Exercising Identity: Interviews & Exploration

On August 7th, Mandy Greer invited a group of artists to The Project Room to take part in a round table discussion on the process of interviewing. All of these artists have at one point or another in their careers voluntarily integrated interviewing into their practices or projects. Preparing, conducting, and editing interviews requires more than a little effort after all, so the question of intention arises.

At the heart of the practice, I think, is a collective inquiry into aspects of identity, history, and geography particular to our region. At one point during the talk it was mentioned that Seattle is a city relatively without history: it is, psychologically and physically, one of the last frontier cities in America. It’s a place where gold-crazed hopefuls once settled in droves and where subsequently both material and intellectual counter-culture movements have flourished and attracted residents with wildly diverse backgrounds and a certain temperamental, restless energy. This restless wildness is difficult to communicate, let alone harness or record. As a result, the sense of history in Seattle is sometimes thin, almost weightless. Some find this harrowing, others liberating.

The compulsion to collect and archive interviews reflects a desire to discourse with this weightlessness. Throughout the conversation it becomes apparent that common to these artists is an interest in historical preservation beyond ordinary nostalgia; in fact, there emerges a sense of collective urgency to contribute to the creation of historical and regional narrative, to lend a hand to permanency in a place evocative of perpetual (and transgressive) transience. Seattle, as a city characterized by the lightness of eternal identity-making, of constantly-crystalizing and constantly-dissolving contemporaneity, invites the perpetual creation of new history, memory, and mythology, and the interview process becomes yet another tool in the exercise of identity-making.

This engagement with the subject of weightlessness (the impermanence of which finds its antithesis, its permanence, in the archive) is encountered again, reiterated, in the material practices of the artists-who-interview. It’s striking how many of these artists work in mediums that are materially fragile and anti-archival in nature. Mandy Greer’s sculptures incorporate well-worn textiles, often from pre-owned clothing, and she installs them in environments where nature indelibly corrupts, weathers, and consumes. Sharon Arnold and Joey Bates practice laborious incising of paper, and many of the others work on or with paper. The anti-archival nature of their material practice gives rise to an urgency to collect and create documentation of tedious labor that eventually disintegrates under the weight(lessness) of its material properties. The physical record of time and of labor expended, often inscribed in (but sometimes subtly obfuscated by) the complicated, corruptible surfaces of their work can, at least, find archival embodiment through extensive documentation of the making process and of the works themselves. The document assumes a degree of vitality and necessity, and in fact the artist’s identity can be tangled up in the residual document (or lack thereof).

With this in mind, the interview — as an extension of this greater compulsion to document — becomes a self-reflexive exploration. It’s not surprising to find that the interest in documentation extends beyond their own work and studios as a way to further explore the possible slippage of identity that occurs when material practice is so porous, liminal, and prone to dissolution. When conducted artist-to-artist, the interview can take on a mirroring quality of mutual self-examination (negation or affirmation), of exploration (Saskia Delores’ YouTube interviews are often prefaced with a literal mirroring visual effect, depicting herself divided and multiplied).

Jen Graves recently pointed out the recurrence of exploration as a theme in exhibits at Seattle Art Museum, and she wasn’t merely touching on a superficial coincidence: even exhibits like Kurt point toward our local obsession with identity. These kinds of exploration of ontological terra incognita and the rigorous examination of the self (through the art of the interview as well as a fascination with impermanent materials) find their roots not just in a superficial collective psychology of wanderlust and discontent, but in a visceral response to the physical terrain of the Northwest. It can’t be helped. Here a person finds him or herself at odds with (or intervening or interacting with) a constant, peripheral sense of the sublime. Individual gestures made by an artist feel dwarfed by the palpable, overpowering excess of nature at work, unceasingly creeping, blooming, whorling, spoiling, bursting, pullulating ad nauseam. Mark Dion’s “Neukom Vivarium”, a fecund, sixty-foot long nurse log housed in a greenhouse at Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park, has become a (fallen) signpost for inhabitants of a city subjected to the unbounded, timeless, transformative processes of nature. To dialogue with these monstrous forces is unavoidable; to explore the tenuous (or not-so-tenuous) relationships between ourselves and the processes of nature overbearingly at work becomes a part of the regional discourse.

One facet of this discourse is a tendency to be self-effacing in the face of such superabundance, and a collectively dwarfed sense of self (a tendency to scoff at delusional grandeur and a compulsive self-negation are de rigueur) arguably informs and insinuates itself in the practice of many artists. A shared sense of humor, futility, and awe emerge in much of the work, and whether it finds articulation through transcendence or transformation, a tendency to address questions of indeterminacy and impermanence punctuates a multitude of practices, not least of which is the interview. After all, what is the interview but an attempt to document (like the cartographer in uncharted territory) a zeitgeist, an individual, a movement before it’s passed on?

Of all the artists participating in the round table at The Project Room, Rodrigo Valenzuela’s filmic interviews most literally tackle this subject. His work exemplifies one way in which the interview serves as a literal (and spiritual) medium by bridging persons and forming real, if momentary, relationships with a subject in transition. The first of his current projects involves hiring itinerant workers who have migrated to the Pacific Northwest and recording interviews with them about their individual histories. Valenzuela’s own history is mirrored to some extent in the stories about impermanent residence and migration, hence his fascination with re-invention and geographical location.

His other recent work brings together closely edited footage of interviewees (artists, corporate employees) captured during extended moments of listening or waiting. Stripped of sound and edited together, the interviews become a series of ponderous portraits striking for their sense of vulnerability and lack of context: the exploration of an unselfconscious pause and the space between thought or action — footage generally discarded — are poignantly underscored by Valenzuela’s treatment. The nuances of unintentional body language, either taut or slack with elliptical pause, extend out indefinitely. The physical incarnation of aposiopesis speaks ineffable volumes.

This treatment of these subjects is one of the most dramatic demonstrations of the use of interview as a strategy to occupy the space of impermanence and examine the process of becoming — a thread running through all the interview practices discussed at The Project Room. In fact, all the types of interviewing discussed, whether deconstructed, aestheticized, or direct, contain the potential to serve as a cartographic document of the self (its deeply shaded and largely blank terra incognita). This empathetic interrogation meanders, laces, zigzags — between the eternal return of bloom and rot that proliferates in Seattle — and eventually comprises an archive that illustrates a psychological and ideological landscape characterized by inquisition and flux, giving outline to an almost-mythological portrait of a place.