Unexpected Combinations. Interview with Artist Brad Troemel

Brad Troemel Interview
Brad Troemel, Security Sliding Frame and Silk Road Mushrooms (Lemon), 2016

Unexpected Combinations

Interview with Artist Brad Troemel

Brad Troemel is an artist, writer, and blogger. Together with Lauren Christiansen he started the Tumblr blog The Jogging in 2008, where contributors post manipulated photographs, collages, and memes, often creating unexpected connections between disparate phenomena, proposing conspiracy theories, and revealing the working mechanisms of the Internet. Troemel has utilized the online marketplace and distribution network Silk Road to buy substances that are currently illegal, and had them shipped to his home using the US public postal service: as an action against the limitations of freedom imposed by the war on drugs and government surveillance, and simply to see what the Internet is capable of doing.

Some of Troemel’s recent works include slidable frames with photographs mounted on an outer panel, hiding psilocybin mushrooms underneath, and handmade plantable papers covering up vacuum-packed goods such as precious metals or rare Beanie Babies. These items greatly fluctuate in market price, and collectors acquiring the works don’t know which of the objects described in the titles of the works are hidden under the surface. The seemingly conflicting values of the artwork itself and the materials used in it are bundled, and while both depend on developments of their respective markets, the use of one of them nullifies the other: in order to access and cash in the potentially concealed goods if their market value increases, a collector would need to destroy the artwork.

Stefanie Hessler: Tell me about the Silk Road. How did you become interested in it, and how has it found its way into your work?

Brad Troemel: I started working with the Silk Road in 2011 while I was in grad school at NYU, but I initially had no intention of turning my involvement into an art project. I’ve had an interest in these types of peer-to-peer online spaces since I was a kid downloading thousands of songs at a time. I remember being excited by the idea that downloading free music on Napster or Kazaa was “bad,” but that was only a minor motivation compared to the excitement I felt when listening to the new types of music I would never have had access to if it weren’t for those networks. It wasn’t only that I could’ve never afforded to buy all of those albums, it’s that I would never have had access to a Suicide or Ramones album where I lived. I doubt I would’ve made art if I hadn’t had the chance to expose myself to punk and krautrock in high school. My family was later sued by the RIAA (Recording Industry Artists of America) as part of a series of widely publicized cases brought against sacrificial lambs for doing something (downloading music) that went on to become a generational norm.

Like a moth to the flame when I heard about the Silk Road I realized it offered the same potential Napster once did – unfettered access to goods I otherwise couldn’t experience. In his 1991 book Temporary Autonomous Zones, Hakim Bey asked “Where are my turnips?” as a lead in for describing an issue with the Internet’s limitations: the Internet could afford us endless information, but was not as effective in sharing goods. If the white market had this dilemma answered through eBay and Amazon, it appeared the black market had its answer in the Silk Road. Using anonymous currency on an encrypted marketplace that sent drugs to your home through a government agency: it was a genuinely novel idea at the time and I wanted to be a part of it both to get the drugs and to see if the Internet was capable of something like this. Could you finally get Hakim’s turnips, twenty years later?

SH: How did this work practically? Did it feel dangerous? Since you refer to “anarchist ontologist” writer Hakim Bey, could you tell me about the political motivation behind this work?

BT: It felt dangerous to be doing this work in 2011, mostly because there was very limited public discourse surrounding the Silk Road, which didn’t do much to alleviate the fear of being arrested. I bought small quantities of designer psychedelics at first, for three reasons. Firstly, psychedelic drugs often require very low doses often in the form of micrograms on a dry piece of paper, making their transport much more under the radar. Secondly, despite the feedback/rating system (like eBay), I didn’t yet trust the sellers as a reliable source for quality drugs.Thirdly, despite the feedback rating system, I didn’t trust the marketplace itself not to take my money leaving me with no recourse, meaning small amounts of money would be best as a way of testing its viability.

To my surprise this worked out really well. From what I could ascertain in my packages, the seller bios, and marketplace message boards, the people using the Silk Road had a shared political vision and saw, to some degree, their involvement in the marketplace as a form of direct action against the war on drugs and post Patriot Act government surveillance. They wanted the marketplace to work, as a beacon of anti-government anarcho-capitalism, which meant they acted in good faith to insure what they were selling, was authentic and well made.

SH: So you continued buying and eventually the drugs made their way into your work?

