Jesse McLean by Pamela Cohn

Celebrity, language, and the pull of popular culture.

​Still from Just Like Us

Still from Just Like Us, Jesse McLean, HD Video, USA, 2013. All images courtesy of the artist.

In Jesse McLean’s five-minute video work from 2011, Lose Yourself, a tinny disco beat bops on the soundtrack as words float on and off a throbbing pastel-colored background—the kind of palette one might encounter in a dentist’s office or radiating off a karaoke machine. The words are snippets of lyrics from chart-topping pop songs: “Let’s go all the way tonight,” “No regrets, just love,” “We can dance until we die, you and I,” “We’ll be young forever.” And also: “Drink that Kool-Aid,” and “Now, you’re one of us.” Most of McLean’s work attempts to parse our personal relationships to mass media and pop culture—how it can empower, define and unite us with others, but also how it can manipulate, confound, and impart a sense of loneliness. In McLean’s world, pop culture has ineffable power and influence over our everyday existences. I have not run across too many artists who consistently explore this relationship in such fresh and moving ways.

When I first encountered her work several years ago, there was something about it that wouldn’t leave my mind. It had as much to do with this disembodied “voice” and mood as it did with the construction of her bespoke collages from elements of imagery, soundscape, found and appropriated footage, and precise, but mysterious, texts. Her pieces resonate emotionally in surprising ways as she goes about seeking some chord that rings true to our collective experience. For me, her work speaks most deeply to those of us who view our relationships with pop culture and mass media with much ambivalence.

McLean currently works as an assistant professor in the Cinema Studies program at the University of Iowa. I had a chance to finally meet her in person at the sixtieth edition of the Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen, where her latest work, Just Like Us, was a selection in the international competition. She has been invited to present her pieces at top museums, galleries, and film festivals the world over and received the Barbara Aronofsky Latham Award for Emerging Experimental Video Artist at the 2010 Ann Arbor Film Festival.

Our FIPRESCI jury awarded McLean the International Critics Prize at Oberhausen for Just Like Us, a work that displays extraordinary sensitivity and restraint as it moves us through one of her thoroughly original landscapes. We talked about the thematic trajectory of her work, her influences and approaches, and how teaching continuously informs and inspires her artwork.

Pamela Cohn You’ve been making video work now for close to a decade.

Jesse McLean Yes, I’ve been making work that I’ve felt confident sending out since 2008. I have a piece I made in 2004 that I still like, but I think my practice really started coming together around 2008.

PC That’s interesting that you use the word “practice.” I associate that word with following a spiritual path and a lot of your work has this spiritual element to it, even though you’re presenting the more mundane aspects of our lives.

JM I started using the word practice when I was still in graduate school—your “studio experience” or “art making” or even filmmaking was referred to as a practice. I know there are people who object to that word as some might object to the phrase “experimental cinema.” It can feel sort of pejorative or convey that the work is somehow not conceived with an end result in mind. It’s just some experiment. But the words “practice” and “experiment,” to me, are very accurate words for how I approach work. I have ideas in mind and plans for a project but I also use a lot of intuitive and emotional logic to make work, especially in the editing process. I like to bring lots of concepts, materials, and sources together and work at paring these down. I also reference the idea of collage in the way I approach my subjects.Another reason why I like the term practice is that it connotes the idea of getting better, even if that’s an internal process. It does have a bit of a spiritual feel to it in that regard. I’m a teacher, too, and I read something that talked about the fact that teachers cannot really teach you how to do something, but a good teacher can teach you how to practice. I think about that a lot in terms of my own teaching, but also in my art making. Only by doing can I figure out where I want to go next.

Still from The Invisible World

Still from The Invisible World, Jesse McLean, HD Video, 2012.

PC Can you talk a bit about how you delve into memory, more precisely collective memory, and find those very particular moments that have the ability to resonate so deeply? There is a moment in almost all of your pieces where I feel this upsurge of emotion, a kind of longing—not nostalgia, precisely, but something along those lines.

JM There is some way that I cannot escape mass culture or popular culture. I cannot discount the interest of this huge number of people and this idea of creating objects, media, and material that are designed to appeal to “everyone.” Of course, I recognize the commercial or profitable aspects behind it and a host of things that make it far from an innocent pursuit. There’s a lot of manipulation at work and unseen forces behind this promotion, but I still cannot get away from these relationships between pop culture and its audience. Some people go into art to get away from that, or investigate other kinds of images that we don’t normally see from pop culture, and even bridle at having to encounter it in an institution or situation that is unfriendly towards it. For me, the idea of re-contextualizing that material made my view towards mass culture change. I’ve made work in the past that didn’t rely as much on these mundane things in a lot of my recent work. Initially, I also sought to escape it. But I felt like I found my voice when I returned to the very serious and honest interest I have in that material. I’m extremely sympathetic with its power and I kind of believe in it in an unrealistic way. I wasn’t raised in a religious household at all. My parents were, in fact, strident atheists. I think that affected my interest in every day belief systems and the desire to search and seek.

PC I’ve always felt this weird kind of envy towards people who can succumb. It’s not something that’s ever been easy for me to do—mostly impossible, actually. I grew up in Los Angeles, the birthplace, one could say, of the consumer-oriented fare that was created specifically using the celebrity culture machine you’re referencing in Just Like Us. I’ve spent a large part of my adult life running away from that. But in something like The Invisible World, for instance, I see similar things that were in my grandmother’s house or similar curtains to those that hung in our neighbor’s window. It’s simultaneously soothing and discomfiting.

​Still from Just Like Us 2

Still from Just Like Us, Jesse McLean, HD Video, USA, 2013.

JMI resonate too with what you’re saying and think about that a lot. It’s this longing to belong and realizing that you’re part of this, even though it might be against your will at times. With those Pyrex objects and all that stuff—a lot of those objects are things I inherited. I didn’t want any of them. Now, I love them, and if I go into a thrift store, I head directly to the Pyrex section. I know all the names of the patterns. You never really understand how you get all this information or this family history, but that’s something that fascinates me—systems that comprise us and contain us at the same time.I think about that with celebrities. And I agree that the presence and pervasiveness of this culture has increased enormously in our lifetimes. The other issue is that everything now is funneled through the same media presence. Seemingly, there is no “straight” news or any kind of official version of things anymore. That’s been rendered meaningless, really, right? There are links all over the place to show you or tell you something horrible but it’s got its own priorities and prerogatives. Just the other day, I was trying to find out something about the flooding in Florida and it took me a while to search it out. I had to sift through a lot of other stuff that didn’t matter, the recycling of the hottest topics that day. It’s difficult to negotiate the edges of things. I am really interested in how that’s affecting people.

PC I think the ways in which you explore our relationship with representations of mass culture, and the oftentimes bathetic tendencies we have in encountering it, are very acute. I always appreciate those sly shifts you make between the superficial and the profound.

JM Just Like Us turned out to be a surprising piece for me because it kind of took on a life of its own. This happens frequently. Something will branch off and I’ll realize that the idea I thought I was pursuing will have to wait and I’m sure it’s because my ideas are so broad and overarching when I begin to make pieces. There are a lot of possibilities in the ways I can put things together. Also, I’m an over-builder. I always end up undoing 70% of what I’ve put together from various sources because there’s just too much going on. I’ve accepted that process now.In the case of The Invisible World, that was something I worked on for a long time. I just didn’t really realize I was working on it. I would think that I was making it and describe it horribly to people, describing it as something that would be about objects and there’s a robot, and so on—kind of nowhere descriptions. But it did come together. I knew I was interested in materialism and having an identity that’s wrapped up in inanimate objects. There’s the jacket you might buy that makes you feel really cool. Part of you might feel that it’s inappropriate to put so much stock in a piece of clothing or some other object as it relates to you, or defines your identity in any significant way. But they do and they can. There are certainly those who don’t succumb too much to this but there are others who do succumb in extreme ways and have emotional relationships with something that can’t ever really give anything back. We are in the midst of this digital age where people are making videos around these objects to which they have these kinds of relationships. Someone might be showing their collection of shoes or their coupon hauls or just weird materialist videos. They’re on the Internet, so they’re not really objects, but they’re still representative of this impulse. “Let me show you my stuff, the stuff that defines me as a person.” I knew I wanted to get these two ideas to co-exist. Needing to own objects is somehow tied into this idea of how we might be able to relate to other people. I see a kind of hopefulness in all of it.

PC There is hopefulness in showcasing our personal museums, but there are your subtle nods to the sinister creep of consumerism. You show us that we are all susceptible.

JM I like going back and forth between irony and sincerity. I really do not have any interest in purely making fun of a subject or source. But we all have this in our personality somewhere, the ability to shift between those things. It’s never meant to be mean-spirited at all. Sometimes I feel like I need to go back over a piece when I think it’s tipping over into something like that. I, myself, want to be able to relate to it and feel sympathetic towards it. I certainly don’t feel above it all; I’m inside of it, too. It’s partly a reflection of how well I relate to it just as I hope audiences will. It’s meant to be accessible work. I’m also okay with people questioning why I would even make this work at all. That’s certainly happened.Sometimes I want to take the humor a lot farther, and in past pieces I have pushed it. Looking back on that work, I can concede that, perhaps, I took things too far and it does seem as if I’m making fun, and, in the process, have sacrificed some more authentic emotion for the laugh. There’s one that gets me every time—it’s a scene in Magic for Beginners, where one of the storytellers is talking about the realization that the video game was not talking to him. I have this footage from the TV version of Heidi where she’s looking down at a stream, and there’s an image from Titanic where Leonardo diCaprio is floating away. I just couldn’t resist how well they fit together; but it does take what I feel could be a moment of sincerity and turns it into a laugh. It’s not like it crushes me every time I see it, but I don’t know if I would make that choice again.

Still from The Invisible World 2

Still from The Invisible World, Jesse McLean, HD Video, 2012.

PC If you’re working with variations on a theme and your output is as consistent as it has been, you will probably always be re-referencing or re-encountering aspects of your own work, I would imagine.

JM Well, with Facebook now, it’s really hard to not compare yourself to others. (laughter) I have other filmmaker friends who are so prolific, and I just don’t know how to keep up with that pace. I don’t even know if I would want to make more work. One piece a year to me seems really great if I can pull that off. I mean how much work does one really want to make? I am ambitious but I’m not really in a rush either. I need time to think, to gather ideas. After finishing something, I’ll find some random Post-it I made three years before and it’s exactly the idea I’ve pursued and created successfully. It’s at those times I think that maybe I actually do know what I’m doing.

PC I find teaching incredibly inspiring, even on the worst days where I feel I’m talking to the wall or having a moment when I’m sincerely wondering why these people would listen to anything I have to say. But there is a lot that’s nourishing about it, especially getting young people to articulate what they want to communicate in their art—what it is they want to express using whatever tools, materials, or methods they find useful or inspiring.

JM: I think nourishing is a great word to describe it and was very much a part of my interest in going into teaching, to give and receive that kind of nourishment. But it also allows me to retain the headspace I need. It takes a lot of energy to teach. It’s very emotionally draining; it takes a lot of time. But it allows me to remain inspired—reading things, looking at things, getting exposed to things that, perhaps, I wouldn’t come across on my own without my students also allowing me to see what they’re into or what they’re encountering. It’s the only professional job that’s enabled my creativity to flourish. I might feel like I don’t have the time I would like to make work, but mentally I feel I’m in a good position to do it and that comes from my teaching work.

PC Typically, what kinds of things show up in your curricula?

JM It really depends on the individual student because not everyone resonates equally with various ideas or approaches. I have a student at the moment and he’s very captivated by experimental cinema, in particular abstraction, non-representational work. I’ve been showing him a lot from Center for Visual Music, the work of Jordan Belson, because he’s just so fascinated by this kind of stuff, or early animations, as well. This is more representational, but I’ve also shared the work of Sabrina Ratté, a Canadian artist who does really beautiful videos. My classes tend to be thematically organized and at the moment, I’m getting ready to teach a class on influence in the fall, where we’ll talk about appropriation, collage, re-making strategies.

PC One of the things that strikes me about the work I’m seeing here at Oberhausen is the deeply personal nature of it, even at its most abstract. These makers, as well, have influence, as do you.

JM I do show a lot of work from people I consider my peers or are actively making work. That’s balanced with historical contexts and other influences. Someone I have always been influenced by in a big way is Michael Robinson. We both work with a lot of appropriated material and we have a similar emotional sensibility. We relate to one another’s work. I saw a screening he did once quite a while ago where I could see his work all together and it was a very influential, wonderful moment for me, a seminal one that had a profound impact. So I show Michael’s work. I also share the films of Dani Levanthal. She just came to visit and I really loved the way she talked about her work. She’s extremely direct and I think her pieces are really important—the way she makes them, how she explores methods of looking. It’s very different than what I do but I like the way she puts things together, how she thinks about scenes, how she gets disparate ideas to reside alongside one another. I’ll use her work in the collage course or the influence class, even though her work is not about re-making. In terms of texts, I like to use William Wees’ Recycled Images: The Art and Politics of Found Footage Films. However, I really want to push my students more on their thoughts on originality. It’s a very complicated topic; for that, we might read Jonathan Lethem’s The Ecstasy of Influence.

The thing I think I’m most conscious of in my own work is that I don’t repeat myself. If it happens, it’s not the worst thing, but it is something I pay attention to in my approach to each piece. Sometimes I think there is some kind of typical “recipe” that emerges, like some sort of song structure that becomes repetitive or derivative. There is a lot of intuition and flow, a lot of stepping away and coming back over and over to re-evaluate, particularly in terms of how I’m communicating something to my audience. It’s an interesting thing to play with in terms of how you can control a viewer’s reactions over the course of a film work.

