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Interview with Vagner M. Whitehead

Valerie Mendoza
Assistant Professor and Photography Program Coordinator
San José State University

Vagner M. Whitehead
Assistant Professor of Art (New Media)
Department of Art and Art History, Oakland University

Vagner Whitehead is a new media artist who lives and works in the Detroit-Metro area. In the US he has exhibited extensively, from New York to California and everywhere in between. Internationally, his work has been included in exhibits in India, China, Spain, Germany, Russia, Austria, Cyprus and Switzerland. Born in Brazil, but having lived for an extended period of time in the States, speaking English as a second language, but the language most often spoken in his daily life, it should come as no surprise that much of his work involves ruminations on notions of foreignness and translation. Text, written as a subtitle, scrolled as a narrative, spoken in voiceover, is a prevalent element running throughout the breadth of his work. Recently, I had the chance to talk with him, via email, about his work in relation to Foreignness and Translation in New Media.

Do you believe your experience as an international, world citizen living in the US has influenced your media choice? Put another way, does your choice of new media have anything to do with your experience as an international world citizen?

I have never consciously considered the relationship between the media of my choice in relation to my foreignness - my medium of choice is concept-driven. But you might be on the right track, in a roundabout way, since my concepts are derived from my life experiences. Specifically in my use of video - it is heavily influenced by television. I grew up watching American sitcoms that were dubbed and American music videos. Lip-synching and the short length format of those works are definitely derived from that, as well as from a place of desire and distance. They relate to my overall interest in what is outside-of-me, or other-than-me, of not-being-it, and wanting-to-be-it. This difference is something I am interested in, conceptually speaking. Now looking back I can also see how some of my early photo-based works, which mostly focused on my head, are simultaneously influenced by passport and visa images and school IDs, with a primary interest in identification, rather than identity politics.

Gimme Vagner

Figure 1: gimme vagner (less than 1%), single channel video, 2007

Almost all of your work addresses the relationship between image and language, or experience and language, in one way or another. Can you talk some about your interest in this relationship and how it drives your work? How does new media (cell phone, lap top, Wi-Fi, mobile technology, internet, etc.), change this relationship?

I am interested in gaps and failures. I think that much of my work deals with the impossibility of truly and succinctly communicating anything to anyone – what exists in my head is only hinted in the work, an arrow or a prologue, so to speak. So I am interested in showing how both language/culture (I equate them) and images fail to reveal true meaning. This concept is transposed with the notion that a gap exists between an initial intentionality and its end result. In many ways I believe this space is highlighted by the available contemporary technologies I utilize in my work (an obvious example is the lack of tone in emails, and all the ensuing drama that may spawn). That is probably why I am interested in them more so from a conceptual stance than a formal one. So going to a genealogy website as a process for a piece (persoentage, 2006-07), or “friending” people online that I have never met in person (Vagner R Us, in progress), or obsessively uploading content from my iPhone onto Facebook (myPhace, also in progress) is intended as a critique of these technologies, with the implication that I (and the culture that surrounds me/us) are also part of the problem - my goal collides with itself.


Figure 2: persoentage (detail), twenty-four inkjet prints and two channel videos, 2006 -2007

But I am not sure I have answered your question. For me text is a representation of language, and language is a codification of thoughts. Images can also be a representation/codification of thoughts, but the juxtaposition of text with an image hopefully pinpoints to an added layer of meaning that has been (again) once removed and/or translated: a remediation. The communication technologies of our times have extrapolated the existence of image and text juxtaposed, in a way where we always expect to only find one followed by the other. This situation possibly creates a third or separated form of communication (what Gregory Ulmer calls electracy, I think), which further complicates (and supports) my ideas. The notion of the global is also interesting to me, because it is very problematic and fascinating (less problematic that the term universal, for sure).

expressão corporal/body language

Figure 3: expressão corporal/body language, annotated photogenic drawing, 2006

The result of combining text and image has also been called "the third meaning" by both David Levi Strauss and William S. Burrows, referring to the process by which a third level of understanding, or perhaps a separate realization, not physically present in either image or text, is conjured up by bringing the two together.

I am not familiar with the specifics of “the third meaning” but that sounds right, I guess I have more names to add to my reading list =-) .

Much of your work also addresses both the possibilities and limitations inherent to the notion of translation. How does new media affect the process of translation? Does it facilitate it, transcend it, or complicate the process?

The first thing that comes to mind are the numerous translation sites on the internet, which aim to facilitate cross-cultural understanding, but usually spit out gibberish. All the French language I used in the video attempting to speak french in order to (re) define myself (2006) was found on the internet - I have never studied that language and understand very little of it, but have always been fascinated with what I cannot grasp. The second thing that comes to mind are the new “universals” in ubiquitous communication technologies, the smileys or emoticons and IM-speak, which are the inspiration for the paintings iconographs (2007-2009), the drawings pictographs (2008-present), and the video lingua franca (2006). What these new technologies give is a false sense of closeness, empowerment and immediate gratification. While we can now access information from anywhere on the planet in a very fast manner, chances are that its accuracy is average at best (if not completely off, or outdated). But not all is evil or misinformed or wrong, even though everything is certainly manipulated. I think new media technology facilitates and complicates in a broader sense, and transcendence is perhaps a more personal experience, rather than an across-the-board one. What I mean by that is that one may transcend their physicality (and even mentality) depending on their own level of engagement and psychology to any given medium; I think that transcendence might be at the opposite end of escapism… maybe LOL.

