An Interview with Artists Burtonwood and Holmes

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Giant tanks made from supermarket flyers, inflatable missiles, skulls covered with military symbols: The duo of Tom Burtonwood & Holly Holmes creates these and other works that combine pop culture and anti-war messages in surprising, memorable ways. Last weekend they unveiled this camouflage Santa Claus at artXposium 2.0 in West Chicago, and currently have a piece in Tel Aviv, Israel. Recently we spoke with Burtonwood about B&H's oeuvre, politics, and the industrial complexes that fuel their creativity.

CHICAGOIST: Your work connects the military-industrial complex and its product line -- tanks, missiles, etc. -- with everyday products. Can you discuss this a bit for our readers?

BURTONWOOD: As Thomas Pynchon wrote in Gravity’s Rainbow, "… the real business of the War is buying and selling. The murdering and the violence are self-policing, and can be entrusted to non-professionals … True war is a celebration of markets.”

For us, this sums it up perfectly. Take the case of the AK-47, the world's most ubiquitous assault rifle, a brand on par with Coca Cola or Nike. Here's a weapon that creates new markets by itself, simply by being an available commodity, it's a self-fulfilling business plan. The AK-47 is the most reliable assault rifle in the world: It can be field-stripped by an eight-year-old, its rounds basically liquify the body as they pass through, it's cheap, and the world is awash with them. The AK-47 spreads instability, random violence, terror and death. It creates a demand that is easily supplied by factories in Bulgaria, China and Russia, to name a few. But to the savvy investor, weapons are just another play in the global securities market, right up there with tobacco and alcohol: a sure bet in an unstable financial environment.

So, one of the key goals for us is to view warfare and war-fighting in economic terms. To present an argument that war is an inevitable function of the market, that large inventories of weapons demand conflict from time to time to replenish the arsenals. To keep up with supply.

C: You say that another theme in your work is logistics. Can you explain?

B: We love to play images of stocked grocery store shelves or shipping containers against an array of missiles in the belly of a B-52, or a stack of JDAM Smart Bombs on the deck of an aircraft carrier. After WWII, the West was faced with a dilemma --what to do with this new militarized economy? Some of the military-industrialists simply went back to making cars. Others starting supplying the cold warriors in the next big fight. But there's also an overlap that you see in the emergence of large-scale agricultural production and food logistics developed to keep up with the new suburban sprawl. The same infrastructure used to put bullets on the front line was now being repurposed to put bread on kitchen tables and televisions in living rooms. Today we have global logistics companies like Fed-Ex and DHL, whose promise of “Speed and Accuracy” is very much evolved from military organization.

Paul Virillo writes about this as "The Negative Horizon." He talks about nuclear weapons as a technology that reverses time. And this is very accurate. Even a limited nuclear exchange would most likely destroy entire cultures, erasing from history everything, at such a point time as we understand it will cease to exist.

But there’s also the issue of co-branding. You see this everyday on the TV and in the media. The Army sponsors sporting events; sporting events sell everyday products. The Army is presented as an everyday brand, and a normalized life style choice. It's about creating a warrior nation.

C: What sort of reactions does your work tend to generate from people?

B: Mostly good reactions. But then we haven't shown the work much outside of Chicago, so we're mostly preaching to the choir. We try to be somewhat balanced in terms of what we're trying to say. I guess we're fairly standard liberals at the end of the day. You're never going to see a situation in geopolitics where the need for a military becomes obsolete. Unfortunately, there are too many bullies who will prey on the defenseless.

C: Have you ever known exactly when you were helping someone else to see the connection between the war machine and their consumption habits?

B: We did show at the Union League Club back in 2005, showing a series of paintings that were less explicit than our current work, but treated the military hardware as beautiful objects -- luxury goods, so to speak. I thought the Union League Club was “union” as in “steel worker,” “carpenter,” “service worker” and so forth -- not Federal Union, bedrock of Republicanism in Chicago. So I figured we were on friendly territory. Our artists statement was pretty direct about why we were painting these tanks, and what they represented to us. But they liked the work and presented it and it was great to have the pieces seen in that context. At the opening, we talked to both current and ex servicemen about their jobs, and what they did, and what the works meant to them. At the end of the day, I think back to Studs Terkel and his book The Great War. His interviews with veterans talk about the advent of the tank as a blessing for the infantry man. Here was this moving wall of steel to advance behind. And that's the crux --there's always more than one way to see it, for the guys behind the tank, these inventions are life savers. For the civilians caught in the crossfire, well, not so much.

