Artist and Sculptor Emil Alzamora draws a line from the 6th century to the digital horizon of multi-platfrom hyper-drive self- expression
CCA: When did you first think of yourself as an artist?
Alzamora: Well, I’ve always drawn. My family are artists: my mother, my grandmother, and my aunt, my uncle, my uncle’s wife, in varying degrees of commitment to art and fine art. But, as a kid, I just liked to draw. And my family had a ceramics studio so there was always this playing with clay and messing around with sculpting. My mom would take us to museums and ruins, and all those things just left an imprint. We saw a lot of the old Greek ruins, the Roman ruins, so we saw a lot of this ancient civilization and the art that came from there. So, that definitely made a backdrop to my understanding of art in general.
CCA: In this idea of intellectual property, I’m curious about your evolution as you said, someone who is interested in drawing—two-dimensional representation of art, the world, human shapes—and then, eventually you moved into three-dimensional things, right?
Alzamora: I see painting in a lot of ways the same way I see drawing: there’s a very similar kind of spirit to it, it’s very direct, almost like you’re shooting images onto a plane through either a pencil or, in this case, more recently, though moving paint around on a panel, or something with my fingers, even. And so, after sculpting for so many years, and kind of letting the painting and drawing thing dwindle, little by little—especially as a finished artistic, I guess, commodity—I still draw for just brainstorming and ideas. But, as far as finished works of art, getting back into painting after having sculpted for over 20 years now has been kind of mind-bending, because I’m seeing and feeling the paintings more as sculpture.
CCA: They have a three-dimensional, sculptural presence.
Alzamora: Yes, and I really want to push that further because of the way my brain has changed in perceiving a blank page or a blank panel, canvas or whatnot.
CCA: So, in recent years though, you’ve expanded the canvas, as it were, to augmented reality.
CCA: To virtual reality to installations where you use shadow and light. What were the other manifestations? But you’ve been showing me things: three-dimensional, digital environments, or presences, or shapes, or narratives.
Alzamora: Yes, to me it’s all part of experimenting in storytelling: how do you tell a story? And that might not be a common narrative-based story where there’s a plot and a climax, and all that. It’s more of an instance where you’re telling an aspect or an emotional circumstance in a frozen moment, so to speak, that there could be any number of things that came before it, and there could be any number of things that come after it, but you’ve carved out this cross-section of time and space, and isolated a moment in a specific material. And whether it be cast bronze or wood or ceramic, or virtually created in the digital realm, it’s all coming from the same place of wanting to capture an emotional moment that somehow reveals something about—not just me, and the way I see the world—but possibly something about what humans are, and what humans might respond to, or how humans might perceive themselves in the universe. So, that’s my pursuit with the sculptures: trying to reveal something about what we are, and how can we know more about ourselves.
CCA: Right. But, that’s kind of the inspiration and the goal—
Alzamora: Yes, so it’s all fair game: whether it’s digital, or painting, or drawing or hand-sculpting traditional materials. kind of circumstances.
"I think right now with sculpture we’re kind of at the inception of it all. It’s just starting to scratch the surface, it’s almost like where music was 20 years ago, or photography maybe 20 years ago, the late ‘90s, early 2000s, when you had this file-sharing kind of craziness, just ruining industries, or transforming industries, breaking down old institutions."
CCA: Right. But, what I want to get to is: in an age where—and I think you’ve done this, too—where you create 3D art and 3D printing.
CCA: And, in an age where digital art can be easily shared—
Alzamora: Yes. [laughs]
CCA: Or copied—
CCA: I’m looking at one of your sculptures right now: it’s a physical thing, with actual material, intrinsic value.
CCA: So, this thing has a certain kind of value. But these other things: how do you value something that can be turned into a hundred exact replicas with the push of a button, or something that could be copied and shared on social media?
