Joshua Gamma’s practice lives at the crossroads of art, design, music, history, and activism, pulling from his nomadic upbringing as the son of a U.S. Coast Guardsman (growing up primarily in Louisiana and Texas); his experiences as a community radio DJ; the singer in the Austin, Texas, punk band The Mole People; a member of various art and activist collectives; and as a veteran of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Gamma received a BFA in Design and a BA in Studio Art from The University of Texas at Austin in 2009, and an MFA in Curatorial Practice from Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in 2019. As well as being the Emerging Curator in Residence at VisArts in Rockville, MD, he is the Design Director at Current Movements; a D.C.-based nonprofit connecting activists, organizations, and movements around the world using film, art, and technology; and am currently designing a series of artist archive books with Minerva Projects out of Pine Plains, NY.
What is the theme/thesis of your upcoming show at VisArts? What were your main inspirations in bringing the artists in the show together?
As you know it got postponed, so the exhibition will not be until December 2021. I’ve been thinking a lot about it, but I also feel like the universe could be completely different by the time that show is realized. The overall theme is the enmeshment of Christianity and offshoot cults in the fabric of the United States, especially in the south, and looking at how everything in the U.S. is connected to that, whether we are talking about politics or pop culture.
There’s a rebelliousness about American Christianity specifically that’s very anti-authoritarian, but it can also be cultish and very authoritarian. There’s also a lot of amazing things I associate with American culture that have spun out of Christianity, like Christian utopian socialist communes that have influenced progressive movements; enslaved folks using the book of Exodus as a roadmap to freedom; gospel music becoming rhythm and blues and soul, then rock and roll; and of course the theological underpinnings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s work in the civil rights movement. So, there are many beautiful things tied to that history, but there are also a lot of dark, twisted things like the KKK, white churches supporting slavery, segregation and white supremacy.
I’m working with a lot of artists where that’s part of their work, like S.M Prescott who is also a part of the Transceiver Radio project. They wrote a liturgy that we will broadcast over radio, and it will probably end up being part of an installation next year. They also make prayer banners that come from the southern charismatic tradition, but specifically are looking at it through a Queer lens, celebrating Queer sexuality. Another artist I’m working with, Rodrigo Carazas Portal, looks at Elvis Presley as a symbol. He’s from Peru so he’s looking at it more from the outside. He’s looking at Elvis almost as a religious icon, like Jesus, where you can take Elvis, put him in any culture and people will have an opinion about him. Elvis becomes this impetus to talk about religion, race, and capitalism. He’s the tragic hero who falls from grace. Elvis is also involved in a lot of conspiracy theories about aliens—which Rodrigo will be talking about on a conspiracy theory radio show.
One of the things that drove me to the concept of the show initially, is that I’m a huge rock n roll fan. I also grew up mostly in the south and in the church, so seeing that connection between charismatic preachers shaking, speaking in tongues, and what became rock n roll or punk rock has been super fascinating to me.
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Do you have any favorite punk or rock and roll bands you like to draw inspiration from?
One of the things I did for years was play in punk bands. Thinking about that connection to charismatic Christianity was a big influence on me, like James Brown, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Elvis Presley and these frontmen who almost become spiritual leaders, their role being to get the crowd involved, and to whip up the emotion. That’s something I pulled into a lot of my performances when I was in a band.
Also people like Miles Davis and George Clinton where they become figureheads; in a way they are curators. If you look at Miles Davis’s bands, you can tell he goes, “I like this guy, I like that guy… we’re putting them together because they’re going to be an interesting combo.” Especially in the 70’s, sometimes Miles is not even in the song until twelve minutes in, because he’s laying back letting other people do cool things.
Would you like to talk more about the purpose of the Transceiver Radio broadcasts? By inviting guests who combine art and activism, how do you inspire your listeners towards a desire for change?
This project is pulling from the tradition of community radio as a public platform that anyone can get involved in. I’m also drawing a distinction between a community radio station and a public radio station like NPR—because they are usually connected to the government and they’re a little more professionalized. Typically DJ’s at NPR have been in the business for a long time, while in a lot of community radio stations it’s completely volunteer. Anyone can do it if they pay their dues, sweep up the station or whatever they’re tasked to do for the first six months. I think there’s something beautiful in that co-op-like institution—the goal is communication. I’m also a student of the history of community radio. I think community radio is a place where art and activism come together a lot.
