A Conversation w/ Randy Lee Cutler
The following email conversation took place over the course of two weeks (in the spring of 2014) upon the acquisition of Randy Lee Cutler’s Salt Walks: Three Movements for active Video Out Distribution at VIVO Media Arts Centre. Salt Walks: Three Movements will be shown as part of our first promotional Recent Acquisitions Screening this fall.
Still from Salt Walks: Three Movements (2014).
Jeremy Todd, Outreach & Distribution, VIVO/Video Out: Salt Walks: Three Movements structurally integrates performance and video while addressing an edible resource or commodity as a kind of content. I’m reminded of another of your works already with Video Out Distribution, Kitchen Semiotics (2011), even though both pieces remain so singular in approach and subject matter. How might they be related and/or differentiated for you within your art practice?
Randy Lee Cutler: Salt Walks: Three Movements and Kitchen Semiotics are related in their engagement with food politics and history. They are also an extension of my ongoing performance practice. With ‘Kitchen Semiotics’ the performance is for the camera whereas with ‘Salt Walks’ the performance is for the group participating in the walking tour. ‘Kitchen Semiotics’ was something that I wanted to make for a long time but didn’t have the right concept. It really is about how food is so much more than nourishment. I am intrigued with how food can tell us something about cultural history, global politics and the manipulation of information for the sake of profit. I wanted it to be slightly absurd in the way that Rosler’s piece (Semiotics of the Kitchen) is provocative while deadpan in its delivery. In this case the single take has me eating foods from A-Z and producing a kind of indigestion for both myself and the viewer. ‘Salt Walks’ also takes up cultural history but brings my interests into dialogue with participatory art and social practices. Working with then Access curator Shaun Dacey I wanted to revisit my interest in salt (I did another version of the walk in Edmonton for the Visualeyez Performance Festival in 2010) but within the context of Vancouver’s Chinatown. While I am stationary in one and peripatetic in the other, they both share a deep interest in research and the often overlooked aspects of sustenance and survival.
JT: Is your work (and engagement with food politics) also in dialogue with Fluxus or Surrealist explorations of consumption and the body within capitalist relations? Is your conceptual trajectory as an artist informed by these kinds of historical avant-garde precedents too?
RLC: Intriguing question. The short answer is yes. The long answer is: …I did a PhD in cultural history on the surrealist enterprise specifically looking at their fascination with the sciences. But that is another story. So yes my imagination, aesthetic and sense of humour has been influenced by surrealist explorations of consumption and the body. The thing is that the surrealists were predominantly white men and not particularly open to female authorship. In surrealism the female was usually the muse or inspiration. So while my imagination and very embodiment has been inspired by making the familiar strange, I am in many ways reticent to align myself there. Meanwhile I am definitely inspired by their sense of experimentation and critique of conventional behaviours and attitudes toward objects, love, dreams… I feel more connected to Fluxus particularly for their interests in the ephemeral, the everyday and of course an interdisciplinary/intermedia approach to diverse media, practices, etc. I do appreciate an anti-commercial aesthetic and perhaps I struggle with this when I make work that I want a broad range of people to enjoy. My videos are made on very small budgets and I enjoy seeing what I can produce without funds. Perhaps I am getting too far away from your question but I think it still relates in that innovative work or work that straddles genres can be made on a wing and a prayer. The issue here though is how artwork that explores consumption and the body within capitalist relations continues to shift and the stakes seem to be greater when much of the population is suckled on subsided crops, GMO foods and industrial meat consumption.
JT: There’s a graceful economy of means in Salt Works (the concise, modest approach to documentation and production) that seems intentionally belied by a complex weaving of personal and impersonal modes of constructing, sharing and displacing knowledge. It’s as if the possibilities of political agency within various forms and relationships of teaching and learning are being tested. Is this something you try to experiment with in your work?
