Did We Dream This Together? An Interview with Alexis Gideon

Alexis Gideon Video Musics III: Floating Oceans Official Trailer from alexis gideon on Vimeo.

Video Musics III: Floating Oceans is a tremendously beautiful and mysterious work. Created by the Portland-based artist Alexis Gideon, the piece is rich with arcane references and evidence of rigorous dream study. Its fragile stop-motion animation provides the perfect tone of wistfulness and magic for the protagonist’s fluctuations between quotidian routine and vivid reverie. Based on the works of the early twentieth-century Irish writer Lord Dunsany, and inspired by the time and dream experiments of the Irish physicist John William Dunne, the narrative itself unravels through song—performed live by Gideon himself, who takes on all of the character voices and dialogues.

On Thursday January 17 at 7 p.m., the New Museum will host the New York premiere of Video Musics III: Floating Oceansby Alexis Gideon. The work will be presented alongside three pieces by William Kentridge, an artist who has been an inspiration to Gideon On a break from his two-and-a-half-month-long transatlantic tour, Gideon answered a few questions about the genesis of the work and the New Museum presentation.

Video Musics III: Floating Oceans had its world premiere on October 11, and you toured with it through the end of 2012. Can you talk about the different contexts where the piece has been presented? Is there any specific significance for the New York premiere at the New Museum?

Video Musics III: Floating Oceans was performed in a variety of contexts: museums, galleries, historic movie theaters, DIY art spaces, etc. The idea of the traveling storyteller is at the heart of the Video Musics series. The New Museum performance has a very special significance to me. I grew up in Manhattan and have loved the New Museum for a long time. In addition, I saw William Kentridge’s work there for the first time, and it has had a huge influence on my own work. To be able to perform Floating Oceans at the New Museum in a program alongside Kentridge’s work feels like a very monumental moment in my career.

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“William Kentridge,” 2001. Exhibition view: New Museum, New York. Courtesy the New Museum

What was that first encounter with William Kentridge’s work like? What lessons did you take away from the encounter?

It was in 2001, at the New Museum’s previous location. I had come to the Museum one afternoon with no idea what the current exhibition was. I remember looking at the large charcoal drawings, some of which also had blue paint. I liked them a great deal but when I found my way past the black curtains and realized that they were all single frames from an animation, I was totally floored. After viewing his films, I instantly fell in love with Kentridge’s universe. The sense of abstract narrative and the ghostly trails left by the charcoal haunting each frame had a huge impact on me.    

I’ve been thinking a lot about the status of animation, its presence in both contemporary art and pop culture dialogues. On the one hand, there was the recent Quay Brothers retrospective at MoMA, and on the other hand, via Pixar and Tim Burton, animated movies remain among the most successful Hollywood productions in a way that posits them as “children’s entertainment.” What are your thoughts about working in this medium? Do you find yourself drawn to one or the other of these poles? Or is there something beneficial about working at this point of tension?

There are several things that draw me strongly to animation. One is that it can be completely DIY. Although the Pixar films are made by many people, you can make a simple line-drawing animation with a pad of tracing paper, a pen, and a camera. I have always been attracted to methods that are immediate—I recorded my first albums age eleven or twelve on a four-track, for example. 

Another element I’m drawn to is that animation is a medium that can lean towards the surreal and magical very quickly. This is seen in both the Pixar/Laika model and in the Quay Brothers. Much of my work is about transcendent moments. 

I am also interested in working at the point of tension you describe. I love the handmade beauty, texture, and depth of the Quay universe. I’m interested in mixing these elements with some of the joy and accessibility of more commercial animation.

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Alexis Gideon, Video Musics III: Floating Oceans, 2012 (still). Video, 38 min. Courtesy the artist

I like that you invoke DIY. I came to the Video Musics series as a fan of your band Princess, which grew out of a thriving underground music scene. Princess was boundaryless, effortlessly skipping from hip hop to indie rock to delicate electronic. The songs that accompany Floating Oceans have a similar polyglot tone. Do you think this is the music you’d be making anyway, or are you guided by the narrative of the animation?

The narrative elements set the tone for the music. The music is still investigating the absurdity of genre, but in a subtler way. The point of the music isn’t the contrast, but the contrast has become an inherent part of it. It would be hard to listen to Princess and not notice the blatant shifts in genres. The music of the Video Musics series on the other hand, is much less interested in pointing out the juxtapositions. They are just there, embedded in an organic way.

Floating Oceans is based on the works of Lord Dunsany. I’d never heard of him before, but he’s someone that was very important to writers including Jorge Luis Borges and J.R.R. Tolkien. How did you first encounter his works? How quickly did they reveal themselves as material for Video Musics?

I had originally wanted Floating Oceans to be based on Flann O’Brien’s novel The Third Policeman. I soon realized that I wasn’t going to be able to get permission to do this. Instead of seeing this as a dead end, I decided to make it part of the process. It made me think of Derrida’s deconstructionism—every text being at once a rewriting of a past text and a text waiting to be rewritten by a future text. I looked into what influenced O’Brien. What past texts were rewritten as The Third Policeman? That’s how I came upon Lord Dunsany. Dunsany’s mystical and expansive imagery, as well as his cautionary tales of the dangers of loss of spirituality and wonder, made his stories the perfect fit for Floating Oceans.

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Alexis Gideon, Video Musics III: Floating Oceans, 2012 (still). Video, 38 min. Courtesy the artist

I noticed a couple of motifs that recur in the Video Musics series—the first being shorelines/horizons, and the second being gatherings of people around tables—is this repetition intentional? Can you talk about the power that these two types of image have for you? Are there other threads that can be traced through all three works?

Interesting. I haven’t thought about the shorelines and people around tables before. They definitely run throughout. I think the most unifying themes for me in the Video Musics series are connections to the mystical and spiritual universe. Video Musics I is based on Hungarian mythology and folk tales. Video Musics II: Sun Wu-Kong is based on the classic Chinese novel The Journey to the West which is drenched in the mythology of the Monkey King. Video Musics III: Floating Oceans is based on Lord Dunsany’s short works that examine the world of dreams and the loss of ancient gods. In all three, the otherworldly is paramount. They all exist in a time and space where gods and mythical beasts interact with us daily.

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