Jonny Farrow is an artist working with sound and objects at the intersection of sculpture, installation, radio, and performance. His work investigates cultural and architectural spaces through interventions created with found and made objects, sound, and light. He is most interested in using space in which to juxtapose sound and sound-related concepts with objects in order to reframe these spaces and objects where meaningful, culturally critical dialogue can evolve. Farrow has taught music, culture, and sound art classes for several years in New York. He hosts a monthly radio show, The Distract and Disable Program, for WGXC in Greene/Columbia Counties, New York. He is currently studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Farrow recently created a flag for Gallery 400's Temporary Allegiance project— an artwork conceived by Philip von Zweck that provides a platform for the freedom of expression— and was interviewed by Jane Elizabeth Ross.
Jane Elizabeth Ross: The gallery staff loved the flag you created for the Temporary Allegiance project, but we didn’t completely understand the meaning of the text, “Myth Nowhat?” Can you explain the meaning behind it?
Jonny Farrow: Yes. The meaning is purposefully open, but can be loosely read in a few of different ways. The intentional jamming together of the words "now" and "what" makes it possible to get "now what," "no what" (sonically, "know what?"), and then, comically, "now hat?" And with the word "myth," I am really trying to open up a dialogue about symbols, particularly patriotic ones like flags. So, together, the phrase refers directly to the image on the flag, the coonskin cap. The coonskin cap represents a flattening of American history—even a flattening of a version of American history—which is rather complicated either way. Specifically, the idea that the complicated legacies of controversial figures that frontiersmen like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett left are still suspended in a complex nebula of iconography, myth, reverence, and awe, and that an animal skin hat can stand in for all of this colonial plundering, which it effectively silences, is really complex. So, in order to attempt to unpack something this dense and opaque, I wanted to put this symbol (the cap) and the question to work in a specific context (flag and flagpole) to grab attention and to ask about our American mythos: how do we, as a country, actually, constructively account for our real history—not the flattened version—and how would this acknowledgement possibly change the way we attempt to solve problems in the social realm? I think it has great potential to make us more kind as a nation. Of course, one flag can't do this, but you have to start somewhere, and investigations always begin with open-ended questions.
Image: Jonny Farrow, Myth Nowhat?, 2012, flag.
JER: You seemed excited about the ritual of flag folding and raising. What about that interests you?
JF: There is always so much pomp and ritual around raising an "official" flag, and this ritual is loaded with ideology—it means something important to those who are handling it, raising it. And while my flag is playful in its imagery and language, I wanted it to be taken seriously, so I felt that it would be proper to handle it as such, with reverence, to try to imbue it with that same aura of importance.
JER: What is it about the figure of Daniel Boone that speaks to you?
JF: A couple of things about Boone link me to him. First, I am originally from Kentucky and it is hard to turn around in that state without bumping into something related to his legacy. Second, and I have a suspicion that a lot of people in Kentucky (aside from Boone's actual living descendants) claim this, there are vague assertions (by my relatives that have done geneological research) into our family history that link us to Boone via the Cumberland Gap and the Hensley Settlement, which was an early group of settlers that came through the Gap and settled in Appalachia. I don't think there's any real blood relationship, it is more a "family wish" than anything—a "wouldn't that be neat" kind of thing. I don't necessarily feel one way or the other about it. Frankly, I am much more interested in the family rumor that my great-grandmother was possibly half-Cherokee. That would be a real Kentucky story, yes, related to both the colonizer and the colonized! Third, when I arrived in art school, I had purchased (on eBay) a filmstrip projector and all these film strips from the late 1940s and early 1950s. And there was a Daniel Boone filmstrip among them. I began to project and draw each frame of the filmstrip, including the deterioration of the film itself. So, Boone has lead me into the wilderness, so to speak, because I really did not have a drawing practice before coming to art school.
Image: Jonny Farrow, Filmstripped/Boone, 2011, ink on paper.
JER: How does the flag fit into your larger body of work?
JF: The flag really comes out of the drawing practice. It seemed like a natural extension of that, especially as related to Boone. He was a land surveyor as well as a long-hunting woodsman. So he was always marking territory. There's a great frame from the filmstrip where he is depicted as marking a tree with his name to commemorate killing a bear. As much as he saw himself as a steward of the wilderness, he ultimately destroyed it by taking land from Native Americans and opening it up to settlers by building forts and selling land. It is the great irony of his life. He destroyed the thing he cherished most—the wilderness.
JER: Sound is an important element in your art practice. Can you talk about how sound informs your investigations into our mass, contemporary culture?
