It's the day before Christmas Eve, and Bethany Shorb is hunkered down in her parents' condo, just outside Tampa, Fla. She steps outside for this conversation, but before making her exit whispers, "I'm in a bunker."
Florida's cold today, at least the wind is, she reports. Outside, kids are shouting and the 33-year-old Shorb, an East Coast artist who planted roots in Detroit a decade ago, takes a louder stab at the digs: "It's a totally surreal semi-retirement community — definitely off my radar." I know little of Shorb, but I get the feeling that if she's going to be this cold, she'd rather be standing on a Manhattan corner at some ungodly hour, smoking a cigarette, taking a photo of whatever. Maybe she'd even rather be home in Detroit. But now the punk-lean, post-goth chick stands outside the monotone pre-fab, full of holiday spirit: "I'm shivering with the palm trees, freezing my tits off."
It's a weird Christmas for her this year. Her family had been in the same Connecticut town for generations and then her parents moved to the Sunshine State, a place Shorb can't connect with.
See, her artwork has historic ingredients, from Victorian to Cold War. Through Catholic flagellants, gas masks, early 20th century typewriters, quaint doilies and re-contextualized latex, we can connect the influence of some kind of New England heritage, but we can also see what 10 years of living in post-industrial Detroit might do to an artist. Family aside, snowbird Florida is void of inspiration.
Then again, as New York Times writer Rob Walker pointed out of Shorb's swine flu-inspired work, "Design inspired by pandemic paranoia is one way for style rebels to reject the traditional necktie." So who knows, maybe she could uncover something sardonic in shuffleboard, putting greens and decaf. Funny, too, that her graphic silk ties that just made Martha Stewart — in Shorb's words — "practically orgasm" on live television are the same men's accoutrements trend-setting publications such as Wired, Bust and BPM have all raved about. Perhaps Martha, America's matriarchal gangsta, is hipper than her mom-jeans would suggest.
How this high-brow gallery girl ended up a Detroit DethLab DJ and "Prada Goth" strangler of 20,000 necks is something of a tale.
In Shorb's high school days, a 45-minute train ride stood between her and Manhattan. And, unbeknownst to Mom and Dad, she was a regular on that line. She played sports in school but couldn't jive with the jocks, those types who, she figures, were skeptical of her dyed coif. Forget hanging with the nerds; she was too much of a freak. She was wild — which was just another word for artistic motivation — so there was no befriending the burnouts.
On those frequent Manhattan trips, however, Shorb investigated galleries and discovered art schoolers with whom she could "vibe."
She was a "normal little goth kid" before she got to Boston University, where she studied art rigorously and discovered techno. "It's one of the most old-school academies around. We were doing nine hours of figure study a day," Shorb says. "But I wanted to round out my education with something more conceptual and Cranbrook was as opposite a school as I could find."
At the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Shorb got the education she craved, but was let down to discover the aspirations of her fellow students. "I'd romanticized that I was always going to be a gallery artist," Shorb says. "When I got to grad school, I was surprised to find that so many students were in school to become art school teachers — there to learn to produce more art school teachers."
Cranbrook's formal schooling was great, but Detroit proper opened her eyes (and ears). "As much as I thought knew about electronic music, I was a newb," Shorb says. "I didn't know how much techno came out of Detroit. We're weird on the coasts — we're snobs. It's embarrassing. There's some pretty rad stuff going on in Detroit and I didn't know the scope of it till I got there; I didn't know what I was missing. ..."
Shorb says Cranbrook grad students were somewhat sheltered from Detroit during her years there ('99-'01). "Students get out more these days, but when I was there most kids didn't get down to Detroit more than once in the two years they lived here. For them, making Detroit a permanent post-school home wasn't a consideration."
But Shorb did. And she watched her fellow student artists move back in with their parents or relocate to New York or Los Angeles and take crap jobs "in the name of art" just to make rent. There wasn't enough time or space for them to actually work on their art. After she received her MFA, Cranbrook offered her a part-time Web-designer gig. "I made enough money to live, but I had enough time throughout the week to spend making art — I thought that was a pretty good deal," Shorb reckons. "That's why I stayed."
The decision was solid. Shorb found a musical voice here. In fact, her circuit-bending noise under the ToyBreaker moniker took her around the country, and in 2005 Shorb and fiance Michael Doyle (Dorkwave, Burnlab) formed the experimental techno set DethLab. They've since become a Detroit staple, performing at the official DEMF '09 kick-off event with the Prodigy this past summer.
Not long after Dethlab began killing it at night, Shorb launched a "daytime" project, one that hinged on illustration, graphic design and fashion. The trained sculptor, welder, photographer and fashionator had once sworn she'd be a lifelong gallery artist. Exhibiting regularly around the country for the better half of the last decade, it's a promise she has kept. But in 2006, Shorb went commercial, founding the Cyberoptix Tie Lab. That's right, neckties. From her downtown studio, Shorb operates one of the largest eco-friendly, solvent-free print shops in the country. She's personally hand-screened more than 20,000 free-trade "ties that don't suck."
