The Link to Reality Stretches but Doesn’t Break: An Interview with Jesse McLean

January 17, 2012 · Print This Article

Jesse McLean’s work as a filmmaker and artist is deeply engaged in issues of spectatorship, empathy, and the televisual and cinematic experiences that forge these connections. I first became aware of Jesse’s work when I saw her video The Eternal Quarter Inch at the late PDX Festival. I was completely taken by the work. It was elegant and intelligent, simultaneously wry and sincere, and, most of all, the way it was paced and the atmospheres it created felt both sophisticated and highly personal. I have since spent a great deal more time with her work (both through her website and the invaluable Video Data Bank) and have found a continuation of these initial themes and impulses. Her art continues to deepen as it broadens.

Her work has been shown widely at spaces like Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, threewalls, Venice Film Festival, Migrating Forms at Anthology Film Archives, Director’s Lounge in Berlin, FLEX, Chicago Underground Film Festival, LUMP gallery/projects and Space 1026 and won the Overkill Award at the 2011 Images Festival and the Barbara Aronofsky Latham Award for Emerging Experimental Video Artist at the 2010 Ann Arbor Film Festival. the Next week her newest film Remote will be showing at the prestigious International Film Festival Rotterdam. Magic for Beginners is in competition at the Stuttgart Filmwinter Festival and will also screen as part of Transmediale in Berlin, Germany. In February she will be installing a version of Remote in the Front Room space at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis. She has a residency at the Wexner Center in Columbus, OH in March where she plans to continue production on a new piece. She lives and works in Chicago and teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Can you say a bit about your background? What got you interested in this type of moving image production? What kinds of work were you making at 18? 25?

I got interested in filmmaking through my mother, who had studied art and filmmaking and also through my friend Sonia Yoon. Sonia encouraged me to take my first filmmaking class in high school. At that time I was convinced I’d be an animator. I attended Oberlin College and studied art, which didn’t include video or media at the time so I spent my junior year in New York City, working at a production house that specialized in children’s television commercials and attending New York University. I was also exposed to independent cinema and art house cinema. I watched a lot of Jim Jarmusch films, which I think is evidenced by my aesthetic choices at that time. I was shooting black and white, 16mm reversal and editing­ on a Steenbeck. After school I worked in the movie industry in an effort to learn more about cinema. I’m not sure that happened but I learned a lot about what I didn’t want to do. I’m certain this directly contributed to my interest in appropriation.

Eventually I found my way back to Pittsburgh and took more classes at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, which has this rich history of supporting and promoting Avant-garde cinema. It was only then, in my mid-twenties that I became exposed to this entire other world of filmmaking and art. I had seen some Len Lye films in college and mistakenly stumbled into Dog Star Man, which I had no context for, but that was about it.

Those years in Pittsburgh were formative for me. I used to attend this microcinema called Jefferson Presents, run by friends of mine, and that was the beginning of my education in experimental film history. I was still shooting actual film and I didn’t even know how to edit video. I only learned about video reluctantly as a potential job skill. In Pittsburgh I also reconnected with Jacob Ciocci, who I knew from college and was now attending Carnegie Mellon for grad school. He showed me a tape his art collective Paper Rad had made and it really inspired me to start mixing sources and embrace my undeniable interest in popular culture.

Can you describe your process for making works like the Bearing Witness Trilogy and Magic for Beginners? Are there certain ideas you’re trying to express or moods you’re trying to achieve and then you seek the footage? Or, more commonly, do the themes and ideas of the pieces reveal themselves through the process of seeking footage, editing it and watching and re-watching?

I usually begin with an idea, often it’s an incredibly broad theme, like fandom or fear, and then I look for material and ways to make it more specific. Sometimes I’ll encounter material that gets the ball rolling. For example, I’d had the idea for the elimination breakdown sequence in Somewhere only we know for at least two years before I started that piece. It wasn’t until I saw on the news that an earthquake had disrupted a taping of Judge Judy and Big Brother that I got interested in actually making the piece.

Magic for Beginners always felt like a bit of a self-portrait, that’s why I thought to use my school pictures. Initially the Heidi footage was conceived as another method of self-portraiture, but the footage operated differently. Heidi becomes more the mediated protagonist, offering up an emotional response to everything the narrators are talking about, basically being lulled in and subsequently let down by media.