Lingua Franca

Figure 4: lingua franca, single channel video, 2006

Music also seems to be an important element within your work. Music can be thought of as another sort of "language" or "code." Music also tends to transcend and transgress international borders. Do you think your interest in incorporating music into especially your video work has anything to do with your interest in language and translation, or does your desire to combine music and imagery come from other interests?

I have very clear memories of watching MTV videos in Brazil, inserted into newsmagazine programs, a la Dateline or 20/20 (as we did not have MTV then, back in the late 70s and all of the 80s). And foreign music (specially in English) was always played on the radio, or included in telenovela soundtracks. These songs that I did not understand somehow moved me. They made me want to dance, fall in love, or daydream. These songs were either coupled with an image on television (that of the music video or a soap opera episode) or something going on in my mind, during a road trip or urban outing. In my first videos I borrowed songs from my childhood and adolescence to reveal at first what people outside my culture could not grasp. Music provided me (then) with an emotional and psychological space where I could investigate my own wonderings, of body and mind. I later created entire installations based on one given song, such as a casa e/é or corpo – the house and/is the body (2000), canto (2002-2003), and the proposed but never built the bathroom and the dining room (both 2004) – they only exist now as video and AutoCAD renderings. The single channel video titled stereotype (2003), which juxtaposes the Brazilian national anthem with “America The Beautiful”, with opposite scrolling translations, was originally a stand-alone audio piece (sans translations), with two sets of head phones. More recently I am using music as a means to visualize my current thoughts, which are not rooted in my cultural past anymore (or better, not rooted on the not-being-there-and-being-here anymore, but the right-now of last year, for example).


Figure 5: a casa e/é or corpo – the house and/is the body, multi-media installation, 2000

Dining Room

Figure 6: the dining room, installation proposal, 2004

A recent piece, world music 2 (2007), has been shown both as installation and single channel video. This piece combines royalty-free “world music” audio loops with images found in Google under the same category. All this information bracketed my dancing body (audio surrounding it, images inserted into the silhouette). Last Summer I made a companion piece called dance party (2008) that was exhibited in two sites in Saint Petersburg Russia. In this new piece I used the same materials from world music 2, but my body was replaced by the passersby (when they walked into the space, the projection enveloped their bodies). Additionally, voice-over tracks in English and Russian spelled out reflections on music, world, light, body, and invited/enticed people to join in.

World Music Two

Figure 7: world music 2, single channel video, 2007

Dance Party

Figure 8: dance party, immersive video space, 2008

One more thing about music, which sort of relates to the overall concentration of this interview. Since 2006 I have been collaborating/exchanging with a British sonic artist named Kris Reid, where he provides the music and I the image (originating from both ends at different times). Though we talk on the phone often, we have never met in person (even though we have been in the same country more than once). Kris found me via a website ( that featured a video of mine that specifically deals with translation, esse video não tem som/this video has no sound (2003). So in a sense our coming together has only been possible by the Internet and translation as subject. We are currently working on a couple things together, one of which is the experimental documentary project titled Americana, Brasil (hopefully done by the end of 2009), about family history and migration, loss of information and the commodification of knowledge.


Figure 9: esse video não tem som/this video has no sound, single channel video, 2003

Work that heavily relies upon self-portraiture is sometimes described (rightly or wrongly) as narcissistic. Your experience, as a Brazilian-American gay male is very specific. In what way do you expect or hope that your work will translate to viewers whose experiences might be quite different from your own? How might new media better facilitate your interests or goals with this work?

I think that narcissism is a fitting word for my work (should I have not started this sentence with an “I”?), but from a psychoanalytical perspective, or at least my interpretation of it - I am interested, as before mentioned, in the failure of capturing something, especially something that has been commonly associated with truth, such as photography. Much like the mirror, which provides a distorted partial view of someone, I am fascinated with the represented self that I do not recognize. And this quest of course is somewhat perpetuated by our own evolution in space and time that at times is faster than we can grasp (but not as frustrating to me as the psychoanalytical model might propose). But my love for myself I hope is within the levels of a normal and healthy dose (extreme self-love being the popular notion/definition of what a narcissist is). What interests me in the use of my image and self in my works is what the medium or camera (or even audience) misses. In this sense I would say my work is not self-portraiture, but perhaps a portrait of photography for example – one may gain a better understanding of that medium (and related ones) by looking at my work, rather than knowing who I am any better.


