« Features

Parasitic Interventions. An Interview with Jesse Jones

Dublin-based artist Jesse Jones seeks out modes of resistance through parasitic alliances with institutional structures. While “laughing a defiance,” she pushes the limits of cinematic expression, creating aesthetic experiences that weave together art with activist passion. Jones incorporates a range of research-based and socially-engaged practices in her development of collective projects that illuminate events in Irish history while relating to present-day political and cultural concerns, such as the regulation of female bodies by the church and state. In the following interview, Jones discusses her cultivation of feminist artistic practice in 21st-century Ireland, where cultural encounters open up spaces of critique, conversation, and friendship.

By EL Putnam

EL.P. - In your recent exhibition, “NO MORE FUN AND GAMES,” you create an institutional critique within the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin, Ireland. As part of the show, you created the curatorial collective the Parasite Feminist Institution. Can you extrapolate on the use of the term parasite in this context?

J.J. - The use of the term parasitic is strategic; it is an abject term that evokes the abject body. The parasite is a contested creature that occupies a host. It is an agent or actor within a situation where survival depends on the resources of the host, but also on the parasite’s own ingenuity and instinct. The Parasite Feminist Institution is based on the proposition of whether a parasite can survive in the context of contemporary art and at what point would the generosity of the host be met with some kind of difficulty or contestation of resources. The parasite gives a living sense to the disruption of the institutional form.

The use of the term parasite was also provocative in a simple way, evoking a feeling of disgust. The word conjures the grotesque, which enables a different imaginary of what feminist practice means to the disruption of an institution and art history. There is a history of women being described in abject ways in art. For example, I considered how early Irish female cubist painters were described as a kind of malaria of modernism and that sense of the female aesthetics as something that diseases or maligns the perfection of the canon, as something unhygienic.

EL.P. - For this show, the Feminist Parasite Institution dug into the Hugh Lane gallery collection, selecting seven works by female artists from the archive to put on display. What is the value of working as a collective in order to perform this intervention?

J.J. - Often in my work, I form a discursive collective around a project as part of the production process. For example, at the California Institute of the Arts I made the project The Struggle Against Ourselves, which concerned Vsevolod Meyerhold’s biomechanics. I worked with a group of theatre students from the college, where the research process and artistic material created opportunities for consciousness raising with participants. With “NO MORE FUN AND GAMES, rather than having myself curate a show, the curatorial process became a space of non-hierarchical conversations. In addition to showing women’s work from the gallery’s collection, we were trying to think about what is the role of the curator and is there a way to treat curation as a cultural encounter with the threshold of selection, rather than restricting the perception of the art canon on artworks visible in institutions. As such, we demystify the curatorial process and the building of the canon by dispersing it across a collective voice through the negotiation of the curatorial project. Working with people becomes an extension of the piece itself. This method takes much longer in the production of works. It took weeks to determine the seven art works that were included in “NO MORE FUN AND GAMES,” but the consensus space allows for conversations to emerge that would not have been possible otherwise.

Jesse Jones, NO MORE FUN AND GAMES, Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, 11 February – 26 June 2016. Photo: Miriam O’Connor.

At the same time, working in this manner takes advantage of friendship as a feminist practice. The Parasite Feminist Institution included individuals from different circles, such as activism, art, and legal reporting, with many people not knowing each other initially, but coming to know each other and forming friendships through working in the same space of our temporary institution. Friendship is something that has interested me in relation to the challenging circumstances of trying to make art, where I rely on my friends and informal relationships to make work and mobilize resources. Many artists in Dublin work in economies of friendship, which can become modes of resistance responding to the lack of resources. There is a whole other economy at play that is not recognized or given credit that emerges from interpersonal friendships. There is such an intense amount of support that happens between artists through this social conjugate, making it an important support structure of contemporary art that is not articulated in that way.

Also, friendship has critical and historical importance to feminist practice. Circles of women come together and discuss experience, sharing personal perceptions of lived reality. When one person’s observations rub up against someone else’s take on reality, this double take happens that may result in a social bond of friendship. There is also a reflection onto the self in terms of a person’s own experience in this interrelation with others. Such notions are integrated into the making of “NO MORE FUN AND GAMES.” The aesthetic of the work is heavily influenced by the Robert Altman film Three Women, which has the struggle to find friendship between two women at the heart of its plot.

EL.P. - When presenting the seven artworks of “NO MORE FUN AND GAMES,” you provide an intervention into the white cube gallery by applying silver wall paper, transforming the space into a mirrored, radical surface. Coincidently, Liam Gillick had a series of works presented simultaneously in the Hugh Lane Gallery that also concerns mirrors, What’s What in a Mirror. During a gallery talk affiliated with the show, you commented on how the two of you engaged with mirrors differently in your work-can you elaborate upon this point while discussing the significance of the mirror in mediating the experience of the audience?

J.J. - In What’s What in a Mirror, Liam Gillick presents mirrors that close down the space of the institution to a facial encounter. The mirrors are isolated, made to the scale of the human face, which forces the viewer to examine the face with concentrated intensity through a clear and direct reflective encounter. In contrast, the use of the mirror in the gallery space of “NO MORE FUN AND GAMES” is obscured, not providing a direct representational doubling. The aim was to create a scenario that when people occupied the space, whether a group of people or an individual, the viewer would see themselves oscillating with the contexts of the artworks, creating a shared space between the audience and the art, making evident a continuation between the artworks, the gallery space, and the person inhabiting that space. While Gillick’s mirror involves a rejoicing of and holding onto the self’s subjectivity in a public space, it also involves a retreat into the privacy of the self. I was proposing a mirrored space as a collective space that fractures the self into a collective. Since the mirrored image is not clear, it results in a multiplicity of the self in relation to collectivity.

Mirrors have a metaphorical legacy in feminist cinema and artistic practice, including the work of Maya Deren, where mirrors become a place of fracture, disruption, and denial, rather than a kind of reflection. We see examples in art history of how mirrors mean different things to men and women. In Diego Velázquez’s painting Las Meninas, we see a rational, unified articulation of the self through the mirror. In contrast, in his painting The Rokeby Venus, the reflection of the female subject is a disruption. As part of another project I am working on with Sarah Browne, In the Shadow of the State, we have been doing research into gynaecological speculums, where the reflective surfaces penetrate the body, which has been historically violent. Mirrors in relation to the female body are more contested, where questions of subjectivity are not as clear.

Jesse Jones, The Struggle Against Ourselves, 2011, California Institute of the Arts. Photo: Chiara Giovando.

EL.P. - You mentioned In the Shadow of the State, which is your current collaborative project that concerns the biopolitical implications of statehood on the female body. The lectures, performances, and other public events in Ireland and the United Kingdom that you and Sarah Browne have been presenting in affiliation with the project provide a feminist intervention of the institutional treatment of women’s bodies both politically and medically during the early 20th century. The project is supported, in part, by the Irish Arts Council as part of the 2016 programme commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter rebellion. Why is it significant for this project to be part of the centenary exhibitions?

J.J. - In the Shadow of the State aims to create a space to think about the female body in relationship to the centenary process and to consider the mythologies of the Irish nation in conjunction with the highly political reality women have been forced to occupy due to the ideological foundations of the nation-state and capitalism. Sarah Browne and I sought to disrupt some of the ideas surrounding the 1916 historical recuperation, allowing us to consider crises that are currently emerging, including those around women’s bodies that stem from the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution that bans all abortions. Our instigation for becoming part of the 1916 conversation was a way to consider how the rebellion of 1916 has not been completed for women. As such, it means that Ireland as a whole cannot claim to have achieved the intentions of the rebellion. We wanted to problematize the claims of a singular nationhood perpetuated by the mythologies of the state.

EL.P. - Instead of creating finished pieces, your work unfolds as series of public events, including lectures, tours, screenings, performances, and so on. What is the significance of approaching the creation and presentation of art in this manner?

J.J. - For me, research practice is fundamentally an aesthetic practice. The idea that art is fixed in vision and reception in the cognition of one singular moment is not something that I believe in. Rather, having an art work unfold episodically the same way as knowledge is acquired takes advantage of time being a series of temporary movements from one moment to the next, allowing relationships to build and shift. Acting in this way means perpetuating an unfolding, having an evolutionary relationship to consciousness, and never having one fixed moment.

EL.P. - The ephemeral and transitory qualities you describe are heavily influenced by your interests in cinema. Can you describe the appeal of this medium? How do you translate cinematic techniques into works that exist beyond the screen?

J.J. - Cinema is a temporal experience that is perpetuated by a series of images in sequence with sounds-a narrative that unfolds, providing a way of considering an artwork over a duration of time. At the same time, I have always been interested in the apparatus of cinema in terms of how it perceptually reaches us. Working in film for a long time, I think about that role of the perceptual sequencing of images and how this affects the viewer as an experience. Rather than drawing from cinematic style or instilling a cinematic atmosphere through grand gestures, I think about simple nuts and bolts of the moving image in the structural apparatus of cinema-how can I translate what it does perceptually in a real, lived space? The giant, roaming curtain with the outstretched hand of “NO MORE FUN AND GAMES” emerged from this process and came very quickly to me. It provides a moving image, but the moving image frames a physical space as it glides along its track.

Jesse Jones, NO MORE FUN AND GAMES, Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, 11 February – 26 June 2016. Photo: Miriam O’Connor.

At the same time, being an artist making film, I am on the edges of the space of cinema, acting like a parasite. When I made The Struggle Against Ourselves at CalArts, there was a parasitic relationship with the institution. For example, I was able to use the cameras for free as I was working with the school. Because there is a huge movie industry in Hollywood, I acquired cheap film stock by putting together the tails of film. The artist becomes a parasite on the edges of cinematic culture. I find the space appealing since you don’t have to play by the rules. Instead, you can create your own flows of communication and a resource exchange that has a more feral exterior.

The influence of cinema extends beyond the image. A lot of my works begin with sound. For the first film I made, The Spectre and the Sphere (2008), I was inspired by the sound of the Theremin, tracking it back through the history of the avant-garde and certain political movements. There is always an element of sound in my work, where music functions as a connective tissue for the live and lived contemporary moment and the concepts being referenced. Music becomes a carrier for the research, releasing it into the realm of the aesthetics. For “NO MORE FUN AND GAMES,” I worked with Gerald Busby, who composed the score for 3 Women. He created a new musical composition for the show, making a bridge between the Altman film and the present-day restaging of it through the exhibition. Drifting into the aesthetics of sound, the research and the film’s relationship did not have to be indexical, but it came into the room through the experience of music. At the same time, music in the context of “NO MORE FUN AND GAMES” had a functional quality, as it carried the audience through the space. When the music moved from speaker to speaker, it tied the space together. The viewer embodied a panning shot between spaces, with the music mobilizing and leading them to the back mirrored gallery where the seven works of female artists were presented. The viewer becomes the actor in the sense where they are implicated in the scene of the space. Busby’s score behaves as a distilled element of the cinematic apparatus that translates the perception of film into real time, space, and experience, without the massive visual screen.

EL.P. - You are going to be representing Ireland at the next Venice Biennale. How do you characterize your role as an artist who also functions as a national representative? What responsibilities as an artist, if any, do you affiliate with this opportunity to present on a transnational stage?

J.J. - I treat the national pavilion as an amplifier for the critical ideas that I have been considering in my work in terms of feminist practice, the critique of capitalism and patriarchal forms of knowledge. I aim to carve out a territory where these ideas can be unpacked. As with my previous works, there will be collective participation projects and modes of knowledge production. I am interested in unearthing suppressed histories of women, treating feminism as a historically seismic event, rather than something that emerges from recent history, considering its wider tectonic relationship with knowledge of reality, taking a longer view of history rather than immediately thinking of the first or third waves. I am thinking about how this understanding of feminism relates to a critique of reality going forward in relationship to the massive threshold of crisis that we live on at the moment. Tectonic shifts are going to have to happen regarding our understandings and our desires to reshape reality for ourselves in order to perpetuate the potential for existence.

Jesse Jones and Sarah Browne, In the Shadow of the State, 2016. Photo: Miriam O’Connor.

I consider myself as a parasite in the context of the Venice Biennale. I sit outside the frame of normative engagements of this event, with no commercial gallery representation and lacking a relationship with the art market. Instead, I create collective, episodic works that are not fit for sale, imbuing my practice with resistance to the social formation of commodification. I aim to create a space of awe within an artwork that evokes an aesthetic interruption. Research-based critical collective practice has to interrupt something. It is important to interrupt the dominant form of aesthetics that is late capital. My artistic practice needs to find a way to straddle the aesthetically compelling and the research collective, which is what I plan on bringing to the Venice Biennale.

EL Putnam is a part-time lecturer at the Dublin Institute of Technology in the School of Art, Design and Printing in Dublin. Her writing and research focuses on continental aesthetic philosophy, performance studies, digital studies, feminist theory and examining the influence of neoliberalism on artistic production. She is also a visual artist affiliated with the Mobius Artists Group in Boston.

Tags: , ,

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.