Artist Interview: Mary Helena Clark

Weinberg Newton Gallery: Your film The Plant is featured in The Way The Mystic Sees. This self described spy film creates an immersive environment for the onlooker. As there is a sense of embodying the movements of the camera by the individual, the work provokes ideas of being followed and intruded upon. What is the emotion you were trying to create by juxtaposing the sounds of the hustle and bustle of life with these specific, unidentified characters? 

Mary Helena Clark: Foley - the post production art of manufacturing sound effects to sync with an image - and bad foley in particular, were influential to the film’s sound design. The film is about the slippery truth in observation, the overlay of fiction on the observed, and sound that doesn’t quite match with the image does a lot to raise questions of its veracity or authenticity, both tricky ideas. Sound/image relationships become a kind of perceptual test. What is sensed as unnatural? What falls apart or into place when we register the construction of an observation? A key sound in the film is the distortion from wind on the mic that adds to the chaos of the street scene, points to the recording devices, and, like cinema verite style camera work, adds to the documentary claim of the image. If you listen closely you’ll hear inhales between the final “gusts” of wind, a bit of a curtain reveal. When making The Plant, I was interested in tricks-of-the-trade dealt with as a conceptual strategy.

WNG: You are very intentional about the imagery you integrate into the work. The use of sequential images shot in ‘non-modern’ visuals places the viewer in a different environment and time, while simultaneously raising questions of who is being watched and followed today. Is this fluidity and interconnection of time integral to your piece? 

MHC: All of the images were shot in 2011 and 2012 in Chicago on 16mm film. The format plus the telephoto zooms take the images out of the contemporary and allude to 70s films like Coppola’s The Conversation. I’m using the visual reference to access the tropes of the spy and thriller genres, more than to comment on temporality. I wanted to make a film that’s built around searching, inquisitive point-of-view shots. It is a question of who is being watched, but also one of complicity. Are those who appear in the film acting for the camera or are they unknowingly enlisted into it? 

WNG: The Plant considers both sound and its absence, which creates moments of introspection for the viewer. Furthermore, the use of shadows and the walking stick act as metaphors for the physical presence of surveillance, which references cinema noir. Are you using these tropes to illustrate the more physical presence of surveillance as something more nefarious?

MHC: The physical presence that I was interested in was the body behind the camera, whose role shifts from observer when the film is capturing images on the street, to producer when the film’s images are directed and arranged. In a contemporary sense, I think of surveillance as totalizing capture, a large net of looking to be sifted later. The Plant uses a surveilling eye in a more subjective and conspiratorial way, asking how we make meaning. The line of what is or isn’t conspiratorial is both an abiding theme of the genre films The Plant references, and of the monomaniacal thinking artmaking requires. The problems of filmmaking are the problems of how you negotiate an abundance of things, constructing meaning in a way that threatens to impose the Paranoid’s (and also the Detective’s) rigorously ordered fantasy upon the orderless world.  

Often people create avatars as a way to mask their identities. However, there’s an anonymity about architecture which is also a tool for which to lose oneself or the other. Do you see the building as a symbol for concealment? And for who—the designer, the dweller, or the passerby?

The film was designed around the image of a tower, as fortress, panopticon, prison. I was interested in using the architecture of Marina City as a repetitive visual field that I could disrupt with the man waving from the balcony. I wanted the facelessness of the building interrupted by a single figure. It’s a blot, an ambiguous gesture that interrupts the image and begs for interpretation. We can wonder if the person is signaling us, or surrendering, or if we’ve “intercepted” a signal for someone else. The issue of being in or outside of a network of meaning is central to the film, and anonymity of those observed and of the person looking keeps the ricochet of signal and search going.