Digital Alchemist Android Jones—MASS-droid

Sensible Reason’s Meghan LeClair recently visited Android Jones at the farm on which he was raised in Lyons, CO. After touring the barn/studio, they took a walk around the scenic property discussing Android’s “electric” art and his upcoming exhibition for Knew Conscious Gallery, entitled MASS-droid. The exhibition will be on view through May 5th, 2012, and a closing reception will be held on Friday, May 4th, from 8-11pm.

I’m aware that you grew up here in Colorado. Aside from the obvious natural beauty of the area, what inspired you to develop your artistic expression?

Growing up surrounded by the natural isolation of my family’s farm in Lyons, I sought refuge in drawing. Art was always a companion to myself. It fostered an environment where I could be creative and explore my own imagination. On a farm you often have to entertain yourself…….

Did you receive any formal instruction?

When I was in preschool I made a particular painting of a caterpillar and the teacher thought there was something really special about it so she told my parents….. who then enrolled me in an art class at the age of six or seven. I did take some private lessons as well after that, with a woman named Rita Irangan, and I’ve always had the opportunity to be around and be inspired by other artists.

You began your artistic career as a concept artist in the film and video game industry, working with the likes of Industrial Light and Magic and Nintendo, before founding Massive Black. How has that experience influenced your evolution as an artist?

I really consider that I began my career as a professional artist (meaning being an artist who makes money with art) on Pearl Street, here in Boulder. I was taking academic portraiture and fine art classes with a teacher named Elvie Davis, and part of our practice was to create head studies from life. I would go out to the Pearl Street Mall and draw. I started off drawing the homeless people and the runaway kids in the summer, because they were always there and had a lot of time on their hands. We had great conversations. After I felt proficient enough with that, I started drawing for tourists and people at night. That was the first time I realized I could actually support myself fully with the skills of being an artist. It was a pretty significant realization for me. I continued to do portraiture for several years, and that was how I supported myself through art school at the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, FL. Ringling is a computer animation school, and a pretty expensive school, so I took out loans to attend. Once I graduated, however, I came to understand the debt that I had accrued; I wasn’t really focusing on it during school, and afterward it hit me all at once. It became very clear to me that in order to buy my freedom back—because we live on a planet where you have to pay to live—I needed to find a way to support myself, that would also alleviate the debt as soon as soon possible. When I graduated, in 2000, a lot of the opportunities for making money were in the film and games industry. It was something that I naturally felt an affinity for.

My first internship was at ILM, and then I went on to be a lead concept artist at Nintendo for five years. After that, I started Massive Black with a group of friends of mine. I was a concept artist and worked in the industry just as long as I could stomach it. While there was something unquestionably exciting about creating worlds that millions of people would then be interacting with, I simply didn’t feel comfortable supporting what video games as a definition stood for any more.

Have you been influenced by any classical artists?

I grew up surrounding myself with and looking at classical artists. I’ve always really liked the alla prima painters. My teacher, Elvie Davis, was taught by one
of the apprentices of John Singer Sargent. Sargent was a big influence, as well as [Diego] Velázquez. I remember growing up my parents got me an M.C. Escher book, and that really blew my mind. I was a huge fan of art history and I always had ready access to art and the ability to study art. I was fascinated by the old masters… they used art and how their art evolved with different tools, or reading about what their art meant for them.

I read an article where your work was described as ‘Esoteric Surrealism’. Could you elaborate on this concept for our readers?

Well, I wouldn’t define it as such myself, but there are elements of that idea that fit within my work. I take influences from dreams and the dream realm, and these nighttime visions are a rich source of inspiration for me. I am drawn toward spiritualism – however, the word ‘esoteric’ is often pinned to new age philosophies that are not every time something I would want to identify with. To express the inexpressible or that which we feel but cannot know is how I choose to communicate with the world via the container of art.

As a visual creator, you utilize a plentitude of various mediums. What are your favored forms of creative manifestation?

In the past decade or so, I’ve invested a lot of my energy into the medium of electricity and making art with electricity: electric art. There are new creative tools coming out at an exponential rate….. tools that have evolved to meet the needs and desires of our own consciousness.

