James B. Hunt’s artwork is as much a part of the Phoenix landscape as murals, bus stops, red Phoenix New Times distribution boxes, and sad shade trees. His stickers and flyers cover community corkboards, lampposts, bike racks, and walls. His paintings hide out in alleyways and secret nooks and crannies, waiting to be discovered by collector-hunters. And his NXOEED blog is one of the Valley’s few 100% MUST-READ artist blogs- a regular source of thought-provoking think-pieces on the changing face of the Valley’s rapidly gentrifying art scene.
I met up with Hunt a few weeks ago on a Saturday night at the Lost Leaf. It was a few hours before any live music, so you could actually hear yourself think in there. Red light bathed the alcove we talked in while the Westworld soundtrack played overhead. Player piano covers of Radiohead songs seemed like the perfect accompaniment to our conversations about death, the occult, James’ work ethic, and why it doesn’t matter if Roosevelt Row turns into the next Mill Ave.
I wanted to start off by asking about Tetradiagon. You’ve talked about bringing the site back on your NXOEED blog, and I was wondering what spurred you to bring it back.
“I used to be a drunk, and a belligerent one. My buddy and I used to run this website. We didn’t review bands, we reviewed the ambiance at shows. It kinda happened because I was in a bad headspace. When I sobered up I wanted to do my own thing for a couple of years… but the name always stuck with me. I still work with all the people who used to work on the site with me. We just all do our own things now. We’ve all created our own unique spaces. I’ve got a monstrosity that I’ve built in my backyard. We’ve all been working between these spaces, and communicating via CB radio- which is ridiculous! It’s fun, though. It’s a way for us to do as much as possible without the internet. Because the internet, you know, is terrible. It’s ruined everything that was fun about creating, collecting-”
That sense of discovery, of being able to stumble onto things-
“Yeah, it used to be so much more fun! You used to have to write to people on the back of the ads in fanzines and stuff. That’s how you kept in touch with people from out of state. I guess it’s convenient now, but it hasn’t been fun for awhile… So we thought, what if we did what we do but do most of the interesting stuff offline.”
On NXOEED, you talked about doing regular CB radio communiques on CB radio channel 23. Have you had people tuning in and engaging with you on there?
“Yeah! It’s fun. Most of the people are like, ‘what the hell are you doing on CB radio?’ Cause most people still using CB radio are not on there for art-”
They’re doing drug deals.
“We found two guys who were running their whole meth operation in the Metro Center parking lot. They’re probably still doing it. You can switch on at night and listen in.”
Wow- it’s that blatant? They’re not trying to code it or anything?
“They don’t seem to give a fuck. They were literally saying “20s and 40’s for this amount” – there was no coding involved. I mean, there are prostitution rings on there, all sorts of things. Which is bizarre, cause you figure they’d switch over to those family radio frequencies for that kind of stuff… There’s this seedy underbelly to CB radio… I kinda liken it to Aleister Crowley talking about the astral plane. That’s what it is, in a way. If ham radio is heaven, then CB radio is the astral plane where are all the questionable spirits dwell.
It’s been a good method of staying in contact. They used to say that the internet was the CB radio of the 90’s. Now it feels like CB radio is the Internet of the new millennium!’
Everything gets a return, I guess.
“I guess so, yeah.”
Speaking of weird methods of delivery- I heard awhile ago that you were going to do a group art show in a cave. Is that still happening?
“We’re kinda doing that- everybody who was a part of that group is a part of this group. We still do those happenings from time to time – we just haven’t done it in an actual cave yet! I mean, where do you find a cave? Pete (Petrisko) is really into it, so we always talk about doing it. We just have to find the cave. Occasionally we’ll get messages from people who are like, ‘I found the perfect cave for you guys!’”
How would you even a light a cave? Would you give the attendees flashlights or put lamps in the cave to illuminate it?
“Zack said he’s got this whole system of lights we could run through a car battery. But see, that’s another great reason why doing a show in a cave is more trouble than it’s worth.”
You flyer everyday around town. Do you ever get hassled on your daily routes?
“One group of folks actually gave me death threats because I was covering up parts of their posters! There’s not a whole lot of it, though. There’s just enough pushback from people that you’ve gotta do it every day or it’ll vanish. The ones I posted last night are all gone, so I had to go back and put them back up.”
Sounds like trying to write something in sand.
“It is! The more disposable the material, the better.”
As a working artist, do you have a daily quota that you try to meet? What’s your working practice like?
“Daytime is for painting. It’s not so much that I set a goal, it’s that I like to start something everyday, I like to get something completed everyday. Not necessarily at the same time- the thing I start probably won’t be the thing I complete. Start something new, complete something old. And the nighttime is for poster, sticker, and flyer distribution.”
How do you support yourself?
“I do postering, but for other people. Like the Lost Leaf – I do their flyers. I also live like a monk! I don’t live a lifestyle that requires a whole lot of maintenance. I’m definitely living in poverty, but fuck it- I’m still happy.”
I just ask because I’m always curious how people get by. This country doesn’t make it easy for creative people to survive.
“I’m never going to make as much as a guy who sells cars. I’m not even gonna try. There’s nothing wrong with doing a thing that you love to do every night and making enough to eat and pay whatever bills need to be paid.”
You mentioned Crowley earlier- is the occult an influence on your work? Looking at some of your drawings, it reminds me a lot of the Goetia and other old demon drawings.
