Jennifer West

Jennifer West talks about her new project at Tate Modern

Left: Jennifer West, Led Zeppelin Alchemy Film (16mm film dripped with lemon juice, honey, wine, hit with a custard pie, tangerines, flowers, and cucumber—featuring strobe light hair performances by Jill Spector & Jwest), 2007, still from a color film in 16 mm transferred to video, 3 minutes 36 seconds. Right: Jennifer West, Skate the Sky Film (35mm film print of clouds in the sky covered with ink, Ho-Ho’s, and Melon—taped to Tate Turbine Hall ramp and skateboarded over using ollie, kick flip, pop shove-it, acid drop, melon grab, crooked grind, bunny hop, tic tacs, sex change, disco flip—skateboarding performed live for Long Weekend by a bunch of London skaters), 2009. Production still. Pictured: Finn West.

In conjunction with “The Long Weekend” at Tate Modern, the Los Angeles–based artist Jennifer West will premiere a new piece, Skate the Sky Film. Here she talks about her practice of subjecting 16-mm, 35-mm, and 70-mm film to a wide array of substances and the new direction this work has taken her. The festival runs May 22–25; more information can be found here.

THIS PROJECT IS DIFFERENT FOR ME because I’m working within a twenty-four-hour period in London, and part of it will involve a live audience. I’m also going to show a 35-mm print on a 35-mm projector (on a built platform), which is an exhibition format I haven’t used before. I have twelve hundred feet of film of wispy clouds in the LA sky that has been doused with inks and will be taped onto the ramp in the Turbine Hall. Local skateboarders from the London skate scene, many of whom frequent the Undercroft, a skate spot just across the river from the Tate and a byproduct of LA skate culture’s migration to England in the 1970s, will be invited to skate directly over the filmstrips, their wheels marking the film.

One of my ideas for this piece was to bring these skaters the LA sky, since skating is all about catching air anyway. Serendipitously, the assistant projectionist for the screening, the artist and filmmaker Tom Lock, is a longtime skater, so he can both skate and project the film while assisting the main projectionist (and artist), Steve Farrer.

Stuart Comer, one of the curators of “The Long Weekend,” invited me to participate because he saw a relationship between my work and this year’s theme, “Do It Yourself.” The event was inspired by the Arte Povera and post-Minimalist artworks in the Tate’s “Energy and Process” collections exhibition, and Stuart was interested in my use of everyday materials, experiences, and the way I put a pop angle on them. He saw a connection between my work and aspects of Arte Povera, as well as links between Arte Povera and the alchemical approach of filmmakers like Stan Brakhage and Tony Conrad.

After Stuart sent me photographs of the ramp, which is steep and about 140 feet long, I immediately thought of it as a piece of architecture that would be great to have skateboarders on. I’ve made other films about trespassing in public space––around the HOLLYWOOD sign and in front of David Geffen’s beach house in Malibu. I’m interested in the ways in which culture utilizes public spaces, and particularly how skaters will find any place to use, from park benches to step railings to private pools. I wanted to allow them into this environment, which will be very different for them. I recently saw Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park (2007) and was reminded of the pleasure watching skating and its gracefulness. So much of that film is just about documenting the skaters and the satisfaction of seeing that experience.

Usually, viewers can infer the process behind my works via their literal titles, which list the substances I’ve used to treat the film––like someone riding a motorcycle over the material. The narrative of the process has to be put together like reading a book. For this project, I’ve been thinking about that slippage, as well as the dimension of spectacle. I’m allowing my audience to see how the work has been made, and the very next day they’ll be able to see the film. I’ll also make a zine that will accompany the project.

As for the title of this work, skateboarders have the greatest, most irreverent names for their tricks, such as disco flips, acid drop, tic tacs, bunny hop, melon grab, and sex change. My titles invoke the kinds of substances that are associated with the subject of the work; for example, my film that references the band Nirvana is all about expelling abject elements, and there’s another about riot grrrl music that is covered with sweet things and candy. For this piece, I’ll treat the film with melons and Ho Hos before they skate on it; only the melon will really affect the film because of its organic acidity.

The performance will exist the way everything exists in the art world (and the skate world); there will be documentation and people will hear about it. I was thinking about this while watching Yves Klein’s Anthropometries of the Blue Period and Fire Paintings: Two Performances and the spectacle of naked women applying paint to their bodies in front of a group of men wearing suits. Also, while looking at the exhibition “WACK!” I noticed photographs of Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll that I had never seen before (not to mention the actual scroll!). Looking at them made me feel as though the scope of the work was larger than what I knew of it. I was also inspired while looking at Dan Graham’s current exhibition at MoCA. I had the opportunity to see firsthand his two-channel film pieces, such as Body Press, which I’ve known for so long and have taught over and over. It struck me that we know artworks in a very specific way—mostly through documents and photographs.

These works, along with Tate making it possible to skate the Turbine ramp, and my attempts to make that performance just as engaging as the film itself, motivated me to make Skate the Sky Film and to try something very new to my practice.

For performance documentation of Skate the Sky Film click here.