Other Investigations: Mollie McKinley

Mollie McKinley is an interdisciplinary artist based in Beacon, NY. She is also a co-director and curator for The Artist’s Statement Picture Show, a video art, film, and new media screening series. Her work has previously featured on Make Space: videos and photographs.

From the beginning of your process to your final product, how do you collect or record imagery/text/information/materials? Do you consider it important, conceptually?

I was trained in large-format photography and performance, and these days I’m still making color photographs, as well as making videos that use genre-bending installations/sets and acting that hovers between performance art and acting for the camera. Because of my love of performance, sometimes I am in these videos, and sometimes it’s more appropriate for me to function solely as director. For all of these mediums, my process begins with concept and leads to organic, intuitive production. I am also very much a process artist, and I believe that every invisible step from inception to exhibition is crucial in building the hidden life of a work of art. It’s what gives a work its power, its own life force. I think that’s what people are feeling when they tell me they feel grounded when they watch some of my videos.

So first I read, and read, and read. My existential thirst begins with all this nerd-o research and leads to art making. My library focuses on the occult, theology/spirituality, philosophy (metaphysics), film, and Gothic literature. Sartre, Poe, Lovecraft, Plato, Watts, Paglia, Jung, Freud, Hawthorne, Blake…Since I work primarily on location, my “studio” is really more like my library and study, filled with antiques, animal hides, fishing ropes and nets, props—and where I do post for my videos and photographs. Here I study films, and take screen shots from films I find visually powerful and study their composition and tone. I print the film stills out and post them around the studio, and meditate on them. I also make grids of my own finished images and stills, print them out, and study them.

But after all this solitary time doing research, the social, anti-authoritarian, rebellious aspect of my personality pushes me towards more collaborative processes. It’s a part of my practice that supports me when I’m frustrated with the confining aspects of photography. With the video and film work, you can have a situation like two people slopping mud on themselves in a rowboat in a patch of ferns, and even though it’s totally absurdist and funny, you have a growing sense that there’s more than meets the eye to what’s unfolding on the screen. All of that abstraction is deeply grounded in tons of study that took many months to arrive at.

It should be mentioned that I’ve played around with creating narrative situations and only using photography to document the scenes, and I think my photographs all have an essential cinematic quality—but the progression of linear time and kinetics in video allows me to really get really wild with an idea. My practice is complex, without a doubt. It’s become trans-disciplinary and heavily conceptual, particularly within the past few years. I’m trying to get comfortable with its multifaceted nature, and the fact that it’s not “concise” like “Oh, I just take these pictures of subject X and it’s easy to describe to people.” Then again, we may just be at a point in art history where “concise” is becoming a term of the past when describing an artist’s vision and practice. I hope so. Either that, or I’m at a turning point in my career, where my vision can’t be accomplished only through photographs. It’s also vis a vis videos, installations, performance, even curatorial practice. (I’m co-director and curator for a blossoming New York based video program, The Artist Statement Picture Show.)

Can you describe for us your process for making your recent videos?  For instance, how does your video “Existential Marina” play into your hybrid process?

In “Existential Marina,” the concepts behind the work are the work.  Or rather, they are the material that manifests the work; they lead very specifically to its form. The premise in that video was to explore an intersection of existentialism with the conflicting ideas of mysticism through texture and movement of body. I spent months reading Sartre, wrapping my brain around existentialism, buried in piles of books. I found that he’s really a sensualist, he gets decadently into texture with his ideas, which I think accounts for his unpopularity amongst stringent philosophy scholars. During that research period, in Spring 2011, I was really into going down to the banks of the Hudson River and collecting jetsam and flotsam for use in my installations and sets, like sun-bleached life vests and giant fishing ropes. This process was a bit like exploring the banks of the collective cultural unconscious.  Ropes and fishing nets as bondage, life vests as redemption.

 The tugboat rope that’s in “Existential Marina” I had ripped out of the sand at my favorite river beach in Beacon (about an hour and a half north of New York City). It was half buried in some tree roots and weighed about 65 pounds soaking wet. I ran into a colleague who was at the beach, too, and we carried it through the forest in the mud and rain for a couple of miles up to the parking lot. I had this growing collection of beautiful river objects in my studio for several months, and I knew I wanted to do something with them. I love the metaphor of jetsam and flotsam, what we keep versus what we abandon or release, and I ended up using them as materials for building the installation/set for that piece. Incidentally, I also started cleaning up a lot of other, less aesthetic trash from those beaches during those adventures; it became a sort of environmental responsibility that I couldn’t ignore. The Hudson Valley is one of the most beautiful and haunting places on earth and its like, you have to be karmically responsible for working with the land as part of your medium, you know?

How did you make the set? Do you perceive the site-specific set building as a means to an end, or also an installation in its own right?

It took me several weeks to build that set, which involved me negotiating a space for the tugboat rope, fishing nets, the life vests, in the woods in the Catskills till I found the right spot for my marina. Many viewers rather hilariously assume that I stumbled upon that boat in the patch of ferns, but I actually hauled it there with the help of some friends after finding it in a barn nearby. For a week I would just go down to the marina and sit in the boat, drinking bloody marys and reading Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.

