Interview: Artists Jonah Freeman & Justin Lowe

Through their art, Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe bring their audience into a fully formed world of their own creation. The two have been making large scale installations for the last 10 years, and have become renowned for the intense attention to detail they put into every piece. Walking through the rooms Freeman and Lowe create, visitors will find libraries full of completely original books and disused print factories and commercials that never existed, all to make the installations feel like a forgotten piece of history. Though they’ve been working on a new installation, they spoke to us via email about about their long-running collaboration, the research and details required to make their installations believable, and how their previous installations affect any new work they begin.


LASTBLOG: I read that the first project the two of you did together was a collage. How did you translate that into large-scale installations?

Jonah Freeman: The collages started as a way to amuse ourselves during a particularly hot and broke summer. As I recall a lot of the ideas for our first piece Hello Meth Lab In the Sun began to germinate during the collage process. We had both already done large works that involved architectural components so it wasn’t such a difficult stretch.

Justin Lowe: I don’t see much of a difference in the collage process and the installation process. It’s very easy to make that shift in scale, in some ways they both rely on extracting something and combing it with something else and being mindful of the sequences that are created.

JF: We have often referred to our process as a form of spatial collage.

Collage by Jonah Freeman & Justin Lowe

Collage by Jonah Freeman & Justin Lowe

LASTBLOG: Before you began working together, you each had done large-scale installations individually. Could you talk about some of those?

JL: They weren’t unlike what I’m doing now with Jonah, they consisted of a series of conjoined rooms, sometimes they involved iconic vehicles, like a van or an ice cream truck. Obviously once we started collaborating the scale got much larger.

JF: The works that I was doing were more spare in their outward appearance. A lot of my early ideas came from working on film and photography sets where elements of architecture and light were used as a transportative theatrical device. From this experience I was beginning to see the architectural interior as inherently theatrical. This notion seemed to translate to my movement through NYC. The entire city became a kind of interiorized architectural fantasy. A giant sequence of sets and dioramas. The early works were just articulations of that. A light. A ceiling, a wall, a floor, a piece of glass. Simple gestures. It owed a lot to Dan Graham, Bruce Nauman and other older artists using architecture as sculpture. But because it came from a cinematic background there was always the inclination to ramp up the detail and give the spaces a more distinct character. That ambition really took form in the collaboration.

LASTBLOG: Can you talk a little about your creative process, and how you take something from a concept to execution?

JF: The initial idea can come from almost anywhere – a room we’ve passed through, a movie, a joke. The process usually moves to a specific type of room that holds our interest. Often it’s because of its link to a specific cultural group – like the hippie commune or the meth lab or the uptown apartment. When it comes into creating a sequence of interiors it is often a process of creating a disjunctive difference between the various interiors -Whether it’s historical, tonal or class difference. A configuration that creates a kind of cognitive dissonance. Again this strategy goes back to a movement through the city where you are constantly experiencing a kind of architectural cut and splice.

JL: We have been living in the same city for a long time and have taken notice of a lot of the same things, so there are shared reference points that all have the uncanny potential to be used as components in the discussion stage, there’s a lot of taking photos and image searches on the internet to get all of the nuances and particulars of these environments cataloged for what will eventually be a rather extensive document with a descriptive  paragraph and name for each room, a birds eye view of the lay out of the installation and how one passes through it and then of course there’s the budget which always answers a lot of questions. I imagine it must be very similar to producing a movie.

“The ideas are never too big, the budgets are too small.” – Justin Lowe

LASTBLOG: You’ve said that you get lots of your ideas from (among other things) YouTube videos. What were you watching when you thought of “Hello Meth Lab in the Sun?”

JL: When I was at Columbia Andrea Zittel came by as a visiting artist and we were talking about Joshua Tree and her test site projects. it never takes to long to move from the desert to meth so, quite quickly we got there. and I was just thinking initially about a meth lab in the sun and later was joking around with the lyrics of that Neil young song hello cowgirl in the sand , which turned into, hello meth lab in the sun. as far as you tube is concerned, I don’t really remember getting into that until black acid co-op for the commercials in the basement china-town room.

JF: I don’t remember YouTube being so central to the process. The majority of the research for how the room is going to look is done through going out and taking pictures of the environments we are interested in. Granted meth labs were harder to get access to so the Internet played a bigger role in that particular environment. The conceptual underpinnings always require a lot of research whether its books, movies, internet and subsequently youtube. In general there is a real panoply of research sources for each project.

