In this edition of the Storyteller Profile series, I sat down with Scott Froschauer to discuss Burning Man, giant ducks, the concept of experiential narrative, the subjectivity of art, and the stories he tells with his works.
Who is Scott Froschauer?
Scott Froschauer is a Los Angeles-based experimental artist who has been making waves in LA and beyond for years – including exhibiting at the famed Burning Man festival and The Smithsonian Institute as well as using his platform to literally spread positivity on the streets of his city. In our conversation, we discuss his work, the stories he tells through his pieces and projects, the concept of experiential narrative, and how his diverse range of works invite his audience to bring their own stories into them by creating a dialogue between the artwork and the viewer.
Check out our full conversation with Scott below:
TMC: Scott, it’s great to speak with you again. It’s been a while! You’re an artist based in Los Angeles. While I hate to put you in a box by slapping a title on you, if you had to give yourself and your work a title, what would it be?
SF: The term I like to use is experiential narrative. I’d explain it like this: my degree’s in English, so I did a lot of studies in writing and text and poetry and things like that… traditional ways of telling a story – writing down words and having people read those words. So, that’s traditional narrative. A film or book would also be a traditional narrative, where you have an author that tells a story and you kind of digest it and that’s how you get to the story.
This concept of experiential narrative is one that’s not necessarily digested through reading something or through having a story specifically told you. Instead, it’s where you’re kind of present in an environment that allows you to imagine something. It allows the participants to bring their portion into it, too. Experiential narrative is really about a dialogue between the artwork and the person experiencing the artwork.
So, as an example of that, if you throw a party to celebrate the Toronto Raptors winning the NBA Championship, you’ve got a framework that you’re working with: the happiness of the Raptors winning. For your party, you’ve created an environment that you’re now inviting people into and they will bring their personal elements to the party. Everyone will be in on this same narrative theme of the Raptors victory and the pride in Toronto, but you’re inviting in these other people to bring their humanity to it. And it’s that party.
So, the party itself is an artwork. As an artist, you’re creating it by giving it a framework, but you want to allow for individual expression to occur within that framework. And so that, to me, is experiential narrative: creating the framework that people can walk into and bring their humanity to it. And that’s what really fleshes it out. That’s what makes the party. The party can’t exist with just a theme. It needs the people who create it with their individuality and their unique perspective.
There’s so much that I want to dig into on that because I love that. But just to back up a little bit, where did that discovery of experiential narrative come from, as opposed to a traditional narrative? How did you go from that traditional narrative to discovering experiential narrative and then to deciding that you really wanted to pursue this in the capacity that you now do?
My background is in film, which started as an editor for video. And that’s a really traditional narrative. I moved from editing into set lighting and what’s called being a grip on set. And that’s much more about fabrication and construction. And, so, I went from this notion of telling the story through traditional means of editing and writing to building things.
At first, building these engineering projects on set seemed totally disconnected from the editing process. And it was really when I went to this event in Nevada called Burning Man where my skills in engineering and building structures became useful in creating artworks. Because to build the artworks out there, they need to be able to resist the environment – the wind and things like that.
And, so, the skillset that I developed on set building these structures turned into the skillset in building artwork. And the artworks that you build at Burning Man are these experiential narrative artworks. They’re about the experience that someone brings to the artwork and the interaction between the viewer and the sculpture. My experience at Burning Man was what really gave me this concept of “the participant” and how the participant works with the artwork to create a bigger concept.
Can you tell me a little bit more about Burning Man? I’m really interested in the narrative of Burning Man as a whole. Can you give a little bit of context around that?
I think a key element of understanding how Burning Man operates is the notion of “participation.” When you go your first time, you don’t really know what you’re getting into. You think you’re going to a big party and you just want to go and have a good time. And then you get there and you recognize that people aren’t just partying – they’re making things and expressing themselves.
And what’s interesting is that we all have some pre-made ideas of how people express themselves in our normal lives. Like categories – you can express yourself through writing, through your Instagram account, the way you dress. You know, there are these premade ways of expressing yourself. But when you get out to Burning Man, you find there there’s this emphasis on expressing yourself in non-traditional ways. Like building a large sculpture, for example. You might not, in your normal day to day life, imagine you have the capacity to express yourself by building a sculpture, but out there, suddenly you do.
The thing is that we’re so confined in our daily lives that I couldn’t even list off all of the possible ways that you can express yourself. But when you go out there, you see people doing it in a way that doesn’t fit in with your preconceived notions. And then you start thinking, “Okay, well then how would I express myself if I’m not limited to these means I’m used to in this world? What then would be my way of expressing myself?”
