Video and performance artist/video installation and performative video art
Interview on 29 October at A.Omen coffee shop, Gulou
KL: So what was the path to here? How does one become a video artist?
ES: I guess I always wanted to be an artist and then I went to design school out of high school. Then I did a Master of Fine Arts after, I kind of crossed over.
KL: You're from New Zealand, right? Did all of your study happen in New Zealand?
ES: Yeah. I studied graphic design in a small town called Wanganui and Master of Fine Arts in Wellington.
KL: Seeing your show the other night at Temple bar, everybody was amazing with the multiple projections. The different images being displayed on the back wall and also the painted cymbals. How is it done?
ES: Did you come to the Orchestra of Spheres ones, as well?
KL: No, I missed that.
ES: We did a similar thing at that show where I projected onto balloons so at the Temple show Marshall was like, I've got broken cymbals! Let's project on them!
KL: How does it work technically?
ES: I use a programme that does projection mapping so I can just have all of the different video clips and I can mix them live in time with the music as well as position them. You project onto the things then position the images so they fit. I find with live shows that things move around so you constantly have to be repositioning them. Spinning cymbals or the balloons would float if there was any wind.
KL: As far as the footage that you use, do you make it yourself or is is found video?
ES: It's a bit of both. I do create my own content. I'll film things or I play around a lot with creating liquid light show things and filming that and I play around a little bit with glitching things in various ways, such as data-moshing videos where you purposefully corrupt the frames in the files, and filming things off TVs and just distorting footage to make it visually interesting. And I also download things or I'll rent or buy old VHS tapes and then watch through them and find interesting bits. Or old DVDs or whatever. Trying to find obscure things. And I find that part of it really interesting because you're totally changing the context of things. Like if you're in a bar situation and you're mixing it with other things and I find the culture of sampling quite interesting.
KL: How often do you collaborate with your visuals? I noticed there was a strange little animation on Thursday night. People kissing and then they flew off into the sky.
ES: Oh, I think that was from an old French cartoon. Visually collaborate? Not so much. I collaborate on installations and things. More just collaborate with musicians. I really like working with specific bands or sound artists to create a whole kind of environment or experience that goes with their music.
KL: How do they collaborations usually occur? Are these friends, are they people that you meet when you go out. Do you approach people? Do they approach you?
ES: Usually, because Wellington or New Zealand is pretty small, all the collaborations organically happen. I'll like someone's music or they'll like my work and then we'll start working together and trying out different things. The same way here, I guess. It's been really cool. I've just been welcomed to do lots of different things which is great.
KL: How do you find Beijing as a collaborative environment? Is it different to Wellington?
ES: I've found it really welcoming which is really cool. That's a question I need to reflect on. Yeah, I think it's really welcoming and really fun. Lots of interesting ideas from people. I got to do a really cool collaboration the other night in one of the underpass gigs. Have you been to any of those?
KL: No. I don't seem to have the right connections to know where and when those are happening.
ES: That was really cool. That was quite different.
KL: Explain it to me.
ES: From what I understand, lots of those alternative, experimental sound venues have closed down in Beijing recently so they seem to sporadically organise these gigs in this underpass which is beneath what feels like hundreds of roads with cars going at high speed so you get to play along to this drone of traffic which is really fun. I did a little sound piece with my friend Dan Beban from Wellington from Orchestra of Spheres. He's a sound artist. We found some robotic toys, along the street actually, that record sound, and we cut them up and played with them along with drone violinist A Ke, which was really cool.
KL: So you do sound artist as well?
ES: A little bit. More visual art with some overlapping sound art collaborations.
KL: Orchestra of Spheres, are they from New Zealand as well?
ES: Yep. They're from Wellington.
KL: So did you guys come out together?
ES: No, I came out on this residency and then they were approached to play a festival in Chengdu, and then they booked a tour around that. We work together all the time so it was just an awesome magical coincidence.
KL: I'm sorry that I missed that. Tell me a bit more about this residency. Is this the first residency you've done?
ES: Yeah, it's my first. It's funded by the Wellington City Council and the Asia New Zealand Foundation. So each year they've booked out this three month Red Gate residency, the same three months each year and they send one Wellington artist. I got it this year.
KL: What's the process of applying for it?
ES: I had to come up with a proposal and create an application based on a specific project that I wanted to work on here.
