DIANA THATER with Steven Pestana

Installation view, Diana Thater, ICA Watershed, Boston, 2018. Photo: Kerry McFate. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner.

I first met Diana Thater in June at the opening of the Watershed, the Boston Institute for Contemporary Art's cavernous new project space facing the Boston Harbor. The ICA launched the venue, once an industrial metal facility, with a career-spanning selection of Thater's work. It was my first opportunity to encounter these architecturally transformative video installations in person. Immersed in a luminous sweep of the color spectrum, Thater's meditative images of natural phenomena left a strong visceral impression. The following interview took place on the last day of July at her home studio in Pasadena, CA with Thater vibrantly reaching for video excerpts, books, slideshows, and ephemera to illustrate the conversation. 

Rail: You’ve shown your work in East Coast galleries regularly since the early ’90s, but your show at the ICA Boston is your first expansive institutional exhibition in the area in some time. I was surprised to discover that you were raised on the East Coast, on Long Island. Did the show feel like a homecoming for you?

Portrait of Diana Thater, pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Thater: I love the East Coast, I really do. Everyone thinks I’m a California artist because I was born in San Francisco, but my parents are from the Bronx. They moved to San Francisco for four years, had four kids, and then moved back to the Bronx and then eventually to Long Island. I love Long Island. I wish I could have a little house there. So, yes, Boston felt—the weather, the people—very East Coast and that always feels comfortable.

Rail: How did you develop an interest in art-making?

Thater: I would cut out of school and get on the Long Island Railroad train and go into Manhattan a lot to look at art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art was my favorite place in the world. I loved looking at art. That was my idea of playing hooky. I drew, painted, and read a lot about art. I made little sculptures out of clay. I also did crafts, which I think all kids do.

Rail: The sorts of things that are available for students to do in high school. What would catch your attention during your visits to the Met?

Installation view, Diana Thater, ICA Watershed, Boston, 2018. Photo: Kerry McFate. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner.

Thater: When I was young it was the Impressionists because it’s pink and blue and lavender and it’s lively and bright. I remember the first art book I got was for my birthday—in the ’70s—was the Claude Monet catalogue for the big show at the Met. My parents took me and bought me that book and I read it cover to cover, over and over. At the same time the other books I was reading were fan movie books. I would read movie history books cover to cover, too. My parents really loved old movies—films they grew up with—and I would watch these movies and read books about them. So I was reading books about Claude Monet but I was also reading books about film noir or something like that. As I got older I moved back in time. First I liked the Impressionists and then Baroque. Then I started to like Classicism, Neo-Classicism and Romanticism; then in college I learned about twentieth century art and architecture.

Rail:  Which is what you studied at NYU, art history.

Thater: Right. I didn’t plan to study art history, I was just going to do Liberal Arts, whatever that might mean. I took one Art History class with Edward Sullivan and it was so compelling and he was so wonderful that I became an Art History major. He was super young and enthusiastic. It was this class called “Art in New York.” I will never forget it. I was eighteen, it was my first term at NYU and every week he took us to a different museum and give a lecture. One week he took us downtown to galleries—we went to International With Monument—I forget where else. It was 1980 and he was showing us things I didn’t even know existed. And so I became an art history major.

Rail: That’s a lot like my experience at NYU. I had one professor in particular, Valerie Hillings, who awakened me to a lot of contemporary art that to this day remains very relevant. She told me which galleries to go to, and things that I was unaware of like the Armory Show and auction previews. However unsavory some might find these more commercial settings, as a student it was great to be able to see these museum quality exhibitions.

Thater: Exactly. You can take advantage of all of these things that are happening in New York that are secret. Downtown was really crummy in the early 1980s—and I don’t mean Greenwich Village, I mean Soho and the East Village—it was scary and dangerous. And it was a revelation, like, “Look at this! This is so cool. This exists! I want to be part of this.” [Laughs]

Rail: So you graduated, remained in New York, and began taking evening classes at Parsons, specifically dealing with film and video?

