This interview series is produced in partnership with MATTE Magazine, a publication produced by writer and curator Matthew Leifheit that focuses on the work of a single photographer per issue.
Jaimie Warren is an interdisciplinary artist with a snort-out-loud sense of humor. She started making self-portraits in 1998 as a way to entertain herself in Kansas City, Missouri, where she’s lived for the past fifteen years—though just this year she moved to Brooklyn. In those portraits she riffs on art history, celebs, and pop culture; she’s dressed up as Yoda surrounded by forest nymphs, posed as a “Self-Portrait as Pretzel Rod Stewart,” and served up some air as Michael Jordan in the midst of a bacchanal. That badass sensibility shows through to her other projects like Whoop Dee Doo, an internationally touring faux-cable access show that she co-directs alongside Matt Roche. What she does, she wants you to know, she does as a team. “I don’t make this shit on my own,” she told me over drinks, “and it is important people know that.”
You moved here recently, right?
Well, I’m living in both Kansas City and New York. I just moved to New York two months ago. I still have my studio in Kansas City where I can go and do larger scale projects. I’m there a lot. I’ve only been able to be an artist full-time for the past year. It’s taken twelve years. Even living in Kansas City where it’s so cheap to live, I’ve always been a waitress, too.
Is the Midwest a better place to be an artist?
The grass is always greener. It’s extremely inexpensive to live there. Kansas City makes great attempts to keep artists in that city. There are unrestricted artist grants like the Charlotte Street foundation; they give four $10,000 unrestricted grants to artists a year. Then there’s the Lighton International Artists’ Exchange. That’s how I got to Tokyo: They give you $5,000 to do international projects. I have a 25,000 square foot studio space for free for three years through The Studios, Inc. No rent, no utilities. It’s insane. If you want to curate a show or do a project, there are a million people that want to help you. I feel like everybody wants the city to make a name for itself, so everybody wants you to do well.
I am living in New York now part-time because my friends are here, The Hole is here, and I wanted a change. Super great things are happening in New York; I want to do more performance work and work with more magazines. But I love being able to live in KC as well and be able to work with all of the amazing people who have helped with my work, and continue to work on Whoop Dee Doo.
How did your fake cable access show Whoop Dee Doo come to be?
I was working with Matt Roche and we’d always been inspired by horror houses, public access, and stuff like that. We had always wanted to do a TV show. Starting in 2006, we began traveling to different cities and got a lot more people involved. It’s always had a rotating crew of artists.
You work with local youth groups, and local performers and artists.
It’s like a variety show. We pair up with an underserved youth group, they come in every day, and we create the set together. We invite as diverse of an array of performers as possible, so the kids we work with are seeing how many different types of people there are in the world, and how many different talents people have. The installations are always floor-to-ceiling, so you’re on an equal playing field with everybody because you’re thrown off by how strange the environment is. In the same show you’ll see a clogging troop, Christian mimes, and a punk band.
Yeah, oh yeah. Professional body builders, drag queens, a West African dance troupe—you name it. The show is usually pretty full with kids, but it’s for adults too.
You did a big Whoop Dee Doo in Baltimore last year.
We brought fourteen Kansas City people to Baltimore where we were squatting in an empty townhouse that was next to the space. We worked with two awesome youth groups, and we got the Baltimore Police Honor Guard to be on the show. They opened up the show by doing a “presentation of the colors” which is usually the U.S. flag and other national flags. But we got them to present our colors instead! We made these crazy flags and they let Matt Roche alter the National Anthem into a stretched out, alien-sounding version. It was strange and awkward, but really serious and beautiful at the same time.
What’s the number one craziest thing that’s ever happened on Whoop Dee Doo?
