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DETROIT — Sound artist Jon Brumit takes very little at face value. He seeks not only to reimagine the spaces where he works, lives, and performs, but also to ideally leave them in a better state than he found them. While increasingly recognized as a standout artist by some of Detroit’s most venerated art institutions — receiving a 2013 Kresge Fellowship in Visual Arts, as well as a Knight Arts grant for his 143FM project — Brumit still marches entirely to the beat of his own drum set, making art that challenges the borders of media to the point of creating a kind of synesthesia. During an interview over 10pm coffee, we talked about his daring escape from the cultural wasteland of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and some of his greatest hit projects — including the annual “Bring Your Own Big Wheel” street race in San Francisco and the “Sound House” space he helped develop in Detroit’s Benglatown neighborhood. What emerged was a diffuse but detectable thread through Brumit’s work, which offers a challenge to institutional thinking, and tries to create dynamic spaces that encourage people to communicate, and most of all, listen.
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Sarah Rose Sharp: Can you walk me through some of your art history? Whatever you think is cool and relevant.
Jon Brumit: I studied painting, but even in undergrad I was doing performance and video, and they didn’t know what to do with me, exactly, because I was at University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, with no video editing facilities. But they would let me screen things in the auditorium, on projectors, and they had multiple VCRs in the booth, and so I figured out how to edit stuff from the camera to one or both VCRS — totally analog. And I think my first performance was doing a snare drum concert in the elevator of that building; it just went from the first floor to the second floor of that building — there was no other destination. It was called “Going Up/Going Down,” and I would stand there with the earplugs, trying to give people earplugs — you know, it’s quite small. And that was funny, because I had never experienced that.
SRS: How long did it take you to get into more performance-based stuff?
JB: After undergrad, I felt like I was so self-absorbed, I quit painting, and I quit making art. I got rid of all my art supplies, all my paintings, all my music equipment, and started doing construction, just labor. But then after about a year, I just sort of noticed it wasn’t just doing labor, it wasn’t just building. Somehow there was this conceptual or theoretical — this overarching narrative forming around my work.
To amend is to add positively to — a lot of my time as a kid was totally different. I was not leaving places better than when I left; I was leaving them worse than when I got there. And so it was partly this moment when I realized that I could make and change objects, and make them more functional and more beautiful — and it was also based on a relationship with a person or a family, in a house — and so it was like building and it was like painting and it was like a sculpture. It was like my version of Ben Kinmont washing dishes, where he just washed dishes for people. And it was powerful, like, oh, there are so many other ways to be creative.
Music was basically the first for me, and painting and performance and sculpture were always just part of the mix somehow. I studied painting, but only because that’s just what I knew to call what I did, because I didn’t know I could or should tell [people] I did performance, or whatever. I grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee — it’s not like the world was at my fingertips.
SRS: I grew up in the Bay Area — I think being an artist is sort of a “coming out” process no matter what, you know?
JB: Growing up in the Bible Belt, which I would consider oppressive, socially, I had tried all these mechanisms — either sports, or my sisters went to church down the street, I tried going to the church on young people’s nights, or whatever — and nothing, just none of it was clicking. And then when I was 13, I had a Black Flag record, My War, and I listened through headphones, and it was the first moment I felt like I wasn’t alone. And that was really incredibly meaningful. And I didn’t know where they [Black Flag, and bands like them] were, or what they were, but I just knew they were out there, and it was my job to figure out how to find them.
SRS: Right — well, there’s really a difference between the feeling of, “this isn’t working for me,” and, “Oh, there’s another option.”
JB: Yeah, like, the “Big Wheel Race.” This is me, moving to the Bay Area with [my wife] Sarah [Wagner, also an artist]. I was driving down MLK or Market Street, coming back from West Oakland, and saw a big wheel in the garbage, and had one of those moments that was like, “Oh, I should race that.” We [artists] train ourselves to not edit, so that every thought can just float around until it finds either the right place or the right time or the right material. We are more open to most things than other people.
I went to Cranbrook for painting —
SRS: What year was that?
JB: It was like ’95 or ’96 — I started Cranbrook in ’97. And it’s not like I was really straight out of Cranbrook, painting, but I was doing circuit bending and video installation the whole time I was there. And I was really inspired by the history of abstract painting. Really inspired by Daniel Buren’s painted, striped installations as they became more like installations that conformed to the spaces of existing structures — actual, used structures or whatever, and not just galleries or museums. So all my painting installations started to look like corporate interior design. And I didn’t really know how to talk about that, because it looks like when you go to a museum, and it’s all the painting [preparation work] that happens before you put the art in. My installations looked like that, but then they had some things in them, and I would do performances in those spaces, and then I would shoot a video of that, and then I would show that in a space that was unpainted adjacent to the painted space. At that point, I felt like my job was to complicate things as much as possible. Just to keep building in this way where it’s additive.
SRS: Well, that’s funny, because you look at a discarded Big Wheel and you’re like, “Why not?” but then you look at a finished gallery space, and you’re like, “Why?”
JB: At some point I decided that I was so tired of making paintings and installing them, saying, “Okay, here you go,” and then walking away and having no idea what might happen. Maybe I would hear about it from somebody in a week, maybe I’d hear about it in a couple years. And I just remember thinking, I’m not really sure I’m okay with that kind of structure.
SRS: You wanted a feedback loop?
JB: Well, I really wanted a feedback loop. Yeah. And I wanted to work creatively with people. I like talking to people, but I also like making things. And for me, it needs to be a balance of the two for me to feel like I’m really fully present or fully engaged. That’s when the conditions are most conducive to learning and real exchange, or something.
SRS: Is it that the object is no longer the output, but the experience is the output, or the social connection is the output? What are you seeking? Can you boil it down to a thing? If you’re trying to make something, what are you trying to make?
