Interview with Deva Eveland
Danny Bracken is an American artist and musician who is a visiting artist at the International School of Beijing. He is also doing a Red Gate Residency, and will share his work on Saturday, October 28th during their open studios. A sample of his music can be found here.
DE: Let’s start with technology and nature. They sometimes coexist uneasily in our world. Do you see them as being in opposition?
DB: They often seem in opposition to each other. I’m of a mindset that whether we like new technology or not, it’s part of our lives. It’s inescapable. So I’m curious about how we find balance. How do we embrace the future while not forgetting our past? And how do we embrace nature without being Luddites? There are some really amazing things that technology has brought us, for example modern medicine and communication. But also some really negative things. I’m curious about how we find balance in these two things.
DE: Would you say you’re interested in giving the viewer an experience of the sublime?
DB: Someone else brought this up recently, actually. I don’t know…a lot of times my work is asking the viewer to slow down. To consider these things, to be considerate. We live in such a fast-paced world—
DE: Especially in Beijing.
DB: Sure, sure. So maybe there’s an element of the sublime in that world I’m trying to create, which is an invitation to slow down. To be attentive. Is that what you mean?
DE: I guess I think of the sublime as an experience, often associated with nature, that’s like an overwhelming experience that grabs you and fills you with awe for the universe. I don’t know if that’s the dictionary definition.
DB: Yea, for sure that’s part of what I want to happen in my work. But also to express some sort of tension. Maybe that’s not always super apparent in the work on a surface level. So there is that element of the sublime, but when you can get below the surface there’s also a tension between the past and the present and this uncertain future that we’re rushing towards as fast as we can. In my exhibitions, in my music making I want there always to be a little bit of tension too. I don’t want to just give people candy. I don’t want to make Thomas Kinkaid paintings. I’m not really interested in that, but I do want to give an open invitation to the audience. So maybe the sublime is an entry point for people that helps them slow down.
DE: I was curious about the piece with the growing grass. There is both grass that’s growing in the gallery and also a digital video image of grass. Grass is such a nostalgic thing. To me anyway, there’s this yearning for childhood, playing in the grass. And it also has this nature/technology dualism. But then I got to thinking about how the American ideal of the perfect lawn is in itself a pretty artificial thing. Anyway, I was just kind of curious about your take on this piece.
DB: Yea, it is about that dualism. The title of the piece is Is Always, from the expression “The grass is always greener on the other side.” It’s going back to that idea of idealization. I see the nature/technology divide in a similar context as a past/future divide. We want to think that driverless cars will save us or hyperloop will make all our problems go away. Or the new iPhone will solve or problems. Or contrarily we think, if I could only live off in the mountains somewhere and not have to have email, etc. So that piece was exploring that kind of tension of the grass always seeming greener. And I think we oftentimes go to extremes. Really, really embracing technology and the future and also having all of this nostalgia for the past. Just simple grass.
DE: And were people allowed to touch it?
DB: Yea, yea. That was kind of the point.
DE: There’s something primal about the tactile experience of touching grass.
DB: And that was the point, seeing the amazing qualities of both of these worlds. So the grass, you could touch it, it was really beautiful and green. But it also died. We had to water it. We had to keep light on it. There are all these things. Meanwhile, the projector just ran. You know? And it looked interesting and amazing, because it was projected using HD video onto this bulbous object. But there was no tactile quality to it. The past has amazing things to teach us and so does the future. We shouldn’t be afraid or run away from either one.
DE: I was curious about impermanence in your work, or—
DE: Yea. Do you sell your work? Is there anything to even sell?
DB: Not typically. There are a few things I’ve sold, small things. You know I do some large scale installations which aren’t really super marketable commodity based things. I’ve done a couple projects where there is screen printed material that’s part of the installation or some small scale-ish sculptures. But yea, it’s usually involving video and technology, not super commodity based. I am making music as part of my practice, so I do sell that stuff. That’s a thing that’s easily commodified. Whether it’s actual selling of physical albums or licensing. It’s mostly commission based. Installations, combinations of residencies. Some kids at International School of Beijing have asked me “Where is the project?”
