In advance of my video exhibition at The Mission’s “SUB-MISSION” project space, Makenzi Fricker interviewed me about the work in the show…
Interview with Jordan Martins
How Easy is a Bush a Bear
March 11 – April 23, 2016
By Makenzi Fricker
MF: Although your work isn’t process-oriented, the creation of your videos is nonetheless very involved. Can you describe that process?
JM: My work with video the past few years has mostly been experimental, in the sense that I’ve been trying out different ideas without necessarily having a particular final piece in mind. This project at THE SUB-MISSION is one of my first attempts at sifting through all the various experiments to channel them into a specific experience. The clips that comprise this video installation are all dealing with principles identified by gestalt psychologists, camoufleurs, and other visual researchers that hone in on the peculiar ways in which the human brain is wired to process visual information. Techniques of unit-forming, unit-breaking, disruptive coloration, figure/ground blending, coincident disruption and others, are used in both a controlled studio environment and site-specific installations in natural settings. While these videos are not specifically demonstrative of any single principle, each combines various techniques that engage vision in a different way. I staged these videos both in studio and “in nature”.
Most of the studio based footage is essentially an installation of planes of fabric suspended a few inches apart, cut into in various ways and lit evenly to minimize the depth. I used mostly “loud” fabric patterns that contradict one another or otherwise create a kind of visual collapse. But I also tried to make these read as landscapes in some way. I carried out a similar process with printouts of scanner based collages I made, again cutting into them and moving them around to imply different kinds of depths and figure/ground relationships. I also shot footage in the woods in Wisconsin (summer) and Tennessee (winter), creating installations of bright colored flagging tape. These were more about overlaying a bold, geometric abstraction onto a natural landscape that was still integrated into it, as it both disrupts the landscape and completes it. I’m still figuring out why I’m doing these, but I’m partly curious about how the bright lines might erase the depth of the landscape, or perhaps how they impose a different visual framework onto it?
MF: In what contexts do the objects that comprise your collages usually appear?
JM: I often use source material whose everyday function is visually bold and conspicuous in a certain way, either in its color or pattern. I’ve been playing with neon flagging tape, the kind used to mark off areas for construction, surveying, or to highlight a point in an otherwise undifferentiated landscape. Its function is extremely condensed down to simply “standing out” visually. Moreover, it seems to occupy an intersection of the optical dimensions of color and a particular cultural semiotic coding: hue and saturation are chosen for their efficient means of being visibly distinct, but their use evokes a kind of official activity (surveying, construction, civic projects). Flagging tape hues aren’t assigned particular meanings the way red and green traffic lights are, for instance, yet they still assert themselves onto a context as a wholly “other” element, a colorful punctuation that resists integrating. The chromatic “otherness” of flagging tape can be so intense that it appears almost as a virtual set of lines superimposed over a visual field, rather than existing within space. The fabric patterns I use tend to be bold, but they include more “traditional” ones as well as pretty kitschy ones. I try to be fairly democratic in how I choose them, focusing more on their possible visual effects than their particular aesthetics. In the scanner collages I’ve been making recently (which mostly becomes source material for other collages and videos) I’m pulling from a lot of different sources, but I’m been particularly interested in football uniforms, tradition dress from Papua New Guinea, and nature photography.
MF: How do you decide how to compile objects? Is it meticulously planned or do you rely on subconscious, surrealist automatic methods?
JM: It’s basically an ongoing improvisation. There’s an overarching methodology to it for sure one that feeds insight from one experiment into the next but in each moment I’m just trying to be sensitive to the materials and conditions in a way that can tease out some new possibilities.
MF: For you, what is the relationship between collage and film?
JM: I’m not a film expert by any means, but from what I understand one of the biggest breakthroughs in the medium was Eisenstein’s radical use of montage: cutting and juxtaposing between disparate elements. That’s essentially an act of collage, cutting something to bring it closer to something else. This is a basic tool of even the most banal film now, so it’s fair to draw a direct connection between these two media. And I think it’s not accident that a lot of breakthroughs like this were happening in around the same time period the development of camouflage, modern film techniques, collage…
MF: Do you think that the act of filming neuters the materiality of your collaged objects?
JM: I might not use the word “neuter”, but I think it visually flattens and re-contextualizes the physical space of the objects. That’s an important effect for me, because it means that a viewer is less able to orient themselves in terms of scale, distance, figure/ground relationships, etc. But the goal is that this leads to some kind of reconstituted physicality or spatiality in the viewing.
