'Every school-day for 3 weeks i got up and made a 3 minute recording of where i thought i would be in 4 years when i finish my degree. an attempt to create routine, an anchor/reference point for the present and stability and hope for the future. then i edited out everything that wasn't an adjective or an adverb' – Cam Matamoros
This is a piece I would like to one day take on as a proper curator; for years I’ve been wanting to programme works that deal with the role of the document within art, or more specifically how the video document becomes art. But since I’m not there yet, I’ve taken to writing about video and interviewing video artists who directly or indirectly have aspects of this ‘documentation’ in their work. I’ve written about Matamoros’s work before for my own pleasure (large bits of which I recycle in this intro), but this is the first time I’ve been able to ask Matamoros to elaborate on the work from a creator’s point of view.
I wanted to write about In Four Years (adjectives and adverbs) because it’s a video I saw a long time ago and one that has stayed with me since. This affective quality and its connection to memory (mine, the video’s, and the narrative’s) are simultaneously about formal choices and process, and the performance of process itself. This is what Matamoros executes perfectly without trying (and without trying to achieve any particular outcome it seems).
My take on Matamoros’s video is that it is essentially about documenting anticipation, but always falling back into the moment of being recorded. The very process of imagining the future by recording one’s current ideas about the future makes more of a statement about present fears and hopes than it says about the potential for what might be or could be. And I think I get why Matamoros would “edit out” everything but adjectives and adverbs - these are the words that give meaning: they specify, qualify, and limit our judgments on things. Nothing else is needed. If I love this video it’s because it’s incredibly smart and gentle in its subtleties.
And with that, Matamoros and I begin our conversation…
Mél Hogan: How does editing (out everything but adjectives and adverbs) alter, enhance, thwart, or prevent the process of remembering?
Cam Matamoros: You ask about editing language and the effect that has on remembering, but to my mind, I was not engaged in a process of remembering, but rather trying to describe a future, to produce a better self through imagining what I would or could be like in four years. When I was shooting In Four Years (adjectives and adverbs), I was trying to produce a future and describe a present. I was trying to know where I was in that moment and how I would get somewhere better. In fact, this was a work that, at the outset, had for its only goal to be a work that was not about memory or about transience. It was meant to not be about aimless drifting or unknowability. I felt that all my past work had been about those subjects and that I would be forever caught in such ill-described, liminal space, if my work did not look (or especially act) toward the future. It was an attempt at doing something that I felt I had no idea how to do—establish stability and a deliberate trajectory for and within myself.
In editing the video, I prioritized the goal of describing the present. To follow through in the most literal terms possible, I eliminated from my monologues any word that was not a descriptive one. So, I kept only adjectives, adverbs and moments where I did not speak. Part of what I think is the humour of this piece is that I so clearly and almost immediately fail at the goals I have intended (hope, betterment, achievement, stability).
MH: Part of the humour in In Four Years is also seemingly made manifest through the unrehearsed and visually unpolished aesthetic. It’s a testimonial. It’s a documentary. It’s raw and real. It ‘looks’ archival. So tell me about the aesthetics of failure, (or maybe the failure of aesthetics?) and how they appear to go against the goals set out in your piece.
CM: I am terrified by failure, but fascinated by it at the same time. I am also terrified of success, which leaves me in a very ambivalent place every time I embark on a new project.
I guess it’s true, the goals I set out in the video have, in a certain way, a lot to do with success and achieving a certain polish that is markedly absent from my “current” state (i.e. during the taping of the video). I think that has to do with the fact that what the video is really about the effort of moving toward goals—and how far away I am from those goals at the time of recording.
Everything was an effort for me at that time, especially waking up and getting out of bed. The video is a document of my desire to be something and somewhere other than what/who and where I was and as a document, it does much more to describe the actuality of that present self than it does anything to support or illustrate what I imagined those goals to look like once they were manifested.
