A Conversation with Christian Brown
Sound by DJs Spooky and Ambassador Jr
407, New York, New York
On February 16, 1997, 407 launched a trilogy of art/music events in their 14th Street loft. The events were constructed as recourse to other watered-down DJed soundfests which are accompanied usually with weak, easily forgotten art. The curators at 407 intended that strong music compliment strong art in an atmospheric exchange of light and sound. Such was the case with the opener of the series, Christian Brown, who presented powerful, mysterious work that could stand up to the resounding beats of the two DJs, Spooky and Ambassador Jr.
Upon entering the dark 407 space that evening, a thick chamber door emitted smoke, and green light diffused through its cracks and iron bolts. A colossal stone wall surrounded the door, creating a façade not only for Gilgamesh and his mead-swilling foes, but maybe for a speed metal band or any apropos fictional setting.
Strung through the dimly lit hallway leading to the DJs spinning were small works of an opposite approach. Under lit blocks of thick Plexiglas held quiet studies of tangled viscera. The transparent medium seemed to freeze alien appendages in a strange sort of alchemy. The series of work piqued a curiosity for the unknown, the arcane, and was aptly titled "Homunculus," meaning "a tiny man produced artificially (in a glass bottle), and hence endowed with magic power."
When I met Christian, both of us were wary of a staged conversation known as an "interview," and even more so if the topic would be so prickly and boring as art. In the conversation, I learned about his secret life as a lip-curling crooner--an existence that seemed to him so fictional and separate from his real life that he wouldn't divulge the band's name. We talked about art, but it was accompanied with a lot of laughter and disbelief. Every statement about "art and ideas" had already been said and was better left unrepeated.
I brought up Christian's secret life because it somehow circumscribes his artistic approach. He explores artifice with playful irreverence in order to elude containment. What he does not feign, and couldn't if he tried, is a pretentious intelligence or self-congratulatory brilliance in his ideas. He explicitly states without regret, "I'm not smart enough to be a conceptual artist." Without assigning meaning, Christian wants his work to resonate in a silence that we both decided would, ironically enough, negate this interview. In the end, I came to understand Christian on simple terms--he approached his work lovingly because he liked the feeling and look of it, and hoped others would do the same.
Part I: Love
Christian Brown: Maybe this should be a seduction piece.
Michelle Lopez: You mean flirt?
CB: Yeah, but I'm so bad at flirting . . . (long pause) Why don't you say it was love at first sight and then just write a porno piece? People forget about love.
ML: I think that would be more like smut.
CB: Give the people what they want. Gotta give them smut.
Part II: Ed McMahon
CB: Little boys are sticky and awkward.
ML: You were a little boy?
CB: Yeah, I was sticky and awkward. From eight to 12 or 13, I was a husky, chubby kid and used to get shit for it. I won an award as I was leaving elementary school for "Class Clown and Artistic Achievement." It's true.
ML: Yeah. The artist marginalization: as clown you're separated, classified as fool, the wise fool.
CB: A terminal specialness. And people have always put that on me. First grade, I had a teacher who loved me but put my desk by the door so she could tell me to get out of the classroom faster. Fifth grade, I had a teacher who had his classroom laid out where he'd have his desk here, everyone else's was there, then next to his was the president of the week's desk (a new classmate each week), then next to the president's desk was me. I was able to sit in back of him and tack stupid things on the wall.
CB: He wanted it that way. It wasn't a punishment spot. I was Ed McMahon. I was his personification but in the classroom.
Part III: Dungeons & Dragons
After a futile attempt to get Christian to pin down his work:
CB: Tell me. What do you think of the stuff?
ML: Your work? I liked looking at the "Homunculus" series because they were hermetic, self-contained. I saw them as synthetic biopsies of other worlds, encapsulated specimens . . . mysterious. I liked them simply because I didn't know what the hell they were: beauty in the grotesque. And that's what kept me. It has the uncanny quality that keeps me looking at work in a gallery for more than just a glance. It brings in vaguely distinct forms but only to the level of twisting them, turning them on its head, and taking any recognition away from the viewer. The door on the other hand felt too much like Halloween. Maybe that was good for you . . . but it was too much of a stage set for me.
CB: Well, I do that for a living.
ML: [surprised] You do? Well that makes sense. What sets do you make?
CB: Right now I'm building the Wu-Tang Clan European Tour set.
ML: Who's Wu-Tang Clan?
