Thursday, January 10, 2008

Art Space Talk: Janet Biggs

Janet Biggs is among a substantial group of artists who turned to video and video installation in the early 1990s. Trained in painting and sculpture she has exhibited since 1987. Biggs is known for a body of work centering on the image of the horse. In her earlier video installations, Biggs has examined the way society constructs gender, often using the image of the horse as an emblem of female sexual sublimation and masculine power.

More recently Biggs has focused on themes ranging from the representation of desire and pleasure to issues of spectatorship and aging. She has broadened this inquiry into questions of power and control by drawing connections between social and pharmacological prescriptions on behavior. Her multiple-channel installations, condensed yet epic, have garnered her a strong critical reputation and numerous museum exhibitions, as well as a position that places her work in the lineage of post-feminist discourse. Janet Biggs is represented by Claire Oliver Gallery in New York City and Solomon Projects, Atlanta, Georgia.

Brian Sherwin: Janet, you studied at Rhode Island School of Design and Moore College of art. I'm always curious to know who instructed people I interview. Who were your instructors at RISD and Moore College? Have you stayed connected with those schools?

Janet Biggs: I've stayed connected with RISD and Moore through exhibitions at both schools and by participating as a visiting artist. Both schools helped shape my thought process and practice through access to inspiring professors and by fighting against professors who were limited and limiting. Some of my inspirations at Moore were Harry Anderson, Frieda Fehrenbacher, Jack Thompson, and Jerry Crimmins. At RISD, Bruce Chao inspired by giving practical information about how to survive as a professional artist while never allowing for creative complacency. I was lucky that both schools have active and aggressive visiting artist/critic programs and exhibition schedules. I was exposed to and influenced by a lot of artists/critics who were aggressively pushing their work and their careers such as Valie Export, Jody Pinto, Richard Artschwager, and Lucy Lippard.

BS: Janet, you were one of the artists who turned to video and video installation in the early 1990s. However, you originally focused on painting and sculpture. Can you tell us why you decided to focus on video and video installation? Perhaps you have a story or two about those early years?

JB: I've always been interested in the immersive experience. Even when I was producing paintings and sculpture, I would combine objects and/or images to make installations. At the time, my studio was small so I would make "commuter installation art"...lots of small elements making up a large-scale installation. Video seemed like a great economy of means. I could create something phenomenological out of projected light. The immersive nature of video installation has been satisfying enough to keep me working in the medium for the last ten years, but I didn't count on the amount of equipment (and it's rapid obsolescence) needed to present the work. My studio is now full of projectors, laser disk players, video tapes, DVD players, projections screens, and sound systems...and I'm thinking of going hi-def soon.

BS: How did your experience as a painter and sculptor enhance your video work?

JB: I wanted my work to engage the viewer through time and multiple perspectives, allowing the viewer an active role in the completion of the piece. The static, linear read of one meaning, one intent felt too limiting. I wanted to challenge ideas about authenticity and authorship, allowing the viewer an increased role.

Recently, I have been directing performances that combine multiple elements, environments, and disciplines such as video projections with live synchronized swimmers, musicians, and equestrians. Video installation and performance seem more akin to how we experience life.

My experience as a painter and sculptor did not prepare me for the intense experiences that can be had through the moving image and sound. The sensory envelopment of sound is now a key part of my work. When I first started making videos I concentrated on the visuals using only the inherent sound from the images. As my worked developed I discovered the incredible possibilities and power of sound. I still feel like I’m only scratching the surface of the possibilities of sound, but am excited by the exploration. I've created and recorded sounds, sampled sounds and music from others, collaborated with composers like Blake Fleming who played with the Mars Volta band and Steve White of the Blue Man Group.

In my performances, I've been able to mix live sounds on site. I've combined sounds of live actions such as a horse's hooves pounding the ground in front of the audience with the pounding percussive piano of Jose Luis Hernandez Estrada.

