From an inflatable rat spouting break-up musings, to an array of subversive ‘self-portraits’ that portray members of the notoriously anonymous artist collective with pasted cigarette butts protruding from the lips, the Bruce High Quality Foundation’s retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum (which they assure us contains less than 17,000 works) is a cacophonous display of the group’s dominant personality trait: indignant defiance.
The group initially formed in 2004 to commemorate Bruce High Quality, a fictitious artist who died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and since then the mischievously faceless, Brooklyn-based organization has comprised a rotating cast of artists working under the guise and public persona of “Bruce.” BHQF’s work deflates everything from high art to education and over the years The Bruces, as they are collectively known, have cultivated a high-profile reputation that has as much to do with their artistic merits and successes as their authority-challenging antics.
One of their first successes was the 2005 work The Gate: Not the Idea of the Thing But the Thing Itself. That same year a moon-like version of Central Park was set to orbit around Manhattan in a major public art commission from Robert Smithson called Floating Island, which was completed years after his death. BHQF decided to trail Floating Island with their own boat wearing a bright orange gate, mimicking the recently completed Gates Project by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Since the plants from Floating Island were to be planted in Central Park, and the Gates Project resided there, BHQF connected the two to create an extra-institutional intervention. The reactions to this intervention varied, however the issues raised included the typical Bruce-fashioned ones—questioning the power of the institutional art monarchs, highlighting the unavoidable referential manner of all art, and emphasizing the unfortunate but unavoidable role of cold, hard cash in the creative process.
Continuing to question art and its environment, in the winter of 2007, The Bruces produced their rendition of Cats on Broadway (above), a performance that utilized all volunteers to “satiriz[e] both the utopian reform schemes and self-pitying nihilism often associated with the artists responsible for gentrification’s ’first wave.’” Cats on Broadway took the play typically performed under the bright lights of Broadway in Manhattan to the less-bright Broadway in Brooklyn, the dividing street between the early-gentrification Bed-Stuy and Bushwick neighborhoods. The show consisted of a series of vignettes, with musical accompaniment to form the viewer’s perception of the characters, who ranged from art students to prostitutes. The various emotions provoked—from nostalgia to rage—speak to contextualization’s power to sway the perception of character, be it via music or a neighborhood.
In 2010, The Whitney Biennial featured the BHQF piece titled We Like America and America Likes Us. However, The Bruces, never ones to leave art authority unchallenged, set up their own exhibition downtown in SoHo titled The Brucennial featuring “420 artists from 911 countries working in 666 discrete disciplines” as a reaction to 2010’s Whitney Biennial, which that year featured fewer artists, and fewer less established artists, than ever before. Their aim was to create a show structured in reverse of most museum exhibitions, with no curation (artists were chosen via word-of-mouth) and the ability to sell work at the show. The theme of the exhibit was “Miseducation” because, as one Bruce explained to The New York Times, “we wanted a theme that was general enough to include almost anything.”
Despite (or perhaps in spiteful reaction to) rumors of BHQF’s affiliation with Cooper Union, BHQF also runs a free art school: The Bruce High Quality Foundation University. BHQFU offers classes ranging from Advanced Drawing, a class title that can be found in any art school’s catalog, to You Watching Me Google You, a lecture on privacy and the “line between documentation and surveillance.” This animosity towards the current structure of art schooling echoes in their mission statement where they claim to be “fostering an alternative to everything,” and in the current retrospective at The Brooklyn Museum, where an installation of multiple chalkboards covered in somewhat eerily incoherent scrawls (one titled “Eddie Need Help”) continues this theme.
BHQF answered a few questions for us about their work featured in Ode to Joy, 2001-2013, on display at the Brooklyn Museum until September 22.
The Creators Project: One of the pieces that I found striking was Stations of the Cross, because I remember the oversaturation of those images for months after 9/11, to the point where I became somehow desensitized to their severity. Your Foundation was created to commemorate the death of Bruce High Quality, who died on 9/11. Can you tell us a bit about what happened that day in terms of the foundation, and what it indicates ‘personally’ (to your foundation) and culturally.
BHQF: On September 11th we decided to stop forgetting, to start remembering. And so we needed something to remember, so we created Bruce High Quality. His memory would be whatever we felt it needed to be. He’d be ridiculous so we’d never forget to laugh, so we’d never forget that being serious didn’t require being solemn. He’d be outsized and overconfident so we’d never forget the ludicrousness of artistic ambition. And he’d be dead so we’d never have to bother with the truth getting in the way of a good story.
In your piece, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, you juxtapose self-portraits, politicians, optimistic truisms, and talk of condoms. Tell us a bit about the inspiration behind this piece, and the process of creating it.
It’s a piece about protection. About feeling safe inside our culture, our language, our self-image. Or not feeling safe. Or feeling like everything that’s solid melts into air. And maybe that’s more comforting. But that doesn’t mean give up.
Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 2009. Photocopier and four-minute looping video.
One of the works in your Brooklyn Museum retrospective is Apology, where you appropriate the union’s inflatable rat who seems to be sitting in the gallery and rambling to an ex-lover. Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind that?
Apology is about mourning the state of organized labor in the United States. We actually made a version of this piece just a few months before the Zuccotti Park actions of Occupy Wall Street, but it could have easily been in response to the same sentiment. OWS didn’t make us feel hopeful as it did many. It made us sad that such a powerful force in the development of our democracy, organized labor, was no longer able to lead the way. So Apology isn’t necessarily an apology. It’s that fruitless accounting that one does when a relationship is over. Where did I go wrong? Not that it matters. It never matters.
Thank You New York, a self-portrait of The Bruces.
In Vogue’s article, when they asked about your association with Cooper Union you stated, ”It’s a filthy lie. We have no relationship with any school that thinks going into debt is a good way to learn to be an artist. It’s just stupid.” For artists who aren’t looking to borrow obscene amounts of money from Sallie Mae, do you have any advice?
Yes. Come to BHQFU.
In that same article, you address the challenges of working as an entity. Can you tell us about the process of collectively contributing to one identity?
It’s like choosing where to go on a family vacation. Whether it’s Greece or Kansas or Disney World, we’re just hoping to make it out alive.
Originally Published at Vice/The Creators Project