Like so many in our worlds, Brett Kashmere’s engagement with art spans making, writing, teaching, curating, editing and organizing. Perhaps more impressively, he’s good at each of these. His subjects often pertain to history, collective identity, sports and the ways they articulate and actualize each other. His essay film Valery’s Ankle (embedded below) is deft and provocative, mixing personal history, social questions and rib-rattling editing toward a peek beneath the pads into Canadiana. His latest project, From Deep, signals a switch to the basketball court and the United States. At the same time, it maintains an interest in fan-culture, hybrid forms and a commitment to rigor without opacity and invention without pretension.
Raised in Canada, Brett has lived in Pittsburgh (while teaching at Oberlin) for the last several years. He is known perhaps equally for his own filmmaking as he is for his critical writing, his work editing INCITE Journal of Experimental Media (medium disclosure: I have a piece in the next issue) and his curatorial pursuits. INCITE does an excellent job of publishing works both scholarly and playful (a G-Chat conversation between Jesse McLean and Jacob Ciocci, for instance) without privileging either or presuming one form might have a monopoly on all types of insight.
As part of the exhibition Spectator Sports (opening this Thursday!), Brett will be screening his work and discussing it with Lester Munson at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago on Tuesday, April 23rd. Graciously, he never brought up the name of this publication in relation to his own work.
You’ve curated, written about and made films about Canadian identity. I have dual (US and Canadian) citizenship. Half of my family is Canadian and I’ve spent a decent amount of time in Canada and thinking through the issue of Canadian identity. No identity is fixed and national identity can be as useful or as destructive as any other unwieldy, essentializing concept. That said, I’m hoping you might elaborate a bit on where your thinking is on the issue now and how it’s changed in that last many years of living in the States.
I agree – national identity is an abstract, complex construction, a symbolic category, which serves both good and bad purposes. As someone who works a lot with sports as a subject, it’s disturbing to see how they’re often used, in ways subtle and overt, to stir up nationalist sentiment and prop up dangerous ideologies. I’m thinking of that famous quote from Ronald Reagan: “Sport is the human activity closest to war that isn’t lethal.” He meant that as an endorsement. On the other hand, sports provide a common, everyday, shared experience that has deep (often under-acknowledged) reverberations and significance. I’m most interested in its relationship to place and community, as a kind of folk culture that is potent and tribal, rather than as an instrument of national identity.
I finished Valery’s Ankle shortly before immigrating to the U.S. in 2006, to upstate New York. At first it didn’t seem that much different than living in Canada, though the Iraq War certainly cast a shadow over everything during that period. It was a dark time. There was a distinct feeling of uneasiness, which I attributed to the political circumstances, and that did seem to dissipate somewhat after Obama’s election (replaced by a different, more manufactured form of paranoia).
The longer I live in the U.S., the less I feel connected to Canada but the more I come to recognize differences between the two countries. Part of that understanding is intuitively felt, and part of it has to do with core principles and attitudes rather than anything related to day-to-day life. When I think about what it means to be Canadian, I often come back to the question: “Where is here?” For Northrop Frye, that was the central question of Canadian identity. Our sense of self is determined by external factors, the things beyond us, which we don’t control. Whereas in America, identity seems determined from within – “Who am I?” – and rooted in those founding American ideas of personal liberty and freedom.
I’ve only ever watched Valery’s Ankle on home screens. In particular, I’ve enjoyed being able to watch it on my laptop and scan through it, returning to certain parts and skipping over others while thinking about the work and this interview. In this changing media landscape, there are lots of new opportunities for works to be experienced. Typically for works that do not originate with intentions for the small, portable screen, we maintain an understanding that this isn’t how they’re supposed to be experienced, but this is what we have. UbuWeb recently tweeted “UbuWeb is a photograph of a painting.” For video works whose form is shifting and fluid (are there people who really think a new export with a different codec is an inauthentic copy?), this is a little more complicated. I have been speaking recently with others who (in this mode of speaking) identify as a fellow makers of “dense video work,” and are excited by the potential of video for the home, for the computer, because it allows the chance to view and re-view. With works in the essay tradition, this seems to be an even greater boon.
