Los Angeles native Huntrezz Janos has been working with virtual graphics since she was a kid. She has presented work across a spectrum of mediums: installation, painting, performance, rhyme writing, and most extensively, 3D graphics and animation. We spoke with Janos about the social justice movement, and the unexpected positive consequences of the pandemic on her work and self-expression.
Shelley Holcomb (Curate LA): So starting off, could you please tell us where you’re from and how your art career began?
Huntrezz Janos: I’m from Los Angeles. I’m half Hungarian, half African-American. I actually spent some time living in Hungary, but I mostly grew up in Los Angeles and I’ve lived here for most of my life. I’ve been moving around in Los Angeles a lot so I don’t feel I’ve really had a certain part of Los Angeles that’s actually where “I’m from.” Moving around has always been part of my life. I’m moving right now, actually, I got a van! And that’s my little project for right now. I mean I’ve got a lot of projects in the works, but housing is definitely one of them.
I’ve always loved making art and I love all kinds of art — not just what I’ve been doing recently, which is 3D graphics and animation. I bought my first 3D graphics animation program when I was maybe seven — I saw it at Frys Electronics and saved up for a year, just gathering change. I knew that I wanted to make cartoons, so I got the program. I also used to make flipbooks and stop motion. I loved playing with my toys and making little films out of them.
Shelley: Can you talk about the mediums you’re currently using in your art practice?
Huntrezz: Well, I’ve been working a lot with AR to make filters on Instagram and also using VR motion capture.
I also make 3D graphics that are just viewable on your computer. For example, I’ll sculpt 3D models in virtual reality using Gravity Sketch on Oculus Quest to draw in 3D. Then later I can use that drawing in an animation — I can add motion, or do a dance or something in VR, and record that motion using Glycon [VR Mocap]. Then I put that on an animated character I’ve made and the animated character will be doing the same dance that I was doing. It’s using augmented reality and virtual reality to blend techniques to create animated video
I’m able to make these protest videos that are about things that I really care about because nobody’s telling me, “this is how you have to do it.” When I do get commissioned animations, I try to have them be aligned with what I believe in and my goals for my art practice.
I want to change people’s minds and make them think about the presumptions they may have about people like me.
Shelley: Tell me more about that — your goals and beliefs that are present in your work.
Huntrezz: I would definitely say that it’s activism-oriented. I want to change people’s minds and make them think about the presumptions they may have about people like me. I want people to see that there are a lot of beautiful things that can come from our differences. As a Black trans woman, I often feel like I’m not valued, or even not safe in this world. I use my work to showcase diversity and innovation in a way that you can’t deny. I’m also just trying to have some fun, you know. I want to spread joy and also create the representation that I want to see. I want other people that are like me to know that they’re not alone.
I’m a person with things I want to say, and oftentimes I feel I’m just not seen or heard…I’m used to being silenced.
I’m interested in exploring the relationship between reality and perception. And for me, the reality is that I’m a person with things I want to say, and oftentimes I feel I’m just not seen or heard. What will it take to really express myself through my art? Recently I’ve felt like I’ve been getting more support, which is great. It’s not something I’m really used to, you know — I’m used to being silenced.
Shelley: And how is that for you, this sort of influx of attention?
Huntrezz: It’s incredible. I’m getting more work now. I was teaching, you know, and I love teaching animation to other people and kids, especially kids that are like me (I’ve had trans students in class and teach in communities of color). But I also kind of had to do it for my own financial situation and it takes away time from my own art practice. I wouldn’t have been able to make those protest videos if I was having to teach all the time. Since COVID happened I’ve had more time to work on more projects. I’ve got some new projects coming out soon that I’m really excited about. I’m so happy I’ve had the opportunity to create them, and for meeting the people that I got to connect with to make them. I wouldn’t have been able to do those things if I was stretched as thin as I was before.
Shelley: Is police presence something that has always been in your work or is it a new reaction to what’s happening?
Huntrezz: I’ve made a few films about police brutality recently, but not all of my work has been focused on that. A video that I made called “Saturation City // Human Alone” was about my escapism, essentially. It intercut actors in an interaction with a police officer in a traffic stop situation with my own animations.
It fuels my fears just being here in Los Angeles and walking down the street.
Around the time of the recent Black Lives Matter protests, I would see all these cop cars — ten cop cars, back to back to back to back. And when I walk by, the cops are all just staring at me in my femme clothes. I don’t feel especially safe and they’re glaring at me. Clearly, I’m not on their side or whatever, just by the way I look, because I’m Black, because I’m trans, you know. I was feeling on edge. So it was really on my mind — when I was at the protests and they’re firing those rubber bullets at us and stuff — it was just really in my life and on my mind and I had to make a video about it.
