Brain Sounds – Jamal Cyrus | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios

Brain Sounds – Jamal Cyrus | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios

This episode is sponsored by audible. We are in Houston, Texas outside of Inman Gallery which is currently hosting an exhibition of the work of Jamal Cyrus who were going to be meeting with today. Cyrus synthesises a wide range of materials and disciplines in his practice, which is recent years has included: a marquee that resuscitates and repeats a vintage concert billboard featuring Houston blues legend Sam Lightnin’ Hopkins, a series of papyrus sheets, from which are cut four differing newspaper covers each addressing Houston police’ 1970 shooting of Carl Hampton the founder of the city’s chapter of the Black Panther party, as well as a performance that involved Cyrus carefully breading and deep frying a saxophone, amplifying the sound it makes, amid a series of recitations and movements. He is also a member of the artists’ collective Otabenga Jones and Associates who’s mission is to preserve and promote the core principles of the black radical tradition and underscore the complications of black representation through actions, writings and installations. Sound and musical traditions are threads that run throughout Cyrus’ practice, which fuses unlikely materials and draws connections across cultures and time and space. Today we’re going to talk with him about his work and see if we might find our own way to draw from existing histories to create new ones. I’m Jamal Cyrus, and this is your art assignment. I started making these records in the mid 2000’s and they mainly started off as small 45 jackets I later went on to making, like, 8 track covers and then, like, LP covers. What I was initially trying to do was to make present something I was looking for in the music but wasn’t finding, which was this kind of expression of black militancy. What I could see kind of happening in the politics, I wasn’t always seeing that in the music right, so I started creating fictional examples of this and that’s how the pride series mainly started with that. Eventually, when I had enough of them, I said, ‘Oh, I should make this into, um, like a consistent piece.’ Cuz I was just kind of doing different labels and doing different, kind of, jumping around a little bit um, but when I made the decision to make it a consistent piece I came up with a name um, and then just kind of a backstory to fuel the making of the works. and the backstory is like the works come out of, um, the Detroit, uh, rebellion. and, uh, Detroit is the Mo-Town and this really important musical place the label was making this music which was supposed to be marketed at urban youth but they’re supposed to politicise urban youth. but, you know, creatively do this. and because of how successful they are at doing it they come under the surveillance of the FBI and part of this programme called Quintelpro and, what happens in the story is that eventually they’re bought out basically and, kind of, their direction’s changed to produce more, kind of you know, what I call like, hedonistic, like disco music basically. So, it’s supposed to tell the, you know, the rise and fall of this small, um, independent label. I’m almost finished, um, it takes place in, um, like I said, 45 covers, um, LP covers and also some posters. The art assignment I have for you is called brain sounds and it takes as it’s inspiration the desire to hear a sound you have never heard before. This could be an impossible sound, or simply a sound which has not occurred yet. Once you decide on what the sound will be, then think about how to represent it visually and what form it will take. In my work, I have used album covers, cassette inserts, concert posters etc. but yours can take any form you’d like. good luck and we look forward to seeing your work So what I really find intriguing about this assignment is this question of whether we take images at their word do we trust what they’re telling us and the short answer is no, we haven’t been for a while and I pretty much avoided in 57 art assignment episodes talking about post-modernism because i think it’s confusing but I think that it’s time. In super-wide terms, post-modernism applies across lots of different fields and it’s the acceptance that meaning is not something that exists within an object or a text or a movie or whatever but that meaning is constructed in your own mind around those things as you try to understand whatever they are. Nothing is fixed everything, is relative and we have to be sceptical of everything. And it’s relevant here because in this postmodern age, which emerged in art and culture and full force in the 1970’s, artist showed how skeptical they were of the onslaught of images and mass culture that have proliferated since the Second World War. The image became unmoored from it’s signifier, and cultural material (like records and their covers) are no longer these whole unified things with fixed content and meaning, but are completely open to interpretation and also open to be played around with and remixed. Yeah, and we’re still living in that remix culture, if you think about it, where we all feel free to pull from and sample what we see and hear and buy around us using whatever parts of it we like and putting it into new contexts to create new meaning. Exactly, and there were a number of artists in the late 1970’s early 1980’s who are often called the pictures artists or pictures generation, who established this new kind of remixing an image or picture skepticism in the world of art. In 1981, Barbara Bloom made a series she called ‘Travel Posters that, upon initial glance, look like ones you might have seen in a travel agency or consulate at the time, but on closer inspection you realize that, while the images are what you might expect, (airplanes and travelers and beaches) the text complicates matters considerably. An unremarkable image of a beach is paired with the warning, “No Journalists” in English and below in Arabic. Is this a forewarning for journalists? A draw for camera-shy celebs? Where is this? Where are we? Gradually, you realize that these aren’t so much stock- photo, perfect vacation shots but are unusual, askew and charged. While cryptic, these text-image pairings have to be read through the lens of US/Middle East relations at that time. But we don’t have a guide for how to parse them, really. Who is the author? Who is the audience? Like Bloom’s posters, Jamal’s collaged and invented album covers are fictions made from bits of reality. They are close enough to what we know to be jarring and to encourage us to probe deeper. The artifice of picture-making has been exposed, and we are now free to play in a magical world of cultural material, to rethink old narratives and forge new ones. I usually really do not try to represent the sound. Right, I don’t like trying to say, “Oh, this is this kind of jazz-funk thing, so I’m gonna try to put that in and have that represented through the line/shape/colour and texture of the piece, I usually try to, I guess, pick things that could be related to could be connected to that thing, in terms of imagery in the end language that is a little bit more specific but it still like has movement in it. [I] just recently heard about this thing on the edge of interstellar space there’s this cau- there’s supposed to be this wind that occurs, right, this wind of gases or whatever that occurs, so I- I know you can’t hear sounds in space, but like what does that sound like. So it could be things like that or it could be things which are a little more closer to us – pairing two musicians together. So if I pair together, for instance, I used to always think about the song “Raspberry Beret” as being a great song for Jimi Hendrix to sing, right, so you know it could be a little bit closer, so it could be pairing two different musicians I used to also play with this idea of James Brown in the Temple of Apollo, right, so like thinking of all these, these, these kinds of different ways to approach the assignment. So you can think about locations, you can think about couplings, you can think about yeah, instruments that had never of [I wouldn’t] say never but you that you hadn’t heard paired before, I think those are ways you can start. I think it does- it gives you the opportunity to- to play in this just kind of way, to perhaps think of the juxtapositions or arrangements, like, you have maybe have never thought of before, but also I think it’s a good experiment to see like what that effect will have on other people to see your work, in how they’ll perceive it and if there’s any of that communication that you originally intended, like if any of that is coming through. This episode is sponsored by audible. Right now, audible is offering art assignment viewers a 30-day trial period. Checkout / art assignment to access their audio programmes and titles. One book you might enjoy if you’re interested in post-modernism is Ulysses by James Joyce, which is available at audible and, in my opinion, is the first post-modern novel. Go to / art assignment and make sure you use that link to help us out and to get a membership trial.


