Earlier this week, I invited local creative duo BrainTwins, Jessica Dunn and Justin Shimp, over to my apartment to talk about their first year in business. Before settling into the interview, Shimp browsed my record collection. The records are housed in minimalist shelving from IKEA. Little time passed before Shimp expressed frustration with the lack of alternatives to the cheap, functional furniture upon which IKEA has made its fortune. He said that BrainTwins has toyed with the idea of crafting cheap shelving that's also portable and targeted at record collectors. The project isn't high on BrainTwins list of priorities, yet it's illustrative of the duo's sensibility. Shimp and Dunn constantly view their surroundings with an eye toward enhancement and customization.
"We're in the business of transforming spaces," Shimp says. "You walk into a venue. You've seen it a thousand times before. You know where it is, but you've never been there before because of what's in it now. We've transformed it into this audio/visual experience that transports you out of any sense of place."
BrainTwins launched less than a year ago. Shimp left a steady gig handling quality assurance, client support and a variety of other roles at SmallBox to start what essentially functions as a creative content firm with his girlfriend Dunn, a Herron graduate with a focus on painting and sculpture. Before BrainTwins had a name, Shimp and Dunn began by crafting hand-drawn thank-you notes for mail orders at local record label Joyful Noise Recordings. This initial collaboration over doodles eventually led to small video projects such as the trailer for Sebadoh's Secret EP, which saw wide publication across prominent music publications.
"When we first started out and we were coming up with our name as BrainTwins, it was all about the yin and the yang, the black and white, analog and digital," Dunn says. "[Our aesthetic focused on] the opposite sides of the spectrum coming together and that play of our different ideas and skill sets and the way they complement each other."
BrainTwins' first opportunity to showcase its stage design skills, came in the form of last summer's Listen Local concert series in Broad Ripple Park. The six-concert series was a partnership between Indianapolis Parks Department and Musical Family Tree, another Indianapolis cultural institution with SmallBox roots. The centerpiece of BrainTwins' design was a cardboard structure that served as the backdrop for the stage, which was reconfigured and re-painted for each show.
The work at Listen Local led to opportunities with TEDx Indianapolis. The cardboard structure for the concert series was repurposed for TEDx's "Mix for Tix" event. After receiving positive feedback from "Mix for Tix," BrainTwins was tapped to design a back-lit Indianapolis skyline that sat in the box seats behind the stage at Hilbert Circle Theatre during the talks from guest speakers.
"These commercial projects, or even artistic projects, shouldn't be arbitrary," Shimp said. "They should take into account the audience, the people involved, the people that are working, the people who are speaking, whatever it might be -- it's all about bridging that gap between what's going on. Who is it going towards? What is the culture, and how can we enhance and present that culture?"
As many freelancers can attest, the winter, and particularly during the holidays, is a time when companies rarely launch new projects. The lack of an abundance of commercial work coupled with the harsh weather offered BrainTwins the time to hibernate and focus on a video project for local rock band S.M. Wolf. The video for the single "King of the Suits" featured hand-drawn animation inspired by early Disney cartoons and Jim Henson's Muppets. That work culminated in a video release show at Fountain Square's General Public Collective.
The S.M. Wolf video release afforded BrainTwins the opportunity to showcase the four-dimensions of its artwork. In addition to the debut of the video itself, BrainTwins also manipulated custom animation and found footage to project throughout the evening's musical performances. The duo also sold still frames from the video.
BrainTwins' first major event of 2014 was the stage design for the re:build conference at The Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana History Center. "We're expanding on all of the things that we did last year but refining them and making them more cohesive to us," Shimp explains. "Last year, with the Listen Local stage we had the individual cardboard cutouts that folded together. More recently with re:build we had cardboard boxes. It was just a little bit more refined version of that old stage. We have a little bit more freedom with it, but at the same time we've imposed certain limitations to make it more structurally sound and visually cohesive."
For their part, the two don't view their commercial and purely creative work as a conflict of interests. "Our main goal is to defy what we've been told was a viable career," Dunn says. "I remember when I first told my family I was going to art school and they laughed. 'Haha, you're not going to med school anymore? Good luck! You're going to starve to death.' I'm not going to accept that! There has to be a way that we can provide value to businesses in order to survive that also helps them out. Art has a long history of being a marketing item or propaganda or whatever you want to call it. We want to work in a way where we can do what we're passionate about and live off of it, and not settle for something that sounds more logical."
Shimp echoed Dunn's statement, saying: "Why can't we take what companies do really well and what artists do really well and merge them and have this hybrid where you can have artwork in a nontraditional setting?"
More recently, BrainTwins has grown interested in playing the role of archivist. They're recording MFT's local in-store performances at Indy CD & Vinyl for preservation in the archive. "Just look around you at the amount of documentation that's taking place at shows these days," Shimp says. "In the future, it's not inconceivable to assume we're going to be able to reconstruct the photo, video, and audio footage from a concert so that future generations can experience it in a way that's dynamic and visceral." It all ties back to BrainTwins determination to recycle and re-use previous works to lengthen their lifespan.
"We're trying to show that Indiana, and Indianapolis specifically, has an opportunity to have a lot of creative stuff," Shimp says. "One of our core values is to inspire other people and we have. I see it already -- in a small degree with our show posters inspiring other work, but in a bigger way in the response that we get after events or performances. That's the most rewarding thing really, is empowering other people to realize it's not an impossible goal. It's not an impossible dream, and it doesn't actually take that much money. It can be done resourcefully in an elegant way."