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.
Weinberg Newton Gallery: You contributed not only a video piece, but a performance to The Way the Mystic Sees. As both are complements, how do you feel the performative aspect helps the viewer understand your NEO- CRAFT project? May you explain a little about the project first?
Marilyn Volkman: Immediately, I have to say it’s hard for me to speak about NEO- CRAFT outside of NEO- CRAFT. It’s about fully buying into the moment. NEO- CRAFT is experienced in real-time, so the video for The Way the Mystic Sees functions as a prelude to the event. At the same time, it’s an excerpt of one of the most didactic moments of the performance, which is about human connection being replaced by online connection. This ties back to the conversation of surveillance and data because I think most people feel like giving away their data is the most urgent risk we face in terms of privacy. But there’s also another gigantic danger, which is losing our capacities for human connection. That’s what the video is actually referring to. Data protection and human connection are both really important, but in NEO- CRAFT I try to talk about the latter as the most alarming of the two.
And about the project itself...
NEO- CRAFT is a fully integrated system of philosophical thinking tools allowing art producers to proactively engage with systems of power by utilizing the expressive potential of art for personal and social gain. Focusing on the creation of meaningful art experiences, the philosophy of NEO- CRAFT does not propose specific outcomes, but re-imagines the values of professionalism in free market economies with a special interest in creating ties between contemporary capitalism and developing arenas. NEO- CRAFT reaches the public through seminars, interactive workbooks, one-on-one sessions and takeaway objects.
WNG: In the performance, you take on the character of self-help guru of sorts. Have you had any training as an actor? Did you use any person(s) as a model for your presentation method?
MV: My automatic thought when you ask this is about who should answer. It’s going to be me, but that’s how I think about performance in relation to art. The way I see it -- an artist is not always the best person to answer a particular question. Acting for me is about finding the right mouthpiece to explore an idea for an audience. For NEO- CRAFT, the right person emerged as a motivational speaker pretty early on. Around that time I was also working a sales job, reading a lot of self-help books and I was very much into watching youtube videos of evangelical preachers. Immediately I felt a lot of parallels with the art world and figured it was a good idea to create a more obvious cult experience for artists. One that could lead to a new, or uncommon way of asking questions in art contexts.
But to answer your question... Yes, I do have training as an actor. I majored in theater on a whim after pulling out of an ROTC scholarship, but only for a semester. Sometimes I still act in theater productions in the Netherlands when I have time. In reality though, I owe that training to my mother and her side of the family. They’re all storytellers, actors, drama teachers and basically eccentric South Texas personalities with deep character. They taught me how to craft speech and stage presence in relationship to a particular audience from an early age. The first theater productions I was in were directed by my mom. So acting for me happens on a very biological level. It’s how I grew up.
WNG: You live in the Netherlands. Is the tech-savvy entrepreneur as prevalent in Dutch culture as it is in American culture, or do you find the critique you’re engaging in to be more pointed toward Silicon Valley and its cultural exports to places such as Germany and China?
MV: Well, they are really tech savvy in the Netherlands. In terms of surveillance, it seems like everything is monitored, at least at a government level. You have to register where you live, you have a national identity card that links to a database and tracks pretty much everything about you. It’s common knowledge that the government is watching you. Someone told me once that they received a letter letting them know their phone calls had been monitored for months during an investigation on a neighbor. So in a sense, they might be more tech savvy in terms of surveillance in the Netherlands, but from what I understand, it’s the government doing it and not businesses. Europe considers data protection by companies as a fundamental human right. So the tech savvy entrepreneurs exist, but I think they feel less free to do what they want than their counterparts in the US.
With NEO- CRAFT, there are multiple levels. When I think about surveillance and technology, whether it’s the government or a business doing it, it’s this sinister behind the scenes way of exploiting a public that I’m thinking about. NEO- CRAFT externalizes this by introducing a guru who takes advantage of the audience out in the open by selling behind the scenes secrets of how to do it yourself. This of course is tongue in cheek, because the end of the performance is about human connection. But you may also leave wanting a NEO- CRAFT t-shirt, so the way I engage with exploitation is by taking on the performative vernaculars of con-artistry to get at deep human need.
One other parallel is that all of these techniques that companies use to take your data and make money are algorithmic. NEO- CRAFT works in a similar way. I’m constantly taking note of how people react to certain elements of performance, speech, or gesture, and then use those ‘algorithmically’ to steer the audience through a narrative arc, ending with real questions about what it is we’re doing in that space.
Last week, I did NEO- CRAFT for the first time in China. It’s still very fresh, but something that surprised me was that the performance seemed to come across as more sincere. That might have been the limitation of my translations or the shift in context, but maybe it also had to do with Shanghai being a setting where projections of limitless entrepreneurial growth aren’t as absurd as they might seem elsewhere. I have a lot to think about.