Something that stands out to me now is how ill defined so much of my future successes were. The word “good” comes back a lot, which is utterly useless for telling anyone anything about what goodness would look like, or how it would be evaluated in all the different contexts I seem to be imagining myself achieving it. Some of my goals are absurd, some seem so small, but I think in some way, they all appear unattainable because of my physical state in the video. I think the humour comes partly from that; there’s something ridiculous about hoping and intending and appearing to strive (or not at all striving but just talking about striving at some later date) despite the fact that the odds may be stacked against you… Or even that you are stacking the odds against yourself while you are dreaming of overcoming them… Maybe it is about self-defeat.
One comment that someone made that struck me as relevant to all this is the fact that what I kept are descriptive words but no action words. There are no verbs other than “be,” And being is not a very clear action one can undertake to do. That comment made me feel a bit like a character in a Beckett play. These clowns who always talk about getting out of their nowhere but they never move.
It is definitely unrehearsed, and uses my own consumer-grade video camera and ambient light. It is a testimonial, a documentary, and a record of an effort. Aesthetically it is about the effort more than the finish. The video is a document of a process and was created through a set of rules designed to reflect, conceptually, the ideas I was interested in when I was making it. I wanted it to be only as mediated as the process required, and for the process to be as transparent as possible.
MH: Did this desire to be unrehearsed change as you progressed? In other words, did it become increasingly difficult to not ‘act’ for the camera once you got more comfortable in the testimonial process?
CM: I think there are moments where I forget myself and other moments where I am conscious that an audience will later watch what I am saying. I knew while I was recording that the footage would not be used raw and there was the possibility that it might not be used at all, so most of the time I really considered myself to be talking directly to myself through the camera, making video material. I can see moments when I am maybe ‘acting’ more, but there is a way in which acting is exactly part of the intention. Part of the plan is basically a “fake it ‘til you make it” strategy.
Since I do not know how to become or even what or who exactly I want to become, I am practicing listing accomplishments in some organized, routine way, so that they might manifest later by my simple concentration on them or so that a clear path toward them might appear by my regular recitation of them.
This is also part of the strategy in my later video, Undertone Undertone, where I try to become Vito Acconci by being exactly like him and exactly re-making his video Undertone. There are a lot of differences there, since I know exactly what I want to become and exactly how I am to go about it, so it is rehearsed and costumed, and is in part, also about “anxieties of influence” kinds of things, and about loving that video and wanting to redeploy it.
MH: At what point does the audience—their reaction, interpretation—factor in to your creative process, if at all? How is your awareness of being watched different before/during/after making work? And does knowing that your video has been watched more then a thousand times on YouTube change your idea of audience? Who was your intended audience?
CM: More than a thousand times? Wow. I originally put that video up on YouTube just as a way to show it to friends or family who were living far away from where I was and who would likely never go to an art gallery or film/video festival. I never expected it to circulate much beyond that.
My intended audience when I made the work was a gallery audience. Individuals or small groups engaged with a projection or small screen. However, the first venues I found for it were festivals where it was playing to cinema-seated audiences. The funny thing is, I’ve heard about people’s responses to it in these contexts, but for the longest time I had never been at one of my own screenings. I’ve been to one now, but still don’t have a sense really of how it is received. People tell me that audiences laugh and respond well to the humour. That feedback has made me realize that it works quite well as something to be seen by a large audience, seated in the dark, anonymously sharing the experience, rather than standing in a white cube.
As for a YouTube audience, I guess in many ways the gallery audience I originally imagined might be similar: Individuals or small groups… but rather than in the gallery, they are anonymously sharing the experience with a thousand others, dispersed across their personal gateways to the internet. Maybe it is effective as something based on YouTube? It might share something, I suppose with the sort of video blog confessional style that I think exists there.
The idea of audience was most important to me in the editing process. The recording process was basically a way to produce the material that I would then use to make the work. I needed to have something to work with, but I didn’t know what that was going to be or how I would use it. I knew, at the outset, that I wanted to make work that had something to do with creating stability and a future but I also knew that I had no idea how to do that, so I developed a formula and stuck to it.