Alzamora: I think right now with sculpture we’re kind of at the inception of it all. It’s just starting to scratch the surface, it’s almost like where music was 20 years ago, or photography maybe 20 years ago, the late ‘90s, early 2000s, when you had this file-sharing kind of craziness, just ruining industries, or transforming industries, breaking down old institutions. And still learning what is the new way to share that information and turn it into a commodity again, and have it be something that’s profitable. I think with materials and with forms, we’re not even quite there yet. Because, A) what’s the market for art? That always has its quirkiness in terms of its use, and its market. And I mean fine art, especially sculpture. So, it’s not like people are going to be in a hurry to reproduce an item to turn a profit, because it’s hard enough to turn a profit on the item itself. So there are challenges there—and obviously you can have a name-brand, and certain sculptors have this cachet
that if you can reproduce it, then maybe you’ll be able to sell them, but maybe people won’t want them because they’re clearly contraband, or they’re not as appealing because they’re a knock-off. So, I think there’s still something appealing as far as fine art goes, with knowing that it is associated somehow still with the artist: the material and whether it was touched by the artist, or at least sanctioned, or authenticated by the artist—
CCA: Right, there’s a tactile, physical value.
Alzamora: Yes, the artist oversaw the production, or at least validated it, as opposed to have it be made in some lesser material or some shoddy kind of circumstances.
CCA: But you do that, right? So is it just an exploration of it? You mentioned music, and I’ve talked to some musicians, and a lot of the young musicians I’ve talked to, this is key to what CCA’s all about. This is about empowering, educating, and helping creative people—sculptors, artists, musicians—to learn how to not just thrive and survive with the basic rules of intellectual property.
Alzamora: Yes, absolutely.
CCA: How not to cross lines, or protect your brand and your art, but also how to deal with this coming wave of digitization.
Alzamora: Yes, and like I said, I think in ten years or maybe five years, I’ll have different things to say about the subject, because it’s still pretty hard to reproduce a three-dimensional object, especially in a way that even begins to compete with the original. You have these apps that you can scan an object with your phone, but the resolution is still pretty bad, and to try to then print that in some material that’s interesting or to cast it, you’re still going to have to spend thousands of dollars to get it to be kind of like the original. So, until we have really ubiquitous desktop metal-printers, that are really cheap to print, then odds are, people in my shoes aren’t going to feel it in terms of copyright issue. Where I do think I may be feeling it is this idea that so many things can be made so easily now. And so, I think that hasn’t even crossed a lot of people’s minds yet. It hasn’t gone mainstream the way digital photography has. But soon as people started being able to take pictures with their cellphone, everyone became a relatively competent photographer.
Art Moves U | Uber
Alzamora: Whereas with sculpture, it still has this kind of, “Oh, I don’t know anything about that stuff.” But, the more people start realizing, “I can create my own content easily, like the way you can almost make a collage out of a newspaper clipping—and I can find these outlets that will produce it for me, cheaply, and in a nice material” Then, I’ll be a little bit more concerned about, “Oh, shit, I’ve got to get on my A-game in terms of producing something that competes with that ease of production and creativity.” But I think people still like that the proprietary-ness of fine art.
CCA: The solidity.
Alzamora: That is made by an artist.
Alzamora: To some extent, there’s that uniqueness associated with sculpture and fine art, and there’s a history there and there’s a materiality, something that people don’t care who made it, they just love what it’s made of. And that’s enough to draw them in, and then they realize, “Oh, this is an artist that has an accomplished background, he’s got a lot of things going on.” So, the material itself can be intrinsically appealing, regardless of the exact form that it takes.
CCA: And then there are things like when you did the Uber project at Art Basil Miami. Uber used it as a marketing tool, and you said they destroyed the originals. Why they didn’t give them to you?
Alzamora: Right, yes. Well, the deal was, they weren’t produced at a museum quality, they were more kind of like for street art, and so I didn’t want them circulating.
CCA: But you weren’t tempted to keep even one of them?
Alzamora: No. I wasn’t. Because I wasn’t able to oversee their production, there was a timeline crunch—
CCA: So it violated the integrity of your work?
Alzamora: Exactly. They were good enough for a one-week event, but I didn’t want them to live on in perpetuity in that sense. So that is a copyright issue, you don’t want something that is yours to be seen in the wrong context, or in the wrong light, or without a level of quality.
