Jeanine Oleson’s Critique of Capitalism Through Craft and Humor

Capitalism doesn’t like humor. Jeanine Oleson intertwines craft, performance, video all with absurdist twists intended to highlight global capital’s alienating effects on our consciousness through materiality and labor. Her Creative Capital project, A human(e) matter, is now on display through August 6 at the Hammer Museum in LA as the exhibition Conduct Matters.

We spoke to Jeanine about the work.

Matterphone (left) and Grounded (right) by Jeanine Oleson, currently on display at the Hammer Museum. Photo credit: Robert Wedemeyer

Alex Teplitzky: So tell me about the exhibition at the Hammer Museum.

Jeanine Oleson: Sure, so there’s a three-channel video called “Crossed Wires.” It’s an ensemble piece with four performers that I’ve been working with for the past few years­­­–Beth Griffith, Lisa Reynolds, Diwa Tamrong and Nyx Zierhut. The idea started from an earlier performance piece, “Hear, Here,” but I wanted to place some of those ideas in land/sites that have their own meanings after working on a stage. The video was meant to have an expanded sense of space and narrative with the multiple channels, so Anita Chao (the editor) and I were able to make versions of multiple viewpoints with an awareness of looking as a sensory, subjective experience.

The video starts with the four performers inside of a cave, trying to negotiate beyond a Platonic representation via Brechtian techniques, language acquisition, and trying to understand representation and their own positions through collaborative scripts. They move from the confines of the cave to the wide open of White Sands and then to an open pit mine where Lisa gives a monologue as if it’s an earthwork. She then ends up leaving the Beth, Diwa and Nyx and the fantasy world that has been produced to clumsily enter a quasi-doc section that’s a tour of another mine and wire factory. So, the abstraction of the material world becomes about art, like another representational abstraction. Then the final section is a attempt to reattach with her on rooftops in New York with the building of a handmade grid. Everything becomes a way to try to understand the world, but through an abstraction of materials that is based largely on copper, the idea of conduction, and the movement of information through material.

It’s one of the consistent threads throughout the exhibition: you see copper being extracted through mining processes, then moved through production and use–for the performers, it’s their own processes of trying to reengage with that material. It’s completely absurdist, but also serious at the same time. This is wrapped up with capitalism, and a system of production in place in the world, that’s pretty deadly for the environment and people in terms of labor and alienation.

In the exhibition, there’s also a handmade, large-scale weaving in the exhibition that’s based on a grid or platter in the 3D program, Rhino, which provides orientation of a virtual object. And a sculpture called the Matterphone. It’s a terracotta speaker that has a tactile transducer speaker attached that turns the material into a resonant body. The Matterphone gives a low resonant booming sound that’s more physical than audible.

I’m always trying to return back to the body and think about the relationship of materials to the body. The performances at the Hammer on May 13-14 were explicitly about this. I like I like to see what happens when they conduct, and go through and become images, or what happens when you have to move language between people, and the kind of misunderstandings and problems that arise around that.

Alex: As far as I’ve understood it, your practice is very object based, and I would say craft-oriented. I’ve been looking at your handmade instruments, and there’s all this handcrafted glass, and weaving. It has this craft element to it.

I know you’re really funny, and the way you look at things is often through this humoristic lens. It’s all there in the objects, but it’s most apparent in your video works, which is new for you? Or just different?

Jeanine: No, I’ve made video, performance and sound work for a long time. I equally weigh craft and technological processes. Some of the things, I don’t even make, like some recent brass instruments that were built by Chuck McAlexander, an amazing instrument maker. I admire and appreciate being able to work with people who care about and maintain amazing craftsmanship. I also need to maintain a physical process of making as a mode of thinking, and that’s what the speaker, wire, glass and weaving provided.

: That’s my question actually: comedians are nothing if not people who come up with ideas. In one way you are a comedian, but you take it one step further and workwith craftspeople to make objects. Like, “I want this instrument that’s really ridiculous.” Can you talk me through that practice?

: Yeah, I always like to have a physical process: to sit and make a huge coil pot that will be a speaker at the same time that I’m working on a film. That paradox is a part of my life. It’s a part of how I have to function from my body in the world. So, really the physical processes are crucial to think through the more abstract ideas. I think as objects, they’re very odd and function on multiple levels at once. They contain a humor of their own delusion as well as craftsmanship and maybe even beauty. I like that tension.

Some people find them really funny and others only deal with them as serious objects/video/performances–I feel both ways at once, personally. I’m like, you know, feel what you want! For instance, the weaving sculpture at the Hammer. I hadn’t really done weaving for a really long time. I was thinking about space through the loom as a form of computation, but it’s always affected by the material, in this case wool which always reminded me that it has it’s own rules. That process of thinking about making virtual objects through weaving was so absurd in concept and even more so in the process [laughs]… but it was also a great way to be working. How do things move from inside to outside of the body? How do we make things? Part of it is about the practice of making things. It’s the same as copper conducting information.

