Briefly describe the work you do.
My current body of work consists of seemingly simple objects that sit on walls and tables awaiting our approach. We move and are moved by the breaking down of our assumptions, which leads to a reinvestigation of the work in proximity. In Jane Bennett’s book Vibrant Matter, she describes “thing-power” as, “the strange ability of ordinary, man-made items to exceed their status as objects.” These “things” begin to reveal their personalities through their movements and affect us in unexpected ways. The materials, their gestures, and sounds speak to the active or potentially energized “stuff” that inhabits all things. They ask us to pay attention to the unnoticed, to the un-thought, to things’ liveliness and ours.
On the flip-side, the majority of the work is driven by Arduinos hidden within the objects. Some of the objects have sensors and react to our presence in different ways. Others don’t react at all. Most of the objects use just a single servo to move the outer components. Some of my other pieces use the Xbox 360 kinect along with a projector, while others are manually driven by cranks or pulleys. The work “works” best when experienced in relation to other objects and people, allowing for varied interpretations and experiences. This gives us a heightened sense of what humans and non-humans are capable of.
Tell us about your background and how that has had an influence on your work and on you as an artist.
High school art class had a very large impact on me. It allowed me a freedom and potential the other classes severely lacked. I would say I started getting a little more serious attending Minnesota State University, Mankato making ceramics back in 2008. The amazing ability of clay to become anything fascinated me, but I never really knew what to make. After I learned how to slip-cast ceramics I started making multiples. I started thinking about these multiples as pixels which allowed me to create different installations with what were essentially the same parts, but assembled differently at each showing. When I got into graduate school at University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, I began to realize that clay was too slow of a material to work with. I had always been interested in hiding the hand of the artist, trying to make each piece as seamless as possible. Wood seemed to be a much better option, as it provided me with a plethora of tools to make very precise cuts, allowing my forms to look almost machined. And yet I’m still very tied to the relationship we have with nature and the objects in the world around us.
The concept of the artist studio has a broad range of meanings in contemporary practice. Artists may spend much of their time in the actual studio, or they may spend very little time in it. Tell us about your individual studio practice and how it differs from or is the same as traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
Working primarily with wood, I am tied to using one of two wood shops available to me. I would say my current practice is in line with traditional notions of “being in the studio.” Even when I’m working with Arduinos and the mechanisms that literally drive the work, I am in my studio. It feels good to get up in the morning, make a cup of coffee and head out to my studio space. When I get home at night, I have two friendly cats waiting for me. Keeping the studio mostly separate from my home life allows me to breathe a little (at both places).
What roles do you find yourself playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
I had a fantastic opportunity to teach for one year back in Minnesota. I had always wanted to teach art, and it was a great experience for me. I quickly found out that it is difficult for me to manage a class full of students. Now that I’m in graduate school, I’m not so sure about teaching anymore. Currently I am a project assistant in the sculpture lab at UWM. At times I find myself teaching students how to use tools, and other times I’m patching walls or making butcher block tables. At this point, teaching or being a lab tech would both be wonderful opportunities for me in the future.
When do you find is the best time to make art? Do you set aside a specific time everyday or do you have to work whenever time allows?
I find that I’m the most productive if I get up early and get into the studio by 7 AM. I try to set aside large chunks of time in order to get into “the zone.” Some days of the week I don’t even try make it to the studio. Reading, writing, and thinking have become an essential part of my practice and usually take over the non-studio days.
How has your work changed in the past five years? How is it the same?
I feel like my work has changed drastically over the past five years. When I started making ceramic pieces I thought I wanted to be a potter. Now I’m making wooden sculptures that seem as if they’ve achieved independence from their human counterparts. Then again, my work has always been a thinking in and around man versus machine, natural versus artificial. Before using ceramic objects to allude to pixels, and now wood as a natural kind of machine-like object, at times aware of the viewer’s presence. I’d say overall the work has been progressively more refined and thought out as compared to five years ago.
How have people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers, other artists or even pop icons had an impact on the work you do?
I feel like my graduate school experience in general has impacted my current work on multiple levels. My graduate committee helps to push me in directions I wouldn’t think of going; asking the right questions, prodding me this way or that. Recent classes I’ve taken have allowed me to explore different media and processes to expand not only my knowledge of the material but also skills with particular materials.
Currently I’m deep into graduate level theory courses. This past semester I’ve been reading Brian Massumi, Richard Grusin, and Silvan Tomkins to name a few. Not too long ago I was reading Jane Bennett and Mel Chen. All of these theorist have provided interesting thoughts in relation to what my work is trying to think through.
Have you ever been pulled in the direction of a pursuit other than being an artist? What are your other interests?
Video games are a big interest of mine, but making a career out of them would prove difficult. I really enjoy working with wood. I could see myself being a carpenter, cabinet maker, or maybe a shop tech if my art career takes a sudden turn. I very much enjoyed my coffee shop job and would like to start my own some day. Otherwise, living on a commune is an option.
Broc Toft is currently a candidate for the MFA degree in inter-media at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Peck School of the Arts, Department of Art and Design. He received his BFA in ceramics at MNSU Mankato in 2012. Drawn to repetition, kinetic art, and vital materiality, Broc asks us to look again at our surroundings and their potentials through and with material and movement. He has exhibited at MNSU in Mankato, MN, NCECA in Seattle, WA, The Exit Gallery in Bozeman, MT, and Northern Clay Center in Minneapolis, MN.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.