Pitchfork   The Dissolve   Festivals: Chicago | Paris

Bjorn Copeland

The Black Dice member and visual artist opts for compositional elegance in his fifth solo show.

Interview By Matt Putrino, September 18, 2013

All images courtesy of the artist and the Jack Hanley Gallery. 

Bjorn Copeland is not a loser. Since founding the New York noise fixture Black Dice in 1997, he’s split his time between the band and working as a visual artist. Selections from his portfolio include stints making T-shirts for Uniqlo, design work for magazines, and a slew of record covers, posters, T-shirts, and gig flyers for his own band and others. In addition to a long list of group shows, his fifth solo show opened last week at the Jack Hanley Gallery in New York.

This new show marks a significant change in Copeland’s work. This time, he’s taking big steps towards a more accessible aesthetic, or in his words, “more elegant” composition. The same could be said for the latest Black Dice record, Mr. Impossible. Copeland mentions that during shows supporting the album, he was happy to see kids stage diving again. Yet he assured us he’s still no song and dance man. Rather, in both his visual art and music practices he is happy to create a space in which audiences are suspended in a confused limbo while also being massively satisfied. 

We spoke on a hot day in September in Copeland’s Brooklyn studio about his work so far.

I want to talk about the amp sculpture in the new show. Is that a nod to your life in Black Dice?
Yeah, the band was always the reason I kept making stuff. Through the periods when you first get out of school and you don’t have a gallery, doing posters and record covers, t-shirts, things like that. There was always this outlet. I wanted to make some real efforts so the show communicated some of the ideas relevant to Black Dice, but in a very different way. I know it’s all found stuff, and a lot of it looks like junk to people, but I tried to make it a little more elegant than it would have been in the past, or if it was a Black Dice related thing.

That definitely was a nod to the band. I started finding outdated electronics. VCRs and stereos that I found. I guess I started thinking about the notion of things becoming obsolete and how that relates to a person. Or how a person can seem obsolete to society in some ways. To me that piece always seemed like kind of a fitting illustration for what the band does: using old crap and hopefully something revelatory comes out of it.

Most shows I’ve done there’s usually a nod to the band in some ways, I think that’s more trying to help contextualize where it all comes from for people. Maybe it’s not necessary, but I’m trying anything I can.

All the pieces do seem much more elegant than the work you were showing around 2002-2009. Are you more influenced by graphic design this time around?
Well, since I work as a graphic designer designing records for us and other people, I’m definitely interested in that. But for this one, some of the older work that I was doing I felt like I actually started to see more and more stuff that sort of looked like it. When I started making collages and doing the things that I did for Black Dice records, the majority of records did not look that way. Not just because of my efforts, but over the years, it’s become a much more common aesthetic. I wanted to make sure the things I worked on for this show dealt with the same issues, but I didn’t want them to function as illustrations.

A lot of the old work I did, which I’m still proud of and everything, a lot of it was labor intensive with these tedious methods of assembling things. I liked working on things like that because you sort of zoned out and it was this trance inducing way of making things, but I started to wonder if people were really seeing a lot of the ideas. Whether they were seeing more than the amount of labor or time it took. When I go out and see things, the things I respond to the most are pretty loose gestures. Kind of fast pieces in a way. I definitely try to boil down some of those ideas that were relevant to the older work: things being in a state of flux, trying to do it with quicker gestures.

A lot of the sculptures were actually approached as if they were the collages. Most of the objects are things that, if I saw a photograph, I would use it for two-dimensional imagery. Sometimes chunks of time go by where I haven’t exhibited stuff. Certainly not as regularly as a lot of my peers, so there’s been some time that happened. A couple of years where I was just putting things in group shows here and there. This was ideal timing, there had been a backlog of ideas.

So was most of the show made in this studio in the last year?
Yeah. There are two pieces that were started in 2012 and I reworked them. Everything was basically done in the last eight months in this room. I used all these vinyl billboards that I bought off this place that sells them as tarps. You don’t know what you’re getting, but working on those in here was impossible. They’re like 25 feet. I’d have one rolled out on the roof, then one rolled out in my friend’s studio when she was gone, and another rolled out in another studio. In the other studio I could look down through the skylight and see the whole thing laid out. 

In some ways I think having non-ideal situations produces interesting results. I don’t know what it’s like to have a super massive studio with tons of space and great light.

A staff of eight assistants…
Yeah, I don’t know. Maybe it would be great. But for me I’ve always made efforts to make sure the things I worked on in my studio, and the things the band worked on, that there was a real cohesion. I knew a lot of people aren’t able to continue making art, or continue with band projects because they change, and what they set out to do isn’t flexible and couldn’t change. I figured if every aspect of my life was cohesive with the things I was making, then I should be able to continue to work nonstop. With this show, I think I spent maybe $400 on the whole show, not necessarily by choice. Totally not by choice. Because I had to find things and keep my eye open for materials, there was a real rationale behind it. I had a very specific relationship with the things I worked with that also make up the environment I live in. A lot of the work in the show tends to be about media overload, and what it’s like living here. I guess we’re living nowadays [in a society] where people talk so much about what they own in songs and movies. I kept thinking about it like a "You are what you eat" sort of thing. What does it mean when you don’t have shit? When you don’t have anything and you’re making stuff out of it?

