The Willson Center for Humanities and Arts, in partnership with the UGA Graduate School, UGA Arts Council, Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, and Flagpole, has awarded 34 micro-fellowships in its Shelter Projects program. The $500 fellowships support graduate students and community-based artists and practitioners in the creation of shareable reflections on their experience of the current pandemic through the arts and humanities.
Statement by Mux Blank: Tomorrow we supposedly get put on lockdown here in Athens, GA because of the Coronavirus, so I figured tonight was my last chance to get this piece installed. I created what looked like a DIY show flyer for some local band’s gig or some local artist’s showing. It could have been any show happening on any given night of the week here in this bustling small town known all around the world for its art, performance and music scenes. Then I made another and another and another… but as fast as I could make them, we started hearing of more and more and more reports of people being pronounced dead due to this pandemic. There’s a good chance that once this has all passed, not one of us will go unscathed or untouched in some way by its cold hands… This piece is dedicated to all the canceled events, all the closed businesses, all the lost jobs, all the sick and especially all the friends and loved ones lost… entitled “CANCELED.”
Flagpole: For me personally, “CANCELED” really resonated with what it was like over at the Flagpole office to update each event listing to “canceled,” one-by-one in real time until nothing remained on the calendar. How would you describe the response you received about this public art installation?
Mux Blank: Yeah, I had all different sorts of responses to the installation piece. At first, I was seeing people posting pics of the installation all over FB. I wanted to see who was posting and what they were saying. Eventually, someone figured out it was my art.
I’ve been a street performer and street art artist for a long time. Working with spray paint and stencil is something I love. Also, this piece was part of a long running “skull art” series that I started years ago when I moved out of my school bus (which I lived in for six years) when it needed repairs. That’s when I moved into the JOKER JOKER Gallery house. I had built out the bus inside using scrap lumber to make it more comfortable to live out of for so long, and to raise money to repair the bus, I created this series of skull paintings on pieces of what used to be my bed, kitchen and seating in the bus. I was able to raise enough to get the bus brakes fixed, at least at that time. Since then, I have continued the skull theme in my art in many different ways (old spray cans, customized toys, yard sale signs and more). But, when the pandemic hit I started up the series again, first doing the canceled installation and then doing a couple wall hanging pieces that now hang around on the walls of the JOKER JOKER Gallery.
I think everyone had their own take on it, of course. For artists like myself, they immediately recognized what it represented—all of our shows were canceled, not only in our town but all around the world. The audiences saw it in a way that had them pining for shows, wishing the pillars were full of posters from bands… For others it even represented their lives, work, gatherings, eating out at sit-down restaurants… everything was canceled!
I immediately had people asking me for a copy of the flyer—which was each made by hand using spray paint and stencil (over 200 flyers were used)—so I created a T-shirt design based on the concept (released under my streetwear moniker “BL*NK Streetwear” available at mrblankisdead.com) which sold pretty good and helped me at least cover my costs. I also had an opportunity to participate with the World Famous drive-thru window gallery, when I created another batch of the flyers and used some plywood, glue and clear coat to make a wall hanging version of the installation. I’m not sure who bought it but someone now has it hanging in their house somewhere. Over the next couple days, the installation slowly disappeared, torn down by people who wanted a copy for themselves, which made me happy because it showed me that I hit a nerve and captured what so many people were feeling at the time.
Flagpole: The video features music by your band Rat Babies. How has the pandemic affected your experience as a musician?
MB: Well, before the pandemic hit, I had been busy for months organizing and booking a massive tour for Rat Babies that stretched across the eastern USA from FL to NY. We recorded a new album at Rancho De La Luna in Joshua Tree, CA with David Catching (from Eagles of Death Metal, Queens of the Stoneage, The Desert Sessions, Earthlings? fame… Yes, he was at the concert where the shooter opened fire on the crowd in France during the Eagles Of Death Metal set). The art was created by me using video and pics taken on our trip across the US to CA to record, and then we had it mastered by Jason Nesmith at Chase Park Transduction Studio in Athens. All of which took us a year to get done. So, we hoped to have a big release on the 15th year anniversary (also the year of the “Metal Rat”) of the Rat Babies first show (which happened at Tasty World in 2005). The tour was supposed to be our way of promoting the album release and getting it out there to the masses, but then just when I was about to have the tour booked and was going to start promotions, the pandemic hit! So, everything we had planned was canceled, our whole schedule for the year was wiped clean and we were left unsure what to do. What could we do? Everything that a band has to do these days mostly involves going out there into the world and playing shows, but there weren’t anymore shows, venues weren’t even open anymore, we had to stay put and innovate somehow… and that’s when JOKERJOKERtv was born!
