New York-based artist Mia Ardito and Chicago-based artist Maire Witt O’Neill are obsessed with reality and how self-reflexive it becomes when seen through the eye of the lens. Together they hang, like two mirrors facing each other opposite two walls, endlessly reflecting their image and whatever crosses between them. Throughout the past three years Sad Girls Club TV has been standing there staring, while Ardito and O’Neill reflect its image back and forth so much that one couldn’t tell where the show ends and they begin.
Now in its fourth season, the project — having been developed over the last three years — uses the medium of television as a model for “performing cultural attitudes towards women, sexuality and commodity”. They are presenting six new half-hour episodes, with the first three already premiered at the Anthology Film Archives on June 4, while launching Episode 1 online with aqnb on July 26, along with a short group character video called ‘What is the Girl Code?’.
The potential and infinite images that could emerge in what American Medium‘s Sad Girls Club TV press release calls a “complex synthesis of art and television” are extracted in the form of a mock-reality TV show that is also a documentary of itself. Even if the narrative is fictional, it’s still fully functional and legitimate as reality because it’s still happening, right? It’s the question that contrives the foundation of Ardito and O’Neil’s dedicated body of work, one that is answered by the “improvisational process of the artists and the simultaneous roles they play —director, performer, character, person” that encompasses the hyperactive series. Unauthorized fully branded content adorns the screen, producing a consumer aesthetic reminiscent of queer camp and early 2000s video work by artist Ryan Trecartin but most importantly from reality TV shows like Bad Girls Club or Real Housewives.
Stepping into Ardito and O’Neill’s world of satire, the two artists took the time to talk via Google Hangouts from New York and Chicago to talk about popular network shows and how identity is altered and influenced by the act of performing reality for an audience.
Do you find it difficult to manage all the aspects of production in this project? Could you talk about the process and what it’s like to document yourselves and others while also playing a character on reality TV?
Mia Ardito: It is pretty difficult and every project we learn a lot to apply to the next, being the directors and also being characters makes for a lot of footage that blurs the line between both, which we have been really interested in playing with. We tend to keep the cameras shooting the whole time and the editing process is really where we start to pull out the story that unfolds.
Maire O’Neill: Ha, yeah, it’s definitely tough. But I also think that the unapologetic ambitiousness fuels a lot of the way the work ends up. We are both Aries and we are intense and impulsive, but also understand each other really well and have learned a lot as we’ve gone forward. One thing that is especially tough is going in and out of character in order to direct, especially because we are really interested in the reality of that world. Regardless of whether or not we are in character, there is emotional weight to what we do to and with each other. If Mia and I are fighting (as Flip and Tati) we have to manage that emotional damage, because when you say something shitty to someone, even in character, it has an effect.
Could you describe each other’s character?
MO: Tatiana Volkov is a self-proclaimed princess, or rather, queen. She is from Brighton Beach. She is the ‘lone-wolf’ and seeks the alpha position by winning alone. She is self-obsessed and fully aware and accepting of that. She is also obsessed with her fiancé, Svet. But Tati comes first, so she is ‘testing the waters before she gets locked in’. She loves her body and wants to be an MMA fighter like her fiancé. And while she is desperate to marry someone who is rich, she also seems to have a deep interest in entrepreneurship herself, especially with her new diet pill. Tati’s mantra is ‘there is no I in team, but there is an I in Team Tati’. She likes to push buttons and judge while looking down all alone from the top.
MA: [laughs] As I started answering this I realized that it applies to all the characters and possibly every person. Flip is over-compensating her insecurity, she is vulnerable and possibly not the super cool party girl she claims to be. What I love about reality TV shows like Real Housewives or Bad Girls Club is that the women define themselves and the show’s goal is almost to disprove their notion of self. Flip is an oxymoron. She requires a lot of attention and is ‘not chill’. She ‘flips out’ and is easily upset. She also deflects all of the criticism of herself into an unrelated homophobia about her brother and needs to be supported by the other girls to feel in control. She is certainly self-serving with her need to have the other girls’ trust and plays victim to Tati who is not necessarily interested in the same things as anyone else in the show.
I’m interested in what you described as ‘disproving notion of self’ in reality TV. Could you talk a little bit more about that, maybe by using a character from a network reality TV show as an example? If you watch them regularly…
MO: We definitely do [laughs]. Self-definition can be super limiting, because people are so much more than what they can sum themselves up to be. I think what is occurring is that reality TV is actually revealing the complexity of people… Classically, a character is not realistic if you can say they are simply good or bad. But it is complexity that makes a character realistic and relatable. However, there is also the case of simply trying to catch someone in a lie or show them something they aren’t seeing, what they think they should see, which I think people try to do constantly in reality and reality TV.
