Precious Okoyomon, “think of the body as ash spilling an orbital road,” 2021
An endless poem written into the blockchain
View think of the body as ash spilling an orbital road in the K21 gallery here →
Texts on Precious Okoyomon — and there are increasingly many as curators around the world keep offering Okoyomon their venues, praise, and awards; one after another, sometimes overlapping — often point out that Okoyomon is a poet, chef, and artist. A cultural triple threat. Though the list could easily become a litany — they are a playwright, too — or perhaps be bottled down into, simply, poet, as it might have been in a different age. The Greeks thought poetry the seed of all arts, poiesis being the creative impulse itself. And like those of antiquity, Okoyomon recognizes that the words often come from elsewhere.
They can’t help but write them. Okoyomon sees poetry everywhere, scribbles it anywhere, leaves it all over the place. They are its midwife, the channel through which characters — physical, immaterial, encountered, and invented — share their lyrics. Okoyomon is their mother, the one that draws them out and into environments that make them sing. They have always wanted to create an everlasting poem, one that goes on forever and lives undying. Now they have.
think of the body as ash spilling an orbital road is their first NFT, a poem they wrote and then recorded in their own voice. Working with an illustrator, Okoyomon put their words into the mouth of the sun. An animated, jovial but knowing, fuzzy sun. A Sesame Street character on fire, it shakes its head as it mouths Okoyomon’s words, not to say “no” but to shower them on the flowers that sway below like backup dancers keeping the beat. Forever in flames, always happy, illustrating Okoyomon’s realization that “cuteness is violence.”
Okoyomon’s been drawing flowers, and with flowers, for some time. Sometimes with dirt; sometimes with ashes. Marrying fire and vegetation is something Okoyomon does. They burned the kudzu weed — to some an invasive species, to others a survivor against all odds — that they used in a show in Frankfurt to rain down as ashes on New Yorkers. They grow entire ecosystems, whimsical and haunting environments, temporary playgrounds for the more-than-human, which we get to visit. It’s all one big ritual, all one long poem. To a trained eye, Okoyomon’s magic is profound. It makes you wonder who they were in another life.
Okoyomon’s NFT will be extended with their forthcoming XNFT, a collaboration with the gpt-3 AI. Sharing their original words and developing a rapport with the AI, they will then turn the pen over to the machine. The subsequent lines will be written by the AI with Okoyomon as its shepherd, passing the torch of mediumship as they become the mother to yet another character. Each new line will be a new NFT, creating a serial poem written into the blockchain that will extend as long as there are custodians wishing to mint them.
If every poem is a spell — they are–and its distribution a ritual — ditto–then what will be the result of a collective incantation that pairs flesh and silicon distributed across the globe? What if Elon really does extend the blockchain into space, bringing Okoyomon’s sun to the Moon, to Mars? What might they conjure? Whom will they touch? Whom will they save?
We discuss this and more in the interview below.
Can you tell us how your practice as a poet began?
I feel like I’ve been writing poetry for as long as I can honestly remember. When I was a kid, I would write poems all the time and hide them in the ground and leave them places. I’ve just been writing poems as my form of communication and my prayers for a long time. I would write little poems and give them to my mom. I would write down everything in my little journals and give them to people as a way of learning to create language in a different way. They became a form of expression and safety for me.
You have a series of poems called sky songs. How did they come into being and what makes them different from your other poems?
The sky songs came after I took a year off from writing poetry. I only wrote in my journal and these are very private things just for me. And then I started writing these prayers that kind of felt like songs to the sky, and thus the sky songs were born. I see them as meditation rituals that I would say out loud while I was walking around the city, and then they formed the longer sky songs. Now there are about fifteen of them. They’re so fun and so special to me. Why wouldn’t you make love songs to the sky?
You published your first book of poems, Ajebota, in 2016. Your next book, But Did U Die, is coming out this summer. You’ve often described your poetry as offerings and being intrinsic to your practice as an artist.
Well, everything is a long poem for me, so whatever space I’m in these poems exist in their everyday life. I remember when I first moved to New York, I was completely unsettled and disassembled in a body. And I would run around writing these poems and hide them and leave them in parks, like a frantic squirrel or something. Little ripped up shreds of poems. If you would find one, it would always have a doodle on it or something. Now, sometimes, I feel like the poems have evolved into me whispering a prayer to a flower. The poem never ends. It’s an ongoing series of invocations that I’m trying to breathe out into the world or back into myself.
