Devonté Hynes and Ryan McNamara

Originally published on Interview. Additional stories I’ve done for Interview are here.

When the Pérez Art Museum Miami asked artists Ryan McNamara and Devonté Hynes if they wanted to participate in an artist-in-residency and collaborate on a piece for Art Basel Miami Beach, the answer was a resounding “yes.” It was December 2014, and McNamara had just brought his successful MEƎM: A Story Ballet About the Internet performance to Miami, while Hynes had spent the past year releasing music videos and playing shows as Blood Orange following his acclaimed 2013 album, Cupid Deluxe. Now, one year later, the duo is preparing to debut Dimensions, an all-encompassing presentation that incorporates dance, sculpture, and music, during this year’s Art Basel Miami Beach.

For research, McNamara and Hynes took multiple trips to Miami, visiting eclectic locations that Basel-goers typically overlook during the frenzied week of art collecting and parties. Through locales such as the mysteriously built Coral Castle, the Moorish Opa-locka neighborhood, and the opulent Villa Vizcaya estate, the two artists learned about the city’s history of providing a place for people to realize even their most far-fetched fantasies.

McNamara applied their discoveries to what have become the choreography and sculptural aspects of Dimensions, and Hynes did the same for the musical score. The experience will immerse the audience in, as the New York-based artists call it, elements of “the other Miami.” It is not about the city that exists for a week during the social scene of Art Basel, but it does, however, emit the same sense of satisfying desires and inviting transformation.

How much did you know about each other’s work before the Pérez Art Museum Miami asked you to do this residency?
DEVONTÉ HYNES: I knew Ryan’s work before we met, but we were lucky, because when the commission came up last year, I had just gone to see his MEƎM: A Story Ballet About the Internet performance in Miami. I was blown away and urged everyone to get on the waiting list to see it.

RYAN MCNAMARA: I definitely knew Dev’s work. It’s that funny thing where you really fan out over somebody and listen to their albums over and over again. I know his work well, like “top 25 played on iTunes” well. [Laughs]

HYNES: Wow, that’s amazing. [Laughs]

What were PAMM’s prompts to both of you, if any?
There weren’t really any prompts; they just needed to know what we were going to do, quickly. They asked me, “Do you want to work on this with Dev Hynes?” and I said, “Of course, definitely,” and then they asked if we could put something down on paper in a week.

Dev had actually reached out to me about going on walks together and recording them. Some of the songs in our piece have ambient recordings [from the walks], so that was fresh in our minds when developing the concept. Our other ideas at the time quickly became the project, because we had a really fast deadline.

Did both of you decide to make the project Miami-specific, or was that a directive from the museum?
HYNES: It was a bit of both.

MCNAMARA: They told us that they were going to bring us down there to see other parts of Miami. Dev, had you been there other than for Basel?

HYNES: I had been there a couple times, but those weren’t the best moments of my life. [Laughs] Notoriously amongst my friends, I’ve had comically horrendous experiences in Miami. So in a way, it’s funny that I’m doing this. Doing this has actually changed my perception of Miami. I view it differently now, in a good way. We got to see some cool, historical parts of the city that we wouldn’t have been aware of without this project. I’ve also been using it in the music I’m writing.

MCNAMARA: With the exception of preparing for the MEƎM performance that Dev mentioned, I had only been to Miami for Art Basel. Art Basel is such a specific environment, one with which I have a complicated relationship. [Laughs] But to actually see that it’s a city beyond that week is important. It’s a really interesting, bizarre place that I’m guessing 98 percent of people who go down there for Basel have no idea about.

What are some of the more bizarre pieces of history or learnings that made their way into the final piece?
MCNAMARA: The Hot 97 radio station in Miami has this brightly colored wall of stacked speakers that looks like a minimalist sculpture. They cart it around, so it’s a scene that you see a lot at street parties. It becomes this moving landmark of Miami that brings people together. It’s really stunning, and it’s helped us specifically with the color scheme—creating something massive with bright colors.

HYNES: Ryan hasn’t even heard this yet, but I’ve been trying to write a vocal, an aria, loosely based around going to Coral Castle and learning about the Sweet Sixteen story. There was this crazy guy from Latvia, Edward Leedskalnin, who was spurned by the 16-year-old girl he was going to marry. He was dying, but then these rocks cured him, and then he moved to Miami and used the rocks to build this giant Coral Castle to win back the girl who he wasn’t even in touch with anymore. He did it all by himself, moving these giant rocks and using their magic, but he was also living out this weird fantasy, like if she did come back and they had kids, this is where the kids would sleep, this is where he’d punish her and the kids, and more. It’s crazy.

MCNAMARA: People should absolutely skip Art Basel one day to see the amazing Coral Castle.

What is it about the Opa-locka neighborhood that also inspired the project?
MCNAMARA: Well, it’s the fact that people have used Miami throughout the years to live out their fantasies. Leedskalnin built a fantasy world, and it was the same with Glenn Curtiss, who built Opa-locka. He just decided to make a Moorish town in Florida. Miami has an energy that allured these people, even before it was really a city. So we’ve been asking ourselves, “What it is about this place that brought these dreamers here?” It’s less a story ballet about Miami and more about the impressions we got from “the other Miami” that we didn’t known about before.

Without giving too much away, what can people expect from your combined work? How much of it is a continuation of or a departure from what people already know of your individual practices?
HYNES: If people have heard my scoring work, then it’s in a similar vein. There are a few different parts of the composition, and some are very similar to my Blood Orange music. Other parts are deeper into classical ideas I’ve explored, like the arias, for example. But all of it is still very “me.”

MCNAMARA: We have a sort of John Cage and Merce Cunningham collaboration happening. There’s some chance involved between the choreography and the music, but then we come together and discuss, and then we separate again.

What do you hope people take away from the experience?
HYNES: Personally, I always just want people to enjoy themselves and experience something that they wouldn’t normally experience. I approach every single thing I do as a fan. It’s the only way I can do things. That way, I never let myself down. I avoid falling into a trap of doing work solely to impress people. I always ask myself, “What don’t I ever see?”

MCNAMARA: In an environment like Miami during Basel, it can be easy to give this spectacular thing that people can wrap their brains around in five seconds. It makes a great Instagram post, and then they move on to the next setting. In our piece, the audience has agency to come and go, but to fully experience it, it takes two hours. At a certain point, it’s an endurance piece and it’s meditative, but it’s also fun. We just want to bring a new energy to an environment that a lot of people have experienced in Miami time and time again. And we like a good party, as well.

What did you enjoy the most about working with each other? You’ve both collaborated with other artists, but what made this experience different?
HYNES: I’d say that we’re both on the same wavelength for a lot of things, artistically and pop culture-wise. It’s helpful because sometimes that’s the only way I exist, talking to people through pop culture. We went to get the Janet Jackson album together. I don’t know many people who I could do that with. [Laughs]

MCNAMARA: Being able to geek out about Janet Jackson and Yvonne Rainer with somebody is exciting, and for me, Dev’s that person. While we’ve been working on this, we’re each working on our other projects, too. It’s been really special getting a glimpse of how this fits into all of Dev’s work, like Blood Orange and “Sandra’s Smile.” Usually when I’m working with someone, we’re just working on our project and that’s it, but Dev’s constantly creating, which has been exciting for me to witness.

Dev, when you mentioned connecting with others through pop culture references, it reminded me of the viral Zola Twitter story, which itself is very Floridian.
HYNES: [Laughs] Actually, the last tweet she did before telling the story was lyrics from my Blood Orange song, “Chamakay”—”I’ll never trust you if you’re thinking that it’s just a game.” I saw that and retweeted her, and then she started retweeting other things I said and tweeting about me. Then she started leaving comments on my Instagram, so I liked some photos back, and then she screen-grabbed all the photos I liked and put me on blast on Twitter!

MCNAMARA: Oh my god, Dev. That’s crazy.

HYNES: I’ve got a bunch of screen-grabs, I’ll send them to you.

MCNAMARA: What I love about that story is that there’s a crazy alchemy that happens when something becomes popular. It happens a lot with songs. There’s just a certain combination of things that come together; you can’t always plan it. No one can actually pinpoint why that story got so much attention. I loved it, but something unexplainable, something we can’t actually put our finger on, made us all obsessed. That magic is maybe just Florida, maybe it brings it out of people. Maybe.

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