Interview with “I’m Fine” Artist Brandon Chambers

This is the third installment of the I’m Fine artist interview series.

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Brandon Chambers || UMCP ’17 || Exhibiting in I’m Fine from June 5th through July 28th, 2017 at The Stamp Gallery || University of Maryland, College Park || Interview by Cristy Ho

First, please tell us about yourself. Where are you from and when did you get into making art?

I grew up in a middle class nuclear family in a safe community of single family homes. I certainly remember it as an ideal childhood. I had friends at church, friends at school, and friends in the neighborhood. I had an older brother and a younger sister to play and fight with, and my grandparents lived a five minutes’ drive away. My mother was a doctor and my father was a teacher. Perhaps I over-idolize them, but in my mind, they represent the ideal humans, or at least humans striving towards the ideal. Hard-working, patient, nurturing, intelligent, wise…resolute.

On the last day of second grade, I vaguely remember being told that I would not see my classmates again. My parents, having prayed deeply on the issue had decided we were moving to Jamaica, where they had grown up. I had been there before on vacations to visit cousins and my great grandmother, but had never thought living there was even a possibility. We’d gone to beaches only locals would know about, and I thought that meant I knew the country.

The difference between visiting a place and living there are vast, but I learned fast. I learned to call my teachers ‘miss’ and that saying ‘God know’ is like saying ‘I swear’. I learned that electricity and water pressure are not guaranteed, and to be careful carrying hot water. I learned about hurricane season. I learned that in church, the opening prayer can last thirty minutes. I learned that a mind is all it takes to be creative. Whatever else I learned there came to me through culture and socialization, and was too subtle for me to be aware of, but nonetheless has greatly affected my way of life.

Living in Jamaica gave me the opportunity to compare and contrast different environments, different societies, different experiences of life. Jamaica is, in many ways, where I developed my sense of self. I continued my childhood in that new environment and seven years later, to facilitate my brother going to college, we moved back to the U.S. Back to Maryland.

I did not start making art at any specific time in my life, and my family was not particularly art-centered. I developed whatever skills I have over years of dabbling, and for a long time considered that to be enough. I went as far as getting an associates in science before I realized that I was going through the motions of learning, but had no real excitement in it. No drive. Perhaps it was immature, but I wanted to follow what gave me pleasure because to be the person I wanted to be, it would take real commitment rather than sporadic interest.

So I changed my major, began taking art classes at Montgomery College, got an Associates degree in Art, transferred to UMD and just continued applying myself. I can’t say I had any artistic style for most of that time. If anything, I tried to keep myself and my ego out of the work. I have been consistently making art since then.

You focus on the idea of impermanence in your work. What draws you to this concept?

Impermanence is one of those existential truths that really resonate with me both because of my personal experience and as a modern societal trend where, because there is more activity, more things begin and as a result, end. Whether it is an emotion like fear, joy, confusion or anger, a school or career you are in, your friend group or relationships, your life or your favorite television shows, we are presented with endless examples of things that reach a conclusion. Beyond the sadness and feeling of loss, though, there is also the beauty of completion and the ability to look at something as a whole rather than a work in progress.

Your video “Reviling of Pleasing Corruptions” has attracted many perplexed viewers into the Stamp Gallery. As a docent, I am often asked why you chose to drink dyed corn syrup out of Pepsi bottles. Are you warning about the substance’s adverse health effects and is there a deeper underlying meaning to this?

Rather than warning people about the adverse health effects, it was my belief that people were already aware of them. What I wanted people to reflect on was the reality that knowing something is harmful is not always enough to end the behavior. I chose dyed corn syrup and Pepsi bottles because drinking two or three bottles of Pepsi a day was one of the habits I found myself repeating, and I realized that collecting the bottles and seeing them as a whole gave me a long term perspective of the cost, not only in money but also the unseen cost my body was paying.

The deeper meaning I hoped to convey is that there are countless things we consume that negatively affect us, and like the Pepsi for me, our society often makes these things particularly easy for us to obtain. These things are packaged and marketed in a way that psychologically attracts us. They are designed to be if not physically, then mentally addictive. What’s more is that the negative effects are often unseen and easily ignored until the habit is just a part of who you are. It doesn’t help that we are in a society where people generally encourage you to be who you are rather than change.

Can you elaborate on what the white cloth represents?

The white cloth represents that blank canvas of a person’s life experience. It is the untarnished mind and body. After the first sip, I spit out the dark, viscous mixture onto the cloth in disgust, but spitting it out, rejecting it, doesn’t make the cloth clean again.

The cloth is also meant to provide a sterile setting for the interaction. There is a man, his addiction, and a lack of any alternative. After spitting out the drink, after indulging and rejecting an experience, it would be great to move on to something better, something different. But, much like going to a vending machine and hoping to find something without corn syrup or without food coloring, something nutritious, there is often no real alternative, so we return to the same thing we rejected, again tarnishing the cloth.

