Justin Broadbent

a.k.a Keith Dungeon a.k.a Gary

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Justin Broadbent, a Function alum, is an artist who doesn’t fit into any one specific category: filmmaker, graphic designer, installation artist, music video director, lover of porcelain cats, and professional doodler are amongst his many different titles. He has art directed AGO MASSIVE parties, won a Juno award, and recently unlocked the achievement that is fatherhood. Function had the opportunity to sit down with Broadbent in his convenience-store-turned studio and talk about his career, staying creative, humour in art, and his alter egos.

Function: You started at Function as a contributor and art director for issue 5. How does it feel to be back as a featured artist?

Justin: Feels good, I’m excited.

FN: How do you think your time at Ryerson helped prepared you for your career and life after school?

JB: So I moved from London, Ontario, and coming to Toronto was refreshing in the sense that I think that it’s in the center of the city and the city really inspired me. To be learning in an environment that is surrounded by such good energy was really positive for me. I think school in general is a really awesome time in your life because you can focus on being creative and not have to worry about your boss not liking it. Also I made a lot of friends and met a lot of amazing professors, I look back on my school time fondly. School-wise, I felt challenged and excited. I probably won’t ever get a time like that again in my life unless I go to get my masters… which I’m not going to do.

FN: Some artists feel the pressure to find one thing they are good at and not branch out into other mediums in order to be successful, but your career makes the case that it is possible to succeed while working in a number of different fields and mediums. Have you ever felt this pressure, and what would be your advice to artists who are worried about branching out?

JB: I would say focus, early. Coming out of school I don’t think it would be smart to flounder too much, it’s probably good to focus coming out of school, but to also let things happen organically. For me, I never planned to get into music videos and stuff like that but I was doing a lot of design work for bands, and YouTube came out, and bands wanted music videos, so it just kind of naturally happened and I was like, “I’m going to try this.” Following that organically was really good for me. Some people do one thing really well, and I commend them for it, and there were a lot of professors that I had who were so good at one thing, so I don’t want to downplay that idea. What I would say is that if you start feeling bored, it’s a good opportunity to jump and try something. The thing that we have now that we didn’t have, say twenty years ago, is the access to create something on a professional level at home. You can essentially make a feature film on your iPhone, and that’s pretty insane. So I think it’s important to not be afraid to try something, especially considering you don’t have to invest much anymore. I’m a big believer in try, fail, and try again, so limiting yourself because you feel you have to is dumb, but focus is good.

FN: You have worked on a number of cool projects including an Absolut Vodka art installation, directing AGO MASSIVE Parties, and most recently have been working with Vans, as well as the Gardiner Museum. What a lot of our fellow emerging artists want to know is how to get those opportunities? Do you go for them or do the opportunities find you?

JB: That’s a really complicated thing. A percentage of it is timing; being in the right place at the right time, how can you ever plan that? I’m a person that spent a lot of time networking: going out and meeting people and just sort of letting them know the things I’m working on, what I’m excited to try, and just putting myself out there to random people. I’m not even talking artists, sometimes it’d be at somewhere like a Blue Jays game. With Absolut, to be honest, it was through Shad, who you probably know by now. He and I sort of started together, working together, and he had no fame, he was just coming up and I had never done a music video so we collaborated, and I did his album art, and that was going really well. Shad had this friend who loved everything I was making for him and pitched me to a friend at the ad agency working with Absolut, so they called me and said they wanted to talk to me about the Absolut project. So in that circumstance it was just making good things and it kind of organically came to me, I was really lucky there and I’ll admit that, but then I think there’s other parts to it which are like, get out, meet people, be confident in saying that you’re trying this, trying that. There is sort of no answer unfortunately… it’s more try a bunch of different things.

FN: Something that we are trying to put a focus on this with our publication this year is the collaboration between all streams of Ryerson’s Image Arts communities. How do collaborations play into your work? How important are they?

JB: Super important. I’m working on two short films for the CBC right now and my buddy and I are collaborating, like we’re co-directing, and obviously when you make a film you have a lot of other people involved like producers, editors, etc. I really do believe that the whole process, the collaboration, is a part of a whole. It makes for happier people, which I think makes for better art. Everybody feels like they’re contributing to this big project. When I direct, I try to, as often as possible, help with clean up, because I think that it’s kind of showing that everyone is a part of the whole process. I think it’s good because I like fairness, I like even playing fields… to me collaboration is crucial.

FN: How do you find the balance between your client work, your personal work, and your personal life?

JB: It’s difficult. I just had a baby, so I’m in this very strange process of trying to figure out how to have that life where I’m able to be a good father and also continue to make my art. In terms of personal work … it’s an interesting one for me. I am actually kind of always drawing but I don’t like to do solo shows. I get excited, for example with this Vans project I’m working on, when they ask if I can do some drawings for the House of Vans event coming up. I feel like that kind of thing I get really excited about because it’s an excuse to do my drawings. I’m a little bit bad at self-promotion, like I said, I don’t do solo shows, but I will often put my work into a collaborative show. Client work, obviously, is how I pay my rent and stuff. I find one of the things that I really try to do is to make my client work, as much as possible, something that I’m proud of. Obviously there are hurdles within that… there’s a client. I think overall it’s a good practice when you’re doing work for clients, to think of it as you as an artist. It is essentially your portfolio. When I did the Absolut project, one of the things I advocated for was that you try to carry around a notebook or a sketchbook because, and this is going to sound very arty but I do really believe this, I remember Richard Serra saying this, “your eye to your hand is a muscle, you have to work out to get that strength in what you look at and what you draw.” I’m a little less concerned with representing something specific, but I do really believe that if you’re always coming up with ideas you should always have a notepad. I think it’s good for creatives to exercise that muscle, not letting it die.

