On January 31, 2024, NOW Art Founder Carmen Zella sat down with architect and designer Brooks T. Atwood for a live conversation about public art on Instagram (@nowart_la). We’ve been having a blast chatting with our favorite arts leaders and artists in Los Angeles, and we hope you’ll join us for future talks. RSVP here.

Below is a transcript of the video:

Carmen Zella (CZ): Hello, I’m Carmen Zella, and this is going to be a very fun experiment so thank you so much for joining us. We are live right now with Brooks T. Atwood in our studio, well my studio, in Orange County. What we’re going to be doing today is opening up a discussion with Brooks and talking about public art, so once you join – actually I should invite Emily as a moderator. You can put your questions in the chat – Okay cool – again, Carmen Zella. 

Brooks Atwood (BA): Brooks Atwood. Hello everybody!

CZ: So Brooks, thank you so much for coming and having this discussion with us. We’re going to be chatting for about 15 minutes and then after the 15 minutes is up we’re going to have a Q&A so we really invite everybody to put their questions in the chat. If you wanted to go live we would open it up to go live as well. 

So I wanted to start off with you just sharing a little bit about yourself. Who’s Brooks T. Atwood? Who’s this Brooks guy? 

BA: Well first thanks for having me. I’m super excited about this chat. This is a great topic and I appreciate that you’re sharing this with the world – your vision and everything that you’re doing for public art, so it’s an honor to be here. I also love Q&A and questions and I love to try to think on my feet so please think of your questions as we’re chatting. 

Who am I is such an amazing question. I think I’m a Wanderer and an Explorer and I’m just like a very curious human or at least I think in this human body my human is curious. And so I would describe myself more as a Seeker and so I’m exploring and I’m seeking and searching for things. Generally that turns into collaborations with people or installations, is where my mind goes to for those things but I’m trained as an architect. I have a master’s degree in architecture – advanced architectural design from Columbia University. I was a professor for 10 years. I’ve been on TV a few times hosting a show on Netflix right now called “Hack My Home.” But otherwise I’m a practicing designer and collaborator, and that kind of runs the gamut – from designing everything from children’s museums to offices to houses to hotels, and I recently started a podcast called “Hotel Crush” with a hotel developer, Bashar Wali, who I designed a hotel for, so it’s funny, the two of us co-hosting this podcast. 

But you see just in the description, it’s not a singular focus like I don’t want to just do one thing and repeat it over and over again. My interest is in the process, and that process is about exploration for me, and so that’s my favorite part: the messy part, the part that normally no one ever sees in the design and creation of something, but for me that’s the most interesting place to be in – kind of like the 70s. 

CZ: We were talking before we went live about our age, and Brooks was sharing that maybe he was born a little bit too late – because of the ’70s and everything that it brought and the sort of openness of freedom, of expression, experimentation, that you know we seem to be missing nowadays. So just in terms of bringing it back to public art – public art is such a, you know, it has so many bones of exploration, experimentation, accessibility. So where does public art kind of fit into the Brooks T. Atwood world?

BA: I love the “T” –  it makes it so personal. My mom used to say like “Brooks T” if I was in trouble, so it’s like “ahh!” –  but I appreciate that. 

Public art…where does it sit in my landscape? I think everything is art, so let me just put it out that way, because I don’t like to separate things into categories. I have a hard time describing who I am because I don’t like the term architecture or interior design or product design. I think they’re all the same. They all have challenges in their own nuances, but so for me, public art – we live in public art. This is art. We’re in the space right now – that’s art. And so for me the whole planet is full of public art, so everything that I do I try to look at from a lens of like, how am I going to experience this thing, this piece. Even when I was doing the TV show, I was approaching it as art, like I’m making something. Even my character as art – I’m creating this character that’s on TV and I’m also doing the thing – it was around home renovations. That’s art also – so public art for me, I always try to bring in, in every project there’s always a collaborator. I always try to bring in someone, whether it’s a philosopher or an artist or a poet, to create something in a way that wouldn’t have been created before. 