BT: I continued ordering small quantities of drugs for the above reasons, organizing them envelope-to-envelope on a large table in my studio, similar to how the DEA parades confiscated drugs for press conferences. People doing a studio visit with me got a kick out of it, but it was really just to give a physical illustration to ideas about the Internet and anarchism I was studying. Over time and dozens of orders, the default envelope-by-envelope display began to encourage realizations about the packaging methods employed by the Silk Road vendors. They could be separated into two camps: on the one hand you had vendors who prized anonymity, as the market would largely necessitate. They used blank, inconspicuous envelopes, fake return addresses printed from a computer and pasted on, and often heat-sealed drugs between two pieces of blank paper. The other type of seller employed the kind of branding techniques we’re probably more familiar with from companies or even eBay sellers. Handwritten thank-you letters, logos, and propaganda leaflets. The first type of crypto-vendor didn’t want to be known, the second libertine type wanted name recognition so you’d buy from them again.

SH: Are there aesthetic considerations connected to this in addition to the political motivations?

BT: Once I realized there were values embodied in the aesthetics of these vendors, it started making more sense to convert my participation in this marketplace into art. Much art that tempts arrest tends to exhaust its freedom up to the point of being caught, at which point the act of being apprehended sheds light on the limitations of freedom we have (I’m thinking of someone like Ann Liv Young or Ai Wei Wei). I just wanted to get away with it, to never be caught, to prove the transactions could be made. I wanted to handle these materials in public as an opportunity to celebrate the temporary freedom to exist outside of government surveillance, and to recoup these efforts by financing them through the art market. This marriage was then doubled in using art historical genres like minimalism to guise the more anonymous materials and pop or appropriation work to further manipulate the more branded packaging materials.

SH: This reminds me of twentieth-century Mail Art. The movement began with Fluxus in the 1950s and 1960s. Artists were sending small-scale works, such as drawings or texts, to each other using public mail services. In countries such as Brazil, artists like Paulo Bruscky began sending correspondence to their peers abroad in the 1970s, as an act of resistance against the military dictatorship. Mail Art allowed them to communicate beyond borders and censorship with other artists in places like the Soviet Union, where they were facing similar constraints. And by sending their art through the official postal services, they slipped their critique back into the system. I am curious about your slidable frames that reveal mushrooms behind a first layer of photographic prints. They operate in a logic that is similar to that of the Silk Road traders who were using the US public postal service to transport drugs, the official way so to speak, because the state agency could not open parcels without a warrant.Where did the idea of hiding in plain sight come from?

BT: I acquired the idea for a sliding security frame from Pinterest, a website that caters to middle-American craft projects and home improvement mood boards. The drugs grown are actually a remnant from a series of psilocybin spore prints I purchased from the Silk Road back in 2012, and have been growing strains of ever since.

SH: Hiding valuable goods and subversive artifacts behind picture frames is an established practice, be it money, drugs, or forbidden texts. Like drugs sent through the Silk Road, these goods are obscured only by a thin visible layer, an envelope or a photographic print, while they are actually present right under one’s nose. Your plantable papers work similarly; they conceal vacuum-packed goods like tulips, Beanie Babies, and currencies under a thin surface. All of these items have fluctuated in value and been objects of speculation. Tell me more about this.

BT: In 2012 I started an Etsy store alongside the work I was doing with the Silk Road. I sold sculptural combinations of pre-existing goods, some of which were purely irreverent and made to make light of Etsy’s strict handmade and vintage policy, for instance a Doritos Loco tacos bag locked shut. Other works I was showing on the store were made as an accelerated vision of the types of values in materials Etsy buyers and sellers tend to cherish: handcrafted labor, rustic recycled goods, organic, or fair trade beginnings – vague conceptions of art history rendered as design details.

I was interested in compounding these different forms of value relative to the price they were offered for, and to use text descriptions as a way of highlighting the many ways in which an item could conceptually validate its higher price. Because buyers continued to complain about their Doritos tacos falling out of the corners of oil-soaked brown envelopes, I started vacuum sealing the smaller (usually food-based) Etsy products before sending them, to give them a chance to exist at least for a week or two after the buyer received them. I became interested in how this vacuum sealing process could aid my other category of “values driven” Etsy works as well, and I proceeded to vacuum seal hot button art theory books as a background for organic grains, other people’s art, precious metals, and some physical Bitcoins I learned about through the Silk Road.

