Studio Session: Xan Palay on Last American Summer

Jennifer Lange, Film/Video Studio Curator

Sep 01, 2020

The surface of a pool with fountains in the backdrop and two bare feet stretched out poolside in the foreground

Columbus artist Xan Palay is behind the most recent film to be completed with support from the Wex Film/Video Studio. The work, Last American Summer, is on view here through September 22. Below, Film/Video Studio Curator Jennifer Lange connects with Palay to discuss the attention to detail on display in her film, the editing process, and framing her work as a "virtual exhibition."

It’s clear from both Last American Summer and Housewife’s Journal that you’re a collector of images and small moments. What is your process of collecting and accumulating? Does it start with an idea for a work or does the work reveal itself later?

Both projects started as random, compulsive collections. Housewife’s Journal was mostly shot on a consumer camera, the kind that used the little Digi tapes. That camera was designed for vacation movies and I think I started filming little moments when I was looking at rainwater that was caught in a window screen one morning. If I had owned a still camera I might have taken a photo of it and been done. But we only had that video camera and, after I shot that clip, I thought, “I can’t do anything with this.” So, I started shooting other stuff to go with it. But then that stuff was just more stuff. There wasn’t a plan—until there was a plan suddenly. You know how that happens, out of seemingly nowhere? At some point I realized I had this video about how beautiful the nothingness of days with small children can be, and it was actively underway. Then I started filming a lot, but with a clear intention.  

Later, Last American Summer started as a product of the iPhone. Some of those clips are from my first one—a 3S maybe? Smartphones are the least intentional shooting devices ever and I was building a collection of footage that was super-random and purposeless. 

Truthfully, I felt a little sad about the whole mess of clips I shot for years because there was no point to it, it was all really disposable (delete-able) but I liked it all and didn’t want to stop. Some of the folks in the credits are friends who stood around for a few minutes (more than a few) waiting while I captured video because I couldn’t pass up the moment. Filming in this way is a socially disengaging activity. Stopping to film lights, framed just right when you have five kids at a church festival is kind of rude. But, not rude enough to stop me.

When I shot the landing in Chicago (Chapter 3) in one long take, on a bright July day, all those years of clips suddenly had a very clear organizing purpose. I shot that landing, then emailed you from the gate, because I knew how that one video brought all the random footage I had together. Like Housewife’s Journal, I was working on it by accident. 

Related to the accumulation is the editing process, how images and moments work together, or riff off of each other. What’s the editing process like for you? While there may not be a linear narrative to the works, do you have an overall structure in mind when you start editing?

The editing process is humbling. It opens like this: “So, I have a bunch of iPhone clips in a folder. And I brought some paper with me so we can write stuff down. How do you feel about rabbits?” 

With both projects I had a collection that suggested categories/chapters and the first job was to assemble those chapters by dropping clips in a timeline and trying to find a home for everything. Just like organizing a closet—things had to move to make room for other things and clips that were nice but not useful were removed. Before you know it, parts fit together well, they look good side by side, things repeat, and patterns form. It really gets fun when we have enough of the bones to start layering in things to be beautiful, too. 

In my imagination every other video artist knows exactly what they are doing and comes with a tight plan. Sitting with Mike Olenick and Alexis McCrimmon in the Studio with what are basically weird home movies without a story to tell but a feeling to create is, clearly, an exercise in trust. First is trusting the editors, but it’s also trusting my idea. Because to even get to edit, I have to have total conviction that there is something there. All artists know that feeling, that doubt/knowing feeling. I think that’s why there is a 10-year gap between the two projects, it took almost 10 years before that conviction took hold again. 

An eight-square grid of neon-lit rides and other county fair attractions

Last American Summer, image courtesy of the artist

When did the idea of a grid and multiple channels for Last American Summer emerge? And, given the visual complexity of the work, what was your approach to the soundtrack?

You haven’t lived until you have drawn out a 16-channel grid and asked an editor, “Hey… So how about we make this?” It’s a kind of big deal to build them and, especially at first, until we got into a groove. 

I wanted the grids because this project is a video installation, a small, black box-style thing. I thought it would feel good to stand alone with a body-sized version and to be in the grids. Also, the grids are like a matched set of things that are expressing the same feeling but in different places and mostly years apart. It’s my attempt to de-linearize our brains for a moment. 

