By Leah Gallant
Bryce in ‘the pit,’ his installation space at the Commerce Center.
In your bio statement, you write that your work focuses on “’making things’ and ‘making things happen’ in the studio and in the public domain.” What’s the connection between your more stationary art objects and social practice work?
The thing that unites all my work is an interest in community as both a concept and a medium. Working with actual communities and seeing what sort of impacts can be had through art as intervention is really interesting to me. But I also think about discrete art objects, more studio- or gallery–oriented art, as a place for meditation on community, social structures, and civic structures. So one is a thinking space and one is a doing space, and they feed off of one another.
Some of your work as an art instructor seems to parallel your own practice in terms of community engagement. For example, for the Institute for Progressive Humanities’ summer partnership with Kinloch Learning Center, you had students design and build their own doghouses, which were then auctioned off to raise funding for the Center’s programming. How does your teaching relate to your own process of making?
Teaching keeps me energized about making things. I don’t like to work in a cloistered set-apart space, I like active shared spaces–I never have my own studio. For me, so much of teaching is modeling the behaviors that we’re trying to instill in our students. So if I want my students to be active, hardworking, and investigative, then I need to do those things, and there’s no better way to do that than to invite them to participate in my activities and those of other artists in the area. The doghouse project was at the tail end of a year of community based work in Kinloch, a traditionally all-black city within St. Louis County, which has arisen as the result of racial segregation. As part of the Kinloch project we adopted this friendly stray dog named Fred. When we realized he had heartworm disease and it would take around a thousand dollars to treat him, we saw the opportunity to use Fred as the lynchpin for a fundraising campaign for both the dog and the learning center. So we had students from Washington University come in and design build these doghouses and auction them off. We raised nearly seven thousand dollars for the center and cured Fred. Underneath all of that I’m interested in St. Louis and desegregation, and the history of that is always tied up in bussing—meaning bussing low income students to better schools, which are predominantly white. So I really enjoyed the opportunity to take my white privileged students and bus them to what is believed to be the center of poverty in the city of St. Louis, and have them realize that these people are people, and they’re just like them. So there’s a subversive bent there as well.
You work with a wide range of materials, using really durable materials for outdoor sculptures but also incorporating performance, air, branding, etc. into other pieces. How do you match material to concept?
I’m really interested in materiality—texture, weight, and line, but also the metaphor and baggage that comes with different materials. So the work in the Commerce Center is in many ways very selfish, because for me it’s just a tremendous pleasure to work with this stuff that’s very light and reusable. So sometimes the material has more to do with my pleasure–I really love to weld and I love to do woodworking. Sometimes it’s about making and enjoying that making experience and being rewarded physically and mentally. With the more conceptual, gallery-driven work, that’s rewarding in a different way. It’s more of an intellectual gratification of finding the right element to communicate a very specific sensation or suggest an attitude or a perspective. It’s just different ways of gratifying that need, the need to make something communicate. It’s across the board because it’s both a physical reward and an intellectual reward I’m interested in.
Recently you’ve been making work that relates to your hometown in Ferguson, Missouri. How does your relationship to the community inform this body of work?
All of the recent work that deals with Ferguson is obviously very directly related to my unique perspective as someone from Ferguson, and someone who is still very deeply connected there. I run Jeske Sculpture Park there, my family still lives there, and I go back and forth quite frequently, so it was an interesting experience to be here in South Bend working at Notre Dame watching on CNN live feed what was happening at home. The work about Ferguson was mostly born of frustration with not only what happened but how it happened. It’s very difficult to see the media portray a community you’re very proud of in a way that isn’t accurate. I think it was really important that the conversation about violence against young African-American men and women happened—it’s an important issue that needs to be addressed—but Ferguson is certainly not the center of racial injustice in the United States. So the piece dealing with branding. ‘#Ferguson,’ talks about how my community has been permanently branded by people who are not from the city of Ferguson.
Bryce Robinson, Suburban Laboratory
How does your work on Ferguson relate to your own racial identity?
I grew up and lived in a community that’s predominantly African American. I don’t identify as African American, but I think that a lot of unfair associations that are projected on African American people in North St. Louis County have also been projected onto me and my community at large. People from other parts of the region perpetuate the idea of North St Louis County as a lower-income, poor, disenfranchised place, and regardless of your race, in the city of St. Louis, if you say that you’re from North County, people associate you with being poor, and assume that if you’re not black you certainly must live by black people. So though I’m not black, I think that my perception of my community and where I grew up is inextricably tied to how black people are unfairly perceived, and I see the fate of my community really tied to the fate of the African American community in St. Louis. Through all the research that I did when I was in graduate school and leaving graduate school, I got a greater understanding of how racism has really shaped St. Louis into what it is today. I think because of that history, it’s a weaker community than it could be. It’s certainly not a place of equality, but I think there’s a tremendous opportunity in that, you know, that we can identify those problems and work to right them.
Bryce Robinson, Rising Hive
Your piece in the Commerce Center uses the same materials as ‘Rising Hive,’ and is part of a larger body of work that explores hives and structures and how smaller parts or individuals can form a cohesive group. What do you hope building a structure in the 14-ft pit will bring to the larger project or your interests in community as medium?
I became interested in this thing called emergence theory, which is this idea that a bunch of unthinking components doing their thing can lead to complex, sophisticated higher-level behavior. Cells in your body, for example, or ants in a hive do this–what seem like small or unthinking actions can lead to a more interesting result in a larger organism or system. It’s going to have a different title, but it’s the same sort of material, which is perforated steel shelving, laboratory glass, and some components I fabricated myself. I’m really interested in the restrictions of the material I’m working with—I’ve set a rule that I never cut the glass, although I accidentally break glass from time to time. By using it in these different spaces and conditions, I hope to see what naturally arises out of these little interactions and little individual decisions. I’m really interested in using this material and expanding on it as a building kit, and seeing over the course of the years what sorts of different iterations arise as a result of my work with it. I was really drawn to the space I’m working in in the Commerce Center, which is incredibly inhospitable. The work here in the Commerce Center isn’t really about Ferguson, but I think it certainly relates in dealing with a tremendous set of challenges and seeing if we can get a positive outcome as a result of countless individual actions.
For more of Bryce’s work, go to his website at http://www.bryceolenrobinson.com/
Photo credit: Bryce Robinson, Leah Gallant