Interview with Jacqueline Goss
By Penny Lane
Penny Lane is a filmmaker and video artist whose work has shown at International Film Festival Rotterdam, Images Festival, Women in the Director’s Chair, AFI FEST, Antimatter, Impakt, and the Museum of Modern Art’s “Documentary Fortnight.” Her video-essay The Commoners (2009), made with Jessica Bardsley, appears in the second issue of INCITE. www.p-lane.com
Image: Still from How to Fix the World (Jacqueline Goss, 2004). Courtesy of the artist and Penny Lane.
Have you ever wondered what would happen if someone with a sense of humor decided to make experimental videos that combined social issue documentary with the personal essay genre using Flash animation?
Okay, so you probably haven’t wondered that. Luckily, Jacqueline Goss has.
Over the past decade, Goss has produced an important body of work that challenges as much as it defines the growing genre of “animated documentary.” Her videos often focus on people who try to objectively measure the world and its inhabitants, the differences between oral and written language, and clashes of worldviews. In There There Square (2002), she takes a look at the interesting failures of mapmakers, especially the cartographers who tried to pin down America. In How To Fix The World (2004), Goss ponders the mixed results of a Soviet educational program trying to bring literacy and socialist ideology to Muslim farmers in Central Asia. In Stranger Comes to Town (2007), she focuses on the subjective experience of people undergoing a biometric screening process that is supposed to objectively measure identity.
Goss offers real insight into the human condition using a primary tool (Flash) more commonly employed for slick corporate websites. I joined Goss in her living room in April 2010 for a cup of tea and some questions about how she came to her unique approach to storytelling, how she merges the artificial and the real, and what she’s working on now. There was a slight sense of danger about the whole conversation, as I had to restrain my normal response to her quiet but lethal jokes so that I would not wake her two-year-old son napping upstairs. I did my best.
Image: Still from The 100th Undone (Jacqueline Goss, 2000). Courtesy of the artist and Penny Lane.
PL: How did you start making videos?
JG: I wasn’t really an art kid. I was more of a band geek. I played clarinet and was pretty serious about music. And then I dropped that like a hot potato when I got to college. I was pretty intrigued by movies, and when I got to Brown [for undergraduate studies], I knew I wanted to take a film class.
PL: So you hadn’t worked in visual media at all at that time?
JG: No, not at all. I think about that a lot. My approach to moving images came more out of music, and sound, and writing. For me, it wasn’t really about the visual that much, at least initially. [Laughs.] Isn’t that funny? I sometimes feel guilty that the visual aspects [of film and video] sometimes end up feeling kind of tertiary to me. Text and sound just come so much more easily to me than really crafting images.
PL: So did you end up taking that film class?
JG: Yep. Brown’s a really funny place where–maybe this has changed, I don’t know–all the film and video production is housed in the Modern Media and Culture Department, and more notoriously, the Semiotics Department. So you had to take at least one theory course before you could take a production course. It would be like, “Introduction to Coding of Narrativity.” [Laughs.] You would read Lacan and watch The Terminator (1984), so you could apply these monster theories. And then the next semester, they would set you loose with 16mm Bolex cameras. And, of course, that’s really dangerous, because then you have all these nineteen year olds running around saying things like, “I wanna make a film about The Lack!” or “It’s about suture!” [Laughs.] And all the films would be just so terrible.
PL: Was Leslie Thornton, who teaches film production at Brown, an early mentor?
JG: Leslie Thornton was amazing. She was completely inspiring to me as a maker and as a person. She really opened things up for me. I went to a screening of her work recently, and it reminded me how great [her work] is. It’s so smart and so playful. In these films she made twenty-odd years ago, she was able to create unbelievably rich soundtracks using only two elements. I still think she’s boss.
PL: Were there videos you made as an undergrad that you still think about in relation to your work now, or was it more a time of experimentation and moving on?
JG: I think more the latter. I went through a lot of growing pains with that work, because of that kind of forced relationship between cultural theory and film production. My senior project was a 16mm essay film about… oh God, what was it about? It was about the commercialization of art made in Fascist Germany. God, it was really didactic. Leslie Thornton was gone my senior year, but I showed it to her when she came back. And I remember her watching it and not saying anything, then saying, “Let’s go have a cup of tea.” [Laughs.] We went to her office, and we had our tea, and finally she just told me: it wasn’t very good. I was crestfallen, but she was right. It was a mess, but that’s how you learn.
