The following is an excerpt from their conversation.
Alex Brooks: What do you want people to know about your installation at 21c Lexington?
Robert Beatty: This is an iteration of some stuff I’ve been working on the past couple years: all these objects I’ve been making out of concrete. I started making them sometime in the middle of last year—making tests out of all this blister pack material that I’ve been saving for probably three years or something, just putting them in a box anytime I found something that had an interesting shape.
AB: So, what were some of the objects or shapes you used for molds?
RB: The main thing was a condiment cup, I ended up buying some more of those on the internet because I liked it so much and I only had two to start out with. That’s the main sort of trapezoid shape. A lot of the shapes come from AA or 9-volt battery packaging, and frozen garlic: garlic ice cubes. Some of it’s from a little plastic paint pallet—so it’s not all from product packaging but it’s all molded from plastic.
I’m taking these concrete shapes I made and rearranging them to be reminiscent of a lot of different things. I kinda wanted it to look like ruins, Mayan temples or pyramids, or Stonehenge, but I was also really inspired by Brutalist architecture, massive concrete forms.
AB: What about Brutalist architecture interests you?
RB: I really think that Brutalist architecture is beautiful and something that should be preserved, but a lot of people don’t like it, because most of the places in the United Kingdom where Brutalism started were government housing. So it’s this weird dichotomy where I really like it but I also understand why a lot of people think it’s ugly and not something that should be upheld as great architecture or art.
AB: And what about the security cameras?
RB: I noticed the omnipresence—everywhere you are there are security cameras. I was envisioning this empty landscape, with no one there, but there’s still security cameras watching over everything, even after all the people are gone. This definitely plays into the idea that we are doing ourselves in with all of this stuff but it’s gonna outlast us. All the cities one day will be empty. But the buildings will still be here.
AB: In conversations we’ve had in the past, you mentioned how you think about these concrete sculptures like Native American earth mounds. Can you share more about that?
RB: Yeah for sure. I think the most famous one is the Great Serpent Mound but there are a lot of them that are comparable to the Mayan Pyramids but they’ve been worn away over time because they are made of dirt rather than stone. They’re reminiscent of stone circles or the Pyramids—Neolithic architecture. Nobody really knows what those things were built for.
AB: It’s like a mystery.
RB: Yeah, and part of that too—this ties into the Brutalism thing—there’s all these bunkers that were built during World War II on the coast of England and France that are weird concrete forms out in the middle of nowhere. There’s a book called “Bunker Archaeology” by the philosopher Paul Virilio—it’s all photos that he took of World War II bunkers in England and France and there’s an essay in the book about how they’re this ghostly representation of capitalist military oppression – there’s a lot of symbolism in these things. Once I started making these concrete structures I remembered the Bluegrass Army Depot which is 40 minutes away from here. It’s the largest storage of decommissioned nerve gas in the world—I think. The bunker type things there—they call them igloos—and they’re half underground with this nice grass and then there’s this concrete hexagonal form sticking out. They’re reminiscent of Native American mounds in some weird way. I grew up on a farm and my dad would plow the field and find arrowheads, so it’s a thing I’ve been conscious of my entire life: there’s always remnants of past civilizations all around you, whether you know it or not.
This plays into the plastic: by making these concrete forms out of plastic molds I am filling in this empty space of something that was once needed and usable and then suddenly completely disposable. And this plastic is part of the reason we probably won’t be here in a hundred years. I felt like there’s something in taking the negative space of these plastic objects and filling them in. I’ve always liked turning garbage into something—this is a more polished way of doing that. It’s a scavenger mentality; I’ve been saving all of this stuff for years and didn’t really know exactly what I was going to do with it.
AB: Getting back to the installation at 21c Lexington, when people walk into the gallery to look at the sculpture of concrete forms, they are also caught on the surveillance cameras. In a way, it feels like the viewer becomes part of your installation.
RB: I think it’s more about the perspective of things. The sculptural elements are obviously part of the installation but I wanted those to not be the first thing you see. One of the sets of cameras is focused on the objects themselves, and then another one is a larger view of the whole room. It’s getting people to look at it in a different way. If you look at the sculpture in the middle of the room, those concrete pieces look like they could be computer keys off of a keyboard. I’m obsessed with language as symbols. They could be computer keys or, if you look at it all as one thing and not the individual objects, it could be some alien language.
The security system is to remove you. You can be in the same room as something but be removed from it. And having it where people can see themselves on the camera adds another layer to that.
AB: Do you think that people knowing they’re being watched affects the way they’re seeing the art?
RB: Yeah, it’s definitely not a “fun” installation in any way. This is an oppressive thing. But everywhere you go, you’re on camera. I think people know that, but I don’t think it’s something people like to think about that much. It’s just a part of our lives now, and it’s only going to be worse. You can walk around here and anywhere you look you’re gonna see a security camera. Unless you’re out in the country.
AB: Then there are satellites.
RB: And your phone is listening to you all the time anyway too, so…
About Robert Beatty
Robert Beatty is an artist and musician based in Lexington, Kentucky. His multi-disciplinary work often uses outmoded technology and emulation of archaic techniques to yield organic and otherworldly results. Best known as a prolific album cover designer and illustrator, he also works with video, sound, and sculpture.