Installation shots of Jeanine Oleson’s Conduct Matters at the Hammer Museum. Photo credit: Robert Wedemeyer

Alex: Yeah, what is it about copper that you like so much?

: Copper is a material that can and has been extracted and mined from the earth. That has been going on for thousands of years, but recently the process has been accelerated. It’s a resource extraction that is severely affecting the world—all mining really—but at the same time many of us are complicit with the process in terms of consumption. The fact that I’m talking to you on an iPhone is thanks to to rare earth and copper mining, chemicals, factories and labor exploitation in global production. The need for copper has been produced through contemporary technologies. To me, that makes it a really interesting material.

I can think about it through capitalism and maintaining contemporary existence and technologies. I also think about it more conceptually as a material that conducts, from one place to another or one body to another. That idea of material is really interesting to me as well. If anything, creative works are a movement of materials from one place to another for examination. Images are transmitted in this way and it’s changed how the sensory is understood in the world.

The name of the show is “Conduct Matters.” People are asking me if it’s Con-duct or Con-duct. The point is that it can be read both ways. There’s a difference between “conducting matters,” “how to conduct through matter” and “your conduct does matter.” Or, conducting something, in a way that can be musical. The way that something is organized and arranged, either through its material process (as in through wires), or through concepts. I like that complexity, that’s what the contemporary mind is forced to deal with… if it will.

: I like that. Like, your conduct matters, or we’re watching you!

: Yeah, but also how you comport yourself through the world, that has repercussions and the physical act of conduction.

Jeanine Oleson, Still from Crossed Wires, 2017

Alex: I’m so fascinated by your trip to the mine, which ends up in the film.

: I went to two, actually. The first one was called Chino Mine. We literally pulled out into one of those areas on the side of the road. I kind of liked the comedy of being situated in this little pull out above this mine and shooting a piece where Lisa was doing this monologue as if the mine were an earthwork. That script was developed by Lisa (Reynolds) from writing we chose about Robert Smithson’s earthworks—I added certain things in too, some Marx-inspired zingers.

The second mine was south of Tuscon, it’s called Mission Mine. They’re one of the few mines where you can take a public tour. It was really weird experience – we went on the tour twice and we were not the usual demographic [laughs]… they didn’t love us. They asked, “This isn’t commercial, is it?” And we were like, “nope, nope, nope.” Definitely not.

In that part of the video, Lisa’s character doesn’t understand that the mine isn’t an artwork. She is so abstracted from what goes on in a mine and her relation to material that she can’t understand what’s happening even as it’s being explained to her. I also loved stretching the absurdist approach into another mode of media and space to tweak the “reality” being esablished.

: There are several layers of humor going on in it. I saw a clip at the Creative Capital Artist Retreat [see video above] and I remember everyone laughing. But then making it sounds hilarious too.

: Oh, it was really fun and truly madcap. I like to think of it as comedy because comedy has truth to it. I mean, “truth…” whatever. Rather, it has things that prickle, and trouble you into laughing.

: Finally, one thing capitalism doesn’t allow for is space to think about all these things. Urgency is a key component of capitalism. I’m interested in how your process (meditating on tools, materials, labor, injecting humor into the process) is allowed for by making time for it all. You had a residency at Hammer, a Creative Capital grant, and a trip to the mines that sounds very productive.

: Isn’t most artmaking a form of making some time to think? A means of being nonproductive? For a few, I know it’s part of a clear production cycle, but for far more of us its about thinking in the world, and making forms that exist to create some psychic space and possibly work through the general confusion and horror of the world. This is a great privilege and responsibility. I grew up with people whose work was wildly undervalued yet despite that, they worked on with no real time for themselves outside of re/production.

I’ve been able to live quite differently, and as an artist and queer, but I am still thinking about the labor, natural resources, and craftsmanship that were foundational to my understanding of value. I have a heightened sense of my relationship to labor. How could I not in this world?

So, when I’m taking time that is given to artists to develop work via grants like Creative Capital, residencies at the Hammer, UrbanGlass and Macdowell, I can’t shake that primary experience, nor would I want to. With this project, I wanted to flip the script on production, even the making of an artwork. Much of the project deals with time, space, processes of making… all with some humor. Of course it’s much easier to critique capitalism with cultural and creative capital. All of the amazing people who worked on the project are pushed by the urgency of capitalist life, so I cannot underestimate the importance of having a means of paying them for their invaluable contributions over the past two years. To be blunt, it was kind of a miracle to know I had money to make this project, places to stay, food to eat and support and interest in what I was doing. I’ve never had that kind of support. I’m really excited about what I was able to do in the past couple of years and hope you can see the actual exhibition!

See Jeanine Oleson’s exhibition, Conduct Matters, at the Hammer Museum in LA through August 6.