Art In Conversation
John Sims with Kristin Prevallet
Rituals tessellate throughout my day, creating a rhythm, shaping a musicality that blends the struggle and joys of an analytical creative process.
On ViewVirginia Museum of Fine Art
The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse
May 22 – September 6, 2021
On ViewTampa Museum of Art
Skyway: A Contemporary Collaboration 20/21
June 3 – October 10, 2021
It’s 2021 and John Sims is ready for this moment. Sims has been making, remaking, unmaking, and deconstructing Confederate iconography since 2000; his work around re-imagined monuments, which included Time Sculpture NYC, has now evolved into Freedom Memorial at Gamble Plantation (2020), a reimagining of a former slave plantation in Ellenton, FL. It’s no wonder that he has recent invitations and residencies from an eclectic and prestigious array of museums and institutions including Ringling Museum of Art, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Exploratorium: The Museum of Science, Art and Human Perception in San Francisco, and The Houston Museum of African American Culture.
I’ve known Sims since 2008 when he invited me into his Cartesian MathArt Hive: a term he invented to think about the web of people he invited to participate in a multi-year-long project in which he forged collaborations between artists, poets, mathematicians, and musicians. I found myself welcomed into a politically revolutionary and simultaneously aesthetically focused conversation happening amongst a wide range of creative thinkers, performers, and artists. Since then, it has been a great honor to call John Sims a friend and collaborator.
From his studio in Sarasota, FL to my home in Westchester, NY, we decided to have a conversation. I wanted to know: how does he live in so many worlds simultaneously?
John Sims: Hey, I’m so glad you caught me, I’m ready to do this. I’m just today working on a rally for June 17 on the steps of the South Carolina State House in Columbia, to commemorate the anniversary of the Charleston Nine. It’s a rally to confiscate and confront the Confederate state of mind. So, I’m really excited about that. Working, working!
Kristin Prevallet (Rail): Yea I’ll say! John, your work embodies many states of mind, all of which disembody the Confederate state of mind, but in a myriad of different forms and structures. There is your work with conceptual mathematics and recursive mathematics and pi and form and structure; and then you’re also thinking about structure in terms of the rallies that you organize and events that you do with poets and artists, bringing everybody together around celebrations of love that recolor the Confederate flag from the inside out. So let’s begin with the origin story of John Sims. We know that you’re born and raised in Detroit, and that you went to Antioch College. Can you talk about how those origins contributed to how you show up as an artist in the world?
Sims: Well, I think it certainly goes back to being from a working class background in Detroit City, and living in a neighborhood that felt more like an old village where many of the women on the block held court. And, you know, growing up in the ’80s, in Detroit, where you had the beginning of the crack epidemic, and the AIDS epidemic—that was always in the background. Detroit provided me an opportunity to get into my own head in a lot of ways. And it also allowed me to build and respect ideas of community, too.
Rail: What is a memory that you might share about these formative years?
Sims: So I had a paper route after school—it was a massive paper route, in fact. I would read most of the paper before I did the route. I really liked to know what the news was, and that became very important. I also built relationships with all sorts of different people on my route, and I became almost like a surrogate family member to many of them. And some people wanted me to tell them what was in the paper, right? So I became this kind of oral news person—“Oh, this is what's going on, this is what happened.” So these relationships with different kinds of families, and bringing them the news, became very informative in terms of my work as an artist, and as a writer: to bring the news and bring it in a way that speaks to the people that are listening. So I think that was very formative.
Rail: And how about school, do you recall any classes or teachers who supported your interest in spreading the news?
Sims: I went to Renaissance High, a college prep school, where my favorite classes were math and art. Those teachers were my favorite; I got my most guidance from them. Behind my high school was a vocational school where I would take electronic classes and TV repair classes. So on the one hand I was moving in that direction of mathematics and theory, and on the other I was being exposed to hands-on practical skills. I appreciated the opportunity to balance those two spaces to live and synergize in ways that allowed me to find my own path. Just as the paper route inspired me to connect to people, the vocational school inspired me to learn how to fix things in a real way. And then going to college prep school taught me how to study and think in ways that were much more abstract.
Rail: What do you mean by abstract?