Weinberg Newton Gallery: Your contribution to the exhibition is a HD three channel video titled Instrumental, which echoes throughout the gallery. As someone whose work focuses on the intimacy of power structures, this reflects the solitude of the guards on film, especially when coupled with the singing of “You Will Be Found” from the Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen. Airport security, and airports in general, are places of anxiety on a number of levels, yet Instrumental is almost a reestablishment of autonomy by the subjects. Was that the intention of this piece?
Asa Mendelsohn: While I was working on this, a friend shared a text by Simone Browne, who refers to the airport as a “security theater.” That made a lot of sense to me, as a way to describe the intricacy of the security work that takes place at the airport — where long checkpoint lines, escalators, scrolling info screens, build a fragmented, moving stage — but also as a way to describe how that people who work in these spaces are enlisted as its actors.
When and where is it possible to claim autonomy from the state, or from your manager? The instability of autonomy is normal, and is its own kind of horror. I wanted the work I did at the airport to address that instability. In that way it felt important to include not just sequences of singing, but the moments leading up to song, and the moments after, waiting around, setting up.
There’s a moment right before Joe starts singing “You Will Be Found” when you can hear the airport music in the background. Joe’s getting ready to start singing, but at this point we’ve been filming for awhile and he’s already warmed up, waiting for a second camera. He starts singing along to the airport. He laughs: “I wish I knew this song.”
WNG: There’s a lot of “dancing” in the piece, whether seemingly more choreographed (as with the wheelchair) or in subtler fashion (I’m thinking of the movement of the escalators). Were you thinking about these actions as something that occurs by happenstance in an airport, or as motion with which to pair with singing?
AM: Tieri’s dance with the wheelchair was actually a lot less directed than the sequences on the escalators. It was more spontaneous. He started dancing that day as a way to loosen up, in order to sing, and then his cumbia moved across the floor. We were filming at the far end of Terminal 2 near an area closed off for construction, and it was relatively quiet. There happened to be these wheelchairs, and having already gotten over there, Tieri took one as a partner. After he did this once we were like yes of course, so then he did it again. That was one of the days it was just me and him working together, and we’d already met a few times, so I think it was more possible to feel out the space. The image of Tieri pushing the empty dancing chair came through that process of play. The shots on the escalators were a bit different, these aspirational moments of music video choreography that I included in iteration, to show the process of trying to make the image.
WNG: Being in their day-to-day job, were the security guards more comfortable performing in front of their colleagues, or did you have to goad them a bit? Were any permissions involved, in terms of their bosses consenting to their being recorded?
AM: There were a lot of permissions involved, and separate conversations with each performer about what kind of singing they’re into, what they needed to feel comfortable. I knew I wanted to work one-on-one with people, so the process of directing was pretty idiosyncratic and came out of conversations. With another performer, this guy Lou who’s actually a retired TSA agent who made a cameo at the airport to sing Frank Sinatra songs, we created a karaoke setup in a food court. I ended up being most interested in how these two performers, Joe and Tieri, bounce off each other, so I edited the three channel version of the work to feature their songs.
I was granted permission to film there within the framework of creating a public artwork, commissioned by the airport. I had support from curators and security managers across the different companies working under the umbrella of airport security. I was able to work with performers while they were on the clock. A single channel version of the work was on view in two locations for a year, on the same monitors that display ads for Clinique or CNN or whatever. There’s a real tension in the work for me, between my intention to talk about about precarity and alienation, and what I think the airport liked about my proposal — the possibility to humanize airport security, make it more musical. I’m interested in that tension — is it legible viewing the work now, in the gallery, in the context of a show about surveillance?
WNG: Considering the above, what do you intend to address next in your work?
AM: While I was working at the airport I made a performance with security staff at the Blanton Museum of Art at UT Austin, that felt pretty directly related. For the duration of a free, mostly musical public performance event, gallery assistants roved through museum spaces, narrating what they observed. Their voices were miked and carried across the museum mezzanine and lobby, while also running through a voice to text software displaying fragments from four performers speech on a monitor. Like at the airport, at the museum I was interested in the seams of a performance, and how the labor of security procedures might be re-ordered by their seams.
Recent collaborations have involved working with voice in different ways, writing screenplays for operatic voices, and I have been working with an amazing singer, Hillary Jean Young, on the score for the film I’m working on now. The film is pretty different in form than anything I’ve made before, a feature-length essay reflecting on relationships between coalitional organizing and passing, and between activism and fantasy, looking, in part, at the legacy of a grassroots movement that successfully resisted private military development in Southern California in the mid-2000s. I’m editing right now, working through really challenging questions about my own voice.
