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The Art Assignment continues its journey through New Orleans with Brandan "BMike" Odums, the mastermind behind "ExhibitBE", a collaborative street art exhibition that transformed an unoccupied apartment building and gave it new life. Now he's asking YOU to do something similar.

John and Sarah then discuss the movements in art history of exploring and transforming ruins and highlights Sarah's favorite artist, Gordon Matta Clark.

1. Find a discarded object
2. Think about where that object has been and use that story to transform it into something new
3. Upload before and after photos using #theartassignment
4. Fame and glory (Your work might be in a future episode)
(PBS Digital Studios Intro)

Sarah: Today, we're in New Orleans to meet Brandan Odums.  He's an artist, a filmmaker, a writer, and the founder of 2-Cent Entertainment, an organization that encourages young people to use film, video, and social media to express their ideas about issues they care about, and Brandan is the mastermind behind Exhibit Be, this five story collaborative street art exhibition that's in an unoccupied apartment building in the Algiers neighborhood.  He transformed another housing complex in 2013 into the site of Project Be, a series of large scale painted portraits of Civil Rights heroes.  While that project was largely closed due to safety concerns, this one will be open to the public for a short time as part of Prospect.3, a bi-annual art exhibition that's spread throughout the city.  Brandan and other talented artists took this largely overlooked site and gave it a new life, and he's gonna ask you to do something similar.

Brandan: Peace, this is Brandan "BMike" Odums, and this is your art assignment.

(The Art Assignment Intro)

Brandan: I was always taught in school, the way I interpreted the message from my teachers where if you're not selling art or if your art is not on display somewhere, then you know, you're not an artist, so when I wasn't selling anything and when my art wasn't on display, I, you know, I was like, I was discouraged, I guess, and here comes me paying attention to street art, which existed beyond all those rules, you know, it wasn't--it wasn't created for attention or glory or money, because you didn't know who was doing it.  They couldn't sell it, so I was like, wow, this is amazing to me, that this was existing beyond these rules that I thought dealt with art.  So I became attracted to that, to the point where I wanted to duplicated it, I wanted to do it as well.

The first space I painted in, it was more so me like, exploring something new, so I didn't really--I didn't really think beyond the surface, outside of just me being in this new space, painting in this new medium. The second project, Project Be, really became about understanding what art can do as a function.  I started to see how this space that was forgotten, people started to come to it, and what did that mean and how just as simple as paint was able to transform a space, and not only me but other artists all started to come to this space, it wasn't like somebody was going to give us a check at the end of the day, but everybody was just out there having fun, and people were coming out and experiencing it, and it was just the idea, this alchemy that happened, when we transformed that space, and that was something new, and then with this particular space, it was a different feeling, because in this space, there was a long--the space at the Florida Housing Project was a new apartment building.  It had just been built before Katrina, so it was not even occupied, it was like, partially occupied before the storm, so a lot of the spaces were, like, brand new apartments, so we didn't really have to come across people's belongings or step over people's objects that they had left, when we came here, that's what happened here, like, this particular space, you couldn't avoid the idea that this has a long story, that people used to live here, that this was once inhabited by lots of people, and so that forced us to think about what does that mean that a space can exist for this long and be empty? 

Your assignment is to be an alchemist, is to be an artistic alchemist, and to transform an object.  It can be anything, it can be something discarded on the side of the road, or it can be something you find in your basement, in your attic, or it could be something you find in the trash, but use art, use paint, use your paintbrush, your pencil, use something to transform that object into something else, and then think about what the story is behind that object, like, how did it get in your hands, where did it start from and how did it get to where it is now, or try to figure out how you can transform it into something that's now valuable.  Take something that was no longer valuable and make it valuable. 

Sarah: So John, you're kind of a sucker for abandoned spaces.

John: I do enjoy an abandoned place here and there.  I've broken into/visited a lot of them in my life, I am a big fan of photography of certain abandoned spaces.

Sarah: And why is it you think that you like it so much?

John: I don't know.  I mean, some of it is that everything that we build is going to fall apart, so it's a way of glimpsing that future.  Some of it is I'm interested in the world that once was and no longer is, and that's a way of visiting it.

Sarah: Yeah, there's something really seductive about it, but we aren't the first generation to be interested in ruins.  In fact, there was a whole movement in the 18th century, a kind of ruin-mania.

John: Right, Diderot wrote about it, he was like, "We contemplate the ravages of time, and in our imagination we scatter the rubble of the very buildings in which we live over the ground; in that moment solitude and silence prevail around us, we are the sole survivors of an entire nation that is no more.  Such is the first tenet of the poetics of ruins."  So I guess that's what I love.  I love the poetics of ruins.

Sarah: Yeah, that's really lovely, but what I really appreciate about this assignment is that it works on several different scales, like, Brandan could work with an entire abandoned building, but you could sort through your basement or your attic or the trash and find something to work with. 

John: Yeah, that reminds me, don't break the law.  We are not telling you to break into an abandoned building. 

Sarah: No, although there are artists who have done that to great effect in the past, including my favorite artist of all time, who I would leave you for if he were still alive, Gordon Matta-Clark.

John: I don't even blame you.

Sarah: Gordon Matta-Clark studied architecture in the 1960s, but spent most of his short life dismantling buildings rather than creating new ones.  He called this anarchitecture, and is best known for his building cuts, in which he used chainsaws to carve into abandoned buildings.  For splitting, he took a house in Englewood, New Jersey that had been slated for demolition and sliced two vertical lines through it.  He then jacked the entire structure up and off its foundation, tipped one side back, and literally split the house in two.  Matta-Clark filmed the process and took photographs from inside the bisected building.  The cuts allowed daylight to spill into the previously sealed off structure, and exposed interior surfaces that bore traces of previous residents.  What he called his undoing of the building was and is rife with metaphorical resonance, as if he were creating space for the house's spirits to escape.  It was demolished just months later, and nothing of the work remained.

Brandan is asking us to perform a similar transformation, to take an abandoned item and think about its past life, to make it into something different, something transcendent, if even for a short time. 

Brandan: So the object I chose to transform is a tire.  You can find them all over the place, they're all over the streets around here, so I found one, and I'm going to try to figure out what I can do to it.  The first thing I'm going to do is clean it and then I'm gonna just paint it.

Teachers approached us and said, well, can we do a tour with our students? And we were like, oh, this is perfect. So we started thinking about-- okay, what could we do with the students while they were here to sort of get them in the same vein of what we have done.

All throughout the street out there is tons of tires. And a few of the artists, as a part of this exhibit, kinda were working with the tires, re-purposing the tires, cutting 'em up and turning them into sculptures and painting them. So, like, it will be cool to challenge these young people to think what they could do with these tires, you know, we just leave some art supplies and what would you do with the tires?

So we left-- so one tour we left some tires out, we had all the paint, and we kinda gave them instructions about what street art is, it's about identity, it's about transformation, and we told them we wanted you to do that with these tires, we want this tire to become you. Like, we want to look at this tire and say, oh, I know exactly who did that one, that's you right there.

So we wanted them to transform it and to make it a part of their identity. And we broke them into groups and each group of three would take one tire and they would just paint on it, and it became an exciting thing. Like, the tires would become transformed, become colorful and become filled with words and filled with life, and then we would leave them around the site and point them out to people as they do the next tour. We're like, oh, that's some students your age, they created those tires over there.

So that's what we kind of have them do, we have like an hour for them to just sit and play with the tires and transform them using whatever colors, whatever mediums they want to use.

[outro music plays]

Brandan: No, y'all, I'm good, I'm good. I just keep thinking about, like, but it's good.