Tag Archives: 2005

The Destruction of Public Utilities

In 2005 I was asked to be in a group show at a small gallery in Brooklyn. I had painted a large painting the year before called The Tower and had recently finished 2 small paintings: one of a monorail and the other of some highway lights. The Tower was used as part of the series Ten Great Paintings About Ten Great Philosophies and the 2 small paintings would later be used in Epicenter City. For this small group show I was interested in using them to address the United States’ corrupt privatization of public utilities. Here is what I wrote and below that are the paintings that were used:

In my most recent paintings I address issues of subversive power and control. This control is most notable in the corporate and military sectors of society where the public has little chance of establishing any democratic influence. These privatized tyrannies aim to circumvent democratic processes by misinforming the public through very select, corporate controlled media outlets while continuing to carry out illegal and often state sanctioned acts against popular interests.

The Destruction of Public Utilities addresses the continual migration of public utilities into the hands of the private sector. Such necessities as water, gas, electricity and transportation are no longer accessible through governmentally maintained facilities but are rather sold by the largely unregulated utility conglomerates to the public as a profitable commodity. In the future, the very building blocks of life will be bought and sold in the marketplace, leaving the majority of the population struggling just to survive.

The Tower presents the ominous realities of media conglomeration and their threats to democracy and public accessibility. This continual concentration of media outlets allows a select amount of corporate giants to limit the parameters of information available to the masses at large, creating a narrowly informed and complacent population of willing consumers.




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Epicenter City (Part 6)

I spent about a week in Buffalo installing Epicenter City. During that time I stayed with John and had a blast being in Buffalo and feeling like a “successful” artist. I also did an interview for Squeaky Wheel, a late night TV show about art and culture in Buffalo.
For the opening, my friend Ben Knight agreed to present a talk beforehand. I told him to do whatever he wanted and he ended up doing a multi-media presentation that used slides and Orson Welles radio broadcast of War of the Worlds that turned out awesome. He wore a business suit and stood at a podium and confused the audience much to my delight; I think I laughed the whole time. I liked that the AAPR could expand into new and uncharted territories. John said that this was the first time at Hallwalls that an artist didn’t give their own artists talk.

The show was up for about 2 months and I returned to take it all down. I brought my studio mate Max, who’s a professional photographer, along with me to photograph the show. I packed it all up and had it all shipped back to NY; Most of the city is now in boxes in my parents attic. The only part of the installation that I have ever shown again is Davy Crockett in a show in the Mandeville Gallery at Union College called Armed.

After Epicenter City was dismantled I started working on other projects outside of the Associated Artists for Propaganda Research. Epicenter City felt like a culmination of everything that I wanted to do with the AAPR and wanted to move on and try other things. Despite trying, I still haven’t gotten back to the same level of installation that I had at Hallwalls where I was able to control a whole space with my work. It seems that most spaces don’t want to commit to these kinds of ideas and I’ve been forced to show small elements of larger ideas in group shows which I find usually leaves the piece flat. I make work that belongs in a specific context and without that context the objects meaning gets lost. To this day I still feel lucky that John gave me the opportunity and the trust to build Epicenter City and create a full installation experience exactly as I wanted.

Below are 2 last images that I forgot to include. The first is of a series of orange concentric circles. These were planned to be projected over Epicenter City in the final installation but they were removed early on due to the technical difficulties of how to do it without ruining the “feel” of the overall sculpture. Part of me felt like this was pushing it a little too far into theater and I didn’t want to “cheapen” the experience for the viewer. It was also a little too literal and I didn’t think that the installation really needed it in order to makes its point. It did however get used in some of the graphics work.

The last image is of Davy Crockett (Alternate) which is a large drawing that I did in 2009. This was the alternate image that I thought about using instead of the 3 men with the suitcase bomb. It shows a soldier with a small atomic bomb on a rocket launcher using a tripod. I decided to paint the other image of Davy Crockett because this one had a lot of white in it and I thought that the other one was a better image overall.

