I first met Nicole Brunel in the summer of 2009. That year’s iteration of Sled Island Festival was about to begin and there was some sort of event—the details of which I can’t quite recall—taking place at Olympic Plaza in downtown Calgary. I had just finished a gig poster for a show Nicole’s band, Puberty, was scheduled to play, and so when a mutual friend introduced us that evening we talked a bit about drawing and music. At the end of summer I moved to Montreal with some friends and a few months later, Nicole and their bandmates crashed at our place while on tour. Over the next ten years Nicole and I kept in loose contact over social media, but I wouldn’t see them again until a surprise encounter this past summer at an opening in Toronto. We had both just relocated to the city and so, united by a common past, we picked up where our friendship left off nearly ten years ago.
I’ve always found Nicole’s work to be remarkably funny, which is itself a difficult thing for visual art to be. All too often, comedic cultural outcomes suffer from a reductive line of reasoning that goes something like this: That which is funny, by its very nature is not serious and therefore should not be taken seriously. Nicole’s work undermines this reduction by utilizing humour to create a space for a critical and nuanced examination of topics related to gender, power dynamics, and binary-centric cultural modalities. Within this space, their practice emphasizes the political power of escapism, providing imagined alternatives to move beyond entrenched hierarchies. Through sculpture, drawing, comics, video, and performance, Nicole defamiliarizes materials and ideas, thereby challenging viewers to reconsider their conception of reality in relation to privileged societal norms.
I talked to Nicole about their pre-visual arts past, the link between baby-wave and anti-humour, resilience, post apocalyptic aesthetics, the coded meanings of surfaces, being worm-like, non-binary futures, and a certain green pop that may be a feminist ally. In short, our conversation was as multifarious as it was humorous and enlightening.
"people who practice anti-humour are essentially trying to change other people’s opinions of what is funny, because anti-humour is by definition not funny. You could compare anti-humour style to anti-art movements or subculture fashion; uphending what is socially acceptable art or clothes, to eventually become accepted (dead)"
In a certain sense, you’ve had a circuitous path into the visual arts. Prior to your art education you received an archaeology degree, you were a prominent member of the Calgary music scene, and you’ve made comics and zines (of course those can be considered part of a visual art practice, but they tend to have a different method of circulation). Were all of these things holistically building towards your current practice? Or was there something more specific, some kind of emergent pathway, that instigated your movement towards the visual arts?
I actually have thought about this a lot! I definitely didn’t anticipate my current practice and I didn’t know anything about contemporary visual art until I took some sculpture and painting classes at AUA (formerly ACAD). In my first year there, a drawing instructor asked all the students to tell him our favorite artist. Everyone including me said Salvador Dali and then the teacher was visibly disgusted and made fun of us [laughs].
But retrospectively, I do have some theories to account for the directions I’ve taken. As far as I remember I’ve had a restless curiosity, and I think this comes from being critical and suspicious of the reality that I was taught. It seems like my interests reflect this experience; escapist coping methods combined with gradual attempts at creating a reality that I fit in to. So for example, I was interested in Archaeology because I was looking for proof of a better place and time. Most of my comics are fantasy and sci-fi. Music is potentially a more visceral escape. And on a daily basis, I use humour as small moments of escape. When I became more aware of these patterns I started making my recent sculpture and video work about the political power of escapism. Being an artist as a career is difficult, but it seems to be one of the few pursuits I’ve had where there is an encouragement for this type of criticality and space to act on it.
Would it be fair to say that these varied practices have all become different ways for you to negotiate your suspicion of reality, with each one offering its own parameters to engage with and subsequent escapist potentials? And so, maybe you haven’t instrumentalized them so succinctly into your art practice, instead, you’ve allowed yourself to continuously move between them with a certain fluidity. Which makes me wonder if you find the categorical distinction of being an artist too limiting?
That’s an interesting way of putting it. I definitely look for relevancy between a medium and what I’m aiming to achieve with it (such as investigating realities), and this often makes me question practicing art. For instance, with my new work I’ve been researching time and space, so I’m working with sculpture and web art for their material connections to these subjects, but every few weeks I’ll seriously consider if I should drop everything and just go back to school for physics [laughs]. Similarly, when I made art about comedy, it took alot of discipline for me not to drop out and pursue stand-up. But from my experience, the art world has been pretty encouraging of my different interests. In grad school, for instance, I received research funding to take comedy classes. And related to your question, that was an enlightening experience in which I actually had the opposite feeling: the limitations of being a comic and the freedom of being a visual artist.