You’ve often talked about how, moving from Nigeria to America, you felt completely displaced, but you found a home online. How has growing up on the Internet influenced your writing style?
I remember there was this phase where it was like my birthing on the Internet. It was when I was coming out of writing in a journal and instead started making these PowerPoints for my family that turned into a household blog. I don’t know how my stepdad discovered it, but he found the blog on the family computer and he was totally shocked that I had a secret blog about the family. I was like, yes, of course. I then had to show them the different PowerPoints and how they went along with the blog. So I discovered my own Internet first through talking with my family.
Did you create the family blog as a new way to communicate with them?
I felt like no one in my family was listening to me, so I decided, I’m making a blog where I’m going to post all of my feelings and ideas and they could check on it weekly if they wanted to. I was ten years old. I was so happy the Internet existed. The Internet has always been my home, to be honest. I was obsessed with the dial-up sound; it’s always been a way to discover a new form of language. I really got to look at it molding me or me entangling with it, and to see the possibilities it could create breaking down and re-creating language, playing with how we relate with each other. And there are so many forms of community on it, and possibilities. I’ve always felt like the Internet is for everybody.
Throughout your work, you’re trying to create spaces for acts of joy and celebrations of love, whether that’s through your poetry or through your installations or your practice as a chef. They are all deeply entangled and you don’t see them as separate realms. What interests you in creating these ecosystems?
When I began to make spaces and create environments, they became another place for the poem to live in. I was thinking, how do I give a poem flesh? I’m always looking for a way to transmute the past, language that is always failing itself. I’m trying to get as close as I can to that physical thing that moves you. Sometimes language does that and sometimes it fails continuously. I’m trying to get back to that. A moment or a space or trying to stop time, to re-create a memory or a certain feeling or trying to hold or capture love. It all feels like the poem. Honestly, there’s never a moment where the poetry starts or stops. It’s just one drawn-out, long poem that I keep scratching and ripping apart and making into spaces or sometimes meals or whatever needs to be incarnated or swallowed or regurgitated. It’s not predetermined; it’s whatever form it needs to take that day.
Can you tell us about your interest in geology and working with organic matter in your installations?
We need to break down and destroy our concepts of how we see linear time. I’m looking to create space beyond, new horizons where we can dream ourselves outside of time. I’m looking for liberation from time, something more freeing. ’Cause time isn’t linear. It doesn’t flow in a straight line. I think we need to start thinking about all the blur space in between.
For your first NFT, think of the body as ash spilling an orbital road, you’ve created the first never-ending poem on the blockchain.
I’ve had this dream of creating a poem that lived forever and would regenerate itself into new forms. I’m now making an endless poem that will live on the blockchain forever. The video that goes along with it is my flowers. I’ve been drawing these doodles that I would write everywhere. And now they’re these little flowers burning in the afterlife of the world in the video, the afterlife of the always already world. So they’re reading out this poem called “orbital road.” There’s something to it just going on forever. I love the idea, the poem, living on past everything, forever on the Internet.
Can you tell us about the different characters that appear in your drawings and sculptures?
Over the last few years I’ve started thinking that cuteness is violence, like these adorable flowers burning in a world that is always on fire. They never get a break from the fire. I love creating a space for them where they get to live in this absolute horror but they’re always smiling. Always. Even the sun, always on fire with itself, and always happy and giggling. It’s been really interesting, diving more into their world. I’m starting to think about their lives and who they are and the poems they read. Giving them actual life has been so funny because I only imagined them as fragments and now they’re starting to have a story. They’re actually poems that I’ve written accidentally.The words are always bouncing around and whatever thing they throw themselves into, I’m always surprised. I’m like, oh, the miracle of the poem regurgitating again.
How have you manifested your poems in physical installations?
The End of the World was a really special play I made at the Serpentine Pavilion in 2019. I worked with an amazing cast of all Black women to invoke the end of the world. It felt very special reading these little poems that I hadn’t heard spoken other than spoken for me. It felt like a prayer or a spell, and the tension and weight that it created made me realize the power of the words. It was just a different way to look at poems. Then I got to make Earthseed at MMK Frankfurt, which then became the Performance Space exhibition in New York because I burned all of the kudzu weeds cuts from the earlier exhibition. They shipped them to me from Germany and then we made it rain inside of Performance Space. The ash was falling and the poem continued on, and then the craziest thing happened later on: the ash created its own type of fungus in the room. The livelihood of the death continued. So even at the end of the world, after you’ve burned everything, there is still a continuity, like life will always reform. Continuous regeneration, endless forever.