  • whoop de scoop says:


  • whoop de scoop says:


  • Burkley Page says:

    when you were in Texas did you happen to visit the rothko chapel?

  • SciJoy says:

    When I saw the title, it reminded me of the classroom experiment where you stick electrodes in an earthworm transform its neural signals into audio. NASA often creates sonifications of light curves. The YouTube channel crysknife007 puts many of NASA's sounds (and other geeky sounds) on loops. This is a link to how solar wind sounds:

  • Margaret Moon says:

    AAAyyy! Your first Art Assignment from your trip to Houston. I am so jazzed about the one next week.

  • Patricia McGowan says:

    Loving this! …

  • Roll0112358 says:


  • Yxaj says:

    This video reminds me of Selena Gomez's "Come and Get It." Selena Gomez is a pop artist, but her song includes sounds from Indian music, which is very rare for American pop music.

  • Maria M says:

    Beyoncé Reborn as a Saxophone. Robbin Williams Dryly chanting the Inaugural Address. What that gold faced performance artist whispered to the dead hare while walking in the gallery – I'm actually really curious about this one hhmmm

  • Fernando Matehuala says:

    Can you do the case for Wolfgang Tillmans

  • Erika Robertson says:

    I would love to make an art piece representing the sound I hear in my ears when I'm anxious. It would start with strips of black and white paper, woven like "snow" on a television screen. I don't have the tools to make it right now, but thanks for the thought exercise.

  • Sabinesmoustache says:

    This assignment reminds me of the bit in the book 'Boy Meets Boy' by David Levithan when two characters "paint music", they listen to a piece of music and paint based on the sounds

  • Sarah Holcomb says:

    I am wondering about the bright green labels on the art pieces. What do they say? Why are they written with those characters?

  • PoseidonXIII says:

    I've sometimes heard that we now live in a post-post-modern world. Not sure if that is a real thing, couldn't imagine what that really means.

  • Matthew Sawyer says:

    Wow this is huge. I'm working on a project that messes with the meaning behind sound and environments that we hear every day. Love hearing post-modernism explained in easy relatable terms.

  • Zeno Planets says:

    It's Jordan Peele's vader!

  • God says:

    how can i get featured as well?

  • FaCu aRroYo says:

    I love the idea of creating fictional bands and thinking about how the covers would look like

  • joseph Traff says:

    Poost moodanisnoozeism ! So 20th century!

    People forget we are nearly a quarter century into the 21st century. ..just ama😋 ing…

    We are currently leaving the meta-modern age (the meta what?? Right?) but most still linger in the late 20th century.

    What did the smart tomato say to the lagard tomato?
    ketchup! We are moving at a crushing pace

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