November 16, 2015 · Print This Article
Many of us have at least once known the feeling: Am I being too loud? Am I yelling right now? Can everyone hear me chewing? Is the sound of moving my chair along the floor driving everyone else into a steaming rage? You pull out your headphones or look up from your work and glance around, anticipating dirty looks from officemates or strangers. Our sense of sonic etiquette is based in substantial part in the assessing of external responses to our behavior. But imagine now, if it requires imagining, that you have never been able to hear yourself. That your sense of which sounds are too loud or too soft, which sounds are good and not good, which sounds are deemed appropriate for which situations, has been determined by the reactions and standards of people whose experience of the world is radically different from your own.
Christine Sun Kim is a sound artist who has been deaf since birth, and who uses the medium to question “the ownership of sound”. She uses myriad forms (performance, drawing, painting) to explore her relationship with sound and its role in social behavior and spoken communication. Earlier this fall, I had the delightfully grating experience of Kim’s Fingertap Quartet at Links Hall, presented by Illinois Humanities. Fingertap Quartet engages with the social valuation of sound through a play on Harry Roseman’s contribution to Draw It With Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment. Replacing Roseman’s use of “a work [of art]” with “a sound” yields the quartet of prompts in the piece:
1. A sound that you like and think is good.
2. A sound that you don’t like and don’t think is good.
3. A sound that you like, but suspect might not be good.
4. A sound that you don’t like but have to admit is good.
Christine Sun Kim. Photos by Claire Britt, via Illinois Humanities.
Just prior to the performance, I had the opportunity to participate in a Master Class with Kim and Danielle Linzer (Director of Access and Community Programs for the Whitney Museum of American Art), as a part of the Elective Studies series. (If you aren’t familiar with Elective Studies, it’s a fairly new and truly special bit of programming from Illinois Humanities that provides unique educational opportunities for artists. I heartily recommend keeping an eye on it.) Kim’s professional practice is somewhat two-pronged; in addition to her personal art practice, she is also an active educator. Kim and Linzer have been working together for years on something called The Vlog Project, a video series created by the Whitney Museum to provide inclusive access to contemporary art. The videos feature a mix of American Sign Language and visible text, and Kim and Linzer have been experimenting throughout the process to find the right blend of techniques to yield the best results. In addition to hosting the master class, Illinois Humanities also worked with Kim, Linzer, Jennifer Hart, and Matt Dans to film two new vlogs in Chicago, which should be available online soon.
These vlogs are also certainly accessible to hearing viewers, and are listed amid other content on the Whitney website, so while they are searchable under the “Access” tab, they can also be stumbled upon by visitors to the site. More than merely comprehensible to a hearing audience, they are interesting to watch, providing information not only about a specific exhibition or artwork, but also giving a glimpse into the personality of the individual, and the unique expressive qualities of ASL. For example, in this video, Kim discusses the Whitney exhibition Singular Visions, with particular attention to Paul Chan’s 2005 piece 1st
Light. You can really see here, especially in her description of the exhibition layout, the spatiality of ASL.
The master class was largely a discussion of best practices and lessons learned as they’ve developed this initiative. The range of attendees was fairly broad within people working in the arts and/or accessibility, including representatives from large, established institutions like the MCA to more DIY endeavors like the Chicago Home Theater Festival, as well as individual artists and professionals. Perhaps more importantly, the range of familiarity with Deaf culture and access initiatives was vast. Some of us knew little beyond perhaps the ASL alphabet and a general awareness that ableism is an issue in the art world. Some were professional ASL translators, some were deaf artists, educators, and other professionals.
While the class was at times a bit dry for someone already somewhat experienced in video, and not necessarily planning to generate this specific kind of content in the future (which was, after all, what everyone was there to learn to do), this was a really illuminating experience. In addition to providing me with a bigger picture understanding of Kim’s practice, the workshop allowed me to witness conversations around the culture and concerns of certain deaf individuals and of Deaf communities as relates to media production. For example, content created by hearing people for deaf people can sometimes miss the mark on how much visual information is occurring at once. A one-shot video of someone standing still signing in front of a single image or blank background feels like a dry PSA, but a video with signing, captions, infographics, jump cuts, and other complexities may be too dense to really be absorbed. (Which isn’t to say hearing people creating content for hearing audiences don’t often hit the same stumbling block.) It was getting the sense of the personalities and interests of particular individuals in the room, however, which contributed most to my appreciation of the performance afterward.
