Fall Arts and Culture Guide 2017
Early this year, on a clear winter night a week into Trump’s presidency, I took a bus deep into Portland’s East Side to see local artist and experimental filmmaker Vanessa Renwick perform. The event was part of a long-running, variety show series that’s held sporadically in different houses throughout the city. Renwick had told me that she planned to provide some comic relief by showing clips from a “horrible movie” called How to Strip for Your Husband, and discussing her misadventures doing camera work on it for extra money in the early 1990s. She’d sent me an online event invitation that read by way of its performer bio: “Vanessa Renwick will be doing whatever the hell she wants.”
Renwick didn’t bring that horrible movie. She simply walked up to the stage and sat on a stool. She wore a multicolored 1980s ski jacket and bright red pants, with her long, gray-streaked brown hair hanging down. After speaking a few words into the microphone, she pushed it to the side and spoke to the small crowd in her casual, slightly gruff manner, building connections through long, hypnotizing sentences. “I ran into a friend on the sidewalk and we were talking about the state of the world and how fucked up things are, and I started crying and she started crying and then I went to see some art and I felt better,” she said.
She read from a piece of text art by Tad Savinar about a night after he’d simultaneously worked on designs for a Holocaust memorial, a high-school shooting memorial, and a World War II memorial, when he reached the point of having “absorbed too much grief” and accidentally wandered into a lesbian Latina karaoke bar after work. While watching the women sing songs of love and trust to their partners in the audience, he began bawling uncontrollably, and the women surrounded him, hugging him and patting him on the back. The bartender got out from behind the bar and joined them. No one said a word.
Renwick finished reading the story and thanked the audience members—most seemed to know her, or at least admire her—and we thanked her back, clapping loudly. In a way, her performance hadn’t been much. She had read some words she’d recently seen on the wall of an art gallery. But it was what everyone seemed to need at that moment, and Renwick had responded to that longing.
I was introduced to Renwick’s work a decade ago, when she was showing a film at What the Heck Fest, a small-scale music festival in Anacortes, an island town north of Seattle. While sitting on the wood-beam floor of a dock warehouse, the water of Puget Sound swaying visibly underneath us between the cracks, one of Renwick’s films was projected onto a wall. It showed various shots of vacant Northeast Portland lots and empty streets filmed from a car, while the audio—spliced together from a call-in KBOO radio program—told the cultural history of the legendary House of Sound record store that had once served as one of that neighborhood’s community hubs. After 11 minutes, the film ended and the lights came on. I got up from the floor, feeling curious and slightly bewildered, and exchanged silent glances with the people next to me. Renwick sat by the projector with a large dog. Tucked away in the shadows, she seemed as mysterious as her film.
Over the next several years, I went to a handful of festivals where her work was playing, and each time, my reaction was as inconclusive as the films themselves. I was drawn to the films’ undiluted purity, their sense of discovery and limitless curiosity, but I often felt unsure as to why I was watching them. Renwick’s projects seemed to me both structured and unstructured; whether they were complete accidents or the work of a great visionary, I couldn’t tell.
It’s difficult to make sweeping statements about Renwick’s work. Over the last few decades, she has made around 50 short films ranging from mini-documentaries to film collages, essay films to installation loops. Her shorts are, by most people’s standards, very short—rarely do they exceed 15 minutes. In one of them, a self-appointed Satanic priest shows off his human skull collection. In another, a nuclear power plant’s cooling tower is detonated. In another, a series of people yawn. For her films, Renwick’s collaborated with everyone from Miranda July to author William T. Vollmann to Quasi’s Sam Coomes.
Renwick’s films are what most people know her by, but she sees them as just one facet of her work. More than anything, she likes being offered up a space. “I want to make new environments for people to experience that are all-encompassing, enveloping,” she says. She pauses, then adds, “and sometimes comfortable.”
One of her most ubiquitous installations, Medusa Smack, is largely comfortable. A reminder “of our long ago origins as sea organisms,” the piece invites viewers to lie on pillows under tent-like fabric jellyfish. An ambient soundscape plays while a film of actual jellyfish is projected onto the fabric fish.
