Before I met John Birtle in person, I knew him as  the co-host of KCHUNG Radio Show "Noooooooooooooooooo with John & Guan." Spelt with an unclear number of "oooo"s, the program was immediately recognizable as one of the station's most experimental, with it's sincere & emotional dialog veering into some new form of serialized performance art. John was also behind the radio show "Just Sayin" which seamlessly blended audio from avante-garde archives like UbuWeb with sounds ranging from pop music to toilets flushing. I later learned that John was in fact an artist, and this casual, open ended exploration permeated all of his creative activities ranging from his longstanding collaboration with John Barlog, involvement with organizations like The Eternal Telethon, and his day to day life.

Where are you from, John?
Long Beach, California.
Did you surf when you were growing up?
I surfed a lot. I started surfing when I was 9. By the time I was 17 I was surfing almost every day.  Then I went to Cal Arts, which is in Valencia, the farthest city north in LA county. So I kinda stopped.
Were you a creative child?
I can remember being really young, painting, and my grandparents saying "Oh, he's an artist."
Oh, cool.
Sometimes I wonder how formative that was, somebody else identifying me and congratulating me for being a good artist at a young age- I've talked to other people that identified as artists at that point in our lives.
I remember you telling me at some point that your high school experience involved a lot of skateboarding and bong rips.
Yeah, I didn't really go to school very much.  I lived across the street from the high school, and my mom was a single parent who worked full-time. I would go to school for, like, one class or two. I  took almost every Monday off my senior year.
How did you get away with that?
It was a really big school with over 1,000 people in my graduating class. I just flew under the radar. I didn’t want to be doing assignments in school. I kind of knew that when I was really young. It was just more productive for me to be gardening and painting.
You gardened?
I gardened a lot in high school.
How did that start?
It probably started in my junior or sophomore year. I had gardened a little bit before, but I really started to get into it, thinking about it as creating a space... moving in furniture, covering a tree with goggles.
What was the area of the backyard like before you turned it into a garden?
I was in this weird shady spot where grass wouldn’t really grow. It didn’t really get watered enough.
When you say create a space, that sounds kinda artsy. Were you thinking about it like that?
No, I don’t think I was thinking on those terms. It definitely had like a lot of artsy things in it. There were some paintings. I think there was one on a sign.
Hanging paintings outside is nice.
I remember using things like microwaves or TV’s as planters or bottles. I was really into getting things on different adventures or saving bottles from certain nights so that I would have specific memories attached to the things in it. Towards the end of the garden a friend said he thought I would have hung more art out here and I told him “Oh, I think it’s all art.”
Did a lot of people come through?
Yeah, every day people would come over and hang out. There was a rope swing.  I found a barbecue and then another. It was mostly found things.
How many years did you work on it?
About a year and a half. I had to break it down because my mom moved out of the house after I went to college. I don’t think it was adding market value.
Did you make art in the garden?
I didn’t use it as a studio, but it was right next to the garage where I painted.
What kind of paintings would you make?
Abstract paintings. Some surreal stuff.  Assemblage paintings with found objects on them. I remember seeing the Basquiat movie on TV and being influenced by that. I didn’t go to an art museum till I was around 16. When I started thinking seriously about being an artist I kinda started looking at contemporary art wherever I could.
How did you end up applying to art school?
I didn’t really know about it. A teacher told me I should look at Cal Arts because I was really conceptual. They said it was, like, a conceptual school.
And that appealed to you?
I dont think I knew what that meant, but they gave undergrads their own studios which was really appealing to me. They didn’t ask for SATs, which I didn’t really want to take anyways. They didn’t give any assignments in the application. It was just “Send us your portfolio.” 
What did you want to do in school?
I just wanted to be talking to people and making art. Cal Arts was the best for me when I was doing that.
Did you have any focus?
I started making a lot of sculpture and dabbling in performance. I took a class where we were asked to take a 2 x 4 piece of wood and alter it in some way. I got a pile of sawdust and blew it through a fan. The idea of making art in non-traditional ways was really appealing.
More like creating ephemeral experiences.
That was really exciting to me: creating unique experiences for people. A group of monks came to the school within the first couple months and made/ destroyed a sand mandala. That was very influential for me.
But you were still painting and drawing?
I did that all throughout college but I didn’t really talk with people about it. I did some painting things. I remember making a painting and giving it to my great-aunt.
So drawing and painting is something that you’ve just always done. It’s got it’s own trajectory.
Yeah, definitely. It hasn’t changed much over time. Like some of the subject matter... I’ve been drawing snowmen and Santa Claus for a really long time. Or drawing on money. Me and John Barlog would do that a lot.
You guys collaborated for a while right? How did you meet?
I was trying to sell him weed.
You sold pot in college?
Not really. I lived in my studio and I would just get a big amount and break it up.
Would you make a profit?
I think I would smoke it all.
You weren’t a good drug dealer.
Not a profitable one. I felt good about it because it all went to my friends.