FN: How do you stay inspired as an artist?

JB: Look at things, and really look at things. I’m a contradiction because I use my phone way too much, but I think it’s good to put your phone away and go and look at things outside. I like being outside, walking around. One of the things that is really nerdy about me is that I really like design, and I like how things line up. So I’ll sometimes look at how the colours between two stores side-by-side are playing off of each other, and how the light is hitting a window. I mean as a photographer you have that all the time. The idea of a crop too, I have that a lot where I’m like oh, that would look really good square. So inspiration, I think, is walking around, looking at stuff, and hunting the Internet for images. That’s where stuff like instagram is really good too. I’m an image hunter. I feel like it’s a mental exercise for me; why do I like these images? Why do I not like them? What can I learn from these images? It’s good, it keeps you fresh, it keeps you inspired. And I have a baby, so I get to look into the eyes of a child everyday, that’s inspiring.

FN: In other interviews, you have talked about the humour in your art, why is that important?

JB: Art school is awesome, but if you don’t have a sense of humour about it I think you’re fooling yourself, personally. I have always had that attitude that humour is one of those things that can open up some pretty important doors to allow people in to a space that maybe they would be afraid of or afraid to engage with. So, like, some of my work is just straight humorous, but a lot of times its using something that’s sort of … an example would be that I really like the porcelain cats that you would find in Value Village. I like them, I know that it’s funny and I know that it’s cheesy, but they’re also this representation of something in the world that’s not valuable, they’re forgotten, and something about putting those things to the front and putting them on a pedestal, and saying “no, this is going in my house as art” is sort of a big part of the philosophy of why I make things, which is sort of like, make art that’s talking about people who don’t necessarily have the voice that they could have or aren’t noticed in the right way. So pulling out the garbage paintings at Value Village and using that in some way, like I might use it on an album cover or something. It’s kind of, to me, a reappropriation that comes from a place of respect for me. It’s not just irony, I think irony is boring. I understand irony, I’ve used it, but I think at the end of the day if you’re going to make good art it’s got to have something, like a nod or a wink. To me, some of the best art I’ve ever seen are these little memes on the Internet, because you think about who made them… and that’s actually what one of my CBC short films is about. It’s a person that’s coming from a position where they’re not trying to make something profound but it actually is quite profound.

FN: You have created a couple of alter egos for yourself, Keith Dungeon and Gary, and have also mentioned your love of cats. Do you have many alter egos to reflect the fact that cats have nine lives? 

JB: I like that! To me, there are a lot of levels to it. My honest answer is that its kind of a safety, because Keith Dungeon to me is this hunter of images, he’s a nerd, he’s always on his phone, always on the computer, so it allows me to be that, without actually being that, it’s a different mental state. We all know that we have different personalities, different sides to ourselves, so it’s a way that, as an artist, I feel like me, Justin, is this person trying to do good things in the world, trying to be respective. Keith and Gary like to mess around, which is in me, but sometimes I don’t feel that comfortable being that way. At the same time everyone knows it is me… it is kind of just playful.

FN: Of all of the projects that you have worked on, do you have a favourite one or a favourite memory? 

JB: I don’t have a favourite, but I have moments of awesome. Last year I got to paint the inside of the Facebook office in Toronto, so I did 16 murals, they’re all 13 x 4’ paintings. It was such a fun experience; my sister helped me paint them, we got to hang out, listen to music, drink beers, and paint. The office hadn’t opened yet so it was just us and it was super cool. I like things like that. Right now, I’m working on a project with the Gardiner Museum, it’s called Smash, it’s an art party, similar to other art parties but this one is a little more intimate, sort of like a Penthouse vibe. I love the process, I get to work with really great people at the Gardiner, and the museum itself is beautiful. At the same time, I’m being given full license to create a party, it’s the best. So I can’t say one thing has been the best, but I’m constantly trying to find the best moments in each project. Making music videos is probably one of my favourite things to do… It’s so fun because I love watching music videos. It kind of ties back to the humour thing and not taking yourself so seriously, music videos definitely allow you as a filmmaker to experiment.

FN: Do you have any final advice for emerging artists?

JB: If I’m completely honest, have fun. Make good things and have fun. Try to push yourself … everything I’m about to say is so cliché but it’s actually what I believe. Fail, and then try again, and fail, and then eventually you get your footing and you’ll find your thread that will open doors that are ready for you. Just don’t worry if something is not perfect, it’s okay… it’s probably better. One of my friends who is a painter actually gave me some advice and I stick to it now: “If you don’t like something you’ve made, it’s probably really good. And if you really like something you’ve made, you probably won’t like it later.” That tension is crucial to good art making, I’ve practiced it in my life and it has held up.