INTERVIEW WITH CLAIRE L. EVANS

December 6, 2011 · Print This Article

This interview is about and with Claire L. Evans, the Los Angeles-based artist and writer. Claire is, of course, engaged in a number of fields. Her most famous work is in the highly stylized and conceptualized “band, belief system and business” YACHT (which she leads with Jona Bechtolt), who happen to be playing at Chicago’s Lincoln Hall tonight. And while the timing of this feature is not accidental, this is only one facet of her creative and intellectual work, and the one to which the interview pays the least attention.

Her writing investigates, expresses and advances the intersects of art and science. Universe, a blog that has settled down with the ScienceBlogs network, is interested in the margins of science and in igniting imaginative inquiry into science-driven/drawn culture; Space Cannon is well summarized as a “project in science fiction self-education,” it’s personal, immersive and reveals a deep love the subject matter; finally, there is the ambitious New Art/Science Affinities, a project co-written (in a week!) by Andrea Grover, Régine Debatty and Pablo Garcia and designed by Luke Bulman and Jessica Young of Thumb as part of a weeklong book sprint instigated by Carnegie Mellon’s Miller Gallery and STUDIO for Creative Inquiry. The work is available as a free pdf at the Miller Gallery’s website.

Claire’s work is brainy and breezy, unafraid of personal asides and excited to revel in the beauty and insanity of a sometimes awkwardly-hewn natural, digital and cultural world. The works are concept-driven and reveal an interest in science both as subject and mode of aesthetic inquiry.

Modern Warfare is a single take/life inside of the video game of the same name in which the first person shooter systematically destroys every screen in his/her/its path. It’s a great video and one in a growing series of pieces in which cultural workers engage a video game space for “shooting.” I had fun imagining the video game character with full agency, existing in this world, thinking about how many screens there are, being driven by his/her/its iPhone, aching for the smell of a real book, for the sound of a needle on vinyl and whatever other real world, sensorial pleasures screens seem to have snatched from us, only to remember by the end that his/her/its whole existence is predicated on screens. This is one of many instances in your work in which y/our complicated relationship with technology is laid bare, or, rather, heightened for metaphoric, aesthetic and comedic effect.

To be honest, I have a knee-jerk reaction to the rhetoric of analog nostalgia. I hate it when people say that they just miss the smell of books. I find it so reductive. I love “real” books (funny that we even need to qualify the word) and prefer to read on paper for both practical and sentimental reasons, but the point is that the smell of books hasn’t gone anywhere–nor has the warmth of the vinyl record, or the charming crackle of the cassette tape. None of the analog pleasures have stopped existing, and no one is being forced into a life of slavery to the screen. Complaining of missing real-world experiences is so defeatist; people who feel reality is being snatched away from them are precisely the people those who don’t grasp onto what makes them happy, even in a world whose tools have outpaced them. Modern Warfare is about the absurdity of fighting the climate of technology that envelops us, or of looking down on the soporific nature of violent video games. It’s an impossible object, kind of an ouroboros: the gamer, the “guy,” who is both the player and a puppet controlled by the player, attempts to annihilate the dead mirrors all around him, but he can’t escape the medium, only discover its boundaries, which define what he is.

I’m fascinated by the open-ended nature of the contemporary game environment, how much it allows you to dérive…

I have a friend who is a dedicated gamer, and I often explore with him. We look for the edges of the maps, the places where obstacles and “masking systems” (industry term) politely turn you away from a real glimpse at the yawning digital void beyond the grid of the game’s world. Once, while playing Grand Theft Auto, we managed to make our character swim in the ocean, away from the game, for half an hour of repetitive grey water before he died. I like calmly driving through the cityscapes of racing games, adhering to traffic laws. I’ve been playing L.A. Noire recently, which is a monumental digital landscape saturated in hyperreal historical details. From what I understand, it’s a perfectly authentic built world, consistent in its physics, constructed from the ground up. There is so much freedom! I don’t see a huge leap from this to Cronenberg’s eXistenZ. The difference is hardware, and the amount of sensory realism. We just need to swim a little longer through the vectors of the uncanny sea.

Let’s talk about your interest in science fiction. It seems that the elemental difference between sci-fi and other types of fiction–which is to assume that all fiction is, by its very nature, speculative–is the era it’s set in and the degree to which new technologies, knowledges, etc. play a role in this diegetic reality. Can you talk a bit about how your (creative) work relates to this–or another–notion of science fiction?

