Interview with Marianna Ellenberg
ME: Who is the spectator in your video work, or who is your ideal audience? Do you have any expectations of the reader?
SR: I just read this in the Prologue to Robert D. Richardson Jr.'s Emerson: The Mind on Fire: "Emerson never wrote for groups or classes or institutions; his intended audience was always the single hearer or reader." And I thought, sitting in this strange place (a skuzzy laundromat in Milwaukee — where I have just moved — after not having to use laundromats for many years) that this was also my sentiment: an audience of individuals. Then I realized that this claim was also fairly meaningless, as anything aimed at a group or class would be propaganda, entertainment or pedagogy. In some ways I'm working toward a future audience (I have a monologue about it in a new video, Ask the Insects), one that does not yet exist and probably never will (or could). The spectator in my work is, at this unfortunate time, more or less limited to aficionados of experimental media. Some of my work requires or expects an "educated" audience, other works aim at a wider audience. In other words, I self-consciously make work that is only occasionally "difficult" and only occasionally depends on the viewer getting specific references. I've often said that my work seduces the audience, and then slaps them around. My ideal audience is large and varied and pays attention. My expectation is that readers pay attention. A certain level of un-guardedness is also called for; they must be open, disarmed.
ME: What do you see as the ideal context for your video work: gallery exhibition, the festival circuit or television broadcast?
SR: People should have it at home, like a book they can return to.
ME: How do you want Anthology of American Folk Song to be read in terms of genre: as an experimental video essay, documentary or video art?
SR: Of course, I would prefer that it exceeds genre. It remains, however, a work of video art. It is unlikely to be thought of as documentary; essay seems apt. It is also a work of animation, of motion graphics, though it is only recently I've thought of my work in these terms. Ask the Insects is self-consciously animation, and I've co-edited an anthology on how artists are currently using animation that will be out in a few weeks: The Sharpest Point: Animation at the End of Cinema.
ME: How did you choose the music for Anthology of American Folk Song, and how direct is the response to Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music compilation?
SR: I used whatever caught my fancy. About half the selections come from the Harry Smith anthology. I don't think of it as a response to the Smith anthology (although it is, of course). If all one knew about America was the Smith anthology, one would have a very limited, specific, perverse view of America, but one which was nevertheless profound and accurate. I attempt the same sort of thing in my anthology: to present some aspect of the current mythological landscape of America. This seems a pressing task at the moment.
ME: What is your relationship to American pop culture in your work in general; and specifically in Anthology of American Folk Song?
SR: For me, as a Canadian, more or less all of pop culture is American pop culture. As Mike Myers said, "Canadians watch American tv, while Americans just watch tv." A particular distance comes with the position. I've used pop culture a lot, especially pop songs from the 70s. A work like Spiritual Animal Kingdom is chock-full of tv and pop song references and appropriations, which in no way constitute a critique of popular culture. In contrast, Anthology uses things only on the edge or fringe of pop culture: old blues and folk, Patti Smith, Laurie Anderson, unidentifiable bits of film, anonymous Polaroids. The J. Lo song is a twisted reference rather than an appropriation.
ME: What is your working process like? Do you just structure a film as you go along or do you begin with a clear plan or script before you start?
SR: Unless a work is quite short, I do not have a clear plan or script before setting out. I collect fragments: images, text, etc. Sometimes writing in response to an image; sometimes finding an image to go with the writing. Lately I've begun to refer to this pile of things as an archive, and an ongoing work called Final Thoughts. I will keep adding things to Final Thoughts - it will not be complete until I die. Originally, I was just going to string components from Final Thoughts together without attempting to form coherent, individual works. Perhaps 60% of Anthology was first seen in a work I quickly pulled from distribution, Final Thoughts, Part One. It became clear to me that some kind of shaping of the material was necessary. Actually, it became clear to me that the crux of the work was not in the components themselves, but in their deployment within the larger structure of a single work.
ME: Can you talk about the conflictual relationship between the voice and image in your work?
SR: The relationship is in no way conflictual. Voice and image go together in order to make something larger: a line of force, a thought, a connection. It is important that the relationship be more than illustrative. Abigail Child uses the word "torque" to describe how one image can force meaning out of another.
ME: Can you elaborate on the relationship between the disembodied voice over, the spoken text and the representation of the body in Anthology of American Folk Song.
SR: In most of my previous work there is a coherent narrator that the viewer can relate to in some way. The narrator is an implied authorial guide, however untrustworthy. The voice in Anthology is less grounded, less coherent. As a force, there is hardly a rational centre: a few monologues "make sense" as an authorial commentary on America (however quirky) - the two monologues on angels, for instance. But more often the voice/s are incoherent or absent. The disembodied voice has been central to a lot of my work. I have to say, I have no idea where the body has gone in Anthology. As the voice splintered and (partially) disappeared, the body of the narrator went with it. Of course, the video is filled with spectral bodies: angels, ghosts, the defaced and unformed. And, of course, there is an authorial presence that is occasionally embodied: slapping down the Polaroids while singing, the shadow that passes sighing in front of the malfunctioning projector (the house footage, which is, incidentally, a Joseph Cornell film).
