Both gallery and theatrical viewing situations have advantages and disadvantages when considering audience response. I’m interested in the captive response that a theatrical presentation will provide, and my work does tend to have a trajectory, so it’s good to see it from beginning to end. But not always: there are pieces like Remote (2011), which despite its trajectory can easily loop and has shown in galleries. Another piece, Magic for Beginners (2010), has also shown in galleries, but I don’t think it works as well because it’s a longer commitment, and if one were to walk in and watch the piece at any time, I don’t know if that would serve its strengths.
When I went to graduate school I was making more video installations. I still made single-channel works and still worked occasionally in 16mm, but I was considering video sculpturally and the more ambulatory response you can get from an audience member. I think it worked out like that because YouTube had really blossomed by then and I was getting more interested in repurposing and collaging materials over time rather than using them as a sculptural form (I had used video as almost a “wrapper” on forms I created). Because I was culling stuff from a public sphere, I became concerned with the kind of viewing spaces that computers and the Internet provide (less ambulatory!) and the possibility of sending my work into the world through larger distribution systems. I was interested in the audience being with the work in lots of ways.
When the work is finished, I like that feeling of being in an audience with the work—it’s sort of nerve-wracking but also amazing to see how the same piece resonates differently between screenings and audiences. This is something that is better achieved for me through a theatrical screening because the audience really focuses and I have the opportunity for different viewings and different responses. There’s so much going on at an opening that you can’t focus in that same way. I have more ideas that lead to single-channel videos that would be served best in a theatrical presentation but occasionally I want to see my video work in concert with other materials, like prints or sculptures. And sometimes I want the audience to move around. My work is always concerned with feeling as well as thinking, and I weigh heavily how I want the audience to encounter a piece, whether it’s through their body primarily, or if it’s in a theater space, how I can use that captive response and focus.
In Stars, They’re Just Like Us (a solo show I had at Interstate Projects in 2013), I showed a video called Just Like Us. As the title would suggest the piece was the cornerstone of the show, which also had prints and a mixed-media video work called Me and Max Martin that was performative, in particular it involved karaoke singing. Initially I wanted to show Just Like Us in the main space because I had spent the most time on it, but light issues forced it into the basement exhibition space. In the end that worked well: the acoustics of the basement served the piece, and it let people have a more contemplative time with it—to sit down and actually watch it, which might not have happened in the main space, especially during the opening. However, I’m not sure how well Me and Max Martin (the singing piece) did in the main space. Having it so prominently featured increased the level of anxiety and not many people performed, but these are the kind of decisions that you have to make and try out. I’d like to try Me and Max Martin in a more private space to see if there would be more audience participation or just how different the response would be. But it’s worth noting that I could never achieve a piece like Me and Max Martin in a theatrical presentation: it only works in a gallery.
One of my favorite installations was a show I had in the front room space at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis. I was showing Remote, a single-channel piece, and I was able to have a hanging rear-projection screen in the middle of the space that you could walk around and see the image from both sides, which is magical but also made sense conceptually. There were sculptural objects hung and embedded on and in the walls, and I painted the space and all the objects within it matte black. The result was as if the room was coming into physical existence. Sound plays an important role in that piece, and that’s really where a gallery context can win out because you can direct the audience physically through sonic clues. I was able to do so much more spatially with sound, to get an embodied presence through the sound itself, and embodiment and the slipperiness of locating that in media is a major subject in Remote. Because the video concerns locating physical presence in media, it was great to actually give the work a physical location that was constant, while still keeping it ambiguous and temporal through the sound and image.
Something that falls outside of either theatrical or gallery space is the lack of control you have over what your audience has just been watching or thinking about prior to your screening or show. I think this is very interesting and worth considering in this constant discussion over whether videos succeed in gallery spaces wersus the festival circuit. I just showed Magic for Beginners at the Flaherty Seminar. It screened after days of intense viewing of pleasurable but cerebral works with strong socio-political concerns. Magic for Beginners takes a critical and empathetic look at fandom and emotional relationships with popular culture. The piece operated at a different register than most of the work that we’d been watching, and I was a bit nervous that the audience wouldn’t know how to react. It was probably the most boisterous screening of that work because I think the audience was really ready to laugh and feel and respond in a different way. When I showed Magic for Beginners at P.P.O.W. Gallery in New York as part of a group show, it had a more serious response because people were primarily watching it alone in a side room and were more hesitant to laugh out loud (though it was exhibited with amazing work and pushed intriguing connections). I’ve also showed it in festivals and had a more contemplative response so it’s not just a gallery or theater issue. You never know how your audience is coming to the show, either in a gallery or a theater, and that’s a beautiful and unpredictable thing!
JESSE MCLEAN is a media artist whose research is motivated by a deep curiosity about human behavior and relationships, and is concerned with both the power and the failure of the mediated experience to bring people together.