It was late 2012 when I first saw the work of Billy Friebele at the Hamiltonian Gallery in Washington, DC. A pen hovered above a pedestal, tethered to a cluster of Mylar balloons floating above it. The pen bobbed and bounced across the surface of a piece of paper attached to the pedestal beneath. As I approached the pedestal, a motion sensor triggered a fan to turned on, firing a gust of air toward the balloons, causing the pen to skitter wildly across the surface of the paper, where it reached the end of its tether, landed, and scribbled the limit of its orbit on the page. While the finished piece for purchase was a drawing, it’s difficult to peg Friebele as a drawer. This is especially so, given the interactive nature behind the creation of his drawings, and the construction of the objects and machines that draw them. Since 2012, Frieble has been a Hamiltonian Fellow, a kind-of “post-doc” program for select emerging artists in DC, created by physicist Paul So in 2007. As the summer winds down, so to does his last solo exhibition as a fellow in the program, where he is exhibiting a motion-activated drumming robot that captured people’s interaction with the machine using sonar. We took a few moments to talk about his creative arc since 2009, his process, and his penchant to tinker.
JA: Over the last five years, there is a clear thread of mapping within your drawings.
Billy Friebele: It starts first with working in a public space: in making works in the infrastructure of the city. That extends into how the city is organized and the hierarchy of the city. I think we are all interested in our own pathways through the city, but it is interesting to see what other people are doing. So with the map: what are the rhythms and flow that other people generate when moving through the space. In terms of thinking about drawing I am more interested in extending the way I think about drawing. So, a way of extending beyond that is thinking of drawing as a noun and drawing as a verb (the object as distinct from the process).
JA: What I’ve found interesting in the drawings is that you use so many other things to create them: balloons or propellers and wind, GPS, sonar, people. Really interesting capture strategies.
BF: Someone said what I make is a recording process. I am trying to see things that I can’t see. So, creating kinetic sculptures that are inherently reactive has been an interest. Creating flexible objects that contort with the wind, like the balloons. Drawing is just a way of making invisible things visible. And each time I do that it opens up more questions, which is why I move through various materials. Each tool opens up a new question—how can I refine the way that tool reacts. Sonar was interesting because I had been using these binary processes to map, and I wanted something that was more fluid.
JA: Clearly, there is an element in most of your works that is tinkered, or hacked. Is that a starting point or an ending point behind the ideas in your work?
BF: Certainly a starting point. What I’ve been thinking about lately is each object and machine has its own algorithm: sense of motion: way it would draw. So, when you collage those inherent properties… it’s a starting point to investigate what each machine can do. The ending point for me is what those things produce. In many cases it’s a drawing on paper, or a print, and the machine is hacked together to absorb some flow, and translate it into another form. So each machine is there as a form of translation.
JA: There is an anti-aesthetic to your works: a seemingly limited effort to disguise how it is made. What’s the intention for that?
BF: I’m interested in the simple hack—the limited means it takes to get something to happen, whether that is zip ties or fishing supplies. The other part of the Anti-aesthetic is putting the objects out on street corners or in public spaces. I want them to camouflage with their environment, to looking like things that might be found on the streets. It’s something I have been asking myself: how slick does this work need to become? I don’t think that kind of finished veneer is necessary. It’s more about utility than surfaces.
JA: Where does the art exist in the work: with the machine or sculpture making the work, with the final output, or with the marvel at the process and the idea?
BF: The work exists in the connection between all of those things. Clearly it is an effort to translate—making a static form from something that is dynamic. The other side is a lot of the works are in motion for the viewer in the gallery. So the heart of the work is watching the piece change or draw or perform some action. But there’s some slippage between the action and the record, and you lose some of that dynamic in the process.
JA: Having seen your wind-drawing machine in action, it tends to be a very popular work with young and old, artists and non-artists. It’s simple, imaginative, and accessible: something that anyone can do, but everyone seems to respect that it was done (rather than dismiss it like Pollock). Is there some sort of inner idea that, if you can reveal how one of these machines is made—if you can reveal the structure of a work—that it liberates any non-artist into realizing an artistic potential?
BF: It goes back to that idea of the simple. I’m interested in the potential that objects around us have, and in that sense reality does not have to be what we take it to be. Mundane objects can be used in strange ways. And I realize it follows in the tradition of readymades—Duchamp. I can’t avoid that reference in the work. But at the same time, I am interested in downplaying my role as innovator. That is one thing that is going on in digital art. So many people are helping each other and offering their code to help others. There is a shift in innovation where we can share our knowledge really easily. So, since I create something with these materials, I don’t feel the need to obfuscate the materials to make them more magic.
JA: The drumming machine installed at Hamiltonian was not your first drumming machine. Tell me about the Memory Drum (that use a Kymograph).
JA: How did the Memory Drum project come about?
BF: I was a musician before I was an artist. And some of those experiences of playing music have bled into my work: collaboration, and interest in temporal events. So, to go back to that Kymograph piece, it was one of those times I had this object in my studio for a number of years and wasn’t really sure what to do with it. And I combined it with other things in my studio. I had this drum. So, it was with an idea of memory as a machine that conjures up images, but also changes how we remember them: I wanted to create this machine that makes a sound but also distorts an image as it is creating.
Also, being a part of the Hamiltonian Fellowship, I’ve been encouraged by other artists and the curatorial team to investigate music more. That’s why it appeared in my recent exhibition. I thought it would be interesting to combine sonar with music, since it would take an ultrasonic frequency and turn it into a low frequency we can actually hear. So, I thought that could translate into how Duke Ellington interpreted the city around him. Duke observed flows and characteristics of the city with his senses and used these impressions as material. Creation entails an input and an output of sensorial information. Both are ways of externalizing mental processes. One being the act of remembering and the other being the act of composing music based on what you see in your surroundings, or translating your surroundings into music.
JA: You’ve mentioned that your recent exhibition, U Street Chromatic (for Duke), is transitional. In what way?
BF: Certainly the technology, because I just learned how to use Arduinos and Processing. And once I learn a new technique I ask myself if what I am making is innovative or part of the logic of the object. Where does the tool’s influence end and where does the creator’s input take over?
The other aspect is this homage to Ellington, using his story and connection to DC as a framework to make decisions about the work: where to put the machine, the rhythms to create, how it envisions those rhythms. So that is what makes it transitional: Lots of new content and new tools. Maybe more time with those tools will lead in different directions.