• Steven Heller

Art, Guns and Power

Henry Brimmer is a graphic designer, photographer, educator and agitator (in the good sense). He teaches Non-linear Creative Thinking Strategies through the Department of Advertising + Public Relations at Michigan State University in East Lansing. For 13 years he was the publisher of PhotoMetro magazine, a San Francisco–based monthly tab on photography that featured well-know and upcoming talent. Now that he has no more clients, he keeps himself on his toes by taking on challenging art projects that take him out of his comfort zone. The most recent is his entry for ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, “there’s something happening here,” a site-specific installation showing military snipers atop the Urban Institute for Contemporary Art. It is a specter of and commentary on our post-9/11 lives and the freedoms that are now in the balance. I asked him to take us through his rationale.

Photo: Jef Richards

Pardon the pun, but what triggered this year’s entry into ArtPrize? I have been interested in the public nature of ArtPrize for a few years now, and site-specific art in particular. ‘Touch Wood,’ a low-tech interactive project was shown inside the Grand Rapids Art Museum in 2011; in 2012 I went outdoors with ‘Gravity Matters Little,’ a sculpture suspended from a cable 180’ from the ground across two buildings in a busy city intersection. I used the same location in 2013 with ‘i want to be different,’ a simple 60’ ladder hanging from the cable. … For this year, I was offered the Urban Institute for Contemporary Art (UICA) as my venue.

True to my understanding of site-specific art, I looked at the UICA building (and the terrace on the 5th floor they offered me) from all different angles, and came up with the idea of the figures standing around on the rooftop, a wall on the terrace, and an adjacent building. The figures morphed from secret, nondescript agents to military personnel carrying guns or looking through binoculars. From a distance, I thought, the secret agent types would not be clearly identified as such; the military folks had enough ‘graphic’ information to be recognized and create the sense of a ‘presence.’

The trigger? Hmmm. I suppose no one can escape the media’s bombardment around military conflict these days (or the last 10 years): Gaza, Ukraine, drones, back to Iraq … and then Ferguson … combined with WikiLeaks, Snowden files, and the whole debate around loss of privacy. There is a heightened sense of increased military presence and surveillance: Big Brother IS watching.

Police and military snipers are more a fact of life in large cities than ever before. How is your project unique to Grand Rapids? Funny you should ask. Steve Frykholm, who lives in Grand Rapids, pointed out a huge police truck parked next to the Grand rapids Art Museum with four cameras on its top pointing in all directions. Ominous. He hates it. Me too.

But no, it has nothing to do directly with Grand Rapids. ArtPrize attracts artists from all over the world, with different things in mind. ‘There’s something happening here …’ is what came to my mind … (and many other participants who submitted war-related projects).

By the way, the title was an afterthought … when I was pressed to name the piece. And you know from where that line comes from … I thought ‘Big Brother is Watching’ would be too base, considered another line from ‘For What It’s Worth’: ‘Paranoia strikes deep,’ decided it was too tendencious … ‘there’s something happening here …’ seemed more open-ended …

You’ve been covered in the media—what has been the popular response to seeing this work? From the TV interviews I’ve seen, the response has been polarizing. I would love to be a fly on the wall and listen in to comments, but I live in Lansing, and can’t be in Grand Rapids all the time. But the fact that it has made the juried short list in the Installation category, and is still among the top 25 in the popular vote, leads me to believe that it has struck a chord.

Your art is designed to start conversations, but what exactly is the conversation you wanted to start? I am an old lefty. A staunch pacifist. My position is clear … to me. I want to surprise people first, then the conversation to be around ‘questioning’ … but I also believe that after a piece of art is created, it is not the artist’s anymore. It is for the viewer to decipher and make up his/her own personal narrative … Have you planned your next installation for ArtPrize? I’ve been looking around (the rooftops) Grand Rapids. I have an idea or two, big-time ones—if I can find the budget. Whatever I do, I hope it will be different, and teach me new things …

I’m addicted to ArtPrize. My once-a-year opportunity to pose as an Artist. Exciting and exhausting (and happy to have a day job).

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