It is interesting to zoom out and place myself in a cultural context of where I am as an artist in the greater scheme of things, of how I fit into the several thousand year-old conversation of art history. The artists that I have admired the most have always had one thing in common – their art wasn’t just about themselves, but also about pushing the whole art movement forward and that way pushing humanity forward. Many of them had utilized or even invented tools that were considered advanced or unusual in their age. The paintbrush was a piece of technology at one point, and papyrus and paper. Now we live in an age with some of the most incredible breakthroughs. What digital does for me—with Wacom, and Photoshop and the various programs—is it unleashes the bandwidth of my ability to create and it’s gotten to the point now where it cycles back. At first it was truly mind boggling just having these tools where you had control over thousands of colors and shapes and textures. I could paint with photographs and all these ways of being creative that I wasn’t even aware of when I was growing up. So you have these new epochs that keep opening and opening, and what’s really exciting about it for me now, is that many of these tools have become second nature.

As an artist, I don’t take credit for the art that comes through—not that it’s beyond what one human can do but because for me it’s a distillation and an abstraction of reality that happens when the artist allows it to happen. It’s taking the infinite molecular density of everything around me — and this incredible mystery that cannot be understood — distilling it and abstracting it into a way of communicating with other people. So these tools allow me to communicate more, they allow me to communicate it faster and they allow me to communicate it in a way that I had never done before. But not only that — after years of use, when the tools start becoming second nature—they have a direct effect on the way that I imagine and my imagination itself. So now I can imagine with these tools. When I think of an idea or concept, it’s not just what I could draw with a piece of graphite, for example, but with the availability of a growing number of incredible programs I have the possibility to create something that would never have been possible with a piece of graphite. It also takes significantly less amount of time to achieve a high level of complexity through a digital medium than through a traditional medium. Oil paintings can take months…… I’d never be able to create the breadth of work that I do now. That would be humanly impossible. No matter how many colored pencils, or how much time I had, it would be impossible to recreate all of the shapes and tones and values with any traditional medium. I am infinitely grateful that we have these amazing tools and pieces of technology, and a delivery method like, the Internet, where we can share all of these things instantaneously. It’s easy to take what we have for granted after we’ve had it for a while; we get used to it. But as far as where human consciousness has been for the past 100,000 years on this planet and what we’re capable of now…it’s pretty amazing.

How do you view the role of technology in the advancement of personal expression?

I see that technology is an incredible opportunity. It comes back to when we were talking about the esoteric. There are different definitions, but for me, ‘esoteric’ in the best sense of the word alludes to the idea that everything is alive; that nature is a living organism and we’re all part of something together. There is no separateness in esoteric ideas. When it comes to alchemy it is about a fundamental integration and incorporation of everything as one larger machine. I’m obviously a big fan of technology; I don’t see it as something that is removed or alien from us. I see technology as just an extension of our own consciousness. That’s where it really came from…materials from our earth, our consciousness, language, and the reality around us. If that is the case, then we are intimately connected with it. It becomes about using the opportunity it brings. We are connected to it and disconnected from everything at the same time. We’re in the Maya of our own illusions. As an artist I feel a certain responsibility, an obligation and an opportunity to make the most that I can with the tools that I have available. Communicate what you need to, while you can. Don’t take it for granted.

I don’t see technology as something that is going to continue forever. I assume that there is probably a cap to it…but you never know how the whole story is going to go, as there are many theories about it. Really, I think it is important to recognize how amazing it is that we have it now.

What is the inspiration behind this exhibition, MASS-droid?

The bulk of the work in this particular show I created on the road. I do a lot of art touring in a vehicle that I call the “Night Rainbow.” It’s a military box truck that’s converted into a digital studio. I’ve got it rigged up with monitors and a power generator, an alternator and deep cell batteries. It’s a fully self-contained mobile art studio. For almost two months I spent my time making content….. and I made one big, long continuous image. Then I printed it out, and worked on it some more. This exhibition is displaying an aspect of that show.

To me, an art show is often a call-to-arms…a way of saying, ‘What do you have right now? What can you reasonably create with the assets that you have available to try and inspire and uplift people?’ MASS-droid is the result of me trying to push the envelope and see how big I can make pieces that still are whole. I wanted to go larger than I ever had before, and I also wanted to put forth a template that I could use for all of my work. For example, there are certain base limitations, metrics of our reality, and how we build things—things fit into sizes; things need to fit into trucks, into boxes, into shipping containers…… I am experimenting with how to utilize available assets to create the largest impact. This show involves light boxes and other works as well but what I am most excited about are these 3’ x 8’ wooden panels as I mount the prints to them and stack them to create one continuous image. What I like about this aspect of it is that as a template I don’t need a driver to come out and drive the work out here. Transportation is always something that you have to consider in art shows. I have some bigger pieces in light boxes, but what I think is fun about this particular show is that I could show up with a check book and a zip-drive and recreate the show anywhere I wanted to go. All the materials I need are at a Home Depot and any Kinko’s with large HD printers that can print the work out. I could recreate this anywhere I wanted to go.

