JOHANNES DEYOUNG / SAM MESSER
Moderated and Text by Nicole Kaack
January 11, 2018
Nicole Kaack: Thank you all for coming out tonight. We’re very excited to be having a conversation with Sam Messer and Johannes DeYoung. Very unfortunately, Natalie Westbrook could not be here tonight.This is the fourth in a series of conversations that we have been holding here at Crush Curatorial which emerges from a conversation that Karen and I had, when we first met last fall, in response to our frustration with how difficult it is for artists at any point in their career to direct the literature surrounding their work or its public availability. We wanted to do something that would be able to respond to that, and to allow artists to regulate the narrative of what their work will be as it continues to develop. So, thank you both for being here and for being part of that. I’m going to read a few bios very quickly. I’ll also include Natalie’s, because she’s an important part of this show, even though she’s not here tonight.
Natalie Westbrook received her BFA from the Cooper Union School of Art, her MA in Critical and Curatorial Studies from the University of Louisville, and her MFA in Painting and Printmaking from the Yale University School of Art. Her work is held in private and public collections, including Markel Corporation, Red Bank, NJ; Capital One, Richmond, VA; and Art Bank Program, US Department of State, Washington, DC; and Haleakala National Park, Maui, HI. Westbrook currently teaches courses in Painting and Drawing at Yale University School of Art where she was appointed Lecturer in 2011.
Johannes DeYoung received his MFA from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in 2006. Publications include The New York Times, The New York Post, The Huffington Post, and Dossier Journal. Johannes currently teaches courses in animation and moving-image production at Yale University School of Art, where he is appointed Senior Critic and Director of the Center for Collaborative Arts and Media, and at the Yale School of Drama, where he is appointed Lecturer in Design.
Sam Messer received his BFA at Cooper Union and his MFA from Yale. He is represented by Nielsen Gallery in Boston and Shoshana Wayne Gallery...no?
Sam Messer: No. We can just— Everybody here kind of knows me.
Nicole Kaack: Okay. So shall we jump in? You both just showed work at the B3 Biennial, and Natalie [Westbrook] as well. That was themed on the topic of desire, which is also, I think, very relevant to the show here tonight. Would you guys like to talk about that experience and how that ties in to the current work?
Johannes DeYoung: Well, I think for our work in the show, but also for our work as individual artists, it’s been a long-standing theme. It’s actually one of the central ideas that tied the structure of this show together. We started the project about three years ago, with an exquisite-cadaver-style collaboration where we would pass drawings back and forth. We didn’t really have much more of a direction or process than that. The content hinged on conversations around the theme of desire and we looked toward the text that informs this show as a structural and content leitmotif to pull the themes of our individual practices together.
Nicole Kaack: For those who might not be aware, Hunger, a novel by Knut Hamsun, is the root of this current work by Natalie and Johannes. I wonder if you could also speak to the novel. I know that the book ends with the main character signing up to crew aboard a ship at sea. Is the narrative structure of the work directly parallel to that of the novel?
Johannes DeYoung: Well, the protagonists in a lot of Knut Hamsun’s literature go through a process of giving away everything, pursuing something very enigmatic, and then charting out anew. That’s the structure that we’re looking toward. There’s also a transcendental relationship with nature, and some kind of underlying zeitgeist that’s urging return to something pre-linguistic or pre-symbolic to find something primal. That’s what we’ve identified among various themes that drove the book.
Nicole Kaack: I wonder if you could also speak about the way that the text elements imbue the work with a sense of urgency? On occasion the text will disrupt the visual narrative; for example, there is a moment where the video reads, very literally, “grounding me to the pavement," something that is indicative of a city as opposed to the nature imagery that the images describe. Could you speak to how those narratives are in tandem more so than they are simultaneous?
Johannes DeYoung: There’s a nature / culture tension in the work, and that is something that Natalie and I can find between our individual practices when we come together in collaboration. Her work is not narrative. She’s really invested in expressionism and iconography that comes from the natural world, finding patterns and hidden structures in flora. My work is very different. I’m drawn toward questions of the human condition and other subjects that reveal themselves in time-based media through narrative, often non-linear narrative. Finding a way to combined our two practices together comes about through this tension of nature and culture, nature versus the constructed symbol.
