. Conversations at the Edge (CATE)

Kent Lambert & Jesse McLean interview each other

Posted by | Conversations at the Edge | Posted on | September 22, 2010

Magic for Beginners (Jesse McLean, 2010). Image courtesy the artist.

Magic for Beginners (Jesse McLean, 2010). Image courtesy the artist.

On the eve of tomorrow’s program, Have to Believe We Are Magic: Videos by Kent Lambert and Jesse McLean, the artists interviewed each other. Here is the exclusive transcript.

Kent Lambert:  Ready when you are!

Jesse McLean‪: ‬ ‪Ready!‬

‪KL: ‬ ‪Do you have questions prepared?‬ Or should we have more of a casual conversation at the edge?

JM‪: ‬ ‪No. Do you?‬ I like that idea.

KL‪: ‬ ‪Well I did have one question in mind so I’ll go ahead with it…‬ ‪The other night you mentioned something about getting an idea for Somewhere Only We Know and getting cable temporarily in order to get the footage you wanted/needed… Do you usually start with an idea and find footage to support it, or do you ever find footage that fascinates you and then build a piece around it?‬

JM‪: ‬ ‪That’s a good question. Probably more of the former but it’s complicated; I had seen reality television shows that feature those type of elimination scenes so you could say it was inspired by footage I had yet to collect. If I find something compelling, I’ll buy it, regardless of whether I have immediate plans for it. Not everything pans out, of course. On the most recent piece, Magic for Beginners, I had compiled a lot of material from different sources, but I pared it down to just a few in the end. What about you, same question?‬

KL‪: ‬ ‪I do the same thing in terms of collecting–I’ll buy or “steal” something if it seems interesting, even if I don’t think I’ll use it right away… but I’d say in most cases I build videos around material that fascinates me–I don’t usually have a plan or overarching idea, I just rely on intuition that one piece of footage or sound might have some sort of powerful chemistry with another piece, and then it’s basically a process of trial and error getting the pieces to stick together meaningfully. With Fantasy Suite, I knew I wanted to do something with this episode of the Bachelor a had friend sent me, and I thought it might fit well with this film Coping that I gleaned from the distributor I worked for 10 years ago, and also with Skymall images, but there was a period during editing when I really didn’t know if I’d be able to get those elements to work together… It took a LOT of trial and error, moving shots around, re-ordering them, taking shots out and putting other shots in, repeat repeat repeat, before it started to feel like a coherent piece. Is it ever like that for you? Like, the footage doesn’t work quite the way you’d imagined when you set out to make the piece?‬

Quick follow-up to that: do you ever map sequences out in advance or do you (like me) primarily rely on trial and error and intuition?

JM:  ‪Actually yes, I use this method of pre-visualization and I pre-visualize the exact edits I want, then easily implement them. Ha ha, no way, I do TONS of trial and error. I mean, I usually have ideas of what I want, I can’t just sit down with a blank canvas  or else I’ll get overwhelmed by possibilities and have a hard time doing anything. If I’m stuck, I’ll just start chucking anything into the timeline, having some material in there can at least get me started. Most of the time, I have some semblance of what I’d like to do and actually this can become a problem as my pieces can become too resolved and lose any bit of mystery and I think a viewer wants a bit of mystery, to be a confounded a bit. I realized on this last piece that I have to over-build and then deconstruct, it’s just part of my practice and I don’t think there’s any way around it. But I’ve accepted the problem, isn’t that the first step? That being said, I do rely on intuition for how the piece flows and how to actually cut the sequence and especially in regards to why I’m using what I’m using, since I’m drawn to combinations of discordant elements.‬

A question for you: how did you start using found footage? Was it something you were immediately drawn to?

KL: ‪Whoa, I got kind of excited to hear more about your pre-visualization strategies! Nice one.‬

To answer your question–I can remember a few moments from my undergraduate years at the U. of Iowa when I found myself intensely drawn to the idea of manipulating found footage. One was the first time I used a Media 100 online editing system–we were doing some rote exercise using footage of an old Iowa state fair, and I remember feeling the most intense, giddy euphoria at the ability to scrub footage–I just couldn’t believe that I could so easily make someone talk slower, or backwards, or that I could make them repeat a gesture over and over, basically turn a moment of recorded media into putty. ‪Then around that same time, in a different class, Martin Arnold’s Passage à l’acte was screened and again, I was just giddy.‬ ‪I was listening to a fair amount of sample-based electronic music at the same time, and was just starting to learn about people like Steve Reich and Negativland, so I suppose it was only a matter of time before I started my own experiments with sampled media. The first piece I made that consisted entirely of found footage was WHACK, in 1999 for a video art class. It was a big departure from the work I’d been making in my other classes, and I had a blast making it. Everyone who watched it seemed to love it, including Ed Halter from the NYUFF, and that support convinced me to make more work in that vein.‬

How about you? Were there particular inspirations that led you to working with found footage? Did the support of friends/curators/etc. have anything to do with it?