A common response I hear about my work is that it’s dense. I use a lot of text layers and sources, onscreen and through voice-over, and the editing style is usually fast – I like a constant flow of images and ideas. I’m not interested in making conventional documentaries that you can watch once, process the information, and arrive at a satisfying conclusion. Even though it’s unlikely and probably unreasonable, I embrace the idea of making work that will reward multiple viewings. So in that sense, the home computer, the small portable screen, offers a lot. I’m glad you find value in returning to certain parts, in shuttling back and forth. I prefer that its reception be productive and relational, not merely consumptive.
Then again, I consider the filmmaking that I do to be part of a cinematic tradition, best suited for the theatrical screening context. The conditions of that experience are still important to me: the large image, the fixed starting and endpoints, the focused attention, the darkened space, the social dimension. But more and more, I find that situation to be limited and unsatisfying, at least for the kind of work that I make. I would like for it to circulate more freely, and across platforms; to be more available to more people than the one-time theatrical screening allows. I’m not sure that YouTube is the answer, in terms of the mindset that’s required for viewing a longer essay film or video. But perhaps the work can exist in different forms, as a modular construction, and the platform determines the version of the piece that you see.
In perhaps a similar vein, how does your work in curating and writing impact your filmmaking practice? Does the skillset of the curator align with the culling and positioning of archival materials? Does critical writing engage the same part of your brain as making critically-engaged films?
I tend to think of curating, writing, and filmmaking as distinct and separate parts of my life, linked together by expertise in editing. They definitely impact one another, sometimes consciously and sometimes in coincidental or supplementary ways. My work as a curator and a writer, for instance, has influenced my approach to filmmaking, which I’d describe as a research-based practice. From Deep, the project that I’m working on now, about the cultural history of basketball, feels at times like a curated film. It relies on the editing together of hundreds of discrete elements, including movie clips, music videos, TV commercials, video game footage, and so on, which are interwoven with self-shot “moving snapshots” of the game. I can easily imagine an exhibition on the same topic, or a book. But I don’t think those forms would connect or communicate in the same way, the way I prefer. The moment-to-moment conjunction of image and language, which provides the central tension, the collision and mix of ideas within a set period of time, being able to control the entire experience and where people enter the work, those factors require that it be a film or a video.
In terms of the overlapping skill sets, my working knowledge of film/video production helps when I write about and curate moving image artwork. I understand the technical aspects and logistics of film and digital media, and I know what to pack when I’m presenting a screening to avoid technical problems and troubleshoot. But crafting narration for a film is quite different than writing a critical essay or a curatorial text. Writing voice-over requires constant revision, to get the timing, sound and flow of the words right and it can’t be too complicated. It’s one of the final stages, so often the sequence lengths are already set and the text has to fit into predetermined blocks. It’s about concision – how to say the most with the least. But being able to write critically helps in the pre-production and post-production phases, in the preparation of grant applications and the development of secondary writing about projects.
In Valery’s Ankle, you declare your interest in asking questions (over providing answers). Have the intervening seven years answered some of these questions? Have you found this interrogative mode of making to be productive or frustrating to audiences?
Posing questions is a useful rhetorical device, a way of opening things up. I’m interested in the anti-authoritative perspective, in the amateur or fan’s point-of-view, and in Foucault’s notion of counter-memory. Many of the questions that I ask in Valery’s Ankle can’t really be answered, and aren’t meant to be. If they provide an opportunity for individual reflection, or if they provoke a discussion, that’s great, that’s the ultimate goal. I don’t think the mode is frustrating for audiences. I’m careful about building in different entry points and levels of engagement. Accessibility is important to me, and so are variety and surprise. I like to frequently shift between a first-person mode of address, the subjective, and a more straightforward presentation of facts and evidence: Here is where I’m coming from (my frame of reference) – here are some things you may not know about (forgotten or overlooked histories, silences of memory) – here’s why I think they’re important (the argument). The viewer can decide for herself whether the argument has merit, whether the connections I’m making are sound, and whether I’m to be trusted as a reliable narrator.
The things that I struggle with are: How to synthesize the personal with the formal investigations? What is important as information? What does the viewer need to know in order to follow the work? Where is the point of convergence between local and universal experience? I also work from a basic assumption that every record (every fact) has a b-side. There’s the side that is marketed and sold, but the other side is usually more interesting.
