Behind the Work: Nicholas O’Brien

Brooklyn-based artist and writer Nicholas O’Brien explores how technology shapes society through games and animation.

The latest manifestation of Nicholas’s practice is Treatment: The Plan for Rain, an installation that rethinks New York City’s stormwater collection program by considering citizens, maintenance, and other elements he argues are often ignored in the planning of urban infrastructure projects. Here, he shares some of the inspirations and reference points for his new project.


Planting Plans for NYC Rain Gardens

After seeing some rain gardens getting installed in my studio’s neighborhood, I contacted the NYC Department of Environmental Protection and the Office of City Planning to learn more. The DEP recommended I look at their online materials, and I came across their official “style guide” for rain garden construction. When I first looked at these documents, I immediately got lost in the expert-only visual language.

After looking through it with artist Ellie Irons (who is featured in Treatment), I started thinking about how this document — and schematics like it in other urban infrastructure projects — could play a prominent role in my video work. This document is so hard to read as a non-specialist, and I wanted to think about how obscurity of information was an important aspect of Treatment.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Maintenance Art Manifesto

Mierle Laderman Ukeles showed me how an artist can become an active participant in the inner workings of complex systems. Her investment in finding productive and meaningful forms of artistic representation is a big inspiration. She doesn’t merely investigate how things are done, or who participates in labor and large-scale urban infrastructures; she tries to embed herself in the workforce.

It was really important for me in Treatment (and in my other projects, like The Trolley) to resist the urge to wag my finger or lob accusations against people who are trying their best to work within the parameters of policy. Ukeles’s practice shows me that one can approach city infrastructure and labor with equal parts skepticism and compassion.

Ed Ruscha, No End to the Things Made Out of Human Talk

I can’t help but love the mystery and the humor in the title of this work. I’ve admired Ed Ruscha’s paintings for a while, but only recently saw this image at the Broad Museum in L.A. His reduced palette and use of familiar images and architecture as symbolic stand-ins for something more poetic or meaningful have always inspired my practice.

Ruscha is a very skillful painter, but I don’t think he’s preoccupied with his paintings being lifelike. Similarly, I want to make renderings that will “make do” for what they’re meant to represent. When an image isn’t high-fidelity, humor can pick up the slack. Though I don’t think of my work as funny, I hope that it can be witty. I want to point to what’s already there, and try to make interesting juxtapositions that can bring alternative interpretations to material that’s otherwise difficult to access.


Look for Treatment: The Plan for Rain at The Knockdown Center in Queens, New York, showing through June 17. See more of what goes into Nicholas O’Brien’s work on Drip.

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