Talking about ‘Desire Armed’ – a correspondence with Aaron Sandnes

Aaron SandnesDesire Armed (Jules Bonnot) 2012 22 x 18 inches Fingerprint-dusting graphite on paper Courtesy the artist and LA><ART, Los Angeles Photo by Michael Underwood

Aaron Sandnes
Desire Armed (Jules Bonnot)
22 x 18 inches
Fingerprint-dusting graphite on paper
Courtesy the artist and LA><ART, Los Angeles
Photo by Michael Underwood

Geoff Tuck to Aaron Sandnes: Nov 20, 2012 at 2:15 PM

Hi Aaron,

I hope my questions to you are okay? I get nervous. I am very interested in learning about your work and about this project. I don’t mean to rush you. I’m kind of laughing at myself – I guess I want reassurance. It is YOUR work that we are discussing, after all. It would be crazy for me to just roll without checking. Thanks a lot,


 Aaron Sandnes to Geoff Tuck: Nov 20, 2012 at 2:23 PM

hi geoff

i often find my curiosity making me anxious. i know im quiet which is often interpreted as me being an asshole but im not (usually haha)

i try to be as open and generative as possible though im skeptical and  critical at the same time. please feel free to start how you want and/or ask anything that comes to mind.

something about riding motorcycles that interests me is that a lot of riders often express that they take the long way home when they are on their bikes. i didnt understand why until i started riding myself and realized that i was often riding with no place to go other than to experience the road on my bike.  ask away lets see where this road takes us.

 GT to AS: Nov 20, 2012 at 2:31 PM


Aah. Things make sense. Weirdness from gmail. I (thought I) sent a message to you last week. By the way, thanks for the “long road” reasoning. I like it. haha I wish I weren’t afraid to ride!


GT to AS: Nov 18, 2012 at 3:42 PM

Dear Aaron,

Thanks for agreeing to hold a dialog about your work. I’m excited!

When I called to ask about your interest in this conversation you mentioned finding a connection between our online communication and the way that La Bande à Bonnot made use in the early 20th century of then new technologies to outwit and outfight the authorities – haha who were deeply invested in their tried and true (and classist and hierarchy enforcing) methods of crime fighting. (Am I crazy or is there an analogy possible to draw between the Bande à Bonnot and artists at that time who were breaking rules?)

Will you talk about the similarities you find between that past potential for revolution and our present situation? Are you thinking internationally? What about in this country?

The Genet book I mentioned while at your studio is Miracle of the Rose, and is an account of boys’ penal colonies in France. Genet may and may not have been incarcerated at the particular prisons he writes about, but he certainly had such a childhood. Since he was born in 1910 he could not have known the Bonnot gang, but I think that his experience of childhood would be similar. The story and the language is beautiful and poetic and the casual details from life that are sprinkled throughout offer much insight.

I like the installation you came up with for the drawings at LA><ART – it feels intuitive rather than scientific, meaning that it feels less like the dropped and stacked images make “sense” (say, hierarchically within the group, arranged by relationship, or even by aesthetic reasoning) and more that the installation relates emotionally and psychologically to you.

Staying with emotion for a moment, I have heard you talk about the feeling of being other, of growing up economically deprived in a middle class culture, of being white and partly Jewish in a largely Hispanic and Catholic neighborhood, or barrio in the San Fernando Valley; the place where the Valley Girl was born and lived and where many guys like you would have been surfers and jocks. Does this feeling of otherness manifest itself emotionally? Your interest in radical speed, in motorcycles, seems to me connected emotionally to the absolute danger sought by the Bonnot gang. They must have loved the thrill of defying the gravity of authority. Can you relate this to your defiance of gravity on your bike? Does making art have a similar feeling? While I think you have a methodical practice, one that is wide ranging in media and is thoughtful, I get the sense talking with you of one who is working out ideas. Funny, a line from an old song comes to mind “I’ll figure it out myself, I’ll just work it out myself” (clearly I am a surburban white boy become middle-aged. In my youth Suicidal Tendencies gave me the sense of ideas that are not expressible and can only be alluded to, as through art.)

Suicidal Tendencies, Institutionalized

Maybe this is good for a beginning. As you pick it up from here, we will see where things go. I find that the collaborative nature of dialog provides its own direction, and often reveals more than we can alone.

I look forward to hear back from you.


