In their artworks for the Open Call 2023 Group Exhibition, Jake Brush and Armando Guadalupe Cortés ask how animals become proxies for the expression of human obsessions and impulses. Brush’s video and sculptural installation, Petpourri, creates an alternative universe out of viral video clips of a Long Island TV show hosted by pet store owner Marc Morrone at the turn of the millennium. Cortés’s skeletal wooden structure, Palenque, offers an impenetrable cockfighting ring, whose center is devoid of its stage.
Two months before the exhibition’s opening, Brush and Cortés took time out of their days fabricating elements of their installations to meet online with The Shed’s editorial director, Phillip Griffith, and one of the exhibition’s curators, Eduardo Andres Alfonso. Their discussion explored spectacle and its absence, and the connections between performance, sports culture, myth, and gossip.
Phillip Griffith (The Shed): As a way of getting into what I think are your shared interests, would you both like to talk about what you’re working on right now?
Jake Brush: Do we need to do an icebreaker first?
The Shed: Do you have one on hand?
Brush: Yeah. This is my ferret. [holds up Yaffa, the ferret] He might start to eat the couch. I might have to kick him out.
Anyway, Armando, I’m presenting a video about Marc Morrone, who hosted a public access show out on Long Island, where he would present different animals, and then the animals would fight and fall off the table and viewers would call in. In the video, I’m reimagining the lore surrounding the show and creating an expanded world with the show at the center. Then the installation in the gallery includes a recreation of the table from Marc’s show and sculptures that were 3-D printed and cast with resin and rubber. Currently I’m sanding the sculptures. Microplastics everywhere.
Armando Guadalupe Cortés: So, Morrone gave presentations with real animals, you mean?
Brush: Yeah. Like parrots and monkeys. I know you’re making a cockfighting ring…
Cortés: I’m working on a circular cockfighting ring, called a palenque in Spanish. I’m building the entire structure of it in the round, except there is no entry into the actual ring. The center of it is devoid of the gravel or any real material that would form the stage for the fights. I’m pushing the audience to look at the periphery, at the understructure, rather than the center.
Cockfighting was always in the background of my childhood. I checked out some matches this summer while I was in Mexico. They can be quite the spectacle, but I’m interested in the denial of that spectacle, presenting its possibility, the stage for it, but pulling it away from the audience.
Right now, I’m preassembling some of the wood to make installation process easier. All the lumber for this structure is milled and cut down to one by one inch sticks. It’s all these skinny little sticks that create a gridded forest. I’ve also been soldering elements of the installation using obsidian and alabaster, to make two masks that will hang on the structure. And I’m bringing the animal into the space, too, by way of drawings that I’ll create using adobe and cord.
Brush: In a cockfight, do the birds fight to the death?
Cortés: It depends. The organizers set parameters. The fight I saw this summer was friendly. It was kids saying, Hey, we’ve got these really beautiful roosters, and we’re very attached to them. They let them go at it for a moment, but they didn’t let them hurt each other seriously.
In other instances, when it’s a real bloodsport, the roosters are outfitted with blades on their legs so that they do kill each other—the loser dies. So, it’s quite gnarly.
Jake, what were the parameters of the TV set you described? How were the animals matched up?
Brush: Morrone wasn’t staging matches, exactly. In the early days of Morrone’s show, before Martha Stewart invested and upgraded his production, he filmed in a small warehouse. Marc claims he had the animals in his presentations in such close proximity because the warehouse didn’t have any heating. But I would argue it was more of a feature of the show than a solution to a logistical problem. There’s a spectacle that takes place when you have two dozen different species of animals so close together.
So, the “matches” between them—really just the animals spontaneously squabbling—were unprovoked. Marc would be talking, viewers would be calling in live, and then a monkey would start to strangle a parrot, or a turtle would bite a dog’s tongue and pull it. The animals would start screaming, it would get really awkward on set, and he’d have to call out to the production crew and ask to take five. But when I asked Marc about those moments he claimed everything had always been fine.