In this world, you might be really intimidated by the idea of doing certain things. You might think, “I’m not a large-scale sculptor, I couldn’t do that.” And then you get out there and you find out the person who built that giant duck over there, two years ago they weren’t able to build a giant duck. They had no idea how to build a giant duck. And they got out to Burning Man and they saw somebody else building a giant squirrel. And they went, “Oh, I love that giant squirrel. I’m not into squirrels, I’m into ducks. Maybe I could build a giant duck.” And now they’ve built a giant duck and they had no idea how to do it beforehand. And the people who do this are just normal people. Think of it this way: you might look at a house and think, “I couldn’t build a house, only house builders can build houses.” But somebody builds houses.
It’s this recognition that everybody’s just a person doing a thing and you get there and realize you could do whatever those people are doing. They’re just normal people. And so, to me, there’s an inspirational element to it, that you can do whatever it is you want to do, and it’s not confined by the pre-sets of our culture.
The house builder didn’t know they could build a house till they started trying to learn to build a house.
That’s right. I always think of this concept of looking at a skyscraper. You can’t imagine how humans built it. It’s like aliens just produced this thing. You almost don’t believe human beings built this big glass skyscraper.
I think of cathedrals in this manner. Part of why cathedrals are so extravagant was to make people feel like they weren’t capable of doing it – like, “Oh, only God could have built this cathedral.” To me, cathedrals are this great representation of alienation, making people feel like they’re small and incapable. But the reality is people built it and whoever built that cathedral had to learn how to do it. And they were just like you at one point and they just went through this process. But there is this whole notion, culturally, that we are incapable of doing these other things. And our whole culture works to reinforce that.
Something that stands out to me from what you do, especially having worked with you, is that a lot of what you do carries this undertone of positivity. So, to you, why is it important to tell that story, why is it important to you to empower other people to contribute their own story, and what does it mean to you to see people engaging with your work and contributing their own energy to it?
I think there’s an important concept there. I’m gonna start with your word “positivity,” because people look at my work and the first thing they think is that being positive means being happy. I think there can be confusion between happy and positive. To me, positive is moving in a direction. Saying, “I want to go to Cleveland.” I’m making a positive statement. Whereas, what I see culturally today, is a lot of people saying, “I don’t want to go to Boston.”
The idea that you don’t want to go to Boston is very different from the idea that you want to go to Cleveland. Because you could go into the Atlantic Ocean and not go to Boston. You could go to Beijing and not go to Boston. But you don’t know where you’re going by just saying I don’t want to go to Boston.
When I think of positivity, when I think of my work, the key is expressing a thing that I want to see in the world. A place that I want to go in the world. A direction. So, positivity to me is not necessarily this notion of being happy – “I’m such a positive person, everything’s great, everything’s beautiful.” That would be one way of interpreting positive. But how I interpret positive is expressing I want to go to Cleveland. Because that’s a constructive direction for a place I want to go to.
Positivity is adopting this mindset of “constructivity” – being constructive rather than being destructive, right? I want to go to Cleveland rather than I don’t want to go to Boston. Once you start working in that framework, a lot of other things start just working themselves out that way. If I say I want the world to be a better place and that’s my positive, constructive thing, then I want to involve other people.
I remember seeing that awesome work you did with gunpowder. It almost had a little bit of a darker vibe to it and it felt a little bit more political to me. But even with that, I perceived an undertone that was still working towards making a better world by making those statements.
It’s interesting because the gunpowder work opens up some things for me in being positive while motivating others to express their ideas. With the gunpowder work, there are people who love guns, but I don’t. And I did a piece with an American flag made out of detonated AR-15 gunpowder.
When I made that piece, I had a specific thing that I was working on, which was thinking about how America is so entrenched in its gun mentality, the Second Amendment, and all these sorts of things. I wasn’t necessarily being critical of it. The work itself wasn’t supposed to express criticism. It was just supposed to express this link between guns and the United States.
And so, it became a mirror for the viewer. If you’re horrified by the link between guns and the United States, then it’s a horrific image. If you love the link between guns in the United States, then it’s a love letter. And, like, I got so many followers on Instagram that were, like, gun shop owners in Florida from that piece.
And it’s a real test as an artist to know that I don’t have any control over the meaning of the artwork. It’s open to the interpretation of the person who’s looking at it. But when you get gun shop owners in Florida loving your artwork that somehow you imagine is a critique of gun ownership in America, that’s when you really have to come to terms with thinking, “how inclusive am I really with my work?”
It can be tricky.
That’s really interesting. It shows even the conviction people can have in their interpretation. I was convinced of a particular meaning because I’m not a gun guy and it freaks me out. So, obviously, it shows your point that art is a mirror and I was projecting my own story, my own narrative onto your work. And some people on the flip side of the coin were doing the same.
And so, having worked with you on one side of things – we collaborated for a corporate partnership and there was a bit more outside influence into what the work was – I want to look at the other side of that now, and ask about your process. When you go to work on a new piece, do you have a story that you’re trying to tell? Do you have an inspiration for it? Do you just start? How does that process work for you?