I’d been listening to a lot of stuff I grew up listening to. I realized in a lot of '90s college radio music, there’s a really self-deprecating attitude that prevails in a lot of stuff I grew up listening to. In some ways that seemed significant. I think of the show in having a slight “Loser” slant to it. I try to make work that has a sort of optimism to it, but most of the pieces are about things that have been consumed or used up, or ceased to have any value. Either there was a time sensitivity to it, there was an advertisement for a specific time period, or a lotto ticket that was worth something because it had potential in the beginning. Once that’s consumed, by most people’s standards it has zero value. I was trying to investigate what kinds of small gestures or interventions you could impose on these things that were worthless, and reverse that. Not necessarily in a financial sense. But however you want to take it.

A lot of the actions I was interested in had sort of juvenile, misbehaving ties. There’s one piece that’s a stack of beer cans that I drank. Kind of a juvenile delinquent motivation.

That seems in line with the college rock “Loser” tone.
Yeah. Sometimes I wonder why I was so depressed growing up, but I started listening to music at a really young age. In maybe first or second grade, my neighbors who used to babysit us were like, “The first Ramones record is really good, and the Cramps’ Bad Music for Bad People, you should have that record. Echo and the Bunnymen.” When I was in high school I was listening to a lot of Galaxie 500 and now I’m like, “Oh, no wonder I was depressed.” It’s a fantastic band, but as an adolescent you’re already moody, and when you submerge yourself in the dark romance of Harvard rock, it’s a one-way ticket to antidepressant town.

I’m curious about some of the commercial imagery you use as source material, like the ads for sales that don’t exist anymore. Have you ever seen a commercial image and thought, "This is perfect as it is; it’s terrible and great"?
Yeah. Well I actually starting having this dilemma: I was burned out on the types of collages I was making because I’d see more and more of that. The other examples of trippy collages that I didn’t like just look like they bought a bunch of trippy-looking magazines and cut them up and there it is. I started to really try to work with just the remnants of stuff. A lot of times it’s just text-based things. The idea of looking at those and the confusion that sets in when you’re trying to make sense of it.

I became a lot more interested in using the things no one else liked. Like little fragments of things like barcodes and things, and the color tests on the side of cereal boxes…I always found that when I sourced materials...One, I don’t like making things where I have an idea, I go buy the materials, make it, and it looks like it did in my head. That’s a total failure. I have zero interest in that. Maybe with design things, it’s nice to know you can achieve those things, but I was always more happy when things got messed up. The tension in things is what I find the most interesting. I like things that are pretty close to what I hate. Which is a headfuck in a way.

You hate it so much, you start liking it again?
Almost. Even with the band, I love Black Dice. There’s no other band in the world that I would ever want to fucking be in, and there’s very few people in the world I think more highly of than Eric [Copeland] and Aaron [Warren], as friends, brothers, artists, all across the board. I really don’t like most music that comes up if you go to Pandora and type in Black Dice. Any of the shit that follows it, I don’t like. There are a lot of bands that make a racket, and use electronics and samples, but that’s not what makes me like what we do. I like the way we do things. I think that’s sort of the same with visual art. How many openings were there this past weekend? It comes down to how people execute things.

How does the infinite world of images online play into your work? Now anyone can search for “Croatian grocery store signs.”
I don’t have a computer. I can email people and stuff like that. I have an iPhone that my wife gave me, so I can do some stuff on that. Certainly seems like there are so many opportunities and so much information out there, which has got to be amazing for some people who utilize it to the fullest possible extent. I don’t feel like I’m missing out on shit by not being on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. There’s a Bjorn Copeland Facebook page but I have no fucking idea who does it. There’s a Black Dice Facebook and we have no idea who does that. They don’t even write us back. We’re like, “Hey we have a gig if you want to post it.” I stay clear of it. I have a pretty tight network of friends and I share with them.

It’s a fascinating time to be alive. So much stuff has changed in the last decade. In my adult life, I feel like we’ve seen some major shit happen. In some ways, I’m sure what I do is a response to those things. A lot of what I do, you know the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey? With the apes staring at that cube and discovering the bones and banging on it? I sort of approach everything I do like that. I find stuff, and stare at it until you can strip it of everything that it was.

Like saying the same word 100 times.
Yeah, after a while all you notice is the phonics. I like doing that to objects and imagery and using that as a starting point. For me that’s always been partially a response to not being a technologically savvy person. I’m sure there have been periods in history where people had a better understanding of how everything they used works. I don’t know how the plumbing works; I don’t know how the electricity works, I don’t know how the telephone works, the computer, the TV; I can’t fix cars. For me, there’s something empowering about starting from scratch with everything I encounter.

I’m not a super posi-core kind of guy, but I know that nothing is ideal at all. And if you sit around waiting for something to become ideal, then you’re just sitting around. For me, I just try to do the things that make me feel good. Usually making things in my studio and then going and making music with Black Dice is the only place on the whole planet where we’re right the entire time. I think part of making art or music is being courageous enough to make some real shitty work. You’re not taking any chances if you’re not failing a bunch. It sucks that every little thing you do is subject to a million fucking comments on the Internet. 

Bjorn Copeland's work will be at the Jack Hanley Gallery in New York through October 6.