Max Fields (MF) I’m sure that your exhibition will bring out an eclectic audience, some of whom may not be familiar with your practice: when did you first begin recording sound, and what influenced you to use those recordings in your artwork?
Justin Boyd (JB) From the very beginning, sound has been an important part of my life. I had very sensitive hearing as a small child, so lots of things hurt my ears—in fact most of my early nightmares had to do with loud sounds. I also had a small turntable very early on, and loved to play records every morning when I woke up. It wasn’t until the third grade that I actually started to record sounds. My dad had a hi-fi with a small microphone so I would record my own radio show straight to cassette tape. I remember when he showed me how to plug it all in; I was so amazed! It made sense to me that this thing I was holding was connected to a wire that went into this machine, then to that tape, then out to the speakers. I could understand the flow of it. I didn’t record sound continuously from that early age, but I got back into it through the electronic music I started listening to. I started recording found sounds to cassette again to use as source material for ambient dj sets and mix tapes. At this same time I was an undergrad in art school and was encouraged to make work that meant something to me, so at that time I started to incorporate sound into my ceramic pieces. I haven’t stopped since then, so I guess that makes twenty years now.
(MF) There are similarities in the way you explore landscapes and the way that your audience engages with your work. It’s as if when walking through your exhibitions, your memories, personal histories, and the narratives of the local landscapes are instantaneously translated to the engaged participants as new nostalgia. For example, in Days and Days, where you explored your relationship with the San Antonio River and its history, the sights and sounds of the water became a catalyst for your audience to explore their own memories with water, rivers, etc. I’m curious to hear about some of the reactions you’ve gotten from your exhibition audience and friends – if they ever reveal their memories that are related to the sonic/physical landscapes you explore in your exhibitions.
(JB) Sure, there are many. Beyond just my fascination with sound, it has a very direct path to our memory and imagination. In fact I feel very strongly that sound leaves much more to the viewer/listener’s imagination than visuals do. Because of that, I feel no hesitations about making work that might be abstract; the sounds open up a really wide door of access to the work, allowing the viewer to make associations and connections of their own. For example, I often hear many stories about specific sounds reminding folks of their past, a bug sound they heard on the farm, a fiddle tune they used to know, etc… I’ve had people give me records that they owned, whole collections in fact. They may not be getting the use they once had, so they want to share the music with me in hopes I’ll be able to keep its spirit alive. And many times I do, if not in a piece, then playing it on the radio show for sure.
(MF) I’m interested to hear about your personal relationship to Houston. You’ve shown work here numerous times; did you visit the city before your career as an artist?
(JB) No, I don’t remember visiting Houston really until I went to see some DJs there in college. Then a little later in school, once I started taking modern art history courses and realized so many amazing things resided at the Menil, I started to go see art there more often. Since moving back to Texas in 2005 I try to get there at least 3-4 times a year. Art, music, and good friends make me wish I could visit more than I do. There is no doubt about the gravity Houston pulls when it comes to art, and not just the museums; the gallery scene is vibrant and supportive of all types of work. It feels like a bigger stage, but you know you still have mostly friends in the audience.
(MF) Could you talk about the process of finding/creating the physical objects, sound and video, and perhaps give us some insight into the type of research you’re interested in exploring when you’re creating a site-specific work such as the work created for Three Exhibitions?
(JB) The research I do almost always starts with recording sounds. I start there because it helps me to understand a place or environment much faster than with my eyes alone. I was recently in Berlin and I know that if someone played me a street recording of that city, I could pick it out from another European city. Mankind’s imprint on a sound environment leaves lots of clues about what we do and why we do it, so it is a different way to understand a place and ourselves in that place.
(MF) How does the work in this exhibition relate to the themes and histories that you’re exploring in your overarching practice?
(JB) I usually describe myself as a landscape artist because I feel almost all of my work deals with that subject directly. I’ve been really excited to have the opportunity to explore an area of town that is under rapid change and to use a space that mirrors in many ways the upheaval happening around it. I’m very much interested in how houses and buildings in a neighborhood reveal histories, how neighborhoods relate to the others around it, and how the intersection of those things create culture in the city.
(MF) After spending some time in the Axelrad building, and working mostly only with the materials available in the space, how did you approach making work for this exhibition? Specifically, how did the materials influence the direction you took?
(JB) This show is unlike anything I have done before, and I really appreciate the opportunity Suplex has given me to experiment with a new way of working. You’re right—besides a couple of minor things, I chose to only to use materials on site to create the works in the show. This way of working is a real challenge and at times I felt like I was on Iron Chef, using only one ingredient to make several dishes. The main difference being that I imposed the one dish on myself. With that said, I feel the resulting work is unlike anything I have done before and I wouldn’t have been able to create these works without that restriction. The layout of each room and the abandoned objects found in them directly influenced where the works were installed.
(MF) There are threads in the exhibition that can be connected across the four room installations, but I’m curious to ask how you feel about the connections between the works. The materials used in each room say a lot about the histories of the building, but there’s also an emotional thread throughout the works that echo an overarching history of urban housing abandonment, as experienced from the perspective of a tenet who may return again. These are some of the first ideas we talked about as we walked the space, but I’m interested to hear your thoughts on these connections after having some time to think about the work.
(JB) Thoughts of dislocation, transience, and transformation were bouncing around my head the whole time I was in the space. The neighborhood and the building have seen a massive amount of shifts. So I really wanted to filter all the work through those ideas and have them come out the other side transformed in time in some way... So the time in one of the spaces feels as if a tenet is maybe coming back, another abstracts time and space with reflections, while the last space is more of imaginative realm of time.
(MF) When we spoke last, we talked about how the recordings would interact in the space within each room, connecting the outside space with the building’s interior—could you expand on that?
(JB) Nowhere is the make up of the neighborhood more visible than at the light at Alabama and Almeda. The transformation isn’t visible though, it’s audible. I spent a long time at the second story window just listening to folks while they sat at the light. The sounds were Tejano, Trap, Love and Drugs, punctuated by the busses announcing their stops. Since there isn’t any real commercial destination at the corner, you get a sense of where the people are going to or coming from. So I wanted to carry that characteristic into the show in some way. I am leaving the windows open on both sides and I am placing a microphone outside to capture the sounds passing by. Those sounds will then be filtered through the cast iron bathtub and the wooden structures in the other room. Again, allowing the building and its materials to filter and process its own sounds, and then have those played back upon themselves. In this way I feel the sound will echo the processes I used to create the objects in the room. END