So what was your first collaboration with John?
We did this project with Jackson Fledermaus where we got a U-Haul truck with art in it and drove around. We took it to some museums, a McDonald’s, places like that. Then we did these Wal-Mart interventions where we restock items on different shelves.
You would change the organization of things?
Yeah, like putting things that are bright pink in the girl’s toy aisle. Even if it’s radiator fluid or nail polish or anything.
Did you ever get caught?
No, never.
Right. It’s impossible to find anyone working at a Wal Mart.
And everything’s there. Sometimes we would get everything you need to make a Molotov cocktail. We would get all the bottles and lighter fluid and rags put  them together to make a little display.
What inspired these pieces?
Santa Clarita, where Cal Arts is, is all corporate chain stores and tract homes. I think a lot of that work was us responding to that environment.
What other pieces did you do with John?
Around that time we liked to give lemons to lots of people. We released ladybugs in corporate retail spaces.
How many?
1,200 or something.
That sounds pretty. Like, if there were 1200 ladybugs in my apartment right now that would be very pretty, right?
Yeah, it’d be gorgeous!
So you did the ladybug thing a couple times?
Yeah. We didn’t really make work in our studio but sometimes we would get asked for studio visits so we would take people on little tours. We’d take them to WalMart sometimes. One time we released the ladybugs in the car. We released them at LACMA at a Magritte and contemporary artist show.
The ladybugs were a recurring series.
Well the LACMA piece was the first time anyone wrote about anything we had done. The L.A. Times wrote about it. There was an “Associated Press” article. There was an NPR thing.
I feel like artworks like that lend themselves well to press.
Yeah, there was an L.A. Times article about the Eternal Telethon I was involved with. KCHUNG, the community artist radio station gets written about a lot as a concept. Nobody’s ever written an article about one specific show. Sometimes it’s the formats that people aren’t very familiar with so just talking about that is appealing and different. I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing. It’s cool seeing an idea trickle out while you stay anonymous.
It’s funny that your collaborator’s name is John Barlog. It’s easy to mistake for yours. I still don’t really know how to spell your last name. How did that start?
Me and John were in a show and the person had misspelled my name. I remember being in a really bad mood that day. It was this show on Hollywood Boulevard where there are a lot of head shops. We got a really ornate, elaborate bong and put it in a vitrine in the front window to make the gallery look kind of like a head shop. But I guess they didn’t get that so they wanted to put it in in the back and that made me grumpy. When they were going through the names and they asked if anybody’s name was misspelled I asked them to change it to make it misspelled worse. Then me and John started changing the way our names were spelled. One time it was like "Burgle" and "Barter."
So when people ask you how to actually spell your name you say...
You can spell it many ways. There’s a Damian Hirst quote where he says one of the best things an artist can do is establish their brand name. Changing my name might be a way to avoid that.
It makes it kind of hard to find you.
Or to see everything.
You leave a lot of loose threads.
I try to avoid people being able to get a whole picture of anything. Loose ends leave things for people to imagine  for themselves. Sometimes that’s better. Also, some things aren’t for everyone.
Well it’s spelled “B-i-r-t-l-e” in Sex Magazine. You told me tthat tattoo you have on your arm is a gallery you have with John Barlog. What’s the story with that?
We had wanted to do a tattoo piece for a little while. We’d also been thinking about creating a space for other people to do things in, which turned into the gallery with the arm project.
How do you put a gallery on an arm?
People just do things. It’s just a space, a surface. Sometimes people draw in it. Sometimes people attach things. Sometimes people do performances. Sometimes people put sculptures on it with glue or straps. We’ve also had a few screenings where work was projected.
Why did you call it a gallery? I kinda have different associations with that word.
I was really reluctant about that term for a long time. I thought that meant it was a commercial space, but now I don’t think that’s necessarily the thing. A lot of times I just say it’s a space for people to do things. We try to invite everybody that asks about it to do something in it. In general I think it’s good to make a thing and then develop a language to suit it.
How many shows did you do in the arm galleries?
We probably did 100 shows in the first two years. It was a good project for being in school and seeing the same people week after week. Shows still happen every once in a while, but not as much as they used to.
You have a lot of cool tattoos.
Most of them are on my left thigh. They’re all really small, about the size of a silver dollar. Then there’s a field of stars or little dots that kind of tie it all together.
Did you do any yourself?
I did a lot of the stars myself and a little pumpkin. My friend Marcos Siref tattooed most of them. He did a turtle and a rainbow that’s on the cover of the God Equals Genocide demo. It says “ja” here. My friend Anne has the same one.
What does “ja” mean?
It’s a lot of different things. It’s how laughing is written in Spanish - like “ha.” It’s “yes” in German. It’s our initials.
Your last name doesn’t start with an “a.”
No, but her first name does. I've also gotten three tattoos on the air on KCHUNG.This little freckle was part of a freckle exchange where everybody gave the next person a freckle tattoo. Then Guan Rong gave me this little heart.