The actual Heidi tape is incredibly corny, but there is this amazing dream sequence where Heidi runs towards the camera with her arms outstretched. The camera is retreating and the shadow of the cameraperson running away from her is visible on the grassy field. She wakes up before she can be embraced. For me this image is the heart of the piece, it really summed up everything I was going for.

You use a number of techniques that in the hands of other makers sometimes constitute a whole work—I’m thinking about the YouTube-originated fan renditions of My Heart Will Go On or the montage of reality television contestants awaiting their “moment of truth”—but you incorporate them into larger, fuller works. The videos of which those sequences are a part have interesting and satisfying trajectories.

Collage is very appealing to me. Actually, art is appealing because it allows for encyclopedic thinking and a blending of disparate interests. In Somewhere only we know, the piece that features the reality television contestants being eliminated, I knew that I could make a piece composed of just those scenes that would be conceptually tight and broadly appealing. I struggled against that impulse, though. You can see lots of terrific super cuts on YouTube. Not to be dismissive because those edits are great but I hope that my work can go to other places beyond clever arrangement. I wanted the piece to become more complicated because I was more concerned with the way emotions are played out both onscreen and within the home viewer than highlighting elimination scenes. I also wanted to blend different portrayals of reality, that’s why the POV footage of someone running across a field is mixed with the footage ripped from cable and the Internet. Not only did collaging those sources allow me to confuse the identity of the protagonist but also it begins to unseat a familiar viewing position. The footage I shot seems less real that the codified reality shows.

You seem to be interested in empathy and in the role televisual culture can play in both forging and denying empathy.

Empathy is the most important human characteristic and the closest way we have to understanding another person’s experience. Most of the worst things we do to one another arise from a lack of empathy. Empathy in media, especially pop culture media, is thorny territory, not just because there is so much manipulation and stylization but also because we develop relationships with idealized versions of ourselves, creations that are both glorified and vilified. Are the relationships unreal because the creations are fictive? Even if the developed relationship is questionable, is the emotion ingrained somehow also invalid?

I’m fascinated by photography and think it’s one of the strangest inventions, especially in relation to empathy. Once a picture is taken, the link to reality stretches but doesn’t break. An empathetic response to the image can be garnered but it’s more unreliable. Obviously, the effect photos can yield is amazing, I’m thinking about Jason Lazarus’ Too Hard to Keep archive as an example of this power. The photos in the archive couldn’t be kept because what they trigger is too real, even though they are just images. They couldn’t be destroyed, either. This makes me think of a quote from Andy Warhol that I used in Magic for Beginners, “People are the only things that know how to take up more space than the space they are actually in. Before media there used to be a physical limit on how much space one person could take up.”

When I’ve described your work in the past, after describing certain elements of the work—the Christian rock band, the obsessions with fan culture, the reality TV—one salient feature that I always feel I have to inject is that it doesn’t feel mocking or cruel. Needless to say, the work is filled with humor and there’s an obvious level of criticality to these phenomena, but you’re able to create an atmosphere in which a viewer feels empathy with the subjects. Have you consciously made changes to works that felt flippant? Do you try to forge a connection with your footage before you work it into a piece?

I am comfortable riding the line between sincerity and irony but I never set out to ridicule. I frequently use material that has been deemed “obvious targets” by some and I find pleasure in attempting to distill some sincerity from these sources. I know that money drives the creation of much of popular culture. I did work in the movie industry, which can be a rather rough business and certainly not the most creative environment. What I’m looking at is the other side, the connection of the viewer to this material and the use of affect. There is a great deal of power in mass media but the level of manipulation is so grotesque as to be impressive. Popular culture works terrifically on me; I have a particularly embarrassing memory of sobbing uncontrollably on a plane during Toy Story 3. This kind of emotional response never happens to me in “real life”. So I would never ridicule my subject, because I’m a fan, too. But I’m also a skeptic.

The kaleidoscope section of Eternal Quarter Inch and the Oneida flicker section of Magic for Beginners are powerful to watch. Even in their simplicity, they’re propulsive, enrapturing and visceral in that way that certain types of cinematic experience only are. They’re also both tempered by a return to the other ideas of the pieces, and, incidentally, we’re dropped into a more skeptical world, one that reveals the artifice behind the magic. I’m interested in the way this reflects on the history of experimental film and in what it means to make work within a historical trajectory without getting lost in familiar territory. Does the flicker film’s power now need to exist within a larger intellectual or critical framework?

