Alex Zafiris talks to artists Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe about their new installation and fourth collaboration, Stray Light Grey, presented at Marlborough Chelsea in New York.
Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe have been creating all-immersive sequences of abandoned rooms since their first project, Hello Meth Lab in the Sun, debuted at Ballroom Marfa in 2008. This evolved into Black Acid Co-op, shown by Jeffrey Deitch the following year, which then morphed into Bright White Underground, housed at Country Club in Los Angeles in 2010. The latest incarnation, Stray Light Grey, continues their reach into the recesses of the mind with spaces laden with excess, alienation, disconnect and darkness.
It is late August in the city. Freeman and Lowe are mid-installation at the Marlborough Chelsea for their opening on September 13. There is almost no natural light, the radio is playing, power drills are drowning out conversation. After this interview, conducted on the second floor in the gallery’s pristine offices, we go downstairs and they lead me through it. Stray Light Grey resembles a construction site, save for details that have begun to surface: a human-sized hole in the back of the gallery bathroom, which leads into a room papered with original 1970s wallpaper. A black-and-white checkerboard floor in an off-site betting shop. Standing still in a tight spot, Freeman says, “This is what we’re calling the Kowloon hallway.” I’m not familiar, and he explains about the Chinese Walled City, which was demolished in the early ’90s. “It was a slum that grew together into one interiorized building. All the alleyways were caved inside, everyone did their own plumbing and electricity. It had intense decay and disuse. This will look like that.” Around the corner is the almost completed Brain Room: an enclave of white, crystallized electronics. There is too much work going on nearby, so we take an alternate route. “Normally you’d go up the stairs,” he says, pointing upwards to another level. “That’s going to be our plastic surgery clinic. That will then come down into the Mexican hybridized retail environment, where we’ll have a cake shop, and a pharmacy.” This leads to what will become a mahogany library belonging to an eccentric aristocrat. I ask them what kind of books they’re planning to create for the shelves. “A lot of science fiction, psychedelic drugs, things about community ritual and group psychosis,” says Freeman. “And humor,” says Lowe. “A lot of comedy.”
Humor isn’t the first thing that leaps to mind when visitors recount their experiences of these installations. First, you need to sign a release before entering, which acts both as a reasonable safety precaution and a flag, signaling that what lies ahead could be unusual in more ways than one. Freeman and Lowe are masters of the metaphorical double-take, silently extracting violent meaning from banal objects, casting shadows across sunlit vistas and pulling fact all the way to the edge of reason. Their works contain real historical narratives alongside false ones—constructed primarily for their own process—but which expand and fuse as the piece takes shape. The previous three works united the rooms through one idea (Hello Meth Lab In The Sun was created within the theme of alchemy), and Stray Light Grey observes the hybrid, ranging from distinct representations of that form— composite spaces, identities—to more abstract notions such as a sex change, or human integration with technology.
Alex Zafiris Your first collaboration was at Ballroom Marfa.
Justin Lowe That’s where the first project went to. We started working together when we were living in a studio together, with a bunch of other artists in what’s become known as East Williamsburg. That’s where we started doing pre-production, coming up with the ideas of what would become Hello Meth Lab in the Sun.
Jonah Freeman We had met a couple of years before, and we’d ended up in this large building that had four or five studios. We both had done environmental, installation-type work in the past, so there was a cross-pollination of ideas. An artist friend of ours, Adam Helms, suggested we make a proposal to do a collaborative project involving Marfa. We’d already been making collages together, but we weren’t actively intending to make a big project.
AZ So this was the shift from the collages, which were flat.
JL Yes. That was a very casual, albeit intensive, time period, because there was no real intention to exhibit them in any form other than hypothetically. Once we understood a little bit more what the space was like at Ballroom, we realized that we could bring in these projects. We started to toss these ideas back and forth about this labyrinthine series of rooms that were dealing with three specific kinds of subject matter—a burnt-out meth lab, an abandoned hippie commune kitchen, and something that would be considered more industrial, or post-industrial, production.
