The following is an interview I conducted with video and performance artist Dayna McLeod. McLeod's work is ripe with humour and socially charged situations and she has received funding for video projects from the Canada Council and the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec. Over the course of the last month, we have been exchanging emails about her video editing process, drawing particular attention to self-imposed rules and the politics of remixing popular television shows. The following transcript contains the highlights from this conversation.
Mél Hogan: Describe your process for working on videos like Nothing Compares to You. How much time did that video take to make – from finding scripts to editing, etc. What are the steps in making a video like that: Watching shows, finding scripts, mapping out content. Tell me everything in detail, unless, of course, it’s a secret.
Dayna McLeod: Nothing Compares to You took 6 months to make. I downloaded the first season from a bittorent site, and found the first season of scripts transcribed by fans at tvtdb.com. These transcripts were saved as pdfs, making them easy to search. At first, I had made some fairly insane rules for myself that I later broke: originally, I searched the transcripts for each word in the song in order; so if I took “It’s” -the first word of Nothing Compares 2 U- from episode 1 and found it, then I would search for “been” from the next episode, in order, until I found it. So if I didn’t find “been” until episode 5, then I would start my search for “seven” in episode 6, and the search would continue numerically and loop back to episode 1 once I reached the last episode of season 1. These rules proved to be insanely tedious, and I threw them out after working on the piece for two months, when I had only gotten through the first verse. It was really important for me to have House perform the entire song—a rule I only broke twice, ie: Foreman says “yard” because not only does House never say “yard” (for the line, “in the backyard”), I could not make him say it by splicing together words, as I did with other words that I couldn’t find him saying, intact. I also wanted to ensure that House was on camera when he said each word, which also proved to be impossible.
[Nothing Compares to You]
MH: Tell me more about these rules. How do you decide which rules to set for yourself? Why have rules in the first place?
DMC: For found footage/quick-cut projects like this, I need to have rules. Otherwise, it’s too easy to get lost in all of the possibilities, especially when I’m looking for such small sound bites. The rules seem to write themselves at first and are a bit of a rush: can I meet my own challenge? It’s like I’m competing against myself. Sometimes setting rules is the best way to jumpstart my brain to a better solution, and throw the rules out completely. That’s extremely satisfying; setting rigid rules and finding a better process that makes these rules seem ridiculous.
MH: Why do you do what you do? What time of day do you work? Is the process meditative? How many hours in a row can you work at this?
DMC: I’m not sure if this video making process was particularly meditative; it was more of an endurance challenge. I usually work at night, or all day, depending on the project and my other time commitments. A project like this is both addictive and repulsive; addictive because it’s a challenge to see if I can do it, and repulsive, because after about 5 hours in a row of working on it, I start to force words to work, and they don’t, and it’s frustrating. Also watching the same show over and over again, especially in 1-second sound bites, becomes annoying and irritating, especially when you aren’t having success, or you only make it through one line in an editing session. That’s how I know when to stop, when I can’t stand the show or the searching anymore, and I start to force things that I end up undoing when I come back to the edit.
MH: You show your work online, at festivals, in performances. Can you tell me a bit about how these work for you? What each context provides?
DMC: Obviously, there is a huge difference between watching work in a festival and watching it on a computer or portable device. I house almost all of my videos on my website at daynarama.com. This is a portfolio site, and given the digital reality of media, is a way to show work to anyone with a relatively good internet connection, anywhere in the world. But festival play is my favorite way to show work; sitting in a theatre watching videos with likeminded festival goers is fantastic, and similar to a Cabaret audience, you know if your video is funny, not funny, boring, or entertaining because everyone reacts naturally. I also use video in my performance work, often playing with the false reality of projection, characterization, improv and karaoke.
MH: How do you choose your themes? Why popular TV shows?
DMC: I love tv: I love bad tv, I love good tv, and I will pretty much watch anything. I think it’s fair to say that I’m a critical viewer, but I also enjoy watching. I don’t see myself as a passive viewer, and these videos are essentially my interactive participation in existing mainstream culture.