Desire Armed Installation view Courtesy the artist and LA><ART, Los Angeles Photo by Michael Underwood

Desire ArmedInstallation view Courtesy the artist and LA><ART, Los Angeles Photo by Michael Underwood

Desire Armed
Installation view
Courtesy the artist and LA><ART, Los Angeles
Photo by Michael Underwood

 AS to GT: Nov 20, 2012 at 2:44 PM

ahhh how ironic that we were having technical difficulties. i didnt get this email from you. i will look at right away…

 AS to GT: Nov 27, 2012 at 1:23 PM

hi geoff

wow! theres a lot of meat on this bone…

The Bonnot Gang found themselves wrestling with a multitude of issues resulting in feelings of alienation due to a lack of future presented by conditions of the working class of France at the turn of the century. i believe similar issues are echoed presently though the causes may be different.  what makes the Bonnot Gang so relevant is that they found themselves at the early crossroads of culture and science/technology and they deliberately chose to embrace this new frontier as a tool in creating their future.

fast forward a hundred years and we find ourselves working through similar issues, still at the crossroads of culture and technology and conversing about it all via email. how fitting? well, maybe it isnt. Isnt email outdated? we probably should be chatting via facebook or twitter and limit ourselves to 140 characters. email is so 90’s. HAHA

but speaking with you this way reminds me of Subcommandante Marcos who started and ran the revolution in Chiapas via computer, satellite and of course wooden guns. if we look out the window today we see color revolutions or even the occupy movements, with agency provided by texting, social media, etc. its almost as if guns have become irrelevant in the conquest to reconcile the alienation felt by present culture, in this country or internationally alike.

…and its an alienation technology helped to create.

im not happy with the way things are. Ive never been. Ive always felt suppressed and alienated. im not sure if i will ever will feel okay with things but it doesnt keep me from striving for that goal. i can relate to your ‘Suicidal Tendencies’ as ive always been motivated by an angst that has asked for more and has pushed me to find it myself. i dont know if ive always been DO-IT-YOURSELF or if i became D.I.Y. due to the influence Punk Rock had on me, but every decision ive made since i was conscious to do so has been motivated by attaining access to what the world offers. maybe this makes me sound like some sort of social climber but I simply just didnt want to get stuck in the trappings.  admitting this reminds me of a quote by Paul Virilio: “Stasis is death.”1

i think this is why ive always been interested in the ‘criminal,’ which in most cases, i see to be as one’s ask for more, a willingness to take risks for more. (Psychopaths of course not included.) And it is this quality which initially drew me to The Bonnot’s Gang, as i see them as an attempt to consider life differently than what was presented. they are much more than the spectacle of the first group in history to do a drive-by. i see their revolution poetic, hopeful, clairvoyant; these qualities i wanted embedded in my show ‘Desire Armed’ at LA><ART.

the details of ‘Desire Armed,’ subtle or not, were inspired by the poetics found in the history of The Bonnot’s Gang: from the title to the rendering of the portraits, even the installation of the drawings. the portraits, inspired by a letter the founder of the gang sent to the French police on which he included his fingerprints, land between Gerhard Richter’s October 18, 1977 paintings and Bruce Nauman’s video For Beginners. i couldnt help but recognize that these drawing though depicting other people, are self portraits.  they are made up of my fingerprints, displayed in the gallery almost as if my hands are pushing outwards on the walls.  though the drawings were arranged aesthetically, the dropped and stacked nature as you pointed out, turns the exhibition into a crime scene without taking away from the significance of the portraits.

there was a time when artists were dangerous. maybe im guilty of being nostalgic (singing in the tune of ‘guilty of being white’ by minor threat) for a romantic rendition of the past but i often wonder what it would be like if artists were still defiant. i dont know, maybe the mere fact that artist choose to be artists is defiant enough, maybe i should go join a 1% Motorcycle Club.

Minor Threat, Guilty of Being White

 GT to AS: Nov 27, 2012 at 2:00 PM

Aaron, your reply is very rich. Let me digest what you’ve written and do some more looking. As you say, “there is a lot of meat on this bone”!

