INTERVIEW with BRIAN JAMES SPIES, artist
by Jon F. Allen 3/30/12
Brian James Spies'Â (brianjamesspies.com)Â latest solo show concerns hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) operations in his hometown of Williamsport in the North Central region of Pennsylvania. Eliza Griswold writing for the New York Times described fracking as â€œa process of natural gas drilling that involves pumping quantities of water, sand, and chemicals thousands of feet into the earth to crack deep shale deposits and free bubbles of gas from the ancient, porous rock.â€? The chemicals used in fracking have been linked to poisoned water supplies, neurological disorders, cancer, respiratory problems, and dead livestock.Â
I recently threw a few email questions to Brian about the show, and related issues.Â
JFA: When did you first decide to become a pro-active artist? Do you consider yourselfÂ
an activist? Were you ever really a leisurist (self-indulgent, scraping away at canvas
BJS: Although I can understand people seeing me and my work as activism I don't see it that way. My favorite art related quote comes from Louise Bourgeois, it says essentially that if you base your work on something true to your experiences you will be mining a well that won't ever run dry. The motif that drives my entire life and thus my practice is a feeling of helplessness in the face of abuse of power by the powerful. Thus that feeling drives my work.Â
JFA: When did you first notice the Texas license plates in your hometown ofÂ
Williamsport, and how affected by fracking is the town lately?
BJS: Probably around 2009-10. As soon as I moved to Baltimore I started to hear about this "influx" of oil men from my friends and family back home. As far as recent developments there was an article in the local paper just last week that because of the recent decline in the price of natural gas the mining companies are actually slowing down on mining and working more on creating an infrastructure for once the prices go back up. I found this extremely amusing.
JFA: Tell me about Rice Energy and Captain Planet. How did you discoverÂ
their co-opting of the character? Are superhero icons a trend in this drilling industry?
BJS: I discovered the Captain Planet connection on Rice Energy's website.Â
I was researching the way that the gas companies present themselves to theÂ
public. The press sites at these companies really are an amazing resource.Â
As far as being part of a larger trend, I've come across no evidence that it isÂ
but Rice definitely is big on it. They have rigs named after everything fromÂ
the pro-wrestler Ultimate Warrior to The Incredible Hulk and The X-Men.
JFA: I understand you will have Rice energy prints available at the opening reception of your show?
BJS: First come, first serve. Captain Planet Posters will be available at the opening reception April 6th. All posters are 13 x 18 inches, full color, printed on Epson presentation paper, and signed by yours truly.
JFA: Describe Williamsport. What was it like growing up there? What are the people like?
BJS: Typical small town, some good some bad. It was very racially and socioeconomically segregated. The likelihood was that you were black and poor, or white and reasonably well off. This bred resentment amongst those that were white and not well off that became focused upon the minority community, many of whom were recent migrants to the city; mostly from Philadelphia. The local media fanned a lot of these flames of discontent.
JFA: How has it changed?
BJS: A lot of the industry has disappeared and one consequence of this is greater economic disparity. I grew up upper middle class, very fortunate. Now my parents struggle to get by. My dad had worked for one of the manufacturing companies, but he lost his job 10 years ago because of cutbacks. Now he works for the hospital system and makes half of what he did before. For the middle class in Williamsport this is pretty much true across the board. One of the other things that has changed is that with the arrival of the Oil industry they're the newÂ
Bogeymen/Messiah figures. It seems you either think that they'll bring back Williamsport's glory days or plunge us even further into the darkness.Â
services in Williamsport. People have been displaced due to raised rents.Â Have you personally witnessed any of the above? How has it changed the sense of morale and community overall? Why do you think the crime rate has gone up?
BJS: Crime has definitely risen. Before I moved, my car was broken into maybe a half dozen times in the course of 2 years. Compare that to zero times in the dozen years prior and it has to mean something. The real estate issue is especially troublesome. I have a good friend from high school who has gone through the rent raising stuff on multiple occasions. That was kind of the beginning of me starting to see the reality of this so-called boom.