I could–and perhaps someday will–write unreadable academic theses on the subject of science fiction. You’ve gone straight to the issue by pointing out that all fiction is speculative. The difference between science fiction and fiction, unghettoized, is something kind of undefinable in its critical stance. Perhaps that it feels implicitly comfortable dealing with a broader here and now. It’s unafraid of overburdening itself with too wide a scope: the entire universe is its playing ground. It regularly and cannily addresses issues of real importance to our world: the nature of reality, of identity and personhood, of the ramifications of our actions on the larger holistic systems of which we are a part. It also has an anarchist streak and a fascination with the abject that I really relate to. It’s difficult to tell what effect my love of science fiction has on my work, save to say it’s the intellectual “school” of my approach, and that I ultimately strive to make something that might make a person feel the way I felt when David Bowman gazes into the black obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey and proclaims, “The thing’s hollow—it goes on forever—and—oh my God—it’s full of stars!”

You made a series of a videos a few years ago dealing with digital decay. You recently re-visited the theme, this time further literalizing the drony/meditative aspects of the earlier work through the use of the ubiquitous “spinning beach ball” as a third eye.

This is striking because, assuming I’m not reading into this too deeply, it connects the temporary technological paralysis the beach ball signifies with the state of emptiness and at-one-ness meditation promises/provides. Will you indulge us with an idea of what artificial (intelligence’s) enlightenment would look/feel like? Is the essentializing/concentrating of digital compression helpful in conceiving of human spirituality, of our own essences?

God, what a huge question. I made those Digital Decay videos during my first art residency, at the Espy Foundation, in coastal Washington. They were a reaction to the Douglas Davis essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction,” which argues that unlike analog signals, which are like waves crashing on a beach and losing clarity with every ebb of the tide, digital bits “can be endlessly reproduced, without degradation, always the same, always perfect.”

I was interested in replicating analog visual qualities by purely digital processes, in this case, saving files in progressively lower-quality formats over hundreds of times, then animating the result.

Later I began thinking about technology differently: not as something to be molded, but something which molds the user. The Internet actually makes our brains work differently; I wonder what the spirituality of the future will look like. I’m not talking about the Singularity–I just feel that as the digital plasma encroaches the edges of our skull, meditation will become a tool for survival.

Throughout your work, you engage with splintered digital/physical realities in a way that is both poignant and humorous. In the end, it seems you’ve struck some level of a comfortable balance. YACHT has a strong internet presence while insisting on creating well-designed and striking physical objects; YACHT tours constantly and onstage fuses technology with old-fashioned, costumed human physical performance; the new book is free online as a pdf but also exists as a tangible, thoughtfully produced (and printed on-demand) object. Is there a point at which we stop marveling at technology’s encroachment into the “real world” or will we constantly be impressed, enamored and terrified of/by new technologies? Has maintaining an artistic and performance practice that keeps you in the world, interacting with humans on both a human and grand scale helped to normalize what might become an otaku/cyborg life?

Interacting with humans isn’t something that keeps me in the world–it’s the essence of what I do. YACHT manifests itself in a lot of ways, print, design, recording, text, but it’s at its most pure in the moment of touch, in the performance. YACHT is an experiment in contact, in which we use every tool at our disposal to viscerally communicate. Technology is a way to extend our reach as much as manufacturing physical objects. Having the feedback mechanism of the band-fan relationship is a tactile way to keep us honest and motivated. It’s a little less clear with my other practice(s), of course. Blogging is basically howling into the void, but the echoes still cycle back and hit me once in a while.

Do you believe that art can be transcendent? Humor? Science?

Of course. I firmly believe that art and science come from the exact same position of initial, preternatural awe at the universe. When a force hits, you either move with it, absorbing its energy, or you push back. Art and science are just different approaches to the force of mystery: artists question and experiment, while scientists aspire to parse and decode. They’re both transcendent because they both begin with inherently spiritual questions about the nature of existence.

I think we’re the same age. I visited L.A. a number of times as a kid to visit my cousins and always had a great time, because I love my cousins and was excited to be doing anything, whenever. Then I endured years of anti-L.A. vitriol on the east coast and in San Francisco. When I finally had the chance to experience the city as a grown up, I fell very much in love. You (guys) just recently moved (back) to L.A. and, around the same time, made (at least) two works relating to Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Under the Bridge. This made instant sense for me, as I’m moved to sing the song as soon as I smell smog. Perhaps you can fill in the spaces of why this song fits a certain age’s concept of L.A. so well. Or, if you’d prefer, perhaps you can talk about these two pieces, whether you envision them as part of a larger body of work or working in congress.