PL: I was surprised when I came across a reference to Perfect Video (1989) in William Wees’ book Recycled Images. I think you made it as an undergrad? Does that video still exist somewhere?
JG: It’s hysterical that you found that. I like that film a lot. It’s [comprised of] outtakes from news coverage of the Reagan assassination attempt. Brown had a juried film show every spring, and I didn’t have anything to show. I worked in the media services department, and I found this footage just sitting on a shelf. It was so mysterious to me, and I didn’t understand why it existed or why it was on that shelf. I showed it to my friend Brian Goldberg, who really liked it too. And since he didn’t have anything to show, either, we decided to submit it to the juried film show, in this sort of naughty way. Brian was the one who came up with the name, in reference to Ken Jacobs’ Perfect Film (1986). We got in the show, and there were some people who thought that was pretty shitty. [Laughs.] It circulated around a bit, and probably had its biggest reception in the Wees show. I may have the video somewhere on ¾ inch. You know, it had its life and it kind of died, but I love that you found it.
PL: What made you decide to go to graduate school at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute [in Troy, New York]? Can you describe what the electronic arts program at RPI was like then?
JG: It’s an MFA program housed in an engineering school. There was an equal emphasis on electronic music and other forms of media like video. It was really nice for me to have to think about sound again in a serious way. This was in 1994 or 1995, and things were starting to cook a little bit with new media. I wanted to learn to do things I didn’t know how to do. I remember my first week at RPI, someone told me to look at their website and said, “I’ll give you the URL.” And I had no idea what a URL was. He started giving me all these letters, “H, T, T, P…” and I’m writing it all down diligently, thinking, I have no fucking idea what this is. [Laughs.] But then of course within the semester, I was making interactive work myself.
I graduated from RPI in 1997 or 1998. It was a good time for me to have the kinds of skills I got from RPI, because if you looked at the College Arts Association catalog that year, it was full of these goofy ads saying, “We’re looking for someone who can teach how to make home pages.” [Laughs.] Anyway, I got a job at MassArt [Massachusetts College of Art in Boston] that my friend Elisabeth Subrin told me about, and I loved it, loved it, loved it. My colleagues were Saul Levine, Mark LaPore, Lana Lin, and Erika Beckman. They were all so inspiring to me as makers. I was at MassArt for three and a half years, and I have to say: that was my art school education.
PL: There There Square and The 100th Undone (2000) are favorites of mine and I think similar formally even as they tell very different stories. Can you describe your inspiration for those two pieces?
JG: The 100th Undone is a love letter to the individual in the age of biotechnical reproduction. I made The 100th Undone around the time of Dolly the cloned sheep and decoding the human genome. That tape was about technologies of reproduction, some of which are obsolete and some which aren’t. I used Super 8, and Amiga Computer video effects, and 1970s tube video cameras… just a lot of great old [antiquated] junk lying around MassArt. On the Amiga computer, there was a program called [Video] Toaster that had a bunch of just awful wipe patterns. One of the wipe patterns was made of all these sheep falling from the sky to the bottom of the screen. And I thought, who would ever need a fucking video wipe made of sheep falling? Then I realized, Oh my God, I need that! [Laughs.]
Image: Still from There There Square (Jacqueline Goss, 2002). Courtesy of the artist and Penny Lane.
There There Square is about the history of mapmaking. It’s about maps, and a kind of bird’s-eye perspective that seems objective but is really just as subjective as anything else. I was interested in the flaws of mapmaking, and the problems associated with trying to make a round object into a flat image, for example.
PL: One thing that seems a signature of your work is the way you slip between the first, second, and third person. Am I right that you started doing that with those two works?
JG: Yeah, that’s true. It’s a device that I first used in The 100th Undone, which is all in the second person. I’ve always liked the second person, because it’s sort of an ersatz first person. I feel like I can still speak as myself, but it sounds less precious, or less pretentious.
PL: When did you figure out what you were doing?
