An interview with video artist Jennifer Reeder
In contrast to today's art world in which politics and autobiography are de rigueur, Jennifer Reeder's wordless, faintly dramatized videos of Midwestern life are ambiguous, slow (often excruciatingly slow) and without recognizable narrative. Critics have found her work to be apolitical, lost and passive. Some viewers, for example, might find difficulty in making sense of two men pumping iron for an outstretched 10 minutes or a woman walking along the same suburban street for five minutes. But in fact, the stationary viewer's position is anything but passive in Reeder's videos, bringing to question certain situations, gestures, movements and environments. By not playing the teller, Reeder uses the classic "less is more" aesthetic to make the ephemeral perennial.
A Room with the Walls Blasted to Shreds and Falling (detail) 2001, single channel video
Sometimes, slow isn't soporific, cool isn't louche - and in Jennifer Reeder's case, this is entirely true. Even though her most recent videos are undoubtedly slow, they aren't excessively long or formless. In fact, her work can, to a certain degree, be described as what a friend of mine called "acute boredom," a sensation that's ironically exciting and eerie.
It has been six years since Reeder made her well-known White Trash Girl series and in the years since, her work has gained international appeal. Since 1998 she has shown in New York City (including the 2000 Whitney Biennial), Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well as Cuba, Spain, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands, and has taught courses here at SAIC. Recently, she took time to talk about Midwestern parochialism, camp and collective sensibilities, irony and parody in video, digital and analog production, and big hair.
Robert Becraft: This may seem like an outworn observation of something that is overblown in art nowadays, but your recent videos grok something that is at once familiar and foreign, but without a klepto-kitschy bent towards some kind of "collective conscience." Why do you think your work has this fresh but strange quality?
Jennifer Reeder: I think of each video as [a series of] montage sequences from traditional film works. For instance in films, teenage girls are portrayed, for the most part, as sexualized but still innocent and beautiful in a conventional way - with the wind blowing through their long, flowing hair. Young men are portrayed oftentimes in a more campy way. I wanted to call those portrayals into question - not only to think about how they reflect a real situation, but also about how the media represents young adults and how that representation affects how young adults imagine themselves. So, [there is a sense of the] familiar, but at the same time I wanted to call that idea into question to suggest that this may seem like something seen before, but at the same time, not at all.
RB: Your recent soundtracks lack the jag and juke of your earlier ones. Why have you chosen this type of electronic music to accompany your videos?
JR: The tapes that I did for "Lullabye," "Nevermind" and "Johnny Take a Dive" were manipulated from pop songs. I feel they are closely related to the contemporary musical "clickers and clackers," as I call them, who take defects - literally the glitches - and distill them to perfection. I think that those three videos are also full of video glitches. They were produced right at the time when analog was obliterated by digital. In a way those tapes, both in terms of their soundtracks and their images, are about that transition from analog to digital because I used digital tools to isolate analog glitches. Right now, so much of the music produced by the "clickers and clackers" feels close to me in the same way that ... contemporary digital image production does.
RB: Is "Nevermind" essentially a pop song made into a glitch?
JR: Sure, because "Nevermind" is just [Nirvana's] "Smells Like Teen Spirit" with the tempo slowed down almost three times but with the same pitch. So the analog instruments of these punk-grunge heroes get turned into an electronic grind. It's like sending that cultural sentiment through an electronic meat grinder. In a way, aspects of popular culture are glitches and blips too. Moments come and go quickly.
RB: How has your work crossed over internationally?
JR: Actually I've had tremendous crossover, especially in Europe. I think part of it has to do with the fact that my older work deals with American popular culture - especially the Western European fascination with American pop culture. My recent work is a really natural crossover because it has no dialogue or lyrics whatsoever and a lot of the music that I'm using is European.
RB: You're an all-out Midwesterner, as you've said yourself. Has this had an influence on your video-making? What does it mean to you to be a Midwesterner in the first place?
JR: I think that there's a sense of having grown up in the middle of the middle of the middle. Culturally, this country values what comes from the extreme coasts. We look at the coasts as the purveyors of culture, or we look outside of this country before we look to the middle of the country. There's something much more interesting to me about everything that's happening between the coasts. That's complicated. Being in the middle is not the same as being mediocre. Being in the middle is not the same as being "medium." Personalities are extreme [in the Midwest].
RB: In what way?
JR: In a really genuine sense they are eccentric. I'm still in the Midwest. I feel comfortable here. There's a sense of camaraderie among people in the Midwest - especially women. I think it's because we all remember at some point in high school having hair that was about as close to God as you could get in terms of height, and that's still the case in certain areas. Even though I've lived in the city for the past seven years, my secret desire is still to want to get my hair as far away from my head as possible. It's one superficial manifestation of the Midwest.
RB: Are you talking about bouffant Afros?
JR: See now, because you're not from the Midwest I don't think you understand it. You'd just know it. You'd just have a sense of it. It doesn't have a name; it's just big hair.
RB: Some of your work seems to portray ignored, ordinary, rueful characters. If this isn't a parody or criticism, what is it?