Nicole Kaack: Do you feel like that’s part of your work as well, Sam? Especially the recent show at Wadsworth Atheneum?
Sam Messer: I’ll just say to start that the idea of putting things into a movie is something that Johannes really motivated— I never would be doing that, but he got me curious. I think the unspoken genius in the room is Jon Kessler. I’ve known Jon since the ‘80s, and I’ve always been enamored, curious, and perplexed, in a way by the idea of moving, the idea of kinetic. But I always admired that kind of addition to work, and could never figure out how to do something with it — I stumbled into it more recently. I’m interested in it because I love to draw and I am just impatient, in a sense, with a certain kind of object-ness or way to tell a story. The work at the Wadsworth Atheneum is also about my attraction to writers. I find that this is actually a more interesting way for me to deal with text: when the image is moving, rather than having a singular relationship between image and text. There is, to me, a more interesting balance.
Nicole Kaack: That’s an interesting point, too, because it brings up the fact that in your work, Johannes, you and Natalie decided to have the equivalent of textual pages in the video as opposed to having a spoken narrative. What motivated that decision?
Johannes DeYoung: One of the things in Sam’s work that I find really powerful and resonant is the kinetic, emblematic quality of the images. Within a single image, there’s a whole story or poetic that unfolds. I feel like I’m always after that but never fully arriving at the perfect solution. A lot of my work ends up in sequence, in this juxtaposed, time-based medium because that, for me, makes sense as a working method. One of the things that Natalie and I set out to do was create a process that would work for both of us. It wasn’t actually like the depiction of a story, rather like looking for hidden structures that guide a narrative or creating structures that allow us to work with language and narrative in an open way that offers new associations. Often, in my own work, I use a cut method, but we especially use it when we are working together in cases of text. We’ll literally take a quote, dissect, and scramble it. We did that in this piece in a very manual way. In my own practice, I’ve used algorithms to do that, an algorithm that takes sentences and rearranges or extracts segments. That’s not anything new, it’s a Dada game. But we use that as a guiding structure for how we assemble the overarching piece.
Nicole Kaack: When you are choosing the words, the way that they format on the page demonstrates that as well, too, right? It becomes a kind of concrete poem.
Johannes DeYoung: We wanted them to read more like headlines, with that kind of urgency. We took out as many articles as we could to try to get to the point.
Nicole Kaack: It’s something that you also play with in timing how long those texts are shown, sometimes covering them up before it feels possible to have read them.
Johannes DeYoung: Well, there’s a rule there. They’re on screen for five seconds, and sometimes they’re interrupted.
Sam Messer: Can I ask you a question? How did you make the boat? The boats at the end seem to be photo-generated, as well as the first sailing boat, maybe. I’m just curious because I am really interested in the way it looks. We see so much information now. I am trying to find that shift between the drawing, which I think is Natalie’s, to other kind of information and to understand how you decide to break it down or decide how much to leave. I’m trying to learn something technical.
Johannes DeYoung: The whole piece is basically a collage of different approaches and styles. Some are straight drawings, like Natalie’s which you see when you come in. But then a lot of it comes out of the work that I was making for the B3 Biennial, which was a computer model built in Maya of a turbulent ocean with a dinghy floating on it. For that work, I partnered with a guy who developed shaders for Pixar to get my texture swatches onto the model in a way that would work with the lighting system in Maya. It was occlusion-based texturing. As the lights moved, the drawings would pile up on top of each other and get denser and denser and denser. But the whole process felt so laborious and so far away from drawing by the end. Drawing a texture swatch would take 10 minutes, and then it would be two weeks before I could get that drawing to map in a way that I felt even slightly conveyed a sense of the hand. Before that, it would just feel like the geometry of the model was overriding the drawing. In the end, I spent so long rendering that thing and working on this piece that I thought, "When I’m done with that, I don’t want to do it again for as long as I possibly can." And so I tried rotoscoping. I had all these frames from the previous piece; when I took the boat out, I had the waves. Then I just made drawings.
Sam Messer: What’s rotoscoping?
Johannes DeYoung: It’s literally drawing or tracing over, frame by frame. I got enough of the frames, and I made what’s called a playblast. It’s the quickest type of render that you can produce with 3D graphic software. I got a playblast out of the software and then I used that as the DNA for making these line drawings.
