If the Good/Bad Art Collective had been on Denton’s official radar from 1993 to 2003, the group might never have gotten the biggest budget it has ever had to stage another of its famous gigs as part of the Nasher XChange.
That’s a bit simplistic, but true as far as Good/Bad members Martin Iles and Chris Weber can tell.
“We did this ... for years in Denton and were ignored. Then we got invited to do stuff in Dallas, Houston and Brooklyn,” said Iles, an artist who lives near Sanger and helps operate a foundry with his dad, sculptor David Iles.
Weber and Iles flipped through a thick catalog of art ideas the collective gathered for the Nasher XChange, the celebration of the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas’ 10th anniversary that opens today and runs through Feb. 16. Weber lives in Seattle with his family. He didn’t stray far from his Denton creative life. For a living, Weber books the non-music programming for Bumbershoot, a yearly international arts and music festival in Seattle.
Out of all those ideas, the one that stuck was the idea to make a 28-minute infomercial in a newly built television studio at Bryan Tower in Dallas. Bryan Tower is the tall black high-rise building made famous during the opening credits of the famous television series Dallas.
“Bryan Tower was the headquarters of Ewing Oil in Dallas,” Iles said. “How’s that for a bizarre connection? We’re making a television infomercial in a building made famous by a television show.”
The collective outfitted the studio — which members built within the 50,000-square-foot office space — with three separate filming stations. Each has an illuminated floor (think Saturday Night Fever, but less garish) lined with a wall of observation windows. This afternoon and this evening, the public is invited to show up at Bryan Tower, ready to sign a waiver releasing the collective to use participants’ likenesses, and then prepare to take direction in front of a television camera in each of the three studios. Iles said participants can drop out at any time — no harm, no foul.
The Denton Record-Chronicle agreed not to divulge all the details about “Curtains,” considering that the eventual discovery of the “product” being sold is part of the process — and part of the fun, collective members said.
“This project feels very different because there’s a budget, which is something Good/Bad never really had. That’s foreign to us,” said artist Jesse Meraz, who joined the collective as a painting and drawing student at the University of North Texas and has been part of it ever since. “But really, it’s not that different than what we’ve always done.”
In the beginning
The motley crew that made up the Good/Bad Art Collective were students and graduates of UNT, mostly. They were artists, mostly. There was a film student like Weber here and a computer geek there. To hear Weber describe it, the collective was rigid about commitment and fluid about membership.
“Some artists were invited to be a part of the collective,” Weber said. “Other artists in the group were interested in what we were doing and jumped in.”
Iles said the collective would meet regularly to brainstorm.
“It was basically artists and creative people getting together and throwing everything at the wall,” he said. “If something stuck, we’d get busy planning it.”
The collective took shape in 1993, when key members rented a small, older building on Exposition Street.
“It’s not even there anymore,” Iles said. “We didn’t do anything with it for a while.”
Then, the collective started organizing music shows in the office building, featuring mostly local bands. The shows hauled in audiences, and the Good/Bad Art Collective became a music venue.
“We kept the prices low. Everything was $3 to $5, and we did a lot of free shows,” Weber said. “Then we started having art in the building. It became obvious really fast that we couldn’t get anyone to come out for more than one night.”
“Yeah, that ended up being pretty obvious, and we staged more than 250 events — most of them just one-night deals,” Iles said. “You could say we capitalized on our deficiencies.”
Iles said that some of the benefits of being part of a collective were unexpected, but welcome.
Having a room full of young, energetic bodies and audacious minds meant crazy stunts were immediately weighed by a focus group of sorts, picky people who weren’t afraid to declare an idea not funny or developed enough for the effort. It also meant lots of bodies available to build, set up, promote and run the collective’s events.
“Looking at the sheer amount of stuff we did on a shoestring-shoestring budget — I mean, we had no money,” said collective member and New York artist Tim Kaminski. “It just blows your mind. Every week, someone was going to do something. It was either something that was your style or not. You could work on a project or you didn’t.”
The events that became local legend
As the collective gathered steam (without any oversight from any particular authority figure), its projects took on cohesive aims. The collective would challenge a convention, be it artistic, cultural or social, then build an experience around it.
In 1996, the collective skewered the voyeurism and exhibitionism of performance all while taking a pot shot at 20th century religion: social science. The event was called “Isolation Chamber.”
Collective members David Seiden, Erick Swenson and Weber were the subjects.
“The three of us were stripped down to our boxers, and we were sealed off into the back of the gallery,” Weber recalled. “We’re in our underwear with carbonated water, loaves of bread and a seesaw. We had to keep the seesaw going up and down for 24 hours a day for three days.”
If the seesaw stopped, punishment was swift and unpleasant.
“We’d bust them with this awful noise,” Iles said. “They were monitored the whole time by volunteers and members. They’d take notes. Not for any purpose. Just to do it.”
Weber still remembers an observation: “Someone wrote that one of us ‘sat in the corner and poured cups of water out on the floor. I wonder why?’”
Some projects ended up being more like stunts. At the end of 1996, Good/Bad plastered Denton with fliers for “Nothing’s Happening At Good/Bad Art Collective.” Collective member Dan Bailey volunteered to be fixed to a traffic signal on Fry Street as a human flier for the non-event. The collective took the weekend off, and there is no record of whom, if anyone, attended.
