Project Series 33: Jessica Bronson
Jessica Bronson is at the forefront of a generation of artists who use video to explore the history of film, installation strategies, narrative meaning, and sculptural practice. For over fifteen years, Bronson has created videos, moving-image installations, and, more recently, and on view here, LED-based text works that use images of nature and landscapes as a means to explore issues of mediation, representation, and subjectivity.
Mediation resides at the core of Bronson’s practice. Since the early 1990s, her work has oscillated between representations of the real and the artificial and confounded real time and cinematic time to create new perceptual experiences of everyday natural phenomenon. In her earlier work, Bronson typically combined and manipulated images and sound from thousands of frames of appropriated films, as well as her own footage of shots of natural subjects—such as clouds, flowers, trees, rivers, landscapes—in a series of video works that often use special effects to explore representation and perception.
For this exhibition, Bronson presents work that explores these issues in a new media—LED text pieces—and that continues to address her fascination with mediated experiences of nature. The works on view—perpetual perceptual (speculative spectrum) and for Helen Keller (both 2006)—reflect her ongoing interest in linking science and art practice, in particular the science of perception. They consist of moving text installations that employ the phenomena of retinal painting, in which one sees the image peripherally, or when one is not looking directly at the source. Emitting words and sentence fragments from sources related to color theory and perception, each body of work addresses a specific instance, phrase, or idea. For example, perpetual perceptual (speculative spectrum) references both Newton’s and Goethe’s investigations of color perception with red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet text that flashes “an incidental result for/of an elemental principle.” A work about color and its absence, for Helen Keller is an all white LED that flashes “remain colorless,” referencing both Helen Keller and the culmination of the color spectrum.
Both works play with the transient, sensory experiences of perception and contemplation, where image resides as idea and idea represents image, creating a host of associations that Bronson artfully encourages. For Bronson, the poetic conflating of text/image/idea points to the nature of consciousness and perception, and the role of subjectivity in shaping experience, and therefore, meaning.
Jessica Bronson’s exhibition is the thirty-third in the Pomona College Museum of Art’s Project Series, an ongoing program of focused exhibitions that brings to the Pomona College campus art that is experimental and that introduces new forms, techniques, or concepts.
Interview by Anoka Farquee
A Conversation with Anoka Faruqee
Anoka: Some of your works engage the scale, shape, or positioning of a video screen to address the body, while others exist primarily as sculptures that reveal the moving image as basically projections of colored light. Do you think of the moving image as inherently bodily and sculptural?
Jessica: Rather than thinking of the moving image as "bodily," I consider the body as an image moving among the other images in my installations. I mean, if something isn't literally moving or appears to be motionless, it's still hurtling through space, right? As a means to explore this idea, my earlier projects often focused on high velocity subjects such as a Grand Prix or a helicopter chase. The idea being that the subject of the image is moving, the medium is moving and the viewing subject is moving. Later, I deliberately filmed static subjects using peculiar camera movements as if to animate these subjects, both literally and conceptually. All this movement is intended as evidence that nothing is fixed, most importantly meaning.
I’m not sure I can say that moving images are sculptural though sometimes there are formal aspects to my moving images that I believe elicit a sculptural discourse. I do, however, contend that video installations are sculptural. Early on, I had to decide what my relationship with the video equipment would be. Should I hide the apparatus; i.e., a ceiling mounted projector; or should I leave it in plain view; i.e., on the floor with all of the cables visible? There’s a considerable amount of discourse around this and I felt compelled to actively participate. Plus, I was limited financially and had to be resourceful by using the same equipment over and over. Rather than disappearing, whatever equipment I had available to me often initiated ideas for the work. I would find myself asking museums and galleries what equipment they had prior to formulating a concept for an exhibition. This then elicited sculptural concerns as I developed each project.
A: Many of your works allude simultaneously to an experience (flying in a helicopter or walking in a stream) and a representation of that experience. The representation is often dissected, rearranged, and abstracted. (i.e., landing ground finding founding) What is the relationship between the raw manipulation of digital data, the narrative reference to an experience, and the initial experience itself...and does your work reside somewhere between these realms?
