John Birtle"You can spell it many ways."
Interview by Asher Penn
It makes it kind of hard to find you.
Or to see everything.
You leave a lot of loose threads.
I try to avoid people being able to get a whole picture of anything. Loose ends leave things for people to imagine for themselves. Sometimes that’s better. Also, some things aren’t for everyone.
Well it’s spelled “B-i-r-t-l-e” in Sex Magazine. You told me tthat tattoo you have on your arm is a gallery you have with John Barlog. What’s the story with that?
We had wanted to do a tattoo piece for a little while. We’d also been thinking about creating a space for other people to do things in, which turned into the gallery with the arm project.
How do you put a gallery on an arm?
People just do things. It’s just a space, a surface. Sometimes people draw in it. Sometimes people attach things. Sometimes people do performances. Sometimes people put sculptures on it with glue or straps. We’ve also had a few screenings where work was projected.
Why did you call it a gallery? I kinda have different associations with that word.
I was really reluctant about that term for a long time. I thought that meant it was a commercial space, but now I don’t think that’s necessarily the thing. A lot of times I just say it’s a space for people to do things. We try to invite everybody that asks about it to do something in it. In general I think it’s good to make a thing and then develop a language to suit it.
Courtly Figures (face front and back), Carlin Wing, John Birtle & Barlog Arm Gallery, 2008
How many shows did you do in the arm galleries?
We probably did 100 shows in the first two years. It was a good project for being in school and seeing the same people week after week. Shows still happen every once in a while, but not as much as they used to.
You have a lot of cool tattoos.
Most of them are on my left thigh. They’re all really small, about the size of a silver dollar. Then there’s a field of stars or little dots that kind of tie it all together.
Did you do any yourself?
I did a lot of the stars myself and a little pumpkin. My friend Marcos Siref tattooed most of them. He did a turtle and a rainbow that’s on the cover of the God Equals Genocide demo. It says “ja” here. My friend Anne has the same one.
What does “ja” mean?
It’s a lot of different things. It’s how laughing is written in Spanish - like “ha.” It’s “yes” in German. It’s our initials.
Your last name doesn’t start with an “a.”
No, but her first name does. I've also gotten three tattoos on the air on KCHUNG.This little freckle was part of a freckle exchange where everybody gave the next person a freckle tattoo. Then Guan Rong gave me this little heart.
How did you meet Guan?
I met Guan at school. We both lived in our studios and she would smoke inside a lot in the halls late at night.
So you and Guan were kind of neighbors?
I mean, we lived on different floors. On the weekends she would go back to Monterey Park.
What was her art like in college?
She was doing mostly painting but also other things. She did this one piece I liked where she cut out a hole in a wall of a classroom and put the drywall in her studio. Then, maybe a month later, cut out a hole in her studio the same size and switched the drywall. There was just this hole for a couple months and then it was just this patched hole. She did another project where she sent out these letters that just said “Hi, my name is Guan. Nice to meet you. fuck” She gave one to every single student in the school mailboxes. Some people got really mad about that. I thought that was so cool.
Was her work something you could relate to?
It goes back to this idea of embodiment that John and I had been thinking about. Really living out a certain way of being. Trying to embody the work in everything you do.
Can you talk more about embodiment?
When I was living in my studio I didn’t have to deal with things like rent or having an apartment or job that would really complicate this idyllic lifestyle that we were developing. We were thinking about how the decisions that you make in your day-to-day life can embody or live out a certain type of art practice. Whatever that might be and seems right to you. It can extend to the choices about the food you eat.
But there actually is no set way of actual embodiment.
No, just like there is no one set way of making art.
How did your radio show with Guan Start?
We had wanted to do more stuff together for a long time. When Solomon told me about starting KCHUNG I really wanted to do a radio show with her. I just like the way she talks about things. She’s very expressive and uninhibited. I also hadn’t been seeing her regularly since school and thought this would be a good way to see her more often. We’ve been doing it almost every week for just over two years now.
And it’s always the both of you.
We don’t do it unless we’re both there. There was one show where Guan called in from a date. There was one where I forgot about the show and I was close by so she called me and I talked on the phone while I walked there. I think I went to a bar first and we talked on the phone more.
What was your first show?
Have you ever seen the Wikipedia page for all the different sounds in different languages? Like when we say "mmmm" or "ouch", different languages have different sounds. We talked about that. Expressive sounds. We also played a Dicks song from Youtube.
We felt really good about the first show so then we were congratulating ourselves. The next show we decided we should take it easy so we watched a movie on the air. We watched a scary movie because it was Halloween time.
Did you talk while you were watching the movie?
It didn’t work for a long time. We thought it was haunted.
Has there been a learning curve since you started doing you show?
I didn’t really know how to play a record at the start. There’s a show where we learned how to do that. That was like a big learning thing.
So you kind of taught yourself about radio on that Nooooooo.
Yeah and tried out different things. But Guan never really got into the audio stuff as much.
Then you started doing Just Sayin’. I was really into how you would remix Ubu Web.
That was just a thing I would just do when people didn’t show up for their shows. I didn’t record them at the start. It started as finding stuff to put on but just became really fun to put together in different ways and see what things sound like together. As I started to do it more, I got more into thinking about what different pairings mean and different ways of doing it.
Sound art lends itself really well to radio. It makes it more accessible.
I would like it to be accessible because these things are interesting on their own, out of context. It’s with total respect that I put them together. It keeps it interesting for me to listen to, and hopefully for an audience too.
You’ve been involved in a project called Eternal Telethon. Can you tell me a bit about it?
The Eternal Telethon raises money to start a retirement home for artists.
How did it start?
I think people were talking about what they were going to do out of school. A friend had said he was going to retire and I thought that was a really good answer so I started saying the same thing. Then I started thinking about retirement and was thinking “Oh damn, I don’t know how that’s gonna go down.”
I’ve heard it’s never too early to start planning for retirement. But do artists retire?
I like to say that we’re not retiring from making art, we’re retiring from everything else. So you just go to the Eternal Convalescent Home for Retired Artists and live out your golden years with other artists friends in an idyllic setting.
So the Eternal Telethon is an online broadcast?
It was right when U-Stream first came out, which was kind of exciting. It was one of the first projects I was involved with that live streamed on the internet. We just did a broadcast from Chad Dilley’s apartment.
How was it organized?
We tried to include a really wide range of artists and performance artists, thinking about people that could do different things. It was always performance for video.
Did they change from one to another?
We tried to shoot them in dramatically different venues. One was in a cave installation Akina Cox made that we said was on the moon. We did one under a blanket. We did one in a pool. We did them at art spaces but we also did them in living rooms. I think that is something that will stay with the project.
How serious of an organization is it?
It’s pretty loose… but we have a book-keeper.
Do you know where the retirement home is going to be?
We’ve always had the Salton Sea. It’s an accidental man-made lake that has high salinity partially because it’s drying up. It’s all toxic and gross and and the water is orange. They just decided they’re gonna let it dry up but land out there is really cheap. One of the founders, Akina Cox, had just been through there when we were starting and it has been a good place to think and talk about doing things at.
Well the good thing is that you have time to figure it out.
Yeah, totally. I don’t want to be very serious about it now.