CZ: Because you’re approaching it as an interdisciplinarian.

BA: I am, and we mentioned AI earlier in our chats – we know each other – and I don’t think AI combines things in that way unless you specifically ask it to. So I think there’s this really amazing exploration that can happen with AI, and you don’t need AI also. You can explore these things on your own, but I think public art has always just been part of my curiosity around space. I grew up in Chicago and there’s all these plazas filled with huge sculptures. There’s this giant Calder sculpture in the plaza and a Mies van der Rohe building, and they seem adamantly opposed with each other – the red, the vibrant red Calder sculpture and the black modernism Miesian building – but there’s something so magical. I’m getting goosebumps – there’s something so magical about walking around in that space that you can’t describe with words or anything except being there, and so when I’m creating something and we’re talking about public art, how do you create that sense of experiencing a thing in the space, in everything – in interiors, in an architecture, on a roof – how are you going to see that and and how are you going to have someone else feel that. It’s a hard thing for me to define or separate as separate things, this idea of public art. 

CZ: Because you want everybody to be able to experience these, kind of like, installation moments.

BA: Yeah. I was hitchhiking around with no money, I lived in Paris and I ended up in Bilbao, Spain and Frank Gehry’s museum just opened there – the Guggenheim. And I went inside of it. First of all, they’re all free, by the way. All museums are free in Europe if you’re a student, and we need to do that in the United States – so if anyone’s listening who has the power to make that happen, all museums should be free to students. Anyways, I went into that building and what I found incredible was the way that it sounded acoustically and I was thinking, wow, if this building could be considered public art – let me walk through it and experience the space and the sound the way that I never had before. That really that changed my life. That made me think about architecture in a totally different way – that sound, that I could be designing with sound. 

CZ: We have to take a silent pause right now because it seems like an appropriate moment. That’s really extraordinary. I mean when we’ve approached doing multidisciplinary, multimedia pieces and we think about acoustics and sound, sound is the one element that really helps to permeate into people’s emotional memory consciousness. And the same as smell. I mean they really evoke different types of feelings and it’s not often harnessed in the way that it should be harnessed, in terms of a medium and in terms of implementation in our world. So when we’re in urban settings and there’s a cacophony of sound with just noise and then we go for a hike – we’re blessed in Los Angeles to be able to have that opportunity to be in these parts of nature and at the same time in dense urban landscape – you really realize how much sound is a constant nag in your world and then when you take that away…So to deepen it and to really work a piece or work acoustics or work architecture or work in public art in that space, it’s pretty profound. 

So I wanted to ask you a couple of questions about some of your favorite public artists but I would love to understand just in terms of your relationship with technology – where do you see technology playing a part in the future of art and the art world. And I’m asking it very intentionally because a lot of times we’ve created pieces that have AR, implement VR, and people want to just put their phones down and open their hearts up and be experiencing something, physically experiencing something, so as we’re continuing to explore in AI and in these real world scenarios and with augmentations, where does that have a play? Does it have a play? Or what are your thoughts on technology in the future of art?

BA: Absolutely it does have a play. I think technology can be used in all different kinds of ways and I think this birth of this AI movement – we’re at kind of a paradigm shift precipice, so it’s not happening yet but it’s about to happen, through AI, and I think that is going to create a foundation for a renaissance movement that is going to ignite – where the money that is required or is controlling art is going to kind of get equalized out of the equation – because AI doesn’t give a shit about money, right. It’s just going to make things, and so that could be, I think that will be the catalyst for this new type of renaissance that’s going to happen. So I don’t know if that’s exactly technology built into it but there’s a way that technology is invisible and can be amplified through art in ways that you’re not necessarily conscious of. 