JB: Yeah, it’s just one part of the whole process. I think … listening is just as important as making.
SRS: So, your performances are an opportunity to learn something, or hear something?
JB: Well, I definitely favor things where I’m challenged. Either to learn a new skill or to grow in some way. And I definitely feel really strongly about sharing skills, you know, laterally. Institutional critique with me is pretty deep. It’s this way that we engage with the normal world. We’re consumers and there are certain roles for us to play, and we as artists have a chance basically to question and criticize the value of that —
JB: Yeah, disrupt. Or love and celebrate, or behold —
JB: Reinforce those things. But mostly what we can do is refuse, and we can chart a different course. And for whatever reason, that’s really empowering. So in some ways, I think growing up in sort of a place where I felt like I was kind of in the middle of nowhere, for me — all I wanted to do was play music and ride my skateboard. I’m not a tortured misunderstood artist, I’m just a dude who wanted to do some shit, and I didn’t know how to do it. So I was frustrated, because I was like, how the fuck am I supposed to do this? So I did all this other stuff. And then what I realized, oh, if I’m teaching, and somebody asks me how do you do something, I’m like, “Oh! Here’s what I know about what you can do.”
We have a chance to create this lateral network of people sharing stuff, helping people do what they want to do. And I think that’s really powerful. But that’s totally not hierarchical, and that puts me at odds with a lot of organizations or structures that exist out there, that I find maybe I don’t really support their practices. If somebody is a collaborator in my project, I’m going to list them as a collaborator. If I do an event and somebody’s playing music at the event, they get listed. So being critical of those structures is part of my practice, and I can’t get away from that. As much as I don’t want to, and I think, oh, I’m so critical of this stuff because I’m a bitter, jaded old man who doesn’t shave anymore — but the truth is, I like helping people. I’m in this whole thing to make more friends. I like making friends, that’s awesome.
SRS: Let’s talk about your recent project “Sound House.”
JB: The “Sound House” was an opportunity to have a longer time frame to work on a project, and at a larger scale — turning a whole house into a speaker. I had never considered that. And it was only through working in the house to try to make sense of those paintings [on the walls of the house] as music scores, that I decided I wanted to make the house make vibrations that communicated that as the sound.
SRS: Wow, so it’s like a painting that broadcasts audio?
JB: In a way, yeah. And that’s one of those unwitting, not face-to-face collaborations, because Retna and Richard Coleman painted the paintings inside the house. That was their first time collaborating on a painting together, and then I walk in, maybe a couple weeks after, and I just have this kooky Rain Man moment, where I don’t know what I’m thinking, but basically I’m like, “Oh I need to make music here.” It already makes music to me. And you know, meeting with Mitchell [Cope, of Power House Productions] and saying, “I want to make music in that house and do a sound installation in there, do concerts and do a double-album or something crazy,” and he’s like, “Oh, let’s get you a key.” It was just that easy. There’s no reason to think that we should be doing anything else.
At some point, the houses are there — they’re a resource, you know? Let’s use these, and we can board up the houses that should be boarded up, instead of other people coming in and deciding what to do with them. And using art and design and stuff to sort of confuse people, so they keep moving, maybe — instead of bars, you have silver drips down a black façade — that’s a little something different. That’s not a normal house, and I think that’s pretty powerful.
SRS: It’s a different kind of intervention.
JB: It’s a different kind of intervention, and it’s a different way to be a neighbor, and it’s a different way to care for your neighborhood and to care for — just depends on what you’re looking for, really.
SRS: Right. Like “Discarded Big Wheel.”
JB: Yes. And, yeah — here you don’t pick it up and put it in your truck — you go live in it.
SRS: Your canvas got bigger. Or, your materials changed.
JB: Yeah, the opportunity to identify other things as resources and as materials in this town is so much more possible, so much quicker than in other places.
SRS: In terms of gentrification, I think artists are the divining rods. Like, we just point towards water. We just feel that it’s there. We’re looking for space, and low cost of living, and inspiration, and when we find them, we’re like, yep! And business people are good at pattern recognition, so when they see a bunch of divining rods pointing somewhere, they’re like, “There’s water down there.” And then they come in and drill to the water, but they can’t find it without some kind of indicator.
JB: Yeah, that’s a great analogy. I like that. The “Sound House” was really good. I’m glad I did it.
SRS: And now you’re making a mobile one?
JB: It will be more portable, yeah. I don’t own the “Sound House,” so that’s hard to work in a place for three years, and walk away from it. So I just thought I felt like I’ll make a smaller version that I can take apart and move to some other place, if somebody wants to host it, or whatever.
SRS: Your piece “Escape from Weed Mountain” at Art X was about sound as well — the installation loosely mimics a festival campground, but then there is audio emerging from each tent, so it’s actually a sound collage, right? There was a lot going on.
JB: Yeah, 30 channels of audio. Some audio, some loop records that I cut on shaved acrylic, and then also feedback loops with either electrified cymbals or the guitar — or there was a feedback loop that went through the guitar, through the strobe light, through the guitar, through the amps. And then sending those amps, splitting the signals so that a little tent would have a little Honeytone amplifier in it, a larger tent might have two channels of audio. If it were a two-person tent, it would have two channels of audio. So you would have this experience with this instant, accidental community of people, where there’s a way of experiencing it — you are mixing it, as you choose to walk through the space.
So it’s trying to conflate and compound all these different narratives. Media, camping, nature — yeah, drugs. Trying to achieve peace and oneness, to the point where I offer the piece to say: my only way through all this insanity is to try and meditate. Just focus on one sound at a time, and then focus on two sounds at a time. I understand people are trying to heal and be okay with all these different mechanisms. All I can do is listen, and just try and be silent and pay attention.
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