Kelly Sears

  Kelly Sears Kelly Sears  

MA::I want to start with something I’ve noticed in a lot of your work, especially in “The Drift” and “The Rancher”: the ways in which the subjective and the uncanny leak out around the edges of the official, the bureaucratic, the institutional—whether the institution is N.A.S.A., the presidency, a school, a beauty contest, or the telecommunications industry. Can you expand on that a little?

KS::If you look at any found footage, there’s always some ideological footprint in there that connects you to the social or cultural politics of that time. By following that thread you can link it up to the larger institutions that support these agendas. They are, in a way, already buried in the images. Part of the process  is me unpacking some of the histories that are there in the image. I’m projecting something that’s—uncanny is a good word. There are these moments of genuine weirdness between history and fiction. But the larger institutions are always part of the image in some way.

MA::It feels like a very sympathetic position that you’re coming from because you’re projecting these desires onto institutions or figures of authority. You’re working with figures of authority in political spaces where their subjectivity gets abstracted and reduced. An astronaut or a president, for example—these archetypal roles that require a person to become a machine with no human desires beyond those of the institution they work for. You’re proposing potential avenues where the personal or the subjective could nevertheless emerge, or if it’s been repressed, where it can return in an uncanny form.

KS::I’m not sure if I think they’re always sympathetic in the general sense. There are different kinds of players in these pieces: you not only have high school students, you have astronauts, you have people who are using the telephone, you have cowboys. But on the other hand, there’s always some sort of institution beneath them, be it a school, a government agency, a space agency. There’s a larger national agenda that the players might not have any say in.

MA::When I say sympathetic, I don’t necessarily mean that everyone is a sympathetic character. It’s more that there is general sympathy to this idea that humanness always manages to escape, that subjectivity can’t be eliminated. The personal always finds a way to leak out, and can come out in positive ways, or maybe escapist ways. Or maybe it leaks out and buries all the horses in town, like in your early piece “Devil’s Canyon.” It’s about an ethos of the characters rejecting the suppression of their subjectivity by larger institutions. Does that make sense?

KS::There’s an idea of collapsing a sense of humanity into the characters, be they drifters or high school students, so that through them we come to see how we connect to the world around us.

MA::Do you think of yourself more as an anthropologist or an archeologist?

KS::My goodness. I used to think archeologist. I was digging up things. But I’m thinking now more like a psychoanalyst, finding these uncovered stories and piecing them together. Now I think about me projecting my senses of how I interpret American history back onto the material that I’m working with, as a way to highlight or engage with other conversations that exist around the footage that I’m bringing up.

MA::In “The Drift,” it’s implied that this sound of the drift is discovered by the characters. The sound they find is represented visually by a strange lifting blur of the animation. The sound is an unseen character who moves the plot forward and affects people. 

KS::I was thinking a lot about how to materialize a sound that makes people drift, as a metaphor for kind of tuning in, turning on, dropping out, or just turning your back on national agendas. It’s like this thing that makes people turn away and leave their body. I remember we talked about it while I was making it and you said, “Yes, there’s no guitar riff that could ever do that.” The sound design on “The Drift” was done by Adam Wade, and he created an ascending tone that really mirrored the idea of bodies floating out of themselves or floating away. It was just the perfect sound for it.

MA::There’s something happening there that I also see happening in “The Rancher,” where  motion operates as a stand-in for something deeper or more profound. In “The Drift,” the motion is very distinctive. Because we can’t hear the sound of the drift directly, the motion become a stand-in, representing the drift as a psychological state. The drift is represented by the effect it has on the characters, and this effect is represented by a very specific kind of animation.

I felt like you were using that technique in “The Rancher” as well. There’s a double-vision, the color-shifting movement of the President. As he becomes increasingly unable to articulate himself verbally, it sort of spills out in the way that he moves. As an animator, motion is your core material. Movement can come to represent psychological shifts. Can you talk the techniques you use to accomplish this?

KS::I always work with appropriated imagery, and the more I’ve worked with these images, the more I’ve liked the idea of getting under the surface of them, of not having the image be one singular plane, editing different shots together. I think about collaging diegetic spaces together, of bringing different parts of multiple visual elements together to create something seamless, instead of something that looks obviously collaged. I try to make worlds in the film that could exist.