BS: Janet, you are known for a body of work centering on the image of the horse. You use the the horse as a symbol of female sublimation and masculine power. Can you go into further detail about the symbology behind this use? Perhaps you could share your motivation behind that choice?

JB: Originally, using the image of the horse was a way to access my own experiences with power, pleasure, and control. As a child most decisions were made for me by others, but I could get on the back of a 1200-lbs. animal and have it go wherever I wanted. Using the image of the horse was also a way for me to explore male and female roles and societies rigid choreography of those roles. As the work progressed I became more interested in subverting stereotypical images of the horse, and by extension stereotypical ideas about gender. I've been able to take multiple roles in both the production and reception of images due to my interest in theorist Judith Butler's ides about gender's relationship to masquerade. Video has so readily been linked to the objectification of women that it's interesting to subvert it into a new kind of seduction.

BS: More recently you have focused on themes ranging from the representation of desire and pleasure to issues of spectatorship and aging. Tell us why you have decided to explore these themes.

JB: As my experiences broadened I became interested in looking at identity within a larger realm, both through levels of societal participation and ideas of free will. I was the guardian for a relative of mine who was severely autistic and obsessive compulsive. She could not live independently, was non-verbal, and self-injurious without medication. In my past work I had been active in the deconstruction of stereotypes. With the responsibilities of guardianship I was confronted with questions of functionality. I was forced to look at structures of societal participation. My work became more about construction than deconstruction. I needed to imagine the experiences of others and tried to recreate some of these mental states in my installations. These installations were named after the drugs that are used to treat different psychoses. I combined seemingly unrelated actions, environments, and events to create a solipsistic visual landscape often using images of athletes as examples of isolation, obsession and compulsion.

BS: Can you tell us more about the philosophy behind your work? What is the message your strive to convey to viewers of your work?

JB: I seek to continually challenge myself and my audience.

BS: Are you influenced by world events? Have any specific events struck a cord in you, so to speak?

JB: There are certain films where I can completely loose myself…totally buy into the Hollywood dream machine. Blade Runner is one of those films. I have always been a fan of cyperpunk and science fiction. Philip K. Dick and Ridley Scott hit on themes that interest me…what makes us human such as empathy, relationships to animals, constructed memories, as well as hybridization, globalization, our role in climate change and genetic engineered, drug enhanced identity.

BS: Janet, can you tell us about some of your recent work? For example, Enemy of the Good and Airs Above the Ground... can you tell us about the process that goes into them? Do you 'map' the videos out in your head? Do you sketch out preliminary ideas?

JB: While some pieces are mapped in detail (especially the synchronized, multiple-channel installations) others come together more as a collage. Last year I traveled to the Citadel in South Carolina and filmed the cadets for a week, concentrating on the Summerall Guard's rifle drill team. This footage became part of a single-channel video titled "Performance of Desire'. The cadets relinquished their individuality to become part of the choreography of war, performing a silent drill that demanded precision and exact synchronization. I paired the Citadel footage with images of inverted, synchronized swimmers suspended in slow motion to explore the strenuous effort and dedication behind the appearance of youthful ease. The hyper-stylized gestures and affected costumes of the athletes belied the power, agility, and strength required to make every action graceful.

Unlike my video installations where I can control all elements, in my performances I lay down a loose framework to work within. If I’ve done my job well and brought the right people together in the right environment then the piece takes on a life of its own. One of the exciting things about performance is that my original thoughts will be interpreted by the performers setting up new moments of discovery for all of us.

My most recent performance took its title, "Enemy of the Good," from the Voltaire quote, "the perfect is the enemy of the good". It examined the driving desire to transcend constraints and the impossible search for perfection. With nods to Busby Berkeley’s lavish musicals, the photographs of Muybridge, and referencing Santaigo Calatrava’s soaring architecture and symbolic Olympic flame, the piece explored the isolation and obsession required to make something difficult appear effortless and transcendent.

