Artist David Henry Nobody Jr. on how impersonating a wealthy Trump fan "kind of drove me insane"
"I INHABIT IMAGES" is the Instagram bio chosen by David Henry Nobody Jr., the playful yet apt moniker of New York artist David Henry Brown Jr. Nobody's artwork often involves being totally engulfed by food, pigments, advertisement cutouts, or household items, sometimes to the point where he is only recognizable by a glaring eye or wide smile. While this project has been documented on Instagram and ongoing for three years, David Henry Nobody Jr. has always been fascinated with ideas of representation and identity.
In 1999 Nobody, disguised as a fan, made it his mission to follow and meet Donald Trump as many times as possible over the course of a year. He totaled six interactions but decided to stick with the theme of impersonation for a new project in 2000 where he adopted the identity of Alex von Fürstenberg, VIP son of the fashion designer Diane von Fürstenberg. During this time, "Alex" was documented at numerous celebrity parties among figures like Puff Daddy and Bill Clinton.
Nobody's current Resemblagè art, from the terms "resemble" and "collage", is a series of images and videos posted to Instagram that record performances of the artist covering and immersing his face in foods, paints, magazine cutouts, toys, and other objects. His inexhaustible creativity keeps the posts new and exciting by exploring new objects and textures, or ways to affix and camouflage himself with his art. These Resemblagès reflect the landscape of social media itself and toy with conceptions of self image, intimacy, and reality while also highlighting its far-reaching and immediate influence. As the ultimate subversion of the selfie, David Henry Nobody Jr.'s Resemblagè art is equally fun as it is thought provoking and hard-hitting.
Sarina: Now that Trump is the president, what is it like to look back and reflect on your year-long project where you stalked and met him six times?
Henry: It's really fascinating and really nauseating simultaneously for me. In one sense, I predicted the future! He's so much more extreme than he was back then, so extremely right wing. He was already kind of insane in 1999 but he's definitely much more out of his mind now as President.
In 1999, it was still well before the Apprentice or anything like that, it's before reality TV, I just thought Trump was so cheesy, and I just loved really cheesy people in the 1990s, still do. Except when they're really, really scary right winged people. By right wing, I mean he lives the American dream as a fantasy and is oblivious to the dark side, like exploitation of people, and environmental destruction, and objectifying women, and shit like that... I don't play up the project that much, as much as I could I guess, because I think he's such a fucking douche bag. It has certainly become an important body of work for my art. I think of it as having fired an intuitive warning shot about Trump to the world.
In 1999 and 2000 I had a much bigger project going than Trump. I was going out at night in NYC and crashing VIP parties as Alex Von Furstenberg, an actual real rich guy, for a year undercover. By turning myself into an illusion, I was able to crash hundreds of VIP parties and meet and get photographed with the rich and famous. Sixty photos document Alex's adventures and became my first major solo show in NYC in 2000.
So Alex Von Furstenberg took over my life more than Trump at the time. I did the Trump project for a year, and there's five photos of us together. I met him five times and then I met him a sixth time at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic city, where I shot a video at a pro-Trump rally where he was looking into running for President. I went down there with a video camera and I got all five of my 8x10 photos autographed in a gold paint marker by The Don. I met and documented a lot of weirdos that would vote for him. At a later time I made a "Trump For President 2000" sign and campaigned for Trump to probe the public's reaction down near Wall street in NYC. My stalking Trump project was covered last year by a video by Vice and also an article in The Huffington post.
I actually showed those signed photos to an art dealer recently and he said, "You better hold on to that stuff. That's like getting your picture taken with Hitler and having it autographed." For both Alex and Trump I was immersed in ideas about celebrity fanaticism and fanatical behavior, and the dynamics of capitalism, and how we believe in things, and what that means to me. I wanted to explore it myself and become a believer in the illusion and try to understand the forces at play that drive how I see reality. I still think that if you're a white male from America, there's a part of you that is Donald Trump. I feel that his supporters are, in fact, in awe of their Oppressor.
Sarina: I've heard you say that Donald Trump is a performance artist, and that he's totally Dada. Could you talk about this?
Henry: Yes, firstly, by making such a claim, I'm moving against a lot of what's happening in the New York art world right now (that art should separate from society). I disagree philosophically with the notion of separation! The idea of Trump as performance art comes out of my interest in bridging different areas of society, and comparing and contrasting them with the construct of art. I am comparing and contrasting the Dadaists, Duchamp, John Cage, and all the history of conceptual art and pop art to consumerist culture. Consumerism is very conceptual, we're living in simulacra, which is pictorial space, like a painting. Trump is so fake and so delusional and "basic" that as a construct it closely resembles the illusionism of pictorial space in a painting or drawing. Performance art comes out of painting and drawing and sculpture. Trump is a Readymade performance artist. He should have R. Mutt tattooed on his forehead to complete the cycle of art, consumerism and fascism all in one! Trump is so fucking absurd as President that it Trumps Dada itself. Capitalism is now the snake swallowing its own tail.