I wouldn’t say that. I guess if you were interested in forwarding cinema’s conceptual and material progression you probably wouldn’t make a 16mm flicker film. You’d probably be making a movie using Microsoft Word or something. Arnulf Rainer by Peter Kubelka is still an intense experience. Is it still a novelty? No, but I doubt that was the sole intention. Flicker and strobe are still excellent ways to experience the phenomenological through cinema. I love that these kinds of visual tactics draw you in, and you become a different kind of viewer, more of a participant. I certainly have used these kinds of strategies to enact a more visceral response to what is onscreen.

For me, yes, I am using these strategies in concert with other ideas and tactics. I think originality is overrated, but I do think about what my works mean now and how it relates to what is happening in contemporary art and cinema. I think access and availability have led a lot of artists to combine not only different sources but also different strategies in one piece. Personally, I crave the multi-valence of art, both in form and content.

A lot of these works speak to a sense of spiritual or magical lack and the measures we take to have these experiences. In the end, the stories told in Magic for Beginners end in disappointment: the mystical experience only occurred as a fleeting feeling, not as material fact. The magic of Photoshop is revealed as artifice. The sway of pop music’s simple, repetitive slogans are shown to even more inane than we’d feared when all strung together.

My work is about both the power to and the failure of mediated experiences to bind us together. I temper the experiences that are procured through media in an effort to understand why they are so effective.

I’m fascinated by the works that were exhibited as Invisible Tracks. The source materials for the works were all recent photographs from Iraq, but in many ways the true subject of the works is Photoshop, how it is used and misused in constructing images (documentary, editorial, artistic, etc.) and the small processes by which these changes are made.

I think the works are interesting also because they seem to be an attempt at expressing how an anthropomorphized Photoshop conceives of the world of images. I’m wondering why you chose photographs from Iraq (instead of, say, Afghanistan or Canada) as the source.

I’m glad you think the true subject is Photoshop and how it is used to construct images. These pieces get mixed responses; many viewers want a deeper connection with the images from me, for example, if I had gotten the images directly from veterans stationed in Iraq. But the subject of the work was more directed towards the strangeness of access. At the time I started this work you couldn’t read the paper without seeing an image related to the war in Iraq. Squeezed in between ads and text the images not only got lost but also diminished. One morning I had this fleeting thought that I could take an image of a destroyed site and rebuild it in Photoshop. I was intrigued by this creepy idea and so the project began and kept expanding. Using these particular images was a way for me to reactivate the material for myself, to try to get out of a passive viewing space.

What we see through the mass media outlets is tightly controlled and I believe that what we see has a lot to do with how we perceive a remote location, like Iraq. If you think a country is nothing more than a pile of grey debris, it’s easier to care less about its inhabitants. During the process of collecting images I became fascinated by the different ways that images are now disseminated. In that war, for example, you had embedded reporters but other means, like Flickr, for military personnel to get their own images out there. While I was gathering material, I kept finding pictures of people (Iraqis, American military, etc.…) in swimming pools in Iraq. They were so surprising and unfamiliar. The color palette is too vivid and the people look too happy.

I wouldn’t advocate for any blockage of media outlets but I do think it’s worthwhile to examine our relationship to the material we glean. Our relationship to news-related imagery is especially vulnerable as we expect it to be truthful. We can accept a Photoshopped advertisement but not a manipulated image of a destroyed site. I think this is also why these pieces bothered some people; for them, the material demanded a more familiar political stance or a determined polemic. But it’s easier to collect these images and deconstruct them than it is to form a considered relationship with them. And I think that’s political enough.

Onto newer works, you recently exhibited Trust Falls and Remote. It’s tempting to see these as marking a transition into a different kind of making or, at least, a shift in emphasis. Most obviously, these are both videos that you shot and, I would imagine, were firmly developed conceptually before production. Second, they feel like they’re meant to loop. Remote has a trajectory, certainly, but that trajectory feels more like a spiral than a line. Unlike most cinematic uses of suspense, there’s no release. How did you conceptualize this work? What about the aesthetics of suspense and horror drew you into wanting to make your own version? And, why did you choose to shoot this work instead of relying on found footage?

