Interview with Justin Berry

We were delighted to come across Justin Berry's iconic pieces on Tumblr a few weeks ago.  Berry's artwork may have crossed your path as it spread virally across the net.  We reached out to Justin to learn more about his CYOA-inspired art, and it was a delight to discuss books, Choose, and Justin's process with him.  Some of Justin's artwork and our interview, below.




We noticed many of your pieces reference books, but CYOA is a repeated theme.  What does Choose Your Own Adventure mean to you?  When did you discover the books, and what do the books mean to you that is translated into your art?

I love hypertext.  I love the idea of a story that can be told in thirty different ways and still be the same story, how each twist of fate (going through the right door or the left one) is something that contributes to, rather than defines, the story.  When I was teaching a class introducing the Internet I gave each student a CYOA book and had them map out all of the different narratives.  Later, we looked at how the Internet is basically a giant CYOA book, with links taking you down one path or another.  It worked because it took something that they could all understand and then showed them how that same structure can be applied to something that might seem infinitely large or confusing.  In a strange way, I came to CYOA as an adult.  I use them in my art because I am interested in sites of possibility, where things are in a state of emergence rather than having already been well defined.

Do people recognize that there are elements of Choose Your Own Adventure in these pieces?
Yes.  I was surprised how many people had strong reactions because I was taking images of the book covers and clearing away all of the content: the title, the characters, the author’s name, anything that defined or revealed the contents of the book.   I thought people would recognize the fact that they were CYOA books but I didn’t expect people know both the title and book number at a glance.

It isn’t necessary for the work to succeed that people know that they are CYOA books, at the same time the sense of an infinitely expanding narrative is something close to my heart and important to the work.   

We know, as you do, that titles are tricky.  We think yours are clever.  How did you arrive at them?

  For titles I try to choose things that reference the image but that don’t define it.


How have other pieces of writing and/or pop culture affected your work as an artist?
I made another piece that was a video called Men With No Names, it was a merger of four movies that were all based on one another.  The original movie was Yojimbo and it was followed by Fistful of Dollars, The Warrior and the Sorceress, and finally Last Man Standing.  All four movies have the exact same narrative played out in four different genres.  I spliced the movies together so that in a single scene you might see a samurai open the door, a barbarian walk through it, and a cowboy take a seat at the bar.  This is just an example; much of my work references, or relies on splicing together and reimagining, pre-existing forms of culture.


What do you read today?
Some of my favorite writers are Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, Umberto Eco, Ursula K. Leguin, and Walter Moers.  Moers in particular I would recommend to younger readers.  The truth, however, is that I am an unrepentant bibliophile.  I collect more books than I read and if you were to survey my shelves you would find everything from dictionaries for fictional cultures, 16th century mining treatises, textbooks for classes I never took but decided to read, artist’s books, old comics, compendiums of polish folklore, translations of Babalonian letters, 19th century occult volumes, post-structuralist philosophy, and more.  I love what a book implies, the promise of knowledge, and that is why I use them in my work as well as litter my household with them.

Our readership ranges from 5-12 years old.  When did you know you were going to be an artist?  What is one piece of advice you would give to a young artist?

  Draw, paint, sculpt, read, weave, sing, shout, write, dance, carve, erase, rub, sand, scrawl, scratch, glue, shape, stitch, tape, blend, mold, trace, color, roll, look, touch, think, see, press, make, break, stomp, cut, paste, copy, frame, tear, wash, scrape, ______ , ______ , ______ , ______ , ______ , ______ , ______ , ______ , ______ , ______ , ______ , ______ , ______ , ______ , ______ , ______ , ______ , ______ , and ______ .


On a side note, separate from the interview, I want to say thanks for your interest in my work.  I think that what you are doing is a remarkable thing and that every attempt to teach kids to think outside the box, or look at things from multiple angles, deserves to be applauded.  There are few truly generous things for kids out there and I think that CYOA books are one of them.  They allow kids the opportunity to enjoy reading as well practice thinking for themselves in a world that seems to give them such opportunities on a rarer and rarer basis.

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