Sarina: You refer to yourself as a reality hacker. I'm intrigued by this concept, and I'm wondering why you think it's important to hack reality, and which one of your projects has hacked reality the most?
Henry: I think it's important to hack reality in order to examine what we might often take for granted in our lives, to pull back the curtain of our consciousness by disturbing and sabotaging and recreating reality through living art works.
I would say Alex Von Furstenberg went the farthest. David Nobody on Instagram right now is another reality hack and is currently better known than Alex. @davidhenrynobodyjr is a work in progress that my followers can observe and influence by their actions and comments. David Nobody is a character, but everybody thinks that's me. It is and it isn't. There is increasingly a gray area between me and the characters in my work. I generate a character that performs and makes objects for a couple of years. Then I change and move into a different period and I create a new character to do this. I have been hacking my art and hacking reality for the last 25 years.
Alex went really deep because it became a solo show and because the story was highly relatable not only as art but as mythic Americana. Alex was on national TV, and it was on the front page of The New York Observer, which was a big deal at the time. The project created a pretty good scandal in the media. My friends called me up from my college days. They're like, "Dude, like, I was at the airport, and like I fucking saw you on TV."
As much as I impersonated Alex, the project went deep into my world, things got delusional. I began to really obsess over celebrities. My encounters with them were like fetishistic experiences. I would really say that Alex kind of drove me insane. I stayed undercover for a year but once I outed the project to the press and had a solo show, everywhere I went in New York people were like, "That's that guy that poses as Alex von Furstenberg." They had all these really crazy ideas that I had become rich, and was selling my work like crazy. In reality, I was really broke. Alex von Furstenberg exposed the illusions we live inside and it tore me apart. It became a hallucination machine and a propaganda machine.
Alex drove me nuts and I started acting out and getting weirder and weirder with my friends in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in my off time. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the groundwork for the art of the future was being laid by my homies and myself in our nightlife. I was going out as my weirdo hipster self and hitting the dance floor all over nyc and enjoying the nightlife/after hours scenes in order to blow off steam. The double agency of my life drove me in my down time to doing more drugs, and just living like a lunatic Fantastic Nobody. (It's like I hack reality, and then reality hacks back into me.) When you look into the abyss, the abyss looks into you. However, in this abyss, me, along with my collective, the Fantastic Nobodies (2003-2013) started a freeform ongoing creative lifestyle of late night after hours weirdness which I began to document more and more. The crazy costumes and masks that we actually wore out in public constantly and in our gallery shows became one strand that influenced the character of David Nobody. It was a fucked up time that intermingled with the twisted and tragic history of 9/11. I stayed as creative as possible until the drugs overtook me and almost destroyed me. Luckily through my resolve and the strength and the love of my family, I quit the heavy partying in 2003 and walked out of the apocalypse intact.
Sarina: So when you take on a new identity through an art project, do you feel like you actually start to become that person? Like with Alex von Furstenberg?
Henry: Yes most definitely I do, or at least my subconscious takes command of the character and takes over my decision making, kind of like brainwashing yourself. It is tricky to be the character and to keep a conceptual and abstract detachment simultaneously, a slippery slope. It is with this schism of the self that I am most creative. All this role playing is to engender more creativity in my life. The art flows from this fountain.
Sarina: How long has the Resemblagè project been going on?
Henry: I came up with the word Resemblagè three years ago. It describes the combination of the words resemble and collage. It means physically collaging upon your body or someone else's. The idea of Resemblagè has been an ongoing strand in my work and collaborations for a long time. It has not been until I started using social media as a medium that the idea clicked more fully. The technology had to grow into my work to allow a greater ease of production and sharing with an audience.
Sarina: What's it like to use Instagram as your platform for the Resemblagè ? Does it make taking on a new identity easier in a way?
