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Harry Dodge

Sarah Sulistio

Harry Dodge, Frontage in Dreamtime, 2013. Polyethylene buckets, rigid foam, urethane resin, zebrawood planks, oil-based varathane, modeling clay, clamp, plexiglass, epoxy, acrylic sheeting. 37 x 38 x 25 in.

Writer and curator Sarah Sulistio talks to L.A.-based artist Harriet “Harry” Dodge about his video practice and participation in the upcoming biennial Made in L.A. 2014 (June 15 – September 7, 2014) at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Harry Dodge’s video Unkillable (2011) is featured in Video Container: Touch Cinema at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami (May 15 – July 6, 2014), organized by Sulistio. This interview was conducted over email.

SARAH SULISTIO: How did you begin creating time-based work?

HARRY DODGE: I loved stand-up throughout my childhood but I have always been quite an anxious person, so it took a good deal of time before I was able to let myself be the performer I wanted to be. In the early ‘90s, I cofounded The Bearded Lady, where I began MC’ing shows which allowed me to start making monologue-based performance extravaganzas. I would tell stories—like a perverse sort of Spalding Gray—layered with other media: contemporary dance, film, slides and live music. Making these was a tremendous amount of work, but taught me about cycling energy with an audience, the thrill of bodies in space, and the politics and economy of embodiment. The stakes are somehow clearer; every single body in the space at that moment is at issue and implicated when the artist is present and performing.

I started to realize how difficult a performance-only trajectory might be to sustain. I decided to try my hand at feature-filmmaking, and am self-taught. By Hook or by Crook, which I made with Silas Howard premiered at Sundance Film Festival 2002 and did well. I learned much during this time about the difference between cinematic performances and live ones. I learned that there are tools a filmmaker can use to reinstate—even fundamentally form—what the film is, specifically the control an edit can exert. Like a drumbeat, editing can be percussive; or in profusion, it becomes drone-like, a matrix, invisible again, like water to a fish. Conversely, I learned that pointing a camera at a good performance does not make a magnetic film. I saw the camera as a killer: a little box pointing at things and killing their energy, everything good and worthwhile suffocated and died, lost as it passed through the lens of this nasty transformer. I had to learn how to work with and against the camera, the remoteness of moving image. The ambivalence has only served to strengthen the work, my criticality. Turns out I didn’t like hewing so closely to the conventions of filmmaking or mainstream storytelling. As a mode and a way of life, I tend to overflow any bracketing that is set forth. Right then in 1999, I decided to get an MFA instead of continuing with Hollywood.

SULISTIO: Can you tell me more about The Bearded Lady?

DODGE: I co-founded and ran a community art space in S.F. for about 8 years, 1991-1999, this place called The Bearded Lady. It was the epicenter of a sort of very diverse, seriously fun-loving, crowd that might be characterized as punk, or DIY, post-separatist, queer-ish, inclusive, hilarious. It was a neighborhood coffeehouse and gallery. Bands played. We had performances at night, art on the walls, sold people’s zines, and home-made tshirts, and ran on a shoestring. It was an awesome experience, I recommend it to every young person. That was a wild time. We were incredibly anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian. I was busy with everything from AIDS activism to train-hopping, totally eschewing all versions of what might translate into success or even a clear-cut institutional education. It was a strange, staggering, awesome, liminal time for feminism, radicality, and queerness.

SULISTIO: And your collaborations with Stanya Kahn?

DODGE: We made quite a few videos together, starting in 2004 , a few of which I gather are considered to be part of a path-breaking tide of performative videos in the mid-2000s. The first few seemed strangely anti-art, playing with and poking fun at art and filmmaking conventions. At the time, narrative-based, performative video seemed much stranger than it does now. There was a feeling of, “Hey, you can’t do that. That’s sketch comedy, or something.” It was too comedic, some of it. But that’s really changed. Those old collaborative movies are farcical, satirizing narrative conventions, and playing with viewer expectations. No one talks about it, but most of them have some pretty heavy moments too, a creeping gravity. That’s always been important to me, how tragedy works within or is dissonant to tropes of comedy. The last thing we made together finished in 2008, in time for the Whitney Biennial.

SULISTIO: Your videos often star, as you call them, “ambiguously-gendered” characters. How does this reflect your own fluidly-gendered identity?