For example when you’re walking through a space, acoustics and sound and speakers…well take the sphere for example in Las Vegas. That’s changing everything about how you experience something. If you imagine the sphere as public art then that transforms the experience, instead of you going to a concert and you’re just in the bubble, round geodesic dome. If you think of it as public art – and I know U2’s having a thing there and the team that created the videos inside the sphere, incredible and it’s mindblowing stuff that’s happening there. So I think that’s a really interesting use of technology right now in a simplified way, incredibly powerful. It’s affecting all of your senses, as you mentioned earlier. But I’m dabbling in all these things. I’m playing with AI, I’m playing with Unreal Engine which is like a video game engine. I’m playing, merging and mixing the two, but what I’m doing is I’m using them as a foundation to generate something – not the idea or anything because I’m working on an idea, it’s a large-scale art piece installation – but I’m using a AI to help kind of create a visualization or a language around how best to represent that. But again it’s just a catalyst for ideas, I think, if you use it correctly. 

CZ: So what advice would you give an artist, because you’re an artist and you’re also like a renaissance man, and we were talking a little bit previously about the need for there to be a renaissance. That right now we’re in a moment where there’s just a lack of exploration and there’s a lot of bureaucracy. There’s a lot of limitations. So artists that are interested in working in public art – what’s your… 

BA: I think we are due for some type of revolt or renaissance and I think that they may be happening simultaneously. The revolt is the renaissance, potentially. We need something to happen for the playing field to get re-leveled. Back when the actual Renaissance happened, all the money was funding the art and now the other way around – right now we live in a society that’s trying to make money so the money is just paying for art, not funding it, right, and so I think if we just reverse that – where we just throw money at artists so they can play. That’s what the world is missing right. We’re missing beauty. We’re missing this idea that beauty has a powerful influence on our psyche as human beings and on planet Earth. And you can create ugly architecture and ugly buildings or you can create beautiful ones – it’s the same price, it doesn’t cost extra for something beautiful in architecture, for example. And I believe the same in the art world, where we, as artists, have this opportunity – and this ties back into the question about advice for people doing public art – we have this opportunity to disrupt in a powerful way that maybe is a new way of thinking about art. 

Let me give you an example: there’s this thing called The Beauty Reserve and it exists on Venmo as a platform – well Venmo is the platform – it exists to fund artists, so it’s just sitting there. The beauty of this is that Venmo is neither…Venmo is like Switzerland – it’s not the IRS, it’s not a bank account, and it’s not a governing body, so this account “The Beauty Reserve” sits there with money in it and you ask The Beauty Reserve for money to do something. So maybe you want to make a giant art installation on the beach and you ask The Beauty Reserve for $5,000 or $100,000 or you maybe you want to go and you want to do an art installation over here or you just need diapers for your kid because you don’t have enough money this month to pay rent and diapers. You can ask The Beauty Reserve for 20 bucks for diapers and The Beauty Reserve will Venmo you $20. So if you think of this thing, The Beauty Reserve, as public art, that’s a disruptor, and is it generating art? Well it could, right. It’s funding art and it’s funding life and it’s funding humans and humanity and it’s funding beauty. I actually asked The Beauty Reserve for $20 for flower seeds that I threw out the car window as I was driving down the highway so now wildflowers will grow, so is that art? Yeah it is, and so there’s so many platforms to be disrupted or that has a disruption capability built into it.

I think the advice for public art and artists is just, think different. It doesn’t have to be a sculpture in a piazza. It doesn’t have to be – in LA, public art is required if you do a multifamily building and it’s generally tacked on to the side of the architecture building – it doesn’t have to just do that. It could do something else. It doesn’t have to just reflect light or be some kind of 3D art on the building. It could actually…maybe it could count people as it walks by or maybe it makes noise as you move past it. It could be interactive and sound and multi-dimensional, and I think this idea of multidisciplinary art is what’s really exciting to me, just personally, and I think if we approach things – I grew up in Chicago as I mentioned and my architecture training is from Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright, two people who consider themselves genius, and so my whole training is like, these two men were geniuses, whatever they did – I know that’s bullshit. That’s not accurate. There’s no one that does that. There’s a team. There’s hundreds of people behind the scenes that are generating things, so for me that’s why I’m so interested in collaborations and multi-disciplinary art and in that kind of direction. That’s where I’m guided. That’s what’s like, spirit is drawing me towards. 

