Name: Ryan O’Connor
Age: 42Hometown: Long Island, NY
Current town: Brooklyn, NY
Job description: Artstar; carpenter; sculptor; welder; teacher; bartender; caterer
Bio: Recently completed a reconstruction project of toreador capes and a kimono; instructor at 3rd Ward and Madagascar Institute; collaborated with Taylor Kuffner for Project Tumuli, installations of a coal sculpture and dirt mounds that resembled those used for funeral rites in various cultures; caters and cooks for dinners parties, recently for a party of 20 art collectors and museum curators ("My favorite dish would be to go to five different stores for the best thing that store provides. In one sense, going to a place that makes handmade pasta. If it's winter , go get squash at the Green Market. If it's summertime, yellow cherries."); fabricated a 360-degree swing; co-founded Madagascar Institute with Chris Hackett and Eric Singer
Upcoming projects: Researching sumo wrestling in Japan and the history of Middle Eastern carpets ("You'll have three or four kids lined up shoulder to shoulder, doing the knotting on the rugs. They can do it really fast, and their fingers can get in there.")
Select links: "Building with Eddie Borgo" (NY Times); ryan-oconnor.com
Describe your current state of mind.
I’m working on like four or five different projects that are all significant. I’m proud and really thankful to be in this spot.
How did you become involved with the Madagascar Institute?
My twin brother played in a band with this other guy. One night, when we were in the East Village, a bunch of us all met up - some of that other guy’s friends, the drummer, and my brother and his friends. I met this guy, Chris Hackett, and he was like: “Let’s go make a plan. You’re the guru for the evening.” And I was like: “Listen, Dreadlock Danny, I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you’re talkin…” He’s like: “Look, we all know that if a large group of people occur and they don’t have a plan, it turns into a cluster fuck. And then we spend all our time wasted and running around.”
We spent a year back in New York. We were like: “Allright, let’s go find that group that’s doing crazy cool shit.” We looked and looked some more, and there was no group.
He was like: “Fuck it, let’s just make it.”
That is one of his axioms; he is what that he says about making your own army. We didn't know how to built shit, dude. We didn’t know how to use a glue gun; we were a bunch of fucking jokers. I didn't grow up building things like my dad.
It's up to you to make the scene amazing. You bring yourself more to the present and become this whole world of energy in a good way. You may bring other people; they want to be on that team and eventually you see them. They want to be the champion on a certain project.
What do we want? We want to see crazy shit that was going to make us scream our heads off and the crowd scream their heads off.
At that point in time, the Internet started to fall. This was '99 to '01. All of a sudden, all these brilliant people became out of work and wanted to exercise their creativity.
Also Hackett, the accident happened with his parents, and an amazing testament to him, put all the money into building in Gowanus.
We would start to do more events. We had this supply of people who wanted to make stuff. We also had a soda machine converted into a beer supplier for nickel PBR.
We chastised people who would [say:] "I'm going to go get a drink."
We’d be like: “What? Get a drink? Why do you want to go pay? [There’s] nickel beer here all evening!” You can be gracious and buy your friends nickel beers, and we can make shit and talk about making shit all night. So that is a beautiful context upon which established Madagascar.
Pre-Madagascar, we made stickers that said: Magadascarstitude. I remember being with [Hackett] and other people, going to parties, and we would stick the stickers up. This was in the beginning when we had barely made anything.
I also remember Hackett loved to give pony rides. He had a bridle in his mouth, and you would take a camping backpack and put tape on it like a seat. We would show up at random parties. Hackett would blow fire and give pony rides; that was crazy.
Tell me about the 360-degree swing.
When I was a kid, I was on a swing. The majority of the kids wanted to go all the way over.
I remember being at Madagascar; it was the early days. We had a 360-degree swing in the backyard, and people were lining up. Who wouldn't want to ride it? I remember these two big Russian dudes - "Yar." One at a time we got them on and they were screaming their heads off. To be able to see their faces, the childlike glee, was an epic thing. We didn't know these guys. This happened with everyone in line.
It's too difficult as a single person to build any of those projects. There's just too much work. We got a team, then put some strangers on it and they would lose it.
How did you become involved with 3rd Ward?
I went to school in Goldsmiths in London. I had come back to New York. I got a call from Will Etundi, who runs The Danger parties. A whole bunch of us used to work at those. His support, first of all, giving all these artist jobs as bartenders, and then commissioning them to do projects for all those events was amazing. I think I got a call from him and he was like: "The guys from 3rd Ward need a welding teacher." I called them up and they said: "Come on down." 3rd Ward has become a juggernaut.