I know especially with Trump getting elected, a lot of artists, myself included, were put in this place of “what do I do? What is my responsibility in this situation?”
There’s a long history of social practice in visual art, but it sometimes falls short because it’s still so much in its art head. Like—and I’m not referencing anyone in particular here—some German artist will go to a lower income neighborhood in Chicago, be there for three weeks, and that’s it. It doesn’t have the deep accountability that movement organizers strive for. So I think something that is really important is showing artists that there are people on the ground already doing the work, tied into grassroots organizations. As an artist you can join these movements; you need to be accountable to them. I think there’s a powerful potential for artists to really get plugged in, and for movements and activists to realize how powerful art, design, and music are for amplifying their message, communicating in ways that might not be so traditional, or so straightforward.
How did you come across/create Current Movements? Can you share more about how you use the platform to connect activists and organizers using film, art and technology?
To be clear, I did not create Current Movements. Current Movements is an organization that has existed in Washington D.C. for maybe three or four years. The woman who formed Current Movements is Katie Petitt. She was really involved with Black Lives Matter, and she organized at Standing Rock.
A good friend of mine Joseph Orzal has an art platform in D.C. (now Baltimore) called Nomü Nomü, and he was in the same Curatorial Practice grad program I was in at MICA. My graduate thesis show was Transceiver Radio, and his was a show called Hedonist Buddhist, which was all about gentrification. He grew up in D.C. so he’s experienced the gentrification there firsthand. One of the things he was doing for programming was bringing in local activists.
There was a lot of overlap politically and conceptually between my project and his—he was working with Go-Go musicians talking about how music could be used for activism—so we were collaborating with each other when we could. Katie, I believe was leading some Black Lives Matter meetings at his gallery, which was the annex of the Washington Project for the Arts, and I met her through that. Initially we started collaborating because she needed design work.
Me, Katie, and Joseph Orzal from Nomü Nomü also worked on a project called The People’s Platform Poster Project, where Joe reached out to a poster company in Peru involved with Chicha music. Joe noticed parallels between Chicha culture in Peru and Go-Go culture in D.C. Both are underground music movements associated with marginalized people. They both have a vibrant rainbow aesthetic in their handmade posters. In D.C. with Go-Go, it’s Globe Poster with heavy wood type and explosions of bright colors. In Peru, the Chicha posters have beautiful handmade lettering. I think he saw that somewhere and said “this is amazing, we should reach out to these people.” I had a Chicha music show on Transceiver Radio hosted by a D.C. DJ group called León City Sounds, so maybe that’s how I got involved? Katie wrote all the political phrases that became the posters. It was this really interesting thing where music, activism, and art were all coming together.
I also ended up doing the design work for the Current Movements Film Festival last fall, which was amazing, having great panel discussions with filmmakers, artists, and activists. But as COVID hit, it became clear that she was probably not going to do another film festival this year. So the conversation started to revolve around what we were going to do, and how the organization would exist in COVID.
She knew my background with radio so we decided to create a podcast, and that was the first broadcast for the Transceiver Radio broadcasts for VisArts this fall. It’s mostly her and another film maker Mayuran Tiruchelvam, a film professor who has Sri Lankan roots. They write it together and my role is more of a producer, hooking them up with VisArts to do their first event. Current Movements is also working on something called Feed the Reel, which is going to be an online community for people interested in getting involved with filmmaking. It’s on a platform called Mighty Networks, which kind of operates like Facebook or Reddit but it’s completely self contained, so you can filter out trolls, you don’t have any ads. It’s just conversations.
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Your work is often collaborative, whether it comes to curating or radio broadcasts. Have you always been a collaborative person?
Yes and no. The early form of my art practice was really solitary. I drew in my bedroom and painted, I used to make cassette tapes that were collages of things I found off the radio, and would make album art. But it wasn’t until college that I started to view my work as collaborative.
But growing up I was always involved in collaborative things. I was in boy scouts, in church youth groups, right out of high school I was in the military, and all these things that are about people coming together and making things happen. At some point I started taking some of the tools I learned in these organizations to do more interesting things, while using art as a broad umbrella. My design background is a big part of it too. In design you have the client-designer relationship, and design studios also often have a collaborative atmosphere. I feel like I really thrive in these situations where I’m one voice in a group, where we can all come feed off each other and build something greater than the sum of our parts. There’s something really magical when you’ve got a lot of different voices in solidarity.