Interview with Brendan Byrne: Art – Byrne the VJ Theory is Art.
Written by Gaynor Evelyn Sweeney.
Photographs c/o of the Artist..
01 September 2007.
Brendan Byrne is a Multi-media Artist, Co-Founder of VJ Theory and Lecturer at Falmouth University. He has exhibited and lectured internationally on the digital and multi media and an activist in the research, development and theory of this field. A published writer and innovator he is a passionate visionary to the alternative realms in computer technology and cyber space.
He is Editor to ‘VJ Theory and Real Time Interaction’ with Ana Carvalho, Paul Mumford and Lara Houston and formed ‘Art in Hidden Places’ with Magda Tyzlik (Poland), Ana Carvalho (Portugal) and Ben Carver (Canada). From the virtual reality of Multi-media space, he has extended other the diverse project to other initiatives, such as ‘Conversation Drawing Machine’ with Emma Churchill. A robotic wireless drawing machine using CIA ‘truth and lie’ detector circuitry to draw a conversation and ‘Landings’ with Stephen Page, local school children and pensioners; representations of the experience of evacuees to Cornwall.
Byrne talks further on his diverse professional roles from Editor to Artist with Gaynor Evelyn Sweeney.
Sweeney: When did you first become interest art and recognise yourself as an artist?
Byrne: In some ways it depends what you mean by art. I remember walking round the Walker with my mum and deciding this is the sort of work I wanted to make. In common with many people on Merseyside, I was brought up in an Irish catholic revolutionary tradition (not quite the same as South American Liberation Theology but with some similarities). This gives a real sense of the need to produce change, particularly an ontological change as a way to produce a new social point of justice and equality. Gender and equality was always in my remembered life a part of this, having seen and witnessed the effects of that and the ‘end’ (it’s still going on in a big way) of the war for gender equality. This in turn leads to an interest in philosophical, ethical and political strategies and tactics. The conditions for those interests were present from birth. I don’t remember a point of change, it was, as far as I know, always like that. In that respect I always felt as though I was an artist but at the same time that everyone was an artist and every transformative process, an element of art (if you take that as a definition, then there is a huge amount of non-art being produced out there, which self-consciously describes itself as art).
Sweeney: Can you explain your art work?
Byrne: Not entirely. The work goes through many stages, some of making and incremental problem solving and some of thinking. Generally, there has to be some kind of reason, in some way attached to the motivations mentioned in the answer to the last question, to give enough impetus to start making the work. Through those stages, the work transmutes in its making. In the end, it has to have a potential to produce a change of some sort in order for an idea to be transformed into a work. I’ve worked across media from film to sculpture to the more recent digital interactive work. I started working in Max/MSP about 7 years ago and then later in Pure data and Gem but never showed any of these works until the last year or so. The reason for that was based on a mistaken assumption from traditional fine art practice, which had always worked, as a rule, with sculpture or even film works. The assumption is based on the ‘finishedness’ of the work. It’s only recently that I’ve realised (after risking a few exhibitions of this kind of work) that interactive work is only finished by the viewer. A recent piece, called ‘History Mirror’ was shown at ‘Live Art Falmouth’ just in the last couple of weeks. This work shows the room as it is now but mixed across this is an image of the past. The past image goes back in time as the viewer approaches the screen causing everything including the viewer themselves to move backwards in time. ‘Live Art Falmouth’ was a performance art show and the idea of this work is that the viewer themselves becomes the performer, that is, they can act upon their past selves and others who where in the room earlier, causing the earlier presences to move forward or backward in time as their present selves acts with the past people. This produces a perceptual dissonance, which is also amazingly enjoyable for the viewer. Having stopped myself from showing this kind of work for so long I have a large collection of material now pretty ready to show. Linked to this is the idea of giving up control; in this case to the viewer, but also in the work I produce collectively with other artists, such as the work with ‘Art In Hidden Places’ and the theoretical VJing and real time interaction community www.vjtheory.net.
Sweeney: Your work explores different creative processes through digital media and technology. Can you explain how you develop an idea from onset to the end?
Byrne: Digital media have allowed me to develop ideas that I’ve wanted to make into work for many years before the technology was available. The series ‘Police Yourself’ had its first outing in a show curated by Denny Long in 1990 and involved two cameras and monitors and a nineteenth century technique called ‘Pepper’s Ghost’. The viewer walks into the space and sees themselves on a monitor in gold. Simultaneously they walk towards themselves and look at themselves from the side, this second figure is blue. The second monitor is four times the size of the first and placed at right angles to it but reflected in a sheet of glass at 45 degrees to the first. The viewer has to physically pull focus between the two images of themselves. Even then, I wanted to introduce a slight time delay in the two images but short of sending it to a satellite and back or buying a 10,000-pound delay line this wasn’t possible. The work remained analogue but still worked, according to the response of the viewers. Even more pronounced was the way in which Christopher Saunders and myself always re-edited the 16mm film ’12 Stone 4’ each time we showed it. This was in the nineteen eighties. It also metamorphosed in form when Chris showed elements of it as an installation in the Pompidou, Paris and I showed it in a relatively unmodified way, as a video, at the Tate, St. Ives.
With digital media these manipulations become much easier, what is important is to use the potential of the media productively rather than do something just because it can. Similarly with the work with vjtheory.net; many of us were effectively ‘fjing’ using super eight and sixteen millimetre film at venues like Heaven in Charing Cross (that’s the Charing Cross in London not Birkenhead, as far as I know, tell me if I’m wrong) in the 1980s. Jamming with visuals (in a sense) goes back to the eighteenth century with similar questions (with many additional ones) about why, where (club, street, gallery……), what; being asked and explored.
