Dangerous Art – An Interview with BK

It’s snowing outside with a frosty -9 degrees Celsius mist covering Oslo. It’s 10am close to the Arctic Circle and the man on the other side of the phone is eight hours ahead on the opposite side of the planet, where he nurses a cool drink in his hand – the sound of the ice cubes chiming against the glass echoing through the receiver. ”I’m in a very sunny, stinking hot Melbourne. It’s 37ºC today.” At that moment all that is known to me is the man’s artistic pseudonym, BK. There’s hardly any delay and the reception is crystal clear. Hearing BK’s voice through this simple binary encoded transmitting signal gives the whole situation a very surreal atmosphere – for a moment I can feel the heat pulsating through from the other side of the world, or did the radiator just kick in. “75 years ago, what we’re doing would have appeared to be magic to people, it’s amazing.” BK lays these words down in a slow purposeful way that makes everything he says so much more poignant. He pronounces Melbourne with an upward inflection of the first syllable, in the way any Australian would, but for the most part his accent is noticeably American. “I grew up in the states. I’ve been in Australia for a little over 30 years now. I grew up in Wisconsin, so I know what a cold winter is like.” BK’s voice is a rich harmonic baritone, only adding to the aura of mystery that shrouds the man. Our conversation is the result of an email, an email with links to two videos and a simple statement preceding it; “I make dangerous art”. Naturally intrigued, I followed the links to the videos, which led to more work by the artist and after a brief email exchange I found myself here, talking to a mysterious voice I only know as BK. “My real name is … ,” says the voice. He spells out the name. He’s not trying to conceal his identity at all, but merely avoiding the idea of the person behind the art in an effort to maintain gender neutrality. As an artist he would like to avoid the indulgence of the personality behind the work. “I want people to relate to the work that I do, not to me. A lot of my favourite artists, once I start to find out about them as human beings, I started thinking ughh…” and BK breaks out in a short burst of laughter, before resuming, “like TS Elliot who treated is wife horribly and was an anti-Semite. The more I learn about him the less I can relate to the poetry. I want people to approach the art neutrally, not burdened by the personality.”

Behind BK there’s some fundamental aspect of this personality that informs his art. “I hesitate to use the word art, because there’s a pretention about it, but for the sake of conversation…“ BK’s work is largely influenced by synaesthesia, and it’s effects where sound and colour (or more specifically shades of light) are one in the same for the artist. “Best example I can give is if you snuck behind me and I didn’t see you or hear you, and you flicked a silent light switch, to me it’s like a thunderclap in my head. In musical terms G chords are a type of yellow.” Even something as going out to grocery shopping becomes a challenge for … and it’s only recently that BK has been able to put a name to these experiences. “To me, all that movement, all the colour, all that sound, is so intense like an overwhelming LSD trip.” It’s this experience of the world that BK tries to put forward in his art, a little bit of the artist coming through in a form of art that wants “to marry visual motion and sound in a way that will have some sort of impact on people.” He tries to extract his “internal muddled jumbled experience” of the world through his art and hold it up as a mirror to world in a way of saying “ hey have a look, this is what’s going in my head, with the correlation to all that, being, what’s going on in your head?”

I’m reminded of the videos BK sent over the email. Office Work is steadfastly ingrained in my memory, and while the American artist talks more about his work, I recall the prime-coloured 3D stick figure walking toward its office, the inner-workings of the character’s mind visualised as turning cogs. The music interacting, and re-acting to the visual elements, stimulates the viewer / listener on many sensory levels and I’m reminded of John Cage approaching the subject of listening to art as much as seeing it when describing Rauschenberg’s “Radio” combine in a lecture. In BK’s work, he realises the visual and the audio elements of his work as inter-dependent of the other due to synaesthesia, and what comes across is a work of art, that’s probably the most complete realisation of a multi-sensory experience. Unlike music videos, where images merely accompany the music or visual arts, which only feature a soundtrack, BK’s work is neither, yet they are both.

