Interviewed by: Jennie Lamensdorf
Art-in-Buildings recently sat down with artist Brent Birnbaum and art dealer Elizabeth Denny in Brent's studio in Brooklyn Army Terminal, Brooklyn, to discuss his untitled sculpture of eleven functioning treadmills, currently on view in the Art-in-Buildings gallery in Southfield, MI. We discussed failure, the previous lives of objects, and working in a public space. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
Art-in-Buildings: Brent, can you tell me a bit about your practice in general?
Brent Birnbaum: I have always been a collector of different objects that have potential to become something new. I started collecting smaller objects with an interest in building an archive of materials for my work about a decade ago upon moving to New York, that interest has grown both in the size of the objects and the scale of the collection.
AiB: How does context and audience affect your work?
BB: The Southfield context is very specific and the presentation of the work is different than my original intention. Southfield is a suburb of Detroit and the gallery space is behind glass, within a corporate office building. We've gotten really interesting feedback and people made excellent points about the work and its presentation. Showing the work in this unusual space changes the way you think about the work, its meaning changes and morphs. We previously showed this work at Spring/Break Art Show [in New York City] and that was a very different context and audience.
Elizabeth Denny: I was the co-curator of Brent's Spring/Break Art Show presentation along with Craig Monteith. That experience was the inverse of the presentation in Southfield because it was, for the most part, an audience who was very accustomed to looking at art and expected to see art in that context. They came with pre-determined ideas about what is an art object. Then they were confronted by Brent's work consisting not only of found objects, which have a place in art history, but also by an unexpected scale, kinetic elements, and sound. The viewer had to process all of that visual and auditory information to come to grips with this work as a sculpture. This work is fun to be in a room with. It made the Spring Break audience think of elemental experiences with art and that was part of the huge public reception.
BB: I want people to be excited about my choices as an artist. My work needs to be seen in an art context at some point because I have an interest in pushing the art dialogue and using materials that no one has used before. It's satisfying to me that now that treadmills have been used in this way they can be considered a material for art.
ED: Brent also runs a seasonal gallery in the Rockaways [a beachside community in Queens]. The gallery is attended by neighbors from the community and art lovers, so Brent is really good at reaching different audiences.
AiB: I like to call the AiB project spaces semi-public, because they aren't public in a traditional sense, like a plaza or park, but the public is very welcome to enter and see our projects. And, much like traditional public art, the installation process happens in the open, rather than behind closed doors like in a museum or gallery. Have you worked in a public space before? Can you talk a bit about working in public and having the challenge/ opportunity to be around the audience while you're working?
BB: I have done a number of performances that have questioned the boundaries of public/private space and have required intensive interaction with the public [Bureau of Apology, 2011-2012, New York City]. The project in Southfield was the first in a corporate setting. I enjoy working with a non-traditional art audience Everyone knows what a treadmill is and that sometimes makes more people comfortable talking to me about my work. I talk with museum and gallery people all of the time. Those are important conversations, but I'm really intrigued by what people who don't have a background in art will see when they experience my work. For this project we even installed in public and that was great. People came in and asked questions along the way. I like to have an open door policy during installation so that people can see the whole process.
AiB: Elizabeth, what are you thoughts on art in non-traditional spaces? Do you think fostering these types of projects could help an artist's career and development differently than selling their work or showing it in institutions?
ED: Absolutely, I think those of us in the art world have a tendency to get isolated in an art conversation. That's a really important conversation, but it's also crucial to reach people who don't look at art as much as we do and help them understand the kind of questions they should ask about art. The greatest priority for most of the artists I know is to have people see their work. Having this kind of context outside their normal audience gives them the opportunity for more depth and self-reflection.
AiB: Brent, you talk about your work in fairly traditional terms, you often use words like "sculpture," "painting," and "diptych" to refer to parts of your work or its presentation. But your work is anything but traditional. Can you talk a bit about your relationship to art history and why you decide to use this language to talk about your work?
BB: My work starts with art history. I am also interested in other work being made right now and in generally pushing the boundaries of what art can be. I like work that expands ideas and specifically I like work that expands what are considered art materials. This interest is what pushed me to open Topless [his gallery in the Rockaways] in the first place, I'm just excited about art. But, the beginning is always art history. What has already been done? I make sculptures and I know the history of painting. This makes up the formal foundation of my interests. Other things, like pop culture, come in after the historical foundation. I couldn't do this work with objects without knowing art history.
ED: I see Brent's work as being part of the lineage that begins with Duchamp. The obvious part of this lineage is Brent's use of everyday found objects and making art of/with/about them. But, a lot of artists use everyday objects now and I think the crucial part of Brent's work linking him to this specific art historical conversation is that his work is rich in humor and absurdity but those aspects never undermine the seriousness of the work. Brent's work often sounds more like a concept or idea where talking about it might be the most important part. But, one of the most amazing parts of this practice is the production and execution of the work and his treatment of the installation like a very important object. He's equally focused on concept, execution, and historical context.
BB: Yea, making work that makes me laugh is a sugar coating I use to draw people in. Art history is serious and it's my job to build on it. My humorous or absurd tactics are a way to get viewers interested. In a way, the treadmills started with cliché questions: what is the meaning of life? What are we doing with our lives? That was the starting point. The treadmill sculpture is a mountain and a metaphor for life, it considers what we spend our time doing, and why we do those things. On a treadmill you climb up and up but never go anywhere. That metaphor could be pretty heavy-handed, so the sugar coating is the bright, distracting colors and sounds. The work is meant to be enjoyable.
AiB: What are you working on now?
BB: All I'll say for now is it's a work that makes a strong visceral attraction. It's made with different materials; no more treadmills for now. I need new elements to keep everyone's interest and grow as an artist.
Explore more of Brent Birnbaum's work on his website brentbirnbaum.com.