CB: They're a band something like Onyx. Surreal and hard.
ML: So what will it look like?
CB: It's going to be a two-block city street, 45 feet long, two platforms that spin, one platform static with a sidewalk, and a subway that comes across through it. Not sure if the subway will be real yet, but we do have a Chevy Caprice smashed through a wall.
ML: What other sets have you done?
CB: Mainly theater sets. I don't know how many.
ML: It makes sense in terms of your work, in terms of its hyper-reality. There's an immediate awareness of the piece as just a stage set, simply because of the context. And that understanding offsets a kind of denial, denying the viewer of his/her desire for the real thing: art, reality, whatever. The understanding that it's humorously fake must be part of it somehow.
CB: It mirrors itself. It's an exaggeration of the thing that it is. It's a representation of mystery but it's completely fake. I'm into irony.
ML: The beauty of someplace like Las Vegas is that everything is set in hyper-reality. It has to be taken for what it is: fake, over the top, fluorescent, really beautiful in its extreme. So theme-ridden. Disneyland too, the first theme park, has a brilliant way of carrying out the details of a specific theme. A chair for a ride will have the most obscene chain for, say, the Dungeons & Dragons ride, but it's absolutely appropriate.
CB: Speaking of . . . I'm into the idea of Dungeons & Dragons. It's an easy perversion for me. It's interesting to see people take on roles like that and observe where they choose to take themselves in those peculiar personas. A lot of people that I grew up with were familiar taking themselves to those fantasy places and those were usually the nerds and the spazzes . . . I'm kinda like that. [grins]
ML: That game has some pretty intensely complicated structures.
CB: Well, there's this wild place right where I used to live, near Plymouth Ave. It's called NERO (New England Role-Playing Organization). It has a headquarters right . . .
ML: "Role-playing" is the name? Seems so explicit.
CB: They don't care. I don't care. In springtime they get out on the streets all dressed in felt, plastic swords, tons of people. They all come out of the woodwork, running through the streets, throwing spells on each other. You'll be out in the streets near projects in Brooklyn. They're yelling numbers at each other while fake fighting. And some people have magic, these things called "play ghosts," a piece of fabric with something in the middle tied onto them that they throw as spells.
ML: Do you know what the spells are?
CB: I don't know what the hell is going on but that's cool. I like seeing them have a good time because it's so weird. I went there for a tour once and there was this woman selling books on the subject, all kinds of games, more plastic swords. She told us they usually hold these events once a month. We asked to go on a tour so she took us to this big warehouse space in the basement. They set it up different ways all the time: pieces of fabric or hunks of wood for example, to make labyrinths. You'll walk down a hall of fabric, then you'll turn a corner and see a fake bar with plastic things with old wine in them from the last role-playing time. And people hang out down there, with no windows, play dress-up, hang out and drink, and then go down the hall where there's a fight with a magician or an ork. I wanted to show up with fucking aluminum foil on myself and bring in a transistor radio and sit in a corner. I'd say, "I'm from the future and I'm here to observe." They would say, "Oh, ye man from the future!" [in echoing robotic baritone] They talk like that, truly.
ML: They would have taken you right in.
CB: I want to go someday and hear them say [again in the same robotic voice] "We will zap you if you approach us with your primitive weapons . . . hairy man!" [grins] I always came from places like that.
ML: Fictitious realities. I grew up near a historic battlefield park in Virginia and they would always do these Civil War re-enactments. It was a traveling sub-culture constantly in costume, the entire family--the soldiers, women in tow, the children in bloomers. They would set up camp for the weekend with their tents and their petticoats. The men would go and shoot off these fake cannonballs and have a fake bloody war. They set up a whole spectacle. People would come in and watch the men in suits pretend to die. On those weekends, our window panes would shake from the cannons firing.
CB: It's an interesting parallel. And that's what I mean, a lot of people are communicating these days via fictitious realities.
ML: Like the chat boxes on the internet where you can become anyone just through language, just through invention. A twelve year old kid can play-act as a porn star.
CB: That's entertainment, escapism . . . art. Basically, I think all entertainment is fictitious realities, and as an artist you're always an entertainer.
ML: So art's entertainment?
CB: For me it is. Today it is. Tomorrow it might not be. I may not have believed it yesterday . . . . I hope my stuff's entertaining. Art's a strong organism. It's this connection we currently have, and it's getting stronger and stronger. Basically, we've gone from little villages and clusters to a weird sphere of entertainment, pleasure. A sphere approximately six feet thick covers the entire world.
Part IV: Science Project
ML: You said earlier that you were interested in the Laws of Infinity. Can you explain?
CB: They proved in the '50s that ammonia, hydrogen, nitrogen--no, oxygen (this is loosely based, mind you) were the first elements to exist on the earth, and if you expose them to energy, electricity, they actually begin to form proteins. It's basic knowledge, but weird how they set up a mini-ocean and recreated all of the elements it could exist on its own. They're setting up the basic structure of life. There it is. We keep trying to get to the first lightning bolt or sonic, cosmic ray, or first volcanic reaction that started off proteins and colloids to create life. It doesn't make any sense in terms of evolution. We are always trying to get that first structure to make itself again. Everything has or will exist. You may have existed before but with blue eyes. That's another tangent, but still all related to the Laws of Infinity or Thermodynamics. In art we replicate things so convincingly that everything begins to look the same. There is no distinction.
ML: You have notion of art as a "Superior Organism."
CB: If you look at what someone's made in terms of traditional things, painting and sculpture, it becomes a more lucid state of matter than you are. Which is smarter? You or the created form?
Part V: Pop
CB: It's fun to have no head.
ML: It's better to have no head.
CB: It doesn't work when you have a head.
ML: Specifically, for something visual. It's an old idea . . .
CB: Yeah, like being a pop star.
ML: Did you dream, like every other kid, about being a rock star?
CB: It was another world. I thought I'd let someone else be a rock star. I used to aim higher. And I think I've achieved that higher state because now I think can be a rock star. I think anyone can if they're smart enough, and at the same time are involved in a lot of other things.
ML: I think everyone wants to be a rock star--always the fantasy of getting behind the glass shield of the mic and becoming someone else . . . or everything you ever wanted to be.
CB: Yeah, it's fun. You become possessed.
ML: I was reading an article in The New Yorker about a 14 year old kid. All of these record companies are clamoring for him because he has all the star qualities for rock fame: the stage presence, the moves, affectation. It was speculated that his talent had nothing to do with genius, but with a careful study of everything he'd seen on MTV.
CB: Yeah. When you have a frame of mind to be an artist as impresario (which is an old idea), you're given a lot of freedom. Being a pop star wouldn't be the end for me. You can be a pop star and come from this interloping frame of reference. And that can be a lot of fun.
ML: I don't know if kids want to be rock stars anymore. It's almost too common.
CB: I used to wonder what happened to the punks. I don't think they're personified clearly in high schools anymore. Alternative mainstream.
Part VI: Craze
CB: When I was a kid I wanted to be a zoologist. Seemed natural to study things around you. It's concrete, mysterious. It's life . . . I was into biology, the sciences. I used to dream about making animals. Basic robotics: study animals that existed and recreate them. I liken artists to the "Mad Scientist" notion.
ML: I visited the Willhelm Reich Museum, actually his home in Rangeley Maine. Reich (who devised the Orgonomic Theory) had this crazy house. He architecturally designed the house facing a certain direction to get the proper energy. Inside the house are all these manic, phantasmic, awful paintings he's created and all these wire inventions that are pretty much simple science projects, all related to his orgasmic theory. You could sense a definitive fantasy world that Reich created and believed in. There are even these letters displayed from the US Patent Office, rejecting his theory on "insufficient grounds." But he believed in it enough to register it, mark it somewhere . . . at least try. And that's enough . . . simply by the pure obsession. The belief in what he did allowed him to exist in that kind of world. Some people might call it pathetic.
CB: But what have they got? Boring lives.
ML: It brings up the issue of happiness. Who said the Heaven's Gate followers were wrong?
CB: Exactly, I thought it was awesome when I heard about it. I cheered them on. You know the "assassins?" I'm bad with specifics, but, the old man of the mountains, somewhere Mid-East, 1500s. Basically, this guy loosely related to Mohammed started a temple. In order to get a following and cultivate his beliefs, he would take potential recruits to his palace, cook them a good dinner, get them high as kite until they passed out. He had this valley filled with fountains, gardens, naked women. He would leave them there for two to three days to enjoy. Then, he would manipulate them into believing that that was "paradise." He would say "I can get you there again in the after-life, so do whatever I say." And they did. The assassins were renowned for their skill of killing people because of their extreme devotion to this guy. That's the etymology of assassin. They "believed" and I like that idea.
New York, New York