JFA: What have you personally witnessed of the fracking operations in Williamsport? Also, I understand you found evidence that had been thrown away.Â
BJS: I've seen metrological things that just can't be explained like low hanging clouds that seem to linger in an unexplained manner. My parents' basement which had always gotten a little water began to flood between 8 - 24 inches every time it rained. These things didn't start happening until the mining came. Can I say that there is a direct corollary? No. However I don't know how else to explain things like 3 major floods in 25 years becoming 7 or 8 in three years. The failed report that you mentioned wasn't thrown away. I outright stole it from a mining site about 10 minutes from my parents' house.
JFA: Orr writes of a Northern PA landmark "known as the Triple Divide, where three rivers' watersheds are fedÂ
by springs virtually side-by-side â€” the Allegheny River, which flows west into the Ohio, then the Mississippi and into the Gulf of Mexico;Â the west branch of the Susquehanna River, which flows east into Chesapeake Bay and the mid-Atlantic Ocean; and the Genesee River, whose watersÂ flow north into Lake Ontario and eventually the northern Atlantic." Orr also states, "The nearest gas well is 2 1/2 miles away from the triple divide." If contaminated, it seems a worse case scenario would unravel. Have you been to the Triple Divide? If so, what have you seen there?Â
BJS: I'm familiar with the area described but I've never actually been there. I do however agree with the assertions made in the article. Two years ago my parents had to spend, I believe it was 10,000 dollars replacing the plumbing that goes into there house from the street, everyone in town did as well. That was so that we could protect the Chesapeake Bay watershed which we are a part of. Meanwhile, the oil companies aren't even required to report the chemicals they are putting in the ground to do the fracking because they say its proprietary information.
JFA: How is the air in various parts of your town?
BJS: As of a couple weeks ago when I went home the air, from an odor standpoint, is as normal as it has ever been; typical fresh country air. From a more clinical level, meaning pollutants that one can't smell, I don't really know. That is part of why I'm worried.
BJS: How far do you plan on taking your fight?
I don't really view it as a fight, but as far as something to be explored and brought attention to this is just the beginning of what for me is a life's work.
JFA: What types of people in Williamsport are more than likely to sign lease agreements with drilling companies? What is the reigning political ideology or party in Williamsport?
BJS: Most of the people signing leases are older and lower on the economic scale. It doesn't seem to have a political component. It's more rooted in people who haven't had many opportunities in their life seeing that this is finally their chance at a golden ticket. That said, like most rural areas the dominant political ideology is of the Republican persuasion.
JFA: How beautiful is Williamsport? What can a visitor expect to see there?
BJS: In the fall, there is nowhere more beautiful. It exists within a valley created by these gorgeous rolling hills. It really is straight out of an Andrew Wyeth painting. Very Norman Rockwell in the best way. It's called Happy Valley for a reason.
JFA: Why a conceptual approach to the show?
BJS: I don't see conceptual approaches as being any different from "traditional" approaches.
JFA: How are photos and news articles as, if not more, aesthetically valid asÂ
well-rendered, fine tuned easel paintings?
BJS: See above and I'd add that I feel like one could easily say to a painting "why not a sculpture?" This is the language I use to communicate my intentions thus it is the form the work takes.
â€‹JFA: One of your artist techniques is referred to as redaction. Please explain the whys, wherefores, and origins
of that process.
BJS: Etymologically speaking redaction originated as a term referring to the excising of "sensitive" text from documents prior to them being released to the "public". It's often referenced with regards to government documents. In my own practice it originated as an effort to call attention to the words that became absent. In my earlier pieces these redactions were more concrete whereas in more recent work they serve more as an attempt to edit or mediate the media to draw attention to the notion of the roll of the press in a democracy. In essence I seek to highlight the fact that by the press reporting upon a story they by default alters that story.
JFA: You've described Mike Kelley as your hero. What parallels your work with his?
BJS: I'm not certain there are any direct parallels, my reason for calling him my hero is because although I always made art it wasn't until I saw his work with Sonic Youth that I understood what an artist could be and thus what I wanted to be. Before that I just thought artists painted pretty pictures and I didn't really want to do that.
JFA: Do you see yourself continuing on an activist's path or is there always room
for "art for art's sake"; not to mention leisurely, self-indulgent work?
BJS: As far as I'm concerned there is room for any and all kinds of art but personally I'm going to keep trying to talk truth to power.