Sam Messer: That’s how you do the waves?
Johannes DeYoung: Yeah.
Sam Messer: I was really enamored with the idea of drawing water. One of the most interesting things that I’ve come across recently was that idea, in the context of 1400s mapmaking. Originally, Western Europe thought the world was Europe, Asia, maybe Africa, surrounded by a river. When it was accepted that there was actually more space and so much water, the challenge became how to draw water. It’s really interesting to look at old maps to see the kind of calligraphy that people came up with. When you look at Hokusai or many of the early Chinese artists, they found beautiful ways to actually depict something moving. It is something I’ve always been interested in; how do you draw something still that is moving, that also shows that it’s solid but not?
Johannes DeYoung: Well, there’s another moment in the video that’s a really different approach. It’s drawings of water as flat, graphic, undulating forms. I’m actually way more interested in that, because— I understand where the Maya imagery comes from and I feel like it’s tied to a literal representation. But the flat, graphic drawings, sometimes start to feel like smoke or something else. I’m really interested in that. Rendering water is a real challenge.
Sam Messer: Maybe some people here have more experience, certainly than I do, maybe not Johannes. But about six years ago, I worked with ILM [Industrial Light & Magic], because I designed the creatures for the movie Noah. The thing that I found compelling was meeting these five guys —all of whom went to RISD, graduated maybe in the ‘90s— and they design every movie you see. Every kind of superhero. About 10 years ago now, they stopped making models or freehand drawings, and everything became generated by the computer. They were really curious about taking a sculpture and scanning that in, to see how the hand competes. They also then spend time with the people who come to them and say, “What do you want to make?” and then they try to develop a new program that would do that.
Johannes DeYoung: Was it mind-blowing for these guys to have you in the studio?
Sam Messer: Well, no, because they are all artists. They still go one night a week to draw from a model in San Francisco or do their own things. But they were really disappointed that they no longer make models for people. Everything is just on the screen. The idea of everything being flat to begin with or not being the mark of a hand. What I loved about your sailing ship was that, for the longest time, I thought it was all drawn. By the time I got to the end, I could tell that it was photo-generation, that there was actually this underlying thing. I was really impressed with those straight lines. Then I realized you were actually following something else. In part it was because Natalie’s a great draftsperson. She spends a lot of time teaching the difference about how hard it is to draw a straight line this way [gestures a vertical line] as opposed to this way [gestures a horizontal line]. It’s very easy to draw a perfectly straight line up and down. It’s very hard this way because of our shoulders, which is what Natalie teaches.
Johannes DeYoung: I learned that from Natalie, too.
Nicole Kaack: It’s funny that you brought up the collage element of how many different textures that are going on. I love the transparency that is hung above the door, which is Natalie’s, right? The interaction of transparency with animation offers so much. You also, Sam, are using many textures with the Wadsworth show in terms of the etchings. You made something like 1700? Do you want to talk about that as well?
Sam Messer: Well, I think etchings are drawing. I fell into making this with the etchings because I thought, originally, I was just going to make a book. I started with a couple of prints. And then, because of the iPhone, you know how you move through things and you look? I was sending the pictures to my friend Denis, who wrote the story and, as I moved it, I realized things kind of moved from picture to picture. I thought, "Oh, this could be kind of interesting." I showed it to Johannes and he gave me a copy stand. What I found interesting about the etchings was, after I had made the movie Noah, I wanted to make something that looked like nothing else and used no special effects. There are no effects in [the Wadsworth] film. It’s an 11-minute film. There are no effects other than the copy stand or the time of day, the way the light came in changing the color. There are a couple of fade-ins and fades out. But that’s it. There’s no zooming in or out. I would just move the camera down and reshoot it. I guess it’s similar to rotoscoping, but with etchings. You can make one print, then you have the plate, and you can throw it in the acid. I just developed these ways to use the acid as an erasure, to slightly change it, and then to dissolve it a little. So it was very specific.
Johannes DeYoung: How many prints did you make?
Sam Messer: I did almost 1,700. I did way over 2,000, but I didn’t use a lot of them.