And then I made a follow-up video that was all these LAPASD helicopters — LAPASD also needs to be defunded because they are spending crazy amounts of money on those. We have the most helicopters here in Los Angeles of any police force in the country. I mean, it’s just so annoying and really invasive. They shine lights into your home. They fly crazy low and at dangerous kinds of levels. They are just a huge nuisance as well as a kind of psychological warfare. It’s like living inside a prison and they’re not actually chasing anybody. They’re just flying around, waiting.
It’s not like I want [the police helicopters] to come crashing down and break the community that I live in. I just want them to stop.
So I made this other video where I’m at City Hall because that’s been a pretty central point of the protests; I’ve protested there. In the video, I climb to the top of the City Hall building after being attacked and lynched by the helicopters, and I freeze them all in midair, and they turn pink. I froze them because it’s not like I want them to come crashing down and break the community that I live in. I just want them to stop. So I can be myself without having to worry about people coming to hurt me.
Shelley: You often use yourself as the protagonist in the videos. Is that something you’ve always done?
Huntrezz: Well, looking back through some of my works I’ve noticed that even if it’s not exactly me, it often resembles me. Like, oh, it’s my face. If it’s not me, it’s still usually a person of color, or a queer person, or just somebody that represents a part of myself. I was doing all these virtual fashion garments and I was creating these characters that were really just computer-generated characters, not something that came from reality. So if it’s a black woman, it might not be exactly me but that’s a part of me. The face filters that I make for Instagram are also expressions of who I am. Not how I look, but they’re self-expression. It’s a computer digital version of what I wish I could present to the world as my face because I have this dysphoria about how I look sometimes.
I’ve gotten more encouragement, that it’s okay to be at the center of my own work, which I have sometimes felt like I shouldn’t do. But more recently I’ve felt empowered to put myself at the forefront of my own works, and I’ve gotten positive feedback about it. It really helps me with my self-esteem, about being who I am. And putting myself at the center of my work is not only giving power to myself, but also to those in my community, and those who are like me. I encourage anybody to not worry about haters or whatever. (laughs) And to just be yourself because it’s beautiful. You know, I watch my own videos because it feels like I really have climbed to the top of the City Hall building now, even though I haven’t. It feels like I was there like I really did those things. It feels so good to have that. So my work lately has focused on doing what I can’t do in this world but can do it on my computer.
I have freedom in the work that I’m denied in this life.
Shelley: I’m by no means an expert, but I feel like I don’t come across too many Black trans digital virtual artists who are doing VR, AR, all of these virtual mediums. Do you find that to be true?
Huntrezz: Yeah, I mean, I only know me and so I’m a big part. (laughs)
I feel connected to the animation community here in California because I went to CalArts. And even there, just to have somebody who’s Black would be great, you know, not even a Black woman or anything, let alone a Black trans person. The animation world is not very Black, you know. I don’t know any other Black trans 3D graphics artists and I feel like I know a lot of people — plus, I’m on the lookout, you know. I’d love to be introduced to more people that are.
Every year that goes by, there will be more people doing 3D graphics and virtual art because it’s becoming more and more accessible. That’s why I’m able to do it now — because it’s more accessible. I wouldn’t have ever been able to do VR stuff even just a couple of years ago because all of the VR headsets were so expensive. But now there are things like Oculus Quest, which is one of the cheaper ones that can still do 3D sculpting in VR. The price point has kept a lot of people out until now.
Shelley: It’s wonderful that it’s becoming more accessible. And you also said you were teaching trans students in your class — I mean, that’s how it starts.
Huntrezz: That’s why I wouldn’t ever want to stop teaching. But I would still love to be able to create my own art alongside that and not have to give up more of my time. I feel I have more time now. I did my first online workshop with the Tate Museum recently, which was such a blessing. They asked me to do exactly what I wanted to do. For example, I would just make more filters which I love to do because it’s expressing myself. And I love to teach and show other people how I do what I do.
I want to create an environment where virtual art isn’t this inaccessible thing, but is actually something that everybody can do.
I believe that what I’m doing, even though I have tons of experience, other people can hop on and do it themselves, too, even if they have no experience. A lot of people think, “3D graphics? Oh, that’s something I could never do.” But really, especially for younger kids, you know, they could hop on a computer and start in an afternoon.
Shelley: It’s really amazing that you are willing to share your knowledge because it’s very valuable; companies pay a lot for it. You are democratizing it, making it more accessible, and that’s really beautiful. I’d like to talk more about your collaborations and your affiliations with different communities.
