John Sims: Fight the Fear, Protect the Love

John Sims, Valentine's Day Card for Trump, 2018
John Sims, Valentine’s Day Card for Trump, 2018

Note: This article is the second in a series based on our studio visit with Sarasota-based artist John Sims on May 21. The topic of that visit was a video game Sims created called Korona Killa (you can click the link to actually play the game btw). The Korona Killa project arose out of concerns about the pandemic, particularly with respect to its impact on black America.

John Sims is an African American math artist who is best known for the Recoloration Proclamation, a 20-year multimedia project confronting the symbols of American slavery and racism. Right now, the centerpiece of the Recoloration Proclamation is an annual Burn and Bury event to protest the Confederate flag as a symbol of slavery, treason, terrorism, and white supremacy.

John Sims, The Proper Way to Hang a Confederate Flag, 2017
via the Sarasota Herald-Tribune

While some may believe the Confederate flag is about heritage and not hate, the reality speaks otherwise…if black people and sympathetic others are not in constant resistance and protest of such symbols, then we run the risk of sending the wrong signal — that everything is fine and that we don’t matter. So we protest.

John Sims

Sims hosted the most recent Burn and Bury Event on the same day that witnessed the horrifying murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of the police, an atrocity that ignited waves of both peaceful protests and violence that continue as of this writing. You can read an open letter to the American Police that John Sims wrote on the matter here.

We deeply hope this tragedy will lead to a firm resolve to end police brutality in America and that all decent Americans will no longer tolerate the fear and peril black Americans unfairly face throughout their lives.

Sims has said that his journey has shown him the importance of bringing art and politics into the realm of lived practice. After all, state power is not enough to create a sense of shared national identity nor any sense of community. State power is classically defined as no more than a monopoly of force in a given territory, but this is hardly enough to create much more than a police state, and certainly not adequate to create the free and fair civil society that we aspire to as Americans.

John Sims, Square Root of Love, 2017

Speaking of which, in this era, when civil society seems utterly broken, plagued by gun violence, and open dialogue between opposing viewpoints is apparently impossible, Sims asks the question, “Where is the love?” So we invite you to join the virtual studio visit to learn about John Sims, his latest project, and his artistic practice.

John Sims Studio 2020
John Sims Studio 2020

LO: Please tell us a little bit about your practice?

John Sims: My practice is about identifying an issue, asking my questions, and then creating a response. First of all, it helps me feel better, helps me think better, and helps me be better. It is natural to wonder if you are asking the right questions, but in the end, I ask: does this question speak to my soul, my mind, my condition, or not? I go from there. 

LO: Yes, definitely.

JS: But here’s the thing: In 2000, when I started the Recoloration Proclamation, my project that responded to the Confederate flag, a very prominent artist and mentor asked me, “John, why are you doing this? Stick with the math art!” Many years later, after the flag project grew into a massive multimedia system of work, that same mentor told me he was glad I stayed the course. With large system work, I need to stay the course.

LO: Do you think all artists should address the pandemic?

JS: Not necessarily, but certain artists like myself get stimulated in the crisis. It brings me clarity and inspires me to create. Part of my art process is to be sensitive to my environment and create a response. I do it as a cognitive challenge and for my own sense of mental health.

How do I confront that tension? The tension causes fear; the fear causes anxiety. Anxiety creates all sorts of things. Part of my practice is always confronting that tension: whether it is building a math art curriculum, the Recoloration Proclamation, or the Korona Killa video game. 

So in addition to this emergency-urgency theme in my work, I am also interested in the icons, process, and language of supremacy, white supremacy, in particular, in the context of American culture. This was a very natural continuation of my other work. I am interested in fights: math vs art; slave owners vs slaves; free vs bonded. Then here it is again: the virus vs the killer cell. 

John Sims, Pi Day Anthem, 3/14/15

LO: So the idea of that fight became a video game project?

JS: When you think about white blood cells and fighting off infection, the idea of battling and warfare is at the core of our existence. How do you reconcile that while being a proponent of love and peace? The idea is channeling myself into a killer cell. I am going to be a killer cell, and my job is to kill the Koronas. And the Koronas can represent many things like disease, racism, police brutality, and bad ideas.

It references the games that I grew up with: Space Invaders, Galaga, Centipede. But I did not want it to just be a shoot ‘em up game. There are some things I want to shoot, and some things I want to embrace. In the game, you must capture the energy bubbles for fuel necessary to continue. I wanted that geometry and symmetry, and I was also thinking about how to create a game that inspires the will to fight for things that are needed to live and fight against things that threaten peace and balance.  

Click to See the Trailer for Korona Killa, Click here to play the game.

It’s not just the visual things, it’s also the audio that creates an emotional experience. I was more concerned with creating a whole experience, with the little filmed public service announcement and intro that slows you down. I want the player to move into it like you are reading poetry, watching a movie, then play the game. Other people just want a straight-up multisensory game.

LO: Were there other aspects to the meaning? Why did you including things like a leaderboard?

JS: Some people like to get to the leaderboard. They are thinking about what do I get at the end? When I looked at games like Galaga and PacMan back in the day – you wanted to have your name on the leaderboard, you wanted to come back to the store the next day and your name was still there. People are competing in all sorts of ways  – making money or another comparative metric of success – where is the bigger leaderboard of success? 

LO: Does the fact that you tend to start with an issue that you care about the reason your artistic practice overlaps with your activism?

John Sims, Antioch College, 1991
John Sims, 1991

JS: I tend to go to work that has both a strong structure and emotional content. Work that creates emotional responses, or even complete emotional shutdown. That emotional space – that is the space where we can create real change. The intellectual stuff comes after. That emotional experience creates a liquified space where we can create movement before things harden up again.

LO: So it’s important to respond in the moment?

JS: The work gets done and done and redone. It is about creating a dynamical system that happens over and over again. Some of these issues are so complicated, you can’t hit it one time, you can’t hit it with one image, you can’t hit with one installation. You need to hit it again and again. One killer cell ain’t going to do it, you need more and more and more. Part of the work is creating a system that creates perpetual systemized responses, a consistent creative resistance to the process of destruction. The game speaks to this process.  

To hear more from John, check out “Black Lives, Race, Policing, Community, and Solutions” on recorded on June 6, 2020.

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