Drawing with Light and Time: Jeff Frost at TEDxCERN (Full Transcript)

I think that in order to fully grasp life and fully grasp opportunities, we have to risk our lives in unnecessary and stupid ways, sometimes. This is my theory.

I test this theory a lot more often than my mother would be comfortable with. To make the art that I make, I chase down wildfires, riots, the stars, I scour the deserts looking for abandoned houses. When I was young, I went camping and hiking with my grandfather, Alf, all the time. I grew up in Red Rock Country; it’s the Four Corners area of the United States: Montezuma Valley, the Grand Canyon, that sort of thing. We were often in search of Indian ruins.

We used to like to talk about what that culture was like, and imagine what it must have been like for them, and ask what happened to them, where did they go. When I moved to Los Angeles, I became involved in the hustle and bustle of city life, and I lost touch with that side of myself to a large degree. But in troubled personal times, I found myself going out to the deserts poking around in abandoned houses. It took me a little while, but eventually, I put two and two together and I realized, “Oh, this is like when I explored the deserts with my grandpa Alf. Except for, instead of exploring ancient Native American ruins, I’m exploring recent ruins of meth-heads.” I’m sorry, I’m stereotyping; they don’t all do meth. Some of them also drink.

When I find room in a house that I like, I set up camp there, literally, and I proceed to paint large-scale optical illusions on the inside walls. In fact, just last year, I spent an entire month in an abandoned house – and you’re going to see a theme emerging here – that I nicknamed the meth house because I was watching lots of “Breaking Bad,” and also because people probably were manufacturing meth in there, but whatever.

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One day, I’m happily painting away in the meth house, I hear men’s voices outside, so I go to the window, and I look outside, there’s a police cruiser parked out front. But I don’t see the police, so I walked to the door, I waved, and I said, “Hello!” and that’s when I saw the nice men, policemen, pointing guns at me. One policeman pulls me out to the yard, and he’s barking questions at me, “Why are you here?”, “What are you doing?” all this sort of stuff. Another guy goes into this house to search it. I really probably should have been a little more nervous than I was at that point, but I’m always doing crazy things, so I was just waiting it out.

Then I realized, “Right! Though all that drug manufacturing paraphernalia is still in there, which is why I nicknamed this place the ‘meth house.'” Then it occurred to me that maybe I wouldn’t be at the museum the next day giving the presentation I was scheduled to give.

Do they let you Skype from jail? I don’t think that’s a thing. The guy eventually came back out, and I guess he must have just thought, “Well, this guy is out here painting on the walls of an abandoned house in the middle of nowhere with thousands of dollars worth of camera gear. Yeah, he’s probably not making drugs.” But I feel like it probably could have gone the exact opposite way for all of the exact same reasons. It could have been, “This guy is out in the middle of nowhere painting on the walls of an abandoned house with thousands of dollars worth of camera gear? He’s making drugs. Obviously!”

But now that I said that out loud, I probably would have put myself in jail. Luckily, that did not happen. So, I record all of these shenanigans with a combination of stop motion and time-lapse photography, and the result is I wind up with hundreds of thousands of images on my hard-drive at home. I use them for large-scale exhibition prints for museums, and galleries, and things like that, but ultimately, they wind up in my films. I also create the soundtracks to my own films.

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The first step that I had to take in order to create my own soundtracks was to fail as a rock star. I say that to people, and they say, “Oh, you didn’t fail,” and I go, “Yes, I did Don’t take that failure away from me, I had to work very hard for it.” I don’t even think about failure in the same way that I used to now. I don’t view it as a negative, it’s still tough, of course, but I don’t view it as a negative.

Oddly enough, now I work with actual rock stars. The paintings that I made in that abandoned house are currently being shown on a 96-foot LED screen on U2’s current World Tour. U2, earlier this year, sent me here to Switzerland to create artwork out of CERN. When I came here, I was using a technique that I call “reverse light painting” where, instead of waving lights around in front of a camera, I’m waving a camera around in front of lights, doing it over and over and over to create a time-lapse clip so I can get a video clip. What this means is any light on the opposite side of my lens becomes a tool with which I can draw whether it’s the Sun, or cities, or the blinking LED lights in the server room of the world’s largest scientific experiment.

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