Travis Levasseur (b. 1991) is a multimedia artist working out of his studio in Baltimore, Maryland. We were excited to meet up with Levasseur to discuss his last show at Terrault Contemporary, Into the Blue. The show proposed the question: What would the world be like if the wealthy disappeared?
How did you get into making art? What is your background? Did you always know you wanted to be an artist?
Everyone in my family thought I was going to be an architect. We had a little wood shop in middle school, and I was more into that than anything else. I loved building, and everyone was pushing me in that direction. I drew buildings and floor plans of dream houses, designing what I couldn’t have. I loved real time strategy and simulation games like Rise of Nations, The Sims, Harvest Moon, and Roller Coaster Tycoon, where the player is made to feel as if they have full control over an environment. A simplified world. It’s that same dream house mentality - a fabricated reality. I was heavily influenced by those games.
I went to MICA for Film and Video because it was such a flexible program. I also wanted to learn a new set of skills. I learned a lot about planning and managing my time while also learning a lot about new technology, and building sets. Being curious has helped me explore different techniques for expressing particular ideas more effectively, I think. I would love to learn 3D modeling next.
What was your inspiration behind your most recent show at Terrault Contemporary?
I was really influenced by this long dark rabbit hole called Google Video. Younger folk may not remember but it was essentially YouTube, but with no upload length limit. All the good stuff was on Google Video. All the best conspiracy films were there. I was especially impressed by the fact that many of them were made by single users - people at home producing films in their free-time. I was thinking a lot about copycat suicide at the time and wanted to explore the notion using the conspiracy film model. I was super interested in this Japanese musician Hide Matsumoto from Japan X who brought american rock to Japan's otherwise very corporate pop scene. When Hide committed suicide he chose to hang himself from a doorknob using a towel. Following his death, numerous people were reported killing themselves using this exact same method. I was super interested in this idea that the ‘be yourself/stand out’ notion that Japan X stood for died with Hide and his fans. I thought that this dramatic stance would make for an interesting conversation and it was my work on a triptych of video essays on this topic that inspired my recent show at Terrault. I wanted to explore an alternate reality in which all of the world's millionaires and billionaires left to form man-made island utopias to escape the troubles on shore. Similar to Hide, I was interested in diagnosing the death of the ‘providers’ of America's present-day through the lens of a conspirator.
The piece is centered around a piano? What the significance of the piano? And how does it work?
I wanted the show to archive ‘the good old days’ when pop music was alive and well and act as a memorial to those times. It’s a player piano, so it plays itself. It’s like someone was once there - now gone. I liked the idea of the player piano since only those who left (in this alternate reality) would have been able to afford the luxury of having someone play for them. In that respect the player piano is both a luxury and a ‘fuck you’ from those who left.
What was the role of your videos in the piece?
The videos stemmed from another project I was working on before. Each video is a chapter revealing a different piece of the puzzle. One video documents walking through a series of abandoned McMansions. Another shows a mass office shooting in GTA V. For each piece I chose a pop song with lyrics that would emphasize and dramatize various parts of the narrative. I thought this was both funny and melodramatic.
(My Heart Will Go On) plays when discussing devastation and water, you can't hit the nail harder on the head than with Celine Dion!
Did you see the youtube video of her getting really passionate about New Orleans?. My friend June Culp sent it to me. It is really good. It is worth watching right now. They had her on the late show or something and they wanted to talk to her about a donation of 1 million dollars and she says, “It's not about the money. They need more than just money,” and she starts crying hysterically. And then he makes her sing and she does it. I don't know why she does it.
Where are these abandoned mansions located? Where can you find them?
I haven’t visited any of these mansions, but video clips of abandoned ones are easy to find. There are so many people exploring and filming them. They start out with YouTube intros like: “I drive by this house everyday. Can you believe this house is abandoned? We're going in!” One was in Tennessee. One was in Spain. One was in California.
Do you draw?
I don't find myself drawing or sketching very much unless it's an overhead view of something I’m planning, or as a tool to remember something. I don't find myself making images very often, and when I do, I feel like they're coming from this character that I need to figure out. They feel like they’re from a crazy person. Fabricated. I feel like I'm role playing.
I have these 8.5x11 pen drawings that I was originally trying to go about from the perspective of another personality, an alter ego. I still haven’t utilized that yet, and I think it could be interesting. Maybe not for this particular story, but for something else. The character is definitely a conspiracy theorist of some kind. He’s very annoying.
What is the inspiration for your next work?
So I read the play The Balcony by Jean Genet. It's about an alternate reality in France based around a brothel in Paris. They are undergoing some sort of revolution, and it is unclear what’s happening exactly. You are in this studio, then you hear a gunshot and know something’s up. It’s based around a world where all the power figures are gone. It’s a series of vignettes. Men enter the brothel to enact these symbols of power. There’s a scene of a man playing the pope. A scene of a guy playing a judge. A police officer. They are strange, and I want to use the play as the foundation for a video piece. Maybe use a drone or a 360-degree camera.
Is your work a criticism of the present?
I like to survey what’s happening and ask ‘How is culture progressing?’ I am especially interested in the United States and how people talk about the ‘good ole days.’ I pretend to look at the present from the future and ask ‘is this the way we are going to view this?’ ‘What are people going to take away from now’ - especially in politics and pop culture where everything builds on itself.
What are you currently working on?
I have a few projects I’m juggling right now. Finishing my website, working on the Balcony project, trying to produce another music video, and finish the triptych with Hide Matsumoto, copycat suicide, and Las Vegas.
What was the Vegas piece about?
It was about how people go to Las Vegas to commit suicide (which is a real thing,) but I added Las Vegas getting destroyed by an earthquake. It was a video essay looking at Las Vegas from the future. I wanted to show the ‘Entertainment Capital of the US’ as a suicide mecca that then self-destructs.
Have you been to Las Vegas before?
I went to Las Vegas for this piece, to jump off a building.
I was there by myself so it was really boring. I walked around the casinos. I bought these glasses with a camera inside because I wasn't allowed to film anywhere. I was trying to get footage so I could play this character, but the camera was really bad.
You create a lot of environments for different characters. Have you ever done a performance where you are the character?
I haven't. I haven't done anything performative. I think I need a segue project to get comfortable. Maybe hire someone, or a group of people. The Balcony project could be a good opportunity. Find people, get a space, yaddah yaddah.
Do you work collaboratively much?
This would be the first time, but I did work on a music video for Bryan Edward Collins. I always forget about it because it's unreleased still!
What dream artists would you want to work with?
Paul McCarthy. I especially loved his Armory show. That show meant so much to me. That was an enormous production. Mike Kelly, if he was alive. Elmgreen & Dragset. My real dream is to produce the Super Bowl halftime show.
What are you listening to?
Sia on repeat.