CCA: And you still had the control to do that.
CCA: I’m fascinated by these two directions that seem to be happening at the same time. On one hand, you have valuations of certified art by famous artists, where prices are just escalating. It’s amazing that something can be worth $10 dollars today, and then $100 dollars next week, and then a million dollars next year? What is going on here?
Alzamora: Perception. And branding, recognition, I think. In this time of total saturation with everything foreign, we want to cling more and more to the things that we do know and do recognize. So, I think all the big brands have a major advantage moving into this area or time, because they’re bringing that weight of recognition with them. Whereas it’s so easy to be overwhelmed by the amount of new artists, new music, you know: there’s so much of everything right now, that if we recognize something, it becomes that much more valuable because it’s something familiar. Our brains always strive for the familiar and repetition.
CCA: So, for example, people who write books. If you ask them, “Are people still reading books?”—they’ll, “Yeah, they are!” But I think we’ve entered a time where just publishing a book is not enough: you need an audio version, you need a digital version. Ideally, you’d also have a virtual reality version.
CCA: Because all these things are possible, as a branding and also as branching out to follow the audiences.
Alzamora: Yes, newer, younger audiences that are looking for that.
CCA: Younger audiences, the different platforms—
Alzamora: The podcasts—
CCA: Social media platforms, the podcasts, all of that. So, at the same time, you have a plethora of people who are producing art very economically, very, very cheaply, with just a few props and a camera.
CCA: And at the same time, the valuation of that art is dropping. And then you have things that are getting more expensive once an artist’s reputation and standing in the market is solidified, the sky’s the limit.
CCA: And when you get to Banksy, who self-destroyed a painting just after there was a winning bid. And it made the picture more valuable.
Alzamora: [laughs] Yes. So, there you have it. And part what I was going to add to that conversation is to gather that sort of brand recognition, you have to be kind of outrageous, or do something controversial, or over-the-top. It’s not an age of subtlety right now; we’re not a nuanced bunch. It’s all just bright colors and explosions and fanfare and the rest of it. It’s another cognitive revolution, so I think we’re sort of learning what we are all over again. It’s not a time for quiet introspection, it’s a time for almost panic. [laughs] To try to keep up with it all.
CCA: What would be your advice to a young artist right now?
Alzamora: I think: work. Tap into what motivates you to work hard, I won’t say just “work hard” because it means nothing if you don’t have some North Star to kind of guide you, or to propel you to work hard. For me, it happens to be feeling like hopefully my artwork impacts people in a positive way and inspires them to not just make art, but to see life more clearly, or at least more interestingly. Be inspired, be creative. And so, to have motivation is important. To work hard is even more important, although they go hand in hand. Sometimes I don’t want to work as hard, but I know I need to. So there’s that imbalance. [laughs] And, ultimately, be yourself. You have to be yourself. I wouldn’t say originality is important, but I would say dedication is important, and originality emerges though hard work and through repetition.
Alzamora: Authenticity. And I think right now—part of being saturated is being homogenous, or homogenized—part of what I think individuals offer artistically is a glimpse into the subtle variations of what humans are and what humans can be. And so I think there’s still a lot of value in that: what can one person contribute? Well, they can contribute a portal into intimate humanity. And I think that’s what artists, in my opinion, should be focused on somehow. Extracting and even commodifying, like that’s something that is valuable, and I think we need to learn from it, so it’s okay to make money at it, because that’s ultimately part of this business.
CCA: Well, but that’s the thing: would you advise a younger, a starting, or a beginner to explore multiple platforms from the start?
Alzamora: I mean for me, it’s mostly just Instagram, photography, and sculpture, if there are three things I do a lot of.
CCA: And then, gallery shows.
Alzamora: Yes. Well, that’s part of the business.
Alzamora: So, the business gets its tentacles into everything: into photography, I love to take pictures, but photography is super-critical to the business. So how I take pictures is important, because most people see my work though images, not necessarily in person. And then, Instagram is great because it’s a platform to announce and to share, and for the brand to explode on its own, which it does, which is great.