DE: Where is the sculpture? Where is the painting?
DB: Well, and I’m like “It’s a sprinkler system that’s making this rainbow.” And that’s it. And I actually still have the sprinkler thing, but that’s all that is to the artwork and there’s a projector. Or there was another project that was basically a monitor that was embedded in two tons of stone. And I was like, yea those are just stones. We got rid of them afterwards. Nothing special about the thing. And I’m not going to keep two tons of stone around.
DE: So thinking about the residency you’re doing at ISB, do you find it easy or hard to explain your work to children? Or maybe it depends upon the age?
DB: It’s been kind of cool actually. I enjoyed it more than I thought I was going to. I do very little teaching. I’ve really enjoyed thinking about what is essential. When you’re talking to someone who is eight years old you have to get to the basics. Not to say that they’re not thinking about big things. I’ve had some amazing questions from nine year olds about what the art is about or just life things. But you do have to ground yourself in a different way than if you were talking to a room full of people with art history degrees. A lot of time it’s just talking about the materials. Part of this is because I’m working with very unusual materials so kids aren’t super familiar. They think of art when I did when I was a kid, art as being painting and drawing, and I don’t do either of those things really at all. So I’m just trying to expose them to the idea that you can make art with whatever. You can make art with grass seed. You can make art with glowing paint. So a lot of it is talking about material possibilities. Just touching a little bit on the conceptual underpinnings. I’ve been talking with kids as young as five, up to 17 probably. There’s a little bit of mental gymnastics to switch between those within the period of an hour. But I’m enjoying it. And it helps me to think about my work in a different way, because the art world is pretty insular (or can be).
DE: I agree.
DB: It’s kind of siloed. If you’re an educator, you’re an educator. If you’re an artist, you’re an artist. It only sometimes crosses over. I try to have a visceral quality to my works so there’s a kind of immediacy to it.
DE: Which is probably helpful in making it accessible to a wider audience.
DB: Yea, so Joe Shmoe off the street can look in the door, and there’s something that entices people in to investigate more. And if they just get the surface, kind of aesthetic thing about it, cool. They can walk away with something. But for me a really successful work has all these layers. It has the layer that’s pleasing to the eye. Or causes you to question the eye. But then there are other layers you can dig into. So hopefully there’s something that gets a nine year old in Beijing excited. But it’s not only that.
DE: I also wanted to ask, because you do both visual art and music. Are those two separate parts of your brain? Two totally different creative modes? Or does it all work together organically?
DB: That’s a good question, because for a long time I thought of them as very similar and then I was in a period where they felt very separate. I don’t have any training as a musician. My family’s really musical and I’ve played in bands since I was maybe 14 or 15. So it’s a very intuitive kind of thing I do when I make music. There are definitely conceptual underpinnings under some of it. But I just kind of do it you know. Whereas when I’m making an art exhibition, I spend much more time thinking than doing. I’m actually trying to get more in touch with how I work musically. I had an exhibition last year that was good on some levels but it was a little bit too conceptual. It didn’t connect well enough on the visceral/immediate level and I think that’s because I wasn’t in touch with my intuition as much as I’d like to be.
DB: Yea, and I’m always trying to find places where the two overlap. Whether that means a sound installation in a museum or if I’m putting a record out I can be really intentional about how it’s packaged and what the visual presentation is.
DE: It almost sounds as though your having no formal training in music is helpful in some way.
DB: In some ways it’s helpful, but it hurts me too. I’m not a great collaborator because I don’t speak the language of music. If someone says “Play that minor 5th on that chord,” I’m like “Let me Google that real quick…” I’ve been playing long enough that I can kind of figure it out but there’s a good side and a bad side to it. I’m not confined by a lot of the rules of music so I just think what sounds good to me instead of this is what you should do when you hit the 4th bar here, you should do the…whatever. But I’m grateful for the upbringing I had where music was just something you did. In some ways, a lot of my music is with computer so it could be categorized as electronic music but in a lot of ways it’s like folk music because it’s not coming from a training.