I find myself returning to the idea of mediation again and again, and this may be the crux of my work. I’m fascinated by how all experience is modified by, if not completely dependent upon, subjectivity and this modification makes each experience unique to that individual. I’d like to think that my work provokes viewers to think of the subject itself, such as clouds in heaps, layers, and curls, which are an everyday phenomenon; along with how I’ve manipulated the subject as well as the viewers’ own predetermined ideas of meaning pertaining to the subject. Ideally, viewers are then prompted to think of these ideas beyond the gallery experience when they encounter that particular phenomenon in the everyday. Maybe he or she sees a cloud differently or maybe they actually just see the cloud.
Working with landscape enabled me to privilege ideas of representation since these ideas are inherent in most discourses about landscape. For me, though, it was more important to address “representation” than the landscape itself. Many landscape artworks are heavily imbued with narrative and I wanted to complicate these narratives by simultaneously dismantling and verifying them. To do this, I deliberately produced non-narrative moving image works, in the traditional sense of three-act narrative and, instead, produced non-representational works, if such a thing exists, that would immediately place viewers in an obviously mediated context. The purpose was to create a rupture of “place” and thereby generate an experience antithetical to much of landscape art, including landscape in cinema, which seeks to readily establish itself as a place so that viewers immediately know where they are.
A: Also, what about the "real" as popular media? Your work simultaneously distances and draws from popular film and television. You refer to the omnipresence of the popular media. Does your impulse to lay bare the image counterbalance such over-saturation?
I wish but I really don’t think that’s possible. What can I say…it’s challenging to be producing work in the medium of popular culture especially when many contemporary video artworks mine popular culture for meaning. I’m not saying that viewers don’t bring all their lived experiences with them while viewing art, but somehow other disciplines like painting elicit a response informed primarily by an art discourse. Video does have its own theoretical and historical discourse, yet, it has been my experience that viewers bring different expectations, such as narrative fulfillment, to video art that comes from being immersed in video language through a lifetime of television and movie-going. Though I’m not ultimately interested in this phenomenon, it’s important for me to acknowledge it exists. There have been projects where I purposefully engage issues associated with meaning in popular culture, especially the use of special effects. five, lobed and propagating uses a cheesy morphing effect to continuously transform one hybrid rose into another. I remember this effect from a Michael Jackson video and I recall my friends being intensely fascinated by the effect for a very short period before the effect surfaced everywhere. Part of my practice is an ongoing attempt to recuperate some of these exhausted phenomena thereby imbuing them with a sense of their initial wonder while also addressing viewers’ unquenchable desire for transformation.
A: Yes, I vividly remember that Michael Jackson video, too! It was ridiculous and fascinating. Yes, I see how you are recuperating some of the wonder of these technical tricks. Rather than a contradiction to these effects, I can now see it as a kind of generous, even uncanny, revisiting.
You have collaborated with the musical group Dick Slessig on a few occasions. The
relationship/distinction between sound and music (raw data and chance vs. composition, orchestration etc.) seems significant to your work somehow. For example, I am thinking of bandstand, Around and About Dear Prudence, single channel creator, a set of readymade terms and empty repetitions/experience without a subject and, even, the recent work, landing ground finding founding, where your abstract manipulation of sound mimicked that of the image. What do you think?
What initially attracted me to Dick Slessig is how much their music resembled early video art in that it is durational, repetitious, and derivative...in the best ways, of course. Most of their songs are more than two hours and are based upon a riff from a popular song—or actually a cover of a popular song—that they dissect, interpret, and re-interpret so that the song is transformed and then recuperated, over and over again, ultimately producing something resembling a liminal state. They are perpetual and simultaneously performative and anti-performative—bringing forth the question of audience expectation. All of these things appealed to me and collaborating with them provided an opportunity for me to address these ideas in my own practice.
That said, music has always been important and earlier works included samples of musical orchestration to suggest a narrative tone and heighten viewer expectation, particularly regarding the catastrophic. Recently though, I have used field recordings made during the shoot which I alter in a manner similar to the image. landing ground finding founding manipulates the sound in the same manner as the image is manipulated by sequentially isolating a region to such a degree that it becomes untethered from anything recognizable.