 AS to GT: Nov 27, 2012 at 2:24 PM

Yes I wanted to respond to everything of your first email but thought we will get to it all somehow. Sorry for the delay. I will be faster next time around…I hope hahha


 AS to GT: Dec 4, 2012 at 2:09 PM

hi geoff
just wanted to share:
hope youre well

 GT to AS: Dec 4, 2012 at 3:08 PM

This is great Aaron, thanks. I’m just entering LA><ART. Back to you soon.

Desire ArmedInstallation view Courtesy the artist and LA><ART, Los Angeles Photo by Michael Underwood

Desire Armed
Installation view
Courtesy the artist and LA><ART, Los Angeles
Photo by Michael Underwood

GT to AS: Dec 7, 2012 at 10:16 AM

Hi Aaron,

Spending time with the drawings was great. The marks you made with the fingerprinting graphite are mutable and cagey: at first glance, they resolve like Pointillist dots, and this recognition draws me in, then as I moved closer the fingerprints became more pronounced, while the dots became more diffuse – at this point I think of smoke, and I think of the actions of your subjects and how they indiscriminately inflicted their abuse on all  around them, in defiance of any heroics, of any standing for some greater meaning. Fire does this, it burns everything without discrimination. And then, possibly influenced by my thought of fire, I saw the finger marks as smudges, greasy and sooty, what might be left of a body after a conflagration. (I wonder if the cave paintings that people made thousands of years ago were made first with the rendered fat of animals mixed with ash? I wonder whether honored people and enemies might have been burned and their sooty fat might have been used to make early portraits with spiritual powers?)

All the while I was in the gallery I felt like I was being watched by Andy Warhol’s Most Wanted Men. (By the way, there are many interpretations of Warhol’s piece, not all of which pertain to your project as I understand it. The Tumblr site Dirty Librarian Thoughts sketches out one such interpretation that I have also heard from Bill Jones and that Jones got from Bruce Hainley when Jones was making his video Mansfield 19622.

Overall, the idea of the criminal as being captured in a portrait, a forced portrait, one not chosen by the sitter has huge political and spiritual significance. Taking a picture by force, as in a mug shot, declares power in a really strong way. It is dehumanizing, it makes of the pictured person a thing, a fact, it becomes deniable that they are people. To counter this, your portraits, taken though they are from such mug shots, feel very much like psychological and emotional portraits. The leader, Jules, does feel heartless and cold, but brutally sexy. I can see how he attracted people. One young woman looks sweet, like she is going to the fair. One man looks like a judge, another like an old fashioned senator and another like a joker in a bar, or on the porch of a general store. Thinking further, I wonder if I, if we, attribute sympathy to people in mug shots despite, or because of their objectifying natures? Am I the only one whose heart goes out to people in such distress – even knowing that the persons pictured do wrong things? Hmm.

Desire ArmedInstallation view Courtesy the artist and LA><ART Photo by Michael Underwood

Desire Armed
Installation view
Courtesy the artist and LA><ART
Photo by Michael Underwood

Reading your memories of Rodney King in the Du Jour interview ( really fucked me up. Here I was, walking into an art gallery to view work that makes revolutionary claims about a time from which I am safely distanced. “Hah,” I thought, “I am impervious to your blandishments, coming to you as I am from the safety of an enlightened time.” Crazy and not so. Over the past two or three years police in Southern California have done things to people that if if done by others would be labelled crimes, and horrific ones at that. Kids shot, people beaten to death – it’s a level of brutality that looks very like the Northeast Valley in 1992.

Your drawings don’t focus on characters such as King – whatever narrative one tells about King and that event, he was not a criminal of the nature of the Gang Bonnot, who were happy to be murderers, thieves and what Wikipedia calls illegalists.


Instead, your drawings seem to question the nature of heroism, and of heroics. Bonnot’s Gang are repellent to my values, my sense of right and wrong and to my sense of property rights – but… they are attractive to me in their evident (manifested) refusal to settle down, to accept the culture, to live like others.

And then, as I continue to look and think, I notice that your focus might not only be on the gang, but also on the society in which they acted. In that time we saw prevailing a thousand year old privileged hereditary aristocracy that did not understand its privileged status as being other, but accepted it as its due. Perhaps the Bonnot crew were formed in the crucible of that indifference? Today we have a ruling class whose privilege is built on access – to education, to health, and even to a healthy family environment. In the minds of recipients of these benefits, these are things that are worked for, are earned, not inherited, and so they are deserved. Which leaves others, people whose opportunities to speak are curtailed by poor language skills, whose schools fail them, whose parents (and lack thereof) and extended families are full of physical abuse and psychological violence, and who therefore fail at society’s game, as seen to be deserving of their status, lower on the food chain, so to speak.

