Today we’d like to introduce you to Eli Presser.
Eli, we’d love to hear your story and how you got to where you are today both personally and as an artist.
As an artist, this is a question I am frequently asked. The narrative I tell changes with my mood, just as it changes with the very mutable assessment of my identity and my place and purpose within the world. How did I get to this place? How did any of us get to the present? Choices and traumas, magnificent moments of inspiration and formative moments of regret. The creeping horror of our finite nature and the impermanence of all that we hold dear in this world. My art is the consequence of my existence.
When I am lonely, I tell origin stories of lost love or the lack thereof. These are true. When I am self-aggrandizing I tell stories of my time as a fifteen year old busker, studying under the tutelage of a panhandler named Abe, who took generous interest in my early street performances. This too, is true. There are so many origin stories, and all of them are true. In Chicago, where I grew up, there was a theater company called Redmoon Theater. They changed my life. As a kid I was lonely, lost, and afraid of the world – I imagine many children are, in one way or another. While I lived a rich internal life, my mind found few sources of connection beyond my immediate family. School was difficult for me, I saw myself as a failure. I saw reality as devoid of wonder.
I was fifteen when I first saw one of their performances. There were puppets involved, and something deep in me just clicked on. I wanted to make things live like that. Later, the artists at Redmoon Theater took me under their wing and taught me. I accidentally sailed down a city street, hanging for dear life off of a wheeled shadow screen, howling in delight. I rode in the back of flatbed trucks in the company of raucous artists. I witnessed marvels in alleyways and gymnasiums. I skittered below stages and caught actors as they fell through trap doors. I spat fire in parking lots and danced on piers. I saw that access to free theater is essential to and desired by all communities. I learned that we all need art as we all need water. I learned that water tastes best when you drink it with your hands from a steel basin. I sat in kitchens, theaters, attics – surrounded by these beautiful, tender, subversive souls. A hidden world opened itself to me and I dove in headlong, I inhabited the city in a new, richer way. I applied this too, in the way that I inhabited my being – with a new awareness and greater depth. There are other stories I tell as well. I think that I, like my peers, took many roads to get to this place, and found many mentors along the way.
We’d love to hear more about your art. What do you do you do and why and what do you hope others will take away from your work?
There was a time, not long ago, where my answer would have been simple. I would have said “I am a puppeteer and I create work based on memory and loss.” Now, I am less certain. I have yet to adequately identify the language with which to define myself as an artist. For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated with creating the illusion of life. Equally, I have always felt an overwhelming dissatisfaction with the nature of the world within which we live; I have always desired magic and secret knowledge of hidden worlds – I have never believed that either exist. Finally, I love the way art can build community, the way our shared experience of creation has the ability to forge meaningful, if at times ephemeral connections between groups and individuals. I think, at its best, my work grapples with my experience of these thoughts.
To the best of my knowledge, all things that exist within the material world, or at least all those observable within human capabilities of perception, possess a unique vocabulary of movement with which they express action and reaction. These movements in the living might represent instinctual desires, rational yearnings or the near ineffable whims of the unconscious physical behaviors with which our body interacts with the world. Puppetry might be considered an art focused on the performative study of these aforementioned movement vocabularies and of the interstitial spaces that exist between them. It is in those spaces in-between, perhaps, that sentient life is communicated physically through the spectrum of micro-movements that lie between thought and action, action and reaction. By using a puppet we are creating a variety of self imposed limitations on our capacity to express thought, emotion, and intent. The puppet is a machine, a doll, an inert object. It lacks the wide range of nuanced movement that each of us have hardwired into our bodies, informed by the unique capabilities of each individual. The human’s connection between mind and body allows us to project both the internal and external with efficiency and grace. By using a puppet we throw a wrench into that system. As with many things, imposing simple constraints on a complex system offers the opportunity for divergent approaches that otherwise would go unexplored. To move a puppet is to engage in a dance with an external representation of our will. It presents a series of problems to be solved, and for me, it is the process of unraveling, not solving, those problems – which fascinates and fulfills me as a puppeteer.
The sterotype of a starving artist scares away many potentially talented artists from pursuing art – any advice or thoughts about how to deal with the financial concerns an aspiring artist might be concerned about?
I believe that all artists struggle between two forms of creation. I think of these two forms as innate art and imposed art. Innate art is what we create on notepads when our minds wander – the art that manifested in our bones as children. It is the art that comes out of us as easily – and as unwittingly, as sweat and tears. When we make a home it is the art we weave into the walls. Imposed art is what we believe we should create, it is the codified art of established and occasionally subverted norms. It is the reactive art of politics and other melodramas just as it is the commodified art of commission and the myth of mass appeal. It is the art we must painfully construct. It is the art that sustains our bodies just as the innate sustains our being.
If you are making work you believe in, it has intrinsic value and needs no justification beyond your need to create it. Art is not magic, it is not ineffable, it takes work, it takes experience. While your personal work is for the love (or whatever other impulse compels you to create), your professional work is for cash and the ability to fuel your own work. Do not let anyone convince you that your passion doesn’t deserve financial compensation. We live in a capitalist society – value is expressed through currency. Your labor as an artist is no less valuable than any other form of labor. We are working within a society whose support for us is mercurial at best, exploitative and trivializing at worst. For those of us without independent financial support and social capital finding sustainable means of funding for our creative endeavors, and in turn paying our peers a living wage for their contributions to our work, is as key to our growth as artists as it is to our survival.
Do you have any events or exhibitions coming up? Where would one go to see more of your work? How can people support you and your artwork?
Well, for starters they can visit my website at www.elipresser.com or follow me on instagram @eli.presser. Instagram is probably the best place to find out where I’ll be performing. With regards to support, what I need most is what most artists need most – the funds to build all this stuff I’ve got in my head. I work full time at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and can barely pay rent, let alone fund the creation of new work. If anyone has any ideas on how to change that, I’m all ears.
Suziey Block. Nadya Lev. Eli Presser.