Sustainable clothing brand OUTERKNOWN – founded by world champion surfer Kelly Slater – asked legendary surf writer, photographer and director Jamie Brisick to interview artists Niki Livingston and Yusuke Tsukamoto of Lookout & Wonderland, the duo behind our current exhibition “Absolute Magnitude”.
Lookout & Wonderland are Yusuke Tsukamoto and Niki Livingston, a husband and wife art-making duo based in Los Angeles. Yusuke comes from Chiba, Japan; Niki from Florida. They met in Los Angeles in 2004 and have been working together ever since. Their latest show, “Absolute Magnitude: Knowing, Ignorance And Being,” is a collaborative, narrative-based work of naturally dyed and appliquéd flags that examines the nature of consciousness and personal reality. We caught up the modern way, over email.
Jamie Brisick: I really love the title of your studio, “Lookout & Wonderland” Tell me about it.
Niki Livingston: It is a funny thing actually, because we had really been struggling to come up with a name that made sense for both of us and we were getting nowhere. The name comes from an early romantic desire to relocate and work in Laurel Canyon. Probably the same hypnotic high vibes and natural beauty that has lured everyone from Harry Houdini to Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell. It happened that while we were driving into the canyon we reached the fork that leads up either Lookout Mountain Ave or Wonderland Ave and Yusuke asked which road we should take. I responded that it didn’t really matter since they will both lead us into magic. We realized immediately that this was the name we had been searching for.
JB: “Absolute Magnitude: Knowing, Ignorance And Being”—another great title. Where did this come from?
NL: Absolute Magnitude is the measure of intrinsic brightness of a celestial object. The brighter the celestial object the smaller its absolute magnitude. We thought this measurement had a beautiful correlation to the ideas of the evolution of consciousness and knowing. Knowing, Ignorance and Being are all ideas of philosophical thought involved in the examination of consciousness. They are also the stages of thought evolution on the path to enlightenment. The work of James Frederick Ferrier, John Locke and Kierkegaard heavily inform the concept of this current body of work.
Kierkegaard adeptly summed up these stages when he wrote “The majority of men in every generation ... live and die under the impression that life is simply a matter of understanding more and more, and that if it were granted to them to live longer, that life would continue to be one long continuous growth in understanding. How many of them ever [discern] that there comes a critical moment when everything is reversed, after which the point becomes to understand more and more that there is something which cannot be understood.” Beyond this point the self can move forward through the state of understood ignorance and into the state of being as referenced in the final stage of Plato’s Dialectic, the complete liberation from the shadows of the cave.
"EACH FLAG IS A DECLARATION OF PERCEIVED KNOWLEDGE, A STORYBOARD IN A SHARED JOURNEY OF REALITY THAT LOOKS VERY DIFFERENT BEHIND THE EYES AND INSIDE THE MIND OF EACH VIEWER" - NIKI LIVINGSTON
JB: You use flags as a way to examine “personal reality, knowledge and the limitation of knowing on perceived matter.” Can you expand on this a bit?
NL: Flags have been used throughout the history of man as signaling devices and as a clear method of nonverbal communication, so it made perfect sense for us to use the medium as the basis for this symbol-based narrative. We’ve also employed imagery that has diverse cultural and complex historical symbolism as a visual tool to express the various viewpoints and ideas of knowledge that can be expressed by simple recognizable icons. Each flag is a declaration of perceived knowledge, a storyboard in a shared journey of reality that looks very different behind the eyes and inside the mind of each viewer. The story you create from our visual narrative will be particular to your personal reality and experience. It’s quite possible that it will indeed be entirely divergent from our version of the story. As such, each viewer’s experiential evolution will establish a particular limitation to the experiencing and understanding of the perceived matter we have created.
JB: Yusuke, How long have you lived in the US? Major difference between American and Japanese culture?
YT: In the spring of ’93 I had the opportunity to come explore the US. My initial plan was to dip in for 10 months and then go back home, but I’ve just kept going since then. It’s been already 23 years. I have met many good friends who have come here from different places/countries. The biggest difference in culture is that there are so many different races of people here. People’s thoughts and opinions are very diverse. I feel that people from the US are more open-minded and have broader acceptance. Whereas Japan can be slightly conservative or maybe we are simply “careful” about doing things. Since there aren’t a lot of diverse influences Japan stays pretty traditional, but that seems to be changing with the young people coming up today.
JB: Yusuke, You wear a lot of different hats, one of which is art director for Outerknown. Can you tell me a bit about that, and how they inform each other?
YT: Working as an art director this past decade, I have the responsibility to design the initial concept and it allows me to oversee the map and set the tone of voice/visual as a whole. Being a painter or graphic designer allows me to design tangible assets. Because I’m able to work in different mediums, I know there are so many ways of making things. Whether it’s working on a painting or a brand for a client I can pull from each world. By wearing different hats I’m able to see things from many different angles and keep my creative thoughts more flexible.
JB: You are a husband and wife collaborative team -- what is it like working together?
YT: It's epic to be able to share thoughts and ideas together. What’s more epic is to be able make things happen and create work like this current artwork.
NL: Absolutely. I feel really lucky to have my husband as my creative partner, because you naturally break down all those restrictive barriers that you may have working with other people. We can be completely open creatively and not feel limited by any fear judgment, because you just stop interacting with each other that way when you spend years living and working together. At the same time, it’s a healthy challenge to remember to treat each other with professional respect and not cross the boundary into emotionalism when disagreements arise. I think it’s helpful that we’ve learned to use our language and cultural differences as positive elements rather than limitations and that’s really pushed us forward creatively.
"IT'S EPIC TO BE ABLE TO SHARE THOUGHTS AND IDEAS TOGETHER. WHAT’S MORE EPIC IS TO BE ABLE MAKE THINGS HAPPEN AND CREATE WORK LIKE THIS CURRENT ARTWORK."
There’s this weird sort of telepathy that begins to develop in most really close relationships, but the gaps that occur in our communication (due to the vast differences between our mother languages) have ultimately magnified this ability between us. He can literally reach inside my thoughts and illustrate the contents of my mind. It's pretty awesome.
This show is a perfect example. I spent a few months working on the research and then one evening we started talking about the story we needed tell with this work. He came back to me almost immediately with the most perfect illustrations. It blew me away. The colors are a really important part of the visuals, and so I worked for the next six weeks to create the exact color story with just the right resonance. Since I work entirely in natural dyes there was quite a bit of trial and error and the error bits now make up the framing of the flags. We worked together on the layout, design and composition. He did the cutting and I approached using the sewing as a drawing tool rather than a means to an end. It has been a truly collaborative journey and it’s been loads of fun.
Absolute Magnitude: Knowing, Ignorance & Being runs till 7/31 at These Days
Jamie Brisick is a writer, photographer, and director. He surfed on the ASP world tour from 1986 to 1991. He has since documented surf culture extensively. His books include Becoming Westerly: Surf Champion Peter Drouyn’s Transformation into Westerly Windina, Roman & Williams: Things We Made, We Approach Our Martinis With Such High Expectations, Have Board, Will Travel: The Definitive History of Surf, Skate, and Snow, and The Eighties at Echo Beach. His writings and photographs have appeared in The Surfer’s Journal, The New York Times, and The Guardian. He was the editor of Surfing magazine from 1998-2000, and is presently the global editor of Huck. In 2008 he was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship. He lives in Los Angeles. For more of his work check out jamiebrisick.com & @jamiebrisick
All photographs by Stephen Zeigler