In television, there are repeating patterns of storylines that we can see in different series. For example, shows often have Christmas, Hanukah or holiday themed, birthday, or “issue” oriented episodes. For me, these “issue” shows become a fairly significant marker of our media culture, a snapshot of where we are socially: Natalie almost gets raped in The Facts of Life (1) (1981) during a mugging and empowers herself by taking a self-defense class. Dana Plato wears blackface to confront a racist boyfriend in Diff’rent Strokes (2) (1980). After 4 seasons, Ellen DeGeneres comes out on her show, Ellen (3) (1997). These were all significant tv moments for me as an evolving viewer, having grown up with tv, and seeing the power of it. These examples were also considered to be ground-breaking, but in contemporary television, these themes are as commonplace as a Christmas special within a series. “Racism”, “gay”, “abuse”, “eating disorder”, “molestation”, “rape” are commonplace themes, and the reason I put these in quotes is that they are often heavy-handed, especially in sitcoms and dramedies. Lately, I’ve become distracted by when these agendas overwhelm the show itself: Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Gay, Gay, Gay, is an example of me short-cutting an episode of Boston Legal by cutting it down to the essence of what the maker’s agenda is, ie: the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy of the US military.
[Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Gay, Gay, Gay]
MH: This kind of collage work is really your signature style. How would you describe your work aesthetically, politically and artistically?
DMC: YouTube and online attention spans have demonstrated to me that you have about 15 seconds to capture someone’s attention, and maybe 1 minute to keep it, if you’re lucky, so I like to get to the point quickly, and this is why I love the short video format.
Aesthetically and artistically, the collage videos are about the content and cutting to the chase. Recently, I’ve been working with both an additive and reductive process: Nothing Compares to You is additive- I’m searching for specific content and putting it together to make something new from the source material. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Gay, Gay, Gay and the Secret Messages series are reductive because I’m taking the episode or film, and cutting out the irrelevant content (to my rules). After the challenge is met, I then have to make decisions about the final cut- adding the sweeping melodramatic chords from the song for Nothing Compares to You, the timing of the music, do I cover up the cuts for words I’ve spliced together, how do I end the piece, what happens in the 20 second bridge in the middle of the video? These are all choices that get resolved in the edit, but are obviously integral to the final version.
Politically, most of my work is pretty fucking GAY. It doesn’t apologize or assume the victim position, the quiet queer, the polite lesbian, the normative gay. And critics, audiences and programmers tell me that that in itself, is political: I’m here, I’m queer, get used to watching my videos.
[Ultimate SUB Ultimate DOM]
MH: Your work is, I think, a commentary on television culture itself, and so the projects demand that TV be your pool of sources. Who do you imagine as your audience? Does it matter if they are well versed in television culture or pop culture? How important are those common reference points?
DMC: This is a good question, because it keeps coming up. I think the best way to address this is to look at 2 pieces that I’ve made for essentially the same (queer) audience. Ultimate SUB Ultimate DOM: Maria Von Trapp & Mary Poppins imagines Maria Von Trapp from The Sound of Music as a submissive to the Mother Superior, begging for mercy and looking for a spanking, and Mary Poppins as the Mother Superior, wielding a dildo-sheathed umbrella and a ball-gag. Cut to a monologue about this fantasy scenario, I used footage from both films to illustrate this fictitious relationship, assuming that most viewers, queer or straight would be familiar with these characters. However, if you don’t know who these character are or aren’t familiar with their embodiment by Julie Andrews, does this matter? Are the signifiers of Nun and British Nanny clear enough for you within the video to enjoy the subversion of putting them in an S&M scenario? And, contrarily, if you are intimately familiar with these characters, then you will hopefully enjoy references to their actions that I make outside of the video that might not be clear to others, like Maria being punished for dressing children in drapery, or Mary Poppins’ umbrella fetish. That’s Right Diana Barry, You Needed Me, is a very Canadian piece and I don’t think it will play much outside of Canada. Originally commissioned as a performance for Anne Made Me Gay curated by Moynan King and Rosemary Rowe at Buddies in Bad Times in Toronto, this video uses Anne Murray and Anne of Green Gables in a karaoke mash-up. I cut the 1984, made-for-CBC television version of Anne of Green Gables staring Megan Follows, to Anne Murray’s, You Needed Me. Now, if you’re already asking who the hell Anne Murray, Megan Follows or Anne of Green Gables are, or what the hell the CBC is, well, I feel we have our answer.