His voice breaks through again when I highlight this aspect of his work. “A big part of that is technology.” I imagine B to be an older man than me from the tone of his voice. Possibly in his late thirties, judging from the air of experience he caries in his voice, but also when he mentions the aspects of his earlier musical tutelage with modular synthesisers at University. Even then he would rely on visual stimuli when approaching the music. “I would get artists to draw and animate stuff to go along with the music.” As technology advanced and developed with computers, programs like Max MSP and Cinema 4D (the program BK uses exclusively) allowed the artist to marry the visual with the auditory much more effectively to a point where they are in a symbiotic relationship with each other in the same way B… experiences the world. “If you turn off the sound, you would fuck it up. For me, there is absolutely no difference between the sound and the visual. There’s a unity there. They are the same thing. When I have a conception of a work it has to be the whole thing.” At the same time this multimedia experience of art speaks of a contemporary universal predisposition of the multimedia experience, whether it be music videos, or interactive visuals at a concert. “I think it’s a liar paradox, because for me and my work, they’re an integrated whole, but I could see somebody appreciating it for just the music.” BK, can’t switch off the continuous video feed in his conscious loop, and as a result listening to an iPod has the same effects he brings across in his videos, which make 99.9 % of the music videos out there all that more “stupid and boring” for the artist. “They do one of two things fundamentally: They come up with a counter story, something that doesn’t quite match the lyrics, but is meant to be provocative or interesting; or they act out the lyric.” BK gives out another extended guffaw as if to say; “Is that all you got?”

I get the sense that BK is not one to toe the line, something he delivers on when he makes a statement like ‘my art is dangerous’. Although “50% of saying it’s dangerous art is just that – you gotta say something”, it has some sustenance to it. Hardly to be taken literally, the fact is that BK’s works won’t necessarily instil a sense of fear or caution in the viewer / listener, it’s more in the way he doesn’t conform to any trend or traditional ideas of music or visuals to truly make something unique and exclusively his own. His predilection to not conform stretches back to his days in University, where he would book musicians to play together in the most unconventional of situations and it’s during such an episode his art would be first labelled as dangerous by a friend.

“It was while doing that, that one of my friends said: ‘you know what your doing is really dangerous.’

I said: ‘what do you mean it’s dangerous?’

‘Well, cause most people they get their three friends and they practise and they become a band. But you do this conceptual stuff all the time, it’s dangerous.’

(I would do these light shows and conceptual stuff al the time.)

“Why is it dangerous?’

‘It’s just different, you’re going to upset a lot of people.”

This little anecdote of an exchange takes place when BK asks two drummers to perform on the same stage, with this friend in the story being of the drummers asked to join. It suggests BK is not afraid to provoke in his work, for the sake of getting people outside of their comfort zone and into a space of serious mental reflection whether it be about a subject like synaesthesia or perhaps something a little more problematic like a phrase.

‘Arbeit Macht Frei’, (work sets you free) is hardly menacing on it’s own, but in a certain historical context it has very serious implications. I learn it’s something BK was clearly ambivalent about before making the final decision to include it in ‘Office Work’. “I went back and forth on it. I have a sense of humour and I like to laugh at jokes and that, but to me there’s certain things you don’t joke about, and the holocaust is something you don’t fuck with. In the end it came down to the actual phrase. The way I got to the point where I felt I’ll leave it in, is that the bad people of the world, the Nazi’s, Ronald Reagan, George Bush etc, they co-opt language and it annoys me when they take a certain phrase (even the swastika is an ancient Indian symbol meaning wheel of life amongst other things), and they stain the phrase with their evil deeds.” BK re-appropriates the phrase to reflect on its original meaning into a more neutral place. “I’m not saying the average office worker is like going to the ovens.“ For BK the phrase is more about being a “wage slave” and “giving our lives up to these companies or government bureaucracies.” This equates to death for BK for personal reasons he hasn’t divulged as yet through our call, and here is where I believe his art is dangerous. Yes the phrase Arbeit Macht Frei might at first come across as something provocatively crass, but therein doesn’t lay the danger in BK’s work. It’s when we delve deeper into the work, that we find the most precarious element of it all… the humanity of the artist. It’s something that gets shrouded in the enigma of an artist too often, and it’s here where BK’s work as at it’s most dangerous.

