Indefatigable– it’s the only word I can think of that in some small way describes Jodie Mack. You can see it in the sheer volume of her accomplishments, including the number of films she’s created, the places they’ve screened, the teaching positions she’s held (and holds!), and the film festivals, exhibitions and performances she’s organized, participated in or contributed to. You can also see it in the work itself– its speed, its persistance, its resolve. It is both self-aware and self-abnegatting; her films traffic in the tropes and technical achievements of the history of moving image work while simultaneously canabalizing themselves in the process of their creation (magazines are cut up, posters are shredded, envelopes are torn, etc., etc.). Mack enlivens the tension between competing generations of technologies, modes of representation and -ism’s of art. This adds a worldly complexity to her also entertaining, and often charming work. Her latest film, “Dusty Stacks of Mom: the Poster Project,” is screening now, and she was kind enough to discuss this and several of her other works below.
Jodie Mack inside her exhibition “No Kill Shelter,” at Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center for the Arts, 2013.
TLN: It’s hard to imagine a film more ambitious than your previous gem “Yardwork is hardwork”, but it seems like your latest, ”Dusty Stacks of Mom,” is equally as epic! Can you tell us a little bit about what inspired you to tell this story? (I know your previous piece “Lily” was also autobiographical in a sense, but that type of documentary story telling isn’t your main way of working, right?) And while we’re at it, I might as well ask about the depiction of representational imagery versus abstraction in this new film. Is it a focus of the piece or more a by-product of some of the processes you use to animate things? (I’m not even sure you’d agree these two approaches are as oppositional as I’m making them out to be; do you feel they have more in common than I’m giving them credit for?)
Still from Jodie Mack’s “Yard Work is Hard Work” (28m, 16mm, color, sound, 2008).
JM: Yes, YWiHW was an obscenely large project that kind of knocked me over like a tidal wave, but I decided it was time for another long work. (I actually started shooting for DSoM only a year after releasing YWiHW but then stopped for a few years and made over a dozen shorts before coming back to it.) As an animator and a collagist, I am always looking for discarded materials to use – things I can find in bulk. I had a lingering interest in printed waste from YWiHW, and my mother’s poster business was steadily declining. When it became clear that she would move out of her space and liquidate the poster inventory, it seemed logical that I should try to animate some of her stock while I could. So, ultimately, what fueled the start of this project was the unlimited access I had to a huge warehouse of printed material. (I mean, I went through a lot of posters during shooting, but I didn’t even make a dent in her gigantic collection.)
On a fundamental level, I’m interested in the tension between form and meaning. Each one of my films studies some sort of tangible object or set of objects: colored plastic (A Joy), photo-negatives (Lilly), magazines (Yard Work is hard Work) junk mail (Unsubscribe 1-4), fabric (Harlequin, Rad Plaid, Posthaste Perennial Pattern, Point de Gaze, Persian Pickles, Blanket Statement), posters (Dusty Stacks of Mom), etc. The materials guide the messages; the results take on different forms, some looking more like pre-established genres than others. The role of abstract animation in cinema – its sensational and narrative possibilities – surfaces often in my films no matter the material I’m exploring. DSoM chews through the posters and digests them through a number of animation techniques; certain scenes emphasize representational aspects of the posters while others abstract the material. So, I’d say the depiction of representational imagery vs. abstraction in this film is both a focus of the piece and a by-product of the material at hand in this case.
TLN: So I have to confess– I’m actually not that familiar with the original Dark Side of the Moon recording, but I know you reworked the lyrics to every song off that album and scored your recent film with them. Is this because Pink Floyd was one of the posters your mom sold, or is there some other connection? Seems like that record has a funny filmic pedigree because of the whole “Wizard of Oz” soundtrack syncing urban myth. In general, I feel Iike most of your films reflect a keen sensitivity to song and soundtrack (as well as diegetic and non-diegetic sound), which often act as an extension of the filmic narrative in an operatic or musical theater kind of way. Can you talk about your relationship to these genres and if they are in fact sources of inspiration? Also, can you talk a little bit more about using your voice as instrumentation in the soundtrack to some works (“Unsubscribe #4: The Saddest Song in the World”), or performing live choral soundtracks to other works (“The Future is Bright”)?
Still from Jodie Mack’s “Dusty Stacks of Mom: the Poster Project”(42:00, 16mm->HD, color, sound with live singing, 2013).
JM: Yes, great question. DSoM re-makes Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, featuring instrumentation by a different person/group on each track and alternate lyrics as voice over narration. Adopting this structure was a huge breakthrough moment because, as I mentioned, I tabled this piece for a number of years because I didn’t know what it was or how to make it. What would I say? How would I say it? How much? How little? Words were the issue. I didn’t want to use interviews, voice over, or intertitles. I loved the idea of making a musical documentary in theory but didn’t want to write the music myself because it felt too personal, raw, and uncomfortable. So, deciding to use the album as a structure re-invigorated the project and ultimately expanded its scale and context.
