85: Daniel Arsham – How to Twist People’s Expectations with Art

Creativity, Full Time Hustler, Hobbyist, Mindset, Money & Business, Podcast, Seasoned Professional, Weekend Warrior

“Since I’ve started making work it always feels like whatever idea I’m delving into in the present is the last good idea.”
Daniel Arsham

Hey everybody, welcome back to ONKEN RADIO, the podcast where we explore the body, mind, and soul of the creative entrepreneur. It’s my goal to help you take your creativity, business, and life to the next level. I’m so glad you’re joining me on this journey!

I want to start off with this thought: Art is all about shifting people’s expectations. 

Some artists represent the world as it is, and other artists have a goal of manipulating that representation. Daniel Arsham aims to do just that with his futuristic artwork, which ranges from large scale architectural pieces to castings made of ash to paintings and much more.

I recently discovered Daniel’s art through my friend Usher, and he does some truly amazing work. He has shown his art all around the world at places like the MoMA PS1 and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Miami. Daniel has also begun using his art for social justice; he’s alchemizing his gifts and creating both art and social change in the process. He also created the architecture firm Snarkitecture, as well as a film production company called Film the Future.

In my conversation with Daniel, we talk about how he started his own exhibition space to catalyze his career, how he started making money with his art, and what his experimentation process is like. We also discuss why he often uses volcanic ash as a medium, his use of lucid dreaming, and the power of social media for artists. 

This interview was full of fascinating discussion about so many different areas of the art world, and I’m so excited to share it with you today. Without further ado — let’s dive in.

Who Is Daniel Arsham?

Teddy bears made from amethyst. Volcanic ash sculpted into a camera. A seated woman formed out of glass. These are just a few examples of the incredible and diverse pieces that Daniel Arsham has created. 

Daniel Arsham is a New York based artist who straddles the line between art, architecture, and performance. He grew up in Miami, Florida, and his original studies were actually in photography. After graduating high school, Daniel attended The Copper Union art school in New York City.

He says the beginning of his career started in 2002, when he moved back to Miami after school in New York City, and he and his friends rented a dilapidated house. They started an exhibition space called ‘The House,’ which was available for artists in the area to use. This is when he intentionally made the switch to architecture as his artistic career. 

Manipulated architecture is a prevalent subject in his work — many of his pieces include stairs, landscapes, and architectural structures that are eroded, enveloped by nature, or doing things different from their intended function. Daniel’s work possesses a sort of playfulness and confusion — many pieces mimic everyday objects, but their medium and intention has been repurposed. When you look at one of his pieces on his website  (which I encourage you to do as you read or listen to this interview), you’ll be hit with a sense of distorted familiarity. 

“So I was really interested in taking everyday things that we recognize things [and] that we know from our everyday experience and transforming them in a way that would create a kind of uncanny sense, right? Anytime you can take things that people have a certain expectation about and slightly twist that, it can create and provoke very unique experiences.” 
Daniel Arsham

In addition to his architectural and sculptural work, Daniel also has created several stage designs that have been showcased worldwide in places such as The New Museum, IVAM in Spain, and the Hellenic Festival in Athens, Greece. 

And if that wasn’t enough, in 2007, Daniel founded Snarkitecture with partner Alex Mustonen to expand the possibilities of spatial manipulation and collaboration. He’s also started venturing into the film world and started a production company called Film the Future.

Daniel’s done it all and is continuing to break barriers and create art that is thought-provoking, with elements of social justice infused as well. He’s become one of my favorite artists, and I was honored to interview him on ONKEN RADIO.

Experimenting with New Medium to Break Expectations

As I said above, Daniel is known for his experimental mediums — volcanic ash is one of his specialties. I asked him how he started working with ash and why he chose this material to expand into the creation of new mediums. 

“I started to engage directly with architecture more … [and] the use of materials that didn’t previously have a kind of rule book, right? …[I started using volcanic ash] after a trip that I made to Easter Island in 2010. I was there making a series of paintings that were eventually published into a book by Louis Vuitton. And I was fascinated between this mixture of this kind of archaic past — this civilization that had essentially collapsed on itself on Easter Island — and the presence of contemporary life within that, on the island.” 
Daniel Arsham

After returning from his trip, Daniel decided to combine the idea of an archaic past with the everyday present. He chose ash as his medium, and his first work was created from a camera cast. It took several versions — the cast would initially look great, but the next morning, it would be rubble. 

“There was a lot of experimentation and failure in order to find the way to make those works. … Certainly, months went by that were trial and error, but at any given time, I’m experimenting with some new process, right? There [are] things downstairs here in the studio that I don’t know if they will be successful.”
Daniel Arsham

Daniel is constantly experimenting with new mediums that no artist really has a handbook for. As an artist, this is almost always part of the process. Even if you’re not experimenting with something as exotic as volcanic ash, you’ve probably had times in your artistic career where you’ve tried something different — maybe even shocking. 