For all of its formal inventiveness and engagement with the expressivity and history of non-fiction filmmaking, Valery’s Ankle is still an immediately watchable film. The questions that it poses are quite literally posed and the gestures you make toward an expanded notion of nonfiction film (perhaps the space between documentary and essay) fit and flow seamlessly. Will you speak a little about questions of legibility and the ways a background in “experimental” media can impact other types of making? Am I just “in too deep[ly]” to see that this work is secretly difficult for non-specialized audiences to enjoy?
Having a background and an ongoing interest in experimental film has definitely shaped my approach. I don’t consider the work that I make now to be part of that tradition, even though it circulates in that world. I feel like that background does give me some license, or drive, to mess with the tropes and conventions of documentary. Alternately, the appearance of documentary provides cover for the more formal investigations, the manipulation of the image and so on. Creative nonfiction is probably the most accurate description, but it’s more of a literary term. It hasn’t quite crossed over into film and video, even though a lot of my favorite work– by practitioners such as Jackie Goss, Harun Farocki, Michael Moore, Chris Marker, Barbara Hammer – fit that categorization. Also, I don’t believe the work is automatically difficult for non-specialized audiences to enjoy. That hasn’t been my experience. It doesn’t give viewers enough credit. The public screenings that I’ve attended often elicit homogenous, guttural groups reactions to the visceral and/or humorous parts; that kind of bonding amongst strangers can have a powerful effect.
Lately, I’ve been motivated by a couple of overlapping concepts: Brecht’s notion of a theatre (or a cinema) of pleasure and instruction, and the idea of “edu-tainment,” which I associate most with the hip hop artist KRS-One. I’m trying to find ways to bridge accessibility with critical inquiry. I don’t want to make straightforward work about sports – there’s already a lot of that out there, like ESPN’s 30-for-30 series. I enjoy those films – they’re well produced and fun to watch, but once they’re finished I never think about them again. It’s institutional storytelling. The one exception that comes to mind is Brett Morgen’s documentary about the O.J. Simpson chase, which stands out because of its unusual form: a found-footage compilation that presents the events of one day – June 17, 1994 – with no commentary. It’s a mesmerizing piece, and a reminder of how much the media landscape has changed since then. The 24-hour news cycle really begins right there, with those long helicopter shots of O.J.’s white Ford Bronco navigating the L.A. freeways.
Speaking of specializing audiences, how have hockey fans (in particular Canadian ones with long enough memories) reacted to Valery’s Ankle?
In many ways, hockey fans have been the best, most accepting audience for Valery’s Ankle. Part of that is by design. I’ve presented the video in a lot of places across Canada, in a lot of different contexts – from academic hockey conferences, to big city and small-town film festivals, university classes, art galleries, microcinemas, sports bars. The sports bar is almost an ideal setting for me, because I work with a formal language that most people understand, the language of sports broadcasting. If you’ve ever watched a hockey game in a bar you’ll know that nothing captures mass attention like a hockey fight, even though, nine times out of ten, they’re the most banal things to watch: a couple of guys clutching one another and spinning in slow circles for two minutes. Valery’s Ankle pulls you in with the fighting, the spectacle, but then it flips things around. It starts posing questions about our common assumptions of hockey violence. For instance, when, and why, did fighting become an accepted part of the game? What is the deeper meaning behind the trophy for most sportsmanlike behavior in hockey?
The people who are old enough to remember the 1972 Canada-Soviet Summit Series either don’t remember the slash – Bobby Clarke’s intentional breaking of the Russian star Valery Kharlamov’s ankle – or never knew about it. The visual evidence scarcely exists – it happened quickly, with no camera close ups. The image quality is poor. No one is truly surprised by it, though, as Clarke had a brutal bully reputation, but the general response is one of embarrassment for the sanctioned dirty play, and the fact that the Canadian men’s bodies were so out of control. If there’s a negative reaction, it’s usually from people who don’t think I go far enough with the critique; that I leave too much out. The violence touches a nerve.
I’ve received a lot of wonderful notes and messages over the years, saying to the effect that Valery’s Ankle has changed, or modified, their opinions about hockey and its relationship to their identity. The video has acted as a bridge piece (peace bridge?) between artist friends and their dads, who wouldn’t normally have much tolerance for experimental work. Just yesterday, I received an email, out-of-the blue, from an established Canadian filmmaker, a person I’ve never met but have great respect for, who wrote: “my 15-year old son and I watched Valery’s Ankle and he thought it was ‘awesome’; me too! thanks for providing that perspective with such calm passion, along with the great hockey images.” I can’t really ask for anything more than that.
