A museum commemorating a dead painter isn’t the most likely home for contemporary video art, but the itinerant and largely non-commercial art form hasn’t found a permanent venue in Denver. Most galleries focus on peddling decorative objects; forward-thinking arts spaces such as MCA Denver or RedLine Contemporary lean toward 2-D and 3-D works, as does the Denver Art Museum. Outside of the nomadic microcinema Collective Misnomer, the Denver Theatre District's Night Lights Denver and festivals like Denver Digerati's Supernova and Side Stories, there isn't a lot in the way of video-art programming in this city.
But the Clyfford Still Museum is an unlikely exception.
Jenna Maurice, an instructor at Metropolitan State University and Colorado State University who works in performance, photography and video art, is the latest artist chosen to project a large-scale experimental video on the wall of the Clyfford Still Museum. Against all odds, that institution has bucked the conservatism of Denver's larger museums and ramped up its screenings of challenging, homegrown experimental media — including last fall's showing of Lares Feliciano's "a prayer," an unsettling short animation about domesticity and reactions to police violence. And this summer, Collective Misnomer will screen a program of films at the Still from agitprop cinema collective NOW! A Journal of Urgent Praxis.
Maurice views her solo screening as a chance to bring new audiences to her medium of choice.
“Maybe this might be a little closed-minded of me, but the people who are interested in abstract painting — maybe video art isn't on their radar as much,” she says. “So, yeah, I'm interested in opening up a whole new genre for the audience that the Still gets.”
The work she’s showing as part of the film/Still series is dubbed "Non-Verbal Secret Confession Booth," and is an exploration of people’s non-verbal reactions to the secrets they harbor. To create the piece, Maurice built a little black booth that people could walk into, then face a camera. Around forty strangers took their turns inside. Maurice stood behind the wall, so they never saw her.
“The people come in, and I ask them to think of a secret that they're keeping from one person,” she says. “And, you know, we all have this secret that we can't tell somebody but it's fine to tell other people. ... There's that whole barrier of judgment and embarrassment, maybe, in reaction from the other person.
“So I really wanted them to think of a situation where they're keeping a secret from a specific person,” she explains. “And then I ask them to play out in their mind a hypothetical situation where they told that person the secret. And then I asked them to also think about letting the person react in any way that they wanted to, hypothetically. This is all happening within the imagination.”
She filmed them as they thought through the scenarios.
The video, which is entirely silent and runs thirty minutes, shows the faces of forty people going through this hypothetical scenario. Their non-verbal gestures and expressions that define the exchange are what the audience experiences.
“So it's just going to be these big faces on the side of the Clyfford Still,” Maurice continues. “Really kind of confrontational, maybe a little aggressive...so it's a little bit like a poor man's virtual reality to somebody, like aggressively having a situation that you're a part of. If you decide to stare into those eyes, you'll see a lot of eyes darting. They look at the camera, and then, when they are about to tell the secret in their mind, their eyes will dart.”
Non-verbal communication has been an obsession for Maurice since she was a grad student studying photography at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she began to incorporate performance and video into her work. Not long after graduating, she recalls, “I started doing these performances where I was trying to kind of go back to my non-verbal self, like before I learned language, which I don't really have any memories of.”
But she knew the process of learning both verbal and non-verbal communication involved mimicry, and as her practice developed, she began to think about how she might communicate with the landscape — or even as an extension of it.
“So for instance, you know, there's a performance of me interacting with the lowest point in North America, which is in Death Valley, by burying my head there,” she says. “Or, you know, interacting with Niagara Falls — the force of Niagara Falls — and trying to understand the force by chugging a gallon of water and vomiting over it. Because my body — the biggest force it can do is probably empty my stomach.”
But interacting with people in order to create "Non-Verbal Secret Confession Booth" involved something that interacting with the landscape didn’t: trust. Maurice had to believe that the participants being filmed were following the rules.
“I don't even know their secrets,” she says. “I really have to trust them, because these are all strangers. I don't know these people. So, you know, there's a really big amount of trust and vulnerability happening here.
“That's another thing that I think all of my work really deals with: this idea of vulnerability and how vulnerability creates possibility,” she adds. "And I think vulnerability and possibility are the only things that I really believe in.”
Audience members will have to display some trust, too, as they watch the film.
“Since it's not a narrative movie that has a traditional beginning, middle and end, the viewer can then make choices about how many people they would like to interact with on the screen,” she says. “So it's not like a 'Let's sit down and watch this for thirty minutes' thing. Some people might be like, 'This is the most boring thing ever. Why am I staring at people's faces?' And then some people will be like, ‘Oh, my God — why can't I look away from it?' I love them.’”
While Maurice is happy to see video art screenings becoming more commonplace at the Clyfford Still Museum and in other public spaces, she doesn't want to see the art form — which has explored challenging ideas from its inception — become one more example of what she calls “big fun art” in town.
“I hope that it doesn't become about commercialism and choosing things that are colorful and fun and funny and entertaining,” she says. “Because video art can fucking crush you. And it can be serious, and it can be devastating and really impactful. I just hope that we can have that whole gamut of video art being shown, so that we don't then say that video art is just about fun and colors and weird projection mapping. It can still be serious and devastating."
As for "Non-Verbal Secret Confession Booth," "hopefully it's not devastating,” she concludes. “But it's serious. And I hope it can have the same reception as something fun and colorful.”
On Thursday, June 10, watch “Non-Verbal Secret Confession Booth” on YouTube at 7:30 p.m., or see it in person on the side of the Clyfford Still Museum, 1250 Bannock Street, starting at 8:30 p.m. The screening is free; register at online at the Clyfford Still Museum.