Nicole Kaack: It’s a very old technique, that kind of erasure. Rembrandt, I think, used it.
Sam Messer: They didn’t use it really as erasure. They built up. The idea of open bite to erase is really, I think, started by William Blake. And also probably Dubuffet used a lot of experimenting. But I’m sure other people did it. I stumbled onto that accidentally, too, with Kiki Smith who works a lot at Columbia. We were doing a print one summer in Norfolk. The next summer we came back and I was convinced that we had put an aquatint over it, one of Kiki’s plates. We threw it in the acid and it was just dust. It got eaten away, but we really liked what happened. From then on, I just really developed how I could actually make states of prints. I wouldn't edition them, I would just print one, really fuck it up, and print another one. I think the etchings matched up to that story that’s at the Atheneum, which is a pirate story. In the 1700s, that was the way people made visual information to disseminate. It’s a great, an amazing way to get all kinds of information, and then you can do things with it. I think Goya also did some. Goya would make prints and he would draw on top of his etchings. So he would touch them up, he would change them.
Johannes DeYoung: You get a quality of line with etching that I don’t think you would get otherwise, right? You can see that in the Wadsworth piece.
Sam Messer: I’m really interested in mark-making as a grammar. An etching line is like no other.
Johannes DeYoung: That’s very different from the process that Natalie and I pursued. Everything here is layered and composited to a unifying state. In a way, our process was to synthesize a lot of different styles and materials. But the thing that’s really great about Sam’s Denis the Pirate film is the purity of line is just undeniable. You just see the line in a way that you can’t possibly ever see it in this video.
Nicole Kaack: The movement of the lines in this video are really interesting. That’s the difference as well between the render and all the different styles. I remember a very particular segment where it’s zooming through clips of a face, but the face is drawn in many different styles. There’s one that seems to follow Van Gogh where the curls are more present. And then another that is a more representational rendition.
Johannes DeYoung: Those are drawings that I have made over years. I found a pile of drawings that seemed to relate to what we were doing, and incorporated them into it. That’s the thing about this way of working: we can really bring any type of source material into sequence, as long as it fits within a structural and narrative framework. It all made sense together although it didn’t begin as one thing.
Nicole Kaack: That becomes another way that the work thinks about a time or a narrative. It is now, in some way, an auto-biographical document as well.
Johannes DeYoung: Yeah, and actually —I don’t think you would get this in the work so much— an interesting thing about Knut Hamsun and a lot of writers that came after him is their relationship to fiction and autobiography and how he writes himself into the narrative at times. There are many times in the novel when you don’t know who’s speaking. It’s surreal. This is all proto-surrealism as aliterary and structural device. It’s something that I think was informing the work, too.
Nicole Kaack: I wonder if you could both speak to your collaborative practices? With Natalie, but also in terms of at least being resources to each other?
Johannes DeYoung: Natalie’s really the only artist that I’ve directly collaborated with. Our greatest collaboration is that we made a daughter together. But we’ve done two projects together, this being the second one. I am collaborating with a musician for the first time right now and I’m excited about that.
Nicole Kaack: On an animated piece as well?
Johannes DeYoung: Yeah. His name is Jack Vees, and I’m doing work in response to one of his 10-piece percussion scores. We have a different way of working. It’s basically like call-and-response, where he sends me a sample of a file, then I make a little bit to send back to him, and we keep sharing like that. We’ve been working like that since August.
Nicole Kaack: How would you say that’s different from the kind of exquisite-corpse mode that you were discussing?
Johannes DeYoung: Well, Natalie and I have studios right next to each other, so we’re often able to work right on top of each other’s work. Most of the drawings for this video are no larger than five by seven [inches] in scale. They’re very small. We’ll have a stack of cards and, to be very literal, it might be that I draw through a stack of cards like a line and get a motion path, or the spine of a character or a leaf that’s moving. Then Natalie will draw on top of that. She’ll flesh out an idea, then give me the stack back. And then I’ll draw on top of that. That’s the style that we used. It’s not too different from the last time we collaborated, where we were doing that with collage. We photographed a model and then we painted and drew on top of the photographs and then in the end we cut the photographs apart and they became individual frames of an animation. It feels more immediate the way Natalie and I have worked together. This other collaboration feels like a completely different type of process.