A: Your description of the intimated infinity of Dick Slessig’s work makes sense. No beginning, no middle, no end. The anti-performative here seems related to the non- narrative impulses in your own work. I often listen to Indian classical music while working on my paintings for this reason, its infinity invites and holds you in, suspended.
Tell me more about Helen Keller's writings on color and how they have influenced you.
In researching the perception of color for the speculative spectrum body of work, I came across an extraordinary text by Helen Keller, The World I Live In. She describes her inability to not perceive color because the world was always described to her in terms of colors. And so, in her own way, she sensed color. Apart from being incredibly poetic, the text points to the nature of consciousness and perception and the role of subjectivity in shaping experience and, therefore, meaning.
A: Wow, I am struck here by the double negative: “her inability to not perceive color.” Again the question of mediation comes up. Keller had to experience color through the mediation of language. Thus the poetics of the text? Language must have become her ultimate medium of perception and expression. The idea of mediation (in this case through language) as the perceptive moment seems very much in the spirit of your work.
Anoka Faruqee is a painter who lives and works in Los Angeles. She has exhibited her work in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and Dhaka, Bangladesh. Group and solo exhibitions include Max Protetch, and Monya Rowe Galleries (New York), PS1 Museum (Queens), Albright-Knox Gallery (Buffalo), Angles Gallery (Los Angeles), Chicago Cultural Center, and Hosfelt Gallery (San Francisco). She received her MFA from Tyler School of Art in 1997 and her BA from Yale University in 1994. She attended the Whitney Independent Study Program, the Skowhegan School of Art, and the PS1 National Studio Program. Grants include the Pollock Krasner Foundation and Artadia. Faruqee currently teaches painting and critical theory at California Institute of the Arts, where she is Co-Director of the Art Program.
Interview by Shirley Tse
A Conversation with Shirley Tse
Shirley: Tell me about sculpture in your practice, Bronson.
I studied and worked in architecture for a few years and came close to applying to graduate school for architecture instead of art. Many ideas relating to space, and bodies in space, seeped into my practice. It became natural for me to give as much thought to the objectness of the art as to the moving image. Plus, considering questions of scale, material, and form provided a respite from the moving image while also challenging me to think beyond the frame. I liked the idea of the installation being as thought provoking as the moving image, though I admit that it has been my experience that most viewers will privilege the moving image. I suppose this is because we are conditioned through television and cinema to let the viewing context disappear. I find this troubling but fascinating and often attempt to address and complicate it. To this end, the moving image, or the image I decide to shoot, is generally the last thing I figure out. Architectural, sculptural, and aural issues, along with whatever the “thing” that I am investigating, work themselves out much earlier.
Because I’m categorized as a “video artist,” viewers bring a discourse by default to my work. That discourse may emanate somewhat from knowledge of film/video history and theory but it is equally, if not more, informed by moving images in popular culture. This often means that viewers bring narrative, as in three-act narrative, expectations to the work. The work is essentially non-narrative and can frustrate narrative seeking viewers. Thus, by including other discourses, such as sculpture, with equal attention, I hope viewers are then provoked to consider different possibilities for meaning as well as to question their own assumptions and desires for and about meaning.
S: a set of readymade terms and empty repetitions and experience without a subject seem to tackle an issue of representation, namely, how does one talk about the subject in itself, without any forms of mediation, or referents? One way to do it is to set up a kind of meta structure to let the subject reveal itself. This brings to mind a form of structuralist strategy…
I don’t think one can talk about the subject without mediation. That is, to a degree, the subject of my work and I think the idea of a meta structure (can I say meta-structuralist strategy?) is an enticing way to approach it. Different strategies were developed for different subjects but there’s always a repetitious quality as if to encourage the viewer to look and look again and again, and one more time.
S: To me, subjectivity anchors in the center of your many investigations, besides a set of readymade terms and empty repetitions, the helicopter ride (world picture) is about a particular viewing perspective, and the use of narrative in more recent work is about locating (triangulating) the subject.
Often the viewing perspective has been a non-human one but one that has become ubiquitous. Getting beyond the human eye was a way to foreground mediation.