KL: And did that need to be China related?
ES: I did a lot of research into things that I'm interested in here and discussed as to “why Beijing, why that project.”
KL: If you don't mind me asking, why Beijing?
ES: I have this ongoing project. I have two facets of my practice, one being the audio-visual collaborative installation performance, and the other one being these solo performance art pieces I create for video. And the overall project is about exploring ideas of contemporary feminism. That's what I do in my solo work practice so I looked into some feminist art based in Beijing and found it really interesting and I've been trying to make connections with people there. And also, I was just really interested in the sound art scene here. There's some really cool stuff going on. There's also quite a few female artists in that scene, which is great. So it was about collaborating as a way of communicating and finding out more about people's experience and those issues.
KL: So are you looking at feminism just within the art scene?
ES: Just in general because I find performance art and music is a good way to look at people's social and political viewpoints.
KL: So what's your take now that you've been here for a little while?
ES: I still can't work things out. I've found it hard to talk about feminism with people which is interesting. It's been hard to have those kinds of discussions with people. I did meet a band that I've been collaborating on a music video with, South Acid Mimi, and we talked a bit about feminist type stuff without using the title feminism. We spent a lot of time talking about how women are represented in music and owning that image for yourself. Not for anyone else's gaze. So that was cool.
KL: Have you had the opportunity to speak to many Chinese women outside of the art scene?
ES: No, I haven't. It's all been within arts and music. I haven't been here very long. The residency is three months. It's going so quickly, it doesn't seem long enough. I had all of these lofty questions that I wanted to work out and write about but I haven't really made much progress there. I'm just getting more and more, well not confused, but there's a lot that I would like to do.
KL: Is that a conclusion that you're forming about China, just how opaque and complicated it can be?
ES: Yeah, everything is really complicated and just structured differently to what I understand.
KL: Did you make any preparation for coming here? Any language or cultural research?
ES: I read about arts and things. I wish that I had learned some more language because I kind of didn't realise that would be so difficult. And I emailed people and tried to make contacts before I came.
KL: So were you trying to acclimatise before you got here?
ES: I was really just too busy right up until the second I left and then suddenly it was just like, woah! I'm in China! I was touring around the south island [of New Zealand] with another band and then I was packing my bags and leaving.
KL: How does your career as an artist work in New Zealand? Do you do it full-time?
ES: I teach part-time as my way of surviving and then I do a lot of shows. A lot of collaborations with bands and get to tour around with them and other little projects that come up. Like we got funding to make a live children's show with Orchestra of Spheres earlier this year which was awesome. We just made a big psychedelic extravaganza. It was great. The kids got crazy energy off it and were buzzing out. It was really cool. We did it for two weeks, three shows a day, with about 300 children at each show. I've never heard 300 children scream in one place. It's a pretty amazing sound. And then I just try and work on other projects and exhibitions and get funding where possible.
KL: We started to talk about your education, going from design to moving into the masters, did you know it was going to be video art all along or performance art?
ES: I kind of just got into video when I was studying graphic design. I thought I'd really enjoy graphic design but, I was like, I don't enjoy creating brands for people or advertising things or creating packaging. I'm glad I have all these skills but it's not something that I'm passionate about.
KL: Is it the corporate nature that's the turn off?
ES: Yeah, I think the corporate nature, the selling stuff, and all of the ethical problems that come along with that. So then I started making weird videos and then just got really interested more in video art.
KL: What kind of weird videos? Was it originally more narrative driven?
ES: The videos that I was making in design school were like a direct reaction to having to design things for products that I didn't agree with. So, at the time, anti-consumerist video art. And then, when I did my master of fine arts, I moved more into looking at feminism and comedy and creating these self-deprecating humorous videos. And looking at comedy as a subversive tactic.
KL: So you consider your work is quite political?
ES: Yeah. I was interested in the idea of slap-stick comedy, really just physical comedy that's super accessible to anyone. And the idea of the character being this character that is really striving to do something right and be a good citizen and be good at what they're doing but they constantly mess up and they're constantly failing and that's why its funny in this self-deprecating way. People like watching that, I think, because they feel better about themselves and it kind of absolves you from the pressure of struggling to do what society wants you to be or whatever, I guess the post-feminist cosmopolitan woman that has to do everything and have everything and be it all.
