by A WILL BROWN
Rachel Maclean is an Edinburgh-based video artist who combines tropes from popular culture, music and viral videos to create striking, critical, humorous and vivid narratives. In her videos, she often plays all the characters, and designs and builds numerous vibrant, near-psychedelic costumes. The narratives in her videos meditate on an array of topics: for example, one work, LolCats, which was inspired by the internet meme of the same name, engages the history of cat worship. Her videos intersperse renaissance-era European costuming, music clips, and distinctly unhinged narratives and characters, to engage a sickly sweet, looming and morose yet comical depiction of contemporary culture.
A Will Brown: Your work involves so many sources, visual, conceptual and historical. Could you break down a few of your central motifs and where they come from specifically?
Rachel Maclean: Video art for me is a way to explore cultural identity, specifically looking at representations of gender, class and nationality. I am the only actor or model in my work and wear heavy makeup and elaborate costume as a means to transform myself in to different characters. The dialogue or narrative is not scripted by me, but lifted and pieced together from a variety of existing films, TV interviews and internet clips. In this sense, my videos are a kind of collage that reconfigures existing media, often mining stereotypes and cliches as a means to explore larger political ideas.
AWB: What is it about video, and moving images, as potentially viral and potentially screened in selected single presentations, that is interesting to you? Why video?
RM: When I was studying drawing and painting at Edinburgh College of Art, I was really interested in ideas of collage in the form of cut paper, painting and sculpture. It was about a year into my degree when I discovered green-screen, a technique whereby you can shoot a figure in front of a green background, then cut and paste them on to a digital backdrop. This was really exciting to me, as it seemed to be a way in which I could take the ideas I was exploring in a variety of mediums and synthesise them within the moving image; using sculpture in the form of costumes and props, backdrops from painting and collage, as well as the added element of narrative and performance.
The ease with which you can share video online now is also amazing and, as an artist, allows you to make connections and exhibit work abroad in a way that is more limited when your work is physical. I upload my work to YouTube, but a lot of my ideas also come from YouTube, so I like the sense that I’m both taking and contributing to the weird recycled ecosystem of the internet.
AWB: What are the central ideas in your work, and what brought you to combine such vivid memes, colours, tropes and cultural references?
RM: I’ve always been interested in the attraction to a glossy, baroque, maximal aesthetic within popular culture. However, coming from a fairly Presbyterian, iconoclastic visual culture, I think that I also have a strong awareness that these representations can appear equally repellent and offensively ostentatious – not necessarily from a religious perspective, but more broadly, as part of an engrained cultural response. So I work with a love of the visually baroque, while at the same time using bright colour and a maximal aesthetic as a way to repulse and discomfort the viewer.
AWB: Can you break down your work LolCats for us? I am particularly interested by the conflation of internet viral music video and mimetic internet culture with historical costuming and theatrical staging.
RM: Lolcats – inspired by the internet meme of the same name – explores an amalgam of past and present manifestations of cat worship. I became fascinated by the internet obsession with cats and its reflection on our cultural relationship with animals more generally. In the video, I was interested in creating a mutable space, at once a mysterious lost civilisation and a modern-day touristic fun park. I intended to create an aesthetic that sits somewhere between the candy-coloured fantasies of Disney Princess and the monstrous caricatures of a William Hogarth, on a discomforting boundary between the sickly sweet and the grotesquely abject.
AWB: I’m interested in your notion of, from your website, “the instant of self-consumption, when the signature white smile of the teen pop sensation begins to hungrily gnaw at its own image”. Can you unpack this a bit further? This is, of course, the sort of century of the self, in which our self-image or imagined self-image, is constantly being thrown back at us to sell products, create identities and exploit insecurities, and you are tapping right into this, particularly by reflecting the very new form of viral and YouTube video culture, as well as the MTV video culture of the 1990s.
RM: My exploration of identity in pop music is largely a feminist critique. I am quite often interested in exploring the complex relationship that western society has with notions of childhood innocence and female sexuality. My videos frequently explore a female character that shifts between, and embodies, a number of contradictory identities and character traits. I am inspired in part by the treatment and representation of women in pop culture, specifically in works of mine such as Hit Me Baby, which looks at the rise and fall of Britney Spears. In her early career, Britney’s image seemed to be predicated on her sexual allure and apparent sexual awareness, contrasted against the emphasis placed on her virginal innocence. Her subsequent pregnancy, divorce and mental breakdown, as well as the media backlash that accompanied it, represented a complex unravelling of the contradictions inherent in this early identity. There is something of a grotesque fairytale ending in her head-shaving and the removal of her trademark blond hair, which seems to be a desire to remove the most explicit symbol of her popular image. Many of the female characters in my work suffer a similar fate to Britney, with identities that seem to unravel, confuse and collapse over the course of the video.
