Cape Town-based mixed-media artist, Marianne Thesen Law, graduated from Michaelis School of Fine Art this year. The artist primarily works with video, a dynamic medium valued for its ability to convey the intricacies of social relations in a way that’s both accessible and engaging. In terms of form and aesthetic, their work is self-described as being chaotic; mostly comprising clips of found footage from various sources mingled together to create willfully ambiguous, non-linear narratives. Language, spoken or written, is another primary tool for the artist, who often incorporates text to evoke feeling and encourage discourse. At the heart of all of their works, you’ll find the act of communication.
We spoke with Marianne about their most recent body of work and its various themes.
Can you give me a brief overview of this exhibition and the work contained in it?
Well, the exhibition is part of the Michaelis Grad Show, in which the current group of fourth years exhibit their final body of work. I’ve been working almost exclusively with video and text for most of fourth year, so five of the videos that I’ve made were on exhibition at the grad show. There’s also a book that I put together, which contains writing from the past two years, as well as drawings, weird pictures I’ve made on Photoshop and other process work.
What are some of the themes and ideas that could be collectively found in your works?
Very broadly, I think my work at the moment is about language and communication/miscommunication; trying to engage with slippages and gaps in understanding.
In third year, I started reading translation theory, which prompted me to think about language and speech in a more nuanced way. Language is never neutral – it is always political, and the influences of these oppressive structures make themselves known in almost every part of our lexicon in a really insidious way.
There’s a poem in the book called Xenoglossia/Xenolalia (Or: A fissure between the lobes of the brain) which is about being in a K-hole and losing language. I thought it was funny to imagine God choosing to channel themself through some off-their-head teenager at a music festival; the final line of the poem is, “But maybe it is not enough to say / that God is a beast which speaks through me”. Glossolalia and speaking in tongues is an interesting phenomenon for me, because whether it is perceived as godly or demonic relies entirely on framing and context, and I think it’s good to interrogate these constructions of sin vs virtue when it comes to language. I wasn’t raised religious, but for some reason these Christian motifs keep popping up in my writing.
I think it’s got something to do with this focus on ghosts/the dead as a running symbol of silenced or invisibilised bodies. In Ghost Video (Working Title) there’s this line that goes “do not speak to me if you will not speak to the dead” and again, I think that’s about trying to acknowledge a particular kind of inheritance: one of violence (both experienced and meted out) and of trauma.
Even death itself is incredibly political. A ghost is created through trauma in death, and I think dealing with that concept – even if the ghost is a purely theoretical tool – is important. I think that acknowledging death as a politicised thing is also really important because it queers the entire concept of the spectre, which is often figured as white man, or as a hammy personification of pure evil in popular culture.
In spite of not being religious, I’m quite superstitious. I was very into paganism and witchcraft when I was a kid, and because of this a lot of quite witchy imagery (or that of the spirit medium in Prompt, for instance) keeps cropping up in my videos. I think it’s really interesting how witchcraft has resurfaced as an anti-patriarchal, and just generally anti-authoritarian practice in the last few years. One of the things I like about it so much is that it works directly against this practice of scientific logic, of “rationality”, which has been completely subsumed by, and (I think, misguidedly) framed as inherently connected to masculinity. Anything that disturbs the gender binary is a good thing, in my opinion.
Also, on a more tangible level, and in terms of language, I want to challenge how art is spoken about and implicitly assigned value based on a set of market rules (the object, its materiality, its potential for commodification, the name and reputation of the artist, etc). So, text and video are two media that I’ve been using in an attempt to circumvent the market as much as I possibly can. Video works can be made incredibly cheaply, and can be copied and distributed easily – they don’t require you to be present in a physical space in order for them to be engaged with – if they are available online then theoretically anyone with internet access can look at and engage with an “original” artwork at any time. It’s obviously not a perfect model, but I think it’s an interesting challenge to try to work in a dematerialised, or non-plastic way, with accessibility as the ultimate intention.