‘Office work’ is about his own struggle of finding a healthy balance between work and leisure throughout his life-long battle against depression, which in itself is featured in ‘The tangled web of my depression’. To use a subject like that for an artist is like going out on a tripwire without a safety net. I realise that even if BK, wants to keep his personal life out of the art, a piece like that will not be able to exist as it does. The personal gets irrevocably entangled within the art like that moving web from the depression video, and makes it significant spectacle it becomes. “You can only create from your own experience,” retorts BK when I approach him about this and in some ways it contradicts the artist’s desire to remove his personality from the work. “Let’s pretend a hundred years from now – just indulge me – my art survives and somebody looks at it, I would hope they couldn’t care less about me, but they’re intrigued by the sounds and images I create. But everything I create comes from who I am and what I experience.”

B… talks of his depression in very general terms, recounting only one story of its effects as a child when it first took hold of him. He maintains an impersonal distance from the subjects in his work, even though they are integrally his alone. There’s no appearance of an attempt to make any impression on the subjects that inform the art. It’s as if to say this is just the reality of the situation, and it’s futile to try and do anything about it, so I might as well document it in an abstract form. It’s in this futility of it all wherein we find a concurrent theme through his work in my opinion. Whether it’s the mundane inevitably of office work; the endless entanglement of a mental state; or Sisyphus’ ineffectual existence, BK’s work definitely revolves around a theme has no narrative and reaches no conclusion about anything. BK’s work is very optimistic as a result, even if it stems from the sombre aspects of his personal life. ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on!’– The video in which BK recounts the story of Sisyphus – is not about the futility of it all, but rather something far more enriching. “The reason Sisyphus keeps rolling the rock up the hill, is because there is reward in the work itself. When I’m at my darkest that’s what I hang on to.” While BK is talking to me, I learn he is currently rendering a new work in the background. I get a link in an email a few days later and it shows heavy drops of rain falling into vast tumultuous ocean, and as the video progresses a candy-coloured stringy rainbow starts to take shape over the ocean, putting much into perspective. “It probably is all futile and it probably is going to turn to dust, but what I know right now is that strawberries are in season and they taste beautiful.”

It’s that optimism of living in the moment that instils a sincere beauty in BK’s work. I look at the timer ticking away on the recording conversation, and we have been talking for fifty minutes, without even bridging the subject of the greater purpose for these individual works. They will all form part of 26 Suicides, an installation that will continue to “externalise the internal experience” of B… through his work. He gives me details of how the installation will intend to represent the inside of his mind, without any real recognisable narrative to the work. Like all of the work that comprises the installation and all the videos that have come before, B… and the various elements that make up the artist is the theme that runs through the installation.

Our conversation is slowly creeping towards its conclusion, and I can’t honestly say I know much more of the man behind the work than when it started, but the work has certainly gained a very different perspective. Like BK’s synaesthesia these two elements are almost inter-dependent of each other and to experience BK’s work is to acquaint oneself with the man on a universal level. It’s a hazardous undertaking for the artist, but he knows the risk involve in being personal in his art, and it’s the only way his art can exist. He never shies away from the personal aspects of his work throughout our conversation and I detect a sincere honesty in everything he says and that is also reflected in his work at the end of the day. Our phone conversation ends in more acquainting small talk, while the chimes of the ice reflecting off the glass play in the background. We say our goodbyes, returning to our respective times and places, but I’m sure I haven’t heard the last of BK.