PC As I’m thinking about this idea of influence, I think about the spectrum that runs from this insidious feeling of entrapment, to moments of intense transcendence, and everything in between. Why do we sit in the dark and watch flickering lights and shadows and allow ourselves to connect to these abstractions in such a powerful way? Of course, there is also work that doesn’t say much of anything to me and that has its own influence as well, I suppose.

JM Yes. Arthur Lipsett is an artist I’m hugely influenced by. I love his work so much. But I get such a mediocre response when I show it to my students. A couple of them like it and want to investigate further. It’s always a bit deflating when you show something you think of as genius and your students just kind of shrug. (laughter)

PC Text in your work is an incredibly strong element. This has much to do with its assemblage in relation to imagery, how those elements are juxtaposed or how they conjoin to create an emotional reaction. You have a real talent for using very simple language structures to convey quite complex or abstract feelings.

​Still from Lose Yourself 3

Still from Lose Yourself, Jesse McLean, Video, Stereo, 5 min., 2011.

JM It’s always an evolving process. I’m inspired heavily by textual sources that can span from readings on critical theory to some blurb on the Internet or some story someone told me that can end up as text. I’m heavily inspired by words, including titles, wordplay, double meaning. I’m not sure how evident that is in the work, but for me, the influence of words tends to be even stronger than the influence of the imagery. The words usually come first.

I never really thought I would include text in my work as regularly as it appears. I noticed this when I recently got to do a solo show. Text is prominent in almost everything I’ve made. It began as a suggestion when I had these televangelists saying these very big statements and I didn’t want to use the footage because it was too much. Then I just used their voices without image and even that was too loaded. It was Ben Russell who suggested I take the transcription of their words and use it as text. I wanted what they were saying but not the heavy coding of the words when they spoke them. Otherwise, it would have been perceived as some sort of lampoon and that wasn’t my intention at all. It would have been too easy to laugh at. That was the first time it really became apparent how wonderfully well text and image could work together to express what I wanted to say.

It’s also a way to reveal narrative without using voiceover. I am getting more interested in voiceover but in earlier works that were more autobiographical, it was a way of getting some critical distance. I thought, If I’m the artist and I’m telling a story in my own voice, it’s too much me. But if I can take my story and put it into text, there’s a bit of distance and, therefore, it leaves the work much more open. It’s the same if I used a quote from someone else, like Andy Warhol, or the collage of texts in The Invisible World. I wrote the text for Just Like Us instead of trying to cite some other source for what I wanted to say and it was a bit scary because I hadn’t really written in this way before. There are aspects there of a story someone else told me, but it’s mostly me in those words—the way I would express or say something, even though a lot of it is fictitious.

I do get asked if it’s my story and I find that interesting, what people are drawing from cinema in terms of “voice,” if people think it’s real or fictional. Steve Reinke in his work narrates in his own voice and people react quite viscerally to what he’s saying, thinking he is re-telling something that actually happened or something that he did—but it’s total fiction. How interesting that it can be perceived as real. I might try working with voiceover using someone else’s voice, or combine my voice with another. I like the relationship between the two. It’s a different kind of engagement for the viewer, this first-person text, and I also like the distance it provides. You’re not really ever sure who the person is, or the context from which they’re speaking, or their gender.

PC I think that’s why it’s always so satisfying when the work does speak to me despite my not knowing precisely what’s going on, or not having a definitive understanding of the context.

JM That’s probably why this tapping into this place of talking about deeply fervent believers shows up again and again in my work. Even as a child, I was very self-conscious, had terrible anxiety, didn’t feel free at all. I was plagued by having no faith in anything: “When you’re dead, you’re dead,” and so on. (laughter) So I, too, am fascinated by this ability that some people have to succumb totally to something they perceive as bigger than themselves, something that will save them somehow.

I never understood how people could not be interested in emotions, to talk about them and think about them—how painful, strange and messy they are, and oftentimes, inexplicable. That goes for belief systems, too, since I have no concept of faith or the idea of relating to it. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic. I’m a happy person, but so skeptical of everything.

I look at people that have that ability to deeply tie into something. I also always wonder if they really do have it or are just faking it until it becomes real. The closest level of relating to this personally is this idea of fandom. When I was younger, I was totally susceptible to deep fascinations with certain celebrities. It was such a great diversion from my life. It wasn’t a bad or unhappy life, by any means, but it was a constant place my mind could go for some relief. I don’t have to swim in this uncertainty. I could just think about Leonardo DiCaprio. I mean I was too old for Leonardo. (laughter) But I can completely understand that mindset quite well and how it can overtake you. It’s simultaneously beautiful and terrifying.

For more on Jesse McLean, visit her website.

Pamela Cohn is independent media producer, freelance writer, programmer, and documentary consultant currently based in Germany and Kosovo.

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