I chose this album in particular for a number of reasons. Certainly, Pink Floyd posters were great sellers in my mom’s business. My parents, who ran a printing business when I was a child in England, also printed some of the PF merchandise for European tours when I was young. Stom Thorgerson’s simple and bold prism album cover of DSoM, to me, represents the trippy-stigma struggle of abstract art in a post-psychedelic climate. I am interested in how abstract animation permeates everyday life, so you’ll often hear me talking about firework displays, screensavers, or laser light shows (often at planetariums and often to Dark Side of the Moon). I think the album really nails the division (or lack of) between abstraction in fine art and psychedelic kitsch. I also appreciate the album’s cult cinematic association and how it relates to synchresis and the history of what’s often called “visual music” in the experimental animation community. The idea of synchresis (that viewers connect sounds and images onscreen) kind of nullifies what seems to be the purpose of visual music: to carefully construct a complex relationship between sound and image – through experiments in unison and counterpoint (once by hand, now often by machine). It feels like, well, if a machine can do this fairly easily and we associate sound and image as having a relationship anyway, then where’s the magic? Even though this problem makes me a little sad, I capitalized upon it to make this movie because I was able to force or siphon my images and words through a structuring principle that was also related to my content to begin with. One of the things that interests me about lots of animation and experimental film more generally is that what constitutes a diegetic sound remains questionable because the images are not representational. What does a triangle vortex sound like? What do specs of dust whizzing by at 24fps sound like? You can take more liberties in abstract film than in representational narratives. But, again, because of the synchresis problem, “visual music” further complicates the notion of what’s diegetic/non diegetic because the sound’s “source” does not appear onscreen but the images move in synch. Tricky!
It’s true; I have a background in musical theatre (something more common in experimental filmmakers than one might think, I’ve found). Even though that background seems more and more distant each day, these musical and performative impulses exist in my personality/everyday life and therefore in many of my films as well. Additionally, I appreciate opera/musical theatre as a narrative form that incorporates spectacle. I’m interested in abstraction’s role within narrative as well as in life. Time-travel, hallucinations, dream sequences: these are places which incorporate abstract imagery within traditional cinematic syntax (cin-tax?). And musicals, especially movie musicals, set aside the space of the number to allow the film to go places the narrative wouldn’t allow – dreamy places, surreal places, choreographic places (e.g. Maria spinning from the sewing shop to the dance in West Side Story or the famous rippling fabric dance scene in Singin’ in the Rain). But, anyway, back to performing and singing. Again, I use what’s around and who will work for free, usually myself. At a certain point, I started taking little tours and singing with the films live because it seemed to facilitate a reason for people to come to the show and sit around and share an experience with me in a room instead of on their computer. I’m also singing DSoM live when I can and screening it with a few new shorts that work together to simulate the sequence of a rock concert (two opening acts, headliner, encore.) I’m isolated by my own demanding studio habits, so performing creates a space for human interaction – the kind of interaction or human labor that DSoM mourns the loss of in many ways…
TLN: Pattern, collage and a sort of indexical accumulation of objects and imagery occur again and again in your films, but often times they act as the vehicle for a work’s larger narrative. Can you talk a little bit about recent work like ”Point de Gaze” that seem to take that aesthetic as the subject of the film itself, in an almost structuralist way? What prompted this shift? Was it the use of material, such as Belgian lace, instead of other more ephemeral or craft items? In a way, I’m wondering if you feel like earlier pieces like “Unsubscribe #1: Special Offer Inside” were precursors to that approach?
JM: Sure. I see PdG fitting in with a number of other films I’ve made since 2010. I feel like it definitely belongs in the same family as the Unsubscribe films and other fabric films I’ve made recently. These films study domestic and recycled materials in stroboscopic anti-sequence to illuminate the elements shared between fine-art abstraction and mass-produced graphic design. The films extend the temporal concerns of structural film while calling for a critical formalism. They question the role of the decorative and conceptualize abstraction by meditating upon objects of cultural significance (or insignificance), revealing the beauty and kinetic energy of the wasted, the overlooked, the everyday product of yesterday’s work. They attempt to bring texture and domestic signification to a cinematic practice often rooted in sterile minimalism. For a while, I explained myself by saying I wanted to be the Eva Hesse of structural film – not sure how much sense that makes nowadays, but that’s how I felt at one point. I see these shorter pieces working together in the same way as paintings in a gallery show or songs on an album. But, you’re right to notice something different about PdG – it’s the first fabri-flicker film I made with textiles I didn’t own. I borrowed them from a costume shop. So, the film features a largely varied set of materials made by both humans and machines, almost predicting the ideas that emerge in DSoM about labor and technology (similar themes will also emerge in an upcoming film). I don’t see myself shifting as much as I see myself building, expanding my toolkit, and (now with DSoM) culminating – knocking it all down to rebuild again with the leftover rubble from the latest tidal wave.
Interview conducted via email May 2013.