L.A. Painting, in particular, is a striking piece that seems more to echo negative aspects of L.A. life–the smog, the car culture, the trash–but transposes them in a transcendent, transfixing, and straight-up trancy mode.

“Under the Bridge” is the “Hotel California” of our generation. It speaks to something about L.A. that most people find disdainful, but the love letter to Los Angeles, the combination of profound regret and sincere gratefulness for the city…it kills me. California represents something hugely important in American consciousness; I often say that if there were a recessionary war, I’d fight and die in the trenches for the state of California. I guess I feel compelled to make work about L.A. because it’s informed my sensibility of beauty. Everything beautiful in L.A. is fucked up somehow, sunsets marred by telephone poles, the constant trailing presence of what I call “L.A. Garbage” (Del Taco cups, escort ads, shreds of plastic, dead plants, cigarette butts, piñata chunks, balls of aluminum foil), Halloween decorations strung up on palm trees. That’s what L.A. Painting is about: the raw materials of the city displayed within the ultimate frame of Angeleno perception, the windshield. The idea was to let L.A. paint itself.

I like how, in Los Angeles, there’s no sense of “outside” or “inside,” how you rarely ever have to adapt to the ecosystems of the space around you–you just ramble on. It feels always-already fictional, like it’s just “location,” and it feels science fictional, somehow, too; downtown is like a cyberpunk Bablylon, and the massive infrastructural monoliths of the city’s failed urban plans are like “Big Dumb Objects” in void space. I’m certainly not the first person to feel something powerful about this city, to find transcendence in the amplitude of its shittiness. “Under the Bridge” seems to get at the root all of this.

This new publication, New Art/Science Affinities, is a wonderful achievement. In addition to being well written and designed, with lots of fascinating information, it took a pretty fascinating road to development. It was written in a “book sprint,” a concept indebted to FLOSS Manuals and the participants in Collaborative Futures at the last two transmediales, but also to the idea of code sprinting in which, basically, a group of people sit down together and collaboratively write a book in a short amount of time.

Beyond how exciting it is for ten people to make a book in a week, I’m interested in you discussing the process, what it meant for the content, why it might be useful for works that are meant as surveys of a field, how it might operate for more purely aesthetic ventures, or ventures with a more distinct “personality,” how it compares to being in a band and the significance of drawing from coders to make a book about (relatively) contemporary art-science intersects.

Thank you. As a writer, it’s difficult to sever the ego enough to actually revoke singular control over a text. But for this project, which was an attempt to document an emergent form of art practice in a micro-encyclopedic tome, the collective energy of a group was necessary. It really is about energy. It’s extraordinarily exciting to see text appear in a networked document, seemingly from nowhere. We had moments of kinetic, feverish work that were ecstatic, and that pushed us through the difficult parts of the week. Booksprints fill the gap between the traditional authorial model of previous century and the self-navigating push-button collectivism of what the teenagers are building in front of us. It’s controlled crowdsourcing, curatorial anonymity–an alternative process suited not only for a new generation of readers, but for the documentation of rapidly changing media, movements, and places in time. The experience is modern, a little uncanny, but it still offers the satisfaction of having created something of substance, a real object, in the end.

I’d like to see the booksprinting model applied to other texts; my group is (hopefully) reconvening next year to make a field guide for electronic arts, but I can see it functioning in a purely aesthetic sense, as well, as long as the participants resonate with one another. It seems endlessly adaptable, as it’s basically “jamming” for writers.