ME: Are multiple readings of the work essential to your approach?
SR: Yes, multiple reading is essential, for the world is full and complex. I hope my deployment of irony is always productive rather than reductive.
ME: Can you discuss the prevalence of language and text within your videos?
SR: I am a writer. I think of my work as literature, as an extension of literature.
ME: The problematic correlation between the spoken text, the written text and language itself seems to be magnified in Anal Masturbation and Object Loss, can you elaborate on this gap?
SR: Well, you're right, of course, but I find I have nothing to say. I'm known as a bad interview because I often refuse to answer questions about my work. I used to have a particular rule: I would never answer any questions that involve interpretation. I would claim that not only was it not my role to interpret my work, but for me to offer an interpretation of work so self-reflexively concerned with its own discursive formations would be a kind of short-circuiting. I would upstage the work, and the work's the thing.
ME: Is Anal Masturbation and Object Loss your anti-art /art manifesto? How do you categorize this piece within the greater body of your work? On the surface lies the post-modern critique of the knowledge-power structure, and mockery of the art world, but this appears to be only one layer to the video..
SR: Certainly it's also a response to teaching. What does one do with texts, with books? My veneration of books leads me to fantasies of destroying them (and to actually destroying them) and re-authoring them. The art world satire, particularly in reference to installation (the perhaps oblique reference to Pipilotti Rist) is just icing on the cake to me. I thought of it as two things going on: the action/performance of gluing the book and the monologue (which was recorded at the same time — I am talking as I am gluing — rare for me, usually I would record voice separately). The action seemed to me, as an action, incontrovertibly straightforward. At the same time, it is something to construct a monologue around, something solid to moor a monologue to. The monologue is in a comic satiric mode. It is wide-ranging; so the challenge for me was one of pacing, keeping many ideas in play, kind of like juggling, keeping the jokes flying. I made it after another video in which the voice also has a certain comic propulsion, Amsterdam Camera Vacation, a comedy of xenophobia.
ME: Should your work be read durationally? Does this conflict with the context of gallery presentation, which can lend itself towards casual viewing?
SR: Yes, duration is integral. Literally integral: it is a necessary part of the medium. Work that functions well in galleries often features a big stupid image that changes slowly: moving paintings or simple performances. More discursive, essayistic work doesn't fare as well. It asks for a different type of engagement. Who wants to go from walking around looking at pictures to something more like reading? A screening situation finds audiences perhaps more capable of concentrating long enough to engage. Best of all is a home viewing in which the viewer can pause, rewind and replay.
ME: Do you think reception spaces can be sites of activation and contestation?
SR: Yes, it's possible. It happens. But it would depend on the work rather than the space, on how the work deploys the space.
ME: How do you think the Web is shifting the context for the reception of video work?
SR: Not yet, but my fingers are crossed. Soon we will have bandwidth.
ME: Is there still potential for activism in art? How do you view the relationship between these two very different discourses?
SR: Yes, there is some limited potential. They are not necessarily different discourses; art can contain everything. It is activism that must refine its goals.
ME: Do you think of yourself as a political artist?
SR: I am definitely a political artist, if in a constructively negative way. Perhaps only bad people can be ethically productive.
ME: How do you feel about being categorized as a queer filmmaker; is this an affirmation of your work or marginalization?
SR: I'm becoming nostalgic for the idea of being a queer filmmaker. Ten years ago my work would show regularly at gay and lesbian festivals. Now they wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole - with the exception of J.P. (Remix of "Tuesday & I" by Jean-Paul Kelly) which features a cute young guy talking about drugs and clubbing. I have no sense now of having a queer audience. In a real sense, I am no longer a queer filmmaker. I do not make softcore movies of boys coming out or adopting children, etc. So I am no longer even subject to that particular marginalization.
ME: How has the discourse of queer theory impacted your working process?
SR: Queer theory per se has meant absolutely nothing to me, and I like theory very much. But if we consider the work of Genet, Burroughs and Cage as queer theory — and I think we should — then it's a different story. They have been incredibly influential. I've been re-reading Genet lately; it means even more to me now. Talk about theoretical engagement! Also Dennis Cooper, Robert Gluck and John Ashberry. If they have anything in common, it is to take nothing for granted, and then to construct.
ME: I experience your videos in the lineage of maverick post-structuralist experimental filmmakers such as Owen Land, but more specifically in the nexus between performance video and reflexive-essayist practice. Are there particular filmmakers or video artists that have been influential to your practice?
SR: A rich history of Toronto-based video work: especially Rodney Werden, but also Lisa Steele, Colin Campbell, General Idea and Tom Sherman. Vito Acconci. George Kuchar. Robert Morin and Lorraine Dufour. And lots of movies.