JF We had the various sites of industrial power production. The upper east side museum [room] was one of those: connecting the overarching industrial society with these two subcultures, that were in some way a product of a reaction to that. Then there were lots of interstitial environments that connected these, like a slow fade between these very specific types of environments.
AZ “Slow fade.” A lot of cinematic gestures. Did you have that in common already?
JL I had done some pieces that were definitely a sequence of events. When we started working together, I had just finished this project at Oliver Kamms/5BE Gallery [Helter Swelter, 2006], where you walked into the gallery, which had been turned into a bodega. The potato chip racks swiveled and put you in the back of an ice-cream truck, which then brought you into another room. Then, Jonah—you had just gotten back from, was it—the Busan Bienniale? Where you had done this large installation that was taking artifacts or elements from [your film] The Franklin Abraham.
JF That wasn’t as immersive as what Justin was doing, but it was definitely environmental. I’d done these very minimalistic environments that were just light and metal and glass. You move through different kinds of light. They were meant to be cinematic articulations of time and space. Then they got more socially narrative, I started to bring in prop elements, things like that, but Justin’s rooms were all-encompassing, and mine were more like tableaus, or sets.
JL But yours were more ephemeral. If taken out of context, they could have worked well with the light and space body of work. But you located it through titles, into a less ethereal thing: “This is the light of Phoenix,” or, “This is the light of New Orleans.” Where I’d been doing this displacing of real life elements, within an art context. But both of those things seem to merge together quite well, because there’s the installation in all the work, up until about forty-eight hours before the opening. Then we start to really tune in on the feeling of it. Which usually has to do with lighting. And a little bit of cleaning up.
JF A little aging there, a bottle of tea . . .
JL The nuances and the details all really come together in the last few days. Right now we’re still very much building the structure.
AZ Separately, did your work have quite different feelings? Because together you have a very distinct feeling.
JF Yes. There’s definitely some bleed-over of interests. I guess my work could be considered more minimalistic, at least the sculpture. More hard-edged. I was very concerned with film, because I’d been making films, and went to film school, and that was the filter through which a lot was being interpreted. Justin’s coming from a more straight sculpture background. There’s definitely a merger, a Venn Diagram where it interconnects.
JL In some ways I was interested in music. We both listen to a lot of the same music and watch a lot of the same movies. Your stuff might have come more from the cinematic directly.
JF Yeah. More from cinema, more of a straightforward minimalist, post-minimal tradition.
AZ Quite bleak?
JF Bleak? I don’t know. The early works were very austere. In the way that a lot of that tradition of art-making knows: isolating very specific things, and trying to frame them in a way that is very clear. This work in particular has become much more maximal, a layered environment that is about how these things interact with each other, rather than isolation. In the early work, I was isolating different temperatures of light, how that connected to a form of theatricality and suspension of disbelief. So in that way, it shifted quite a bit. But I think, because of my background in film, I was very interested in narrative, and I was very interested in how that played into sculpture. So it made a lot of sense to me, to go in this direction.
AZ What about your subject matters?
JL Well, there’s a certain amount of how one moves through the city, the transitions from one place to another. The headspace that puts you in, or maybe the headspace that you’re in, when you move into a place. Like these older bodegas, most of which are being replaced by other kinds of convenience stores. Very strange light, odd hours, a disassociative feeling, combined with the cacophony of all of this other urban sound. There’s something theatrical about that, and the displacement of that: the strange fissure that will occur upon entering what you think will be a gallery, but instead its a replica of a bodega. To the point where people start coming in and asking if they can get smokes, and are confused. But I’d also been very drawn to a lot of the conditions in which music and happenings—that came from psychedelic culture, round the 1960s, continuing into the ’70s—were made. And, this combination of different kind of practices—the look of it. Lots of color, lots of all-over composition. So that was a real foundation, and I still go back to a lot of that, I think we both do. It might be more towards obscure or politicized groups, or groups that actually had more to do with say, street theater, like the Diggers. We’ve been getting into a lot of the earlier, privately-produced publications, and street newspapers like The Berkeley Barb, The East Village Other. Its a way to deal with these communities and locate their artifacts, or generate artifacts for our fictional communities.
