Orange Crate Art (née Tobias Bernsand) has been the soundtrack composer for our two latest episodes of Art Ephemera TV (#3 and 4, seen here and here). His music has not only become a central component of this short documentary series but is now a source of fascination for many of the followers of this site. Yours truly (editor Brian Chidester) recently sat down with Bernsand to discuss his soundtrack work and before long found the questions turned on myself to define (or clarify) the purpose of this website for perhaps the first time. I think you’ll agree the composer’s affable way with words is equalled only by his penetrating outlook on art and the world.

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Brian Chidester: We should probably start by talking about the Susan King documentary if you don’t mind. Only because it’s the newest episode we have out.

Orange Crate Art: Not at all. So the starting point for my making the soundtrack was that I felt in no way could I understand what was going on inside Susan’s mind.

BC: Haha! And so then was there no effort on your part to try and get into her headspace by looking at her art and then composing the songs?

OCA: Oh, I did try, but it was more just thinking of someone who was able to express herself in one specific way, but in other, let’s say “normal” ways, not at all.

BC: Right. So then you basically tasked yourself with writing music that contemplated alternate modes of communication. Or, well… I obviously had to work around that for the directing side of the film too because she couldn’t give us, like, a regular interview as our previous subjects all had.

OCA: Her art doesn’t need an interpreter, per se, but socially she does.

BC: And I often wonder whether that side of her… the side that is non-autonomous… ever gives her anxiety or makes her feel depressed?

OCA: Just looking at it from the outside, I think it would be a mistake to suggest she’s in any way unhappy, or not content with not being able to communicate like everybody else. I recorded the soundtrack on two different levels, trying to capture her playfulness on the one hand, which is evident in her art, while also acknowledging her inability to communicate the way humans normally communicate, on the other.

BC: And the soundtrack seems to oscillate a lot between obtuse/intense and playful/inviting as a result.

OCA: Again, her art suggests that she’s enjoying life in her own way, but you might say it’s the outside world which has a problem with her lack of conventional communication. The rest of us are frustrated, not Susan, but then I don’t want to speculate too much.

BC: And of course she’s still interested in communicating to the outside world because she’s put so much time and effort into making this body of work.

OCA: The subject matter especially stands out.

The Orange Crate Art soundtrack album to "Drawing the Inside Out: The Art of Susan Te Kahurangi King," available at orangecrateart.bandcamp.com. Artwork by Susan Te Kahurangi King.

The Orange Crate Art soundtrack album to “Drawing the Inside Out: The Art of Susan Te Kahurangi King,” available at orangecrateart.bandcamp.com. Artwork by Susan Te Kahurangi King.

BC: I agree and we can come back to that topic later. For now I want to focus on the music you composed as I’m still pretty enamored by how it all came together.

OCA: We work quickly, you and I, based on the experience we’ve had now with these two episodes of Art Ephemera TV. It’s been more a spur of the moment thing than spending lots of time pre-planning it.

BC: I had no specific narrative or end-goal that I felt I needed to hit.

OCA: Going into the music, I had recorded some initial pieces, then stopped for a few weeks, not really feeling the vibe. Then I went back and it came together really quickly. It took about two weeks to write and record.

BC: As the Creator/God of these little aesthetic worlds, i.e. these documentary shorts, I’m pretty much corruptible, open to suggestion, whimsy, whatever. I think I prefer to react rather than try to control everything, like an auteur would.

OCA: My own lesson in making music since the nineties is that my plans eventually come to life but not necessarily when I think they will. It’s like they have a life of their own, and four or eight years later, the time happens to be right to finish something begun way back when. My goal since 2015 has been to finish what I start as quickly as possible, because otherwise it won’t happen, or it might happen but it’ll take years to get to a new point of energy and inspiration. What I really love about working with you is that we have an instant connection.

BC: Agreed. But there’s also the sense of hesitation in giving yourself over to deadlines and putting your stuff out there for everyone to see. It’s like when you fall in love with someone and don’t know if they feel the same way. More often than not the fear is in your head. But that doesn’t make it any easier.