You work across a variety of digital media. How would you describe the form and style of your art?
It’s really fucking chaotic, actually. I don’t think there’s really any strong over-arching aesthetic at all, besides from the thematic links. Mostly, it’s informed by my politics over a personal sense of taste: the work needs to be accessible – both literally and figuratively – which means that the media needs to be easily distributed, and video and text are best for that. The aesthetic of my videos is mostly pretty lo-fi, because I usually just rip footage off of Youtube, and I don’t really worry too much about quality.
I’m not hugely concerned with my work looking too polished – I think it’s interesting to be able to see the mechanics of the work in some ways, and I’m also not super interested in making work that is too highbrow or professional looking. I think slick art and good art are often conflated, because something that is slick and polished is easy to look at and easy to consume, which I don’t feel should be a priority in art-making.
You often work with moving image. Why is this? What is it about video that interests you as an aesthetic tool?
I had a conversation with my friend Matthew King the other day about what it is about video that seems exciting. I mean, it’s been around for ages but for some reason it’s still seen as ‘new media’. He had this thought about video as an art form that is much more accessible to our generation, because we grew up watching television: most of us have engaged with video our whole lives, and we have a very nuanced understanding of moving images.
I like video specifically because of its being so embedded in popular culture, and the way that video has its roots outside of a fine art context. I often feel like you approach an art video with much less reverence than you would a painting or a sculpture. There’s less of an object-cult around it.
What is your artistic process like when you make a video, from idea to actual work?
I watch a lot of weird videos online, like compilations and conspiracy theory videos and things like that. Usually, if there’s an image I like I’ll just rip it off Youtube or whatever site it’s on. A lot of people asked me where I found the footage of the trolley-pushing, jeans-wearing robot in ‘Los Angeles is So Strange, She Says’ – it’s literally from a robot fails compilation that I ripped off of Youtube about two years ago (and I’ve used different bits of it in different videos ever since).
The process is also totally chaotic – it kind of flips between approaching an image or piece of footage as an evocative thing, and usually at that point even I can’t really tell where it’s going to go, and then a fully formed idea – this was the case with ‘Screencrawler Montage’ – where all I have to do is source the footage and edit it all together. A lot of the videos originated as scraps or sketches for other works that I never got around to making. To be honest, most of the videos up at grad show will probably be cut up and repurposed for future works. Upcycling, etc.
There’s about a minute in ‘Los Angeles is So Strange, She Says’ where the looped footage of the robot stops, and I’ve cut a clip of myself reading a paragraph from an old Vogue magazine into it, with a text-to-speech voice superimposed over my own. This part specifically began as a sketch for a much longer video I wanted to do, which was essentially robots reading poems – some kind of attempt at really leaning into this uncanny valley feeling. That sketch is backed up by a lot of ‘80s theory about cyborgs, cyberpunk and transhumanism – most notably Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto – as well as the beginnings of a conceptual reckoning with the idea of a fully automated utopian art practice.
‘Screencrawler Montage’ also has a pretty strong foothold in theory around spectrality, as well as stuff around reality vs representation; simulacra; all of this art-specific theory as it pertains to images. It’s a fun challenge trying to take this pretty complex theory and applying it to, say, scenes in blockbuster horror films. Or, conversely, tracking its influence through pop-cultural artifacts.
What draws you to performance art as a medium? Why did you choose to perform yourself in your video pieces: ‘Prompt’ and ‘Los Angeles is so Strange, She Says’?
I was quite into performance in third year: I made these videos of myself lifting weights made from paint cans, hammering a painting onto a wall straight through the canvas and drilling into a can of enamel paint which leaked out onto the plinth it was on. At that point, I was trying to make a farce of this particular hyper-masculine art practice that’s all over the place. I was reading a lot of gender theory at the time, a lot of Judith Butler and stuff around gender performativity. For the same show, I came in during marking and read a very shouty poem to the lecturers. It was a weird time.