RLC: Teaching is my practice in addition to writing and making art. In fact they are all entangled for me and constitute a daily engagement with curiosity, learning, aesthetics, sharing and ultimately sustenance. Another way to think about this is through the figure of knots and the layers of meaning that are both explicit and implicit, known and emergent. I am interested in making experiences that are durational. By this I mean not only time based work but work that unfolds and unfurls over time for the viewer/listener/participant. My work is interdisciplinary so the weaving of personal and impersonal modes of constructing, sharing and displacing knowledge that you point to are definitely present in my intentions and methods. I suppose this is the result of scholarly investments coupled with 20 some years teaching undergraduate students. I have learned that students, or art students in particular, respond to material (literary, scholarly, etc.) that connects to their own lived experience. I would like for my work to be accessible without losing the complexities and depth of the subject being explored. I appreciate how you describe this as political agency in that it gives the viewer the space to discover his or her own connections to their bodily engagements and discoveries. I do experiment with this in my work. The economy of means you detect is probably a reflection of my aesthetic sensibility. I just spent five years working on an ebook called Open Wide: An Abecedarium for the Great Digestive System (its on digestion as a metaphor for experience) and even with that project and the layers of elements from writing, curating and image making, there is a certain simplicity and economy.
JT: Your creative and ethical focus seems in keeping with the organizational intentions and vision of VIVO Media Arts Centre in many ways (the engagement with interdisciplinarity, the facilitation of emergent meanings and points of view, accessibility despite complexity and difficulty, experimentation, sharing and learning, everyday sustenance, etc). What has your involvement with VIVO been like over the years? Has it benefited you and your work? How did you first get involved with the centre?
RLC: I have been involved with VIVO since my arrival to Vancouver in 1995. A friend in the UK knew I was moving to the city and encouraged me to visit the centre. I was immediately inspired by its energy, innovation, artist run culture, and the range of political sensibilities that permeated the programming. I began as a volunteer curating video screenings, talking on panels, etc. I was involved with the board for a while and eventually started making videos and performance work which have been distributed by Video Out. From my first experience with Winston Xin and Ken Anderlini, I was encouraged by the openness of the space, its receptivity to new ideas and emergent practices. The people who moved through VIVO or Video In as it was known then, were generally warm, authentic and hard working not to mention inspiring activists. Like the Western Front nearby, it has always felt like a second home where I could have a drink, eat some nice food and see some innovative art. In many ways my relationship to artist -run culture since my arrival in the city has kept me sane or if not sane then at least in good company with home grown talent as well as the international artists that have visited the centre. I have learned a lot watching videos in public screenings and on my own from the archive. And the conversations with staff and fellow artists have been truly amazing.
JT: What are you in the midst of now with your practice?
RLC: There are quite a few projects. After five years of writing, curating and project managing, I launched my first enhanced ebook called Open Wide: An Abecedarium for the Great Digestive System. This full colour e-book brings together writing, images, video and music that reflect a fascination for digestion as a metaphor for experience where I have obsessively followed the looping trajectory of metabolism expanding the topic beyond its conventional implications. It is ABC primer or alphabet guide to bodily rhythms, chemical reactions and aesthetic transformations. Topics range from visual art and cinema to ecology, biology and philosophical meditations. It has been an interesting experience working with an emergent art form that has few precedents. Certainly there are plenty of ebooks out there but few designed as an artistic encounter. To this end I collaborated with ebook designer Celeste Martin who did amazing work on the abecedarium. The ebook is available at the iTunes Book store.
I have started a new ebook project that explores the convergence of crystals as aesthetic, scientific and philosophical structures. Intrigued by this platform and after realizing the first project, I am excited to develop another digital book that takes up even more mediated content. I am hoping to work with someone who can write code and produce crystal animations. Related to this research are a series of hand made collages as well as an installation of crystals generated around the emotion of joy that I am currently embarking upon. The project for this summer is lots of reading, drawing diagrams if only to think with, making the collages and finding a crystallographer to collaborate with on the scientific applications of these mineral forms.
JT: Thank you Randy for this generous conversation, and for the new work in Distribution. We’re looking forward to your next submission. It’s been a pleasure.