The acclaimed update to John Berger's 'Ways of Seeing' series is like a who's who of contemporary artists you need to know now.
Episodes 1 and 2 of artist Lorna Mills' Ways of Something compilation shook the art community in 2014, receiving well-deserved praise by both audiences and media outlets alike. For her digital art update of John Berger's seminal 4-part Ways of Seeing BBC documentary series, the Toronto-based artist employed some of the most creative forces currently working on the internet to assemble a stunning video “patchwork” with surgical precision. Bringing together the best and brightest in web-based creativity, Mills gave carte blanche to a stellar, carefully curated roster of artists, allowing each of them to transfigure their signature aesthetics and mediums into one-minute loops, the results of which comprise her series of 30-minute video mashups.
3D renders, GIFs, film remixes, webcam performances, websites, and more combine for Mills' deconstructed reappropriation of Berger's critique of western artistic traditions and cultural aesthetics. The result is a one-of-a-kind insight into internet era art-making processes, perfectly synchronized with the 1972 series' narration. Through this uncanny video series, Mills expounds on the evolution of the creative disciplines and the ways in which art has been perceived by both artists and audiences since the dawn of the internet.
In order to gain insight into the origins of the project, and its curatorial and creative processes, The Creators Project spoke with Mills while she readied the premiere of the third episode, slated for launch in February.
The Creators Project: Why did you choose Ways of Seeing as a starting point? Can you describe the details that you find interesting and important to apply to your creative process?
Lorna Mills: A bit of a long story: last year I was invited by The One Minutes in Amsterdam to curate a program of one minute screening videos on any theme I chose. I originally was trying to come up with something that involved GIF artists, but animated GIFs don’t really lend themselves to a one minute time frame so all my ideas felt very arbitrary and forced. While this problem of what to do was in the back of my mind, one of my Facebook friends, Jaakko Pallasvuo, happened to post a link to a YouTube file of Ways of Seeing Episode 1, dryly remarking that it had “exactly the same premise as all those dematerialized/rematerialized image-objects in the circulated network post internet group shows that keep happening every 2 months but this is just more elegantly and clearly presented and 40 yrs earlier [sic].”
I read the book version years ago like almost every other art student, but I didn’t know that the BBC production had preceded it. I watched the first episode and had a eureka moment only because it had been closed captioned. A minute-by-minute remake without captions would have just resulted in a pile of vignettes by a bunch of different artists, and that didn’t excite me at all. Instead I saw the text captions as a way to magnify the discontinuity visually, yet also unite it all. Basically I saw the potential for some structural tension that would make the project really interesting.
Through Ways of Something you describe the “cacophonous conditions of art-making after the internet.” Can you expand on this idea a little more?
“After the internet” has become a bit of a cliché now, but it does serve as a shorthand for some current conditions that many artists are working with especially those with an on-line practice. Obviously there is a distinction to be made between the top-down delivery of the mass media that Berger was describing and the more lateral networked culture we have now, but there are still so many similarities. Or, perhaps its better to say that many of his observations are still pertinent to art making today.
I can’t say that I ever intended the project to be either a tribute or a parody of the original documentary, I just thought of it as a vehicle for a small selection of contemporary digital art practices and an interesting way to present art history.
Can you describe your workflow?
The first one was the hardest. There is a lot of prep work involved on my end—the first step is downloading the YouTube version and dividing the whole episode into separate minutes, rendering a separate sound file for each minute and then transcribing the captions to text files. None of the four episodes were exactly x number of minutes so I had to find places in the source video where I could shave off several seconds before it could be divided into full minutes. I then uploaded all the sections so that the artists could view the choices.
The most work was communicating with so many artists while on a tight deadline. Once I had confirmed the exact number of artists I needed, I sent them a link to watch all the available minutes, then on a designated day and time I shared a sign-up doc and let them grab their minute on a first come, first serve basis. I should have screen captured the process because over half of the artists were reading and editing that document as soon as it was released. Once the artists chose their minutes, I sent each of them the sound file and a text file with their captions.
I tried to make it as painless as possible for them. It was important that the artists select the minute that gave them the most ideas for their approach; for me to choose for anyone would have felt too presumptuous and a little bit like an art school assignment.
Reassembling the finished minutes into a full episode involved stripping out the sound, laying them on the video tracks in order, putting in a master sound track, grabbing screen captures, and creating the credits. Unfortunately video codecs can be tricky, and some compressions will add a few frames, so there were a few adjustments that had to be made to fit everything together. The artists used a wide variety of video editing tools so sometimes Mac files wouldn’t open in my editing software on my Windows OS. My biggest fear was that I would ruin someone’s work in the final product.
