Participating Artists (minute by minute): 1. Carine Santi-Weil, 2. Nicolas Sassoon, 3. Tom Sherman, 4. Kim Asendorf and Ole Fach, 5. Rafaela Kino, 6. Alex McLeod, 7. Kate Wilson and Lynne Slater, 8. Aleksandra Domanović, 9. Systaime, 10. Erik Zepka, 11. Adam Ferriss, 12. Rodell Warner and Arnaldo James, 13. Debora Delmar Corp, 14. Brenna Murphy, 15. Nick Briz, 16. Carlos Sáez, 17. Jenn E Norton, 18. Juliette Bonneviot, 19. Luis Nava, 20. Vince McKelvie, 21. Claudia Maté, 22. Evan Roth, 23. Shana Moulton, 24. Sabrina Ratté, 25. Jordan Tannahill, 26. Vasily Zaitsev feat. MON3Y.us, 27. Ann Hirsch
With John Berger’s death this month, the online premiere of Lorna Mills’ “Ways of Something, 3” feels particularly poignant. While Mills’s “Ways of Something” wasn’t conceived strictly as an update, as 117 person re-interpretation it effectively functions as such. To complete this piece, Mills invited over 100 artists to remake all four parts of Berger’s 1972 BBC series “Ways of Seeing”, minute by minute. Each artist was given 60 seconds of video—doled out on a first come first serve basis—with the sole condition that they would need to retain the text used in captioning. What they did to the captioning font, the visuals, the sound, was entirely up to them.
The result is almost certainly the largest video exquisite corpse in existence. Similar to the first Surrealist conceived exquisite corpse drawings, where each half is made blind of the other, each artist creates a minute without knowing what will come before or after it.
Visual themes naturally emerge. The first episode examines how the contemporary context changes the meaning of reproduced art, while images include reproduction, the sublime, search, photoshop and surveillance. The second episode, which explores sexism in art, takes a different path. Pop stars, 3D rendered figures, identity politics and gaming take on a greater presence. Unsurprisingly, the figure is everywhere. And by the third episode, the fact that the participating artists have seen the previous two iterations more clearly affects the piece—as Mills notes in our interview, participating artists begin referencing each other. Screens are a big theme this time around, as is any kind of reference to digital manipulation.
I sat down with Mills to discuss all this—the history of the project, how it has evolved and how she evaluates its success as an artist. We also talked about how all the participating artists were paid for their work—a rarity in the world of New Media (and in the art world as a whole)—and thus a blinking beacon of success if ever there was one.
You’ve said the title “Ways of Something” suggests something propositional—that you won’t know what you have until it’s complete. Now that the four videos are complete – and the third is being released with us for this online premiere, does the name still work for you? Has it taken on any additional meaning?
The name still works for me. It’s still propositional but expansive as well. I was wrong about thinking that I’d know what I have once it was complete. I’m still too close to the project.
And the conceit itself? How did that come about?
I was initially invited by the One Minutes in Amsterdam to curate a selection of one minute videos. Coming up with a theme and doing an open call for work didn’t excite me so I was wracking my brains for an interesting way to approach this. I thought about one minute animated gif videos, but that wouldn’t work since they wouldn’t be gifs they’d be video, so dumb idea. Then I happened to stumble upon a Facebook post by Jaakko Pallasvuo with a link to episode one of “Ways of Seeing”. The video in the youtube link was close captioned and it was that small distinction that made the whole idea crystalize since it is the abrupt change in text style and text handling that reinforces the idea of visual discontinuity that overlays John Berger’s beautiful “BBC voice of God” narration.
After episode 2 I did part company with the One Minutes and continued the project with my own resources.
Other than Jaakko Pallasvuo, who had an obvious impact on the work, are there other artists or projects that influenced you? (I always think of the tumblr Cloaque, which is similarly collaborative and exquisite corpse like in nature, in the sense that the artists were essentially making their minute without knowing what the visuals before or after their piece would look like.)
I absolutely love Cloaque, but I wouldn’t say it was an influence. Organizing the artist GIFs for Rea McNamara’s “Sheroes” project every month for almost a year was the sort of experience that made me confident that I could wrangle a lot of artists as long as the parameters were clear. It was a much more direct influence.
Did your approach to selecting participating artists change in any way since the first episode? Have you ever worried that you might run out of artists to work with? (117 artists is a huge number of artists.)
The first episode was full of artists I had worked with previously (with only a few exceptions). My thinking at the time was that since I had a tiny budget for fees, I wanted to invite people who had made work for my previous projects when there was no money.
Once the first episode was done I was able to expand the pool of artists to more people who I hadn’t worked with previously. There’s also a long list of artists I begged who just didn’t have the time. After episode 2 was shown, I was also approached by a lot of artists who wanted to be in it, but by then I was working on 3 and had already invited the artists for episode 4.