KL: So the idea that, if your failure is comedic, if people are amused by it, then it's okay to fail?
ES: Yeah, I liked the idea of the awkwardness of that making people feel better about not living up to expectations. That was the thinking behind it. I wanted it to be accessible to people.
KL: So where does the feminism come from? Has it always been an intrinsic part of you?
ES: Yeah, I think so. Where does that come from? Interesting question.
KL: Born angry.
ES: Born angry, yeah, I think so. And I found it really interesting working in the VJ, techie industry which is quite male dominated and really having to fight to get people to realise that I do know what I'm talking about. It's not a problem anymore in New Zealand because I've been on the scene for so long but I always find that really interesting, being dismissed when you're talking about something technical.
KL: Have you experienced that at all here?
ES: I'm not sure because it's really hard to tell with the language barrier. I was arguing with a guy recently because I knew what the problem was with the projector, I just couldn't reach so I needed him to wiggle with a cable and it would have been fixed and he's said, I know, I know, I know and just wouldn't do it. I was like, I don't know whether you're just being a dude determined to do it your own way or if it was a language thing.
KL: Are there any other themes running through your work? You've mentioned anti-consumerism and feminism. Are there any others?
ES: I guess pop culture is a recurring theme. It's really hard to summarise what I'm actually currently doing. I can talk about that other stuff because I've thought about it and written about it. I'm pretty interested in the whole collaborative thing because I'm interested in people's experiences and sharing them and the relationships that come out of that. I really enjoy connecting with people and making work that gives people an experience.
KL: Do you think that the work that you do is more overtly social than other types of art?
ES: I guess so, yeah. Particularly with the video work because it's all about taking that work and putting it into an environment which is usually a bar or a venue where a lot of people are experiencing it in a different kind of way to a gallery situation and it being social. I like the way it influences people's night and how they feel and what they think. I really enjoy hearing people's feedback about that.
KL: Does it become somewhat ephemeral in a bar setting like that. Are people going to watch it or is it something like occurring in the background?
ES: Just something occurring in the background. I don't like it to be like the main thing. I like people to be there to see the music and this is like something that enhances that experience, works along with it.
KL: So what do you hope to achieve before you leave?
ES: I've got a few ideas for some performative videos that I want to make around this area [Gulou]. I'm going to work with Yi-Project space to do a show before the end of the residency. It's a really cool artist-run space, or off space as most people seem to call them here, I've always called them artist-run spaces, run by two girls from Germany and Hungary. They have really interesting projects there. It's only open by appointment and they do residencies. They organised the first independent artists festival that was a couple of months ago. The show we are working on is a site specific show called Dì’er 地二. I'm also involved with creating a stage installation for China Drifting festival in both Shanghai and Beijing, as well as playing support for QT with my audio visual project Kolya Z Lazerlight. We are also putting on a multimedia show at fRUITYSHOP with some local artists, and releasing a cassette tape. So I'm hoping to wrap up with those last few little projects as a conclusion because this whole time it has been pretty chaotic. I've just been saying yes to everything and running around and not having much time to reflect and figure out what I'm doing. Just kind of reacting. Participating. So it's really been a time for performing and meeting people and I really would like to spend this last month creating some stuff based on those experiences.
KL: Do you think you'll be tempted to more residencies after this?
ES: Definitely. I have loved doing residencies overseas, it's pretty great and I really want to come back to China as well. I'm trying to look at some options for that.
KL: Another short stay or for longer?
ES: Probably short stays, maybe longer depending on what there is. I'd have to learn Chinese. There's some really cool stuff happening in Chengdu. My friend Kristen, who organised the Orchestra of Spheres tour and has been collaborating with me on this music video, she runs a site called kiwese which is about New Zealand and Chinese culture and bringing them together. Like music and art and things. It's really cool, you should check it out. She is involved in an organisation in Chengdu who is hopefully starting a residency programme too. They're doing really cool stuff. There's cool stuff happening everywhere. On the tour that we did I just had one night in each city and I thought, I have to come back for longer.
KL: Which cities did you go to?
ES: We did three shows in Beijing and then Chengdu, Chongqing, Kunming, Dali, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Wuhan. It was quite a big trip around.
KL: Was there a standout?