How did you manage to keep the connection between images and the script/text while allowing the images to make sense alongside the words? How did you keep the true essence of John Berger’s documentary?
That isn’t me—I just define a structure to work within, and it’s the artists bringing everything important to the project. I’ve never acted as a director. I invite artists and accept the visual decisions that they make for their minute (unless someone asked me for my opinion on something).
In my initial letter of invitation, I did warn them that the whole thing could end up looking like a ridiculous clusterfuck, but indicated that I would be delighted with those results too. If we erred in this project it would be on the side of exuberance and some irreverence. I didn’t ask the artists to illustrate the text; they were free to contradict the content if they wanted to. I’d never make the claim that we kept the true essence of the original documentary.
There were tech specs of course, but more importantly there were rules: they couldn’t use the original's footage, they had to use the soundtrack I gave them as their guide, they had to caption their clips, and I requested that they try to avoid transitions at the beginning and end of their minute. If anyone had a good reason to break those rules, they had to talk to me, I didn’t want the original footage used because I wanted to avoid any visual redundancy, and the captioning was non negotiable. In episode one, Hector Llanquin asked if he could translate his text to Spanish, and I was really happy because I secretly hoped that some of the artists would want to change the captions to their native languages (but thought it would be patronizing of me to ask anyone to do it).
Once all the artists understood they were part of a whole, the pieces seemed to fall into place.
How did you choose your artist roster? Did you have any criteria?
Such a loaded question, because the criteria was always shifting and I have oodles of agendas and of course my own prejudices of taste. First of all, I wanted it gender-balanced because there is simply no reason why it shouldn’t be.
The first episode was mostly people who I had worked with in the past. I needed people who could deliver good work and on time. Once I had Episode 1 completed, it was easier to approach more artists that I didn’t know as well (and it was much easier to explain the project).
I also wanted it to be international. That was a bit more difficult—the majority of the participating artists are Canadian and American residents, though within those two countries it’s still a pretty diverse mix. There are also a lot of artists from Europe and South America. The age range of the artists is very broad as well, at different stages of their careers.
Though it has been described as a project consisting of net artists, that isn’t accurate. Obviously it is a digital video project, but there is the odd classical animator thrown in as well as a few photo-based video artists. I wasn’t really interested in a filmic type of practice for this project; I wanted artists who were actively exploiting digital technologies and internet sources.The participating artists have been extremely enthusiastic and very generous.
What's next for you and Ways Of Something?
Episode 4 is currently in production, so the whole series should be done for the spring.
After the four episodes are completed, I doubt that I’ll take on another project like this for a while. I want to come to a better understanding of my own part in this. I used the word ‘curator,’ but my motivations also have a lot to do with being an artist, and as an artist, the whole thing still feels like a work in progress. I’m really curious to see how it does finally pull together (or fall apart). Even though I’m obviously leading it, I don’t think I’ll feel like I am really a part of it until I complete my own minute.
Ways of Something - Episodes 1 and 2, curated by Lorna Mills and produced by The One Minutes, will be screened at The Photographers Gallery in London, UK, and followed by the premiere of Ways of Something Episode 3, on Thu 12 Feb.
Ways of Something Episode 3 Artists:
Minute #1 - Carine Santi-Weil
Minute #2 - Nicolas Sassoon
Minute #3 - Tom Sherman
Minute #4 - Kim Asendorf and Ole Fach
Minute #5 - Rafaela Kino
Minute #6 - Alex McLeod
Minute #7 - Kate Wilson and Lynne Slater
Minute # 8 - Aleksandra Domanović
Minute #9 - Systaime
Minute #10 - Erik Zepka
Minute #11 - Adam Ferriss
Minute #12 - Rodell Warner and Arnaldo James
Minute #13 - Debora Delmar
Minute #14 - Brenna Murphy
Minute #15 - Nick Briz
Minute #16 - Carlos Sáez
Minute #17 - Jenn E Norton
Minute #18 - Juliette Bonneviot
Minute #19 - Luis Nava
Minute #20 - Vince McKelvie
Minute #21 - Claudia Maté
Minute #22 - Evan Roth
Minute #23 - Shana Moulton
Minute #24 - Sabrina Ratté
Minute #25 - Jordan Tannahill
Minute # 26 - Vasily Zaitsev feat. MON3Y.us
Minute #27 - Ann Hirsch