Sweeney: You have applied different media through your professional and creative practice. Can you extend on this and explain what other creative ventures you have done?
Byrne: The locus of the work is essentially in people. From this comes a questioning of relationships of power and in this of economics. Outside of the media already mentioned is my work with collaborative and participatory art and activist groups. These are as broad as helping set up Lewisham Unemployed Action Group (‘LUAG working for nothing’) to ‘DIY Arts’ when we took over the Elephant and Castle shopping precinct. Very much more recently (a week last Monday) we set up a group called ‘Falmouth Wharves Community Development’. Falmouth wharves has recently been bought by a millionaire Norwegian ex-public schoolboy. One hundred and twenty men and women work on the wharves in mostly marine light industry, some of the businesses have operated here for generations. Imaginatively, the site is to be converted to luxury flats. It is also the home to many artists’ studios. There has been, in the past, a degree of disagreement between some members of these two groups. The unequivocal statement by the new owner that (nearly) all of us will be thrown out has successfully (with the help of a certain Kimberley Stone) managed to bring everyone together. The next phase is to buy out the developer and create our own plan to organise the wharves organically and ecologically respecting the needs of the present users and the surrounding community.
Sweeney: What artists have inspired you and why?
Byrne: Jean Luc Godard and Guy Debord both influenced my earliest work (despite the latter describing the former as ‘just another Beatle’. Beyond that, the ideas of Giordano Bruno and his 500 odd heresies also influenced me at a quite early age. On a visit to the Walker Gallery the ideas and work of the Boyle family still influences the work I make. In the eighties, I met with Tracy Emin and Mark Wallinger. Tracy was living with Chris Saunders and working with Chris for many years still has a presence in the work I make.
Sweeney: What subjects shape and influence your work and how?
Byrne: Pretty well as said before. I’m interested in the way that the idea of beingness, of being you, is constructed. This is part of the reason for my interest in astronomy and how people can work against themselves and their own best interests. I already mentioned Giordano Bruno who my grand ma introduced to me (not personally) when she bought me a book in Beaties in Birkenhead when I was about 5 years old. It became very important, living on the Leasowe estate where the sky was always a better place to look than the ground. Obviously, up is a good place to look, to get things into perspective. I joined Liverpool Astronomical Society when I was about seven. I was proposed and seconded by good men in tweed suits in the basement of the museum. My mum took me to the next meeting I attended in the old Liverpool Poly Lecture theatre and we listened to a lecture on the albino quotient of images of planets in this solar system. It was largely based on an interpretation of image data. Stuff I’m still doing now, along with the theme of getting things in ‘perspective’, for example, ‘Just Weight’ which I showed on buildings all over Belfast City centre in the Belfast Festival a couple of years ago.
Sweeney: What motivates you to create in this mode of expression and media in your various practices?
Byrne: When I lived on the Leasowe, in the middle flat at the end to the nearest block to the ‘precinct’, on the Cameron Rd. As a tiny boy I tried to escape, with a sandwich, to somewhere else, in a peddle car Angia (Ford). We moved to Raleigh Rd. on the same estate and into a flat above the Patterson’s. Mrs. Patterson used to take me to school in the morning and Mr. Patterson gave me free reign of his library. The grey orange of Penguin books didn’t encourage but the way our neighbours behaved did encourage me and the potentially Marxist /Leninist texts came back to me later. That mixed with my mum’s books, largely about magic and mysticism, led to reading a footnote, which said something like ‘never read Aleister Crowley’. I quickly found out that the best collection of Crowley was in Birkenhead library. It did take two buses to get there. This does explain the previous question in the sense that we now live in Crowleyanity and it’s time we worked together to stop the absurdity of how we live. To expand, we can now respond to the constructed subject and make ‘it’ think that it thought itself and make it take action. The oppression is still expanding and we need to make work, which disrupts this. Strangely, I’m working collaboratively with Tim Crowley. Tim’s great uncle is Aleister so we will be seeing how that goes. Tim saw my ‘History Mirror’ and approached me about a collaborative work as he makes interactive audio work using ‘Super Collider’ as an authoring environment. I’ll be using pure data to produce imagery and also incursions into the physical world. The reasons for using this mode of expression is the apparently direct relationship between the virtual and the material and physical. The precursor of this was a number of neo-Marxist models of the ideological subject (there are other models and they need to be examined too).
Sweeney: Do you use any other media as research source or in production of your art?
Byrne: Hopefully, as discussed, this will make use of eruptions of reality. Using the material and the physical there is a possibility of a new eruption of reality. By ‘material’ I mean the economic ‘reality’ by the ‘physical’ I mean the table in front of you. The rest is a type of theology. Strangely, they are my materials.
More mundanely, I work sculpturally and in film and video.
Sweeney: What do you plan for the future as an artist in your professional practice?
Byrne: By expanding on already being a human being with other human beings. That’s not just a multiple me but a hybrid; making, in real collaborative and participatory work, along with the loneliness of no one really knowing what and why you make what and why and how you make but accepting what is already the beingness of that way of making.
Sweeney: What are the positive and negative experiences of being an artist?
Byrne: n= institutions. p=humans
Sweeney: What do you want to be remembered for?
Byrne: It worked.. We humans stayed and late capitalism really doesn’t know how to do that.
Try the collective beingness of:
For further information on Byrne and his art:
For future events Byrne is involved with Transvoyeur: