b. Topanga, California, lives and works in Los Angeles
Daisies Roll Up Film
16 mm film transferred into Standard Definition Video (16mm colour and b&w film neg rolled with hard boiled eggs, oranges, lemons, avocados, pickles, green apples, milk and watermelon – a remake of a scene from Věra Chytilová’s1966 film, Daisies – rolling off the bed performances by: Mariah Csepanyi, Finn West & Jwest)
Dawn Surf Jellybowl Film
16 mm film transferred into High Definition Video (16mm film negative sanded with surfboard shaping tools, sex wax melted on, squirted, dripped, splashed, sprayed and rubbed with donuts, zinc oxide, cuervo, sunscreen, hydrogen peroxide, tecate, sand, tar, scraped with a shark’s tooth, edits made by the surf and a seal while film floated in waves – surfing performed by Andy Perry, Makela Moore, Alanna Moore, Zach Moore, Johnny McCann – shot by Peter West – film negative sanded by Mariah Csepanyi, Andy Perry and Jwest)
Allison Collins: Your work relies quite intensely on the application of unconventional materials to film stock in order to achieve formal and material effects. Can you explain a bit about how you arrived at the experiments that are at play in your work and how your process of selecting materials has evolved?
Jennifer West: Well, in terms of the kind of process that I use, it starts very simply. I have this ongoing list of materials and I’ll think, “Oh, rattlesnake venom some day...” I learn about a material over time and think about how it is used. I’ll research its meaning and think about how it can be part of a piece. So sometimes it starts there. At other times my work begins with an idea that may have a material connected to it. There are a number of pieces that involve a performance that is an investigation into a particular social or cultural space. These often involve a slapdash shooting situation, where I’ll let some of the materials be dictated by what’s on hand at the film shoot.
AC: Your process of physically connecting the film with these items is romantic. It traces a kind of abstract document of what those substances indicate: The materials organize an idea of what the social environment is like. I think that they also contribute to an understanding of what is happening in the film, by exposing some kind of material substrate of what might be mingling with the bodies of the people in the images.
JW: Without the materials, I think my work would be nothing. The actions are secondary, though they often feed the materials in a very specific way. Even how the materials are placed on the film has a particular sort of relevance. Actions such as licking, kissing, hitting, biting, destroying, skateboarding, and shredding convey meaning in relationship to the materials.
AC: This also relates to a process of decay, yet you have chosen to preserve these films in a kind of stasis as video. In this process you both distance the experience of the film—as in, all the time and energy that might be evident in the scrapes and touches on the film—while at the same time expanding the possibility of the work. I wonder if you have considered this transition to video beyond its practical applications? To me, it dampens the visceral, bodily experience of intervening in a roll of film in a way that muffles the reality of its demise.
JW: All of the films are treated fairly destructively in their making, but something new is produced from that. For me it’s always about putting back together something that has been completely destroyed through these actions, and then giving it another reaction. I’ll occasionally do these motherly kinds of things, like giving a film a hot bath or applying Epsom salts or other appealing sorts of materials to films that have been through a very destructive process.
AC: Where do you place the resulting video documents within the work? You’ve mentioned before that people have questioned your use of video, giving you a hard time about not showing the film itself, but that you are more interested in the final work. In the end you have this presentation of process that attempts to preserve everything, including the specific information about what materials you’re using, which is presented as the title of the work. I was wondering how you feel about that as a final product. Or where is the work for you within that?
JW: On one hand, the work occurs within a very specific point in time—when the film is digitized—because the films are decaying. I’m preserving that one moment when the film and residue from the materials applied to it are actually going through the machine, applying a particular perspective through how the brightness, contrast and saturation are adjusted. On the other hand, I’ve been interested in an ongoing dialogue between my films, resulting in perhaps oversaturated “atmospheres” or environments where I present more than one work—up to, say, five or six films at one time—often in pairings. So part of the work occurs within the space of an installation and in this context the viewer brings so much into the conversation. Incidentally, the way that the films are perceived is often through this lens of California and the West Coast, but I actually never intended for them to be interpreted that way.
AC: Maybe this occurs because the films are constructed using fabric from your life. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it appears that you are very involved in the events that you are capturing. In the imagistic videos the content includes domestic things. In your piece Dawn Surf Jellybowl, it’s clear that you either are a surfer or you have friends and family who surf, rather than just being a casual documentarian of these activities. The resulting piece is so utopian, with this overtone of colour that reads as the sensation you feel in your bones when you’re in the sun at the beach. In contrast, your piece Daisies Roll-up Film is a dark, interior, kind of tense psychological—but also playful—family moment. Even before I had the chance to see Věra Chytilová’s film Daisies, I got the sense of this. In your video there is the potentially disturbing nature of what might be going on in others’ domestic lives, although our access to this is somewhat obscured by the materials you’ve applied to the film. In both pieces, the way you’ve enacted the material interventions on the film stock further emphasizes the images you recorded. If you’re just watching these intimate beings roll each other off the bed, you might not get that same kind of crinkly, tense feeling from it. And if you’re just watching these people surf in the water, you might not feel the sun.
The layering that comes from this intersection of figures and materials feeds into my interest in the previously mentioned “atmospheres” created by your installations. Because of the conventions of display that interest you: large-scale projections, it is clear that you wish for the viewer to become immersed in the works.
Beyond creating this immersion, you’ve put a lot of textual referencing and personal research into Dawn Surf Jellybowl and Daisies Roll Up Film. Could you speak a bit about these two pieces—both the steps and thinking that originated each and the direction you took that brought each of them to the final results?
JW: I grew up in Topanga, right next to the beach and surf culture. I hung out with a surfer and he really wanted to be heavily involved in the creation of Dawn Surf Jellybowl, so it became a collaboration.
I spent almost a year watching surf films. They were very fascinating to watch, even the original Endless Summer. People are like, “That film …” They think of it as just about the most stereotypical surf film you could ever see, but it’s actually incredibly political and really indicative of the moment when surfing became commercialized. In it two young surfers go to South Africa during Apartheid. Then there’s Endless Summer II, which follows the same model, and they go back to all those places and they have all changed, environmentally and politically. If you watch the DVD extras you can see how the guys in Endless Summer made the original film. The main guy, Bud Brown, would shoot and surf for half the year, then the other half he and his partner would edit the films. They would go rent a place and flatbeds and this and that, and they would cut together the films. They would carry them around and go from place to place having screenings that were mostly just for surfers. It wasn’t commercial in any way. This was basically just allowing them to surf for the rest of the year and still make enough money to live.
I also watched all of these incredible films like Morning of the Earth and Cosmic Children, the latter of which was actually filmed on Topanga Beach. In it these surfers drink this cosmic juice and it gives them this urge to go surfing. It’s really hilarious. There was a very experimental tendency, because there weren’t a lot of films. So even Crystal Voyager and Morning of the Earth used these avant-garde techniques, like double exposure and others that were used in experimental filmmaking. There’s a really nice crossover with the processes that I use.
I made Dawn Surf Jellybowl for an outdoor projection space that was in essence evoking the way that early surf films were shown to other surfers, like before Endless Summer was released in 1966. The installation I created was really specific, because I showed the piece outside and you could really only see it for about an hour as the sun was setting. It looked washed out, like a bleached film, and as the sun set and it became dark it got more and more brilliant and saturated. I had blankets and pillows set out, so it was this sort of outdoor cinema.
In the video I was trying to evoke a sense of the dawn surf, which is just the everyday surf at this local spot. Surfers just go down to the beach—they don’t plan it, you just see whoever you see—and they surf and that’s it. So instead of making something spectacular, it was making something that harnessed the everyday spirit of the dawn surf, which doesn’t have to do with competition or being really spectacular and exotic. It just has to do with the everyday rhythm of the surf.
To begin the project, I called a really good friend who grew up nearby and he put me on speaker with all these old surfers and we just talked about materials. That’s part of the way that I came up with the type of treatments and materials I applied to the film. The surfer I collaborated on the piece with was also really involved. He works in a surfboard factory—there’s a really big one in Topanga—and we ended up sanding the entire film in a surfboard-shaping bay. The water where we had been shooting had big beds of orangeish kelp that were the same colour as film negatives, so we went back and floated the entire film in the ocean. It got broken apart by the waves and there was this seal that was kind of messing with us, swimming in and out of the film too. So that’s why I say that it was edited by a seal. The whole idea was that we wanted to float the film with kelp, because it was the same colour.
AC: It’s playful. I think there’s something important in that. The work escapes being overdetermined by being open to this lack of control or intention.