S: I am curious about your desire to locate the source of the dry river in a small infinite. In the many discourses on subjectivity, there is a metaphysical habit to locate the subject in a kind of origin or beginning. I find in your work the challenge for viewers to enter subjectivity in multifarious ways that goes beyond our habit.
You realize that I am first and foremost literally inclined by virtue of extensive damage done during undergraduate studies in science. Therefore, I argue why not address the metaphysical, if it’s actually possible, and if by metaphysical you ultimately mean the “real.” I also confess to being a closet environmentalist and romantic, at least closeted in the art world. My exploration of the source of the L.A. River was me indulging my desire to make a History Channel documentary without any requirement to explain my intentions or even logic. I wanted to manipulate the river just as it has been manipulated by natural phenomenon and man, so ultimately the investigation of the river has more to do with me than with the river.
S: Is the distinction between “presence” and “representation” still important to you? I am thinking about the recent interest in “experience.” It seems to be a way of sidestepping the subject/object dichotomy which the “presence/representation” division calls for.
The distinction is important, provided it incorporates criticality. It’s been my experience—can I say that?—that the recent trend toward the “experiential” was initiated by advertising and is rather anti-intellectual. It is now difficult to articulate experience since so much of it is determined and deeply entwined with desire. That said, I don’t see how presence can exist without representation and I think the subject/object dichotomy is only useful as a construct since neither truly exists. It’s all about the image, right?
S: Would you talk about your strategies of editing and your insistence on incorporating real time?
If you consider editing filmically, which involves splicing, or cutting, together two images, then many of the works are unedited. In other words, they are a continuous excerpt from the source footage. But of course, editing implies editorializing and even an unedited clip is editorialized in some way, right?
Recent works have employed uncut shots and, therefore, imply real time...still, they are a displaced real time since they aren’t live like a simultaneous broadcast. Anyway, time itself is a theoretical construct. “Real time” for me has very little to do with the real. Instead, it’s a reaction to our era of hyper-accelerated montage where cuts occur every second suggesting a shift in meaning but rather culminating in an emptying out of all possibility for meaning. I think there’s almost a physical kind of knee-jerk reaction to a perpetual barrage of change. You know the ticker tape effect on news channels, where there are often two texts flashing and crawling at the bottom of a talking head? I don’t think news producers really expect viewers to absorb all this information, rather they are primitively seducing the viewer by having perpetual movement on a fixed talking head to prompt the viewer into thinking that some change is happening and to entice them to remain subtly engaged. Duration seems to be the most radical thing one can do right now. Maybe I’m attempting to produce a hyper-effected duration.
S: There are crazy manipulations of ways of seeing in your work: helicopter ride, walking in body of water, peripheral vision in the perpetual perceptual works, fish eye lens, close zoom ( pixilation)…so why mess with vision and not time?
Time is perceived and vision is the primary mode of perception. I think I am screwing with time through vision and sound, at least the perception of time. But that’s all we have is perception.
S: five lobed and propagating creates an idealized rose by merging all “accidental” roses together. Is it a kind of reversed Platonic model?
First, I’m curious what you mean by “accidental?” The 48 roses depicted in five lobed and propagating are hybrids that I engineered in order to create a new and improved rose, at least visually. I confess that I haven’t read Plato since 1982, so by “reversed Platonic model,” do you mean that the barrage of roses empties the rose of any material meaning based upon notions of the “real” or that it attempts to restore the “real?”
S: Plato holds that there is an “Idea” for things and what we see are only accidents of the “Idea.” We perceive changing arrays of phenomena with our senses but there is this perfect, fixed “Idea” or “Model” in our head. For reversed Platonic Model, I’m referring to fathering the various outcomes to extract the model…
Oh, that reversed Platonic Model! I find the concept fascinating but, you know me, I’m not interested in anything that’s fixed.
S: Say a few things about nature and landscape. (or if you want the art school version: if nature and landscape are construct, are you trying to reconstruct it? to what end?)
Of course, landscape and nature are, to varying degrees, constructed and they inevitably inform each other. It’s all about reconstructing the reconstructed construction, etc., ad infinitum. I guess I like to think more in terms of cliché. Nature and landscape are the oldest, as well as the most questioned and simultaneously unquestioned, subjects of art. As such, they are simultaneously loaded and empty and ripe for manipulation.