AZ What do you think draws you specifically to these worlds that have basically gone away? Or perhaps you don’t feel that they’ve gone away?
JF Lot of things. I’m personally very interested in history. That period, all of the Cold War, is really fascinating.
JL I mean, sex, drugs and espionage is interesting, right? That’s about it. I’m so wrapped up in creating our own things that I’m not really paying so much attention to what’s actually happening.
JF We got into the sense of creating a parallelism with the narrative. A way in which to do that is to look at actual events and reinterpret them, recondition them in some other way. Take something from history, but then take something from the present. It becomes something else.
AZ But not like nostalgia.
JF I wouldn’t say it’s nostalgic. I don’t feel very nostalgic.
JL It doesn’t feel—its not like so much a homesickness.
JF Not at all.
JL This is more a productive tool to engage fantasy and create bizarre monsters. To combine things that wouldn’t normally exist, to get at something new and uncanny.
JF Yes. And the nature of these exhibits and installations—where we’re creating these environments that are somewhat abandoned and/or disused—is the sense of being left. You’re automatically dealing with a history there, “What was in this space?” When we got into doing Hello Meth Lab in the Sun, it initially was a very off-the-cuff idea. Then once you start to explore, and the actual work of making this, the histories of these places, the connections and how they relate, really bring up a lot of things that become endlessly interesting. Being able to mine the various histories of counter culture as it related to Cold War industrial society—it has not run out yet, from my point of view.
AZ Can you tell me more about the moment that you choose? Regarding that sensation that something has “left” the room.
JL That is the feeling. Like, how much electricity is on?
JF How decayed it is. Usually there should be a range. Someone left five minutes ago, or several decades ago. In the sense of creating a sequence, we want a variance of disuse and decay, and so some things will simply be rather intact.
JL And some moments are quite hot, and then other things are quite cool. You can build up, and then start to bring people down, so that each thing becomes punctuated by more interesting—or alarming—moments. They are some subtle things to it, to keep you moving forward. It isn’t just one long twenty-minute guitar solo.
JF To keep you aware of the surroundings, and the details. Because in the end there’s this very materialist, visceral sculptural experience, where you’re just having this interaction with material. In your environment.
AZ Do you find that people react very differently?
JL It seems to be quite different. I mean, its usually a, “What have you done?” kind of thing, like they’re worried for me, and worried for everyone else. And then some people afterwards start to say, “Oh, did you mean this, or that,” or write things where they put together different narrative clues or moments, and make strange decisions, see things that I never saw. So that’s interesting. But I guess that some people do have a real visceral reaction to it, because some things can be quite dark, and dirty, and other things quite cold and bright and harsh. You go through a range, because it is a time-based piece. You go through a lot more than you do with the consideration of a static object.
AZ Tell me more about your team.
JF There are so many different things going on, so we have people who are very specialized. Dennis Hoekstra is a friend who is also a very skilled scenic painter. He does a lot of this really intense aging, and creating of texture on walls. He’s been with us for three or four projects now. We have people doing retouching, people doing sewing, or people who are good at painting, and then we have general assistants, and interns, and then people who just really believe in the project and want to hang around and help. Every day there’s something else to do. It might be: today we’re going to silk screen. Today we’re going to think of book titles. Today we’re going to cut out towels.
AZ Another impression that I get overall is: people think that your work is quite creepy. It makes them feel off, disoriented. I’m assuming that’s on purpose.
JF I would not say that that is a specific intention at all. I’ve never felt like I want to creep anybody out. Solely. Have you?
JL Oh—no. I’m never like, is this creepy enough?
JF Being a meth lab is probably what they’re referring to as the most creepy version of that. I think initially for us, it seemed like it would make a really interesting sculpture.