INTERVIEW WITH JACQUELINE GOSS

November 15, 2011 · Print This Article

In 1934 a weather observatory positioned on New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington measured the highest wind speeds ever recorded on the earth’s surface. 231 mph. It would seem the recorded record has recently been broken, but I don’t think that makes the idea of 231 mph wind gusts (even one) any less terrifying. The Mt. Washington Weather Observatory is unique not simply because of the close eye it keeps on some of the world’s worst weather but also because it was first of its kind and remains one of the few observatories to maintain such a human presence. It is also the site for Jacqueline Goss‘ newest and longest film to date, The Observers. Jackie has been making fascinating, research-driven (mostly) animated essay films and new media works for more than a decade that have screened widely and received positive, thoughtful attention. In each, she evinces a strong interest in the ways codes and maps and systems of measurement shape our human experience. Her interests lie at the intersection of the quantitative and the sublime while her wry, trenchant intellect serves as an able guide through these strange, conflicting worlds. I encourage readers to become viewers (and stay readers) with both the 100th Undone and There There Square, embedded beneath the interview.
The Observers, though, is different. Or, at least, it looks different. It’s more than an hour long, it was shot on color 16 mm film, it’s peopled by something approaching actors and it exists very much in the real world. There are shared themes, certainly, but Jackie’s personality is less palpable in it, sharing space with her collaborators and the sheer might of natural phenomena. The film’s insistence on observation allows us long (and longing) glimpses at human labors, modes of measurement, the tasks of observation, an observer’s connections with others and others’ times, isolation, the natural spectacle, hints of narrativity and the cyclicality of years, of weathers. If that feels like a list, it is one written on a möbius strip and has room for many more inscriptions.
For those of us who have followed your work for a while, this may feel like a departure of sorts. Not too long ago I described (the bulk of) your work as “research-driven, animated documentaries and essay films.” This film, however, looks and feels very different. It’s shot on 16 mm, there are real people playing other real people in it, there’s almost no animation at all (and when there is it feels like the camera has simply rested on these images as it has on other “data visualizations” such as a thermometer) and your own presence feels displaced by that of a camera. Can you talk a bit about this shift?
Well, a lot of it has to do with having a kid which made me feel somewhat isolated and longing for a collaborative adventure with people I trusted and admired artistically. Having a baby also killed off part of my brain too, I think, and made my previous work feel kind of “book report-y.” I wanted to make something that appealed to the senses first with the brainy stuff maybe a little more in the background. Having said that, I don’t think it’s a huge departure: like most of my work, it’s still about the ways humans and their measuring systems come up against an immeasureably complicated and idiosyncratic world.

I think animation is very interior, very connected to writing for me and live-action is always, on some level, a documentary– something happens in front of a camera that is documented. I expect I’ll go back to animation soon, but this project was so much about waiting for something to happen, to point the camera at the land and sky and wait for it to perform in some surprising way and it always did. In Stranger Comes To Town I was starting to get to that by using World of Warcraft and I’d like to find other ways of courting the unexpected in animation.

The film is very much about isolation, about the solitary work of scientists measuring, tracking and bearing witness to unbelievably difficult weather conditions. What about the intersections of human labor and the intensity of this landscape made this subject so interesting to you? This is to say, why not a film about Mt. Washington without people?
Mount Washington, NH and the Weather Observatory interest me particularly because I grew up in the shadow of that mountain and WEATHER is the ur-text for people I grew up around. When I started talking to the real observers who work there, I was surprised by how differently their narrative of the mountain differed from mine. For instance, the world record for highest wind speed ever on the planet was held by Mt Washington until just two years ago. A month after we finished shooting, a typhoon in Australia took the record. I was bummed out about it, having lost this little bit of notoriety but the observers seemed to feel ok about it — their line was “We’re just glad someone was there to get the data.” I realized their narrative is on one level much more quotidian than mine — they’re thinking about the micro: changes from hour to hour in wind speed, pressure, visibility, temperature — but also much longer: they know the mountain and its weather is going to be around a lot longer than we are and that gives them a certain perspective. I feel like that’s part of what the film is about.
One strand that seems to run through all of your work (most of which, Chicagoans should note, can be found at Video Data Bank) is an interest in different types of measurement, in codes and in the ways subtle and not so subtle boundaries and data affect people. Can you describe your interest in measurement, the aesthetics of data and so forth?
I never really formed a philosophy about this stuff but it just seems to have become the dominant refrain of my work. I think it may be something very basic about my temperament: that I long to know and experience the unquantifiable, but am also pleased and comforted by order and information. I don’t think I’m alone in that- it’s probably a tenet of being human. I do love stories about people who try to quantify, measure, and map but get their goals messed up by all the color and noise of the world.

