digital beasts

Internet Culture and Masks: Kyle Bustin’s Digital Beasts
By Joe Fowler

Kyle Bustin is a street artist, installation artist, and painter. His most recent work deals with the digital world and internet culture. Bustin was recently accepted to The Rooms’ Elbow Room Residency Program. There will be a public opening reception for his new exhibition, Digital Beasts, at The Rooms, tonight, at 7:00PM. The show will run until January 4th 2015.

I sat down with Kyle in Eastern Edge’s sunny lookout space to discuss his new work.

You work as both a street artist and gallery artist. Which came first?

One kind of inspired the other. Before I went to art school I was super into the idea of street art, but I was taking drawing classes and that kind of stuff. I went to art school thinking I’d be an animator or a graffiti artist, but my formal education and training was all gallery art and I’ve worked a lot in galleries as well.

When people talk street art they often bring up Banksy and Shepard Fairey, do you feel any affinity to these people? What street artists or otherwise are you most influenced or excited by?

I like Banksy and Shepard Fairey for different reasons. Banksy was exciting when I first started getting into street art but I started to feel like some of his ideas became played out. I still appreciate the type of work he does though, because people outside of the arts scene can feel like they relate to it. It’s easy to step into what he’s getting at. Shepard Fairey has taken the idea of branding commercialism to an interesting place through street art.

Artists I really like right now are Duncan Passmore, I like Nelio and a lot of Brazilian and South American stuff. I’m also really into Russian Constructivism, Early Abstraction and Futurism. Those asshole fascist guys make good work. I am also becoming more fond of letter work from more contemporary graffiti writers.

Street artists are known for more explicit, socially relevant content. What can people expect to see at your show at The Rooms?

Basically what I’ve created is a trophy room for a fictional future capitalist character. All the trophies in his room are masks I’ve made which are based off of internet archetypes and characters. They don’t represent all of the internet but each one is inspired by people that I’ve experienced. Each mask is mounted like deer heads on a wall and the whole show is exhibited like a fictional satirical museum space. There is also a museum didactic that talks about this period of history, this age of heightened security, and shows the repercussions of today’s environment and what I see happening in regards to the internet and the restriction of freedom.

Your work has an intentional relation to internet culture. Does your work also have an intentional relation to Newfoundland culture? Is the Newfoundland mummer a precursor to the internet troll?

The work is primarily relating to the internet, but I can see the connection because I actually started making masks again as I was preparing for the Mummers Festival and this project sort of stemmed from that. But it’s not an intentional relation. Like mummering, people get a sense of freedom when they have a mask on, and I was kind of looking at internet avatars and identities as giving people that sort of freedom where they feel like they can express themselves in free manner.

Some people would argue that transparency on the internet would somehow civilize things. Do you believe this to be the case?

Without anonymity how would things like Wiki Leaks exist? We need to hold the government responsible. Look at the Arab Spring. Activists there need anonymity to protect themselves. People need to be held accountable if they do something terrible. I am in favour of internet policing but I’m more afraid of anonymity being given only to government agencies and large companies and what I really want is an even playing field, a fair internet.

Given that this particular body of work is dealing with a lot of social justice issues, do you consider it activism in a sense?

It can be viewed that way, but the work is also very fun and satirical. I’m playing with a lot of museum presentation ideas. I grew up with internet anonymity so I’d be very annoyed to have to relinquish it. Activism as purely anger and rage would be boring.

Batman wears a mask because he needs to remain anonymous to pursue justice, but by the same token the villains he often pursues wear masks to evade justice. Where do your masks fall in terms of good and evil?

I don’t think they fall on either side. They are meant to be more neutral. There are a lot of great things anonymity can allow you to do.  This reminds me of how Facebook is now requiring drag queens in The States to prove what their name is using government issued ID, which is sort of insane. But that aspect of being able to be free with your art and free to be someone else can be very empowering. It’s about being able to experiment with who they are. The repercussions of trying to control anonymity aren’t worth it. The mask isn’t to blame here.

The history of masks is as extensive and it is expansive. Your masks are referencing very new ideas. Do their formal qualities draw inspiration from Kabuki theatre, traditional African mask making?

No, not specifically those types. My mask creation comes more from Jim Henson style stuff. I always loved that stuff as a kid – quirky kids movies, Star Wars – but those in turn were probably influenced by Kabuki and African masks. With the idea of putting masks in the museum for this work, that certainly has a relation to African masks and the appropriation of culture, which I am very conscious of for this show. But the construction of the masks, that is the formal qualities is more inspired by popular culture of mask making.

You worked on a performance this year with Sara Tilley and Elling Lien that involved clowning. Can you talk a bit about the role of humour in your work?

I draw an affinity with clowning because it’s direct and immediate and expressive emotionally. The training that I did with Sara was called Clowning Through Masks. You use masks as a way to express yourself and develop characters and grow comfortable with your actions. So in a way I was tapping into that kind of stuff because I was using my gut reactions and tapping into these characters and thinking about what each character in this work would do. I like clowning because it’s a theatrical fringe practice. And being on the fringe allows you to play a little more. It’s a way to reflect back onto culture as a whole. So I use play, satire, and exaggeration a lot in my work similar to how I would through clowning.

For more about Kyle Bustin and his work check out his artist talk on Wednesday the 24th of September inside the Level 3 art gallery of the Rooms.