ES: I had a really good time in Kunming because it's beautiful and I met the South Acid Mimi girls, who are awesome. My awesome Chinese sisters. They make this really great almost MIAesque electronic music. They are just really interesting talented girls. It was really awesome working with them. We just hung out for a couple of days and they had some initial ideas like they wanted to tip milk on them or some kind of gross substance. I'm interested in that idea of, they were all gorgeous and, messing with that idea of femininity and music. So we were trying to figure out ways to do that and they were like, how about yoghurt? So we ended up tipping yoghurt all over them. Which was awesome and it's cool because the song that they wanted to use after I'd already presented these ideas is written in one of the girls' ethnic minority dialect and a lot of it is swearing and stuff but then the other half of it is a folk song in their language about a baby wanting its mother's breast milk and about how hard working mothers are. It's really attitudy “ups” to mums as well. Which is quite amazing because all of the imagery that I'd been talking about had been like, I'll let you guys pop balloons and blow bubble gum and tip milk on you. It was all this kind of breasty imagery and that's what the song ended up talking about. Which I love. Communal consciousness.
KL: Maybe you're all just lactation obsessed and it's there in the subconscious at all times. It sounds like you, as far as coming here and being interested in feminism in China, that sounds like an incredibly great experience that you got to see some feisty feminist women doing what they want to do but also being in Yunnan as well. This residency, being located in Beijing, could have exposed you to only the majority, Han Chinese, rather than seeing underrepresented minorities.
ES: That was really cool we talked a lot about ethnic minorities and things there. It was great.
KL: Did they feel at all political about it?
ES: They kind of avoided using language like that, it seemed. They talked about it but said, it's not what our music's about. It's not the image we're trying to put across. It's just part of our experience. Super interesting.
KL: Was there any fear that you wouldn't enjoy it?
ES: I don't think so. I've been wanting to come to China for a long time, as this mysterious entity. I didn't realise how difficult it would be for me to contact people back home. My internet didn't work for a long time, my phone didn't work, my VPN didn't work. It was an interesting experience because I didn't speak the language and I couldn't contact anyone. And being quite far out of the city as well. But the residency programme offers really great support. It's been totally fine.
KL: Well that's certainly a good advertisement for the residency. Do they deal with people from other countries as well?
ES: Yeah. There's people from all over. There's eight resident artists at one time. So Austria has one of the studios booked out all year round and bring a different artist out every three months and there's other countries that have different contracts and then some people are self-funded as well.
KL: Is there anything else that you want to add?
ES: One of my coolest experiences that I've had was on the first day I got here I had a phone call from the residency director saying, you have to get down to the Space Station gallery in 798 now, because I'd been emailing them but just getting these one line responses that weren't very... I didn't know what was going on. So I find my way down there really jet-lagged because I'd arrived at midnight the night before but hadn't been able to sleep until four a.m. I'd only had like four hours sleep and so finally somehow found the gallery and found out my name was on the line-up for this international performance art festival and that I was performing in two days. And I was like, what am I gonna do? So I got to do a performance of a piece that I've done in the past called Only Girl in the World where I film myself and then use open source software to glitch myself into the exact place of the female character in climactic moments in romance movies. So I'm kind of nerdily stealing the moment in a creepy way. So I got plunged right into the art scene not really sure whether people here would find that funny 'cause it's meant to be a humorous work and people in New Zealand like it. I was really nervous but people got it. I think they were a bit unsure whether to laugh or not but I like that about it. It was this bizarre experience of having hundred or so people, all with cameras, filming me do it, while I'm filming myself.
KL: There's definitely a culture here of cameras in the gallery, even if they've got the signs explicitly asking them not to take pictures.
ES: It's great. I haven't seen any of the photos though. I need to track down some. There must be all these photos out there. But that was great because I got to participate in this week long performance festival and see a lot of, some international but mostly Chinese performance art. Which was super interesting. I just really appreciated seeing performance art en masse. There were some really cool works.
Erica Sklenars works predominantly in the mediums of performance and video, creating both solo performative video art, and collaborative audio-visual performance installation.
Her solo work is an ongoing series of personal performative videos that reconfigure contemporary understandings of objectivity, gender and contemporary feminisms with the subversive tactics of marginalist comedy. Many of these themes also overlap into her collaborative projects involving live video performance, where the artist uses sampled and re-contextulized footage combined with original content. Here the artist works with various musicians and sound artists to create immersive performance installations under the name Lady Lazer Light.