Thater: Actually, I took printmaking and then I took a contemporary art course focused on collage. The artist with whom I took the contemporary art/collage class was very good and she was a feminist. A lot of her critique came from there and it was the first time I had heard feminist critique. So that was interesting too. So, I just took a few classes and I worked at an architecture firm. I was always involved in their architectural competitions, and in architectural charrettes with young architects so I learned a lot from that as well.

Rail: How did you first encounter these very obscure realms of film? Structuralist film, avant-garde film, these are genres that you can’t come across very easily, even today.

Thater: I had always had this tremendous interest in film. I had a book that I got for my birthday in 1976—The Great Films—I would read it over and over and I would write things in it. It has silent films, Eisenstein—I had never seen any of these films, but I was sort of obsessed with them. You can’t see Rossellini films in Long Island. [Laughs] My mom would take me to see some movies at an old cinema, but when I got to NYU, my roommate was in the film department and I would hang around and go to her classes. She had a film history class called Intro to Film with this fantastic professor. I think the first film we watched was Badlands (1973), and then we watched Michael Snow, we watched Straub-Huillet’s Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene (1972), Fassbinder. The last film we watched—Stan Brakhage—was maybe an hour long and it was shot through pieces of cut glass, like a cut glass ashtray or something. It was just light—this blue and pink and purple light—and I was like, “Oh my gosh this is blowing my mind!” And the students all started laughing and making fun of it and the professor stopped the film and told off the entire class! He told them about film as an art form. It was really great and it made a huge impression on me. That was the first place I saw some of those films. Then I went to graduate school at Art Center where Stephen Prina and Patti Podesta were my professors. Patti would show experimental videos—we’d see Shigeko Kubota, Mary Lucier, Judith Barry, Bruce Nauman. And then Prina would show avant-garde films. We had a whole class on Pasolini, a whole class on Fassbinder, a whole class on Godard, a whole class on Straub-Huillet. So we learned avant-garde cinema and avant-garde video art. Those were the things I focused on. I remember being unable to recall the Straub-Huillet film that I had seen in undergrad and I described it to Prina and he said, “Oh yes, Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene. Let’s get that.” And then he rented it and we showed it. It was great because I sought out what I was interested in and I found it.

Diana Thater, Blitz, 2008. Installation view, inDiana Thater: Here is a text about the world. . ., David Zwirner, New York, 2008. © Diana Thater. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner.

Rail: Your work certainly exists along that continuum. When you graduated from Art Center, you became an adjunct professor.

Thater: First I was a librarian for a while.

Rail: Is that where you began indexing?

Thater: No, I started indexing while I was in school. I had a teacher’s assistant job. I used to write indexes as little narratives. I had this idea that if you just change a few things in an existing index, you could actually change the narrative of a book. But then I wrote my own indexes for books that didn’t exist or for films or art works that I wanted to make, so they would be fairly abstract. Then, when I was in school, Richard Hertz—who was the head of my department—hired me as his TA. He had just written an art history book and he hired me to index it, so I learned how to index properly. I did a couple of books and I would always sneak in a fake entry. That was funny. So there are some art history books floating around with entries like “King Kong” in them or something like that.

Rail: How could you resist?

Thater: Yeah and no one checks it! So I continued to write indexes and some of my invitations for my first couple of shows looked like a torn out pages from books that had the index to “book” and on the other side would be the title of the show and my name. I’ve shown them a few times. There’s only like four or five of them. I ran out of steam after a while. But then when I did The Sympathetic Imagination I wanted to bring back indexing because it is still of great interest to me. So I did my own bio as an index.

Rail: So you became a librarian.

