Habitats and Humanity: Rindon Johnson’s Playlist

Rindon Johnson: What do I call this? (He talks about you in his sleep), 2018 (ongoing), indigo, rust, furniture leather, 60 by 54 inches. Courtesy the artist.


In a First Look profile for our September issue, Dana Kopel discusses how Rindon Johnson uses materials such as distressed cowhide and Vaseline to engage with issues of environmental destruction and the oppression of black Americans. “Much as his work is charged with specific responses to physical and social context,” she writes, “Johnson also seems interested in letting things happens, allowing materials to assert their own agency.” Here, Johnson shares a YouTube playlist of videos reflecting his interest in craft, sustainability, and the animal kingdom. —Eds.

A lot of my writing practice is inspired by YouTube. I use the language that I find there and blend it with my own. I also learn a good amount from online lectures and tutorials about using materials such as leather or wood and programs like 3DS Max. Indeed, YouTube is usually on in the background of my studio: when I’m installing work—for my practice, I install different pieces of leather outside my workspace and then periodically check on them—or thinking through a problem. I often return to the same lesson because I miss things or forget things. I am also in it for the music, the house tours, and the old cartoons.

Having A Toke with Martine Syms. My friend, the poet and artist Sophia Le Fraga, has an Instagram television show called “Having a Smoke with You.” She’s started to put episodes of it on her YouTube channel as well. My favorite episode thus far actually deviates slightly from Sophia’s tobacco theme and features a toke with the artist Martine Syms, who talks about her practice and upcoming shows, allegories she’s tempted to use in her work, and the general ins and outs of being an artist. There’s a sweet familiarity to the way Sophia conducts the show and her camerawork is relaxed, easy, and joyful. It really is just so very nice to talk about art and have a toke.

Cab Calloway, “St James Infirmary Blues” (Extended Betty Boop Snow White Version). Cab Calloway was an incredibly popular American Big Band leader and singer who regularly performed at the Cotton Club in Harlem in the ’30s. His fame really took off when he did the soundtracks for a number of Betty Boop cartoons. This song appears in the film Betty Boop in Snow-White (1933).  Betty Boop, asleep in her glass coffin, is being carried through a “mystery cave”—a journey which I can only assume is some sort of hell allegory. Koko the Clown, voiced by Calloway, follows her, doing an extended dance routine as his form keeps morphing. I think a lot about the beautiful fluid progression of the animation as Koko transforms from clown to ghost to entertainer to a kind of watch chain and back to clown again.

Octopus, Octopus. Episode 20 of 37, Jacques Cousteau Odyssey. The real Life Aquatic. The narration of and monologues in “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau,” the eponymous diver’s television show about the wonders of the ocean, have a certain poetry to my ears and I find the visuals Cousteau uses so elegant. I draw a lot on Cousteau’s language, using his characterizations of different sea dwellers as a jumping off point for my own writing. I love the “Octopus Octopus” episode, where Cousteau and his crew dive with and learn more about different octopuses in parts of the Mediterranean and off the California coast. In a way, I live for the octopus, this perceived Other, this hyper intelligent being who possesses the ability to change shape. Cousteau: “When confronted by things larger than himself, the Mediterranean octopus expands to look larger than he is.”

Breathtakingly Beautiful Japanese Tiny House on Wheels. I watch a lot of home-related shows when I’m working, or just to relax. After devouring tons of episodes of “House Hunters International”—a reality television show in which North Americans search for properties outside the continent—I was looking for something different. That’s when I came across Bryce Langston’s channel, Living Big in a Tiny House, which is about people who move off the grid and into more sustainable, pared-down dwellings. In this video Langston tours a particularly small and beautifully crafted and designed mobile Japanese home. Bryce’s videos sparked in me a kind of insane hobby/obsession with off-the-grid living and tiny homes on wheels. (I am not alone in this interest: an artist I know, Colleen Hargaden, has made an incredible work in which she builds a tiny home by following YouTube tutorials while filming herself making her own mock building tutorials. The piece has a few iterations, it’s incredible.)

Moon Jar: The Art of Imperfection. Master Korean ceramist Yang Gu speaks about moon jars, which are named for their white, nearly milky coloring and their round shape. In this video Gu makes a moon jar by joining together two clay hemispheres, two large open bowls. On the wheel, two become one: I like this coitus of ceramics. I also like Gu’s mesmerizing hand and the simple stride toward an imperfect jar, toward the moon.

Brooks Falls — Katmai National Park, Alaska powered by EXPLORE.org. Katmai National Park in southern Alaska is home to a very large population of brown bears who come there for the bounty of salmon at Brook Falls. This channel of webcams, which I’ve been watching for years, is focused on the bears. I don’t understand why I compulsively return to the bears. What does it matter if I am checking up on them? Nevertheless, I get really excited when the animals begin to wake up from hibernation. I explore all the different vantages on the channel. I travel to the shallow lower river to see the baby bears being trained by adults. I enjoy watching the falls camera to see the bears in the thick of salmon fishing. I like going to the top of mountain, too, to look down on the falls and the valley. I don’t think I’ll ever want to go to Katmai in real life. This is the way I feel comfortable visiting the place. I fantasize that I’m getting updates on bears without any human intervention. They are somehow alone out there. Indeed, I’ve convinced myself of this voyeuristic fantasy. I like to watch the bears watch each other. The bears sometimes seem clumsy to my eyes. But I would probably seem clumsy to their eyes, I’m sure.

View Rindon Johnson’s Playlist here.