JM‪: ‬ ‪It took me a while. When I did begin to make movies, I started out shooting film, making narratives with actors. Then I worked in the movie industry and just got disgusted with that way of making movies. Well, I should clarify that after I made an unsuccessful and conventional narrative I experienced a moment of reckoning. I knew that I still wanted to work with film or video but not like that. I’ve always preferred editing to shooting but still, it’s a strange moment when you feel like you want to make a movie but not use a camera. Post-college and post-movie industry, I had moved back to Pittsburgh where there is a history of experimental cinema, so it was like being in the right place at the right time. I was working at Pittsburgh Filmmakers and attending this microcinema series called Jefferson Presents on a monthly basis. There I was exposed to all this avant garde work; it was incredible. That’s where I saw Peter Tscherkassky’s work and it totally transformed me. At the same time, Jacob Ciocci (who I knew from Oberlin, where I did my undergrad) from Paper Rad was attending grad school at CMU and he gave me this tape Paper Rad had made called Cable Vision. It was this mash-up of collected materials, animation, performance and it was so dynamic that I was hooked. It had humor and freely referenced popular culture. I’m not exactly sure why I began using found materials but it always felt really natural and once I’d started I thought to myself, “Why haven’t I done this earlier?”‬

KL: ‪The footage found you when you needed it!‬

JM:‪ ‬ ‪Yes!‬ Do you ever have reservations about using found materials?

KL:  ‪I guess I have kind of a dual creative existence–I write “original” songs and copyright them via the usual industry practices/channels (although the next Roommate album will have a Creative Commons attached to it), but I have major problems with the idea of Intellectual Property in general. I was inspired enough by people like Negativland, the Tape Beatles, Dara Birnbaum, etc. to feel comfortable using found materials to fuel this other creative videomaking existence that exists outside of (or sort of in opposition to) the whole notion of copyright. I suppose it’s a bit hypocritical of me to make these NoCopyright videos and then go and release copyrighted music, but on the music side, I basically don’t want some corporation or crappy movie to ever be able to use a song I wrote without my permission… but I think it’s fine if people want to fileshare our albums or remix/sample them.‬

If you’re talking about aesthetic reservations, I’d say I have at times felt a lack of motivation to make new work out of my old VHS tapes because I know it will have that “VHS look” that we all know so well at this point. Lately I’ve been wanting to make work that looks more crisp and less degraded, so I’ve started to venture into shooting things in HD off of TV or other screens, like the footage of the Mormon Tabernacle choir in our collaborative piece. You?

JM:  ‪I have some reservations, I guess. I have no problem taking stuff from major motion pictures but I wouldn’t borrow from an artist unless I had their permission or it was really pointed. Like I did use dialogue from “Painters Painting” and I guess that’s a close call. I mostly use stuff that’s widely available on purpose because the very fact that it’s already swimming in the public sphere is part of my interest in using it. I feel I’m always running the risk of using obvious targets and being heavy-handed but I like to point to people’s existing investment in media material.‬

The idea that this relationship can be renegotiated really drives my interest in the material I choose. There’s this great quote by Mike Mills (the artist, not musician) about how popular culture is like the first person who broke your heart, you never get over them. I’m not sure I feel quite like that but for better or worse, I can’t “get over” pop culture, I’m deeply interested in how pop culture reveals our fantasies and its unbelievable breadth. I might have gotten a bit off topic. I do have aesthetic reservations about using found materials in a way that is familiar, and I understand the worry over that VHS look, though I still use it! I remember I showed this mediocre piece that cut up “Painters Painting” and action movies from the eighties and Ben Russell asking me “Why is this relevant now? Why are you using eighties movies now?” I ask myself that question. It’s an important one, even if the answer isn’t always there. Just making considered choices about material helps me to understand what I’m doing.

