DG: At The Demented Goddess, we get excited by artists engaging with devastation, because under ruin we may find change. What compels you towards the everyday devastation of these photographs, taken as you walk around Houston?
As much as possible, I want to see what there is to be seen especially when it hasn’t been designed to pull attention. In a lot of cases, that means voids and ruins, and it’s everywhere. Like all sizable US cities, Houston is in the midst of accelerated gentrification, and it is too fast and too reckless to cover its tracks. This means we can clearly see the values of the hegemony being etched into the landscape. We can see who the city chooses to disenfranchise, we can see the barracks of class war being built. The lens gives us all a chance to be John Nada. But that sense of change goes both ways: those ruins, those voids are also revealing about the weakness of the hegemony, its desperation, its lack of imagination. I find that if you manage to line up the right aesthetic alchemy in frame, those same sites can trigger a strange longing for a new world to come.
DG: Are you feeling a genuine sense of change in the city, as the pandemic collides with Black Lives Matter protests?
There is a diffused sense of revolutionary possibility, but I don’t feel it in the streets just yet (the streets I know, I should qualify). Between the sci-fi sprawl of the city, the Gehenna of Houston summer, and the easy-going culture, it takes a lot for this place to erupt. If there is a collision, it’s happening in slow motion, and is perhaps too abstract for me to comprehend.
That said, a lot the conversations feel new to me, people are talking Abolition every day, Names like Lucy Parsons and Kwame Ture keep coming up, mutual aid networks are being discussed even by people who still define anarchy as simple chaos. It’s really encouraging, but, at the same time, the casualties of COVID keep rising, and there is a justifiable fear that this reality might overtake the current uprising. Complicated feelings all around.
DG: Your work reveals the broken, empty remnants of urban domesticity and safety. The latest police murders and continuing downgrading of people of colour makes us wonder if we can achieve change safely. Do you feel safe, as a black man on the streets of Houston?
I don’t. When I shoot, I become a “purposeless nigger” that is to say a Black person that cannot be categorized. Most don’t understand what I’m up to, and that leads to a lot of threats, a lot of edgy questions, and calls to the police, sometimes from Black people. To be Black and to not have a function is not only dangerous to the white supremacist, it is dangerous to the programming of capitalism. To move freely is understood as a threat to even the tiniest morsels accumulated through capitalist culture, so to attempt any act that resembles freedom is by definition unsafe. But there is no safety outside those attempts either, it’s just that the violence is coming at you in other ways, mostly at work. At night I dream of flooding and jump-out squads. Safety is nowhere.
“To be Black and to not have a function is dangerous to the programming of capitalism.”
DG: Clashing views of advancement, for Black people and those of colour, have long been a source of conflict within our communities. It’s resulted in violence and repression for those who step out of line, while there’s talk of empowerment for those few who climb the Forbes list or appear in a Sunday supplement. Does any of this influence, do you think, those Black people who report you to the police?
Absolutely! Today we talk about Black Excellence in the US, and that often means something beautiful, and powerful, and graceful, but to reach the point where that excellence can be seen or recognized by the culture means using the capitalist mechanisms at such an involved level that some form of corruption is always part of the bargain. When the models for Black Excellence are people like Killer Mike, and Kamala Harris is it surprising that some homies down the block start thinking of every aspect of their lives the same way the capitalist thinks about their private property? Control of one’s defining possessions through violence becomes the order of the day.
DG: Capitalist culture commodifies happiness and security. To what extent should we embrace rage and throw away our attachment to security?
I don’t believe that we are ever safe, but I do see the need to negotiate spaces and times of relative safety, that’s just survival 101, but even in those moments one should keep the rage simmering. It is the ember of remembrance that keeps us from slipping into complacency. Focused rage in concert with a clear understanding of the stakes and liberatory values is, in my view, one of the most useful tools we have.
Sebastien Boncy was in conversation with Soma Ghosh & The Demented Goddess.
Sebastien Boncy takes pictures daily & distributes them freely. Visit the archive at https://purpletimespaceswamp.tumblr.com.