Power couple and RedLine INSITE project grantees Lisa and Matt Bethancourt head Mouse & the Billionaire, a game-coding collective uniting ideas, bending rules, playing with perceptions and bonding art and science. For INSITE, the couple is creating an interactive rocking chair experience inspired by the Pando, a natural phenomenon in Utah, to debut next October in Boulder.
As in their work, the Bethancourts don’t operate on a single wavelength. They’re polymaths forever seeking truth, in the mold of Da Vinci. Find out who they really are as they answer the Colorado Creatives questionnaire.
Westword: What (or who) is your creative muse?
Lisa and Matt Bethancourt: A lot of our inspiration comes from long conversations with good friends. We’ve known so many people (you know who you are) who are willing to sit up late into the night talking about things ranging from the absurd to the sublime. These are magical moments when forces align for true connection and discovery of insight. So many things need to be in place for this to happen — trust, openness, an interesting idea to start with, and willingness to invest in an intellectual journey.
Most of our work closely examines the nature of time and space and how we choose to experience it. These are big ideas that delve into so many adjacent disciplines. Our friends have gone along with us on many meandering thought experiments. They listen when we ramble, contribute their points of view, push back on ours and still love us. We couldn’t make creative work without the people in our lives who spur us on through conversation and friendship.
Which three people, dead or alive, would you like to invite to your next party, and why?
Love this question. We’re going to go with all living people with the hope that this might actually happen in the near future. To us, the most exciting dinner-party guests are always the polymaths: people who can hold court on all sorts of topics and contribute those unique points of view and insights. There are quite a few people with whom we’d love to drink a bottle of wine and chat until late in the evening, but here are three that immediately come to mind.
First, you gotta have Brian Eno. He’s a genre-defining influencer in both art and music, and he likes to think and write about deep time. The Long Now Foundation, of which he is a founding boardmember, has had a major impact on our work.
Second, we’d love to meet Maria Popova. If anyone knows how to go deep on a topic and look at it from every possible angle, it’s Maria. She is poetic in both the written and spoken word. One thing Maria’s work has taught us is that it is possible to deeply understand someone even after they have died.
Last, we’re inviting Questlove. His ideas on creativity, food, music, life and more are so amazing, and he’s obviously just incredibly cool.
Also, everyone knows that a good dinner party needs a dozen people to really sing, so we’re going to cheat and add (after ourselves) Richard Feynman, Agnes Martin, Anthony Bourdain, John Coltrane, Thomas Merton, Zadie Smith and Shigeru Miyamoto.
What’s the best thing about the local creative community in your field — and the worst?
Probably the best aspect, and the one that has surprised us the most, about the local creative community is the cross-pollination between the arts and science. For our current project, we’ve been doing research in many different fields (ecology, geology, astronomy, archaeology and anthropology, etc.). When we’re looking into a specific topic, more often than not, a world-class expert in that field is within driving distance of the Denver metro area.
It happens so often, it’s not even surprising anymore. Not only that, but there are also so many excellent groups working to foster interaction between the arts and science. Just to name a few — EcoArts, Arctic Arts Project, NEST, Inside the Greenhouse. It is humbling and encouraging that so many brilliant people see value in the arts and understand its power to meet people where they are.
How about globally?
Now, that’s a big question, and not one we really feel qualified to answer, but here’s a few thoughts. One of the best things is that it’s possible to find art in unexpected places all the time, not just in museums and galleries. There are so many new avenues to create and show work. Finding art out “in the wild” naturally broadens the scope of how art can be defined. That’s really exciting. Artists can use just about anything, anywhere to connect with people and communicate on a deep and powerful level.
We don’t love pointing out a problem without offering a possible solution, but the fact that the success of art is linked so closely to its commercial value is stifling. It’s a big problem, and it means that a lot of good work never comes to fruition. This is a big reason why we are so excited to see new forms of art being shown in surprising places. It makes art accessible to so many more people. Art needs an audience, and a bigger, more inclusive scene is better for everyone.
Explain your INSITE project and how you plan to roll it out.
We are making an interactive installation that explores the distant past through the story of Pando, an aspen grove that is one of the oldest and largest living organisms on Earth. The piece is designed for two participants who will sit in a modified rocking chair with motion sensors attached. Their movement will affect the sonic and visual aspects of the piece, with participants exploring how synchronous or alternating movement of the chairs as well as speed, pauses and other gestures advance the narrative.
The idea for this project came from the realization that the consequences of our actions last much longer than we do. Our bodies will die, but the impact of our choices endures. And because the exhaust of our living exists in perpetuity, we need to learn to think beyond our physical and temporal limitations. An ancient organism, like Pando, can help us do this because it has the capacity to show us both the past and the future. It has been alive for many thousands of years and hopefully, depending on our collective decisions, it will outlive any one of us.
This project will debut in October 2020 at the Whaaat!? Festival hosted by the ATLAS Institute at the University of Colorado. This festival celebrates experimental games and interactions. It highlights the weird and wonderful things that often stay under the radar of mainstream gaming culture or art institutions.
Denver (or Colorado), love it or leave it? What keeps you here — or makes you want to leave?
We relocated from Brooklyn a few years ago and do miss parts of the vibrant cultural life of that city. On the flip side though, we have really benefited from the quiet beauty here. It’s an amazing place to make creative work. We live in the mountains, and there are almost no distractions, especially because the power goes out all the time. Up here, we can truly focus on what we’re working on, or just find beauty and be still. The pace of life here is one that we haven’t experienced anywhere else. People seem to agree that it’s a good idea to make time to slow down, and that has really changed our quality of life.
Who is your favorite Colorado Creative?
Joel Swanson, who works with Matt at the ATLAS Institute at CU Boulder, is a powerhouse. His work is dealing with language and society in really thoughtful ways, and his general insight, focus and attention to detail is constantly an inspiration. Also, he was the first person who interviewed Matt when he applied to join ATLAS, and we were impressed with not only his practice, but his pedagogy (and as a person!). Joel convinced us that ATLAS was a truly unique place, where artists, scientists, technologists and deep-thinkers could collaborate on exciting projects and influence the next generation of participants in these spaces. We knew immediately that we wanted to be a part of that community.
What's on your agenda in the coming year?
Hundreds of drawings, lots of programming and music composition. We’re pretty much focusing entirely on our INSITE project for the coming year, but we’ve always got a few irons in the fire. We’ll also be trying to keep up with our three kids — one of whom is climbing me like a tree as I answer this question.
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Who do you think will (or should) get noticed in the local arts community in the coming year?
Justin Ankenbauer, Clay Brooks and David Fraile, who work together as bearwarp, are doing such great work right now. Everything that they’re putting out is just fantastic. They’re at this really amazing intersection between gameplay, art, custom alternative hardware, sonic landscapes and more. Also, they’re working to build community in this space. Last weekend we went to the Dizzy Spell exhibit that they hosted with Adán de la Garza and Rafael Fajardo, and it was such a great event with a super-positive energy and some of the most interesting game experiences that we’ve seen in a while.