Simone Jones is the Perfect Vehicle – Dayna McLeod

Perfect Vehicle

Perfect Vehicle

Walking on water, flapping to fly, breathing machines into movement. The mechanical dreams of early inventors are realized with an elegant intimacy through the work of Simone Jones. Crafted with meticulous detail and beauty, Jones’s machines realize the ambitions of the Industrial Age, when early airplane designs crashed charmingly into barns as the first flicker of film captured their failures. With a playful nod to the past, Jones creates installation works that feature epic film loops of her machines in action, where rake-like wings flap without flight, water buoys keep afloat a walk across the water, and a series of breaths can carry the body immobile across the landscape. In Jones’s 3-minute excerpt from her installation, we see the breath-by-breath movement of the Perfect Vehicle. It noses its way into the frame, traveling into the distance, into the horizon, towards far-off mountains like a silver cowboy, a go-kart funeral, a naked racecar stripped down to its skeleton. Jones’s Silver Surfer inches its way across the Bonneville Salt Flats, the antithesis of speed.

Dayna McLeod: Where did the idea for Perfect Vehicle come from? Is there a relationship to the cyborg?

Simone Jones: It’s the third in a trilogy of work. The two that preceded it were from a project called Mobility Machines. Mobility Machines was a play on the idea of extending your body, kind of like a cyborg but not explicitly like a cyborg. They were more about going back to people’s early desires to move their bodies through space using machines. Early examples would be people who invented airplane contraptions that obviously were wrong, based on the idea of the bird with flapping wings and things like that. Early examples of car design, boats, ships show things that people were trying to come up with in order to make their bodies more mobile. And so I was interested in taking an old-fashioned look at this, rather than looking at the sci-fi kind of stuff, the Donna Haraway[1] take on it. It’s not anti-cyborg. The inspiration comes from a simpler time when you had to do things to augment our bodies in a very mechanical kind of way. And I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great if I could use my own body as the template for building a machine?’ So that’s where that idea came from. And then I thought, ‘now that these things fit my body, maybe I could somehow use them in performance,’ but I was not so interested in performance as a live project, I was more interested in performance that would be done specifically for the camera. That’s where the films came in. And then I thought it would be great to project these things as a larger installation and to show them as loops. So the first two, the Walking on Water Machine and the Wing Machine were made to be shown together, and they were edited in such a way that the rhythm of the flapping of the Wing Machine and the rhythm of the legs of the walking of the Walking on Water Machine were kind of in synch: they were enacting a certain rhythm that was methodical and just constantly moving forward in this loop. That’s where they came from. I really enjoyed doing that and I wanted to go larger scale, and I was interested in the mythology around vehicles and cars and speed, and I’ve always been a fan of Bonneville. So again, it gave me an opportunity to reference technology, and in this case, I was referencing a site where the land speed record was broken.

DMC: What is Bonneville? Why is it so famous?

SJ: Every year they run the Bonneville Speedway where you can take your vehicle and test it to see how fast it goes. I’ve been there three times now. It’s awesome. It’s absolutely amazing.

DMC: So that’s actually salt in Perfect Vehicle. My winterized Canadian brain was reading it as snow.

SJ: It looks like snow but it’s actually salt. That’s actually a desert. It was over one hundred degrees when we shot that. It’s the flattest place on earth. That’s why people go there to test for speed trials. And so in a humourous way, I thought, ‘what would be the slowest vehicle that I could come up with, to go there with?’ I also wanted it to run off of my body, again referencing Mobility Machines. So I thought, ‘breathing’, and again there was a rhythm involved in it, the rhythm of the body. I call it ‘embodied time’, so that’s why the speed of the object is dictated by the speed of the body. So with Perfect Vehicle, if you breathe faster, it goes faster. If you slow down your breathing, it slows down to mimic that. It travels probably less than five miles an hour. It’s very slow, and it goes in stops and starts because when you breathe in, you move forward, when you breathe out it stops, when you breathe in, you move forward. So it’s not a continuous motion. And again, that references early mechanical inventions where gears were being used to push things forward. It was always interlocking mechanisms in early designs of machinery, and it’s not digital at all, which is a funny kind of thing for me, because that’s what I teach — that’s what I do. But there is a small computer inside Perfect Vehicle and that’s used to communicate between the sensor that monitors the breathing and the motor.

DMC: How does it work, and, do you have an engineering background? How do you figure all of this out? How do you build this?

SJ: I went to OCA in the 80s and I took an electronics class for artists, and I got hooked. I originally went to OCA to study photography. When I started to make sculpture that was kinetic and time based, I started to see an element of performance creeping into the work, whether it was performance of the machine or performance of the viewer moving around the machine, or performance of you in the machine, and when I realized that I could hook film into that and work on a larger scale, like with installation, everything began to fall into place. Photography was there, film was there, the machines were there — all of that kind of sculptural stuff was there. It takes four or five different media to make the work.

