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Faculty Spotlight: Adam Brooks + Mathew Wilson

By Tim Shaunnessey (’13)

Columbia Art + Design instructors and British expatriates Mathew Wilson and Adam Brooks are Industry of the Ordinary, a decade-old artistic collaboration that employs sculpture, text, photography, video, sound, and performance. They aspire to reframe standard elements of everyday living, hoping to provide their audience a different perspective on the facets of day-to-day life.  Their work has been exhibited across the country.

Here, the pair discusses the genesis and driving inspiration of their collaboration, their recent six-month mid-career survey at the Chicago Cultural Center, and why they’ll never run out of material.

A Conversation with Industry of the Ordinary

Tim Shaunnessey: Tell me a little bit about your backgrounds.

Mathew Wilson: I've been working and teaching in Chicago for almost 20 years. I was a performance artist for many years, and I've been teaching at Columbia since '96. I was brought in to teach performance art, but I also teach other things, like new media. The kind of work we make, we tend to teach.

Adam Brooks: I've been in Chicago even longer than Mat, about 25 years. I've been teaching at Columbia since '99, and again I teach mostly what our practice centers on, as well as teaching senior students and preparing them for their BFA show. We've been working together since 2003. 

We have a complementary practice, I think, because Mat comes from a more purely performative standpoint, a lot of which had always taken place in public. My practice was also publicly sited to a large degree, but was more static and sculpturally based and text-based. We've both really combined both our histories and our interests under the umbrella of Industry of the Ordinary.

 
Guns and Butter (Industry of the Ordinary, with the help of an associate, 
acquire a firearm that is temporarily decommissioned and embed it in butter. 
Heaters are placed under the rifle so that it will be re-revealed over time), 2013
Photo credit: Shannon O'Brien
TS: What was the catalyst for you two to start working together?

MW: We knew each other's reputation before we met, and we had a series of bizarre meetings over the years before Adam started teaching at Columbia. I was still at that point working with somebody else. I've always collaborated, that's the way I like to work, through somebody else. That was coming to an end, and as it did, I started thinking about who I might work with in the future. In time the answer to that was fairly obvious. If Adam was interested, we had a lot in common.

TS:
Was your collaboration always Industry of the Ordinary?

AB: It took a year before we actually formalized it under that title. We worked for a year towards the idea of how we were going to function. The name—after much deliberation—in essence frames our practice as we continue to work, 10 years later.

TS: How hard has it been to continue working in those parameters over 10 years?

MW: It's a very broad set of parameters, and that was intentional. We didn't want to restrict where the project may take us by a poorly chosen name. But we also wanted to pick a name that we would hope would be memorable. Industry of the Ordinary seemed to resonate for both of us, it didn't restrict us, but it did give us some sense of forward movement as a collaborative team.

TS: How would you explain Industry of the Ordinary to the average person?

AB: Essentially we're interested in examining things that we draw from the larger world and repositioning them in a way that we hope will elicit a reconsideration of those subjects on the part of the viewer. We make no claims for what we do, but we would hope that people will take the project as a whole.

A lot of people—particularly those who are not in the art world and not conversant necessarily with performance or conceptually based work—often look askance at what we're doing and question whether it's even art, which is fine with us. We have no problem with people characterizing what we're doing as questionably art. At the beginning of the show, the Wall Street Journal wrote a long article about what we've been doing based entirely on the press release for the show. [They] hadn't seen the show; the show hadn't even opened yet.

MW: Everything around me, everything around us is potential subject matter. Our target audience is everyone. We don't feel that the audience that is typically found in front of an artwork is necessarily the only audience that would be provoked by an artwork and find it useful.

AB:
Or in fact even the primary audience. We're interested in moving our activities beyond the perceived-as-somewhat-elitist audience that constitutes the art world.
Match of the Day II (Industry of the Ordinary, as Old God and Young God,
play table football, first to 100 goals, on the promontory point by
North Avenue beach in Chicago), 2005 Color photograph
Photography credit: Greg Stimac
TS: Can you tell me about the exhibit at the Cultural Center?

AB: We set out two and a half years ago to mount a show that—and we were very adamant on this point—was not going to be a traditional object-based retrospective. We wanted it to be active. We were also charged to rebrand the exhibition program at the Cultural Center, which had been going through some difficulties as far as identity went in the preceding few years.

We essentially threw everything we were interested in and more into the planning and execution of the show. Primary amongst that was drawing in as many people in the Chicago creative community as possible. We have actually directly and indirectly worked with over 400 people over the course of six months. There have been activities, performances, and other kinds of programming throughout the six months.

MW: To try and articulate the last six months and the wide range of activities that have taken place in that space...we could probably spend two hours, and then another two hours, and it would be a completely different story. One of the things we've always wanted to do is reposition performance art within Chicago as a broader range of activities than were perhaps represented 20 years ago. To do that, we've explored our own lives and worlds, and a range of different strategies for making performance art. But we've  collaborated with dozens of people to really address what I think is as comprehensive an articulation of the potentialities of performance art that could be undertaken by two people in six months. In that sense, we do feel that alone has been achieved, we hope.

TS: You've both mentioned the repositioning of art or repositioning "things," and in doing so, making art. What drives you to pursue that goal?

MW: Disappointment in the alternatives. When you make art you have to feel at some level that there's something unmade that needs to be made and you're in a good position to make that thing. When we look around, we feel that there are gaps in artistic output that a piece of artwork or a gesture could be fitted in to. We're pretty sure that what we've done in Chicago is not redundant.

Marc Hauser (from the Industry of the Ordinary
Portrait Project at the Chicago Cultural Center)
Portrait of Ordinary Guys,
2011 Black and white photograph
TS: I'm a musician, and I always find myself saying, "Eventually I'm going to run out of chords, eventually I'm going to run out of melodies." Is that what you're talking about?

AB: For us, we'll never run out of material, because of the way that the world develops. The whole notion of social media and the changing way that people communicate has become one of our foci of the last few years, and we've incorporated a lot of those things  directly into the way that we make work because we're fascinated by the changing dynamics of the culture and the way that people relate to each other. We don't anticipate that's ever going to run out. Some people may say that's not even appropriate material for art making.

MW: And some people do say that, and they always will say that.

TS: What's the future of Industry of the Ordinary?

MW: As we've said more than once, it'll end at some point, either by one of us dying, or both of us dying simultaneously...which is entirely possible.

AB: Or a career-ending idea that is so intolerable to everyone that it destroys our reputations and careers.

Learn more at industryoftheordinary.com. Read a review of Industry of the Ordinary's Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.

Know an interesting faculty or staff member who should be featured right here? Let us know at news@colum.edu, or let us get to know you!