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Beyond Labels, Art, and Science with Willy Chyr

Willy Chyr is a creative exploring the interaction between art and science. Most known for his balloon installations, Willy draws inspiration from his scientific background, cultural expressions, and processes found in nature—namely this idea of emergence. He is the creator of The Collabowriters, a “crowdsourced” novel exploring storytelling and group interaction. Not that long ago, I caught up with Willy for an interview to discuss his creative process and progression as an artist.

Danielle Jackson [DJ]: I understand that your background is in physics and economics. I’m wondering how did you get into design and art work?

Willy Chyr [WC]: Yeah, I was studying physics in school. On the side, I joined a circus for fun. I just wanted to practice with them. There’s sort this weird relationship between math people and juggling—a lot of them do both. There are more math people in the juggling community than compared to the general population and vice versa. Basically what they had going was two guys passing knives. They needed a body to lie underneath on a bed of nails, so they got me to do that. Eventually, I got into juggling and twisting balloons. Also, the whole time, I was working in a bunch of physics labs. The summer before my fourth year, I was in Italy working in this accelerator lab. I came back wondering what I was going to do after I graduated. I had this science path and creative path.

This architect came to campus. He was working with a physicist—doing a lot of things with glass and light. He was trying to see what materials they used or what new materials they had been inventing. He wanted to see how he could use that in his work. After that he came and gave a little lecture. I went and I was like, “Holy cow! This guy is using science to make art and maybe that’s something I can do.” I don’t know how to blow glass, but I started thinking about materials at that point. I realized at that point, I had been twisting balloons for about two or three years so I decided to use that. The first series of sculptures were done the last two months of my college career. I was trying to play with light and balloons. Things progressed from there. That was the very beginning.

Willy Chyr. From "Fractal Set 1," 2012 (Image courtesy of the artist)

DJ: Would you say that art and science are linked more than we think?

WC: Definitely, my view on it has changed a lot. Those first pieces had a very straightforward relationship. At that time, I was trying to mimic bioluminescent sea creatures—these sea creatures that emit their own light. It’s a straightforward relationship in the sense that you see it and you’re like, “Oh ok, that’s it.” Whereas now they’re much more complicated, so instead of mimicking objects, I try to replicate processes. Looking at the way trees grow, I would try applying that to the way I grow these installations. Then whatever I make feeds back into the science and lets me look at that in a new way. It lets me appreciate it more. Even now, when I look at mountains and when I look at trees, I can see the complexities that allow this world to emerge. I really think both of them are trying to express things you see in nature. In science you have to do that through equations and diagrams. You have to be very careful with your data. In art you can try to express the same ideas without that stringency. Science you need it, but art you don’t.  Sometimes that’s better.

DJ: I was reading an article on the WBEZ website the other day and it stated that you prefer the term “creative” over “artist.” Why is that?         

WC: It’s just because I think that our definition of artist in some ways still hasn’t caught up to the times. I’d say I’m an artist. I’m comfortable calling myself that amongst other artists.  I do feel with the general population when you say you’re an artist, people still think of you with a red beret and an easel—you’re  a painter and you’re restricted to creating these objects, which you then show in a gallery with white walls. For me I’ve done these installations, prints, websites, and I would like to make video games as well. Yes, I would personally consider all of those works of art, but as far as the general population is concerned artist doesn’t quite communicate what I hope to communicate. I think if you just say that you’re a creative, it’s like, “Oh I see, you’re doing video games too.”

DJ: Ok, so it’s more trans-disciplinary.

WC: Yes. It’s just more encompassing. It allows you to do stuff—anything that doesn’t require numbers all the time falls under creative. I try not to think too much about definitions though.

DJ: Where does your inspiration come from?

WC: All my work now is about this idea of emergence. I never know what it’s going to look like until it’s done. I’ve modeled work after bioluminescent sea creatures, neurons, and other real world objects. Then I got a residency at the Bemis Center in Omaha. I would consider that residency to be my art school. I hadn’t taken a single art class since eighth grade.  That was my first time talking to artists and curators and about the creative process. I decided to focus more on structures and shapes. What can balloons lend themselves to? If I could make this sculpture out of wood, why bother? So I did a series of black and white structures because everyone associates balloons with being very colorful. It had spheres and chains interconnecting, which I would say was the beginning of my second phase. They’re no longer modeled after things that exist.

Now, however, I don’t sketch out the design beforehand. Instead, I have a procedure which I follow, first creating a set of spheres, and then connecting them with a web that’s grown organically. There’s a level of spontaneity and randomness built into the process, so that even though I follow the same process with each installation, the end result is different every time.

Willy Chyr. Detail of "Quarter Century," 2012. Chicago Illuminating Company, Chicago, IL (Photo Credit: Willy Chyr)

DJ: How long does it take you to make them? How long do they typically stay up?