JG: Ha! Do you know what you’re doing, Penny? [Laughs.] I think The 100th Undone was actually the first thing I was happy with and felt really good about showing. [Figuring out what I was doing] was, for me, kind of about learning how to use my brain, but also how to turn it off a little bit. And I think that for me, it was about learning how to really craft images. Before that, all the work I made in graduate school for instance (i.e. Trifle Trilogy, 1996-1999), I made the soundtrack first. So I’d completely finish the sound first, and then make images to kind of color it in and illustrate. Which is a great way to work, but it doesn’t make you do that thing where you create an image that works, even if you can’t understand or can’t explain why it works. Do you know what I mean? I think The 100th Undone was the first time that felt like I was starting to be able to do that, to really learn how to craft images.
PL: You often take on ideas from science. Do you think that going to a graduate program in art at a science university influenced you?
JG: Yeah, I do. I think it was an influence on the kinds of stories I am attracted to still. It’s funny, talking to you now, I can see how, oh yeah, that part of me came from Brown, and that came from RPI, and that came from MassArt. It’s good to move around!
PL: Tell me about How to Fix the World. How did you become interested in the Soviet literacy program in Uzbekistan?
JG: I think of it as an adaptation of a cognitive science book, Cognitive Development: Its Cultural and Social Foundations, by A.R. Luria. Luria was a cognitive scientist working in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. The book has transcriptions of conversations between Luria and his subjects, people who were illiterate or just learning how to read in Central Asia in the 1930s. It’s all about these two logic systems–literacy and orality–meeting and smashing up against each other. Speaking and writing are really different. And of course there’s a whole other thing happening, which is Soviet culture coming up against Islamic culture.
Image: Still from How to Fix the World (Jacqueline Goss, 2004). Courtesy of the artist and Penny Lane.
Something like 20% of people knew how to read in Central Asia at the time. Under the Soviet program, people came to the collective farms and taught people how to read. But you can’t but help indoctrinate people to a certain degree when you do that. You can kind of detect that in Luria’s book, the Soviet indoctrination. That’s what I was interested in, that conflict [between two cultures].
I loved that book. I had it on my shelf for many years, and always wanted to do a project with it. I think maybe my skill set finally caught up with the idea, to the point where I could do it the way I wanted to do it.
PL: I think lots of artists have a hard time figuring out what to do with a book they like. How did you decide how to approach and structure How to Fix the World?
JG: Yeah, right, like The Orchid Thief. [Laughs.] I thought a lot about the problem of adapting a book. I knew the conversations were great, but I didn’t know how to show them. I kicked around so many ideas, and finally I decided to do animation. I found a great book by the Soviet photographer Max Penson full of images taken on the collective farms in Uzbekistan. I loved those images, because they had an imprint of a kind of Soviet style that I wanted in the piece. I began working with those photographs and learning how to animate them in Flash. Then it started to cook. It took me about an hour to animate one minute. With animation, you sort of have to work backwards, and build your soundtrack first. But I liked hearing voices and thinking about them as sonic events and not as transcriptions on a page. That worked really well for me.
PL: Something I read recently was that the definition of “wisdom” is knowing what’s important. How did the residents of the kishlak differ in their understanding of what was important from the literacy instructors?
JG: There’s an emphasis on practicality and immediacy in oral culture, an immediate relationship to what’s right in front of you. The literacy teachers were teaching ideas that were more abstract, ideas that weren’t right in front of you. And the literacy teachers were also more concerned about the right way to do things, not just for you, but for everybody. Sometimes that wasn’t so great [for Central Asia], like when the Soviets drained the Aral Sea for irrigation, which was supposed to be the best thing for the most people, but it wasn’t. Draining the Aral Sea caused one of the worst ecological disasters of the last century. I think it’s a lot about that scale, what’s good for the individual versus what’s considered best for the larger good.
PL: Is How to Fix the World a critique of development work?
JG: I think [in some ways] yes, and to be honest I feel a little bad about that. I showed the tape at a conference in New York, where there were all these scholars on Central Asia. There was one woman who had done her PhD on those literacy programs, and she actually burst into tears. She was saying, “there’s so much [good] that you’re not addressing in your film.” I felt terrible. Of course, the piece is limited in its scope. But I stand by my critique.
