Phil America, performative artist


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Sacramento born-and-raised artist Phil America traveled the globe and lived on four continents before realizing he needed to return to the United States to address some of the grimmest issues he faced abroad—abject poverty and homelessness. The performative artist did so with a weeklong “tent city” in living art installation at a South Carolina museum. Now America says he hopes to bring similar works to his hometown with projects that include a partnership with area museums. It’s not all seriousness, however. The basketball fan is also unveiling a new Sacramento Kings-themed installation, “Players Edition,” this week at the new Golden 1 Center. America, who currently divides his time between Los Angeles and Sacramento, took a few minutes to chat with SN&R about how balloons fit into the local art scene.

What’s the installation?

It’s a bunch of cut-up shoes from Kings players from 1985 until now. All the players get free shoes from Nike—but the [players] can’t sell them. They can auction them and the money goes to charity, and they can give them to kids, but how many kids are a size 18 in Sacramento? It’s 16 feet by 16 feet, roughly, and it has one of the [team’s] logos in it, so there’s a big crown.

You describe yourself as a performative artist …

Everything that I do has a layer of performance to it and it has a layer of immersion to it. If it’s me that’s immersed in the work itself and it’s me that’s performing, or if it’s the viewer who is immersed or the viewer that performs—that’s important to me. I think that art today, especially and probably even more so tomorrow, is becoming more of a hierarchy—just culture in general where people are being excluded left and right.

Because it’s out of reach, costwise?

It comes down to more than just money. At this point art is one of the biggest commerces in the world. Aside from guns and drugs it’s No. 1. So when you look at this and you’ve got so many people who are creative and so many people who want to create but they can’t make a living from it, they can’t afford to buy it, they can’t even afford to go to the museum to see it sometimes—at that point how do we even look at ourselves in the mirror and call ourselves a culture when we can’t even experience the culture? Everything I do is trying to democratize that and make people be a part of it.

What do you think of the Jeff Koons arena piece?

I think it’s amazing [but] whether I like it or not is completely subjective and it doesn’t matter and I think that’s where people get caught up. People are like, “I don’t like it” and I’m like, “Great, you have an opinion, that’s awesome.” Because most of the stuff people see in Sacramento, they have no opinion, they don’t care. It’s forced people to think, it’s forced people to understand that there is cultural capital coming here and they understand that, hey, art is worth money, there’s value in this and we can get behind this.

How is Sacramento evolving?

I think it’s the first step or first steps of it becoming an artistic city and that’s going to require people to pick up their feet and pick up people on their back and actually make it a cultural city. I think people starting to have these conversations is the start of people caring about what our city looks like and what it means.

There’s also a level of resistance to the changes—like ‘the rents are too high now’ …

Of course, change is bad and change is good. Sacramento as a whole has been quite conscious about how they feel about that change. They’ve made lots of mistakes and things I wouldn’t do but I think they’ve done a decent job. … We’re really just starting to figure out who we are.

When you say mistakes, is there one that sticks out?

I’d say how we’ve dealt with the homeless situation. It got national attention for the tent city that was here and that was the single one thing that made me want to move back to America. I was living in Asia for the past three years and was focused on issues there, working at a school there with Burmese refugees … and I lived in a slum there for a month and when I realized this was going on back in my hometown, I realized I needed to come back here and focus and deal with it.

What’s your partnership with Sacramento museums?

It’s 27 museums [and galleries] and my idea is to create a very simple artwork I can do in every single one—people overlook other spaces other than the ones where they’re told this is where you show art. So, no one’s thinking, “Why can’t we show art at the [California Automobile Museum]?” I want to do something at the automotive museum. I created words out of balloons, the idea is to create all these different words and let them choose—the museum itself would choose the words and colors and then I’d go there during business hours and blow up the balloons. It’s 400-500 words per balloon. But it’s letting people see the process and me almost passing out. (Laughs.)