There are two types of interviews. The one you have planned and the other is the interviewee’s interview. Arriving at Double D’s Coffee and Desserts on Broadway, I wasn’t really sure which one I was in for. In a perfect world, both should find a foot hold to the conversation. If its going well, at least. An artist’s sole duty is expression and that should not be at the mercy of interesting questions. They never deliver the answers bringing closure to any lingering mysteries. My mystery with Spagnola was first tracking him down.
Ironically and funny enough, I met Dustin before he ever met me: twice actually. Since making home in the mountains about 5 years ago, his artwork had been a peripheral political commentary that I attributed to Asheville’s citizens. Not that I claim to have an eye for street art’s refined sense for nuances, nonetheless, it didn’t take away from the immediate impression it made.
With a burly internationalist last name like Spagnola (and I always seem to see it in my head written in caps), I expected a certain darkness or cooling shade to the possible persona. I expected a personality, a larger than life charisma — a dancer of paint. A jester to the many bodies of power.
It was only after visiting a local bar for close to a year that I put together that the guy taking my taco orders and serving my beer, was the mystery made manifest. It sort of derailed the stereotypes. One usually attributes the artist personality to have an exhibitionistic nature. You know the kind, people lugging their cameras everywhere the way a police man carries a gun. Or how the town’s shakers always taking on that one-decibal-above-normal strategy for fabricating social media outbreaks among heads downing their third cappuccino. If it isn’t their personality its their establishment. Their space. Their gallery. Their opening. Their thing. It’s the props to distinguish or the prop left lonely and crying for recognition that warrants “serious attention.”
Dustin was more earthy. The air about him: sincere. The fire emanating: pure, pure parody. Just like his political renderings satirize both political parties, so he too takes the caricature of the fragile artist image and bitch slaps some humble pie across any presuming-ass’s grill. Sincerity is encountering that point where the romance of art meets with pragmatism, persistence and a Zen to doing craft for craft’s sake. It’s far more in knowing when to leave the room. Just as I think that, enter Mr. Spagnola.
Dustin. Him – coffee. Me – mango smoothy. Good start.
Dustin: Wow. Really? A smoothie. Have you been outside?
Anthony: A little smoothie is my way of kissing and making up with my digestive system. Been terrorizing for too long …
Dustin: Getting back here from Nepal felt something like that. Just the immediacy of being back at work. This culture shock or shift. But it also made me realize the privilege I have as a white male living in America. Where I can say: Oh, I am going to buy a house or start a business. Stop bartering my time, energy or talents for money.
Anthony: Isn’t your “free time” artwork still falling under that barter arrangement?
Dustin: The art scene is a fat stack of fallacies. There are artists that make art, catering to people who buy. I mean it happens, but there a lot of steps in between. People think “I make art so I am going to have an opening. And then in my opening I sell the artwork.” I mean this is certainly a town for that, but it’s never worked for me that way.
Anthony: Well that’s fitting outcome for a self-declared anarchist.
Dustin: As an artist, it feels like it’s an old way to do business.
Anthony: But there are new ways to do business. New opportunities for guys like you.
Dustin: Yeah, but I don’t view art as a business. I don’t want to particularly. I feel that when you make something, its, fuck, such a close extension of yourself. Like the ego is inherently tied up in it and I really don’t want to put my ego out on the line for money. Or for validating my sense of self. I don’t wish to ever feel that I need to decide whether my work is legitimate because of someone else. Someone buying.
Dustin: Yeah, but through money. There’s nothing wrong with it. I dont’ tell anyone else that’s how they do, or have to do, what they do.
Anthony: Fine, but there must be some kind of validation that holds water with you. Something that you not necessarily strive for, but appreciate when it happens.
Dustin: Attention. Not to me, but to the work. I think if people pay attention, or more attention than usual, that validates the work. I mean I am really fucking amazed that anyone even cares about me making things. Or that anyone notices. I have been making art my whole life. I just never stopped. To show it…
Anthony: But, people stopped to see it.
We take a hiatus and ponder on the noises from people getting their orders. Some apparent tourists (people arriving with maps) are amazed by the spectacle of an English commuter bus somehow finding a final resting place in the dwindling weird charm that made Asheville the city that it is or perhaps was. It spoke to the essential nature of an artist. It could think out of the box of a commuter and see a place where we would stop moving and drink coffee. It takes the innovative intuition towards simplistic but profound forms of inciting a little pride and joy. A rare juice. From where we sat, we could see the large facade of the new A Loft. Stripped with deco South Beach accents. It’s a-lost hotel. An ironic misfit, settled by a community that escaped the conglomerate portfolio of franchises. We sip and let some of the silence do the talking. I am glad that Dustin took the shift to a more introspective insight.
Dustin: This [Asheville] was a town full of acquaintances for me. Because all of my closest friends left or have taken on a different type of lifestyle. You know its been over a decade for me here. There’s significant flux. There’s all sorts of changes underway. But that always brings in the bigger conversation about the city.
Anthony: About Asheville?
Dustin. Yeah, but it’s another town in America. We’re in the Bible belt and its a weird artistic haven but also kind of a parody of itself. I moved here in 2001. One of the reasons why North Carolina was on the map for me was because of AdBusters reviewing the most important zines in America. The number 1 position was held by the Asheville Global Report. It provided global topics without people having to read between the lines. It was a syndicated publication that grabbed from all the major periodicals.
Anthony: It was like an aggregator. Like the way Google News does.
Dustin: Right. But, this is in the time when print was still the thing. It was a tangible thing that people held in their hands and distributed. This was a town with a very well-informed citizenry. Which is something that I hold up as one of the most important things to a society — not just democracy. It was incredibly influential and nationally recognized. Now where is that? It’s fucking gone. I know the guy who ran it and I see him on a weekly basis. And his viewpoint on this shit is even scarier than mine. Not just Asheville but the country. For me, I kind of see all of this as status quo.
We take a few more moments of silence staring at posh tourist city folk getting their valet SUVs to head to god knows where. Or maybe god doesn’t take much notice. But who is taking notice of the changes?
Dustin: You know, with any place that starts cool, people catch on and then they want a piece of what is going on. And usually that ends up fucking it all up.
Anthony: But, this town is it’s artists. Without them, you just have another American city.
Dustin: Go further back though. The fact that Vanderbilt imported European artisans to build his home. Those people that largely contributed to the population here. They stayed and had kids and families. Those people came to this place specifically and stayed here. That defines this place in a manner that is just so different from any other small mountain town. It’s one of the reasons that Charlotte and Asheville are different.
Anthony: But, this seems like they are trying to unload a Charlotte in the mountain top. Or a South Beach resort.
Dustin: It’s still going to be Asheville. It’s still going to have a shit load of Yoga places and organic shops. I don’t see that changing.
Anthony: Yeah, but they can make it into another Soho. Everyone that contributed to this bohemian town is at risk of being displaced by unoriginal consumers rather than creators and innovators.
Dustin: I am not sure about that. Most of us are pretty alternative minded in this town. Our value sets are different than main stream America. Personally, I don’t have the desire to be up with politics cause they are so fucking depressing, but still … how did this town permit Urban Outfitters or Staples Center or fucking McDonald’s or this A Loft thing? I don’t even recognize who these fucking people are, but obviously it’s a lot of money. And that tells you something more about us than them. Why do we let these people here? These corporations?
It doesn’t make sense that this town with the sensibilities that it has would start to fold now in 2008 through 2012. Just to be like: oh fuck it. Just let them in. Now that we have a Starbucks in downtown, everything is going to get normal here and they are going to help the economy and, fuck, maybe it does.
Dustin cuts himself off. He takes a few long swigs of his coffee. Collecting his thoughts. Soaking in the gray overcast scenery as folks cross from their trendy hotel to the CityBakery.
Dustin: Maybe it fucking works. Maybe bringing people who drive SUVs here is the answer to selling more organic beer. I mean you could just sit here on this corner and see one SUV after another turn by and then see a beer truck that is slinging organic beer right after them.
Looking out there, it seems to be working. But I guess it kind of sucks too. As an artist, I don’t fucking know.
Anthony: But can’t your art or art as a whole curve these developments?
Dustin: I don’t think like that. I just hope that at one point art can replace advertising. A place where you don’t have to sell products. You can sell ideas also. That’s the best-case scenario. But when you push self-consciously, you know as any creative-type, with the intention of being a catalyst, that just turns art into another thing to buy.
