The Pittsburgh art collective Paper Rad revels in all things lo-fi, lo-res and lowbrow, and it shows in the head-spinning array of rainbow-bright comics, animation and musical projects it produces. What Max Ernst did with illustrations from trashy Victorian novels, Paper Rad's Ben Jones, Jacob Ciocci and Jessica Ciocci do with Miss Piggy, old video games, animated gifs, hip-hop braggadocio, Photoshop gradients, MIDI files, the California Raisins and a million other scraps of pop culture: They chop them up and reconfigure them into exciting original art that still retains the giddy, gaudy appeal of its source material. Paper Rad's stuff is more fun than Max's, though. The collective comes to the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit on Jan. 4 to perform live and exhibit their art and videos. Via e-mail, Jacob Ciocci preps Detroit for the show.
Metro Times: So here are a few words used on Wikipedia in describing Paper Rad's work: appropriation, reclamation, juxtaposed, hearkening, evoking, aesthetic, anti-aesthetic, crux. Those words bore me, but your art blows my mind. Is trying to write about your work a mistake?
Jacob Ciocci: [Our work] is a natural extension of daily experience. Going to thrift stores, surfing the Internet, watching TV, listening to music. Making things is trying to focus all of this energy into a specific direction and to be as observant as possible. It is true, a lot of what we observe in the USA today has to do with images/sounds from somewhere else —advertising, movies, cartoon characters, toys. So it is no wonder that the filtering process involves dealing with this material — i.e. appropriation. But you have to be original just as much as you borrow.
MT: Some people describe your work as punk; it seems more Dada to me, and your members collaborate with other artists doing similar work. What artists do you feel an affinity with? Is Paper Rad part of some larger arts movement?
Ciocci: Yeah, that is tough. It is really hard for me to say that I have been influenced by people I have never met. So Dada would be a tricky association. However it is really important to know your history and learn as much from the mysterious weird picture residues that are left behind by people who were obviously very smart. Like some of those Dada people. On the other hand, people I have met definitely "influence" me — I can see myself and my art transformed by seeing how they work and relate on a daily basis. Since I have mostly lived near or on the East Coast, that would be people in cities like Pittsburgh, Boston, Providence and New York. Music people, comics people, art people, family, dogs.
MT: Your comics and videos feel frantic and spontaneous. Are they really that stream-of-consciousness or are they scripted at all?
Ciocci: It is very hard to make a video "spontaneous" because you have to sit there for hours clicking a mouse, and during the clicking you may start to doubt your original idea, or at least build on it, change it, transform it. But at the same time it is true that a lot of the work comes from a mysterious, hard-to-define mental location. Associating ideas/imagery together in new and weird ways. But it is never just "random".
MT: Does Paper Rad follow any rules?
Ciocci: YES. Groove is in da heart.
MT: You mangle and mutate a lot of pop culture icons in your work, but you also seem to have some real affection for all those gibbering smiley-face gifs and Merlin commercials and Garfield dolls.
Ciocci: Yes, that is true, there definitely is a feeling of affection, or understanding, that is deeper than just irony. The icons we usually pick to work with tend to have some kind of spirit that is inspiring, positive or transformative. Even if they have been chewed up and spit out by the pop culture machine a thousand times, there is still some magic in them. Some of that magic is precisely because they have been mutated so much — an affection for the feeling of being mutated.
MT: I love Tux Dog. Any character equally inspired by Max Beckmann and Bill the Cat is bound for greatness. Why'd you make him an open source character that anyone can use?
Ciocci: Hmhmhmmh. Well, the character was invented by Ben at an early age. As you say, Tux is obviously inspired by two other characters, which right there points to the fact that it is hard to claim ownership over a character you create. New ideas are like combinations and re-combinations of older ideas, added with context and the chaos of the universe. There is not much originality in there, and yet somewhere there still is. This is a paradox that I like, that motivates me. How something can be totally generic and totally unique at the same time. Formulaic yet still have a "heart."
MT: Animals are everywhere in your work, especially dogs. One of your musical groups is called Extreme Animals and on your blog you hope their shows will resemble — what is that in the video clip you posted, a furries convention after-party? Why all the animals?
Ciocci: Animals are weird because we don't really know what they are thinking/feeling but we still live with them and even love them. I mean we don't really know what other people are thinking either but we pretend we do. Animals represent some kind of spirit outside of society, a good positive spirit a lot of people are trying to get in touch with. Just look at all the bike messenger bags with screen-printed animal stencils these days. People like animals because they live by their own rules and don't "destroy" their environments even though that is debatable. When people imitate or dress up like animals — that is usually awesome.
MT: What can visitors expect to see and hear at your MOCAD exhibit?
Ciocci: The world premiere of our new video for kids, called "Problem Solvers." We will be performing live music to accompany the video. Plus we will have other videos to show — crazy YouTube mashups and lost forgotten VHS tapes. Adventure animations and jam-imations, mynd quests. Booty bass, Trolls, pizza, telepathy.
Paper Rad shares a bill with Viki and Mountains and Rainbows at 8 p.m., Friday, Jan. 4. $8 admission. An evening of videos curated and created by Paper Rad shows at 8 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 5. $5 admission. An installation of vinyl signs by the group will be up Jan. 16-20 at Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, 4454 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-832-6622.Sean Bieri is Metro Times design director. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org