Synaptic Feedback:  

The Art of Brett Williams

JOE KOHLBURN- October 12, 2018

There’s something profoundly apropos about the descent into partial darkness that precedes my encounter with Brett Williams’ work. His creations are born in a basement studio at The Luminary, an artspace on St. Louis’ variously-lauded Cherokee Street. Williams is a St. Louis mainstay whose work has long darkened the door of local canon. His creations punctuate a critique on the dysfunction of artworld processes: i.e. slow progression and frustration interspersed with all-too-brief flashes of critical detection and cohesion. Like other artists from the cradle of the new civil rights movement, his production centers on his experiences as a working creative, arts organizer, activist, and advocate. A thorough reading of his oeuvre must include his subtextual critique of cultural inertia, in addition to his frustration with the ostensible futility of recursive creative processes. As Williams puts it,” With every iteration, I get closer to lasting change... [W]hether I’m making art, protesting in the streets against injustice, or labor organizing.”

Formally, Williams’ sculptures and sound installations are DIY mechanical constructions. As Brett and I sit down to chat, his work Artifact/Undercard rests against the far wall. The piece consists of an unvarnished wood pedestal, on top of which rests a small wooden box concealing a motor attached to a repurposed rotisserie skewer. The construction is aimed skyward, and as the motor turns, the steel protuberance suspends a cork plate and a plaster form that resembles either an iceberg or a cake. While the “iceberg” superstructure rotates, an attached jinglebell languidly objects to the exertion. When installed, the apparatus features a projection of the same event, a little out of time with the sculpture upon which it is screened. The effect compels one to gaze, if only for a moment, over the precipice: It begs for rumination. The artist describes this work and others like it as an ‘analog prosthetic going back to the pre-digital automaton Rock-afire Explosion, or the weird shit Disney had [in their theme parks].’ Williams situates his work somewhere between mere mechanical/robotic puppets with roots in such 18th-century works as Jacques de Vaucanson’s Flute Player or Canard Digérateur, and more contemporary artificial intelligence experiments like Google’s DeepDream.

More than this, Williams’ works are manifestations of idiosyncratic metaphor, bridging the gap between autonomous rube-goldberg-machines and poignant commentaries on the realities of being an artist, and more allegorically to the human experience on psychological, ontological, and existential levels.  These manifestations begin as mechanical investigations. Williams’ “automatons” take on additional significance as the artist applies labor to their realization. In doing so, he assigns to his creations a dual role: First as kinetic fetish, these curiosities serve as sculptural exorcisms for the artist’s individual traumatic experiences;  and then as interstitial prostheses, they stand in for the space between intentional or superfluous physical and acoustic flourishes of production and the unrealized corpus of what these structures indicate. His work represents a buffer between the realized and the unrealized. Artifact/Undercard is a prime example of this gesture. The cork plate and iceberg form rest on negative space, allowing the viewer some “room” to consider the disconnect between meaning,  represented by the tip of the “iceberg” here, and intention, i.e. the motor that drives the process. Within this gap, the artist builds his visual vocabulary, perpetually tinkering with both the the object and his emotional and intellectual connection to its implicit metaphor. This liminal space is the locus of boredom, failure, and anxiety, but also of curiosity, inquiry, and discovery.

Delayed Synaptic is a specific allegory for the progression of ALS in the artist’s father, a veteran of the war in Vietnam, whose brain was permanently damaged by the herbicide Agent Orange. This kinetic sound-sculpture uses two servo motors to strike adjacent metal tubes, and is regulated by a servo controller that delays the repeating action, thereby producing a “glitch” in the closed system. The sculpture’s interrupted process is analogous to that of a broken synapse, or neurochemical connection in the brain that enables deliberate thought and action. The repercussions of this break reverberate through real space in the form of sound, but also through the life of the artist as he continues to address the intergenerational trauma of his father’s crucible.

Williams’ work, in sum, plays on the tension between experience and objective reality, as his allegorical devices snatch ecstatic moments of meaning from the grind of hourly toil, either his own or those of the apparatus itself. In this way, Williams’ work may be said to be a metaphor for process, whereby the object or the artist himself produces kinetic articulations, flailing fruitlessly until he is temporarily validated through the viewer’s response, and then returns to his recursive exercise.  Williams asks the observer to pause and consider both the superficial futility in the repetitive motions of his devices, and the implied question that lingers just beyond the viewer’s perception. His automatons are functional vessels that accept meaning from the artist, the viewer, and the critic, and transform that meaning back into a question, completing the circuit, and thereby mimicking the perpetual extension of the artist’s actions, voice, and presence back into communal space.

1 The Luminary is organized and operated by the McAnallys (Brea and James), who like Williams, are also mainstays of the St. Louis artscene. Thanks to James for pointing out the relationship between feelings of futility vis-a-vis community engagement and artistic process.

Joe Kohlburn is an art-historian, arts-organizer, and librarian. Joe is interested in the means by which art investigates and challenges the social, political, and ethical underpinnings of culture, in artists as complete beings, and in the communicative and occult mechanisms of creative practice. He is co-creator of Critical Conversations, and host of the 5 Questions Podcast, both Critical Mass for the Visual Arts programs.