CCA: And what is that process? If you’re constantly showing stuff, new stuff on Instagram, let’s take that one example. Do people email you, or do they message you?
Alzamora: Sometimes I get Instagram messages, sometimes I get emails, sometimes people email me and say they found me though Instagram. But, for fine art, visual art, Instagram is definitely the best platform right now. And the whole art world is on board. More so than music: music is hard because you have to have the sound, and a lot of people observe in quiet, or with headphones. It’s more challenging, I think.
CCA: Well, I don’t know, I think it’s even harder to make music: in the age of Spotify, you make almost nothing.
Alzamora: Well, the second victim, I think was photography—well, maybe music and photography were about the same.
CCA: But what fascinates me about younger musicians that I’ve talked to, is that they’re learning to not expect to make money off any kind of streaming, unless they have the luck to be a superstar. So what they’re doing is building communities of people that get special perks, special access, behind-the-scenes, access to behind-the-scenes videos, after-parties, and performance in a bar, in a restaurant, in a stadium, you know, in a concert hall, or whatever. And that’s they only way they can make money, and they’re trying to do that with merchandise—
Alzamora: Right, they’re commodifying the experience, the experience of the music.
CCA: The T-shirts, and special backstage passes, behind-the-scenes videos, stuff like that. The experience itself becomes a commodity.
Alzamora: Yes. Well and that’s part of maybe where we’re landing as a people now, with all of this exposure, we expect more from what we’re putting our attention toward. It used to be, you’d buy the album and you’d pull out the record and you’d see the print and the big fold or the CD with the case and the booklet and all that kind of stuff. Rarely was there anything else beyond that. I guess maybe they had some sort of competition or something that maybe—but now, it has this network of things. Especially if you get into this Patreon-type model, where people can subscribe to your creativity, and pay you monthly, and then they get something every month, a little something or other. And I haven’t really explored that. I think if I were a young artist, I would definitely look into that, and pay attention to that as a way to start building slowly.
CCA: To create other markets, targeted markets.
Alzamora: Yes, and I haven’t done that because I just feel like it takes a lot of energy to explore that and to kind of create something that you can rebrand or package or market that way. Because, I have this pretty decent setup where I show at galleries, and they sell the art, and it keeps me in business, and I keep going. And year after year, for 20 years now, that’s kind of been my model.
CCA: Well, and also you deal in all kinds of things, like epic art.
Alzamora: Yes, and even that is more accessible to many. So sculpture has a pretty unique, uniquely small audience. As a lot of galleries don’t even have a sculptor on board, and if they do, maybe there’s just one of them or two of them, compared to the 20 other artists that they have. So, I think that works for me. But I do think time will change and object-making will become more push-button ready, and the quality will be more or less there. The question is: will people still want to feel the artist’s hand in it, the way they might want to see the brushstroke in the painting?
CAA: Like Warhol’s soup cans? Don’t you think it’s ironic that Warhol became famous for reproducing mass images?
Alzamora: It was perfect timing for that, especially when mass-production was just becoming mainstream.
CCA: So, I don’t know if I was clear: the irony that Warhol’s reproductions of mass-marketed images and brand logos, [that] he was able to turn that into something that had super value as tangible pieces of art.
Alzamora: Right. Yes.
CCA: So, it’s almost like we’re entering a stage of the opposite, where things can actually be turned into mass-produced—you said maybe it’s just a few years away, but in some cases, it’s right now.
CCA: Because, if you’re into photography, if that’s your thing, it’s going to get easier and easier to do it yourself.
Alzamora: Yes, you can email your favorite picture you took on your phone to some company and have them print a 4-foot by 6-foot frame and deliver it for a few hundred dollars. [laughs]
CCA: So, do you have any ideas on tactics or things you can do to protect your IP as much as possible?