Over time, the cloth is a giant mess, and one more round doesn’t seem like it will make much difference. There is no worry about containing the mess since it is already made, and the habit has been going on so long that in the grand scheme of things you might as well just continue.

It is important to note that while it is viscerally visible in the video, in reality, most of this is happening internally, and isn’t disgusting the people around you (or their disgust is also internal).

How did you feel before, during, and after the recording of your performance?

Directly before the performance my main feeling was relief that it wasn’t just a crazy/cool idea. There are so many times that I have ideas of things that could be created and it doesn’t happen, either because I’m too self-conscious or I spend too much time fantasizing about it rather than doing it. So yeah, it was a good feeling having everything set up since the only thing after that is the action, and I find that is the simplest part. What little anxiety I had was from worrying that I would break character or overact and ruin the shot. But that’s how creating anything is, and it was easy enough to ignore when the time came.

During the recording I really had to actively be in the moment while simultaneously being aware of composition, timing and the perspective of the camera. It was like being in a trance where, even though I saw the people and things around me, they weren’t separate from me and the performance. By the time I got 5 minutes in, I was in my own head, ready to go on, but knowing there was a lot of time to go. There was a point where fatigue, the smell, the taste, the sight and the repetition took me to a place of enlightenment, where I had a true, visceral knowing of the futility of the action. I continued with the performance after that, but it was the moment I felt I had been working towards, where I had learned or experience everything the activity had to teach.

After it was all done, I was just tired and sticky and covered in gunk naked. I had to take a shower/bath in a large sink with cold water, and wipe the corn syrup off with paper towels. But it was done, and I was relieved. More than that, it was one of the few times where I put that much physical commitment into a project, and the feeling of being a creator was overwhelming. It was the feeling of completion, where all that was left to do was to look at what I had done. I loved it.

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Moving on to your next piece, “Endless Impermanence” has a system of discolored patches and holes that are reminiscent of the visual complexity of a map. What materials did you use to create this effect?

‘Endless Impermanence’ is the result of laser-cutting into graphite grounded Bristol board. I used a combination of drawing, photography, digital painting, and digital editing to create an image in Photoshop to excavate from the paper using the laser cutter by burning into the sheets at varying depths and intensities to create the visual complexity.

Taking into consideration the abstract nature of this work, how did you know when it was finished?

‘Endless Impermanence’ is really the result of months of trial, error and success with the technique. To go too far could mean literally burning the paper away to where there is nothing substantial to present, or, after hours of working with the cutter, having a product that is a uniformed blankness. Luckily, I got to a point where I could tell on the computer roughly how far to go, and it was finished when the laser cutter stopped cutting.

More broadly, what concepts or artists inspire you?

The idea of virtual reality inspires me greatly. The possibilities fill me with as much fear as joyful anticipation. To me it represents the ability to fully have someone’s attention and have them immersed totally in the art. It brings up questions about what it is to be conscious, how vital the ‘real world’ is if the mind can be more expansive in the virtual one. I’m interested to see if the technology reaches a point where it takes effort to remain aware of which reality you are in. All these thoughts worry me, but that only hastens me to wonder and imagine more.

I’m also interested in the idea that information has a lifespan of usefulness. I was really excited when I saw the promotional posters for “I’m Fine”, but at the same time, I realized that once the show is over, it isn’t really useful information, just a signifier of something that happened in the past. The same is true for the majority of emails, flyers, texts and so many other sources of information. At the risk of seeming to promote book burning, a lot of the information we have surrounded ourselves with is outdated, and beyond being useless, can at times be harmful to people who mistakenly treat it as relevant or reliable. I’m interested in the idea of being able to separate timelessly relevant truths from temporary ones.

What are you currently working on and what are your plans for the future?

Well, I’ve been working on a project where I illustrate interpersonal relationship dynamics in a hieroglyph-type aesthetic. I design a scale system that force the figures in the composition to be placed in positions where they balance the scales and cause stability, or take actions that unbalance the system. The simplest example I can give is to have you imagine a see-saw with two people on either side of it, causing it to be balanced. In order to get closer to each other, they must both move towards the center. Now imagine there are three people on the see-saw where two of them want to be together, but the third does not. What type of balance would they need to reach, or how willing are they to unbalance the system to reach their goal? I am in the early stages of this project, but my end goal is a series of simple but powerful narrative images that can give me an insight into relationship dynamics.

As for the future, I’m looking at grad programs for next year. Until then I’ll just be developing skills, and doing what each moment calls me to do.

Lastly, do you have any advice for aspiring artists?

I guess the advice I have is to start seeking out a variety of experiences to draw from. If the only animal you’ve ever seen is a cat, making art about birds becomes pretty difficult. The narrower your experiences, the less you can express, and the fewer people you can connect with.

For more information on I’M FINE and related events, visit thestamp.umd.edu/stamp_gallery

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