So, in working with appropriated stills or appropriated media, I try to find ways to work with the footage that on one hand can read as documentary or a historical snapshot, but on the other hand, as an interruption that gesture. With “The Rancher,” there’s this archetype of a man in power through his dreams, who in reality is falling out of power, and I was looking at ways that I could subtly, stylistically create that as a visual sense for the viewer, without disrupting the sense that this is archival footage.

MA::I’m interested in the relationship between “The Drift” and “The Rancher” in regard to these proposed alternative worlds. Do you think that “The Rancher” is the sequel to “The Drift,” or the parallel?

It’s hard to think of a government employee more controlled and mediated than an astronaut. “The Drift” is about these ideal subjects of control being seduced away from that control by the presence of the sublime. In “The Rancher,” the president is someone who’s supposed to be the center of control, but it drifts away from him. So, in one case you have the subjects of control drifting away from it, and in the other case you have control drifting away from the center. There’s this movement in both. One is about the periphery and one is about the center.

KS::It’s like the flip side of the coin: the president character in “The Rancher” is the exact flip side of the people who are drifting at the end of “The Drift.” Both the president’s and the drifters’ courses have been altered by these chaotic things that were never planned. It wasn’t planned that the president would have terrible dreams. It wasn’t planned that the astronauts would float off into space. So it’s about the interruptions of these planned agendas.

Recently, I was reading an essay by Walter Benjamin and I was struck by this moment he talks about where we look at a photograph from the past and we try to connect to that photograph in the present. It’s like we want a trace of something the now, even though we know it’s of a different time. I thought that was a really nice way of thinking about the desire to look at space imagery or dated cowboy imagery or imagery of past presidents of our country, these kind of ephemeral images of popular American history. People say, “Your work is really nostalgic.” I don’t think it is. I think it taps into this notion of nostalgic visuals, but I’m always thinking about what’s going on present tense when I’m making things. Hopefully there is a conduit that opens up between the images that are used in the piece and the moment that we’re watching the piece. It’s about leveraging nostalgia as a way to contextualize the present.

MA::Speaking of nostalgia, I wanted to talk to you a little about outer space. There’s a lot of enthusiasm around the space program recently, with the “Curiosity” rover landing on Mars and the Endeavor space shuttle being driven through Los Angeles. Do you have any thoughts on why all this enthusiasm is happening now, and specifically for you, how it relates to “The Drift”?

KS::I’m really interested in this idea of the American Dream, which is a post-World War II construction, as tying in to the birth of the suburbs. Because of World War II, we learned that you shouldn’t centralize everything in a city in case it’s bombed. You disperse, meaning that you fracture industry and civilian life outside of the urban areas.

I think the wonder of the space program holds a lot of merit, but it’s so much a dream for this old space program, this age of innocence. It’s a really desperate and depressing time right now and I think that, in the face of the economy collapsing, military engagements all over the world, depressing news every day, it’s nice to have something that’s hopeful, that’s pure.

MA::But so deeply nostalgic. I mean, we landed a rover on Mars twenty years ago. For me, there was something so ironic about the excitement of watching the Endeavor being driven through the street like a parade float. Because it’s like, “Oh, we don’t do that anymore.” The height of space exploration is reduced to the status of a parade float. It was at the cutting edge of research, the new frontier, and now it’s retro-futurism, or nostalgia for that time.

When I watch your videos, I’m struck by how often they conclude with a melancholy resignation. They start with hubris and ambition and the depersonalization of the state, and end in the personal, the melancholic, and the resignation. I thought, is this gentle excitement about space stuff what comes after the original excitement? Is that the future of “The Drift”?

KS::Yeah, it might be. The Endeavor fervor seemed to me to be about retiring this symbol. It’s like it was going into the permanent collection, not functioning anymore. It’s now this object that will be housed. I think it is, in a way, milking the last bit of the dream. It’s like a band reuniting and going on a reunion tour. Dinosaur Jr played here a couple weeks ago. There is this thing that you loved from the past, and you go and see it now, to engage with the thing that you loved. But it’s older and falling apart now. It’s a different experience.

MA::It’s like a mnemonic device that returns you emotionally to the first time you experienced the thing.

KS::Exactly. But then I think it falls back on itself even more, where it brings you back to the first time you had this experience, and the experience isn’t as fresh, as vibrant. Then you realize you aren’t as fresh and vibrant anymore either.

MA::This is just like your videos: we’re ending with melancholic resignation!