PL: Tell me about Stranger Comes to Town. How did you become aware of the U.S. Visit program, and how did you find your approach to this piece?
JG: It’s a documentary about U.S. Visit, a biometric system that visitors to the U.S. have to go through at airport security. It started off as a more straightforward documentary about biometrics more generally. I did a ton of research into fingerprint analysis, and iris scans, all this stuff. And that was only half the project! The other half was going to be about the history of the metric system. Somehow that was all gonna be in the same movie. [Laughs.] Then I whittled it down to these six interviews I had done with people who had experienced U.S. Visit. And that was much better, to focus more on the subjective experience. Each of the interviews was anonymous, and like in How to Fix the World, I had to come up with a visual strategy for that. So I asked each person I interviewed to design an avatar in World of Warcraft. And that’s what you’re dealing with, these animated avatars that tell you these stories about U.S. Visit.
Image: Still from Stranger Comes to Town (Jacqueline Goss, 2007). Courtesy of the artist and Penny Lane.
What I love about [working in animated documentary] is the textures and cadences of the voices. When you hear voices without the accompanying images, you hear all this stuff in these voices that you might miss otherwise. You can hear class, you can hear age, you can hear race and sexual preference. You know, we’ve gotten really good as a species at making over our surfaces. We know how to fix our hair and our skin, but our voices are pretty unguarded. I really love that, and I think that worked really well in Stranger.
PL: What is World of Warcraft, for the uninitiated? Why did you choose that platform?
JG: It’s an online multiplayer video game. You buy an account and you can log on and make your own avatar and interact with all these people around the world that are playing this game with you. And it’s a little bit Lord of the Rings-y, so you can be an orc, or an elf, or a human, or whatever. None of the people I interviewed picked a human avatar. [Laughs.] When you spend a lot of time in World of Warcraft, you’re looking at 3D modeled worlds that are all surface. It’s not like if you poke a hole in an avatar, you’re looking at organs and bones. They’re just texture maps. And the thing that [connected it to] biometrics for me is that it’s kind of the same thing. You’re saying, here’s this person, and I don’t need to know what’s inside them. I only need to be able to read their surfaces to identify them. If I have their fingerprint and a retinal scan, I know who they are. Also, the graphics in World of Warcraft are really beautiful. And there was a visual idea of landscape, of people crossing boundaries and moving across landscapes.
Image: Still from Stranger Comes to Town (Jacqueline Goss, 2007). Courtesy of the artist and Penny Lane.
PL: Speaking of real and artificial, one thing I’ve always wondered is that about twenty minutes into Stranger, there are digital images of landscapes with some kind of named boundary lines. Are those from Google Earth or World of Warcraft?
JG: I’m so glad you asked me that. I love that sequence. It’s a series of bird’s-eye view images from World of Warcraft, and they just seamlessly go into bird’s-eye view images from Google Earth. You can’t tell where the fake animated images stop and the real photographic images start. The images you’re talking about are disputed, one is Palestine and one is in Kashmir. And they have disputed borders, so they’re marked in Google Earth as “Treaty of Such and Such.” And there’s also an image of a big redacted square along the border of Canada. Just a big black square. I don’t know why it’s redacted, but it’s a beautiful image.
PL: I remember at the Flaherty Seminar in 2006, there was someone who said, in response to your work, that there was just no way a digital image from a video game could ever be beautiful.
JG: Yeah... I remember that. [Laughs.]
PL: Well, he was wrong. I want to ask about the second person again, which you use in Stranger Comes to Town, but only in three short sections that I know you added toward the very end of editing. Why did you insert those?
JG: I was trying to think about what it might feel like to go through this kind of identity processing, because of course I haven’t experienced [U.S. Visit]. And I think going to the doctor is sort of like that. You go to the doctor and you say all this stuff, but it doesn’t really matter what you say, because the doctor’s going to glean the information he wants directly from your body.
PL: Tell me about your newest project, Observatory. [Editor’s Note: This is the working title for a piece that is currently in development.]