OCA: Like yourself, I used to be more of a controlling auteur, but these days it’s gotten to be very spontaneous, including arrangements. Nearly every recording you hear by Orange Crate Art is 80 percent of what was recorded and mixed in the first hour. Following through is an interesting subject, though, because I have the studio and can self-distribute whenever I feel like it. It must be harder for you, as a filmmaker, since you have to rely on funding for your bigger projects.

BC: It was more frustrating when I was in my early twenties and just out of film school. I found myself working on a lot of other people’s projects, or I would direct or write a film, but not have any final say in how it turned out. Normal paying of dues I suppose. And it always came with the promise that on the next one I’d be more involved in the overall vision of the film. But I came to see these as empty promises. That’s why I transformed myself into a writer in the mid-to-late aughts. Research and collecting was always at the core of everything I did as a filmmaker anyway so it wasn’t a far stretch to take that and apply it to publishing rather than film. I more or less just needed to teach myself the language of journalism which I did over time. I actually think on some level Art Ephemera TV and the whole Ephemera site addresses this frustration.

OCA: That’s interesting. How so?

BC: Well, the whole premise of the website sort of points to my disdain for low hanging fruit, meaning I’ve no interest in covering the mainstream art icons of today or even of the past.

OCA: And so is the attitude you have now that you’re not going to compromise what your films should say?

BC: That’s part of it. But there’s a bigger point I’m trying to make here. I probably didn’t even articulate it as well as I should have before launching the website. Part of me thinks too much planning kills the energy of something and I guess I prefer to jump right in and let things evolve over time.

OCA: I would totally shelve a record because I’m unhappy with some part of it.

BC: What I’m talking about has more to do with hidden coercions that exist in art-making. Most of the time we’re sort of blissfully unaware that our work fits into certain conventions because no artist wants to be labelled or (god forbid) made to feel conventional. But I find that whole mindset to be pretentious and I guess I feel like Ephemera, for me, is a website and short film series devoted to art and artists that are NOT a part of the avant-garde. I’m much more interested in subculture and things which are vernacular for instance.

OCA: The avant-garde art world usually seems to be more studied and self-aware than spontaneous to me.

BC: It feels inorganic in so many ways to me. Forced actually. But with an artist like Susan King you get none of that which is why she is such a contrast in my opinion. Her work is based in cheap toys that come in cereal boxes or clown mascots from soda-pop ads or Sunday cartoon shows.

OCA: And the Pop artists did that in the sixties as well, which was when she began her art-making career, but I don’t see Susan making social commentary on the world of mass media. She just reacts and relates.

BC: I don’t ever recall seeing Donald Duck or Bugs Bunny or the Fanta Man show the kinds of fears or hesitations or emotional reactions in their mass media versions than Susan has given them in her drawings. She more or less deploys them as spokespersons for her hidden catalog of emotions. What did Jerry Seinfeld say? “You can be passionate about anything. Fall in love with the back of your cereal box!”

OCA: One of the main problems in Western culture and society today is that everybody has an opinion but few are interested in listening to what other people might have to say. Outside of making music, I don’t really think I’m that interesting as a person, just like everybody else. It would be absurd to think that my opinions about this or that are the right ones and that I don’t have to listen to other viewpoints. Instead, I tend to search out other viewpoints just for the sake of it, to learn about the world. That’s something I see in Susan’s art. She has that childlike wonder where she exposes herself to and explores the wonders of the universe.

BC: I think the breakthrough for me came when I saw how her sister Petita [Cole] collected toys and ads relating to imagery in Susan’s older art. There was a tableau of her collection at last year’s Outsider Art Fair here in New York and it took my breath away because I felt that this artist, Susan, probably toiled away in total obscurity and darkness before that collection came to fruition. According to Petita [in our film], the family knew Susan was good at drawing, for instance, and they recognized her talent early on, but it was Petita who took her sister’s artistic pursuit seriously enough to try and understand its language, to decode it really.

OCA: And did no one film her tableau?

BC: No, unfortunately we started the film several months after that, and if there was anything I regretted about the documentary, it’s not getting Petita’s collection in there more. I was glad she became our narrator, or the storyteller of Susan’s artistic journey, and she did talk a little bit about the things she’s collected, like that receipt with the anthropomorphic piece of plywood. But I would’ve liked to’ve gone much deeper.

OCA: Do you think you maybe could release a second version of the Susan King film with a new part on Petita’s collection?

