Indefatigable– it’s the only word I can think of that in some small way describes Jodie Mack. You can see it in the sheer volume of her accomplishments, including the number of films she’s created, the places they’ve screened, the teaching positions she’s held (and holds!), and the film festivals, exhibitions and performances she’s organized, participated in or contributed to. You can also see it in the work itself– its speed, its persistance, its resolve. It is both self-aware and self-abnegatting; her films traffic in the tropes and technical achievements of the history of moving image work while simultaneously canabalizing themselves in the process of their creation (magazines are cut up, posters are shredded, envelopes are torn, etc., etc.). Mack enlivens the tension between competing generations of technologies, modes of representation and -ism’s of art. This adds a worldly complexity to her also entertaining, and often charming work. Her latest film, “Dusty Stacks of Mom: the Poster Project,” is screening now, and she was kind enough to discuss this and several of her other works below.
TLN: It’s hard to imagine a film more ambitious than your previous gem “Yardwork is hardwork”, but it seems like your latest, ”Dusty Stacks of Mom,” is equally as epic! Can you tell us a little bit about what inspired you to tell this story? (I know your previous piece “Lily” was also autobiographical in a sense, but that type of documentary story telling isn’t your main way of working, right?) And while we’re at it, I might as well ask about the depiction of representational imagery versus abstraction in this new film. Is it a focus of the piece or more a by-product of some of the processes you use to animate things? (I’m not even sure you’d agree these two approaches are as oppositional as I’m making them out to be; do you feel they have more in common than I’m giving them credit for?)
JM: Yes, YWiHW was an obscenely large project that kind of knocked me over like a tidal wave, but I decided it was time for another long work. (I actually started shooting for DSoM only a year after releasing YWiHW but then stopped for a few years and made over a dozen shorts before coming back to it.) As an animator and a collagist, I am always looking for discarded materials to use – things I can find in bulk. I had a lingering interest in printed waste from YWiHW, and my mother’s poster business was steadily declining. When it became clear that she would move out of her space and liquidate the poster inventory, it seemed logical that I should try to animate some of her stock while I could. So, ultimately, what fueled the start of this project was the unlimited access I had to a huge warehouse of printed material. (I mean, I went through a lot of posters during shooting, but I didn’t even make a dent in her gigantic collection.)
On a fundamental level, I’m interested in the tension between form and meaning. Each one of my films studies some sort of tangible object or set of objects: colored plastic (A Joy), photo-negatives (Lilly), magazines (Yard Work is hard Work) junk mail (Unsubscribe 1-4), fabric (Harlequin, Rad Plaid, Posthaste Perennial Pattern, Point de Gaze, Persian Pickles, Blanket Statement), posters (Dusty Stacks of Mom), etc. The materials guide the messages; the results take on different forms, some looking more like pre-established genres than others. The role of abstract animation in cinema – its sensational and narrative possibilities – surfaces often in my films no matter the material I’m exploring. DSoM chews through the posters and digests them through a number of animation techniques; certain scenes emphasize representational aspects of the posters while others abstract the material. So, I’d say the depiction of representational imagery vs. abstraction in this film is both a focus of the piece and a by-product of the material at hand in this case.
TLN: So I have to confess– I’m actually not that familiar with the original Dark Side of the Moon recording, but I know you reworked the lyrics to every song off that album and scored your recent film with them. Is this because Pink Floyd was one of the posters your mom sold, or is there some other connection? Seems like that record has a funny filmic pedigree because of the whole “Wizard of Oz” soundtrack syncing urban myth. In general, I feel Iike most of your films reflect a keen sensitivity to song and soundtrack (as well as diegetic and non-diegetic sound), which often act as an extension of the filmic narrative in an operatic or musical theater kind of way. Can you talk about your relationship to these genres and if they are in fact sources of inspiration? Also, can you talk a little bit more about using your voice as instrumentation in the soundtrack to some works (“Unsubscribe #4: The Saddest Song in the World”), or performing live choral soundtracks to other works (“The Future is Bright”)?