Sims: So for example, I got involved in the science fair. My first project was making a special door for the handicapped, using models and all that. So that was a way to merge my pre-college experience with the vocational thing of making, engineering, designing. And then I moved on to an elementary number theory project, which ended up winning both in Michigan on state level and at the national NAACP Actso in mathematics section. So now I’m on the national level and competing in International Science Fairs and getting scholarships. So that set me up to become project driven, where project content, expository and presentation design are essential elements for success. At one point I was doing two science fair projects at the same time. I think all of that led one of my teachers in high school to say, “You need to go to a place like Antioch.”
Rail: Oh, so it was a teacher who—
Sims: Yeah, a teacher who told me, “You need to go to a place where you could have the opportunity to be both analytical and creative.” Basically my teacher realized I would need a certain level of freedom to develop across the areas of my interests.
Rail: So when you got to Antioch, it felt like home?
Sims: Well no, actually, when I got to Antioch I did not like it!
Sims: It felt like hippieville, like one big Grateful Dead concert. I’m from Detroit City. I was like, “Are you kidding me? Why did I—” I think my teacher thought of Antioch in the way it was in the ’70s and the ’60s, you know, Steven Jay Gould, Rod Serling, and people like that who went there, you know. Within the first two weeks, I went over to Oberlin. And I’m like, “I’m gonna transfer.” And I remember going, meeting the new director of admissions, dean of admissions, and she took me over to a math class that was in progress on a Saturday. And I went into class, and I just saw this sea of white boys. To be honest,I didn’t want to compete in that environment. It was so racially divisive. Too much tension. So I went back to Antioch, where even though it was a bit laid back for me I knew it would give me a chance to flourish.
Rail: Were there any mentors at Antioch who supported your work?
Sims: Yes, many. My math teacher Bill Houston, who was also a serious activist. I did a co-op internship with Dr. Leland Clark, who was the inventor of the lung-heart machine, so I did a little work in his lab. And while in Germany, for study abroad, I did an internship at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics and worked with the neuroanatomist Valentino Braitenberg, who got me interested in the mathematics of music.
Rail: How did you move from your serious studies in mathematics to the political consciousness that your work is so attuned to?
Sims: Well, even in high school, I was very active in left-wing politics, hanging out with the Young Socialist Alliance, and the Socialist Workers Party folks. And at one point I had a Marxist tutor. We met once a week at McDonald’s. So I was very active with demonstrations, pickets, thinking about workers’ rights … and also putting it all into the context of what was happening in Central America at the time with the Sandinistas, and with the death squads in El Salvador. I remember trying to talk my mother into letting me go down to Nicaragua for a summer program thing, so I have always been very active politically. I think that set me up to go to a place like Antioch, where a lot of the students were very political, but it was centered around identity politics, and also racism and dealing with sexism and feminism. To be able to grow in that environment taught me how to negotiate my space in a political environment where people are very expressive about their sense of being and purpose. In other words, I had to learn how to defend, to be appreciative and listen to other folks’ voices, but at the same time, to be able to know how to protect my own voice. I think Antioch taught me a lot about being able to get in touch with—and protect—my sense of purpose.
Rail: Well, one thing that really resonates in your work is purpose—you’ve got a huge vision that is continually unfolding and redefining the role of the artist to shape consciousness.
Sims: The creative work is really about finding a path around the superstructures that are, in some ways, very permanent, right? Some people can flourish in those systems if they’re set up to flourish in those systems, but how can I move around those systems? These are big questions for me. You have ideas, you have art, you have music, but how does it connect in repeatable cultural rituals that grow?
Sims: And it builds on itself. So I became very fascinated by that. How movements are started, how culture is created and continues, as opposed to just being a one-off type thing.
Rail: So thinking about movements, culture, and rituals, I just finished listening to the artist talk you gave at the Ringling Museum of Art. I was struck when you said: “To build movements around art and social change we need the dynamics of ritual and repetition.” The momentum of your work, your purpose, is propelled by the energy of love, math, time, and social justice; you take those huge conceptual ideas and alchemically transform them into works of art that draw in a diverse constellation of collaborators (multi-racial, multi-genre, multi-talented). And with rituals comes subversion; in your work, aside from subverting genres and forms, you’re subverting holidays. You’ve got Valentine’s Day transformed into The SquareRoot of Love, Memorial Day transformed into the “Burn and Bury” rituals around the Confederate Flag, Juneteenth which holds the space for your “AfroDixie Remix” listening parties and then of course Pi Day, which you’ve basically commandeered all together! How do holidays fit in with your vision of creating cultural movements?
