The Link to Reality Stretches but it Doesn’t Break: An Interview with Jesse McLean

Published on Bad at Sports blog here, written by Jesse Malmed

Jesse McLean’s work as a filmmaker and artist is deeply engaged in issues of spectatorship, empathy, and the televisual and cinematic experiences that forge these connections. I first became aware of Jesse’s work when I saw her video The Eternal Quarter Inch at the late PDX Festival. I was completely taken by the work. It was elegant and intelligent, simultaneously wry and sincere, and, most of all, the way it was paced and the atmospheres it created felt both sophisticated and highly personal. I have since spent a great deal more time with her work (both through her website and the invaluable Video Data Bank) and have found a continuation of these initial themes and impulses. Her art continues to deepen as it broadens.

Her work has been shown widely at spaces like Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, threewalls, Venice Film Festival, Migrating Forms at Anthology Film Archives, Director’s Lounge in Berlin, FLEX, Chicago Underground Film Festival, LUMP gallery/projects and Space 1026 and won the Overkill Award at the 2011 Images Festival and the Barbara Aronofsky Latham Award for Emerging Experimental Video Artist at the 2010 Ann Arbor Film Festival. the Next week her newest film Remote will be showing at the prestigious International Film Festival Rotterdam. Magic for Beginners is in competition at the Stuttgart Filmwinter Festival and will also screen as part of Transmediale in Berlin, Germany. In February she will be installing a version of Remote in the Front Room space at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis. She has a residency at the Wexner Center in Columbus, OH in March where she plans to continue production on a new piece. She lives and works in Chicago and teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Can you say a bit about your background? What got you interested in this type of moving image production? What kinds of work were you making at 18? 25?

I got interested in filmmaking through my mother, who had studied art and filmmaking and also through my friend Sonia Yoon. Sonia encouraged me to take my first filmmaking class in high school. At that time I was convinced I’d be an animator. I attended Oberlin College and studied art, which didn’t include video or media at the time so I spent my junior year in New York City, working at a production house that specialized in children’s television commercials and attending New York University. I was also exposed to independent cinema and art house cinema. I watched a lot of Jim Jarmusch films, which I think is evidenced by my aesthetic choices at that time. I was shooting black and white, 16mm reversal and editing­ on a Steenbeck. After school I worked in the movie industry in an effort to learn more about cinema. I’m not sure that happened but I learned a lot about what I didn’t want to do. I’m certain this directly contributed to my interest in appropriation.

Eventually I found my way back to Pittsburgh and took more classes at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, which has this rich history of supporting and promoting Avant-garde cinema. It was only then, in my mid-twenties that I became exposed to this entire other world of filmmaking and art. I had seen some Len Lye films in college and mistakenly stumbled intoDog Star Man, which I had no context for, but that was about it.

Those years in Pittsburgh were formative for me. I used to attend this microcinema calledJefferson Presents, run by friends of mine, and that was the beginning of my education in experimental film history. I was still shooting actual film and I didn’t even know how to edit video. I only learned about video reluctantly as a potential job skill. In Pittsburgh I also reconnected with Jacob Ciocci, who I knew from college and was now attending Carnegie Mellon for grad school. He showed me a tape his art collective Paper Rad had made and it really inspired me to start mixing sources and embrace my undeniable interest in popular culture.

Can you describe your process for making works like the Bearing Witness Trilogy and Magic for Beginners? Are there certain ideas you’re trying to express or moods you’re trying to achieve and then you seek the footage? Or, more commonly, do the themes and ideas of the pieces reveal themselves through the process of seeking footage, editing it and watching and re-watching?

I usually begin with an idea, often it’s an incredibly broad theme, like fandom or fear, and then I look for material and ways to make it more specific. Sometimes I’ll encounter material that gets the ball rolling. For example, I’d had the idea for the elimination breakdown sequence in Somewhere only we know for at least two years before I started that piece. It wasn’t until I saw on the news that an earthquake had disrupted a taping of Judge Judy and Big Brother that I got interested in actually making the piece.

Magic for Beginners always felt like a bit of a self-portrait, that’s why I thought to use my school pictures. Initially the Heidi footage was conceived as another method of self-portraiture, but the footage operated differently. Heidi becomes more the mediated protagonist, offering up an emotional response to everything the narrators are talking about, basically being lulled in and subsequently let down by media.