20121207-091253.jpgDavy Crockett (Alternate) from Epicenter City by Brian Higbee and Associated Artists for Propaganda Research

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Epicenter City (Part 5)

So 2 years later I packed everything, loaded up the truck and headed to Buffalo, NY for a weeks worth of installation. It was decided that Hallwalls would pay for any extra supplies that I needed so when I first got to Buffalo I had them purchase all of the lumber for the underlying structure and then later went with John to get wood sides cut. The installation went as quick as expected and I built the city in about 2 days and spent the second and third days attaching the sides for the piece and fine tuning it. I started by building the underlying structure out of 2″x4″‘s and then put down my plywood that the city was going to be built on. I had to adjust for the pole which was coming down through the middle of it and I had to shimmy the back of the piece to account for a dip in the floor that was causing one of the joints to collapse. The laying out of the city went quickly and only took the afternoon since everything was traced out already and numbered accordingly. When I was finished I filled in any imperfections or gaps in the mat board pieces with trees which were pre-painted grey. I also spent an afternoon cutting out mat board to put around the pole; I purposefully left this area as an “adjustable” park area so that I would have some flexibility when installing. I decided to paint the bottom of the pole gray and also decided to paint the bottom part of the wall in the back gray as well. When I was finished I went with John to have sides cut which I then painted, attached and wood filled. The only real problem was the gap between the 2 walls in the middle of the back of the piece which I hung a piece of fabric over to keep the light from coming through. The last thing I needed to think about was the placement of the paintings. I experimented a little with the placement of Davy Crockett and decided to install it so that it could be seen from a distance as the viewer enters from around the front of the city. From the main photo, Blues Skies Again was hung on the wall on the right (which is the left when you walk in) and These Dreams Never End was hung on the left, perpendicular to Davy Crockett. I had contemplated putting paintings across from the city but decided against it since the city was the main focus and I didn’t want to distract the viewer. The very last part was lighting and I decided to light it with very minimal lighting in order to give it a somber feeling. John thought it would be fun to do a stop animation of the installation which I then edited and sped up. It can be found here: Epicenter City Time Lapse Video

Here are some photos of the finished piece along with other elements of the installation.

Epicenter City by Brian Higbee and Associated Artists for Propaganda ResearchEpicenter City (Detail 3) by Brian Higbee and Associated Artists for Propaganda ResearchEpicenter City (Detail 2) by Brian Higbee and Associated Artists for Propaganda ResearchEpicenter City (Detail 1) by Brian Higbee and Associated Artists for Propaganda ResearchDavy Crockett from Epicenter City by Brian Higbee and Associated Artists for Propaganda ResearchBlue Skies Again from Epicenter City by Brian Higbee and Associated Artists for Propaganda ResearchThese Dreams Never End from Epicenter City by Brian Higbee and Associated Artists for Propaganda ResearchWater Tower (Small Scale Model) from Epicenter City by Brian Higbee and Associated Artists for Propaganda ResearchWater Tower from Epicenter City by Brian Higbee and Associated Artists for Propaganda ResearchHighway Overpass from Epicenter City by Brian Higbee and Associated Artists for Propaganda ResearchHighway Lights from Epicenter City by Brian Higbee and Associated Artists for Propaganda Research

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Epicenter City (Part 4)

After I finished building the floor model and the large pixel painting I found out that the show was going to be at a later date because of construction delays. This turned out to be a year later than planned and I spent the last year fine tuning and working on other project since I had finished the bulk of it by the end of the first year. As the show approached I started thinking about propaganda for the exhibition and decided on a fold out brochure/poster that would involve both text and imagery from Epicenter City. It was designed by Ben Knight under TVGS Design and the text was written by John Massier at Hallwalls. Ben also designed some preliminary posters for the show that never got used but I wish had been. It would have been nice to create a small 3 page fold out silkscreen on heavy weight paper that would have one of his early designs on it and some text/ propaganda. I think about creating more elements for the show even though the installation has already been exhibited in order to better fill out its history. I did this when I made Davy Crockett (Alternate) in 2009. Below is John Massiers’ text, the poster for the show (front and back) and an early design.