Huntrezz: I am doing something with NAVEL which is so, so good. It’s going to be my first ever video game. I wanted to make something because I really miss galleries and going to shows and seeing people. So this will be a virtual performance in a virtual recreation of NAVEL. I borrowed my friend’s iPhone to make a 3D scan on the space, and I’ll be doing a kind of rap performance inside called “An Inorganic Nature.” It will be on the topic of nature and technology. You’ll log on like you’re playing an online video game, you’ll have a little character, and you’ll be able to talk to other people who log on while you’re there. Zoom meetings and stuff are cool, but I really miss going to an event, to a venue, seeing a performance, and being able to walk around and talk to different people. So that’s what it’ll be.
I feel like we were already kind of heading toward this technological revolution of social interactions online. Social media feels like a huge leap — and a flawed start — to that. [Artist] Jaklin Romine is a friend of mine who’s also at NAVEL. She did all these projects about the accessibility of art spaces. You know, for a lot of people going to art galleries isn’t really possible, whether it’s the time or access to transportation or something else. So something like this project I’m working on is great but it’ll just be a start.
I feel like the way that virtual reality is now will one day be antiquated. Social media will mean something completely different. It will be less “social media” and more…being social. And I think that the accessibility of technology will also expand in a better way, hopefully in a more environmentally friendly way, too, because we have not been great with that. The planned obsolescence of devices is awful for the environment.
Shelley: So I wonder what you think the expansion of technology means for performance art specifically. What is the future of performance when it’s a medium meant to be digested in the moment and in person?
Huntrezz: Well, for me, animation unlocks different avenues of performance that I could never do in person. This performance that I’m doing for NAVEL will involve plants growing out of my hands and the walls — things that I could never really accomplish. I mean, without the use of psychedelics or something. Also my own appearance, you know, I can really show myself in a way that I’m more comfortable with. It adds the freedom to do things that I could never do.
Certain avenues are being improved upon now because previously there wasn’t a need to have events be virtually accessible. But people need to interact. That’s why Zoom has blown up. But it’s not enough to just have a square on your screen. I think there will be other, better things.
I see the positive sides of this isolation.
Shelley: How has the pandemic and self-isolation affected your work?
Huntrezz: I see the positive sides of this isolation. I see the pandemic as directly tied to the social justice movement that we’ve seen in that a lot of people are unemployed now. A lot of people are at home and have more time to really pay attention to what’s going on, what’s been going on forever. So I would say that the social justice movement being so ignited by these terrible instances of police murders and the mistreatment of Black people and other people of color by the public — I feel like that’s given me the attention I didn’t receive before because I’m part of the oppressed party.
The isolation has also given me the time and space to work from home, to create these works that I had not created before. I could never have imagined doing an almost two-minute clip, or something of that proportion pre-COVID. Previously, I was doing these virtual garments, and literally, I would just make a garment and have the character do a movement and it would maybe be 20 or 30 seconds long.
It’d be one character, one outfit, no background — you know, just that. That’s all the time I had to focus on something of my own. But with all of this time and space and attention, I feel like it’s worth it for me to continue doing what I love to do versus having to do what other people want me to do. I’ve also spent more time learning and improving my practice, and I didn’t have that time before. So I’m still improving and learning new things, watching tutorials of new programs coming out, and developing skills that I would never have had time to develop before.
But the social evolution — I thank God for that because it’s bringing attention to something that I’ve been experiencing my whole life.
Shelley: And I really hope everyone just keeps that same energy.
Huntrezz: Yes. It’s so good. I was crying at the protests, it’s just so beautiful. And the energy is so uplifting. I feel empowered. I feel very empowered.
Shelley: What is something that you’ve discovered about yourself in quarantine?
Huntrezz: Aw, That’s such a nice question. I would say that I’ve discovered more self-love during quarantine. As I was saying before, I’ve really only been featuring myself in my work since quarantine, you know, and not hiding. I’ve discovered that I can be who I am and love myself.
I’ve discovered more self-love during quarantine.
I also created a gofundme for the van I mentioned earlier; I would have never reached out to my community like that before. I always felt like maybe that was the last resort, or that I shouldn’t do that because it’s weak, or that I’m not worthy of the community’s support, that it’s better served elsewhere. But I really felt encouraged that it was okay, that if I really do need housing it’s okay to reach out.
Big, big thanks to NAVEL because they’re incredible — it’s been a great place to work. It’s such a good feeling, just to go there. It’s just a calm, safe place where I can work on my art. The internet is really fast, too, which helps with all the files I’m working with on my computer. Transfer Gallery has also been super supportive. We have something in the works, a storefront project with my protest videos. Somewhere in public where it can really reach people — people who are out there even though it’s tough to be out there.
But yeah, I’ve discovered self-love. I would have never been able to do any of this before; I would have felt embarrassed or scared or like what I did wouldn’t matter. But now I feel so loved and supported by this whole community.
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