Kim, smiling at you from behind a laptop, begins Fingertap Quartet by addressing the audience without the use of ASL or an interpreter, as you watch her typing and scrolling projected live behind her. Her voice–her unique personality in communicating–comes through clearly in the timing of her typing, her facial expressions, her sense of humor. She introduces you to the project, explaining the four prompts that led her to create the Quartet. The sound files within the performance were created through collaboration with Dev Hynes of Blood Orange, (another compelling artist, whose media presence often engages with other activist issues). Kim used her voice, transducers, and recording equipment to create audio recordings, as well as textual descriptions to use in working with Hynes on the compositions.
When we were seated, a section at the front to one side was reserved for audience members who would need ASL interpretation. This was not, however, a simple facilitation of access, but a fundamental part of the performance. As each of the four sound sequences was played, the hearing members of the audience experienced a high-volume audioscape of Kim’s good and bad sounds. (“Sorry!”, Kim typed after seeing me put in my ear plugs–not to keep the sounds out, but to reduce them to a volume I could more comfortably understand. My hearing difficulties are the self-imposed result of youthful foolishness and noise bands.) The deaf members of the audience, however, had a totally different experience. Kim sat near them, and held an animated conversation in ASL about (I think) what kinds of experiences she was alluding to in her texts and recordings. There are sounds that are pleasing to make, but seem to bother the people who hear them: a sound that you like, but suspect might not be good. I found myself bouncing my attention between the sounds and attempting to understand snippets of the conversation, several of the participants of which were people I had spent the prior hours with, but now without the intervening speech of the interpreter. Despite my understanding of facial expressions and body language, and a slight familiarity with the conversationalists, this was something I could not be a part of. This was not something I could even fully comprehend. This part was not designed for me, just as the auditory part of the performance was not designed for some of the others. But all parts were necessary for the event to take place.
After all the dialogue about inclusivity, about how to invite larger populations into something shared, here was a great example of the power of having totally different experiences running parallel to each other as a part of the same piece. We all could see the visual representation of the sound file, the peaks and valleys of the .wav as we moved along its timeline, and could read Kim’s typed text, but for much of Fingertap Quartet each audience member was on one of a few possible tracks. Not everyone was at an identical performance, but I suspect the salience of that fact was a part of all of them. The sounds were certainly not all sounds most people would like, and the inability to access an aspect of the performance was potentially frustrating, but the overall experience was challenging in a pleasing way. An attempt to categorize it into one of the four prompts brought me to this compromise: A sound you don’t like, but that you enjoy.
Experiences are always tempered by the bodies in which they occur. Sometimes an increased awareness of this fact results in efforts to produce content that can be accessed by a larger percentage of those bodies. Another approach, as found here, is to create work that weaves those very difference into the fabric of the art itself.
Heather Lynn is a Chicago artist best known for the band Pure Magical Love, the opera Templehead, and running Church of Templehead gallery with her partner, Michael Perkins. Her newest project, Genesis and Nemesis, set to open in September, is a three-act play that blends elements of traditional theater, performance art, video, installation, ritual, music, Reiki, classic special effects, and dance. Staged in an immersive environment, the audience is invited into a post-apocalyptic compound for an experience that is part celebration, part cautionary tale.
Genesis and Nemesis video stills courtesy of the artist.
Although Lynn is the writer and co-director of this piece, and plays the role of Mary Malachai, it is by no means a solo project. The work is being developed in collaboration with a group of Chicago-based artists, musicians, healers, and activists, including Efrén Adkins , Kaycee Conaway, Sky Cubacub, Zach Hebert, José Hernández, Zachary Hutchinson, Veronica Hyde, Andi Jane, Paul Klekner, Bret Koontz, Kalina Malyszko, Sarah Marie, Isabelle McGuire, Ariel Mejia, P. Michael, Michael Perkins, Jon Poindexter, Travis, and Julia Zinn.