CZ: Yeah but also there’s a need I think – this is just, I’m interjecting my own opinion – there’s a need for there to be a space for temporary installations, less so permanent, so that we can have experimentation happen. Where we can have things not need to last 50 years, 10 years, 5 years, so that we can really build and then sort of create this renaissance moment. We need to be able to have failures.

BA: Absolutely. I’ve applied for so many artistic grants and that process is so fucked, excuse my French, but my wife and a friend of hers had this idea and it hasn’t been birthed yet, but it could, called The Barn, where it’s basically just a non-bank account and you ask it for money to support an artistic endeavor and it gives it to you. There’s no applications. The process of going through non-profits and applying and showing your portfolio and on and on and on and on and then you don’t get the grant – what a waste of time for the artist. But if you’re like, look I have this idea I’m going to do it and then I’ll show it to you when I’m done. Okay, cool, here you go, how much money do you want? And The Barn sits also as like a non- entity, where it’s just funding art, and where are the people that could just fund The Barn? The reason why I say it’s a non-entity is because it’s not a nonprofit and so you don’t get a write-off. If you’re a gazillionaire and you’re looking for a write-off, not for you, we don’t want you, because you’re looking for something and it’s like no. The barn is just art, with no bullshit. Are you getting a tax write-off? No, you’re not. Doesn’t matter because you don’t need the tax write-off on that. 

CZ: Yeah we need to be able to have the freedom to be able to create art and for me that’s the drive towards public expression, is that we need to be able to give artists the leverage to be able to showcase their work without there being a huge bureaucratic entity saying who’s legitimate and who’s not. 

I’m going to open it up for discussion now. Let me see… 

BA: We can keep talking about this obviously, forever. I’m very excited about it.

CZ: Let me see. Okay here’s a question in here: How can public art be used to foster social change and address processing societal issues? 

BA: Great question. I believe all art is challenging and asking questions in its own way, and so I think if you’re creating a piece in itself that has that question in it, then it will naturally come out when people are like, “oh what is this?” So if you’re trying to create social change then that’s the inception point of the art that you will be creating, and then through its dialogue and through the way that people interact with that project, it has the power to create social change. Art over the centuries has created riots, uprising. People have used art for expression. Yesterday someone was throwing in soup on the Mona Lisa. So it inevitably has its own life – obviously when you release art, people interpret it in its own way, but all public art and all art in its own way has a potential for social change if you embed that question into it while you’re making it. You see people like Michael Joo, who’s a friend of mine. We did some art installations together. All of his work has this kind of scientific approach but also this humanistic approach, so it’s always this twofold of like, “What is happening here? Where’s the human element? Where’s this robotic element to it?” And so many artists, I can keep listing, but there’s always this dichotomy between the two things. 

CZ: Do you think that art is relevant if it doesn’t have a political stance?

BA: Yes absolutely. Yes – I don’t think it has to take a political stance for art to be relevant. I think just creating art makes it relevant. In and of itself it’s political if you want it to be political. If you made it that way, it will naturally have that point of view inside of it. I mean social change is a big thing. I think this whole idea of The Beauty Reserve as an entity on Venmo has the power for social change, 100%, and that wasn’t the inception of the idea. 

CZ: Is that funded? Like it sounds very similar to The Barn idea. 

BA: The beauty of The Beauty Reserve is right now you can go on and fund it yourself. So while I was walking to the beach today, I was like, oh I’d like to buy a coffee for someone, so I just sent The Beauty Reserve $5 and said this is a coffee if somebody wants one. So you can just walk around funding it yourself, so it’s funded by everybody, by the public. 

