Over six feet tall, with pinkish-purple hair and a keen interest in teaching, digital culture, and what they can mean, together, Jessica Fenlon has energy and drive that are palpable. She can easily wax lyrical about technical needs and skills (codecs and codes, arduinos and Pis, Processing and Jitter), but is far more interested in what these things are and do, and their implications for prospective futures and forgotten (media) histories. She’s just… fun to talk to, has so much to offer from her experience and knowledge and sheer curiosity; and I’m super thrilled that Jessica will be teaching Art 316: Interactive and Multimedia Art for us at Peck School of the Arts (UWM) next semester. Yesterday, I took a bit of time to learn about some of her work.
Jessica Fenlon has created, for lack of a better phrase, a whole lot of stuff over her career, ranging from meditative experiences to uneasy marks between text and activity. She works with so many media and materials, so many ideas and engagements – and the work is all, well… good. And I love it precisely because I had to spend some time with it; despite its “digitality,” it doesn’t fit into a prescribed notion, a blog post (ha) or tweet of easily digestible “concepts.” And I got all that from documentation; I can’t wait to see the work in situ! Each piece or series works, disrupts, or celebrates. Every action or image or software builds on or intervenes in ideas presented in others. Fenlon’s work tells stories: of struggle and women, of matter and technology, of politics and relation, of seeing, looking, remembering, and being seen.
I met up with Jessica and asked her to talk about a few pieces of recent work, to get a glimpse of how she thinks – and that’s what I’m giving you here and now. But… spend some time at her site (and when she exhibits). All worth a visit.
portableNeurosis.perfectionism pulls from a database of common phrases we say to ourself: self abuse to achieve goals or keep up appearances. It organically marks and scores a projection with gashes and cuts of red and green, black or white, shifting between abstraction and signification, building up an affective field of anxiety and remorse, a drive to push through and an overwhelming sense of need: for ourselves, for the world, to do better. I wonder if we cast shadows when walking through its space: literally and metaphorically. (Fenlon proudly asserts that this work is all coded in Processing, all runs on a tiny Raspberry Pi, for easy gallery installation.) What do we say to ourselves, and how does that project outward? Cast doubt? Enfold cuts and bruises…
For automata.ungun, Fenlon decays a series of images of guns, slowly swapping out sections of every image with an/other section in that same image, cut up and regrouped, until there is nothing recognizable. This speaks back to a larger series of hers, Maps of the Forgetting Curve, where she finds (and credits) photos online, to “swap…. blocks of pixels inside the image continually, creating decay… I’m continuing this work meditating on forgetting, recognition, loss, avoidance, etc.”.
Maps of the Forgetting Curve : Graveyard C, above, uses VirtKitty’s Graveyard photo as the source [ www.flickr.com/photos/lalouque/3170008733 ] and again, Processing, to achieve this effect. While I absolutely appreciate the gesture of the guns, what they mean and do regarding memory and materiality, loss and endurance, conceptually… I find the color images far more impactful as a visual series. I wonder at how these processes, materials, and concepts might better collide, fold us into the world of violence towards memories – and all that phrase might mean – that guns, tweets, and images have created, alongside us. I look forward to seeing where Fenlon goes with this, in the longer term.
Honestly, it’s easy to get lost in Fenlon’s web site (and spend some time with her Flickr!), as she has so much work, including participatory and community efforts. But her stories are the most engaging for me.
One of the my favorite gems the artist shared was when, recently, she showed a number of glitched videos on campus at UW Fox Valley, in Menasha, Wisconsin. Here she was merely playing with materiality and discovery, with the politics of data on and off campus, by feeding back and running filters across the stream, which was on LCD billboards in and around university traffic. But… the university freaked out. Campus police got a number of calls, ranging from fear to antagonism, worrying at how the technology was breaking around them, not understanding the work and its thoughts and goals, and more concerned with the notion that there was “something wrong.” In the end, Fenlon had to add in a clip lead and title, frame it as “art” at its outset, and send visitors to the gallery if they wished for more information. The work practiced the experience it created, made for the dialog that was just waiting to happen, around security and insecurity, damage and control.
And more… of course. This is just a glimpse. I really appreciate how Fenlon thinks, in and around media and materials, politics and discourse, aesthetics and ethics, and how they intertwine. Welcome to Milwaukee, and UWM, Jessica! Your work, aesthetic, and intellect will bring new energy, ideas, and perspectives into our community.