JM: Yes, great question. DSoM re-makes Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, featuring instrumentation by a different person/group on each track and alternate lyrics as voice over narration. Adopting this structure was a huge breakthrough moment because, as I mentioned, I tabled this piece for a number of years because I didn’t know what it was or how to make it. What would I say? How would I say it? How much? How little? Words were the issue. I didn’t want to use interviews, voice over, or intertitles. I loved the idea of making a musical documentary in theory but didn’t want to write the music myself because it felt too personal, raw, and uncomfortable. So, deciding to use the album as a structure re-invigorated the project and ultimately expanded its scale and context.
I chose this album in particular for a number of reasons. Certainly, Pink Floyd posters were great sellers in my mom’s business. My parents, who ran a printing business when I was a child in England, also printed some of the PF merchandise for European tours when I was young. Stom Thorgerson’s simple and bold prism album cover of DSoM, to me, represents the trippy-stigma struggle of abstract art in a post-psychedelic climate. I am interested in how abstract animation permeates everyday life, so you’ll often hear me talking about firework displays, screensavers, or laser light shows (often at planetariums and often to Dark Side of the Moon). I think the album really nails the division (or lack of) between abstraction in fine art and psychedelic kitsch. I also appreciate the album’s cult cinematic association and how it relates to synchresis and the history of what’s often called “visual music” in the experimental animation community. The idea of synchresis (that viewers connect sounds and images onscreen) kind of nullifies what seems to be the purpose of visual music: to carefully construct a complex relationship between sound and image – through experiments in unison and counterpoint (once by hand, now often by machine). It feels like, well, if a machine can do this fairly easily and we associate sound and image as having a relationship anyway, then where’s the magic? Even though this problem makes me a little sad, I capitalized upon it to make this movie because I was able to force or siphon my images and words through a structuring principle that was also related to my content to begin with. One of the things that interests me about lots of animation and experimental film more generally is that what constitutes a diegetic sound remains questionable because the images are not representational. What does a triangle vortex sound like? What do specs of dust whizzing by at 24fps sound like? You can take more liberties in abstract film than in representational narratives. But, again, because of the synchresis problem, “visual music” further complicates the notion of what’s diegetic/non diegetic because the sound’s “source” does not appear onscreen but the images move in synch. Tricky!
It’s true; I have a background in musical theatre (something more common in experimental filmmakers than one might think, I’ve found). Even though that background seems more and more distant each day, these musical and performative impulses exist in my personality/everyday life and therefore in many of my films as well. Additionally, I appreciate opera/musical theatre as a narrative form that incorporates spectacle. I’m interested in abstraction’s role within narrative as well as in life. Time-travel, hallucinations, dream sequences: these are places which incorporate abstract imagery within traditional cinematic syntax (cin-tax?). And musicals, especially movie musicals, set aside the space of the number to allow the film to go places the narrative wouldn’t allow – dreamy places, surreal places, choreographic places (e.g. Maria spinning from the sewing shop to the dance in West Side Story or the famous rippling fabric dance scene in Singin’ in the Rain). But, anyway, back to performing and singing. Again, I use what’s around and who will work for free, usually myself. At a certain point, I started taking little tours and singing with the films live because it seemed to facilitate a reason for people to come to the show and sit around and share an experience with me in a room instead of on their computer. I’m also singing DSoM live when I can and screening it with a few new shorts that work together to simulate the sequence of a rock concert (two opening acts, headliner, encore.) I’m isolated by my own demanding studio habits, so performing creates a space for human interaction – the kind of interaction or human labor that DSoM mourns the loss of in many ways…
TLN: Pattern, collage and a sort of indexical accumulation of objects and imagery occur again and again in your films, but often times they act as the vehicle for a work’s larger narrative. Can you talk a little bit about recent work like ”Point de Gaze” that seem to take that aesthetic as the subject of the film itself, in an almost structuralist way? What prompted this shift? Was it the use of material, such as Belgian lace, instead of other more ephemeral or craft items? In a way, I’m wondering if you feel like earlier pieces like “Unsubscribe #1: Special Offer Inside” were precursors to that approach?
