Dialogue with Adam Trowbridge and Jessica Westbrook

Fall 2010: v.06 n.02: Dynamic Coupling

 Channel Two, interstitial, 2010. Trowbridge and Westbrook.

Channel Two, interstitial, 2010. Trowbridge and Westbrook.

This work points at media and entertainment-based narrative as a common language. Structurally this work employs both internet algorithms, and custom software to generate the content.

How much time do you spend together? Do you live together or share a studio, or do you just get together to work on projects as they come up?

JW: I think we are always present with/for each other, but we don’t spend a whole lot of time actually directly engaging–probably a few minutes, maybe an hour, a day. Most of our “time spent” happens through text message, email, Google chat, Facebook, words in passing. The air conditioner running at our apartment adds so much white noise, it’s really hard to hear each other, so I think we have given up trying to talk directly while it’s still warm out. We do live together, going on 20 years. And our place is really small, so when we are home, we are in the same space (yes, at times inches away from each other having a conversation out loud on FB). Regarding a studio, my laptop is my studio and our shared equipment is stacked, piled, and tucked into shelves and closets all over the apartment.

AT: I don’t understand what “spending” time means in relationship to my own life. Time is not money and there is no reserve to spend. It is not as if one is buying groceries with time. The idea of making wise decisions with time is an illusion. As people, we do what we do. Often we do what we can or we do what we must. Jessica and I have a life together. We live together as well. Temporally speaking, we share the grind of daily life much more than we share the experience of making art, but everything we share together is relevant to the art we make.

When you are working on something do you schedule structured time together in a physical space, or meet online, or is it more organic than that?

JW: Again, a lot of our conversations happen online. We are always working on some sort of thing, or learning something, or messing around with something, or trying to prep for class (class prep is huge right now because we are teaching new classes, with a whole new structure, in a new place). If a project comes up and we need to get something into a form; then we usually schedule a time to meet and talk through it at the beginning of the process, use the white board, talk through ideas or what we have been playing with lately. Then we both get busy, reconnect at some point. There is also usually a big fight to work through. We have very different approaches and we can make each other crazy. We don’t have any boundaries so when we are stubborn, it can get personal fast.

AT: At some point our relationship, specifically our relationship as collaborative artists, entered a point where I no longer particularly cared to differentiate between my own work and Jessica’s work. As worn as the reference is, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s work together, and how they speak about it helped me to give up the idea of individual authorship within my working relationship to Jessica. This is not to say I would claim authorship of her work. There are things she contributes that I do not. Our differences create the space that is our work together. In terms of pop culture, I see our relationship functioning as a television production company, which is the basis of our next venture, Channel Two. We both produce and direct but sometimes one of us is only the technical assistant or one of us is the accounting executive. It does not really matter because, to return to Deleuze, we are a criminal gang and all the loot is shared. No matter who is responsible, we both take the risks.

Do you keep your personal/professional lives separate, or have they become seamless and indistinct? Is this okay?

JW: Seamless. I think we did this on purpose because we like it. Oops, I am speaking as a “we” – but I should say I like it, and let Adam speak for himself. : ) We grew up together and we have a son, we teach, plan, make work, share clothes, share money and debt. As far as professional life goes, I think we know there are social conventions in place regarding professional expectations/roles, the solo archetype, and corporate team model. These roles, archetypes, and models are things I am interested in bending, for a lot of reasons.

AT: We have no personal lives. We have no professional lives. We have lives that are striated and distinct lines on which we make a life from the multiple experiences that happen to the multiple people we can become. We have been together for so long that we may have become characters in the same book. Neither of us is the author but neither of us is only a character.

Can you, or do you, turn off your research/studio practice(s)?

JW: Nope, it’s all research. For example, I may be really tired, and need to zone out, but then I will start considering “zoning out” some kind of “event” and it all turns back into an idea worth organizing. I might email it to myself or post something about it on Facebook. If it sticks, it will make it to the white board.

AT: No, we cannot. No, we do not. However, it is vital that we do not only bend all of life into art, into art “work.” That would be a sad, and ultimately an American capitalist, approach. We blend art into our lives and bend art into the everyday. Our son, at six, was invited to dance on stage as we explained the concept of new media art and how it may not matter in the wake of hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqi civilians.

When and how did you meet each other and under what circumstances?