Why the push to be different, though? Is it just to stand out from the crowd? Daniel has another reason for his experimentation: 

“The manipulation of people’s expectations is what I’m doing often. … People expect architecture to be solid. They don’t expect it to melt. People expect objects from the present to have a certain solidity about them. And when you can take a Canon camera … and make it out of crystal and cause it to appear eroded as if it’s been, you know, found in the future, they’re subtle shifts, right? … You’re confused by them … [and] they create really this uncanny sense. And for me … the idea of the uncanny is [what I’m] really about.”
Daniel Arsham

I think that’s fascinating. Definitely go over to Daniel’s website to see what he’s talking about. The objects look so familiar to us, but there’s something off like they’re being featured in a museum, and the things of the present are now things of the past. While some artists prefer to capture the world like we see it around us, others choose to disrupt the flow, creating something truly thought-provoking.

Using Lucid Dreaming in Art Creation 

In addition to his use of volcanic ash, I wanted to hear about Daniel’s process in creating the art — how is he inspired? Where does he get his ideas? How does he start the process? He shared with me that he’s recently been using “lucid dreaming” to unlock some of those ideas which he knows are already existing in his mind.

“So essentially, lucid dreaming is where you’re dreaming, but you know [that] you’re dreaming, and you’re able to control things within the dream once you’ve done that. And I wouldn’t say that I’ve perfected how to do that, but since I’ve started this process, there have definitely been moments where I’m dreaming and I am aware of it. So I know that I’m dreaming, and I’m able to control certain things.” 
Daniel Arsham

Maybe you’ve experienced this feeling as well — Have you ever been dreaming and distinctly realized that you were in a dream? It reminds me of the movie Inception by filmmaker Christopher Nolan — once you realize you’re in the dream, you have some control over the reality you perceive. After all, the dream is happening in your brain. 

Daniel shared a technique he’s been using during the day to stimulate lucid dreaming at night. He picks a simple action he does during the day, such as reading the first sentence of a book, and he repeats that action over and over again each day. Soon enough, he will start to dream about that action, but the sentence is never the exact same. There’s always a change. Something is always off. 

“And so I’ve combined that with trying to go to sleep, thinking about the spaces or the things that I’m trying to figure out. Like, there’s a particular space within the New York gallery here that I know the kind of work that I want to make, [but] the space is not exactly perfect for it. So I’m trying to figure out how to combine those two and really been trying to use lucid dreaming as a technique to kind of unlock that.” 
Daniel Arsham

No matter what your artistic profession is, I want to encourage you to try out this dreaming technique to see if you can start unlocking new ideas in your subconscious that you never knew were there. Daniel recommends keeping a journal by your bedside so that you can easily catalog your dreams right after waking up.

And remember — not all of your dreams will be helpful. Daniel said he’s dreamed of some pretty bad ideas, but there have been other times where he’s made massive breakthroughs.

Daniel Ashram’s Partnership with Usher 

One thing that Daniel is passionate about in his art is advocating for social justice, and he’s done this alongside one of the greatest music artists of our time: Usher. I actually met Daniel through Usher, and I was interested in how their partnership has played into the career that Daniel is building. 

“We were friends before we ever discussed working together. And as he was developing some of the first ideas for this new album … I kept telling him like, ‘You should do this and this, you should do that.’… I was thinking about [things] he should work on for videos. … And finally he said, ‘Why don’t you just work on it with me?'” 
Daniel Arsham

As his artistic partner, Daniel collaborated with Usher with his film company Film the Future to make thought-provoking music videos. The Chains video is one of my favorites, and you should definitely go check it out. In the video, there are several scenes of plaster guns crashing to the ground and dissolving into pieces. Here’s Daniel’s commentary: 

“There was a lot of discussion around obviously guns and their use against unarmed black youth, and trying to find a new way to talk about that obviously is present within the song. So I cast a number of them as if they were being seen in a future museum … I can project this future where the only place that we will see these guns is in a museum.”  
Daniel Arsham

Like this example, art can create conversation about serious issues, such as social justice and racism. I wanted to hear Daniel’s thoughts on this, and asked him whether or not he thought that a piece of art could change the world: 

“To say that art can change the world is a big statement. No single artwork can do that. Um, it’s [a thing] that you can push forward and a way of thinking that takes many artists in many different mediums to push. … If I can sort of allow a single viewer … [to] think about their everyday experience in a different way, that’s kind of [an] introduction to a new way of thought …”

I appreciate how honest Daniel is — art is extremely powerful, but it’s unlikely that one piece of art is going to change everyone’s thinking. That shouldn’t be the goal. Instead, just focus on one person. Challenge them in your art to think about something differently — whether it be social justice or an iPhone. There are so many good conversations to be had, and art is a universal language that everybody can understand.