Figure 10: attempting to speak french in order to (re)define myself, single channel video, 2003

I also think/hope that the question of me being different from others is one that can be posed to anybody else who engages in the art-making and viewing processes. Why is it that an American straight female might not be asked how others will understand her work given her different perspective (or will she?) How about a straight male artist, could that question be applied to him? I think that, even though I am different from others, that I am not that different than people in this culture (it might be a different story if I had grown up in an non-western country). I am very different from my sisters and parents, as I am sure you are also. Is that because I am an artist? Perhaps. Ultimately, whether we look at Matisse, Jeff Koons, or my work, a separation between art and artist or viewer and artist will always exist. My goal is for any perceived differences between myself and my viewers, however minimal, to engender a (re)consideration of the same in their lives. Transferring this concept to technologies, I hope that my activities and actions with communication tools will shed some light on their own use and usage in their personal lives.

I totally agree with you. I wasn't actually trying to suggest that you were any more different than anyone else. Only that each of us is specific, which makes personal work tricky. How do we talk about our specific circumstances and still leave the work open enough for it to be somewhat universal (if that is the goal)?

I actually liked that question about narcissism and nationality/sexuality, and I hope my answer did not come across as me being defensive. But I do not think my work is that personal either. It is honest, but it is not gut wrenching, at least not anymore. It is just that I find it weird and annoying that just because I am "a person of color" and use myself in my work, that I am automatically pegged into identity politics.... why is Matthew Barney's work not about identity? (or not categorized or extensively written about as such?). Why do some people have a free license to express themselves, use themselves in their work, without being boxed into one category or interpretation? I think I am just doing my thing, and I would probably do it as well if I were a multicultural hermaphrodite Satan worshipper of an unspecified age.


Figure 11: iconographs, acrylics on canvas, 2007-2009

Yes, I think you're right. Actually, one of the things I really like about your work is the fact that you don't draw attention to or "rarify" the specifics of your life. While it is clear that you are very much aware of the political and social implications that surround the specifics of your personal life, and they are subtly acknowledged, your work is not solely about this. As a result, it remains open enough for most anyone to relate to your experiences. In this way, the work is deceptively smart. You become a stand-in for the typical American, while most would argue that you are anything but. Given the changing demographics of the nation, perhaps you are just that, making your voice an important one to note.asdf

Well, I think all of this comes back to the concept of foreignness, which is one I am very happy to embrace, because it applies to so many people and their works. I think foreignness is a great way to deal with difference and displacement without the hierarchy, and tension of some other agendas, because it is a shifting ground, always contingent upon its context, and often it is a chosen condition rather than an imposed one. It is definitely in my case, a choice, and to some extent to many in the West, though I know many would disagree with me on this one.


Figure 12: stereotype, single channel video, 2003

Some of your imagery, such as the Alien Nation series or your work on Second Life addresses the notion of foreignness, difference, or the experience of a traveler in a foreign land. What do you hope to communicate to viewers with this work? Are you attempting to teach them about your experience, relate to others who might feel "foreign" in one way or another, a little of each or perhaps attempting to do something entirely different that I'm not considering here?

Given my views on communication, I am not sure my work can say or teach anything, so that is not a goal. Of course I am open, and happily surprised, when someone takes something from my work and incorporates it into their lives in an edifying manner. In an all encompassing, and perhaps diluted way, I hope to show that everything is a construct, that everything is up for grabs. Meaning is contingent and fleeting. We all walk through life trying to figure out what the hell we want to do with it and what we want to leave behind. We all want to find a place where we belong, or don't mind staying for a while. Being a foreigner, an outsider, has always been a constant experience for me. I was the non-Italian kid in an Italian neighborhood in São Paulo, a non-Catholic kid in the Catholic school, the exchange student in the US, the gay son in a straight family, the artist in an non-artistic family, the too-young-to-teach professor in an established university, et cetera.

Having said that, I think everyone feels a similar type of alienation and fragmentation, within and without (or maybe I only run into maladjusted, strange people in my life journey). I do not assume my work will teach anything to anyone in a direct manner, because that would entail an immense amount of investment, and I am not sure people really put that much work into experiencing any art piece (unless they really want to or have to). Any “learned lesson” is more of a byproduct rather than a goal, and it is something that comes from the beholder. My work may however provide people with an allowance, a get-out-of-jail free card on the road to self-discovery, and potentially self-indulgence (which I think may be the ultimate expression of freedom, of just being). Many of us pass through life accepting and taking things as they are, set by others - fixed, or rigged. But we can also think that these things are defined by our experiences. There is a link, a cause-and-effect, between our lives and what surrounds us that is often overlooked. Sharing and expressing these experiences with others is valid and should be encouraged, whether one does it with an art piece, a blog, activism, or baking a cake for a neighbor. I also think these self-expressive actions are constructive, because they are active, rather than passive (such as watching TV, surfing the internet, etc). All the meaning(s) that exist around us have been put together by someone else, so why not be one of them, why not be an agent for the generations to come? To quote myself (in the video inheritance, 2009) quoting a website (, all humans are more than 99% similar to each other genetically. Contemplating this


Figure 13: pictographs, color pencil on paper, 2008-2009

Valerie Mendoza is a multimedia artist, writer and educator who lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area. To learn more about her work please visit:

Vagner M. Whitehead is a new media artist who lives and works in the Detroit-Metro area. To learn more about his work please visit