Sims: Holidays and anniversaries provide impactful opportunities to annually and ritualistically engage a captive audience. By subverting or amplifying the themes of the holiday, I aim to catch folks’ attention and create opportunities for change or inspiration. For instance Valentine’s Day and Pi Day connected to SquareRoots: A Quilted Manifesto—a multimedia project that harnesses the collaborating ways of mathart, known for exploring the complex dimensions of love, community, and social geometries.
Rail: You’ve been hosting Valentine’s Day “SquareRoot of Love” events for a long time—I think it started in 2010 at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York. I remember for one of your “SquareRoot of Love” events you made everyone a print. It was so generous!
Sims: Yeah, well, Valentine’s Day is also a good day to subvert the bubble gum, Hallmark card, notion of romantic love and expand it to reflect on the deeper meaning, structure and expression of love as it might relate to political and social and spiritual factors. It’s important for it to be an annual Valentine’s Day wine-dinner-text-performance platform, where we can really think about, what is love? What are the factors of love? And documenting these events is also important. For the last five years I have collaborated with The Rumpus on a series of essays presenting the various themes, art, and text generated from these events.
Rail: Speaking of factors of love, how about Pi Day? I mean, who celebrates Pi Day?
Sims: I do! Pi Day is a great holiday to celebrate the importance of math and science literacy, its role in social and cultural supremacy and the role of mathematics as a way to “see” beyond the sensory spaces and be a powerful partner to the creative and art process. This past Pi Day I did a performance for the Exploratorium in San Francisco, where I presented my “Pi Day Anthem,” a letter to Pi, and a jazz composition based on the numbers of Pi mapped into the key B-flat. That was super fun.
Rail: Okay so Pi Day is in March. So if we move along in the calendar, in May comes Memorial Day, a holiday which you have been actively transforming into an organic, living public art performance to mourn the atrocities of slavery and the artifacts of white supremacist racist culture that lives through the iconograph around the Confederate flag. How long have you been doing this piece?
Sims: In 2015 for Memorial Day, the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, I organized a 13 state Confederate flag funeral. Then a few weeks later the shooting in Charleston happened which prompted me to organize Confederate flag burnings in all 50 states, which later morphed into the annual “Burn and Bury” Confederate Flag Memorial Day event. And as a follow up, for Juneteenth I plan to organize annual performances and events featuring my AfroConfederate Flag work, “AfroDixieRemixes” and the Freedom Plantation Memorial project, I started in response to the Judah P. Benjamin Confederate Memorial at Gamble Plantation Historic State Park in Florida.
Rail: This is such a powerful project that integrates art, performance, and social justice activism. How do you think about art as a ritual leading to political action? Has this way of thinking always been close to your vision?
Sims: Art and activism centered around ritual, for me, speaks to the power of repetition and rhythmic attention as a way to keep the memory of trauma, resistance, and victories alive. Ritual is also an important way to reaffirm the qualities that drive our survival and persistent state of recovery and healing.
Rail: Speaking of healing, the world is still reeling from the trauma, consequences, and fallout exposed by COVID-19. How did you survive 2020?
Sims: I survived by fighting back: by making art, by writing, and by watching the nation undress itself. When COVID-19 hit Florida, it was rather distressing, bringing an unprecedented amount of fear, anxiety, and social isolation. The idea that something so small, so invisible, could shut down a country, and the human part of the planet so quickly, was unreal. This sort of situation stimulates a flight or fight response. So my response was to flight back mentally by making the invisible visible. And so I created KoronaKilla (2020) a fine art video web game, in the spirit of the ’80s classic Space Invaders. Then with George Floyd being murdered shortly afterwards in May on Memorial Day right after my “Burn and Bury” event, I got very upset, as did the whole country, the whole world, and I responded by writing an open letter to the police for the Orlando Sentinel.
Rail: You really reach into mainstream media spaces.
Sims: Absolutely. After the national protests moved from police brutality to white supremacy and Confederate iconography, we started to see this incredible pushback on all things Confederate, with the Defense department and NASCAR banning the Confederate flag, and rebel monuments coming down all over America. That energy led me to discover in the neighboring town of Ellenton, FL, the Gamble Plantation, a former slave plantation, that is now a Confederate memorial to Judah P. Benjamin, the former Secretary of State of the Confederacy and widely considered the “brains of the Confederacy.” On top of that, this plantation is also a state park. Unbelievable. I responded to all of this first with a petition to change the name and contextualization of this space. Then I created an animated video, as a part of my art residency at the Ringling Museum, that reimagined this former slave plantation as a Freedom Memorial, a park that would celebrate the lives lost and stolen, and a culture compromised under the legacy of American slavery.