MF: Gestalt theory, a subject concerned with psychology and visual perception, posits that the mind is predisposed to create order out of chaos. How do you apply this theory to your work?
JM: In many ways I’m trying to create visual fields that straddle that line between order and chaos. In both my 2D collages and my video pieces I’m trying to provide enough visual structure to “hook” a viewer while also leaving the composition unresolved or undifferentiated basically leaving enough space for their own perceptual instincts to give form to it. I’m also interested in the difference between passive and active perception for example, walking through the woods with no goal versus walking through the woods looking for something (foraging for mushrooms, for instance). When you’re looking for something discreet within a complicated visual field it’s not so much a matter of scanning every square inch of the landscape as it is relaxing your vision to sense small aberrations. Early Gestalt psychologists like Kurt Gottschaldt created visual puzzles with “embedded figures”, essentially camouflaging a simple abstract form within a more complex one, that require the viewer to shift their vision in order “solve” the puzzle. My video installation aims at a similar effect without having a specific solution to the puzzle.
MF: Are you, as in gestalt theory, more concerned with the sum of your videos/collages than the individual elements?
JM: That’s an interesting connection, and actually pretty accurate. I do think that all of my individual projects are pointing at something in common that isn’t completely intelligible in any one of them. And I tend to let things spill into one another: most of the work I make has elements that get folded into one another in different ways. So if you look at a set of recent collage works you’ll see specific forms repeated because I’ve generated a certain image and then sampled it across several individual pieces. I like the idea that someone could notice the pattern of that specific motif popping up in different contexts. Similarly, when I make videos it’s hard for me to create a hard endpoint it’s highly likely that the footage used in this particular installation will get reworked into other ones.
MF: How do you think earning your MFA in Brazil distinguishes your practice from those of artists trained in the United States?
JM: Good question! Working on an MFA in Brazil probably influenced my practice in innumerable ways that I’m not fully conscious of, but at the time a big part of the impetus to do it was immersing myself in a different language and artistic community. For one, having to learn a new language loosens certain connections in your brain and forms new ones, and I just felt that it would be an inherently fruitful context to try to make work in, purposefully disorienting myself in order to dislodge other pathways my practice could take. Much of my work there also revolved around just the experience of navigating a foreign city and culture literally the experience of figuring out the logic of the urban space or where to buy certain materials. Things operate differently and that challenged me to find new ways of making work. And, as much there is more and more a certain global “contemporary art” world, there really are discrete pockets of artistic communities out there that don’t reflect the same trends, aesthetics and presuppositions that one would find in programs in the US, so immersing myself in a different creative landscape helped me scrutinize my a work in a particular way.
MF: Is there a specific reference in the title, “How Easy is a Bush a Bear”?
JM: I lifted the title from a chapter of Roy R. Behren’s book “False Colors: Art, Design and Modern Camouflage”. Behren, in turn, was riffing on a passage from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” where a character is referencing the paranoid imagination that takes over when you see something in the dark. It’s about the mutability of vision, how our own perception can trick us into seeing something that is not there, essentially a hallucination.
MF: How do you plan to transform THE SUB-MISSION space, and how do you see this project fitting into the narrative of your work as a whole?
JM: How Easy is a Bush a Bear is a two channel video installation dealing with conditions of visual perception. I want to create a space where a viewer can in fact question and recalibrate their perceptual faculties to a certain extent not only recognizing patterns and visual tensions, but also noticing how and when these patterns and tensions emerge. I’m loosely inspired by two precedents that treated vision didactically: Abbott Thayer’s early 20th century research into animal coloration which pretty much invented modern camouflage and early Soviet era “psychotechnics” labs that trained citizens to free themselves from “automatic perception” by demonstrating illusions of space, angles, and volume. Thayer used a simple stencil structure to show how patterns of animals corresponded to their natural environments, and psychotechnics labs were essentially rigorously constructed visual playgrounds that highlighted specific distortions. So, part of my idea for this installation is to take on that hypothetical model where vision is a trainable activity, and the exhibition space becomes the site for that.
My work in general has shifted more and more toward this interest in the dynamics of vision. I’ve worked with various collage methods for years, and I think there’s a natural link there. The act of collage not only creates a certain effect in the final piece, but it also cultivates a certain way of seeing, noticing the ruptures that occur when something is removed from its context; the reactions that arise when it is grafted onto another system; how the “edges” of these interactions engender different results if they are smoothly cut or jaggedly torn, seamlessly integrated or bluntly repelling each other.