I feel like it’s making art and we’re making art together. I’ve always felt like it’s better to create work in the teaching scenario as an artistic colleague. I may orchestrate the projects, but I’m there to be an avenue for a creative journey.
BLVR: You work in so many different forms—collage, screenprinting, music, DJing, just to name a few. Why do you work in so many different forms? What do you feel like it offers you?
DL: I [use the form] that makes sense for the question or the conversation I’m trying to have. Essentially, I think I’m here to communicate about ideas, so I try and pick the best form to communicate those ideas. Some of the ideas I want to talk about are race and culture and movement and liberation and voice and transformation. So you know, sometimes you need drum machines and dancers, or turntables, or art supplies.
I also am interested in what the materials themselves convey. I feel like screen printing, for example, is accessible. People can understand screen printing, because signs are screen printed. Traditionally screenprinting was a medium to convey information clearly and publicly and I think that medium still holds that power. The medium itself feels more easily accessible than, say, oil painting. So screenprinting is somewhat like the boombox—the boombox was traditionally used to project music publicly. Though people don’t use them like they used to, the cultural imprint is still there. People still have associations with the boombox. People literally smile at me when I am carrying one around. There is an accessibility that is connected to it.
Sometimes students will ask me about sticking with one medium because they are told to pick one thing and do that thing. And that’s not something that I really do. I feel like you should always do what you’re moved to do. Even if [your art practice] seems disparate, the longer you do it, the more the spaces around [your work] will fill in as well. And those spaces might touch upon some of the other parts of the things that you’re interested in and then over time, it will create this tapestry. It will all connect in an interesting way and it will take a shape, a form that is unique to what you do. And once it takes form, then people will understand it. They’ll be like, oh, I recognize that shape. I recognize that tapestry. That’s the Damon tapestry. And you will have filled in the connective fibers so it won’t seem disparate anymore.
BLVR: What would the Damon tapestry look like?
DL: I would love it if it looked like a Gee’s Bend quilt. But who knows, it might look more like a wall that used to have movie posters on it and has some spray paint and a bulletin board that they haven’t changed in a couple of years that has half of what used to be on it before and half of like, you know, Geico ads on it.
BLVR: When you think about the audience for your work, who do you imagine?
DL: I think the answer to that stems back to my childhood when I saw the large impact of punk music. The Sex Pistols, for example, and the huge public outcry against their music, showed me how music could have a political impact. Or groups on the Two Tone label, like The Specials, were addressing and combating a racist notions in England at that time and had a very political stance. Public Enemy was similar. They were having a political conversation with their art. They were addressing political issues with their work and the public was responding to that work. The work created something that made the public do more than just dance and people engaged with political issues as a part of the work.I found it super intriguing that these groups were using their popularity to spread a political message. I was also interested early on in things that weren’t considered art. I was very interested in graffiti, and comic books, and of course both were artistic things, but they weren’t categorized as such. But those things were accessible to everyone and I really enjoyed that.
All these groups were famous, and this allowed me to know who they were. But when I started to find out more about people Like Sun Ra or the The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians here in Chicago and other Black organizations across the country that weren’t famous but were doing stuff in community and making work that kind of served the community or addressed the community issues within their work. That became appealing to me. So it fed into that same kind of thought process, but not in like kind of a pop culture way.
I think in my wildest dreams I’ve always wanted to have engagement with people through my art. It never seemed all that satisfying to know that there’s a piece of art just hanging on a wall. I wanted to figure out some way of having a more connected experience through my work. So I think that that’s part of my need to work in more than just one medium. I want to have a conversation.
When I started really focusing on making art, around 2007, I decided that I was interested in this idea of community and making work that connected to community. And I was very interested in making work that would speak to Black people. I wanted Black people to be my subject matter, and as I developed that, I was interested in figuring out ways of making that work accessible to the Black community. And what does that look like if you’re working in the art world? Can you make art galleries accessible? Can you make work, music, as accessible? What were the tools of that?
BLVR: Where did you land?
DL: I think as I got older people like Kerry James Marshall, Emory Douglas, Zora Neale Hurston, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Phil Cohran, those people became heroes as well. All of those people gave me a variety of examples of how you could create work and uplift other people’s work and take work to people. One of the things about making work in a variety of different kinds of mediums is that you can figure out ways of reaching people so people don’t always have to come to a gallery to see it.
With the Black Monument Ensemble, for example, we played the Garfield Park Conservatory, and The Chicago Cultural Center, and the South Shore Cultural Center. We’ve played at the Hyde Park Art Center. These are places structured for public events. They might focus on art or music but they are not tied to the music or art scene. I was looking for the possibility to make something new with new frameworks and new people. I wanted to make an offering to the public and create something from the ground up using those public platforms. You don’t have to be familiar with the local music scene to know that Black Monument Ensemble exists. We just have to pick the places to have the conversations we want to have. Where we have that conversation will help determine who we are having the conversation with.