One step in the door and Justin Broadbent's studio looks like an rainbow aerosol tornado just exploded onto a miscellaneous collection of found wood, cardboard lightning bolts, vintage cat paintings and bright neon tape. The award-winning Toronto-based artist, also known as Keith Dungeon dabbles in as many mediums as possible and has shot/filmed/art-directed/collaborated for the likes of Metric and the Art Gallery of Ontario, to name just two because the list is extensive (and his website hasn't been updated since 2009). We sat down with him and photographer SoTeeOh to discuss everything from creative thinking to embracing mistakes to putting memes in the MoMa and what 'Art' is in the first place.
How do you respond when people ask you "what you do?"
If I'm crossing the US border, I say I’m a graphic designer because if you say artist it can be a disaster. (laughs) But in most walks of my life I am simply an artist. It sort of encompasses everything that I’m pursuing. I work in a bunch of different mediums, so sometimes I say "multi-disciplinary artist". In a way, I think that everyone is an artist, which might sound weird, but being artistic for me is just a form of creative thinking. When people ask me what kind of art I create, sometimes I like to mess with their expectations by saying I make music videos (which I do)… and they’re like "that’s art?" and I'm like "yep!"
It’s funny how the "what do you do" question is becoming more and more irrelevant with people gravitating towards a more open freelance lifestyle.
I think technology is allowing us to do things so rapidly that we have no choice but to adapt. You still have traditional artists, painters, photographers… but having a phone in our hands at all times is changing the way we look at everything. Whether it’s taking photos or communication or reading, we’re in a constant mode of creation. Personally, I find that my body and creativity react to my current surroundings. So when I’m working on a bunch of different projects, they all kind of point to a similar creative vision.
If you create an art piece and you take a photo of it, it suddenly becomes something else. If you post that photo for others (say on Instagram), it again becomes something else. We’re discovering new ways of associating ourselves with art.
Totally. My Instagram feed is an insane collection of non-linear images from multiple sources. Some people might not see that as art but I definitely think it’s a form of creative thinking or curation. Though it's most often not my work that I post, it has all of the elements that I look for when I’m creating something. My friends and I often have lengthy conversations about the moment(s) when something becomes an art object. Now with platforms like Instagram, that conversation is opening up even wider.
A lot of your work is centred around working with people; be it through client work or simply joining forces… what inspires you the most about collaboration?
I think it’s the challenge. There’s a guaranteed starting point, and as much as I like making my own personal work, I’m quite drawn to the idea of working with a client because there’s a problem to be solved and its my job to help them find a creative solution.
Do you find collaborative art has a more defined end goal, whereas working on your own art is more of a constant, open-ended problem?
My own work morphs with me, disappears with me, changes based on the weather, but when working with a client I am more tied to their boundaries. It’s super fun and I enjoy it because I get to experiment, try out new mediums and materials. Also I love people! Other than my partners at my studio, my work is generally pretty solitary so it’s nice to have a gig with a museum or a gallery where you’re interacting with groups of people to create something. Often with people I wouldn't normally get to hang out with.
How do you not go crazy in balancing client work and your individual work?
I try to stay chill. (laughs). I'm learning how to discipline myself with my personal work, because it can often take a back seat when client work is plentiful. 2016 is going to be a big year for me creating alot of personal artwork.
What do you think of the scene in Toronto? Where have you seen it grow, where do you see it going?
The city of Toronto is kind of always on the rise. Things move fast here, trends are quick, ideas are strong. I do sometimes find Canadians a bit reserved when it comes to art making. People don’t often push themselves as far as they could. Exploring "process" is a big part of what I’m trying to do, I tend to expose and highlight the imperfections in my work. Alot of artists tend to wait until their creation is perfect or finished to release it. But I think we would all benefit in the city if we experimented more, showed our process more, and helped build each other up.
Do you find humour plays a big role in your work?
That’s basically my artist statement. I try to find that one element that allows you to look at something for what it is and charmingly play with that. For example, I use alot of cats in my work, partially because they are cute, memey, beautiful and kitschy. But also because they act as a counter-metaphor into our obsession with work, and the preciousness of a meaning-full image. I want to put memes in the MoMA.
I feel like work that’s taken too seriously becomes bland. Visual statements end up on a simple written label and the whole concept the artist was working towards almost disappears.
I fully respect mastery, but you have to be mindful about it. Perfectly created objects that are done with so much skill run the risk of becoming one hit wonders if the artist isn’t careful about remembering their soul in it. And sometimes you can go super deep into your soul, and forget about relevance and delivering a message. I like to never use an eraser on my pencil lines because, well, I don’t like erasing, but I also want you to see the f*ck ups (and the sketch). I think it's a subtle way of showing both the soul and the planning.
What would you say are the pros and cons of self-branding as an artist?
I mean, it would be naive to say that you shouldn’t have a brand. I think that as you show people what you’re doing, you need to be aware of how you’re doing it. But of course, as with everything, you shouldn’t focus more on the branding than on the work itself. Which reminds me, I should probably update my website. I haven't touched mine in like 6 years. Oops!
It’s important to think about who’s going to see your work, but you can’t let that contaminate the process of what you’re creating, even if you are making it for others.
First and foremost, I like to make things that look good and feel right. That’s one of the driving forces for me, which I know is super subjective. But at the same time, I like to consciously make people looking at my work a little bit uncomfortable. I like to destroy or rearrange a bit of the preciousness. Maybe it's paint on the frame, or sloppy spray paint, or words over an image. It’s a little bit my version of playing with expectations and the placement of value.