So to answer your question, I survived 2020 by fighting back, responding as an artist, writer, and activist, who was trying to create work that would stimulate, on some level, a place and space for performative rituals for a reckoning, a transformation, and a healing from the collective trauma and historical consequences of white supremacy.
Rail: I would love to hear more about how rituals help to ground you—you’re fielding so much in your persistent and direct confrontation of white supremacy. Aside from cyclical time rituals (i.e. Memorial Day, Pi Day, Independence Day, etc.) what daily rituals do you practice that help you to maintain your infinitely expanding artistic vision?
Sims: Good question. To maximize my creative output, I have become more ritualistic in my process to track and be more present with my system of projects. For instance, I begin my day with a walk to get my morning coffee. This walk is long enough to give me time to process the work and failures of the previous day, and form a mental to-do list. This walk is also an opportunity to notice things I haven’t seen before or things that are new on my path. These observations are the daily mental warm-up exercises, as well as the metaphor for “seeing.” Since my coffee place is across the street from the water, I have a chance to stare over the water, where I continue to think about the work of the day and week, while appreciating the beauty of nature and the complex landscape of life. Once back at the studio, coffee in hand, I am ready to get started. Rituals tessellate throughout my day, creating a rhythm, shaping a musicality that blends the struggle and joys of an analytical creative process.
Rail: The way that you integrate rituals at the micro-level of your day and the macro-level of algorithmic, anti-racist systemic change is super inspiring and speaks to how large-scale and small-scale patterns are reverberating off of each other. Am I right that the way you describe your work is fractal?
Sims: There is certainly a fractal element of my work. How can there not be, especially when I consciously work with systems that reflect the geometry of nature? I work within a zone of ideas and fragments of ideas that present themselves across a spectrum perceptible by the receptors of our magical, incredible, and massively fractal-like nervous system. The structure in my piece Atomic Tree (2002), which was published in Scientific American a few years ago captures the essence of my process, as does Civil Pi Movement.
Rail: Yeah, I can really see that! And into those patterns you present as mathematician, artist, writer, poet, filmmaker, professor, archivist, designer, music producer, event organizer, social movement activist … the list of your multidimensional identities goes on. Have you always understood the complex symmetry at play in how you show up in the world as an artist?
Sims: I must say that such an understanding is to be converged upon over a lifetime. Since I appreciate symmetry, asymmetry, and dissymmetry, these structures will shape my aesthetic and my pathways of inquiry.
Rail: Are there thinkers who have inspired you to hold this vision with such macroscopic precision?
Sims: There are many who have inspired me. Da Vinci, Dali, Duchamp, and Sol LeWitt all have informed my journey in their use of ideas, structure, and language. I am also inspired by the builders of the pyramids in Egypt and in Central America. I am motivated by the work and science of George Washington Carver and all he was able to do with the peanut. I am also inspired by the writings of Goethe, Martin Luther King, and James Baldwin. The music of Monk, Motown, and Detroit Techno. And above all, I am inspired by the courage, audacity, and righteous insanity of Harriet Tubman, John Brown, and the Visigoths who took down Rome.
Rail: These influences converge into a beautiful hive, wow—when I say “hive” I am thinking about the “Cartesian Hive” that you created back in 2009 as a part of the Rhythm of Structure project at the Bowery Poetry Project. From your expansive hive of influences, you have, over the past couple decades, invited artists and poets into your vision to collaborate, perform, eat, and drink together into such a generous curation; one that is genuinely synergistic in bringing together many people, from so many divergent aesthetics and energies. Just wanted to thank you for that while we’re having this conversation!
Sims: No problem. Thank you for bringing that up. The Hive installation was definitely a social mathematics project that resonates deeply with the essence of my creative political process.
Rail: From this hive of influence, receptivity, and collaboration, you confront systemic racism at its root—both within the mentality of white supremacy and in the symbolic iconography (the Confederate flag) that perpetuates genuine violence and brutality against Black bodies. You put your own body on the line and in the field: you create rituals that bring people together to bury the Confederate flag in graveyards around the South, and then you hang it around a noose in art gallery spaces, bringing on the onslaught of outrage. So when I say “how you show up in the world” I’m talking dangerously—how do you think about the movement from mathart to political action? I can imagine that most people would think of these as two separate forms of your artistic expression, but I get the feeling that for you, it’s one big connecting spiral of energy and form.
