The creator of LA’s 14th Factory, Simon Birch didn’t expect his art to go viral. When he and his friends gathered in California to create their dream exhibition, they had little money and no marketing help. In fact, the exhibition had been canceled four times (once in Hong Kong, three times in New York) before they settled in the empty warehouse outside of downtown LA.
With the help of his friends and collaborators, Birch created 14 different spaces filled with everything from explosive sculptures, to delicate crowns, to kinetic paintings, but it was his full scale recreation of the room from the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey that blew up on Instagram. Named the Barmecide Feast (after the tale from One Thousand and One Nights), the room was originally supposed to be unaccessible, a strange mirage type space that could only be seen through a crack in the sculpture surrounding it. The fire code required them to open the space, and soon after photos of the room were all over social media, increasing the 14th Factory’s popularity drastically.
Now that the 14th Factory has closed down, the Barmecide Feast is on tour, traveling from LA to the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum. Before everyone in the city runs to grab a photo of them in the bed (please, don’t actually touch the bed), we’ll be previewing the exhibit during our 2001: A Space Party. Grab your tickets here (plus, with event ticket you will be able to stop by, check in early and check out the exhibition during the DAY on Saturday too, so you can focus on dancing Saturday night – details to come) and get ready to be the first of your friends to re-enact the obelisk scene, but before you head to our Air & Space party, sit down and get to know the man behind the art.
So obviously I want to talk to you about the Barmecide Feast. I was reading a lot of past interviews that you had done. One of the things that stood out to me is that, and I think you wrote this in a Facebook post, was the idea behind the entire 14th Factory was that “creativity could be a force for social change.” I was wondering how you thought Barmecide fit into that?
I mean, the Barmecide Feast is one sort of piece in a very complex jigsaw puzzle. That jigsaw puzzle, which is 14th Factory, promotes positive action. It’s a project that is real world and crazy, by a collection of people from across the world. It’s an environment that’s very free flowing. It’s joint positive, creative action. If you think about it, it’s a response to the world, especially right now. Any landscape has love, fear, beauty, violence, life and death. So the 14th Factory takes a lot of those factors to finish the global, contemporary conversation of what’s going on politically and socially, and how that connects to history as well. In [14th Factory] you have to have a certain kind of indicator that reflects those concepts and those themes. The Barmecide Feast responds to a particular conversation about order, violence, imprisonment, border and refugee, but also, fantasy, science fiction and popular culture.
The project is very much in response to a work that was originally around it, a large complex black mass. It looked quite chaotic, but the mass outside it was incredibly well thought out and well ordered. Inside was always supposed to be a secret white room. It was kind of violent in a way. Against nature, against the organic. It’s an authentic copy of the room from 2001. It’s a really complicated how we got to that conclusion. It wasn’t supposed to look anything like that. I’m sorry you asked a quite simple question and I went off on a tangent there. That is the nature of the 14th Factory.
It is a really complex interwoven, interconnected shared piece of work and when you extract an element like the Barmecide Feast, it actually creates a much greater conversation. You can see it superficially as kinda cute, “I remember that movie.” The film itself is open to interpretation. The exhibition is the same, it can be perceived in all kinds of ways, but it’s actually very complicated. It’s a very long and exhausting conversation to try and deconstruct it and the individual pieces.
I’ve done a lot of research to try and see what the room looked like in the context of the 14th Factory and I have seen photos of that black mass that surrounds the room. One of the things that immediately came to mind when doing research, is that your other art, your paintings, all of them are movement based and super kinetic. The Barmecide Feast is incredibly static. Is it a challenge for you to work in, I’m going to call it, a sterile environment like that?
No not at all, because I enjoy the constant change of my output. I enjoy the adventure of working different mediums, different outcomes and making mistakes along the way. I just enjoy making art. I don’t see it as an issue, it’s actually a nice response to the more energetic movement based work that I do in film and painting. Equally I’d say the room is somewhat alive and captivated by the audience. When they designed the room you weren’t supposed to know it was there, you shouldn’t have been able to gain access to it. Originally, it was cut off from the audience. Because of the fire department, we had to open the door to the room. Therefore we did let people into it, but originally, it was supposed to be a secret, and we never intended for people go in there.
