In May of 2014, as I was walking through Soho in NYC, I noticed an unusual object tied to a metal pole. It looked sort of like a drum with a giant glass lens. Slowly, I peered into the drum and was greeted by a woman standing in an apartment. She was pointing at me and began to clap her hands and wave with a big smile on her face. I was taken aback and confused; could she actually see me? I stepped back and looked around, convinced there must be a camera on me. As my curiosity took hold, I looked in again to see the video had started over, and again she pointed and became excited to see me.
Finding Nora Breen’s installation was was both thrilling and oddly intimate. I wrote at the time that it was one of my favorite finds, and that is still true. Breen’s video installations are not only a fascinating integration of street art and technology, but a vehicle for her unique “wonder” based art. Through her art, Breen primarily wants to bring moments of joy to those who see her drums and take the time to look inside. Over the past year, I have not only documented her work, but have observed others discovering and interacting with her videos. I’ve seen people jump back in surprise, laugh, call their friends over, and even wave back at the video.
Immediately after the first time I found one of her street videos, I wanted to know more about her. And clearly, many others do too. I have been constantly asked about her work over the past year, and now, after spending some time together and getting to know her and her work, I am very happy to share more about the world of Nora Breen.
Dusty Rebel: Tell me about your background as an artist? Have you always been focused on video, or do you work with other media?
Nora Breen: This is my first video project, though I have some background in performance. I love the medium, but I’m also working on a different project that I am hoping to show at a gallery here in town. I have an ongoing kinetic sculpture project—some permanent, some temporary—which are also “wonder” based. I’ll show you sometime. I have done audio installations… I’ve just about always made things, or performed, or found things and placed them and observed.
DR: What do you mean by “wonder” based art?
NB: What makes us feel like a kid. Innocence.
DR: When I first encountered your work, I was really impressed by the integration of technology and street art. How did these video installations come about? And why did you choose to put them in the street?
NB: Thanks. Well, the content in the first dozen or so videos—the “I am happy to see you”—came from a friend’s interaction with her teenage sons. No matter what she was doing, when they came home she jumped up to see them and made an excellent fuss over them. Very loving. I really liked her kids and felt sure that their ability to look you in the eye and engage with you had to do with being comfortable with themselves as a result of the conditioning that they were welcome and celebrated. I looked in to that idea and it turns out that showing people you are happy to see them greatly increases the likelihood that those people will be well adjusted. I put these videos on the street because I thought it would be a positive, cool thing for people to experience. The tech street art just seemed cool. I was super happy when the “drum” pieces came together.
DR: So often people ask me, “How do they work?” I know you don’t want to give away too much, but can you talk a little about the construction and mechanism of the installations.
DR: I thought not! Have any been stolen or broken?
NB: Yes. I had my 4th one stolen today, May 20th, on Abbot Kinney in Los Angeles where I am visiting my sister. I get really disappointed. I have a way to lock them which is what I will absolutely have to do now. Bums me out. The best story of someone “trying” to steal one is when I rode up on my bike at Broome and Orchard one day to gather the drum.
Anyway, I rolled up, with one under my arm to see this man, well-dressed in his 50’s with a butter knife unscrewing the hose clamp. I said, “Oh this is great timing. I’m so happy I came to keep you from taking that.” And he says, “I think it’s cool so I want it” [still unscrewing] “and if you don’t want someone to take it you shouldn’t leave it on the street.” I say, “it’s street art, and it’s for everyone.” He says—no lie!—”I don’t see your name on it.“ Me, “I am in it, and I am carrying one under my arm. Please do not steal my work.” His companion, a woman, says “well, he’s not stealing it.” UNBELIEVABLE! Me, “is it his?” I hate stealing. I guess they want to know how it works. But it’s violating.
DR: Are the videos archived? How often do you reuse a video?
NB: I am the worst. Only half of the videos are archived. You have the best catalog. Thanks again for that. I have written 2 plays that have been performed successfully, and to semi-large audiences, that I do not have copies of, and a few more that I’ve written and liked that have had the same fate. I am just not good at that stuff. Getting a little better, in terms of reuse. I have been playing the balloon and cap video a lot because I love it, and when I’ve made new ones they just don’t move me the same way. The situation is that I’ve been really busy, so by the time I am making one I’m not giving it enough time. More new ones soon. Now I’m a little less busy and I do like to change them often.
DR: You often, if not always, appear in the videos. There feels like there is a very personal aspect to this work. Can you explain that?
NB: Excellent question! The answer has layers but I’ll try and keep it simple. At first, this idea of being happy to see someone, needed a person. I definitely wanted to be that person because I wanted to give the “good feeling.” Plus, obviously it was just easier to do it and I liked my persona in the drum, positive and goofy. Sweet. That’s how I would like to be, but am not always. The next layer is that I spend lots of time walking and biking around and have lived in New York for so long that people recognize me but they have no idea what I’m about. I wanted to connect. As the videos started to have more narrative, I watched [the films of] Chaplin and Keaton and hoped to continue their tradition of wonder with depth. I like to perform.
The times I put things like Solar Flares and other natural phenomena (which I love) in them, it was cool but not the same. People told me they missed me in them, which of course felt good and right. Just as a funny note, many people tell me dead seriously that I should put them or their dog or their store in the drums. That just cracks me up. One of the great things that happened was that the security guards at The New Museum got my email and sent me a video of them dancing. If I ever did put other content in them, that would be the first.
DR: What do you hope people will take away from your videos? What are you trying to get across.
I had a moment when I thought they should have more serious content and I did make the video I love with the running and the letters S. T. O. P. projected behind me in sequence, so I had a couple of good conversations about how innocence and wonder are important and not everything has to be topical, political, or intellectual to be relevant. That was my second favorite time in the evolution of the drums; the first being when I witnessed someone waving back in to the drum.
DR: You install the videos during the day. What’s that like? What kind of feedback have you received from the public since starting the project?
NB: I am sad to say that for the last 2 months I have not installed one every day, but plan to get back to that. I got busy. But for 10 months, I installed at least one almost every day, and that was difficult and amazing. I was going through a tough time and had a “no matter what” policy in regards to this project. That was the best possible way to communicate to myself that I was ok. No matter how lousy I was feeling, I would gather my little parts and put them together and make sure the drums got up. I would guess that a majority of people interact with their work—whatever that is—in this way. As a life line. An expression of being alive and involved. One of the many reasons I love this project.
DR: Do you ever stay around to see people interacting with the work? If so, what have you reactions have you observed? If not, is that part of the process; to detach from the work once its on the street?
NB: Lots of people talk to me when I’m installing them or taking them down. They love them really. People smile and think they’re cool. Men usually immediately ask me how I do it. As I’ve said, I’ve seen people waving in to them. I see people grabbing their friend telling them to look. Some too cool for school people have acted like it’s not big deal, but go back for a second or third look. This I enjoy. People recognize me and say ‘thank you’ and tell me they can’t wait to find another one. This makes me feel really good, obviously. They have been so so positive, except for the thefts.
Nora Breen on social media: Instagram