Ahead of the exhibition’s opening, Jenson Leonard joins Document to expound upon his film’s intent, and muse on the compassion of comedy

The titular film of Jenson Leonard’s Workflow is like an unsettling dream—if your dreams were set in stock footage and toned with Lynchian surrealism and built from interrogations of Afro-pessimism and guided by a lipsticked Michael Jackson mask reading uncanny comedic poetry in a low monotone. “Live,” the orb-eyed, disembodied pop star says, “in the nanosecond.” This particular nanosecond is not the only perfect one in which to reevaluate our understandings of Jackson, who, since the height of his fame, has served as a readymade filter through which people project most any thought on Blackness in America. In Workflow, Leonard postures Jackson’s bleached skin and surgical procedures not as acts of self-hatred, but as subversive feats against racial paradigms of being.

Known on the internet as @CoryInTheAbyss, the artist is (maybe not for long) most-revered for his meme work; with Workflow, he is reformatting that practice to larger, multimedia scales. Memes are typically consumed in quick succession, “sandwiched between, maybe, pictures of sandwiches”—and though some memes are made with as little consideration as they are received, Leonard’s are carefully considered, and applied with aesthetically thoughtful design. He saw Workflow as an opportunity to transpose that same planimetric composition and confrontational concept to a more naturally receptive audience, unburdened by the impulse to flick and forget; within the walls of Pioneer Works—the same space in which the video was made during a 2021 residency—the artist’s institutional debut is built to be experienced.

Leonard’s exhibition sees the film on loop on two grids of computer monitors, positioned on ergonomic desks within the gallery, mirroring the visual contents on-screen, which are backgrounded by archival footage of empty workplaces and factories. Set to disquieting, infomercial-esque music that underscores a sense of hypnotic monotony, the setting is hardly extrinsic to Jackson; said the artist in a statement, “There is something about going to work—the repetition of it—that gets inscribed at an epigenetic level, as an everyday, embodied violence. From there, I thought about the panoptic workplace (open-air plan, transparent yet closely surveilled, management that does not have to be in the room to be monitoring you), the fetish of efficiency (ergonomic mouse and keyboards so you can work longer), biometric data of a labor force (fingerprint and facial scans to help reduce repeat processing tasks). All of these methods, to maximize profits and production, can be traced back to methods worked out and perfected in the cotton and sugarcane fields hundreds of years prior.”

Ahead of the July 7 opening of Workflow at Pioneer Works, Leonard joins Document to expound upon his film’s intent, and muse on the compassion of comedy and the ways in which culture has declined since the 2002 MTV Movie Awards.

Megan Hullander: I think what struck me most about Workflow was the way that you use repetition to critique repetition—in the music, the visuals. Even maybe the riffing in the poetry is a form of it. I wonder how that familiarity it plays on is meant to serve the piece.

Jenson Leonard: Some of the design behind that is an attempt at overwhelming the repetition to inculcate a demand, a break, a rupture to get out of the dread of it. Because to me, it is just an exaggerated or super-abundant version of our day-to-day normalcy of doomscrolling, looking at square shapes, sitting in cubicles—the architectural sensibilities that are all boxed in. It’s just amplifying what’s already experienced.

I think there is a psychic element—like being entranced. It’s not every day, though, that a floating fantasma with a deep, booming voice is talking to you. I think that does a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of attention and engagement. I’m also thinking of the bigger context, of what people encounter in a gallery, which is a different type of engagement; there are protocols in place where people are primed to pay attention. I guess I’ll ruggedly call it shock and awe, the visage of a phantasmagoric Michael Jackson floating mask making this weird appeal to you—that is, in and of itself, hypnotic.

Megan: At what stage did Michael Jackson come into the concept?

Jenson: It’s a Michael Jackson mask. In the corpus of media, there’s such a gulf between who Michael Jackson, as a notoriously private person, was and his public, outward persona, and the media that created ‘Jacko.’ And then, I also wanted to relate that to some of these Afro-pessimist and Black studies ideas about the ontology of Blackness—Blackness as a structure, and some of the precepts of dispossession, and being a tool for others. MJ is arguably the most famous and messianic figure, [and] a lot of the things that counterweigh that are tied to his Blackness—the assumptive guilt.

