John Birtle"You can spell it many ways."
Interview by Asher Penn
Before I met John Birtle in person, I knew him as the co-host of KCHUNG Radio Show "Noooooooooooooooooo with John & Guan." Spelt with an unclear number of "oooo"s, the program was immediately recognizable as one of the station's most experimental, with it's sincere & emotional dialog veering into some new form of serialized performance art. John was also behind the radio show "Just Sayin" which seamlessly blended audio from avante-garde archives like UbuWeb with sounds ranging from pop music to toilets flushing. I later learned that John was in fact an artist, and this casual, open ended exploration permeated all of his creative activities ranging from his longstanding collaboration with John Barlog, involvement with organizations like The Eternal Telethon, and his day to day life.
Where are you from, John?
Long Beach, California.
Did you surf when you were growing up?
I surfed a lot. I started surfing when I was 9. By the time I was 17 I was surfing almost every day. Then I went to Cal Arts, which is in Valencia, the farthest city north in LA county. So I kinda stopped.
Were you a creative child?
I can remember being really young, painting, and my grandparents saying "Oh, he's an artist."
Sometimes I wonder how formative that was, somebody else identifying me and congratulating me for being a good artist at a young age- I've talked to other people that identified as artists at that point in our lives.
I remember you telling me at some point that your high school experience involved a lot of skateboarding and bong rips.
Yeah, I didn't really go to school very much. I lived across the street from the high school, and my mom was a single parent who worked full-time. I would go to school for, like, one class or two. I took almost every Monday off my senior year.
How did you get away with that?
It was a really big school with over 1,000 people in my graduating class. I just flew under the radar. I didn’t want to be doing assignments in school. I kind of knew that when I was really young. It was just more productive for me to be gardening and painting.
I gardened a lot in high school.
How did that start?
It probably started in my junior or sophomore year. I had gardened a little bit before, but I really started to get into it, thinking about it as creating a space... moving in furniture, covering a tree with goggles.
What was the area of the backyard like before you turned it into a garden?
I was in this weird shady spot where grass wouldn’t really grow. It didn’t really get watered enough.
When you say create a space, that sounds kinda artsy. Were you thinking about it like that?
No, I don’t think I was thinking on those terms. It definitely had like a lot of artsy things in it. There were some paintings. I think there was one on a sign.
Hanging paintings outside is nice.
I remember using things like microwaves or TV’s as planters or bottles. I was really into getting things on different adventures or saving bottles from certain nights so that I would have specific memories attached to the things in it. Towards the end of the garden a friend said he thought I would have hung more art out here and I told him “Oh, I think it’s all art.”
Did a lot of people come through?
Yeah, every day people would come over and hang out. There was a rope swing. I found a barbecue and then another. It was mostly found things.
How many years did you work on it?
About a year and a half. I had to break it down because my mom moved out of the house after I went to college. I don’t think it was adding market value.
Did you make art in the garden?
I didn’t use it as a studio, but it was right next to the garage where I painted.
What kind of paintings would you make?
Abstract paintings. Some surreal stuff. Assemblage paintings with found objects on them. I remember seeing the Basquiat movie on TV and being influenced by that. I didn’t go to an art museum till I was around 16. When I started thinking seriously about being an artist I kinda started looking at contemporary art wherever I could.
How did you end up applying to art school?
I didn’t really know about it. A teacher told me I should look at Cal Arts because I was really conceptual. They said it was, like, a conceptual school.
And that appealed to you?
I dont think I knew what that meant, but they gave undergrads their own studios which was really appealing to me. They didn’t ask for SATs, which I didn’t really want to take anyways. They didn’t give any assignments in the application. It was just “Send us your portfolio.”
What did you want to do in school?
I just wanted to be talking to people and making art. Cal Arts was the best for me when I was doing that.
Did you have any focus?