JM: Sure. I see PdG fitting in with a number of other films I’ve made since 2010. I feel like it definitely belongs in the same family as the Unsubscribe films and other fabric films I’ve made recently. These films study domestic and recycled materials in stroboscopic anti-sequence to illuminate the elements shared between fine-art abstraction and mass-produced graphic design. The films extend the temporal concerns of structural film while calling for a critical formalism. They question the role of the decorative and conceptualize abstraction by meditating upon objects of cultural significance (or insignificance), revealing the beauty and kinetic energy of the wasted, the overlooked, the everyday product of yesterday’s work. They attempt to bring texture and domestic signification to a cinematic practice often rooted in sterile minimalism. For a while, I explained myself by saying I wanted to be the Eva Hesse of structural film – not sure how much sense that makes nowadays, but that’s how I felt at one point. I see these shorter pieces working together in the same way as paintings in a gallery show or songs on an album. But, you’re right to notice something different about PdG – it’s the first fabri-flicker film I made with textiles I didn’t own. I borrowed them from a costume shop. So, the film features a largely varied set of materials made by both humans and machines, almost predicting the ideas that emerge in DSoM about labor and technology (similar themes will also emerge in an upcoming film). I don’t see myself shifting as much as I see myself building, expanding my toolkit, and (now with DSoM) culminating – knocking it all down to rebuild again with the leftover rubble from the latest tidal wave.
Interview conducted via email May 2013.
Grafting is a horticultural process that involves splicing one plant onto another to jump start growth. The root stock is the base, or anchor, of the operation used for its already mature, well developed root system. The scion is the plant matter that is grafted on; if the process is successful, you end up with a genetic duplication of the scion. Edra Soto’s current exhibition “Graft” is on view now at Terrain in Oak Park, a project space encompassing artist and principal Sabina Ott’s front yard. Soto uses Ott’s front porch as the root stock to graft her installation, comprised of patterned, bright white screened gates, onto, and although they mimic the aesthetic appeal of similar gates in her native Puerto Rico, they function quite differently in the terroir of Oak Park. Soto was kind enough to discuss this, along with her inspiration for the project and her own gallery and art collection with me below. “Graft’s” closing reception is this Sunday, April 21 from 1-4pm.
TLN: I know the patterning and the structure of the screen installed at Terrain is inspired by similar wrought iron fences in Puerto Rico, where you’re from. Can you tell me a little bit about your background, and what inspired you to utilize these fences in your work– was it their design? A certain nostalgia for Puerto Rico? The way they fit within Oak Park?
ES: Yes, this patterning comes from iron fences that still exist in Puerto Rico. Many are in my parent’s neighborhood (where I grew up). The neighborhood was built in the early 60s and in addition to the aesthetic appeal, the screens provided security and ventilation. It’s easy to find all kinds of information relevant to the problems related to criminality at that time. However, there’s not much information about the pattern designs of the fences. My interest in these patterns started around 7 years ago. I made some illustrations of them, but didn’t develop the idea further. My frequent visits to Puerto Rico awoke my interest in them again. My husband started using some of these patterns in the furniture he builds and that definitely made me feel I was missing out. Somehow, his admiration of the fences validated my previous interest in them. The last time I went to Puerto Rico with my husband, we went on fieldtrips around my parents’ neighborhood and adjacent neighborhoods to take pictures of these fences. That was one of the most fun things we have done together. We truly love finding patterns we haven’t seen before. After all that fun activity, the idea of transplanting a Puerto Rican fence in Oak Park came to me. Their beauty allures me but their potential of becoming modern art when taken out of their original context spooks me!
TLN: You run a gallery space in your backyard, The Franklin, and Sabina Ott has dedicated her front yard to her exhibition space, Terrain. Do you think The Franklin and Terrain have a lot in common, or do they take two different approaches to a similar format? What are some challenges of having an outdoor exhibition space? Do you find that most of the works are made specifically for the exhibition space?