I also see this work as related to 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon; whenever I watch tv or film and see actors appear in something else as a different character, does this add to your viewing experience or take away from it? Do the antics and drama that actors get up to off camera (hello Mel Gibson and Charlie Sheen) impact how we watch media? Does it affect the story? Try it: the next time you watch something with an actor you’ve seen before, think of everything you know about that actor, and every show you’ve seen them in – how does it affect the story you’re watching right now?
[That's Right Diana Barry, You Needed Me]
MH: You distribute your works internationally and nationally. Has there ever been a copyright issue? Do you worry about copyright at all? Are distributors reluctant to distribute your stuff b/c you don’t clear rights? (Clearing rights would be impossible in your case.)
DMC: I use artist-run distribution centres in Canada to distribute my work, but festivals and broadcasters with copyright infringement policies won’t play these kinds of work, for fear of legal action because the copyright infringement becomes their (financial) responsibility.
MH: Tell me how you see copyright as a political issue.
DMC: Invariably, when I show work that contains copyright material, someone will ask how can I make it- how do I “get around” copyright. These are good questions, and ones that I take very seriously. In 2000, I won an online contest for Best Comedy and Audience Choice Award for How to Fake an Orgasm as part of the PlanetOut Queer Short Movie Awards. This video is a one-shot monologue with PJ Harvey’s album, Rid of Me playing in the background. I used it because she moans and screams rather dramatically throughout the album, and I wanted to time my talk about faking orgasms with these outbursts. PlanetOut wanted to distribute all of the winners (there were 5 categories) on dvd, but insisted that I clear the rights to this music. I couldn’t, and did not end up on the dvd. This was an important lesson for me, because it made me aware of the implications and consequences of using copyright material in my work right at the beginning of my video art career, and I made a choice to continue, because my work is about pop culture- it needs the original property in order to critique it. Without Julie Andrews as Maria Von Trapp and Mary Poppins, Ultimate SUB Ultimate DOM is meaningless. Without Dr. House, Prince or Sinéad O'Connor, I could not make Nothing Compares to You.
More and more mashup artists are citing Fair Use (in the US) (4) as a means to legally use copyright material, a pre-emptive strike against legal action because Fair Use allows for parody, and as long as there is no damage to the original property in the marketplace, then it is A-OK to use. (5) However, one is supposed to ask for permission from the property holder to claim Fair Use if we haven’t afforded to purchase the rights, so we are essentially asking permission for legal approval to subvert the very thing we are using. Another concern I have with even talking about Fair Use in relation to my work is that by doing so, I am acknowledging that I’ve done something wrong and that someone else, an authority [read: “The Man”] needs to approve it.
And sure, there is the argument that these corporations, (who have put a stronghold on media culture) are the ones making the property in the first place- it’s theirs, they own it. But what about us as consumption junkies? I was brought up with Mickey Mouse™, Coca-Cola™ and Nike™. We went to Disneyland, I had the watch, the bedspread, the t-shirt, the videos- I drank the Kool-Aid™. Don’t I “own” part of this culture? Don’t I have “rights”? When I repeat a Family Guy joke, do a James Bond impression, say “just do it” or sing a song in the shower from a Disney musical, aren’t I enforcing the brand? Isn’t it mine, too? Aren’t I… helping? Or do I owe someone money for my soapy rendition of, When You Wish Upon A Star? And perhaps this is an example of my watching too much Law & Order, but who evaluates whether or not my use of the material is damaging to the original property? Paranoid projections on my part assume that making two wholesome, family-friendly characters like Maria Von Trapp and Mary Poppins lesbian lovers with a taste for S&M, might be considered harmful to the Disney Corporation™ by the Disney Corporation™. Much like my queerness, I don’t see my art practice as illegal.
