Ian Strange grew up in a Perth that was not the edge-of-the-world psychedelic rock capitol of today. It was just the edge of the world, with a dash of suburbia thrown in. But then again the Ian Strange of today, a known associate of Banksy and Space Invader, is a far cry from the eleven year old making short films in his parents house.
That house, and the suburban landscape beyond, planted the seeds for Strange’s newest work, SUBURBAN. The Brooklyn-based visual artist drove around the United States, modifying homes with provocative, large scale art. Some homes were painted with massive dark circles. Others, massive red x’s. Still others, Ian literally burned to the ground.
Why? To explore the space between our warm notions about hearth and home, and the physical realities these notions are tethered to. CONVICTS caught up with Strange in New York and got his good word on growing up in Western Australia, the awe-inspiring physical mechanics of the project, and the universal significance of home.
Tell us about growing up in Perth.
Growing up in Perth, you felt like a second-rate version of the thing you were doing. There wasn’t the local guy who made his life being an artist or musician. The only people who were successful were the ones who left. There’s a thing about the isolation and distance and that idea that there is this larger cultural hub you’re missing out on. There was this natural idea that if you wanted to do anything creative in a serious way, you needed to leave.
Given the explosion of social media and the coverage that affords young artists-do you think you’d still would’ve been as motivated to leave Perth and make your way in the world?
I didn’t grow up with the full force of the internet. It hadn’t come to full fruition. I don’t think I would be doing this as an artist were I born now. With the net, you can immediately find an audience for what you want to make. It was about escaping to find community and maybe that audience is digital now. I’m probably the last generation that actually felt in high school we had to escape. Even if you leave something, you’re allowing it to define you. It’s a big part of who you are.
What brought you around the world to New York?
It was put into my head really early on that New York was the pinnacle. Now that I’m here it’s been debunked a little bit, because working hard is working hard no matter where you live. Over here, you realize that you’re working in an actually competitive industry and there’s a work ethic that applies. There’s something demystifying about that. Sometimes it’s quite underwhelming, but you go out on your own and discover that. Sometimes you do discover these big great worlds and have these mind-expanding moments, but a lot of the time you also realize that the people you grew up with were actually quite incredible.
Truth. On that note: home, and the actual physical space of normal houses, seem super important to SUBURBAN. Could you talk a bit about this?
The home is your first metaphor. You’re brought into a home, so you understand community and family. The basement, on the other hand, is a place of darkness. You use all of this as a way of understanding everything because it’s your first place in the world. In a sense there’s an imaginary home that you take with you through your whole life. You know, even children who grew up in an apartment building will still draw the house, the square with the triangle, when asked to draw a home. They don’t draw the apartment building they actually live in. There’s a strong idea of what an imagined house is, what it represents emotionally. It’s a really universal thing to play with. I want this work to play with that idea in people’s minds. If these homes look and feel familiar, there’s still something that’s been marked and changed and altered. That emotional interior has been applied to the outside of the homes. That’s a powerful act. I’m not sure if I could tell people what the meaning of it is. It’s more about reacting to the idea of the suburban home as a familiar object. It’s not necessarily about decline, or these dilapidated homes. It’s more about the familiar idea of them.
Are you telling a story through these works, communicating a point, or engaging in a kind of high-level play?
As an artist, I don’t have to be a journalist. I don’t have to have the integrity of a journalist or a documentarian. I can make a larger emotive story. I can capture snippets, I can take photos, I can take stories, anecdotes, and go in and paint onto houses, creating, interacting with that world, not standing at an objective distance. It really gets me to an interesting place, where I can sit between filmmaking, documentary, visual and gallery art.
Tell us about the way the multimedia aspect of SUBURBAN is meant to function?
It’s not meant to be seen on your laptop screen. It’s meant to wrap around you. It’s beyond an experience that you have on your laptop screen. This is my work at its natural extension. At its extreme. One of the reasons why I decided to have this as a pop-up space rather than a gallery is that you can control the space. You don’t have to worry about the gallerist not being able to sell something or trying to commercialize it. You can just have this experience.
What would your ideal space for SUBURBAN be?
A darkened space and you walk up to the screens and they surround you, the sound surrounds you. You have a soundscape that builds. The end of the film is like three channels of this house on fire at two hundred frames per second. Loud, aggressive sound, so we would need someone with no neighbors to complain about the constant rumbling of the subs…
And what sounds compose this audio-barrage?
It’s a five-line surround sound recording of suburbs in New Jersey. You can kind of hear these trucks in the background but like with everything else it’s saturated. All those sounds start to get brought up. And it’s been accented with these creaking sounds, a symphony of found sounds that wrap around you, crescendos with this house on fire at the end. So it’s this really intense over-saturation of the familiar which just builds. And for me, the really important thing is the physicality. I grew up with friends who were into bass. The physicality of a bass concert was something I loved. The fact that you could control the air pressure in a room. That total physicality is something I try to replicate in my work. That feeling in your chest. It should be more than just watching something-you can physically experience it as well. It’s about the physicality of sound.
How do you expect people to react to the work?
Most people who are seeing the work for the first time think it’s somehow digital. The main question asked is: “Is it real?” They don’t immediately realize that we’ve actually gone and done this to these houses. The exhibition’s set up so you see the film, then you move into the second room and see the photographs. The great idea about that is that you come to realize that this is something that really happened. I would get in a car in Brooklyn and drive out through Jersey and up to Ohio or Detroit or down to Birmingham. If you see a red “X” on a house, I stood there and painted that. This isn’t some special fake trick. It’s real art, real intervention taken onto these houses.
Surely some technology played a role in the production of SUBURBAN?
I couldn’t make this work ten years ago. Back then, I would’ve had to shoot on 35mm or digital, and I wouldn’t have been able to play with those cinematic tropes in a really sincere way. You’d be fighting to get that production value. Now a visual artist can affordably make this work. It’s really incredible to have those tools. The question is, once you have that technology, what are you doing with it? Everything’s a lot more accessible, but that also means you have to make smarter decisions. You can make something that looks good; but does it hold weight or is it something that’s going to be sucked in and viewed online for one minute, then disappear the next? Or will it stay with people?
Thanks, Ian. Best of luck with your future work.