JR: There's a sense that the Midwest is boring. There's something very tense about that. My piece entitled "A Room with the Walls Blasted to Shreds and Falling" was shot in central Ohio. It [takes place over one day and] begins in the morning with a shot of a June bug turned over on its back and kicking in a pool. This very banal situation indicates a really blunt tension that I wanted to maintain throughout the tape. So, the camera follows kids at swim team practice, endless flows of cars, a young girl who takes eight minutes to walk to her subdivision and, finally, a group of people filing into an all-night supermarket. Everyone's in this middle period; no one is where he or she is supposed to be. I wanted a tension in that waiting, in that transitory period which, for me, echoes the Midwest. I didn't want to present it as sinister or with hyperbole [as is done in] Gummo (1997, Harmony Korine). Gummo has a kind of explicit Midwestern-ness; it's like explicit normalcy in a way. Instead, I wanted to present normal as normal and boring as boring. I wanted to present [the Midwest] in way that's actually loving and lovely, but still with a certain amount of tension.
RB: Do you ever worry that the very people that your videos are about are excluded as an audience?
JR: "A Room with the Walls Blasted to Shreds and Falling" was commissioned by the Institute of Visual Arts, which is a contemporary art facility associated with the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. When I was talking to the director of that space about doing a piece for the solo shows that were held a year ago in September, we discussed the need for work that addressed the Midwest. To a degree, I had always felt that I addressed the Midwest, but not in a very specific way - that's the take that I brought to my work, that's who I was the minute I first picked up a camera. So "A Room..." premiered in Milwaukee and it screened here, but I haven't had a screening in Ohio. I feel like art sometimes has that way of not reaching certain audiences just because there aren't the same kind of facilities in every city. I think that art should be accessible, not just physically, but intellectually. But realistically, the audiences of museums and galleries are a minority in terms of the general population.
RB: Some of your work, like "Twin Decks," is purposefully antic I think, but does, at the same time, have serious, staid and immobile overtones. Is all of your art meant to be ambiguous?
JR: I think my newer work has more of a sense of ambiguity than my early work. My earlier work had a very strict agenda. The ambiguity in "Twin Decks" is really interesting to me. Basically, [the video depicts] a montage sequence of two men lifting weights. Their bodies are coded, the space that they're in is coded, the gesture of lifting weights is coded. Even though the work itself is ambiguous, your response to it can be really specific. You may look at the guys and want to be them, or you may want to beat them up. You may be afraid of them, or you may desire them. You might imagine that they're a couple or that there's something else between them as they sweat and pump-up next to each other.
RB: So "Twin Decks" is meant to be humorous?
JR: Absolutely. I think the bottom line is that I always want to encourage multiple reads [in my work], and certainly I want one of those reads to be humorous. Not an ironic or knee-slapping humor necessarily, but instead, the ability to make an audience laugh at what they're seeing or even at themselves.
RB: I thought it would be funny if I interviewed Vanessa Beecroft - as I practically have the same last name as her - but was told by someone in the Visiting Artists Program that she's too big. Isn't it unfortunate that an artist can become a celebrity?
JR: Artists have become celebrities. That happened during the 1980s for instance. [Today] artists show up as often in the social pages of Harper's Bazaar as they do in critical reviews. I don't have a problem with that. I'm interested in the way that distinctions collapse. Fashion photography, fine art photography, TV commercials, video art, design, sculpture - they're all one big situation. I recognize that. I don't know how I feel about it, but I recognize it. I'm interested in artists as celebrities in as much as I want to think of them as cultural double agents - as more than just a version of a movie star walking down the red carpet. I want to think of them as makers of culture rather than pretty vessels that carry out paltry dialogue. So in order to feel comfortable about that sense of celebrity, I imagine that they're infiltrators of the celebrity ivory tower in a way - spies for the rest of us.
RB: In your latest twin-projection piece, quite literally titled "A Double Image Both in Focus Simultaneously," you portray gawky teenagers on the brink of adulthood. On one side, a swim meet in central Ohio is shown - with prissy, nebbish, naive-looking girls. On the other side, a high school senior struts down a corridor with brimming confidence. The piece captures adolescence accurately and naturally, yet parts of it are staged. How did you pull this off?
JR: Again, I was dealing with the portrayal of young women and the portrayal of young men. One sequence is just footage of the pool deck; the other sequence is dramatized footage. Even though I didn't direct the girls' gestures or behavior, they're still so aware of being watched by each other that I might as well have. There's still a sense of drama in their very presence and very beings. They are still under an enormous amount of direction. So, I wanted to compare that to a sequence where there is specific direction. I wanted to think about those two sequences - that awareness of being watched by either a camera with a director behind it or another body with desire or contempt behind it.
RB: Did you attend Ladyfest Chicago?
JR: I was out of town. I don't know if it was subconscious, but I planned to fly out of town the weekend of Ladyfest and the Chicago Underground Film Festival. I think that's very telling.
RB: Do you feel that Ladyfest is franchised feminism?
JR: I'm totally in support of all things female-made, but I'm interested in a rebirth of gender democracy [that does not practice] exclusion or naming.
For more information on Jennifer Reeder visit Julia Friedman Gallery's Web site, www.juliafriedman.com, and/or visit the SAIC Video Data Bank where some of her videos can be viewed.