Will you tell our readers a bit about your most recent project and what they’ll experience at the Museum of Contemporary Photography?
The MoCP will be showing a couple of my pieces as part of their upcoming exhibition, Spectator Sports (April 12–July 3, 2013). In addition to the video essay Valery’s Ankle, there is a newer work titled Anything But Us Is Who We Are, which is comprised of two parts: a burned LeBron James Cleveland Cavaliers jersey, framed and mounted on the wall, and a live video game feed of James (in Cavs uniform) holding a basketball at center court in an otherwise empty arena, waiting to be activated, perhaps in a moment of indecision, contemplation, or awaiting orders from the viewer/fan/agent/gamer. The game controller is displayed in such a way that you can’t actually use it.
For me, the piece was a way of exploring and coming to terms with the limitations, but also the agency, of fandom. The bond between fans and players is so tenuous, so illusory, and typically one-sided. In his great book Black Planet: Facing Race during an NBA Season, David Shields writes that “Fans want to think it’s us against them… and that the players on ‘our’ team are in cahoots with us, in some difficult-to-define way – difficult to define, since their contempt for us is so manifest.” LeBron’s decision to leave Cleveland for the Miami Heat in 2010 demonstrates the volatile nature of this relationship. It was such a charged moment, because as fans, we like to believe the players play “for us” and that we’re part of the team, or at least recognized by and important to the team. But this isn’t really the case. They play for themselves and each other, and we invest symbolic meaning in a multimillion-dollar corporate enterprise.
Nonetheless, when a cherished star leaves town, it’s hard for those fans not to feel betrayed. Complicating this is the fact that nearly all of the NBA’s owners, team executives, and paying customers are white, while nearly all of the players are black. The struggle to possess and control the subjects of our sporting affection is such a potent metaphor. In many ways, sports have been at the vanguard of social change in America. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the racial integration of baseball in 1946, followed by NBA’s integration in 1950, preceded the racial integration of schools in 1954. Athletes like Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos did a great deal to bring awareness to racial inequality, and helped to erode the structures of racism that were inherent at the time. When Obama was campaigning for president in 2008, he deliberately played up his interest in basketball, to make himself more relatable (the professor could hoop, too).
In addition to the exhibition, I’m doing a public event on April 23rd at the museum. I’ll be screening excerpts from my in-progress feature documentary From Deep, and discussing the culture of basketball with Lester Munson, a writer and legal analyst for ESPN, who also teaches journalism at Northwestern.
I was a tremendous basketball fan at one point. I have dozens of books and VHS tapes on the subject and still find myself accidentally stuck in the mental morass of John Starks’ number of Dikembe Mutombo’s full name on occasion. Will you talk a bit about the personal shift you made from being a hockey kid to a basketball one and about the larger societal shifts in fandom? Why make a film about basketball instead of baseball (our supposed national sport) or football (our apparent cinematic/televisual national sport)?
That transition, from hockey to basketball, occurred during my teenage years. Typical of Canadian boys during that time, I started played competitive minor hockey at age 5. After ten years of full-time play and grueling travel, I realized hockey wasn’t the sport for me anymore. Part of it was the danger, the fear of serious injury, since I was the smallest kid on the team. But a larger part of it was an evolving sensibility – I just wasn’t into the small-town, country-and-western, hockey-obsessed prairie culture. By then I was listening to rap, fascinated by graffiti, urban style and expression, and following the NBA. This was a golden age for basketball: Jordan was just reaching his prime, Magic and Bird were still in the league (this also around the time that Magic revealed he had HIV); the video game NBA Jam was a huge success. Then there were the 1992 Olympics and the Dream Team, which took basketball to an even bigger stage internationally. I was also really into Skybox basketball cards, which had those amazing computer-generated abstract backgrounds, and also the Arsenio Hall show, which often had rappers and basketball players as guests. Michigan’s Fab Five were bringing hip hop fashion and swagger to college ball. It was all cool, and fun and exciting. Basketball hoops were suddenly popping up on driveways everywhere. A tremendous shift was occurring. The world got much larger, seemingly overnight.