Shorb is split in two. One side sees her commercial, albeit artful, tie business; the other, her contemporary visual work. She fits music in somewhere between. Cyberoptix has been a success, she says. So she's headed into the new year with a sharper focus on fine art. In just the last few months, she's taken part in several exhibitions, including a sizable group show at the Devotion Gallery in New York. She says balancing these two sides is only "kind of insane." In a recent group show at the Gallery Project in Ann Arbor, she displayed "Atmospheric/Pressures," a collection of subverted Victorian garb fashioned from Cold War-era military weather balloons. Picture Guinevere as a dominatrix in space, or Anne of Green Gables set on the planet Arrakis from Dune.
When it comes to working with latex-like material, "Cat suits are great," says Shorb, who's no stranger to kinky themes. "But I wanted to do something entirely different with the material, take it out of the fetish world and add a series of drapes and folds to achieve a Victorian feel."
She approaches her re-imagined neckties with the same inventive spirit, but they are decidedly more accessible. She takes the universal symbol of workplace conformity and turns it into a stylish middle finger. The woman is full of contradictions. "But I think that's what people like about my work," she says. "I take objects usually met with ire and make something that people can enjoy in a different way."
Tracking success by numbers is easy, but Shorb says it's hard to predict what designs work and which don't, as the artist's vintage bent gets lost on her audience sometimes. Take "Sommelier," a new tie from the Cyberoptix 2010 line. It features a vintage wine-tasting cup that only a rich wino or some Antique Road Show aficionado might recognize. "I felt like all the wine lovers would get it," Shorb says. "Maybe some blogger out in Napa will get a hold of it, and I'll get a vineyard that'll buy a hundred of them. Who knows? It's like people have to be told what to buy."
While trendsetting bloggers dictate the flow of boxes Shorb ships — even after Martha Stewart and New York Times coverage — local business is a different beast altogether. Though Shorb says she'd like to burrow further into the Detroit art scene in the coming year, Cyberoptix biz doesn't look to be the vehicle she'll use.
"I've had such a global success shipping stuff online that I haven't had to go busting down neighbors' doors. I don't do the craft fair thing, either — it's not worth it to me to take time away from the studio for a day-and-a-half to go set up somewhere else." Cyberoptix ties can be found on racks as far away as Australia and as close to home as the City Bird boutique in Detroit's Cass Corridor, but the majority of the sales go down on the Cyberoptix homepage or at the online handmade marketplace, Etsy.com.
"The two sites have completely different customers," Shorb says. "I had a better idea of what was working and what wasn't before they both had as much traffic, but now it's too hard. As soon as I'm about to kill off a design, some blogger will post about it, then in come a bunch of orders." Cyberoptix does some custom orders too. Just don't ask for pastels. "If I could have everything be black and red on black, or black on black, with black — and black — that's probably how I'd do it," Shorb says. Hey, old goths die hard.
Cyberoptix is also a costume design outfit and a photography studio, both headed by Shorb. The artist produces (and sometimes stars in) highly stylized photo shoots. They're chromatically composed with red, white and black, conceptually so with lust and danger. Don't look for restraint; her work depends on worlds that don't exist. In a recent series titled "Car Crash," a sexy, vampirillic couple on a bender meet their demise in a red sports car. Shards of red rubies (Swarovski crystals) and gleaming streams of black goo (inflated latex) spill from the wounded lovers like blood. Enter the ominous priest. Of eight photos in the series, two show Cyberoptix ties, and only one prominently. It's more about the attitude. If you dig one, you'll like the other.
With a decade in Detroit, Shorb says she sees herself in the city for years to come. She says she values the rise of the maker community (creative DIY quasi-capitalists) in recent years and the sense of connection to neighbors she didn't have in the past.
"I've been in the same building in Detroit on Gratiot for almost eight years and we have this amazing garden outside in the back yard — it's something the neighborhood's proud of," Shorb says. "There's all of these artists taking over spaces and keeping them up, people are watching over each other. Instead of all these strong individuals only interested in doing their own thing, you have all these strong individuals coming together."
One friend, who took off to NYC after grad school, just relocated to Detroit. He wasn't the first in Shorb's national network to make the move, either. She thinks that with the recent attention from national media on Detroit, there are more on the way.
Shorb says the reactions from her out-of-town buds (most of whom are artists) upon hearing what she pays for rent, is something of a spectacle — every time. But she hurriedly adds: "I don't want to be seen as someone who wants to live somewhere else and is just in Detroit for the cheap rent. I want to stick around."
With her parents now in Florida, Shorb's felt a sense of homelessness, that she's just "stayed in places" and hasn't lived in them. There's an audible wind that's whipping into her phone and the vacation kids can still be heard playing in the background. The dada-ish-cum-cyberpunk Bethany Shorb is still cold. "I wish they'd shut up so I could think for a minute," she says with a brisk snap. Then she pauses, shifts gears and lets her guard down for one introspective moment, sounding as if she's talking to herself: "I think Detroit is my home now."
Travis R. Wright is arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
Bethany Shorb's Cyberoptix Tie Lab 2010 preview and photo exhibition is 6 p.m. Friday, Jan. 15, at 323East, 323 E. Fourth St.; 866-756-6538 or 323east.com.