The actual Heidi tape is incredibly corny, but there is this amazing dream sequence where Heidi runs towards the camera with her arms outstretched. The camera is retreating and the shadow of the cameraperson running away from her is visible on the grassy field. She wakes up before she can be embraced. For me this image is the heart of the piece, it really summed up everything I was going for.

You use a number of techniques that in the hands of other makers sometimes constitute a whole work—I’m thinking about the YouTube-originated fan renditions ofMy Heart Will Go On or the montage of reality television contestants awaiting their “moment of truth”—but you incorporate them into larger, fuller works. The videos of which those sequences are a part have interesting and satisfying trajectories.

Collage is very appealing to me. Actually, art is appealing because it allows for encyclopedic thinking and a blending of disparate interests. In Somewhere only we know, the piece that features the reality television contestants being eliminated, I knew that I could make a piece composed of just those scenes that would be conceptually tight and broadly appealing. I struggled against that impulse, though. You can see lots of terrific super cuts on YouTube. Not to be dismissive because those edits are great but I hope that my work can go to other places beyond clever arrangement. I wanted the piece to become more complicated because I was more concerned with the way emotions are played out both onscreen and within the home viewer than highlighting elimination scenes. I also wanted to blend different portrayals of reality, that’s why the POV footage of someone running across a field is mixed with the footage ripped from cable and the Internet. Not only did collaging those sources allow me to confuse the identity of the protagonist but also it begins to unseat a familiar viewing position. The footage I shot seems less real that the codified reality shows.

You seem to be interested in empathy and in the role televisual culture can play in both forging and denying empathy.

Empathy is the most important human characteristic and the closest way we have to understanding another person’s experience. Most of the worst things we do to one another arise from a lack of empathy. Empathy in media, especially pop culture media, is thorny territory, not just because there is so much manipulation and stylization but also because we develop relationships with idealized versions of ourselves, creations that are both glorified and vilified. Are the relationships unreal because the creations are fictive? Even if the developed relationship is questionable, is the emotion ingrained somehow also invalid?

I’m fascinated by photography and think it’s one of the strangest inventions, especially in relation to empathy. Once a picture is taken, the link to reality stretches but doesn’t break. An empathetic response to the image can be garnered but it’s more unreliable. Obviously, the effect photos can yield is amazing, I’m thinking about Jason Lazarus’ Too Hard to Keeparchive as an example of this power. The photos in the archive couldn’t be kept because what they trigger is too real, even though they are just images. They couldn’t be destroyed, either. This makes me think of a quote from Andy Warhol that I used in Magic for Beginners, “People are the only things that know how to take up more space than the space they are actually in. Before media there used to be a physical limit on how much space one person could take up.”

When I’ve described your work in the past, after describing certain elements of the work—the Christian rock band, the obsessions with fan culture, the reality TV—one salient feature that I always feel I have to inject is that it doesn’t feel mocking or cruel. Needless to say, the work is filled with humor and there’s an obvious level of criticality to these phenomena, but you’re able to create an atmosphere in which a viewer feels empathy with the subjects. Have you consciously made changes to works that felt flippant? Do you try to forge a connection with your footage before you work it into a piece?

I am comfortable riding the line between sincerity and irony but I never set out to ridicule. I frequently use material that has been deemed “obvious targets” by some and I find pleasure in attempting to distill some sincerity from these sources. I know that money drives the creation of much of popular culture. I did work in the movie industry, which can be a rather rough business and certainly not the most creative environment. What I’m looking at is the other side, the connection of the viewer to this material and the use of affect. There is a great deal of power in mass media but the level of manipulation is so grotesque as to be impressive. Popular culture works terrifically on me; I have a particularly embarrassing memory of sobbing uncontrollably on a plane during Toy Story 3. This kind of emotional response never happens to me in “real life”. So I would never ridicule my subject, because I’m a fan, too. But I’m also a skeptic.

The kaleidoscope section of Eternal Quarter Inch and the Oneida flicker section ofMagic for Beginners are powerful to watch. Even in their simplicity, they’re propulsive, enrapturing and visceral in that way that certain types of cinematic experience only are. They’re also both tempered by a return to the other ideas of the pieces, and, incidentally, we’re dropped into a more skeptical world, one that reveals the artifice behind the magic. I’m interested in the way this reflects on the history of experimental film and in what it means to make work within a historical trajectory without getting lost in familiar territory. Does the flicker film’s power now need to exist within a larger intellectual or critical framework?

