JOHANNES DEYOUNG / SAM MESSER
Moderated and text by Nicole Kaack
January 11, 2018
Following is an excerpt of a conversation between De Young, Messer, and Kaack. For the full transcript, please follow this link.
Nicole Kaack: 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.
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.
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.