A project still mentioned fondly by collective members is the 1997 event, “Strange Loops.” Eric Swenson, a member and now an internationally known sculptor based in Dallas, created a jogging track that looped through the Good/Bad building and through downtown Denton.
“The runners ran through the gallery and through downtown, and they even had water stations,” Weber said. “They ran like a half-marathon, with people there in the gallery.”
By that time, Good/Bad was getting invitations to bring installations to galleries in Houston and Dallas. The collective rebuilt a scale reproduction of its headquarters in Denton at DiverseWorks Art Space in Houston. And that wasn’t all.
“We rebuilt our building inside. It was identical, down to the office inside,” Iles said. “Then we turned the rest of the gallery around it into a roller-skating rink.”
That’s right. Visitors to the Houston gallery were able to roller skate, thanks to a makeshift skate rental-type operation. The collective kept to its one-night-only practice, and removed all traces of its doppleganger gallery by 5 p.m. the next day.
Iles recalled a photography exhibit, “True Stories,” the Arlington Museum of Art invited the collective to take part in during 1999.
“We turned the second floor mezzanine of the museum into an apartment complex,” he said. “Then during the opening reception, we passed out keys to people with the idea that it was the key to their apartment upstairs. When the people would go upstairs, they’d meet a guard at the reception area. They’d take the person’s name and ask them to wait.”
While the patrons would wait, a team of collective members would be decorating a cake with the name and getting ready to greet them with a surprise party in apartment 2B.
“They put the key in the door, walk in and this big bunch of people would yell ‘Surprise!’ and hand them their cake. Then they’d take the person’s picture with the cake and that’d be it. That was their own, personal surprise party,” Iles said. “It lasted less than a minute.”
The Polaroid pictures were added to the exhibit, but they were displayed on the refrigerator of apartment 2B. Surveillance video of the guests getting their surprise was screened in the reception area.
The road to the Nasher XChange
Jeremy Strick, the director of the Nasher Sculpture Center, said Nasher curator Jed Morse had worked with Swenson on an exhibition. Morse mentioned Good/Bad as a good candidate to include in Nasher XChange, which would invite 10 artists to make 10 works of public art incorporating sculpture in specific places throughout Dallas.
“This is like our Blues Brothers,” Strick said of the collective. “It’s our getting the band back together.”
Strick said each project has been a negotiation between the Nasher and the artists. The center invited artists to propose a project, and if it made sense for a site, the project would get a green light. The center spent about $3 million on the XChange. Good/Bad worked within a $100,000 budget to create “Curtains.”
Strick said the collective was a good candidate because it not only understands the principles of sculpture, but it invites viewers to do more than admire art. It asks them to become part of it.
“We decided we wanted the exhibitions to function as a survey of contemporary practices in public sculpture,” Strick said. “But we also wanted the XChange to be a survey of all the way artists are thinking about sculpture in public places.”
Iles and Weber said the Nasher officials were open to the collective’s ideas, and lent a lot of support to the project.
“Man, there is so much you don’t think about when you’re doing a project like this,” he said. “The permitting process alone was more involved and more expensive than we predicted, and the electrical aspect was a lot to work out.”
Collective members started meeting every Sunday last year from June to March 2013 to plan the project. “Curtains” pays tribute to the collective’s past, pre-Internet days when you could still catch the television “color bars” used by broadcasters as a video test pattern. Walls of drapes re-create the color bars, and the dance floors in each filming station are a paean to the disco age.
After the final bits of the infomercial are filmed today, the collective will produce it and prepare it for the airwaves, locally and nationally.
“It will air in late November,” Iles said, but declined to give the date. That extra bit of mystery is another hat tip to the collective’s character.
“Being in Denton, people came to our shows because they didn’t want to be left out,” Weber said. “We’d put up no less than 500 posters for our main shows, but still, it was like no one knew about us. A lot of people found out by word of mouth.”
Iles and Weber said the collective wasn’t interested so much in making art that succeeded. They wanted to get people to want to travel to an art event the way people will make a trip to try a restaurant, Iles said.
“It’s exciting to me that I’ve never had a single person who was involved with something we did who remembered back to me the way it actually happened,” Weber said. “I like the idea that people had really personal experiences with the collective’s projects.”
To date, the only apology the collective ever offered was itself a stunt. It submitted a full-page ad to Texas art magazine Artlies after it criticized a Houston project that didn’t go as the collective planned.
The ad said “We Sorry” and featured mugshots of 20 members. Underneath each photo was a toll free number to contact the member. Those who called were given a personal apology.
But Iles isn’t sorry.
“Everything about anything we did in the collective was in the name. If you went to something we did and you hated it, well, you were warned. If you loved it, then we were right. We told you so,” Iles said.
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877.
Who: the Good/Bad Art Collective
What: part one-night event, part exhibition-installation and part infomercial taping
When: 2 to 10 p.m. today
Where: 14th floor of Bryan Tower, 2001 Bryan St. in Dallas
What to expect: meet a spirit guide, sign a waiver, take direction and watch others taking direction