Cortés: It sounds almost comical.
Brush: Oh, it is funny. His current pet store is the kind of place you would go as a child if you grew up out there, to see the parrots, the cockatoos, the bats, the owls, ostriches, all sorts of animals. Inside, it’s like a zoo, a spectator sport, the whole experience.
The Shed: To me, this interest in spectacle is what connects your works, though aesthetically they feel very different. Armando, there’s a minimalism to your installation and Jake, a maximalism to yours.
Armando, you presented the performance aún los gallos lloran (Even Roosters Cry) (2021) as part of your installation Castillos (2021) at MassMoCA that seems related to your Open Call work. There, you constructed the stage alone without the palenque’s seating and then performed on it with a partner.
Cortés: That’s right. I think that work opened a similar conversation, but it was really about having two male bodies bring the posturing that happens during a cockfight. Not just imitating the animals, but also the posturing of the people behind the animals. It’s a typically male-dominated sport. It’s a very macho thing to do. So, in that performance, I presented that bravado via these two bodies, but turning it into something else, how the violence and hectic movement of these bodies was actually bringing us closer to man-on-man contact. Ultimately it became a proxy fight to the death, ending with us leaning into each other in an exhaustive embrace.
I’ve been interested in the imagery of little animals that little boys will kill, like a lizard, ladybugs. There’s a coming-of-age moment as a kid when you kill those kinds of animals, whether on purpose or not. As a child, I once collected ladybugs and they all died. I felt terrible about it. In my mind this is all related to the posturing, the need for this violence, and then the reaction to it. I don’t know how the audience will see themselves in it or not, whether they will think I see anything wrong with killing these creatures, or if it’s appalling and shocking to them.
The Shed: Jake, you’re also drawing on the world you grew up in…
Brush: Totally, my twin nephews and my nieces appear in the video. We filmed at my family’s house on Long Island for a couple days. What was really interesting and really sold it as a process for me was when we would break and I would ask, “Oh, do you think that goldfish should go to heaven?” or, “Do you think that when your goldfish died, it went to heaven?” The boys, who are going into ninth grade, were like, “No.”
It was funny because I’m almost 30 years old and I’m asking them this question and they’re response is, What is wrong with you? The relationship to animals that I’ve had, even in my adult life, is sort of childish, in the idea that they’re innocent, fully fleshed out individuals, when that’s not true in the way we understand those terms as people.
Armando, I don’t want to speak for you, but while the work engages with animals, it really relies on something more personal to the artist, or more integral to how we navigate the world day-to-day in our own relationships with other people and with ourselves. The animals are just the vehicle to get to that examination.
Cortés: The animals are really a stand-in for human interaction and attraction, to each other and ourselves. And in some way literally to the animals.
Eduardo Andres Alfonso: Do you think that the way people enact power over the animals they own is a personality tell?
Brush: That idea is so much a part of my project. What kinds of personalities are drawn to these animals that serve no real function other than sitting in your living room and requiring you to feed them every day? I’m one of these people, so nothing wrong with them, but it’s an expression of neuroses, fear, and anxiety—and it’s very funny. But it’s also a sensitive topic. You can go to the vet and find a woman crying in the parking lot because her dog died four years ago, which just happened to me.
Armando, are the human personalities you’re exploring different because of the structure of sport. What kind of people are drawn to that kind of sport?
Cortés: In terms of how different personalities are drawn to different animals, I think there’s definitely a difference between dog people and cat people. So, I’m very curious about the ferret. What does that choice say about you, Jake? [laughs]
Culturally, there’s a difference in Mexico in the way animals are treated and how our relationships to them are enforced. Unlike here in the US, dogs are often seen more as service animals offering something like protection, and less often as a pet. Though, at the same time in my small hometown, I do see people who mourn for their dogs.