JG: It’s a portrait of a weather observatory at the top of Mount Washington in New Hampshire. Since 1938, the staff has gone out every hour to measure the wind speed, temperature, visibility, and so on. And they do this religiously, no matter what the weather is like. It can get pretty extreme up there. The world’s fastest wind speed was recorded up there in 1938. That record only just got broken this year by a typhoon in Australia. Anyway, it’s a two-parter, in that it will take place first in the winter and then in the summer. Four of us went up [this past January]. We paid to take a Bombardier tractor up to the top of that mountain. It was right out of The Shining (1980). [Laughs.]
PL: How did you get interested in the subject? How did you decide on an approach?
JG: It certainly ties into my interest in measuring, but I also grew up in the shadow of that mountain. I think it’s the most beautiful and extreme and surprising place I’ve ever been in my life, and it’s basically in my hometown. [Laughs.] I also knew I wanted to try to work with other people again, which I hadn’t done in a while, and it seemed like a project where I could use other people’s talents well. For example, Dani Leventhal, who’s a really great video artist, plays the weather observer.
PL: Why did you want to have Dani portray a weather observer instead of following a real weather observer?
JG: I’ve been more and more interested in narrative over the last few years, and inspired by filmmakers like Bresson, and Bunuel’s Obscure Object of Desire (1977), and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. That kind of formal experimentation with story is really interesting to me, and it’s kind of hard to do without some money. And then, well, I got some money from the Herb Alpert award, and then I also got some money from what might have been the last round of [media arts] grants from the Rockefeller Foundation. Since my son was born, it’s kind of just been sitting in a bank account. And this seemed like a project I could spend some money on. [Laughs.]
PL: I love that calculus of possibility and outcomes.
JG: Yeah, but there you go. That’s kind of how it works.
PL: The film sounds like a pretty big departure from the kind of work you’re more known for. For example, there are no animations or text, and it’s shot on film. Where do you find your comfort, the place where you feel like you know what you’re doing with it?
JG: Well, there is one tiny animation! [Laughs.] Not much of it is comfortable for me, to tell you the truth. It’s all pretty new to me. But I also think that having a child kind of shook me up emotionally and intellectually, in a good way. I think having a kid makes a part of your brain turn off for some time, and I wasn’t able to make anything for a little while after Ben was born. But then something switched, and I wanted to change it up and try something really different.
PL: What are the best and worst parts of being an artist for you now? What has gotten easier over time and has anything gotten harder?
JG: Hmm. I can’t think of anything that’s gotten easier. I don’t think it’s any easier. I think if it were, that would be sad. I mean, who wants to just keep making the same kind of stuff over and over?
PL: I think lots of people do!
JG: Really, you think so?
PL: Sure. Because they’re successful doing one thing, and they want to make sure they’re successful again, so they kind of repeat themselves.
JG: I guess you’re right. I think that’s sad, though.
PL: Personally, I think the best thing about making documentaries is that you get to feel like an expert in really random things you never knew could be interesting.
JG: Yeah, we’re like professional dilettantes, right? Then you can move on and do something else when you get bored. Maybe you’re right; maybe that’s the best part. Maybe in ten years I’ll want to do it some other way and I’ll be a painter or a composer. But for now, I don’t know any other way to communicate certain things that bang around in my head, you know?
PL: How does your teaching career work or not work with your art practice?
JG: I feel lucky that I’ve never really had a conflict with that. I know a lot of people who just hate teaching because it’s such a time sucker. But for the most part, I feel like those two things have coexisted really well for me. I think I learn from teaching, from my students, from my colleagues. Sometimes I say things in class that I’m not really sure are right, and then I realize, maybe I have to think more about those things, and figure out if they are right or not! [Laughs.] I think it’s great to develop a way of structuring knowledge for others, and then for yourself as well.
PL: What other artists are you excited about right now?
JG: The last thing I saw that I was really excited about was Ben Russell’s film Let Each One Go Where He May (2009). I was totally entranced. Dani Leventhal’s work is also really amazing.
PL: Anything we forgot?
JG: No, I can’t say we did, actually! That was pretty exhaustive. I’ve never done that before. It’s kind of freaking me out. You ever wake up from a really strong dream and you can’t remember where you are in your life? How old am I? Where do I live? What do I do? Why do I do what I do? [Laughs.] Thanks, though. This was fun.
Published August 2, 2010