AWB: I’m curious about theScotland body of work? Can you explain the components and the central idea?
RM: I started looking at ideas of national identity, and more specifically Scottishness, after I returned from a six-month student exchange at Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts. It was the first time I had lived outside Scotland, which made me personally question notions of nationalism and identity in ways I hadn’t had to before.
Returning to Edinburgh, the city seemed to be full of things I hadn’t paid much attention to in the past. There is a street in the city centre called The Royal Mile, which is just shop after shop of Scottish merchandise, including kilt towels, tartan mugs and socks, reproductions of the Loch Ness Monster as pencil sharpeners, soft toys and sweeties, as well as a raft of miniature replicas of Mel Gibson as William Wallace in Braveheart. Suddenly all this stuff seemed like potential artistic fodder and I made a body of work in response to this, specifically Tae Think Again (2008) and Tale as Old as Time (2009).
I became interested in how uncomfortably this vision of Scottishness sits with the people living here: looking at the idea that is quite prevalent in Scotland that there is a “true” sense of national identity and a “false” one, that only when we rid ourselves of these fantasies – Braveheart, the Loch Ness Monster, romantic Tartanry – can we truly understand who we are and truly find the real thing that’s binding us all together; the idea that only once we strip ourselves of the aesthetic illusions of national identity (a very iconoclastic gesture, in a very iconoclastic country), can we find the true, pure and unspoiled vision of ourselves.
However, I’m not sure if seeking out fraud or authenticity in culture is the best way to go about it. And I’m not sure how easy it is to rid ourselves of “fantasy” and still hang on to the idea that there is something powerful and potent holding us all together. Ideas of community, togetherness and unity require a good degree of generalisation and untruth.
In later works, such as The Lion and the Unicorn (2012), I was looked more explicitly at the politics of Scottishness and specifically at the then forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence, where the Scottish people were asked to vote to decide whether they wanted to stay as part of the United Kingdom or become an independent country. This was a hugely significant moment for the nation and, as a Scottish person, I was really keen to tackle it within an artwork.
However, what I was interested in doing was not to lean one way or the other in the debate, but instead create a video that explored the grey areas between big binary ideas. I think that so much political debate in the UK takes the same form; where two people from opposing sides are brought together and argue with each other for a bit. I thought it would be interesting to set up a different kind of discussion, that is potentially self-defeating, both romantic and pragmatic, mysterious and rational, pulling back and forth between the historical and the contemporary, without turning into flat, one-sided propaganda.
AWB: Humour is an incredibly effective communication tool, and I see it as a key to your work. It is present throughout, but plays a heavy role in your 40-minute video Rainbows. Tell me a bit about the role of humour in your work and this work in particular.
RM: I’ve always been interested in satirical humour and black comedy. When I was growing up, there was lots of pretty experimental TV comedy in the UK, such as The League of Gentlemen or The Day Today, which were a big inspiration. In Britain, like America, there is a long history of humorous political satire, so I think I’ve grown up seeing humour as a form of critique and a way to poke fun at power.
I think that people often treat media that is funny as something light or benign compared with its straight-faced equivalent. However, I think this is generally wrong. There is almost always something violent in laughter. We are always laughing at somebody or something else’s expense. Which is why a traditional hierarchy is often upheld in more old-school standup comedy, with its racist, sexist and homophobic jokes as standard. I think this is why a lot of people are still resistant to the idea of women in comedy, or the idea of women being funny in general, because there is an uncomfortable power in giving females the voice to undermine and mock a male worldview.
I think a kind of angry humour is an engaging way to kick back at the aspects of society and politics you wish to critique.
AWB: You categorise some works as “music videos”, yet others that employ music are not categorised as such. What are the key differences for you?
RM: The “music videos” were actually commissions from bands, where I was given a track to make visuals for, whereas the other work are videos that I’ve commissioned music for, so it worked the other way round, although there are all sorts of blurred boundaries there.
