Street Art / Hamilton, Canada
Meet Andrew Lamb (CAN), the artist and puppet-maker behind the Neighbourhood Watch Project in Toronto, numerous cardboard creatures and lots of other cool stuff
Text: Anna Karlsson (Co-Editor of USHiRi Magazine) Location: Hamilton, Canada (via Zoom)
One day in November last year I learned that the top part on your feet are in Spanish not “toes”, but “fingers of foot” (“dedos del pie”). Later in the evening, when lying in bed, trying to name actually all the parts of my body (as was the homework of the Spanish course I attended), I came to think about the anatomy of horses that I studied when making drawings back in the days of my early adolescense. I remembered that the horses’ hocks up on their back legs are sort of their heals. In the same way their front knees are what we would refer to as wrists. In their “splint boon” are degenerated “fingers”. Their hoofs are more or less the tip of the nails.
Calling up professional puppet-maker, puppeteer and artist Andrew Lamb (CAN) for a video conversation on Zoom one Saturday in April, I ask if the echoes of traits usually strike him when making a cardboard Wendiceratops for the visitors of the Royal Ontario Museum, or a roaming beaver puppet for Canada Day celebrators in the City of Mississauga, or a zoot-suit wearing praying mantis stomping the streets during the Art Gallery of Ontario’s 2015 Massive fundraiser and other events in Toronto.
I love cardboard because it is cheap, easy to work with, strong for its weight and is fairly environmentally friendly. It also burns, which is a fun thing to do once the puppet has lived its life.Andrew Lamb (CAN)
Not really, it turns out, although he is very aware of for example the function of joints, the concepts of balance and sympathetic movement, combined with different kinds of hardware. But in the end, he’s rather unsentimental about his creations.
“I prefer my work to be cheap to make, free to see and furthermore to be seen unintentionally. I love cardboard because it is cheap (often free), easy to work with, strong for its weight and is fairly environmentally friendly. It also burns, which is a fun thing to do with some friends a night at the beach, once the puppet has lived its life”.
“Yeah, haha. One thing you discover when working with these things is that they take up a lot of space, and space is at a premium in cities. It becomes a pain to find new homes for them, as I am only working out of a two car garage.”
The echoes of traits I was talking about earlier is probably the concept of genetic coherence, he says. Which, true, is the case, at least to some extent.
Genetic coherence, which is the evolutionary principle involved in the linear evolution of anagenesis, where you have a gradual evolution of a species and the species continue to make babies with each other, as in opposition to cladogenesis, where you have a split and eventually end up with new species.
Once you produce it, it goes out and does its own thing, interacts with the world and people, is interpreted and loved or hated.
Even if humans and horses, along with for example cats, beavers and even dinosaurs, share the notion of a “hand”, used for whatever purpose: walking, gripping or creating art, they are of course seen as different species (although horse brothels were running in Denmark up until not so long ago. But that is a different story, I believe).
Researchers used to debate whether present day humans originate from Africa or from Afro-Eurasia, with respects taken to the afore-mentioned aspects.
In our current technology-infused reality, it could – if one is free to muse – perhaps be interesting to discuss how much “artificial” influence is possible before humans turn into a new species? An artificial cardiac pacemaker is ok. Micro-robots swimming through blood vessels delivering drugs. Electrical limbs in contact with finger stumps. Microchip implants. Interacting with Siris or Liza and Hannah.
What will create the split?
Andrew Lamb says he is kind of interested in Theo Jansen (NLD), who in 1990 began building large skeletons out of yellow plastic tubes from Dutch electricity pipes, and named them strandbeesten (“beach animals”). The animals are able to move on their own with the help of energy from the wind. Theo Jansen is cited on his homepage, saying: “By developing this evolution, I hope to become wiser in the understanding of existing nature by encountering myself the problems of the real Creator.”
(Editor’s note: This is perhaps a more humble form of juxtaposing yourself with a higher power. Another standpoint, the one in the old notion that artists can be directly influenced or even steered by a higher power will be discussed in a coming review of Lars Krantz’s (SWE) comic fanzine Dark Chocolat. Check the page in the coming weeks if you’re interested in that!)
Theo Jansen’s way of seeing his strandbeesten as a new life form is kind of fun, thinks Andrew Lamb.
“At least as much as it applies to the idea of artwork as much as animals. Once you produce it, it goes out and does its own thing, interacts with the world and people, is interpreted and loved or hated, and so on.”
His interest in making puppets came when he, as a teenager fighting with his parents and don’t wanting to go to school, ended up volunteering at a small theatre, by which he could get school credits without having to go to class.
“I met a woman there who built props for a living, and I remember one morning while making a bow and arrows for “A Midsummer’s Night Dream”, deciding this would be a career that would be the least like actually work I could find. Which was foolish, because working in entertainment is often, really long hours and can be demanding. It is a case study on creating meaning in life I guess, because for the first time I was focusing and trying to get better at something. The ideal of quality and craftsmanship started to grow in my mind. In a round about way, I found meaning in my life through a trade by trying to avoid finding a “real job.”
Today, about ninety percent of his professional life is making puppets for musicals, touring shows and cruise ships. This job pays most of his bills. Beside this he also does a little of puppetteering, and various art projects.
Making a puppet for a musical requires or building a cardboard mantis for a street event is pretty much the same thing if speaking of skills and techniques. In terms of content, or meaning,though, they are two different things.
“Most of the puppets I’ve built don’t have much meaning behind them, they are just pleasing and entertaining to watch, which is totally fine and great on it’s own. Other projects of mine though, none of which have really been puppet based, tend to carry more meaning or have some reason behind them, even if it is a simple one.”
