Brett Cook tries to stay conscious of how he can become a better version of himself and, after visiting his Oakland studio recently, we can attest that he is already a pretty great person, not to mention an amazing artist. In the past, he's studied zoology, education, and art, and his work, from connect-the-dot drawings to large-scale altars dedicated to civil rights heroes, is just as varied and unexpected as his course load. With the promise of interactive art pieces, good music, and clay, Supernatural, his upcoming show at Guerrero Gallery, promises to stand apart from all those other art openings.
EKG: Where are you from
Brett Cook: "I was born and raised in San Diego. I moved here to study zoology at Berkeley, and eventually got degrees in art and education. I taught here in the Bay, and then moved to the East Coast in 1994, and lived there for about ten years, and then briefly moved to Oajaxa, Mexico. I've been back here since 2006."
The creation of your artwork often involves communities. How do you work with different groups of people, and why is it important to your art practice?
"I often like to describe my practice as a continuum or a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum, I appear to be more of a conventional artist where I make things by myself. I make them in a studio; they involve concepts and techniques that I'm thinking about. On the other extent of the spectrum, I might work with large groups of people and not make anything in terms of objects. It may just be some kind of curriculum or conceptual architecture, or a protocol that helps people make things."
"And then there are all of these places in between in that spectrum. Increasingly, it's becoming clear that my work is aspiring to show the interconnectedness of all things. We're related to each other as people, to the planet, and to the universe. By working with people, it becomes really apparent that if we're making something, its existence is dependent upon our collaborative investment. It exists not because of one person, but because we all are literally in it."
Have you always worked that way?
"I've worked in public space for a long time. Initially it was much more about an aspiration to have the work be accessible. Both my parents were public school teachers, and even though they had graduate degrees and were educators, we never looked at art and we never had art. I think it's so indicative of American culture. It's very common for people to not have an intimate relationship with art. So that was part of my inspiration to make it public. I think art has the power to really affect people deeply, so I wanted to put it where people could see it, because not that many people I knew were going to museums and galleries. I started to think I wanted to change my world with art. Like Bertolt Brecht, I wanted it to be a hammer to shake reality, not a mirror to reflect it. I wanted to get invested and change the world. 'Let me tell you about how something's messed up, and let me make this analysis.' Over time I started to realize that wasn't necessarily changing the world. I started thinking, 'Well, if I want the world to be more peaceful, let me make things that are more peaceful.' Or, 'If I want the world to be more inclusive, let me make things that are inclusive.'"
What are some global issues that you address in your work?
"My work used to be much more focused on incidents, somehow thinking the analysis would change the environment. Now I'm much more interested in how to change myself to be a better person, and a part of that has been about recognizing my relationship to other people. I'm interested in highlighting those relationships that exist, or cultivating awareness that we are in relationships. Oftentimes when we do disservices to each other, it's because we don't see ourselves in each other. Like, 'You speak a different language than me, you have a different amount of money than I do, or your car looks different that mine.' All these things that are about how I can separate myself from you, so that when I'm hurting you, I don't realize that I'm hurting myself. My work is trying to build these ways for people to see themselves in each other. We spend a lot more time in our society actualizing our differences rather than reaffirming our relationships. 'I live in Oakland, you live in San Francisco,' or 'I like the A's, you like the Giants.' It's endless. 'Your bike has one gear, mine has fifteen.' I'm interested in how we make these ways to reaffirm that truth that we're really related. When that's done skillfully, it makes it easier for people to be good to each other."
Can you talk about the found materials you use -- what do the tinsel and Christmas lights represent?
"I'm interested in nature, the true nature of things. In American culture, even though we have God on our money and we say 'God' in the pledge of allegiance, we're not a very spiritual culture. Things like Christmas, Halloween and Easter have seemingly become benign, but they still carry that baggage that makes people interested. Things like tinsel and lights are a part of all of our experiences. There have been times in my life when I might've trivialized those things as benign. And yet there are things about them that are resonant. In some instances, people do use them reverently. For me, the materials are manifestations of my own ongoing studies to be a more humane person."
Tell us about your upcoming show at Guerrero Gallery.
"The title Supernatural is a reflection of the idea that my practice is about things that are not just in the physical. For the past year, I've been taking an herbal medicine course, so that's a literal exemplification of the supernatural. Or making a gallery opening that's inclusive of kids and elders and hipsters, it's really natural. It's just the world we live in. It's almost unnatural that we can go to a white box and there will only be people that are 25 to 30 there. So the title is both a reflection of what's going to happen on opening night, and of what I want to be. Some of that is based in objects that I made by myself, and some are projects that were done with lots of other people at big social events."
"There will be things there that people can make. There will be an image of The Virgin of Guadalupe people can work on, there will be music, there will be clay, and there will be this assemblage of people who might work at arts organizations, or who might never go to galleries, ever. But they'll be there, and they'll all be in that space together."
<pWhat type of music could best describe your artwork?
Brett Cook's solo exhibition Supernatural opens at Guerrero Gallery on June 5, 2010.