ES: I’m so glad you ask this question because it hasn’t been asked before. Just now, we have created evidence that documents one small part of the history of domestic artist-run gallery spaces in Chicago. I probably will have a conversation with Sabina soon, since I don’t know the reasons why she chooses to do her projects in her front yard. From my end, I was offered an exhibition at Northeastern Illinois University last year and had almost a year to conceive the project. That time allowed me to partner with my husband on the project, have a lot of conversations about possible projects, and eventually, creating The Franklin became our project. I kept asking myself ‘what can we offer to the art community that is not available to them’? Having a significant art collection was another motivation, thinking ahead of time that it would be great to open our house during opening nights at The Franklin and extend the life of the artwork we own beyond our own personal enjoyment. The specific structure of the Franklin offers the challenges of interacting somewhat with its design. Being partially outdoors forces the artists to react to the space as well. So far, the most successful projects come from artists that have challenged themselves by creating specific interactions utilizing their work, their aesthetics and their ingenuity. It is a great challenge.
TLN: Because we’ve worked together previously, I know a little bit about your amazing collection of art work and visual culture in your home, which itself is a kind of museum of objects and works that inspire and influence you. I know you said you would often trade works with other artists, or purchase pieces at auction to build your collection, but what made you want to start exhibiting work and start a gallery? Is it related at all to collecting? Seems like there might be a similarly social aspect of owning and displaying work, but it may also be a more private, archival impulse that motivates you.
ES: Collecting art comes from a very honest place. I just happen to love many different kinds of art and also happen to have a lot of talented friends that make it. I am fascinated by materiality and objects, but really avoid being a packrat. Collecting art makes us feel that we are doing something honorable. It is after all someone’s real connection to art language and represents a little bit of the person that made it. I wouldn’t display my work at my house because I have always thought that it is a little bit tacky. It’s like putting a big portrait of myself in the middle of the room. Not that I don’t have pictures of me (most of them with my husband) around the house. But I see those as memories reminders.
One of the reasons I felt motivated to open a gallery in our backyard was to give a ‘second life’ to our art collection. Having other artists work at your house, in such a private setting, kind of limits the initial purpose of that art piece. Indeed, every single time we have an opening, I encourage people to look around. Lots of work gets lots of compliments and I get to tell the visitors, and then the artists, how much people like their work. So The Franklin has 3 major components: The exhibitions at the space, the art collection, and an upside down pineapple cake that I’ve been making since 2009. Derived from my wedding cake, made by my mother, I started this project in an effort to transform sour memories around the original cake. Now it’s one of our traditions at The Franklin. An installation of these cakes will be created for a collaborative project by Alberto Aguilar at the MCA during this summer.
All images courtesy of the artist.
Interview conducted via email April 2013.
Christy LeMaster is the powerhouse behind the Nightingale, a Chicago microcinema dedicated to screening experimental film. It’s a welcoming and unpretentious space thanks to her generosity and openness. The Nightingale engages in inclusive conversation surrounding the production, distribution and consumption of new work, but at the heart of everything it does, beats the fans, makers, viewers, colleagues and friends it’s cultivated. LeMaster’s ingenuity, sweat equity and contagious enthusiasm has kept the place humming for the past several years, and now— poised to celebrate a milestone anniversary— she was kind enough to recount the Nightingale’s gradual growth in scale and scope; discuss the film she’s currently making; and give us a teaser regarding the new website she’s developing, a project which will vault the community built in her brick and mortar space into the ether of the internet with the hopes of connecting and supporting even more filmmakers, cinemas and cinephiles.
TLN: April 5 marks the five-year anniversary of the Nightingale. Can you recap the activities and structure of your space over the last few years and let us in on what’s next?
