June 2012 Interview
Without knowing anything about David O’Brien, one can seemingly infer a lot about his works. Due to their complexity, it’s quite unlikely that the pieces are carefully pre-determined. Their color schemes are bright and engaging, and they contain great composition and good use of negative space.
These are the givens.
What isn’t a given is how profound O’Brien’s works actually are beneath their vibrant exteriors. They might be easy to describe generically as “explorations of relationships between shape and color” — a description you could give artists in any coffee shop across the country — but they’re much more than just instantly gratifying eye candy. They’re steeped deep in concepts, ranging from the abstract documentation of explosions and fictional landscapes to more complex musings on how to visually quantify human biological processes. And with every new series O’Brien works on, his ideas are become more robust and scientifically- inspired. Organic influences, coupled with his background in architecture, result in art that is equal parts methodical calculation and natural adaptation, with underlying structures that are obvious, yet manifest themselves in extremely unpredictable ways.
O’Brien’s latest project, My Pet Doppelganger, takes thousands of personal photographs and explores the idea of digital doppelgangers via the internet and social media, by way of chaotic yet finely planned orientations. Read the two Q&A interview below for a retrospective look at a wide cross-section of O’Brien’s visual projects.
My Pet Doppelganger is themed around the idea of each of us living with multiple doppelgangers in the digital age, correct? What first led you to this idea?
The word doppelganger means “double walker”. It’s about the contemporary notion of constructed and cultivated self-images. Anyone setting up accounts or profiles online is engaging in a kind of construction of an alternate self. Most of us have developed several of these over the years. I’m interested in what all of the doubles and duplicates look like in aggregate. This photography project is a way for me to abstract and formalize that exploration. A photo is quick kind of body-double, which of course has been around for much longer than so-called social media.
I would expect works like this would spark much conversation and that there would be other interpretations as well. Can you tell me a bit about other interpretations you’ve heard or related conceptual or theoretical conversations you’ve had about the series?
The work is very new so these conversations are just beginning. The thing that people seem to find most surprising are the formal drivers of composition. Many just assume there is some sort of computer algorithm at work but there is not, and this is very important from a conceptual standpoint. People are placed next to each other in compositions based on things like body language, a shared glance or facial expression. They also come together based on real-world social relationships. People that are actual friends will sometimes appear floating together. These are very intuitive things, things an algorithm or generative computer program could never do, and this how the compositions grow. I literally do feel like I “grow” them, like plants. The shapes and textures you see come from millions of unique and personal and sometimes chance relationships. Simples rules are aggregated into large groups and complexity emerges.
You made evident in previous interviews that you’re very much interested in biology. Was that central to this work, as well? If so, what are some of the parallels you saw while working?
It is still front and center in a lot of ways. I’ve always been interested in emergent behaviour in the natural world, and the way I describe growing compositions above is classic emergence. I guess if you were going to get technical about it maybe my interests have shifted slightly from realm of biology into behavioral patterns and sociology. But I’m an artist, not a scientist. I just follow my interests.
Taking a photographic approach is quite a departure from your previous work, at least in medium, though in principle it is similar. Why the change, and will you continue to work with other pieces?
I’ve learned that as an artist it is important to be rigorously breaking your own rules on a regular basis. If you can’t do that, you’ll just stagnate and die. This is much tougher than you might think and sometimes only results in incremental change, but it is how you keep evolving. Hey, there’s biology again.
Did you know much about the subjects that were photographed? Other than the obvious visual relationships found in the pieces, were there any patterns that came to reveal themselves, sociologically or psychologically speaking, with relationship to the subjects and how they were arranged in the image?
My answer would be see question #2! Yes, absolutely! This is another thing that people viewing the work might have no idea about. Everyone in the work is someone I know personally or at least tangentially. Many are people who are in my life every day. I could tell you a story about every image, so it is incredibly socially driven. In some ways you could argue that it is a giant self portrait via everyone that I know. (Although I haven’t gotten everyone yet; I’m still working.) But you know, this project has opened some other possibilities as well. It doesn’t have to be just my world, I’m working on potentially going to other places and doing the same thing with totally different groups of people. How would the work change if I were documenting a small village in Bolivia, or some particular groups of kids in Tokyo or some other city? Would there be entirely different colors? Different patterns? It’s fun to dream about.
You know there is one other thing worth mentioning. Many of the people in the photographs are other artists and writers. So really what you are seeing is this huge pool of creative people, some of whom are incredibly successful if you recognize them. I haven’t really talked much about this aspect of the work, but I think it is an interesting one.
Philippe Halsman’s Jump Series
Popcorn Nude, Dali, 1949
14 x 11″ silver print
Stamped on verso
In the actual act of photographing the subjects, what was the process like, and how much freedom of movement was encouraged or allowed?
