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Problem Solving With Brendan Fowler

The artist behind the legendary BARR tells Dazed why his need to solve life's problems has led to an enduring love affair with abstraction

When I first met Brendan Fowler a few years ago, after one of his gigs in London, the business card he gave me didn’t state an occupation. Instead, it read more like a list of things that Fowler could do for you, varying from public speaking and carpentry to healthy cooking. Unsurprisingly, his inter-disciplinary, conceptual practice as an artist spans from sculptural installations to half-day long drumming performances.

Having garnered an international cult following with his one-man-band BARR, a project that he describes as 'deconstructed pop' Fowler has been transitioning into visual arts with considerable success. His visual work, which started as 'extended ephemera' for BARR, quickly gained the attention of the art world, and 2009 saw a streak of exhibitions including his participation in the New Museum’s inaugural triennial 'Younger Than Jesus'. Talking to Fowler is like looking at his art – stream-of-consciousness narratives crash right through one another, as he answers five questions at the same time.

Dazed Digital: Can you tell me about your recent five hour performance at Rental Gallery?
Brendan Fowler: I was invited to propose a performance for Performa (the performance art biennial taking place in NYC), which was happening at the same time as my solo show in NY at Rental. I was already thinking about a percussison performance that would last for the duration of the show. There was no announcement as to what the performance would be. I was trying to pull apart the idea of what expectations are; what you're anticipating and how you engage with something when you don't know what it is going to be.

So it was this five hour thing, but..  I should back up…

All the BARR music stuff I did was very literal and heart-on-sleeve, something like a cross between a deconstructed pop band and spoken word. I've spent eight years focusing on that; travelling around and performing, playing at underground music venues, releasing records and CDs and participating in that whole dialogue. It was all about addressing the audience very directly; being as literal, explanatory and articulate as possible, and about being useful on some level.

With the visual or object-based work I've been doing, I am exploring different strategies for communicating, different strategies for problem solving; aiming at something more gestural and abstract. It's almost like taking on abstract painting. These crashing-frame pieces are based on an idea interpreted from improvised music – when a lot of people are playing together and it sounds totally wild and discordant, there's this 'crash' moment that sometimes happens in the middle of all the chaos, when everyone hits at once and creates this serendipitous, magical moment. These pieces are trying to freeze that; to distill and crystallize that moment where it all crashes together; to adapt that energy and create a narrative out of all these different elements. It's a compositional strategy.

Coming back to the performance, it was falling apart – the pieces look like they are falling-apart and the performance looked like it was falling apart too. I got up and moved the drums to different points and unscrewed them, so they would slide around the room. It was very pulled apart and dishevelled. Even just the duration of the performance meant to create that stressful moment, just as the work is a little stressful. Not painfully stressful, but more contemplative; just this little anxious space.

DD: So, where is all that stress coming from?
BF: I think when you're making work, whatever it is, and you work on it a lot and you're communicating about it, you often start using these reduced, short-hand terms. In describing my work, I say stress, because I talk about it a lot, but I don't really ever talk about where it comes from. I have an anxiety disorder, I get easily stressed out. I think it's funny, because I try to reduce stress in my life, I really don't get off on it. I have this brain wiring that I wish wasn't there. Looking at work, you notice some sort of tension and it's almost sublime.

DD: With BARR you were openly talking about all these different, often very personal, issues. Your visual work seems to me to be a different way of dealing with the same problems.
BF: Here's one thing that I have thought about a lot, and I think is interesting. Growing up in an underground music scene, like indie rock, or rave or whatever subculture people grow up with, people really participate in those cultures, they get really involved – play in a band, set up shows, become DJs. Whatever it is, they say, 'I'm taking control of my destiny, I'm not giving in to adversities, I'm forging ahead with this thing!' and they are problem solving. When you're writing music, or you're skateboarding, or whatever you're doing, you're problem solving and trying to figure out how to make life better; make it more what you want then the cards that you're given. That goes for the middle of America, or some shitty working-class town in England... anywhere.

Having grown up with that mindset, the transition into art has been very natural to me, as you have more problem-solving avenues available to you in quote-unquote capital-A art, you know?

I mean, how many times, and this is with no disrespect to anybody and it's crucial that people keep asking those questions, but how many times can you stage an underground show? In how many different ways can you release a record? How many times do you deconstruct a pop song? All these things are awesome and it's great people are still answering these questions, but when you get to the art thing, it's like, 'Wow, anything is allowed!' It's all open. You can make a record as a piece, you can stage a concert, make a sculpture or a book, you can make anything. I've been thinking a lot about how beautiful this progression is, when people find the level of commitment to whatever they're doing. It's so rad there are these options, you know?

DD: Did the music scene become too limiting for you?
BF: Yes, but it's still so crucial! I don't want to judge anybody, and I'm not trying to qualify things. Underground music saved my life as a kid and I feel so blessed to say that that’s the case. And I feel really blessed to say that I, possibly and potentially, could have made anybody else feel less alone by doing a performance in some small town in America. I feel very fortunate to have gone and played that role. But the problem solving aspects of art have drawn me to it.

DD: I like how you refer to art as problem solving. It seems to be a big part of what you're doing these days.
BF: It always has been, maybe it's a little more literal now. I think finding a niche where anybody will listen to you is very encouraging. I'm not trying to go on record saying I used to do that and now I do this. I feel fortunate that art exists in this world. Of course it does, how could it not exist? I like abstraction.

DD: You've been referring to your work as an abstraction, yet, to me, it is still very narrative.
BF: I can only speak of my experience with any semi-certainty, and I know that for me, it's coming out of doing BARR and being really so specific and almost militant about the need to personally be so explicit about everything I put out, saying 'This is this!'  I think spending so long doing that, I started to fall for abstract art as an opposite; I started picking it up as my new outlet. It started getting me more and more psyched. Abstract painting created for me a really dynamic stage that was safe, in so far that I felt comfortable yet it was also really challenging. Abstraction came into my own work in a very literal way as a negation strategy – I had a show coming up and I was trying to make these things, and it wasn't working. It was failing and there were all these shortcomings, so that abstract gesture started creeping into the work in that way... And I think it will continue to happen.

For me, incorporation of abstraction is coming from a conceptual place and it's strategic, and it's to satisfy more than just this sublime impulse. But if it can function in this purely visual, sublime way, then that's wonderful! It's really satisfying in being reduced to just gesture. So subtle, and complicated and simple at the same time. For me, it's a wonderful, generous space to go into.

Brendan’s two, recently published books: CANCELLED, published by 100% (www.onehundredpercent.biz) and
ISBN-10: 0-9820559-3-5, published by 2nd Cannons (www.2ndcannons.com) are available from selected stockists worldwide.