Video Vortex #6: In conversation with Natalie Bookchin (part 1)
Natalie Bookchin with Geert Lovink. Photo: Anne Helmond
Artist Natalie Bookchin took time to talk to Geert Lovink about online video and her artistic practice at the Video Vortex #6 in Amsterdam held 11-12 March 2011.
The presentation began with a 4 minute impression of her work, capturing the current global financial situation and mass unemployment in the US.
Below is part 1 of the questions and answers we got to hear between Geert Lovink and Natalie Bookchin.
G: You’re teaching at CalArts, you worked in the 90’s with the Internet, developed games and now suddenly you’re working with online video. How did you stumble into this?
N: At around the same time you were also doing a lot of net research and net criticism, I was very involved in thinking about online space as a site for alternative or political practices, and I was interested in using the online space as a way not just to make art work. At a certain point it seemed to me that the Internet was too noisy, it was like working in Times Square. My intervention was so small compared to the other interventions that were taking place and I wanted to take some of what was going on online, offline. And also looking at the potential that may or may not already exist online and this piece for me (Laid Off) is an example of that, in that each video on their own is a singular rant or confession or complaint but taking it offline and combining it makes it a more aspirational collective voice that does not exist on the individual video level.
G: It started with one installation didn’t it? When was the first one?
N: The first piece that I did was a single channel video in I think in 2007 called Trip which was a 63 minute video in which I documented a trip around the world seen through hundreds of people who were driving around the world making clips on YouTube, so I pieced together these videos to make a single trip that had to do with the different impressions depending on the person making the video whether it was a tourist or a human rights worker. So you had a single point of view of somebody looking out at the world but you could continuously change your point of view depending on who you were imagining to be, whether you were driving through a warzone or a tourist spot.
G: It’s a gallery installation piece with the look and feel of a collaborative global road movie. There you make your first experiences of making the databases, how you select the videos and put them together. Let’s talk more about your approach. Now we’ve seen Laid Off, it must have been enormous work. It looks pretty complex. Technically, how did this happen? The syncing?
N: There is no database, nothing is automated. I listened to the videos. For me YouTube is in many ways a big heap of trash. For me it’s not a platform, so much a place that I can find videos and other people can find videos. I don’t think it’s a community, I don’t think there is conversation to be had on there, I don’t think comments or thumbs up/down is conversation. So I search. When I search, for example for this project (Now He’s Out In Public For Everyone To See – that I will present on Tuesday in its entirety), I knew I wanted to do a piece on African American public figures and scandals they’ve been involved in. I never name the public figures but you start to recognise the stories because they are incredibly well known and one story slips into another in various times. At first I was going to do a story on a very big scandal – Tiger Woods, and as these people were talking, suddenly they slipped into talking about Obama, or OJ or Michael Jackson… So then the piece for me emerged from watching these videos and realising they were talking about something I didn’t know when I started the piece. There was something in the structure of the stories, reflecting popular ideas about identity and race. When you’re making a collage and you look through a pile of images and you see something you wouldn’t have otherwise seen – it makes you think about something else. It’s not a mechanical process, it’s a creative process. It can be painful, but then I learn about what it is I want to make.
G: But let’s go back to your method, maybe you know the book by Richard Senatt – The Craftsman. When I think of you painfully putting this together, it is like a digital craft, not using sophisticated software. But you use sophisticated ways to search terms, in different languages.
N: Yes for Trip. But not for Laid Off. All of these stories people are telling in English, because that’s my language and it is really about language and about how people are using language. For these other pieces, as they were unfolding I would just look for anything I could think of and then it lead to other videos. And, you’ve talked a lot in the past in these conferences about the subjectivity of the tags which in some ways is very useful for me but it also makes it very difficult to find videos because I’m not looking for the most popular videos, I’m looking for the most varied.
G: A lot of videos are very personal. Are they talking to family or friends?
N: I think in ‘Laid Off’ they have an imagined community. Another piece in the series is called My Meds and in this one they are probably speaking to other people who are also on these medications but they are strangely private, also made public.
N: In this one it’s not so much about the individuals, it’s much more about the choral group speaking together, in some way, in the other one there is a sense of individual personality that comes through at certain moments and then fades back into a collective voice.
G: Your work really reflects on theories of online subjectivity – new liberal labour and living conditions; it’s amazing to see this visualised. You can read a lot of books about the individual lives that people have which you bring together. Did this grow out of the theoretical notions like the multitude, in which people retain their individual voices but nonetheless part of something bigger?
N: I was definitely thinking about the relation of the individual to the collective and also the shift from Fordism to post-Fordism. The rectangle of the individual space is part of the aesthetic, and it is not formal, the compartmentalisation of society, that each person is alone in their home, they’re not together. They aspire to be together, they might imagine to be together, but they are not together in a space doing something active. They’re reactive and responding. And so putting them together creates an image of collectivity that is aspirational more than reality.
G: And that comes out best in Mass Ornament. It has that sentiment of them aspiring to dance together. Even though they’re not aware of that when they’re filming themselves.
N: There’s also a certain form that is created through dancing around or speaking into a computer. It’s a fixed position. I pulled out clips where people were one way or another emphasising one the edge of the frame, and how the edge of the frame reflected their compartmentalised domestic spaces that they were in, like rubbing the floor or dancing around a doorway.
N: That was a collective dance called Mass Ornament after Siegfried Kracaue 1927 essay: The Mass Ornament where he is talking about dancers who were lining up in auditoriums and moving in synchronicity that reminded him of the workers in the factory who were also moving in the same way to produce a surplus value in the way that these dancers were also producing an abstraction.
End of Part 1.