We are quite surprised it’s getting so popular, to be honest. I was nervous about having a room that was so close to the original [2001 room] available to the public. In some ways, the conversation of the piece would be misinterpreted, because people just associate it with the film and would take it out of context. That’s the danger of doing it at the Smithsonian. We are extracting it from its context and it’s open to complete misinterpretation.
I’m glad you brought that up, because I did want to ask, how you feel about the room being taken away from the context of the 14th factory?
Well for me, it’s an experiment, a risk, to be honest. It is very flattering to be invited by a museum, especially in this space. Our other sites are art specific. I’ve done a lot of work in the past in different disciplines, as an artist working in medicine, in science, in history, all kinds of different things at universities. I’ve always enjoyed that mix of discipline. Humanities mixing together isn’t a usual thing, but you could argue that it is a great value for both fields. The idea of being an artist and putting work in a science museum is really interesting. And the Smithsonian is one of the greatest institutions in America, right? So you can’t say no.
I’m worried about it being outside of the project, and a lot of [the audience] will just go, “Oh that’s cool, a Stanley Kubrick work.” They won’t know who the fuck I am, or what it means really. That’s perfectly fine too. It’s a great, terrible risk, and it shouldn’t have a negative impact on my career, I hope. It’s an enjoyable thing to do, I’m looking forward to seeing it.
I was reading an interview you did with the ACE Hotel and you were talking about the location of the 14th Factory and how you had dreams to do it in Hong Kong and then you found this place in LA and it all seemed to come together in this beautiful way. The space really informed the exhibition. How do you think being at the Smithsonian changes the Barmecide Feast?
You are right about the space being really compelling in Los Angeles, and actually the project has been moved four times before that. We had been cancelled four times. Once in Hong Kong, three times in New York, before we finally settled in LA, four years after. We got so much resistance from the project. We considered lots of different locations, originally, we were going to build the location, build the structure to house the project.
The idea of the project is that it constantly evolves in response to its location and new creators that get involved with the project. The idea is that it changes constantly anyway, socially and practically in terms of physical location. It’s meant to be changed, fragmented, remixed, transformed. Location to location, city to city, place to place. It’s not strange or uncomfortable or scary to take the piece out and put it in the Smithsonian. To me, it’s encouraging for the people of the project to be recognized. For me, it’s going to be a most rewarding experiencing to see in that environment. I don’t doubt it will spawn all kinds of new ideas in response to that activation. So, yeah, it’s kind of cool
I want to go back to something you mentioned earlier about the room becoming more popular than you ever conceived of. I have talked to museum curators before, but I’m interested to hear it from your perspective as an artist. When you are creating a piece, any piece, do you consider the possibility of it becoming viral or become popular on social media?
No, and it’s funny because I have been doing these projects, immersive installations, for 15 years and nobody has taken a selfie in any of them because they all happened pre-Instagram. When I was developing the 14th Factory, Instagram was just being born. When we designed the 14th Factory, social media wasn’t a thing, a selfie wasn’t a thing, Instagram wasn’t a thing. I never saw it coming. It really blew up on social media, everyone lined up to get a selfie. It was really shocking, but it saved us.
We did that project independently, with no money, no sponsorship. It really limited our resources. People volunteered, worked for free. We had no PR, no marketing, the selfie brought people to the show. It snowballed and increased our audience and we actually managed to cover our costs. We were essentially bankrupt when we opened the show.
I’m still not really interested in selfies. It doesn’t bother me. I don’t mind if they climb on the sculptures. I like the idea that you are an essential player in the exhibition, you are Alice in Wonderland. That’s what I wanted to see in the artwork, but I didn’t see. So that’s why I created these projects, because I’m creating art that I want to see. That were more immersive, more collaborative; that wasn’t just all about me and my name, or my brand. I like the idea of working with a collective piece.
