Interview by Lisa Gonzalez / Photography by Alex Thebez
Jeanine Oleson is a Brooklyn-based, interdisciplinary artist working with photography, video, performance, sculpture, and text. In addition to her work as a fine artist, Oleson is a lecturer and educator having taught at Sarah Lawrence, Parsons the New School for Design, NYU, MICA, and the University of Iowa. Her work addresses animal studies- the difference between human and animal ethics and philosophy, apocalyptic anxiety, and “systems that are supposed to support us, culturally”. Olsen continually found her way back to making work and discusses a bit of her journey into art-based activism, process, and her role as an educator.
Lisa Gonzalez: How did you become involved in the arts?
Jeanine Oleson: I grew up in Oregon. I absolutely did not grow up in a creative family. I’m the first person to have gone to college in my family and I knew I was interested in art but I didn’t know why. So I went to School of the Art Institute of Chicago where I connected with the idea of process, and making something. So I kept going. I ended up working a lot in photo and video. It always seems like it’s been only a few years, but I lived in Chicago for seven years, and I’ve been here [in New York] for fifteen.
LG: When you finished school, what happened? Did you have a plan?
JO: When I came out of my undergrad program, I had been working in this lecture series. They made me director of this program. But it was really interesting because I heard two artists a week from around the word come and talk about their work. I was also doing research and writing grants. But I wanted to make work and I was a little petrified about how to go about doing that. During that time I did a lot of performances, doing weird pieces with unnamed collectives in Chicago. And then I started making things again, and I loved it. Then I went to graduate school. That’s when I became pretty focused.
I began working at Art in General through a fellowship. I was doing curatorial work for a bit but then I didn’t want to do it anymore because it came confusing for me. Then teaching presented a very different relationship than curating.
LG: What’s your approach to teaching?
JO: I definitely keep in my mind that everyone does things differently and everyone has different interests. I try not to influence people by saying, “you should do this, or do it this way.” I’m always curious about people in my classes: who they are, what they do, what their interests are. It’s about the ability to have more perspective. I try not to meddle too much on what I think. I’ve had professors where their way was the only one way, but that’s just another model of teaching. In terms of the hierarchy of teaching and being a professor and having students, it’s simply a model. I think of trying to turn it into a workshop.
LG: What’s one thing that’s difficult to teach in a photography curriculum?
JO: Figuring out how to care about what you do. Figuring out why you want to make work, whatever that work is and how to be accountable. I wish people could figure out how to care about being there [in school]. Sometimes, I think “I wish you knew why. And if you don’t, I wish you were dedicated to figure out why.” Sometimes they stagger through in an interesting way and it can’t be quantifiable in perfect terms. I do wish people had a sense of their own agency. But at 18 when you start art school, you’re a kid. But you’re also electing to study something. You’ll have to take those tools and use them outside of the [teacher-student] hierarchy in order to keep working. People say. “Oh, I’m never going to use this again” and it’s like, “Oh, yes you will!”
Teaching for me is a way to think about the things I’m interested in. I’m working on a project with Tamms Ten Year with Laurie Jo Reynolds who is doing this campaign to close this solitary confinement prison in Illinois. Artists and photographers fill the requests of these solitary confinement inmates. Basically, their access to images is blocked. So they would send request and artists would grant those. I turned to the [academic] institution with this and the class filled immediately. We’ve gotten really weird requests and have been very different. Like a photograph of Mecca. I did one and this guy’s mother had just died. He sent me a snapshot of his mother and he wanted a picture of her in front of a mansion with a hummer and money on the ground, so I made this composite. It’s kind of funny, but also, his mom died… We’ve been doing exhibitions of the photographs, and the prisoners also get a print depending on the warden- maybe a 4×5 or something specific.
LG: Do you get responses from the prisoners?
JO: Absolutely. They’re very happy someone is talking to them. [Solitary confinement] destroys your entire emotional being. It’s torture. I wouldn’t say that cause presents itself so literally in my own work, but it does pull in the need for social justice.
LG: How do you see photography making social change happen?
JO: It’s so important. Now it’s weird. Now it’s so hard. There’s no more iconic image. We have all of these images and they still matter- they show proof. And our desire to look and to understand something through looking is still there. But we’re also now very aware that what we see is not necessarily true. At the same time, we do still believe it. It still has currency. But I think the way we see these things through the capitalist mechanism.
Maybe the citizen journalist is the way to go? It both gives far more access, but then there is still someone editing the images. It’s not a truth in the certain sense because photography is very subjective, like a language. That’s all subjective.
LG: So what’s your work about? You don’t just take pictures and your work is very interdisciplinary.
JO: When I was in undergrad, I was going between working with film and video and photography. It was the one place at that time you could talk about content- issues of identity. That was my point of interest at that time. Then later I got really interested in performance. I also like making research visible. I did a residency about apocalyptic anxiety. I had physicists talk about time travel and the end of the world. I decided to put all of those things together and do a performance at the end.
I also like to make things. I like to make sculptures and they usually end up in performances or in photographs. For example, I’ll make bricks for a piece to figure this very physical thing out. I like music and I spend a lot of time thinking about music and our bodies. Specifically, how our bodies make sounds and that’s so exciting for me.
LG: How do you determine what medium to use?
JO: Sometimes I want to go through a process and sometimes I know it needs to be done within a specific medium. I fight with what I see. I love photographs so much, but sometimes i think its too easy to take a conceptual series of photographs. Sometimes it’s like speaking Middle English. It’s the wrong dialect.
LG: Can you tell me a bit about the piece “What?” It’s a performance and I’ve seen the video, but can you elaborate a bit?
JO: [Verbal] language and images have a lot in common. It’s the symbolic meaning that we’ve been culturally adapted to understand. You’re organizing a series of elements.
In this piece, it’s a divide between humans and animals and the pain that’s caused from this separation- it’s of a woman whose chimp has torn her friend’s face off. It’s the 911 recording of the incident. The [operator] is speaking on script. She asks, “what’s the nature of the emergency?” The script can’t expand to understand her experience. The use of language is supposed to be a superior use of communication but it’s a failure. The piece has a bit of pastiche and absurdity. You laugh at something because sometimes you have no choice to or you don’t understand something. The book [of the performance] gave me a way to make the language more primary. You first felt language coming through the body and this gave me a chance to show a bit of my process of research.
LG: What do you think are the failures of performance?
JO: Well, they can fail in different ways. You’re right there to witness it. I go to operas a lot, and it’s so fascinating, the sport of it. Noting “oh, she did a really bad job…” Which is kind of a gross spectator thing. But it’s something we project ourselves onto. It’s easy to be critical of performance. Well, I really do love that. It gives me something to work with, and work against.
LG: What are the failures of sculpture?
JO: They disregard the time and space they existed in. Historically. the context in which they’re made can be so lost in where they end up. There’s the object that moves through history from place to place; it gives so much agency to the physicality, which can sometimes be boring. But, that’s me fighting with the moment I live in.
LG: What kind of effect do you want to your work to have on viewers?
I hope people see the connections to the moment that I’m in culturally, and my own position. If there is something affective, perspective will change over time. You look at photographs of this experience and say, “Oh, look at that. Look at this amazing moment of gay life. I will never have that, but when they were made, they were documents of life.” I hope my work can find that comparison. It can move as a document of “the now” with a possibility of influence in the future. [I hope] that people are interested.
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