How did you meet Guan?
I met Guan at school. We both lived in our studios and she would smoke inside a lot in the halls late at night. 
So you and Guan were kind of neighbors?
I mean, we lived on different floors. On the weekends she would go back to Monterey Park.
What was her art like in college?
She was doing mostly painting but also other things. She did this one piece I liked where she cut out a hole in a wall of a classroom and put the drywall in her studio. Then, maybe a month later, cut out a hole in her studio the same size and switched the drywall. There was just this hole for a couple months and then it was just this patched hole. She did another project where she sent out these letters that just said “Hi, my name is Guan. Nice to meet you. fuck” She gave one to every single student in the school mailboxes. Some people got really mad about that. I thought that was so cool.
Was her work something you could relate to?
It goes back to this idea of embodiment that John and I had been thinking about. Really living out a certain way of being. Trying to embody the work in everything you do.
Can you talk more about embodiment?
When I was living in my studio I didn’t have to deal with things like rent or having an apartment or job that would really complicate this idyllic lifestyle that we were developing. We were thinking about how the decisions that you make in your day-to-day life can embody or live out a certain type of art practice. Whatever that might be and seems right to you. It can extend to the choices about the food you eat.
But there actually is no set way of actual embodiment.
No, just like there is no one set way of making art. 
How did your radio show with Guan Start?
We had wanted to do more stuff together for a long time. When Solomon told me about  starting KCHUNG I really wanted to do a radio show with her. I just like the way she talks about things. She’s very expressive and uninhibited. I also hadn’t been seeing her regularly since school and thought this would be a good way to see her more often. We’ve been doing it almost every week for just over two years now.
And it’s always the both of you.
We don’t do it unless we’re both there. There was one show where Guan called in from a date. There was one where I forgot about the show and I was close by so she called me and I talked on the phone while I walked there. I think I went to a bar first and we talked on the phone more.
What was your first show?
Have you ever seen the Wikipedia page for all the different sounds in different languages? Like when we say  "mmmm" or "ouch",  different languages have different sounds. We talked about that. Expressive sounds. We also played a Dicks song from Youtube.
We felt really good about the first show so then we were congratulating ourselves. The next show we decided we should take it easy so we watched a movie on the air. We watched a scary movie because it was Halloween time.
Did you talk while you were watching the movie?
It didn’t work for a long time. We thought it was haunted.
Has there been a learning curve since you started doing you show?
I didn’t really know how to play a record at the start. There’s a show where we learned how to do that. That was like a big learning thing. 
So you kind of taught yourself about radio on that Nooooooo.
Yeah and tried out different things. But Guan never really got into the audio stuff as much.
Then you started doing Just Sayin’. I was really into how you would remix Ubu Web.
That was just a thing I would just do when people didn’t show up for their shows. I didn’t record them at the start. It started as finding stuff to put on but just became really fun to put together in different ways and see what things sound like together. As I started to do it more, I got more into thinking about what different pairings mean and different ways of doing it.
Sound art lends itself really well to radio. It makes it more accessible.
I would like it to be accessible because these things are interesting on their own, out of context. It’s with total respect that I put them together. It keeps it interesting for me to listen to, and hopefully for an audience too.
You’ve been involved in a project called Eternal Telethon. Can you tell me a bit about it?
The Eternal Telethon raises money to start a retirement home for artists.
How did it start?
I think people were talking about what they were going to do out of school.  A friend had said he was going to retire and I thought that was a really good answer so I started saying the same thing. Then I started thinking about retirement and was thinking “Oh damn, I don’t know how that’s gonna go down.”
I’ve heard it’s never too early to start planning for retirement. But do artists retire?
I like to say that we’re not retiring from making art, we’re retiring from everything else. So you just go to the Eternal Convalescent Home for Retired Artists and live out your golden years with other artists friends in an idyllic setting.
So the Eternal Telethon is an online broadcast?
It was right when U-Stream first came out, which was kind of exciting. It was one of the first projects I was involved with that live streamed on the internet. We just did a broadcast from Chad Dilley’s apartment.
How was it organized?
We tried to include a really wide range of artists and performance artists, thinking about people that could do different things. It was always performance for video.
Did they change from one to another?
We tried to shoot them in dramatically different venues. One was in a cave installation Akina Cox made that we said was on the moon. We did one under a blanket. We did one in a pool. We did them at art spaces but we also did them in living rooms. I think that is something that will stay with the project.
How serious of an organization is it?
It’s pretty loose… but we have a book-keeper.
Do you know where the retirement home is going to be?
We’ve always had the Salton Sea. It’s an accidental man-made lake that has high salinity partially because it’s drying up.  It’s all toxic and gross and and the water is orange. They just decided they’re gonna let it dry up but land out there is really cheap. One of the founders, Akina Cox, had just been through there when we were starting and it has been a good place to think and talk about doing things at.
Well the good thing is that you have time to figure it out.
Yeah, totally. I don’t want to be very serious about it now.