A little sunlight tears through the thick cloud cover. A small ray of warm orange/yellow light brings the streets to a jubilant hue despite the foggy mountain tops towards the south edge of the city. At the same time a small ray of Dustin’s soul seems observable from this position. The sincerity I sensed seems to be rooted in a preoccupation: of not being immediately marketable while retaining complete marketability. To walk the balance where art serves society as a constant reminder to the realities rather than catering to the fallacies misrepresented as prestige or fame. However, he still skirts the real question of art’s relevance to this social realignment of values.
Dustin: I don’t think that the arts is a direct answer. I just believe its a pervasive element in any thinking person’s life. We simply deal with art and have an appreciation whether its a good book, a play, a movie, comedy skit, a painting or a picture or a Tumblr page. These things in and of themselves, I feel, will not lead to a resistance movement that is going to change the local city council. I don’t think its a matter of deciding to make 10,000 pamphlets given to 10,000 people in getting the right person into office. Nor do I think its a matter of printing 100,000 flyers in the city to promote events that are just community discussions. Being aware that a discussion is underway is a far cry from a discussion taking the form of citizenry action.
Anthony: So what can we do?
Dustin: The beauracratic nature of our government is so fucked and it disconnects everyone from the process of developing solutions for our own cities, our neighborhoods or our own lives. Honestly I think its destined to failure and we are just living in the last days of this fucking pathetic dream of a young, priviledged nation. Like an angry 19 year old man, dealing with the fact that he is about to not be a teenager anymore. So its like: oh shit, well I gotta have the most sex and fucking fight as much as I can before I have to be involved as an adult about all this. To being a contributive member to the world of nations.
Anthony: How does that contrast with Nepal?
Dustin: It’s the complete other end of the spectrum. In Nepal your dealing with a society that is credited with creating the first religion on the planet. One thing that got me about that is the idea that they have this seemingly infinite number of gods. They started off with one god as far as I know: Brahma. But then there was Shiva and Vishnu that popped up while Brahma was still in the minds of people. Now in this country something that polarizing would tear us apart. Far less is threatening to do that all the time. But, in Nepal someone, somewhere, somehow had the hindsight to say: listen we are not going to let this religion or this culture or perhaps governing structure fracture into different parts. We are going to make these elements exist simultaneously. Complimentary. From there, they created this culture where they reincarnate their gods. So when “god” shows up they also understood that they existed before as another god. It’s histories don’t permit these things to arise conflict.
What blows me away after hearing that was how it made me think of Catholicism, and how its such an imperialist structure ever-expanding. And as it expanded it to incorporate these other gods. Like a fucking corporate merger operation. With ideas. Not products. That was how Christianity really got started and spread. It was through this similar process but fundamentally imperial and monarchial in nature. Nepal had the same thing happen but as a equally collective consensus among minds. I think that’s beautiful in today’s day and age: downright amazing. I am just glad it happened once.
Anthony: So what were you doing there?
Dustin: I was painting with this group called Sattya for a project called Kolor Kathmandu. We were painting murals to bring more art into the city. In general that culture just doesn’t exist there. Instead there is a lot of Maoist (the ruling party) propaganda on their walls. Communist flags on white with big red text. Flyers and movie posters on telephone polls and walls. There’s no art. There’s hardly any graffiti and street art. There is not a lot of it. This awesome woman Yuki Poudyal spearheaded this program. She had lived in New York and wanted to bring back what is part of this global culture to her home. That’s how I ended up there.
Anthony: But, you went with other artists?
Dustin: When I got there, there wasn’t another international artist. Priscila De Carvalho was there before me. Daas and Herakut got there two weeks into my stay. I went there. Paid for my own trip with a crowd sourced fundraiser. I had a room in a house called Nine Rooms near Sattya’s office and I was just always with this great group of artists and people. The only slight setback was when there was a nationwide Maoist strike.
Anthony: How would you summarize the experience?
Dustin: It’s funny. Being back I have worked my impression of Nepal with this soundbite. It’s fucking dogs everywhere. Kids everywhere. Trash burning everywhere. Traffic everywhere. There’s pollution everywhere. People selling food everywhere. Power goes down and up every six hours. It’s so far removed from the privilege we’re all used to.
For street artist Spagnola, his future seems aimed back to Europe in Copenhagen as Greenpeace is selecting street artists for a future installation. The rest of our futures remain uncertain as well as perceptually improbable. However, in that ether of who-the-fuck-knows, there is an importance of retaining attention. As for Spagnola, his artwork is the psychological outpouring needed for one man’s sense of sanity and the gift of sharing it for others is the wish to reveal refuge for the minds of others.