When a road trip becomes art
By Maura Judkis
Sunday, Mar. 25, 2012
I am going on an art adventure with Calder Brannock. Either that or I'm being kidnapped.
Brannock is driving me somewhere - he won't say where - in his Jeep, which has no doors or roof. There are old copies of Artforum magazine on the floor, and an antique typewriter in the back of the vehicle makes a pleasant ding! every time we go over a bump. We're on H Street NE, headed east, and he is telling me about the time he went to the moon.
"I didn't think about how hot it would get or how much it would smell," he says. "We were all just plastered."
Of course, Brannock did not actually go to the moon. He simulated the journey by building a 4-by-8-foot capsule in a basement and piling in there with some artist friends for 16 hours. To simulate weightlessness, they got drunk, and they ate MREs, which were smelly. Sitting in this tiny, sweaty box, totally inebriated and eating military-ration sausage was, for Brannock, a grand adventure.
Brannock's art is a journey. For more than two years, the 27-year-old artist has been leading other artists in the "Adventure Residency" - a series of curated travel experiences to places that inspire him. There, the artists create work for Brannock's roving gallery, Camper Contemporary, which is a white cube space inside a 1967 Yellowstone camper-trailer.
The "astronauts" kept a log of their adventure. It will join work from other artists who have traveled on Brannock-led trips to such places as Natural Bridge, Va.; the ghost town of Centralia, Pa., where a coal mine fire has burned for five decades; and Thomas Edison's workshop in New Jersey. Works created on those trips will be exhibited in a bricks-and-mortar extension of Camper Contemporary in Brannock's new show - "Adventure Residency Program Headquarters" - now at Flashpoint Gallery in the District.
If you don't take Brannock seriously - and because he doesn't always take himself seriously - his art might come across as merely a series of road trips with buddies. His adventures have involved trips to nightclubs, Cape May, N.J., and Atlantic City. For one trip that involved a two-car caravan, "I made the other car listen to Ludacris's 'Sex Room' over and over and over. They ended up starting a Sex Room Collective. It's all juvenile work."
But Brannock says his excursions are more than just quirky road trips: They're art. For the people who accompany him, the trips are exercises in relational aesthetics, which considers social interaction and experience to be a form of art. He asks artists to help cover the cost of the trip, but money for props and supplies comes from his own pockets.
"It's important to make stuff for the show, but it's creating this shared community," he says. "The way you approach art is a great way to figure a person out."
It's also a performance by Brannock, who assumes a role that is equal parts explorer, entertainer and scoutmaster. He often wears a blue jumpsuit with his "Adventure" logo when leading tours, and he spouts factoids like a seasoned tour guide.
"I am leading these tours, and I think that inputting this information and getting people excited about it is, in a way, performance," he says. "Curation is partially performance."
There's also tangible art that comes from the trips. Brannock opens up the residencies to any artist who wants to come, and he schedules trips for small groups whose skills complement one another's. He asks that they produce work - in any form - for him to show in the gallery. Though he has a master's in sculpture from Maryland Institute College of Art, he doesn't create any work on the trips, preferring to leave that to his residents.
"It's sort of like setting tops spinning. It could just go off the rails," he says. "There's always this grand idea of failure that's hovering over these trips. If people don't get along, or if things go sideways, which they could, that could be terrible, but it could also be just as exciting as if everything goes well."
So far, he's been pleased with the work that's resulted from it, whether it's sculpture, photography or a fake historical marker, like the one artist Mike Thompson created. But even though the work is a product of Brannock's intervention, he gives the credit to the artists.
"The framework I built is mine, and I'm excited about that, but the work is definitely that of the artists," he says. "It's been exciting to see the way that the artists have responded to the trips in their own practices."
Brannock is ditching the camper for his new show, but he's broadening the Adventure Residency to include anyone who feels like going on a short self-guided journey. Adventure kits are available for gallery guests to explore destinations curated by Brannock; some of them may involve roller skates or other props that can be borrowed from the gallery. If they create any art from their mini-adventure, it could be incorporated into the show. They're also welcome to leave suggestions for other adventures.
"I already know what happens when I tell people to go places, but I want to see what happens when people take it upon themselves, and see who's enthusiastic about showing me a place."
Brannock is ready to show this reporter a place on Bladensburg Road. Just over the Maryland border, he pulls over at a small grassy park with a nearly dry creek, across the street from an IHOP. "We're here!" he says, snatching a case printed with the word "Adventure" out of the back of the Jeep. There is nothing outwardly remarkable about this place.
On Bladensburg Road, though, is the historical marker that bears the clue: We've arrived at the former site of the Bladensburg dueling grounds, where Washingtonians of yore would go to settle disputes over women, money and personal honor. More than 50 duels took place there before the Civil War, and some of the combatants included Stephen Decatur, the naval hero who defeated the Barbary Pirates, and Daniel Key, son of Francis Scott Key.
One of the last duels that took place on the grounds was fought in 1838 over a newspaper story. James Webb, then editor of the New York Courier and Enquirer, was offended by Maine congressman Jonathan Cilley's criticism of an editorial. Webb challenged Cilley, an inexperienced marksman, to a duel. But rather than fight himself, he asked Rep. William Graves of Kentucky to stand in for him. Graves killed Cilley.
Brannock opens the Adventure kit.
"It seemed appropriate, with the history of a representative shooting over writing in the newspaper, to bring you out here and have a duel."
He doesn't call it a preemptive criticism of this very article, but I suppose I could take it that way. Our dueling pistols are marshmallow guns; to the victor go the s'mores. We stand back to back, walk six paces each, turn at the count of three, and fire. Nearly 175 years ago, the newspaper won that duel, and with a powdery pellet to Brannock's torso, the newspaper wins again in what was, one presumes, the only duel at the Bladensburg Dueling Grounds that ended with chocolate and graham crackers. It was an adventure.
But was it art?