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A transforming experience with Brian Knep 

Brain Knep's exhibition Per(MUTATIONS): Interactive Work by Brian Knep mixes science and art to create some deep thoughts. Knep, who once worked at George Lucas' company Industrial Light and Magic to create special effects, now has a residency at Harvard Medical School, where he creates his own masterpieces from observations of various organisms, including frogs. His exhibition in Charlotte runs through March 7 at the McColl Center for Visual Art.

Creative Loafing: Can you tell me about your background? What were you doing before art?

I studied math and computer science in college and I went right into the film industry. I worked for George Lucas' company for four years. I did Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, Star Trek and all those kinds of big, high-end special effects movies. I was working on writing very specific software to create visuals. I got tired of that: As time went on, we were cranking out movies that I didn't really care about. They were fun movies, but they just didn't have a lot of soul to them. So what happened was I got really interested in using very simple mathematics and science to create beautiful, complex things. By chance, I happened to meet a scientist at Harvard Medical School who was doing a very similar thing through science, and we connected and became friends. After that, we worked together. And so I created a residency at Harvard Medical School.

And all this was after you worked in film?

Yeah. Actually, I did the movie thing, I did pottery for awhile, I did design for, like, children museums and science museums, and then I became an artist. So I've been an artist now for about five, six years, and I've been an artist in residence at Harvard Medical School for about three years now.

What do you do at Harvard Medical School?

When I'm there, what I do is basically use the same animals as they're working with, the same equipment and some of the same techniques, but to try to talk about science, culture, the more spiritual kind of artistic things, but by using the same methods that they do. So all my work there now is using organisms, like frogs. I did a bunch of work on frogs to talk about aging, change and the struggle against pain. There's a sort of idea that as we go through life, we have a lot of fears, and with any fear we have, there's always two ways of dealing with it. You can try to change your environment, so that you can minimize the risk of this fear coming true. So for instance, say there's a disease and we're all scared of getting sick. We could put a lot of money, time and effort into medicine and science to try to find cures for diseases and that's a good thing. But there's another way of dealing with fear, which is to work on your inside and to learn by acceptance and to say, "We're all going to get sick at some point. We're all going to die at some point." I feel like as a culture, we don't do that enough. We focus a lot on the external. So, a lot of my work is using the same techniques that scientists use to deal with the external to talk about the internal.

Why the exhibition title Per(Mutations)?

Well, titles are always a strange thing. In the exhibition, there are three separate pieces and a lot of the work deals with emergence. You can think about schooling fish or flocking birds. Scientists call the way they move "emerging behavior." If you look at a school of fish, it's got this beautiful choreographed-like behavior and it looks beautiful, but there's no fish saying, "Hey, you go there and you go there." If each fish has a very simple behavior when you put them all together, then you get this beautiful group behavior. You can see that in fish, birds and ants. So you get lots and lots of permutations out of a simple behavior. Here's a good example; let's look at zebra stripes. The patterning of an animal happens in a similar way. Pigment molecules move around the animal as it's growing. They are each following very simple rules and whenever these pigment molecules react to each other, they become beautiful patterns, like zebra stripes. But when you look at a zebra, you know right away it's a zebra; however, no two zebras look alike. Every zebra is a different permutation of this based sort of behavior.

Can you tell me about the frogs you've worked with?

I got these frogs from the lab at Harvard Medical School and I worked with them for about a month to understand how they worked, how they swam, how to take care of them and how to photograph them. Then I spent about two months photographing them almost every day. I photographed them with a time lapse camera for five to 10 minutes every day and at the end of this process, I ended up with several thousands of pictures of frogs. I went through them and found interesting ones, where the frogs had made a major growth change from a tadpole into a frog. After that, I put them all together into a movie and I made some prints as well. I made a movie of a frog swimming and changing from tadpole to frog and then changing back. I did some manipulations and Photoshop. What happens is you see this tadpole and his legs grow and they pull up and they kick. As they are kicking, they are growing, and his tail shrinks and at the end of the kick it's an adult frog. Then the legs come back and fuse together into a tail and he drops back into a tadpole. Using this base video, I created a number of works that are all about cycling and about the idea of struggling to stay young, struggling to keep up with time and all the while constantly cycling from young to old. One of these I'm showing here (at McColl Center For Visual Art) is called "Frog Time." It's got a frog on a wall and there's this grid behind it that's constantly going at a very even calm pace. That essentially symbolizes time. The frog is trying to swim to catch up with time, but the faster it swims, the faster it just cycles. It's cycling and not really getting anywhere. It gets very tired, it stops, drifts back and then tries again. It is a sort of metaphor for struggling to keep up with time and the way our lives cycle and keep repeating things over and over again. The video is projected on the wall and it's quite big. I wanted those looking at the piece to have a kind of personal relationship with frogs that wasn't small, but big. The size of the frog's head is about the size of a human head.

Is that the only frog piece in the exhibition?

I also have the prints. I have a piece called "Twin Paths," and what I did was I went through all these thousands of photographs and I found a photograph of a frog where it was very straight in the frame and another image where it was kind of bent up and swimming or something. In the exhibition, there are two rows and in one row, there are eight pictures. The row starts out with all the straightened out frogs and at the end he's gone and there's some ambiguity as to what happened. On the other row, there are frogs that are all twisted up and it's sort of hard to tell if they are in ecstasy or agony. It grows as well, and toward the end it tries to get out of its cage, but at the end it's dead. And so it's kind of getting this idea of how the same life can look very different from different points of view. There's the saying that no two children grow up in the same family. Often your own view of your family is very different than a sibling's, even though it's the same family. It's also about choices a bit; the choices you make and how they make you who you are.

What do you hope that viewers will get out of your exhibition?

In all my work, I think it's important to me to create some kind of transformative experience for people, so that they think about the world in a different way maybe, or just open their minds up in some way. I often try to use humor or interactivity or science as a way in, so that people will look at the pieces and jump onto that area and their conscious mind will sort of re-engage with that and then hopefully a little bit more of a meaning about change, about psyche, about acceptance, about cycling, about fertility and all that will kind of be able to slip in there somehow to affect them on a subconscious level and maybe actually affect change in them. For me, that's what art is about, to try to give people shivers, to try to open them up to a new way of thinking or to revisit an old way of thinking that they've forgotten about.

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