Alzamora: Yes. For example: for me, I’m careful about who I share my digital models with. I don’t make them available, I don’t email them without thinking twice, or at least informing the person I’m sending it to “It’s important you don’t share this.” It’s not that easy for someone to just scan something right now, yet. I mean, the iPhones come close, they have some of these apps that can do face scanning and 3D scanning, but it’s so rough that it would just be a novelty, and interesting to see what someone was able to capture with their iPhone. But, another few years, I think the cameras will be able to scan something with really high resolution and, yes: if they want one of my sculptures, they’ll just walk around in a gallery, and send it to their local printer and maybe if they want to pay a little extra, they can get it printed in metal. And they’ll have one for several hundred dollars instead of the many thousands that it might cost them otherwise. Will it be the same thing? No: that would almost be their artwork.
Alzamora: Because they had this concept of capturing it, they had this concept of figuring out how to make it, have someone else make it, and now they have something that’s probably quite different from the original, or different enough.
CCA: Or different enough that it would be hard to prove it was a rip-off.
Alzamora: Yes. Exactly. You’d probably see evidence that it’s not one of the official editions.
CCA: So what about a Blockchain ledger of art images that could be used to certify something.
Alzamora: The provenance. Right, yes, so you have a work of art that basically is associated with some sort of digital memory, a transaction.
CCA: The kind of computing power we’re starting to achieve, and if the Chinese can keep track of individual people’s faces, then it’s probably not too outrageous to think that there might someday be a platform or device or software, or application where you could put in one of your works, and then it would call up anything similar to it.
Alzamora: Right, it would tell you here are some infringements.
CCA: And then you’d be able to say, “Hey, this looks a hell of a lot like what I just did, please stop.”
Alzamora: Well, sometimes I’ll see on Instagram something that looks clearly made after one of my works, something like that. And I’ve never been too bothered by it, to the point where I called anyone out on it. I’d maybe make a comment and a winky-face. [laughter] But, I think it’s cool if they’re inspired and if they somehow—
CCA: You could make an angry face.
Alzamora: [laughs] Yes. But, for example, American Horror Story contacted me a few years ago, for one of their seasons, and there was a minotaur character in it. So, they asked about using the piece in the TV show. They said, “We’ll make it very clear, we don’t want your sculpture, we just want to recreate the pose of your sculpture with our actor and his makeup and whatnot.” And I said, “Well, yes, we can do that.” So we negotiated a price.
CCA: So, they paid you for it?
Alzamora: Yes. They paid a good sum, yes. And so, within two hours of signing this whole contract, that took a week and a half to negotiate and whatnot, I got emails from fans saying, “Hey, American Horror Story is ripping you off! That’s so your sculpture.” And I was like, “No, no, it’s cool, we talked, they’re able to use it.” And they’re like, “Good! I hope you’re getting paid for this.” I said, “yes I am.”
CCA: So, you just touched on another way that artists, at certain point in their career, can rely their collectors and fans to help them keep track of forgeries or unauthorized copies of their work.
Alzamora: Yes, it is kind of like a Blockchain, because we are the memory nodes, and we’re looking out for each other, too. So, in essence, it’s almost like a bio Blockchain.
Alzamora: Yes. People are doing that kind of cross-referencing for you, not the algorithm.
CCA: Sure. But that just gives you one more reason to have a personal relationship with a digital audience.
Alzamora: Right, and like people’s stuff, comments, write back—I think it’s important to at some level, show them that you’re still human, and that you’re not just there to get info from them or likes from them. But you’re looking at their work, you’re commenting on a couple things. It’s a part of interaction.
CCA: And obviously, people like that are going to look out for you because you’ve changed the way they see things. You’ve altered their consciousness somehow, given them pleasure.
Alzamora: And you’ve mentioned something in return, you’ve acknowledged them. I think oftentimes social media can be a one-way street, and you feel like you’re looking into something where you don’t belong, something that you’re not a part of. And this conversation is actually initiating my impulse to be more interactive, spend a little bit more time looking at people’s—I don’t have to follow them back, because it ends up being difficult, you don’t always want to follow people back—but, you can—
CCA: Thank your fans, somehow.
Alzamora: Yes, maybe go through, maybe find a few images that you like, and interact, and maybe give some feedback, or something like that. Which I do, but I should do it more. Because it’s important to me to feel like I’m connecting, so I think it’s important to give back on some level.
Sculptor at Alzamora Sculpture
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