Glistening Otherworldliness of Abstract Daydreaming

author Jodie Mack
interviewed by Željko Luketić

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Interviewed in Zagreb on 28 September 2014


What could posters, an animated rock-opera, Pink Floyd, and a film tribute to a mother have in common? In the world of Jodie Mack, a young American author of experimental films, such combinations are not out of ordinary. Her guest appearances on respectable festivals, like for example the London Film Festival and New York Film Festival, brought Jodie to Zagreb where she was a guest on, of course, the September’s 25fps – the International Festival of Experimental Film and Video. She presented her programme that had already been seen by the New Yorkers in the section Views From The Avant-Garde (of the New York Film Festival). A kind of cine-performance or a cinema-stage appearance by Mack, titled Let Your Light Shine, is in fact a collection of her short films that investigate formal principles of abstract film. Nevertheless, this is not where the story ends.


The young artist and educator was not content with mere curatorial journey through her own opus, but she has actively been involved in the presentation of these works. She has assumed the role of performer who is not only a guide through the works, but also singer of parts of the audio recording. This experimental film-music performance is not the standard, but is peculiarity of Jodie Mack, who has built her artistic obsessions exactly on carefully composed collages, abstractions, and psychedelic, stroboscopic, editing interventions into the material of ephemera, outdated formats of popular culture and self-repeating samples, from those of textiles and clothes, all the way to decorations of the surrounding space. Among all these, what is high art or low art, what is the difference and, is there any at all? Are we able at all to place it into categories?


In the several years of her activities and insisting on hand craft and analog animation, Mack has built a large opus, in terms of number of works, as well as she has rightfully drawn the attention of and has been awarded by the experimental film scene. She has gone so far in deconstruction of abstraction that she is also called an anti-animator, which is certainly not the impression when meeting her in person. While being a guest at the 25fsp – she admires the festival and certainly notices its female energy – Jodie Mack was extremely talkative and interesting collocutor. Also, she was always cheerful, cordial, and optimistic when met in the streets of the city. Her status of educator and professor of animation at the Dartmouth College has also enabled her to observe some phenomena of experimental creation objectively and from a necessary distance and, what is most important, to instruct her students about these issues.
As part of the quite visited performance, which was well accepted by the audience and presented within the programme Expanded Cinema, the films New Fancy Foils, Undertone Overture, Dusty Stacks of Mom: The Poster Project, Glistening Thrills, and Let Your Light Shine were presented.


ORIS: Yesterday you had your performance here, what was it like? Were you satisfied with the crowd?


Jodie Mack: I think it went pretty well. It was a huge room, the biggest room I have ever performed in, I would say. And, the audience seemed to respond quite warmly, which was nice. It is always a gamble to play this sort of thing for any audience, to think how they might react to certain things. I did not hear any audible laughter during the funny parts, though…


ORIS: Did you expect one?


Jodie Mack: I did not; it depends on the culture, you know what I mean.


ORIS: That was actually my next question. Can you draw some differences between European and American audiences?


Jodie Mack: A good example of an American audience is, perhaps, the True False Film Fest in Columbia, Missouri, which is a documentary festival. They show experimental documentaries, documentaries that experiment with storytelling and the possibilities of representing truth. I had two shows there; audiences were literally screaming and roaring with laughter during the funny parts. When I went to Paris, people started leaving in the middle of the screening, smoking cigarettes, and then coming back in. In Berlin, people were quiet until they heard the kazoo solo citing Lisa Stansfield, then they laughed, and then they went quiet again. The kazoo solo part of that movie is actually very funny; I lived in England until I was eight, and a lot of those programs that are shown in the movie are from that period. Thus the songs cited were very popular in Europe, but not in America. So, the American audiences do not really understand those aural citations, but the European audiences really do. Therefore, it has been interesting to see them react in different ways.


ORIS: Did you have any copyright problems with the songs?


Jodie Mack: I have not experienced any copyright problems, but I am also not selling the film. It will never be distributed. I am an academic, an educator, so I really treat film as research – and not really a commercial endeavour. I learned a lot about the Fair Use Act through making this movie, and believe that I am safe within fair use.


ORIS: How do the legal practices, such as the Copyright Act, interfere with basic experimental nature? For example, found footage cinema. If you put it on YouTube, you get copyright infringement notice. It makes found footage cinema illegal.


Jodie Mack: Well, there are different types of found footage. In the analogue world, many of the found footage films come from educational films, so it is unlikely to run into problems. Namely, they do not come from big companies which have algorithms searching for visual or aural patterns. But, a lot of the stuff that people use is either so manipulated that you could not even tell where the original came from, or is not really happening online. And I would actually say that with the rise of the digital, I almost feel as if the Copyright Act has been left out completely, as if everything is fair game. Nothing is sacred, really – even things that you are not supposed to download, you can just download anyway.