Epicenter City is a new installation created specifically for Hallwalls by the Brooklyn-based organization Associated Artists for Propaganda Research. The “propaganda research” engaged in by AAPR does not manifest itself in direct political action, but in eloquent expressions that cut against what AAPR sees as the prevalent ideologies of the day. It may be more apt to say that AAPR traffics in a reverse or anti-propaganda model.

In the case of Epicenter City, the concern is directed toward a perceived “industry of destruction” amid a warmongering status quo. It is not a matter of heroically searching for weapons of mass destruction, but manufacturing and selling such weapons while propagating and encouraging a volatile and dangerous world.

At the heart of the exhibition lies a 25-foot floor model of a decimated city. Four hundred city blocks and surrounding areas including an industrial park, suburban housing developments, waterfront development and recreations parks comprise Epicenter City. As a sly public art homage, AAPR has also re-installed Richard Serra’s controversial Tilted Arc public sculpture within its city limits. (Installed in 1981 at Federal Plaza in NYC, the original work—after protracted legal battles—was cut into three pieces eight years later, removed, and carted off to a scrap metal yard.)

In AAPR’s dystopian vision, the Epicenter City is not leveled in the manner we would expect. There is no destructive residue, no gaping maw of a crater where a city once stood. Instead, the city has been neutralized into funereal stillness by a single shade of grey, an all-encompassing blanket of ash, a grand poetic elegy.

The impact of this gesture—in effect, treating the city as its own shroud—emerges from the diligent care taken in modeling Epicenter City, the attention to creating a convincing depiction of urban density. The city has been designed, built, and realized block by block. Seen as a whole, it is utterly convincing. At the same time, AAPR is not concerned with microcosmic accuracy. Up close, the city reveals itself quickly as an abstracted object comprised of variously-cut blocks of wood.

The represented world that is simultaneously an abstracted object feeds the overall sentiment of the installation. It creates a significantly different effect from a work where the smallest detail is accurately rendered, as one might create in a model train environment. AAPR’s intention is blunter than that of the rabid hobbyist. Were we too entranced by convincing minutia, we might easily lose the bigger picture effect.

The bigger picture is punctuated by the painting W54davy2, which reiterates the abstracted elements of the model through its pixilated-block motif and its adherence to an ashen palette. In the painting, three business-suited men hover above a small object with an air of delicate reverence.

In actuality, the painting replicates a photograph of US officials inspecting the casing for a Davy Crockett fission bomb. At 51 pounds, it was the smallest and lightest nuclear weapon ever deployed by the US military. The Davy Crockett was intended to address the need for a mobile nuclear weapon that could be utilized easily in large numbers in a protracted war with the Soviet Union. Barely bigger than a breadbox, it represents the perverse amalgam of post-WWII American ingenuity and progress with a deranged Cold War logic.

Realizing the portrait in a modulating gray scale is a reminder that even right and wrong/good and evil are not merely black and white issues. Scientific progress, good intentions, sound design elements, love of democracy, and well-dressed men can still all collapse into a banal and terrifying evil.

As if to underline the divergent possibilities that lay perennially before us, AAPR includes two distinctive sky paintings. In one, the canvas is all sky—blue, ethereal, and seemingly endless. In the other, the sky is veiled within a slender horizontal plane and hidden behind a pink nuclear hue. Atop and below, this pinkish sky is violently sandwiched between solid slabs of utter black.

Forever boundless. Eternally doomed.

John Massier

Visual Arts Curator

Epicenter City PosterEpicenter City Poster Backaapr_epicenter

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Epicenter City (Part 3)

