Jesse McLean is a media artist whose video works blend autobiography and fiction to craft narrators that are as fragmented as the stories they tell. Within her work I find a voice yearning for connectivity within a world mediated by technology and littered with digital kitsch. Questioning the fine distinction between superficiality and authenticity, her work often discovers communities within the very mediums that threaten to tear us apart. In addition to her artistic practice, McLean is an Assistant Professor of Cinematic Arts at the University of Iowa. Her video Climbing is part of an exhibition I have co-curated with Elizabeth Schlatter, titled Anti-Grand: Contemporary Perspectives on Landscape, at the University of Richmond, which opens January 14th.
diga.rt: In your Bearing Witness Trilogy you explore how shared experiences are mediated through technology, looking at how micro-communities form around things like natural phenomenon (weather/ eco-tourism) and national disasters, as well as through spirituality (worship music/ group meditation). You seem to address the issue of ownership that arises with such shared cultural events, questioning how these events change when distributed and viewed through digital means. A particularly poignant moment for me was the captioned bit in The Burning Blue in which the narrator discusses watching the Challenger disaster in full while playing hooky from school, and the separation from his classmates who watched the coverage in class. In what ways do you think the digital proliferation of media forms communities, or, does it?
JM: I do think digital media and its methods of distribution form communities and certainly form relationships, newer and less familiar kinds of relationships. An example is Facebook. For someone like myself, who lives in a college town away from a lot of friends and peers, social media sites like this are valuable, even in their distraction and banality. I meet people on Facebook, become friends and we have a relationship, even if we haven’t met in the physical world. There are people I know through art or film that I have met in real life that I feel closer to on Facebook. It allows you to present a different form of yourself, which can be dangerously abused or misguided or, alternatively, very gratifying and relieving. People sometimes dismiss social media as either a place for banal bits of gossip or a place where too much is shared and this is all true, but I think it is also a place for true connection, that is possible only via digital technologies. It’s a different connection, but it’s there. It’s interesting however, that you mention the Challenger footage (which is actually a part of that video that is autobiographical, it happened to me), because television is a precursor in terms of a technology that allowed people to bond over shared media, a technology that provided connection but had less access and immediacy in terms of responding. Whether or not the relationships are valuable is another discussion but the feeling of connection, or lack thereof, is very real in both technologies.
diga.rt: A lot of your videos use collage in a way that’s reminiscent of someone like Steve Reinke, creating an inconsistent or fragmented narrator that exists across found footage, audio, and captions. What draws you to this form of storytelling?
JM: Thanks for the compliment; I am a fan of Steve Reinke’s work. Once I heard him speak about his work and he said he utilized both sincerity and irony, as we do in real life. That made a big impression on me, the freedom to fluctuate positioning. Also, in the same talk, he discussed how his narration is frequently viewed as autobiographical (which makes sense because it’s usually voice-over narration spoken by Reinke and the kind of writing seems to be drawn from experience), but that it is fictionalized as much as it is not. This also made an impact on me because it pointed to a vulnerability or expectation within the viewer, and this conflicted area seemed rich for exploration. I suppose it gave me the permission I needed to be messier. In my work, it’s not about manipulating viewers with no purpose, but rather an interest in exploring differences in their own response to the material. The idea of a fragmented narrator allows for the narrator to be located in several places or become different people, the viewer being one possibility. Text can completely change the read of an image, or be somewhat invisible as an aesthetic element. Disembodied voice and text can hint at a narrator that is outside the film, even something supernatural. Again, I enjoy this fluctuation between who is experiencing and telling the story. And, as evidenced above in my response to your first question, I can blend autobiography with fiction, facts, etc.
diga.rt: In Invisible Tracks you explore the materiality of digital images, using tools based in Photoshop to manipulate and isolate elements of the image. In Magic Wand you collage an array of torn-apart images, playing with colors and negative space to confuse and conflate their varying sources. With the combination of flying figures and military imagery, I’m reminded of the falling forms found in Paul Chan’s post-9/11 piece 1st Light (2005). What about depicting the situation in Iraq led you to explore the process of image manipulation?
JM: In 2007, the situation in Iraq was so hopeless and the news coverage so inadequate that the images and stories only seemed to promote a kind of depressive passivism. We had information but we lacked understanding. There were so many pictures of bombed sites and one day I had the strange notion that I could rebuild a destroyed site using Photoshop. It struck me as inappropriate and absurd but I thought that this reaction was worth exploring. It seemed to point to the kind of hopeless futility that I was feeling at the time. I wanted to connect with the images, do something positive, but I didn’t know how my actions could lead anywhere. The pieces were concerned with relationships to mediated images like these. There is a lot of trust that is attached to journalistic photography and its use to tell the truth, to provide information and ideally promote understanding. This was a war where journalists were embedded, couldn’t move freely, so things were tightly controlled in terms of mainstream media. At the same time there were civilians and soldiers with digital cameras and email and Facebook who were sharing images and content that way, so other kinds of images were getting out there. My research turned up surprising pictures of people in swimming pools in Iraq, both soldiers and civilians. That’s an image you’d have to seek out because it doesn’t support the current story (at that time). Although I also want the story and the information, I’m also hoping for a deeper understanding or at least more complexity. It’s dangerous when a country becomes reduced to an emblematic image because it reduces specific places and people into one tragic idea (the destroyed site) and this reduction only encourages a passive response because everything already seems so hopeless. Why care about Iraq? It’s already completely bombed out. That was partly why everything was mixed up in certain pieces like “Magic Wand”. Different cities, towns, could all be dangerously blended together. I’m extrapolating ideas from Susan Sontag, and her writing in “Regarding the Pain of Others” was very helpful with this body of work. The series was about activation, even if the gestures were pointless or seemed in bad taste, they partially spoke to a kind of desperate engagement. And like the soldiers, now the viewers have the media tools, they cannot only generate content, they can manipulate it and disperse it. This moment hadn’t occurred before.
diga.rt: In some of your work you employ elements of camp, as well as cheeky recognitions of the irreality of pop music (taking lyrics at face value or allowing auto-tuned participants to perform overtop pop tracks). Do you think fantasy is an important element of mass culture?
