Deconstructing nostalgia

Adrienne Crossman breaks down cartoons, work, and life

Interview by Tom Beedham

Mash-up editing, cut-ups, datamoshing… as a visual artist Adrienne Crossman has spent a lot of time remixing visual culture, and on Jan. 9, Adrienne’s video installation “rainbow // pony” will be on site at Long Winter transforming scenes from Fantasia, My Little Pony, Powerpuff Girls and She-Ra into a kaleidoscopic nostalgia trip. We caught up with Adrienne at Xpace to talk about the work she does there as a programming coordinator, “rainbow // pony,” and what goes into the complicated balancing act of working a full-time artist support job while trying to pursue your own career as an artist, specifically in Toronto.

The piece you’ll have at Long Winter – “rainbow // pony” – it’s screened elsewhere before, and it compiles scenes from She-Ra, My Little Pony, Powerpuff Girls and Fantasia that are then processed into kaleidoscopes. What can you tell me about those projections?

Well the original iteration of it was just cuts from Fantasia, and I made that last summer when I lived in Montreal and I was doing a residency and then towards the end of the residency my partner and I… she built a huge blanket fort in the residency and then I kind of made projections for this event we were having and it kind of just created a fantastical environment. So that’s how I started the project, and then I got asked to do the visuals for the three-year anniversary of Feast in the East that took place last spring, so then I collaborated with two good friends of mine – Lauren Pelc-McArthur and Brianna Lowe – and Petra Glynt and New Fries were playing that show and we kind of… we wanted to make visuals that… I talked to Alex [MacKenzie] from Petra Glynt and we were talking about just doing kind of a “teen girl gang theme” nostalgic imagery so then the three of us used sourced empowering girl cartoon imagery, so that’s why I chose She-Ra, and then I thought the Powerpuff Girls would be a fun addition, and I really like My Little Pony and unicorn imagery and that kind of whimsical imagery, so that’s why I chose that, and then I’ve been working with the kaleidoscope effect for the past I guess five years, and it’s just an effect I really like and it worked really well with that imagery, so that’s how I got to this point.

Can you talk a little bit about what your relationship with these cartoons is like?

I never actually watched She-Ra

Yeah I think it was a little before our time.

Yeah. But she seemed pretty badass, and I was drawn to that just because it’s one of the most old school cartoons empowering women.

I think it was kind of controversial when it came out, too. That and He-Man I guess they were some of the first cartoons to involve violence and in the case of She-Ra I guess women engaging in physical combat.

Yeah. I feel like that’s what She-Ra’s known for, but I mean the flipside is that she’s super sexualized, still, which is a problem, but that was the only way they could do it back then. But also she rode this amazing Pegasus – which might have been a unicorn Pegasus – which I like a lot and used a lot of the footage from…

And then I watched Fantasia as a child and I’d never revisited it as an adult until last summer and I found it to be super frightening as a kid, so kind of as a response to that when I was editing that footage I didn’t edit any of the footage that I thought was scary and I just took the really pleasant stuff to create a kind of whimsical fantasy land. And then I just love the Powerpuff Girls, and My Little Pony was a good addition in terms of that same kind of feeling, like really light-hearted. Because a lot of the other work I do is really conceptual, and for this I just wanted to do more of a fun project that was still cohesive.

It’s interesting that most if not all of these cartoons are really connected with heavy commodification. What do you think it says to take these icons and then distort them into these kaleidoscopes?

Hmm. When you say commodification, what do you mean specifically?

Commercialism might be a better word. She-Ra and My Little Pony were shows that were created as vehicles to sell toys, basically. And then Powerpuff Girls produced all kinds of merchandise.

It’s funny because when you said that my brain immediately went to the commodification of feminism or something and that itself is a huge problem…

Because I mean I feel like the Powerpuff Girls… that was happening when the Spice Girls were happening and there was this weird end of the ’90s/early 2000s commodification of faux feminism and that’s where my brain went with some of this stuff. But one thing I really like to do in my practice that kind of spans all of the work I make is to just… I’d rather take existing elements of pop culture and then recontextualize them rather than just create my own from scratch because I think there’s already so much out there. So I think it’s really interesting for me to be able to take things that are familiar to people but then recontextualize them in a way that is unfamiliar and that makes you look at something through a different perspective that can totally change the meaning, whether that’s a deep meaning or not. That wasn’t my intention but it’s just really playing with that imagery, and it was important for me to pick things that people would recognize and have a connection to.

When we were emailing you described “rainbow // pony” as having a nostalgic 'teen-girl fantasy' vibe. What do you think it says about nostalgia or things like gender, or even fantasy?

I guess for me specifically – I was born in the late ’80s so I’m kind of speaking to my generation of people. I feel like those specific images are nostalgic because they were happening when I was a kid [chuckles] and I think a lot of people in my age group feel the same way, like we all feel nostalgic about the same things because we experience them at the same age, and then I guess it’s just an interesting thing to think about how… I don’t know, if I think about it through more of a critical lens how it’s kind of like a… Fantasia less so because that happened way before, but in terms of She-Ra and Powerpuff Girls it’s like this weird… yeah just this media representation of “girl power” but through a really patriarchal lens.

There’s this really famous video art piece by Dara Birnbaum where she takes footage of the old Wonder Woman show and just loops it and loops it and loops it, and shows how it’s supposed to be this show about this really empowering woman, but it’s all about her spinning around and it looks really ridiculous. I guess I’ve been really inspired by works like that – that take something that people don’t look at critically or question at all and kind of focus in on things and breaking that apart and being like, “Well what is this show actually saying?” or “How do we remember it?” Because a lot of these things too, we saw these things as children and then we never revisited them again. And I find that when you look at stuff… you’re way less critical as a child and you kind of take things in as they are, and then I find that whenever I revisit things as an adult I see them completely differently, so part of it’s that, too. I feel like pop culture’s really rich and has such an influence over the way we think about the world in a way that you can just brush it off as fluff but it’s actually such a symptom – such a representation – of the current mentality.

Approaching this as an adult now I think it’s a pretty interesting commentary on the way our relationships with the notion of fantasy sort of develop over time. For example kids growing up from being these really imaginative beings to seeking out things like kaleidoscopes because they’re trippy things to look through when they’re on drugs.

I mean there’s definitely an element of just taking source footage and aesthetically making trippy footage—

And I just want to say I’m not trying to reduce what you’re doing to something like that.

No, no that’s cool – I mean, I have a big problem in the work that I make where everything I make needs to always be heavy and conceptual and about ideas and it’s really hard for me to break away from that, so even when I make work that’s just aesthetic, I find that I’m always trying to bring in these reasons why. So I find all these things support it, but each time I’ve shown the work – including this time – it’s more about creating an environment and making really interesting visuals that you can enjoy… I mean it could be enhanced by being inebriated and having it be really trippy, but also it can be totally enjoyed sober and just thinking about where they’re going to be placed and how the shape of a kaleidoscope works really well in certain parts of that building and the architecture, and that’s kind of what motivated me using that effect in the first place. I only ever really use that effect when I’m projecting works that are meant to be environmental.

What specifically are you looking for when you’re deciding on the spaces that you’re projecting “rainbow // pony” on?

One time I projected in the top of a dome of a church, and it was a kaleidoscope in fractals and I used a lot, so it was very circular and it worked really well in that space and then when I initially made this one, I projected it inside a blanket fort in a corner, so it had rays that went out from each part of the corner, and because it was symmetrical it worked really well. And I think I’m projecting this in the main stairwell [of the Great Hall at Long Winter] and last year I projected in that stairwell, and it works really well for kaleidoscope stuff because of the shape and just because everything is symmetrical. If it hits different angles it’s okay but it gets distorted because it’s already a distorted image it can kind of be projected anywhere, whereas if I was showing a single channel video work that had no effects on it you’d really notice if there was part of a wall infringing on a corner or something. So that’s part of it, too.

We were talking about your use of pop culture a little bit, and your work has also focused on The Simpsons. What was your relationship with The Simpsons like?

My parents ironically let my brother and I – I have a twin brother so we were always the same age, and they let us watch that show from like— I remember being age seven or eight and watching that show and them always being fine with it. So it’s just weird how it was really this adult cartoon but that passed like it was okay for kids, but I specifically remember them not letting us watch the Power Rangers.

See, I had the exact opposite and that’s always the example I bring up.

I find that really funny. And it’s because they saw something on the news about how Power Rangers was making kids really hyper and violent, but The Simpsons was accepted. But I think it’s like the thing where it’s one of those shows that operates on different levels where a kid could watch it and everything goes over their head, or a lot of things go over their head, but I think for a lot of us, I think growing up you’d come home and it would be on three or four different channels and there’d be four or five different Simpsons reruns a night and you could always watch it. So my childhood was full of people reciting the quotes to themselves. For some reason the work I made for that show [Homer’s Odyssey: A Simpsons Art Show] I essentially took every single scene that Hans Moleman was in and isolated them. I just remember being in Grade 8 and knowing that he was my favourite character. I always like picking really weird parts of like… he’s just a really weird character that some people don’t even know about and for me I really like to extract things that people don’t usually see and put a magnifying glass on it, so that was kind of my motivation for making that work and my relationship with that show. And that show was really amazing because it was all these different perspectives – some people didn’t even watch the show as a kid, but they got to know it as adults and then made work about it. But I think it’s one of the most unifying shows of our youth. Almost anybody around our age in their mid-20s can quote The Simpsons to each other.

Are there specific things about pop culture that attract you as a visual artist?

I feel like I’m at the risk of a faux pas, but it always stuck with me how Andy Warhol kind of pioneered that “I’m going to work with images that are already created because there are already so many images in the world, so why produce more?” and I just think that there’s so much rich material in the world – especially in pop culture – that is like… there’s something about pop culture that is taken so for granted by people and ingested in this way that’s not critical, that I’m really motivated to hone in on things that just seem totally benign or innocent and deconstruct them. Nothing is a blank canvas – everything is constructed with all these ideologies we have. So a lot of my work is just based on deconstructing these really harmless looking things and being like, “No – maybe She-Ra is really misogynistic,” or, “All of these cartoons were white.” It’s honing in on those things.

How would you say your kaleidoscope pieces fit into your larger creative portfolio?

That’s a good question. Because I’ve been trying to figure that out myself. One thing that I’ve found really interesting is that a lot of the work that I’ve done with the kaleidoscope is that it’s always been event-based. It’s always been one-night event-based or projections for a band or stuff like that. And I always thought about it in terms of my “serious” art practice and my “fun” art practice, where I just made this kind of work. But I’m starting to feel like they are more integrated and that there are more unifying threads. One thing that I’ve been really surprised about is that I’ll get interest from people who want to curate pieces that I think are just part of my fun art practice into more serious art shows, so I dunno. I’ve been thinking about them as more unified as of late. But when I first started making them, they weren’t. So I guess I’m in the process of figuring that out.

It’s interesting that you set up this distinction between “serious” art and “fun” art in this case because that sort of implies these competing binaries about high and low culture and commercial, and art and commerce. I can understand why you might feel complicated about it.

I guess all of that has the kind of unifying thread of me trying to put all forms of culture on a level playing field. Like I really believe in taking low culture and high culture and kind of meshing them together and confusing what that even means, because what does that even mean? The other thing too is that, yeah, I’ve worked on a lot of music videos that only get viewed online, and then I also make net art which is in this weird category of low and high art at the same time, because it can be a GIF on someone’s Tumblr, or that same source footage can be in a high art gallery. And I just think it’s all about context. It’s like the work itself can’t even dictate what it is until it’s put in that specific context. It’s really strange and interesting.

You’ve worked here at Xpace as a programming coordinator for the past year. What does that position involve? Is it a primarily curatorial role?

So we have a director and then one other programming coordinator, and then the three of us run the space, and we each get a chance to curate a show, so I curated a show last year which was for the IMAGES Festival and that was a new media art show about transcending identity binaries within digital media, and it’s curatorial as well as just… it kind of feels like a bit of a mentorship position, too, because we only show student artists and emerging artists, so people that have gotten out of school recently or maybe have been out of school for a bit longer but don’t have that much professional experience. We’re here as a support system for those people, and we show a lot of people who have maybe never exhibited in a gallery before or only have once or twice. So I find that a really big part of my job is just meeting with people who don’t have a lot of experience and providing opportunities. And then we also do a lot of things like we offer a residency program and we do a lot of class talks, and just a lot of outreach in the community and then also part of the job is being part of a committee. Every six months we have a submissions deadline and then us and other people from the community go over submissions. It’s really interesting to see bodies of work and then make decisions on a jury about what’s gonna be shown. And then we teach proposal workshops and help facilitate other people teaching workshops. Supporting and providing a lot of opportunities to artists and designers that don’t have that much experience.

With Xpace being what it is and even just the prolificacy of your own work I think what you do is pretty important in the Toronto arts community. Could you speak about some of the obstacles you’ve encountered?

Yeah, for sure. Also thanks for saying that.

I was just talking with a colleague earlier today, and we were talking a lot about how Toronto is this city where you’re expected to hustle all of the time and just constantly seems like everybody’s just putting work out all of the time and it’s like if you’re not working and you’re not showing, then people forget about you or there’s this need to keep producing. And I find that the obstacle there is that because there’s so much going on opposed to other cities where there’s less going on but you have more time to germinate and think about your work, it doesn’t become… it’s the struggle of quality over quantity, or how to balance those things. And I’ve been finding that the more I’ve been working and the more work I’ve been doing, the more opportunities I get that are really great opportunities that I don’t want to say no to, but it all just gets stuck in this constant state of having four or five projects on the go. And I’ve talked to some friends recently who have moved here from Montréal and for them Toronto’s like… everybody’s hustling and they’re working so much, and they’re just like, “Oh my god, you guys are doing so much.” Whereas in Montréal it’s a little more chill. It’s a little more DIY and less pressure. So I find that’s a really big obstacle. And also I find there’s a big assumption that if you’re doing well, then you’re making money, [laughs] which is just not true, most of the time. I’ve made a bit of money on some of the projects I’ve done, but a lot of the work I’ve done… you make maybe some money to buy dinner the next day, but I never make close… working at Xpace is great because I actually have an amazing job at a gallery where I make enough to survive, but off of my own art practice it’s almost impossible and I think that a really big obstacle is people that aren’t in the art community assuming that if your art is out there and people recognize you then you’re doing fine financially. In that way it’s a little bit thankless.

How do you navigate that?

I feel like it just starts to be this thing… when you get out of school, even when you’re in school and people start to ask you to do stuff, you’re just like “Yes, yes, yes,” because you want people to see your work no matter what. And then the more experiences you have, the more you start to learn “it doesn’t really matter because it’s no longer a financial thing, it’s “what am I gonna benefit most from and enjoy?” So the experience of participating in something to have done it or to show work in something to do it isn’t so much a pay off as “why am I showing work here; who am I working with; is this benefiting my community; why am I invested in this?” If there’s a payoff there then I think it’s worth it, and for me, I’ve remedied that by just doing everything and then realizing what pays off for me in terms of what makes me feel good and what doesn’t, and then really starting to pick and choose. One good thing is the longer I’ve stayed in the city and lived in the city and worked with people, the more I find people who I really like to work with and people who I like to show with. Then it becomes less of a crapshoot in terms of what you’re doing, because the more people you have that you can rely on, you can organize and then kind of create your own spaces and your own shows where you have more autonomy and more power over that. So I guess that’s the way I’ve worked to remedy that. But yeah. It’s tough, but it still feels totally worth it.

A truncated version of this interview originally appeared in issue three of the Long Winter newspaper.

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