This is another example of how certain technologies and mediums of digital art are able to redefine what is possible. This art was once just something on a monitor of mine, and now its eight feet tall and fills half of the gallery. I like to push what I am capable of creating. And I do spend a lot of time on the monitor and in the virtual world of my own art, so it is kind of nice to be able to step back and see it as a whole. Each piece can be (and has been sold as) an individual abstract piece, but I like the idea of work that can be bigger, that can tell a larger story and be displayed outside as well, be a mural….. This method simply fits into certain parameters that make it easy it distribute and share on a physical plane.

You are widely known for your large-scale live art performances, including the acclaimed Phadroid dance performances with your wife, Phaedrana. What is the most exciting aspect of creative expression in a live setting?

In a live setting I am able to get direct feedback from the audience and I am able to be in the presence of that type of transformation. When I make a painting I can spend a week on it—making it myself in my studio—then I release it. And I get a response. And I may keep getting responses as time moves on. But you’re still very removed from your viewers; it happens somewhere else. In some ways it is great that I can make a painting somewhere else and it can happen anywhere, and it can keep happening. I’ll go to a foreign country and I’ll find a pocket of people that have been following my work, and I never knew that my work got to Columbia, for example……

What’s special about Phadroid, and live performance art, is that it is like a scalpel.  I am able to really just get in there and create an impact in that moment. And I am able to bear witness to people receiving that, too. That is a really important part of the whole. No one makes art in the vacuum. It’s all cycles….. toroidal fields of energy. You put it out there, and if it’s good enough it will cycle back and start reinforcing itself. My whole creative career has been a torus of energy; investing enough in and getting to a point to release it. It goes out and then it comes back in a positive way that reinforces more of it. And then I do more. So it becomes a constant cycle of energy that keeps going and going. In a live performance, I directly release my energy, and then I immediately receive feedback. It is emotional, it is tactile. It is truly amazing. I believe everyone has the ability to go through transformation in any given moment. The only time we are ever going to do it is in that moment. We, as artists that create empty (and thus potent) space for that to happen, must also be in that given moment of time and not in a moment that was imagined sometime or somewhere in the past. We have to be fully present for ‘magic’ or an ‘experience’ to come through. If we are somewhere else then ‘we’ are there. If we are ‘here’ then that something else that is Phadroid has a chance to appear. And when art truly happens people are inevitably touched – because they get in touch with themselves through it.

In your performances, it looks as though you may utilize custom tablets. Did you design them, or were they designed for you?

I would say more modified. There are some modifications I made to them, but it is off-the-shelf technology. There’s no black magic. I try to emphasize that what I do is very accessible. There is no secret bunker that I go to in order to get my stuff. In regard to a lot of my art, too, everything is out there; a lot of my brushes and work spaces, at least. It’s just about juxtaposition, the strategic combining of different elements. It’s about making a number of decisions and combing things in the right way. It’s kind of like a puzzle, or a chamber lock, where there are four or five parts that need to be put together in the right way in order to create something really powerful.

Your interactive installations have enthralled tens of thousands of participants at events around the world, such as Boom Festival and Burning Man. How have those experiences shaped your understanding of art in its relationship to human awareness and interconnectedness?

They’ve been incredible because when I was in art school I always saw my art as this two dimensional image, or a digital image online. I identified my art as paintings or drawings or images. That’s how I saw what my art was. It was only later in life, as I grew older, that I learned maybe I am the most direct reflection of my art; as an artist, your art is your life, and your life is your art. If I am driving around in traffic, traffic is a dance. I’m interacting with everything all the time and I can try to squeeze or rush and get ahead of someone else, but the more I put myself in a context of us all being in this thing together—and not just an isolated individual—the richer and deeper the dance and that interaction gets.

