Speak Speak: Jason Varone and Michael Konrad

This month’s Speak Speak presents a conversation between artists Jason Varone and Michael Konrad regarding Jason’s work and his current videopainting installation, ‘It Isn’t Always Going to Be This Great’ at Grizzly Grizzly. The conversation was conducted online via web chat on May 17 while Jason was in his New York City office and Michael was in transit from Philadelphia to NYC.

Jason Varone & Michael Konrad in front of Jason's wall painting.
Jason Varone & Michael Konrad
in front of Jason’s wall painting at Grizzly Grizzly.

Michael Konrad: I’ve known you and your work since 2000 and have seen it progress over the years. Let’s start with your installation at Grizzly right now – “It Isn’t Always Going to Be This Great” –
you merge various elements that you’ve used in previous pieces to create an entirely new installation: smoke plumes, falling/dying animals, appropriated war video, streaming news headlines, and the soundtrack.

Jason Varone: Yes, this installation is consistent with several of my recent site-specific works, with a couple of key differences:
I used sound, more specifically music, for the first time in almost a decade. And I’ve introduced color in the cartoon-like plumes of smoke that I have been painting on walls for a few years now.

MK: I immediately noticed the addition of fluorescent pink smoke plumes in addition the black-outline-on-white-wall smoke that you usually draw.
How could you miss it really? — that color, POW!

JV: The use of pink is essentially symbolic. I went through an orange period years ago. Orange is the “least likely color to be found in nature”, according to Jean Des Esseintes, a character in a late 19th Century French novel “À rebours,” by Joris-Karl Huysmans. There was an entire chapter in that book about why the main character decided to paint his living room orange.

I began using orange as a symbol to represent technology. I am introducing pink in a similar way. I am thinking about what color would the ether be if you could see it, or what color would ooze out of computers if they bled.

MK: I love that thought, color representing the guts of technology. Tron used neon green.

JV: I have a jar of some beautiful neon green in my studio now.

MK: There’s something kind of chemical or nuclear about the pink as well.
Then again, dirty bombs are sooo early 2000s (haha).

JV: Yeah, but Kim Jong Sun just detonated a nuclear weapon underground.

MK: For real? Probably a media stunt, faked.
But speaking of color, you also introduced washes of colorful splotches over the otherwise dry and detached b&w aerial drone bombing footage…

JV: Yes, the drone footage is something I’ve been collecting and wanting to work with for some time now. The colorful splatters of paint and the Henry Mancini cocktail music are strategies to take this violent footage out of context.

MK: Yes! the music! I want to talk about that some more…
sings: Jimmy rolls jimmy rolls jimmy rolls

JV: These elements create a safe viewing distance to the drone attacks, psychologically at least. The colors are beautiful, and move to the music and have a rhythm of their own…so its a bit mesmerizing, and the music has a blissful quality….but before long, the viewer begins to internalize what s/he is looking at and is confronted with Power , exercised in their name by the their own government.

MK: It’s so absurd & really darkens the mood in a way.
It brings a Kubrick-like humor to the violence: I’m thinking of A Clockwork Orange and Dr. Strangelove.

It simultaneously lightens the gravity of the footage, but also draws the viewer in to actually consider the carnage that is otherwise so easy to dismiss — it looks like a video game.

JV: Yes, perhaps I’m emulating Kubrick a bit here.

MK: Yeah, it’s really a major feature in all of his movies actually.

JV: He used music to add content to his scenes, and sometimes not even obvious choices of music, but they always seem to be playing an active role in the film.

The video game analogy is right on. This is not war footage. There are people in offices that are operating this technology in Washington or Virginia. For all we know, the drone operators are drinking Martini’s while doing surveillance.

That’s not actually fair…

MK: True, very true. but there is still a realness to it and the drone operators know it. They even suffer from PTSD and they are awarded medals of honor.

JV: Medals of honor, that is insane.

MK: It’s an insane world. Would it really be that shocking if animals actually fell from the sky? I think it may have actually happened with cane toads in Australia.

JV: Yes, I think it’s insane that joystick operators are getting Medals of Honor. It’s insane that I can download all of this footage of a supposed secret drone campaign to my personal laptop. It’s insane that I can buy an actual drone on the Apple website, complete with a HD surveillance camera and I can fly it with my iPhone. It’s insane that bees, and all sorts of animals, are dying in large numbers (and in some cases falling from the sky).

‘What isn’t insane?’ is really the question.
Years back I made a piece entitled “The Long and Continuous Emergency” and in a way I think I’ve been making work about this same idea ever since

MK: Actually, to clarify my previous statement, crows were killing the cane toads and dropping them from the sky.

JV: There’s this too:
2,000 red-winged blackbirds fell dead from the sky in a central Arkansas town (2011)
2,000,000 Dead Fish Wash Up in Chesapeake (2011)
100,000 fish were reported dead in an Arkansas river, and then 100 miles away, thousands of birds fell from the sky just days later on New Year’s Eve

MK: Great title btw, we don’t think of emergencies as “long” or “continuous…”
but the urgency of the situation is real and ongoing = emergency.

JV: An emergency is not something we normally think about as lasting forever. How could it? How could we possibly endure that? But I think that is exactly what we are living through, and we’re just getting used to the speed of it. As of now, we’re living in a kind of slow motion emergency…I predict events will begin to overwhelm us more as time goes on. Hence the title of my show “It Isn’t Always Going to Be This Great.”

MK: But it doesn’t really seem like its all that great now, does it? Certainly not as presented in your work…

I am really depressed for the future of my 4-month old twins,
but at the same time I sort of wish I could be my son.

JV:  I worry more about the environment than anything else, and that is where the animals come from in my work. That’s what the kids will have to deal with more than anything else, a climate that can’t really support humans anymore.

But how bad could it be if I’ll be drinking Manhattans later today discussing the art world with a friend, then I’ll go home and watch Basketball on TV. I mean, that is sort of what I’m getting at with the drone footage and the Henry Mancini music – we are all living large as the world burns.

MK: There actually isn’t much of those “good times” evident in your installation, besides the Mancini “jimmy rolls” cocktail music — and that is used in a very different way as we discussed before (absurdity, darkness, & irony).

It all looks pretty bleak (although you make that terrible landscape seem really engaging to be in).

JV: There are some entertainment related headlines in the text scroll. And I think the music is functioning on two levels. But, the fact that we can even have an opening, drink beers together and talk about the world is very “good times” in my book. So that’s inherent in the work isn’t it? There’s the pink too…it’s pretty.

Yes, It’s bleak. I have a bleak view of the world, but I don’t think things seem so bleak to the average American.

MK: So these are the good times: sit back, watch some color splashed video, listen to the cocktail music, and ‘oh, what an interesting arrangement of painted & moving images on the walls? Would you like another drink while the world as we know it crumbles around us?’

JV: Exactly. But we are kind of responsible for the crumbling, that’s the dark side. Maybe not us personally so much, but our society, our government.

MK: We ARE our society, our government.
We choose to not participate, to ignore, bury our heads in the sand, and hold imaginary beliefs & ideology as our reality.

JV: It’s going to be hard for me to enjoy a drink tonight.

MK: Sometimes you don’t need to enjoy it, you just need to drink it.

To view photos of the exhibition ‘It Isn’t Always Going to Be This Great’ and find out more about Jason’s work, please visit our website.


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