The piece opened with William Martina’s live haunting cello solo against a background of large-scale, synchronized video projections of a spinning horse, tethered hawks, and harnessed sled dogs. The video images changed to ethereal, weightless swimmers as Venezuelan national rider, Andres Rodriguez walked into the foreground and picked up a trot on his grand prix champion horse. Concert pianist, Jose Luis Hernandez-Estrada bowed to the audience and took his place at the grand piano. The horse galloped around the piano and headed for a jump behind the cellist. The pianist dove into an intense piece that made playing the piano look like an extreme sport while the horse and rider jumped the fences blocking their path. The piece built to a crescendo as the soloist flew up and down the keys and the horse and rider soared over one of the video projection screens.

BS: What are you working on at this time?

JB: I recently came back from filming the motorcycle land speed trials on Utah's salt flats. I worked with Valerie Thompson who set two land speed records. I am now cutting the footage to become part of a performance that will combine the salt flats video footage with live speed skaters and bagpipers performing on ice.

BS: Janet, your work has been reviewed by ARTnews, Art in America, and several other publications... how do you handle exposure like that? Does it inspire you to go deeper with your work? Some of the artists I've interviewed have mentioned that they try to 'block out' this kind of success so that they can focus on their work instead of what is being said about them... what is your opinion?

JB: I don't avoid or "block out" responses to my work. The work isn't complete until it is out in the world. That kind of communication with an audience (including critics) allows for their active participation in the reception of the work and often presents challenges. Some interpretations I dismiss as not constructive to my studio practice, but others encourage an inventory of choices.

BS: You are represented by Clair Oliver Gallery in New York City and Solomon Projects in Atlanta. What exhibits will you be involved with in 2008?

JB: I will have a solo show at Solomon Projects, Atlanta in the spring and am working on a performance that will premiere next winter. A great video show that includes one of my installations and was curated by Andrea Inselmann at the Johnson Museum, Cornell University will travel to the Haggerty Museum at Marquette University in the fall.

BS: Janet, the Internet has allowed video artists to gain a lot of exposure with just a few clicks of the mouse. This is due in large to art networking sites like Perpetual Art Machine and Myartspace and social networking sites like Myspace that allow video artists to upload their videos with ease. One could say that this is a great time to be a video artist, what say you?

JB: Sites like Myartspace, PAM, and Lumen Eclipse are amazing resources for artists, curators, critics, and traditional gallerists. If not actual gate keepers, these sites maintain a level of criticality in the work they show and in their programming that keeps them vital. Few museums, even those with deep pockets and a commitment to collecting video, can rival the breath of some of these sites. That being said, I'm not a fan of more is better. Unlike most web 2.0 sites like YouTube and MySpace, where quantity doesn't always equal quality, the above mentioned sites maintain a focus. I don't believe that the medium is always the message and that just because it's a video and uploaded somewhere it's worth watching.

BS: Speaking of critics, exhibits, and the opportunity that the internet has created for artists... do you have any concerns? In many ways the advent of the Internet has shifted the foundation of the traditional art world... is this a good thing?

JB: While I am really excited by the broadening of possibilities that have opened up for artists (as well as for musicians) through the internet, we are all still thinking within the box...this one just happens to be a flatscreen with broader access. The relationship of the arts and the internet is still in its infancy.

One concern of mine as I find more and more of my work uploaded by others is scale. Many of my pieces are intended to be presented at a certain scale. If an installation is meant to dwarf the viewer as they physically find a path through the images it will not be effective in small scale or as sequential images on a computer screen. Artist's intent needs to be respected.

Another is financial survival if all work becomes public domain.

BS: Janet, do you have any advice for emerging artists who are exploring video and video installation?

JB: Try painting so you won't be a threat to me in the future.

BS: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions Janet.

JB: Thanks Brian.
You can learn more about Janet Biggs by visiting her website-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Janet's work will be exhibited in a one person show at Claire Oliver Gallery in New York City from January 8 to February 7, 2009. More info here: Vanishing Point