Today we’re joined by the Chicago-based artist Max Guy, who holds a BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art, as well as an MFA from Northwestern University. For The Way the Mystic Sees, Max contributed Untitled (Red Mask), Untitled (Yellow Mask), and Untitled (Blue Mask), all 2018. Without further adieu, let’s take it away.
Weinberg Newton Gallery: An extension of your previous work, you contributed a series of steel masks to The Way the Mystic Sees. How do you posit these—as disguises, or something more ceremonial?
Max Guy: This trio was described by a friend as a “punctuation” to my ongoing series of cut-out masks, which is currently a collection of around 100 or so iterations of masks that I started in 2017. Those were prototypes for a larger mask, cut from extruded Styrofoam, that I’d used in a performance. At that time I was interested in performing with the mask, so the material was more ergonomic, and the method of cutting out prototypes from paper was also a quick way to iterate. The decision to cut these from steel, and paint them in primary colors was also an ergonomic decision in a way. Steel is rigid so it can communicate a kind of flatness, and is magnetic, so it’s easy to hang. Primary colors came more intuitively as well in this case.
I don’t see them being used as a disguise at the moment, but I also wouldn’t completely abandon the idea. The three masks exhibited are more ornamental. If you can call the examination of the masks a ceremony, then they might be ceremonial masks. I’ve visited a lot of homes and tourist destinations where masks are treated as souvenirs, and divorced from any ceremony (other than their exchange). I grew up in New York City, in a home decorated with masks that were purchased as souvenirs and alienated from the traditions in Africa and the Caribbean that birthed them. Maybe for some people they hold a symbolic value as some sort of link to their past, but my fascination with masks came from the horror in gazing at these stoic, disembodied faces on the walls of my home. I saw them in my therapist’s office growing up and took comfort in the fact that if I couldn’t look him in the eye, I could look at them. For the moment, I’m happy to look as these masks formally, and to think about a face’s distinct social implications.
WNG: Cut forms feature heavily in your artistic practice. Is this a way to represent malleability of the art object, of that which it conceals, or which it may even project?
MG: I cut silhouetted forms, and my impulse to cut is a separate one from my use of outline or silhouette. Cutting-out a is a reductive action and I don’t know if looking at a silhouette is always reductive. As you said, we project/add quite a lot on/to a silhouette. I like the different things you can do with a cutout: you can circumscribe, circumnavigate, omit, divide, trace. Blades, lasers, water-jets, these are an entirely different set of technologies that are used to cut things from whatever happens with the use of silhouettes, outlines, stencils, etc.
For me, silhouettes imply shadows, concealment, projection, as you said. They evoke different cognitive and psychological principles. My favorite silhouettes are Kara Walker’s, because with them she’s able to make the viewer assume races, sexualities, racial hierarchies, inferred acts of violence, and all with one color.
Silhouettes and concealment are used in motion capture studies for CGI and surveillance–I don’t think that cutouts really have anything to do with this. I can build out from a silhouette, its flatness leaves a lot to be demanded, whole other dimensions. But when you cut something it’s already a three-dimensional material.
WNG: You frequently use color in your work, both semiotically as a way to impact the viewer. How does the use of, in this case primary colors, tie in with the notion of surveillance? As a method of distraction, or something much more engrossing?
MG: I don’t really have a color theory, and as I said before, the use of primary colors was more functional in this case. Red, blue and yellow are fundamentally unique from one another and my hope in usuing them was to distinguish each face, despite similarities in outline and cut forms. In this way, I was interested in creating characters out of each face. I like work that can use color evocatively in this way.
WNG: You’ve previously mentioned an interest in pareidolia, and how it’s used to build facial detection software. As our society becomes (amazingly even more) image-based, do you believe that the opposite can be taught—the face as an unrecognizable form as we become more detached from those around us?
MG: Facial recognition is a social thing–on a personal note I don’t know if I would want to learn how to un-recognize a face. The BBC series The Human Face, is a really fun show with John Cleese that goes into all of the reason humans need to be able to recognize a face and its myriad expressions. I read somewhere that 1 in 50 people live with Prosopagnosia, a disorder that leaves people unable to recognize faces. The painter Chuck Close has it, and probably also had a hand in how image-based our society now is.
One of the things I think about the most when making these masks is how in a number of years, I read more about artificial intelligence and machine learning than the mapping of the human mind, the kind of studies of empathy, and the functions of the brain. Even if this was dilettantish reading, the leap (and clear path) from cognitive science to machine learning has me very uneasy. Facial recognition technology–as an offshoot of artificial intelligence–is, to quote a friend, “a scientifically unsound cover story for expanding the surveillance state.” Out of paranoia I fear that even technologies used to un-recognize, to ignore, certain faces might be used in some sinister way. I hope that we’re not learning unlearning facial recognition!