I’ve always been fascinated with video installations, especially the technology behind the art.
So this year at The Artist Project in Toronto, I had no hesitation to stand on a plinth and get up close and personal with a piece called Double Flesh by Marianne Burlew.
It was a bilateral experience, guided by Burlew in a life-size video projection. She combined the video, consisting of her patting different parts of her body with her hands, in time with powerful vibrations you could actually feel on the plinth below you.
Ever since that experience, I needed to learn more about this medium.
What better way to learn, I thought, than to ask the artist?
Marianne Burlew is an emerging video installation artist who works with multi-sensory media and sculpture. She received a Master’s of Fine Art from the University of Waterloo and she is now based in Ottawa, Ontario.
I asked her 5 of my most pressing questions, hoping to bring to light the process of making video art, and what it’s like to be video artist today.
1. What clicked with video art as opposed to any other medium?
“My background has been growing up drawing in my bedroom every night and then getting into art school and trying everything, mostly sculpture and a bit of photography.
I continued after undergrad with sculpture. I was mostly doing textile sculpture and I started doing a bit of performance work. I didn’t really know what that meant or where that was going, or really if I was allowed to do it because I didn’t study it. And when I went back to grad school it was definitely on my list of things to revisit or to even just explore and find some explanation or justifications as to why I was interested in it.
Part of my work before going back to grad school was making these textile sculptures, hoping people would touch them. But whenever people would go into a gallery, their inclination was to follow the rules – which is to never touch anything. I was having a hard time getting people interested in crossing that line and interacting.
So when I went to grad school I was hoping to explore more interactive work in new media. And so I took some new media classes and one of them involved some video. I recorded a performance piece in video.
Just having that moment where you can have a performance, but in the video, it becomes so much more flexible and kind of new. And you can start making more choices about what you do with it and how it can evolve from there. So I guess that was really interesting to me.”
2. What was the first video piece you produced?
“The first work I did was a performance where I was humming out every breath. It was in an effort to record the resonance of sound in my chest and in my head.
So, when you’re humming you’re keeping the sound inside of you. And [I was trying] to take that resonance and amplify it or manipulate it, so it occupies the same space as someone who is experiencing the video. I was really interested in how you can quantify yourself, [and] the physical space you take up.”
3. How do people react to your work?
“For the work that I was showing at The Artist Project: [Double-Flesh] was really interesting for me because it was important for me for people to experience it however they needed to. A lot of my work contains a video where I’m performing something and it’s usually a very intimate moment not necessarily sexual – if anything, not at all.
It’s really about just relating to one individual person. And in [Double-Flesh], I’m in my underwear eventually and so to go out and ask people to participate in it or encourage them to, started quickly becoming something that almost felt like I was selling my body or selling some sort of intimacy, which is not what my work is about at all.
My work has always been about a space where people feel comfortable to start relating to another person. And to start empathizing with another person. So I guess it’s tricky, especially for me, because I do want the audience at one point to make a choice and to have that choice.
Sometimes, all I can expect from people is for them to look at the video and that’s fine. For me, I want to make sure the video accomplishes something visually on its own but if people make the choice to engage they get something extra.
Say, for [Double-Flesh] there was a platform they could stand on, and if they stood on it they could feel the rhythm of my body in their own. So if they made the choice to engage further, they could find out something new. It’s always a balancing act.”
4. Can most galleries and museums install your equipment?
“I would say that I go in there and do my thing. I wouldn’t say where I’ve shown doesn’t have that knowledge but for the most part, I’m a bit faster because I’ve done it so many times.
Really, it’s not rocket science, but having people who feel comfortable setting it up is a different thing. Like most projectors come with a manual that tell you if you want the screen this big, it’s this distance and it’s this angle, so!
Maybe [going] back to the discussion about ‘the click’, for me: I found video very sculptural. Not just in the editing suite afterwards where you can mess with it, but also when you project it you can do so many things.”
5. What is different about your studio?
“So I’m going to start with someone else’s studio.
During my internship in London, I ended up working for a couple of artists. One of them was Saskia Olde Wolbers. She does video work but all of them are like films of maquettes that she builds, and her technique is that she submerges these maquettes in water – but when she submerges them they also go through a layer of this oily paint so they kind of look in the end like very surreal things. And then usually she has a narrative that goes along with it that’s spoken over the video.
I didn’t know what to expect going over to her studio – and it was a mess! I’m messy, and it was just as messy as me, if not more! And a lot of our time was spent making these sculptural things that we experiment with, and it was really excellent because until then I was really worried.
[When] I got this studio [I’m in now], I was still really interested in sculpture and textiles… Depending on what series of months it is, it might be a place that I film, it might be a place where I’m casting a bunch of messy stuff, it could be a place where it’s really clean or even sewing things.
I was really worried that with video that I wasn’t doing this right. Should I go totally stark minimalist? Should I totally commit to that institutional perfection? I was used to photo studios, and I like that, so I was wondering if a video studio would be the same. But for the most part, no.
I really like my studio because every 3 months I move everything around and re-prioritize what I’m working on for a little while. It could be a lot of work and be clunky, but that’s the way I think.
Once in a while, I totally have to rearrange my space and start somewhere different. Sometimes I get confused and think: how does my work come out of this really weird place?”