“It was. My favorite band is a group called Current 93. The day that I first heard them, which was 25-30 years ago, it triggered something in me. I immediately went home and painted 5 paintings in the style that I do to this day. David Tibet from Current 93 was heavily influenced by Crowley- he was in the OTO, maybe even the head of it at one point? That definitely had an influence on me. I’ve always been kinda… occult-adjacent. Now I’m not sure what I believe in.”
When you’re making art, what sources do you draw inspiration from? What helps replenish your imagination’s batteries?
“Dreams, more than anything else. I wake up 2 or 3 times every night. There’s always this… impending sense of doom, like ‘am I going to wake up?’”
I get that way, too.
“For me, it probably stems from being younger and having a religious upbringing. There were various Christian schools that all taught this End Times theology that you don’t really examine at the time but when you look back… that shit’s insane. All these 7-headed beasts and all that shit. When you’re young, it’s real and it’s coming. I don’t fear those things anymore, but some fear in general is still there. That feeling of things not being okay…
And really, things aren’t going to be okay. We’re going to die. It’s insane, that we live on a planet and have conversations like this- where we’re just like, ‘hahaha, isn’t this great?’ It’s weird that what so many people call normal day-to-day things is kinda insane. We do all these things, knowing we’re going to die. Life has always been insane to me, in that way.”
You could argue that culture itself is just a way for us to trick ourselves into forgetting that we’re going to die.
“I’ve always thought that it was insane that we’re doing all this. It’s insane that people pair up and have kids- that’s insane to me. Or that there’s this idea of normal- that we’ve all determined, ‘this is the thing that we do’. We’re going to die. It’s stunning to me, to think about it.
Not to bring the mood down-
Not at all. I used to never think about death, but I took a bunch of mushrooms when I was 26 and since then there’s been a clock in my head that’s never stopped ticking. The constant awareness that someday I probably won’t exist anymore.
“How old are you now?
34. And you know, I don’t know if there’s a world beyond this-
“That’s the thing. If you’re alive, you’re on the side of the living. People always divide themselves into these offshoots of thing, along ideologies and stuff like that. People are not their beliefs; they tend to forget that. If you’re alive, you’re on one side: the side of ‘I’m alive and this is insane.’ The dead people are on the other side of that.
Either there’s an afterlife and they’re going to tell us what’s up when we’re dead, or there’s not an afterlife and nothing happens. But you have to be dead in order to be sure.”
I know what you mean about that anxiety about sleeping. Makes me think of that Nas lyric- “Sleep is the cousin of death.” I get it all the time.
“I have that every night. I feel it every single night.”
And it’s a crazy feeling, cause you can’t fight it. You HAVE to sleep.
“You really confront that when you get sober. I’ve been sober for about 3 years now. It used to be that I could take enough of something and just fall asleep. But it doesn’t work that way anymore. I’ll work and work and work until I can’t keep my eyes open any longer.”
Talking about things on the side of the living again- what upcoming projects do you have?
“I was going to do Eleven Creatures paintings… I usually do a treasure hunt every Valentine’s Day. But this year Tetradiagon are putting together these boxes that we’ll be hiding between now and March. Each box has a number of things inside ’em: a couple of prints, some candles, kaiju toys. And I’ll probably hide a couple of paintings with them, too. We’ll be hiding one of the boxes at Cupcake, and I’ll also be at the UFO Congress in Fountain Hills.”
I just wanted to say- one of the things I love about your blog is your spirit of optimism. Everyone I know in the scene is in ‘Apocalypse Mode’ over the gentrification sweeping through here. And your blogs are a nice contrast to that- your whole attitude of ‘Yeah, shit’s terrible, but the arts will survive.’
Once upon a time, I started out in Mill Ave with all my shit out on the sidewalk. And then in 96, the Super Bowl came to town. The city remedied the “problem” of having artists on the streets by giving folks one-way tickets to San Diego or Tucson to get them the fuck out before the Super Bowl. And they were hailed in the press for it! On that Super Bowl weekend, there were cops chasing me around. They weren’t necessarily going after painters… they were going after the homeless; they just couldn’t tell the difference.
You deal with stuff like that enough, and at some point you realize that one venue’s going to close and another is going to rise. We have no reason to believe that any of this stuff was going to be here forever. I kind of accepted that as part of Phoenix’s culture, We’re nomads. Any painter or musician who’s completely dependent on his or her’s venue as a method of delivery is going to have to branch out at some point.
And now for the goofy question portion of the interview. If you could eat the brain of anyone, alive or dead, and immediately gain ALL their knowledge and abilities, whose would it be?
“Huh… Adam Parfrey, publisher of Feral House.”
That’s… that’s an unexpected answer. Interesting. Why him?
“He’s got a very interesting approach. I’ve seen the books he’s published. He did a Marc Maron interview a few years back… he was a big influence of mine. He published Exit Magazine, Apocalypse Culture 1 & 2. It wasn’t that he agreed with the crackpots; he wasn’t afraid to give unconventional thinkers the time of day. He gave them a voice. That’s really interesting to me. He didn’t discount anybody’s views because they were bizarre. He’s published so many manifestoes by batshit insane people.”
If I could, I’d eat Genesis Breyer P-Orridge’s brain.
That’s a good one. She was on my shortlist, for sure. But I’d have to go with Parfrey.
Ashley Naftule is a writer, performer, and lifelong resident of Phoenix, AZ. He regularly performs at Space 55, The Firehouse Gallery, Lawn Gnome Books, and The Trunk Space He also does chalk art, collages, and massacres Billy Idol songs at karaoke. He won 3rd place at FilmBar’s Air Sex Championship in 2013. You can see more of his work at ashleynaftule.com
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