I had the opportunity, two years ago, to design the main trance dance temple at the Boom Festival, one of the largest festivals in the whole of Europe. If people aren’t familiar with trance and psychedelic trance and the counter culture community, it’s going to sound very frivolous to design a ‘dance temple’. But when you’re in Portugal, people take it very seriously. Trance is a form of religion for a lot of people; it’s one of the most important things in their lives. The ‘Boom Festival’, by any measure of any psychedelic trance dancer, is the echelon of that culture now—is the most sacred and most honored and respected of all the psychedelic trance festivals. This temple holds up to 25,000 people who are all dancing at once, having a universal shared experience together. A trance dance floor is the closest thing that I’ve ever seen to show the whole world represented in one place. There are people from all different countries…Japan and Israel, South America and Canada. There are Indian Babas with dreadlocks down to their knees, dancing. It’s not as cheesy as it might appear on the outside, it’s not shallow, it goes quite deep actually. I had an intricate yet open plan, and I was fortunate enough to work with an exceptionally talented team to create all the elements of the structure. What it turned out to be in the end wasn’t just a stage, it was a piece of technology.  The whole thing—with a Funktion-One sound system, and the lights, and the décor and the projections—was all about creating this ego-dissolving machine. That experience was one of the first times that I was able to really feel the art of not only creating an image, but creating an experience for people. It’s a whole other level of connectedness.

It was the same philosophy at Burning Man. We put together a theme camp called Fractal Nation. There are different points in the maturity of an artist, where you turn a corner. My first three years at Burning Man were me, unhinged. At Burning Man you’re just a kid in this crazy psychedelic candy store of experience and colors, lights, sounds and sensations. There are no rules, and you’re just bouncing off the walls of consciousness. This year will be my tenth Burn, and after awhile you’re like “OK, I had that trip. I did that experience. Which was really cool. I experienced total freedom, and lack of any inhibitions. Now the road is turning, and I want to be one of those people that put together those camps that blew my mind at my first burn.” I feel that the older I get, the more I want to step into a place of a stewardship of creative consciousness; to be able to curate and create the experiences that I have found especially valuable as well as to combine, reflect and add to them so people can have an exponentially more heightened experience. We’re all building something together.

As an artist at the forefront of the visionary art movement, how do you view your role as an agent of social change?

As an agent, I think one of the responsibilities that I have is my ability to share the information, and empower other people. I don’t do these art shows so I can make a bunch of money for myself. I don’t think I’ve ever pulled a profit from a gallery show, and I keep going headfirst into them. In the past I was really interested in the idea of inspiring people, but now I’ve really come to the point of realizing that inspiring people just isn’t enough anymore. The real key is not inspiration, but enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is inspiration in action. I would like to put people in action of their own empowerment. When people see the work that I do, I would like them to feel a sense of empowerment. There is nothing magical about the show. With a week of time, access to a Kinko’s and Home Depot, I can recreate the show. It is not even about the show. It is about the people that show up to the show.

The more I can be in integrity with myself, and my purpose, the better an agent I am. I go back and forth with a huge amount of resistance, frustration and anger with everything I see around me, then moments of complete acceptance of the utter perfection of reality and the universe. It’s very blasphemous for me to ever assume that anything was supposed to be any different than it already is at this moment. There’s ebb and a flow to both of those types of philosophies, but I think that there is a Tao that I can meet in the middle. It all comes from a place of trying to do my best. I don’t have a Messiah complex that I’m changing the world. I want to do as much of what feels good to me in a way that benefits people at the same time as well.  It is a fine line being an artist. I get a lot of energy from people. I get a lot of emails, and response, and I have a hard time taking it too, because I don’t actually like being in the center of attention.

Change is a tricky thing. Everybody talks about change—philosophizing and fantasizing about what it is—but if I ever expect anything to change, I’ve got to start right here, with me. I don’t tell the world to change. I could watch TV and get absolutely disgusted with society all over again…or, I can re-fall in love with humanity when I watch a couple of kids playing. I try not to project all these things out there that need changing, I just try to develop myself and through that action hopefully encourage people around me to develop themselves. Change starts within, if it’s going to go anywhere. And I’ve got a lot of work to do still.

Finally, what words of wisdom do you have for aspiring artists?

I think it’s always important to go for it. You’ve got to believe in yourself, before anyone else ever does. Success and failure are both total illusions. You can’t take any of it with you. I work with the medicinal realms, and shamanic realms, and a lot of that work is just a preparation for death. I’ve gone down that road a lot of times and I believe that all your actions do echo for eternity. Be mindful of what you’re doing, and what you’re being, and how you’re interacting. You’ve go to give more than you take. Learn how to love and be loved, whether you’re an artist or not. We’re all artists aren’t we? We’re all creating something.

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