The pervasiveness of plastic in our daily visual landscape has been the main subject of Shirley Tse's research. Her sculptures, installation and photographs has been included in museum exhibitions worldwide, among them are The Biennale of Sydney, Australia, Bienal Ceara America, Brazil, Kaohshiung Museum of Fine Arts, Taiwan, Art Gallery of Ontario, Canada, Museum of Modern Art, Bologna, Italy, San Francsico Museum of Modern Art, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, New York, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, and Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Zealand. She is represented by Shoshana Wayne Gallery, Santa Monica, CA and Murray Guy, New York. She is currently a faculty member at the California Institute of the Arts.
Interview by Benjamin Weissman
A Conversation with Benjamin Weissman
Benjamin: It goes without saying that you speak through your work, but more specifically it's the style of your videos that really allows you to articulate and to imagine various things. What awkward/unexpected truths would you say are revealed via the style of your videos?
Jessica: Challenging question. I suppose the awkward lies more in the subject matter I investigate in that I am often drawn to material that is, or has become, uncool or clichéd. I generally think of these subjects as exhausted. The unexpected occurs, ideally, when a viewer newly engages with the subject both through its representation and upon re-encountering it in the everyday.
I recently taught a class on Surrealist Film because I observed students inappropriately and often dismissively referring to surrealism while responding to contemporary artworks, although I never seriously thought of surrealism with regard to my own practice. In revisiting the surrealist idea of the “marvelous” I realized that I, myself, hope for something similar where viewers are provoked to awaken to the world and step out of an increasingly sociopolitically constructed state of somnambulism. Like the surrealists, I think this revelation can have radical consequences. Interestingly, surrealism became fixed in a dream aesthetic that lost sight of its aim as a way of being in the world and something that, therefore, requires constant engagement—not disengagement through the fantastic, which is what my students misunderstood surrealism to be and what, ironically, Hollywood, and all that it entails, strives to deliver.
B: Maybe I misheard you when we spoke—no surprise, I mishear most of my listening—but I thought you said that your own history weighed you down. I thought that was a powerfully instructive comment that could use some elaborating. I also wanted to ask how does the history of film and video register on your mind?
Right, this came up because of a profile I’d recently read on Karl Lagerfeld in The New Yorker where he talks about the need to continually negate his past bodies of work as a means of producing work truly in the moment. For me, it’s not so much being weighed down by history as being tethered. There’s room to move, although I’m always moving around a growing and somewhat monolithic mound comprised of my past works. So, yeah, I guess you could say I struggle with historical significance—both my own history and my work as contextualized by history(ies).
While history is influential as both a producer and viewer, it can also be restrictive. I confess to being conditioned to study artworks sequentially and consider a body of work as something with an evolving logic as well as a meta-meaning. To be honest, I was initially surprised to discover that art is often as dogmatic as science, with artists being asked about their intentions as rigorously as scientists are asked to support a hypothesis. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating that we should be a-historical, and certainly not anti-intellectual, but I do hope for something simultaneously deep and boundless, if that’s even possible.
B: You’re a big fan of narrative film and there are subtle narrative components to your videos, particularly the soundtracks, but I’m curious why you’ve avoided more deliberate narratives, not necessarily with actors and dialogue, but with images.
Narrative is inescapable. Rather than construct seamless conventional narratives, ones that often encourage viewers to escape, I’m more interested in the narrative possibilities stewing in viewers’ brains. To this end, I use narrative tropes from cinema as means to establish a familiar context, but one that doesn’t culminate in any logical narrative. In creating these indeterminate narrative spaces, I encourage viewers to actively participate in constructing narrative and, therefore, thinking about the particular meaning they are bringing to an image.
B: This might be an old tired question. We grew up watching films in theatres, in dark public venues. I’m curious how that mode of viewing informed your early art practice, and how that mode’s current near-kaput status has effected your work?
