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The art of unexpectedness

While visiting ASU, Sanford Biggers explains how to embrace unplanned creativity — and unintended reaction


Two people sharing something under mood lighting.

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November 19, 2015

Interdisciplinary artist Sanford Biggers is a hard guy to pin down for an answer.

It’s not because the New York artist, pictured above right, is evasive or shy; he just wants his work to have multiple meanings and outcomes.

Take, for example, the teaser he provided for “Moon Medicine,” his upcoming show at ASU Gammage:

“We’re an all-black boy band but it’s not all black men and the entire band might not necessarily show up,” Biggers said with a straight face and a slight glint in his eye. “There’s a lot of room for improvisation. I don’t even know what it will be like.”

Others have described "Moon Medicine" as a music and optical experiment that weaves funk, film noir, punk, sci-fi, traditional Samoan dance and Buddhism with original video content and improvised “turntableism Turntableism is using a record turntable as an instrument.” and “VeejayingA Veejay is a video tracker and editing tool that can also be a real-time video sequencer or effects generator..”

That’s a mouthful, but Biggers wouldn’t have it any other way.

“When I started to construct my creative language, I used to think that art was about delivering a specific message to a viewer. But one critique early in my career changed the way I viewed my work,” said Biggers, who is an assistant professor at Columbia University’s Visual Arts program and is in Tempe as part of a 10-day residency sponsored by ASU Gammage and the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.

“There were people from Haiti, China, Mississippi and they all saw my work differently. I recall using some boat imagery and one person saw it as slavery while another person saw it as freedom. I then realized that maybe it wasn’t a bad thing if you unveil your art and ascribe different meanings from personal experiences.”

Biggers’ work and installations have been celebrated through exhibitions both nationally and internationally, including the Tate Modern in London; the Whitney Museum in Harlem, New York; the Yerba Blue Center for the Arts in San Francisco; and institutions in China, Germany, Hungary, Japan, Poland and Russia.

Woman vamping on stage.

ASU intermedia graduate student Veronica Aponte stands center stage during her class performance and likens toys to audience members.

Photos by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

He said he intentionally complicates issues such as politics, religion, identity, race and art history to offer new perspectives to established symbols. This past Monday Biggers offered his perspective — as well as a critique — to an intermedia class taught by Angela Ellsworth in ASU's School of ArtThe School of Art is part of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts..

The class presented a 10-minute interactive piece called, “Omni Optic,” which touched on themes of surveillance, technology and privacy. Part of the presentation included setting up Biggers by recording a brief presentation he gave of his work, and playing it back minutes later on a large screen.

Biggers acted neither surprised nor outraged by the intrusion, but embraced the concept. In fact, he liked it so much that he invited the class to participate in his Saturday performance.

“What you just saw right now shows there’s room for improvisation in any performance, even on the fly,” Biggers said. “My boy band just got bigger.”

“Moon Medicine” starts at 7 p.m. Saturday at ASU Gammage in Tempe. Tickets are $20, $15 for ASU faculty and staff and $10 for students and members of the military.

For more information visit ASU Gammage.

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