As an artist-curator, I think of the minute-by-minute framework, the use of text, and the resulting tension between continuity and discontinuity, as my art. When I invited artists to participate, I was inviting them to participate in my art piece. I didn’t initially take that position, but as time went on I had to recognize that I had abdicated the responsibilities of a curator, and the term ‘collaborator’ was disingenuous as well. My choices of artists were personal and idiosyncratic—I didn’t hold any conceit that I was presenting a ‘community’ as is common with most curators —if that had been my intention, my choices might have been different.
Other than tech specs [the size of the video, dimensions, etc], I created a structure that they had to adhere to, but anything within that structure was their art, not mine. Since the project’s completion, I’m finding many more artists that I’d like to work with, but there will be other projects in the future.
Do tell! Are you planning anything now that can be discussed?
Nothing definite, I can only say that I won’t repeat this particular structure and turn it into a career formula.
Are there specific artistic approaches or working experiences you had while making the third episode of “Ways of Something” that distinguish it the other episodes?
Not really. I’m not sure if that’s a strength or a weakness for the whole project. After watching episodes 1 and 2, episode 3 seems to flow much easier and I wonder if it’s because the audience gets used to the abrupt rhythms that are built into it with every jump cut between artists.
Speaking of strengths and weaknesses, how do you evaluate the success of the series? I think obviously, there’s the professional angle—its public reception—but what, for you, makes the work successful? What did you learn through the process of making the piece? Is there anything you’d do differently?
The public reception has been nice, I have no complaints, but I rarely focus on that when I evaluate the project. For me success of any artwork means that nothing needs to be added and nothing needs to be taken away.
For “Ways of Something”, it’s only natural that some minutes would be stronger than others, but I still waste time trying to figure out what I could have done differently, even when some of the issues were out of my control. I was not directing my fellow artists on how their minutes should look. I only offered an opinion if I was asked. If they were confident of their work then I was too.
I did the project one episode at a time with tight deadlines because of screening opportunities. If I were to do it again I would work on all four episodes at once to give the invited artists more choices for their minutes. I would have also given myself less punishing deadlines which may have freed up a few more invited artists that couldn’t deliver in time. Changing any circumstances around a project will change the artworks.
How has the work evolved since the making of the first episode? Have artists been influenced by what they’ve seen done in earlier videos? Has that knowledge made for stronger episodes?
One thing I thought funny was that in episode 3 some artists started appropriating from other artists, which is fitting since the original episode is about colonialism, theft and the accumulation and display of private property. Jordan Tannahill was using emojis like Carla Gannis does and he even used one of her Garden of Emoji Delights in his minute. Vasily Zaitsev, the Russian WW2 sniper, used a selection of other artists’ works from his project money as error.
By the way, I’m not so sure that all the subsequent artists looked at previous episodes.
Ha! It never occurred to me that some artists might not look at the previous episodes. Do you consider this work an update on Berger’s original series or is that even possible? (Now, I’m wondering if some of the artists didn’t watch the full BBC series too?) Are there some Berger episodes in greater need of an “update” than others?
No. The intention was not to strictly update his work. Artists were invited to update, illustrate or contradict what he was saying. The choice was theirs.
In my opinion, the original episode 2 is painful television, he made a lot of maddening assertions about how women see themselves and then the latter half of the show is a 70’s consciousness raising session. Episode 2 of “Ways of Seeing” is definitely dated in many ways, but that doesn’t mean that it’s irrelevant today. The hypocrisy of the male gaze and the judgements made of the women who they like to look at still enrage so many of us.
As the episodes have been produced, they’ve been screened in small and large venues across the globe. The complete project is a good two hours of art video watching. (I used to be able to tell people that I was a nice video artist because my work was mercifully short.) To me the optimum screening experience was at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. Lauren Goshinski of the VIA festival set it up so the space was full of bean bag chairs and other lounging furniture, way better then having to lie on a bed of nails. The Gene Siskel Theatre in Chicago was pretty swank too, which I liked.
The Whitney show was the first time I saw it as an installation and I’m almost inclined to prefer that set up to a screening. The audience got a sense of how broad the approaches were to the narration.
What is the future for “Ways of Something”? Are there venues you’d like to see it screened at? Collections you’d like to see it in? How will it exist online? (I hear you’re making a website.)
We are putting the finishing touches to the web site, so that will be launched soon. As for venues and collections, I think the National Gallery of Canada should acquire it and of course I want to see it in as many public and private collections as possible.
I should also mention when “Ways of Something” is acquired by a collection, it’s not just me, all the artists are credited in the acquisition.
When “Ways of Something” is purchased, do all of the artists get paid?
Of course. The money from sales of the editions, as well as all the screening fees that I have collected, have been divided up equally with the participating artists. It should also be noted that my Gallerist, Kelani Nichole of Transfer, worked very hard negotiating all the sales and very generously took a much smaller than normal cut. Basically, both of us are saints.