Although, unlike baseball or football, basketball is less rooted in American myth, it is, in my opinion, the 21st century American sport. It is certainly more global and easier to play: You don’t need a lot of equipment or a lot of space, it can be played outdoors or indoors (all weather), by yourself or in almost any sized group. It’s democratic. Everyone does everything on the court – there aren’t highly specialized roles, as with baseball or football. I like those sports and enjoy watching them but I never really played them growing up. So basketball was the natural next step for me, as a subject to explore. I’ve been thinking that my next project might be about football, though. With all of the recent studies that have come out about head injuries in football and the long-term effects of repeated concussions, it seems to be facing a major crossroads. The game, and the NFL, will have to adapt to this new science or it will become obsolete. It’s an interesting parallel to where the U.S. is at in right now in its history, as an international power trying to maintain its primary place in a changing global landscape. The idea of the masculine warrior athlete, and of sports as a gendered institution, a “school for masculinity,” is no longer contemporary, or relevant. It’s time to evolve.
Switching gears to some of your other endeavours, is there a specific niche you’re hoping for Incite to fill? How are you approaching print/web publishing decisions? What are some historical forebears whose output has influenced the project?
As an undergraduate film student, I loved flipping through back issues of Film Culture and Millennium Film Journal and smaller, more idiosyncratic hand-bound journals like Spiral. Those publications had a big impact on me, as did Jonas Mekas’ “Movie Journal” columns. The way he mixed criticism, advocacy, community building, and poetic language into his writing was inspiring. I knew from that point forward that I wanted to start a journal. My favorite types of writing have always been artist statements, manifestos, personal essays, letters and filmmaker responses to their colleagues’ work.
INCITE was founded in 2008 with the goal of reinvigorating the culture, community, and discourse of experimental film, video art, and new media. P. Adams Sitney made a comment around that time, in an interview with Scott MacDonald, decrying the lack of new writing about experimental film and video, at a time when it was going through a huge creative resurgence. That was a major catalyst.
From the beginning, INCITE has embraced a plurality of forms and approaches, combining the spirit, eclecticism, and individuality of zines and artist books with the review process and editorial methods of academic publishing. In addition to scholarly articles, INCITE regularly prints manifestos, aesthetic statements, artist projects and drawings, archival documents, “G-chats,” diagrams, collage-essays, and so on.
Through the integration of print and online platforms, we attempt to distribute our publishing activities as widely as possible while also providing a material trace, a tangible legacy. It’s important to me that we publish an annual printed issue. But those take so much time to produce, and are dependent on volunteer time. The current issue that we’re working on right now, Exhibition Guide, has over 50 contributors. We decided a few years ago to create an online interview series (“Back and Forth”), which would allow us to have an active publishing presence between issues. We have a couple of other web initiatives planned, including a reprint series of important texts that are difficult to find or no longer available, with new contextualizing information; and a “work bench” series, which will feature annotated documentation of artists’ studios and editing spaces. And we’re close to finishing our first artist monograph, on the work of the pioneering Canadian media artist David Rimmer. It was edited by Mike Hoolboom, and will be available as an e-book on our website as well as in a print-on-demand edition.
This week we are trying something new. Truth be told, we were planning on trying something new at the beginning of January but due to various mishaps we are two months late. The snappy-est title we could come up with “Great Stuff.” What that really is a subtitle for is “Great Stuff that was found in our offices regardless of how it got there.” So we begin “Great Stuff” with Kate Beaton’s “Hark! A Vagrant.”
Last fall Beaton’s new comic anthology “Hark! A Vagrant” was published by Drawn and Quarterly, and is truly delightful. it arrived our offices and quietly sat in a pile of things that needed to be read for several months, never really hinting at the ridiculous good times to be had within but one quiet afternoon I picked it up and could not put it down. Beaton’s a veteran cartoonist whose work has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, the National Post and the New Yorker. Beaton is a kind of spiritual kin to Bad at Sports. Her work draws heavily on her degree in history and her broad knowledge of literature, and then couples those intellectual impulses with an absurd sense of humor which would make Monty Python proud and had me laughing out loud over and neglecting phone calls. In fact, I’ve come back to it and reread it twice since my first reading. If you are a fan of art, literature, Canada, history, and being an intellectual well making fun of intellectuals this shit will tear you up.