(1) “Fear Strikes Back”, Season 3, Episode 2, original air date: 11/4/1981: CBS Entertainment. "The Facts of Life Season 3 Episode Guide." tv.com. CBS Interactive Inc, 2011. Web. 23 Jul 2011.
Because London could clearly use a little noise and disorder right now, we bring to you an announcement about an upcoming show by VT blogger Marco Donnarumma that seems quite promising…
[Ryan Jordan / Channeling Interface]
Noise=Noise "Bio signal noise, music for flesh, psychosis attacks, the body is integrated".
Featuring performances by:
Editor's note: In this post Vague Terrain and Artengine's critical blogging resident Jaenine Parkinson continues her reflections on Ottawa / Gatineau Area media art. This year long series of posts is dedicated to providing a space where our resident can exploring bloggging as a "creative space for critical discourse around the media arts and creative technological expression."
[Philomène Longpré Xia, courtesy Gallery 101, photographer David Barbour]
Xia, a video installation by Montreal based artist Philomène Longpré, caught my eye recently at the Gallery 101 show Body Tracks | Traces de corps (10 June - 9 July) in Ottawa*. It was given prominence, taking over the entire back half of the exhibition space with the rest of the, mainly video, works all reduced to monitor size. It certainly needed and warranted the space.
Xia looms as a cool projection of a woman cast onto a backdrop of pink canvas. The canvas rolls off the wall and along the floor into the space and the woman appears pinned to it, like a butterfly in a shadow box, trapped and on display as an allegory of beauty and mortality. Twisting, tossing, turning, resting and stretching, often with glitching, frantic movements, she gives off a nervous desperation. It is as if she is caught in a nightmare, running but getting nowhere. Her frantically flailing limbs spread heavy charcoal marks across the rich rosy-pink backdrop. The drama of the piece is heightened by the lighting—an extreme chiaroscuro, which could easily be described as Caravaggesque tenebrism. The strong shadows and highlights sculpt the rumpled fabric loosely wrapped around her figure, exaggerating the contours of her face and body to haunting effect.
With Xia Longpré has formed a virtual, pocket of time and space that is annexed onto our own. The space is shallow with no foreground or background; the depth is more like a relief. The camera’s point of view does not move, forming a seal between this pocket of virtual space and our own. Dark footprints lead along the pink canvas lying on the floor, like traces of someone having left this reality and leapt into the alternate sanguine atmosphere. There is a doubling of real charcoal handprints beneath their projected counterparts, in a way that produces a hint of depth. Gravity behaves differently in this other realm. The woman is suspended in space, floating as if she is in a liquid environment. Sounds of cicadas, beating insect wings, pouring water and metallic scratching reinforce the feeling that we have opened up a gate to a parallel existence.
[Xia (detail), courtesy Gallery 101, photographer David Barbour]
The work apparently reacts to visitors’ movements through motion sensors but I missed its responsiveness entirely. This sometimes happens with subtly interactive work that has no obvious interface. Regardless, I don’t think this detracted from my experience. I did, however, notice two subtly different phases in the piece. At some point the woman appears to be wearing a grotesque mask and the color projected onto the background turns it more coral than rose. Whether I was triggering video sequences and not noticing it, or not, the work seemed to address me more like a painting; something that would carry on being despite whether I was there or not.