CL: You say “5 years”, and it seems like it’s been so much longer; and at the same time, it feels like it’s happened at light speed. When I started the Nightingale it seemed like access was the issue; there was more work being made than was screened, and seeing one’s work in front of an audience should be the bedrock of artistic development. The city just seemed hungry for it. When I first began talking about starting a microcinema, people just rushed in to help. So I decided to do as many screenings as I could, and to not be overly precious about the idea of curation. There seemed to be a need for a community screening room as well as an experimental cinema; we got requests to be an auxiliary venue for other arts organizations; to screen social-issue documentaries; to host youth-media showcases; and to feature work from all the city’s art schools. And so the momentum became its own practical logic: What do we need right now? What do we have that we can use? Who is coming to town? What is the rest of her work like? Those sorts of questions often propelled me forward more often than “What should we be showing?” Luckily, generous and gifted people keep showing up to help. Patrick Friel has been presenting every month for years; Jon Cates and Nick Briz brought us UpgradeChicago for awhile; My dear friends Doug and Chloe McLaren have been managing tech concerns and special event details for years; Sally Lawton showed up a year ago asking to help out with screenings, and is now involved in every aspect of the place. It all happened pretty organically. I would ask for help as needed and people helped. The place runs entirely on a gift economy and volunteer labor. With exception of special events and multi-artist shorts programs, we always pay artists out of the door and spend the rest until it’s gone. For the most part we break even.
When I started, I gave the project a sunset date of five years so I could re-assess if I was happy doing the work and if the space was still needed. And here we are. I think it is still useful to do, but I am being pulled by other projects. So I am handing off. The main bulk of the work will be managed by five programmers/keyholders: Patrick Friel, Emily Kuehn, Jesse Malmed, Chloe McLaren, and Doug McLaren. They will all have autonomous use of the space. We have structured the new system around transparency. We have put all of the tools for running the space online, and gathered a group of volunteer staff to assist the programmers. And we are taking this moment to refresh the space in lots of other ways too. We will soon launch a kickstarter to get a new projector. We are overhauling the website and changing the look of the space. I am excited for the transition. It seems really natural. I can’t wait to see what happens next. I hope to still organize programs occasionally and think about the space in a more macro way.
TLN: The Nightingale has managed to transcend its programming by acting as an informal hub of community building. I know intentional communities, post-nuclear family structures and Utopias are all part of your research interests, can you tell us more about how they relate to the activities of your micro-cinema and your own arts practice?
CL: Early on, I decided on a few small details that have become our rituals— we make pretty tickets for every screening, we always have a raffle, we host a big potluck every year and film a trailer.
I’m really interested in issues around interdependence. I think in the wake of the implosion of the nuclear family, we’re all sort of floating into new models of how to take care of each other. I heard a woman say once, “co-dependence is no joke in a world without interdependence,” and that’s really led my interest. It was always more important that the Nightingale be accessible instead off curatorially perfect. And for a long time I didn’t think I had an art practice, I just thought I had projects. But over the last couple years I’ve started to see that all of my projects are concerned with the same issues— how do people establish interdependence outside of traditional means; heteronormative relationships, institutions of church or work? I think a lot of us arts organizers in Chicago are remaking a small corner of the world in a vision that we value. Utopia is social critique. We aren’t interested any more, it seems, in removing ourselves from society entirely, but a lot of people we know are working very hard to rebuild small parts of society from the ground up. The Nightingale is my vision of an interdependent cinema, and a lot of my other projects are concerned with the same dynamics. I’m working on a movie about utopias where I invite different arts organizations in Chicago to re-enact an intentional or utopian community from American history; I’m researching sacred harp choirs because of how they use performance as collaborative practice. I’ve been thinking about how to be a good collaborator for 10 years, and I’m only now applying it pragmatically.
TLN: Your network of colleagues and collaborators extends well beyond the city of Chicago, which makes you the perfect person to take on the build out of Splitbeam, an online resource you dreamt up and secured funding to implement. Tell us more about the project, its function and its design.