ORIS: Luckily, there are no laws for found materials you use in your films. Why the textile patterns, and what is the connection with the psychedelic kitsch from the seventies?


Jodie Mack: When I started making films I worked cameralessly – drawing and painting directly on the film strip where each frame is the size of your fingernail. So, you are very limited as to what you can draw in there, and these motifs and graphic symbols were something that were the first go-to images because that is all that could fit! And then, through getting into that, I became really interested in symbols and the root of semiotics, the root of visual communication, in a way: for example, how a plus sign can refer to addition, or Switzerland, or a pharmacy, or something like that. Then, later on, I was moving… And, as I was packing up, I decided that I would take inventory of all my belongings under the camera and organize them. These are all my flower fabrics, these are all my striped fabrics, and I am going to make a film with these now. And, after doing that I realized that I might be onto something here, because this was all the stuff I made with simply my own clothes. It is an attempt to bring abstract animation one step further, because abstract animation does not generally communicate with real physical objects.


ORIS: It is figuratively abstract.


Jodie Mack: It is figurative abstraction, exactly. Or, well yes, critical abstraction in some ways, as well.


ORIS: So you are actually questioning the nature of the abstraction.


Jodie Mack: Exactly. And exploring how abstraction can move beyond pure decoration. Because really it all began in abstraction, it has a root in modernism. But how do we approach abstraction now that we are already past postmodernism, already in the experimental or whatever is hot these days? So it seemed as if by foregrounding these materials and calling upon their real presence within the world, that we can ask these questions about the way in which we experience art, because it is the same thing. If you do not like contemporary art, but you do like graphic design or designy things within your home, what is the real difference? And, I think that speaks a lot to how we expect to expand our audiences. Because people do feel intimidated by experimental cinema, when there, really, is no need. Especially with abstraction, which is something free of language, free of storytelling. But, that challenges our cinematic expectations. It should be something that is pure, but people still have a problem with it, because by merely existing in this world, by merely growing up in this world, we are imbued with these expectations, really, regarding representation in painting, and storytelling in cinema. For soooo long, a good artist was someone who could paint everything, or someone who could make something look as if it were real. But we already have realism, why would we want to make art that is just realistic? It seems like abstraction and animation in general present real ways to capitalize upon the imagination. But not everyone is willing to go there.


ORIS: Do you think that experimental cinema is by definition free in its structure? Is it, in the words of those who ask abstract to be immaterial, actually going to a place where everything is predefined?


Jodie Mack: I think that experimental film seems to be hitting dead ends here and there, and then re-transforms itself to break through or elevate genres that develop over time… How do we transform the pre-existing codes for the found footage film, the essay film, the cameraless film, etc.?


ORIS: Is it contrary to the medium itself for experimental film to have a genre?


Jodie Mack: Yes! Absolutely, and that is the problem. We hit the ceiling and then cyclically break through the ceiling. Experimental and genre is an oxymoron, it is a contradictory notion. But it is really? I go to a lot of festivals, and I see many of these films, and many people are comfortable operating within these notions. There are also many new forms emerging, ones that we cannot quite describe yet.


ORIS: Are we still at a place of constant proving that experimental cinema is an art form?


Jodie Mack: That is a really good question. I think we will constantly have to prove that it is an art form, because cinema was an industry before it was an art form. To build the cameras, we needed money from the industry. And they needed to make their money back, instantly, which meant doing what people already knew. So I think, as long as the film industry exists we will always be marginalized, and we will always have to prove it. Because people continue to grow up with all these stories. And, how are we supposed to teach them any different? So, yes, it is really unfortunate. But then it is also strange, because a lot of experimental practices are used within advertising. Even if one does not like abstract animation, it could really work to sell this pair of shoes, or something completely unrelated. So the spectacle can work in this thirty second block of an advertement. But, generally we have no attention span, and no context. So people just wonder what is this? There is no love story, there is no chase scene, there is no villain. And that is unfortunate because that, again, allows for a very limited set of parameters when there is really so much more that a film could do.


ORIS: What about the term itself? There are lots of theoreticians claiming that experimental film actually does not exist, and that it is a completely wrong term. What is your stand on it, and what do you think about the terms recently used to refer to experimental cinema such as innovative cinema? Is there a difference between innovative, avant-garde and experimental?


Jodie Mack: They all seem quite synonymous. And the way I understand avant-garde is that you would not really be able to identify what is avant-garde during your lifetime. You need people to die, and then you can decide whether they were avant-garde or not. You cannot say – I am avant-garde. You cannot do that! You need to die, and then someone can say you were ahead of your time. In a sense, all cinemas should innovate; all cinemas should experiment. And, it is a shame that we have to prove ourselves over and over again, but yes, they basically describe varying philosophies on essentially, the same thing. These types of distinctions certainly help to decipher the multiple moving parts of experimental filmmaking, but essentially I do not think that those terms are really that different.


