Henry Brimmer is an ArtPrize Artist known for taking risks. His wildly ambitious, and sometimes controversial, site-specific installations were often suspended between 17-story buildings. He reflected on his experience executing these projects.
ArtPrize: What are some of your inspirations behind the work you create?
Henry Brimmer: I have ideas that come to me randomly; those I find interesting, I explore further. I usually try to do things that teach me something, take me out of my comfort zone, and allow me to explore things I haven’t done before. You see, I teach at Michigan State. I tell my students always to take risks. Well if I don’t take risks myself, it seems like a strange message to give them, you know?
All four of the ArtPrize events that I’ve participated in have all been very different. The first one I did was an installation I entitled‘touch wood,’ and which showed at The Grand Rapids Art Museum. Without an artist track recordor of any kind, I honestly don’t really know how I landed such a ‘prestigious’ venue. I presented the idea to the curator at GRAM, she liked the idea and gave me the green light. This blew me away because the installation was kind of half baked, I had some vague idea of what I wanted to do, but it put me in a spot. I don’t consider myself an artist really, I’m a graphic designer, and educator – ‘Art’ to me is something kind of more elevated, serious. So I have to do something, right. So I did ‘touch wood,’ an interactive installation in which visitors to the museum were invited to play with these 17,000 tiny wooded houses I cut. It resulted in chaos for all sorts of reasons. I never realized how many people walk through during ArtPrize and by the next day, the installation had been destroyed and we had to rebuild it overnight. It was fabulous, but a lot of work. So by the end of the third day, I added the word “don’t” to the tile and it became “DON’T touch wood.” That in itself was an interesting experience which posed the question, “What is a museum supposed to be all about?”
How did you come up with the idea for such an ambitious project, suspending art between the rooftops of two 17-story buildings?
My first year in ArtPrize, my work exhibited at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. And while setting up ‘touch wood,’ I would take little breaks and walk around outside to clear my head. I looked up and saw all these beautiful buildings and just thought, “Wow… what if I did something that spanned between two buildings? What if I could create a person on the tight rope walking from one tall tall building to another?” So I started to explore that idea. I’m a little obsessive compulsive so I immediately started to go around to the department of engineering at MSU and talk to people there. Then I started to talk to people in Grand Rapids about who would be willing to host a piece like that.
What was the process like installing that work?
It was very challenging. I would find one building who would host me, but then the building across the street would not. Finally, through total serendipity, two buildings across the street from one another agreed to host me. After that, it was a process mostly of management—which I don’t do! It was building a sculpture, which I don’t do. It was doing engineering calculations, which I don’t do. A whole bunch of things that were very scary and out of my comfort zone.
But when it finally went up, it was fantastic!! It was such a collaborative effort between everyone; the building owners, the engineering department, the engineers who actually installed the piece. You know, from the idea to the execution, It took me six months of sheer administrative headaches. But the satisfaction of seeing it hoisted, then having thousands of people looking up at the piece , and schools with children stopping to talk about it, was so worth it.
The first couple years of your work (Gravity Matters Little/I Want to be Different) were very whimsical and ethereal, and in 2014 evolved to speak on a heavier/darker topic with "There’s Something Happening Here". Can you talk about that shift over the years?
After the two years of doing the pieces suspended from buildings, I wanted to do something completely different. At that time, news about drones spying on people, WikiLeaks, Ferguson, and other such events started to take over much airtime. Paranoia about being watched, seemed to spread. My inclination is usually not to wear my politics on my sleeve, but things were getting to the point where I thought it important to work on something related.
My ideas they never end up where they started; they evolved, go in different directions often in response to practical issues. For ‘there’s something happening…’, I originally wanted to work with theater people. I wanted them positioned all over the UICA and on the streets dressed in black with earpieces like secret agents or bodyguards. But I wasn’t able to coordinate with a theater group, so the idea evolved into cut figures placed around the museum, and this finally didn’t seem as strong as placing the silhouetted figures on the roof of the a couple of buildings. More dramatic… sinister.
Another moment of serendipity, I was trying to come up with a title for the work. For the most part I hate the titles of work, but everyone pressures you for a title for your work. So I was driving around that summer with open windows and the truck next to me was playing this old song by Buffalo Springfield called For What It’s Worth (1967). I remember that song and its opening line: “There’s something happening here.” So I titled my piece just that. Seemed to me that 60 years later, we were going through similar issues.
Do you have any memories of the public responding to your work?
It was great to chat with people out on the street or just be a fly on the wall. With ‘Gravity,’ and ‘I want to be different, both hanging from a cable across two building some 190 feet above the street, people are going to take to it. The most asked question with ‘Gravity,’ was the most frequent question was, “How did you get it up there?” For a while I kept explaining it, but then I thought I’d turn the question back at them — ‘you figure it out and tell me how you think it was done. Kids called the figure Batman or Superman, and adults wondered if it was someone commiting suicide.
With the simple 50 foot ladder I titled ‘I want to be different,’ most responses seemed to be titles folks came up with. The ladder provoqued many adults to feel their leg was being pulled… why something so trite as a ladder… one man said to his wife ‘that’s not art honey, we have many of those in our garage.’ Fair enough.
When we put up the figures (There’s Something Happening Here), it really created some havoc in Grand Rapids. We put them up about ten days before ArtPrize and sure enough for a week the press kept talking about it. Journalists were all over the place interviewing people. Some people felt very secure because they felt were being guarded and some people felt very insecure because the felt the were being watched or perhaps shot at.
But I think a lot of people have the thought now of, “What is Brimmer going to do next?”