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UN AMERICAN UNFAMOUS: An interview with Clive Holden
James Fowler
February 04, 2013







Is it un-American to be un-famous? Is a lack of celebrity akin to being unpatriotic? Is being American all you need to ensure your fame? Are you a failure if you die without fame? Without embracing America? These are the questions multimedia artist Clive Holden asks in his latest work UNAMERICAN UNFAMOUS. Comprised of eight video screens forming a cinematic 32:9 aspect ratio, this marriage of old and new technology spans the Salah J.Bachir New Media Wall at the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto.

I met up with Clive to discuss how he selected images from the Black Star Collection and what technology he used in this challenging new work.

JF: What was the impetus for UNAMERICAN UNFAMOUS?

I was asked to create a work for RIC's new media wall that would somehow use the Black Star photo collection. Almost right away, the phrase "the American century" came to mind. Then I thought of the photos we usually see from the collection, of the Kennedys and Marilyn Monroe, and how most of its 270,000 photos never see the light of day. The work's title popped into my head in that moment. This took about ten minutes, in a conversation with RIC's Director Doina Popescu.

JF: What other considerations did you make?

I wanted to approach the collection with as little nostalgia or sentimentality as I could. This is challenging because the era they depict is shrouded in mythology, and many of these photographs are very beautiful and were created with tremendous talent and skill. There's also plenty of romanticism in the concept of the journalistic photographer-as-hero that creates a bit of a halo effect around the collection.

But most important for me was to create a work that took full advantage of RIC's new media wall and its potential to exhibit new forms of art. Throughout the year I spent making UNAMERICAN UNFAMOUS, I thought about the history of cinema, about world music, about painting, and of course about photography. I wanted to create a work with as fine a balance as I could between time-based and non-time-based art forms, between montage and motif.

JF: What parameters did you have or did you give yourself for working with the Black Star Collection?

Obviously, I excluded people who were famous (I mistakenly included Joan Baez early on in peasant hippy clothes). The rest of the culling process developed from there. I realized I didn't want people in uniforms, because I couldn't see them. When you see a soldier, that's most of what you see, not the person who is the soldier. I also excluded people who were being used as (sometimes racist) marketing clichés. I left out models, because again you can't really see these young women. They're posing, almost by definition, in a way that masks them.

UNAMERICAN UNFAMOUS (Stills) by Clive Holden

JF: In the images you chose all the faces seem to have little or no expression. Why is that?

CH: Among the remaining photo subjects, there were people in the throes of extreme grief, often in war zones. As compelling as these were, it seemed to me that they were mainly photos of grief itself and less about the person who was doing the grieving. And that led me to one of the final criteria: I sought out faces with a relatively neutral-yet-engaged expression. All of the "unfamous un-Americans" I've included in the work are engaged with the camera, or with their own thoughts, or with someone out-of-frame. It seems to me that we can truly see the photo's (or photo detail's) subject because of that moment of engagement.

JF: Is their identity important to understanding the work as a whole?

CH: Knowing who they are is important. And while that's not possible in the usual sense, I've tried my best to make these 100 anonymous people "knowable." I've brought them to centre stage in a way, and literally re-framed them in an attempt to facilitate all of these meetings that take place as people view the work.

JF: There is a sense of an unending cinematic narrative in the work. Was that intentional and how was that achieved?

It's intentional, although the word "narrative" is charged and really interesting in an art context. Some artists and artist-filmmakers are anti-narrative and actively try to remove it from their work, along with metaphor, etc. But I tend to think you can't do this; that it's a bit of a mug's game. Because our minds want to form narrative so badly, we'll do so with almost any raw materials that are at hand.


UNAMERICAN UNFAMOUS (Installation View) at Ryerson Image Centre

JF: Can you describe some of the technical aspects of the work? Was there a lot of coding?

There were hundreds of hours of coding. It's all built using HTML5 (CSS & JavaScript) that I've hacked for this irregular, non-web purpose. I did it with the help of Michael Zajac, my high-level tech support in Winnipeg.

Part of the irregular nature of the coding stems from a simple fact: with the computer connected directly to the media wall (with no internet connection in the data chain), it is like having an impossibly fast internet connection. You can do new things you wouldn't normally try with that tech. Ironically, the work is also filled with web tech that's used because of its suitability for low data rates (i.e., GIFs and JPEGs) because I needed all of these visual elements to appear on-screen instantly, on-cue. The work has over 700 (JavaScript) algorithms that are randomizing the flow of images "live." But this is all carefully timed so the visuals need to appear promptly. In a sense the work is undergoing the final part of its creation process before our eyes, but in a way that's carefully orchestrated.

JF: HTML5 has been getting a lot of attention in recent years. Why did you choose to use it?

CH: Part of my attraction to using HTML5 is that it's open source. This is a central reason why the internet has grown so quickly. If I like someone's webpage I can copy any part of the code and paste it into whatever I'm making. The exponential development of HTML and other web tech is part of why I'm using it for making art (including net art). Its capabilities will continue to grow rapidly for years to come. And having direct access to the code and being able to customize it is great for an artist because it means you can escape the channelling or homogenizing effect of commodified software products.

THE TRAINS OF WINNIPEG (short) by Clive Holden. Music by Emily Goodden

JF: Was a soundtrack or soundscape ever considered as part of the UNAMERICAN UNFAMOUS as it has been in previous work?

I consciously decided to exclude sound from my work a couple of years ago, for a while. I realized I had certain habits from years of filmmaking and that one was the assumption that moving images required a soundtrack. This was partly a challenge to myself in my visual art practice. It was also partly a hunch, a sense that I needed to go in that direction to improve my work. And it was a practical consideration; if a work in a gallery has sound then it becomes the soundtrack for everything else in the room, unless you use headphones, which I'm not crazy about in that context.

It was also important that the "volume" of all of the visual elements in UNAMERICAN UNFAMOUS be modulated correctly. The facial expressions I chose all fit with this intention. For example, a very angry person would be too "loud" and would unbalance the whole.

JF: How does social media play a part in the work?

I'm using Twitter (@CliveHolden) primarily to seek photo nominations from the community, but also to talk about the work. This is in co-operation with the work's website where people can look at sample photo nominations and upload larger files via the site's Nominate page.

The use of Twitter is also about a larger door that's opening, as media art becomes "social media art." Interactivity has been a huge part of the history of media art, but I'm more interested in new forms of community interaction that are becoming possible now with these new tools.

will be on display at the Ryerson Image Centre until April 14. To learn more about Clive Holden, please visit his website. His exhibition at Stephen Bulger Gallery opens on March 2.


James Fowler worked in public relations with organizations in various industries to achieve their communications goals and streamline their media messaging, monitoring and metrics. James currently maintains a fulltime studio practice in Toronto and has taken a keen interest in social media and eMarketing. He joined Akimbo in the spring 2011 as Social Media Director. You can follow him on Twitter @jamesfowler

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