JF: Sure. Sound, if not the central thrust of my work, is always lurking in the background somewhere. For instance, I have been working with the idea of antennas—listening through them—which led me to ideas about surveillance, paranoia, the military-industrial complex, etc. I guess you could say that the sonic (all things related to sound and listening) is a filter through which I view the world. And because sound is so difficult to contain—it permeates/vibrates, is constantly reflecting off of things, resonating—I like to use these ideas as a metaphor to see how the world works. For instance, thinking about noise led me into researching cybernetics and information theory, then on to game theory, and how they are used in war and diplomacy situations. So, this is how I get to mass, contemporary culture from sound. And sometimes in using these ideas, I end up making work that is not directly about sound, or work that you might call "sound art." I try to use whatever material or object that makes sense to open a dialogue, communicate a concept, or ask a question, like with the flag, or with a piece like Poetics of Potential, which is an animal trap displayed under Plexiglas. With this piece, I am thinking about the hunter and the energy it takes to wait in silence, to be still, which I came to through the idea of antennas.
JER: Are there sound artists who inspire your work?
JF: Yes. I often refer to the work of Stephen Vitiello, who inspired me to expand my idea of what contemporary sound work can be—particularly his Pictures in Search of Sounds, which is a nice series of photos made while he was making field recordings. Very evocative work. I am also really fond of the work of Leif Elggren for the breadth of esoterica he covers in recording and performance. Also, Maryanne Amacher—her sound rooms; Marina Rosenfeld, for her large participatory events like The Sheer Frost Orchestra; and of course the primogenitors like John Cage, Annea Lockwood, Pauline Oliveros. Though I must admit, I feel like making a list of sound artists is difficult, as I take inspiration from many different kinds of artists and art: poets, musicians, painters, sculptors.
JER: Tell us about your radio show.
JF: It is called The Distract and Disable Program and is broadcast on the third Saturday of every month on WGXC FM in upstate New York (which is related to a wonderful Transmission Arts organization called free103point9.org). You can hear the shows any time by visiting their archive and streaming the shows or by visiting their website and listening live over the internet.
The show has changed over the years. The first year was hosted by this paranoid character I created called Glue Banta. Glue was being followed by someone, though it was always unclear who or what it was that was following him. So, Glue would play very loopy, drone-y manipulated records that ostensibly contained messages. If one were sensitive or attuned to the messages, one would be able to decipher them and take action. Mixed and juxtaposed with these loopy/drone-y things would be texts about classic conspiracy theories—topics like Bigfoot, the Philadelphia Experiment, the lost city of Atlantis, and alien abduction, along with sound clips from science fiction-y films suggesting that in these "texts," one could also read messages. Glue also liked to give ambiguous and coded advice throughout the show. The second year begins with Glue being taken away by "the others"—a shadowy group that seemed to be following him. I took over as host from there, playing tapes found in Glue's abandoned house. Now, starting the third year, Glue is still in the background, but there is rumor that he may be around Chicago hiding out somewhere. The show is really a great outlet for me to create new sound work—I create a lot of recordings for the show, mostly of improvisations with the School of the Art Institute's EMU synthesizer plus any other sounds I can create digitally in Max/MSP or through analog means like no-input mixing. I juxtapose this with esoterica from my own record collection and a lot of sonic material from YouTube—songs, movie dialogue, and instructional videos. It's the kind of thing that you can sit down and listen to (if you have a taste for strange radio), or put on in the background, but at your own risk. You will invariably find yourself asking: what the hell is that on the radio? And that's kind of the point.
JER: You also recently celebrated “Art’s Birthday,” first proposed in 1963 by artist Robert Filliou. Why do you like this idea?
JF: "Art's Birthday" is kind of the ultimate art joke, yes? But the idea that it had to begin sometime seems reasonable. So it was a good excuse to celebrate Filliou's assertion of this genesis that occurred when (to paraphrase) "someone dropped a dry sponge into a bucket" and to make some live pirate radio (NRRF: B Radio) with a bunch of other like-minded folks around the world. We sampled other people's webcasts live and they sampled us, so it's connecting to this world-wide community of radio (and other) artists in real time. And, we had flaming pirate cake—there were lots of candles.
Image: Jonny Farrow, Art's Birthday Cake.
JER: Not having witnessed your video work Soft Soft Cat Cat in person and having only seen it on the internet, it seems soothing in a cacophony of stimulation. What was the response like to that work?
JF: There was a variety of responses from curious, to really interested, to a glance and gone. The work was projected at different locations in the East Village in New York City, and it was on a Saturday night, so lots of people were in their own worlds. But, I felt that those who took the time to absorb it found that it was a kind of meditation on the city and the on the split between our public and private lives. With the work, we were trying to provide a reason for people to pause, which I think people do want, but the psycho-geography of the city often compels one to keep moving. We were trying to create unexpected pockets of attraction to counter the many zones that repel us and keep us moving in the urban environment.