1911 was before WWI and before Dada used absurdist, non-rational and destructive moves to question bourgeois culture, but do you think Bonnot and friends acted out personally and actually what the Dadaists did theoretically in art and literature?

I am currently re-reading Georg Büchner’s Wozzeck, which I recommend to you. There was no place like Vienna for the brutal indifference of a ruling class, and no people like the Germans for writing revolution. In the same vein, have you read any of Schiller’s plays? The Robbers seems especially pertinent to this discussion.

By the way, have you seen this review in Art Practical?

Cheers, Geoff

Desire ArmedInstallation view Courtesy the artist and LA><ART, Los Angeles Photo by Michael Underwood

Desire Armed
Installation view
Courtesy the artist and LA><ART, Los Angeles
Photo by Michael Underwood

 AS to GT: Jan 1, 2013 at 10:28 PM

Happy New Years Geoff,

What a brilliant thought; we are all Warhol’s Most Wanted aren’t we? I mean, depending on the context, we are all criminals, guilty of something or another. Similar to the way you described mugshots, we experience being objectified in various ways, then found guilty for fill-in-the-blankness; guilty for being in the margin by those marginalizing. But to be completely honest Im bored with this dialectic.

Let the privilege be privileged, gay be gay, black be black, woman be woman and let whatever that those adjectives mean, be everything imaginable.

Im finished going round-n-round over controversies like some out-of-control ouroboros deafened by two cents.

Ratt, Round n Round

It’s so complex on one hand I want to up lift the Bonnots’ ability produce agency within their selves. However they did it by means of destroying and pillaging for self gain. Is it possible to find agency through working with others despite any/all differences. Can agency be found in cohesiveness?

Considering the Bonnot Gang is important for reasons stated, and my hope in using these portraits and the seduction of technique is to celebrate radicality in a time of widespread anesthesia while begging for a reexamination of the nature of an individual as part of a bigger culture.

We recently watched the end of the world come and go,
experienced the first sunset of a new year
witnessed the spectacle of u.s. politics via the fiscal cliff
and i personally received word that someone close to me has passed

i should skip joining the one percenters,
ride a motorcycle for the sake of an open road,
hoping to encounter some kind of maintenance on the bike along the way.

but in the end that wont be all that fulfilling will it?

 GT to AS: Jan 2, 2013 at 4:16 PM

Aaron, I read this at 6:00 am and began in that moment to form words of response, words worthy of the sentiment (or is it a manifesto) that I feel underlies our conversation, and your work. I began and stumbled.

These ten hours later I am back where I began, and indeed – I recognize now – where we began, when in a misunderstanding related to our digital connection, your gentle statement that “(you were) often riding with no place to go other than to experience the road…” reminded me to be aware of the journey I am on, that we are on, and to not seek the fulfillment of answers.

Nice. Thanks. And here we are back on the road, paying attention and taking the long way; and the road (not the destination, not the result) is a place where, we have learned, the individual does have agency, and intelligence that is created through experience, not granted by culture.

I have an image from that day we visited, of you on your bike in the darkness of late afternoon – not on a distant highway in the sunset (for this image and experience one can buy) – but instead rounding a corner near your studio: slowing, stopping, bracing the bike with your feet and looking at the Verdugo Mountains as they catch the last light, and then looking at your studio door, and deciding which will be the journey tonight, one road or another.

I am a romantic. I mythologize the mundane.


Aaron SandnesInvert ForeverCourtesy of the artist and LA><ART, Los Angeles.Photo by Michael Underwood

Aaron Sandnes
Invert Forever
Courtesy of the artist and LA><ART, Los Angeles.
Photo by Michael Underwood


1 Paul Virilio is quoted from Speed and Politics.


2 The reference here is to a talk that William E. Jones (Bill Jones) gave during his exhibition There should be a new word for happiness., which was held at David Kordansky Gallery in June of 2006. Bruce Hainley was present at this talk and corroborated and fleshed out Jones’ story (pun intended). Link to the exhibition at the Kordansky site: and link to the website of Bill Jones (where one may watch the film that so offended the sensibilities of 1960s American manhood):

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