Nicole Kaack: [to Sam] And you, as well, worked with several people on the Denis the Pirate video. Have you collaborated with people before in that way?
Sam Messer: I get inspired by people more than I collaborate. I did some projects with another writer, Jonathan Safran Foer, where we’d work on the same drawings. I collaborate with other people where once a year we’ll make a two-part drawing – you draw a half of one person and the other one draws a half. That’s probably the most collaborative work I do. I’m going to be starting, hopefully, working in a bigger film collaboration with animation, which would be more of the parts that Denis the Pirate led me into. I had this story that was written for my daughter that I had for a long time. Then I met some musicians, Sarah Neufeld and Colin Stetson. It was great to learn about music and figure out how to do the visuals with Johannes. After that I also met someone who can help me as an editor. I love that idea of collaboration because I think everyone can get more information in their brains from someone else. Then it makes you actually think about the things you do differently or challenges your work. I find it really inspiring.
Johannes DeYoung: I would say the visual part of your work is you.
Sam Messer: Yeah, the visual part has always been me. Except in some of the drawings with Jonathan, because we actually would collage together. Go over back and forth. And I’ve been doing some work with [Sherry], where we started to pass a drawing back and forth. But I find that somewhat difficult.
Nicole Kaack: Why so?
Sam Messer: I think if we were in the same room doing it, it would be better.
Nicole Kaack: Because it can be more of an actual conversation?
Sam Messer: Yeah, it’s just like talking to the person at the same time because then we just talk about something else, and it gives me an idea.
Johannes DeYoung: You might think that filmmaking is inherently collaborative because you have a team of people and they all have roles and they’re all contributing to a whole. Theater is the same. But those are different models. They’re top-down. There’s a director and then there are roles that kind of fit within. That interests me to a point, but it’s not something that, as an artist, I’m that interested in being involved in. But more of something that comes from the bottom up, where we don’t really know what it’s going to be until we get near the end or we get to a kind of turning point in the work, and it informs us as artists. Which is a very different and not as financially feasible model. I don’t think there would be a film industry if that was how it went.
Sam Messer: I think most people in this room have come from this idea that as artists we’re either individual geniuses that do everything ourselves, or maybe you go into this other field where you collaborate. I remember going to the Peter Paul Rubens show at the Met, maybe 10 years ago. There were some drawings there where you actually saw that he would draw with his friends. Or he would go to his friend and say, “Can you fix the shoulder?” There was also a history since the late 1600s, 1700s, of these double portraits, where people would draw themselves. They would draw, say, a relative, and then that person would draw the other person within the drawing. So that idea of actually working on people’s drawings is very old.
Nicole Kaack: Or even "the studio of..." is something that disrupts that whole idea of the private practice.
Sam Messer: But I guess in America, it’s appropriate if you think of the Blue Poles painting. I think that’s the classic. Do you all know Pollock’s Blue Poles, 1952, painting? For years, everyone said, “Oh, it’s not worth anything because he didn’t paint the blue stripes,” right? He didn’t put the poles in. Supposedly Tony Smith put the poles in. Could a Pollock be worth anything if someone else actually touched it and did some part of it? I think for a long time, the answer was considered, “No, of course not.” You realize that this idea of people working together has been going on all around the world forever. It’s only in this particular period in this country that the idea of the unique touch is so important.
Nicole Kaack: Do you think that’s an American spirit?
Sam Messer: I don't know. I don’t know enough to say if it’s American. I just know as an American growing up in that time period, it was preached.
Nicole Kaack: Speaking of that, do you maybe want to talk a little bit about your Years of the Cock project?
Sam Messer: Oh, yeah. I don't know if anyone knows. You can go to YearsoftheCock.com if you want to know more about it. It really came out of making these other films. Mike Rader, who is another really amazing artist, told me that Petzel Gallery, right after the election, had this show where anyone who made an animation or video since the inauguration could submit it. He said, “Why don’t you make one?” So I made one. And I just kept making them every night for the first 100 days of Trump. That actually was really interesting to me because these others were etchings, they were really… but for Years of the Cock, they were all made on my iPhone with iMotion. I would make drawings, take screenshots off the TV and pictures from the internet of Trump grabbing someone’s genitals. I would find things, smash it together, and then you can hold your phone up over a computer and add music. And I collaborated with Johnny Cash on this, and with many other people. I learned that Johnny Cash is the hardest music to get on Instagram or Facebook. It’s pulled immediately. David Bowie, no problem. It was really interesting to see. Then I realized that if you sang with it, you can slip things through. So I started actually adding my voice to them, first just so they wouldn’t be pulled off.