The high points for me include jokes about the “Great Gatsby,” the Brontë sisters, St. Francis, and Canadian stereotypes. the back covers cartoon is a special treat for those of us who’ve devoted our lives to things that are often difficult to empathize with.
You can find more delight with Kate Beaton here.
I first met Rebecca on Milwaukee Ave. I think we were at a gallery opening. I had been talking to a friend about The North Georgia Gazette, an Arctic newspaper originally published in 1821; I wanted to reprint it somehow. At the time the project was a pipe dream and when my friend saw Rebecca, she ushered her over and said, “You should talk to Rebecca. She’s all about Arctic exploration.” At the time, I think I stuttered through the introduction. Like many encounters, the virtue of our handshake was not in what was said but a recognition of friendliness. Since then I’ve followed Rebecca’s work pretty closely. We put the Gazette together and even travelled to Philly at one point to put up an art show. We share a number of interests in book making and comics; her work has inspired my own in different ways. I’ve always appreciated its tactile honesty. There is something defiant about the unslick-ness of her tone, the efficiency of her energy. If she wants to illustrate a relationship with the ocean, she literally draws with it, or swims in it, or writes it a letter. She makes illustrated chapbooks connecting geographical exploration with a romantic biography. Or, upon recognizing weakness creates a ritual of exercise-as-performance. In everything there is a direct connection between the gut of her impulse and the resulting aesthetic experience. The distilled object–a photograph, a sculpture or video–is the result. Given her interest in exploration, it makes sense she would approach her practice so efficiently–it is as though she must employ economy in order to anticipate unknown distances ahead, in order to conserve energy and resources. Each piece is evidence of a new discovery within an interior landscape–a place that could be a country or a poem.
Caroline Picard: What does it mean to explore something? What is your relationship to the iceberg?
Rebecca Mir: When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time scrambling over seaweed covered rocks and investigating tide pools by the beach, or building fairy houses in the roots of spruce trees on Monhegan Island. I channel some of that excitement when I’m walking through a new place, or building something in my studio. Exploration is partly about the physical space of exploring, and then it’s all the pieces of the story surrounding the exploration. Some of my projects rely more heavily on the actual journey, to the water, or mountain, or the preparations for this journey. Getting directions from a deck of tarot cards for instance. Or the journey takes place entirely on paper. In a comic about exploring the sea floor and bumping into perished explorers.
Icebergs are explorers too. They break off of a glacier and set out a trip through the ocean. Sometimes they stop in shallow water and become an island. They are beautiful, but sometimes dangerous, to us. I am attracted to cold places and large bodies of water. It’s only fitting really that I think icebergs are sexy and fun to draw.
CP: How do you relate to the mediums you employ? How do you chose, for instance, whether something is made out of paper, or bound in a book, or constructed with plywood?
RM: When I first decided to be an artist, (somewhere around fourteen?) I was very old fashioned. I wanted to carve women in stone. I think this might be directly related to watching a film on Camille Claudel. I had a very romantic sense of the artist studio. Romantic and dramatic and devastating. I quickly gave up on figure drawing and sculpture for less figurative sculpture projects in fiber and ceramics. But I’ve returned to working with the figure and stone. I started drawing again, about five years ago, with comics. And I’ve been working with rocks again, in sculptures and drawings. It’s sort of tying up the loose ends of my roots. Choosing materials is sometimes a game. Figuring out how to build/draw/capture this idea with what is directly around me. Similar to the fairy house building in the woods. And sometimes this is just where it starts, and then I realize that I have to go seek the right paper, or wood, or rock. Or that I need to go make a photograph. Or find a video camera.
Plywood is great for making rigid things like ice floes and mountains. Paper is great for making water. I like the way crinkled paper makes me think of water stopped in motion; the light hits the crinkles in a similar way to it reflecting on the wavy surface of water. Paper is also great for writing on. When I want to tell a more linear story, I always go back to pen on paper. I turn them into books when there seems to be a group of stories, or a longer one. Books are easier travel companions. I can send them easily in the mail. They take up less space, but require more time.
