For the world famous video artist, Janet Biggs, it took her to the Artic, Hermes’ flasgship store, and to the far corners of the earth– all for the sake of her craft. You’re going to want to know the fascinating process she uses in her work and and the two secrets to success for any artist.
Current Residence: Lives and works in New York
Areas of Focus: Video, Photography, and Performance
Your work has captivated fans all over the world and has been presented in prestigious galleries and museums. Within the artist community and beyond, how do you deal with the growing publicity and fame? Has a lot changed since your first artistic creation?
My studio goals have stayed fairly consistent. I continue to discover new topics for investigation, and I struggle with questions of how to gather, interpret, and translate information and images. I am still trying to discover new meaning and find ways to continually challenge both myself and my audience.
The scale and scope of my projects have increased over the years, demanding larger commitments of time, travel, and resources. As my career has developed, I am able to meet these demands more easily, but there still are never enough hours in a day.
When did it first occur to you that you wanted to become an artist?
I have been drawn to and inspired by the arts for most of my life. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to become an artist. Even as a small child, my parents would have to drag me out of museums and away from a good work of art.
The more difficult decision for me was how to create a personal voice as an artist, rather than illustrate the ideas of others. I was strongly influenced by my professors and the work of other artists. Discussions with my peers helped me to focus my concepts. I was also influenced by the written word and intrigued by the role of fiction.
While using these as a stepping off point, I have had to detach from my influences and find a way to access my own history. By using personal experiences as my jumping off point, I try to interweave the real and the fictional.
In Fade to White, you embark on a daring expedition aboard a 2-masted schooner. At one point, you paddle a kayak past drifting glaciers and polar bears. What was going through your mind at this time? Can you describe to us some of the challenges and hardships you experienced while traveling the arctic?
During the Arctic expedition, our schooner slammed into icebergs and rode out some intense storms. Objects (and at times people) that weren’t tied down became projectiles, flying across the ship. I had cameras and batteries fail due to the cold and I was constantly scrapping ice off my lenses.
I paddled kayaks in Arctic water where temperatures were so cold that an accident leading to falling overboard would result in death by hypothermia in 15 minutes. I paddled under huge glacial walls, hoping that they wouldn’t cave, and with polar bears swimming nearby, hoping not to be eaten. I squeezed into glacial ice caves that were so tight that I couldn’t get my head up to see and I descended into Arctic coal mines where methane fires ignited with terrifying regularity.
There is clearly a performative side to my work that has to do with me physically and psychologically pushing myself or assuming some kind of risk in order to be able to capture the images and action needed for the piece. I didn’t realize I was such a thrill seeker until I set out to create this kind of work , although some of my previous videos have involved actions like racing inches above a salt desert at 100 mph and swimming in a small pool with a panicking, thrashing racehorse. This part of my process is compelling enough that I now find myself looking for new challenges, although my exploration of the addictive nature of risky behavior is primarily as a witness to someone else’s action and done off-camera.
My thrill-seeker side aside, I think the most difficult and demanding part of this work has been in the studio when I’m editing. I have had to learn to accept when a project has reached a point where I feel as if the project itself, rather than me as the artist, dictates decisions about the directions taken. This is a rare and sometimes terrifying moment where control is relinquished to passion.
Many fans are drawn to the good-looking explorer who appear on Fade to White. Did he just happen to be incredibly handsome or was he purposefully cast for that reason? What was his symbolic role?
I enjoy structuring my narratives by using both real and fictional information, but the main characters in my videos are always what they appear, never actors. In Vanishing Point, the woman motorcyclist, Leslie Porterfield, is the actual holder of three world speed records. Linda Norberg, the woman coal miner in Brightness All Around, has been working in an Arctic coal mine for the last eight years, performing one of the most dangerous jobs in the mine. She bolts up the ceiling after a new section is cut in the mine.
In Fade to White, Audun Tholfsen actually is an Arctic guide, explorer, and ice expert. He has skied across Greenland as part of a two person expedition (which took over a month). He has discovered and explored ice caves and paddled kayaks in one of the world’s most remote regions. I wanted to work with Audun because of who he is and how he lives his life, not because of how he looks. That being said, I was thrilled that he happened to be so striking. Beauty, seduction, and desire are all a part of the video’s content, so having a classically handsome main character only added to the piece. Audun and the landscape around him are both archetypal images of the frozen north and the taciturn, rugged, and heroic figures that exist there.
I was able to pair this archetypal image of masculinity with performance artist John Kelly, whose androgyny and fragile beauty raised questions about control and traditional notions of masculinity … John is also strikingly beautiful.
Do you travel by yourself? How many team members partake in your project?
I often travel by myself when scouting a location or action. Traveling solo makes it easy to get around and I can focus on my subject or the landscape without distractions. Occasionally, I bring an assistant, although this is usually not possible due to limited budgets and the remoteness of many of the locations where I film.