Thater: Oh yeah. I became a librarian at Art Center and because I knew a lot about film and video, I was the film and video librarian. The librarians in the main library were Jorge Pardo and Stephen Hansen. So it was the three of us. The library at Art Center was this great place where anyone who wanted secret shit could come. Graduate students would come in and say, “I want such and such” and I was like, “Yeah, let’s get that!” and buy it for the library. I asked Mike Kelley, “What do you want in the video library?” and he said, “I want this and this.” And I bought all of it. So we had this amazing collection. All the really smart kids in the school would come hang out with Jorge and Steve and me, and we got the best kids working in the library. I had a monitor there and we would always be playing things like Godard or Hollis Frampton. It was really fun. I did that for three years after I went to Giverny. I worked my way through graduate school as a waitress, I went to Giverny for six months as the artist in residence, then I came back, continued to waitress, and worked in the video library. Richard Hertz was the first one to hire me to teach a class—Modernism—a basic 101 class that every undergraduate in the school has to take. I had a degree in art history and I had an MFA. The real way I started teaching was when Prina was teaching a crit class and he had to go out of town, he would ask me to sub. So I started teaching in the grad department and Patti Podesta invited me to split a class with her. I started doing little things—half a class or teaching the tech lab—and then I eventually started teaching regular classes. I became full time faculty in 2004, I was chair from 2014-2016 and now I’m full time faculty again. I’ve also done stints at UCLA, UC Santa Barbara and UC San Diego. That’s my history of teaching. [Laughs]

Rail: I’d like to ask you about the relationship between form and content in your work, in terms of the history of video art, structuralist filmmaking, and expanded cinema. My understanding of your work is that form and content are united by the representational function they both perform. For instance, how do we represent others and, in doing so, construct the identity of the other? Animals are just one way of exploring this. You’ve pointed to phenomena that we take for granted—like images of the cosmos—which are inconceivable in their scale and yet we consume them like we would consume any other image. Is there any other connection between the subject matter and the form?

Thater: The form is always influenced by video art or of expanded cinema because the work is non-narrative and all of those movements make up a history of non-narrative film. If you want to make something that’s non-narrative, what do you make? The history of experimental film tells you that you can use all of these techniques and apparatuses. All of these things are in play and you can reveal them or conceal them, and you can make meaning out of that revelation or that concealment. I mine the history of experimental film for references and touchstones. If I’m working on something that I shot in Super 8 and I’m leaving the sprockets visible, it’s a historical move, but that’s something we also see painters and sculptors do—make historical references. They tell you what lineage of thought you’re in. My generation of artists at Art Center, in particular, were very fond of Nauman. The great Walker show came to LA in 1993, I think. From Nauman I learned how to do things down and dirty—throw the equipment on the floor or put it on its own box. Like, ‘fuck that.’ Fuck the aesthetics of Bill Viola—hiding equipment, hanging translucent screens, making magic. I didn’t want to make magic. No magic. Everything had to be exposed—everything had to be in the real. Then the architectural-scale installation, I don’t really know how I came up with that, but that took on a great amount of importance in my work. And when I made the DIA show in 2000, I wiped out the black video rectangle and I made the screen shape a hexagon. Of course, gels were a big and important part of my work, but they were something that I theorized as part of my work. They weren’t just a way to get a room dark. They were part of the installation. I’m not interested in innovations for innovation’s sake. I’m interested in innovation in service of the work.

Diana Thater, Abyss of Light, 1993, installed in Diana Thater: The Sympathetic Imagination, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, 2015–2016. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen. © Diana Thater. Courtesy the artist, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and David Zwirner.

Rail: The notion of the sublime has been and continues to be a significant theme in your work. Given your work’s connection to natural subjects, this places it in a lineage of artists like the Hudson River School or the Romantics. Do you consider your work to belong to a landscape tradition?

Thater: Yes, but a landscape tradition that is complicated. At the turn of the last century we watched the last great landscape painters become the first great abstract painters—like Mondrian is this beautiful landscape painter and then he becomes one of the first abstract painters. And all of the meaning, spiritualism, the ideas about the unseen in the natural world, the sublime, and the cyclical in landscape painting—all of these ideas that were tied up in Romantic views of the natural world—went into abstraction. I kept thinking, “Where did the image of the landscape go? Why can’t I make a landscape? I can make a landscape.” And then I realized that of course it went into film. American Westerns, for example, take on the landscape not just as a background but also as a kind of character or subject that has meaning and influence over the film.