CL: It turns out that the experimental cinema community is pretty small; Splitbeam is an idea that I had over the last years at the Nightingale— I wanted a resource where I could see what other microcinemas were doing, and right now experimental moving image makers are working on a sort of punk-rock model where you book your own shows; we’re not really relying on media to travel independently of the artist very often. Splitbeam is a web directory of microcinemas, independent and alternative cinemas, and it houses a modular, open distribution that is meant to take some of the administrative burden off of curators and artists. I am lucky to be working on it with my good friends Nick Briz and Michael Castelle; Nick is doing the front-end design and Michael is handling the database, and I am taking on the research and organization. We received a generous grant from the Propeller Fund and used it to hire Sonnenzimmer to create a visual concept for the site. We’re going to work on it hard this summer and hope to launch in the Fall of 2013.
Interview conducted over email March 2013.
I was recently invited to contribute an essay to a forthcoming publication on The Stockyard Institute’s (SI) 2010 exhibition “Nomadic Studio.” It was a treat to look back and think through their amazing show and its constellation of programming and events. It actually felt like stars had crossed when I met Jim Duignan, founder of SI, at one of Nomadic Studio’s many workshops– we got to talking, and the next thing I knew, I was reviewing the exhibition, and then curating work into it and organizing and moderating a panel discussion for it! Duignan’s enthusiasm is contagious, but his true strength lies in his ability to inspire. Hopefully the 499 words below capture some of that, and recount just a handful of the art and ideas Stockyard Institute has helped seed.
The Stockyard Institute (SI) is no stranger to life on the road. From its formation in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood in 1995 to its current perch amidst Lincoln Park’s leafy DePaul University campus, faculty member and SI founder Jim Duignan has made an artistic practice out of teaching, learning, making and giving things away for free. “Nomadic Studio,” organized by SI for DePaul Art Museum (in conjunction with the city’s year-long Studio Chicago initiative), sounds self-reflexive at first, but its true complexity lay in the fact that it was about both the why, and the how, of SI.
Duignan, along with Faiz Razi, Beth Wiedner, and a staggering number of additional collaborators too numerous to list– put together an audaciously elastic exhibition comprised of multiple, month-long thematic reincarnations. Featured works drifted across disciplines and blurred borders between singularity and replication, creativity and production, fine art and craft, and aesthetics and utilitarianism. It was cumulative, and expanded organically through the acquisition of new works over time. These works also talked to and cross-pollinated one another, shape shifting within each new context of the show’s constant fluctuations.
The handful of more traditional works in the exhibition confronted viewers with an exuberant pop sensibility and included large-scale painting, drawing, sculpture and a wall-sized mural. Some pieces were literally nomadic, given their mobility, such as the community garden housed within a canoe. Others were tools which required viewer participation to utilize, complete or deplete them, such as the low-watt radio station, the mobile book binding and screen printing stations, and the zine library.
Ultimately, SI managed to transform the galleries from a space into a place. This was done by literally replicating actual historic or existent Chicago places within the museum space, including the Rumpus Room’s basement recording studio, the Union Rock Yards’ stage, and A/V Aerie’s ballroom. It was also achieved by using the museum as a studio, as a place for experimentation, self-cannibalization and generative failure. Nomadic Studio was always humming– the palpable dynamism would have made most museums cringe with envy. Day and night, Duignan and his colleagues brought the outside in by hosting live musical performances, how-to workshops and open studios.
Beyond tangible artworks and transitory experiences, Nomadic Studio was also well documented. This led to the production of SITE, an online resource for educators that tracked the methodologies, development and implementation of the exhibition for future use and potential duplication. It also resulted in the text you’re reading in the publication you’re holding in your hand.
From the beginning, SI’s students have also been their teachers. Through a marriage of art and politics, they have acted transparently, embraced inclusivity, and stayed true to their belief that there’s plenty to go around. Above all, they appreciate a good spectacle, and this has been their trademark maneuver for reeling us in. The deal is sealed however, as soon as we realize that, through sheer force of will, they have the power to transform the ideal into the real.
All images courtesy of Stockyard Institute.