The soundtrack’s job was to anchor the grids and then move us through. It couldn’t all be dreamy, it needed to work. I invited Jon Fintel of Relay Recording to make tracks with me that combined a buzz that would resonate in the body but used enough recognizable and natural sound to help us feel the places we are seeing. We got help from The Biographer and Al Laus, too. I needed some music that sounded like faraway snippets of 1970s rock and folk. It was funny in edit because I kept asking Jon to bury the music so it felt far away, but not too far away…just enough. Nice, clear direction.  

A barefoot baby seen from the knees down, standing on a tile floor

Housewife’s Journal, image courtesy of the artist

Despite some of the content and images, there is a certain sense of sadness and loss in both works and, for me, a sense of longing. In Housewife’s Journal, you capture one of the very specific feelings of parenthood, and particularly motherhood, which is the constant, sometimes disorienting sensation that time is simultaneously moving glacially slow and lightning fast—as a parent you feel totally caught in little moments but then you blink and 17 years have gone by! In Last American Summer, you show “the best of" summer but there really is no “best of” this summer—no State Fair, no outdoor concerts, no fireworks, and no pools teeming with kids.  Are these emotional dichotomies present as you’re collecting images and editing?

I love it that you asked because the risky part of both these projects is all the sweet footage could result in just a nice feeling. Both videos are intended to evoke feelings of attachment and loss and I can tell when people get there, or don’t, by how they act after watching the pieces. 

The title Housewife’s Journal came from a little Japanese notebook I saw with mistranslated English on the cover: “HOUSEWIFE’S JOURNAL Every Day Is the Same.” It was the most sad/funny/philosophical/feminist-theory/Semiotics-of-the-Kitchen thing I think I will ever see in a stationery store. I loved that the title told the truth by accident. When I watch it now, with the distance I have from it now, I think it works even better. I think it’s because we the audience see ourselves in it but, more than that, we sense the passage of time. Somehow, we know these particular little kids are grown and gone forever. That’s the crisis of living, right? 

Last American Summer is intended to open the aperture beyond my family and draw on a sense of the United States from the 1970s and 1980s—it’s just glimpses of that time. It’s obviously a contemporary portrait, but I was always aiming backwards in the shooting, edit, and sound design without resorting to force (costumes and props for example). To get that recognition and longing for what’s basically a Gen-X childhood from present-day footage, I was careful to only use moments that could have happened 30–40 years ago as easily as last year. Mostly it’s a lack of smartphones, Bluetooth devices, and things like Amazon trucks, that keeps us in ‘any time’ versus now. 

a 15-image grid of rabbits in competition at the Ohio State Fair

Last American Summer, image courtesy of the artist

"The risky part of both these projects is all the sweet footage could result in just a nice feeling. Both videos are intended to evoke feelings of attachment and loss and I can tell when people get there, or don’t, by how they act after watching the pieces."

Tell us about the bunnies.

I’m just not a dog person. 

The Studio had been working with you on Last American Summer over the past year and, while you intended for it to be shown as a multichannel installation, we (you, Alexis, and I) realized there was a certain urgency to show the work this summer, despite having to do so online. The work isn’t the same for me now as it was when you first started talking to me about it and were editing it in the studio. And it’s not that the idea for it changed. It’s that we have changed and the world has changed. Has the work changed between when you first conceptualized it and now that it’s out in the world during this particular American summer?

It’s pretty wild how when we started I would describe the whole project to other people this way: “You see, the US is changing radically and rapidly, and the way it’s changing not only makes us nostalgic but also implicates the assumptions we had about our country and each other back then. So now it seems that maybe that nostalgia is nothing more than our sense of power in the world, our comfort with that power, and losing that has meant losing everything we thought was true… ya know? “

Now, with all that has happened in 2020, I don’t have to say any of that because it seems, people watch these videos and they just get it. 

view of a densely populated suburban area from an airplane

Last American Summer, image courtesy of the artist

What moves you to make work right now?  What are the challenges you face as an artist making work and trying to get it out in the world during these strange times?

Ooof – it’s been kind of great but it feels selfish, too. There are plenty of things that need attention today and, to some of us, art is a way of engaging with the world in a deep way. I don’t think the world needs more video installations, per se. But, based on the responses we have had to this version of it, this online way of seeing it, people have appreciated it. I think the way it’s uniquely topical to this summer has been really significant to the experience of it, not just to me, or to us as part of the Wexner Center’s Film/Video Studio community, but I think it’s the lack of words, not needing a narrative structure, that feels right to people for right now