Artist Phil America has worked and lived around the world, from documenting the transnational hardcore of the graffiti subculture, to living in the largest slums of Bangkok, and, most recently, the tent city ‘anti-dream’ of his homeland.
Through his documentary and performance based work Phil America communicates and explores notions of freedom and identity, from momentary illegal expression, to interrogating wider cultural definitions of class or race. However in all of Phil’s work we’re presented with hidden realities and lifestyles that risk being negotiated and absorbed by mainstream culture, or pushed further into the periphery – out of sight and mind.
Following his recent exhibition at The Clockwork Factory in London, we tracked Phil down to bring you a selection of images of his work and an insight into the thinking behind it…
Who is Phil America?
It’s always a difficult and restricting question when asked to put labels on yourself. But, to make things simple, I’m an artist from California, a vegan, an activist, a teacher, a brother and to some a criminal.
How would you describe what you do?
My focus is on communication through art – visual art, performance, photography, video and installation. Most of my work focuses on the intersection between social issues, freedom and understanding of the world around us. In the end I hope only to push people to question everything…
I also help run a tea business called Misty Peak Teas selling the oldest tea in the world; I help run a school for Burmese refugees and migrants living in Thailand called DEAR Burma; and I do some writing as well.
What’s been the highlight and lowlight of your career so far?
It depends who you ask. If you asked my Mom she would probably say the highlight would be speaking at TED, if you asked a girl she would probably say being on the cover of magazines, a curator would say having shows in museums and a graffiti writer they would say publishing books…Its up to perception I guess.
For a ‘lowlight’, I’m never ashamed of anything I do or have done. It’s all just bricks in the castle.
You’ve travelled and worked all around the world – where has inspired you most, both professionally and personally?
Switzerland. When I look back on my entire life it’s the people there who left an impression on me that will never go away.
It’s people like the artist Luciano Calderon who taught me what it means to be a brother and people like Aurele Sack who taught me what it means to be a perfectionist. It’s my family there. It’s the mountains and the lakes, the trains and the fact that everything is free.
One of your most recent projects was called Failure Of The American Dream and shows a side of American life most outside the country don’t know exists. What is the reality of America to you?
America is a country with everything. There are the richest people in the world and there’s third world America. There are highs and lows. But the reality is there is an honesty in the eyes of Americans that doesn’t exist in many other places.
Outsiders look for the fattest, dumbest person coming out of Wal-Mart to say something stupid so they can put this country down but in reality they adore the US. They wear the clothes, listen to the music, watch the movies and follow the trends we set and then search for a reason to be jealous. Not to say I agree with everything America does but I love my country. It’s my reality.
And another of your works is titled Slum Vacation – can you explain the premise behind this and share with us the memory that lingers most with you from your time there?
Slum Vacation is a project I did with Public Delivery, an organization I generally work with on most of my projects, where I had a home built and lived for one month in South-East Asia’s largest slum, later showing the home in a leading art museum in Bangkok. The thing that leaves the most lasting mark was just the simple happiness of the people. They lived very much in the moment and wrote their own happiness every day.
No matter the times I had issues with the mafia, couldn’t sleep because it smelled so bad, was faced with violence, or anything else I dealt with while there, none of it will outweigh the times I laughed with the men on the train tracks or the time I spent at the Mercy Center, a school for slum children.
And finally, what’s next Phil America?
Well, at the moment my main focus is on a project that will show at Thailand’s largest contemporary art museum, BACC. I’m working with the United Nations, ILO and World Vision, amongst others, on a big solo show that will include a video installation empowering and giving a voice to the migrants who are the backbone of the entire nation. It will include numerous sculptural pieces as well.
I’m also doing a series of words made of balloons and showing them as installations at various museums. The series is called Words That Bind. A couple more books coming soon, one this year called Above the Law, and some other stuff in the works as well.
Always forward in the fast lane.