Small Talk: Madeleine Stack + HP in convo about their personal video archives and navigating lightness through unplanned accumulations

, 12 March 2018

A conversation between artists  Madeleine Stack and HP (aka Human Pony) who both share an affinity with fragments, small moments and peripheral filming. Madeleine is currently sharing her personal video archive Video Snack on Cosmos Carl, and the conversation that followed was undertaken from different sides of the globe, in opposite time-zones, as both considered the ethics of encounter, the pleasure of observation, and what constitutes an archive.

HP: Let’s start with an intro to your project, what are you showing on Cosmos Carl – tell us about Video Snack <3

Madeleine Stack: So ‘Video Snack’ was a project I set up in February 2013. I had just seen some of Jonas Mekas’ home movies in a museum somewhere and I liked them very much, his informal attention to beauty, little moments of joy or pleasure, and the way that over time these records become sadder because that life no longer exists. I didn’t think about the motivation too deeply at the time. I made a tumblr page, and started uploading twenty seconds of unedited video from my phone per day. It was an arbitrary constraint. The first video was the neon-lit interior of a bar in Bucharest that I got very drunk at. At the time a lot of the work I was making was about secrets and gossip. There were often conversations happening in the videos — mostly I was filming with people being only semi-aware, and I liked that there could be a trail left there, if someone wanted to follow it, of snatched fragments.

HP: Ah yes Jonas Mekas, good reference – ‘little moments of joy or pleasure’ – is there a logic to this trail or particular moments that attract you most that you find you are constantly returning to, like a composition or compulsion?

MS: Yeah, it has always been a record of things I like to look at: someone gesturing while explaining something, someone rolling a cigarette, someone in the street lost in thought, light through trees, interior arrangements. And music or ambient sound is important too. Maybe a faraway sound or the quality sound has when it’s coming from outside or next door. I like finding patterns. In summer braiding someone’s hair in the grass reappears. In winter, people on buses with the windows steamed up. People describing something to someone or showing them how to use something, or how to play a game, using all their hand gestures.

But I’m curious about what you found in it, or how you navigated through it?

HP: Even though your project has so much content, posted daily, it manages to retain a lightness – like a cobweb made up of small offerings or suggestions, no more. Navigating through these gaps and holes is what makes it feel so poetic.  Tumblr is a good home for this way of working. The format of the scroll makes it feel like there’s no beginning or end, and each post holds the same weight – there’s so much elbow room.

It’s a nice space to work in as well, because it doesn’t feel defined or finite, or that you are unveiling a whole ‘project’ but rather experiencing a flow. I think that’s why those moments, as you said – of not overthinking the motivation too deeply at the time – is key. Because it’s diary-esque, it becomes (for me anyway) a really authentic way of working because the footage is birthed from being enchanted or drawn to something in that moment; a timely (almost reflexive) response rather than a calculated one. It’s nice to think of a practice being one of waiting and collecting – of giving attention to the fragment rather than solely the finished product that’s been sculpted meticulously.

I’m attracted to these gestures that don’t set out with an agenda I suppose – not trying to ‘say’ something in particular but rather just be, remaining on the periphery to observe – just holding a thought lightly in the palm of your hand. Have you ever tried to piece your fragments together into something more whole, used them in longer videos? Does it affect the lightness or result in something more dense?

MS: Yes, this is the hardest thing, to fold smaller parts into something substantial without drowning them. I spent a long time defending the virtue of the fragment as itself, but I’m not sure anymore if I’m committed to that. When I write, for example, it’s a process of almost absent-minded accumulation over a very long period during which the end point isn’t considered, and then the stitching together is when the fun happens – when the notes begin to harmonise. I have done it a few times, used certain pieces of video in larger projects, and I think it needs to be for a narrative film, something with an emotional arc that is watched from beginning to end, rather than ‘art video’. There were a few projects that were linked by theme, grouping together things from the archive. Once I collected shots of men in cities at leisure or rest from work; in interstitial periods in the workday. It was called Men in the off hours.

