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vol 6 - issue 01 (sep 2003) :: untapped
UNTAPPED TALENT: DEBORAH JOHNSON
interview by vinnie baggadonuts
image by deborah's friend

EVERY NOW AND THEN, THE GRAPHIC DESIGNER IN ME NEEDS TO TALK SHOP WITH A FELLOW PROFESSIONAL. BUT WHEN THE GRAPHIC DESIGNER I CHOOSE ALSO HAPPENS TO BE A VIDEO ARTIST (VIDEO BEING MY ORIGINAL LOVE AND FIRST COLLEGIATE MAJOR), MY INTERVIEWING HEART GOES PITTER-PATTER. I HAPPENED UPON CANDYSTATIONSí VERY OWN DEBORAH JOHNSON WHEN WATCHING WILCO PERFORM LIVE THIS SUMMER. THE VIDEO VISUALS BEHIND THEM WERE AMAZING, AND SHE WAS TO BLAME. SO, I SOUGHT HER OUT.

Vinnie: You know, Wilco's Three Rivers Arts Fest show in Pittsburgh this summer was the first time I'd ever seen them. Here I am, supposed to be watching this band perform, and all I can do is stare at the video screen behind them. How did you land that job?

Deborah: The summer tour with Sonic Youth was the first tour to include visuals. Wilco had been discussing having them for about a year, to give an ocular sister to the live audio manipulation that was emerging in the group. I became involved shortly thereafter and collaborated with Shea Ako and Casey Rice, my other angelic programmers. The three of us created and programmed the visuals, but I also "art directed"-- taking visual ideas from the band, then performing them live with the band.

V: Maybe it's the designer in me, but I think the imagery you're using is very beautiful, and it all seems to go appropriately with whatever song it's accompanying. At times, the video speed even seems to echo the song tempo perfectly. Was this all a conscious decision, or is some of it simply a matter of coincidence?

D: We ended up pulling from a lot of different sources to achieve what I like to think of as a modern decay. Some look very painterly, based somewhat on Gerhard Richter. Some are based on the deconstruction of language. Some are animations of these fascinating, somewhat Seussian percussion inventions that the drummer (Glenn Kotche) drew. Some are based on Shaker gift drawings. We also incorporated some decayed black and white footage from a film called Decasia by Bill Morrison, that mimicked the computer-generated visuals to try and bridge old and new in an elegant way. As for tempo, it's no coincidence. The visuals are programmed to interact with the audio, using live video software and Flash, taking audio signals from the band.

V: Based on what I've seen of your video work, such as Andre's Theme and some installation stills, it seems like you had a substantial bit of creative control over the video presentation. Is this true?

D: Yes, actually. I knew that Wilco, as a whole, wasn't into crazy, flashy, fast, trippy insanity-- and neither am I, so that worked out well. We wound up doing a lot of what we thought would be nice to see after listening to their records and seeing them live a few hundred times. It really worked out well. Once I had the core of the visuals together, I did some dry runs with the band, and tweaked some ideas and changed some colors. But, for the most part, everything stayed intact.

V: You're a video artist and a graphic designer. Which came first?

D: Well, video was my first love. I studied it in school and just loved being around the tape, the cables, the switches-- just the medium itself. And video really rolls off the tongue nicely. I didn't get into graphic design until I started using Flash animation in my videos. Then I realized you could make websites with flash,.. and make money.

V: How long have you been either?

D: I've been doing a version of this ever since I graduated, so for five years. And Candystations has been in existence for three years. It was my way of uniting my artwork and graphic work into one station under God. That's a horrible pun-- please keep it! It's now primarily me, with a rotating cast of talented characters, depending on the project.

V: Which video artists and designers inspired you?

D: Oh, there are many. Top five in no particular order: Pipilotti Rist, Nam Jun Paik, Michel Gondry, Mike Mills, and Sophie Mueller.

V: Did you ever imagine in a million years you'd be able to put "toured with a rock band" on your resume?

D: I only hoped. I remember, while fleeing Baltimore to seek my fortune and listening to my current life's soundtrack in my car, all I could think of was the video that could go with it. But not a music video, not a narrative-- nothing against that, I love to make music videos-- but just imagery and motion with live musicians. I knew that's what I wanted to really do. I wasn't really up for being a video artist in a gallery at the time-- nothing against that either; I hope I'm not making any enemies. I also love the physicality of touring, although it's awkward being the only girl tech at a lot of venues. I did get asked once if I was "...the girl helping the guy with the visuals", and that brassed me off.

V: Your portfolio is definitely yours. Looking at everything together is interesting, because each piece seems so unique when compared to everything else. But in its entirety, the portfolio still manages to come across as being the product of your hand. Do you ever face any difficulty with art directors or clients because of this? Do they have a problem with you not having a strict style?

D: You know, I have no idea if it's a problem. I could definitely see how it could be. I think it's often worked to my advantage, and I like each project to have its own personality. But I will say that I don't attract a lot of commercial projects. Mine is not a corporate bird, and that may be the reason why. But there are some projects that I really feel like if I did have a style, that would be it-- like the website I made for the Japanese singer Chocolat, or the Key Club site, much of the Wilco visuals. And my personal site has always been a safe haven for "my" style.

V: Does your film and video work influence the way you make a product label or website look?

D: Maybe not directly, but everything influences everything else. I do enjoy the colors that NTSC gives you; they're like nothing else. I also do a lot of drawing from video; getting unexpected poses or moments in between movements.

V: In your film, Andre's Theme, there were a lot of beautiful things happening: the action being relegated to the bottom right corner; multiple things taking place; the type appearing and disappearing to tell the story. Is there a point where you have to pull back on the design of things and say, "No. I need to remember that this is a video piece," or is designing a print piece or web page the same as designing a video shot?

D: No. Never. And I won't say that I'm breaking new ground or am a renegade designer, because I think that way of working is happening more than ever. Besides, I love seeing videos that print designers have done-- there's no telling what killer approaches may come out.

V: Do you show your video work to clients from whom you're seeking graphic design work?

D: Sure. I often try to incorporate graphics in the video work. I don't know if that helps me get the job, but I hope they're entertained.

V: I remember coming across a site where you and a friend were selling a video series. Can you talk a little more about that?

D: It's called KDP (k-d-p.com). The video series is called "RESULT", a collection of unrepresented video artists that KDP distributes to help promote unrecognized talents and get them shown. There've been quite a few success stories.

V: Do you get frustrated with video not being as appreciated a medium as it should be? I mean, you're not exactly able to walk into a movie theater and see a Sadie Benning film, or any of Jennifer Reeder's White Trash Girl films.

D: I guess it's pretty frustrating. But I always want video art to get shown on those huge plasma screens in stores,.. like Gap or something. Video in bars is pretty cool, and KDP always wanted to have something called Video Swimming Pool: you swim while you watch some projected video art. Then there could be "videoguards", blowing whistles at the bad videos. I think video's time is here-- and has been-- and interactive video and its software is another chunk of the iceberg. It just needs the right promotion-- especially if you don't want to go the commercial route with your work, and only use commercial spaces as an alternative venue.

V: Did you go to school at the Art Institute of Chicago? I had an amazing video teacher there. Your stuff would have been at home there.

D: I went to The Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. Good times.

V: When I was in art school, our teachers strongly discouraged the idea of collaboration. I thought they were all morons. It seems like you'd agree, as I noticed you work with a lot of artists in your own community. How important is this?

D: That's bizarre. I'll admit that collaboration can be extremely difficult, but I think the key is working with people that have different strengths. That sounds pretty obvious, but there's the tendency to work with your own kind, which rarely works out-- at least for me. But I've always been elated with the results I've gotten from working with a team of different talents. That way I'm not boring myself with mine.

V: Has having done this Wilco tour given you any more exposure? Are people calling to show your video work, or hire you for similar jobs?

D: I think it's too soon to tell, as it is still the visual's first run. Everyone I've talked to has been pleasantly surprised by the project, and it would be wonderful for it to lead to similar things. But right now I'm delighted to be given the opportunity to develop visual ideas within the Wilco context.

V: How much longer will you be doing video work with them?

D: Hopefully for as long as it can go on. It's been a very rich challenge to work with a band like Wilco, and I strongly believe the more we pursue the visual element, the more we can continue to create a complementary backdrop to their evolving music.

V: What's the next new project you're really excited about?

D: Well, right now I'm finishing up a lot of projects that I'm really excited about. For instance: an archive-like site for the music group Tortoise; a site for the record label Chocolate Industries; CD art for the instrumentalist Matt Bauder, as a part of Document Chicago: New Jazz and Improvisations on the 482 Music label; and a site for a new t-shirt company called Affect/Effect, which is turning out pretty cute.

V: Okay-- last question. We ask everyone this question. A few years ago, the staff was sitting around talking, and someone mentioned dogs having lips. A big debate ensued, and calls were placed to many veterinarians. So, Miss Deborah, you must choose a side: Do dogs have lips?

D: Yes. But you're not asking me this because the dogs are talking to you, right? Did "they" tell you to interview me?

VISIT DEBORAH HERE.


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