Vanessa Renwick has been kicking ass for over twenty years. It says so right there in the name of her website, the Oregon Department of Kick Ass.
Using a variety of media, primarily film and video, she’s probed the uncomfortable intersection between nature and so-called civilization, the paradoxes of humanity’s relationship with the wild, and the shifting fortunes of her adoptive city, Portland. These concerns intertwine in Renwick’s newest installation, “Next Level Fucked Up,” which currently inhabits the Apex Gallery of the Portland Art Museum.
A photo of Oregon’s Painted Hills, overlayed with a Saul Bellow quote, is projected on one wall, alternating with an image of a container of Earth Balance margarine that has been sculpted into a miniature replica of Mt. Hood. A few beanbag chairs provide spots to recline and observe the pyramid of dilapidated monitors stacked in one corner. On them, several short video segments loop and recur. In one, former mayoral candidate and donut entrepreneur Tres Shannon offers a guided tour of Demolished Portland. In another, a friend of Renwick’s describes the horrific-sounding process of force-feeding baby seals. Images of global catastrophes alternate with shots of full, discarded dog poop bags on surrounding screens.
It’s a harrowing, compelling experience, leavened by the sly, dark wit Renwick brings to the project. “Next Level Fucked Up” opened in late March and runs through July 17, but on Thursday, June 9, the Northwest Film Center will host “North South East West,” a retrospective of her film work, providing an opportunity for a one-stop seminar on one of Portland’s most distinctive and uncompromising creators.
I spoke on the phone with Renwick, who laughs more than you’d expect after seeing her work. The call was a half-hour late because someone had accidentally unplugged the monitors in “Next Level Fucked Up” and she had to run to the museum to correct the situation.
OAW: So what happened with the monitors?
VR: Sometimes they turn down the volume if someone with epilepsy comes through in a group, because they worry it might overwhelm them. That’s my only guess. Or some small child, like fell into the gorilla moat and went behind the TVs…
OAW: Talk about “Next Level Fucked Up.” That Harambe story was something else. Interesting you should mention it, since so much of the installation and your film work centers on troubled interactions between humans and nature.
VR: There is that thread, definitely.
OAW: And that extends all the way down to people who don’t dispose of their dog poop bags properly.
VR: It does, though so far in my travels it seems to only be a problem in the Pacific Northwest. In San Francisco, people are not leaving their dog shit bags on the street. It just hasn’t caught on down there yet.
OAW: So what is it that elevates something from regular, ordinary fucked up to Next Level Fucked Up?
VR: Well, I think that’s a very personal decision. I had many more examples of Next Level Fucked Uppedness. It was going to be more global. I was talking to somebody down on the Apache reservation who was going to send me some video of where they sold some sacred land to a foreign mining company, but that footage never came through. I was also trying to get something about the Nestle-Cascade Locks thing, but that ended up going the right way. And I was going to put the Bundys in, because they made it so easy by putting everything online. But they were too huge, I thought, to include.
Also, being an art piece in a museum is different than being a two-hour movie in a theater. You have to think most people will look at the thing for thirty seconds and move along. So I felt like I needed to keep the piece on the shorter end, which made me crunch how many Fucked Up things I could put in. But things could be added forever and ever…
OAW: Despite occasional respites, it’s a pretty despairing piece overall. How pessimistic are you? Do you feel like things aren’t getting better quickly enough, or that things are actively getting worse?
VR: I think things are definitely accelerating. You could think that maybe it’s just because we have the Internet now and we know so much more about what’s going on in the world. But just being in Portland, there’s all the cranes and demolitions and lead dust floating around and giant trees getting cut down. And they’re being replaced sometimes with rather nice-looking things but a lot of time with horribly shoddy shitholes that don’t leave any land at all and are priced so that only a super-rich person can buy them. Being in the midst of that in this city definitely feels like an acceleration.
When I was driving around with Tres Shannon, he said “Portland needs to take a nap.” That’s a line I think of a lot, that I wish I had left in the piece.
OAW: A line you did include of his that struck me was about experiencing places through the lens of what they used to be. The way that this rapid change results in a different state of mind, a permanent nostalgia.
VR: When we turned into the Pearl District, he turned to me and said, “You’re gonna have to help me because I don’t know where I am anymore.” And that happens to me in my own neighborhood. I’ll be at an intersection seven blocks from my house and all four corners will be different, and I won’t even remember what they used to be.
OAW: But this isn’t just a piece about Portland’s demolition problem. It’s broader than that.
VR: And there’s also humor in it, like Sam Coomes’ choruses of “Next Level Fucked Up” coming in after each story. They’re really, really funny.
OAW: It’s important to note that it’s not just a relentless political screed going on. It’s also important to note what the plan is for next week’s events.
VR: I’ll be giving a gallery talk on Wednesday the 8th at 12:30 pm. And then on Thursday, they’re encouraging people to visit the piece before coming down to see the films. There will be a reception in a room next to the Whitsell Auditorium, and then we’ll show the films and I’ll do a Q&A.
OAW: You also mentioned that you’re planning on reworking the installation into a single-screen piece?
VR: Yeah, that’ll be at the Hollywood Theatre in the fall. There’s also a thing going on at the museum on July 8th. I think it’ll start around 8 pm, right when the museum closes, in the sculpture courtyard. Colleen Plumb, the artist who made the elephant projection on top of the mountain of TVs, is flying in from Chicago. She’ll be projecting other loops of animals in captivity—polar bears, and tigers, and jaguars. Marisa Anderson, who did the guitar music in the Painted Hills part, and Sam Coomes are going to improvise music for it. And I’m going to be at a table with a bunch of advance directive forms for people to take. Because I think it’s fucked up that people don’t have advance directives filled out, and you can’t get to the next level without having one filled out. You could be kept in limbo forever!
OAW: That’s a good example, maybe of something that seems Next Level Fucked Up but actually makes sense from the right perspective. It’s sort of like the story Corey Arnold tells you in the film about the force-feeding of baby seals. It’s terrible to see or contemplate, but it’s being done for a good end. It’s not just crude sadism. So how do we know the difference between the things that are genuinely Next Level Fucked Up, evil and apocalyptic, and the things that just kind of viscerally make us feel that way but might have some greater purpose?
VR: I think about that a lot with all the work I’ve done about wolves. Sixty-six of them were caught in pretty horrible ways—almost like an alien came from the sky and doped you up and stuck their hand up your asshole and took shit samples and measured your vulva and measured your nipples, and then took you hundreds of miles away and plopped you down. I made a piece about that, it’s about an hour long, and watching it with live musicians is so intense. But in the long run, there’s now about 3,000 wolves in the American West that were not here before because we had wiped them all out.
OAW: It’s like for a veterinarian, or a doctor, who has to be dispassionate and develop a clinical detachment from things that are painful or might seem cruel.
VR: My sister works for the Department of Human Services, overseeing foster cases. She said to me once, “I don’t know how you can live your life without a steady income and insurance. I’d be so stressed out.” And I told her, “I couldn’t even do one day of your job. Even with all the benefits or whatever. My soul could not handle that heaviness.” I guess I’m just a fucking delicate flower!