You might think the world of experimental film is actually filled with experiments. But the genre's series of tropes are often beaten to death by one generation after another. Stan Brakhage's hand-painted films, Bruce Conner's found footage remixes and Kenneth Anger's surrealist narratives have influenced generations of filmmakers, some of whom have taken those styles to new heights. But more often than not, the work of those great filmmakers is endlessly recycled.
But Jodie Mack, who will show her work in Boulder tonight, is an exception to that rule. See also: Anthony Buchanan's Found Footage Frenzy Is Beyond Belief
Mack's animations explore the boundaries between the philosophical and spiritual concerns of abstraction and kitsch decoration, could have created work drowning in a whirlpool of predictability. But instead, she brings a fresh perspective to the often-stagnant world of abstract animation, less because of her formal inventiveness and more because she is willing to take on real-world issues with ethical and political rigor while pushing her own set of skills and broadening the materials she works with.
Mack is as interested in class politics, labor and industrial manufacturing as she is the more esoteric concerns of avant-garde abstraction. Watching her animated, experimental, rock-opera documentary Dusty Stacks of Mom, about the death of her mother's poster factory, it's easy to get lost in the pleasure of the music, the visual spectacle and the joy of a well-told story and forget that you're watching high-brow art.
Some of her work fits neatly within traditional abstraction. New Fancy Foils, for example, silently studies antique paper samples' texture and color through a stop-and-start editing style influenced by the late Stan Brakhage. Undertone Overture features various found and created tie-dyed patterns. While those films lack the accessibility of Dusty Stacks of Mom, they gently poke fun at the stuffy pretensions of the avant-garde film movement while masquerading in the genre's tropes.
Mack will be showing a program of her work, Let Your Light Shine Bright, at First Person Cinema tonight. In advance of that appearance, Westword spoke with Mack to learn more about her films and her strained relationship with the experimental film establishment.
Westword: Talk about the program you'll be showing at First Person Cinema.
Jodie Mack: The program is Let Your Light Shine, comprised of five animated shorts. I really see the program working together in the way that a feature film would. It works like a rock concert. There are two opening acts, a headliner and two encores.
The program was all designed around a film I made, Dusty Stacks of Mom, a 45-minute film. I knew that was going to be the headliner and built things around that to let the evening have more of a shape. Together, the films are investigating an interest in abstract animation and also everyday materials and the economies that those materials function within.
There are motifs throughout the program of things like stock and inventory. These films look at the relationship between decoration and abstraction. So a lot of these objects that are used within the program are objects that can oscillate between being really kitsch and objects associated with fine art or specifically conceptual art. So I'm trying to point out the gray area between fine art and kitsch or fine art and non-art, in ways, both as a way to elevate the low aspect of it and to defame the high culture aspect of it.
Talk about that tension between the decorative and this pure idea of abstraction. What are the tensions? What are the politics? What are the ideas that are going on?
For me, I've been interested in abstract animation for about ten years. I was lucky enough to be introduced to it as its own art form: This is what abstract animation is. I also noticed, after getting excited about it, that there was abstract animation in everyday culture. It just wasn't introduced as fine art, things like screen savers, motion graphics or things in commercials and the ways those function. Or [look at] even action abstraction, where abstract animation can serve a narrative purpose. If someone gets hurt and conked on the head, you have an abstract animation come out of their head. Abstract animation can represent time travel or different types of consciousness in a film. So I was thinking about those functions.
As I started to make abstract films, I realized very quickly how many tensions there were surrounding the art form having to do with the decorative and what seems to be the difference between modern concerns and postmodern concerns. "This art form is purely decorative and has no conceptual meat to it. And that's the problem with it," is what some people might say.
I argue it from a different perspective, and see that any deviation from the Hollywood norm or the classic narrative structure can be considered a political act and therefore a pursuit of the avant-garde. I think it's an area where many people can disagree. In this particular program, I'm having a look at the stigmas that psychedelia placed on abstract animation.
Someone who doesn't really know about the art form of abstract animation, which has been alive since way before the psychedelic movement even came into play, someone might look at something and say, "Oh, it's so trippy." There's been a stigma associated with this type of work since after the psychedelic movement.
