AnnaLiisa Ariosa-Benston (aka FAMOUSONMARS) is an installation artist, director, and curator who makes interactive installations out of New York and she sat down with us to talk in-depth about political art, feminism, curating shows, her wildly unique pop-up curation/concept stores for her FAMOUSONMARS brand, and much much more.
Well art making, I think we’re all artists as kids right, so we all started sort of playing in that way and seeing art as exploration and self-expression. So I did that sort of constant doodling, drawing kind of stuff as a kid, but what really got me into I guess what people traditionally call ‘art making’ is Chinese brush painting. So my mother is Taiwanese and I had an inclination and a desire to learn more and she just put me into this like local community class and I did that for a few years and that sort of just sprouted into after leaving the class and going as far as I could, I started just to continue it on my own and that really influenced my palette when I first started which is very like monochromatic and expressive.
I originally went to Emory University, I was really unhappy, it really wasn’t right for me. I was going through personal things and all of that and I really found solace in painting, it was my way to describe things that I couldn’t really find language for. And during that time a friend of mine wanted to show my work in their space so I decided to do that, and when I was in New York over vacation my two locations for my jobs closed. Pro Paint in Atlanta closed and then my location for Wachovia and Washington Mutual, well Wells Fargo, combined and my location for the bank I was working at closed. And I told myself up there on Christmas like “I have no job to go back to in Atalanta” and I’ve wanted to live in New York so long and I have family here. So I applied for a job, I told myself if I could find a job and an apartment (that) I would stay and I did, and I never came back. Had my stuff shipped up. Been here for like 9 years.
ROAD TO SVA
I just decided Pratt because I didn’t have a foundation, I needed the foundation. I knew that if I wanted to do well in art (that) I needed to have a good basis and Pratt’s a very traditional institution and I did painting there. It made the most sense for me at the time and it was the best school that I got into and it was local in New York and I wanted to stay in New York, so I went there after a year of living in New York. I decided to do my MFA because by the time I was done with my painting degree I wasn’t painting anymore. I was like “what can I do with drawing that you don’t really see” or like how can I adhere things to walls that are temporary and seemingly like, they just don’t seem they could really last for very long, there’s sort of this lifetime to each piece and I was thinking a lot about Eva Hesse and things she didn’t want to live forever, and thinking about ‘art as life.’ By that time I was like ok I’m kind of feeling this momentum and I’m about to be done with undergrad and I was going back to school a little later than everyone else and I didn’t want to lose that sense of urgency, I didn’t want to lose that community, and when I went and interviewed with David Row and I saw the school and I saw that artists who went there, what they did, it was between that and MICA and I was like I’m gonna stay and go to SVA because I mean it’s New York, there’s so many more opportunities afforded here, there’s so many more people, literally just people, to look at and talk to and experience that you just don’t have anywhere else.
PAINTING TO OBJECTS
When I was at Pratt I was doing jewelry and I was doing little tiny sculptures essentially, metalworking. I took all of the jewelry classes that I could and at the time FAMOUSONMARS had already begun and it started basically around the same time Instagram was just starting to become a thing. I found that I was afraid of and reluctant to marry the two because I was so set on practices being separate. I had a really hard time when I first came to my Masters program, coming to terms that I had two running practices that I never really like allowed myself, or gave myself the permission to say this can be the same thing, or I can take those aesthetics and marry them and find someway to have this vision become one, and it didn’t happen until I was almost second year at SVA.
FAMOUSONMARS is primarily an interactive installation that lives online. I use social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook to get real-time feedback and a lot of interaction from other artists. When it is experienced IRL (in real life) it acts as kind of like a pop-up curation/concept store. So when you walk in it feels a lot like what you would imagine small boutique pop-ups are but as a person interacts and experiences it and, for lack of a better phrase, unpacks the room, they find that all of the objects have strong feminist undercurrents and political ideology behind them. I use lots of fun and colorful palettes in order to engage the audience and make it easier for you to walk in and experience it cause it seems sort of like nostalgic based, there’s a lot of ’90s and iridescent things like that make it really accessible, and I want it to feel inclusive as well.
The most recent one that I can think about would be for Satellite in collaboration with Susie Magazine, which is an inter-sectional feminist magazine that spends a lot of time working with a lot of marginalized groups and (is) very gender expansive and identity expansive, which really cool and the exact kind of people I want to work with. We went down and sort of co-curated the experience together, really utilizing FAMOUSONMARS’ aesthetic, which they easily melded with because they have so many people that they work with that really use…there’s a cultural zeitgeist assault kind of thing that happens right now, I think there’s a collective consciousness that was working well with what I was doing. The idea behind it was again the kind of concept store/pop-up experience where everything feels very accessible, you want to touch things, you want to put them on because they’re presented in a way that feels like there isn’t a wall between you and the work. You’re encouraged to really interact with it. We had sex toys that didn’t really look like sex toys from Unbound, which were pink and blue and green and teal and all of these things that were very Miami and very much on that aesthetic of most of the installations for FAMOUSONMARS.