I think about the audience experience, because I am an audience member too. We aren’t thinking about editing and changing things to be social media friendly, that doesn’t interest me at all. It’s clear that people, like the Museum of Ice Cream, have designed their projects for social media, specifically. I make the best art I could make. That’s my priority.
When you go to interactive installations, do you take selfies? Do you think of that?
The last thing I want to do is take a selfie. I’ve been Terrell James’s light installations, being there and absorbing it. Experience is often spoiled by millions of people talking loudly and taking selfies. We did a few nights at the 14th Factory that were selfie free. So people could just go and experience the work. That’s probably the way we go in the future, having things selfie free or camera free because some people object to it and I don’t like it that much either. People should interact with our art and if that means taking a picture of it, than fine. No judgement. I don’t want to take a picture of myself in the middle of the room, it doesn’t interest me.
That seems to be kind of the consensus. If it gets people out and engaging with the art, then its fine.
Whatever man, it’s the 21st century. It’s going to happen whether you like it or not. I can’t control it. As long as you don’t kick the artwork over… Then again, someone did kick the artwork over. It went viral, someone knocked over a crown. The viral spread was quite remarkable to see it in real time to see it go up in millions and millions of views. Remarkable thing to see to happen. Too bad we couldn’t make profit of it.
The same thing happened in D.C., in Kusama’s mirror room. Everyone lost their mind, it’s fascinating how people respond to it.
Maybe that’s why the Smithsonian invited us in, to increase their social media account.
I have a few questions about the production process of the room. I know you worked with an architecture firm…
The architect who designed, his grandfather was actually the original designer of the  set. The grandfather, the great uncle and the uncle all worked on that room, did the drawings and built it for Kubrick. The architect is a friend of mine, Paul Kember, who created the new drawings. When we proposed it, it was complete serendipity. When I pitched the idea, I said, “Can you watch this movie and design the room?” Because no blueprints existed. That’s when the whole story about his grandfather came out. That encouraged us, because at that stage, the room was quite different. At that point when we realized there is no blueprints and we had the direct relationship with the original room, we said, “What are we waiting for? Let’s just make the actual bloody room.” It felt like what we were being called to do.
They watched the movie, they talked to their relatives to get an actual representation of the build and they were able to scale it from watching the film. The only thing we wanted to change was the painting and we commissioned a friend of ours, Dominique Fung, to do the work. The last piece was the audio composed, there is a soundtrack that goes along with the room. It’s a Washington raised, New York based composer Gary Gunn who did the audio.
It’s more than the original room, it’s not simply another replication of the original room, it’s another conversation going on there. It was very problematic actually because when they originally built the room, the scale was wrong. We had to rebuild in a week, because it was about a foot off. We had to smash out the walls, add a bit, and put it back together again. It was quite traumatic… People liked it. It seemed to work
What was the original room supposed to look like?
Just a very sterile, white room. It would have been like a white version of Terrell James. Super bleached, white environment, where you can really see the floors, the wall. It was quite minimal, clean. You could feel vibration, movement, it gave off some uncomfortable intensity.
Originally, it was a reference. There’s a lot of little references around the exhibition. All kinds of creative additions, pop culture, people, movies. That was just one little thing that was a reference. There was some thought about adding bits, taking bits, scale changing. It was always supposed to be a secret room, you might be able to see it through the crack in the wall, but you can’t actually go in. We were hoping people would say, “What’s in there?” and we’d say, “We can’t tell you, it’s a secret.” When we were all doing the design work and architecture, Kember was doing other elements for the projects, not just that room. He asked about the room and I said, “Well you know, it references Stanley Kubrick.” He said, “You’ve got to be joking me.”
Are there any other cinematic rooms you can see yourself recreating, or are you not interested in that sort of repurposing?
