CONVERSATION: Nicolas Billon and Erin Brandenburg

Rhubarb artists and theatre-creators-about-town Erin Brandenburg (Detroit Time Machine) and Nicolas Billon (Godwin’s Law) chat about their collaborators, instruments and what goes on in the comment section
Nicolas Billon: So, DETROIT TIME MACHINE. What’s the fascination with Detroit? Did you grow up near there?
Erin Brandenburg: I grew up just south of Detroit, close to Windsor, ON. You could actually see the Detroit skyline from my grandparent’s farm. Growing up we went to Detroit to shop, to go to Tigers games, and would always take our relatives from Toronto on a drive through some of the more interesting neighbourhoods to freak them out. It’s a fascinating city – it was basically the silicon valley of the 1920’s there was so much innovation and creation happening there. The architecture is amazing. Once upon a time there were jobs for everyone, but since the decline of the auto industry the city has basically emptied out with most people moving into the suburbs leaving vacant neighbourhoods and skyscrapers. The city is in a rough spot. There are a lot of people trying to change things, but there’s lots of problems. What has happened to Detroit could be the future for good or for bad for a lot of North American cities.
NB: I noticed that you’re working with a number of collaborators from REESOR and/or PELEE, including your very talented husband Andrew. What do you enjoy most about repeat collaborators? Do you ever worry you’ll get too comfortable?
EB: The best thing about repeat collaboration is that you have a short hand for working. We know each other, we get along well with each other and we trust each other. I’m also lucky to have found a group of really talented folks that are willing to work with me – it’s hard to give that up. Getting too comfortable is a risk, you can fall into bad habits, or try and repeat the thing that worked well the last time. What is great is when we can push each other as artists, inspire each other to keep trying new things and take risks, and sometimes that can only happen when there is a great deal of trust.
NB: From the description, I can’t quite tell if its a performance piece, a concert, or theatre… Is there a narrative/story in the traditional sense of the word?
EB: Not really a narrative . . . no. This is a bit of an experiment for us, for me especially. I’m used to telling stories with a script, with words, characters, actions, etc. With this project we decided to use music, movement and images and see what we could get across. There are some words in the songs, but they don’t necessarily tell a story. You have to piece that together. DTM is first of all a band, so this project is basically a musical performance in the middle of an art installation, if that makes sense. We’re telling a story, just not in a traditional narrative sense.
NB: Iner Souster’s creations – I still remember the instruments from Pelee, I think it was – are fascinating, and his use of metal/scrap parts seems a natural fit for a play about Detroit. How did you meet him?
EB: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away . . . called Parkdale. It was a great situation where we had seen his instruments in galleries around the neighbourhood and thought they might work really well for the music we were doing with Reesor. It was about making do with what you have, and his instruments are made from recycled materials, things he finds, machinery parts. They don’t always stay in tune, but they make really cool sounds, so the musicians have to learn how to play each instrument. It restricts you but it can also make you more creative. We asked if we could use his instruments in the show and I think he was flattered that someone wanted them as instruments, not just as art pieces and he said yes and we’ve been working together ever since. All the music from DTM was composed by Andrew, Brian and Iner in Iner’s gallery, The Sixth. The walls of the gallery are lined with Iner’s instruments so they are reverberate and make the room sound really great. The songs are played on Iner’s instruments with the exception of a piano and a few guitars to fill out the sound.
NB: Any plans for the show after Rhubarb? 
EB: Oh my yes. DTM has recorded enough new tracks to fill several albums. I think the plan is to release volumes 1, 2 and 3 sometime in the next year. Watch for it. The band is also open to recording commercial jingles and or television theme songs, if anyone is interested. DTM may also make an appearance in Kitchenband’s new project called Boblo that we’re working on in Residency at The Theatre Centre, but that’s not confirmed.
And now Erin interviews Nicolas…
EB: According to Wikipedia, Godwin’s Law states: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches.”  Love that. Is the inappropriate mentioning of Nazi’s in online discussion a game ender for you?  Have we compared enough opponents to Hitler that the barb has lost its sting, or do we just need to be a little more creative with our words?
NB: What mostly drives me crazy is that’s it meant to end the discussion, as in, “How can I argue with you since you’re clearly evil / a fascist / unreasonable. But it’s a form of demagoguery, of arguing emotionally as opposed to rationally. Facts don’t matter if you’re labeled a Nazi or Hitler.
It’s the double-edged sword of the Internet: it’s a free forum of debate, but that doesn’t mean that everyone involved in the debate is interested in the free exchange of ideas: their arguments aren’t arguments at all but simply a verbal form of bullying. All too often conversation threads are plagued with comparisons to Nazis, or, often, racial / gender / homosexual slurs.
EB: Has the current political situation in Canada or in Toronto been good fodder for your work?
NB: I don’t know. It’s been good fodder for my cynicism, which is probably channeled into my work — but I’m not sure if that’s a healthy thing or not. I think it’s easy to point to something and say, “Hey, that’s a problem, that’s terrible!” but quite another to go, “Here’s the problem, and here’s what I’m doing to fix it.” 
At the risk of contradicting myself, I think my job is to nudge, not push; my work doesn’t profess to offer a solution to anything. Writing is my version of “what I’m doing to fix it,” you know? That’s why I try to balance arguments, to find the shadings in things; I’m not sure anything is absolutely Manichean, absolutely black and white. Who needs that? There’s too much of it as it is.
EB: I see from your show description that your piece deals with challenging a woman’s religious faith. What role does faith (religious, faith in humanity, or other kinds) play in your own work, in your decision to be an artist in Canada?
NB: Hmm. Well, for starters, I’m not sure I chose to be an artist so much as it chose me. I tried to do other things, but nothing gives me the same pleasure. Now, I’m not sure I’d say my piece challenges a woman’s religious faith – I think it’s more accurate to say that I’m challenging this specific woman’s interpretation of her faith, and the extremes to which she goes to impose her faith on others.
Extremism is terrifying, I think, because it’s non-negotiable. It’s not interested in truth, it’s interested only in confirming its own truth. It only asks questions to which it already has the answer.
Religion was fairly abstract to me growing up, in the sense that it didn’t interest me at all. People do.
EB: Your second question – right back at you. I see you are working with some wonderful repeat collaborators yourself for this project, Claire Calnan and Ravi Jain both worked on Greenland. I’m a big fan of both of them. What do you enjoy the most about working with people you’ve worked with before? Any dangers?
NB: There’s a shorthand that develops between long-time collaborators, and that’s certainly true with Ravi. This is the second time Claire and I work together, and that shorthand is developing. It’s fun. I’m a big fan of them too.
This shorthand, obviously, is one of the best things about working together. The danger, I think, is feeling too comfortable in that, and repeating things — especially things that have worked in the past. But certainly with Ravi and Claire, I think we’re aware of that, so we push each other constantly. It’s not always pleasant, but it’s important.
EB: If you had a Detroit Time Machine, where would you go?
NB: I’d be curious to see Montreal in the late-40’s, early-50’s – an exciting period in its history.