Interview with Brian Felsen
Conducted by Lauran Bonilla*
Brian Felsen's work is characterized by his pursuit of a conceptual desire
to explore elusive and recurring patterns in time. Brian is very articulate
and comprehensive in describing his work. The following is an edited version
of an interview conducted between him and Smarts Gallery Writer Lauran Bonilla
on October 14, 2005, as he prepared to display his work in the Cognitive Being
Lauren Bonilla: How did you begin your career as an artist?
Brian Felsen: I became interested in the fact that my scientist
heroes liked and admired the formality of Bach’s Canon in fugue; their
theories could be musically represented by varying the way polyphony played
out. By altering Canon in fugue I could develop and illustrate some of their
theories, parallel processing, multiple drafts, cerebral celebrity, and other
topics of philosophy that interest me.
LB: How did you go from getting your business degree to being an artist?
BF: I had a business that produced Rock’n’Roll
music festivals. My wife gave me the courage to sell my business, and I enrolled
in Manus College. I taught myself classical composition because I had to create
a new form to illustrate these ideas. I wrote an Oratorio based on texts by
my favorite writers and their ideas. This way I was able to get into a dialogue
about their pieces which led me to grants and opportunities and other collaborative
works with academic scientists and philosophers all over world.
LB: How did this lead you to create photographs like the ones for Cognitive
BF: I became interested in how these ideas could be represented
in different media. Each medium presents different challenges. There were certain
things that needed to be visually done that couldn’t be done with music
alone. When there were different things that I couldn’t represent, I turned
to different medium: playwriting, short films, photography and stereography.
With poetry, for example, I have taken postmodernist tropes and instead of using
them to comment on the text or centrality versus margins of meaning, I use them
to represent how the mind works and metacognition. What is it is like to introspect?
I created an idiolect and a form of short hand, of symbolic notation, that captures
the stream of consciousness which is less linear, slow and intrusive than common
everyday English language. It can look like a cat walked on my keyboard.
LB: Why are you doing this?
BF: So that I can recognize recurring patterns in my thought
and behavior. I peel back a layer of introspection that would not ordinarily
be possible, and it is also a tool by which others can do the same. Lastly,
it is interesting looking and artwork. It also serves as a generating device
to create other artistic projects. This theoretical writing feeds back artistic
productions, but it also works in reverse. One downside of art is that aesthetics
is an implacable task master. If ever I have an idea to express, what looks
or sounds pretty generally always trumps. For example, if I need to vary a fugue,
so that the flute will represent a certain thought I would have it play a certain
line, but that line might end up being unhearable because it is too low in the
flute’s register, or sounds bad or out of tune. In that case, all theory
goes out of window, because I have to do what sounds good. But it opens new
ideas for thought and patterns that I didn’t know existed.
LB: That makes sense.
BF: Another down side is that the learning curve is huge
when entering any dialogue with a new medium. For this reason I don’t
think I will ever paint. I am beginning to collaborate more with artists. In
this sense I am more a conceptual artist than a master craftsman. I had to spend
a year learning filmmaking, or composition, or Photoshop and photographic lighting.
It is always a delightful hassle, but I am beginning to depend on the craftsmanship
of others to be able to enter new media.
LB: Do you ever feel you are aiming too far?
BF: I create what I have to create. I don’t have choice
in the matter. I believe I have volition about what the artistic output is,
but my aesthetic sensibilities are what they are, and I make what is good and
necessary at the time. That is the reason I have a day job, it reinforces the
idea in my head that my goal with my art is not to make money. I make what I
have to make, it is a neurotic compulsion. And it is economically harmful, and
takes time and sleep away.
LB: Ultimately, what are you trying to do with your art?
BF: I try to capture elusive emotions, or I will try to capture
an idea over a tenth of a second. Or I’ll try and freeze or capture things
on film that don’t exist, half suppressed ideas, or psychosexual longings.
I try to use photo manipulation to show things that can’t be seen. Art
is applied theory for me, these artworks are like little models of the theory
I like. My dream was to talk to my cognitive science heroes, and I did. If I
can make people laugh also, that’s great.
*Lauran Bonilla is currently in the Ph.D. Program for Art History at The
Graduate Center of City University of New York. She received her B.A from Barnard
College of Columbia University in Art History and Visual Arts. She has worked
at several museums and art institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art
(New York), the Museum of Costa Rican Art (Costa Rica), the Museum of Contemporary
Art & Design (Costa Rica), Christie's (New York), and The Drawing Center