CP: Do you feel your work is contingent on others? I suppose I am thinking of the photograph you took, where you are swimming in the ocean in the winter. It looks like you are utterly alone, but of course the photograph was taken by someone. I ask because I feel like there is an idea about exploration that it demands a kind of alone-ness—i.e. you are going into unknown territories without being positive that you can return—yet in the action of performing that exploration, or making an art object, or taking a photograph, it seems to me there is an implied ‘you’ or witness…?
RM: Explorations aren’t always alone. Often there are expedition teams. People who help you get to the cave entrance, or carry supplies up the mountain.
I have always been interested in solo adventures. I’ve read a lot of books of solo sailing trips around the world, solo flights etc. I am always curious about some of the worst moments. They seem small on the page, and in the past, but I’m sure they were huge in the moment.
My particular brand of exploration is about being alone. The photograph that you mention, was taken during a walk that I took with my sister, mother and aunt in Maine. We passed a rocky point with a stone church, that I’ve driven by a thousand times. It’s a popular spot to get married. There was a small rocky beach nearby, that I’d never been on before. We walked down and I decided to get in the water. I passed the camera to my sister with some instructions. I was most definitely alone in the water. But I was there to be with the water. So I was alone with the water. And now I’m sharing a racy photograph with you.
CP: All this talk of exploration and solo journeys, and of course, the devastating romanticism of the artist–are you into Bas Jan Ader at all? What do you think of his final boat trip, In Search of the Miraculous?
RM: Yes, totally have a soft spot for Bas Jan Ader. A friend told me to look at his work when I was an undergrad. There weren’t as many books in print of his work then, but I found a description of his boat trip and thought it was the coolest and most poetically self destructive art project I’d ever heard of. Still, I didn’t really think about the size of his boat much til last year. It was only 12 or 13 feet long. That is like paddling a canoe across the Atlantic. I just finished reading Susan Casey’s book about rogue waves (100+ foot waves, more common than you think…..and an awesome read), so I’d prefer a much bigger boat if I sail across the Atlantic.
I also really like his piece I’m too sad to tell you.
CP: What about Buffy? She seems like another hero in your work. I was thinking of the project you did where you did pilates while watching all the episodes. How did you come up with that as a project? How do you feel (if you do) like she fits into your artistic mythology?
RM: Yes Buffy is a hero. Super strong girl kicking lots of supernatural ass with total lesbo best friend – what is not to love? During the last episode of the show, Willow (Buffy’s best friend, conveniently a witch) casts a spell that gives all the potential slayers the super strength that Buffy has. And then they head into battle. There are lots of portals in the Buffyverse (as it’s sometimes refered to). So I started thinking about the TV as a portal to the Buffyverse. And if I had a ritual to do while watching the show on TV, then I might be able to access it/enter the portal via this repetition. So I had a pilates routine that I would every day in front of an episode of Buffy. The fight scenes were usually at the end of each episode, so I would also fight along with my punching bag at the end. For five months I had slayer training with Buffy every day, in my apartment/the Buffyverse. At the end I was indeed stronger. I also immediately noticed that my dreams were less insanely violent. And I stopped getting a cold every other week. The spell/ritual worked.
CP: How would you characterize your relationship to Chicago?
RM: Well, if the ocean is my lover, then Chicago is a great housemate. We get along really well.
I really like the city, and the people here. I’ve been here for almost ten years though, and I still get homesick for a rocky coast. But I realized a while back that if I left town every couple of months, and visited the ocean at least twice a year, that I could really be happy living in the Midwest.
CP: What is the handmade book for?
RM: Handmade books are friends. If you take care of them, and they stick with you and make you feel better.
CP: Will you talk a bit about the project/video where you walked around the lake with a homemade telephone?
RM: I have this thing for long distances. I think about them often.
In part because a lot of good friends live far away. And I had been in a series of relationships with people who lived elsewhere. (The romantic relationships didn’t survive the distance.)
I wanted to put a ridiculous amount of effort into talking to someone. I wanted to physically cover a fraction of the distance that we frequently communicate across. A tin can telephone seemed to be the right tool for this exercise. I needed a length that was both daunting (for this specific task) and nearly insignificant these days. I picked a mile. And began making the phone.
My friend Dan lives near the beach in Indiana, and I always remembered from visits that the beach was rather empty in the off season. The beach didn’t curve too much either, so it seemed like it would be ideal for unwinding a mile long tin can telephone. I drove out to Miller Beach with two friends, two video cameras, and some audio recording equipment. Andrea, Aay and I set everything up right in front of the path from Dan’s house. Andrea stayed with the two cameras at the starting point. Aay and I began walking away from her, and each other, unwinding the telephone as we walked.