LASTBLOG: So much of your work seems to pull inspiration from specific points in history, such as early 60’s California drug culture or Kowloon walled city. How much research do you do when creating your stories preparing your installations?

JL: There is a lot of research, especially when it comes to architectural details of the environments.

JF: Yeah it gets exhaustive. Once an identity of an interior is decided upon there is no end to the information collected. We could make several books with our research archive.

Artichoke Underground Issue #36

Artichoke Underground Issue #36

LASTBLOG: Stories and the calculated reveal of those stories always seem to be central aspects of your installations.

JF: The narrative component came about as a support structure for the environments. As a kind of guide or starting point for what to make. The intention was to have these narratives be latent in the work. It wasn’t crucial to the experience but if one wanted to delve deeper there was plenty there. The piece could take on a fractal quality. But we are making, first and foremost, a form of sculpture that is meant to be experienced in a physical, material sense.

JL: The stories are an on going result of constant discussion and reading , there’s always a bit of fact within the fiction, sometimes its as simple as changing names and/or places or a kind of cut up method, I once did a project with 8,000 paper back books, I kept all of the covers, they continue to be useful

“We want it to have the quality of the uncanny. You know it but it’s different – like traveling through a foreign country might be.” – Jonah Freeman

LASTBLOG: How much work goes developing those stories before you start on the actual installation?

JF: They have been different with each piece. Hello Meth Lab In The Sun did not have a traditional narrative. We started with three specific types of space: the meth lab, the commune, and the uptown museum/home. There were bits of story that emerged almost as speculation like “who would have lived here? What would have happened in this space?”. But there was no story. With Bright White Underground we started with a fully formed narrative that informed each part of the process. Because the show took place in a home in a residential neighborhood in LA and because R.M. Schindler designed the building and he was a famous architect there was a lot of quirky baggage to deal with right off the bat. So we decided to invert that and develop a parallel history for the building. This history involved a lot of things we were thinking about at the time – mostly the history of psychotropic drugs pre-countercultural revolution. Stray Light Grey was kind of somewhere in between the two. We had been reading a lot of science fiction so elements of that drifted into the conception of the work. The practice of working with parallel narratives and reworking historical narratives had led us into to the realm of speculative fiction. This brought out something that was latent in the work – the other worldliness of the experience. With Stray Light we decided to turn up the volume on that aspect which meant shifting all these familiar, banal architectural environments into something that was dislodged from everyday life. Back to the cognitive dissonance idea. Concrete narratives emerged but it wasn’t a story in the same way Bright White was..

Black Acid co op - 2009

Black Acid co op – 2009

LASTBLOG: Where do you get ideas for characters like Dr. Cook or organizations like The Artichoke Underground? Are they based off real things?

JL: Yes they are all based off of real things, there’s a book called acid dreams that chronicles the governments use of psychedelics, but once again names have been changed, characters combined, cities re- imagined.

JF: We want it to have the quality of the uncanny. You know it but it’s different – like traveling through a foreign country might be. There is an underground train of thought that links all these pieces. With Hello Meth Lab we were concentrated on how meth culture, or the lack there of, was linked to the idealism of the 1960’s counterculture. How the utopian ideas of drop out communities could have drifted into a nihilistic escapism. Dropping off. This line of investigation led us into the climate of the cold war- the paranoia, the surrealism, the emerging media dominance. The golden age of Science Fiction was during the cold war perhaps because reality was getting so strange and speculative. What if they drop these bombs that will destroy the planet? What if we move to outer space? It goes on from there. The heady times didn’t end.

LASTBLOG: How do you make sure your ideas can be executed? Does the idea ever get too big?

JL: The ideas are never too big, the budgets are too small.

LASTBLOG: Have you ever found a story you’d like to tell, but could not figure out a way to tell them in the form of an installation?

JL: In some ways everything gets in there, but not always to the degree I’d like, or some ideas expand at the end and re surface in the next project.

JF: I don’t think we are telling stories. We are referring to stories or historical narratives. But the act of moving through these spaces is not about being told a story. It is a spatial experience. It is about seeing objects in space.