With cockfighting in particular, there is a lot of projection. There is a lot of compensation. It can be more or less subtle, but it is telling.
The Shed: You both seem interested in a kind of mythmaking that comes out of these places you’re from and these human-animal relations. There’s some mix of fact and fiction. And Jake, there’s a nod to machismo or masculine bravado and sport in your video. Some scenes are filmed on a high school football field…
Brush: My family’s very macho, they’re very invested in sports. Before I filmed at the high school, I created a spectacle at the house because I was wearing huge facial prosthetics and makeup with a bald cap with hair coming out of it. For me, filming at the football field is a funny anecdote, because my nephews were going to the same field to practice, but I don’t consider masculinity that explicitly in my work.
Marc isn’t a super masculine guy, he’s so theatrical. At the start I didn’t really want to play him—playing a guy is not as fun because you don’t get to wear makeup. But when I decided I would, I put big demon hands on him to finesse the character a little bit. That may not directly address the question of fact and fiction, but I think what people say about a movie or a TV show, or what they write about it, reshapes what actually happened in it and reshapes the way that it exists in the culture. Marc’s show as it was historically wasn’t as interesting to me as the video clips of the animals fighting that I found had gone viral on Reddit.
I spent a lot of time reading the comments Reddit users left on these clips. Some viewers thought they were funny; some were upset. To me that is the relevant question: how are people are engaging with what they’re seeing? At first, I wanted to get Marc himself in the video. Then I realized I didn’t really need him because the video is really about this TV show as a shell, or form.
Cortés: I’m thinking about what you said about the football field. There’s such a macho culture around football, as you’ve already mentioned. When I think about sports, I think about gladiator fights in the Roman Empire as this violent mass entertainment designed to calm the people’s anxiety and nerves, to entertain. In a really messed up way, that need seems innately human. With contemporary sports, we go about fulfilling it relatively safely.
Brush: I felt that tension in going to the football field to film. I was like, I’m going to get attacked by a bunch of high school boys. There’s no way that this isn’t going to happen. In the end, there were two women walking around the track while I was filming, talking about a broken air conditioner, and they didn’t even look up. So, that’s the other thing about spectacle…when you’re performing you think the world is going to stop and chime in or prevent you from doing what you have to do. But people are so absorbed in their own worlds that it doesn’t matter to them what you’re doing. The difference in being an artist is that a project like this one comes out of that self-absorption. Other people have the same experience, but they channel self-absorption differently.
Cortés: For me, the myth is part of that expectation for the want of it. Then the fact, I don’t know. This is a new thought. Usually with my work, when based on stories from my childhood or events I witnessed, others ask, “Is this real? Is this where you are really from?”
My partner visited my hometown with me this summer. When we arrived and gathered with my family and elders, she realized I wasn’t making the stories up. It all became real for her. That’s usually my approach with my work, incorporating these elements into installation and performance. But in this case, there is something about myth that is expressed in the expectation of this spectacle I’m hiding from view of the audience. Maybe in that way I’m mythologizing it. But absence is such a spectacle, too. Absence can be so loud, so present.
Brush: I get it. It goes back to what we were talking about earlier, the difference in your minimalism and my maximalism in these Open Call installations. For your friends, the realization is that you weren’t embellishing. On the other hand, I embellish everything. Though my family always thinks whatever I’m doing is going to be way more outlandish than it actually is.
More than mythmaking, I’m interested in a kind of gossip—hearing stories, then revving them up even more, leaning into it instead of being like, No, there’s no way that’s true. I just want more of it.
Cortés: Is there a moment when you’re overhearing a story where you identify what has been blown up, and like you said, you lean into it?
Brush: It’s more this idea of always putting your own spin on the story that I love. Reality TV is another influence on my work. I really enjoy it for that reason. It’s this competition, a kind of cockfighting, and there’s a lot of bravada and bravado, and deceit. I don’t like deceit in my personal life, but I like it in entertainment.