JW: Here is the family-friendly version: We met in high school, in Orlando, Florida, I was 16, he was 17. I noticed him in an art club meeting. He said something about “In my spare time I think about ways to commit suicide” and I thought that was really great. I took photos of him from across the room, processed/printed that night, and cut his image out and stuck it on my forehead like a third eye the next day. This was my way of saying, “Hey everybody I think this guy is SOOO CUTE.” Then I gave him some hallucinogens, free of charge, in exchange for a ride to school.

AT: We met in high school. I wrote poetry of the worst sort. Jessica made photographs. There was a lot of sexual attraction and teenage angst.

At what point did you start making work together?

JW: We have been relying on each other since we were kids, for everything from modeling, to keeping company in the painting studio/darkroom… borrowing, sharing, encouraging, and challenging each other. For years it was more like parallel play. We didn’t start producing “Projects” together until we were both working in the corporate world, during the Dotcom goldrush (1998-2000). These were web dev and commerce projects – definitely in the client driven marketing and technology realm, not really our own work. So I guess our first formal working togetherness happened when we needed each other’s skills to build solutions (make money). After that, we made a baby together. That project is ongoing. Our guy just turned ten.

AT: I am not very interested in starting points. Were we making work together when we intertwined out feet, one on another in the corner of a club, before there was any formal declaration of attraction? The important question is how did we come to trust each other. How did we find a basis to make work together? I think this is vital to any collaboration. My answer is that, despite the advice you read from relationship counselors, we never kept the continuance of our relationship off the table in any argument. We actively questioned whether we wanted to be together in many ways over many years. Ultimately the relationship continues not because we helped each other to accept where we ended up but because we could not work together unless we were moving towards a committed art practice.

Was there a growing period, when you had to get a feel for each other’s process/priorities, learn how to communicate – or did you click right away?

JW: We clicked right away way back when, and for whatever reason are clicking more now than ever before. That said, we have grown up together and during this process we have both changed a lot, and there have been times when we had to work hard to figure things out.

AT: We are ridiculously attracted to one another but it took some time for us to learn to fight fairly. Once we did, we stripped everything down and our fights became shorter and shorter. More communication occurs as a result. Now we have time to fight against a much wider array of things. We fight everything.

Do you gravitate towards roles in your practice – based on strengths, or personality, or skills? Or is every project a different kind of adventure?

JW: We have different skills and approaches. I would be curious to read what Adam says here. I have a hunch he will say I am organized and motivated, and that I can make words and pictures and will work through “it” until it’s just right (sometimes this makes him crazy). Adam is a voracious consumer of information. He reads and screens massive amounts. He has an amazing way of discovering things, and taking risks with ideas, and if he cares enough he can hack and program his way through anything. We are just now really learning how to use what we bring together. It’s good. Not too long ago we could easily kick around ideas, but couldn’t reconcile our anti/aesthetic.

AT: We have vastly different approaches. I want to destroy it all to the point that art becomes part of a crash from which I cannot recover. Jessica is a counterbalance to that attraction, another attraction that is slightly stronger. I think there is something to her art that brings a tragic beauty to existence and thus affirms existence. Combined with my approach, this brings us to an art practice that hovers on the brink of a black hole — a beautiful, extended moment before everything ends.

How do you generate the concepts you work with? Do you draw, write, photograph, or do any sort of regular background practice? Is this a shared thing?

JW: The concepts I work from come from living. That is how it has to go for me cause I’m not a big reader and don’t have a lot of specific interests. My ideas come from things I notice along the way and in-between doing.  I’d say my background practice involves making notes from tutorials, and transcribing the notes into documents. Then I format the documents and follow my own instructions. I also write status updates on Facebook. This is like some kind of convoluted broadcast+documentation+performance process I am completely stuck on right now. And scout for “movie” locations, making condition lists – that become photographs and sequences. The other thing I do is talk to people. I love conversations with people about what they do or think about.

AT: I watch hours of pop media, bury myself in Internet culture and read philosophy and theory in a way that will never earn a PhD. I do my best not to think at all. Thinking, making, doing, relaxing, hanging out, all these activities have been compromised by a society looking for the most efficient way to produce capital. I endeavor to be lazy, radically lazy beyond a refusal of work and toward a refusal of participation, thinking or production in anything that helps civilization to hover on the brink. Obviously, this is a compromised goal.

How do you make choices and negotiate decisions about what direction to take with projects?