I had a funny moment of art jealousy; the comedians had this system of strict rules that was so easy to mess with, versus art where it feels almost embarrassing to engage in a similar strategy, since being a little art rebel is so institutionalized [laughs]. But I felt the same way with academia, in Archaeology and later in Critical Theory, I was surprised at how much resistance there was to subverting academic writing or archaeological data collection and interpretation. I think this is partially why I quit archaeology, unfortunately not feeling empowered at the time to act on the criticisms that I had. I did however, go on to create an installation called Venus in the Heat Shadow at Secret 8 Gallery that was a critique of racist and sexist biases in archaeological interpretation. So in this sense I take some comfort in “being an artist”, because generally I feel like my criticisms are valued. I also think a lot of people would still accept me as an artist even if I did just start studying quantum physics [laughs]. So there is some freedom in knowing that.
It sounds like if you had dropped out of grad school to pursue stand-up or enrolled in physics classes, there’s a likelihood that you would eventually return to your art practice or perhaps even just practice both (all) in some kind of a parallel trajectory. I’d like to talk more about humour in relation to your work, and I think it’s really interesting to hear that you were tempted to drop out of your graduate program to pursue stand-up comedy. Would you care to extrapolate on that anecdote? And maybe through that you could describe the work you made about comedy, which I see as a purposeful distinction to make from art that incorporates humour or engages in comedic tropes.
Yes, in my work I have played with this blurry distinction between humour as material or humour as concept . Sometimes a joke would be inspiration but not super apparent in the final piece, like when I made an abstract sculpture of the-game-you-play-as-a-kid-where-you-cover-your-hand-with-your-other-hand-and-put-up-your-pointer-finger-to-look-like-its-your-middle-finger-but-its-not-so-you-can't-really-get-in-trouble. Or I made a series of sculptures that were funny “meditations” on the slapstick gag when you step on a rake and it hits your face. So that one was both funny and about comedy.
A more recent music performance/video installation that I made recounted a man sexually harassing me and the jokes I made to turn him off, which ended up being more uncomfortable than funny for most of the audience, even though it was about joking. My thesis work, Every Worm Deserves a Mansion (2018), included a video that was about anti-humour as a style but referenced the form of stand-up comedy. This piece made me laugh the most, but it was also very confusing to some people, probably because I was consciously considering how certain types of humour attract certain types of people. My art practice is partially motivated by this type of searching for other like-minded people. I do all this research, then I cast it out in the world like a fishing worm and wait to see which fishes will come wiggle with the worm. That’s the other thing I like about humour in art is it can be welcoming to people who aren’t from an art background.
In terms of wanting to drop out and pursue comedy, it was more of an anxious fantasy than a reality, like panicking about if I’m using my time in the best way possible, wondering if humour is my strength should I just focus more directly on it, etc.? Worrying combined with curiosity gives me intense feelings of urgency that also influence my decisions! But I’m planning to do more comedy classes, so it might still happen because that’s how all these other career changes eventually crept up on me!
I’ve had the pleasure of reading your thesis paper, in which you establish a relationship between anti-humour and something you call baby-wave. Could you describe how anti-humour and baby-wave are connected and how these concepts inform your sculptural work? You link them to various forms of performance in your paper, but I’m curious about how the underlying ethos of anti-humour and baby-wave might be situated in your sculptures.
To me, baby-wave is just style of anti-humour that can be used in different forms, such as music or jokes, which is how I used it in the Every Worm... installation. Other people might tell the story differently, but a few years ago in the Calgary music scene there was a surge in jokey baby-themed bands. I had been in funny bands before, but I’d say the humour climate there was (regrettably) more along the lines of edgelord. I think baby-wave is a possible reaction/progression from this type of like tough guy sex asshole humour, that was supposed to be invulnerable and ironic in its adoption of a bro-y characterization but ultimately was still just bro-y. There’s of course some great stuff in Calgary but I’d say this type of humour was a coping mechanism specific to Calgary’s larger social environment.
Learning about art interpretation also taught me how to interpret humour and thus be more considerate of how I use it. You can really see people’s insecurities through their humour, if you’re in the mood to be super bummed, witness this at your local open mic! So I think connected to this, as social climates change, so does popular humour, and anti-humour is particularly a driving force behind this change. People who practice anti-humour are essentially trying to change other people’s opinions of what is funny, because anti-humour is by definition not funny. You could compare anti-humour style to anti-art movements or subculture fashion; uphending what is socially acceptable art or clothes, to eventually become accepted (dead).