Sims: My mathart mindset is similar to the architectural process, where design meets construction, structure meets expression and where problem meets solution. I think about math, design, and political problems in similar ways, where the essence of creation and analysis lives independently of sensory-based revelations and in the braided stories of what might be real and what might be fiction. In other words, I think of the language, strategies, and spirit of mathematics, design, and politics as a way of imagining the inner, local, and metastructure of a system, whether it is abstract or social. And so for me these processes are interlinked like the bass line, harmony, and melody in your favorite bebop tune.
Rail: Can you give us an example of how this interlinkage happens in your work? How do you connect the movement-building part of your work (i.e. mobilizing people from all walks of life to join you in burying the Confederate flag in public parks and graveyards throughout the South) with the more conceptual, mathematical art you make, for example, TimeSculptureNYC?
Sims: My whole body of work is an example of this linkage which is essentially connected through the landscape and morphism of structure. Basically in some ways I am functioning as a quiltmaker, stitching together various patches of expression. In terms of the movement making part of my work, the art and process of organizing collaborative efforts becomes a very important way of extending the ideas and experience to a wider audience. I do this simply by reaching out to other artists, writers, and activists with similar politics. Also I created works and performances that invite responses and artist-to-artist reflections.
Rail: When we began this interview, Trump’s mob was in the midst of infiltrating the Capitol—they made American flags and stenciled Trump’s face on them; they brandished Confederate flags. Now here we are some months later, and you just unfurled a re-colored Confederate flag on the steps of the South Carolina State Capitol in Columbia to commemorate the Charleston Nine. In your book Ablazing Grace you tell the history of how Confederate flag symbolism changed over the years (“Once upon a war / A Civil War / There were flags / Many flags”). For so many years you have been destabilizing the iconography of the Confederate flag away from its symbolic power in order to reveal it at the level of pure design: lines and colors that have shifted over time, depending on historical circumstances. Do you think this work of revealing the grid behind the iconographies of white supremacy helps to disembody it from the American psyche?
Sims: In the late ’90s I was inspired to confront the Confederate flag after watching on TV the massive protest to keep the Confederate flag flying on the capitol dome in Columbia, South Carolina, and giant Confederate flags on the state house steps. I remember asking myself, “How can I, as an artist and American, contribute to a cultural shift regarding this flag?”
Over the last 20 years, I have recolored, hanged, burned, and buried the Confederate flag all over this country, as an act, as a journey of occupation, confiscation, and the pursuit of restorative justice and healing. This journey for me, has not only exposed the cultural and political grid structure that protects white supremacy but has also created a fractal-like path of response and confidence to claim, confiscate, and occupy space, symbols, and mindset of white supremacy as it relates particularly to African American experience.
I am concluding this 20-year chapter of work with the DownSouthDixie tour, which starts in Columbia, SC with my show AfroDixia: A Righteous Confiscation, at 701 Center for Contemporary Art. Also, having my giant AfroConfederate Battle Flag on the steps of the South Carolina State House, doing the “Burn and Bury” event at the Houston Museum of African American Culture, and flag-hanging installation at Tampa Museum of Art, and having my “AfroDixie Remixes” installed in the Confederate Chapel at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts for the Dirty South exhibition all speak to the multi-geographical strategies necessary to keep up with the insidious infection of the Confederate state of mind.
Rail: It seems like this is one of the keys to your work—getting down to the fractal, the geometric, the structural as a path to liberation….
Sims: I think so. It is alway good and smart to know the structure and sub-structures of what you are dealing with. And sometimes structure is sticky, seductive, and hard to separate out, as it can be absorbed into one’s sense of self and being. Good examples are language and economics. The structure of capitalism is everywhere, even in the structural economics of fighting capitalism itself. Perhaps in the long game there is a competition, a war and cooperation, between structures and systems, and we as social units are players in this dynamic. And so, as a political math artist, I am interested in these competing structures, and the process and art of inducing small and critical perturbation of change to inspire bigger structural shifts. And with social media as a dynamical system, the possibilities are exciting and promising for building the kinds of communities, rituals, and mega-attention for the birth of new structure, ideas, language, memories, and imagination so necessary in the journey toward a smarter, more just and conscious humanity.