In anticipation of this forthcoming production, I sat down with Lynn to ask her a few questions. Imagine a backdrop of shining, multi-patterned tapestries being meticulously constructed from dollar store treasures, mismatched fabrics, glitter, trash, glue. They are beautiful, in an obsessive, maximalist way. Heather and I sit at a small table on chairs she has reupholstered with dark and glittering fabric.
Can you tell me about your background as an artist?
There’s really no one defining thing. I feel like by the time I’m known as “that girl who does that thing,” it’s time to move on. I’m an untrained artist; I dropped out of high school. My only training really is dance, and I think that influences a lot of the way I work. I had my own dance company for a while. When I was younger, I was in this band that got a lot of attention. I went through a phase where I did watercolor paintings. [Now,] people keep asking me how the new opera is going, like “oh, she’s the girl who does the operas.” I believe that the best of us comes out when you’re creating a structure that you need to exist. And for me it’s about changing the context.
How has your dance training influenced other aspects of your practice?
Take ballet: you learn these really repetitive mundane things, but you learn them to shape your body into the type of machine that can make these amazing things. It’s that idea that if you do it every day, you put the work in, that’s what matters. I’m very work-oriented. The work I like best is work where I can see the effort behind it, effort is often more interesting to me than a beautiful result.
My favorite job was when I worked at Fannie Mae. When there was nothing to do, there were just pans and pans of chocolate in back, they all need to go in little white cups. There’s no way you’ll ever get them all done, but there’s always some to do. So you just do it, and it’s about finding pleasure in the task. You can put art into anything you do, even if it’s just a game you play in your head. You do the peasant work, but you act like a goddess.
If my brand is anything, it’s relentless sincerity and hard work. I’m never really worried about anyone ripping me off. What are they going to steal? The hours of intensive work I do myself? The feminism and politics? Please, steal that!
Do you feel like there is a common denominator across your shifts in medium?
Community-based, a lot of work, constantly topping myself, really DIY. Creating my own world. I have a world in my head, and I feel very at odds with the outside world. Another defining thing was sorting out my mental illness—or what we call mental illness. I think a lot of it is just being sensitive in a world that doesn’t stop to acknowledge all the ways it’s fucked up. And [art] is my way of sorting through that and surviving. A lot of my mental health stuff sorted itself out when I started really manifesting the things I see in my head with [the band] Pure Magical Love. I wrote these mythologies that were about expelling certain demons. Everything I do is me trying to be normal, but everything in my head is so crazy it comes out all fantastical.
The way I work it’s usually about transforming something, whether it’s myself, the space I’m in, the pile of garbage into something beautiful to worship. We make choices all the time, every day, and we are constantly transforming things. I like to take control of that—being mindful of the transformations I make.
You do a lot of community work in your gallery, and much of your artistic work is driven by community and social issues. How does that fit into your artistic practice?
I’ve always been really sensitive about social issues. I had a lot of spaces when I was younger where I didn’t feel safe. If you can’t change the world, change what’s in front of your face. For me the biggest tragedy is any living thing unable to follow its own design, and I grieve for all the living things that don’t get to do that. A lot of my work is a response to displacement. Making a space where you can. I feel like for so long no one wanted me to do anything, so just that act of being visible, of taking up space, was very defiant. You’re part of a sexist scene? You’re part of a bunch of shitty stuff? Put more of you in the room than them. There’s this crazy sincerity about what I do, and it makes some people so nervous.
So can you talk a little bit about this new project?
I feel like this is a companion to [the post-apocalyptic opera] Templehead. I didn’t feel done with it. Templehead was about these people who have been displaced. They’re about to go extinct, but they find beauty and meaning when they can. [Genesis] is more about who survives, who benefits, who knows this is gonna happen and doesn’t stop it. People with money access would end up safe. When you’re dealing with money, it becomes abstract, and you’re not thinking about how having an extra three points on your stock is going to affect a town, because you’re not thinking about the community. Money can become a mental illness.