We taught welding at Madagascar for al one time. I wanted to become involved in teaching, and all of a sudden I had a form for it. That has been one of the most gratifying and amazing things for me these last two years. I have to give Will credit for opening the door for me, Jason Goodman, Jeremy Lovitt, Matt Blesso, and the staff down there, for creating an opportunity for someone like me to teach people; I can share my knowledge and get paid for it. Turns out, I was really good at it. My job is to drag people over the line to the creative area, to be like: "[Here's] your pie chart of existence. Expand your creative slice." That's my like hard gig.
There was this meritocracy at Madagascar. Everyone is fully capable of making stuff because we started off not being capable of it.
I have a lot of students. One out a bunch you get one that is so talented and they don’t realize it. It's easy for me to recognize it, but they are one person. They are bursting at the seams. I just got to point them in the right direction and give them a little shove.
One young guy just sold a bunch of furniture on Etsy. He is doing amazing; he just took a class. I have another guy who has been going on selling furniture. That's his gig now.
I know that if I can help someone, they can realize that they do have the ability to make something. I always say this to my students: “Don’t be concerned about making the most mind-blowing, beautiful aesthetic amalgam." Make a table and invite a stranger or friend over, and eat on that table. You have facilitated that dialogue by making that object in the world.
Everybody has like two things that they're really good and I think it's necessary that we find people that aren’t expecting it.
Having a studio works because I can do certain types of work downstairs and the come up here and have a space to myself. If you are going to succeed in contemporary art, you'd really be an exception to the rule to make it without a studio. [But] that is not my concern.
How did you manage before without a studio?
It wasn't hard. Madagascar was our studio. We did collective projects. Then we all grew up; we could all be team leaders of our own collectives. That's what happened.
I didn't want to ever be the person who is like: "I'm gonna pitter patter around in my studio and make art, because I am an artist."
There's nothing wrong with that, but don't sit there and think that it's ever going to happen because you have a studio. That's one out of like 20 things that need to be firing on all four cylinders.
I was exposed to the non-art collective world, all these hilarious characters by themselves. I remember being in London, and they give you a studio. That's part of the program, right? So we're in the school and the next moment I was there, I was confused, definitely frustrated. I remember that at one point these people [who] always had their iPod earphones on in the studios. There were maybe 15 people in the studios that afternoon. Each of them was in their studio by themselves, making their stuff. And I was all like: "Are you kidding me? You're missing out on the best things! Don't you even want to get some whiskey, drink and make some shit? That's so much fun!"
Of course I respect that you need to be making your own work, and focusing, but to never delve into the world of all these other things…
You collaborated with Taylor Kuffner for Project Tumuli, which featured installations resembling structures used as funeral rites. What do you think about the significance of burial rituals?
Philosophically, we have to question. It's really interesting because it's a touch upon which we can [say:] "What do we think happens next?" I remember reading this story a long time ago. The writer had a great thought about it. It talked about three or four different people dying. Death came. The first person committed suicide and [said:] "We're going downstairs." The third person, before they died, [said:] "Well, I don't believe in anything. I don't believe in an afterlife. This doesn't exist." The third person died. Death showed up and reached into the physical body to grab the soul, and the soul just dripped away. Maybe whatever you think happens really does happen for you.
You've recently been working with kimonos and toreador capes.
I have been building all these post-minimal structures. I think it was definitely part of coming out of Madagascar - the idea you should be able to build something, regardless of how insane. I remember different trips; we would throw bodies in the trench. I remember they would call it fresh blood when somebody would show up three-quarters through the project; everybody would have the thousand-mile stare. They’re like: “Fresh blood! Fresh blood! Throw them in there!”
Coming out of that, there’s this culture [of] working fast. I want to take something on that takes a lot more time, so I spent eight months on it. I researched toreadors and bullfighters. I talked to bullfighting associations. I wanted to get a toreador’s cape and they were like: “No, are you kidding? A: You’re American B: Toreadors don’t sell their capes. C: They are not going to give it to you as a gift.” I remember someone said: “Go on Ebay; use a costume.” I don’t want a fucking costume; it’s not the flavor.
Thankfully, [my friend] Daniela runs a gallery in Mexico City. She was like: “I know two toreadors.” I [said:] “If you’re being serious dude I will get my ticket right now. And she was like: “Yeah.”