Her most recent installation is a little less comfortable. 2016’s Next Level Fucked Up, shown at the Portland Art Museum, mixed projection, printed images, pillows, and police lights, and centered on a seven-channel video series playing on a stack of television sets that documented everything from abusive dog-breeding practices to a film collage titled “A Hodgepodge of Horrible.” Each video segment ended with a playful “Next Level Fucked Up” jingle. The installation was without a doubt a peek into a very particular worldview, political mindset, and sense of humor. As with Medusa Smack, Next Level Fucked Up allowed viewers to lie on pillows. But these pillows had dog-poop bags printed onto them and instead of hypnotizing sea life, viewers watched images of melting glaciers.
Whenever people talk about Renwick, her almost-mythological younger self inevitably comes up. In her teens and early 20s, Renwick was a slightly feral creature, hitchhiking across the country barefoot with a wolf-dog. She didn’t wear shoes for two years. She cracked her skull in a bike accident and bled from her ears. For months afterward, her knees would give out randomly and she would fall to the ground. The fracture heightened her senses—every sound was louder, every sensation more acute. She touched everything she passed. She would hit her head against brick walls because the pressure felt good. And though she couldn’t understand their language, she felt that she could hear trees speaking.
She eventually recovered from the injury, and gave up the hitchhiking life when her children were born in the late 1980s. She moved to Portland in 1989 to raise her kids while working a wide variety of jobs—from establishing the small press and zine section at Powell’s to making giant animal puppets—and making her films. Though Renwick’s current life bears little resemblance to her past, she still can’t give up the road. She travels for film festivals, residencies, and guest screenings almost monthly, and every few years takes her films on tour. Her last tour, in 2015, covered 10,000 miles of the US and included 35 screenings in 50 days, often in basements and backyards. “I like going to weird places much better than film centers,” Renwick says.
When I ask why, Renwick describes some of the people she’s met on tour. All of the most memorable and affecting encounters have happened, she says, because the space didn’t create a power imbalance between artist and audience, and people felt comfortable approaching her. “I want to expand people’s peripheral vision into this other way of thinking and seeing that they don’t usually see and don’t usually seek out on their own,” she tells me.
Occasionally, at 55 years old, Renwick will paint a house for extra cash, or do an odd job here and there. But in large part, she has made her living from her art for the past 20 years. Between grants, film showings, museum installations, commissions, and a handful of DVD sales, she pays the bills more often than not. “It’s total hand-to-mouth,” she says. “Sometimes it’s like ‘Woo!’ and sometimes it’s like ‘Oh my god, the utilities are getting shut off.’”
I’d been trying to figure out which film people know Renwick for, or at least which one’s been shown the most, and I hadn’t come to any conclusions. I had assumed that if I interviewed enough of her collaborators and admirers, it would become obvious, but that only makes it murkier. Each person I talk to about Renwick has a different entry point into her work. Each has a different favorite film or installation. Each appreciates a different aspect of her art. While some knew her from the avant-garde film scene, others knew her from the punk community. Some have primarily seen her work in galleries, while others have solely seen it in basements and living rooms. It’s almost as if each person knows and loves an entirely different artist. So I ask Renwick herself if she has, in her own particular way, a hit film.
Without hesitating, Renwick tells me the hit is The Yodeling Lesson, a three-minute film in which a woman rides a bike up a very steep hill. Taking the middle of the lane, the heavily layered rider keeps her hands to her sides. She waves to a passing car. A truck that approaches from behind quickly flips around. After the cyclist makes it to the top, the film cuts to her getting on her bike on the other side of the street without any clothes on. She flies down the steep hill, without using her hands or brakes. When she gets to the bottom, the film ends.
Vanessa Renwick will be presenting her work through Sept 3 at The Eclipse Show at Blue Sky Gallery (122 NW 8th) and on Sat Nov 4 at Signal Fire’s Unwalking the West festival at the Hollywood Theatre (4122 NE Sandy).