The formula was something like this:
That approach is as absurd and abstract as so many of my goals, but it set up a way for me to act toward something, which was by making the recordings I made. I knew that the recordings on their own could not possibly be interesting or engaging for an audience, so after I had made them, the next challenge was to make something of that fodder, to distil some kind of essence from it. I wanted to be able to make rules that were not at all about the aesthetic but rather about the effort of trying to know something about myself. Words hold the promise of telling us something but they also, always, inevitably fail at communicating quite what we mean. I think what I wanted to do for an audience besides describe something about myself, was engage in the questions of what it means to want and especially to say what one wants. What is the action of wanting and how can it ever be possible to name what one wants? Doesn’t language always fail us? But don’t we always look to it for an anchor, for a way to know what was intended? Can I always know what I intended? Is language always a betrayal? Can it ever offer something concrete? What I maybe didn’t realize was that I thought I was framing wanting as an active, practical thing, but ultimately I defeated my own purpose, creating a video where my performance of intending to be something or someone just deteriorates and is exposed as non-action when it stays in the realm of strictly description.
I think I am getting off-track here. I’m going to stop there.
MH: You made this video in 2007, projecting, as the title suggest, where you’d be in four years. It’s been four years, so the question is: did you fare up to your expectations?
CM: This is the first question everyone asks. Everyone is curious about how well I met or missed my expectations. Of course this is a natural question, given the format of the work. It sets up suspense in a way. I’m not sure about how important it is to answer it though. Actually, I wonder if answering it closes down something in the work that otherwise makes it durable in the memory of the audience? What do you think? I’m curious, too, to know what people remember of my goals and projections. It’s been a while since I watched the video, so I myself don’t remember what I anticipated, wanted, or tried to manifest. Truthfully, quite a few things in my life are “good, really good, good enough, or pretty good” fewer things now are “messy, a mess, really messy,” but some things still are. I didn’t know what graduating “with honours” meant at the time that I shot the video so I didn’t know that I couldn’t achieve that since I didn’t do a programme that had an honours option. I did however graduate in April “with great distinction” which I think is about what I was aiming for with that statement. I think there are goals in the video that I’m still working on. I would still like to be able to describe some part of my practice or recognition in terms of “all over the world,” for sure.
MH: What role does video as a medium play for you personally and as an artist in terms of recording, remembering, and facing yourself in the future?
CM: Video is something I think about as a kind of space, as another kind of embodiment, as an interface. I think of video as a very physical medium. Maybe, I mean that I think of video-performance as a very physical medium. I think that, for me, to interact with the camera in one moment and project the results to an audience in a later moment feels much more intimate to me than to be present in the same room. There is a closeness that is possible through the way that video can frame and enlarge (on a big screen) or contain (on a small one) that is not possible when we are all on the same scale. Also, I think maybe all of my video performances are about being and becoming through time, about projection into the future. Time and projection are obviously two fundamental technological factors of the video medium… and there is so much time and technology between the moment when I physically interact with the camera and the one where the video is played in public, but I am interested in how the screen can feel like thin skin, how video can create haptic experiences.
As an artist, I really like video that is about what video is and does. It can reorganize time and it can ask questions about how we interact with screens. I’m still really hung up on video art from the 70s, like that of Lisa Steele and Vito Acconci, where you have a very intimate set-up of the artist in front of the camera asking you in some way or another to touch them. These works are loaded with questions of intimacy, of truth and believability, of whether it is the audience or the artwork that is captive… There are some really important critiques of screen-based culture embedded in these tender and seemingly personal works and I feel like those works are still some of the most well articulated and nuanced critiques of screen-based communications/consumption that have been made.
Untitled Landscapes, still
MH: What are you working on and what are some of the common threads that tie your work together, such as in Untitled Landscapes? What’s next?