HP: Yeah, narrative film or films shown in the cinema have a beautiful way of holding you. I would agree that ‘art videos’ tend to lack this emotional arc – it is almost as if they are scared of it or rather scared of emotional manipulation whereas film is more transparent in its desire to take your hand and curate an emotional experience.

MS: In the cinema you’re in the zone of watching, a hermetic space that is impenetrable by the outside world. But actually a big problem with that is that the quality of the phone videos just isn’t good enough for the space of cinema, though now in this HD-world it’s true that I like the grain and pixels, the dim lighting, suggestion of an interior. Shooting with a better camera you lose the immediacy and intimacy of always having the video-eye to hand and effectively invisible.

For example I watched this film yesterday called Journey to the West by Tsai Ming-Liang, which documents a performance of slow walking by an actor dressed as a monk, around Marseilles. It felt to me like the durational performance he was ostensibly documenting was an excuse to have these long long scenes of the life of the street – twenty minutes of people walking into a metro station, or sitting outside a cafe watching the world go by. I loved that, I filed it as a strategy! It’s a little sleight of hand, saying – look here, when really the action is happening in the background, the background is the action and the attention is directed to the life of the city. I’m not sure about phrasing it like that – ‘an actor dressed as a monk’, that was my understanding of the film but maybe that’s wrong.

HP: I’m not surprised this format/strategy pulled you in. Your videos quietly observe movement from such a static place which feels completely devoted to time and its dimensions. Perhaps not just your videos but your sculptural practice too, especially the recent show you had in  Brisbane, Future Skinned, that sets up a scenario or platform for your works to develop over the course of the show, dependent on factors beyond your control like weather and humidity. What were they made of again?

MS: They’re glass with milk and moss inside, and that grows into mould, maggots, pupae, flies…Other elements  rust, and works made of wax get soft in the heat and sag and bloat. Those changes are about atmosphere and the passage of time, and they reward close looking, an encounter with a body in a room rather than as an image on a screen.

But actually, that goes back to the idea we were talking about, of oscillating between the positions of being and saying. The being is the saying, and vice versa. Part of the difficulty of making observational images – and what makes it compelling to me – is the responsibility to what is being observed. I would say that is particularly true in this time when everything is being recorded, everyone is constantly filming and taking pictures. Encountering the life of a community or a city is not apolitical; observation is not apolitical.

The video archive isn’t a discrete artwork in my mind, but a piece in a larger project about fiction and lies, digital intimacy, how archives function and for whom, the ethics of recording – all kinds of things that I want to navigate.

HP: Yeah I agree that being vs saying can be interchangeable but I suppose each begin from a slightly different rationale; with encounter being one that feels more impulsive, responding to a moment that reaches out to you for whatever reason vs a pre-curated idea in your head that gets turned into reality. I think I’m struggling with the way art generally sets out to be ‘about’ something but I’m finding it hard to unearth the right words to articulate this.

MS: And when art sets out to be ‘about’ something that can be articulated clearly as an ideological position, so many of the possible avenues and connections are lost.

HP: Exactly – there are things I can’t reach or feel when my mind is being too loud – but of course, there’s always an agenda your practice inherently follows, and perhaps both methods will inevitably lead you to the same destination. I guess I like the idea that a trajectory of a project can be as you said, “a stitching together” of unplanned accumulations. There is something about it that feels much more intimate as well. Often when I film people they are usually people I know because I feel so uneasy and problematic about filming strangers and when I try to re-enact a scenario or get friends to re-enact a scene I imagined in my head, it never feels the same, it doesn’t compare to the real moment.

MS: ‘Unplanned accumulations’ is exactly the right phrase. You’re unprepared for what is about to happen, but there’s a kind of movement that you sense is about to occur. And then there is a triangulation: between the watcher and the watched, and the one who mediates the two. I want the way the video was made to be visible in that way: for it to be clear that it was unwieldy, that I was holding the device at my hip or shielding it with the back of my hand, that other action was happening outside the frame.