DMC: In terms of taking on the technology behind it — you’re blowing my mind when you talk about a computer sensor that’s monitoring and communicating between the body and the actual mechanism…

SJ: That’s a very simple thing. Because I’m self-taught, there’s a lot of readily available stuff out there that wasn’t there when I was younger. It was actually harder when I was younger. Now there are so many more hackers in the world, and so many more people sharing stuff online, it has really opened up how you can approach making things. Back when I started, the philosophy was, take something that’s broken and see if you can fix it, or find something that’s been thrown away and see if you can salvage parts and then make something new out of it. And that was a very OCA-based approach. And Active Surplus on Queen Street in Toronto was a place where everybody did their shopping. Now everybody shops online, but back then, it was like going to a garage sale that was happening every day for electronics. Sensors are actually things that I found online that are used in factories for counting packages that go by on an assembly line. And if I didn’t have the kind of mind that could say, ‘well, I can use that to trigger my breathing’… again it comes back to that philosophy of how can we rethink something that’s a tool that’s already there and use it for something else.

DMC: It’s very sleek and gorgeous. What is it made out of?

SJ: It’s made out of metal and wood that forms the base of the cradle that you’re lying in, and aluminum for that beautiful furring that is all welded by a friend of mine from OCAD.

DMC: Is that a bike wheel on the front?

SJ: Yes. I’m a big fan of bicycles, so it has a bit of a bicycle design to it. It’s also influenced by race cars and Egyptian funeral sarcophagi to lie down in. It’s got a few of those things in it because I wanted it to point towards things that were air streamed but also that’s sort of a funny thing because it moves so slow.

DMC: When you’re in the machine, what do you think about? Do you focus on your breathing? Is it about meditation? Concentration?

SJ: You focus on the breathing. Because it was a performance done for the film, the pressure was, can I keep my breathing consistent? The breathing is propelling me forward so I want to make sure that I’m breathing deep enough to actually get going. So you are totally fixated on the breathing and you can’t see ahead of you because you’re looking straight up at the sky. You just sort of rest into it and just breathe as evenly as you can. A friend of mine said that the whole piece felt like death, and I was a bit surprised about that. The music was actually composed for the piece. But I asked the guy who was doing it (Tom Third) to think more about the Romantic period in opera — I thought it should be monumental because the landscape is so monumental.

DMC: It’s absolutely epic. I can’t believe I thought is was snow…

SJ: And how hot it actually is.

DMC: Was that a concern during the shoot?

SJ: Yes, because I was wearing a PVC suit. Between takes, there were people there with umbrellas keeping me shaded. We had a big tent that you had to go under and drink a lot of water. We had to get a permit to go there, so they knew that we were out there shooting. It has a sadness to it and I like that about it.

DMC: How long did the shoot take? Did you cover the entire Flats?

SJ: We shot for two days and because when you go there, you have to tell them where you’re going to be, so they had a zone mapped out for us. It’s so big, you couldn’t do all of it; the Salt Flats are huge. We stayed in our little zone and I guess the fragility of the body is the thing that comes through, and I think that’s really interesting about it. We often take for granted the fact that we don’t have as many limits as we think that we do, because technology helps us to forget what our limits are. You can imagine that if you had a power failure right now, tomorrow, you’d be freezing in your house. So it’s that instant fragility — the enormity of the Salt Flats and the dryness of it and the desert of it really makes you feel small and fragile, and I think that’s a nice thing. I like that quite a bit. It wasn’t something that I thought about deeply before I did it, but it just started to come out when all of the elements came together.

DMC: It’s interesting how the actual experience of performance can change the intention of the work and its direction. With Perfect Vehicle and Mobility Machines, you are performing specifically for the camera. Can you talk more about performance and documentation-as-performance within your work?

SJ: It comes back a little bit to the 70s and a lot of work that artists were doing when cameras became more accessible: video, for example. I’ve been a fan of Bruce Nauman for a while. I find his work to be really smart and interesting but I couldn’t watch it for too long because it’s so un-cinematic. But the idea that he could be in his studio space and he could have an idea-concept and he would just enact it for the camera, and this would be a document… But there were also elements in his work and in other artists’ work with the same kind of thing where the video became the art, not just a document, but the art itself. Dennis Oppenheim did a piece where it was a close-up of his hand slapping against a wall, and it was projected in a room where there were four hands slapping the walls of the gallery. The sound of the slapping, obviously, was the sound that was recorded at the time, but it also seemed as if there was a hand actually slapping the wall of the space. I really liked that slippage that can occur between your experience of the work and what the work is actually doing. The sound has a way of tricking you. And then the notion of real time, which is again, something that people were doing a lot of in the 70s, they weren’t editing or using montage. So that’s why I became interested in filming these machines because when I started making sculpture, just the sculptures, they became performers for me. I would sit there, plug them in and watch them do whatever they were doing and I realized that the component of performance was an interesting thing to think about. As soon as I put myself in the work, I thought, ‘well this is interesting, I don’t need to do it in front of other people, I could just create a whole work based around my interaction with the machine’. I don’t think I’ll do it all of the time; it would only be if I built something for my body. Rebecca Horn was another big influence.

