Life on Heat Island: Dena Yago

Dena Yago, Fish Oil, 2011

Dena Yago, Stamina, 2012


Isla Leaver-Yap: Many people first encounter your work through your poems and prose. Your texts often precede the exhibition, but also serve as the primary documentation after the show has come down. So words appear as a “primer” to experiencing the exhibition, not simply because the texts are released first, but because they set a particular register that permanently inflects the images, objects and more abstract qualities of your exhibited work. I’m conscious also that your short poems, almost prose poems, and their structural syntactic qualities are loaded with highly specific proper nouns. You appear to address deeply privileged lifestyles, urbanity and, perhaps at the intersection of many of these things, art world privilege. The writing often concerns a female body, either through the external observation of a female subject as with your text, Chinese Woman Stuck Between Walls Mistaken for Ghost, Rescued 7 Hours Later, 2013, for example, or a first person observation that is clearly female.

Dena Yago: My use and inversion of proper and common nouns serves to gauge distances within a pretty specific landscape, New York City, which is totally saturated with the things you mention. Using proper nouns collapses distance, and using common nouns makes the relationships that are closest to me generally accessible. Calling anything by its name creates intimacy. I will call my water “Voss”, rather than water. Conversely, to create distance from that which is closest to me, I use common nouns. This is how I find myself addressing the female body. Or, for instance, I will call my boyfriend “boyfriend”, rather that addressing him by his full name.

ILY: It is interesting to think of Lauren Berlant’s writings on intimacy in relation to what you are saying. Berlant describes the mass-mediation of intimacy through products like therapy, self-help and talk shows. It also makes me consider how intimacy can be used to camouflage difference, and how branding reduces proximity to create the appearance of intimacy. It is useful for thinking through the way that more “authentic” or traditional expressions of intimacy have to now emerge through generalized terms such as your use of the word “boyfriend”, for example.

DY: This form of intimacy is a top-down use of general address to create a tone of proximity and imitate collapsed distance. For example, with “The Royal We,” or terms like “brother” and “friend.” But, proximity doesn’t equate to intimacy. Through writing, with my use and inversion of generalized and specific terms, I’m trying to gauge distance bi-directionally and between multiple points. In this way, writing functions like radar, or GPS. And, it’s through writing that I am able to produce images. I can address formal and compositional questions without exhausting limited resources and secreting byproduct. It grants me an amount of freedom – freedom within the constraints of language. It serves as the most effective object-oriented logic for me to form compositions – all while carrying the least amount of dead weight.

ILY: What do you mean by an “object-oriented”?

DY: “Object-oriented” in that you are incapable of differentiating yourself from the world around you. Or, you are unable to create a hierarchy of objects. This is something that I experience through my work in branding and trend forecasting. When ascribing subjectivity to a brand or product, you begin to empathize with it. By defining its identity, you end up privileging that object on the same level as yourself. This can throw your own sense of self into a tailspin; you end up seeing everything within an object-oriented ontology.

ILY: So if your practice is so heavily rooted in text, how does the writing interact with the exhibited objects or images?

DY: Leaving the text as a standalone entity is too abstract – images serve as an external tethering point. They function in a non-illustrative relationship to one another. One does not represent of the other. Register and inflection are both good ways of looking at it.

ILY: Practically and conceptually, then, how do you compose these texts? The texts all possess an explicitly distracted, scattered quality. Did they begin in response to a specific situation or experience?

DY: After finishing school in NYC, I started working at a law firm across the street from the gaping hole of the World Trade Center. The Freedom Tower was erected while I worked there. My job was to distribute and teach everyone in the firm how to use new Blackberries and Windows 7. There was a lot of time spent sitting in empty offices after hours, having downtime when you’re installing and activating software. I developed a lot of anger towards the leisure and the lifestyles I was facilitating and was implicated in – art and elsewhere. And I also felt like I didn’t have much of an out – NYC problems – the job paid really well, was self-managing and easy. A best-case scenario. Practically speaking, writing is always accessible for me. Language is a post-scarcity resource. What is within the realm of scarcity though, is meaning.

Dena Yago, Fish Oil, 2011

Image: Dena Yago, Fish Oil, 2011.

ILY: Both your texts and the work seems to gesture towards the existence between public and private realms. Of course this public/private thematic is too broad to really break down within our conversation, but nonetheless I mention it because of what I think your practice points towards: embodied experiences of the public and private. For example, your flat-bed scanner images of fish oil capsules, of health food supplements [Esprit, 2011] – these are all images that hint at the invasion of the body on a molecular level, and the increasing movement of affluent, sanitized culture into the “terminal” of the private: one’s own body.

DY: By taking supplements, you’re applying “act local, think global” logic to “your body, its environment”. These gestures become ridiculous when they get wrapped up with a sense of responsibility ­– or when applied in any sense beyond “I’m taking fish oil to promote brain function and reduce risks of cancer.” Generally though, I don’t feel like there are many points that distinguish the public from the private when information is so accessible.

ILY: Do you imagine the work expressing a desire for resistance, in a political sense?

DY: Specificity – talking about what is directly in front of you – can seem so banal and totally passé, and I find that within art the discussion of the practice of everyday life often remains in the field of generalization and abstraction. My use and inversion of proper and common nouns, for example, is largely in resistance to this abstracted discussion of “the political.” With representational photography, as with plainly written text that transcribes what you are seeing in front of you, things can get so literal. A photograph of a duck can be a photograph of a duck [Do you ever feel like a plastic bag, 2013], a scan of a fruit can be just that, without metaphor. If there is resistance, it is a resistance to abstraction. When placing these images in relation to text, through titling or co-exhibition, any use of metaphor stresses nonequivalence.

ILY: In terms of the loss of self, leisure emerges as a highly fraught activity and, as you mentioned previously, so does intimacy. The skeleton of a sun lounger you presented, almost as a surrogate self or viewer in Esprit seemed to articulate this precisely: a structure that hints at a body at rest but lacking the support to allow such an act. And in your show at Sandy Brown last year [A car ride driven topless taken alone / Reminds major city thoroughfares of their / Contracting hopes as they pass, to carry the / Breasts of the driver, 2012], you exhibited suspended white fabric sheets daubed with made through frottage rubbings over people’s bodies, which implied a kind of “dirty protest” gone wrong – each of the painted sheets were rendered in different colors, so even the act of a dirty protest was reduced to a kind of chromatic splitting [Interfacing series, 2012].

DY: Thinking about it in retrospect, A car ride driven topless taken alone… was a break-up album. It was trying to make sense of what it meant for me to continue being in love when everything surrounding that love had broken down. I made the interfacing pieces with my ex-boyfriend and, afterwards, we ended up watching the television show Breaking Amish. Very confusing.

Dena Yago, A car ride driven topless taken alone, installation at Sandy Brown, 2012

Image: Dena Yago, Interfacing, 2012

ILY: The exhibition seemed to be a more absolute form of losing yourself among your environment, or an expression of the attempt to give yourself over to other things or people. How does this kind of dissolution function in your other collaborations, or is it necessary to maintain a position? I am thinking specifically of things like K-HOLE [the trend forecasting group Yago co-founded three years ago with Greg Fong, Sean Monahan, Chris Sherron, and Emily Segal], as well as Farming In Europe [a collaborative play for theatre, written and produced by Calla Henkel, Max Pitegoff, Pablo Larios, and many others].

DY: K-HOLE is a total collaboration; producing a report requires a pretty extreme amount of negotiation, meeting in the middle, interpersonal mediation. It’s really messy. In our collaborative writing, we have agreed on a voice that is external to any of our individual voices. We’ve gotten really good at writing within this voice, and knowing when we drift outside of it. Meanwhile, there is little to no delegation of our particular roles in this writing.

Usually though, when working with other people, roles are clearly defined. This is true for Farming in Europe, the play at New Theater in Berlin, where my role was as playwright.  But even having these delegated roles doesn’t mean it’s clean. It is a completely collapsed social sphere. Relationships create shared space. It’s very intense; everyone is so deeply entrenched with one another. I feel that I’m choosing to lose myself in these relationships somewhat, but  I wonder what totally surrendering to that would look like.

ILY: In relation to these collaborations and communities, our contemporary environmental or technical situation is complicit with such highly specified forms working, often with unexpected ecological consequences. You told me that New York City’s electrical infrastructure has raised the temperature of the ground soil, allowing non-native plant species to thrive.

DY: It’s called the “Heat Island Effect”. There are anomalous environmental factors that effect the blooming of communities, and create a codependence. I see this in my relationship to New York City – a pretty hostile environment that isn’t a very viable place for artists. Nonetheless this is where I am, and I take a lot from the city too. The Heat Island Effect is created through population density, the electrical infrastructure, and the subway system. In turn, the ground is warmer than it should be. Water doesn’t stay frozen, and migratory ducks stay in Central Park year round. Fig trees and certain artist communities all thrive in New York City.

Dena Yago, The Subletter, 2013

Image: Dena Yago, The Subletter, 2013


A version of this text appeared in Mousse #41, Nov 2013.

Images courtesy Dena Yago. Top image: Dena Yago, Stamina, 2012.