Daniels Arsham’s Advice for Creative Entrepreneurs 

Before we wrapped up our interview, I wanted Daniel to share some advice for all you artists out there who are trying to make it. You all know it can be a struggle to be a working artist, especially when you’re just starting out. There’s so much competition, and so many people trying to get their work noticed. How do you make a name for yourself? How do you find opportunities? 

“It’s sort of, you know, creating your own opportunity. I mean, I didn’t have a space to show, so I made an exhibition space. And I think that a lot of times people, especially when you’re young, you get bogged down with like, ‘It’s going to be so expensive … where can I show it?’ Anyone who has a phone today, if you have Instagram and Snapchat or whatever else, you can build an immediate audience. … You need a phone [with] a connection.” 
Daniel Arsham

Never underestimate the power of social media. As Daniel said, it’s an instant audience. It’s a way for you to start getting your art out there, even if you don’t have any exhibitions lined up. Daniel had some tips about using social media to showcase your art process and how you should do it differently across different platforms:

“I’m kind of fascinated with the sort of language of those different platforms. Snapchat feels very different to me than Instagram. I can be much more candid with it. It’s much more about the everyday, about where I’m at, what I’m doing right in that moment. And it’s interesting — the reactions that people send back to me … they want to hear more about these … processes really. … On my Instagram is much more completed work and things that I’ve either already put out into the world, or I plan on [sharing]. Sometimes with [Snapchat], I’m able to show things that may not ever make it to the gallery.”
Daniel Arsham

People love to see behind the scenes, so when you’re putting your art out there, don’t forget to let your audience see the process as well.  You can share your brainstorming process, the studies, the inspiration — whatever you feel comfortable with. And when it’s time to start finding those galleries to showcase your art, Daniel had some additional advice: 

“I think that one of the things, especially for younger artists, that a gallery would be looking for is whether they can see a future arc in the work, right? So they’re not just looking at the work that they’re making today. They’re trying to imagine how they might build on that ten years down the road. And that’s a tricky thing to do, especially as a younger artist.” 
Daniel Arsham

As Daniel says, this is a very difficult thing to do, especially when you’re just starting to figure out your craft, but your future potential is something that other people can sometimes see, even if you can’t at the moment. 

Be a Creative Alchemist with Daniel Arsham

This interview with Daniel Arsham was absolutely incredible, and I hope you all enjoy it as much as I did. Make sure you listen to the full episode to learn more about Daniel’s work and mission!

Alchemy is defined as the process of taking something ordinary and turning it into something extraordinary, sometimes in a way that cannot be explained, and with that being said, I define Creative Alchemy as using the process of creativity to create a lens through which to perform alchemy. These principles not only apply to artists and creatives in their own creative processes, but to anyone who wants to create an extraordinary life in color for themselves. I’ve found that 80% of creating is alchemizing the thoughts, emotions, and other inner blocks that keep you from putting the pen to the paper.

Navigating to the act of creation takes alchemic processes, and Daniel Arsham is one of these incredible Creative Alchemists.

As always, I finish interviews with this question, “What does the phrase ‘live inspiration’ mean to you?” This was Daniel’s answer: 

“I mean, getting up every day and … making it your own, right? I show up here at the studio … whether I have something to do here or not, whether I have an idea or not, and you know, showing up is half the battle, and sometimes you just have to push for it.” 
Daniel Arsham

I love his answer. Showing up is half the battle. We’re never going to know exactly what we’re doing, and if we wait until we do, we’ll be waiting forever. There will be failures, there will be errors, and most definitely, there will be criticism, but you can’t let those things stop you from making something beautiful. 

I’d love it if you could tag me, @nickonken, and Daniel, @danielarsham, on Instagram and share your greatest takeaways from the episode! And if you enjoyed it, please leave me a good review over on Apple Podcasts. That helps us spread the word about this podcast and share it with more listeners like you!

With that — go out and create your life by creating every moment. I’ll see you next time.

Nick Onken 

“I’ve always liked a feeling in my work that it can float in time.”
Daniel Arsham

Some things we learn in this podcast:

  • How he started his own exhibition space [4:00]
  • His transition from photography to other art forms [5:10]
  • What happened when Dior commissioned a piece [6:05]
  • How he started making money with his art [8:20]
  • What his experimentation process is like [12:30]
  • The effect of colorblindness on his work [13:50]
  • How he creates collections [17:00]
  • Why he has been using lucid dreaming [19:00]
  • Why he didn’t used to include people in his work [23:40]
  • What have been his biggest fears as an artist [27:10]
  • His exploration into film [30:00]
  • How he balances his creative life with his personal life [32:45]
  • What his morning routine is like [34:15]
  • How he’s collaborating with Usher [37:20]
  • His thoughts on whether art can change the world [40:45]
  • The power of social media for artists [44:05]

Links mentioned:

Connect with Daniel Instagram | Twitter | Website

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