Creator Q&A: Artist Jennifer Sullivan on Her Latest Project, Sincerity, and Hawaiian Pizza

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Jennifer Sullivan is a video, performance, collage, and installation artist who has exhibited at such prestigious places as The Kitchen and MoMA's PS1. Her 2006 video, One-Week Walden, received critical acclaim from the New York Times (among other glowing reviews), she's completed several prestigious artist in residency programs, and she is currently hard at work at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture where she's finishing Adult Movie, her latest video performance project. Adult Movie will premiere at the artist-run Las Cienegas Projects in Los Angeles this fall. Laying out all of this accomplishment, praise, and prestige is just to say: At first, I didn't really get it.

I mean, I was immediately intrigued by Sullivan and her project. I was very curious about her work and what the internet had to say about it, and I wanted to know more about how and why she makes what she does. But I didn't really get it. In fact, I wanted to dislike it, as some of us are wont to do when the more uncomfortable truth is we just.don't.really.get.it. 

Despite attending a flurry of openings and exhibitions, spending much of life swimming in a (mostly metaphorical but occasionally also literal) pool of creative humans, taking some art history and theory classes here and there, and so on, I know that I continue to know nothing about Art. And yet, I still wanted to wrap my mind around the authenticity, or legitimacy, of Sullivan's work, especially because I got the sense she's not making art just for folks who know about Art. Something about her, and what I thought to be her creative intentions, pushed me to attempt a deeper level of access. I wanted to know if Jennifer Sullivan was being sincere. I wanted to know who was declaring it art and why. And I wanted to know why the answers to those questions were important to me in my overall response to her creation.

I could see a little Cindy Sherman in there. Some Shana Moulton. Some Miranda July meets Andy Warhol meets Lena Dunham in an American Apparel dressing room in Berlin. I didn't quite know what to make of the references and parallels and wardrobe, but at least they helped to anchor me in context. I wasn't sure if I liked Sullivan's work, but you know, MoMa and the New York Times do, so…how does that saying go? "Opinions are like a--holes," is it? As with most "good" art (pathetically sweeping generalization aside), whether or not I like something is irrelevant; like it or not, I knew immediately that even Sullivan's project video does exactly what I believe meaningful work can do: engage, disarm, complicate, and provoke.

Sullivan's art is quite purposely without boundaries. The "This Is Art; This Is Not Art" paradigm may have been shattered for a while, but we as viewers continue to be confronted with the question, especially in the video, installation, and conceptual mediums. If making art from life and life from art is impossible to distinguish, then "This Is Performance; This is Not Performance" is an outdated dichotomy. It's a dividing line that was tackled and blurred long ago when society was deemed a "Spectacle" and Meaning, Authenticity, and Reality became constructions that have imploded and obliterated themselves. Man, what I wouldn't give to be a fly on the wall of the semester abroad dorm room where all those white-haired Frenchmen are sitting around drinking cheap port and watching Japanese cat videos on YouTube.

Sooo. In sum: I decided to contact Jennifer Sullivan. Before I launched into some frenzied attempt to either agree and connect or dismiss and critique, I realized there's a third option — to explore. One of the most wonderful things about this job is that if I want to really understand something from the artist's perspective — or even just have a conversation about the value of "getting it" — I can simply send a project creator some questions. (Fun Fact: You can too! There's a big "Send Message" button on all project pages! Use it! Knowledge = Power! 4 Serious!) 

In her answers, Sullivan describes her work as an "ongoing struggle" of "self-acceptance," an attempt to "let, accept, and present that unguarded self, as well as allow others to identify with that or feel more able to accept themselves as they are as well." She explains how "even in assuming a persona, the willingness to be vulnerable and to fail publicly" is a "large part" of her interest in performance. She quotes John Cassavetes' "Just say what you are. And what you are is good enough," as an inspiring mantra that permeates her life and work. In all Sullivan's thoughts and insights, that fearlessness, or at the very least, the genuine aspiration and attempt to be fearless, is as clear as it is impressive. Exploring Sullivan's latest project and artistic intentions, it's so sincerely apparent that being an artist invites the world to attempt to accept you at the same time as you attempt to accept yourself. That is difficult, honest, and fearless work. And that is the work of Sullivan's art. What follows is our Q&A.

What's the first video you ever made that you believed to be "video art"?

The first video art work I ever made was created right after I graduated from Pratt in 1999. It was an unedited private performance in which I sat on my bed listening to Olivia Newton-John’s Greatest Hits on headphones and sang along to the best of my ability. Because I am listening to the music on headphones, the viewer can only hear my off-key, uninhibited singing and not the accompanying songs I was hearing while I sang. It’s not something I would show anymore, but I feel like it still offers a view into what I am interested in as an artist – creating a space in which to explore my imperfections and humanness, and trying to let accept and present that unguarded self, as well as allow others to identify with that or feel more able to accept themselves as they are as well.

Tell us about your artistic influences. (If talking about other artists is infuriating, tell us what inspires you to create the way that you do.)

