The French artist reflects on her world of underground music, post-structuralist philosophy and Black identity at MANIFESTO 2023.
Crystallmess, born Christelle Oyiri, is an artist, writer, musician, DJ and producer merging these disparate mediums into a cohesive whole with a singular ethos. She warps the familiar into the strange. She uncovers latent politics of the human experience and the joy that bubbles up through everything, bridging the gaps between theory and form.
Oyiri’s career leaves an impression of its own. She’s DJ’d with Frank Ocean during his Coachella performance, played around the world from Berghain to Primavera, and staged exhibitions from Glasgow to her native Paris. Her work often explores ideas related to postcolonialism, the realities of being a Black woman in France and the art world in general—but also the nuances that make up that identity.
At MANIFESTO, a three-day festival presented by Kaleidoscope and GOAT at Espace Niemeyer during Paris Fashion Week Men’s SS24, Crystallmess presents a series of artworks exploring these themes through multiple mediums. Below, Oyiri reflects on her multisensory world and the formative touchstones of her journey so far.
How would you describe yourself as an artist?
Crystal Mess: I think the term “multidisciplinary artist” doesn't really mean anything. I'm trying to explore this same thing over and over again in as many different mediums as I can.
What is this “thing?”
I first heard about you a couple of years ago via a mix you made, which was technically and artistically great, but also political in its exploration of the underground. Do you feel this political tension when you’re DJing?
When I DJ, I mostly black out. I barely look at people. I'm not super expressive. I'm trying to get really introspective but still relate to the crowd. Instead of really thinking about DJing consciously, I'm trying to be frigid with my DJing—obviously while trying to make people dance, because being a DJ is a very utilitarian art form. If you don't intend to make people dance, you should just leave the stage: Do not waste people’s time. Making people dance is something really spiritual and esoteric; they choose to concede or give away some of their power, and to be vulnerable and embrace movement. I'm not trying to be the Chuck D of club music; I'm really not trying to preach anything. I’m trying to show you how twisted I can make this banger and introduce you to a new way of hearing stuff that is familiar to you.
Making people dance is something really spiritual and esoteric; they choose to concede or give away some of their power, and to be vulnerable and embrace movement.
What did you listen to when you were younger?
I grew up in the suburbs in the south of Paris, an area home to a very influential rap group called Mafia K-1 Fry. I want to start with them because it was the first French rap CD that I got. It was very hybrid music. They had high-tempo filtered disco samples, but they also had lots of North African music and Caribbean influences. At the time, it was one of the highest-selling rap albums in France. I was 8 when that album came out. I grew up listening to a lot of rap like DJ Quik because I had big brothers—stuff a little kid had no business listening to—but I also had the luxury of just listening to what everybody was listening to, like the Spice Girls. And my parents, they were listening to mostly Haitian music, West African music, Zouk. My parents were going out to this club called Le Queen on the Champs-Elysées which was a techno club at that time.
So your parents, they were like us?
I wouldn't say that they were like us because they had regular jobs. My dad was a security guard at La Cité des Sciences and my mom was a hairdresser. But every Friday or every Saturday, when they could, they would go to the club. When I was 4, they took me to Notting Hill Carnival even though they couldn't speak English. It kind of changed my life forever.
I had, at an early age, the same experience going to Carnival and being like, "What the fuck?”
Carnival is very transgenerational. You have little kids and grownups, and nobody is left out; everybody made their own fun. The music was constantly banging; everybody's running around and I think that it kind of molded me. If I need to talk about what I was listening to as a teenager, I would say I was a MySpace queen, indie, new rave. It was the blog era, so everything was mixed.
I remember this time well: A moment of full musical possibility, even if not everything was good. Maybe lots of stuff was actually bad, but it was a true, open-minded way of consuming music.
It was very open-minded. I would spend hours and hours downloading stuff. I was ready for whatever. I was not looking based on genre. I was just on the internet all day. My mother would curse me out to stop using the computer!
I remember you talking about Baudrillard as an influence before.
I was more so talking about a very specific book by him about terrorism. This is a very complicated topic for people in the Western world, I feel. You cannot really do art about it. The Spirit of Terrorism by Jean Baudrillard gave me a lot of tools to understand the world that I'm living in right now as someone that was 22 or 23 during the 2015 Paris attacks and that went to New York as a kid.
When I was 4, they took me to Notting Hill Carnival even though they couldn't speak English. It kind of changed my life forever.
It's interesting because at the end of his life, he was interested in the question of the cell phone—I don't know if the first iPhone already existed or not—but he was already thinking about how much information a human can take in.
There’s a lot of prophecy in Simulacra and Simulation, too. Cell phones, too, are catalysts that make it harder to separate the real from the simulation.
You’re also working on visual art projects. Could you tell us about what’s coming up?
I’m working on my upcoming exhibition set to open next November, curated by Fredi Fishli and Niels Olsen at the Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture in Zurich. I will explore the idea of a “poisonous paradise,” drawing inspiration from my trips to Guadeloupe, where my mom is from, and the hidden necropolitics in the “French” Caribbean, a place that has been advertised as a leisure destination for metropolitan people yet has been steadily poisoned. I’m currently exploring these themes while including analog techniques like old holographic stuff from the ’80s and including them in more of an installation artwork, trying to merge music, visual art and performance together in a way that feels homogenous and natural for me.
Any new music to be released soon?
I’m currently finishing a new EP exploring vocal experimentations with a more narrative and collaborative approach to my work. I don’t want to say too much before it drops because music is about its immediate nature.