I took all the money that was in my account, bought the ticket that evening, took the rest of the money, which was a couple hundred bucks, and I ended up going down there. I met this toreador. It was epic to have gone all this time, hit so many brick walls, and all of a sudden I am on the street with her and this toreador. He’s shorter than you and is very slender. He is this athletic, crazy figure, like a jockey almost. He pulls out three capes, and you assume it to be red. The bulls can’t detect the red. Classically, [the capes are] really bright pink. I wanted to get it because it was a relic from that environment. The most amazing thing was when he pulled the capes out. I didn’t expect all these marks, the bulls horns gouging the fabric as he was doing passes with the cape. This is all bull’s blood.
Then I came back to New York and started researching kimonos. I had so much energy because I had finally gotten the capes. It was daunting in the very beginning. I started to hit a lot of other brick walls.
You also have these amazing opportunities, and this is the reason you make stuff. I had met a kimono stylist for film and TV. I remember being in her office on Roosevelt Island one afternoon. There was her, her assistant and myself. The next thing I know, I am talking about Japanese sense of beauty based on different periods. Restrictions establish ideas and conceptions that are different than ours. There is an epic movement to just have that opportunity. This amazing family funded all the textile components and then photographed everything. The little known thing is that they have to give the public access to everything.
I had explained what I was looking for, which is what you want to request. She put in the information. They called me after. I go down there. We walk into the conservation room and it is like crazy [vault] and then a huge table [with] this white tissue paper. This is a bit overwhelming for me. Typically, you go to museum and there are a million people around.
It is me and her. She was like: “Just ask me whatever you want." We spent the afternoon talking about the history of kimonos, and why they're made. The really cool thing was that I was allowed to photograph them, as well. She took out magnifying glasses, and were photographing through the magnifying glass, measuring them. She was like: "You can't take any photos of the room, for security purposes."
Subsequent to that, I started developing more of an understanding of the measurements and why the sleeve lengths are a big thing. Typically, geisha's sleeves where much much longer; the idea was that would attract men and clients. The married woman's [sleeves] were much shorter.
Then I got to the point where I didn't want to [hire a friend]. I couldn't because then I couldn't expect perfection.
Finally, Lamia Akar suggested Yasmin Oezelli; she was a superstar. I went up there and gave her the fabric. Then it was weird.
I remember leaving that woman's apartment, and I was just like: "This is so strange; it's out of my hands." That was the first time I had production on a piece, and I was [thinking:] "I hope it comes out good."
Time went by, and then I went to pick it up. Wow. To finally see the object in time and space after you've spent many hours conceiving it to be as good as you hope, that's epic stuff.
I think that it was definitely a movement up or beyond or onto the next plateau for me, working more formally with objects. It was the first time I'd worked with textiles; that was spectacular, having more of a lifetime in the making of the objects.
Things that are coming out of that. One, I've been researching Persian carpets. There's an amazing history from the Middle East: Pakistan; Afghanistan; Iraq; Iran. Because their fingers are so slender, you'll have three or four kids lined up shoulder to shoulder, knotting on the rugs; they can do it really fast, and their fingers can get in there. I'm beginning a search on carpet that could be then partially transformed into an object.
And then I've been researching Rikishi sumo wrestling in Japan. I'd been considering different ideas, and my brother was like: "You should just write a story about it." I was like: "I'm not a writer!" He's like: "It doesn't matter; don't worry about it. It doesn't have to really make sense."
So I started writing about a sumo and a jockey. Ah, the juxtaposition - large and small! I've got to give the sumo a name, so I went through the
history of Sumos and found this guy from the early 1700s: Raiden Tameemon. I realized that the history of sumo goes back hundreds of years. There are records about winning and losing, who did what, and Raiden. His comes from lightning.
Sumo [wrestlers] wear the mawashi, that kind of loincloth that we're all familiar with. But they also wear, before the matches, this beautiful, single piece of cloth that comes from when the samuris sponsored them, and the rulers, and who they were fighting for.
I can either think about having his remade, and cutting that into another object, or going to Japan...I don't know. It's an amazing position to be like: "It doesn't matter." The horse will go where it wants to go. I just know I'm on a good horse.
What were you like as a kid?
I have an identical twin brother.
What's his name?
His name is Michael. He lives in the Lower East Side. As a kid, I constantly look to my left and see this person that looks exactly like me.
You have this doppleganger chasing [you] around.
My energy was sky-high. I remember as a kid, I had negative amounts of hand-eye coordination.
I was trained to wrestle because I grew up fighting.
How different are you and your brother?