In this particular program, these psychedelic images have a foot both in early abstract animation and ridiculous head-shop culture. Think of Spencer's Gifts or a lava lamp. It's creating this beautiful little abstraction, but it's something that's really signifying a lower cultural grade than a more famous painter or fine artist.
I'm interested in how some of the same formal and thematic components can play out both in someone's living room or art history. It seems like there's a big disconnect there as to how both can be viewed.
Read on for more from Jodie Mack. Looking at the pieces in the program, I can see how you're playing with the psychedelic movement. But New Fancy Foils feels like an earnest exploration of texture, of materiality? Is it nostalgia you're interested in?
It's definitely an exploration of that material. Within this program, that first film [New Fancy Foils] is like a topic sentence or an opening paragraph, if you're considering the whole program an essay about considering how materials function within an evolving economy. Everything in that [New Fancy Foils], none of those materials had ever seen a computer. Nothing was ever typed on a computer. It was all done by hand. It was all made by hand. It's the type of economy that is eaten and destroyed by the end of Dusty Stacks.
When I was watching the program, Dusty Stacks of Mom was a really surprising piece in how it related to your more traditional, abstract animation. Suddenly, the program was dealing with economy and music and all of this. Where did that film fit within your own creative process?
That's a good question. I'm an experimental animator, right? That's what I call myself. If I'm not experimenting, I'm really not doing my job. My goal, right now, is to try to have as much range as possible, as much range as I can manifest. Looking at something like Undertone Overture and Dusty Stacks of Mom, a lot of people have said these are very different practices, very different films. I think the films are actually about the same thing. They're just using different ways to get at those points. So in Dusty Stacks, it was me basically saying, I have all these different ideas about abstraction and psychedelia and I have all these materials that I have access to. What's going to happen if I put those all into one piece and try and make soup with it? So I feel like all these pieces are looking at the same ideas but how to manifest these ideas through different formal techniques, if that makes sense.
Can you describe Dusty Stacks of Mom?
Dusty Stacks of Mom is a crazy movie. It is an animated, rock-opera musical that is moonlighting as a documentary about the demise of my mother's pop-culture poster factory but is also deceptively dealing with and multitasking on many levels with how material and physical objects function in this age of virtual data, back to again the division or line between abstraction in fine art and in psychedelia. It reinterprets Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and functions as performance. I sing live the new lyrics that work as a sung voiceover narration for the documentary.
In some sense, it's a documentary. But it's not what you expect of what a documentary actually is. It brings a live aspect back into the cinema that is again almost something that the program mourns the loss of, this collective experience of coming together and joining in a room. It's almost like the piece mourns the loss of that but the piece provides that possibility. It's a big, wild, epic, musical documentary, good ol' Dusty Stacks.
Talk about the stop motion. That's your mom in the movie?
Talk about the process of doing all that stop motion with her, with the guitars and all of that. It was wild.
Again, this is all an opportunity for me to expand my range as an animator. A lot of times, I'm just working under my own camera in my house and not working with something larger than 11x17 inches. This is the first time I've ever gone and traveled to make a film. I took all my gear. It's all shot in camera, on a 16mm camera. There are zero digital effects within the entire movie.
I got to go down to this warehouse and receive inspiration and start to try animating lots of different objects. It was a really great way to chew through the possibilities of these posters and postcards. There are many animations working with the inventory in the space, and I also got to bring in my own mother and use her as a puppet to three songs of the nine in the animation. I'd never really worked with a human performer before, so thank God it was my mom. She's really patient, you know.
She's seen it?
Oh. yeah. She's seen it.
What does she think?
Well, I think she really likes it. I don't think she understands everything I understand about it, but I know that my mom definitely appreciates my work more than I would expect her to, because she's seen me doing it and knows how long it takes and the sort of dedication that I'm up against. She has real respect for me working these things through.
She's been in the New York Times. She was interviewed by them. This is working out for her. I'm sure she's going to get a movie role sometime soon. No, that's probably not true. But I think it's been nice for her to see all this paying off and I think she's enjoyed being part of it for sure.
