This charming Animal Charmer

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No I'm not taking about the late Crocodile Hunter, I'm talking about Jim Fetterley of the duo Animal Charm. Along with Rich Bott (and occasionally some other friends), Fetterley has been making confounding, perplexing, vexing, hexing, and comically scathing short videos for almost a decade. On the eve of the SF release party for the Animal Charm DVD Golden Digest -- and in conjunction with this week's cover story -- I recently talked with Mr. Fetterley about what happens when animals and boardrooms attack. Check out Golden Digest. You'll never see family basketball games or Meatballs the same way again.

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Guardian: What other people working with video material do you find inspiring?
Jim Fetterley: There’s so much -- recently the saturation level is at a point where the connections between receivers to producers to producers to receivers form one big loop. There’s a general tendency right now to get excited about things that are unknown or anonymous.
Everyone is looking for something that will up the ante, whether it’s left field or straight from the entertainment cultural industry.
I’d have to cite friends. Most closely, TV Sheriff, our friend Davy Force. A year ago in April we finally got to meet in person a collective of people from Paper Rad, and Cory Arcangel – people who are trading and exchanging ideas.
Most recently, I don’t even know the names of some of the things being presented online. I don’t know if you’ve seen the Blazin Hazin tapes -- a friend introduced us to them at an Iowa conference in 2002 or 2003. We contacted him and he sent us nine more videos. Notoriety or making more money isn’t as interesting [to me] as exploring some of the other possibilities that can come from this type of practice.

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G: People like you and Rich and Craig [Baldwin] have been doing this type of work for a long time. Do things like YouTube make you think about it differently? Now there are TV shows oriented around “wacky” web content.
JF: I always like to ask, “What would be the final test of this thing that is being reappropriated? Can it be turned against itself, or is it unusable?” On one hand, you can become a mashup critic and talk about the Grey Album becoming a phenomenal thing that technically and conceptually was done for all the right copyright reasons. Then it gained the attention necessary to launch into something that’s more conventional and straightforward like Gnarls Barkley. People who have been making culture and entertainment have always been doing that type of thing -- there’s a difference between recycling to get the most bang out of your buck and recycling to reposition oneself in the marketplace.
But what about those things that can’t be absorbed so easily, because of difficult content that challenges all previous notions of what entertainment is, or that criticizes the whole process? The scope [of those things] is much more private and personal. I’m interested in the amateur -- I think Rich and I have a taste that was very normal ten years ago. When you have all your culture fed to you, you want to start looking to the margins, and going to thrift stores.
You can still have fun doing that today, but I get the sense people are digging through the bins for different reasons now. It changes your level of participation if the records you’re going through the bins for aren’t the greatest sounding ones, but the ones that nobody wants. Our tastes developed according to things that exist outside of what can be made cool once again.

G: You were also doing this kind of practice long before a word like “mashup” was being thrown around .What do you think of that kind of catchphrase?
JF: Mashups are totally fascinating conceptually at times. But after a while it can become an obvious mode of communication. I like to think that audiovisual language is very young. Grammatically we’re still at the point of just two words or letters being put together.
Our interest from the beginning has not been to turn to a video we love or have a nostalgic connection to – we were looking for things that were empty that could be used to create new meanings.
I don’t want to think of reappropriation -- even by people who are doing it for corporate reasons – as just cleverness. I hope they are doing it so they can create new scales of notation and conceptual constructs of meaning, whether they mean to or not.
We don’t want to lead it any other way than what toward what entertains us -- to deprogram ourselves from that reality that makes me feel really bad personally about the world. You can deprogram yourself with personal devices or creations. We like to think of them as little tinctures. We just laugh because as soon as you get into your own little system, you’re outside of the realms in which you’re being told how to think and act.
Craig [Baldwin] gets into [some of these areas] very literally – not conspiratorial theory, but that conspiracy is now a full blown genre, maybe the only narrative device that really works right now in terms of conjecture. With massive upheaval and war going on, it’s so easy to control a lot of people with fear and paranoia. We like to think that if we can sit down and show our videos to our friends and others and have a laugh and talk about it seriously, it might help take everyone out of that mind frame. But all you have to do is take a bike ride back home and it creeps back in.

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G: A lot of your work makes use of material that isn’t coded or coated with the idea of the “now” – for example, it’s full of computers that are as big and fat as cars. I want to ask about the contents of Animal Charm’s movies, and both the reactions that you’ve looked for and the reactions you’ve gotten. Also, I’m wondering about the name Animal Charm. Animals do show up in a lot of what you make.
JF: Our first VHS tape that we self-released contained Slow Gin Soul Stallion and Lightfoot Fever, two of the earliest videos we’d put together. We lifted an image from a Rod McKuen book of poetry, this retro line drawing of a peacock in which the pattern of the peacock’s feathers becomes a flock of birds. It was visually interesting, and at the time you could always find Rod McKuen at thrift stories – he wasn’t even popular on a camp or kitsch level.
Later, Rich and I found out about McKuen’s book Listen to the Warm and got to like the fact that he was at a million-selling coffee table poet and that he had this Hollywood career. In fact, Listen to the Warm was the result of him having a bet with Frank Sinatra. Frank Sinatra told him, ‘You’ll never be able to sell those lyrics to a mass audience -- even a book of poetry.” But he did, and he became this persona in the process…
It’s hard to get away from the fact that cats are cute and animals are cute. If you do bad things to them people feel bad – they have emotions about them that they might not have about a chair in a boardroom. Our videos can make an empty boardroom seem like the jungle or something very natural. In the videos, the animals are like puppets – you could say it’s animation, but on more concept-based level.

