Interview between Vanalyne Green & Terence McCormack March 2015
T. I remember first seeing this film in the year of 2000, at the Video Data Bank during the same time that I was your student in your Body Performance class in Chicago. The film has stuck with me for many reasons from that time to now, not least because of your teaching methodology that reflects much of the concerns in your work, though how you pinpoint the marginalised self that goes untouched in the everyday, the media and throughout society at large. I say untouched as your films often cover these subjects in fingerprints that will not be so easily cleaned off! Is this something that you would agree with?
V. Terence, that is so much something you would write: to mix fingerprints with electronic media. It’s lovely. The succinct answer: Yes; I agree with you – I am interested in the marginalized self. That interest is consistent with other and later projects; I especially identified with some of the work that Feel Tank Chicago authored: the parade for the politically depressed and its concomitant recognition of why people would feel the need for anti-depressants, online shopping, and other seemingly politically incorrect distractions. Lauren Berlant, also a co-founder of Feel Tank Chicago, suggested that I take a look at “Landscape for a Good Woman” by Carolyn Kay Steedman, which has been and still is, my north star for how one goes about authority, fashion, taste, and the psychodynamics of family and adulthood. But all that came later. In ‘What Happens to You’, I was trying to put together something from lived experience, which very much had to do with teaching. I’d been hired for a full-time tenure track position at the Art Institute of Chicago, having previously worked part-time as a copy editor at, of all places, Business Week. (An aside: sometimes it’s quite advantageous to work for a large paternalistic corporation. The benefits were fantastic and employees could take leaves of absence, unpaid but with full medical benefits, to work on books or other projects. Good writers came out of that environment, among them the journalist Judith Levine and satirist Prudence Crowther, as well as George Foy, Dalia Kandiyoti, and Giles Blunt.) And though I also once taught in experimental feminist education programs, I never had a mainstream, full-time teaching position at an institution such as the Art Institute of Chicago. This presented one of the biggest crises of my lifetime. My experience as an artist in New York was to learn a by-any-means-necessary approach. My first impulse, if I could have taught a video production class on my own terms, was to teach people how to manipulate others as a way to obtain free resources such as access to post-production studios or help with production. At that time, I wanted only to dedicate myself to my work at the expense of anything else – family, money, or relationships. That I could do. The other stuff I couldn’t. So when I first started my tenure-track job, I spent evenings in emergency phone calls with my friend Carla Katz, who walked me through the basics of teaching a production class. I was in a state of utter humility whilst also being compelled to grow up. Teaching became, then, the step- by-step method in which I re-engaged with the world as a transformed person, and my classes and those students were the laboratory of that re-invention.
T. Apart from writers such as Lauren Berlant and Carolyn Kay Steedman as you already mention; when developing a work do you refer to personal writing as much as previously made or found images? Is there anything particular that stands out as a recurring method in devising or structuring your films? V. This varies, but some patterns emerge. Sometimes it’s an image that doesn’t go away. The artist Terry Allen taught me to look for motifs, ideas, feelings or images that haunt or circle around, or simply refuse to disappear. That awareness of unconscious processes turned out to be fruitful. The reference to the margin here, I suppose, are the aspects of life that tend to go unheralded (habits, for example) or are demonized, such as people’s notions of stepmothers, a current interest of mine. In “What Happens to You” the persona of Jane Fonda, those idiotic exercise tapes in the ‘90s, and her once seemingly radical self presented a set of contradictions I couldn’t parse, in much the same way I still couldn’t come to terms with how American politics took such a reactionary turn. That was the situation. The image was an ordinary American living room that couldn’t contain within it the history and emotions activated by the televisual presence of Fonda in exercise gear; a horror story of sorts, I suppose. (To be clear: Jane Fonda was certainly not a marginalized character, though she was and probably still is in some circles, cast as a rank villain for her support of the North Vietnamese. But the situation of Fonda the exercise guru in a domestic environment in the ‘90s filled me depression; political depression at my naivete about politics and change, feminist depression about Fonda’s turn back to the body, and personal depression about having to grow up in my new job.)
T. There are unnerving aspects to the film, especially how you use horror as you say. I find the films portrayal of anxiety, fantasy and daydreams that populate the protagonists thoughts to bring in the background horror of the everyday, from chat shows to the news, is one that only goes to disable and further this nightmarish interiority. I’m thinking of Jane Fonda as connected to this paralysis, crucially as one exempt from being taken seriously - this is notably drawn upon in the film when we see her as a catalyst against the war in Vietnam and for highlighting the propaganda from American coverage of Vietnam (which had Nixon personally listening to her telephone calls). Instead Fonda”s agency in Vietnam has been reduced to the performance of being Fonda, one as actor, celebrity, privileged daughter or an exercise teacher. Is it possible to now view Fonda as a continual part of the media’s understanding of social activism and that in effect is her longevity?