ORIS: Some of the filmmakers really hate the term experimental cinema. They wonder why it cannot be just called cinema? It is actually one of famous Kubelka’s definitions that there is no experimental cinema, that everything is actually cinema – normal cinema.


Jodie Mack: Well, the thing is, if you just define it as normal cinema, then you are not really admitting that you are marginalized, which is nice. I really like the term micro cinema, because it speaks to the small collectives of people that work together to have screenings. Or you can work on your film as just a single person, and not have a big crew. It describes a different type of production model, but one could also misunderstand it as, again, the small cinema, small guy, little guy, marginalized guy. So, I can see why people who are career artists have problems with this term, because it does marginalize you.


ORIS: Oftentimes there are comments saying that everybody can do it, everybody can shoot a performance and put it on screen – so what differentiates you from others doing the same thing? What do you think?


Jodie Mack: So much comes into it, especially when one is a teacher. Your students bring a piece of poop to their critique and say – this is conceptual, it is an experiment. And there really is a sort of a go-to answer for this type of thing, but it is not true, I think. It is the same as music, when uninformed people listen to John Cage or someone similar, they say that he does not have any talent. But, the thing with someone like John Cage is that he is a trained musician. You need to learn how to do it, and then you can deconstruct it. But people do not always understand that.


ORIS: For example, it is the same as saying that anybody can do four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence.


Jodie Mack: Exactly! Anybody can do that. And, everyone should do that! Or anyone can paint these stripes on a canvas, or something of the sort. And you know, that is the crux of contemporary art, a shift from images, to ideas, to images and ideas. Something that I am always grappling with my students about, when they hate abstraction I say then we will begin with Dada. Then I say, listen, do you hate war? And they say yes. Then you do not hate Dada, because it was created as a reaction to war. Those people said – if painting, if landscapes and portraits are the art form of a culture which accepts this type of behavior, then we do not want to do that. I am teaching people to think about conceptual art as something that had the potential to dematerialize the art object but did not. Ideally, it could serve as a way to move beyond, to think about art being part of the aristocracy, and art being part of a huge market, something for rich people to consume. But art is more than that now, of course, but it still supports a grossly inflated market at this point, as well. To me, the fact that, the idea that you can make a living of selling art is antithetical to certain definitions of art. It is as if you need make the work die, and then you will be worth something. I have been doing it for ten years now, and I have got thirty films which are all taken frame by frame by frame by frame. But, I still have many,many, many frames to shoot.


ORIS: The difference is actually your labour?


Jodie Mack: The labour-intensive aspects of my films do help me bypass much criticism of the type. But to say that anyone can do that, means that one is really missing the point, it means that there is a difference between representation and abstraction, and that there is a way to make art and talk about art now, which is much different than it was when we were just making portraits of kings. Even though the art market is nowdays simply disgusting, and no one should ever be making this much money off of art. What would it be like if one did not have to strive for these things? What would it be like if we did not have to question our persons everyday based on how much money we could make? Or how successful we could be. If we could just exist. What would that be like? We would have a lot of different art. Because I feel as if art in the twentieth century was reacting to social injustice, and the people suffering from these injustices are still warped by these ideals of art. So, again, it is complicated.


ORIS: You said your students do not like abstract art. What is it about abstract that does not agree with them?


Jodie Mack: It is not that they hate it; it is just not feeding their expectations that art should represent realism, and that time-based art should represent a story. In the end they do not hate it, I think. And, it was very cool because my school bought this huge Ellsworth Kelly installation, which is right outside my office and our animation classroom. It is quite controversial in my rural town.These five blocks of color. The students were saying – I could have made these five blocks of color. And then the museum director gave this great speech and said: Think about this more, think about how these colors are travelling. Think about the scale of these blocks, and how they adhere to the building they are on, and how they work with the space they are in. There is actually a lot more in it than you think. And then they made their own projects, and I said We saw the masterworks of the genre which we showed in class, and now we shall have a look at yours. Who wore it better? Obviously the master, right? Most of the time. And so there is a big lesson there, learning more from failure then success. They have simply grown up with the same expectations as everybody else.


ORIS: So, your role as a teacher is to deconstruct those expectations?