Rail: Would Abyss of Light (1993) be your first . . .

Thater: That’s the first piece where I really wanted to talk about that idea in particular. I wanted to put them together—this idea of what the landscape looks like and means in art and film. I wanted to try to make new kinds of images of the natural world that weren’t cliché, over-used, cute, or anthropomorphic. I wanted to bring in all of these ideas that I got from people like John Ford, who made great Westerns in the landscape. That’s why I made this piece—Abyss of Light—in the southwest, where all of Ford’s films were made.

Rail: And it was important that all of the footage be original footage that you shot.

Thater: Yes I shoot just about everything myself because it’s important that it’s my eye. The point with Abyss of Light was that I went out intending to see the landscape through the films that I knew and through the history. I went out to see if I could see the landscape that way—in monolithic terms—but I found that I couldn’t. I couldn’t do a one point perspective of the world which someone like John Ford had mastered. My perspective was all over the place and I found that that should become part of the work. That’s why all of the camera work is mine. It’s not particularly great cinematography; it’s a peculiar perspective. And I want it to be my peculiarity for the most part.

Rail: What you were originally looking for—which you found out would be more difficult than you anticipated—was a type of transcendence in the landscape that John Ford captures as well as the Romantics. My own understanding of transcendence is that it’s an unusual type of knowledge in the sense that it is a very personal experience. The individual, having experienced a transcendental moment, believes it to have been real and knows that it has profoundly affected them, but it’s difficult to communicate or share, and difficult for others to accept as having been true or real. In that sense, I see a connection between what you were looking for and your interest in speculative science fiction because speculative science fiction posits those sorts of “what if” questions, particularly with regard to the human psyche. It seems that speculative forms of consciousness continue to be a strong theme in your work, proposing a means by which viewers can conceptualize and empathize, without anthropomorphizing, nature and animals.

Thater: Yes, you just expressed my whole point perfectly. [Laughs]

Rail: I understand that you prefer reading fiction to theory. Although you were initially drawn to theory, you somewhat left it.

Thater: I wanted to learn to read theory when I went to graduate school. I was very specific and that’s why I went to the ArtCenter Grad art program, which is known for being very open to theory and philosophy. I found out very soon though that I have no facility for it. Philosophy and theory go over my head. But, I can read quickly through it like fiction if I’m not trying to parse everything and I can find inspiration in it. That’s how I use it. I tell my students all of the time—I’m totally honest about it—I’m not a theoretician. I work with theoreticians and philosophers like, Jason Smith—but I am not one of them, I am an artist. I’ve been inspired by a lot of things that I’ve read in theory—scientific, philosophical, and literary—but I wouldn’t necessarily say that I understand it.

Rail: You consume it as an aesthetic experience, of language and ideas.

Thater: I really do.

Installation view, Diana Thater, ICA Watershed, Boston, 2018. Photo: Kerry McFate. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner.

Rail: One of the great things that I find about exhibitions inspired by philosophy and science is that they are able to present complex ideas in a cogent and intelligible way, perhaps more so than the texts that inspire them, through their associated texts and catalogues.

Thater: I agree and that’s what I try to do in my work—deal with complex ideas in simple ways. But I want the books I produce to talk about the ideas behind the work. I have to admit that I don’t always understand everything that’s said about my work, but I’m interested in it being said.

Rail: Right. It’s important to locate the work in a theoretical framework and to use the framework as a tool and a model for understanding it.

Thater: Yeah, I think so. The work is all about modeling ideas, so having all these texts to model the work is really important to me.

Rail: Personally I think that stuff is so important.