Gathering footage for a project usually takes multiple trips to a location. For me, a project’s meaning is constructed over time, using preconceived ideas, on-location discoveries, and allowing failure to reshape a project or idea.
When I do use assistants, they are often not typical studio assistants. I have worked with George Najar, from biker.net magazine on the Bonneville Salt flats. He was able to wire a camera onto a motorcycle in seconds and could drive 60 miles an hour, backwards. Audun Tholfson, who was the subject in my video Fade to White, became my assistant on my second trip to the Arctic. Audun’s skills included being able to place ice screws into glaciers and repel into ice caves as well as shoot a high powered rifle to ward off polar bears.
Vanishing Point, Fade to White and In the Cold Edge seem to draw upon the vastness of landscape in its relation to individual characters. What draws you to these landscapes and open spaces? What is the overarching theme of these elements?
I tend to revisit elemental and extreme landscapes, from the broiling hot salt flats of Bonneville in Vanishing Point, to my most recent videos that were filmed in the High Arctic. I am interested in using the landscape as a surrogate character or equal subject to the individuals who struggle to maintain a sense of self within it.
I am drawn to the ends of the earth. Locations that represent empty lands and blank spaces are ripe for interpretation. Even though these once unknown places have been mapped and surveyed, increased knowledge has not replaced my endless fantasies of discovery in these regions.
I am interested in individuals who dedicate themselves to a search for perfection often through their athletic pursuits. In their willingness to take risks and endure isolation, they strive to attain an extreme state of being. By filming solitary figures within vast natural environments I am able to focus on both their vulnerable fragility as well as their manifest strength.
I use grand stories and heroic efforts as my point of departure, then slide sideways into small gestures or esoteric tasks as seen from deeply personal perspectives. I am interested in how repetitive or ritualized movements, the incidental, small movements, are as wondrous as the stupefying beautiful landscapes where many of these actions occur.
But most of all, I am interested in the huge effort required to forge and sustain a sense of personal integration, a sense of self. Even when identity becomes slippery, there are those who will struggle to define and defend their sense of self.
Behind the Vertical, the visually stunning video installation project in New York City, how did that come about? What made you decide to work with Hermès? Can you tell us what the process of working with a high fashion house was like? Did they give you full autonomy for your creation?
Unlike many companies, who support the arts by establishing a collection, Hermès looks for new, interesting, and unexpected ways to work with artists. This often means that they will take on the role of producer. Our relationship took some years to develop and involved multiple studio visits and conversations to see how we could best combine resources, support, and our visions. Hermès started as a harness maker so we shared a passion for horses from the beginning.
They gave me full autonomy in the creation of my piece. They supported my production of a new, multiple-channel video installation which was exhibited in their flagship store on Madison Avenue. Many of Hermès’ stores include art galleries, but in this case my work was installed in the windows across the front of their store. Hermès never questioned the content of my piece, nor the installation demands, which included a sound element projected out onto the street. They never asked to put any of their products in the windows with my installation. They completely respected the integrity of the work. When the exhibition was over, I retained the rights to the piece. It was an honor and a pleasure to work with them and I’ve enjoyed their continuing support. They helped fund my recent trips to the Arctic.
What equipments did you primarily use to film In the Cold Edge?
Most of the footage for In the Cold Edge was shot on the Canon 5D. It is a still photography camera with an amazing ability to shoot high definition (1080p) video. Because of its compact body it was easy to take into ice caves. There were times when I would have to push the camera along the ice in front of me because a tunnel was so tight that I couldn’t get both myself and the camera through at the same time.
The sequence in the ice cave was lit solely by the head lamps worn by myself and Andreas, the ice spelunker I was filming.
The other pieces of equipment I used for In the Cold Edge was a Sony EX3 video camera and a flare gun with both colored flares and bangers (a flare gun cartridge that explodes in two loud bangs … one when it is first released from the chamber, and one when it hits the ground).
Who inspires you as an artist?
I am drawn to those who have the determination to define and defend their identity in all fields, not just the visual arts.
My work is informed by people like Linda Norberg, a woman coal miner who is working in one of the Earth’s most extreme environments. She begins her days by descending miles into the darkness beneath the frozen Arctic, excelling in one of the most inaccessible and dangerous places imaginable.
I find performance artist and counter tenor John Kelly compelling in his exceptional ability to use both his posture and face with as much fluency as his voice. He alters his appearance in a search to find meaning within the body’s immutable condition.
The Addicts Rehabilitation Center Gospel Choir inspires me with their effort and open struggle to forge and sustain a sense of personal integration while fighting addiction.
Motorcycle racer Leslie Porterfield survived a devastating crash in Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats in 2007, only to return to competition
there the following year and set a world speed record of 234 miles per hour. Her intense focus when everything is stripped away except for her desire to be the fastest in the world motivates my work.
There are many artists wanting to follow in your steps. Can you provide them with any tips?
Be determined in what you do and unafraid of failure.
Photo Highlight: Vanishing Point, 2009. Courtesy of Conner Contemporary Art
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