In the production notes for the film you note (happily) that Dani Leventhal performs without affect and later you consider how to compose shots to avoid the feeling of artificiality. You also mention that you “fear telegraphing emotion!” I’m hoping you might expand on these concepts a little and describe, now that the work is complete, how you feel about the balances you’ve struck between artifice or construction and observation.
I’m pretty happy with it. There’s a shot in the film of Dani in bad and her eyes sort of travel up. All I did is hold my finger in front of her face and move it up and said, “Watch this.” That’s about an emotional as I let her get. When my Mom watched the movie and saw that shot, she said “Good acting!” So I felt like I had gotten something right. I do feel like the pitch is right. My least favorite experience as a film viewer is watching someone like Sean Penn go to town on a scene emotionally while the narrative grinds to a halt. I’m way more into Bresson’s approach where the actor doesn’t act, and the filmmaker has to bring the emotional cadence to the scene by making choices about light, composition, sound, and duration.
Still, I’m no Bresson and there are little moments in The Observers that make me flinch. I wish Katya Gorker didn’t frown quite as much (though that’s kind of what her face does!)
Many people have asked why we didn’t just use the real observers but instead used “actors.” Part of it was just the practicality of not wanting to bug them –they’re pretty busy. But it also gave me much more control to try things out. Obviously the stuff with the box is a fiction for instance. And I wanted to have some sort of fictional tension between the two observers even though they never meet.
Relatedly, you mention the notion of editing that is “often predictable (in an avant-garde fashion).” There are a variety of what we might call experimental or avant-garde techniques that filmmakers use much in the same way a conventional film might use their own codes. I think some of these reflect more a shared interest in, say, observation or in a slowed pacing (or, conversely, in an ecstatic, incomprehensible mesmerism) than they do a reliance on specific techniques to telegraph the work’s “experimental” characteristics. How important to you is it that these techniques be used in unpredictable ways? To what degree do these aesthetic signifiers help to situate viewers and their experiences such that, in this case, they don’t angrily require a less oblique narrative or are able to maintain a heightened criticality with regard to the veracity of the images?
Well I think you’re asking how do you pace it so people don’t get pissed off by the duration of the shots or have too much time to consider what’s fake about it? You’re right — some people hate this film because it’s a “nothing happens” film I love “nothing happens” films but I often tire of the predictability of the edit. For instance, I remember watching James Benning’s “8 1/2 x 11″ and, even though I love that film, I could predict every single edit point. Character leaves frame. Beat. Cut.
That’s OK — but I wanted to try not to do that — It’s hard! Kelly Reichardt helped me a lot by looking a early cuts of The Observers and pointing out every time I did it. If every shot or scene has the same arc, it’s fatiguing.


(an excerpt from The Observers)

The Observers is showing, on a loop, in the Sullivan Galleries here in Chicago until the 19th. Though the film functions cyclically enough that one could watch it twice in a row and find interesting intersections between the seasons, their observers and our own observations (and is bookended visually by these physical, home address style numbers on the observation deck), it’s over an hour long and does have a specific thrust. Can you talk about this mode of exhibition and, more broadly, how you want your work to be experienced?
Originally I did conceive of it as a loop– that you wouldn’t know which came first: winter or summer. The knots-tying and the drawing of the knots got reduced a lot in the edit, but if a viewer looks carefully you see that D’s knots are there when Katya is drawing, and you see K’s drawing when D is tying. So somehow they are communicating and it’s impossible to know which came first. The data interlude kind of stymies that read because it is so linear. But I love that it’s showing as a loop because that’s the real narrative of the mountain and what they do.
The cast and crew for this film are very small. It comes as no surprise given your background and milieu that your cinematographer Jesse Cain is also an experimental filmmaker or that your sound recordist/composer Holland Hopson‘s other work can be situated within an avant-garde context, but why did you choose two moving image makers as your on-camera talent?
Well these are four people I like and admire so much and wanted to work with. I didn’t set out to “cast” filmmakers — Dani and Katya just seemed right to me tempermentally and physically — I knew they could handle the mountain and they both are so interesting-looking to me. It also meant I didn’t have to explain so much what I wanted — they just got it. Dani especially just always did the right thing at the right time with her body. In Walter Murch’s book In the Blink of an Eye, he talked about how Gene Hackman always intuited the edit as an actor and blinked where the shot should end. Dani’s kind of like that. She just “got” the pace of it.
Finally, if you could, please describe the shooting conditions of the film. I literally put on a second pair of socks when re-watching the work because the howl of the wind was making me shiver. Reading the production notes imbues the film with a kind of heroic quality. Was the intensity of the process an important component of your return to photographically-based image making?
Maybe more important to a return to collaborative filmmaking. I wanted us all to experience something together, to be stuck somewhere together, and to have to help and trust each other. In the winter stuff, we were rarely cold because we were prepared, but the wind was so overwhelming, we had to scream at each other or gesture to each other to make ourselves understood. It was hard, hard work but thrilling. Sometimes we’d scream at how beautiful the sky was. In some way the summer was harder because there were more people around and it kind of ruined the romance of isolation, but we knew that would happen and that’s part of the film. But we were still a team. At one point Jesse got sick and we had to rally and carry on without him. At that moment, I was super glad I had three other capable artists with me. I hope to work with all of them again I’m ready to carry somebody else’s tripod through 80 mph wind!

Jesse Malmed is brand new to Chicago. This is his second blog post for Bad at Sports. His activities as an artist and curator can be tracked at www.jessemalmed.net.