No, not at all. It’s a stretch for me to justify blatantly copying a piece of pop culture. It’s a very dangerous thing to do. Everyone is going to think who the fuck is this guy? Ripping off Stanley Kubrick, you know. That’s the danger. We talked about it intensely. Can we get away with this? Can we justify this? Why are we doing this? What does it mean? There was so much serendipity and encouragement around the concept. Eventually I just gave in and said alright, we are doing it. There is something interesting about it. The tale of the barmecide feast, where we take the name from, it’s something that’s not actually real. When you write about it, it suddenly becomes real. Where does reality and fantasy begin?
Artists often like to be seen as original, authentic, but we all copy. Everything I do, every brush stroke I make is from hundreds and hundreds years of painting history. So why not blatantly admit that you are not original? Nothing we do is original. I am the product of a vast amount of influence. Why not express that in a very clear and blatant way?
And again because of the serendipity around the relationship with the original architects, the concept fits so well into the 14th Factory. The reflections of the world were borders are terribly reinforced, for many people, it’s a prison. That room itself is a prison of course, it keeps the space man in it for years until he dies and can’t leave the room. That’s the reality. There is a lie that civilization is organized and clean. You get fed, you get shelter, it’s a lie and a social construct. It’s is a prison. That is extremely relevant in how we interpret the room and Kubrick. The great conversation of the project touches on some of those things i just mentioned. This makes sense again and again and again, but it did take a lot of consideration. We knew we could be judged and we could be written off as showman or spectacle salesman.
Yeah, like you said, it’s kind of beautiful serendipity, you couldn’t not do it. Two more questions. The first is, I read that you have been a DJ and you are a fan of grime music. What do you listen to when you work?
Well I don’t work at the moment. I’ve become an entrepreneur to get the next project to happen. All I do is go to meetings, try to raise money, get developers to give me space. I’m really not happy being a businessman, I’m an artist. Normally, I listen to the gamut, from punk rock to grime. There’s usual grime stars like, Dave and Skepta and Stormzy.
This is my last question, and it is ridiculous, but go with me for a second. Do you think Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landing?
You’ve heard that mythology though, that he faked the moon landing?
Yeah, and you know I know a lot of scientists, and you know, nobody will be able to keep that secret. People love to talk.
If that was a real thing… C’mon man. Someone would really need to prove it. Proof that we didn’t go to the moon, proof against it.
It’s the most fun conspiracy theory. It’s definitely fake, but it’s not hurting anyone.
I think the real conspiracy theories are the ones that are blatantly in front of us. Massive corporations impoverishing half the world. Making all the money and keeping it to themselves. These are the things we need to be worrying about, not whether they faked the moon landing or not. Let’s worry about those conspiracies, the ones right in front of our face and are absolutely clear if you read any publication, or press or book. It’s all really transparent, the hypocrisy and horror of the world.
Absolutely, the world is a vampire.
I’ll get off my soapbox now.
Thanks, Simon, for talking to me today. Do you want to add anything, that I didn’t touch on?
I could go around all day. I’m not collected by famous people and I’m not in any galleries. This is the first time my work has ever been showed in a museum of any kind. So to be recognized by an institution like the Smithsonian is mind blowing. I never thought it would happen in my lifetime. It’s quite an emotional thing. I hope I get to enjoy it and see it myself. The 14th Factory is so dangerous. It’s such a difficult thing to do because it’s so large scale, it’s completely outside of the establishment. Most large installation are funded by museums, galleries, art shows, and there is no opportunity for me to do that. I have to create my own platform. Find my own space, use my own friends and create the work ourselves, fund ourselves… And we aren’t wealthy people. We are really outsiders, in a way, trying to do something positive, something we feel connected to, that we engage with. Sometimes artwork can feel… You can feel slightly disconnected from it. It doesn’t really engage with you. Sometimes the artwork, you can be told it’s really important, but its boring. We created a project that we feel is the antithesis of that. The fact that it’s been recognized by the Smithsonian, shows maybe we are on the right track.