Thater: I do too and I feel like it’s so outré. I feel old fashioned or something because I don’t make . . . I don’t know, internet art? I don’t know what I think the art world is made up of right now but I feel old fashioned when I go out and look at contemporary work.

Rail: I do think that the general attitude towards theory has become more populist and almost anti-intellectual in some circles.

Thater: I agree with you. There is a kind of anti-intellectualism in the art world. I think it’s a backlash. I think it goes along with the anti-higher education backlash. There is an anti-intellectualism built into that. Unfortunately, I think it’s very much in concert with what’s happening politically in the United States.

Rail: I agree, which makes me think about your activist work. During the 2016 run of your exhibition The Sympathetic Imagination at the MCA Chicago, you mentioned that you haven’t been doing as much activist work as you’d like. Has that changed since then?

Thater: Every time I make something, something goes back to the people who allowed me to make the work. In 2016, I filmed Sudan [As Radical as Reality, 2016], the last male northern white rhino in the world who’s the subject of the piece at the ICA Boston right now. In order to film Sudan, I had to pay for two years of IVF (in vitro fertilization) for the female rhinos. It was very expensive, but that’s what it costs. I also give them photos and all kinds of publicity which they can use any way they want. I always do something. When I made my tiger pieces [Perfect Devotion Six, 2006], the rescue organization had just gotten an elephant from a circus so I paid for the fence for the elephant’s enclosure. I would like to do an activist piece again.

Rail: There is one quote of yours that I found quite succinct—a description of nature—you said, “Nature is everything that culture is not.” Has studying nature taught you anything about humans?

Thater: God, we are so much worse than I thought we were. The more I know, the more disappointed I become, and the more I learn. I hadn’t really dealt with poachers in Africa. The last time I was in Kenya in 2017, they took me to see the corpse of this elephant whose name was Satao II. Satao II was a tusker (elephants whose tusks weigh more than one hundred kilos). They usually drag on the ground because they are so big. There are only six tuskers in Kenya, and they are the target of poachers. I saw he was in full decomposition. And that certainly made me think, “God, can human beings get any fucking worse? To kill one of the biggest elephants in the world?” I had never experienced that. But then I worked with conservationists who are the best people in the world. They are doing everything they can. Last time I was in Africa, I stayed with the Big Life Foundation and then the Tsavo Trust. I stayed with these conservationists in their homes. I gave them both hefty donations too. That’s how I got access to off-roading to film elephants and to visit Satao II’s corpse and see things that tourists wouldn’t see.

Installation view, Diana Thater, ICA Watershed, Boston, 2018. Photo: Kerry McFate. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner.

Rail: So you’ve seen the worst and the best of people. Has that shaped your outlook on human nature generally? Do you feel that human nature is inherently good or bad or neither?

Thater: [Laughs] I don’t know. I think we’re all at a point where everyone is wondering the same fucking thing, aren’t they? Are we all innate, inherent racists? What we’re struggling with right now is mindboggling, particularly with this split in this country. And it’s not even 50/50. For example, we know that the majority of people believe in climate change and do believe the earth is older than five thousand years. The majority of people have no idea what the fuck is going on. We have a president who called Nigeria a “shithole country.” Isn’t Lagos one of the fastest growing cities in the world? And Johannesburg and Nairobi? These are cities with universities, scientists, activists, and conservationists. Unfortunately, the political systems are a little fucked up, but who are we to say? There is this tremendous lack of understanding, particularly with Americans, and I think it’s because they don’t travel or read about the world; they don’t encounter animals or go into the natural world. But when you go out and you encounter Sudan—the last of his species—that is transcendent. That is beyond explanation. That is a feeling that cannot be described. And so what I’m trying to do is make work that has something akin to that feeling, so that people who don’t see Sudan, who don’t know him, might have some kind of response to him, his being, his presence, and the political meaning that is attached to him.

Rail: People might say that art is inherently political. I probably agree with that. What do you think that art should do politically? If anything at all?