It took me almost a year to make Epicenter City from beginning to end. This includes the making of all of the paintings, the large floor sculpture and various models and propaganda material. I started by making one 4″x8″ panel of the city out of cardboard and wood. I did this by cutting out rectangular shapes of mat board and gluing wooden pieces to them that I had cut on the chop saw. I had originally bought some wood trimming from the lumber store but it was expensive and for the rest of the project would scavenge through the wood shops dumpster on the third floor of my studio building. This would prove to be a valuable resource; Not only did I save a lot of money but I was also able to find a lot of interestingly shaped pieces to use as buildings. I would collect these strips of wood and spend a half an hour cutting them into smaller pieces and putting them in a shoe box. After I had my wood pieces cut I would make the mat board pieces that I needed (either custom or generic) and spend time creating city blocks by gluing the wood pieces to the mat board bases. The city was built using probably half generically sized rectangular pieces of mat board and half custom made. If I needed a custom piece I would use a piece of tracing paper to trace out the shape I needed and then cut it out. I would test the piece before I built on it to make sure that it fit and I would trim it or recut it if need be. One of the most important parts was numbering everything since it all needed to be broken down and transported. Every city block was traced on the underlining sheet of plywood and numbered accordingly on both the bottom of the city block and on the plywood. This was all done in anticipation of packing everything into boxes and having to rebuild at Hallwalls in Buffalo.

I did this for most of the city. I should also mention that a lot of my friends built city blocks as well, often making unique structures and developments that were included in the final lay out. We had a lot of fun building it and would spend time designing specific parts of the city like museums, industrial parks and downtown high rises. They also helped with painting Davy Crockett which was large and took about 3 months to finish even with help.

I couldn’t build the whole thing in my studio at once so I would put away what ever I didn’t need for reference. The hardest part was the angle that needed to be cut in order for the sculpture to follow the wall in the gallery. This created a unique shape that was also used in a lot of the graphic work that was created for the exhibition. To save time I repurposed some old tree filled landscapes that I had from previous pieces and decided to use them at the farther end of the city. I also created a very generic looking “industrial” area at the far end near the wooded section, knowing that the buildings would just be a visual element and wouldn’t be a distraction to the overall construction.

All and all the city scape took about 5 months to build. I also created 6 paintings for the show. They are Davy Crockett, the pixel painting, These Dreams Never End, Blue Skies Again and 3 small paintings of public utilities that I hung in the back offices at Hallwalls. These Dreams Never End is a painting of a pink sky at sunset with 2 horizontal bands of glossy black at the top and bottom and Blue Skies Again is a painting of a blue sky. I had originally wanted 3 paintings of skies, each a different color, but decided to only make the one. The 3 small painting that I hung in the office were from photos that I took. The water tower is from my home town of Delaware Water Gap. I super imposed Epicenter City on it using the computer. The second painting is of the monorail at JFK Airport and third is of highway lights. I also built a model of a water tower that I then used decal letters on to spell Epicenter City. This was exhibited in a corner of the gallery near the offices and was displayed on a pedestal under a plexiglass top.

Here is a photo of my friend Ben Knight working on Davy Crockett and a studio shot during the making of the floor model.



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Epicenter City (Part 2)

Along with promotional photos for Epicenter City, John Massier also wanted a statement. This is what I sent:

The Associated Artists for Propaganda Research is proud to present “Epicenter City”, a large-scale installation at the Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center in Buffalo NY.

War has created a new and powerful industry of destruction whose aim is to capitalize on the selling of weapons of mass destruction while simultaneously attempting to propagate the necessity for war, curbing every possibility for peace in order to maintain a warmongers status quo. With this unnecessary proliferation of nuclear arms and the ceaseless quest for more destructive and efficient armaments, it has become clear that the fate of the worlds’ population has become increasingly uncertain and volatile.

“Epicenter City” predicts the most horrific possibility of these uncertainties, presenting the eventual decimation of a large and heavily populated metropolis.

”Epicenter City” features a 25’x8’ floor model made of wood and cardboard. Painted uniformly with a shade of neutral gray, the city will consist of approximately 400 city blocks as well as several outskirt features including an industrial park, suburban housing developments and even an airport. The city will also host 10 feet of waterfront development as well as many recreational parks.

This was a later incarnation of the same statement. The airport was built but never used and the city blocks increased from 400 blocks to 800. This statement also explains the other pieces used in the exhibition.