Flagpole: This week marks the 25th episode of JOKERJOKERtv, a virtual show (live streamed every Thursday evening at 6:30 p.m.) that features all sorts of underground performances, short films and interviews. What motivated you to launch this series, and what role do you see it currently serving in the artist community?
MB: When we started this project it was a way for us to continue doing what we have been doing for years and years: entertain and share our art! The JOKER JOKER Gallery is my house/studio where we have held shows featuring all sorts of traveling performance artists from all around the world. Also, through the years of touring the USA as Rat Babies, Mr Blank (solo experimental noise and theater), and Mr Blank’s Weird & Wandering Sideshow (solo burlesque, sideshow, vaudeville show born from the Carnivale Of Black Hearts events I organized here in Athens), we knew tons of artists and performer friends who were going through the same thing we were. Everyone’s life was canceled in an instant. So, this show was our way of continuing to do those shows at our house/studio/gallery in a socially distant way.
The thing is that we had never done a livestream before, but we have a whole studio full of equipment for recording, we had cameras, and so we figured it couldn’t be that difficult… but man were we naive! As we got going, we realized how difficult it really was, we had to buy programs to produce the stream, we had to try out different cameras and different computers (borrowed from friends) until we found a set up that worked without glitching out, then more programs had to be bought to fix other issues. It was a confusing mess and we had no idea what we were doing (which you can see if you go back and look at our first couple episodes), but being a DIY artist you have to push yourself and keep at it until you get it right, or at least until you get it close enough to right. Now after 25 episodes we are still trying to figure it out. Programs get updated with new features and fixes which means always learning something new.
Our hope is that we can keep this series going for as long as possible. We aren’t making any money at it at all, so that makes it hard, but what else are we going to do? We still can’t tour (aka everything is STILL canceled for us artists). As an artist I also NEVER got any stimulus checks, so we really do hope to find grants or sponsors for the show eventually.
From the beginning the idea was to create a series that, while being nostalgic in a way for old MTV days, used an updated delivery method of livestreaming. And with it, we want to help artists all around the world with getting their stuff seen and heard.
Our JOKER JOKER Gallery events always centered on “fringe” artists types already, and so we continued with the same for the show. We gather the coolest weirdos and the weirdest of the cool artists that we know, and my days now involve searching through social media looking for new artists we don’t know who might have something to contribute.
As artists that presented our art on stage or on CD, doing a livestream was a completely foreign and new process. And as we reached out to friends asking them to submit videos and performances for us to share on the show, we began realizing that we were a bit ahead of most. Many of our friends who had performed for years and years didn’t have music videos to share. As artists we all seemed to concentrate more on the in-person aspects to our performances, and so doing shows online/live streamed was barely in our repertoire. As the world is now, and where it’s been going, we now have to innovate. Lately, in fact, for most of the pieces we’ve been sharing on the show, we find ourselves continually saying “this was created in lockdown…” in our introductions of the artists, and so we are seeing firsthand how so many artists are just now having to innovate and change directions on how we deliver our art to the world. So, we hope that our show continues to inspire artists to find new methods of delivering their art to the world, and new ways for audiences to experience that art!
Flagpole: Right before the pandemic, I remember that you had put a call out to artists to participate in an experiential art walk exhibition at Georgia Square Mall. This was literally all I knew, but that was enough to pique my curiosity! What was your vision for the project, and is it something you hope to reschedule in the future if possible?
MB: Yes, we definitely want to revive that “GA SQ Artwalk” project when things are safe for in-person gathering again. As soon as the pandemic hit, we knew malls and businesses would be shutting down, maybe for good. We still have this project on the back burner, hoping for a time when we feel it is safe to continue to develop the idea.
Basically, we saw that the local mall, as well as malls around the country, are all dying. If you go to the mall you will find that more than half the store fronts are empty. We approached the mall management with the idea of turning those empty storefront windows into galleries for art, which would turn the mall into an artwalk. People could leisurely walk around the mall viewing the art and would have a way to purchase any of the art from the website we set up just for the project. We did start a preliminary website at www.gasqartwalk.com with a live google form that artists could fill out to submit their proposals, but we never did fully develop it because the mall shut down during the pandemic and we had no idea when things would come back and be safe enough. We also had no funding to keep the project going because everything changed in an instant.
Now with the JOKERJOKERtv show, we are going to be able to spotlight some of these artists and their art, until such time as we can get back to work on the artwalk within the mall.
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