CZ: Wow I love that idea. 

BA: What would be great is if American Express, for example, was listening and watching right now and they’re like, “Oh I want to fund the Beauty Reserve,” as part of their marketing campaign and now here you have a company like American Express funding an entity like Beauty Reserve that gives out money to whoever is requesting it. What an incredible story that would be for American Express. There’s nothing more powerful than that. 

CZ: Absolutely. I’m curious about your thoughts on the most powerful impact that you’ve ever experienced with public art. What is an installation, public art piece, that really blew your socks off and why?

BA: That’s a great question. Because I approach things from an architectural perspective, it’s a little bit skewed towards the remnants of architecture and not necessarily something that was created specifically or on purpose. But the piazza in front of the Vatican – I consider public art. That space in itself has such a strange and wonderful and magical and almost other-dimensional harmony to it – the way that the columns on the side are actually curved, the columns aren’t actually the same height, they’re all different heights to mess with your perspective when you’re looking at it from one single vantage point. And then obviously you have the Vatican in the background. But I’ve meandered and wandered around there for hours and hours and hours. It’s such a powerful space – the acoustics of that space are very weird. It has a political climate to it because the Pope also talks out there in that courtyard, in that piazza, and so I think that space is just so loaded with history that’s in it, and architecturally it’s such a weird place – nothing is as it seems. It’s all tricks, if you understand it and know it and study it, in these weird nuances of the size of the columns change and the heights of the columns change. It’s a weird weird weird place, and I love it – and I know that’s not necessarily exactly a public art project but that’s just something so powerful to me that I almost felt like I was leaving my body when I was in that piazza, that was so weird. 

CZ: Yeah that’s beautiful. 

BA: I mean I have the privilege and honor of living in Laguna Beach, and it’s a real powerful artistic community and everything is public art. Everything all around. There’s weird stuff all over the place that I see on a daily basis and I see it in a different way every day and that’s the beauty of it. Once it’s out in the wild and in the public, people see it at 6 a.m., 6 p.m., midnight, 2 am. They see it when they’re crying. They see when they’re late for work. They see it and that’s something that you don’t necessarily have any control over as an artist.

CZ: And that’s what I also think is the beauty about public art, is that the artist has to release their pieces into the social environment and into the environment, and then they have to give birth to them and then let them go and let them have their own life and their own freedom to be. 

BA: You know what and that’s scary AF as an artist. 

CZ: Yeah because artists want to be able to have the control and be able to have the work developed in their studio and have these very controlled environments in galleries and museums, and in public art, it’s like all of that is by the wayside. It gets rained on and snowed on and peed on, and everything. The public does everything to the pieces – tons of photography. There’s no control that’s there, and that’s what I like about the wildness of that landscape. 

So any last words before we close out today? Any last tidbits of sharing?

BA: I would just say that the world needs more art, more public art in particular. We need to be occupying spaces that are beautiful and I think public art can absolutely affect that in a radical way – more radical than I think people realize. You and I have been talking for a while – I was trying to start an initiative in Laguna Beach about empty storefront spaces and that any empty storefront space that sits empty for 30 days automatically is given to an artist for workspace. Not only is that good for the artist and it gives them space to work, but it’s also good for the city because now that storefront space isn’t sitting empty and decrepit and collecting cobwebs, but now you can see art being created everywhere. Imagine all the empty spaces in Laguna if they were taken over by artists. You would be able to see that. Would be amazing. So those kinds of things are where I’m trying to push also, so I’m trying to push for regulations, for changes in bureaucracy, to have a bigger impact on the world that we live in. 

CZ: Yeah and more opportunities for artists. Absolutely. 

Thank you everyone. I hope you guys had fun listening and tune in next time which is February 7th. We’re going to be talking with an artist, a very renowned Japanese American artist, on February 7th, Wednesday at 6 pm. Thank you so much.