JL All the apparati involved, and the lab equipment, and then—
JF The DIY chemistry set, and then the disused, abject nature of it, sort of similar—
JL I mean it seemed like Assemblage Collage 101. It also seemed like a return to, “Mom and Dad are gone, lets screw up the kitchen.” Which actually was more of an initiation into some serious fun. It’s just that sometimes serious fun gets seriously dirty. I guess one person’s fun is another person’s creep out.
JF We’re having fun making it. I guess its effective in its rendering of this dark world. It’s definitely not the intention. I’m always a little surprised at how creeped out everyone is.
JL Yeah. Because it doesn’t seem like a Marilyn Manson album. Or, like Saw, the movie. There’s a moment where I thought maybe I should just do production design for a movie. That didn’t work out very well. I showed some people in LA and they said, “This would have been great for Saw.” I was like, “Well, I really don’t want to do this now.”
JF I guess the meth culture is dark. Without a doubt. But when we got into developing the piece, that’s why we accented it with other things that had different feelings about them. And so, moving through the entirety of the piece, you’re hopefully having a range of experiences as far as the space goes. So yes, there are things that point towards something that was dark. But having a shock value wasn’t the intention at all—it’s to give a range. That’s always what I think we’re thinking about—playing these places off each other. If one is going very far into an entropic, ruinous realm, then you want to give something that’s much more together and clean next to it. Its like a balancing act.
AZ Can you tell me more about the fake narratives?
JL Narrative really came to the forefront with Bright White Underground (2010), the show in Los Angeles at the Buck House, which is a Schindler House. There was a character created named Dr. Cook, a kind of bizarro Timothy Leary. That really just had to do with where this place was—Hollywood—and it existed at the time when LSD, and other hallucinogenics, were not yet criminalized and were involved in therapeutic sessions, initially for a cultural elite, such as movie stars, or politicians. The narrative was a way to determine how to make the sculptures. Or photographs. Its probably the way actors deal with their props. It gives a little bit of a parameter for making things.
JF It gives a backbone. I don’t think it’s necessarily important to experiencing the work in it’s final result. It feels kind of fractal. If you wanted to go in deeper, the narrative would keep going. It doesn’t end at face value. My film The Franklin Abraham (2004) was about a fictional city that had existed in a single building, and too many people lived in that building and it had been built over two hundred years. While making it, I developed this kind of parallel history, so that sort of idea was already in play. When I got into doing these installations it seemed like a good device to create a cosmology, so that when you’re going into these spaces that were so all-encompassing, you were essentially drifting off into some kind of parallel world. Which I liken to being in a foreign country. Somewhere in Asia, say—a modern world. The details are familiar, but very alien. You’re trying to relate, and also in this foreign world.
AZ So you’re there, and you’re not.
JF Yes. My experience of being in places like Korea is that my senses are extremely heightened. It’s almost like a psychedelic experience. Just walking around until every little detail of the environment of the city became heightened. I would notice a pack of gum in a way that I wouldn’t notice one in New York. Things like that. So, in an effort to create these environments, we try to get the details. For instance all the products will be created by us, and will be parallel. You won’t have a bottle of Coke, it’ll be a soda of our own creation.
AZ Do you think that’s what people mean when they say its creepy? I think a lot of people find that really uncomfortable, whether they’re in Korea or in your installation. Like people who have never been to a big city, for example.
JF I guess, yeah, potentially. I find it incredibly pleasurable. I guess because these are sort of dystopic, you know, the abandoned environments. People maybe feel a sense of loss. I don’t know.
AZ Loss of control?
JF Yes. I guess, yeah.
JL I think maybe they don’t quite know what to expect.
AZ Or what to do.
JF Yeah. I mean—they definitely are not intending to be pleasant or positive, that’s for sure. That doesn’t come into play, either. It’s more about trying to render and replicate.
JL Keep people in the moment. So: they don’t know what to expect, their senses are heightened, they’re paying attention. Because I don’t want someone snoozing out. You want to keep people’s attention.
Balarama Heller provided the photographs for this piece. He is a photographer who lives and works in New York City and abroad.
Alex Zafiris is a writer based in New York.