I’m sitting across from Brendan George Ko at Arepa Café. Damn good arepas. Ko is a multi-talented artist and photographer with a penchant for atmospheres and capturing what, in a sense, makes nature human. He lives in a former coffin factory.
Ko is a recent OCAD photographic arts grad and is currently represented by Angell Gallery in Toronto. His body of work is saturated with eerie feelings and memories, focusing on states of inbetween-ness – on layers of memory, fantasy and media. He sat down with us to talk about his photography, his past and ghosts.
Though Ko was born in Toronto, he spent his formative years in New Mexico and Texas, accumulating ridiculously interesting stories and developing as an artist. When asked about his two most recent series, Nocturne and The Barking Wall, Ko takes us back to the mythical age of New Mexico in the mid-nineties. “The whole body of work was based on this atmosphere that’s developed with nature in New Mexico,” he says.
“There’s this strange thing…I always talk about this with people and they think I’m crazy for believing it, because it’s on par with a ghost story. There are these things called Skin Walkers: humans that can shapeshift into wolves and coyotes. Possessed by evil spirits, they hover between the human world and the unknown.”
“I remember as kids,” Ko says, “we were warned never to go into the boonies late at night. Parents and adults would talk about these stories of skin walkers like they had seen them, or had been attacked by them. There was no disbelief about it. But as soon as you leave the state of New Mexico, it just ends…”
Appropriately, Ko’s thesis work, Nocturne ends with an image called ‘Skinwalker’. Amidst branches and trees, the viewer just glimpses the naked skin of a figure crouching down. All of the photographs in this series deal with the woods and landscape. However, the focus is on atmosphere. “They weren’t just these picturesque images,” he recalls, “they provoked you in a certain way.
They were landscapes with a certain atmospheric quality – there was something eerie about the images. When I started my next series, Barking Wall, I tried to continue conveying that atmosphere. It stretches it but also talks more of an overwhelming sense of memory.”
The name Barking Wall comes from the same period in Ko’s life – during which he lived in a haunted house. “It comes from this recurring apparition that would happen in my room. In one corner, every January, a strange noise would be produced. Every year it was different. But the last year it happened was the most distinguishable and frightening event. I remember this indescribable sound, almost like vocal chords touched with a metallic texture, struggling to breathe. The feeling, being in my bed and thinking, ‘This can’t be happening; this makes no sense’ has plagued me for my entire life.” The actual image titled ‘Barking Wall’ is of wallpaper peeled back to reveal an older wall, which peels to reveal an even older one and so on, eventually revealing a shining, ambiguous crystal.
Veiled human shapes and a sort of childishness characterize the ‘Barking Wall’ as a series. The latter comes across, as Ko writes in his statement, through the feeling of covering your face with your hands and being just able to see the world, but being invisible to it. “One image that I find speaks to the concept of that body is called ‘Tomb,’ he says. “It’s this person that’s covered with a mesh of different blankets. I grew up with Afghan blankets everywhere. They were things that my mom and grandmother made – and each one of them is just very different. They hold different memories. I was interested in just covering someone in layer upon layer of memory. With the Barking Wall images, there’s usually a humanoid aspect to them that’s meant to somehow bridge the gap between this other world that I’m creating in the image, and the world we live in.”
As Ko tells us his story, it becomes clear that he was always a busy and talented kid. He talks of his stint as a rapper in high school and how his CD sales helped him buy studio equipment.
We learn how this led him to record his first solo album over sixteen days in his cousin’s cold cellar – still accessible on MySpace. Before OCAD he studied film. Somehow through all of this, he has managed to work on photography series that have unfolded over years. He developed his collection The Abandoned Island between 2005 and 2009 during trips to Hawaii to visit his parents.
In Toronto, despite living in an ostensibly haunted former coffin factory, Ko has been working to recreate feelings from his past. Though Toronto isn’t lacking in history, for Ko, there is a certain atmosphere missing. “I haven’t had that feeling in a long time,” he says. “I remember when people used to tell ghost stories; you’d get that buzz. You’d be afraid, kind of spooked. I used to love that. That was my favorite thing. In New Mexico, that feeling was a very instinctual part of you: like the creature inside of you has this feeling that something’s weird, something’s off. But I haven’t had that feeling in a long time.”
Ko’s next project continues his work on atmospheres, but looks more to the future. “I’ve been really interested in the Apocalypse,” he tells us. Not as something that may or may not happen but as an overwhelming feeling of uncertainty. “For me it’s the ultimate atmosphere. I can’t imagine myself making post-apocalyptic sets, but I’d like to try something else to provoke that feeling…”