G: Your video Ashley has many different ingredients within it – it seems as if it combines different corporate or self help videos to create a new story.
JF: In our previous videos, we only had a brief amount of time after hours to work on an editing computer – from midnight to around 7 a.m. So we would make these short compositions like Sunshine Kitty. Ashley was the one of the only videos we could keep on a system and add to -- it came about from recording ten or twelve hours of cable television, logging it all, and trying to trim it down. What was it? People in cars, people eating, obvious representations of men and women. Most importantly, TV is about itself. We went with what we had, we didn’t look for images to add to it. We were trying to do a recombinant thing. Sunshine Kitty is more like a mashup, editing together two or three things into a video. With Ashley, as soon as we added more elements it became different things – we weren’t interested in making an expository essay about television being about cars and consuming.
We used tapes that were available, and we were able to anchor Ashley around this one tape called BeautiControl -- this ridiculous piece that we found out came from this company in Texas, this woman who had her own Amway-style pyramid scheme. She became, I think, the richest woman in Texas. She was on Oprah one day saying that BeautiControl was this amazing do it yourself women’s business.
We anchored everything to BeautiControl, which in itself is a fascinating thing to look at -- especially if you know this woman is a Ross Perot Texan big business person who grew her company from nothing. The products we’re interested in aren’t the mass products, but ones that are narrow or directed to a very specific audience.
Once we started producing loops that were used as small single channel pieces we performed with live, we found ourselves with one long composition [of Ashley] that we presented for the first time with live audio sampling and live video cutting. That was the prototype of the four-channel video and audio mix show that we eventually took on the road.

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G: Did that loop experimentation lead to Stuffing?
JF: Stuffing is all about watching and being watched.

G: With Ashley, and definitely with Stuffing, you are playing around with repetition. Ashley almost has a science fiction quality. And both of the movies are, at points, really really hilarious. Are they funny to you?
JF: Yeah! The real impetus was just to go home after work, meet with friends, and work on stuff that could make us die laughing.
The repetition comes from the fact that we had access to early digital editing. It’s an obvious thing – you just want to make something loop. And after you make a loop, you think, “How long will this loop hold up, or is that loop going to drive me crazy?” You can take the loop from a to b, or from a to b and back to a. You can play with making things more and less rhythmic. We’re not predetermining any level we want to get into -- other than most often that level of disassociation and absurdity where you are almost feeling something like the rush of a drug. It sounds quaint now, but it was an exciting thing to do, because we had all been art damaged from school.
With YouTube today, a lot of what you find might be similar,but a lot of it is different from what we did. Rich and I really wanted to be anonymous and not have any identity. We basically lifted ideas from Critical Art Ensemble about electronic disturbance and electronic civil disobedience – ideas about creative plagiarism, and how much fun that can be. And how liberating – you can find a temporary autonomy.

G: On your Golden Digest DVD, a more recent work like Kill the Wind isn’t funny at all –it’s bleak and sad.
JF: Kill the Wind comes from an alter ego that Rich and I created, Struthers and Fields. We created it to perform in San Francisco and Los Angeles right around the beginning of 2003. We wanted to make a sort of Iraq Baghdad café cabaret version of Animal Charm, being serious and staying true.
Rich is a really good singer. Usually it’s me doing video and him doing audio, but for Kill the Wind and for Moving Day – which comes from Rod McKuen lyrics -- I did audio and video and he sang. Rich is singing, very honestly and soulfully, lyrics that could have been William Shatner-ed to death.

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G: Can you talk about your live performances? Bryan Boyce told me about a time you were hexing people with old TV antennae.
JF: You know there’s this entire VJ culture that has emerged, but our interest has always been in appropriating other media.
Live multimedia can become an electric kool aid acid test for corporate McDonalds events – live Power Point demonstrations on a boardroom level. We wanted to appropriate that, but not so we could become great DJs. Part of our performance has been to program everything ahead of time, hit ‘Play,’ and then act as if we’re playing with everything. But that approach in itself became familiar within noise and laptop music.

G: What are your thoughts about copyright issues and media today, in relation to when Animal Charm first started?
JF: There are a lot of people becoming aware of digital rights media management, and what that means for people if they want to tell a news story online or have a phone conversation and not be in a libelous situation.
With legalities becoming so dominant in our existence, we’re at a point when everything is being recorded and laid down and you have to stand behind it. Everything is set up so that you can’t be erratic. At a certain point, with everything being digitized, there will be a moment when the recorded signal is looped back in on itself and there’s a feedback squelch . I think we’re at the beginning of this moment. There are these little moments that squelch and take people aback – they sometimes react with absolute outrage. Accountability is almost more important than appropriation nowadays. If you’re accountable and you do something that blows up – whether it’s something that makes a lot of money or something that literally blows up – you are the one responsible. All of the sudden if something is anonymous it makes people feel very uncomfortable.
If somebody like Danger Mouse wants to make the Grey Album, they have to deal with all the lawsuits. Luckily, with something like that, it’s gray -- a very solid conceptual project. In comparison, if somebody is doing a New York Times article about something very current politically or globally, there are red zones and flag and things that will be brought to others’ attention whether you or I know it or not. These are the things that are making this moment dangerous, in terms of not being able to be anonymous. Countermedia has turned into hacker culture, hackers have become artist culture, digital artists have a lot of power. It’s strange that something as innocuous as information – from the time you walk out of your house to when you return to it, everything you’ve done has been recorded and can be edited to say anything to be told about you. None of it can be true -- it can be manipulated to provide evidence
With ideas about evidence dissolving and accountability hung up in legalities, it makes the culture around music or aesthetics or youth culture pale in comparison.

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