It’s not a tired question but it assumes that I had the same access as you most likely had growing up in L.A. where it seems movie going was part of everyday life. I grew up on military bases in remote areas with an absentee father (flying a big plane around in circles in case the big one dropped) and a mother who didn’t drive. I didn’t start seeing movies until I went to college and even then I was still in a remote area…the nearest theater was a 30-mile drive. During the summer after my freshman year of college, I had a friend who started dragging me along to screenings. It was here that I first “experienced” movies. Often times, we would be the only ones in the theater on a hot afternoon. The transition from a blinding sunny day to a darkened theater impacted me as much as what was on screen. I remember shifting between total cinematic immersion to bodily awareness as limbs fell asleep in a deteriorating chair and my feet stuck to decades-thick muck. It was particularly strange to stumble out of the theater into New Mexico late afternoons which were most often ominously overcast skies with fat thunder strikes and the incredibly pungent smell of wet earth and pinion trees. I guess it was like going from relative sensory deprivation to over stimulation.
I determined early on that I wanted to steer clear of this “immersive” phenomenon in my own practice because the work risks becoming acritical by virtue of being all encompassing. I actually tried to address this dilemma in my thesis exhibition which was comprised of a 35mm film projection of blue film leader with a small video monitor placed to one side of the screen and surround sound in a movie theater. Well, most viewers were enthralled with the blue film projection and never noticed the image-laden video. I don’t know if this is a physiological phenomenon or part of the cultural construct? Whatever the case, from that point on, I decided that if any immersion were to occur in my work, it would be because the viewer made a concerted effort to be completely absorbed.
B: Your work sits smack dab in the middle of science and nature and structuralist film with narrative curiosities: what aspects of these gargantuan categories enter your work that you have no control over?
Ultimately I have no control over anything, right? I guess I’m wondering what you mean by control…that is, if there’s some idiosyncratic aspect of myself that keeps seeping into the work or something larger than me that pervades the work. Does that make sense? It took me a long time—embarrassing to admit—to realize that some of the issues that attracted me to the study of science are issues that I’m exploring in my art practice; i.e., perception. There’s also something about exploring the material nature of something—the search for empirical truth—yet through a researcher’s or artist’s skewed subjectivity. In other words, hypotheses, whether scientific or artistic, seem to be about desire.
B: What frightens you about your work?
Obsolescence, conceptually and technically, although I’m beginning to surrender and embrace inevitable obsolescence.
B: Your work seems clean and precise, I know I'm wrong, how have you been messy? How have you taken the controlled slop to articulate something?
Hmmm. Precision is a complex and theoretically impossible notion. I was taught, rather, to think in terms of accuracy.
I wonder if the “neatness” is something inherent in my being or something learned from attending an MFA program obsessed with slick production value. Perhaps both. There is definitely a degree of “messiness” during the shooting. I learned very early that the image that I shoot is often not the same image I’ve imagined. Initially, it drove me mad and I went through long periods of time during editing trying to recuperate that “imagined” image in my footage. Now the messiness comes into play during production or shooting. While I can control the works during editing and, to a degree, installation, it’s less easy to control the actual shoot. Conditions so drastically change, that I’ve now come to surrender to the inevitability of the image I collect not being the same image I imagined.
B: What would you say your videos tell us about the activity of your mind?
I’m tired of continuing to hear about art works as being exhausted. It seems like there’s an observation that everything has been done while at the same time a reactionary stance towards anything “new” as though new is not substantive. Me, I would love to be confronted with something so new as to be unimagined. It couldn’t possibly happen, right? I mean, we’re cognitive beings that look for familiarity and we base meaning on past experiences. So, ultimately the idea of exhaustion and newness seems like an introductory argument and, perhaps, strategy for dismissal. What’s more interesting to me is seeing how artists manipulate the same old thing with their own subjectivity. But that doesn’t answer your question. I suppose my videos reveal an obsession, although not a true understanding, if that’s possible, of pure math and perhaps an autistic tendency towards compulsion. There’s also a desire for shared meaning.
B: Your video works are meditations on nature, landscape, consciousness: how are you trying to change the world?
The world is changing every moment and I’m not certain that we’re noticing. I’d like to rekindle a sense of wonder about the world. Is it possible to be both Post-structuralist and Romantic?