JW: Since we are talking about projects here, I should be clear in explaining that while Adam and I have been life partners and business partners in the design realm and curated many projects together and taught together, we are only just now, this year, really truly collaborating on self-motivated projects. It is great to be in this position and I think it has a lot to do with where we are living and working and how we have matured and have gotten closer to identifying the ideas that we care about, and have positioned ourselves so we can be immersed in the things, people, environments – that excite us. Project decisions and choices are often what lasts or floats to the surface over time. I bring my tendency to fixate on something I want to make/learn/accomplish and gravitate towards things that are broken. I would say that Adam brings a sort of radar and risk factor.

AT: We question the basis of everything, of all points and perspectives and take nothing for granted. We ultimately compromise in multiple ways. Everything is a negotiation and hopefully that remains foregrounded in our projects.

Does your collaboration ever involve more people? If no, why not? If yes, then when and how does that work?

JW: I tried to collaborate with people over the past few years, because I was trying to build a community where we were living (because it was an isolated location) and model collective work for the students. It didn’t work out there for a lot of reasons. I learned a lot about the group dynamics, human nature, the politics of small towns, the importance of communication and trust, and by extension the importance of diversity. Lots of good lessons and I’m glad I gave it my best efforts. A better collaborative scenario involved a connection with Basekamp in 2008 while we were curating a project called BIN. Adam and I then co-taught a research class with Basekamp, intersecting Plausible Art Worlds, telematic structures, and group work.

AT: We tried to become a pack, to enter a crowd and run together, and failed.

Will you describe a project that didn’t work out or you didn’t follow through on? Can you describe something that you couldn’t agree on or you didn’t feel like you were both “into?”

JW: We have let stuff go because it wasn’t interesting or a good fit, but we haven’t deserted something cause we couldn’t agree on what it should do or be. That would be so dramatic! I kind of like it. : )

AT: We have bailed out of a lot of projects in the initial stages, before responding to a call. We have come to understand that if we find ourselves trying to craft some project to the conditions of a curator’s idea, it’s better to pass.

What kinds of singular processes or practices, studio or research, do you maintain as individuals that you may or may not bring into the collaboration?

JW: I still make/edit photographs and I am messing around with audio/electronics right now. I always think about learning things and make calendar items, but I haven’t been getting to studio time beyond Channel Two and my teaching/admin role for SAIC lately.

AT: I write a great deal: words, poetry, performance scripts, screenwriting and long emails. I think we both have our own borderlands on which we exist nearly alone. For me this is performance and theater. It is a huge bother and entirely outside of what I am comfortable doing but I am aware that I will return to it again.

Do you make your own work in addition to the collaborative work, and what sort of need does this fill?

JW: Not lately. Actually I’m not sure I have any interest at all in solo/singular making/doing. I have never felt any amount of satisfaction from “look what I did!” I have tried that and it was lonely and boring. What I do love is sharing a process or contributing something to a bigger scenario and then getting to appreciate things as a couple or group or an organization. That is fun.

AT: Who am I and who is Jessica and what day is it? Everything has changed every single year I can remember. The mistake I have made, and I think many people make, is to maintain a feeling that one will arrive soon and then things can really begin. I make the work I make and it has involved Jessica in some way for as long as I have made it. At this point, I really do not care to worry about authorship. The “needs” to be filled dictate the authorship claims we make.

If you maintain an individual practice as well as a collaborative practice, have you run into conflicts of interest, time-management/priority issues, or experienced communication problems due to multiple focuses at any point? How is this resolved?

JW: No, not anymore. There have been times in life when one of us is working a job that is depressing/toxic and the other is in a better situation. Those sorts of balances can be upsetting and contaminate the rest of life, studio time, sense of well-being. This can become in-house conflicts if it is not addressed. When something is wrong we have to figure out what needs to change. Making those changes can be a lot of work and things can get uncomfortable/emotional before they get better. It’s important that we stay in touch regarding a bigger vision and decisions have to be made and action taken, in support of that focus.

AT: Nope.

What are the strengths in working collaboratively and what are the challenges in working collaboratively?

JW: Strengths, coming up with something beyond your self, including surprises, mishaps, and otherness. The tricky part for me is giving up control, letting things be what they are.

AT: Strengths? Individuality is a frightening fiction. We need friends. Weaknesses? The entire history of western art is built on the lone artist myth. Going against that is a constant challenge.