MA: I guess what I am interested in is the idea of people on reality TV shows performing the person they want to be seen as, which naturally is tested by whatever stresses they go through on and off the show. On a show like Real Housewives it’s interesting to know that these women have been performing and watching their TV personality for so many seasons that it informs who they currently are. Real Housewives started out as a more of a curious anthropological look at these wealthy women living in a gated community in Orange County who had never been on TV and has crystallized into a machine where being on TV informs so much of who they are.
MO: …which is where any argument of lacking reality falls very short in my opinion. This is a reality for them. Reunion shows are especially interesting in this way. There is a very particular attempt to show someone what they did, in order to reveal them to themselves.
MA: …and it’s a curiosity on our part to understand what that is like internally, the complexity of witnessing your own life edited and regurgitated back to you, which has also been really fun in our show, showing our cast what they did and went through, through our controlled vision.
Yes, editing plays a big role in how these realities are presented. How do you, your characters, or other actors in the show deal with this?
MO: For sure. For both the viewer and the performer/viewer that edited version is a real and causal thing in the world.
MA: It’s really a process of whittling away at the chunk of footage that is the document of our shared experience.
What informs the choices you make in choosing the bits that make the final cut regarding other characters, your characters, and the storyline?
MO: Our characters are not us. However, we are super vulnerable anyway, because these characters came out of us therefore, providing a lot more room to push things open.
MA: We have to pay attention to what is the story we are collectively making as a group, the story that Maire and I are guiding and all of the natural character development that occurs throughout that and decide what is relevant, what is necessary, what is odd and unexpected, and processing all of that through a hyper-consumerist lens.
MO: Our wonderful collaborator who plays Bobbi [William Fortini] said something while we were traveling in the middle of a shoot last summer. Paraphrasing… he said that he realized that as soon as he got scared to say or do something in character, that’s when he knew he definitely needed to do it. He said that that realization was really liberating.
Yes, kind of like roleplaying, and using that roleplay to enact things one would otherwise be ashamed of.
MA: The characters are a vehicle to have the discussions that we witness on TV and the media in an exaggerated expression, to try to understand why people say and do things that we don’t necessarily understand and we try to access that through comical characters.
MO: Exactly. Sometimes I say that we are summoning demons.
Why did you decide to call it Sad Girls Club? A lot of feminist internet culture uses the term ‘Sad Girl’ for a variety of reasons and I’m curious what’s the impetus for yours.
MA: The name Sad Girls Club came from playing around in wigs like six years ago and watching the show Bad Girls Club on oxygen and being really inspired by those women. We have never really been connected to the online imagery of late or ‘Sad Girl Theory’ that expresses the trauma of living as any kind of feminist statement. I have always been interested in ‘sadness’ as a concept because it’s a real blanket emotion.
MO: I think that the expression of emotion is a powerful and natural thing that shouldn’t be suppressed. So in many ways, for me, Sad Girls Club can sometimes just mean ‘emotional girl’ or ‘emotional person’.
Do you see any correlation between soap operas and reality TV? Do you have any thoughts about both those genres in relation to each other?
MO: [laughs] Well, Eileen Davidson from Days of Our Lives and Real Housewives says that reality TV is way more dramatic. Kalup Linzy’s work about soaps has always been really influential for me, so that correlation I’m sure says something. Honestly, I think one thing it has to do with is the overlap in the target audiences for both of those genres.
MA: I don’t watch soap operas but I think in terms of production value. They are both types of television that have a lower production cost. They require less time and money to make and are generally appreciated by women and gay people.
The setup and the endlessness of the realities seems to perpetually hook a viewer in.
MO: Absolutely, and I think that ongoing saga becomes a reality in and of itself.
I’d like to see the Kardashians on TV till they die. Even though I don’t watch them. I just want to know they are always there, ready and able to be watched.
MO: Yes! We also want to make our shows until then. We dream of doing it at every stage of life.
MA: Yeah, what is so great is that there isn’t a beginning middle or end to these shows and it’s not about what happens but more about how everyone reacts to what is happening. Sad Girls Club TV is an endless endeavor for us, no matter what incarnation it will exist in. It kind of is the ‘days of OUR lives’ and whoever else wants to put a wig on and exorcise some demons with us [laughs]. We are firstly making video art with an underlying sub-reality that American Medium plays the network that hosts SGC, which is a reality TV show really on TV. This is why we go to our events in character, because it is Flip and Tati’s premiere, not ours.**