KL‪: ‬ ‪Wow, great answer! I think I have a very similar set of boundaries–I’ve never really considered borrowing material from “video art” because I’m either interested in the kind of public sphere pop culture you’re talking about or in obscure, bizarre artifacts like the people in Security Anthem, footage with an initial utilitarian purpose that holds great power in another context. I agree that making considered choices is key, but I don’t consider any particular era or realm of pop culture to be off limits, I suppose you just have to know what it means to you and to the piece… Did you have an answer in the case of Ben’s question? Did the 80s action movie footage have particular meaning or power to you or the piece, or did you end up realizing that there was something arbitrary about it?‬

JM‪: ‬ ‪I knew that I wanted to use material that was emblematic of a certain type of super-macho action movies and I think of eighties movies for that kind of over-the-top presentation. I don’t watch a lot of action movies now so maybe they are the same but there don’t seem to be these big, beefcake dudes anymore and I was interested in that idea of muscle-bound hero, like Arnold and Sly. I understand what you said about being interested in bizarre artifacts. I find myself interested in the kinds of things people will post or share, the most mundane stuff intrigues me. Actually, I feel I have to watch myself because sometimes I’m content to just continue the sharing process, like “Have you seen this?” I have to remember that I have all these cinematic tools at hand and sometimes the answer is not just a re-screening. Do you have this issue, where the original is so amazing that you don’t know how/what to do with it?‬

KL‪: Yes, I do! I think the ubiquity of amazing, embarrassing artifacts online has significantly slowed down my videomaking! Before YouTube, part of my motivation for making videos was that “Have you seen this???” impulse, especially with a piece like WHACK. And with people like TV Carnage and Everything is Terrible (who coincidentally did their own remix of WHACK‘s source tape 10 years after mine!) more or less making feature length “Have you seen this???” collages I don’t feel comfortable sampling pop culture unless there’s potential for some sort of deeper meaning/resonance. I’m happy to just share most of the weird/hilarious videos I find online with friends, and I think lately I’ve been coming to terms with the prospect that finding something that’s resonant enough to me to make my own video out of it might be a relatively rare occurrence.‬

That said, it was really gratifying and fun to just jump in and make a piece with you–I probably wouldn’t have been motivated to make a video out of weird footage I’d shot, a Sega Genesis, game etc. if you weren’t bringing your own footage and creative sensibility to the table.

JM‪: ‬ ‪I hear that! I’ve been sitting on that footage for awhile because I just couldn’t figure out how or where to use it so it way nice to finally get it out there. The mixtape I made for Zummertapez was a another way for me to just share material I didn’t want to use in a piece. And while it was fun to edit the mixtape, I’m glad I don’t work that way all the time. Magic for Beginners has some YouTube material that isn’t manipulated more than cut down and spliced in, but it’s important to the piece that it be recognizable as amateur material, or perhaps fan-created is a better term.‬

How are we doing on time, btw? Are you needing to stop the interview because we could try to get a wrap-up question or whatever.

‪KL: Hmm, I’m having a hard time thinking of just one story… Is there a particular piece of footage in one of my videos that you’re curious about?‬  ‪Or maybe we could wrap-up with a story of yours and we could save my stories for the post- Conversations at the Edge conversation at the edge?‬

JM:  ‪Well, I’ll just share this: I was looking for an appropriate text for Magic for Beginners but [was] having a hard time finding something. I had originally wanted to write something but that turned out to be too overdetermined so I scrapped it. Then one day while cleaning out an unused classroom, I found a discarded copy of Warhol’s The Philosophy of Andy Warhol. I kept the book but didn’t read it until a few weeks later, at which time I determined it was the perfect, if not essential ingredient to the piece and definitely just what I’d been looking for. So, a little serendipity there. Moments to live for!‬

KL‪: ‬ ‪Excellent! On that note, I’m looking forward to a bounty of magical moments to live for tomorrow night!‬



    Conversations at the Edge is a weekly series of screenings, performances, and talks by groundbreaking media artists.


    CATE is organized by SAIC's Department of Film, Video, New Media, and Animation in collaboration with the Gene Siskel Film Center and SAIC's Video Data Bank, Conversations at the Edge is a dynamic weekly series of screenings, performances, and talks by groundbreaking media artists.


    Programs take place Thursdays at 6pm at the Gene Siskel Film Center (164 N. State / Chicago, IL / 312.846.2600), unless otherwise noted.