JW: The Daisies Roll Up Film is a very different sort of piece. At that time, I was thinking about how materials are associated with particular kinds of cultures or subcultures. When I saw Daisies by Věra Chytilová, I looked at the materials in the film and noticed this funny engagement with food throughout. Phallic food—so pickles and sausages and bananas. They even start to eat images at one point. I remade the scene where there’s this kind of macabre idea about cutting up your body, but also eating images. Particular kinds of food say something, such as apples being an Adam and Eve reference. The two Marie characters in Daisies are really violent. They’re cutting eggs and there’s milk and images floating in milk. Their whole quest to get these old men to pay for their food sparked an idea. Since I was young I’ve always been interested in thrifting as a way of dressing yourself. With that film I started thinking about thrifting as this taking of something old and reframing it as something new, over and over again.
That scene where they roll each other up and roll each other off the bed—I was really taken with that particular kind of relationship. I was also thinking about the significance of the fabrics and having these different layers of fabrics. What I wanted to do was use my son, along with my assistant, so you have these multiple generations. The film is also rolled, because it’s all double exposed and in between every roll we changed our outfits using thousands and thousands of different thrifted items from all over.
AC: Could we also touch on the notion of control and lack of control in your work? Structural filmmaking has a very serious element of control and a steadfast, almost militant rejection of “expression.” I find the conceptual playfulness of some of this earlier film work can get lost on the viewer, who must succumb to a sort of endurance test while watching. In the past you’ve mentioned a desire to subvert this seriousness. Can you talk a little about where your work departs from the structural?
JW: Maybe it’s about a different kind of giving up. My films are fairly organized, but not always. A lot of the films are about giving a situation to a certain group of people to do something together that involves a certain sense of spontaneity.
In terms of the material interventions, I like that there’s sometimes a physical element of chance in that I don’t really have any control over what image they’re going to obliterate. I never really look at the images in advance of their being manipulated. I do take some control, however, if I’m thinking really strongly about the kind of aesthetic I want for a particular kind of film. Sometimes I’m thinking about making a really boring image, but I’m always thinking about how the materials would interact with each other and how the colours would come into play with each other. I’ve been doing this long enough that I know when my 70mm is going to run horizontal and that if I drip on it the drips are also going to be horizontal to look like a sunset. Sometimes—depending on whether it’s film negative or film print—the interventions fully obliterate images. There’s an interesting sense of tension within the potential to wreck things without knowing. I like how it makes me, as a person and as an artist, not know what I’m getting or how something’s going to turn out for weeks. I think it’s nice to have a way to slow down, where things aren’t quite so instantaneous. Knowing things have to grow in a way or that you’re not allowed to just click and get it. This has a lot of potency for me.
AC: It seems important to me to have the relationship between more than one video playing at the same time, creating an ongoing inquiry into process. I’m always thinking about this in art: What are all the constituent elements that one could and must consider when they think about work? Where does the experience come from? You allow your knowledge of the material to organize a work, but you also leave the door open as to what the final product will ultimately look like.
The material and physical form of the film also seems to determine that your works remains relatively short, perhaps because the volume of the material means that only so much intervention is practical. I was wondering if you could speak about the kinds of time measurements you use. For example, the fact that you sometimes measure time in feet.
JW: Yeah, I think that’s why the physical length of film to time also interests me. That there’s this potentiality of imaginative space that comes through the videos’ titles. When you’re seeing a piece as a video loop and you’re not seeing the title, you’re having this one-time experience. And then when you read the title in relationship to the work there’s this other layer, this other information. And the space I’m really interested in is the space between those two layers. You’re having the experience of this film, which is really moving in film space, and then you are having the experience of the particular kinds of images. In Dawn Surf Jellybowl there’s the actual surfing, which has its own rhythm: It goes upside down, etcetera. The volumes of film—or the restraint of that—come from this physical interest. For me the original idea about length to duration was based off rolls of film. Daisies Roll Up Film is made from two rolls, so that’s why it’s longer. Most of my works are exactly two minutes and fifty seconds, because I always include the roll-in and the roll-out, and that’s exactly one-hundred feet of film in my Bolex camera.
AC: On a receiver level, I’m interested in the language that you use to tell what has happened to the film, noting the duration. I do get a sense that there is a limited amount of film that makes up this project, but what I’m getting at is that the words and the language sort of indicate narrative. This narrative emerges from the process you’ve been describing in such detail, as the words you use in the title cards tell the backstory for each project.
JW: Certainly. Without the titles of my films, they just wouldn’t make any sense to me. So the language element is also very important.
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