One of his most interesting and unique projects, if choosing himself, was the project that made him break through as an artist back in 2012; the Neighbourhood Watch Project. This was an installation in which he refaced “This Community Protected” municipal signs in Toronto with Mulder and Scully, Baby Yoda, My Little Pony, He-man and other cartoons’ and cult television series’ heroes from his 80’s and 90’s childhood. The project spread well through the, at the time, rather new phenomenom Instagram.
“It lent itself well to people sharing images and hash tagging them. The whole thing had a scavenger hunt aspect to it” he says.
Growing up in Toronto, Andrew Lamb had no formal training in art and he wasn’t, according to himself, raised in a very artistic household. He became kind of absorbed in the mashed up surfer, skateboard, biker and comic book aesthetics of the lowbrow style, an underground art movement that emerged in the Los Angeles area of California in the late 1960’s.
“As a younger person I was intimidated by conceptual art or “high” art, I felt like I needed a university degree to understand artistic statements I was reading, or to even talk about art. The lowbrow style seemed kind of approachable, something I could do.”
He saw a lot of other art as devoid of humour, while finding it in spades in lowbrow.
“Also I guess the aesthetic is kind of childish and easy to get; it’s very direct.
Beside lowbrow he was also interested in culture jamming; ideological based manipulations of massmedia and advertising for example, transformations of public messages or well-known logotypes, to “expose the methods of domination” of a mass society.
The appeal to him with the Neighbourhood Watch Project wasn’t perhaps primarly to expose methods of domination, but rather just to make people happy, which he said to a reporter in Vice in 2014.
“Haha yeah, that sounds really corny to me now too, but yes, give the people bread and circus. Maybe not to be happy, but to be entertained is important.”
And people became entertained; Lamb received lots of love and appreciation from everywhere for his work.
“The media attention really caught me off guard, I didn’t even have a website at the time, or really any explanation for why I was doing it. But I think that’s what people liked about it, the anonymity of it coupled with the superhero theme. The fact that these signs seemed like a relic of another generation but the connectedness of the entire thing across a city.”
He worked with the Neighbourhood Watch Project for approxiamately six years. Some of the signs looked decent for years, he says, others peeled off in a few months.
“I’m not sure if any of them are still visible, as I have moved from Toronto. It eventually became creatively uninteresting and then, unfulfilling for me. I am prone to living in the past in my own mind, and that the project deals with nostalgia started to wear on me. The larger idea was always primary in my mind: the project as a city wide installation of unique signs, each neighbourhood or street having its own protector. Although I enjoyed the ritual of putting the signs up and curating the individual images, once the original idea was widely understood, which probably happened in the first couple years, it became more maintenance than a creative outlet.”
If anything ties all my work together, it is trying to break the rigid structure of life with some sort of intervention.
The past year has been a lot about renovating his new house in Hamilton, outside of Toronto. A few months before the pandemic and a subsequent insane inflation in housing prices all over the country, he managed to get a hold of a rough but beautiful piece for a reasonable cost. He now knows how to fix plaster walls and has also started thinking of a mural painting on the back of his garage. But apart from that, and the production of some stickers, he hasn’t done very much of creative or artistic work over the last couple of months, he says.
“I am still not sure about what kind of artist I am or how to define myself. Puppet maker? Artist? If anything ties all my work together though, regardless of meaning or form, it is trying to break the rigid and planned structure of life and work with some sort of intervention. I realize that might sound like a vapid Peter Pan type goal, but it still rings true to me. I’ve always loved stickers, especially ones that are unique. Like the kind you would find in a truck stop vending machine, that you would probably never see again. I like graffiti and stickers and the idea of competition for public and mental space.”
If speaking generally, he thinks it’s easier to get out with the things you want to say today.
“Even if some of the channels like Instagram or Facebook are kind of mediated and have their way of how you communicate and what the algorithm prioritizes. It’s no longer like it was in the beginning when anyone would make just a random website which looked like nothing else. I think artists often prioritize social media over having your own website now, which is unfortunate. The internet was supposed to be an open space, and was like the wild west for a while, anything goes. It seems we have given ourselves over to being organized and sorted by tech companies, I get it, there are really positive aspects of them, it’s much easier to find new artists or have them suggested to you, no coding, no hosting fees, but there is something in the constant hustle and visible follower metrics for comparison that is certainly unhealthy for peoples mental well-being.”
The current COVID-19 pandemic has had different implications for art professionals around the world. Some haven’t been able to work much at all, others have found completely new venues, and some have expanded their online presence, in an attempt to reach the audience. What the pandemic will do for artists, or for art itself, in the long run, Andrew Lamb isn’t sure of.
“Obviously this is a strange time with the pandemic, but I suppose that will return to normal eventually. I think the bigger long term change is with social media and the decentralization of media and information and that has been happening for the last 10 years or longer. I’m not sure what this means for art collectors or art institutions, but it has certainly has changed things for pop art and commercial, small scale producer art, easier exposure, marketing and easier to sell your own art. Especially now with NFT’s apparently for digital art. But I suppose its still difficult to stand out in this large social media jungle, everyone wants your attention.” 🥕
More on dinosaurs on ushiri.com
USHiRi Magazine got a drawing of a Tricarrotops recently, made by the artist Harenheit. This veggie-horned reptile must have some sort of relation to the Wendiceratops that Lamb interpreted for the Royal Ontario Museum (see top of article), we believe. There is no current research on it (at least what we’ve found), but after having examined its features we think there is a possibility at least for a matter of maybe second cousins?
Anyway, next week we’ll try to get under its skin to see if we can reveal some of its secrets. Look out for that!
*UPDATE 06/21 -21* Here are our findings: ” A crunch from the past” – Story by Anna and Art by Harenheit