I actually think alot about clothing style in my artwork too, how clothing, humour style, and sculptural finishes are all coatings with coded meaning. And this is how I approached the sculptures and materiality of the Every Worm… installation; the forms and coatings actually combine two seperate styles. For example, there’s one sculpture in the form of a worm, and another one of a butt farting, both of which are to the delight of babies and the disdain of post-babies. In my thesis writing I connect the rise of baby-wave to an increasingly anti-binary social climate and in the thesis video and sculpture installation I use baby-wave style as a metaphor for this experience. I took the metaphor one step further though by using a post-apocalyptic setting as the social environment of the jokes. So the worm sculpture is not just of a worm but a giant mutant worm and the butt-fart was modeled after a mushroom cloud.
I was actually super sad that my rendition of a body-less butt farting mushroom cloud turned out to look almost exactly like a penis. And when I installed it at my grad show the museum almost put up a warning sign because of it [laughs] (also because of the line “I have a 9 inch dick if you count the butt-hole”). So then these sculptural forms are all coated with materials I attributed to an apocalypse, “reused metal, rotten concrete, hot and mutant sand” (quote from my gallery application forms). My favourite sculpture in the series called Hyper (2018) deviates somewhat from the baby-wave humour because it was the last one I made and the whole thing took so long that new ideas started to creep in. This sculpture was still from a bad joke that I made but it is like baby-wave plus math humour.
A while back I was dying at the thought that the worst ever possible joke was just “counting”, like “1,2,3,4,5” and now I’m super into numbers jokes. This joke was actually inspired by baby-wave when I was making a shirt that had 1-6 written in worms. So I’m predicting mathy jokes to be post-baby-wave. There is actually a lot of counting humour that snuck in the Every Worm… video too.
Mutant Dew'. Concrete, sand, sand-patched pants, diamond plate socks, sandy shoes and sand shoelaces. 4’ x 4’ x 6’. 2018.
Every Worm Deserves a Mansion, 2018. Installation at the Krannert Art Museum. Sculptures from left to right: 'Worm'. Concrete, diamond plate metal, sand. 1.5’ x 1.5’ x 4’. 2018. ‘Atomic Stink Bomb’. Concrete, diamond plate metal, sand. 1.5’ x 1.5’ x 3.5’. 2018. 'Mutant Dew'. Concrete, sand, sand-patched pants, diamond plate socks, sandy shoes and sand shoelaces. 4’ x 4’ x 6’. 2018. 'Hyper'. Diamond plate metal, concrete, sand. 3’ x 3’ x 4’. 2018.
Hyper, the sculpture you just mentioned, incorporates diamond plate metal. How does that material operate for you as a surface coating? Is it coded as merely post-apocalyptic or is there something else to it?
The metal choice was connected to both the apocalypse and baby-wave aesthetics in metaphor to my personal experience rejecting binary gender. So initially I was looking at metal in general to reference post-apocalyptic infrastructure and I ended up choosing diamond plate because it’s a material that is designed to resist wear. I felt like this withstanding gradual erosion was materially comparable to my experience living with binary gender, which for me exists in that uncomfortable state of being given the privilege of passing but simultaneously being gendered when I feel genderless.
For example, people would often talk about the diamond plate metal in my work in terms of trucks and hyper masculine stuff, but my initial association was tread plate subway platforms. I like that there are different interpretations of my art, but it can also be really frustrating for me when I’m imagining post-gender realities and people insist on reducing my artwork back to the binaries they're familiar with (which is why I was sad about the fart/penis sculpture, I found that a lot of people were eager to use something recognizable in my work as an opportunity to overlook its complexity). This also ties into the reason I choose the post-apocalypse metaphor, feeling disconnected from the majority of people. And an post-apocalypse as a social existence of freedom plus loneliness. When I reference apocalypse in relation to this piece I’m thinking of really bleak, desolate narratives, more like The Road, not so much Resident Evil (although I love Resident Evil [laughs]).
The wear-resistant qualities of diamond plate metal is really interesting, because it’s one of those ubiquitous materials you see and never really scrutinize, you just accept that it exists. And of course, my immediate associations are of trucks as well, but from what I’ve seen it’s commonly placed on vertical portions of truck trailers. So, I often wondered if it was just some sort of decorative finish.
You’ve revealed an associative habit people tend to fall prey to—gendering materials based upon whichever gender uses or is associated with that material the most. A habit derived from a binary and essentialized view of gender that, as you said, is given the privilege of passing without criticality. As such, diamond plate metal is gendered as a “masculine” material because men tend to drive trucks more, and so the material qualities of trucks and diamond plate metal subsequently come to be viewed as “masculine” traits by proxy. Your sculptures, and the way in which you address them, offer a chance to pull this material away from its binary entrenched gender associations, which I regard as a highly transformative act.