”Epicenter City” is a 25’x8’ floor model made of wood and cardboard. Painted uniformly with a shade of neutral gray, the city consists of approximately 800 city blocks made of over 10,000 pieces of wood. It has several features including a museum, an industrial park, several suburban housing developments, outdoor sculpture and many recreational parks and forests. The sculpture depicts an unknown and imagined city, destroyed by an atomic bomb. The painting in the background shows 3 men holding the first atomic suitcase bomb and was painted with 6,912 one inch squares. The installation also includes 2 paintings (Blue Skies Again and These Dreams Never End), 1 drawing, 1 model of a water tower and 3 paintings of public structures from “Epicenter City”.

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Epicenter City (Part 1)

In 2004 I sent images to Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center in Buffalo, NY in the hopes of getting considered for a show there. About 4 months later I received a call from John Massier asking to speak to the head of the AAPR. I quickly confessed that I was the sole owner of the AAPR and John and I had a conversation about his interest in having the Associated Artist for Propaganda Research exhibit at Hallwalls. At the time of my application I had sent slides that represented both the Future Living Projects and the Associated Artists for Propaganda Research. He was actually more interested in the FLP but I convinced him of my intentions with the AAPR and we made plans for a future exhibition. I was told that Hallwalls was in the process of moving and had a planned move in date sometime in 2005 in a renovated church owned by Ani DiFranco. I was slated to be the first show in the new space and I was excited. I was sent floor plans and I made a small model out of foam core to better visualize the project that I planned to build. I decided that I wanted to build an exhibition around a nuclear explosion that featured a city. The title Epicenter City came to me quickly and I started building.

The first obstacle was the shape of the floor model that I was going to build since the space that I was in had a wall that swung on a movable axis. Based on the floor plans that were sent to me I established a concrete and workable shape for the city and planned accordingly. I started building using an 4’x8′ sheet of smooth plywood as a starting point. I wanted to incorporate water into my city planning and made a waterfront industrial park as my first complete panel. I used wood scraps scavenged from the woodshop dumpster from the third floor of my building. I cut them into small blocks and glued them on to interlocking pieces of matte board. I also cut out “docks” out of matte board and attached foam trees to cover any imperfections. I learned the matte board technique from the Queens Museums’ Panorama of NYC which used a similar process. I was lucky enough to have a friend (Vandana Jain) exhibit a piece on the panorama as I was planning this project and one night, during installation, we all got to walk out on it. I was able to view its construction up close and we also took the time to take some “promotional” photos of the AAPR as a group which I still use to this day.

I finished one 4″x8″ sheet of city landscape and spray painted the whole thing with a neutral gray (I made sure to buy many cases of the same gray in order to maintain consistency in the landscape.) During this process I also decided that I wanted to include a large pixilated painting of the first portable atomic bomb called the Davy Crockett. I decided on making it in 2 panels to better manage the size of the final painting and to enhance the fact that the subject matter was the split atom. The painting would be 6’x8′ when it was finished and I decided on acrylic paints to hasten the drying time during painting. I have used this same technique many times since but this was the first time I had decided on this approach.

Around the time I was starting the painting John wanted some photos for promotion. I quickly took photographs of the finished 4″x8″ panel cityscape that I finished and a model of a water tower that I was working on that said “Epicenter City” on it. Here is a photo of the foam core model I made of Hallwalls new space with my floor piece in it (in grey) and the miniature Davy Crockett painting that I planned on making, the model of the water tower with “Epicenter City” on it (on a a gridded out, but not yet started Davy Crockett painting), and the first panel which has a thumbtack stuck in it that I forgot to take out. Also 2 photos from the night of the Queens Museum Panorama shoot which features me, Ben Knight, Mike Estabrook and Vandana Jain.

DSCF0265Epicenter City (Detail 4) by Brian Higbee and Associated Artists for Propaganda ResearchAssociated Artists for Propaganda Research Group Photo by Brian Higbee and Associated Artists for Propaganda Research Associated Artists for Propaganda Research Group Photo 2 by Brian Higbee and Associated Artists for Propaganda Research

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The Wall

In 2005 I was asked to submit work for a show called Three Cities Against the Wall about the large wall that Israel had built in Palestine to cordon off the Palestinian people and further plummet them into economic poverty. It’s basically a 25 foot high, 400 mile long wall that aims to segregate a whole population of people from another. Here are 2 quotes that I used for the text that went along with it. I should also note that I showed this piece under the name Associated Artists for Propaganda Research.

“The concepts of terrorism and retaliation are supple instruments, readily adapted to the needs of the moment.” N. Chomsky

“We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end.” G. Orwell

For the show I made a small diorama of a wall winding through a sparsely wooded landscape. I started with a large plexiglass case that I had gotten from work that was long and narrow. The base of the case had a nice wooden finish that I was eager to preserve in the final piece so I made sure to make my measurements so that the landscape left a one inch border around it. I decided that I wanted to use molding to finish the edges of the landscape so I adjusted for this in my measurements and then cut out the base for the landscape and cut the molding and attached it. For the landscape I wanted small hills so I used newspaper and glue to create a paper mâché terrain. When I was done with the paper mâché I let it dry and then cut my wall out of matte board and attached it with glue. I added small foam railroading trees that I ripped into smaller pieces to complete it. The final step was spray painting it with matte gray and attaching it to the base. When I was done I needed to make a pedestal which I made out of particle board. I put it together and wood filled and sanded it several times before painting it white.

This was the first time that I had made a sculpture landscape that I painted all one color. Usually my landscapes are left green (the color of the trees and grass) but for this was interested in creating a more somber feeling. I would later use this same technique for Epicenter City.

The Architect's Tomb by Brian Higbee and Future Living ProjectsThe Architect's Tomb (Detail) by Brian Higbee and Future Living Projects

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Police Officers Examining the Mountaineering Ice Ax Used to Assassinate the Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky near Mexico City in 1940

I’m working on a new pixel painting called Police Officers Examining the Mountaineering Ice Ax Used to Assassinate the Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky near Mexico City in 1940. I started it about 2 weeks ago. It’s 24″x30″ and should be finished in about a month or so depending on how diligent I am. The painting will be made using half inch squares which will make it 60 pixels wide by 48 pixels high equalling 2880 squares altogether. It’s part of a series of pixelated black and white paintings that I’ve been working on based on old photos that deal with violence and destruction. The first one I made was back in 2005 for the show “Epicenter City” and shows the first transportable atomic bomb in a suitcase called Davy Crockett. It’s 6′ tall and 8′ wide and is made on 2 canvases. It was made using 6912 one inch squares.

Davy Crockett from Epicenter City by Brian Higbee and Associated Artists for Propaganda Research

I make all of my own panels that I then stretch canvas over. This way I can lean on the canvases while I’m working on them. I start by reducing the image down to the specific amount of pixels that I want and griding it out accordingly. I paint these using Golden Acrylics since it will dry faster and I can work without having to worry about smearing anything that I’ve just painted. I have a set of Golden Neutral Gray paints that I use that are numbered from N8 (lightest) to N2 (darkest) excluding Titanium White and Mars Black. I also mix inbetween shades which include 8.75, 8.5, 7.75, 7.5, 6.5, 5.5, 4.5, 3.5 and 2.5. I made a shade chart in case I need help. I start in one corner and start writing numbers in the squares according to what shade of gray they will get. I move the canvas around, filling in sections at a time until I’m finished. Here’s one that I finished earlier this year called The Death of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby.

The Death of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby by Brian Higbee and Associated Artists for Propaganda Research

I like the idea of pixelating old photographs. At first I wasn’t sure about the significance of it as it relates to my practice or even if it was that interesting of an idea; I’m certainly not the first one to do it. But I like to think of my work as parts for a larger idea that I may or may not understand at the time of their conception which means that the process must be slightly intuitive. On a basic level I enjoy the space that the pixelating creates by establishing a language that is related to both abstraction and “reality based” work. It occupies both spaces at the same time and yet is perceived as one or the other depending on the viewer’s point of view. It’s a visual trick whereas the information is limited by the reduction of resolution and yet our brains, at enough of a distance, will fill in the rest of the information for us in order to complete the picture.

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