Surveillance Archeology: A Conversation with Robert Beatty

for Burnaway, January 2020

Installation view of Robert Beatty’s Place Holder at 21c Museum Hotels Lexington. (All images courtesy 21c Museum Hotels)

Robert Beatty’s illustrations often blend seemingly organic material with man-made technological artifacts: in one, a pink rotary phone spills wet and misshapen from a crack in the shell of an egg that is harnessed by leather and brass. In 2016, Floating World Comics published Floodgate Companion, a collection of Beatty’s sci-fi-flavored, psychedelic illustrations and album cover art. In lieu of text, Beatty often uses an indecipherable pictographic language whose visual style references a fictitious cosmic culture alongside earth’s own recent technological past. To view Beatty’s work is to view a history that is both familiar and foreign, simultaneously a present reality and the hypothetical ruins of a projected future.

A multidisciplinary artist living and working in Lexington, Kentucky, Beatty’s latest installation Place Holder marks a departure from his more widely known album covers, showing his uniquely crafted visual language applied to sculpture and video.

In the installation, small, gray concrete forms are arranged to build an abstract Brutalist model landscape reminiscent of ancient Mayan ruins. Surrounding these structures, three security cameras survey Beatty’s design and project the resulting video on the wall of the same room. The plinth used for Place Holder is not rectangular but instead angled, making the surface of the support smaller at the top than at the base. Beatty’s continued use of this rhombus shape in his work references the old-fashioned raised keys on a computer keyboard, a form that—in a matter of decades— has flattened, shrunk, and, in some cases, disappeared.

I recently spoke with Beatty about his approach to this installation, the elements of form and time contained in Place Holder, and how he sees this body of work evolving further still.

A spread from Beatty’s Floodgate Companion, 2016.

Ryan Filchak: 21c Lexington hosts public gallery viewing hours twenty-four-hours a day, seven days a week. Did the concept of this sort of constant access to Place Holder influence the design of the installation for you?

Robert Beatty: That wasn’t an explicit reason for doing the show at 21c, but I was definitely glad people had access to the work all times of the day and that they could often be the only person in the installation if they timed it right. In the initial plan for this exhibition I had wanted to livestream the camera feed on the internet for the duration of the exhibition, but that became a bit more complicated than I could manage in the time I had to organize everything.

RF: Do the added layers of projected security camera footage of concrete forms support this idea?

RB: A lot of the ideas that went into this piece sprang from awareness: the forms being molded from single use plastics, the shapes having a connection to ancient megaliths and earthworks and Brutalist buildings, constant surveillance. I think having a live closed circuit camera feed where you become part of the installation adds to that.

RF: In an interview with Alex Brooks, the museum manager of 21c Lexington, you mention how the shapes presented in Place Holder draw upon Native American earthen mounds, Mayan Pyramids, and “Bunker Archaeology.” Could you expand on these references?

RB: When I started collecting the plastic blister packaging that I ended up using to make the forms for this series, I tried to think about the shapes themselves abstractly. Knowing that this material will outlast the people who made it, I thought about archaeology and how so much of it is pieced together from what little we actually know. After thousands of years, will this trash be all that’s left of us? And what will future civilizations put together from that that tells any sort of story about who we are?

RF: When looking at Place Holder, I am reminded of another work from your 2011 exhibition Cream Grid Reruns at Institute 193 in which six “melting” cones sit on top of a mirror mounted perpendicular to the wall. These oozing shapes mark the first time I saw the imagery of your illustrations translated into 3D works. Do you have a desire to connect your 2D works to these installations, or do you view these bodies of work separately?

RB: I view everything I make as somewhat connected. There’s always something related in form or content that moves from one piece to the next, whether the work is commercial or shown in a gallery space. With the sculptural work, I’m always trying to figure out how to translate something I’m making in the 2D realm, or in the computer, into the real world as an object. To me it all comes from the same place, but it might not seem that way to someone not as familiar with the themes present throughout my work.

Installation view of Place Holder at 21c Museum Hotels Lexington.

RF: You mentioned that you accumulated the various molds and shapes for Place Holder over several years before bringing them together in this current configuration. Do you see yourself expanding upon this landscape, or does this installation feel like the culmination of this particular scavenger hunt?

RB: It’s all an ongoing process for me, and this work still feels like I’m figuring it out and that these installations still have places to go. So far I’ve shown iterations of work made from these concrete forms molded from found plastic in the Atlanta Biennial, at The Parachute Factory in Lexington, and in the 21c installation. I’m still collecting things for this work and definitely want to keep expanding upon it in different configurations.

Robert Beatty: Place Holder was recently on view at 21c Museum Hotels Lexington.