Thater: I do believe that art is political. I don’t believe that art and life are the same thing. That was something Mike Kelley—who was my teacher—always talked about: that art and life aren’t the same thing, and that art is inherently political. I believe that. Because art is inherently critical and anything that performs any kind of critique on culture—and everything we make is critique on culture—is political by definition, whereas life is not necessarily political. Life is an organic experience. I do think that art is inherently political, but that its politics need not be the face of the work. I’m not interested in that. I’m not interested in reciting facts or telling people something that the news already tells them. I want the politics of the work to be part of the texture, the makeup of the work. So that experiencing it is having an aesthetic experience but it’s also having an experience of the critical. The interesting thing is context. In Sudan’s context—he has two armed guards with him at all times—you’re seeing this rhino protected by two guys in full military gear and a film crew filming him and them. I think that says everything. He’s precious. All of the mechanism, all of the apparatus with which he is surrounded—and that I’ve added to— tells you that he is precious, his existence is precarious and he is a political figure in some way. I think that’s enough.

Rail: The work also seems to underscore and lament the alien-ness of our surroundings—how strange the world we inhabit truly is, and how estranged we are from it­. I see a connection there to the feminist critique of the representation of women as “other.” I feel like your work explores that divide with different species, both as a way of showing that they are “other” but also as a window into that other. It provides an entryway to empathize on correlative terms with whatever creature you happen to be capturing. Would you say that your project is, at its core, feminist?

Diana Thater, Installation view, Science, Fiction, David Zwirner, New York, 2015. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.

Thater: Yes, I’ve always thought that. I’ve always believed it was another way of looking at the other. I’ve always said—if my students read this, they will recognize it—the patriarchy has three victims: women, children, and animals. They are the oppressed. Animals should not be forgotten. Feminism has connected itself to animal rights in some places, historically. Women have recognized that they are thought of as being closer to nature than they are to culture because of their physiology. I’ve always thought of it as a kind of feminist practice. Anything, I think, that supports or envisions, or tries to make envisioning the other possible, is important to feminism.

Rail: What kinds of challenges have you encountered in making your work?

Thater: Financial challenges are the biggest I have, but those are the biggest challenges that most artists have—particularly women, women of color, women who work in nontraditional media. These are the people who are not making money. These are the people who are not the big boy painters. They are the people who are putting new ideas into the world. Of course, men are too. Everyone who is trying to put new ideas into the world is doing it on a limited budget. [Laughs] You can be guaranteed that a ten million dollar painting has got nothing new in it or it wouldn’t be ten million dollars. You have people working in installation and other kinds of difficult media and their greatest challenges are always financial. Where do you come up with the money to make your work? Where do you come up with the money to afford your studio? Who supports installation? And that’s a difficult nut to crack. I’m lucky because I have great galleries but even so, it’s very difficult. For each piece I want to make, I have to raise the money first. Sometimes my galleries will lend it and I’ll pay them back once the work is sold or I get grants. I just got a LACMA Art + Technology grant to make a new body of work.

Rail: Congratulations!

Thater: Thank you. I really needed it. I also save my own money, I get things donated; things like that.

Rail: What direction are you going in with the new body of work?

Thater: Right now, I’m really interested in bio-inspired and bio-mimetic robots. Bio-mimetic robots look like animals. There are bio-inspired robots which are built like animals but don’t look like them. Boston Dynamics has designed a biomimetic robot for the military based on mules and horses to carry heavy things. MIT has created a robot based on a cheetah and it’s supposed to be very fast. I kept thinking, “why is there no robot based on a chimp?” A chimp would be ideal because they can grasp with both their hands and their feet—they can use them to walk, scramble, climb, hang. So I called JPL, which is right down the street, and they showed me RoboSimian, which is based on an orangutan. This was the robot I had been looking for. It’s bio-inspired, not bio-mimetic, so it doesn’t look like an orangutan but it works like one. Its joints are based on the movements of the joints of an orangutan, so it can walk on its hands and feet and it can turn them into grasping hands. They want to test it in an icy atmosphere, so next summer they are taking it to a glacier in Alaska. I have proposed to go with them to film RoboSimian and take a little crew to film the tests but also to use the film from RoboSimian, because it has cameras all around its head. I’m interested in that because once again it describes a complicated relationship between human beings and nature. Because scientists eventually did realize, when they started making robotics, that the ideal form for robots were natural forms because evolution had already perfected them. [Laughs]