The idea really was to get people to sort of start thinking about these things, thinking about people who make magazines like Tom Tom, which is literally a women’s drum magazine. Like drummers, female drummers. You know like ok “that’s a really small niche environment,” is it? I don’t know because they keep coming out with publications right, so why do we think that that’s so uncommon when it’s clearly not. So things like that where you just sort of think “ok someone actually made something out of this, wow, I didn’t know this existed.” And that’s really what I want people to have, is to feel that whatever they’re touching, experiencing, is as important as them experiencing it.
I think meeting new people, collaborating with other people is a big part of my process, I don’t like to be the only curator, I just like to instill some sort of cohesiveness and allow there to be a lot of things that bubble to the surface based on what other people are trying to bring to the table. I think meeting new artists is a huge part of it and then also helping people who come into the space sort of see something or experience something that they haven’t had before.
Like for the first one I did for Miami – the second one we weren’t able to have live tattooing due to codes and things like that, like state stuff, but the first one we had a tattoo artist doing live tattooing that was a mix of NSFW (not safe for work) to like, you know, on ankles or whatever, and we had kids walking through and adults walking through. People who had never even heard a tattoo needle before, because it’s a very niche environment where if you were to see a tattoo or get a tattoo you’re a very specific demographic for the most part. So people would be drawn into the room because they’re just hearing this needle going, (and) they’re like “what the heck is this?” and (there was) everything from pure curiosity and excitement to complete disgust. And I just thought well, “ok well when else are they gonna experience this” you know, you have to go through certain things to even walk into a tattoo parlor, so I thought that was really nice to sort of have people have this multi-sensory experience whether they wanted it or not.
Really freelance, it’s a(n) UN accredited NGO called Peace Building Solutions, so I don’t work directly with the UN, I work for a non-government organization that is, for all intents and purposes, certified by them because they approve the kind of work that we do and we went through a lot of like hoops and ropes to basically get their approval. Which gives us access to the UN so I can go there and sit in on summits, especially for women’s rights and arts and things like that and say “hey, Peace Building Solutions cares and we’re here, we want to hear what you’re doing,” and actually that can come back in and fold into the research that we do because what we do is basically as much research and information to create and produce more sustainability in the non-profit sector, especially in Haiti.
So most of what I’m doing with them is trying to make more art things happen here stateside and to raise funds that way. So it’s been touch and go because it’s really hard and the non-profit world works at a very slow pace. And they have like no money so people should donate stuff to them. They’re great.
That had a lot to do with the beginning of the primaries, it had a lot to do with experiencing certain things in my life that I had kind of ignored or accepted was ok for myself and I think it was another time in my life where I just sat and had to give myself the permission to do things that I wanted to do, that I saw other people doing. Including like guerrilla art projects and getting out in the streets and talking to people and producing work that is more aggressive. You know and as a woman we’re told not to be aggressive and I think it’s like literally unlearning was half of the process of becoming a political artist is unlearning what you’re told you’re supposed to do versus what you always want to do. That doesn’t mean everyone’s political but I think being a minority and being a female artist, or being a minority in general or a marginalized group is a political act in and of itself to be an artist. Because you’re already going against the grain, you’re already pushing yourself into a world that doesn’t want you.
ALL WOMEN SHOWS
It’s like so fricking controversial to do an all-woman show you know. Everyone is just like, “Ok well that’s like you saying we’re definitely not equal,” so now you have to take out all this time to say these are all women,” and people feel really upset about that because there’s both sides of feminism saying, “Of course we’re equal, why do you act like we’re not,” and the other ones being like, “Have you noticed everything yet? Why aren’t you paying attention because we’re not.” I think that the moment we stop having female ‘quoted’ or ‘branded’ art shows is the day that maybe we are equal, because there’s an urgency and a reason behind that. If you say, “This is a queer show,” you’re saying “I want you to know that everyone in this show is queer because it’s underrepresented.” We’re creating a platform, we’re making it a point, and if you have to make a point about it it’s because there isn’t enough of it. And if it’s a niche and people are like so sick of it, well, think about why people feel like it’s still important. It’s one of these things where people get sick of feminism, people get sick of politics, and politics-driven art over time because they just feel like (they’re) so inundated in it and everyone’s doing it. But, those never stopped being important topics. You can be sick of it but it’s still urgent, there’s so much urgency behind it.
You have to because you’re constantly like opening a wound to the world. You know you’re like “ok, so this is my soft underbelly, this is like me at my most vulnerable, please don’t massacre me.” The difficulty of it is (that) art is so personal, and taste, there’s no count for taste. You know, people are gonna love you, they’re gonna hate you, they’re gonna feel nothing, which is the worst case scenario – is if you illicit absolutely nothing. You have to be fearless to make art work because it’s not easy.
I’m doing Miami again for Satellite, but this year I’m also sponsorship and partnership liaison, so if people are interested in sponsoring, whether they want to come in as fiscal, whether they want to do special events in partnership, or they want to be a part of the…we’re gonna have talks this year so those are all options for people to come in on.
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.