For the shoot itself, I decided the boat had to be filled with water to play up the idea of inverting strandedness.  So I had a group of about six people carrying buckets of water to fill it up for the shoot.  They did an assembly line thing where they would pass several contractor buckets down a huge hill from the water source to the boat.  It took half a day to fill up half the boat. I am very inspired by filmmakers, like Werner Herzog, who do insane things to make a film happen—its not just a cinematic fantasy, it’s a real struggle, something truly epic and memorable happens. Like in his Fitzcarraldo, which also involves a stranded boat, but on an absolutely insane scale.  (That film wasn’t a conscious influence at the time, but that boat was totally named the Molly Aida—occult connection!!)

The night before I de-installed the marina, my friend Abraham Nowitz helped me to do light painting on the set with flashlights, in turn creating these beautiful images of the space from a slightly different perspective. I definitely see those three or four images as works of art in their own right. I like that there are blurred boundaries between the mediums and forms in “Existential Marina”—there are also 4×5 photographs from the daytime video shoot, that are very polished and look like film stills. Both sets of photographs are intended to be printed and exhibited alongside the video. The blurring of multiple mediums, while a little confounding, really supports the concepts of liminality that informed the piece.  Here we have a liminal threshold, a place of misty in-between of worlds, where luminous truths arise and bizarre magic happens.

How do you move from one project to the next? Do you work on simultaneous projects at once or one at a time or just one on going project over a long period of time?

In post, I am always working on several projects at once. When initially shooting or preparing to shoot something, either moving or still images, I have to do one project at a time to keep focused. I’m experimenting more with this, though. My conservatory training at Bard was very stringently project-based, one-at-a-time-till-its-perfect style, and that trained me to get obsessive about one specific idea and chase it to the end of the earth.

But because a lot of the core material that ties all of my work together runs deep—issues regarding the nature of human relationship to the life/death cycle, exploring the existence and nature of an indefinable God, intimate partnerships, atmospheric space, humor and the macabre, mysticism, sex and creation energy, the sacred and the profane, ritual—it makes it so there’s incredible overlap between the projects, as you can’t resolve these issues with one body of work. Motifs, location, and materials define videos and films from one another most clearly. But the large format photographs all exist in the same fantastic invisible realm; many images from Witchunt can coexist very seamlessly with images from The Crepuscule, and those both bleed conceptually into Dark Spectrum.  That’s like, almost eight years of visual continuity! No wonder I started making conceptual videos.

Does your geographical location directly/indirectly impact how you make? If so, how?

This question challenges me in life more than almost any other. As a lifelong traveler, I have spent my life in many different places and having many, many adventures.  I have serious wanderlust. The American landscape, in the broadest sense, is the grounding core of all my work: Puritan New England, the deep South, Appalachia, the Hudson Valley, the West, the Pacific Northwest, have all been core locations for my work at various times; they set the atmospheric tone. Clearly, I am not a traditional studio-based artist; I work on site, and my studio is really only for post-production film/video editing and pre-production study.  My studio is presently in Beacon, New York, and it’s a very fertile place to prepare for/edit/decompress from art making travels. I grew up living primarily between Cape Cod and Chapel Hill, my family is equal parts Northern and Southern, going back many generations. So there’s a tension (and correlation) between tones of Southern Gothic and Puritan New England in all my work, and ancestral geographies are vital to some of my older photographic work. I’ve lived in many other places, too, but those affected my deep self the most, and consistently rear their blatant tonalities in my work.

From your studio to installing /exhibiting your work, how important is space to your practice and work?

My work is essentially about energy/movement or stillness within space, but of a site-specific nature. I talked about this idea with my co-performer for “Sun Threshold/Fire Magic,” Chicago musician and audio engineer Ben Carver. We agreed that making a ritual like that one happen in a studio environment just wouldn’t be the same, because there is an unknown organic element when you engage with the chaos of nature. The unpredictable chaos is an essential condition that allowed for the creation of this video. The mud we smear on ourselves, and each other, is from the site; so is the horse skull, the hydrangeas. It’s the difference of super-control in a studio, versus the organic mysticism of nature coming to meet a performance, coming to engage with us. The crows screaming at us, the intense heat of the Appalachian July, the insects and peepers emerging from the soundscape…the actual sun itself, the metaphysical idea that this piece revolves around…

A lot of the most mystic moments that happened in that wild space didn’t make the final cut, only because the tape died after fifty minutes, and we were alone in the middle of nowhere—the entire performance was maybe two or three hours long.  We became part of that wilderness as time progressed, and through our meditative ritual, our egos slowly dissolved into the boundary-less chaos of nature. (We also meditated in the space beforehand, as preparation for the performance.) We afterwards came back to the main building at the Harold Arts (the residency where this video was made, where I’ve been an artist in residence several times) looking like total maniacs, covered in mud and with a wild, faraway look in our eyes. Having chaos or environmental unpredictability in a studio is a contradiction in terms; or at least, you have to work differently to produce it, which is a process that really doesn’t appeal to me at the moment. Another great example from this year: “Existential Marina” was shot at midnight on a full moon eclipse, in a mountain valley with totally haunting mists rising all around the group of ten people.  The bottom line is that earth, and landscape, is a character itself in my work.