BC: I’ve actually thought about revisiting some of these artists we’ve already covered in later episodes of Art Ephemera TV. If the series was produced more regularly, if we could be more prolific with it, then I think that would make sense. But in the case of Susan, I’d prefer not to make another documentary about her, per se. I’d be interested in one about Petita though!

OCA: That’s a fascinating idea.

BC: Yeah, I’ve long wanted to make a documentary about a collector, as I think of collecting as an art form in itself.

OCA: I would love a second short documentary on Matt Marello [the subject of Art Ephemera TV episode 3].

BC: Oh, your music for the Matt episode was a total surprise, by the way. I gave you a few directions, like ‘Make it sound new-agey,’ but for the most part I had no idea how it would turn out, or that it would play such a huge role in the film. As for revisiting him in another doc, I think that’s a definite possibility, only because I feel like the idea of having a mystical vision is still something that is taboo in mainstream art—kind of the kiss of death for an artist. At least it’s always kind of seemed that way to me ever since I got into art as a teenager in the nineties. That may be changing now. I saw that the Metropolitan Museum is about to launch an exhibition on conspiracies in art next month.

OCA: Sounds like something I should visit!

BC: Totally. As you probably know, the current orientation of the avant-garde, and of the mainstream art world, is still pretty hostile towards anything religious or of a spiritual nature. And they turn their noses up at subculture too, like comics and illustration, which Matt’s work definitely acknowledges and applies.

OCA: Regarding my music: I’ve got one leg in the early nineties and another in the usual sixties music that everybody loves. Beyond that, I’m into all kinds of stuff, like soundtracks, American classical, Brazilian music; and I don’t see why I shouldn’t let everything come out in my music. I never understood that Metallica mentality where every record sounds like Metallica. I repeat myself a lot in my music but I don’t see the point in saying no to myself if I happen to record something that isn’t part of the core of what I do.

BC: I don’t know how you feel about this, but to my ears the soundtrack you did for the Matt Marello film is made up of quite a lot of varied pieces, like the Susan King film also, but with Matt’s they seem less fragmented somehow.

OCA: The Susan King soundtrack is definitely fragmented and in some ways was easier to make because I didn’t have as great an emotional connection to it as I did the Matt soundtrack. I like it. But recording the latter was an entirely different experience. I think I told you before that it was a deep, personal, mystical experience which I walked in and out of while recording it.

The Orange Crate Art soundtrack to "The Exegesis of Matt Marello," which can be found here.

The Orange Crate Art soundtrack to “The Exegesis of Matt Marello,” which can be found here.

BC: Have you ever had any mystical experiences yourself?

OCA: Tons of them. But they were probably all just happening inside my brain. At least that’s what I’m going to say publicly!

BC: Taking the fifth. Smart. Again: there’s no benefit in claiming an actual mystical experience.

OCA: Well, the very first memory I have is of floating inside the house I lived in, in the late seventies, during the night. I’ve had a lot of hypnagogic experiences all throughout my life and they have definitely shaped me as an artist.

BC: As a person too?

OCA: Probably. But definitely as an artist. I think of my music as hypnagogic sometimes. Between states. It’s not really there. I don’t really write music with rock ‘n’ roll hooks. It just flows.

BC: That’s true. I never thought of it till you said that, but structurally none of your albums feature songs that have, like, verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus. That being said: I’ve never found a new age or synth instrumental album that is as melodic as the one you did for the Matt soundtrack.

OCA: I was interested in off-world things before I could read so I guess it’s true that everything including my interests in the metaphysical side of life has found its way into the music.

BC: I see the kindredness between your music and Matt’s art for sure. That’s probably why the soundtrack felt so deeply pertinent to the film. In some ways you’re also both letting your research interests carry the art where it wants to go, not giving in to what the two industries demand.

OCA: I don’t hide anything or take on a different personality when I make music. What you hear on record is pretty much who I am, unfiltered, in musical form.

BC: I actually want to write stories or books like Joan Didion and make documentaries like Ken Burns. Somehow I am unable. It always seems to come through my filter which I often feel is inadequate. I also have to keep producing material or I will starve to death financially. It’s a strange way to live when you are into such obscure often radical things. Somehow I’ve figured out a way to make it work.