I want to talk more about the relation between your experiences of normative gender assumptions and the post-apocalypse, but I have one more question about the diamond plate metal appearing in Every Worm… Is it manufactured diamond plate or is it a facsimile that you’ve created?
Oh yes it is all faked, made by hand! I made some by cutting diamonds out of metal sheets and some by shaping diamonds with epoxy and metallic paint.
What drove that substitution? Was there something transformative in the act of making diamond plate metal by hand that you wanted to address in this body of work?
I’d say this was a more playful gesture than the other decisions within these sculptures. I’ve been making sculptures with a mixture of found objects and “paint” (the cement and sand coatings share a relationship to paint in these pieces) and thinking about the relationship that these materials have to what is “real” and what is fabricated or imagined. So I thought there was some humour in a “handmade metal”, and just followed that lead in an effort to leave space for future reflection on what materials and processes can tell me about “realness”. This also relates to the set up of the Every Worm… installation, which had the projection as more immersive because it was true to scale, but then the sculptures being removed from the place in the video. I liked the idea of the room being strange in terms of place and time, like a tension between object and artifact, insider versus outsider.
I think the connection you’ve established between post-apocalyptic aesthetics/narratives and your own experiences rejecting binary gender is really compelling. You said that your criticality towards majority accepted realities has led you to utilize escapist coping mechanisms and I can’t help but think of post-apocalyptic media as being predominantly escapist. As if there’s an inability for us to imagine a way out of our current reality beyond some catastrophic reset, which then brings about this state of freedom plus loneliness.
Less bleak post-apocalyptic narratives tend to be temporally situated further from their catalytic apocalypse. What’s still intriguing, however, is that this apocalypse represents a rupture which irrevocably alters the world, so that a return to a pre-apocalyptic way of life is unattainable. To hear you say that your imagining of the apocalypse veers more towards these bleaker narratives is interesting to me because aesthetically the works in Every Worm... seem to pull more from a distanced post-apocalyptic space. When I view this particular body of work, there’s something archaeological about it, as if I’m trying to glean meaning from the encrusted remnants of an earlier post-apocalyptic society, which might position me as an archaeologist operating within an even further distanced post-apocalyptic society.
I wanted to ask about the eponymous worm in this work because I have a mild fascination with worms and—it’s just occurred to me—that they’re also highly resilient, so perhaps there’s another metaphorical connection to resilience?
The worm was more of a messy symbol for me, definitely connected to childhood and gender but also feelings of personification. Like memories of a game that me and my siblings made up where we’d all put sleeping bags upside down over our heads and just run around full speed screaming “WORMS” and knocking each other over. Another memory of loving the Creepy Crawlers toys and how they were marketed to boys which wasn’t me, and this misegending extending to the worm itself which is hermaphroditic. Worm as an insult, like gross, dirty, lowly, and reclaiming that. Kind of embarrassing but the first tattoo I ever got is a symbol from the Earthworm Jim video game. I also really relate to in a bodily sense to being wiggly [laughs].
In the video projected alongside your sculptures for Every Worm… you’re wearing a Mountain Dew t-shirt, a pair of patchwork pants, and cream-coloured shoes. The pants and shoes appear to be the same worn by the partially submerged figure in the sculpture Mutant Dew (2018), and so we might assume the figure is you. I was hoping you could talk a little more about the coded aspects of the clothing within this body of work, because there’s an interesting culmination of found and altered garments operating together.
Yes I’m very interested in fashion in general and I wanted to use the costume as a chance to investigate my style. So the seafoam trousers and neon green Mountain Dew shirt were items that I wore in regular life and bought together specifically for the weird colour combo and also for this joke that I had been making about Mountain Dew being a feminist “ally”, based on the childhood urban legend (true story!?) that the drink kills sperm or shrinks dicks or whatever it was. I brought it into the Every Worm… video, also in that messy playful way, for its connection to the ideas in the work like mutation, green screens, and childish aesthetic, hyperactivity, and gender. I do feel guilty giving that brand a platform so I hope that Mountain Dew is disgraced enough that I don’t boost its sales or anything. I had planned to silkscreen a new version of the shirt so that the logo read “Mutant Dew” but I ran out of time. I will admit though that out of all pop it is my second favourite.
