Brent Green is attracted to The Great Work. Not, the great work of art that’s canonized, polished and hits every note with aesthetic purity. I mean the great work of culture. The one that can galvanize society, a project that gives people hope a purpose a community. If you go to Kanye West’s twitter feed, you’ll see he quotes George Bernard Shaw, “If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.” That’s what Brent Green is on about. Ideas, and great ones, that synthesize apparently disparate elements. Ideas that are so powerful they can make bedfellows out of GBS, Kanye and Green.
Of course, his approach is particular. He likes for you to see the trace of his hand in his films and art. He is interested in labor. And, he’s attracted to grand ideas that subvert dominant systems. Ideas like the space race, which can spark fires and give people not only gainful, but hopeful employment. Ideas like building an endless stairway in your attic to heaven to stave off cancer. Those kinds of thread pulling at the sweater ideas that can burrow into our collective psyches and unravel the system from within… contradictory ideas that seem gentle but are really full of rage.
Green’s short films bear that stamp of quiet annihilation. They are critical and fun and manic. They usually feature Green’s voice and the trace of his hands. His films orbit around ideas, spiraling until they begin rising – if we had to invent a word for Green’s cinema that word would be “helicopteric.” (An awful word, but you get it.)
Green was at the Sundance Film Festival with a sculpture that he developed at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Like his films, it’s a deceptively grand project. At introduction it seems modest, but as one looks deeper, we can see how it circles about culture politics, aesthetics. It’s overwhelmingness creeps up on you.
Keyframe: Let’s talk about the experience of the piece as sculpture.
Brent Green: It’s much more sculpture than film. You’re supposed to be able to walk around it, walk by and come back to it. And, you’re never going to be able to see the whole thing at once. It’s impossible to see the whole thing at once. And, I like the way the polarizers work, that you aren’t able to see the animation unless you look through it from a specific vantage point. I like the idea that we are surrounded by all of the information. Every answer, every cure… everything is there, but we aren’t equipped to see it until we are out into position. And, we have to pay attention and learn how to look for things. So, that’s the hi-falutin’ answer.
Keyframe: Another aspect of it is that you can see the guts off the piece; its technology is bare. And, the narrative embodied in the animation is about this transparency of craft. Why do you think that kind of idea is important now?
Green: I make things transparent in every one of my films. And, with everything that I make, you can see that. My work in that way is very simple. With everything I make, I strive for the simplest solution to how to do it. I think that’s important, in that way that if I watch a Pixar film, I can’t sit there and say, ‘Oh my God, I can make that!’ Because, I couldn’t ever make a Pixar film. I think it’s important for people, particularly young people be able to look at things and realize, ‘Holy shit. I could do that. I’m allowed to talk about whatever I want. I’m allowed to make things however I feel like making them. I have just as valid a point of view as Bob Dylan or Kurt Vonnegut. I may not be as smart as them, but fuck it.’ That’s the bar you should set for yourself and fail in reaching. So, for me that’s what’s involved in always showing the guts of things and in the animation showing the cells and the tape. I’ve always liked doing that, and I like the way the piece looks, but I particularly like that idea at this point of my life because it makes the work much more accessible. A human made this. And, just a normal human. I’m 5’ 6”.
Keyframe: There’s also the electronics that are exposed. The piece seems to be about labor, and about how basic labor is overlooked as a prime mover. But, on the other hand, electronics implies a kind of expertise that is out of reach for so many people. You can see the electronics, but it’s not clear how they function. Are you asking people to think about technologies in a different way?
Green: For me, the technology just makes the piece go. And, I’m exposing the electronics in the same way as the rest of the materials. Saying that electronics are out of reach or complicated for people; I don’t know that that’s right. In my opinion, the future of manufacturing or the ‘next car in the garage’ is already embodied in the MakerBot. Considering what it can do, $1,400 dollars isn’t that much to pay for it. You know, when you buy the MakerBot, the first thing you do is print out the replacement parts for your MakerBot. In the very near future you’ll be downloading plans for a toaster, and then assembling it yourself. I think manufacturing is changing from being centralized in factories, and is becoming more based in information. So, I don’t think the piece is about technology being out reach, but more the opposite.
Keyframe: But, you’re hacking the LCD screens and doing something with them that they weren’t intended to do. How were you able to wrap your mind around that anti-use?
Green: I built the piece with engineers from EMPAC at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and I had ideas for how to do this, perhaps much more clunky mechanical ideas for how to do this thing, but I think their ideas were much smarter in terms of tearing apart the monitors, and it is actually a quite simple idea in the end. It’s based on polarization. But, more importantly, in terms of wrapping your mind around this, what art is supposed to do is ignite the brains of people around you in every kind of way. I throw out my idea and try to push things as far as I can. And, if I have people around me who can do something better than I can, who have their own kinds of expertise, then we can push things much further and really move out there. As long as we can keep each other excited, then “wrapping your mind around it” becomes a much more collaborative thing.
Keyframe: And, that seems to be part of the Sputnik story and the decision to focus on that specific moment in time right? The idea of how a massive project can ignite the mind’s of an entire culture.
Green: Absolutely. The story is based on the woman who made the space suit for Laika, the Russian space dog. But, the whole space race, when Russia sent Yuri Gagarin and Laika into space, and the US said, ‘We’re going to put a man on the moon within ten years.’ That ignited everything. It ignited our educational systems. It ignited manufacturing. It ignited science. It also brought us together as a people. It gave us a singular goal to push towards. That’s when the world is the most exciting, when everyone around you is working on a common project.
That is why I chose this story. They’re making this shit out of tin foil, and she’s making the space suit on her sewing machine. And, ultimately, it’s a brilliant and moving activity.
Keyframe: And, it’s implied that kind of single-minded hope is missing from the current context.
Green: I don’t know that it’s missing. I think some people aim for it, but our largest organizations aren’t operating on that level. The US government isn’t getting behind hope. With Obama, I could tell when he was campaigning, and all my friends got mad at me, I could tell that he wasn’t going to have a man-on-the-moon idea. And, there’s a million of these things floating around. If he said, ‘We’re going to cure cancer in ten years,’ and put the government funding into it, it would have ignited everything. Because of the way technology works, we would be making leaps exponentially. We would be able to do everything smaller and faster. And, then every smaller and faster thing we build can build smaller and faster things smaller and faster. So, with the exponential growth, if he said and meant, ‘We are going to cure cancer,’ we absolutely would be developing microchips that would fit into your bloodstream and kill cancer. And, that’s not what they did. So, it’s really a bummer to listen to any kind of debate and then to see the kind of legislation that’s being passed through. When I pay my taxes, I feel like I am mailing a check to the 1800s. I mean, bombs? Really? So, I don’t think it’s missing. I think there are people pushing the right ways, but our largest organizations are failing.