“You could spin out on the linkages if you wanted to. Get real paranoid about it.” – Jonah Freeman

LASTBLOG: When speaking about “Stray Light Grey,” you referred to the initial room as a the “table of contents” for the entire piece. Why did you decide to adapt this technique for this particular show?

JL: the entrance to the installations up to now have been a logical extension of the neighborhood they are in, so for Chelsea obviously we started with an art gallery. within this gallery were a series of paintings that in some ways all contained elements of what was to come in the subsequent rooms. This was done in an effort to relay a lot of information in a subconscious way that would unfold as one proceeded and became more familiar with the signs, also we knew some people may simply take this first room as the only room and not go on, so you in some ways it seemed important to imply what lay ahead.

JF: Yeah we always like to drop in leitmotifs for the visitor. If they want to concoct a reason why these supposedly disparate rooms are linked the material is there.

LASTBLOG: You’ve mentioned that you always take where the installation will be located into account when coming up with any given piece. How might something like “Stray Light Grey” be different if it was located in Nebraska as opposed to New York City?

JL: If stray light grey was in the movie Nebraska its entrance would be the bar.

JF: Yeah something like that. A car dealership maybe. A car dealership that is also a bar inside a Best Buy.

Black Acid co op - 2009

Black Acid co op – 2009

LASTBLOG: Several themes such as psychedelic drugs, counterculture, crystals, and the point when things fall apart, seem to repeatedly pop up across various installations. Would you say your works are thematically linked?

JL: Yes our works are thematically linked. Black acid co-op – bright white underground-  stray light grey. That’s just the titles.

JF: You could spin out on the linkages if you wanted to. Get real paranoid about it.

LASTBLOG: When speaking about your work, people consistently mention the attention to detail you put in every installation. How important is this to you? How would you say it effects the execution of your ideas?

JF: It is crucial to the work that each space feel like a room that exists. Not a set. So we do whatever we have to make that happen. Usually rooms or materials that have already been in use are the method of choice.

JL: it is very important and it is exactly the vehicle to transmit the ideas. so if it’s a store, we make our own products that have their own language and references. take cereal boxes or dr. bronners bottles for instance,  they all convey a lot more than just the ingredients. and there are many sides of the package to add information.

“We need to find someone that knows sign language.” – Justin Lowe

LASTBLOG: The two of you have been working together since 2007, how would you say your work has evolved since then? Do you keep each other in check creatively?

JL: We are able to work much faster now. We were just asked to do a large work.  We were able to come up with the idea and source the material and get a crew together in 3 weeks with very few problems. 6 years ago it would have been much more daunting.

LASTBLOG: How does collaboration effect the stories you decide to tell?

JF: Again it’s not really about telling stories but I would say the crucial part of these projects being collaborations and not solo works is the merging of different sensibilities. It always comes out of a process of discussion. I would say our principle medium is fiction but our principle method is discussion. We get something more wildly varied and unexpected than might happen on our own. This is crucial for the success of these pieces. It is a perfect vehicle for collaboration. You can almost have a solo practice within the vastness of the larger piece.

LASTBLOG: Would you say your past work influences future installations? How?

JF: There is always an overlap. They are distinct pieces but they could very easily be one giant piece.

Artichoke Underground Issue #29

Artichoke Underground Issue #29

LASTBLOG: I noticed that the name “SanSan” shows up in both “Stray Light Grey” and “Artichoke Underground.” Are the stories in your work connected? Do they occupy the same world?

JL: Yes they are part of the same world, San San is a place and the Artichoke Underground is a group.

JF: They most definitely occupy the same world. The idea of the parallel has been crucial to every piece and continues to be.

LASTBLOG: If so, how might that world grow in future works? Do the characters and organizations influence one another?

JF: There is no foreseeable end to this process. The associative train of thought that has been the basis for these works just keeps going. The parallel world is really just a bracketing device that allows us to take on a wide variety of ideas.

LASTBLOG: Are there any storytelling techniques you’ve wanted to use in your work, but have not been able to as of yet?

JL: Yes, we need to find someone that knows sign language.

LASTBLOG: Have you ever thought of telling your stories in other mediums? Books? Film?

JF: Books and films are already a part of these pieces. I think if we did a proper film that would be a chance to actually tell a story and not have it swimming around under the surface.

Artichoke Underground Issue #45

Artichoke Underground Issue #45

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