The NBA Gets Absurd — A Conversation with Mitchell Barton

The NBA Gets Absurd — A Conversation with Mitchell Barton
Raptors vs. Warriors Game 6, #18 (2021)
Photo
Courtesy of the artist

When we close our eyes at night, we see receipts drifting into vortexes and black holes. Okay, not really — but we thought this would be a cool concept for Intersection’s landing page. And none of it would have been possible without the help of collaborator and developer Mitchell Barton. 

Mitchell makes websites, but he’s also a practicing visual artist whose work as a front-end developer influences his art. And of course, the opposite is also true; it was actually his art practice that led him to coding in the first place. Hoping to create a bespoke portfolio site, he realized he could learn how to make one for himself. Nearly a decade later and it’s bringing websites to life as an independent contractor that fills his 9–5, though he also continues to make art on a daily basis. Thankfully, these two separate practices — web development and artistic practice — have organic overlap, just as they did when Mitchell was an art student. Likewise, both continue to hold special significance in his creative practice as a whole.

“Most of what I do ends up being digital in some way,” Mitchell explains, elaborating on his favorite mediums: photography, mixed media, collage, and drawing. “I don’t have [one medium] I stick to. Usually I think about ideas first, and then I think about what the best way to work on that particular idea is. If it’s a photo, great. If it’s a drawing, a website, or some kind of software, then I’ll head in that direction.” 

The results? For Mitchell, the finished product is variable, and can run the gamut from photographic print to freestanding sculpture and manipulated photo of said sculpture, or to something as off-kilter as a freestyle rap robot computer program or an “International Art English” generator.

Need an esoteric statement for your latest white-cube-gallery installation? Mitchell can give you one in less than ten seconds. 

As to whether all of these procedural dynamics mean his work is conceptually driven or not, Mitchell responds with, “Kind of? I think it’s more about the mediums referring back to themselves. I’ll have an idea and then maybe I’m working on some photographs, so based on those, I get another idea. The concepts and ideas come from the process of working.” In this way, an initial concept is only part of the puzzle in Mitchell’s practice. And any given concept or idea, he says, doesn’t come out of thin air. It’s more or less a “chicken or the egg” situation: the ideas wouldn’t come without creation, but the creation wouldn’t happen without ideas.

All in all, Mitchell sees making art as an opportunity to “play,” and if he ever gets to overthinking, he’ll refer back to a favorite quote from artist Chuck Close: “Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.” 

Simple to recall, this statement packs a big punch — it’s a reminder to make lots of work; to get busy rather than dwell on the existential why’s and how’s of a proverbial writer’s block. “I tend to make lots of work and then I whittle it down from there,” Mitchell explains. “I like working this way because it makes me feel free to experiment. It embraces failure. [And from there] I go based on what I respond to the most. Some of my work I see again and really like, and some things I just don’t. So I end up [focusing on the] work I’m most excited about.” 

Take a look at Mitchell’s latest work and you’ll notice it heavily features professional sports imagery with nostalgic undercurrents. Is there a reason for this? “I started making work about sports because I came out of school and realized I should make work about things I like.”

By this logic, the NBA is clearly something Mitchell likes, but it goes deeper than that: “I’m really interested in the way we watch sports, what it means to watch a sporting event in person versus on television,” he says. 

To Mitchell, basketball is one of the most interesting sports when it comes to spectatorship: “The players are so visible to you, as well as the fans,” he says. “Everything is super close. It’s also the ‘celebrities’ sport.’ People go and sit on the front row. No one does that at a soccer or football game. But at basketball games, celebrities want to be seen.” On top of that, he continues, if you’re watching a professional basketball game at an actual arena, you’re experiencing the game not only by looking straight at the court, but by engaging with the massive jumbotron above the court. This jumbotron shows the game’s moments up close, zooms up on fans, engages with celebrities. 

“All of these dynamics are interesting to me,” Mitchell says. “So how can I hijack these dynamics and mess with them? I had this idea: What if, while I’m watching a basketball game, I take photos of my TV every time the score changes? With basketball, [that means] I can take 100, 200 photos a game. I like the idea of marking time, or marking the amount of time I’ve spent watching this ‘thing.’ And in that sense [the work] becomes somewhat of a performance where maybe I’m collaborating with the TV or I’m collaborating with the broadcast team.” 

Courtesy of the artist – Raptors vs. Warriors Game 6, #35 (2021)

This all makes sense, but there’s an elephant in the room: namely Mitchell’s cardboard basketball arena + jumbotron diorama, present in some of his most recent pieces.

The diorama just adds another layer of performance, he laughs. “I started printing out the images I was taking of the basketball games, and had the idea, ‘What if I created these situations with collage and sculpture and then turned them into photographs? I liked the idea of another layer of separation: You’re watching the game on TV, and then it’s becoming a print, and then it’s back to the [real physical world] in a sculpture, and then it’s getting photographed again and becoming a digital thing, and then maybe that digital thing is printed out again.” It’s a Marshal McLuhan-inspired line-up, the same “thing” spanning formats and physical dimensions. 

Mitchell’s year of spectator experimentation coincided with his being awarded an arts fellowship from the state of Utah, where he lives and works. By the end of 2021, he hopes to finish designing a book featuring the “best of” these basketball images. Part of this work has also involved writing, leading Mitchell to exercise new creative muscles. “I was already making these images with subtitles on them,” he explains. “… Featuring ridiculous things that commentators would never actually say but that seemed funny or interesting to have on top of sports images. So it seemed like a natural next step for me to write my own longer conversations between commentators [for the book].” 

Mitchell drew inspiration for these conversations from two landmark American novels: Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929). These books are hard to read, he says — very absurdist. And they don’t feature linear narrative progressions. “I was interested in that kind of format for this book of basketball images, like taking this very linear game where the score only increases, and shuffling it up into different time progressions.” That’s kind of how we experience basketball games, anyway, he adds. At least that’s how our memories function when we think back on them. 

So what can we anticipate in terms of presentation? A mass of basketball images, all kinds of absurd, all re-contextualizing what it means to be a spectator.

Mitchell explains: “I have the idea of creating a custom three-ring binder. You know how people that collect sports cards have three-ring binders for their cards? I want to at least do something influenced by that, something that somehow references this specific presentation.” 

Maybe, says Mitchell, there’s something about this mixing of sports and art that will appeal to people who aren’t normally attracted to what they perceive as “contemporary art.” And of course, there’s humor in all of this, he says. “I feel like a lot of the time artists take themselves too seriously, and I’m drawn to material that goes against that — to things that might not have anything ‘important’ to say. They might seem insignificant, but really, they’re doing good things. I don’t know if that makes sense, but that’s how it seems to me.” 

See Mitchell’s absurdist, sports card pseudo binder vision come to life at mitchellbarton.com, or on Instagram @mitchellcliftonbarton. You can also follow his DIY gallery space @washer_dryer_projects and learn more about his work as a developer at cold-rice.info.


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