DODGE: By Hook or by Crook starred ambiguously-gendered characters, and then there was a long break from that. At Sundance, I was blown away by how the press objectified me. I was a handsome, you know, sort of macho butch with a natural beard, and no one could believe what they were seeing. There was too much attention on my beard; no one was focusing on the movie. I went into hiding after, not appearing in a video again (except for The Fudgesicle, 2003). Until just recently, I’ve disavowed a discussion of gender continuously and defensively. It’s true that the speaker in Unkillable, in which I wear a rubber clown mask, comes across as ambiguously-gendered, and I’m glad for that, since that piece is, among other things, a deep satire of the conventions of hetero-sex relations. Via a mask and a voice—not exactly attributable to maleness or femaleness—the speaking character can slip into and out of each of the subject positions described in the monologue.

A couple of years ago I started dealing more actively with gender expression. My body appearance now matches the one I’ve always imagined myself to have, (but that no one could see). I don’t look that different, more like, as Sadie Benning once said, “Just had to tip that shit over the edge.”

SULISTIO: Language and its perception is the fundamental core of your video practice. How do you utilize it as both subject and narrative structure?

DODGE: I have a love-hate relationship with language. I’ve always been seduced by words, covetous of them, acquisitive, lusty. I can’t not use them profusely, and it’s always been this way. Some of the videos experiment with how powerful, in terms of the corporeal, an image made from language can be. I’m monologuing, but because the language is crafted such that it foregrounds image-making, you’re seeing pictures! Where is that picture made? Which story are you in: the video, the language? Or is the image in your head? Which one is real and can they all be thought as equally manifest?

One thing that happens is that, as Merleau-Ponty suggests, our bodies and percepts can’t be pulled apart. In theorizing flesh in contrast to body, he wrote: “that which, by virtue of psychic investment and worldly engagement, we form our bodies into, rather than the stuff that forms them. To become flesh is to enter the world and engage with it so fully that the distinction between one’s body and the world ceases to have meaning.” I think the idea of intersubjectivity is always at play and a similar thing happens with language and image or image-thought.

Also, according to film conventions, a director should never “tell” or describe in words what should be “shown.” Therefore, having all of my actors talk their heads off, rattling through long-ass descriptions of stories taking place elsewhere is, as a strategy, a form of deep transgression. It’s also a structural way of problematizing displacement and simultaneity.

SULISTIO: You’ve previously mentioned to me Hito Steyerl’s e-flux essay “In Defense of the Poor Image” as a way to better understand Fred Can Never Be Called Bald. How is the act of ripping poor-quality images and achieving a low-resolution aesthetic important to you?

DODGE: I wasn’t so much trying to achieve a lo-res aesthetic, as much as I wanted to make an essay on loss. I was formulating a thought about resolution. The overarching structure of FCNBCB is that a direct experience is translated into something else, which is now lower resolution. Much, much, much less information. The signal had been continuous and infinite, and now it’s compressed, written into discrete packets of ones and zeros. To me, a similar massive loss of resolution occurs when experiences are translated into language, when performances are filmed and digitized, or, say, face-to-face time is replaced with watching videos on YouTube. I was trying to figure out what was analogous between these very different dynamics.
I made FCNBCB obsessively in the months my mother was suffering with malignant cancer. I was struggling to choose the last clip when I got a call: your mother’s in hospice, she’s unconscious. I rushed to be by her, tended to her for several hours in a room with a ceiling fan going around over my head. She looked incredibly beautiful and peaceful after she died. I ended up taking pictures of her cooling body, which really isn’t like me. After my brother arrived and the sun was up, I took this video of the whole room with my brother kneeling, weeping by her bedside. I put that video at the end of the movie and called it done. It was perfect. And I suddenly knew what the impetus for that whole project had been. I think if, like me, you make art from a very embodied place, these percolating emotional, fleshy energies can’t help but come into the work, even if you think you’re doing something utterly intellectual.

I read Steyerl’s essay a couple years later and it seemed to get at some of the core structural interests of FCNBCB. She manages to theorize loss (of resolution and sociality) as both a cause and an effect, which I’m absolutely interested in. But she’s empathetic in the essay, while addressing the sundry modes by which we “express” grief. In FCNBCB, I am tender about the folks depicted, to me they seem like they’re looking for something lost between the pixels. And so am I.


Harry Dodge, Stanya Kahn, and Silas Howard in By Hook or by Crook 2001.

SULISTIO: In addition to your videos, you also have a large body of sculptural works and drawings. For me, they reflect and materialize the same kind of fluidity and state of flux in your videos. Can you tell me more about your process and objectives behind these works and how they relate to your video practice?