I did feel like Magic for Beginners was the end of a series. That piece has so much exposition that I wanted to make something quieter and more spacious. I have a tendency to resolve everything and after Magic for Beginners, I felt like I needed to push myself to do something different. I had been developing a long-form, experimental horror narrative that would have necessitated a cast and crew. I began working with Lori Felker as my cinematographer and we shot material so that I could edit a trailer for fundraising purposes. I shelved the project but was captivated by the material she had shot. I could distance myself from the footage and treat it like more like an appropriated source. I was excited about recontextualizing the material by combining it with other sources, something I’d been doing with appropriated sources for years. That was how Remote began. I did some additional shooting with Mike Gibisser and eventually I shot footage, too.

For unknown reasons, I had become interested in the horror genre over the past few years. I’m drawn to the use of suspense and the visceral response horror films illicit. The original idea behind Remote was similar to what you stated, all suspense with no release. Initially I wanted to make suspense boring but somewhere in construction I got more intrigued by the effort of actually crafting a horror film. Suspense is still a main strategy at work but the piece also implies a presence that drifts through time and space.

Incidentally, Remote is comprised of both original and appropriated footage and audio. The soundtrack is completely fabricated, everything was added later. There is actually some original footage in Magic for Beginners but it gets read as appropriated. This confusion was interesting to me and I exploited it in Remote.

Trust Falls is another step into the empathetic potentials of cinema. Everyone—catchers and caught—seem to smile once the trusting fall. One woman is given a second chance after she initially catches herself. How large would this ideally be projected? Does cinema promise us we too will be caught? Do you have specific memories of a face looking back at you from a screen? What do you think the responsibilities of filmmakers are to their subjects? To their viewers? How many of the performers (?) in Trust Falls fell and caught?

I exhibited Trust Falls at Interstate Projects in New York. I was drawn to the phrase “trust falls” almost as much as the corporate, trust-building exercise. In the video, the subject is framed in a medium close-up, which is a shot composition that I’ve been interested in for some time because it is intimate without feeling too intrusive. I utilized this framing both in Magic for Beginners and Somewhere only we know.

Initially I thought I might project it quite large but it was too overwhelming and so the projection ended up being about four or five feet wide. It screened with Remote and the dense and foreboding soundtrack from Remote really affected the view of Trust Falls, which is silent.

In the piece, the subject stares outward, confronting the viewer and becoming another viewer in the process. This viewer leans back, falling into a cinematic void and trusting that outside, there is someone waiting to catch their image. Again, I was interested in suspense, in the moment right before the fall. I wanted to see how the emotions read onscreen. There were seventeen participants, I think? We had a few different catchers, but mainly Thad Kellstadt and Tim Nickodemus caught and this had a lot to do with availability. I had considered making everyone catch but physics eliminated this possibility.

The participants were on a slightly raised platform and instructed to wait before falling. I wanted the catchers to appear at the last minute and be slightly out of focus. I was concerned that if the participants fell into a black void it would actually be less compelling than seeing the catchers. No one involved in the shoot anticipated how joyous it would be when the tension was released. There was a round of applause after every fall.

You have an obvious interest in spectatorship, in how people watch things in groups and alone, and how these things are watched not simply (or always) as entertainment or education or, even, within the realm of conscious artistic experience. What are you own viewing habits like? 

I’ll go to microcinemas like The Nightingale and White Light Cinema and I always try to go see every visitor to the Conversations at the Edge series. I usually miss all the Hollywood films, but I’ll stream them later at home. I can watch a lot of movies, I remember when I was making Remote I was looking for a good shot of trees at night and watched eight horror films in a row. It’s kind of gross.

Sometimes watching films in a group is great but often the other people watching the screen, or the architecture of the space itself distract me. I do like the experience of being in an actual theater, partly because of the size of the screen and the quality of the sound system but more because there is something about being captive that allows you to drift in your own head. I work out a lot of ideas when I’m at the movies, or in the shower.

Relatedly, (how) has teaching changing changed your work?