I wouldn’t say that. I guess if you were interested in forwarding cinema’s conceptual and material progression you probably wouldn’t make a 16mm flicker film. You’d probably be making a movie using Microsoft Word or something. Arnulf Rainer by Peter Kubelka is still an intense experience. Is it still a novelty? No, but I doubt that was the sole intention. Flicker and strobe are still excellent ways to experience the phenomenological through cinema. I love that these kinds of visual tactics draw you in, and you become a different kind of viewer, more of a participant. I certainly have used these kinds of strategies to enact a more visceral response to what is onscreen.

For me, yes, I am using these strategies in concert with other ideas and tactics. I think originality is overrated, but I do think about what my works mean now and how it relates to what is happening in contemporary art and cinema. I think access and availability have led a lot of artists to combine not only different sources but also different strategies in one piece. Personally, I crave the multi-valence of art, both in form and content.

A lot of these works speak to a sense of spiritual or magical lack and the measures we take to have these experiences. In the end, the stories told in Magic for Beginners end in disappointment: the mystical experience only occurred as a fleeting feeling, not as material fact. The magic of Photoshop is revealed as artifice. The sway of pop music’s simple, repetitive slogans are shown to even more inane than we’d feared when all strung together.

My work is about both the power to and the failure of mediated experiences to bind us together. I temper the experiences that are procured through media in an effort to understand why they are so effective.

I’m fascinated by the works that were exhibited as Invisible Tracks. The source materials for the works were all recent photographs from Iraq, but in many ways the true subject of the works is Photoshop, how it is used and misused in constructing images (documentary, editorial, artistic, etc.) and the small processes by which these changes are made.

I think the works are interesting also because they seem to be an attempt at expressing how an anthropomorphized Photoshop conceives of the world of images. I’m wondering why you chose photographs from Iraq (instead of, say, Afghanistan or Canada) as the source.

I’m glad you think the true subject is Photoshop and how it is used to construct images. These pieces get mixed responses; many viewers want a deeper connection with the images from me, for example, if I had gotten the images directly from veterans stationed in Iraq. But the subject of the work was more directed towards the strangeness of access. At the time I started this work you couldn’t read the paper without seeing an image related to the war in Iraq. Squeezed in between ads and text the images not only got lost but also diminished. One morning I had this fleeting thought that I could take an image of a destroyed site and rebuild it in Photoshop. I was intrigued by this creepy idea and so the project began and kept expanding. Using these particular images was a way for me to reactivate the material for myself, to try to get out of a passive viewing space.

What we see through the mass media outlets is tightly controlled and I believe that what we see has a lot to do with how we perceive a remote location, like Iraq. If you think a country is nothing more than a pile of grey debris, it’s easier to care less about its inhabitants. During the process of collecting images I became fascinated by the different ways that images are now disseminated. In that war, for example, you had embedded reporters but other means, like Flickr, for military personnel to get their own images out there. While I was gathering material, I kept finding pictures of people (Iraqis, American military, etc.…) in swimming pools in Iraq. They were so surprising and unfamiliar. The color palette is too vivid and the people look too happy.

I wouldn’t advocate for any blockage of media outlets but I do think it’s worthwhile to examine our relationship to the material we glean. Our relationship to news-related imagery is especially vulnerable as we expect it to be truthful. We can accept a Photoshopped advertisement but not a manipulated image of a destroyed site. I think this is also why these pieces bothered some people; for them, the material demanded a more familiar political stance or a determined polemic. But it’s easier to collect these images and deconstruct them than it is to form a considered relationship with them. And I think that’s political enough.

Onto newer works, you recently exhibited Trust Falls and Remote. It’s tempting to see these as marking a transition into a different kind of making or, at least, a shift in emphasis. Most obviously, these are both videos that you shot and, I would imagine, were firmly developed conceptually before production. Second, they feel like they’re meant to loop. Remote has a trajectory, certainly, but that trajectory feels more like a spiral than a line. Unlike most cinematic uses of suspense, there’s no release. How did you conceptualize this work? What about the aesthetics of suspense and horror drew you into wanting to make your own version? And, why did you choose to shoot this work instead of relying on found footage?