In reducing Michael Jackson to a head, [I’m] disembodying someone who is so known for their movement and grace, and trying to brush up ideas about the split between mind and body—which are still heavily played out, the deeply embedded eugenics of our society. Like, Shut Up and Dribble, for instance, where athletes are just athletes and there’s no purchase for them to have interiority or ideas. There’s a long history that goes back to Enlightenment thought, of the primacy of thinking over the body.

There’s an awesome Greg Tate article in The Village Voice. He [says]—I’m paraphrasing—that some may see MJ’s surgery as evidence of a deep self-hatred and mutilation, and he’s just a perpetually tragic Dorian Gray figure. There’s a more generous reading that sees him as a liberal subject who is pursuing happiness, is self-making by any means. And then, there’s a more cynical read of a pop star who is trying to algorithmically maximize their appeal by altering their appearance.

And then, in terms of accelerationist thought, there’s this book called Xenofeminism by Helen Hester. And it’s about reconfiguring and rupturing gender through interfacing with the surgical and pharmaceutical to create a new kind of being that is out of existing paradigms, but—[this is a] super generous, speculative reading—maybe MJ was already doing that. But again, Afro-pessimist logics say he’s structurally in a place of dispossession, so his terms and conditions are always tenuous. He doesn’t quite get to define them. In a weird way, I’m looking out into the macro at MJ, and MJ is looking back at me. And I’m like, Same.

“In the corpus of media, there’s such a gulf between who Michael Jackson, as a notoriously private person, was and his public, outward persona, and the media that created ‘Jacko.’”

Megan: Is the use of AI positioned with that similar exaggeratory intent, then? Are you trying to further disembody him, and emphasize the sense that the person and the name are sometimes not the same?

Jenson: There’s a really good term for that: hyperstition. I’m going to poorly explain it: At one point, space travel was just an idea in science fiction, and then it became a part of this feedback loop of technology and industry and nation-states competing to prove their progress. It’s almost like the idea became real, and then more than real. And now it’s a part of some hegemonic idea of progress. There’s MJ as a real person, but I think there was an element of hyperstition that made the fictive idea more real than whoever the fuck Michael Jackson was. And hyperstition is a process that comes out of acceleration. It’s something that is technologically brought into reality.

Megan: You’re clearly very academically-minded—

Jenson: I’d like to turn it off.

Megan: Well, it feels like there can be an expectation for quote-unquote art to be more visceral than it is intellectually provocative. And maybe that’s where people struggle in the classification process for the type of art that your work falls within. There are obviously aesthetic considerations, as well, but so much of your work feels rooted in idea and intellect. I wonder if you think digital art forms are more approachable in that regard, in presenting complex ideas.

Jenson: Are you speaking to the meme work?

Megan: It’s probably most explicit in the memes, in that there’s a comment section for people to parse through to help them understand what it means. But I think it applies to digital art generally, as people maybe better know how it’s made, how it can be warped. It’s a bit easier to source its references without feeling seen and judged, and so on.

Jenson: I have a lot of ambivalence, as far as making art on this scale. And, whether I can prove it or not, I feel like a lot of art at this scale—if it’s not speaking to art discourse—doesn’t exist. It’s like a tree falling in a forest. You have to become privy to these conversations, these concerns.

I feel like there’s a conceit where, in that demand that the artwork has a certain kind of knowledge base, you get research-based art and things that maybe a younger version of myself—or a version of me tomorrow—would say, ‘That’s not art.’ Because I want to be transported, I want to be changed, I want the sublime. These are all very romantic notions of art.

I’m trying to remove myself, or destroy certain paradigms of having your cake and eating it—I’m just gonna build a bakery, and put whatever I want in it. Yes, there is this dense theoretical component to the work, but I also want to make something that is so just fucking weird and uncanny. And, yeah, it may be even gorgeous at some parts and extremely experiential, and a large part of that is just—[laughs]—vibes. It’s not preoccupied with being the right historical reference. I wanted to make something that feels, in infinite amounts, studied and fucked-up and free.

Jenson Leonard, Workflow (image still), 2022. Courtesy of the artist. 

Megan: How did the scale of the installation inform your approach to the concept?

Jenson: I hadn’t quite made art on this level before. And so I wanted to challenge myself and see, What does it look like for me to make something that isn’t just sitting in Photoshop? Something that wasn’t confined to top text, bottom text; that lives on social media, sandwiched between, maybe, pictures of sandwiches.