CM: I’m working on a couple of projects right now. I’m continuing to develop Untitled Landscapes. I’ve edited the images and changed how they will be displayed, and, of course, there are always more and more of them. I’m also working on a video exploring the video projection surface (tv screen or projection screen) as a kind of skin between my audience and myself. Video is for me a very tactile and intimate medium, and I’m working through that along with language and culturally constructed ideas about intimacy, love, and co-dependence. Finally, I’m trying to finish a project I started with my family a few years ago where each of my parents and 3 brothers created a document where they in some way perform their impression of me. These projects are all in some way related to the idea that a subject is produced and becomes a self not in a void or under any pure circumstances, but in ways that are inextricably defined by linguistic, social, cultural and geographic environments. We become ourselves through being like or unlike other people and things around us. We do our best to express ourselves by using words that are enough like or enough unlike other words available to us. Being and saying are always approximate and temporary. I think this is a thing I am constantly expressing.
My videos are partly about becoming a knowable self through language, through media, and through social situatedness. They are also about desire, which I think is an implicit vehicle in any process of becoming. I ask myself who or what I want to be and then I try to show how I am/not, or might/not be like that. I struggle with simultaneous and equal terror of and desperation for both success and failure. I think my video works really grow out of that ambivalence.
Another thought is that through all my work there is an interest in the surface (screen or print or frame) as an interface between the image and the viewer and an interest in the process of looking and what looking does to an artwork and to a viewer who looks at it. I think that there is perhaps more of a link within my video works than between those works and others. For example, the works that I would consider more as ‘drawing,’ for lack of a better word, I think deal with different approaches and interests than I do in video work.
Drawing, like the Untitled Landscapes series and some other things I’ve been playing with using folded, reflective mylar shapes or paper cutting, or papier maché, is a very new medium for me and it is very consistently and clearly about exploring landscape and what it means to represent landscape. There is a side of it that is interested in sparse, simple, straight-up beauty, the kind of romantic, dreamy feeling I have sometimes had while looking out the window of a late-winter train at 5pm. The lavender-tinged sky over Ontario farmland is wide and streaked with sun-tinted clouds. The long yellow-brown grass shows in strips through the bright snow, which is white, but also reflects the colour of the sky. I think seeing a length of unbroken horizon does something special to the eyes and triggers something in the imagination. I am interested in how representing this on a small scale might stimulate a larger-scale feeling in one’s imagination. Sown in this imagination stimulus is also a critical question for me. I do love that dreamy, romantic feeling, but I also feel wary of it. There is nothing simple about Ontario farmland at any time of day. The same is true of any landscape. I think of Don Delillo’s “most photographed barn in America” from white noise. We learn to look and read images just like we learn to read words. Sight and understanding are shaped by habit, by precedent, and by anticipation.
In a comment reflecting on the making of Semiotics of the Kitchen, Martha Rosler said she was concerned with “something like the notion of ‘language speaking the subject,’ and with the transformation of the woman herself into a sign in a system of signs that represent a system of food production, a system of harnessed subjectivity.” I think a lot of video art from that time is concerned with how the mechanisms of television constitute a language that is capable of starting to “speak the subject.” I relate to this concern. The magic that I find in work by Lisa Steele and Vito Acconci, and even Rosler, though she is more heavy-handed, is the creation of this intimate context through the video screen. There is a feeling of a private conversation between the artist and the viewer while at the same time, there is always the clear and present knowledge on the part of the viewer that they really are engaged with a series of machines. A television and vcr, for example, but also the machines of verbal language, body language, gendered expectations for behaviour, camera framing and angles. In fact what is emphasized is the invisible social apparatuses that make up what we think of as the content of the more visible, technological apparatus.
I am interested in this kind of simile as a critical strategy. I wouldn’t claim to be there yet, but it’s something I strive toward. And I don’t think its somewhere you can get just by thinking it through. I think you have to feel your way there, partly. It’s instinct and it’s careful consideration, mood, impulse and criticism. It’s in the joke. I hope the work I make is funny.