C: How did you come about exploring this particular subject?

B: Prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, we started making life-size paintings of the M1A2 Abrams main battle tank. We showed the first of these at the Stray Show, an art fair organized by TBA, the original producers of Art Chicago. We painted the image of the Abrams in the booth directly on the wall. It was like a stain on the proceedings: The paint ran down the walls, and the image was of this acid-green tank looming behind the art in the rest of the booth. Juxtaposed against the other booths around it, the effect was very powerful -- both in terms of the impending war and the ideas of culture as commodity and culture as weapon. We were very interested in how paintings could function as tools, and so we made smaller works on chip board, nailed them to wooden staves, and carried them aloft at an anti-war march in the Loop. The idea again was that these images of tanks represented us – “us” as in, “the West,” and as a brand, in the same way that Nike or Starbucks represent us as brands. In turn, as we choose these brands to define who we are.

Complicity in the Iraq war means that when people around the world think of America or the West, it's not just a McDonald’s Big Mac and Gap khakis, but also General Dynamics, M1A2 Abrams, and Boeing Joint Direct Attack Munition.

C: How did you get involved in the show in Tel Aviv?

B: It's not so much a show but a guerilla art action. Idiot the Wise -- AKA Inspire -- is an Israeli artist in Tel Aviv who does a lot of street art and graffiti work. He organizes a project each year called Reuse, where he invites artists who recycle visual culture literally, or appropriate mass media images in their work. For us it seemed like an ideal fit: recycling the actual junk mail itself as the materials for a large paper-cut silhouette of an Abrams tank.

Like a lot of projects we work on and are invited to participate in, this opportunity came via the internet. Which I guess is ironic, seeing as the Internet is a product if the military-(academic)-industrial complex a la Darpa. But we met Inspire on Flickr, and that's how it came together.

C: Some of your sculptures are inflatable objects -- missiles, for example. Given the political nature of these pieces, have you ever had trouble with a company that didn't want to produce your work?

B: Not as yet. It was a big concern for the piece we did at the Hyde Park Art Center recently, because we didn't really have many suppliers, and it would have been tricky if they had had a problem with the content. I think in the end they were probably confused as to what we were doing, but we were very upfront about it -- that we're artists, and it's an art work.

Right now we're working on a new series taking "ready-made" inflatables: cultural icons like Santa and Jack O’ Lanterns, and militarizing them a la Warhol with a healthy dose of camouflage painting. It's nice to reverse the process sometimes -- instead of commoditizing the war, we militarize cultural icons. But it's not such a big stretch. After all, Santa is one of the best recruiters the military has all those kids on Christmas day playing with their new guns.

We're also planning to start making our own inflatable tanks. There's a company in Russia that makes inflatable decoy T-72s, Scud Missile Launchers and Command and Control Truck Trailers. Right now, we'd settle for an Abrams M1A2, decorated in images of meat, beer, candy and condoms. So that's the next project. But the camo Santas are very popular too, and I'd like to see an installation with 10-15 of them all decked out in different camo.

C: Has the upcoming election influenced your most recent work in any way?

B: For sure. It's scary stuff. Both parties are pretty cozy with the arms industry. The Democrats are invested heavily in the labor side of things, the Republicans in the management of the industry, so I think it would be wrong to suggest one side is less of a hawk than the other. That said, the Republicans definitely seem more interested in starting wars and practicing gun boat diplomacy than the Democrats. If McCain / Palin are elected, I think we'll see not only an extended stay in Iraq but the prospects of further military action in the Middle East, and Asia will be intensified. The Democrats at least pretend to equalize defense spending with other areas of public need, like health care and culture. The Republicans, on the other hand, will happily under-fund our infrastructure to guarantee a blank check to the Pentagon.

C: Do you have any advice for other artists who might want to incorporate political issues into their work, but are apprehensive about doing so?

B: Try and get your facts straight. Don't expect to make any money from the work. Try not to worry about it too much. And don't forget that the First Amendment protects free speech.

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