What sort of theory, cultural circumstances, or life scenarios influence or inform your decision to work collaboratively? Would you say that your collaboration is philosophically driven, or more pragmatic?

JW: Gut instinct says collaboration is honest and empowering. I think there is plenty of theory to support this.

AT: Revolutionary force comes from the connection of desire to reality. This is my understanding of something Michel Foucault said and it has taken over two decades to begin to get a feeling for that statement. In short, I mean that our collaboration is philosophically pragmatic.

If you teach, how does collaborative practice inform the way you facilitate student projects and teach studio courses?

JW: When I had a baby I started using the pronoun “we” when I spoke and have since adopted this way of thinking.

AT: I think we have become more humble in our collaborative experience and that has entered our teaching. We have been experimenting with leveling strategies like Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I attempt to subvert my own authority in the classroom in ways that turn more power over to the students. It is vital that they learn how to form packs of their own and that they make critical friendships. In studio classes this means making friends who are radically different in ways that challenge one another.

If you teach, do you co-teach? If you do co-teach, how has that been received by the students, and how has this been received in the academic institutions you have worked with?

JW: We have co-taught a few classes and loved it. It levels the idea of authority and becomes a sharing/dialogue driven community with many voices instead of a central power. It worked well for us, and for the students. It was honest. We taught one class at night and our nine-year-old joined us and I thought this was an important presence especially for the young women in the class who are living in a time when they are expected to manage years of education, work, then family, in spite of aging, transient lifestyles, overwhelming debt, and failing economic systems. This feels like the right moment to re-invent the word “professionalism.”

Back to co-teaching, I love tossing ideas back and forth on how to develop projects. While Adam is really good at references/context, I like thinking through process and structure.

I do want to note that we have recently started teaching at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and it is clear that there is already a progressive willingness to integrate what co-teaching can do in the classroom and an awareness of what collaboration brings to the worlds of art and design. Many undergrad courses in our Department of Contemporary Practices use two instructors and I have noticed that there are faculty-driven inter-departmental collaborative works – exhibitions, performances, curatorial projects – going on all the time.

AT: We have pushed beyond co-teaching and, strategically, brought details of our life into the classroom. As the art world moves beyond the modernist myth — to name one development, we face the fact that several art heroes’ work was made by their silent partners — we need new paradigms for existing as artists. I hope we can present one of multiple possibilities. I was recently at a new media workshop where two established artists brought their babies. I attended classes with my mother when she returned to finish college and students’ children will always be welcome in my classroom. We invited students to bring friends and lovers to class for the collaborative practices course. Co-teaching can be the beginning of a potential revolution in pedagogy and community.

Please point to us at a project or projects you would like to describe. Include links or attach files. If relevant, share with us a sense of the collaborative back-and-forth that may have gone into planning and making the work.

JW: Our new project is called Channel Two, a production company working with media as a shared language, data visualization, monoculture, and simulation. Channel Two launches in 2011.

Adam Trowbridge makes work exploring the aesthetic possibilities that arise as communication breaks down. He invents incidents and simulations that occur slightly above the noise level, between words that organize our communities and the chaos that lies beyond them. His work has been featured nationally and internationally including The Grey Market and Anthology Film Archives, New York City; Pleasure Dome, Toronto; Workspaces Ltd., San Francisco, CA; The Hyde Park Center, Chicago, IL; and festivals in France, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Korea, and Russia. Trowbridge is Adjunct Associate Professor in the Contemporary Practices and Art and Technology Studies Departments at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Trowbridge received his MFA in Electronic Visualization, from The University of Illinois at Chicago.


Jessica Westbrook’s projects explore desire, visual cues, monoculture, systems, language, and contradictory sensations that vacillate between great fortune and impending catastrophe. Always semantic in nature and modular in form, she considers her productions a section of visual language culled from a complex matrix of assets, reconfigured and repurposed per space and time. She has exhibited projects nationally and internationally in such venues as: gli.tc/h/ Chicago, the Kinsey Institute, Carnegie Museum, Hirshorn Museum of American Art, Axiom Center for New and Experimental Media, and Eyedrum. She is currently an Assistant Professor and the Director of Technology Initiatives in The Department of Contemporary Practices at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. Westbrook received her MFA from Tyler School of Art, Temple University, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


Adam Trowbridge and Jessica Westbrook, met while in high school in Orlando, Florida in 1990, and have been working together since.