Joel Bowman: Good afternoon, Trevor. Thanks very much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk with International Man.
Trevor Jones: It’s a real pleasure, Joel. Welcome to my studio…and welcome to Edinburgh.
JB: Yours is a fascinating story, Trevor. A real International Man tale. Perhaps we could begin with you sharing a little bit of your own background, how a Canadian-born artist traveled the world to discover inspiration and a new home here in bonny Scotland.
TJ: It was actually completely unexpected. I left Canada in 1996 with a backpack. I went to Australia, Fiji and New Zealand. After returning home briefly (to pay off my travel debts), I realized I’d contracted the travel bug and so I soon set off again. After obtaining a UK ancestry visa my next stop was England. That allowed me to stay and work for four years and also to travel around some more.
This whole time I was mostly working in the hospitality industry to pay for my plane tickets. Then, one day, I looked at myself in the mirror and I was like, “What the heck am I doing with my life?”
I was thirty years old and I needed to sort myself out. I remember thinking, “What can I possibly do that makes less money than bartending?”
The answer was clear: I’ll be an artist!
JB: I see you too suffer from the irrepressible contrarian intuition. Generally speaking, artists do indeed fulfill that humble goal of making below minimum wage, pursuing the romantic life of the “starving artist” and all that. It hasn’t quite worked out that way for you though…
TJ: Well, it started out that way. I completed a foundation year at Leith School of Art and then a 5-year degree at Edinburgh University College of Art. I graduated in 2008, just over ten years ago. Immediately after graduation I started working for an arts charity called Arts and Healthcare where, over the next few years, I went from assistant director to executive director. That position really opened me up to the arts world of Scotland. I met a lot of people in the art sector – other artists, organizations and various companies.
It was all going really well but my painting was starting to slow down because I was so focused on the charity. So, in 2014-15, having finally attained a little professional stability, I stepped down from the charity to concentrate on being a full time painter, which I’ve done since then. I’m happy to say that although stressful at the time, taking that big leap of faith with regards to financial security, it was definitely the right decision. My art career has gone from strength to strength now that I am able to commit 100% to it.
JB: Readers won’t be able to fully appreciate this, but we’re actually standing in your studio as we speak, surrounded by your paintings. I suspect, however, they will recognize many of the subjects you’ve chosen to paint. I’ll make sure to include some photos for their viewing pleasure.
How did the idea of memorializing the who’s-who of the crypto-currency world come to you?
JT: Well, my last solo exhibition was inspired by the 2016 presidential election with Trump and Hillary. It just seemed like the entire world was being saturated with this vast polarization of political states and fake news and distrust – or mistrust – of the media and so I really started focusing on these political ideas with my painting. Then, after the success of that exhibition (one art collector purchased all ten large portraits), I got to thinking for a while… What can I do? What can I do? What can I do?
On a side note, while I was contemplating my next move and on the back end of the political portrait exhibition, I was able to personally connect with and paint the portraits of a number of famous Scots and one exceptionally famous Canadian, Dr. Jordan Peterson. I was truly honoured to be able to fly to Toronto at the beginning of last year and spend 4 days at the Petersons’ home interviewing and filming him and painting his portrait. Along with the AR features of the painting I’ve included another very cool tech element, NFC or Near Field Communication Tags. Dr. Peterson gave me seven personal objects and artifacts, which I collaged or embedded into the painting. Alongside each object I added an NFC tag so that anyone who positions their smartphone near to it will trigger a short video clip of Dr. Peterson talking about that particular object, what it is and what it means to him. I’m certain this is the most technologically advanced painting in the world and to have Dr. Peterson as the subject was absolutely brilliant.
Anyway, eventually, it dawned on me. I’d been interested in cryptocurrency and Bitcoin for about a year, maybe eighteen months by that point. Then, in January of this year, it kind of popped into my head – why don’t I research and work towards a cryptocurrency inspired exhibition?
The more I looked into it the more it made sense, the connection between the world of cryptocurrency and my style of painting. Using technology to overlay information onto traditional painting in the way that I do is quite unusual. I’ve been exploring the nexus between art and technology for about seven years now. Playing with the interconnection between the two. I continually get quizzical looks from the art establishment; very few seem to take it seriously, so although my formal art education began in 2002, the type of work I create makes me something of an outsider in a sense.
Eventually, I decided to play up that role as an outcast and really take it to the establishment itself, to challenge their conceived norms and their self-perception. I started to “poke the bear,” as they say.
Actually, that’s really when I decided to take over the Scottish National Gallery with augmented reality turning 15 of the masterpieces on display into my paintings with links to my website and Facebook page. I became the only living artist to have artwork on show at the National Gallery! The stunt, along with a couple others I pulled off, made national and international media news and this was when things really started to take off for me with regards to my reputation as a visual artist exploring new technology and being recognised as something of an ‘enfant terrible’ in the art establishment.
