Joseph Ravens: Heralding the Poetics of Perception

Carrie McGath

From Ravens' "Fish Out of Water"

Performance artist and Executive Director of Defibrillator (aka:Dfbrl8r), Joseph Ravens and I chat while sipping from warm cups in Lovely, a shabby-chic coffee shop and bakery in Noble Square. This was to begin part two of my interview with him. “For a performance artist, you are your art. I have to travel, it’s part of my job.” We discuss travel, Ravens continuing, post-sip, “I am going to Vietnam in December and I am going to be sleeping on floors with tarantulas.”   Ravens possesses an infectious energy and passion for art and artists while also possessing a palpable humility.

Discussing international travel with Ravens, it is not about endless name-dropping of visited countries, but something truly real, a part of him, integral to his art. After a few more sips among the noise of steaming cappuccino milk, he continues, “It’s nice to sweep the carpet out from underneath for a little while. It makes you sort out what’s important, what’s not, what’s true, what sort of falls away. It’s humbling.”

He tells me about a particular experience when he was asked back to East Berlin to perform. “I did a text-based piece and it flopped. Germans don’t fake polite. It wasn’t pretty. I was like a spoiled brat who got a slap in my face. It really opened my eyes. That was the beginning of my change from text-based to object-based performance.”

We walk around Noble Square after our talk in Lovely, Ravens guiding me through this neighborhood that is at once gritty and homey. Dfbrl8r and Ravens no doubt have a lot to do with this feeling, as I observe him talking to neighboring business owners and gallerists.

There are the beginning blooms of a scene amid these city blocks. Not a scene in a contrived way, but in an organic way. These are the veritable buds of a revolutionary art scene.

During the first part of our interview a week previous, sitting at a white-washed table on equally-white benches amid the trademark silver corrugated walls of Dfbrl8r, Ravens enthusiastically discussed his career and how it has evolved. “I am used to doing art for the elitist crowd, but if we can blow people away a bit and expand their consciousness, if that happens more and more, it’s like combating close-mindedness.”

Ravens walks this talk publicly, his work moving outward from the innards of the art world’s gallery walls. He makes a stage in Noble Square’s Polish Triangle as well as on the national and international front. He lives the adage, The world is a stage … 

On one of America’s many guilty reality-tv pleasures, America’s Got Talent, Ravens performs in a televised audition in Atlanta. Dressed in one of his

From Ravens' "Fish out of Water"

handmade “body sculptures” that resembles a body organ, he mounts a unicycle and begins to ride, excreting pillowed abstractions from his stomach region. This piece is called, Is My Liver Showing?. The judges and amped-up audience boo Joseph and he tells me that it is an interesting and humbling experience to be booed by over 2,000 people.

Watching the emphatic negative reactions of the judges and crowd, one surely cannot help but wonder again about America’s pop cultural escapes, its preferences. Ravens weighed in on this issue. “America is spoon-fed everything,” he said, “and I personally believe that is wrong, so showing America something they do not understand is really an important thing to do.”

Ravens continued to discuss the experience, imparting snippets of a discussion with Howie Mandel that became frustrating. This discussion was not aired, not the only thing the show edited in or out. “They presented it as an oddity. They replaced the music. I had guttural sounds. It was never meant to be a comedy device.” The show inserted a silly song à la Benny Hill. He continued, “I loved that they cut off the argument with Howie.” Ravens was not dismayed by the changes made to his performance. “I was kind of thankful that they presented it like I didn’t go back out. It points to the fact that I was inserting this abstract piece into a popular culture context.”

From Ravens' "Is my Liver Showing?"

Overall, Ravens says the America’s Got Talent experience was a positive one. He talked about the other people waiting to go on for the televised auditions being intrigued by what he could be, what he was about to do on stage. He simply answered these questions with, “I am nothing. I am abstract. I am sculpture. I am whatever you want me to be.”

America’s Got Talent was Ravens’ ultimate public performance in a lot of ways. “I was already interested in performing in public. To make someone stop and search their mind and expand their consciousness even for a short time. The idea of unexpected encounters. If it’s on television, it will affect people in a similar way. Television is public art.”

On Friday, August 26th, 2011, Ravens took to the Polish Triangle in Noble Square and into Wicker Park during rush hour for another unexpected encounter. His performance was one of twelve performances by different artists each week as part of Out of Site, a weekly public performance series that went on throughout the summer. He said, “It’s about people coming out of the train and being surprised.” Ravens’ piece, Fish Out of Water, was met with differing reactions. In this piece, he ran for two hours while carrying a large, dead fish. This was a renewed conception of a piece he did years previous at a festival in Vitória, Brazil. He told me about the original conception of the work in Brazil.

“I Googled Vitória and found it was a popular sports fishing destination, a place where the largest marlin was caught. This place has a strong relationship to the sea. I wanted a marlin and they couldn’t afford it, but I wanted a big fish.” He continued, “I was training for triathlons at the time and I was finding that when I was biking 80 miles, I found I was going to a similar place in my head, going into a meditative state to make time pass differently. I was already interested in durational art and durational sport. My interests coalesced with this piece.”

Running through the streets of Vitória, Ravens held a large fish that was dead, although he manipulated it while he held it to give it an appearance of being alive. While running, he yelled, “Onde está o mar”, Portuguese for “Which way to the sea?” The reaction intrigued Ravens, proving his point about the enthusiastic effects of public performance. He said the people on the streets of this sea-faring city answered, “‘This way! This way!’ Then I would go the wrong way on purpose and they were like, ‘No! This way!’”

After the performance, showered and in plain street clothes, he was pleasantly surprised to be recognized on the streets of Vitória. “This is a small city in Brazil and no one had really ever seen performance art. These people were touched by this. It reinforced again that public performances are a way to touch massive amounts of people.”

This piece was moderately re-worked for the concrete and not-so-maritime context of Chicago, and the piece was met with very different reactions. “Some

From Ravens' "Is my Liver Showing?"

people were angry. Most people were tickled and amused. I went around three times for two hours. By the third time around people were really wondering what I was doing.” He continued, remembering, “Then someone posted a Craigslist ad asking who the guy with the fish was and thanked me for brightening their day.”

Ravens’ artwork uses the body, it is about the body, about a dysmorphic sense of the body. He expresses a curiosity with form, space, the poetry of it. There is also the notion of seeing yourself differently than the way others’ see you. “How you see yourself doesn’t always jive with how you actually appear. How you feel you are versus how other people view you, these are Lacanian ideas, how your personality is largely comprised of how you think other people see you.”

Recently, Ravens has been using a large head and bulbous bodily appendages as he does in Kattywampus. He talks about exaggeration, and how exaggerating a body part or parts changes the perception and the proportion of the entire image. He designs and sews his own body sculptures for performances, nodding to his textile artistry as well.

Ravens’ intrigue with inflatables continues the visual discussion of the dysmorphic projections of the body. His work, like a Lacanian mirror, are held up to the audience, and what we see there is our own perception. Who do we want to be while watching Ravens performing? Who are we? Have we been wrong about our specular awareness? We must answer these questions, the artist only hands us the mirror. He says, finishing his now-cooling coffee, “I don’t explain my work. I create abstract images that mean something to me, and they may not mean anything to you.”

Joseph Ravens’ work is an altercation with our beliefs in what is real and our apprehension about what is truly real. Ravens is a true artist since he is also a scientist, an anatomist, a philosopher, and a humanist. He is also one of the nicest people one could ever have the fortune to meet.