JM: I think the role of fantasy or departure from everyday life is something that purveyors of mass cultural products count on, so I think it has high value as a capitalist tool. But, I also like to look at fantasy and its role within mass culture from a different perspective outside of capitalistic intentions. I want to find some good within these experiences, despite the intentionality of the producers of content. Because beyond just stepping away from your own life into another world, sometimes popular culture can actually provide energy or relief or motivation to face your real life with more happiness or determination. I know that to be true in my own experience. I’m certainly vulnerable to mass culture, searching for myself within it or for my connection to other people and my place within the world. When I was younger, I was more vulnerable, I trusted media more, wanted to live within it at times. So along with the good, I also know about being disappointed thoroughly and realizing how I was mislead and/or provided with inadequate models. I’m now much more drawn to period films or fantasy, or mass culture that has nothing whatsoever to do with my life. I don’t think escapism is necessarily bad because we’ve had stories, myths, etc. since forever and I think fantasy is healthy and part of being human. But I do think it is something that can be taken advantage of and I think people can depart from their lives for so long that they lose some resilience to handle the real world. As Warhol said, “fantasy love is better than reality love”. Fantasy love may be easier but is also confined forever.
diga.rt: You use different techniques (low resolution/ actors/ green screens) to create a sense in your videos of either truthfulness or of being contrived, bringing up the condition in which videos begin to resemble each other or even become indistinguishable. When original videos begin to resemble stock footage, the motivation in capturing new images seems to be thrown into question, or at least it begins to function differently. I’m reminded of memes like the Harlem Shake or the Ice Bucket Challenge in which people participate in producing new content that looks like everyone else’s. What about images referencing other images interests you?
JM: The interest is in the possibility for connection because a reference is a connection to something that already exists. I despise the obsessive and unrealistic quest for originality in creative fields; the pressure that accompanies this quest and the ridiculousness of thinking you can exist outside of influence. I do like sincerity, innovation and personal voice because these are different desires and actual possibilities. But I’m drawn to versions, updates, remakes, adaptations, etc. because these methods point towards a desire for connection. In more basic ways, I like graphic matches and associational edits. I love how we can be shown a jumble or images and sounds and our minds will try to find a connective pathway through. I know the world before and after the Internet and things like YouTube, so there is a fascination with viewers becoming producers of content coupled with the ability to grab content from everywhere. The tools have changed so fast and become accessible and the amount of material is awesome. So initially, when I started using appropriation techniques I was content to decontextualize material, collage different sources, and obviously point to the appropriation. But over time, I became interested in probing the possibilities of the material and exploring associational logic as a method for connection and disconnection. This led to a purposeful blurring of material and a more complex function in that the source pointed not only at itself but also in more diffuse directions. In some ways in was a larger, more longitudinal form of collage, allowing for less obvious connections to develop. When people starting having trouble distinguishing material I generated from material I appropriated, I felt again that this was rich territory. I’ve always enjoyed revisiting things, not only to enjoy them again but to also look for more possibilities within the material. As a child, when I read a book I liked, I would immediately read it again. It was the same thing with movies or music. And references were also thrilling. I can recall that when a character on one television show appeared on another show as that same character it delighted me because it seemed to evidence the existence of this other world. Because I’m not solely interested in constructing a fantasy world, there is something about constructing a place that seems to be both drawn from our real world but also built out of cinematic and televisual material that excites me. I like the ambiguity, the sense that you are in a familiar place but you aren’t quite sure where it is. Again, the idea of unusual connections is thrilling to me as an artist, and a human.
diga.rt: In your synopsis for “The Invisible World” you sort of talk about planned obsolescence and the immensity of the information that needs to be archived. How do you think digital media/ technologies will be documented and accessed in the future?
JM: We will be born with the latest U2 album already stored in our memory. Just kidding! I’m not sure how much the technology used in documentation will radically change but I’m sure machines will get faster, more efficient. We have so much of the analog world to scan and copy and that will keep us busy for decades. “The Invisible World” uses some material from Sci-Fi films made in the 1970’s, which were chosen because a lot of the technologies presented in those films have been realized. Technologies that we dreamt of, fantasized about, are part of our everyday lives now. The idea of a world of information, a mega-database has been realized through the Internet and we can dabble like crazy into all sorts of information. We think and live encyclopedically. But there will be a realization that the amazing access is not without consequence. Our energy resources and the materials used to make our devices are not in endless supply. That reality may slow us down more than lags in technologic development. But for now, following the same logic of looking to fantasy for future technologic models, we might have touch screens embedded in walls or furniture, 3D models that are projected out of our watches or phones. There will be a lot of sweeping hand gestures, pushing away walls of digital information into thin air. Have you seen Minority Report or Iron Man? That’s us in twenty years (kidding again). Although, we already have Google Glass and you can use a 3D printer to make metal jewelry, and probably organic things in the near future, so maybe we’re already there.