JB: I wanted to ask you specifically about that, about augmented reality and your Banksy-style subversion of the traditional establishment by means of precisely that technology… but first to back up a little bit, for readers who are perhaps not familiar with exactly what we’re talking about here, can you explain what you mean by “augmented reality” and how, exactly, it takes shape?
TJ: Sure. With my techie business partner, David, we built an augmented reality platform called CreativMuse which enables me to create my own AR experiences. Anyone can download the free app (iOS and Android) and scan my paintings or, in fact, they can scan anything that I’ve augmented such as the National Gallery paintings, to then trigger the digital content I’ve uploaded in the form of a video and URL links. It’s image recognition AR rather than location based such as Pokemon Go, and it’s an absolutely brilliant tool for a visual artist to tell an entirely new story about their art, provide more information or explain the history or inspiration behind the work in the form of video, images, music and links.
I crop the video so that it overlays perfectly onto the painting, making for a really unique visual experience. Quite often I’ll also use morphing software to transform the painting image into the first frame of the video to create an even more visually powerful effect. A really good example of this is my Venezuela protestor piece in which, when scanned with the app, the image of the violin playing protester painted on Venezuelan bolivar and other foreign currency slowly morphs into the first frame of the video. Drums kick in and violin music plays along with various news reports describing the financial chaos in the country and it all comes together to trigger quite an emotionally charged viewer experience.
So that’s what the augmented reality does.
As regards to the provocateur element, that’s what really drew me to Bitcoin. It has, inherently almost, this kind of anti-establishment, anti-traditional banking, anti-government, libertarian value. There’s definitely a strong connection between that primary ethos and the way I view my painting and the way the conservative art establishment tends to perceive my work, and my disruptive stunts.
Like Bitcoin, it’s the classic tale of the underdog, the outcast the establishment doesn’t want to take seriously. Eventually, they’re not going to have a choice. Change is happening, in arts as in finance, whether the established, entrenched interests want to admit it or not.
JB: I remember seeing that John McAfee retweeted your portrait of him saying, I think, “cool AF.”
TJ: I think it was “cool as sh*t.”
JB: Kudos to you both. How, then, has the crypto community in general received your work?
TJ: It’s really very interesting. Perhaps we’re seeing a changing of the guard. I get more interest from the tech sector and the crypto folk than I do from the stodgy traditionalists in the art world. I think, possibly, they’re just as scared of change as the bankers are.
In fact, I just had someone send me an article about my paintings written up in Bitcoin.com. I didn’t even know about it until a friend forwarded it along. I was like, “that’s so cool!”
And, as you mentioned, John McAfee is a Twitter hound and a super cool guy besides. So after he picked this up it got a lot of publicity. It’s really representative of a new kind of media, one the “Powers-That-Be” haven’t quite grappled with yet, one they don’t really know quite how to control. So it’s an exciting place to be in. It’s an inspiring, creative place for an artist, a place where one can go a bit wild and explore a bunch of new and interesting mediums and subjects.
Oh, and I’m really pleased that an overseas buyer has already purchased my Satoshi Nakamoto painting a month before the exhibition even opens and they paid in Bitcoin (1.027). As far as I’m aware, this is the most expensive painting ever purchased in Scotland in cryptocurrency, which proves that I wasn’t completely crazy investing in and exploring the frontier of art, technology and cryptocurrency. I’m also offering signed, limited edition prints of all the paintings that are also scannable and these are proving to be really popular.
JB: Which brings us back to the artist-cum-provocateur. You’ve morphed some of the landed aristocracy in Scotland’s National Portrait Gallery into contemporary crypto-related augmented reality montages. Can you tell us a bit about that project?
TJ: Once again, I saw a great opportunity to poke that art establishment bear and also tell a really important story at the same time. So I picked 28 portraits of kings and queens and historians and philosophers and scientists – some of the greatest names in Scottish history, in fact – and, with the help of augmented reality and the morphing software, I transformed these figures into a host of new revolutionary thinkers and entrepreneurs and visionaries of today.
The gallery gets about 1.3 million visitors per year, so now any one of those visitors can scan these portraits with my app and, if they’re interested, they can learn a new and exciting story, not only about those who shaped history, but those who are undertaking to shape the future as well.
JB: And how did the curators of the gallery take this news? Were they even aware that you were doing this?
TJ: I actually did this about a month in advance. It was a lot of work getting all the videos together, morphing, video cropping, augmenting and uploading. That was a lot of work… but it was much more difficult keeping it a secret. For obvious reasons, I didn’t want anyone knowing about it until I launched the project on my website. Now, luckily, it’s starting to generate some interest. Although I’ve still heard nothing from the Portrait Gallery.
JB: Though I doubt curators of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery read these humble pages, we’ll be sure to tag them in any social media posts we do to support the article. Attention! You’ve been hijacked!
TJ: Much appreciated. I’d love to get some kind of response from them.
JB: Well, best of luck with your future efforts, Trevor. Here’s to the revolution, both in art and in money!
TJ: Cheers to that!
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