Rail: There’s also been a lot of recent technological innovation in the realm of film. When you started out, you were working in video and moved on to more archaic technologies—16mm, 35mm. Now we have 360 degree cameras and GoPros. Have you explored these or similar technologies at all?

Thater: I’ve tried. I’ll try any camera. I’ve shot with GoPros but I hate the lenses. I’m just about to do some pieces with some really tiny mini 4k cameras. These little Sonys have nice little Zeiss lenses on them so I’m going to work with those—hopefully.

Rail: There is a certain musicality to your work despite its silence.

Thater: I think about music all the time. Music is very important to me. I don’t know anything about it, but one thing I really do know how to do is edit with music. A lot of the time, in my work, if I’m going for a specific effect—and I tell this to my students all the time—I will edit with a music track. Then I will take it away in the end, if I’m aiming for a certain kind of lyrical quality. There are things that I’ve wanted to be really bombastic, so I’ve used a Led Zeppelin track. Or something that I want to really tick like a clock so then I get a Charlie Watts track. Sometimes, like with Delphine (1999), it’s so lyrical all by itself that it takes on a kind of musicality. And the musicality of it, the lyricism of it, is something that I always talk about in terms of choreography. I studied dance for a number of years, so for me installation is like choreography. Everything that’s inside of the frame, like Delphine, like the dolphins, they’re all edited simultaneously. When I edited Delphine, I edited it with four tracks and four screens, so I could always make sure that the movement was going where I wanted it to go. That has a kind of musicality and a kind of lyricism that belongs to the dolphins themselves and is made evident through the editing process.

Rail: In your Jump (2004) video, the jump-ropers were wearing T-shirts with slogans on them. One of the slogans, I think it’s the one you end the film on—it’s fantastic—is “What machine kills fascists now?”

Thater: Jump is a collaboration with T. Kelly Mason. He designed the band-shell, played bass in the band, did the arrangements and he designed the t-shirts because he does a lot of work with text. So all of the t-shirts were kind of about—I don’t quite know what to say—but they were about the intersection between childhood and adulthood but being outside of both for a moment; so the music we used was Subterranean Homesick Blues, by Bob Dylan. To me—I jumped rope when I was a little kid—it always sounded like a jump-rope song. It’s also like advice to a kid, you know: “Don’t follow leaders . . . Watch your parkin’ meters . . .” So Kelly designed all the T-shirts for the kids that say things about what they’re doing, like “Learn everything at once” or just “Jumper.” But the cameramen wear shirts that say “This Machine Kills Fascists,” which is of course what Woody Guthrie had written on his guitar. So I wore a T-shirt that said “What Machine Kills Fascists Now?” Because that’s really the question, can art kill fascism now? The last version of the song, played by the band T. Kelly put together, was a punk version and then we inter-cut it with every other version of the song; folk, punk, rock, acoustic. It’s about telling kids or explaining to kids, that art kills fascism. I don’t know if kids understand that, but that’s the point. [Laughter]

Rail: I think they intuitively know it, particularly if they are inclined towards that.

Thater: Yes, I think so too. Kids, they understand art a lot better than a lot of adults.

Installation view, Diana Thater, ICA Watershed, Boston, 2018. Photo: Kerry McFate. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner.


Steven Pestana

STEVEN PESTANA is a visual artist and writer living in Brooklyn. He holds an MFA in Digital Media from Rhode Island School of Design and a BA in Art History from New York University.