I love talking about artists who inspire me actually, and there are a lot. I am very inspired by filmmakers, especially John Cassavetes. There is a quote of his that goes: "Say what you are. Not what you would like to be. Not what you have to be. Just say what you are. And what you are is good enough." I feel that this is my aim as an artist. I also love Agnes Varda, Fassbinder, Claire Denis, Herzog, Godard, Errol Morris, Robert Bresson, Buster Keaton, Aki Kaurismäki, Frederick Wiseman, Douglas Sirk, Les Blank, Jacques Tati, Barbara Kopple’s documentary Harlan County USA… I could go on and on, I watch a lot of movies! In terms of other visual artists, it had been really inspiring to work and hang out with all of the resident faculty here at Skowhegan this summer – Michael Smith, Dave McKenzie, Cheryl Donegan, Daniel Bohzkov, and Marlene McCarty. Pipilotti Rist, Miranda July, and more recently George Kuchar have also influenced me a lot too. And I love outsider artists like Judith Scott, Lee Godie, Bessie Harvey, Aurie Ramirez. But aside from other artists, I am totally influenced all the time by non-art things all the time too. In preparation for this show, I’ve been looking at a lot of movie trailers on YouTube and adult movie posters from the '60s and '70s for ideas. Oh, and Kate Bush, she is always a huge inspiration.

"Adult Movie explores the internal conflicts and struggles of art making, money making and adulthood." Can you offer a lil' more of a spoiler? What's a specific struggle we will see?

Well, one struggle that I dramatize in the movie is my relationship with my student loan company, my shaky financial situation since graduate school, and the idea of financial independence as a marker of adulthood. Another is the struggle I’ve had to make this video, which is somewhat of a long delayed follow-up to the last non-collaborative video I made, One-Week Walden. Walden is also the work I’ve made that I feel most proud of, but at this point, 4 years later, I feel as though I’ve grown past it, that I need to go further. I feel like I’ve finally been figuring out how to do that in the past several months but it took me a long time to get here. And in all my work, the ongoing struggle I’m always dealing with is one of self-acceptance.

Tell us about your "brief career as an exotic dancer at a lesbian strip club at age 30." How and why did you explore that?

As I will describe in the first moments of the movie, it was a dream of mine since childhood to become a stripper and an idea I’d gotten from a particular movie. But when I actually became one, it was for a mixture of reasons. I was unemployed and broke, and decided to peruse the adult section of Craigslist. I saw a want ad for “girl for girl strippers” and it intrigued me, so I read the description. I‘d thought about stripping before, but I never liked the idea of lap dances, which is really how you make money as a stripper at this point in time. But dancing for women seemed like a gentler way of trying it out. The ad also said you could make $500 a night and up, which didn’t end up being true. So, at the time when I tried it, it was partly curiosity about this uniquely intimate form of performance, and whether or not I could act out the role convincingly, and partly a hope that I could make a lot of money and have more time to make art.

You describe the film as "diaristic," and the diary format is part of so much of your art. What is it about that perspective that you're drawn to? Why is that often your chosen mode of expression?

It’s just the mode that feels most natural to me. My life and my private world is the raw material I work with as an artist, and I am trying to find meaning in it in both a personal sense and a public sense. My work is a way of trying to understand both myself, and others better. I present myself with the assumption that we are all very much alike inside and that the more honest and specific I am about myself, the greater chance that someone else will be able to relate to and empathize with my experiences.

How do you distinguish your video and performance art from your off-stage/camera personality? Do you assume a similar persona in all your work? Would you even call your presence a character or just some hypo/hyper version of yourself? (…"neither" is also an option.)

I’d say that often in public performance I am performing a kind of hyperversion of myself. It’s kind of my default character. But in video I think it can be a bit more unclear. In video, I try to be more honest, and I feel as though I allow myself to be more vulnerable. Though even in assuming a persona, the willingness to be vulnerable and to fail publicly is a large part of my interest in performance as a format.

Similarly, how do you see your performance as being different from the way we engage on a daily basis? Meaning, if you're drawing from an ironic and self-reflexive everyday life and commenting on it, what distinguishes your art-as-commentary from the life you're commenting on? Is there a clear distinction between your artistic statement and embodying, or just plain…being?

I don’t really see myself as being an ironic artist though I may use that part of humor at times. I feel more that I use playfulness and actually a kind of over-honesty, saying the things that I am thinking and not supposed to say because it sounds ridiculous but also very human. Also, I’m very interested in blurring the boundaries between art and life, as Allan Kaprow put it, another artist who has been an inspiration. I don’t really try to draw boundaries between these two arenas, they are totally interconnected and constantly feeding each other.

Some critics might say your art speaks to a generation's inability to be sincere, to be genuinely and fearlessly thoughtful without reference to generations that have come before you. You might say this is what your sincerity looks like, and/or that sincerity is totally overrated. You might also just tell them to shove it. What…do you say?

I’d say that I am being sincere, and that there is a fearlessness that goes into presenting a not perfect portrait of myself. And I am very thoughtful about my work. I totally disagree with the notion that referencing other work diminishes an artist in some way. In fact I strongly believe that all artists are influenced by other artists, and that this is how we learn to find our own voices. Picasso was notorious for “borrowing” from other artists. Bob Dylan’s first album was basically a Woody Guthrie impression. I’ve been using karaoke as a metaphor for my process for sometime now – an idea of taking a text and reinterpreting it, and filling it with your own ideas and emotions. This is quite common in music, the idea of the cover version, but can be seen as more cynical in visual art, which I don’t really understand. I believe originality is the product of being a unique combination of influences and interpretations of the work of other people that you love and/or hate. I reference other artists in my work as a form or homage and critique. And after I say all that, then I tell them to shove it.

What is your favorite pizza topping? 

Hawaiian! I like the sweet/salty yin-yang of pineapple and ham.

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      Justin Nathanson on

      Very cool stuff - and I love the Hawaiian myself!

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