One night I kept posting the same movie every night, and I got this message from someone, “What are you doing?” I never did Instagram before this. I think Johannes or someone told me you can put them on Instagram. So I started making them and putting them up, but I never watched them. When I finally started to watch them, I saw that it kept getting cut off. And I kept thinking it wasn’t uploading, because I make so many versions. And then I get it — no, they can only be a minute. From there on, I just made them a minute. But it’d take me three hours, four hours a night. And I would do them watching the news.
Johannes DeYoung: I learned that Sam could sing during that process.
Nicole Kaack: Had you ever performed before?
Sam Messer: Yes. In high school, for one week.
Nicole Kaack: [to Johannes] Do you want to talk a little bit about next steps?
Johannes DeYoung: I’ve been working on a project with this composer, Jack Vees, and I’m trying to loop Natalie into that because our conversation is going in this direction that I think would interest her, but I have yet to convince her totally that she should sink her time into it. Beyond that, I don't know.
Nicole Kaack: How about you, Sam?
Sam Messer: I showed in the B3 Biennial the first three stanzas of a poem Denis Johnson wrote in response to my paintings back in 1982, so I want to make the last six stanzas. To that, that’s another way I collaborate. I actually am fortunate to have Liev Schreiber do this narration. It’s really interesting to have someone at that level do real narration where we are discussing different ways of actually delivering it. I want to do that. I’m hopefully going to work on another project that will animate a book. But that’s a longer thing...
Nicole Kaack: Well, I’d like to open it up to questions now.
Jon Kessler: I don’t know what B3 is.
Johannes DeYoung: It’s a moving image biennial in Frankfurt, Germany.
Sam Messer: And a vitamin, too. Can I ask someone in the audience a question? I want to ask Jon: what got you to make things move? Why did you want to make things move to begin with?
Jon Kessler: Sam and I go way back. I moved here in 1981. There weren’t that many of us there, so we would all search each other out. I was always —as a kid— really good at taking things apart. I wasn’t so good at putting them back together. But I was always interested in figuring out how things worked. My brother is an engineer. I didn’t have the math and science skills to go that direction, which was probably good for me, because I became an artist instead. But as soon as I got to art school, someone introduced me to Experiments in Art and Technology, which was the movement in the ‘60s where they paired artists with engineers. You had people like Andy Warhol and Robert Indiana or even Turrell working with engineers. From that point on, I realized that it was much more interesting to me to see things shifting, constantly moving, instead of the static image. If the Pictures generation, which was just before us, was making pictures of pictures, I wanted to make things of things. The things of things that I wanted to make were going to animate, they’d be alive, and they’d shift. You’d look at them and they would be constantly moving. That was it. I never looked back. I always stuck motors in them. Calder was a big influence, and Jean Tinguely.
Sam Messer: Do you also still have your toy company?
Jon Kessler: Yeah, there was a point when things tanked for me in the art world — I didn’t have a gallery, I wasn’t showing. Things were really dismal. You knew Larry Mangel, right? This dealer in Philadelphia had started a toy company. He came to me and we used to go to toy fairs together. So for about 10 years, we had this toy company. Probably the longest-lasting interesting toy is a Laurie Simmons dollhouse, called the Kaleidoscope House. Her daughter is one of the action figures that you can play in the dollhouse. It’s kind of a collectible now.
Johannes DeYoung: Were you working with other artists to make these toys?
Jon Kessler: Yeah, Nara, the Japanese artist. Daniel Oates, who used to show at 303. Matt Mullican designed a toy. Did you ever do one [to Sam]? We had like 20 SKUs at one point. It was a real company. And then we tanked...
Nicole Kaack: If there’s no other questions, thank you both for having this conversation.
Johannes DeYoung: Thanks for coming!