DODGE: The way I work is to be interested, to wake up in the morning and ask myself “What problem am I going to work on today? What don’t I understand yet that I’m curious about?” I love reading, letting one thing thing lead to another. For years, I have been researching theories of fluidity, specificity, and indeterminacy: Fred Moten is awesome. This book called The Undercommons he did with Stefano Harney is the last thing I’ve been reading in. Rosi Braidotti, Richard Feynman, Judith Butler, Deleuze and Guattari, Franco Berardi, Merleau-Ponty, Gertrude Stein, Hito Steyerl, the list goes on. I try to let research be the fuel and fire, pretty much everything—the hot engine—and then I let my work be the response, the exhaust of a moving vehicle, A turbulence. Artifacts from a thought or an experiment.

Humor is huge for me. Like I said, I got fired up watching the weird art of stand-up as a kid, Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, and the thing is, I continue to be interested in the revolutionary or radical reverberations made possible by humor. In 1993 I came across an essay by Gerard Koskovich about AIDS humor, a powerful, sort of continually disarming, breathtaking version of gallows humor. In one section, he talks about satire, irony, irreverence, parody, inversion, and how these “destabilized appropriations of dominant discourse are able to transform an experience of loathsome insult into an opportunity for revealing and defying the absurdity of power.” Not everything I make is funny, but over the years, I’ve used humor (including more taboo sorts of humor) to parry the grief or anxiety that, you know, can arise in a sustained effort to confront the brutalities brought on by late capitalism. In any case, there are some very compelling energies that flow between power, empowerment and laughter, and those interest me.

I also work on ideas of hybridity or amalgamation—that is, the state of being many things at once. Also, inbetweenness—ideas about the substance between things, this is also where “relation” is, and analogously, sociality.

I am also interested in things that exist but don’t have names. Things that haven’t been named are frequently hard to see or think about, so there are connected issues generated here, such as the visible and the invisible. I’m also interested in things that transgress the nominal: or could be said to be insisting upon anti-authoritarian leakage, overflow and profusion.

Additionally, the idea of dynamic indeterminacy is fundamental to my practice. And I’m not talking about messy thinking, or laziness. I’m talking about the opposite of that: allowing difficulty, allowing intense complexity. Like Roland Barthes’ idea of ‘the neutral,’ which he theorized as everything that “…baffles the paradigm…. for me, the Neutral doesn’t refer to “impressions” of grayness, of “neutrality” or “indifference.” The Neutral —my Neutral—can refer to intense, strong, unprecedented states. “To outplay the paradigm” is an ardent, burning activity. For example, I thought that the Occupy movements refusal to install leaders, or give a list of “demands” was an interesting, effective instance of this kind of baffling the paradigm. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, as you may know, states that the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known, and vice versa. I’m interested in that zone of epistemological, or just logical, give and take. A kind of “diminishing returns” or an event horizon concerning articulation.

Making sculpture is bodily and painful, like wrestling with a stegosaurus. The drawings are much more direct. It’s me asking a question, trying to be irreverent, or prodding the comedic out of my latest feverish thoughts. The videos are the most layered and complicated things I make. The accretionary lava-ball of video. There are just so many variables: duration, language, emotion, performers, sculpture is there too, pace, contra-distinction, light. It’s an open system, totally non-linear. It’s with video that I think I get to full speed; the gears are large enough to take on the velocity of my creative desires.

SULISTIO: What do you have planned for Made in L.A. and for the future?

DODGE: I’m showing sculpture, video, and drawing in profusion. I am absolutely interested in profusion, and am always attending to an experiment with overwhelm, simultaneity, and the very real flesh that is constituted in the space between these works. What’s absolutely brand new is a booklet of a long non-fiction, theoretical essay I’ve been working on called “River of the Mother of God: Notes on Indeterminacy, V.2.” They’ll be made available and free in my exhibition room. It’s a sort of treatise, meditation, and a litany all at once, an attempt to share in language some of the problems I’ve been knocking my head against in the other art work. Like I said before, I’m working on practicing language as matter, letting it come to matter, be brought to bear.

Ultimately, I’m interested in bodies right now, but as a new kind of matter. That’s what I think my Made in L.A. installation is crashing around with. The pressures of living in a world in which so much of our sociality is conducted online—and so much of our time is spent there—have seemingly returned many artists, including myself, to a renewed but changed—maybe you could even say contaminated—attention to materiality. By contaminated, I partly mean, uninterested in binaries of the virtual and the material, and more interested in the possibilities made by their (now inevitable) mix-up. I also mean, lewd, in-your-face, dirty, disturbing.