We’re gearing up for this Wednesday’s long-overdue first visit from Portland-based DIY filmmaker Vanessa Renwick, founder of the Oregon Department of Kick Ass. For 30 years she’s been making unforgettable works that cover a wide spectrum of tones and styles and has earned her acclaim around the world (including recognition from such fans as Todd Haynes). Below, Vanessa answers a few questions from filmmaker and The Ohio State University Associate Professor Roger Beebe about her upcoming visit, her beloved van, and more.
You’re one of the original “road warriors” of experimental film—seeing your Lucky Bum Film Tour in Chicago in 2002 was a big inspiration for my own later tours. I think I read that you have 450,000 miles on your tour van. Any idea how many more miles you’ll be logging on this current road trip that includes your stop at the Wexner?
427,000 and counting. The Root Beer Float is her name. 1987 Toyota Van. She is a beaut of a steed. I think I have 4,000 more miles until I get home.
Over the decades you’ve been making films, you’ve produced quite an impressive and varied body of films. Can you tell me a little bit about how you assembled the program you're showing on the current tour and what films we’ll be seeing?
Well, I do have a big-ass amount of work, so I broke it into three different shows to offer venues. One is just shorts. One is a 50-minute piece about wolf management. And one, the one the Wexner wanted, 2 or 3 shorts preceding two 23-minute pieces. The first, Medusa Smack, is a tripped out portrait of jellyfish. Moon jellies and Pacific Sea Nettles. I brought colored gels while filming, and the moon jellies, which are white, were then turned into many different color beasts. Tara Jane O’Neil made a phenomenal score for it incorporating sound recordings that Harry Bertoia had made of himself playing his sound sculptures. It is a very dreamy, relaxing piece.
The next one is Hope and Prey, a three-channel piece whose actors are wolves, coyotes, ravens, eagles, bison, and elk in the winter landscape of Yellowstone National Park. In the first half of it, the animals are just being in the landscape doing what they do. The second half turns into crazy chase scenes of the wolves trying to get prey, with a surprise ending. Daniel Menche did the score and it builds the entire time. This piece is the exact opposite of Medusa Smack. Your heart will be in your throat.
You’re one of the few experimental filmmakers I know who hasn’t turned to teaching as the primary way of supporting your practice, and I’ll confess I’ve always envied that about your life trajectory (as someone who’s survived mainly thanks to my teaching gigs). How did you find your way to that alternate path? Does it even feel like a path or are you still clearing trail as you go?
I am definitely clearing the trail. Touring is the best, as you get to make a living showing your work. I was fortunate to buy a cheap house in Portland for $25,000 a long time ago. This is really what affords me to be an artist. I live on the low down. I grow food, ride a bike, drive an '87 van, barter with people when possible, pretty much live hand to mouth. But feel like I am living a very rich life. I apply for a lot of grants as well. And I show in a gallery, PDX Contemporary Art, and sell work. This summer I painted 4 house exteriors with my friend. I haven't painted houses in 10 years. I like it though, it is zen. I love slathering love onto these beautiful old structures and making them hold up awhile longer, but I am happy not to be a house painter full time. In other words, I do what I can do to continue on. I do not like making films as a job for others though. But commissions! Yes, bring ‘em on!
You do shows at a lot of different kinds of spaces—universities, museums and galleries, microcinemas, etc. How does your experience vary with those different spaces? And how does the audience’s experience vary?
It seems that the most intimate stories I get from people relating to my work most often happen outside of institutions. My work is very honest and raw, so I think my having put much of myself out there for people to see makes it easier for people to be able to open up to me. I think there always is a distance that exists when I am on a stage facing an audience. In smaller venues, where we are more on the same level, the dialogue flows in an easier path. One of the reasons I am on tour is to meet people and have a dialogue, so I much appreciate everyone who speaks up and asks questions. It is REALLY hard work to book a tour. Like a hell ride. But once on the road, the fun begins and meeting people is so much a part of it.
To end on that note, what are your hopes for your Wexner show? (I know I’m hoping we’ll pack out the house!)
Get your tickets to see Renwick here.