He likes walking on the right side of street, and I like walking on the left.
My brother is much smarter than I am. He got like 10 full scholarships [to] 10 different colleges. I barely got into one college.
[When] I went to Madagascar or made stuff, that was a little bit too much for him to stomach.
There are parts that I think are like me. A serious love of reading goes through my whole family, a lot of food.
What did he study in college?
He studied education.
This is the other part of the story. When we went to college, that was the first time we had split up in our lives. It had a tremendous blow on my brother. Imagine if you had spent the first 18 years of your life with this other person, and all of a sudden they are gone.
I remember taking my first philosophy class. I was looking into meeting two professors the first one is Tim Stapleton: “Okay, I'm going to give this Independent Study on Albert Camus: "I'm inviting you and two other students."
We read Albert Camus , met at his office and hung out and discussed in a great critical fashion.
I was too dumb and young to ever be concern about studying. Then I got into college and I found political philosophy. The first year, I almost fail that in college. Second semester, I took Intro to Philosophy. I came back the first semester of my sophomore year: "Okay, I want a double major."
[Parents:] "Look, who the fuck do you think you are? You are not going to get a double mayor. You can barely keep a life."
I was like: "Yeah, but I need to study more philosophy," and things worked out in a really great way.
The funny thing is that my school was conservative and didn’t teach Buddhism, so I remember having to have my own Buddhism program. I remember reading D.T. Suzuki, one of the people who brought Buddhism to America. I studied with Stapleton. He introduced me to Heidegger. I definitely did not understand it the first go-around. I carried that collection of essays with me for the last 25 years to different places.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Queens. As a little kid [I grew up] in Long Island. My parents bought a place in the West Village. That was amazing to be able to walk down 6th Avenue and you’re hanging out and seeing your mom and dad. They would have a party every Halloween. Then we’d have a view of the Halloween Parade from the 10th floor. We were right across the street from the Jefferson Street Market. My parents would dress up, my aunt would dress up, it was so, so fun.
And if you didn’t live in New York, where would you live?
The first thing that comes to mind is Berlin. The art world is really amazing there
We all spend too much time, as New Yorkers, thinking that this is the only place, you know? There's just too much going on out there. New York has its own gravitational pull. If you're like: "I'm leaving here for six months," your friends don't want you to leave because then they got to reconsider: “Why am I here?” The gravitational pull gets heaviest just when you’re about to leave. Once you leave, then you're out. You float. And then you’re like: “[Gasp] This is amazing out here! No one told me!”
There are so many great places to go and eat food. I don’t think there is any one place.
There's also that fear also of not being able to come back to New York.
I left for three years and I came back. I had to come back.
When I moved to London, and I left this behind. I was that small sapling, and I had to go through that experience of [not knowing] anybody. [I] would spend many nights at home in the beginning, because I did not know where things were, didn’t know where to go for this or that. The experience of going through that again, and then making friends, I have a whole other posse of amazing, beautiful people who are all over the world: Sweden; Tokyo; Australia; South Africa; Germany as a result of that.
While I could leave, I could definitely be afraid of coming back into the mix, but the power and strength of going through that is always going to be yours.
A friend of mine made a good point that if you leave New York, and then move to some place that is a lot cheaper to live, then you could be in a little trouble. Because if you then acclimate your living to a less expensive place, you’re probably making less money. That place is not supplying as much a standard of living. You might have a difficult time then coming back to New York. [But] I’m pretty sure when we’re talking about leaving, I don’t think that we’re talking about leaving New York to go to Houston. I think we’re talking about leaving New York to live in Shanghai or Sweden.
What's your idea of happiness?
Being myself, reading an amazing book and listening to amazing music: I was reading Haruki Murikami [and] what he's learned about writing from his running; I was listening tonight to a cello concerto.
Going in between two spaces with someone that you're in love with. Increasing your awareness of the natural world while you're walking alongside someone else, being completely present with a single person.
How accurate are first impressions?
That's a hard one. When I'm teaching the first session, it's usually like 10 people, guys and girls. As a group, we don`t know each other. We`re here doing something we've never done before, so it`s a natural thing to be like: "I haven't done this, but I wanna look good.“ You wouldn't be taking a class if you had done this before, [or] if you knew how to be good at it.
I think, initially, human beings are concerned. They are afraid. They want to give off a good impression. It`s the rare person who just walks around and is kind of amazing.