Jodie Mack: I think so. I think anyone teaching within film and the media at this point needs to navigate quite a bit of media literacy, even when the course focuses elsewhere. Because even if the students do not become artists, they can still appreciate things a little more, and move past this everyone’s a critic plague. Especially with this like/dislike, dismissive attitude enforced by technology. I think it is much more important to be open-minded, and to be able to absorbe everything, to let it consume you and touch you. I have seen hundreds of cameraless films, but the other day I was in a critique with this graduate student who made a cameraless film with his father’s ashes. I was just sobbing, because it was such an amazing gesture. I do not think I was crying because it was sad; I was crying because I did not know how other people in the film world would take his piece. They could look at it and say – ah, just another cameraless film. But, the gesture is so powerful, and I sensed this awful possibility that it would be lost on somebody. And, I felt for him, because he was really putting himself out there, being vulnerable and taking a risk. And, I am not sure how the world will react to that. Because of the same notions. Even the people that are really invested in culture are also hard to please. And, they see the same old thing over and over again and are very quick to dismiss.


ORIS: Why is it that there are not so many women in experimental cinema?


Jodie Mack: There are no that many women in any type of cinema. And it goes back to the fact that there is no women in anything. There is this great article titled Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists by Linda Nochlin. She describes the possibilities of making art as a woman. There is an inherently feminine art, art that is obviously produced by a woman with the essential qualities that are feminine. And then there is also feminist art. You could make it, but once. Nochlin claims that as soon as you claim on to the feminist art, you have killed it. Again it is marginalizing. I think that a lot of experimental cinema is quite cold and soulless, because it is so rooted in the formal understanding, often avoiding truth. But, there are actually many women in experimental cinema. And, one could argue that women serve a far stronger component of the experimental film canon than that of Hollywood – at least of the new canon!


ORIS: You were mentioning the female touch in the cinema. When somebody tells you – I think your films have a feminine touch – do you appreciate it?


Jodie Mack: They are girly, right? A lot of people tell me that they are girly and frilly. And I think, in some ways, a lot of the more abstract films deal with a material construction of femininity. Based on the things that are available to women. The films made out of my clothes, are made with items that I bought in the girls’ section. I never made something with boys’ clothes. Maybe there will be something different. And then, of course, there is something like Dusty Stacks of Mom. Which guy would make such a movie about his mom? Not one, most likely. Right now, I am actually working on new pieces which deal with the construction of glamour. But I am working with costume jewelry and similar things – how those relate to female desire for love and marriage, and how jewels function as something that a guy should give to a girl. Diamonds are a girl’s best friend, razzle dazzle, you know. I started working with the crystals I was getting out of the Sari stores in London, which are full of cheap decadence. So, it is yet another discrepancy, this sort of cheap chintzy glamour, plastic diamonds.


ORIS: Regarding your performance, you made it resemble a rock show. What was the intention behind it? Did you want to steer the line between high art and low art? Experimental cinema and the rock show?


Jodie Mack: It started out dealing with merchandise culture, the thing around the posters. And where were the posters sold? At concerts. What did I choose to do? Take on this Dark Side of the Moon element, which is, as you know, culturally loaded in itself. Thus the structuring principle of the rock show was more based on energy and a build of energy. There were two opening acts slowly starting off. They get you ready, and then you have the headliner, and then you have the encores. So, there is this sequencing of energy, and then there is also the relationship between abstraction and concerts. In America, we have a very popular tradition of the laser light show. You may go to your planetarium and see Led Zeppelin with a laser light show, or see Pink Floyd album with laser light show. And that is one of the few ways in which the public might experience abstract art, in this generalized, populist way. But these popular traditions borrow from fine art and historical modes of abstraction. Light play is a pre-cinematic art form involving machines and, of course, also (and firstly so) a natural phenomenon. I wanted to draw a thread between this cinematic experience and the way the public experiences abstraction. That is also why I chose to make and include the film Undertone Overture: because it nodded its head to the experience of the public viewing of a sunset, while also creating this visual echo with amorphous painting techniques, and then how the psychedelic industry adopted the same formal tropes for T-shirts.


ORIS:So, let me see if I got this right. You are guiding their attention with the mass media, such as lasers, just to get them to see the other parts?


Jodie Mack: I am trying to draw a parallel between how these things function in more obscure art forms, and in the mainstream art forms – they actually use the same lights. The same lights of the planetarium at the Expanded Cinema performance on Thursday, they are the same. The tie-dyed T-shirt is the same as a lot of paintings on the canvas, or a lot of hand painted films, they are the same. It is all about how you perceive and market them, really.


ORIS: Regarding posters, I noticed you really like discarded old-school materials, obsolete stuff. What is it about them that attracts you?


Jodie Mack: Well mostly it is that I am able to find them in multiples. Anything that I can find in multiple, I will use. In a poster movie, the thing that is interesting about it, it is all the stuff that did not sell. For example, all those Catherine Zeta-Jones postcards that did not sell, why did we buy them? Ever? Why did anyone think they would sell? Why do we need three titles of Catherine Zeta-Jones posters, you know? So, I am really interested in the material that tried to serve a culture, because materials are going away. In some ways I feel as if it gives such things their last life. It is something resembling a funeral or a eulogy for these materials, because they will just be thrown into the waste basket and forgotten.