in conversation with John Ryan Brubaker

Can you describe where you are while writing this and what you can see from your window?

I’m writing this in my summer studio, which is an old ballroom on the top floor of a brick building in Thomas, West Virginia.  Thomas is an ex-coal mining town of 500 people in the Appalachian mountains. This space is basically unheatable in the winter, and still feels somewhat abandoned.  There is paint peeling off of the ceiling, power provided only by extension cords and a strange array of objects left from years past.  The windows look over a road and an old railroad grade, past a river and into the Monongahela National Forest.

What is your chosen medium for recording your Landlinks work?

For my first Landlinks walk I worked with photography, both expired instant film on a Polaroid 250 and a digital.  Much of my work is lens-based, with a  focus on experimental uses of both imagery and the chemical aspects of photography.

What and who is the 'driving' force or major influence for your work?

This is tough to answer.  The driving force seems to shift from project to project and year to year.  But I can list some influences:  Douglas Huebler and the photographers of the Conceptual Art period, The Situationists, Patti Smith, Henry Miller, John Baldessari, Trevor Paglen, Brian Eno, John Cage, Jan Dibbets, Francis Alÿs, Nan Goldin.

You work in a variety of different mediums...and working methodologies may differ. How important is research and experimentation to your work and can you outline some of your working processes for us?

I find the topic of ‘research’ in the context of art making a curious conversation.  It seems to have blown up in the context of art within academia, often to justify the PhD funding of artists as much as anything. It’s a complicated topic.  I don’t know any artists that aren’t inherently doing research as part of their practice.
That said, my research varies based on the project I am working on.  I did work surrounding extraction-based environmental pollution that required digging into watershed maps and talking to reclamation specialists.  I did another connecting coal mining with opioid addiction that was rooted in conversations with activists and survivors here in Appalachia.   But sometimes the research is just a matter of learning how to work with the chemicals that develop my prints, coating papers to dip into the river water or manipulating film residue.   As for how important this is… it’s imperative.  I’ve nearly always found that my work comes out of the process of loose experimentation, and that I rarely understand where things are leading until I’ve spent some time mucking about with cameras or brushes or the Internet.

A Walk for Landlinks. Thomas, West Virginia 2020

Can you talk a bit about walking and the importance of walking in/to your work?

The walking part of my practice goes back to a time when I was broke and abroad and found walking the city the best form of free entertainment.    Once I began to carry a camera I found that the act of walking increased my attention to my surroundings and essentially made my sensorial experience more acute.  This made for better photographs, and thus became my basic photographic practice.  That root process of walking with a camera has become essential for me, even in my recent projects that are less about the things I encounter along a walk and more about the entirety of a walk itself.  For my MFA project I did a series of books called ‘Maps for Getting Lost’ where I established prompts for the city to guide me on a walk, and then used the cues from the urban space to set my direction and duration.   That project continues years later and has set me on a course where my personal, physical movement through space is nearly always present in my work.

What do you think about when walking?

If I walk with creative intention my goal is to think as little as possible.  In a rather meditative sense I do what I can to drop any specific thoughts in the interest of presence.

You are part of the Landlinks project and the synchronised walk that took place April. We would love to hear your feedback on this networking initiative and your resulting creative response to that walk

Sure.   Following up on the previous answers, I found the constant interaction with others and my phone a jarring departure from my normal experience of walking and art making.  I’m game to try again with the interaction as a more integral part of my experience, but the first time I had to turn off my mobile data to get into the experience of the walk that I am used to.  My favorite part was to catch up on these interactions after my walk was completed.

Do you collaborate with other artists or groups? If so who and why?

I recently collaborated with William F. McDonald as part of Arts Territory Exchange:
“(aTE) comprises of a global network of artists and art practices which respond to the geography of their territory of production. Beginning with a simple correspondence programme in which artists are paired up to exchange works and ideas, aTE exists to both germinate otherwise impossible dialogue between remote and disconnected practices and to bring to an audience a global artwork in the form of an accumulating library of artefacts and debate.”

