XVALA and the Art of Controversy

XVALA might be best known for his life-size canvas versions of the hacked nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton, or maybe for his Mark Zuckerberg penis sculpture. Or maybe for the basketball he dug out from Kim Kardashian’s trash bin, cut a glory hole into and exhibited at a party bearing the celeb’s name in Los Angeles. Just “Google his Wiki,” as the artist famously quips, and you will find a long list of celeb “collabs”: Tiger Woods x XVALA, ScarJo x XVALA, and Lindsay and Britney and Demi, and oh yeah, Steve Jobs. His claims to fame are certainly many. But the fame isn’t important to XVALA. All he really wants is to be the greatest. At what? Just the “Greatest of All Time.”

The Los Angeles based Post-PC artist’s work is focused on humanity’s current co-habitation with the “Googleverse,” AKA the internet. XVALA’s broad scope of focus affords him conceptual freedom and the ability to narrate story lines in any medium. Whether it be sculpture, painting, street art or Instagram, he tailors his medium to the message, most notably and most often using the trash of his subjects to fuel an ongoing conversation about the value of privacy.  Total freedom is quite the asset for an artist in a Post-Internet world. As one never knows what’s going to happen next,  one has to be ready for anything, or everything, to indeed be called the greatest. I chatted with the self-proclaimed virtuoso about glory holes, oversharing, inescapable controversies and his future title as GOAT.

Slammed and Dunked, XVALA 2012 - Promotional Materials
Slammed and Dunked, XVALA 2012

JB:  Slammed and Dunked, the basketball-cum-art piece you culled from the trash bins of Kim Kardashian and her short-lived spouse Kris Humphries, was just one piece in your larger body of work Fear Google which re-appropriated celebrity trash and was heavily accented by glory holes. Kim’s glory hole must be your most famous one. W Mag referenced it’s importance in the art world in its annual art issue last year. These glory holes have played a very prominent role in your work for some time. What is the significance?

XVALA: I can tell you it’s a fantastic way to brand your art. I don’t call them glory holes, they are displays. I don’t want to give too much away too soon. 

“The themes I touch on are themes that walk the line between what is allowed and what’s not allowed.”

JB: Your work has a definite sexual bent to it, but it doesn’t seem to be about sex. Like when you dumpster dived Mark Zuckerberg’s trash, found a wire hanger and transformed into Mark Zuckerberg’s Not Very Well Hung Hanger. Essentially you created a phallic symbol and painted it Facebook blue. But that piece of work wasn’t about Zuck’s package, right?

X: I was simply showing how Mark Zuckerberg treats his users by rummaging through leftovers and refurbishing that into something revealing about him personally.

Mark Zuckerberg's Not Very Well Hung Hanger, XVALA 2012 - Promotional Materials
Mark Zuckerberg’s Not Very Well Hung Hanger, XVALA 2012

JB: You have said that Zuckerberg’s alterations to the terms and conditions of Facebook that occurred right after you released the Hanger were a direct result of your work. You really believe that?

X: Part of my art is about what is picked up and repeated. I completely take credit for Zuckerberg wanting to edit the news feeds of his users. There’s a huge echo online and he’s no friend to freedom of speech. When I saw him cracking down online, I knew I’d been effective. I’ll be addressing my responses to that in my efforts to Make Art Great Again or MAGA.

JB: And MAGA is your next project? 

X: A lot of the things I’ve done in the past, no one has seen the behind the scenes of, and MAGA is the whole story. It’s a documentary about me becoming the Greatest of All Time.

JB: So it’s about you?

X: Yes. It ended up being about me. But only in the role of the hero.

XVALA at Trump Inauguration with other attendees, Washington DC for his MAGA film 2017 - Promotional Materials
XVALA at Trump Inauguration with other attendees, Washington DC for his MAGA film 2017

JB: You work in what I would call “large-scale controversy,” which I think in many cases overshadows the message you are attempting to deliver or maybe it is the message you are attempting to deliver. The most notable instance of this might be your No Delete project which involved the hacked nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton. Let’s just recap the series of events real quick: 4chan hacked and released photos of a very nude Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton onto the internet, and within a day you announced that you were going to exhibit life-size canvas versions of the hacked photos in an upcoming show in St. Petersburg, Florida. Then the internet exploded. Petitions were created to ban you from showing the work, Lena Dunham chewed everyone out for even wanting to look at the pics, and the HuffPost accused you of “sexual assault.” So you didn’t do it and instead you exhibited life-size naked photos of yourself. What was the impetus behind the original concept for this project?

