Somewhere between art book and poetry opus, Brandon Downing’s Lake Antiquity (Fence Books, 2010) fills a void that may well represent the future-space of new writing. Drawing on influences both obscure and mainstream, antiquated and contemporary, the collages and collage poems in Lake Antiquity mix unassuming, bluntly adorned imagery with painstaking technique and obsessive source-material selectivity. Downing’s preference for using original source materials and his emphasis on deconstructing what others might see as sacrosanct historical artifacts speaks to the sense of impishness that runs throughout the book, barely underneath the surface. The combination of ostensibly casual formations of images and text combined with the obsessive cataloging and layering of historicity and meaning is one of Lake Antiquity ’s most valuable aspects. The result is a highly approachable aesthetic, that is both elusive and disarmingly appealing; flat, yet mind-bendingly far-reaching in its treatment of historicity and permutational formations of meaning.
Ben Mirov We’ve talked before about other artists that influenced your collages. Some of the more obvious comparisons are Max Ernst’s Une Semaine De Bonté and the artist Jess’ work, but you also mentioned a few more obscure influences. I was hoping you could talk a little about who they are, how you encountered their work, and what aspects of their work you borrowed from to compose Lake Antiquity.
Brandon Downing Oh, man, there’s a ton. For me, artists like Charles Henri Ford, Wallace Berman and Bern Porter—Bern Porter, Bern Porter—have become huge presences, but not because of any extant formal similarities per se, but the way that they corralled print detritus—and the elemental importance of that material’s decay—into what seemed like independent systems and networks. But really, those artists have really most influenced how I began, back in 2006, to organize and systematize the presentation of the work. The works that influenced the composition of the pieces, in the earlier days of the project in the late 1990s, would be quite different. Encountering the work of Joe Brainard at the massive retrospective at the University Art Museum at UC Berkeley in, I think, 1999, was a big moment. I returned again and again to the show. I’d always valorized Brainard’s work since I’d been in graduate school at San Francisco State University, but seeing the works in full—especially works that reconfigured text bits, like the Nancy pieces, and everyday items, such as Prel bottles, opened up huge avenues of visual possibilities. I tried to maybe reach that level of satire, but my pieces always ended up on a darker part of the scale.
Ted Berrigan was a major influence. In the late 1990s I worked a lot on loose collaborations with his son Edmund Berrigan, who was at the time completing an amazing collage sequence that riffed on Dickens’ Bleak House (which later became a section of his book Disarming Matter) in a freeform manner, emotively driven, that I wanted to continue with and further in my own way. Eddie also turned me onto Ted’s Clear the Range, a collaged western that has remained, to me, about the filthiest and most lovely, punch-drunk work of collage I can recall. Tom Phillips’ A Humument was of course a pivotal work, but I must say that it was really its appearance that affected me. Its poetic practice, dazzling though it appears within the hand-colored loops and stripes and turns, always struck me as a little cool to the touch. I rather hoped that the new texts I was generating might have a more tenable relation to their pictorial programming, and generate a little more mystery of their inter-relations. And teeth. Did it work? I don’t know yet!
BM How did you gather source material for Lake Antiquity? Did you take images and text from specific sources as a way of adding layers of intention and meaning to the pieces? Or was the process more haphazard, like you just took what you needed wherever you could find it?
BD Well, the short answer is yes and no. There are several instances—the writings and the identity-shifting of the author Isak Dinesen leaps right to mind—where I, after some more-or-less successful experimentation, genuinely set upon certain bodies of works to fortify some of the ongoing thematics. Isak Dinesen and the Victorian novelist of English manners, George Meredith, were key corpuses that I wanted to ‘break apart’ into thousands of incipient fragments. In the end these two writers’ language populate much of Lake Antiquity. I wanted to throw a mirror onto the highly stylized, and yet also long-dying or dead delineation of gender within their writing. To break that all apart, to capture the energy that seemed to me to be released from all that ancient masculine power as the ‘he’ slips into the ‘she’ and back again. Chemically, hydrogen and oxygen can combine in their raw forms to make water, right? But that process also generates a shit-storm of energy. I wanted that energy.
That said, the process was often haphazard in the extreme. But that came from duration. A typical collage might involve several months of OCD-level text cutting and culling from sources: thousands upon thousands of individual words, phrases, and top-down progressions whittled out from the pages. These I would store for as long as a year or two, rearranging the fragments on gigantic white boards in my workspace, until little and large bodies began to emerge. These in turn might remain in place for more time still, until I came across a background, a theme, a re-combinatory possibility that felt somehow right to continue on with. Over these often multi-year phases, the collages really made literally dozens of intersections with raw chance. Only when the finality—gluing—began to loom, did I begin a more intense massage of meaning, doing slight edits, revisiting the source texts for missing words or letters, and trying to make the two (or more) disparate elements begin to grow together and, at some elevation, fuse. That’s when the process would really speed up.
BM I’m curious about your process. Is there a methodology to the composition of your collages/collage poems?
BD While I touched on this in my previous answer, I would have to say, because this project has gone on so long, the processes have truly warped over the last 15 years or so. More recently, I haven’t really worked with text or text fragments much at all, and more recent works are hewing a little more closely to those previously mentioned influences (Ernst, Jess, etc.) at first glance. But one thing I’ve tried to keep primary is the craft. I like to cut my materials precisely. I insist on cutting (defacing) actual books, and not reprints, but the earliest available editions. I love the texture of the 19th century book, the thick leading of the type, the heavy impression, the curves of the Baskervilles and Caslons, the fibrous papers, and the genuineness of it all. Reprints? Humbug. Photocopies? Nuh-uh.