I also work closely with other artists here in Thomas, as part of Off-White Studios.  While we have vastly different mediums we are frequently pushing each other towards experimentation and breaking our practice in the interest of new work.
Last year I collaborated with Gina Mamone of the Queer Appalachia Collective on an audio/visual installation surrounding opioids, medical exploitation, coal mining & Purdue Pharmaceuticals.

Landscape and the environment are both important areas of creative exploration to you. With current concerns about our environment, how do you see your role as an artist?

A few years ago I did my first environmental work in West Virginia, a photographic series called ‘On Confluence.’ These images were made on a walk through a river polluted by acid mine drainage, a byproduct of neglected coal mines.  For this series I processed my images directly in the river water.    The acid level in the river acted as the ideal developer for my chosen process, so I was able to incorporate the water and heavy metal pollutants into the final works.   Showing this work, and the conversations that came out of it, were my first real engagement with environmental concerns as an artist.   Since then I’ve done a number of projects around coal and resource extraction.
As for the role of artists in the age of climate emergency, I think it’s imperative to have artists dealing with all of the many various threats to humanity.  Each person can find their own voice and topic, there are sadly plenty many options to choose from.

Can you describe your favourite place and why?

There’s a bridge over a tributary of the Northfork Blackwater River where I go to develop the images for ‘On Confluence.’   Underneath there is enough shadow to prepare my paper, and small tide pools where the prints can swirl around and develop in the acidic water that comes out of the mountain upstream.   There’s a waterfall, and for awhile it was inhabited by a poisonous snake.  I hesitate to consider anywhere my favorite place, but this spot under the bridge on Long Run is an important one for me.

Rain Piece #8

The Covid 19 is having a massive impact on so many lives.
Are you able to say what effect it is having on your working/creative life and what you have planned once Covid 19 retreats?

I’m going to pass on my plans for a post-Covid reality, other than to say I very much look forward to a road trip and a beer in a bar full of strangers.
As for the effect it’s had on my work, I think the most concrete change has been a series I’ve started called ‘Rain Pieces’.  These are alt-process photographic images – but made without a camera – using light, time and water to capture the randomness and variety of rainfall.   I don’t have access to the chaotic urban space I’ve often used for my work, so I’m learning, slowly, to make work with the randomness inherent in subtle experiences and rural settings.

Your work takes in many locations, urban and rural; Europe, Asia and America. It often references a ‘place’ and obviously influences your creative response. Is there a place that means more to you and why?

I have a profound love for the city of Brussels.   It gets a bad rep for being the seat of EU politics, poorly urban planned, unattractive, dysfunctional, etc.   But it’s the 2nd most diverse city in the world.  It sits on the point where Germanic northern Europe meets the Romantic South.   It has four working street languages. One can still feel the effects of its surrealist history.  It’s not yet been overrun with tourism. No one seems to be in charge.  I see Brussels as the first truly European city, in the sense of the ‘European experiment.’   It has been a fascinating place to be these past years.

What are you currently reading?

The book I’m deepest into right now is Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel.   I’m at a loss for how to describe its depth and inspiration.  Absolutely recommended.

I’m also starting to work through a media list of anti-racism resources for white people:

Do you consider your work political?

This question comes up frequently for me, and I find it interesting because my answer has evolved quite significantly over time.  I used to consciously avoid being overtly political, and aim to make work that can be interpreted in a range of ways depending on the experience of the viewer.    But the state of the world, and my engagement with it, has changed in recent years.  At this point I consider the decision to devote one’s time and energy to art making a political act.   To pursue creation instead of consumption,  and communication instead of avoidance, is acting in the political realm.  In this sense, all my work is political.   That said, I have also moved towards overt politics in some of my recent projects, especially surrounding coal and opioids. I expect more activist work to come.  Rampant  authoritarianism, climate collapse, rape culture, institutional racism, sexual prejudice, xenophobia … We simply cannot be vague or ambiguous in the face of this shit any longer, it’s time to pick a side and be heard.