The goal was to have a conversation with a mile of beach in between us. And if it worked, record it. It was a lovely walk for a while. A warm and windy and sunny April day. And then there were lots and lots of knots and tangles in the string. At first just a few. And then I got stuck and I couldn’t go any further. Apparently Aay had lots of knots in the beginning but then it was smooth unraveling. So Aay and I never got to talk on the tin can telephone. Which was okay. I was mostly interested in the experiment, and the walk. And the videos of Aay and I walking away from the camera (there were two cameras, one on Aay and one on me) and disappearing into the distance captured these sort of quiet adventurers off seeking a conversation.
CP: Another thing I notice is how you characterize dynamic and personal relationships with traditionally inanimate things (like books, for instance, or Chicago, or the Ocean)–I’m particularly struck by how that characterizations relates to your description of the failed conversation with Aay–the contraption of the phone seems as alive and integral as Aay, or Dan, or the beach. In other words, you seem to describe a deep feeling connection to your environment and the things that occupy that environment. I’m curious about what role you see your work playing in that equation?
I absolutely have a deep connection to environments. Partly because when I was growing up in Maine, the ocean was such a calming force for me. Environments have a strong effects on their inhabitants. And we effect our environments. (This is where I tell you that global warming is real. And I admit that I am a nerd.) I meant it before when I said icebergs are sexy. A lot of my work is about romantic relationships with the environment. The romantic sense of adventure and conquest, and also heartache (a.k.a. natural disasters, glaciers melting)
One of my ongoing projects is about my long distance relationship with the ocean (which is why I was in the ocean by myself for that photo, I was visiting her). I joked once in a love letter (sent by bottle via the Mississippi river) that if I waited long enough in the Midwest the ocean would make it to me. Seriously, global warming is real.
CP: Rubaccaquon! I can’t believe I forgot to ask about that–I just thought about it, because it also, as a project, seems to relate to the personal dynamism I mentioned before–in so far as you are defining a personal country, right? And then also how that reflect on the power and idea of naming something. Could you talk a little bit about that?
RM: I have a lot of nicknames. Rubaccaquon is one. (I believe Aay Preston-Myint is responsible) I started using it as a website name, an alter ego/placeholder name, since I had been toying with the idea of changing my last name. And when I decided to swap Grady for Mir, I started to think that maybe Rubaccaquon was really a place after all. I was thinking a little bit about Yvette Poorter’s backyard Canadian soil residency project. If she could bring Canada with her to the Netherlands, then I could certainly date the ocean and have my own country. So Rubaccaquon became a nation/notion.
Discovering things and places is fun. Naming them helps with the storytelling that comes after the discovery.
CP: What have you been working on lately?
RM: I’ve been thinking a lot about space recently. Thinking and reading and doodling about space. Both outer space and the space in my apartment. I am making some directional and time devices/sculptures out of wood, metal, paper and stones. I’ve also been looking at a lot of Victorian acrostic jewelry. I want my next love letter to the ocean to be in stones. A large scale series of stones set in sand instead of gold.
I’m making a mountain range for my apartment, out of plywood. And I’ve been making a lot of books. Some have been edits of things I’ve worked on in the past. I have an unpublished comic kicking around, that I’m finally going to print. And I made a new zine called SHE IS RESTLESS for the Chicago Zine Fest last month.
See more of Rebecca’s work by going here.
This week: Our Open Engagement series draws to a close with an interview with conference organizers Jen Delos Reyes and Harrell Fletcher.
Vancouver based photographer Dina Goldstein‘s new series Fallen Princesses takes a look at the classic fairy tale heroines of our youth from the vantage point of our later years and finds things not exactly as we remember them.
“As a young girl, growing up abroad, I was not exposed to Fairy tales. These new discoveries lead to my fascination with the origins of Fairy tales. I explored the original brothers Grimm’s stories and found that they have very dark and sometimes gruesome aspects, many of which were changed by Disney. I began to imagine Disney’s perfect Princesses juxtaposed with real issues that were affecting women around me, such as illness, addiction and self-image issues.”
The series goes on exhibit in October.