This guy I`m working with, who has come to take private lessons at 3rd Ward, is this guy, Eddie Borgo. He makes jewelry; he made these pendants [that] are based on like these geometric frames. Eddie was making pendants, and [he said:] "I wanna move them up into more larger geometric objects." So I started teaching him some metalworking, [and] woodworking.
My first impression of him was [that] he was a cool guy. He is definitely a creative person; he has an idea of the process. Two lessons go by and then I get an email from his studio manager. I`m like: ”Studio manager?! I guess I should check who/what. This thing kicks me to the Eddie Borgo site. Eddie Borgo is in 60 stores around the world. He's in Bergdorf-Goodman [and] Barney's. Eddie Borgo was the runner-up in jewelry [for the Council of Fashion Designers of America awards].
This dude is a heavy-weight! So my first impression of him was a really nice guy. I'm awed, inspired and stunned by a person like that.
We are here in New York City and he has no need to be like: "Oh yeah, I am a super star."
What is difficult?
Realizing that nothing stands in between you and success, but yourself. I feel like there are so many people that have all these reasons why there are not making it, or why they are not in the situation where they are able to say and think what they want.It becomes a relationship with yourself.
Because we all came out of working as a collective, it was very much focus on the outside of us. To one degree, the work itself is very quiet. I don't make kinetic works anymore that scream and fly. I make still objects.
It's amazing because there is a focus point for the consideration of being human, in a really good way. It's at best a philosophical meal. If it's gonna facilitate a discussion amongst two strangers or two people, that's incredibly spectacular.
You're an artist in two thousand and twelve in New York City. [You're] allowed to make things that don't have a functional component.
What are you nostalgic for?
Being young on a Friday night way before my teenage years. There was no desire or even knowledge of the idea that you were going to go out to a party. I had a twin brother. It was Friday night. It would be the end of the work week, so [my parents] were calming down, doing their thing, and he and I would be in the den. We could watch TV or a movie. We were at the destination point. It was not like we might go some place else, and hope that this was going to be cool. We all knew the same people because we were twins, and I didn't need anybody else.
I remember when we would go with my mother shopping for clothes when we were pretty young, like 10 or 15. I would be like: "Okay, put this jacket on. I want to see how I'd look in it." And then he'd make me put the jacket on and walk around, and he'd be like: "Nah."
There's so much horribleness on TV and [in] advertising. It's so banal and so despicable. But if we're all able to point that out and we're all very aware of that, then why can't we just disregard it?
I'm not talking about watching Martha Stewart. I don't like Oprah.
I'm talking about watching Monty Python or a biography on some amazing person like Julia Child. The opportunity to watch hours of Julia Child or different chefs, the early days of cooking on TV, I mean, these were the early days of America. And America wasn't the epicenter of cooking in the world, the French were - and for a good reason. That to a large degree really formed my early understanding of cooking. I didn’t know what a tasting menu was.
I’m not into shooting fish in a barrel. TV sucks, what a thought. [But] read a lot, then tell me how bad TV is. Don't tell me how bad TV blows, and then you’re not going to do anything else that’s going to be intellectually stimulating.
I remember being in a bar and and talking with a bunch of architects [who were criticizing Frank Gehry]. You feel better about your shit because you're pissing on someone who is commonly known by everybody. That's not criticality. That’s human. That’s self-aggrandizement, and it’s it's like stratification of knowledge, trying to make yourself feel smarter. Bring compassion to the table and if you know about any single area, it’s all about inviting people in.
It goes back to Madagascar. The person you least want to be there, that seems like they are going to make it the least cool, invite them in. It's easy to share with your friends. They're your friends. It's hard to share with people you don’t know.
When I would be bartending at The Danger parties, and I knew when like Snicker Snack shows up and doesn't feel like part of the scene. They are obviously sticking out, and I would always have time for these people. I see they made an effort [to come out].
I think it comes [from] my father. We would go to a dinner party and he would go to that person in the corner of the room and engage them. I have something to learn from everybody.
What's your greatest fear?
Being invisible. When I was a kid, there was a point [when] my mother, father and brother left. I felt that I had went out of existence. It was the first time I was home alone.
But conversely, I couldn't live without some of my own solo time. We all need it.
What would be your last meal?
It would be not for me, it would be for someone else. Eating can be too much a safety and intelligent thing. My last meal could be so many things - the clams I caught with a friend on a sailboat, walking across muddy flacks.
I cooked a meal for a girl I met who was from Spain. We ate fresh sea urchin and she introduced me to spreading it on a baguette with great butter! I also love steak tartare so much that, with amazing red wine, [it] would be an excellent last meal.