A Hub for Strange Connections: Reflecting on Brain Frame

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Posted August 7, 2014

Brain Frame

Thorne Brandt reads Splinters of Success during Brain Frame 12. Photo: Gillian Fry

Lyra Hill is the Colead Artist of the Teen Creative Agency at the MCA and founder and organizer of Brain Frame, “an event where comics and zine artists . . . [can] interpret their work in front of an open-minded audience,” a series which will end on its third anniversary, August 9.

Summer of 2011: A friend requested I set up a comics reading during his stay in town. And so, just after finishing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I organized the first Brain Frame. My familiarity with the format was slim, and most of what I’d seen disappointed me. Unless an artist is particularly charismatic, I feel live readings generally detract from the rich personal experience of reading a book or comic to oneself. Instead, I decided, “I’ll ask my most gregarious friends to read their comics in the weirdest ways possible. At least then we will have fun.” One performer lectured on the theological underpinnings of Jim Carrey’s The Mask (1994) as it related to his comic about David Bowie; another squealed over a distortion-heavy cassette track; I read four short comics using props like a cup-string telephone and a bag of ketchup in my underwear. It was more successful than I ever dreamed. The power went out for an hour in the middle of the show but people stuck around, demanding more when it was over. That night was a sweaty affair in a busted apartment gallery. Now, three years later, I’m closing the book with a grand spectacle at the unbelievably stunning Thalia Hall.

The Brain Frame medium—what I like to call “performative comix”—is new and still evolving. At every event, six unique individuals (or groups) interpret their own comics-based work. Often, comic panels are projected as a digital slideshow, accompanied by whatever else the performer(s) deems appropriate: costumes, sound effects, music, props, animation, etc. Brain Frame has seen shadow puppetry, circuit bending, stand-up comedy, live tattooing, and rigorous exercise routines. I could go on. Brain Frame could go on, too, except I don’t think that’s a good idea.

Brain Frame 2
Brain Frame 3
Brain Frame 4
Brain Frame 4

It’s always difficult to explain the show to those who haven’t been. One of the most remarkable things about Brain Frame is the atmosphere: electric uncertainty, open-minded anticipation, mutual support, and a lack of pretension. Over the years, a growing network of multidisciplinary artists have contributed to the show. They value the opportunities for experimentation Brain Frame affords and the growing rigor involved in its execution.

The vitality of Brain Frame is dependent upon its unpredictability. Never one to give myself a break, each subsequent event has been grander in scope of production and content. I’ve noticed a few things in the past year or so: Readers will revert to methods they have seen before (when this happens I push them harder); and people have begun creating artworks specific to Brain Frame. For example, Scott Roberts created an entire comic narrative out of animated gifs. When it came time for him to publish the comic, he had a hell of a time distilling it into 2D printed pages.

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Ian Endsley reads Beautiful Neighborhood, tearing off each oversized, original panel for the audience to collect after Brain Frame Lit 1 at the MCA’s Saturday Strip: Comic Day. Photo: John Fecile

As relationships and conversations migrate towards the digital realms, I feel called to bring people out in person. Something like Brain Frame is essential—and successful—because it’s literally impossible to approximate online. The show has become a hub for strange connections of all kinds. This Saturday, in a kind of phoenix-regenerative ritual spectacle, I hope to propagate the Brain Frame ethos and inspire a new generation of performative comix organizers. I’ve been watching the seeds take root already. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

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