Remixing Hollywood

By Nadine Poulain

dallas-sheena-macrae.jpgDallas, 2009

Speeded up, layered, sliced – Sheena Macrae’s work is a compression of iconic film material that confronts and ridicules the mechanism of the entertainment industry. Playing with collective memory, the London-based artist displays a humorous take on how (much) we can perceive.

Nadine Poulain: Having worked in Hollywood does your work come from an aversion against or rather from a fascination with popular culture and mass entertainment?

Sheena Macrae: It is a two-fold thing. On one side I am poking fun at Hollywood, but on the other I am completely complicit to it. I want it all, I want it faster and more of it. I am very absorbed in media. I am amazed and excited, as well as slightly distressed that we can deal with it. So I am guilty in both ways.

NP: And how did it come about? What triggered it?

SM: Having been trained as a filmmaker and then working in post-production, I was able to make money with the skills I had and at the same time continue making films, using the high-end equipment around me. I always had one foot in the industry, making money, and one in making my own work. Working in post-production, you watch films over and over and over again and I started to watch feature films fast-forward. The syntax was so easily read, so recognisable. You knew where it would go… I guess I put you through the pace I am complicit to. ‘Fiction in one minute’ (Pulp Fiction speeded up into one minute) was the first film that came out of this. It is a film that is already using a pastiche element. So I thought, it would be its logical conclusion, its own trailer in a way. Humour is often part of it.

NP: Your version of the epic Gone with the Wind is also very funny, but what was the motivation behind making it another speeded-up film?

SM: Well, in ‘Gone’ there is also that particular line. A lot of my pieces start with something small like a line that gets my attention. “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” is the line everybody remembers. But what she says in response is what undoes everything. She says, “I can’t think about that now. I’ll think about that tomorrow.” It was her line that I wanted, not his.

NP: Like a rereading of the original, altering people’s memory of it?

SM: In a way yes. It’s a funny line. Basically she disregards what he just said, what the film hinges on, her downfall. Her response is not very filmic, because she puts the action outside of the frame. Also the line re-occurs. She says it at the beginning when somebody asks her to go for a picnic, she says it in the middle after she had to kill somebody, and then she says it again right at the end.

NP: Working with existing footage is not common in contemporary practice. Where do your influences come from?

SM: For me it goes back to film school in Canada. There were always a lot of loose ends around. And I used to work at this monster club. It had 16 projectors and we made our own features out of existing material every night, like VJ’s. And then, when I moved form Canada to the UK, doing my masters in Fine Art at Goldsmith, I lost my crew. So working with existing footage was the obvious thing to do. But there was no leap. I have always been working with material that is out there already. This way of working is deeply rooted in the history of experimental filmmaking. Of course I am adding something new, particularly in the way of postproduction. Technology has changed, but I do stand on the shoulders of people like Stan Brakhage and Arthur Lipsett. It is a huge tradition to work with something that pre-exists, a Duchampien chess move.

dallas-sheena-macrae-2.jpgDallas, 2009

NP: It also works well economically…

SM: Oh yes, art can usually be much cheaper than film.

NP: And you don’t need so many people. Basically you can do it all by yourself.

SM: True, but I do like working with people. I always try to mimic something like a crew. There is this energy and buzz when you throw ideas around. I like to have people creatively involved and to have them in the studio. The input from people like my assistant or researchers is important. Collaboration is something I miss from working in film.

NP: Can you describe your working process? Is it comparable to something like a destruction and a creation at the same time and when does something become yours?

SM: Definitely! I am using very recognisable, very iconic material. It is already complete in the world. I have to take it far enough so that it becomes mine. It is as if I have to break its neck. I have to break it apart, so that I can put it together again. It is pretty hard to do that with iconic material, so that it doesn’t shine through. It has to do my job more than it’s doing its original job.

NP: Odyssey, for example, is very different from its original.

SM: Yes, although the whole film is there. I am always using something that is inside the original. It is about finding what it is and folding it inside out. Whether it is Pulp Fiction being a pastiche of film, or Gone with the Wind, this epic, where she has three husbands, two children die, a civil war is happening and she doesn’t change. The work comes from something that is inside the original, the same with Odyssey. It is about time and space, and installing it with those giant mirrors made its slices go into infinity. I am taking something of the film and tease it out into my own rendition of it.

odyssey-sheena-macrae-3.jpgOdyssey, 2007

NP: How autonomous are your pieces? Is their instalment in space just something that adds to them, while they do exist in their own right?

SM: They do exist in their own right. This actually feels like a new direction. I see it more as an architectural extension of the work, rather than an installation. It is exciting to change the space around a piece and let the logic of the work expand. It becomes physically engaging. But there is a certain flexibility to it. I have my preferred ways of showing a piece, but of course it is an expensive undertaking. Only a museum or a grant can take it up.

NP: What defines a successful piece for you?

SM: I am always trying to make a piece work on several levels. Dallas for example talks about the language of soap operas, clichés and ‘over-the-top-ness’. Being installed on a giant slanted screen exaggerated what it is about. At the same time it starts to look like a painting and it is all about the surface material of film. Something only works if you can look at it again and again and find something new each time, if you can turn it upside down and it still works. That’s when a piece is complicated enough. You have to be able to go back to it.

odyssey-sheena-macrae.jpgOdyssey, 2007 

NP: Have you ever gotten into problems with copyright?

SM: No problems so far. It is called ‘Fair use’ and it depends how much you manipulate the material.

NP: Are there any people whose work you would not touch? Tarkovsky for example was not very big on contemporary art…

SM: Nothing is sacred. I don’t feel there is anything I couldn’t use. I like to think of it as a homage when you work with someone’s material. Kubrick would probably have been pissed off. He was such a purist. Who knows? But of course I would never use anything if it doesn’t feel right. Besides that I am not trying to be polite. I am making it because I think that it is an interesting conversation.

odyssey-sheena-macrae-2.jpgOdyssey, 2007 

NP: I assume you are talking about the contemporary conversation that is occurring in the art world? How do you feel about people like Candice Breitz and Douglas Gordon, who are concerned with similar interests?

SM: Yes, there are a few artists who work in related areas and I am aware of what is happening around me. We have Douglas Gordon, Candice Breitz, Stan Douglas, Pierre Hyghe and so on, and of course I know their work. I love some bits and hate others. Everybody is adding something to it. It is exciting.

NP: Cinemas are opening up more and more to video art. Do you show in cinemas, or do you prefer the settings of a gallery?

SM: I do like to have my work in cinemas and film festivals, as well as in galleries. I am very at home in cinemas. It feels good to bring the work back to its origin and in a way close the circle.

NP: What is your attitude towards making your work available through the Internet and YouTube?

SM: These days Youtube is like Wikipedia. It is information. Of course it is never the real piece, just a reference to the original. Like a thumbnail it points into the direction. I am not afraid of pieces living in the world.

NP: Why do you prefer working in fine art rather than film?

SM: One reason why I work in fine art is that it gives me the opportunity to extend rather then limiting myself. Coming from film, everything is a long process. You have to get the funding, make it, then do the festival circuit… Moving into the art realm opened up a new space. It feels like an extension. I have always enjoyed coming from a different root and adding my bit to the conversation…

Nadine Poulain is an artist and filmmaker currently living in Berlin.