For the costume I also layered a green turtle neck under the big Mountain Dew shirt, which is another article of clothing that I have a personal connection with. I was wondering why I’ve worn turtle necks consistently throughout my life, and honestly my best answer seemed to be that I loved Star Trek as a kid. I also thought about a style of layers and coverings (in the way that a turtle neck has high coverage) in terms of gender, like some feelings of discomfort with how people identify and respond to me based on my body. But I also love the complexity of wearing tons of fabrics, colours, and patterns, so I don’t think this style can be reduced to just hiding. The other significant part of the costume was that all of the “string” appeared to be made of sand, the shoelaces and the stitching on the pants patches. Again, a more playful decision, connecting the clothes to the environment and also giving the thread a dirty worm feel. The patches were in reference to post-apocalypse (like having to re-use rather than buy new pants), green screens again, and also the designer Emily Adams Bode, who I liked at the time for the way she played with gender in her clothing.
"i like that there are different interpretations of my art, but it can also be really frustrating for me when I’m imagining post-gender realities and people insist on reducing my artwork back to the binaries they're familiar with [...] a lot of people [are] eager to use something recognizable in my work as an opportunity to overlook its complexity."
Is there a deeper connection to your own childhood or maybe a certain sense of nostalgia operating within this work? I’m thinking specifically about the nuclear 90s green of Mountain Dew, Earthworm Jim, Creepy Crawlers, hyperactivity, as well as the rapid development happening during childhood, which results in its own anxieties regarding one’s identity. Or are these things being used primarily within a baby-wave strategy of subverting heteronormative masculinity and fostering anti-binary culture, which itself might seek to estrange the binary of childhood versus adulthood.
I’m definitely interested in child/adult binary in the sense that, like gender, it is also a social hierarchy used for control. I’ve actually just started reading the book Haircuts by Children and Other Evidence for a New Social Contract which discusses the segregation of children in our society. Really I take issue with this type of reductive categorization in general, because it is often used as a strategy of exploitation. In terms of nostalgia, I’d say my ideas arose initially from introspection and looking at formative memories, some nostalgic, some about that creeping isolation. But overall I do associate more freedom from binary gender in the pre-pubescent years (which I know is not the case for everyone). And going back to that wiggly feeling, I mean that as an experience of holding back bodily energy and emotion, which kids generally are expected and allowed to express more than adults. So in these ways, I would agree that some nostalgia is another example of fantasy and escapism that is brought into the video, and it ties into the larger theme of escapism as a subversive act, in that José Esteban Muñoz Cruising Utopia way.
It also makes me think of something I read once about Chris Kraus, how early in her career critics dismissed her writing as gossip (a criticism rooted in sexism), but that feeling of having nothing to lose allowed her the freedom to write however she wanted. She didn’t cater, she just kept writing in this style that was futuristic, in the sense that it wasn’t socially accepted until years after it was made. I found that inspiring for struggles in my own life, wanting to connect with people through my art but at the same time seeing catering as another type of oppression. So this kind of fantasy as action is also like anti-humour, out of time or place, but trying to convince people of it’s right to exist.
You finished your graduate studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign this past Spring and you’ve since relocated to Toronto. I was wondering if we could finish our conversation by discussing what you’re currently working on? You mentioned something about time and space, as well as a connection to web art, which I would be eager to hear more about.
Yes, in a sense what I’m moving towards next relates to the last thing I said about catering and oppression. I reached a point where I got sort of mad that I had to talk about gender in my artwork, something I know a lot of minority artists encounter; the expectation and limitation that your work must relate to your identity. I’m very grateful that I had the opportunity to learn about society and social justice, but I started wondering what would I research if I was free from these social issues. Another sort of fantasy really. So, although intersectional feminism and queer theory will still influence my work, I’ve taken a step back from examining my social reality and want to look to my subjective, physical reality.
I’m not totally sure what I mean by this yet, but I want to approach it with an art process that is similar to my previous work, where I start playing around with materials and loose art ideas as I’m thinking about the new conceptual direction and then leave room for the art to guide and inform me. Similar to how I let the jokes guide me for Every Worm… I am also working on some web art that I want to combine with sculpture through interactive projection. I like how a website can tell a non-linear narrative, and non-linear time is one topic I’m researching. I’ve started reading introductory theoretical physics and looking at the visual language attached to these theories, rather than the math. For example I’ve started one sculpture that combines the form of an interference pattern with the form of spacetime warps (when the distance around a circle in spacetime becomes shorter than the distance across it). I have been very into carabiners too, I made a carabiner chainmail helmet and a comic that is sort of sexy carabiner and lanyard body horror. Not sure what that has to do with anything yet but I’m excited to see what it will all turn into! Maybe it will be funny.
Brennan Kelly is a visual artist and writer based in Toronto.
Frontis image: Every Worm Deserves a Mansion (2018)