X: I saw the pics existed and I just thought, I have to make this into art.  And I instantly knew the title of the work would be No Delete. So [Lawrence and Upton] had deleted the photos from their iPhones, but the photos were still up in the cloud. And they had no idea that that information was still accessible. It was my view that this world we are living in was coming to a zenith; the photos had been deleted, but they still existed. And they are all still there. You can Google it. There is no delete.

“I am dealing with people’s privacy and personal information and what that means in today’s society.”

JB: The media storm that was created from the No Delete project was substantial. I read numerous articles that seemingly questioned the integrity of what you were “creating” as an artist, but no one asked you about that directly. And I’m curious: what about you printing hacked photos onto a canvas qualifies as art?

X: I don’t make art for the art world, so by design a lot of what I do is going to be the first ever of its kind.  As for Jennifer Lawrence and No Delete, the art I planned was transformative. Just because you can get things “removed” from social media or the internet etc, they’re still going to be out there.

JB: You used the term “transformative.” What do you mean by that?

X: I basically presented a new product. I have to create for tomorrow like Steve Jobs said. So that’s really my guiding principal.

XVALA's All Seeing Eye Gold Digger at the North Shore, Kauai, Hawaii for his MAGA film 2017 - Promotional Materials
XVALA’s All Seeing Eye Gold Digger at the North Shore, Kauai, Hawaii for his MAGA film 2017

JB: So basically you are holding up a mirror to society and saying, “see, there is no more privacy!” But does anyone care? There are more nude images of Jennifer Lawrence out there than there were when 4chan hacked her.  I know this because I Googled it. There is no delete. Do you have an objective, other than holding up that mirror, that you are trying to get across? Is anyone listening?

X: Yes, and I don’t think they are listening. But to me it’s not about winning that battle. I can’t be like “I’m the Savior for the internet.” I’m not trying to be that. The themes I touch on are themes that walk the line between what is allowed and what’s not allowed. Everything I do involves an evolving social norm. I am dealing with people’s privacy and personal information and what that means in today’s society. I need to keep it so that the public understands that it is as much about the art as possible, even though it doesn’t always seem that way.

XVALA on the Brooklyn Bridge, NYC, NY for his MAGA film 2017 - Promotional Materials
XVALA on the Brooklyn Bridge, NYC, NY for his MAGA film 2017

JB: Did you anticipate the response that you received to your announcement of showing Lawrence and Upton’s nude photos in an art exhibition?

X: Right after I released my announcement the public outcry was suddenly different than it was prior. It went from “invasion of privacy” to “revenge porn” and “sexual assault.” Beautifully handled by Jennifer’s PR firm, I have to say. I didn’t see that coming. I didn’t even know what revenge porn was. All of a sudden I have twenty-somethings calling me from Vogue and Marie Claire accusing me of things I didn’t even know existed. Clearly I wasn’t the guy that hacked them. I was just using them to create art. My response was to try to keep it about the art, so I turned the camera back on me. I never wanted to be naked on the internet. But I think we all find ourselves naked on the internet at some point.

The Appeal of the Loss of Desirability, XVALA 2007 - Promotional Materials
The Appeal of the Loss of Desirability, XVALA 2007

JB: Your entire catalogue of work focuses on the lack of privacy. Did your perspective on privacy change because of the outcome of this project?

X: In ways it did. I got a very threatening text from someone claiming to be with the hacker group Anonymous. And there were death threats both online and via direct messaging.

JB: Did you feel any satisfaction that someone would take your work so seriously?

X: No. I think those people are misguided.

“For the first time in recorded history everything is being recorded.”

JB: So what is your stance on privacy?

X: For the first time in recorded history everything is being recorded. I’m not sure privacy exists anymore. I don’t think Americans care about their privacy until they think it’s gone. It’s not a problem until it’s a problem.