AWB: Your triptych Girls Just Wanna Have Fun! plays on Boschian strategies in a most horrifying, yet comical and cartoonish way. Can you tell me more about that work, what your intentions are with it, what the little pink fuzzy creatures represent, and how these women became so twisted?
RM: In Girls Just Wanna Have Fun there is a horrific hen night/ Disney Princess scene gone wrong, exploring themes of class and gender. I intended to conflate visions of glamour and the grotesque, from the disease-ridden poor and gluttonous aristocracy of 18th-century caricature to the shamelessly plastic body of Katie Price, setting up emaciated skeletal frames next to outlandishly overweight bodies, with figures eating, crapping, groping flesh and drinking cocktails through penis straws. I’m interested in pretence and the augmented body, so present figures that force balloon breasts, moulded plastic bums and balding platinum curls at the viewer in an aggressive display of sexual availability.
AWB: What did the commissioning body think of this work when you finished it?
RM: Ha ha! I’m not sure. I think it was pretty happy with it, although maybe it wasn’t quite what it was expecting. I don’t think it has ever managed to sell any, although I love the idea of someone having one up in their house.
AWB: What is the preparation like for shooting the video works? The production value is astounding and completely seamless simultaneously. Do you have a closet full of incredible costumes?
RM: Preparing for shoots takes a long time, but not as long as it takes to do the visual effects after the shoot. Although it is all fun and, because there are so many processes involved at different stages, from storyboarding to costume-making to creating backgrounds in after effects, it never gets too boring.
I used to work completely on my own, but recently have had more opportunities to work with crews, which has been fantastic. It took a bit of getting used to, as even performing in front of other people seemed a bit weird and intimidating. But I’ve worked with a few brilliant directors of photography, which has allowed me to explore the lighting and mood of shots in a much more sophisticated way than if I was working on my own. Additionally, I really enjoy working with musicians on the audio in the work: it is really exciting to watch ideas that have been so visually considered come alive in an aural sense too.
AWB: What are the distinctions for you between showing your works online compared with in an exhibition space?
RM: I am very interested in how context affects the way a work is read, both in a physical and a cultural sense. Often, I make work with an idea of where it will be shown: for example, I recently did a film called Eyes to Me for Channel 4’s Random Acts (commissioned by Film London) where artists are invited to make a three-minute video to be shown between ad breaks on a popular British TV station. With this in mind, I was keen to create something that referenced the pace and spectacle of television, specifically kids’ TV, but gradually shifted tone, becoming darker, weirder and more disturbing as the film progressed, seeming to slowly undermine its formal appearance.
Generally, I’m pretty open to showing the same work in a number of different contexts, as I think it is always exciting and informative to see how your ideas translate within different formats.
AWB: What exhibitions or gallery shows have you seen recently that you found compelling or interesting? What does a well-curated exhibition achieve for you?
RM: I saw David Altmejd’s show Flux in Paris at Musée d’Art Moderne and then again in Luxembourg at Mudam. It was totally amazing! Beautiful, but horrible, shiny and alluring, and yet utterly grotesque. It was great to see an exhibition by an artist with such imagination and visual intelligence that didn’t need to prop itself up with hundreds of wall texts and background information. Also, Bedwyr Williams’s show at Tramway, Glasgow last year was fantastic. A funny, weird and highly engaging sociopolitical critique.
I don’t think there is any one thing that makes a well-curated exhibition. Personally, however, I’m into a maximal aesthetic, so I like to see shows that are not scared to cram stuff together, have sound bleeding between rooms, and juxtapose works that are not directly related. The idea of giving all work its own space in a group exhibition keeps your artists happy and makes life easier, but does not necessarily create the most exciting show.
I was in a great group show in Dublin at Lab Gallery, called Tonight, you can call me Trish, curated by Kate Strain and Rachael Gilbourne, who are also known as RGKSKSRG. The curators asked artists Alan Butler, Mark Durkan and Eilis McDonald to create a kind of architecture or “intervention” for the work to be shown within, so that all the pieces were pulled together into a collective, multimedia installation. I loved that!
AWB: What are you working on in the studio now? Do you have any big projects coming up?
RM: Yes. I’m in the British Art Show, which opens in Leeds, England in October. I’m hoping to make a new film for that, although nothing is confirmed for absolute certain yet. The plan is that it is going to be a dark musical fairytale exploring the politics of childhood. I’m hoping to work with child actors and a composer, which would be great.