Teaching forces me to be aware of what is happening in contemporary cinema and art and I appreciate the extra motivation to be informed. Without my teaching practice, I’d run the danger of being too cloistered. It’s hard work and I’m certain I’ll spend the rest of my life improving upon my teaching abilities, which is actually very appealing.

Mostly, though, my students are inspiring, not only in what they do but also what they know. I’ve learned a great deal from them. They are a steady link to what is happening in consumer technology, social media and Internet culture. Plus, my work is motivated by an interest in human behavior so getting to interact regularly with a shifting group of fascinating and creative people is not harmful to the artistic practice at all.

A Few Instructive Interviews

January 3, 2012 · Print This Article

Bad at Sports first came on my reader radar for the interviews. Or, more precisely, the conversations. Beyond the accessibility of the medium, podcasting’s greatest contribution to broadcasting is the reintroduction of elastic time. Without the constraints of advertising and station breaks and schedules and all that, a program can last as long as it needs to. At least that’s the idea. I’ve found the long, wide-ranging interviews heard on this podcast and in others to be enormously instructive in thinking about the interview, in how conversational it can be and in what types of questions or prompts are most productive in elucidating the practices and personalities of those involved.

My feeling at this point is that a great deal of my output here at Bad at Sports will be interviews with artists working with moving images and in time-based media. In thinking through how I want these to function in the coming year, I’ve assembled a few smart, funny, strange or otherwise interesting interviews I’ve seen or heard in the last little while that have opened up the form to me a bit.

Felix Bernstein, a precocious 17 at the time of the interview, spoke with the late George Kuchar in 2010. I’ve experienced a lot of interviews with George and he’s always funny and sharp and excellently dodges whatever questions might seek to polish the stained, patinated scum skin of his cinematic cesspool. I am typically simultaneously in love with his responses and estranged by how they’re evoked. His best interviews were always those he performed on and by himself in his diary and weather films. Felix, though seems a nice foil for his quasi-serious, arch antics of a reclining George. This kid does well and it’s a nice glimpse into this period of his life.

Screening Room was a Boston television program that ran through much of the 1970s. Its host, Robert Gardner, is a filmmaker, visual anthropologist and academic who served as Director of Harvard’s Film Study Center for 40 years. The show featured long-form interviews with critical filmmakers of the period and is still a wonderful resource for learning about these makers and getting to know the texture of their personalities. Here is a short portion from his interview with Bruce Baillie. Or, at least, it’s something like that. The film shown is also quite extraordinary.

I think Charles Bernstein (no relation, at least to the best of my knowledge, to Felix) is simply terrific. I’ve long admired his poetry and his critical work in poetics is astounding both for its breadth and its depth. He’s a great critic in part because of how well he listens. He’s also very generous and enormously funny. As an interviewer, here are three examples of what he does well. First, from a series of commercials in the late-90s in which Jon Lovitz played the author of the Yellow Pages. I vaguely remembered these from when they initially aired but have gone back and enjoyed them tremendously. In this long cut, Bernstein’s mental agility and openness to the expansive nature of poetics enables the joke to take on a much grander scale. If only Lovitz could keep up.

Here, Bernstein interviews pioneering underground filmmaker Ken Jacobs on his excellent Close Listening radio show. My favorite moment is at around 25:40, when the weight of Jacobs’ Marxian humanism and empath(et)ic anxiety is revealed.

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Finally, here is Bernstein in the video-maker role, performing seasick camera moves and asking the amazing Caroline Bergvall language questions. A button film, but a wormhole into longer discussions.

This is a weird one. Filmmaker and curator Tyrone Davies is on the news in Missouri, chatting up his traveling film festival and then…

This video has been seen almost two million times. Davies was able to parlay his infamy into a spot on the tosh.0 show on Comedy Central. Beyond all this, of course, Davies is a real artist and one who uses the medium of television in interesting and inventive ways. The way internet video and video commingle, antagonize and sometimes exist as one is the subject for a whole other post, but this is one in a long queue ripe for examination. Or at least “Like”ing.

Finally, here’s an interview of sorts with the great filmmaker, ethnomusicologist and lifer Harry Smith. This is from late in Smith’s life, but his ebullience, defiance and wit are still ferocious.

For whatever it’s worth, I cut this post in more than half, so let’s just call this Part One.

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.