Display, Google My Wiki, XVALA 2009 - Promotional Materials
Display, Google My Wiki, XVALA 2009

JB: Because your work is always surrounded by some sort of controversy – whether it’s a controversy you are discussing through your work or a controversy you are creating – you skirt real criticism of your actual art.  The media –

X: That’s not true. Not that I care. Can I just say that when the Huff Post reviewed my ScarJo piece it was kind of haha, wink and nudge, tongue in cheek. [Their response] was satirical and humorous about the situation of her phone being hacked. When I did NO DELETE, and all those way personal bits of information were being put into the internet and shared, it was first viewed as an invasion of privacy. But after the mainstream media got involved they put a spin on it as sexual assault. They were very critical of my approach as a male artist.

But they compared me to Andy Warhol and Richard Prince. They admitted that I’m doing art that has some artistic merit to it,  and even some historical merit, but they wanted to disqualify me as being too shocking. And really, honestly before I did the piece I had no idea that people would view it that way.

But that’s heat of the moment stuff. I don’t know that people will care in ten years. Go on with your question. I just wanted to say that’s not always true.

JB: The thing is media focuses on what makes a “good story” instead of on your art. But maybe there isn’t any substance to your work beyond the controversy?

X:  I’d say there’s some truth to that. But I’d also disagree with it. There are two participants when the art is created: the artist and whoever comes upon the art. Whoever would see it and recognize it as art or maybe not recognize it as art. So there’s the initial expression and there’s the interpretation of the expression. What was your question?

JB: Is there substance to your work?

X: Yeah there is. Because I created it.

JB: Back to the onlooker of your work. As you probably know, Duchamp has a similar thought that art does not exist without the onlooker – that whatever intention the artist put into –

X: Wrong. I disagree with him 100%…artists just buy into that crap. I’m not saying Duchamp is crap, but you know, some if his ideas need to be taken out to the trash just like everything else. So yeah, I disagree with that and I think I’m proof of it.

JB: That’s an interesting answer.

X: I mean, I never even created the NO DELETE pieces. You know that’s one thing street artists say, they do the work for the reaction. I think these sound bites become realty for people. I don’t think [street artists] even know what that means. But I don’t do it for the reaction. I do it because I’m an artist and I’m creating an expression.

Fear Google Ninja, XVALA 2016 - Promotional Materials
Fear Google Ninja, XVALA 2016

JB: You use the term “information” often in reference to your work’s objective.  It seems many people don’t think that what they are putting onto Facebook, or Instagram, or into their style blog to be “information” about themselves. It’s just a selfie, or food porn or whatever the current trend is to post. But it most certainly is information. Are you hoping terms like “information” or “no delete” will help convert over-sharers into being more responsible internet users?

X: It’s not necessarily a finger-shaking like “you’re oversharing!” It’s more about the people in charge of the technology encouraging oversharing and how they turn around and use that information. People are just living their lives, so I don’t really have any critique for them. I don’t want to pick on Mark Zuckerberg, but he’s sort of the poster child for big tech or a Technocracy. His ideas are shaping the world and people like him encourage certain behavior. We are creating a dependency and we are unaware of how it will be used against us.

“I don’t think Americans care about their privacy until they think it’s gone.”

JB: While your work is made IRL, your concepts are born of the internet or internet culture. Do you think this is key to the effectiveness of your work?

X: Getting what I do seen by more people than ever before, having an art piece or performance go viral worldwide, and having people start to question what is real is the key.

JB: So it all goes back to internet sharing or lifestyle. Obviously the internet is one of the most relevant barometers for modern culture – fast becoming THE barometer. Certainly it is the barometer for your work, but what does the future of the art world look like if everything is measured by the internet?

X: I’ll become the GOAT. I’ll become the Greatest Of All Time. Seriously though, if you look critically at my art, you will see it’s not just hype or humor. You are shown the irony of Jennifer Lawrence, star of the Sci-fi film The Hunger Games, playing a prisoner being forced to compete in a cruel televised game in real life. I help people to see the new world we are creating by making art about that world. I hope I inspire the art world to follow my lead.

JB: How do you plan on becoming GOAT – greatest of all time?

X: Being the greatest isn’t a title you’re given. You have to go out and take it. I plan to go out and take it.

XVALA at Los Angeles River for MAGA film, 2017
XVALA at Los Angeles River for MAGA film, 2017