And also, looking [at it] art-historically, there’s this work by Howardena Pindell, Free, White, and 21, where [she], a Black artist, paints her face white, puts on a blond wig, and she’s reciting something like a surrealist poem. And a little bit later down the road, there’s David Hammons’s How Ya Like Me Now?, where he whitefaced Jesse Jackson, who I think was a presidential candidate at the time. And then you get into a new media thing, and you have Sondra Perry, [who models] her head in 3D. And then, American Artist’s Blue Life Seminar. I would like to logically proceed to and away from the forebears. I want to be in communication, and I want to go somewhere else. And so I’m gonna use visual motifs and go somewhere different.

Megan: Another artistic lineage I see your work as a part of is that of those who’ve applied text to visual art. I feel like a lot of that work—even when it receives institutional support and critical acclaim—is usually more likely to be pulled into question, as to whether it’s actually ‘art.’ Even if it’s poetry or conceptual or metaphoric, I think the presence of text feels too literal for a lot of people.

Jenson: I’m thinking of Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, and trying to think [about] how they’re perceived or classified. And there are shades of pop art—there’s some Banksy detritus, a little Banksy stank.

No one likes being told what to do, or how to feel. So then, for me, it’s non-didactic language, non-instructive language. But language nevertheless, in the way it’s assembled leads to one having to parse through contradiction, parse through their subject position versus whatever the language infected them with. You know, William S. Burroughs: ‘Language is a virus.’ Once it’s taken up inside of you, it can compel you to do things that you wouldn’t [have done] prior. I’m making a conscious effort to not tell—it’s non-didactic. Because that’s not me.

“My Super Bowl is the fucking MTV Video Music Awards—seeing the war between nü-metal bands and boy bands. It’s all formative stuff; I’m stuck with it. It would be a betrayal to do away with all that, just because of some idea of a singular art world, some idea of ‘sophistication.’”

Megan: In Workflow, you do use ‘you,’ a number of times, and it is sort of didactic—in a playful way, I’m sure.

Jenson: It’s a gesture, it’s a move. There’s a Kanye line, ‘I’m on TV talkin’ just like it’s you and me.’ I’m trying to go between first, third, first, second, third, fourth, fifth person—collapse whatever the hard conditioned boundaries of subjectivity are. It’s a very instant way to implicate you, the audience—but it’s deeper than that. I’m trying to bring up a structure of feeling, if you will. I don’t know if there’s a word in the English language that describes this attempt to address myself and you at the same time, dialectically…

Megan: In your work—and in the way you speak conversationally—references to pop culture are frequent. Has that always been a primary means of communicating for you?

Jenson: I try to live in such a way that there’s not a divide between high and low. And, put simply, I’m a kid of the ’90s. My Super Bowl is the fucking MTV Video Music Awards—seeing the war between nü-metal bands and boy bands. It’s all formative stuff; I’m stuck with it. It would be a betrayal to do away with all that, just because of some idea of a singular art world, some idea of ‘sophistication.’ The way my brain works, I don’t full-stop dismiss anything, unfortunately.

I also feel like you see political and social attitudes play themselves out, or the symptoms of them appear through popular culture. But popular culture is just a high-range, dynamic expression of political economy. It’s not just MTV Spring Break or—I don’t know why my references are so old. That’s what culture is for me, I guess: Since Jack Black and Sarah Michelle Gellar hosted the MTV Awards, we’ve been downhill.

Megan: I think it’s, in some ways, similar to the way you employ humor as an alternate form of communication. But comedy can easily feel or become violent. How do you balance saying something that’s provocative or challenging, while still maintaining compassion?

Jenson: I think that’s where the poet in me comes in—the ideas about compassion and sympathy, and how to modulate the address and tenor of a joke, so that I’m not brazenly hurting for the sake of hurting, cutting for the sake of cutting. I’m already coming from a place of alienation; I’m not trying to breed more alienation into the world. Humor is, in one sense, disarming, and in another—I don’t want to sound too sacred. But, to your question about literary didacticism, one way to subvert that is through humor. Because you can tell anyone anything, really, if it causes a laugh. Humor has this elasticity to it in terms of what you can say, and what you can get away with saying.

If there’s laughter, there’s less of a likelihood of there being violence. That’s just real shit. I think, with humor, you can push the limit and you can encrypt things that, if you were to say them in a more forceful or direct way, would land on deaf ears. [When] people laugh, they’re having a really vulnerable, embodied response.

Workflow is on view at Pioneer Works July 7 through September 10.