I wanted to reimagine [the Templehead story] where we don’t have to die, and we can evolve to meet the challenges that we’ve created for ourselves. Templehead ended on this sad, bittersweet note. This is going to end on a very uplifting, empowered note. One our collaborators practices Reiki, and at the end we do this ritual spell to activate the entire room. A bunch of people in a room, caring about the same thing, can have a positive impact. That’s kind of what this play’s about: the different gifts we have, how they can come together and fight something.
Where does the title, Genesis and Nemesis, come from? In your work there is often creation and destruction occurring simultaneously, and that title feels like a good encapsulation of that.
In this world in the future, there’s this fable about a boy named Genesis and his sister Nemesis. After the Unrest, they find this beautiful beach with all these minerals that could be used to rebuild the world. He wanted to find people to help them transform the minerals into materials, and she thought the beach was beautiful and wanted to protect it. They fought. He went off to find people, she warned him not to come back or she’d have to kill him. He comes back and she’s dead, she didn’t have anything to eat. It’s this story to instruct people to value the greater good over nature, a way of making people think about things a certain way. [But] Genesis and Nemesis were actually one person, turned into two. The way we remember always has an agenda.
We wouldn’t need to create if there was no destruction. But this is the world I live in, so I create and destroy with equal joy, and I’m very upfront about it. Collapsing the binary, for me that’s what it’s about. I don’t want like a nice story that wraps up neatly, I want a good story where we dig into this shit about ourselves that we’re constantly learning.
At the end of the day, in spite of it being about all this global stuff, it’s really about my journey. I see things that aren’t there, I constantly have to second guess what I’m seeing and feeling, but that actually worked to my advantage, because I’m not afraid to not know. I’m not afraid of what a mess it is; you’re part of the mess. Anyone that says artists shouldn’t be narcissists doesn’t really know what it means to tell yourself that you’re good enough to send something into the world. You have to start with the ego, you have to know what you want for yourself. You start with the things you care about, and it spirals out. I think you connect systems of oppression when you start with yourself.
Looking at the visual aesthetic of the things you make, there’s certainly a sort of controlled chaos.
For me it’s creating new ideas of luxury. Because it’s not all about money. Capitalism wants you to think it is, we have this idea that there’s not enough to go around, and if we want beauty we have to exploit someone, and we think it’s worth it. But you can make something special out of nothing. It doesn’t look like luxury like Versailles, but there’s something elegant about my little reupholstered chairs with my favorite fabric. It’s my own type of luxury, not waiting around for someone to tell me that I can have something nice. I can make nice things. We’ve created such a surplus of bullshit, both physical, emotional mental and it’s time to transform it. That’s where I’m at with this play; I really do have hope for the future. I know because I’m so scared all the time, so I must have hope.
How has this project been collaborative?
Before I fleshed out any of the characters, I got [the performers’] permission to write them into the story. Not to say that every little thing is literally what someone would do, but I really did try to think about giving them choices to naturally commit to. We do a lot of workshopping. Everyone has say. I love this, because it’s a room full of people talking about characters that I wrote, it’s like playing Barbies, but with my brain.
One of the workshops we did, I had everyone come in and tell me: what is it about your character that makes them both awesome, and suck. The thing that makes you awesome is the thing that makes you suck. That’s something with this play I’ve really tried to emphasize: there are no villains. If there’s a villain, it’s a system that is the result of human error. I don’t believe in evil people. I think the minute you’ve decided that someone is just the bad guy, you’re not going to figure anything out. I’m a little nervous about this play, because people want a strong hero and a strong villain, and this isn’t that. There’s definitely a force that needs to be destroyed, and another force that needs to be protected, but you can’t walk away “yeah, these bad guys totally got their asses kicked.”
My friend Sky (Cubacub) is helping with some of the costumes. In the story, I do all these crazy costumes, and I’m not skilled, but people see me doing it they start making these mass-produced really nice costumes. That’s what I feel like I do so often—I’m not really technically good at anything, but people like that I’m obsessed.