We did a show at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha, and we got a professional body-builder to do what he would normally do in a bodybuilding competition. He was essentially in a G-string. There was a group called “Hollywood or Bust” that came on before him, 5 – 6 year old girls dancing wearing very adult-looking costumes and doing their sexy dance. They were followed up by this bodybuilder, who does this very serious performance. He’s all oiled up, and everybody’s was really into it. Then, all of a sudden he busts into a Ricky Martin song; someone throws him a hat, he puts sunglasses on, and he starts dancing, thrusting here and there. The front row is all these five-year-old girls with their moms. I see the curator’s jaw drop, he’s looking around like, “This is fucked up, I’m going to get fired!” But then, all the kids and their moms start screaming, and the moms are giving the girls dollar bills.
Just to be clear, we like pushing the boundaries, but we would never want to do something that would make a child uncomfortable. We’re not trying to traumatize children. We’re trying to push the boundaries of several things—grossness, weirdness, fun, et cetera. A basic question I always ask is, “Can your four-year-old dance on stage with a drag queen?” Depends what kind of parent you are, but we’re pushing openness.
I think that’s a great mission. You’re a registered non-profit organization?
Yes, as of 2008.
How did that happen?
We had someone on the crew who helped us with the insane application. Being a non-profit is a blessing and a curse because it’s a huge extra workload. There are crazy responsibilities on the business side of things. It has been a good struggle for us. There are so many people striving for funding, and what we do is often seen as weird and wild. Because we’re seen as controversial, we’ve rarely gotten funding from things we’ve applied for.
Why are you interested in working with kids?
I had been doing workshops with kids at this place called Operation Breakthrough before this. Overall though, I like to work with kids because they make the projects weirder, funner, and more valuable. It’s hard thing to engage a wide range of people on an equal level. In Whoop Dee Doo, it’s that weirdness that everyone appreciates. Everyone’s dancing, and there’s balloons and confetti. I just finished a piece I was working on for four months. It’s got over two hundred people in it.
The photo that was in this year’s Vice Photo Issue?
Yeah, that’s one of five images that are all one piece. It’s based on a painting by Fra Angelico called the “San Marco Altarpiece.” The one that was in Vice is the 4th panel, which depicts some of the celebrities that my mom remembers from throughout her life, like Mr. Peanut and Ghostface from the Scream movies.
The whole piece may be debuting at The Hole very soon. It’s five panels, and it’s also a Stevie Wonder music video. In the middle, I replace the Jesus character, but I’m dressed as Missy Elliott, where she’s got that giant garbage bag outfit on. The girl from The Exorcist is below me, and we sing the duet from Stevie Wonder’s “That’s What Friends Are For.” She sings the Stevie Wonder part, and I sing the Dionne Warwick part.
How did you start doing photos in the first place? Are you a photographer?
Vice published my first image [in 2005]. It accompanied an article called “An Ode to The Fat Friend.” I submitted an image of myself. Tim Barber, the photo editor of Vice at the time, published my monograph through Aperture, as part of a series in collaboration with his project, tinyvices.com. He’s been a great supporter. He asked to see more self-portraits, and I realized I had hundreds of self-portraits I was taking all the time for my own entertainment. It was a way for me to entertain myself in Kansas City.
And you did a new body of work recently which includes “Totally Looks Like,” Celebrities as Food & Food’lebrities,” and the “Art History Series”?
What inspired the new work?
My inspiration comes from the dark creepy corners of Internet, where nobody goes. Usually when we have found the best and weirdest acts on Whoop Dee Doo, it’s usually from the Internet. I don’t know if there’s a term for this, but you get to these corners of the web when you’re just clicking link after link until you’re in some weird, gross hole and you don’t know how you got there. And that’s when you find this image of three Christian mimes in sparkly sequined head-to-toe outfits. It’s equally beautiful and terrifying.
That’s where I’ve tried to find inspiration for the show and for my own photos. But also, finding people for the show has always been my forte. Even with my own work, I’m really more of an organizer, a researcher, and an event-grower. The art of throwing a party, or the art of making a social situation strange and fun—that’s my expertise. I don’t make this shit on my own, and it is important people know that.