Issue 223, March 2008, Joanna Kleinberg, Frieze Magazine
Many experimental filmmakers jettison the burdens of plot and continuity in order to attain higher conceptual ground. For LA-based artist Jennifer West, however, simply tossing out the fundamentals of film structure isnāt quite experimental enough. In her energetic New York dĆ©but at White Columns she tosses out everything, including the camera, presenting two recent examples from her ongoing āCameralessā series of films.
Exactly how does one go about making a film without a camera? In Westās case, by marinating the stock in whiskey and then exposing it with flashlights, as she did in Naked Deep Creek Hot Springs (16mm film negative soaked in lithium hot springs water, Jack Daniels and pot ā exposed with flashlights ā skinny dipping by Karen Liebowitz, Benjamin Britton & Jwest) (2007). Or perhaps by soaking the header in coffee, rubbing it with workout sweat and scribbling on it the word āwhateverā, as she did in Whatever Film (16mm film leader soaked in lots of coffee & espresso, taken on power walk, rubbed with sweat and inscribed with the word āwhateverā written in purple metallic eyeliner) (2007). Of course.
Projected opposite each other, the two films form an installation that pushes at the boundaries of ādirect filmā by incorporating a performative element. Traditionally ādirect filmā has been an experimental practice of drawing, scraping or otherwise manipulating film stock to create images. In the early 1930s Len Lye pioneered the practice with his films, including A Colour Box (1935), which presents a mass of jumbled movements and patterns streaming in and out of frame to a soundtrack of popular Cuban music. These ideas were further explored by experimental filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage and Tony Conrad, so West isnāt the first to make movies without a camera; however, she is perhaps the first to go about it like a mad scientist.
West begins the process by soaking 16mm film reels with everyday household solvents and alchemical mixtures of potions and then exposing the emulsion to direct and indirect light sources, including burning cigarette ends, sunlight and fireworks. The exposed footage is then transferred to DVD and projected at low angles and with a dizzying momentum of two to three frames per second. The results are vividly colourful, creating a psychedelic visual experience that only lasts about five minutes but could keep a psychedelic lightshow concert-goer transfixed for hours.
In Naked Deep Creek Hot Springs West used footage of herself and two friends skinny-dipping as a touchstone. As the film unfolds, fragmentary glimpses of the nudists appear semi-hidden behind electric blue and red splotches, playing a game of peek-a-boo. By drenching the negative in lithium and hot springs water ā an obvious choice ā pot and Jack Daniels (slightly less obvious), she imbues the film with the actual materials of the experience. Visually the scenes are tantalizing, but technically they lack the purest appeal of Whatever Film, which is truly camera-less. Here West inscribed the word āwhateverā directly onto the film header in surf-girl-glam, drugstore-brand metallic purple eyeliner. As the letters scroll down, an explosive barrage of canary-yellow lines and magenta arabesques masks them so that they appear more like scribbles. This carelessness embodies the gregarious apathy of a slacker persona; the humour is offhand and the So-Cal diction is instantly audible.
With both films West is more interested in the constituent materials and the specific words she uses to describe them ā for instance, āJack Danielsā as opposed to plain āwhiskeyā ā than imagery. Eliminating the camera highlights the prosaic physicality of film as a strip of treated plastic in a way that allows the potions she applies to it and their descriptions to define the āmoviesā. Her wordplay and self-evident titles explore the relationship between cultural and physical associations; the intermingling of materiality, feeling and identity creates a wild blend of synaesthetic experience wherein the substances of life literally and figuratively colour the film.
by Sonia Campagnola, Flash Art Online
I went to visit Jennifer West at her East LA studio on a rainy Sunday morning. The whole floor was covered with strips of 16 mm films, all laid down waiting to be processedā¦
Sonia Campagnola: Why do you have these films laid down here?
Jennifer West: This is a skinny-dipping film that I am doing called āThe Malibu Skinny-Dipping on David Geffenās Private Beach.ā We went skinny dipping in front of David Geffenās house in Malibu, on the beach, at night. David Geffen is trying to block people from going to the beach but technically itās a public area. So, the trick is to get from the highway to the beach at access points between these billionairesā private homes. Initially I wanted to do a film at the beach in Topanga because thatās actually where I grew up. I wanted to do a film about growing up in Topanga. My parents would take us on holiday to these nudist hot springs. I grew up in this free environment that when you hit puberty, itās really uncomfortable. So some of the nudist films come from this. When I heard about David Geffenās fight to bar the public, I thought it was a perfect place to make the film and planned it around the full moon.
SC: Do you work with actors?
JW: I generally ask my friends to be in my films or, maybe, my students. Sometimes I have friends in the film just smoking. You just see flashes of people lighting up cigarettes. I light things with flashlights or candlelight or strobe lightsā¦ or moonlight. The films are almost a field of black with flashes of bodies coming in and out of light. I like this movement between abstraction and representation, and this is also why Iām interested in Sigmar Polkeās work
SC: When you start working on a new film, do you begin by defining a subject matter?