Henry: For sure it's easier to create an identity on social media, I mean to some extent everybody is doing this. It's practically like the ideas of masks and social masks from art and ancient human cultures became widely available to anyone. A revolutionary digital democratization of identity, a digital mask, has merged with consumerism and the internet. I evolved my understanding of this by experimentation and trial and error on Instagram. I started using myself in my work in 2014 more and more, just face painting at first and noticed the uptick of reaction/likes and new followers. I began to online-befriend other creatives and we influenced each other. I saw more and more apps and animators that were hinting at describing the kind of self image vertigo and altered body sense and identity that I felt now spending a massive amount of time on my phone as an Instagram artist. I began to extremify the types of things I put on my body and face in my work, to make it more shocking and more absurd and more perplexing. I wanted to physically wear the expression in order to better understand it, to create a dissonant but physical empathy with my work. I began to see that the recording of something was more important than the real thing, thus the recorded self becomes more emotionally real than actual life at times. Like all my past bodies of work, the only way to deal with the problem is for me to wear the problem/to perform it. David Nobody wears the hypocrisies of society and the issues of society that confound me so that I can create a call and response with an audience, a creative dialogue, an understanding, an expansion of consciousness. I find that we live in a very, very surreal time where differentiating between what is real and what is not is a fucking slippery slope. I want David Nobody to reflect this view in a grotesque and unsettling yet beautiful way.
Sarina: What is the last book you read that influenced the way you think about things?
Henry: I really do constantly read the news but I'm not currently reading any books, I just find I don't have time. I'm kind of addicted to the news drug/disinformation/junk cycle, like everybody else. So I'm constantly influenced by what's happening. There was a very good article by the author of American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis. He wrote a New York Times op-ed like two years ago that's about your online identity and its relationship to one's sense of self-worth.
Basically he said that there was no real economy anymore for the masses, all the ultra wealthy stole all the money. There was only this simulated economy of self perception/self worth where you were rated online and this sense of rating becomes your "economic" value. He said it produced a very conservative and paranoid society who were solely concerned with their only asset, their reputation. I definitely agree with a pretty Marxist type deconstruction of Capitalism as far as creative perspective. In that vein, I would say Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle is probably the most critical piece of text for me, and I think it's historical influence cast a really long shadow. It certainly influenced the feel of punk bands that I grew up with like the Sex Pistols and Joy Division.
In 1967, Debord basically predicts Facebook and Instagram, i.e., that the mediated representation of social interaction/self will replace actual social interaction. You don't really talk to each other that much anymore, you just make symbols about it in media, you know what I mean? It's a total deconstruction of capitalism, and it talks about the dehumanization of late capitalism on the individual, and that there are no real emotions left. That we are commodities. It's brutal, it's fucked up and kind of scary. I would certainly relate this harrowing portrayal of modern life to George Orwell's books, most notably 1984. This is why David Nobody's creations look the way they do. It took many years for me to synthesize society and art and politics and my life into one flow chart of thought/performance.
Sarina: Is there a reason that you use food more than other objects in your David Henry Nobody series?
Henry: I do use food pretty consistently in my Resemblagè portraits and performances. It is beautiful and visually pleasing, especially the unhealthy junk food I use. I like the deceptive visual appeal of junk food. It certainly does get quite a reaction on Instagram, it gets into irrational expression. I think it playfully confuses the observer, because it's kind of flipping the script. It makes me look vulnerable, as if you might want to eat me. We are predatorial by nature, but there also exists in most humans a strong sense of empathy. The idea that the things we eat might look back at us, I think it's profound to cross these wires. There is the neurosis of food and the germaphobe element that is very exploreable. I use food to portray excess and greed and waste, classic hallmarks of American culture. It can be really fucking gross looking. It feels very interesting and sexual, orgiastic even, to physically wear food for David Nobody. Food is attraction and repulsion at times. Food is a metaphor for emotions and the body.
I have a long history with with food spanning many bodies work for the last 25 years. For example, here in my live-work space in Brooklyn, I'm standing next to a huge display case of deep fried objects from 1994, where I deep fried all these fake butterflies, and fake flowers and huge brassieres and stuff which is all lit up with incandescent lights, behind glass. It's really big. Deep Fried Objects is one of the few nicer large sculptures that I kept from the earlier 1990s. It has magically stayed in great condition for 24 years despite being deep fried!
Between 2007 and 2010, I made a whole body of work called Pizza Infinity about pizza as a religion in the form of felt fabric banners combining the human figure with Pizza, and also some performances. Again, food. In the Fantastic Nobody's Collective, I was often trying to put food all over myself. It just comes up again and again. I think like, food for thought, on one hand, and food as the body, and food/body as the economy.
I was also a major class clown as a kid in addition to being really into art. I loved to start food fights and gross other students out. I was bad and I got in trouble a lot. I got caught for all kinds of things. I destroyed stuff, vandalized things, sabotaged school, everything. Fortunately, I'm glad I became an artist because I had a lot of issues with society, but I didn't understand how to voice it, so I would just act out. My art has kind of given me a platform that proves that my childhood intuitions were actually critical by instinct, but misguided. The way I acted out as child form the seeds for my art as a (reluctant) grown up.
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