Like a moving painting Longpré’s work is similar to that of video artist Bill Viola’s (interestingly Viola just received an award for painting). Beyond opening up another virtual, illusionistic space on the surface of the pink canvas Longpre, like Viola, references the painting tradition, with its lighting, static frame, and figure placed at the centre of the composition, at a scale proportional to our own. Both artists also treat time as material, slowing down and speeding up movements in a way that renders them surreal and supernatural. While it is often hard to know whether the loop of a video installation is merely conventional or intentionally meaningful, repetition seems inherent to the reverberating space Longpré has constructed. The woman in Xia is trapped in a prison of a collapsed present, sliding down a spiral of infinite regress. This is artificial, digital time. Time that slips out from under standard linear perceptions and progressions. Like Viola, Longpré’s work is highly crafted, lyrical and poetic and makes the most of advances in ever affordable and accessible digital technologies.
[Ana Mendieta, Untitled aka Body Tracks (Blood Sign #2) 1974]
The publicity draw-card of the show is Ana Mendieta and the mystique surrounding her (and her untimely death). The curator (and author of a graphic novel based on Mendieta’s life, also featured in the show) has selected Mendieta’s Untitled aka Body Tracks (Blood sign #2), 1974 as the headlining work of the show. In this performance Mendieta drags her blood soaked arms down a wall with a simple, sweeping, singular gesture. The mark she creates is elemental, iconic and can be read in any number of ways: tree, uterus, pictograph… Unfortunately, the video was not well presented in the show, positioned too close to the entrance on a rather rough translucent screen.
The ties between Mendieta’s work and Longpré’s are easy to thread: the body as paintbrush, the critical feminist undercurrent, the power of a single expressive gesture. The female body as a site of expression and resistance, crystalised in video, is a theme that runs across the whole show. Video works by Jude Norris and Anna Peak similarly hinge around a singular expressive gesture enacted by a strong female individual. They lend a context for Longpré’s work to be read within. In exchange Xia adds nuance into the exhibition narrative; the feminine character depicted here is in turn determined and trapped, beautiful and frightening.
Body Tracks is awash with screens, a symptom of an art world swamped by moving images. This trend is so pervasive critic Dominique Païni even went so far as to pen an article for the journal October entitled “Should we put an end to projection?” This sentiment is a far cry from a pre-90s era where video struggled to gain recognition in the art world. Now everything else lives in its shadow. With a quick lick of paint the white cube has become a black box. Phrases like new media or multi media installation still resound as metonyms for video installation. Nine times out of ten when you read or hear the phrase “new media work” you can bet it means “there’s a projection.”
In his article Païni charts a parallel art history of projected light; one of images dematarialized and made more spectacular transforming the viewer into a contemporary flaneur, who browses and flits between video installations like a window shopper. Art historian Kate Mondloch asks “by creating media installations that support or even require visitors to determine the length of their experience with the work, might artists unintentionally provide for a spectatorship characterized by short attention spans?”
It would be easy for us to see the art world’s insatiable desire for ever larger audio visual installations as a way to draw in crowds with quickly digestible spectacles and just as easy to see the desire for video as simply manifesting a desire for the new. Though to indiscriminately rebuke artists’ continuing interest in video as merely trend following or crowd pleasing fails to see that, as Mondloch puts, it we are living in a “society of the screen.” We are subsumed by the moving image in its many forms: projections, monitors, computer screens, smartphones; cinemas, electronic billboards, youtube… to the point where it is hard to get critical distance. The screen has replaced the painted or printed image as the foundation for contemporary visual communication. As it continues to become more pervasive and more universal, blending illusionistic and information spaces, Mondloch suggests we will need to continue to “think through our thinking through media screens.”
*Xia will be shown again, within a modified exhibition, at FOFA Gallery, Concordia University, Montreal from 6 September to 10 October 2011.
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Today marks a year of releases from the VT Audio Edition project and to celebrate that milestone, series curator Neil Wiernik has contributed a dispatch from his longstanding naw project. Neil describes his work as exploring the friction between natural and artificial environments – "the space where nature meets steel and concrete." To this end, Neil has contributed a 25 minute live mix that effortlessly blends minimal techno, dubstep and some more experimental percussive fare. Jump through to the release page for more info and a download link.