And how do the video segments fit in?
There are a few different ways we use them. There are these transmissions that are happening between this giant government that’s in control of everything, and this small group of people in hiding. It’s kind of uncanny… I got this idea for this, and after I started writing it I started hearing about ISIS, and in the months after that they really kind of developed that war through social media.
Working with video is very challenging for me, it’s sort of the opposite of what I do, but I have enjoyed working with video. As a dancer, I’m getting older, my body can’t do all the things it used to do, which is so hard for me to accept because I’m a hundred miles an hour no matter what. But as I can do less, maybe I can make video choreography. I’m interested in exploring it, but I don’t think I’d ever make a straight-up movie. I am really invested in doing work you have to experience live. I think it’s in reaction to the Internet and it being so easy to generate, repost stuff. I want to make things where you have to be there. This has to happen at this point in time because these videos are with these people, these people have busy lives, when this is over we’ll probably never do it again. It has to be seen in person.
geniusÂ brilliant strange that it can only be art, let’s agree to call it a serious WTF? You can find their youtube channel here.
March 20, 2012 · Print This Article
I arrived 11 hours late to the movie. I asked the ticket-man if I’d missed anything. Yeah, he said, you missed the really dirty parts.
Jesse Cain‘s Parts and Labor is 13 hours. It is his hands replacing the engine of a car, piece by piece. The work is shot in sparkling HD, with steady close-up shots. The compositions are arresting. The depths of field are shallow. His hands, the moving parts, the parts his hands are moving shift in and out of focus as he works. It is a durational film, certainly. It is the length of time it took him to perform the action–over two years. The labor dictates the form, the length, the shape.
Parts and Labor showed in a traditional theatrical space, the mainstay Anthology Film Archives. People were welcome to come and go as they pleased (as one might during any other movie), and did. Audience members left to eat a meal, to drink a drink, perhaps, even, to perform their own labors.
The film is tremendous. My brain was abuzz with the ways we can ensure the cinematic experience is maintained when moving images are brought into visual art contexts. The world of art has never been so formally or materially diverse, of course, but not all presentation strategies are utilized equally. I am continually surprised and annoyed by curators, artists and exhibition-makers’ insistence on showing films and videos with integral trajectories on a loop. There are, obviously, makers whose works are meant to be looped and meant for gallery contexts. I don’t know how effective Tony Oursler‘s puppet projections would be on a screen, in a traditional cinematic environment (actually, I bet it’d be amazing). There are also, of course, pieces that can function (and change meaning, etc.) through a variety of exhibition strategies. However, for works meant to be seen in their entirety (and, as obvious as it sounds. starting at the beginning and ending at the end), it’s a travesty to not even allow audiences the chance to experience them in their intended state.
It is, then, with great excitement that I believe the 2012 Whitney Biennial has pulled it off. Along with Elisabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders, the show’s curators, Thomas Beard and Ed Halter (who also run the recently moved and renovated Light Industry) have not only assembled an excellent calendar of screenings, but with the Biennial’s staff have done a wonderful job of presenting films in a museum in a way that honors the unique capacities of both of the traditional exhibition models. On the day attended (Friday), Jerome Hiler‘s quiet, beautiful Words of Mercury began every half hour, on the half hour. There is a sign at the tightened curtain requesting audiences wait until the next half hour to enter. There were still the types of conversations one might rather not hear during a screening, but those mostly died off within the first ten minutes. I sat near the front and absorbed very few of the stings of walk-outs. Noise from other rooms was minimal and Hiler’s hypnotic, textural superimpositions were given the space to breathe they needed.
One hopes other exhibition organizations will follow the lead of the Whitney in their exhibition of time-based works. Through very simple means (in many cases more suggestive and informative than anything else), viewers were able to see the works as they were intended. And, with a show as vast as the biennial, the time until the next screening just means a greater, longer consideration of works whose temporal strategies are less oblique.