It is totally freeform. At each photo session I encouraged everyone to just jump in the air and be free. Some were really brilliant about twisting and contorted and reacted in unpredictable ways. Some were nervous and stiff, some were just goofy. The goal was to capture some atom of identity at that moment in time. A lot is revealed about a person when you ask them to jump in the air – we owe a little to Philippe Halsman for that one. All-of-the-above works and makes this crazy swirling current of humanity.
Could you explain what you mean about Philippe Halsman?
Oh sure, Philippe Halsman was a photographer from the ’40s and ’50s (RIGHT). He made this whole series of photos called Jump Photos, the most famous were images of Marilyn Monroe jumping and one of Richard Nixon levitating in the air. He even worked with Salvador Dali making these really amazing photo experiments. He had this notion which he called jumpology, which was that you could instantly tell all these things about a person when you saw them jump off the ground – that their body language in the air gives all this secret information about their personality. I can say that it is definitely true. In some ways maybe I am continuing his project on a mass scale.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Yes — thank you! I’ve worked so hard on this, I really appreciate your interest and questions! Also huge thanks to everyone involved so far. This work is a true collaboration and it wouldn’t exist without everyone who has come and participated. It is not about tele-presence, it is about real presence; actually being there, so thank you to everyone involved.
February 2010 Interview
What is it about organisms and the natural world that most interests you?
My work is focused on the connections between biological and cultural evolution. The questions I explore manifest in games of unfolding, simulating and diagramming living systems. Some questions I ask myself are: how do multiple individually driven entities conspire to form patterns, which we can then point to as larger singularities? What changes as the field becomes populated and complexity arises? How does the figure emerge from the field? And then, of course, how does this larger structure feed back into the desires, motivations and evolution of individuals?
Do you have a background in science?
Honestly, I don’t. Art is often about doing something intuitive and then trying to understand why you did it and where it can take you. So, I’ve been more or less led into science by what the work is telling me. These days, a fair amount of my time is dedicated to studying scientific literature from people like Claude Levi-Strauss or Edward O. Wilson.
Are there any particular ideas you’re thinking of exploring in the future?
Well, concentration on the genetic process is definitely where my work is going, but I also bounce back and forth between all of the forms I’ve created so far. So, they all continue to evolve together.
How long does it take you to generally complete a piece?
Anywhere from a couple weeks to 6 months.
How much of a perfectionist are you? Do you pay attention to the details or mostly just the big picture?
I try not to plan things too much. All of the work is based on micro growth to develop the macro form, so I focus only on the small scale and let the overall thing take care of itself. In terms of details, sometimes it just has to be perfect. It has to be absolutely razor sharp. But then sometimes I have to force myself to get loose in order to try new things. Other times I experience a sort of cathartic backlash to all the precision and I just go off on something completely fast and messy just to keep myself sane. But I always return to the more meticulous and carefully constructed work. I notice that about myself.
Current Body Of Work
O’Brien’s most recent body of work, which is currently still untitled, is a look at the basic genetic processes which happen in the body.
“Specifically, meiosis is the process by which sex cells split all of their chromosomes in half in preparation to accept and be joined to foreign DNA after sex. It is what happens in sperm and egg cells in us and in almost every living animal. It’s an endlessly fascinating thing, for obvious reasons… “Within [Meiosis], there are exactly 23 uniquely colored strands (female) matching the 23 ‘trajectories’ (male) entering from the perimeter.”
(ABOVE) Flower Bomb 2
Rapid Organic Growth
By mimicking a child-like creation, O’Brien captures the frenzied growth of nature without reservations.
“Nature is sometimes creeping slowly and sometimes out of control. Too much detail can lead to decadence, and sometimes physical force is required as a sort of mental catharsis. These things happen the fastest and are often the strongest colors I have been able to achieve. But they are also the things that I understand the least. They are viscerally connected to bodily movement and action and stand for a sort of plant-life explosion.”
(ABOVE) Mating Dance
At the very heart of this piece is a maze with only one way in and one way out, yet with many possible routes one can take to reach the end.
“What the maze is really about is the ability to wander within a very rigid, linear structure… With so much non-linear thinking going on these days, it is humbling to be reminded of the fact that there are still many things in life that are incredibly linear. We eat food; it goes through a line and comes out the other end. We are born once and we die once. What happens in-between is totally variable.”
(ABOVE) Ring Formation
“Meme is a term coined by the biologist Richard Dawkins back in the ’70s. It is supposed to rhyme with (and relate to) the word gene, only instead of dealing with the transmission of biological information, the meme is about the replication and spread of ideas. I began drawing these large swarms of colored people purely out of intuition well before I discovered memes. I only knew that they all followed each other and developed certain behavior and patterns. When I discovered the concept of the meme and learned a more about it, it fit perfectly with what I wanted to communicate with the drawings.”
(ABOVE) Blood And The Magic Number
“It’s a re-thinking of the idea of [explosions in] platonic form. Instead of the triangle or the cube, I like the explosion as archetypal form. There is also the cloud and the spiral.”