Thee Mistakes and Constructing Reality

Jesa Dior Brooks is a musician and artist. Their work positions the individual experiences of anti-racist and anti-capitalist struggle in an art historical context. They are part of the AfroPunk duo Thee Mistakes and a member of the band Meathorse. Brooks will be performing and participating in the inaugural exhibition of the Dollar Art House, “The Hard Times Art Show,” on September 30 in St. Louis. I interviewed them in the lead-up to the event.

Adam Turl: You are part of the duo, Thee Mistakes, which you all described as an experimental Afropunk musical group. In a statement Thee Mistakes evokes the idea of embracing the contingent and arbitrary limitations capitalism places on us; not as an act of resignation but as an act of rebellion. It reminded me of D. Boon and Mike Watt’s Minutemen and their idea of producing and performing music “econo” – working-class San Pedro slang for inexpensive. [1] It was both a political and aesthetic gesture; recording with minimal tracks, performing multiple shows at times and prices working people accommodate. Can you talk about this aspect of the Thee Mistakes project; the defiant acknowledgement of the limitations placed on you as artists?  

Jesa Dior Brooks: The most obvious limitation capitalism places on me as an artist is alienation. You're told your whole life, especially as a black femme, that you can't do things. The signs are subtle and it's just a lifetime of microaggressions that amount to your average wealthy cis white male counterparts having amassed throughout their socialization way more opportunities to try and succeed at things that you may be equally apt to do. For me the only way to overcome that alienation is to accept that I'm always going to make a different version of what those dudes make, and that's precisely the impetus behind it. We can't keep judging art by standards set by people who have had disproportionate access to it, and to credibility. To allow that makes art outside those limitations, and the experiences and identities that produce it less valuable. So long as images have value, we must prioritize images produced by and through the lens of the oppressed rather than the oppressor.

 
 

Adam Turl: In the first track of Thee Mistakes’ self-titled EP, “College,” you have this minimal but emotive cry, wailing, “College didn’t work out, work isn’t working out…” Can you tell us the story behind this song?

Jesa Dior Brooks: I had to drop out of college in my last year because my financial aid fell through. I wrote that song when I was really bitter about the whole thing. I never wanted to go to college. Even as a kid I realized that that model for “growing up” already was outdated or would be by the time I was old enough to do it. But I went, moved to a new place all alone, went to school and had some of the worst and most stressful experiences of my life so far, and then after all that I didn't even get to graduate, even though it didn't mean anything to me. I was pissed! Around that time I started getting into protesting, and Occupy had been going on for a long time, and I was starting to understand that my experiences weren't totally unique or isolated. It was like the whole world opened up for me after the first time I really got screwed over by "the system" and suddenly I wanted to let out all that anger. Because I had dropped out of school, I was working my first real job and supporting myself and understanding wage slavery as a material circumstance for the first time. “Fuck it” was my attitude about just about everything then. It's a radical tactic to acknowledge our suffering under capitalism, to individually and collectively call it to a halt and ask what we can do differently. Performance is a good venue to recast alienation, anger, hopelessness, as dynamic and colorful rather than allowing our obligation to productivity to dictate which emotions are useful to us in our interactions with society. 

Adam Turl: You have another project, Meathorse, that is very different than Thee Mistakes – more theatrical and performative. What was the idea behind that project?

Jesa Dior Brooks: Meathorse was about “playing” music instead of playing music. I think fully formed it would seem almost animatronic. I wanted to play music with two of my coworkers so we started having practice and wrote these four weird songs. One of them was just me improvising the word “Daddy” over a repetitive, loud messy guitar riff and cymbal crashes. I love that song. We weren't trying to write anything good, we just wanted to really go through with the Doing aspect of making music without the How or Why. It was fun! I think that's at the heart of all the art I want to make- I just want to make a product and then try to understand what made it, what it's trying to do. 

Adam Turl: You are also a visual artist. You were working on in that area was a series related to portraits of various art historical Venuses. Can you talk about that project? Also your project working on various memento mories?

Jesa Dior Brooks: The Memento Mori works came first. I was really interested in anatomy and figure drawing and also existentialism; I liked the poses and expressions of female figures in classical paintings. I started thinking about the blankness of the gaze, the refusal in those paintings to return the male gaze and how it related to the concept of the void. I think in some ways Memento Mori as a visual concept was my way of consoling myself during that period. I started to focus more on the figure and composition after that. I was still drawn to the same types of images but I became more interested in inserting myself into the historical context of those images. Venus is almost exclusively depicted as an impenetrable white goddess. Then there is the Willendorf Venus, which has a self- consciousness, almost an awareness of its own mortality. I've always hated how the Willendorf Venus' curves are read as “primitive” while the faithful rendering of the white form in the classic style normalized white artists is generally accepted as the pinnacle of the female image. Art history textbooks are like a living scrapbook of women of color being excluded from the history they help create. So I started putting myself in those images, posing as Venus in various contexts. That work is ongoing, and I think of it as a counterpart to the work I do musically. When I try to force myself away from whitewashed, elitist standards in my work and I get to share it with people I feel like I'm occupying the DIY venue or the art gallery. 

 

Thee Mistakes at The Swamp (Carbondale, IL).

 

Adam Turl: I am curious about the transition from visual art to music – both as art forms and why the transitions occurred for you personally. There are ideas (there are always ideas) but there are also the real material concerns (college tuition, art materials, venues, etc.).  

Jesa Dior Brooks: I had dropped out of school, didn't have a studio space, and didn't really have time to make art. I had been studying printmaking in a studio with nice presses, plenty of supplies, great facilities all around. I started to feel really impotent, like I had been kicked out of art and the art world. At the time I didn't understand the broader social and economic context of my circumstances and so I went around thinking I couldn't hack it. I was going to DIY shows a lot, had been living at a house venue, and started remembering all the music I'd played as a kid before I really got into visual art. I started piano lessons when I was four, and I was pretty much always doing some kind of music education from then until I graduated high school. If anything, my big transition was into visual art, and then I came back out of it. I realized that I could stop complaining about how homogenous the scene and music in general were and do something about it by starting a band. That never really felt possible for me with visual art. I scheduled a practice and invited some people and we wrote a song, “First Song"” that day. We wrote some more songs and played two shows and people said they liked it. I started learning to write songs with performance in mind and putting the same energy that I had for academic visual art into performing. There is something even more democratic and gratifying about performing. Visual art has a certain calculated nature. It is generally complete when you present it and so people have no choice but to come to the work with the assumption that some intention or impulse is encoded in it. A performance is getting made in front of the viewer, it's happening to them just as much as it's happening to me. I think it's easier to encode the feelings of alienation, guilt, anxiety that propel me to make art when I'm yelling and someone in a room is listening to me yell it, than to write it really big on the wall or allude to it with an image. As artists, we spend so much time dancing around politics and theory that the impulse behind the work itself gets lost. I don't have that problem with music, and that's why I like doing it so much. I'd rather just come out and say it.

Adam Turl: Thee Mistakes started out in the college town of Carbondale, Illinois. In 2011 there was a strike at the local, largely working-class, university. It was the site of a major student strike and a shoot-out with the Black Panthers in 1970. At the same time the town is starting to face hard times – much like the rest of the area has suffered hard times for decades now. What did it mean to come of age as an artist in a town like that – for good and ill?

Jesa Dior Brooks: I think that as individuals and artists we have more access to our own internal radical impulses when we are in a corner, so to speak. This area is choked by poverty, segregation, and policing. Coming of age in a place like that is odd because there is a certain Neverland quality that can be really isolating. Time feels somewhat suspended because it is a small place where things rarely change, and most people know each other. In some ways that helped me to feel more connected to the stories about the Black Panthers' active years there. It is very similar to the stories of other city chapters. They ran free breakfast and lunch programs and attempted to organize within their own very segregated communities, still as segregated now as it was then. The police repressed them and eventually attacked their house with gunfire (778 Bullets, to be exact, which is also the title of a documentary about the shooting and the area at the time) [2] with cops from neighboring towns and counties, most of which have a history of racial and class tension.

 
 

I have been reading stories like that my whole life, but it had never hit close to home before. I think the spectre of resistance has always lived here, and that in some way I was awakened to it because of my time here. Coming to radical thought in a place that so emphasizes comfort, complacency, is frustrating because there is no preconceived outlet for the rage most of us had to acknowledge at one point. When you're in a small town, and you're an art school drop-out and you're Black and you think you understand the systemic roots of society's problems but are not sure how it's going to get fixed, you have to create your own means and not rely on things to work themselves out. That's a huge challenge, having to basically construct your own reality in which to produce the work you want to see and make.

Endnotes

  1. The Minutemen were part of the early Los Angeles punk scene; noted for a democratic production method, fusion of punk with funk bass, and a radical working-class anti-imperialism.
  2. Brooks refers here to the 2010 documentary by Angela Aguayo, 778 Bullets.

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Jesa Dior Brooks is a musician, writer and printmaker based out of St. Louis, MO whose work attempts to place the individual marginalized experiences of antiracist and anticapitalist struggle within an art historical context through expropriation of feminine iconography. Jesa writes, sings, and plays instruments in Thee Mistakes and MEATHORSE. They have written essays appearing in the independent publications TInkypuss Zine and Midwaste Magazine, among others. They studied Printmaking at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, IL.

Adam Turl is an artist and writer in St. Louis and an editor at Red Wedge Magazine. Turl was recently awarded a residency at the Cité internationale des Arts. He writes the "Evicted Art Blog" at Red Wedge. His most recent exhibitions include "Thirteen Baristas" at the Brett Wesley Gallery in Las Vegas, Nevada and "Kick the Cat" at Project 1612 in Peoria, Illinois. More of his work can be found at his website.