Jesse McLeanâ€™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 Jesseâ€™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 Iâ€™d be an animator. I attended Oberlin College and studied art, which didnâ€™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 childrenâ€™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 editingÂ on a Steenbeck. After school I worked in the movie industry in an effort to learn more about cinema. Iâ€™m not sure that happened but I learned a lot about what I didnâ€™t want to do. Iâ€™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 didnâ€™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 theÂ Bearing Witness TrilogyÂ andÂ Magic for Beginners? Are there certain ideas youâ€™re trying to express or moods youâ€™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 itâ€™s an incredibly broad theme, like fandom or fear, and then I look for material and ways to make it more specific. Sometimes Iâ€™ll encounter material that gets the ball rolling. For example, Iâ€™d had the idea for the elimination breakdown sequence inÂ Somewhere only we knowÂ for at least two years before I started that piece. It wasnâ€™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 BeginnersÂ always felt like a bit of a self-portrait, thatâ€™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 workâ€”Iâ€™m thinking about the YouTube-originated fan renditions of My Heart Will Go On or the montage of reality television contestants awaiting their â€œmoment of truthâ€â€”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, thatâ€™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 personâ€™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?
Iâ€™m fascinated by photography and think itâ€™s one of the strangest inventions, especially in relation to empathy. Once a picture is taken, the link to reality stretches but doesnâ€™t break. An empathetic response to the image can be garnered but itâ€™s more unreliable. Obviously, the effect photos can yield is amazing, Iâ€™m thinking about Jason Lazarusâ€™ Too Hard to Keep archive as an example of this power. The photos in the archive couldnâ€™t be kept because what they trigger is too real, even though they are just images. They couldnâ€™t be destroyed, either. This makes me think of a quote from Andy Warhol that I used in Magic for Beginners, â€œPeople 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.â€
When Iâ€™ve described your work in the past, after describing certain elements of the workâ€”the Christian rock band, the obsessions with fan culture, the reality TVâ€”one salient feature that I always feel I have to inject is that it doesnâ€™t feel mocking or cruel. Needless to say, the work is filled with humor and thereâ€™s an obvious level of criticality to these phenomena, but youâ€™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 â€œobvious targetsâ€ 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 Iâ€™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 â€œreal lifeâ€. So I would never ridicule my subject, because Iâ€™m a fan, too. But Iâ€™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, theyâ€™re propulsive, enrapturing and visceral in that way that certain types of cinematic experience only are. Theyâ€™re also both tempered by a return to the other ideas of the pieces, and, incidentally, weâ€™re dropped into a more skeptical world, one that reveals the artifice behind the magic. Iâ€™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 filmâ€™s power now need to exist within a larger intellectual or critical framework?
I wouldnâ€™t say that. I guess if you were interested in forwarding cinemaâ€™s conceptual and material progression you probably wouldnâ€™t make a 16mm flicker film. Youâ€™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 musicâ€™s simple, repetitive slogans are shown to even more inane than weâ€™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.
Iâ€™m fascinated by the works that were exhibited asÂ 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. Iâ€™m wondering why you chose photographs from Iraq (instead of, say, Afghanistan or Canada) as the source.
Iâ€™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 couldnâ€™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, itâ€™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.â€¦) in swimming pools in Iraq. They were so surprising and unfamiliar. The color palette is too vivid and the people look too happy.
I wouldnâ€™t advocate for any blockage of media outlets but I do think itâ€™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 itâ€™s easier to collect these images and deconstruct them than it is to form a considered relationship with them. And I think thatâ€™s political enough.
Onto newer works, you recently exhibited Trust Falls and Remote. Itâ€™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 theyâ€™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, thereâ€™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 Iâ€™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. Iâ€™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. Everyoneâ€”catchers and caughtâ€”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 â€œtrust fallsâ€ 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 Iâ€™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?Â
Iâ€™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 Iâ€™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. Itâ€™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 Iâ€™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, Iâ€™d run the danger of being too cloistered. Itâ€™s hard work and Iâ€™m certain Iâ€™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. Iâ€™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.