I started making a lot of sculpture and dabbling in performance. I took a class where we were asked to take a 2 x 4 piece of wood and alter it in some way. I got a pile of sawdust and blew it through a fan. The idea of making art in non-traditional ways was really appealing.
More like creating ephemeral experiences.
That was really exciting to me: creating unique experiences for people. A group of monks came to the school within the first couple months and made/ destroyed a sand mandala. That was very influential for me.
But you were still painting and drawing?
I did that all throughout college but I didn’t really talk with people about it. I did some painting things. I remember making a painting and giving it to my great-aunt.
So drawing and painting is something that you’ve just always done. It’s got it’s own trajectory.
Yeah, definitely. It hasn’t changed much over time. Like some of the subject matter... I’ve been drawing snowmen and Santa Claus for a really long time. Or drawing on money. Me and John Barlog would do that a lot.
You guys collaborated for a while right? How did you meet?
I was trying to sell him weed.
You sold pot in college?
Not really. I lived in my studio and I would just get a big amount and break it up.
Would you make a profit?
I think I would smoke it all.
You weren’t a good drug dealer.
Not a profitable one. I felt good about it because it all went to my friends.
So what was your first collaboration with John?
We did this project with Jackson Fledermaus where we got a U-Haul truck with art in it and drove around. We took it to some museums, a McDonald’s, places like that. Then we did these Wal-Mart interventions where we restock items on different shelves.
You would change the organization of things?
Yeah, like putting things that are bright pink in the girl’s toy aisle. Even if it’s radiator fluid or nail polish or anything.
Did you ever get caught?
Right. It’s impossible to find anyone working at a Wal Mart.
And everything’s there. Sometimes we would get everything you need to make a Molotov cocktail. We would get all the bottles and lighter fluid and rags put them together to make a little display.
What inspired these pieces?
Santa Clarita, where Cal Arts is, is all corporate chain stores and tract homes. I think a lot of that work was us responding to that environment.
What other pieces did you do with John?
Around that time we liked to give lemons to lots of people. We released ladybugs in corporate retail spaces.
1,200 or something.
That sounds pretty. Like, if there were 1200 ladybugs in my apartment right now that would be very pretty, right?
Yeah, it’d be gorgeous!
So you did the ladybug thing a couple times?
Yeah. We didn’t really make work in our studio but sometimes we would get asked for studio visits so we would take people on little tours. We’d take them to WalMart sometimes. One time we released the ladybugs in the car. We released them at LACMA at a Magritte and contemporary artist show.
The ladybugs were a recurring series.
Well the LACMA piece was the first time anyone wrote about anything we had done. The L.A. Times wrote about it. There was an “Associated Press” article. There was an NPR thing.
I feel like artworks like that lend themselves well to press.
Yeah, there was an L.A. Times article about the Eternal Telethon I was involved with. KCHUNG, the community artist radio station gets written about a lot as a concept. Nobody’s ever written an article about one specific show. Sometimes it’s the formats that people aren’t very familiar with so just talking about that is appealing and different. I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing. It’s cool seeing an idea trickle out while you stay anonymous.
It’s funny that your collaborator’s name is John Barlog. It’s easy to mistake for yours. I still don’t really know how to spell your last name. How did that start?
Me and John were in a show and the person had misspelled my name. I remember being in a really bad mood that day. It was this show on Hollywood Boulevard where there are a lot of head shops. We got a really ornate, elaborate bong and put it in a vitrine in the front window to make the gallery look kind of like a head shop. But I guess they didn’t get that so they wanted to put it in in the back and that made me grumpy. When they were going through the names and they asked if anybody’s name was misspelled I asked them to change it to make it misspelled worse. Then me and John started changing the way our names were spelled. One time it was like "Burgle" and "Barter."
So when people ask you how to actually spell your name you say...
You can spell it many ways. There’s a Damian Hirst quote where he says one of the best things an artist can do is establish their brand name. Changing my name might be a way to avoid that.