Brandon Shimoda talks with Brandon Downing
Brandon reads at Studio One Art Center with Daniel Tiffany and Heather Christie on October 7th.
When I first encountered Brandon Downing’s art—in this instance, his poetry—I felt terrified. His second collection Dark Brandon (Faux Press, 2005) had just been released, and I had the ridiculous idea that it would teach me something about myself, about what it meant to be "Brandon," and not only that, but what it meant to be light, a possessor of and antithetical to the side of the self so named and so feeling, and somehow Dark Brandon. It proved even more ridiculous by doing exactly that, leading me into the crisis of immediate being through a series of terrifying—both exhilarating and embarrassing—flashbacks. I wrote a review of Dark Brandon for Octopus Magazine, through which I attempted to organize the feeling of having been opened, and got absolutely nowhere for neutralizing the opening. Thankfully, Brandon has a wide body of work of superlative joy and VELOCITY with which I have been able to continually reinvent the experience: Lazio, The Shirt Weapon, Lake Antiquity, Dark Brandon (the videos), Mellow Actions (in manuscript, forthcoming from Fence next year), photographs received in the mail, Brandon himself. And yet, I am still not wise enough NOT to attempt some understanding. What I am currently thinking is this: Brandon Downing’s art terrifies me for being a masterful manipulation of the overabundance of materials available to the shrewd however vulnerable possessed receiver as a manipulation of the crisis of an end being reached in the creation of artistic and poetic works—that revelation is in some sense new logic released, entered into by manipulation and control with each and with the challenge of entering into dark contract with the self in order to manipulate and control the overabundance of materials and one’s self lest lose each and all for the crisis with the necessarily resultant contract becoming the primary action of art creating as like an astral element factory a new logic shockingly total and as with any genuine manipulation-breaching of a cumulative body in crisis, completely outside the configurable realm of what came before yet configured completely of what came within what came before—and added to that solicitousness, a religious application of absorptive colors, and following cataclysm, love.
BRANDON SHIMODA: Brandon, have you ever been genuinely terrified by a work of art? Can you recall the first time that you were? Do you remember what the work was, what about it terrified you, and the nature of that feeling?
BRANDON DOWNING: Oh god yes! Freaked out of my mind. The first artwork to terrify my would have to have been when I was five or six...it was a rerun of NIGHT GALLERY...for some reason I remember being allowed at a very young age to stay up for the 9pm or 9:30 showtime of it. Something about Rod Serling walking through, well, a gallery of horrifying paintings to start each episode, and the aggressive cascading theme, always perked me right up. The episodes were hit and miss, but I will always remember one that absolutely shocked all good feeling out of me and tortured me for years. It was called THE DOLL, and involved a mysterious package sent to a former British colonial governor in India who had since returned to England. The young girl in his care, seeing the package had come from India, had assumed it was a gift for her.
The package, once unwrapped, was a doll. A seriously kohl-eyed, wild-haired apparition of a doll with full, needled dentition.
And this doll was about revenge. About unavoidable fate. It was maybe only a ten minute episode, but this old man would hear the Doll speaking in harsh whispers to his grand-daughter/ward as he passed by her bedroom along the dark Edwardian hallways of his manse. A servant, brought from the colonies, recognized it immediately as a cursed, driven demon, sent to kill the old man for putting a Punjabi village to the sword during his governorship.
The old Colonel recognized the doll for what it was. He desperately tried to replace it with a new doll for the girl. But in the night THE DOLL shredded the new gift to pieces, and he found it sitting triumphantly on the girls bed, with a vindicated smile. It was unstoppable. He tried to bin it. It returned unharmed to his granddaughter's room. Tried to burn it in his fireplace with a hot poker. No go. It kept talking to her and stalking on him. Finally with his saber in his hand, he meets it above the landing, coming out of the shadows late at night...and BITES his CALF, shreds it, sending him toppling down the stairs. The servant knows he can't be saved. The doll's teeth were laced with INCURABLE POISON.
Alright. Enough of the story. But here I am, maybe six years old, and after staying up for what felt like three months of nights just dwelling on that doll, and of course not entirely able to process the feelings it planted, I became convinced that this doll was coming after me. The same way that it tracked and stalked the old man in the television. It wasn't the grin, the glaring eyeshadow, or the broke-porcelain skin that terrified me, it was its INEVITABILITY. It could not be burned, slowed, prevented, bribed, broken. I guess this was my first real brush with the cold sureness of death or whatever.
So the only way I could get to sleep at night, knowing this doll was on my trail, was to invent specifics about its location and pace that kept me out of danger for a period. Like: I knew the doll was coming for me. But it had started its journey from England...walking at doll speed. Which I'd determined was something like 1/4 mile an hour. I would make all these calculations in my head. It couldn't have reached even Canada yet! It was probably making its way across Iceland or Greenland. And I was all the way in Northern California. So basically, my introduction to geography and mathematics all came from deducting how long, and by what route, it would take for this evil doll to reach me and rip up my lower legs. I also reasoned that it would probably get caught in ice and snow from time to time.
