BRETT SWENSON STUDIO VISIT (PIONEER WORKS) 

Brett is a multimedia artist whose work explores the intersection of natural objects and those that are manmade. His work is organic and carefully calculated. His experiments aim to capture the moment of transmutation between forces/objects, providing the viewer a glimpse of stories and phenomena that are rarely experienced in such a personal way.

1. What are the motifs you are exploring in your current body of work?

My work deals with the intersections of action and reaction, intention and occurrence, and finding the space between two points that exists as material potential.  Right now, I’m particularly interested in this idea of the Anthropocene, where humanity has influenced the earth to such a degree that nothing we see or experience remains truly natural or unaffected.  For me, its the idea of a feedback loop, where the more you look to the outside world for answers, the more you see yourself reflected back at you.  I’m interested in the implications of this kind of entanglement, something irreversible that seems to be both cyclical and exponential.  It’s a question of identity really, in the sense that your identity pieces itself together over time through response to external signals.  

2. What inspires you?

Natural phenomena, materials, forgotten places, geology, history.   

3. Can you tell us about your gypsum and found object piece, Strewn and its continual evolution?

Strewn began as a response to my fascination with an area once known as Barren Island.  It was New York City’s dumping grounds a century ago, and now objects are being pulled out of the earth along the shore by the tide.  Its a museum on the ground where you can witness a blip in the entropic timeline.  I became interested in conveying my experience of the space on an internally focused, physical level.  For me, it resonated back to a time of industrial strength, when a sort of blind faith existed in the power of the machine.  I chose the spark plugs because they functioned as conductors, which to me has a poetic potency, and because they are neat little hybrids of reclamation and engineering.  Their steel bottoms have been transformed into oxidized concretions resembling meteorites, while their porcelain insulators are relatively unaffected.  The title comes from the term “strewn field”, which is used to describe the site where meteorites are dispersed from a single impact.  The objects are encased in these bricks to function as a time capsule on the surface.  These things were in a process of mergence with their surrounding matter, exposed for a brief moment, and I’ve attempted to slow down that process further while giving a hyper-saturated view of the actual decomposition taking place.  The plaster is like a sponge and draws in moisture from the air, the rust auras bloom from the plugs over time, and so I’m continuing to watch them evolve.   

4. Standards of Measurement is Obsidian that looks like its wrapped in plastic, in reality its melted glass. It’s man made and natural existing together. What is the significance of this juxtaposition?

The idea for the Standards of Measurement series initially was to take a tool of measurement, the laboratory flask, and completely alter its structure through a corresponding material expression.  The obsidian for me is elemental, its the stuff literally oozing out of the earth.  The flask is this impermeable standard, a tool whose function is not supposed to be vulnerable to the material it contains.  Categorically the flask and the obsidian are the same material, so I liked the idea of fusing these physically similar materials with totally opposite connotations.  In a broader sense, these pieces question human systems and their stability or lack thereof.  It may be cliche, but I believe it’s important not to assume that what you know to be true is impermeable.  I originally wanted to try to melt the obsidian, and instead I found it expanded to about three times its size.  In this way, they are kind of an homage to the scientific process, with a rawness that relates back to the pursuits of alchemy.

5. Your work is fascinating in the sense that you explore natural phenomena using manmade resources, prime example, Door is Opened, Power is High. Can you explain what this piece represents/the thinking behind it?

I had done some work prior creating artificial fulgurites (the result of lightning passing through silica rich material like sand) out of the expanded obsidian material.  Door is Opened, Power is High began as an attempt to create physical evidence for a loosely understood phenomenon called ball lightning.  Its the stuff of folklore and pseudoscience, but it also has some real basis and study around it to be sure.  The general idea is that its a self contained electromagnetic field, literally a glowing ball of electricity that can either float around in a dreamy kind of way or blow a hole through someone’s kitchen window.  They’ve been described everywhere from airplane cabins to the middle of the desert, and there’s no shortage of fanciful stories and illustrations to go along with them.  Proper documentation is pretty scarce, but a recent insight on the matter actually showed the ball to contain material from the soil it hovered above.  My idea was to utilize a self contained electromagnetic field that we’re all familiar with, a microwave, to act as the environment to produce some kind of result.  The vintage microwave especially is such a loaded, iconic thing, that I wanted to incorporate its aesthetic and connotations into the work.  I took the desert as a reference, and that rich red earth that is ubiquitous throughout the southwest was my material to be affected.  After some experimentation, I had these very strange, hollow, tumor-like glass formations which resulted from microwave radiation.  The setup in Door is Opened is the preliminary iteration of something that’s been percolating in my mind for a while now.   

6. While Door is Opened, Power is High currently lives in your studio, do you have future site-specific plans for it (or any of your other work for that matter)?

The piece was a focal point of my recent solo show, “Potential Difference” which brought together several works of mine through ideas of electromagnetism.  I went out to Moab, Utah this summer to bring back the red dirt used in the piece.  While I was out there, I was completely blown away by the landscape and its geology.  I definitely think the work needs to exist in some way out there in an otherworldly, barren landscape, so during my residency I’m working on ways to pursue that.  I’m also working on the possibility for an outdoor iteration right here in the city.

 7. What new projects are you working on?

I just kicked off a new print edition called Reignition, also existing as a video piece, which corresponds with Strewn.  Its kind of the positive to the negative, showing one of the spark plugs discharging a plume of hydrogen gas as it undergoes the process of electrolysis.  Along with a couple other print editions, I am currently expanding on some work I’ve done involving the generation of crack patterns in tempered glass with heat.  There’s a performative iteration of the work that I feel needs to go further, and I’m also working out ways to take prints directly off of the glass to isolate the fracture as more of a line drawing.  

8. What has been the most rewarding part of working out of Pioneer Works so far?

Aside from the marvel of the building itself, Pioneer Works is an excellent environment for connecting with new people.  For me, I really appreciate that aspect of the residency more than anything.