ARTICLE CAROLINA GONZALEZ
VISUAL ARTIST DESI SANTIAGO IS NOT ONE TO LET THE CONVENTIONS OF THE GALLERY CONSTRICT HIM. CASE IN POINT, THE HOTEL HE TRANSFORMED AT LAST YEAR'S ART BASEL MIAMI BEACH, AND HIS LATEST INSTALLATION: A "CASINO" IN THE W HOTEL, NEW YORK (WITH UNIFORMS BY HOOD BY AIR, SO YOU KNOW IT WILL LOOK INCREDIBLE). WE CAUGHT UP WITH HIM A FEW DAYS BEFORE THE BIG NIGHT... AND DISCOVERED HE'S GOING ALL IN
Desi Santiago So yeah, I'm prepping the casino [an installation called Casino Diabolique].
What does that entail, exactly?
DS It's just all the little details to fill in. It's just, like, transforming the whole space, because I'm taking over two of the suites. And I'm also taking over part of the lobby, doing a complete intervention in there, like draping it out and changing the lighting, and creating and changing the smell. I wanted to shift into this whole other reality. It's like an alternate reality within the hotel's reality. There's all these little details I have to fill in. I made the chips for it, and there's special cards, and I designed the games. Like, I adapted a couple of games, a couple of casino games into my own versions, then one I kind of made up. So I just have to get into the production phase.
You've had a mix of pieces in the past. I've seen some of your leather pieces and the work for the Louis Vuitton Marc Jacobs retrospective. Those are physical pieces, and you've been working in sculpture, but this is more of a nightlife experience. You've had, obviously, experience in nightlife, but is this your first time crafting the experience from sort of the ground up?
DS No, no. I mean, this is all a kind of a culmination of everything I've done up to this point. I've refined things and I'm able to take on more and more of the director and producer aspects of it. Because I used to be an art director for nightclubs, you know, post club-kid years. I did art direction for nightclubs, so I sort of went on the other side, so I was creating all those spaces for people to do parties in. I was Susanne Bartsch's art director for quite a few years. And then I also used to design jewelry. I did a million things. I worked on costumes for different tours, so this is just like–I don't know if you know about the thing I did last year?
At Art Basel?
DS Yeah. That was a full-on experience, like, not just the building, but also an interactive piece. The whole building was a fortune teller. So the public went and they asked it a question. It was very sort of Wizard of Oz, the whole thing would respond with lights and lasers and smoke. It was like a mystical nightclub experience, I guess. So yeah, this casino's sort of in that vein as well.
I noticed at this you have the zodiac wheel and the tarot card readings, right?
DS Yeah. I also have a game called The Pendulum, where you have to ask a question, yes or no, from the dealer, and she'll use a pendulum to give you a response. You ask a question in order to play the game.
That sounds like a lot of pressure.
DS Well, that's the cool part. Like, seeing people's reactions before they ask a question. Some people are nervous, some people are freaked out, some people take it lightly, and when they get a response, then it's not so funny (laughs). It's interesting.
What draws you to the fortune telling thing? Is there an aesthetic attraction?
DS I think it's all stemming from my background. Like, my upbringing. I kind of grew up in a family of gamblers–I grew up in a bar. My parents owned a bar and they were also bookies for horse races. So gambling was always a part of my consciousness. The idea of looking for signs and symbols, and owning your intuition, and following a road or path by following signs that appear to you, following your hunch. I don't know, that was something that was instilled in me when I was young, so it just kind of manifested. Now I use it as part of a palette that I use in my work.
Are you going to be in the piece at all?
DS I'll be there. I'll be one of the hosts. It's like really an extension of me so I'll be there. On opening night, I'll have Ladyfag hosting, just because she's one of my muses and we collaborate a lot on my pieces. I've always felt she's sort of like my female aspect in some ways. And then I'll be hosting more on my own for the other 3 nights.
Did you find inspiration from other people while creating this?
DS Oh, totally. I'm a huge collaborator. I collaborate with so many people, and that's what really drives me, kind of what gets me off. Just collaborating and creating new things with people. When you meet people and you work with them, you reveal aspects of yourself and they reveal aspects of themselves. And it's stuff that educates the other and it helps build your own identity, I think. What else do you come to New York for but to be inspired? Like, that's kind of why I came here. I came to be inspired, to inspire, meet other artists, to collaborate with designers, and other creators, and that's why I love this city so much.
You also work in sculpture. How does that relate to designing spaces or experiences?