Performance art, because of its inherent bodied-ness and its intimacy, generally has a strongly gendered history. Particularly second-wave feminist performance art – Carolee Schneemann pulling a scroll out of her vagina; Lynda Benglis posing wearing a huge strap-on in an Artforum ad; etc – it’s very much about cisgendered women and their VAGINAS. I often think about this stuff in contrast to Vito Acconci jerking off under the floorboards of the gallery in Seedbed. There’s this masculine/feminine dichotomy that I don’t relate to at all. The performance that I’m interested in doing is much less about the body – it’s even moved away from “performing the body performing gender”.
‘Prompt’, however, did need to be a performance, although it would have worked too if there was a different person in front of the camera. It’s not about my body at all – it’s not even about my particular relationship with the cameraperson – it’s got more to do with this breakdown of communication that happens between two people when neither is allowed to speak. It’s like a ghost trying to instruct a spirit medium through television static.
In ‘Los Angeles is So Strange, She Says’ too, the performative aspect is only important inasmuch as there needs to be someone speaking in the video, for it to make sense. A lot of these videos are performances only because it’s stuff I wouldn’t want to ask someone else to do.
What personal narratives are woven through the meaning, or intent driving your work, if any?
I try to stay away from my own personal narratives as much as possible, because they’re not very interesting. Obviously, they leak into almost every part of my work – especially my writing – but even then I’ll try to steer them in a direction that points outside of myself. It’s a funny question, because I think as an assigned female, queer, middle-class white artist coming out of Michaelis, I’ve felt a strong push to centre normative notions of white womanhood in this idea of “personal narrative”, with much less of a push to interrogate why or how it has been centred in the past, and continues to be centred now both in and outside of the institution. In the spaces where personal narrative is central – like the poem, ‘Department of Home Affairs’ – I try to maintain an awareness of my positionality. That poem is about my ancestors who colonised Knysna, and the weird cognitive dissonance that so many white people have about our history as settlers; how we still thrive off of our ancestors’ violence. I often think about that question: “Would you travel back in time to kill baby Hitler?” and how that could be re-framed in South Africa, as a question for white people here: “Would you travel back in time to kill your own ancestors?” Generally though, I’m pretty resistant to highly personal or confessional artwork. I think it’s something that art students – especially those who are not cis-het white men – are often coerced into doing, and I think that the institution isn’t worth selling your pain to. The institution doesn’t deserve it, and nor does the “art world”. There’s a history of confessional art as something quite radical, but at this point the institutions are wise to it – it doesn’t shock them anymore, or make them uncomfortable, and mostly it’s just about how well something can sell; how well pain and trauma can be marketed.
This is part of the reason why a few of my poems have certain lines and stanzas redacted. You know, it’s confessional stuff I wouldn’t even speak to my friends about, so I don’t see why the Michaelis marking committee should be privy to it.
For my final exam, and for grad show, I cut a broadcast interruption into all of my videos, in which little scraps of uncertain dialogue – about the work; about art-making in general – would pop up on the screen. It felt really weird going back to campus after the shutdown – which lasted most of the second semester – last year, after all of the important political work done by the Umhlangano Collective during that time in beginning to hold staff and the institution accountable for their violence. Returning to my work which was so removed from that, and to my supervisor and all of the staff members who were acting as though nothing had changed, a lot of what I was doing felt really silly. The broadcast interruption is meant to kind of mirror this feeling of disjuncture, or to acknowledge that the most important work is being done outside of institutional parameters.
In terms of intent, I suppose it does become personal. I want to begin developing a more rigorously leftist artistic practice, so I do think that my personal politics come into play in my work – if not in the content, then certainly in the form. So that informs most of it – these themes of destabilisation (of language, of identity), my concern with “low art”; or art that engages with pop culture and popular media – most of this stuff is informed by my politics, which are tangentially informed by my identity.
To purchase a copy of Book Two a compilation of writing and poetry, drawings, digital images and process work by Marianne Thesen Law, contact the artist at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Find more by the artist on YouTube.