DMC: The beauty and otherworldliness of your machines and their performance remind me of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle. In both yours and Barney’s work, there is a controlled intimacy with the objects that is mediated by film for us, the audience.

SJ: That’s right. And he creates situations. There are actors and all sorts of stuff in the work, but his sculptures appear in the work too, and I think that that’s kind of interesting.

DMC: There also seems to be a direct relationship between your body and the object that doesn’t humanize the machines nor mechanize you, but there is this intimacy that we, the audience, witness.

SJ: I think that just comes out of making them myself, and making them fit the scale of my body. Perfect Vehicle does have someone else’s hands there because it was welded by another person, but it was totally designed by me. Sometimes there’s a clumsiness to the work too, which I like. It’s not so polished and high-tech, and I’m always trying to move away from that. I guess it’s because I like sculpture. There’s a tactility about it that I want and that handmade-ness to be part of it, to be part of the object and part of the experience. People always want to touch the stuff too, which I think is great, when they encounter it in the gallery. I like that. People have asked me to put the machines on and wear them in public performances and I always say no.

DMC: Why do you think this becomes important, this idea of performing for a live, present audience? Because if you look at your body of work, this seems kind of obvious to me: that the work is complete, and this other kind of performance, this suggested/requested kind of performance isn’t what the work is about.

SJ: No, and I think that there’s so much more that you can bring into the work when you add sound, when you edit. You can create more of an experience for people.

DMC: You are interested in Sontag’s ideas of, “cinema as the transcription of real unstaged life” and “cinema as invention, artifice, illusion, fantasy”, not as “oppositional forces but rather, as strategies for investigating our relationship to making and consuming images”. How do these different approaches manifest themselves in your practice? “What is real?” “What is illusion?”[2]

SJ: That’s the million-dollar question. I think one of the reasons that I’m drawn to installation work is that if I just worked with film, I wouldn’t take in all of the other things that come into ways of seeing. Your body has definitely got to be there. And so when you work with installation, you get a chance to engage the body somehow. That’s why I love sculpture. But then if you can do something with the body to make it think one thing, and then do something to the eyes to make it think something else, now you’re starting to get into rich territory. I’m trying to work with conventions of the form, so cinema, as Sontag says, can either be a document or a fiction. If you acknowledge that and say, ‘okay, that’s interesting stuff to investigate, how can I use what we conventionally think of as either being fiction or documentary, and then create something out of it?’ That’s how I think about it. I’m constantly going back to those two modes and seeing how I can use those strategies to undermine the technology that we take for granted and ways of looking at or depicting the world.

DMC: Un-Photoshopping the world and our experience of it.

SJ: Exactly. Because for me, it’s endlessly exciting. And I think that there are a lot of artists who work that way. They may not be explicit about it, but Jeff Wall, for example, has staged photography — he’s definitely grappling with those questions.

DMC: When you show the work, it’s in an installation setting. After the intimacy of the edit and putting the film together, taking it to a public space and projecting it with the object there, what is that experience like for you?

SJ: At first I didn’t want them to be in the same space together, but every curator who has ever programmed the work has always wanted the two things there, and I’ve come to think that there’s a nice scale relationship, because the projections are really large and I look larger than life and the machines look larger than life and you encounter this thing that you can actually look at and examine, it’s like an artifact that you’ve seen on the film. I went to see Tim Burton at the MoMa, he’s got a huge retrospective there right now and that was a weird experience because first of all, it was overwhelmingly crowded with people and work, but they tended to show a lot of props from the films. Because you couldn’t see the films, and you just encountered these props, they felt kind of dead because the films weren’t there at the same time, so that was kind of interesting to observe. It makes me think that it’s nice to have the films with the objects. And it kind of humbles you and brings you back to the awkwardness of the object and references back to this body always wanting to be more, but maybe not always getting there. There’s a sense of failure that I think is really interesting too, that I like.

Perfect Vehicle, 2006 from Simone Jones on Vimeo.


References

[1] Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York; Routledge, 1991), pp.149-181.

[2] Susan Sontag, “A Century of Cinema”, Frankfurter Rundschau, Germany, 1995 (http://southerncrossreview.org/43/sontag-cinema.htm)

Born in a Red Cross outpost in northern Ontario, Canada, Simone Jones graduated from the Ontario College of Art with a concentration in Experimental Art and received her MFA in Sculpture Installation from York University in Toronto. Jones was the Jill Kraus Visiting Assistant Professor of Art at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, with a joint appointment in the School of Art and Robotics from 2000 – 2003. Jones is currently an Associate Professor of Art at the Ontario College of Art and Design, Toronto where she teaches in the Integrated Media Program.

Dayna McLeod is a writer and intermedia artist whose work is ripe with humour and socially charged situations. She is in the second year of 52 Pick-Up, (http://52pickupvideos.com) a video website where participants make one video a week for an entire year. http://daynarama.com/

Comments from old site:

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 03/05/2010 – 14:09.

this is so stunning