WC: That’s an interesting question. What happens is that when you inflate a balloon the air pressure inside is initially much higher than the air pressure outside so the air tries to escape in order to reach equilibrium. Once equilibrium is reached it doesn’t deflate anymore. It doesn’t keep deflating until it’s gone. That deflation starts around three to four weeks.  By the end of four weeks it’s noticeably aged and after that it stays that way. I normally keep them up for about five weeks. Usually the medium sized pieces, which are the most common, take me about two days and I do them by myself. The larger pieces can take up to four days. None of those sculptures are planned. I just let them grow.

DJ: What artists are you really into?

WC: There are a lot of artists, I like for their attitude. I like their work too, but it doesn’t quite influence me as much in a very direct way. I love R. Crumb. I saw that documentary Crumb by Terry Zwigoff. I love how unapologetically honest he is about himself and his flaws, and his work. I have mad respect for that. That’s the attitude I want with my work. It’s like, “This is me. Yes, you can criticize it, but I’m not going to change it. It’s what I do.”

In terms of my actual practice, there are three artists that have had the biggest impact. Jonathan Harris is one. He created the website We Feel Fine, in which a script is constantly searching through blogs for sentences that contain the phrase “I feel” or “I am feeling”. Once a sentence is found, it’s analyzed to get a sense of the mood, and a color is assigned accordingly. At the same time, the script will pick up associated meta data such as age, gender, location, and weather. And all of this data is presented in a very beautiful way. It is like he is taking the emotional temperature of the internet.

His work has such great concepts so if you just describe the idea you’re like, “Awesome!” The execution is fantastic as well. I love that all his work has such strong concepts, so I try to employ that into my work.  The Collabowriters is one way for me to go in that direction. He added this sentence—this quote from a teacher of his and it said, “Novices go for Wow! And experts or masters go for Wow….” I was like, “Holy shit!” I felt like the very first balloons—when I didn’t have an idea behind it, I was just going for the Wow! Now I feel trying to bring back that concept there’s both the visceral experience of seeing these pieces (there are all these colors around you) and intellectually there’s this dialogue, so he’s been a big influence.

Tara Donavan’s organic installations have this emergence where she has this repetition of a process. I think she’s a little more expansive than me because she will use any medium—in that she’ll look at this cup and figure out what shapes lend themselves to it and then this structure emerges. Dale Chihuly—not so much anymore, but very early on, I looked to his use of colors. He has these simple shapes that look very random, but the impact comes because there are a ton of them together—he has this mass quantity. The concentration and density in some of my work I got from him.

DJ: Chihuly has incredible vision. He acts as art director now. He’s not making these things anymore.

WC: Yeah and then you know it’s a Chihuly even though he didn’t physically put it together. His aesthetic is so strong. I’m not Chihuly, but I do hope to develop a unique visual aesthetic to be strongly associated with my work, whatever that may be.

Willy Chyr. From "Systems/ Process," 2012 (Photo Credit: Lloyd Degrane)

DJ:  Can you tell me about the Beck’s label “A Glimpse of Something Ephemeral?” Can you also talk about what “beyond the label” means to you?

WC:  Last September, Beck’s sent me an email asking me if I wanted to design the label. They just saw my work somewhere. It’s called  “A Glimpse of Something Ephemeral” because it’s sort of like this window into this other world. I had gone into the studio one day, built a piece, shot a bunch of photos, and then took it down— all in the span of twelve hours. It was a piece that I really didn’t know what to do with, and then when Beck’s called I decided to use it. The colors in the piece are not typical balloon colors. I digitally manipulated the tone. I wanted it to look like those microscopic pictures from science textbooks. The idea was for it to function as a two-dimensional graphic, but also as a window looking into this other world that is kind of familiar. It’s familiar because it’s made out of balloons, which you see all the time. It’s the same balloons that you see at festivals that are used to make puppies. It just has this very otherworldly feel. This didn’t last; it was only there for twelve hours. Now it’s gone. You’re glimpsing into this other world that no longer exists. That’s what I was thinking.

As far as “beyond the label” when I was in the circus, I used to build these tall bikes, and then all of a sudden I was “the bike guy.” I built a tandem and all of a sudden I’m “the tandem guy.” I’m juggling and I’m “the juggling guy.” So there are all these labels. It’s very easy to run with that. I think at some point you need to not let that become who you are.  It’s like, “Okay, what is it that I want to do with my work?” I had to drop “the bike guy” because I was no longer interested in that. It took me a while to do The Collabowriters (which has nothing to do with balloons) and the fractals, but it wouldn’t have happened if I was like, “Oh I’m ‘the balloon guy’.” People attach labels all the time—it makes life easier. I think as an artist you can’t do that.

DJ: What do you like about the Chicago art community?

WC: In Chicago it’s like all these, “What the fuck moments.” Everyone is trying to be everything. They want to be a visual artist, writer, musician, director, etc. Whereas in a place like Toronto everyone is like, “I’m a designer and it’s what I do and I don’t go outside of that.”  I find that the kind of back-thinking environment in Chicago is so much better. Yes, you get a lot of crappy work, but when you have great work –it’s awesome! It really breaks out and it’s totally something new.  I’m much happier in a place like Chicago that encourages cross-disciplinary and experimental stuff. That’s going to help you create something so much better later.


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