DS Well I think that both in creating spaces and creating sculptures, it's always some sort of negotiation with the body, with the viewer. Either through walking, or the space around the sculpture. It's not just the sculpture that's isolated, it's the space around it—how you decide to perceive it, and how you decide to navigate around it and how you want to be in relation to it. And I think it's the same thing with creating space, except the space is enveloping you and you're immersed within it. There's the positive and the negative and you fluctuate between the two. So I think it's ultimately always about the viewer's experience and the body moving around or within a space.
Does that kind of consideration go into the way you gave ideas for the clothing, for the music, for the other things that you've designed that aren't necessarily spatial?
DS Well it's really about the mood. I think one of the biggest aspects of this installation is the mood that it evokes. There's the visual, and there's the sensory. I'm really doing a sensory overload on this one. There's the installation part, but within the games, the participants' outcomes affect the space. So, with winners or losers, the dealer hits a button that will indicate if someone won or lost. And the whole space shifts in lighting. There's strobes and lasers, and so it's constantly—you know, when you have 3 games going on, the whole thing is blinking. It's going to be like a big disco ball, basically.
Like Vegas on acid.
DS Yeah, it's going to be like Vegas on steroids and acid.
I listened to the music for the piece, and it sounded James Bond meets like, electronic lounge music. What did you tell the musician to go for?
DS So I told Azari & III it needed to be like sexy, dark. “Sexy” and “seductive” were really the main words I used. They had asked me, “Do you want, like, loud 3D sound?” and I said, “No, not really.” I wanted it to be a soundtrack. I wanted it to feel like a score. So it's very long. They created actually a two hour long piece. And it goes through so many different phases. From that loungey James Bond to... it actually gets into some deep house at some point, as well. So it's all over the place. But it gets pretty deep, in every way.
Your name still carries a subcultural association, of club kids and that sort of thing, and people often bring it up when they discuss your work. Do you mind that?
DS No, not at all. I mean, it was such an amazing point of my life. I was 17 years old when it started, and I was, like, dressing up. And it was such a different time, it's really spoiled me in some ways, because I was really treated very well. Like, I was a teenager and I was being taken care of, everything was being taken care of, my rent was being taken care of. I was nurtured to just kind of be a freak, dress up and go out and just develop this identity I had created, I had sculpted. And I was using my body as my medium back then, and just playing with the flesh, and flesh manipulation, and body manipulation, and prosthetics and makeup and all this stuff, it just started the road to the rest of my life, really. Now it's kind of surreal to be working on stuff for, like, the McQueen exhibit or the Louis Vuitton thing, to be in these sorts of institutions. Basically, creating masks and basing looks off of my old looks from when I was 18. It's just like, okay, this is where culture has gotten to, finally, you know? It's just the norm now.
So, do you still find yourself inspired by subcultures, even ones that are going on right now?
DS Definitely. I think that's where I'm always digging and searching, into the dark corners. Now with the Internet the light has been shone on every corner, pretty much [laughs]. And everybody knows everything, all the time, all at once. It was different back then, like during the club kids days, because you had to search for your tribe, and there was no Internet, and you just had to sort of figure it out. And now everyone is mining the archives, and reconfiguring and recollaging it into new things. Which is really interesting, to have that happen as a culture. But, no, I still look into these subcultures and I'm always trying to be aware of what's happening and I try to stay contemporary as much as I can.
What's your process in terms of collaboration?
DS I work with Guido Palau a lot. We met through a mutual friend and we connected, and we just get it, and we both get each other's aesthetic. I work with Zaldy a lot too. Zaldy's been a long-time collaborator of mine. We've been creating collaborations for 13 years now. I really like to find these jewels and nurture these relationships. It's like I have my own body of work I've been creating, but then I have a body of work I've created with Zaldy, and I'm building a body of work that I've done with Guido. And there's different people I'd love to collaborate with. I work with my friend Viva Ruiz. We have a music project as well. Then there's Ladyfag. It's just all these different threads. I'm leaving behind these trails of visual pieces.
I was watching your promo video and it felt a little bit like a magician's.
DS Oh yeah. I mean, that's the shell man in me, you know, the smoke and the mirrors. And creating the illusion. I'm always interested in this space. I like the space between spaces, the liminal spaces... a celebration in mourning, really. I create this façade of celebration, but there's a lot of sort of somber and mourning undertones in within my work, the dark veil I put over things. But I always like to elevate it and always try to make sure people are having a great time. So I play with that whole magic thing, because, like, in the tradition of old magicians, people always went to them because it was the idea of the occult and darkness, and people approaching this threshold of this dark place, but it's always with fanfare and glitter. And that's what the veil is. It's really this spectacle.
Casino Diabolique is open November 15th to 17th from 8 to 10pm at W New York, 541 Lexington Avenue. For more info and availability visit www.wnewyork.com/wcasino