I did feel like Magic for Beginners was the end of a series. That piece has so much exposition that I wanted to make something quieter and more spacious. I have a tendency to resolve everything and after Magic for Beginners, I felt like I needed to push myself to do something different. I had been developing a long-form, experimental horror narrative that would have necessitated a cast and crew. I began working with Lori Felker as my cinematographer and we shot material so that I could edit a trailer for fundraising purposes. I shelved the project but was captivated by the material she had shot. I could distance myself from the footage and treat it like more like an appropriated source. I was excited about recontextualizing the material by combining it with other sources, something I’d been doing with appropriated sources for years. That was how Remote began. I did some additional shooting with Mike Gibisser and eventually I shot footage, too.

For unknown reasons, I had become interested in the horror genre over the past few years. I’m drawn to the use of suspense and the visceral response horror films illicit. The original idea behind Remote was similar to what you stated, all suspense with no release. Initially I wanted to make suspense boring but somewhere in construction I got more intrigued by the effort of actually crafting a horror film. Suspense is still a main strategy at work but the piece also implies a presence that drifts through time and space.

Incidentally, Remote is comprised of both original and appropriated footage and audio. The soundtrack is completely fabricated, everything was added later. There is actually some original footage in Magic for Beginners but it gets read as appropriated. This confusion was interesting to me and I exploited it in Remote.

Trust Falls is another step into the empathetic potentials of cinema. Everyone—catchers and caught—seem to smile once the trusting fall. One woman is given a second chance after she initially catches herself. How large would this ideally be projected? Does cinema promise us we too will be caught? Do you have specific memories of a face looking back at you from a screen? What do you think the responsibilities of filmmakers are to their subjects? To their viewers? How many of the performers (?) in Trust Falls fell and caught?

I exhibited Trust Falls at Interstate Projects in New York. I was drawn to the phrase “trust falls” almost as much as the corporate, trust-building exercise. In the video, the subject is framed in a medium close-up, which is a shot composition that I’ve been interested in for some time because it is intimate without feeling too intrusive. I utilized this framing both inMagic for Beginners and Somewhere only we know.
Initially I thought I might project it quite large but it was too overwhelming and so the projection ended up being about four or five feet wide. It screened with Remote and the dense and foreboding soundtrack from Remote really affected the view of Trust Falls, which is silent.

In the piece, the subject stares outward, confronting the viewer and becoming another viewer in the process. This viewer leans back, falling into a cinematic void and trusting that outside, there is someone waiting to catch their image. Again, I was interested in suspense, in the moment right before the fall. I wanted to see how the emotions read onscreen. There were seventeen participants, I think? We had a few different catchers, but mainly Thad Kellstadt and Tim Nickodemus caught and this had a lot to do with availability. I had considered making everyone catch but physics eliminated this possibility.

The participants were on a slightly raised platform and instructed to wait before falling. I wanted the catchers to appear at the last minute and be slightly out of focus. I was concerned that if the participants fell into a black void it would actually be less compelling than seeing the catchers. No one involved in the shoot anticipated how joyous it would be when the tension was released. There was a round of applause after every fall.

You have an obvious interest in spectatorship, in how people watch things in groups and alone, and how these things are watched not simply (or always) as entertainment or education or, even, within the realm of conscious artistic experience. What are you own viewing habits like? 

I’ll go to microcinemas like The Nightingale and White Light Cinema and I always try to go see every visitor to the Conversations at the Edge series. I usually miss all the Hollywood films, but I’ll stream them later at home. I can watch a lot of movies, I remember when I was making Remote I was looking for a good shot of trees at night and watched eight horror films in a row. It’s kind of gross.

Sometimes watching films in a group is great but often the other people watching the screen, or the architecture of the space itself distract me. I do like the experience of being in an actual theater, partly because of the size of the screen and the quality of the sound system but more because there is something about being captive that allows you to drift in your own head. I work out a lot of ideas when I’m at the movies, or in the shower.

Relatedly, (how) has teaching changing changed your work?

Teaching forces me to be aware of what is happening in contemporary cinema and art and I appreciate the extra motivation to be informed. Without my teaching practice, I’d run the danger of being too cloistered. It’s hard work and I’m certain I’ll spend the rest of my life improving upon my teaching abilities, which is actually very appealing.

Mostly, though, my students are inspiring, not only in what they do but also what they know. I’ve learned a great deal from them. They are a steady link to what is happening in consumer technology, social media and Internet culture. Plus, my work is motivated by an interest in human behavior so getting to interact regularly with a shifting group of fascinating and creative people is not harmful to the artistic practice at all.

 WRITTEN BY JESSE MALMED