V. Yes: that is a spot-on analysis of her staying power -- as a phenomenon or artefact of the media’s contorted relationship with politics and celebrity. Research is a major part of my work and I scoured bookstores, new and used, for images of the Fonda family. I also befriended someone who was able to give me the news clips of Fonda in Vietnam. I still find it hard to comprehend the persona of Jane Fonda. I can identify with bits of the story: used and manipulated by Tom Hayden, a brutally dysfunctional family background, anti-war protester, and then it all goes weird. She’s a Christian, she’s a feminist, she’s an entrepreneur, and she’s still doing exercise DVDs. How do you understand all this without coming to the conclusion that Fonda is a reflection of the values of her time? -- and just about all of them, as a matter of fact. By now, I don’t feel the need to solve every mystery Fonda represents. I rather enjoy the strangeness of this person’s life in American history. I thought Godard and Gorin’s mean little (though totally interesting) film “Letter to Jane” about her was a sexist and nasty as it got. In fact, it was really a letter to Henry Fonda (and American filmmaking); again, a female body was the conduit for a homosocial discussion among men.
T. Thinking of the Barbara Kruger’s emblematic body as a battleground; and work by artists like Sherrie Levine, Jenny Holzer, Louise Lawler and Cindy Sherman, artists that developed a sophisticated imagery out of feminist debates - and one that received a high degree of attention in critical journals, exhibitions during the late eighties, early nineties. Was the Picture Generation, something you could identify with? I’m also thinking of the Guerilla Girls confrontational work here as well and how institutions or even commercial spaces have perhaps failed in publicly acknowledging or to actually give a longevity to women practitioners as an equal to male artists?
V. They were artists I had to take on, understand, and acknowledge within the discourse of contemporary art history and criticism. I say ‘take on’ because I wasn’t so interested in the bull market of the ‘80s and the return to a more conventional gallery system; works that couldn’t be commodified so easily still were more interesting to me (thus my interest in video and film, e.g.). But that institutions, commercial or otherwise, failed to bestow – and I like the notion of longevity, as compared with fame, in your question – heroic and mythic narratives to women artists, yes; most definitely.
T. I know that you were a student of Judy Chicago, is there a legacy from that time that could be attached or part of your filmic ideas?
V. I’m sure, yes. Chicago encouraged her women students to go into nontraditional media such as video. It wasn’t loaded down with the master and gendered male narratives that saturated the experimental film world. It was liberating and fun and unknown territory. You could take risks and find your own way. That all sounds quite nostalgic. Let me say that it was a place where you could quietly try things out.
T. I’m thinking of showing this film with an interview of Mary Dorman, one of the attorney’s involved with ACT UP and who continues to advance the defending and progressing of civil liberties. In the interview Dorman points out a sense of being exhausted by the amount of deaths occurring during the early nineties (and in 1992 the largest cause of death in North America was HIV/ AIDS for men aged 25-44.) Would you say that the sense of futility that marks the film and of not being able to feel empowered was possibly connected to the epidemic.
V. I would -- but not in a simple or direct way and not in the same way as Dorman recounts as someone actively defending people’s liberties. In 1984, Jimmy Ferrara and Phil Zwickler worked on ‘Trick or Drink’. Ferrara was Zwickler’s partner and he died of HIV/AIDS not too long after finishing helping me with the sound, early on in the awful events to follow. At that time, l didn’t understand, not really, how bad things were going to get. This didn’t happen to me, but I saw it around me: How the sense of exhaustion and mourning changed people in ways difficult to comprehend. Some of my friends were lost to the world and to themselves for many many years.
T. You have often moved between Chicago, New York and LA. Though recently you were in Leeds and are now back in Los Angeles. Does this inspire your thinking and practice, and what are you working on now?
V. Now that I’m back, it feels easier to pick up on ideas that I’ve long had about American identity. There’s perhaps more of a fit, or less of a struggle in how I can think about my audience. But it’s early days. At the moment, I’m working on a piece about ‘blended’ families called ‘Cinderella was a Bitch.’ This is a photo-text work about narratives surrounding the idea of the stepmother.