I think it would be super strange and interesting to get people to re-enact themselves doing something they’ve already done! I’ve never tried it but I have written a few scripts in which friends play fictionalised versions of themselves, but the closest I’ve gotten is writing fiction based on my friends, with the characters doing things they might do.  It is possible to sketch facial features, or to describe someone’s emotional state, their manner of dress, their nerves or confidence. But the way that a person is in movement, in gesture and animation, is very difficult to preserve. The stuff that cannot be kept is what I cling to most. Perhaps these vignettes could then be thought of more as sketches towards characters. For example, you are of course never ‘introduced’ to the characters, though they appear repeatedly in different configurations. It is never clear what relation one person has to another. It can be surmised that those who appear most frequently are people closest to me.

HP: Yeah, a lot of the things I film turn the camera back on me in a way, whether you see me or not, it becomes a document of a gestured moment. And when I have ‘subjects,’ they do end up being close friends, but only because I’m trying to somehow get around the ethical dilemma of encounter; of being drawn to capturing (or observing in hopefully a non-violent way) the unspoken frequencies of emotional states while at the same time realising that if I interrupt that moment with say a large professional camera or an announcement that I am filming, there is no way I could get the same result. All feels very delicate.

MS: Exactly, it’s totally impossible to conceive of entering and breaking that moment when you are inside it. It would be violent. And a few of my works deal directly with this problem of encounter and ethics, and I have never been able to show them totally publicly because the story relies on who that person is – their identity cannot be ‘fictionalised’. I think when these kinds of coincidences happen, stories that enfold a series of serendipitous encounters, that’s when the thread is worth following, that’s when the ‘fiction and lies’ come in. Storytelling, about encounter.

I had made a work years ago which was 5 screens following the path of an old man trying to walk around Reykjavik. It was very far away, you couldn’t see his face, shot from the belltower of the cathedral. It was beautiful because there was a freeway in his way, so he is navigating the underpasses and pedestrian walkways and taking these big detours to try to cross the road, and the church bells are chiming really loudly the whole time. So that was showing in a gallery in Brisbane and a man came in one day I was there, he was an Icelandic exchange student, and he recognised it as Reykjavik then a bit later he came over again and said that it was his grandfather in the video. And then he said that he really liked the work, and thought it was beautiful, and could he have a copy of it on a stick, because his grandfather had died that year. Stories like this happen to me all the time.

HP: Ahh that’s so special. I guess that ‘task’ of curving and confronting the delicacy of it all is what contributes to this interesting fact/fiction ambiguity.

MS: It was very strange, but it did thrill me. To follow that trail and have the following be rewarded. Because of the ethical ambiguity of privacy and identity, a number of the videos are ‘recordings’ of stories I ended up writing – there is one of two girls on a beach at dawn listening to a man who was just released from jail recount his sins. And one of a journalist involved in a big politics story about who I sat next to on a plane. There are videos of both of those ‘encounters’. So they provide both base material and ‘proof’ that something actually happened – actually I’m thinking of the grainy images in Sebald’s books, that are presented like documentary evidence but are actually ambiguous. I also like Barbara Browning’s books, I just read The Gift – and she treads this fiction-fact line, using real people as characters, and inviting a trail of internet stalking for clues.

HP: Ohh, you’ve reminded me – I’ve yet to read any of her books but I love her youtube channel which feels relevant to this conversation right now. And her ukulele covers are wonderful. I love her soundcloud bio, “limited instrument. limited voice. limited production values. use your imagination.” Reminds me of the kind of lo-fi approach we are attracted to – quality somewhat irrelevant with the  gesture of it holding more importance. But maybe this space of lo-fi only attracts me so much because it acts as a breath or a pause amongst all the hi-def, directorial formats we are floating in constantly.

MS: I wouldn’t say that the quality is irrelevant, but rather that the standardized idea of ‘quality’, or what is framed as an acceptable image in the sea of images, is so often stripped of what I find meaningful in an image or a scene. I love the way that they are kind of pixelated and grainy, often shot in the dark. There’s a quality of intimacy and mystery that is so opposite to the imagery of the contemporary moment. Everything is very high-def, alienatingly so, and has this very smooth surface, like a face that is too beautiful to remember. I like the flaw that catches in the memory.**