So I'd do all this scenario math to convince myself I was safe; that she wouldn't reach me for years and years, so I could live on quite bit longer. And then, eventually, I would fall asleep.
Of course, now, thirty seven years later, my fucking doorbell rings and who would you guess is standing right there on the porch?
BS: Oh shit, did you lose track of the years?!? Did you calculate that it would take thirty-seven for the doll to find you? I am transfixed by this story of the Doll and the Colonialist, and especially how the "seriously kohl-eyed, wild-haired apparition of a doll" is in fact the Avenging Angel for a Punjabi village! That the Punjabi village would manifest vengeance in the form of a dwarf Tammy Faye Bakker with "broke-porcelain skin." Were you aware at that age that "The Doll" was an "artwork" -- that it was conceived and contrived and bricolaged by people, artists and technicians, etc.?
The flip side of the question is: When and how did you first discover that you could also "conceive and contrive" such a scene, such a plausibility, such a world (in whatever media), and one that could potentially carry out similar effects, provoke or inspire an individual's emotions -- fear or otherwise? (If you believe that you can, of course, I do, of you).
BD: Oh yeah, I lost track. About ten years ago I started trying to track down the episode on video, found it and rewatched it. Thankfully, my anxiety-cycle didn't start up again, but it sure re-scared the shit out of me! Of course, as you age, your anxieties become far more exquisite, though perhaps less far-fetched. This is a nice reminder of the primal scares we likely lived through every day when we were little.
But as far as awareness-of-artifice goes, well shit, I was a baby kid, so I had little idea of the trades and labor-divisions involved in its object-production. Collaborative art? TV was basically my scheduled reality. When I watch Night Gallery now though, the blunt force of its elements are almost beyond camp...a dark, shadowy mansion, a doll that, from a makeup and wardrobe standpoint, pretty much embodies boiling evil? The hazy musical cues? It's so ridiculous, so cheap, so all-out! And fucking effective, dang.
A lot of years have passed, but I guess I have remained drawn to that sort of maximalist expression; it may very well have started with these under-supervised childhood viewings. I mean, sure, I place a high value on restraint, but when I'm working in a recombinatory fashion—probably 70% of my across-the-board-practice—I love working with blocks of material like function like this. They are blunt-force, they are manipulative, but if you think of them as notes in a collaged-together score, they "ring across the plains like a battle trumpet", so to speak. I don't know that I could personally generate material of this nature, but I do like being able to rearrange their emotional content—with hopefully lots of other effective bells and whistles—into new filmic bits that shoot off their horror/etc. message like decaying isotopes within a larger, more emotionally-complex context. Does that make sense, I wonder?
BS: I wonder too, and then again I wonder if you ARE in fact generating "material of this nature" by way of working in a "recombinatory fashion," rearranging the emotional content of the "notes" into exactly that wide, refulgent and refugee wail of the "battle trumpet." Because though your work becomes a kind of vivarium for the material that makes it, it also creates a wholly new world -- both derelict and brilliantly unbounded -- in which the original material is not only being re-generated, but generated anew, and for the first time, in ways that might trouble and devour infinity.
Have you ever lost control of or within one of your poems or films? That the materials began to "recombine" themselves beyond the reach of your hand, and subsequently began to overpower you, master you? The terror induced by the Doll, for example, lies partially in the fact that though it has already satisfied its task (killing the colonialist), it is not anywhere near being "done."
BD: I think I have definitely lost control in a few videos before...while to me poetry is hopefully a (sometimes) systematic way of cataloguing individual moments that are consistently beyond my control or corralling ability, working on video pieces—recombining, essentially—always feels like a way for me to exert calm, directorial control. I'm glad you mentioned something of a newness that can come out of the pieces, as I work pretty deliberately to hammer out new quantums from the disparate bits and footage choices. New rhythms, new stories.
But there have been a few times when the end result has felt just so out of control. My perception of this loss of control vacillates between exhilaration and embarassment, because as a film editor I'm such a proud control queen! Two instances in particular both stem from my choices of backing soundtracks, and these from the same source: the chanting mono-drone recordings of the Church Of Universal Truth, camped out in hangars and bomb shelters in anti-nuke Montana, back in the 1980s. Led by cult founders Mark and Elizabeth Clare Prophet, the church railed against Central America's popular revolutions, nuclear armaments and the like, but also rather embarrassingly ranting in tongues about the satanic messages in contemporary rock radio.
But their sermons were fabulous! Elizabeth Clare Prophet in particular had compellingly banal voice, and a way of synthesizing concepts of Buddhism and half-digested Gnostic Christianity with ample donation-seekery, spinning out her New Age wheels until the historical Christ comes off as some sort of protean Gandalf Sandinista. Excellent. The sermons would go on for hours and hours in these hot crowded tents, where they would get adherents to vocally synchronize themselves to semi-improvised, moaning drones, with occasional flashes of semi-recognizable language breaking up the cadences.