Read on for more from Jodie Mack.
Experimental animation has such a long history. Where do you find the impetus to continue to experiment? How do figure out what those next experiments are going to be for you? Is it structural? Is it in process?
Well, I definitely find that each piece is linked to the next in some way, even if they feel very different. I just sat down and showed my grandma something I made in 2007. It was like, wow, this is really bad, but I see some important leads here toward some other thing. Five years ago, I never would have thought that I'd be touring around this program.
For me, my projects are always guided by the materials that are around me and what I'm able to find and use. I wouldn't have been able to make Dusty Stacks if I didn't have access to go shoot all of these posters. For me, materials definitely guide a lot of my decisions about what to start. That's how it works for me most of the time.
You were talking about the politic of the avant-garde. Where is that collectively? Where do I see the avant-garde?
What's its political function in this moment? Is it functioning politically? Is it functioning collectively? What's going on with it right now? I'm not really sure, honestly. I've been feeling very alienated lately from the avant-garde community, mostly because I'm just a hermit and work all the time. I think that we're in a strange moment where we really need to support each other to be able to propel forward, but there are still these sorts of angsty vibes resonating from the '90s that stopped people from supporting each other.
I think that in other economic times, it made more sense for people to deviate from the norm and make avant-garde film because there was still a way to survive. I think it's becoming harder and harder. I hope that people will actually look for and try to make things that matter, as opposed to just superfluous films for no reason.
When you say "things that matter," what do you mean by that?
I mean films where things are actually at stake for people. For example, in abstract animation, I don't think it's enough for an artist to just make derivative works of those who came before them. You have to have a legitimate concept or a legitimate reason for wanting to be working in this way beyond aesthetics. Is that found in politics? Where is that found for you? I think that can be found for different people in different places and in different works for different people. I don't think there is one answer there.
What's so exciting about Dusty Stacks of Mom is that it is actually personal, political and aesthetically charged.
For me, I feel like I'm coming from a very different place than many other people in the avant-garde. I obviously come from this working-class background. I'm the first person in my family to go to college, for example. I'm not your typical avant-garde film enthusiast. For me, I'm trying to bring working-class problems and issues into a world that I feel is very often removed from that. You might have a working-class issue in an avant-garde film by some really rich white guy who went somewhere to go make it, not someone who is that person and just happened to mobilize themselves upwards via cultural capital to be able to say it. Totally. Talk about that in terms of access. It seems like, in terms of exhibition, so much of what goes on is in these highly-funded institutions. What's going on in terms of exhibition in the avant-garde, particularly, in terms of people showing work that might be more relevant to the world at large?
The exhibition possibilities for the avant-garde are really, really limited. In the American system, I don't think artists can ever be expected to get paid for either showing their work or traveling to show their work. They very rarely can make their work.
Some look at Europe for having a fruitful scene for that sort of thing, but then you talk to the Europeans and they complain that it's so much less than it used to be because people can't really make a living as an artist anymore. This is why I'm concerned with speaking about these issues in the film, because I don't want to keep making films for this insular audience of people that have been fortunate enough to be able to learn about experimental film. And that's sort of tricky.
I had this conversation with someone once: "The avant-garde exists for a reason. It can't be within the mainstream because it has to have those different ideals." But to me, an experimental filmmaker used to be safe within a professor job because they could still live in this dream world and make avant-garde film and convince students that this was a way to make film. But then again, the economy has changed a lot.
I really think all education has a capitalist edge almost, or a capitalist goal, and parents and students can't help but expect to quantify their education based on, "What sort office is this going to enable me for?" That's not really conducive to thinking about avant-garde film. Right? How is avant-garde film going to matter to this kid who really wants to get a job out of school? There actually are no jobs in experimental film. This is why it's really important for me to reach a different audience, even if I have to alienate the avant-garde audience.
Jodie Mack will be performing live tonight at First Person Cinema at the Visual Arts Complex Auditorium, Room 1B20 in Boulder. Admission is $4; for more information, go to the First Person Cinema website.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Find me on Twitter: @kyle_a_harris