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.