Usually when someone asked to exhibit work from the Etsy store I would suggest they just buy the work so they could own it afterwards. Since most prices were below $60. This seemed like a reasonable request considering shipping back and forward would probably equal the price of the work anyway. The series of physical Bitcoins I vacuum-sealed against a series of Semiotexte books were a little more expensive, so when a gallery asked to exhibit and sell them we did it the traditional way. Four of the five pieces ended up selling for a grand total of $4,000–5,000. This was when 1 BTC was equivalent to $250, and my prices for the BTC/Semiotexte pieces were based on this rate. About a month after they were purchased, Bitcoin peaked, reaching $1200+, meaning the 27 Bitcoins contained in the pieces I sold were now worth around $35,000 at face value. While I had based this work on the materiality of conflicting values in the abstract sense, I hadn’t anticipated the potential for the works’ value to increase so drastically as a financial instrument. The vacuum-sealed bag now seemed to serve a different purpose than merely compacting time and space. It now seemed to beckon to be cut open, for the individual parts it contained to be dissected and removed, to be cashed in.

SH: In an article from 2009, cultural and music critic Diedrich Diederichsen said that only the market can compare such disparate goods as symphonies and pork halves. Works of art are usually sold at prices that do not represent the exchange value of the materials used in their production. In your work you conflate both, the use value of the materials and their exchange value, yet collectors do not necessarily know what is hidden under the surface of the works they acquire.

BT: In my current work I’ve been continuing this tradition of adding bundled values to works, though instead of containing these investments in a clear vacuum sealed bag, I created a positive cast of them in plastic and filled that cast with another material – maybe handmade plantable paper, maybe a bath bomb, maybe soap – and used that material as a mask to conceal whether or not the investment is resting behind the work’s front. This works in a kind of lottery fashion, where some of the works are solely the material and others contain the goods that their surface describes, be it rare Beanie Babies, precious metals, or early American coins.

SH: Speaking about handmade plantable papers, can you tell me more about the background of producing these papers yourself?

BT: The new work I debuted at Loyal Gallery in Stockholm in February 2016, for instance, features handmade plantable paper with a survival pack of heirloom seeds in each. My main reference points for the exhibition 7 Great Ideas for Your Home are Pinterest tutorials and survivalism. Pinterest is an idea cataloging social network that encourages participants to “go out and do that thing,” as CEO Ben Silberman says. Pinterest is the place where people become inspired and Etsy is the place they go to get hired. The two sites are prime grounds for maker culture, which is a technology-based extension of DIY culture that revels in the creation of new devices as well as tinkering with existing ones. Heard of steampunk? It’s like that but more general. Typical interests enjoyed by the maker culture include engineering-oriented pursuits such as electronics, robotics, 3-D printing, and the use of CNC tools, as well as more traditional activities such as metalworking, woodworking, and, mainly, its predecessors, the traditional arts and crafts. Maker culture stresses a cut-and-paste approach to standardized hobbyist technologies, and encourages cookbook re-use of designs published on websites like Pinterest. In maker culture there is a strong focus on using and learning practical skills and applying them to reference designs.

SH: How do you situate this resurgence of maker culture happening today?

BT: The resurgence of maker culture feels analogous to buyer demands that are increasingly anti-mass produced, anti-GMO, anti-outsourced, etc. Farm to table consumption implies an intimate relationship between the buyer, the good, and its maker. Advertising becomes more important than ever, as companies now dedicate themselves to educating their viewers across multiple media platforms about the ethics they stand by. Who made it, what they used, why they do it, where they live. Against the anonymizing effects of globalized capitalism, these demands reflect a desire to be made aware of every actor in the network of production and to be as informed as possible when it comes to the products their bodies are in closest proximity to – principally food, clothing, and hygiene supplies. Farm to table consumption implies a tightening of the number of people in a supply chain that prefigures a logical extreme: doing it yourself. There is no more intimate a relationship between buyer and seller, producer and consumer, than to merge those two roles into one. Ethical concerns about where a product comes from, how it was made, and how the workers were treated are made self-apparent when you yourself are the worker.

SH: So the bundled values in your works find an equivalent in the bundled proximity or identicalness of producer and consumer. You spoke about Pinterest, what about survivalism?

BT: If Pinterested maker culture presents us with the positive liberty to change the world, then survivalism is the expression of negative liberty from immanent societal collapse rooted in mistrust of the social contract. Survivalism is a movement of individuals or groups (called survivalists or preppers) who are actively preparing for emergencies, including possible disruptions in social or political order, on scales from local to international. Survivalists often acquire emergency medical and self-defense training, stockpile food and water, prepare to become self-sufficient, and build structures (for example survival retreats or underground shelters) that may help them survive a catastrophe. The idealistic hope for making a healthier world together and the nihilistic paranoia that the world will end at any second once again arrive at the same practical conclusion: doing it yourself.

Innovatively promoting the interaction between artists and audience, Stefanie Hessler is a dedicated curator involved in several interesting projects and the founder of the progressive art space Andquestionmark in Stockholm.