Still with me? Anyway, I've loved these recordings for going on 20 years. I started using them as soundtracks to several videos, to mixed success; the sound is so powerful it has frequently dragged the meaning of works far out beyond the range of my ability or influence. One piece was cut together around the time of a September 11th anniversary—mostly collaged footage from an early 1970s Robert Redford caper, The Hot Rock, that showed some criminals zooming around Lower Manhattan in a helicopter during the construction of the World Trade Center—and together with the C.U.T soundtrack, just became, to me, almost forcefully unwatchable, it's just so emotionally manipulative. I mean, I know you don't just evoke the WTC disaster with dancerly lightness, but this just ended up being ridiculous. That said, I loved the result, no matter that it feels distinctly "not mine".
I am Freedom 2010
Another video with an Elizabeth Clare Prophet soundtrack also suffers, but for slightly different reasons. The footage is less egregious than the previous example—it's mostly of 1978-era Burt Reynolds wordlessly ranting in front of a fish tank, then hiking down to the ocean, swimming out to sea, and drowning himself, taken from a forgotten, tone deaf comedy called The End. However, that damn soundtrack again...those devout, deluded voices just end up making the thing like 40x more viscerally powerful than I'd ever intended from the get-go. If I'm being honest, I originally meant for the Burt Reynolds thing to be a bit of a laugh (I mean, Burt Reynolds drowning himself? Fuck yes, bring it on, yay), but against that soundscape, I found it hard to not get completely freaked, even when watching it by myself. It's kind of exhaustingly poignant. You watch the damn thing and you're really rooting for Burt, really feeling him in his moment, and when he finally propels himself underwater, the video kind of pushes you into feeling, I don't know, completely relieved for him, kind of stoked. A result that just careened out of control from any of my original intentions.
BS: I love both of those videos, and for some of the same reasons you're saying they've run away from your intentions: for having "dragged the meaning far out beyond the range" of your "ability or influence." I feel like you often provide the genuine contexts for found materials in a way that COMPLETES them, brings them into full fruition within a world they might have originally imagined, but were somehow prevented from inhabiting. These videos might be "ridiculous" because their constituents have actually met their maker! What an exhilarating and embarrassing kind of rapture!—both videos featuring individuals impelled toward death, in different ways, by the voice of Ms. Prophet and her adherents! I saw the Burt Reynolds at Poetry Time in Queens and what I loved in the experience of watching it then was how attentive and celebratory the crowd was, how the experience became communal, so that every move (decision, synchronization) in the video met with immediate, collective response. What has been your experience of sharing your work with an audience? What have been some of the most surprising or generative experiences of sharing your work with that audience? Would you be exhilarated or embarrassed to know that a five or six year old child has read or watched, in the privacy of his living room at night, one of your poems or your videos?
BD: Oh wow, you were at the show where we played the Burt Reynolds movie? Well, then you know what that scene was all about. Having a platform to show these videos—workshopping them, really, as these were the first time any of the pieces were ever seen beyond my studio at home, or my own eyes—was amazing. I huffed and puffed for three years—roughly 30 readings—to push out fresh new content every month. And the attention being placed by the audience upon the wall-sized screen, it all felt very very heightened. And in terms of the 'immediate, collective response' you mention, you've nailed it.
They've also gotten a lot of love from museum audiences and at other screenings, which has also been madly gratifying (but as of yet no big money offers from the curators. Do you hear me, rich culture-y people?)
I don't know that YouTube—or a private viewing experience in general, really—has the same effect. In a crowd, in the right mood, if the work hits the notes...it sometimes feels afterwards like my world's red-shifting. But then I look at pieces on the YouTube channel that I just thought were the bomb, and some have had all of like 37 viewings in a year, and then I feel like a chump. But hey that's the online web I guess! And I do very little networking work with them other than putting them up and telling a small list about it.
Although I do learn of the tendrils that seem to grow out of them. I've had many back channel emails from high school teachers asking tenuous permission to show them to their 10th graders (and also, gingerly, inquiring as to whether what I do is or isn't legal), heard about DVDs being taken to a third grade show and tell (true story), queries from a media professor in Singapore, an economist in Mysore, elsewhere.
And I love the completely random internet comments I get from people who are just stunned; confused, pissed. Some are sweet, troubled notes. Many are in Chinese, Urdu, Hindi, which is flattering, because they assume I have some working fluency with the languages I'm wrapping into the works, but it's barely true except for a little Hindi and decent Spanish and Italian. Some are just unhappy faces and fields of question marks. Here are some I copied down:
What. The. Hell. Is. Going. On. Here. Oh--isn't it supposed to be "King KONG Escapes"?...and what do these two subjects have the hell to do with each other? Yes, I would agree that this is "totally psychotic".
(a comment on The Franklin Expedition)
You both are silly stupid and need to check your ears with doctors.I don't think this is really sounds 'Garlic'. Remove those silly subtitles as it doesn't match with the song at all not even in funny way. Stupid..
(a comment on Hey Garlic / Global Rot)
(a comment on 一對好夫妻)
ahaha bien nazista y facista el video
wtf is this?
like...im not sure what im watching
crap, the tune is stuck in my head now...-_-`
i.....have no words to express my feelings....
What the fuck just happened?
(various comments on The Nazi Kids. Talk about great blurbs!)