And I have a real love fixation with fine print quality. Many of the visual elements come from the 19th century because, in many ways, it was a golden age of lithography. The illustrated newspapers—Harper’s, Frank Leslie’s, Colliers—were the paramount media of the day, and received the nation’s full attention. Printing was filthy, demeaning, yet godlike work then. Even many earlier 20th-century magazines—the first 20 years of Fortune, for example—were frequently printed with the sort of budgets reserved today only for lavish corporate annual reports, with almost hallucinatory color profiles and a heroic use of an entire page spread for layout, also a major goal with Lake Antiquity, with much of its visual field contingent upon the entire open spread of the page.
BM You also make movies that are dubbed over and somewhat collaged together and your poetry always strikes me as being disjunctive in a similar way. Do you find there are parallels between the different genres you work in in terms of how the final product comes together?
BD I dunno, I have to say I slightly, just slightly, bristle at “disjunctive.” While the “disjunctive act” is critical to the composition of my work, whether in video, collaged poems, or even my “straight” poetry, these tend to happen early in the process. The “editing,” the text arrangement (or derangement), the subtitles—I see these as multi-phase efforts to bring these jagged forces together in some way. Or to have them echo against each other in a new plane, I guess. A new system. I want to make instruments that can hit new notes!
That being said, these works do share a re-combinatory shock at their heart. But how smoothly those jagged edges are sanded, I suppose, is both on a case-by-case basis, and hugely dependent on the viewer’s take. I will say that in Lake Antiquity, if the reader feels like spelunking and taking a note or two, it can hopefully reward them with a whole family of relationships and appearances, spatial and semiotic, that aren’t often instantly grasped, surrounded as they are by all the color and fireworks. But let’s see how that pans out. It ain’t been around that long yet.
BM A lot of your collage work incorporates text in an unselfconscious way. There’s little pretense to incorporating text into the visual scheme of each piece that gives each them an unassuming, approachable feeling. Was this a purposeful technique on your part?
BD That’s tough to answer. Purposeful? I don’t know, man. I mean, I’ve tried to keep communication, in its purest sense, always at the forefront at my compact with the reader. The willful obfuscation of so much of today’s writing is, to me, a principal reason behind why poetry is not read by a wider audience. Or written about. Or sold. At all. But I also know that I’ve confused a heck of a lot of people. But I really do try to be clear, to leave the meaning out there on the ground, to be looked at, and to put what I want to communicate as an artist right out there in the plain sight and in the rhythms of speech. It may just be some Lutheran element of my personality. But if my work, to cull from your own questions, is received as both approachable, unpretentious, and yet also consistently disjunctive, then I feel like my compact with the audience is along the lines of, “Hey, come into my amazing yard, see how nice everything is? But I don’t want you to glimpse the mansion though, and that’s why I’ve constructed this gigantic fucking wall.” I don’t ever want to block the reader’s view. So maybe I’ve yet to completely figure that out yet. Note to self.
BM Could you talk about the title Lake Antiquity, it’s historical significance, why you chose it, how it speaks to the overall aims of the project?
BD Sure. I had amassed quite a folio of works by about the year 2000, when I went with a good friend of mine from San Francisco down to do a reading in L.A. We stayed at his folks house, and there was a book there called The World of Late Antiquity, a scholarly title about late-imperial Europe from the 4th century onwards. And its frontispiece was a gold glass portrait inset in a cross, found near Brescia. Oh wait, it was this:
And there was something about the image—an inlay set into a decorative piece, a trifle—that simply seemed to have humanity beaming out of it. So one thing became another: this project of mining and salvage that I had undertaken, was at least partly one of trying to dig the human out from the ancient, the decorative, the throwaway. The trash-heap of it, its undifferentiated mass, meaning smeared within itself, with forgotten pronouncements, with dead craft…was sort of a Lake Antiquity. The early pages of the book also include a photograph I shot in 1998 of Mussolini’s EUR district in Rome, with a kind of pathetic pool surrounded by the fascist’s para-classical architecture. That also seemed like a lake of antiquity at the time.
BM Elaine Equi first introduced me to your work a few years ago. Since then I’ve been interested in your work, but I’ve also been interested in your idiosyncratic taste. Could you tell us some things your into at the moment?
BD Sure! Jean Clottes’ monographs on Paleolithic art in France, particularly when focusing on Chauvet Cave in the Dordogne. Captain Nemo movies. Failed Public Access Television programming. Pickled peppers. Bad computer graphic animations, particularly those of hypothetical UFO sightings and underwater scenes. Pterodactyls. The Giro d’Italia. The Roti shops of Bed-Stuy. Dan Simmon’s last two novels, The Terror and Drood. Bern Porter’s late monographs. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly. German flora and fauna lithographs from the 1880’s. This amazing, almost psychotically self-possessed bratty kid named McKenzie who was one of the 4-year old contestants on a recent episode of the divinely awful Toddlers and Tiaras. I’m completely obsessed with this child as a character!
Early 20th Century boiler catalogs. Late 19th century portraits of dogs and cats dressed up in Little Lord Fauntleroy clothes and/or detective costumes. The soundtracks composed by Georges Delerue. Pupusas. The graphic design of Will Burtin. And Edward Tuftee. Maine. Clark Coolidge, now and forever. My friends’ kids. Vintage Letraset press-type. Death. I’m really into hating on San Diego lately (I’m writing these responses from my detested sometime home of San Diego). Do you know how many people die on the roads there every year? Between 35 and 38 million, apparently…
Brandon Downing’s Lake Antiquity is available now from Fence Books. Check out his website and YouTube page, and this interview by BOMB’s Mónica de la Torre.
Below: a series of pages from Lake Antiquity: