What do a BDSM scene and that socially distant picnic you’ve been planning have in common?
From masks to condoms with visual artist Saliko Adams.
Steve Muir: So, I want to talk a little about art making in general during this year, because I also
made a thesis this year, and it’s just been a weird year to make art. So how has your
practice changed this year? Or do you feel like you’ve been able to keep the same
practice during COVID?
Saliko Adams: I mean, I think motivation comes down to it. I originally had a different thesis
idea completely, it definitely still had to do with sex and love and relationships and stuff,
but as the pandemic went on I just wan’t motivated to work on it… and I didn’t find it
relevant anymore! At one point in time it was super relevant to my practice, and then
like, the moment had passed. It was crazy.
SM: No, I totally feel that! It seems so weird, like… with everything going on, especially in the
US right now, suddenly I feel like making art that doesn’t reference any politics, or
anything about COVID is maybe not useful? Or just boring, or.. It seems so tone deaf.
SA: I mean as an art viewer, I’m not drawn to those things anymore. I want to see work that’s
made about the time we’re living in, because it’s so crazy.
SM: Yeah! Sometimes when stuff ignores the current moment I feel like it’s turned from
commentary to escapism.
SA: Totally. I feel like I really want art to have this really important place in society right now,
to talk about the things that are going on. Because so much is going unsaid; it’s so hard to
communicate, it’s so hard to connect with people… And if art making is a facilitator of
that that’s amazing, but what brings people together is talking about what’s going on. So
I feel like it’s important to reference what’s going on.
SM: Definitely feel that. Has your technical practice changed because of COVID? Because I
know you screen printed before that. Have you had to deal with accessing studio space
SA: One hundred percent. That was a big shift for me! Like “Oh, I can’t be dependent on these
facilities that I’m paying for!” and it was definitely a point of frustration. But at the same
time, it motivated me because it was my last year. Like, “Okay, so this is preparing me
for post-grad, where I’m not gonna have access to these facilities”. So I started building
my own studio, and that has been really great, because now I can screen print at home.
And… have a sustainable practice that is going to live on long after I’ve graduated from
SM: That’s really good. Honestly, I feel like more people at CalArts should be looking forward
to how they’re going to function without those facilities. I feel like a lot of people before
COVID were really really dependent on certain things and didn’t think about facilitating
their own art practice independently.
SA: Yeah! And then on top of that, I was making a show about work in COVID, and I knew it
was going to be viewed within the safety regulations. I’ve never done video work before,
I don’t really do photography - I’m definitely more of a painter, and screen printer, and
using those physical materials. But I was like, I want this to be accessible to people. Even
people who can’t come to the drive-in event, because I originally planned it as a drive-in
SM: Oh, yeah, I remember when people were doing those.
SA: But then COVID got just like, so bad. And I was like, y’know, if I practice what I preach, I
prioritize others’ safety, and I don’t want anyone to compromise that, or
comfortableness… If they wanted to see my art… I wanted to make it as shareable and
viewable as possible.
SM: I think that that’s a really good motivation. I think accessibility in art is so frequently kind
of shoved under the rug because so much work is made with this idea of “oh, you have to
like work to get it,” but sometimes the work that you’re going to get it really
undermines… I feel that there’s a lot of work that people make, and then they put up all
these weird barriers to understanding it, or to even showing up in the space that it exists
SA: Yeah, my mentor definitely talked to me a lot about that. He really instilled in me a sense of
like, if your process and methods are not reading to an audience because you’re trying to
make it convoluted, clouded up with aesthetics, then you’re missing it. Sort of like in
writing, using super flowery language to sound academic, instead of saying what you
mean as simple as possible.
SM: Yeah! Yeah, absolutely. So talking a little bit about this film you made, I’ve personally
found that applying the existing language that people use around things like “safer sex”
instead of “safe sex” can be helpful in understanding risk factors during the pandemic.
Has that been your experience as well? Because I feel like I really see that in this project.
SA: Yeah, definitely. Communication is a root of my process, and core value in terms of the
message I’m trying to talk about: Can you communicate about being safe? Because if
you’re not communicating, you can’t be safe. But definitely with language, “safe sex”
versus “safer sex”, stuff like that, safer… If you take sex out of it, safer contact. That’s
what I meant with the contact contract: it’s not just sexual contact, it could be like any
sort of contact because y’know… contact now is a risk. Any sort of communication and
connection now is a very risky behavior. And that’s also sort of sex language, like “risk
factors”, “risky behavior”, stuff like that is traditional sex ed book talk. But I think it’s
just so relevant now.
SM: And you’re still in Los Angeles, which is the riskiest place to be right now, yeah?
SA: One in three! I’m really scared right now, I just had a conversation with my partner where I
was like “We cannot see each other for two weeks, sorry”. And that’s like, my sole
partner. It’s just too dangerous.
SM: I moved out of LA literally the week before it became the world hotspot.
SA: It’s a scary world!
SM: Yeah! I just keep looking at the LA news, and I’m like “oh my god I’m glad I’m not there
that’s so scary”.
SA: It’s all about behavior, right, like you gotta be practicing to your own safety, comfort zones,
and stuff. One question that I found really stood out to me on the contact contract was
“Are you wearing your mask and practicing social distance?” Because somebody who is
practicing those safety measures is probably somebody who actually cares about their
safety. And to me, habits are way more important than a COVID test. If I know
somebody is practicing the same habits as me, to the same comfort levels as me, it makes
me feel better doing a social distance thing with them because it lets me know that they
are doing their due diligence on their own when no one’s watching.
SM: I read someone say online, “Using COVID tests to determine if you can see people is like
using pregnancy tests as contraception”.
SA: I saw that too! Truly! Oh my god, all the analogies. Another analogy is if you wear your
mask below your nose, it’s like wearing your condom on your balls. It’s weird how many
parallels there are to sex.
SM: Yeah! Yeah, so back to navigating that stuff, something else I’ve seen discussed online and
that I really feel because I’ve been polyamorous my entire adult life… Is that people
who’ve had relationship patterns like polyamory or BDSM, that they need to negotiate
about already, seem to have had an easier time adjusting to the negotiation of social
interaction due to COVID. I feel like that’s probably… I mean, I saw your previous
show, before this thesis, that pertained to that stuff. So I assume that’s been your
experience as well, to some degree…
SA: Oh yeah, definitely. Identity wise, I come from a place of talking about my sexuality and my
relationships with my partners, and making sure everything is crystal clear. To protect
everyone’s emotional state, everyone’s physical state, that’s always been something
that’s super big in my life. And I found a lot of empowerment through that. So that was a
really big influence in my last show, and I found that this carried on into this show
because that tool, that skill, has come into play so much.
SA: Being your own advocate, for your safety… it’s an uncomfortable thing. I find people all the
time tell me that they don’t want to bring it up because they don’t want to seem crazy.
SM: But then like, you’re crazy if you aren’t trying to be safer.
SA: Yeah. You have to do your own due diligence for yourself, because it’s not only like a
disservice and a danger to yourself… It’s a danger and disservice to those you expose
yourself to and who you’re around. Which is mostly your roommates, your friends, your
family. The people who are in our lives who we can’t social distance from are the ones
who suffer. So now it’s less of advocating for myself or my sexual health, it’s for
everybody in my circle.
SM: It’s a big responsibility to realize that you are not only responsible for your own health, but
everyone you get near. Which I guess people always have been in some ways, but it’s
very intense now.
SA: Yeah. It can have very serious consequences for people you don’t even know. And like, you
have to be careful, it goes beyond yourself. It comes down to having empathy and having
thought. Taking a moment and being like “How is this going to affect those around me,
and those around those people?” It’s a huge tree branch of people.