Generally speaking, it starts with a concept. It’s motivated by something that I’m feeling an emotion about and I want to find a way to express. So, the gunpowder work came from a desire to express certain feelings. Whereas the street signs that I do, “The Word on the Street,” are basically my therapy.
It’s just about working with the tools that I’ve got access to. For instance, mirrors are a tool that I have access to. And, so, sometimes a concept comes to me where a mirror is an appropriate way to express it. But I also have gunpowder as a tool that I can use. And I have street signs that are a tool I can use. I have all of these materials and systems of symbolism that are kind of in my repertoire and my dictionary. And so, when I have an idea that I want to express something, it’s like, what will be the tools I’m going to use to express those things?
I want to dig back into “The Word on the Street” because I really love that. I know that it originally started out as a bit of a rogue project. And since then, you’ve recently made it more of a formal project. Can you give me a bit of detail on that?
When I started out, I was a sticker artist – a street artist in Los Angeles doing stickers. Some of them had some positivity to them. Some of them were just me goofing around with my cat, Spades. I would go and I’d put my cat’s face the head of the guy on the crosswalk sign. You can still go around L.A. and see my cat’s head on stuff. Anyway, I started with that kind of thing and then I started working on trying to be constructive and positive. And I would look at street signs and realize how they are generally negative, right?
“Do not enter.”
“No left turn.”
That’s all “don’t go to Boston.” It’s all negative. So, I started thinking about what I would want the signs to say. How would a sign say, “I want to go to Cleveland?” So, I started looking into the fabrication process and I actually fabricated some street signs, and I started putting them up around L.A. One of them that was a really high-profile yellow diamond that said, “Relax.” And that was put downtown L.A. And it was up for about six months before somebody took it down.
That really rang a bell for me to make actual street signs that say positive things rather than negative ones. Things like, “Breathe.” There’s a positive thing. So, now, I’m giving you a command – which is what streets signs do – but I’m commanding you to do something that’s good for you. Something that’s healthy. It’s nonthreatening. Just breathe.
So, I would do signs like that. And after a while, a city called Glendale was accepting proposals for public artwork. They wanted non-traditional artwork, and I proposed doing 20 of these signs in parks around Glendale, and they accepted it.
And that was really the beginning. That was when I realized this can actually work. That was a steppingstone. Now, I’ve got ’em all over all over – Texas, North Carolina, all over California. I actually now get sponsorships from different art fairs and municipalities to install them all over the country.
That’s awesome. They were so good. So, I generally like to wrap these up by kind of putting the ball back in the court of the person that I’m speaking with. So, my last question for you is this: for anybody who feels like they have something to say, something they want to express, a story they want to tell, a conversation they want to start – whatever it might be – what would be your advice to them?
So, first… there’s a guy named Ze Frank. He was a comedian and he would do these short little videos every single day – some were great, some weren’t. But there was a discipline to the fact that he did it every day. And that’s a big component of everything. You have to be disciplined enough to just do it. That’s number one. If you don’t have the discipline to do it, if you just say, “I’m going to go watch TV or I’m going to just get on Facebook or Instagram,” you can fill all your time with that. That’s always available. The key is having the discipline to say, “I really do want to do or say this thing, and I think it’s important that I do or say something.” You don’t even have to think it’s important for the world, it just needs to be important for yourself. And, so, watching what Ze Frank he was doing taught me that discipline.
And the second thing is overcoming fear. You talk about some of this work of mine that you love, but I can show you plenty of stuff that’s crap. But I churned through it and just let the crap go and let the crap inform other stuff. A lot of it comes down to overcoming fear. Procrastination doesn’t come from you being lazy. Procrastination is ’cause you’re afraid. So, it’s key that you focus on overcoming that fear of failure, overcoming that fear of whatever it is. So, having the discipline to do it means also overcoming the fear of doing it.
And third… one of the arguments that we always use is, “I’m not ready to do it.” And going back to Ze Frank, he had this statement where he said, “I’m done sharpening my pencils. Even the dull ones will make a mark.”
And that’s so true. You can spend all your time sharpening pencils and talking about the different grades of pencils and talking about how sharp they are and why this one’s better than this one. You could make that your whole life into just being a pencil aficionado. But you have to take the pencil and put it on the paper and make a mark. That’s what the pencil’s for.
And, so, I think we can get very lost in that process because we’re afraid that that mark’s not going to be good enough. One of my favorite pieces I ever made says, “You Are Enough.” And that’s the reminder. That’s the inspiration. You are enough. Go do that thing. Your pencils are sharp enough. Just start doing it and be ready to screw it up. And let that inform how you do it tomorrow. It’s going to be fine. It’s not even going to be a screw-up. It’s going to be a lesson. The people who succeed aren’t the people who get everything right. The people who succeed are the ones who just get up and do it. They fail constantly, and then they get up, and they do it again tomorrow and they just keep failing and succeeding.