JW:Yes, my films always have to do with some sort of sensual experience, either taste, touch or smell. For example, I did some that were about the Comme de GarĆ§on perfume and I would take the perfume notes literally ā if it was nail polish, drip it with nail polish. And if it was moss I would take it to the L.A. River where there was moss and let it sit there for a few months. I try to evoke the sense of smell with film ā something that film canāt actually convey. Itās a really disjunctive thing where film goes through a performative process and it becomes the residual marks from that experience.
SC: What happens after you have developed the film?
JW: In this case, I sprayed the film with fried pickle juice, because we had cocktails and fried pickles at this place in Malibu just before filming the skinny dipping in order to let loose enough to go into the freezing ocean in the middle of January. I had to bribe my friends with that. Then I made Bloody Marys and used the celery stalks to paint the film with the mix. Then Iāll go back and get some ashes from the Malibu fire because the name of the beach is Carbon Beach, so the ashes have carbon in it. Finally Iāll submerge it in the water.
SC: How long are your films?
JW: Most of them are 2 1/2 minutes; one roll of 16mm film. For some of the new ones Iām doing, Iām going from color to black-and-white. So I shoot two rolls. For example, I shot one at Jim Morrisonās grave, blowing it up to 16 and its going to go into a positive and then turn into a negative so the colors are in reverse. Now Iām doing 70mm too. Iām doing a lot more crazy stuff now because Iām getting bored and want to push the techniques and concepts further.
SC: Your films recall the experimental cinema aesthetic; the abstraction and flickering of images produced directly on the film with scratches, pigments, corrosions, and any kind of actions. Do you feel you are working with this legacy? Do you find inspiration in, for instance, Stan Brakhageās films?
JW: With Brakhage, I donāt feel similar in concept, but definitely hold his films in high regard ā you canāt deny them. I align myself more with Tony Conrad; he cooked and pickled films too. Mine are more comedic than Brakhageās. They have a funny side that Iām taking to the extreme. Brakhageās films are seriously poetic.
SC: Did you study experimental film?
JW: I studied with Mike Kelly and Diana Thater at the Art Center in Pasadena. But I studied more structural film because thatās what I was interested in. I definitely feel closer to visual art than to experimental cinema. I want my work to be seen in dialogue with other kinds of art and also in the history of experimental film and avant-garde film. I love Len Lyeās āColor Boxā and the old films from the ā30s onwards. Iām a big fan of Carolee Schneemanās āFuses.ā I saw it again recently and remembered how much I love it.
JENNIFER WEST, SKATE THE SKY FILM
15 May 2009, by Lauren OāNeill Butler, Artforum
In conjunction with āThe Long Weekendā at Tate Modern, the Los Angelesābased artist Jennifer West will premiere a new piece, Skate the Sky Film. Here she talks about her practice of subjecting 16-mm, 35-mm, and 70-mm film to a wide array of substances and the new direction this work has taken her. The festival runs May 22ā25; more information can be found here.
THIS PROJECT IS DIFFERENT FOR ME because Iām working within a twenty-four-hour period in London, and part of it will involve a live audience. Iām also going to show a 35-mm print on a 35-mm projector (on a built platform), which is an exhibition format I havenāt used before. I have twelve hundred feet of film of wispy clouds in the LA sky that has been doused with inks and will be taped onto the ramp in the Turbine Hall. Local skateboarders from the London skate scene, many of whom frequent the Undercroft, a skate spot just across the river from the Tate and a byproduct of LA skate cultureās migration to England in the 1970s, will be invited to skate directly over the filmstrips, their wheels marking the film.
One of my ideas for this piece was to bring these skaters the LA sky, since skating is all about catching air anyway. Serendipitously, the assistant projectionist for the screening, the artist and filmmaker Tom Lock, is a longtime skater, so he can both skate and project the film while assisting the main projectionist (and artist), Steve Farrer.
Stuart Comer, one of the curators of āThe Long Weekend,ā invited me to participate because he saw a relationship between my work and this yearās theme, āDo It Yourself.ā The event was inspired by the Arte Povera and post-Minimalist artworks in the Tateās āEnergy and Processā collections exhibition, and Stuart was interested in my use of everyday materials, experiences, and the way I put a pop angle on them. He saw a connection between my work and aspects of Arte Povera, as well as links between Arte Povera and the alchemical approach of filmmakers like Stan Brakhage and Tony Conrad.
After Stuart sent me photographs of the ramp, which is steep and about 140 feet long, I immediately thought of it as a piece of architecture that would be great to have skateboarders on. Iāve made other films about trespassing in public spaceāāaround the HOLLYWOOD sign and in front of David Geffenās beach house in Malibu. Iām interested in the ways in which culture utilizes public spaces, and particularly how skaters will find any place to use, from park benches to step railings to private pools. I wanted to allow them into this environment, which will be very different for them. I recently saw Gus Van Santās Paranoid Park (2007) and was reminded of the pleasure watching skating and its gracefulness. So much of that film is just about documenting the skaters and the satisfaction of seeing that experience.
Usually, viewers can infer the process behind my works via their literal titles, which list the substances Iāve used to treat the filmāālike someone riding a motorcycle over the material. The narrative of the process has to be put together like reading a book. For this project, Iāve been thinking about that slippage, as well as the dimension of spectacle. Iām allowing my audience to see how the work has been made, and the very next day theyāll be able to see the film. Iāll also make a zine that will accompany the project.