SM: Absolutely. This is very serious content that you’re talking about there. Making sure that
people around you don’t die. But you’ve also found a way to make this film and show
very playful, you have the little rubber glove with the fake nails on it. So campy, I love it.
And I’m curious how you came to that balance within the work.
SA: As an artist, that’s been my whole aesthetic. Packaging these heavy sexual topics, and trying
to dive into the culture around sex… it’s deep, and heavy, and I always worry that I’m
going to bring something up for somebody that’s unpleasant or trigger somebody. That’s
one of my biggest fears as an artist. And I feel like the playfulness, the campiness, relaxes
people into it and makes it more accessible to people. And it’s hard for me to even talk
about it! I feel like putting my own spin on it, making it really… I’m talking about
COVID, but it’s me! Saliko Adams, talking about COVID! You’ve gotta have the nails!
And I’ve gotta credit Mrs. Meatface, that is a huge inspiration. They do BDSM, latex
photography with nails on top of latex. That was a big influence for this show. Super
great, shoutout Mrs. Meatface.
SM: Love that! I have a favorite shot in your film, which is the little mask coming out of the
condom wrapper… for me, it’s been really interesting to see people all year be like “oh
my god this is the first pandemic in 100 years!” and so surprised that the government
isn’t responding properly… And as a queer man I’m hyperaware, I don’t have a lot of
elders because of a pandemic that was poorly handled. It’s really nice to see the nod to
y’know, the prevalence of condoms came out of a pandemic, and now this prevalence of
masks is coming out of a pandemic, and they really serve the same purpose. So I really
appreciate that nod in your film, and I’m curious if you can talk a little bit about that.
SA: Yeah. Ultimately, I would not have shown the work if I did not acknowledge the AIDS
crisis in some way. From the start, I was like we gotta acknowledge it, we gotta bring it
in, what is the best way to do that? And I had a bunch of different concepts, and that was
the best one to communicate that this is not the first pandemic. The show is called
“P.P.E.”, personal protective equipment, and a condom is personal protective equipment.
It was born out of this crisis and this pandemic, and it’s now the norm. They teach people
how to use it in schools. Most schools, not all schools. And now I feel… we teach kids,
keep your mask on when you’re in public, and around others… It’s all about protecting
yourself and your health. But yeah, I definitely… Even though I do like the dick, I
definitely was like if I don’t acknowledge the LGBTQ+ community in some way, it’s not
worth talking about at all. Because then you’re ignoring a whole history.
SM: Yeah. It’s really important when talking about COVID. And I don’t think that every piece
about COVID has to address it, but it’s very refreshing to see something that makes a nod
to… Some communities have been aware of personal protection within a pandemic.
SA: I didn’t want the show to be just coming out of my lens of a cis female person. I did a bunch
of interviews to make sure that the show was grounded in a sort of universality.
Obviously like, though my voice and lens, but I had to have influence, I had to have other
input. It couldn’t be just “This is what it’s like for me!”
SM: Yeah, yeah.
SA: And when talking to people who identified as gay men, that was something that came up in
every conversation I had.
SM: Wow. Well, I’m curious what you’re doing now, or what you’re doing next. I know you just
SA: I moved out of Santa Clarita, that was step one.
SM: Gotta do that.
SA: Oh, yeah. But honestly I don’t even consider this show done, I almost think of it as a part
one. Because I think this pandemic is going to be part of our lives for some time into the
future. And as sexual relationships and community evolves, I want to be making work
about that. I’m still holding interviews, accepting google forms on the topics. I’m right
now working on an audio piece to accompany the whole show, it’s… I have to
communicate with people about their comfort levels being recorded talking about this
stuff. So it’s definitely going to be a work in progress. I definitely consider this show a
part one, so watch out.
Check out more of Saliko’s art on instagram @saliko.art and www.salikoadams.com
Images provided by Saliko Adams