Corporate Aesthetics: Dora Budor

Dora Budor: Action Painting (Original), 2013, video. Courtesy of 247365. 



In conjunction with a special section in Art in America‘s April issue (select articles available here, here and here), A.i.A. presents a series of Web interviews exploring the role of corporations in contemporary art, architecture and design.

In an update of those Beuysian/Warholian bromides of yesteryear—everyone being an artist or having 15 minutes of fame, or both—everyone today is a content creator. The average consumer now has in their hands and pockets DSLRs and smartphones able to take professional-seeming photo and videos; postproduction has become a populist pastime, courtesy of Final Cut and the mighty Adobe Photoshop; and circulation is easier than ever, requiring little more than access the distribution networks like YouTube or Instagram.

Of course, home productions, however polished, rarely match the scale of blockbusters from major film and media corporations, still a fount of fantastical world creations with their own research and development departments and budgets in the hundreds of millions. Hence the supremacy of ripping, copying and imitation in today’s world of content creators, both in the sense of piracy, and user-generated takes on the entertainment industry mainstream—song covers, movie parodies, shanzhai everything. So while content creators are everywhere, they’re mostly likely imitating or knocking off.

That tension between the democratization of cultural production and the ever more immersive (and pricey) spectacle of commercial entertainment lies at the heart of Dora Budor’s work. The artist, born in Croatia and now living and working in New York, first came to prominence as one half of Dora + Maja (2007-12), a collaborative project with Maja Cule. Keenly attuned to both the art and advertising worlds, the duo destroyed replicas of Chinese vases in a sleekly shot basketball game in Porcelain (2011), explored male modeling tropes as performed by aspiring semi-professionals in BodySurfing (2012), and created performance knockoffs of the ’90s Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Knockoff.

As a solo artist, recent efforts have included 2014’s “Action Paintings,” a series of video works mimicking and deconstructing action movie choreography and cinematography, and the eclectic New Lavoro (2013); a project for the Palazzo Peckham at the 55th Venice Biennale that consisted of, among other things, a “mixtape/soundscape,” an onsite café and a slightly counterfeit-feeling reality show in which young artists in New York competed to win a free trip to the Biennale. As Budor herself described in an interview with DIS, New Lavoro-as-reality-show explored her interest in that liminal stage between amateur and professional, “when things are not completely there yet, [in terms of] intentions to succeed or aspirations to . . . achieve excellence in a desired (in this case creative) sector.”

Budor talked to A.i.A. at her Chinatown studio and over e-mail about “importing” Hong Kong directors, horror movie prosthetics and post-Fordist editing techniques.

MATTHEW SHEN GOODMAN Going back to your work with Maja Cule, I’m really struck by the “KnockOff” performances, which foreground numerous aspects of commercial filmmaking that are usually glossed over—shadow economies of bootlegs and rips, intensive physical labor, the actual technological apparatus used by corporate image production. It’d be great to hear about the series’s origins, given that it seems an early example of what’s become a touchstone for your work.

DORA BUDOR “KnockOff” is based on a 1998 action movie of the same name. It’s an incredibly unusual action movie, as it’s simultaneously a mash-up of different ideologies and cultures, a transformation of the language of violence into an escapist outlet, and a deep homage to cinema and its own replicating nature. Filmed in Hong Kong and starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, the movie’s directed by Tsui Hark, who was one of the first directors that Hollywood started “importing” shortly after the UK returned Hong Kong to China. Van Damme plays Marcus Ray, a naive sales representative of a knockoff factory that’s actually a cover-up for a Russian mafia/international terrorist operation inserting nano-bombs into products being exported from Asia to the U.S. From this initial setup the movie rapidly spins into a set of boldly composed action scenes. There’s a disembodied camera flying around the set, showing the world through an actor’s earring or from the point of view of a bullet bursting through a can of soup. Besides being an orgy of fighting, knock-off brands and an almost poetic cinematography, the film has this underlying sociopolitical narrative, where the terrorist operations amplify a culture of fear between the East and the West, using Eastern knockoff products to literally convey threat to Western structures.

For “KnockOff,” we used the movie as an initial script for a hybrid performance and video work casting local mixed martial arts fighters in the production of its live “re-making.” Choreographed fight scenes were performed in front of a green screen, digitally composited into new scenery and projected in real time, allowing the audience to see the same story from different perspectives. The work, which had iterations in Berlin, Zagreb and Bergen, takes its production mode from the phenomena known as a “mockbuster.” A B-movie of often foreign origin, the “mockbuster” is a derivative copy that reproduces elements of the genre, script and techniques of blockbuster movie on a significantly smaller budget. The cast was taken from underground fight clubs and were passionate but not professionally trained. It’s more interesting casting amateurs than professional actors, because they bring a more subjective interpretation to the piece.

During the rehearsals we worked with choreographer and stuntwoman Helga Wretman to shape the fighters’ “subjective remakes” into a series of highly controlled movements that looked as if they were being controlled by a remote control. The choreography ranged from gentle scenes of finely tuned, tai chi-like movements, as if in slow motion, all the way to more explicit full-force fights with exaggerated illustrative movements, as frequently seen in TV commercials. Each following group would get the previous performance as an initial input, so each consecutive performance one would become a copy and a sequel of the previous one.

SHEN GOODMAN “KnockOff” has a knowing, slightly bootleg quality also seen in later works like BodySurfing (2012) that I’d almost describe as “willfully prosumer”: not so much blatantly amateurish as slightly off-kilter. It fits really well in an age where everyone’s very media-savvy, both in terms of understanding how images get produced and how to produce images themselves.

BUDOR With the rise of YouTube and the online distribution of film, there are two really interesting anomalies occurring: digital ripping and bootlegging (as in Hito Steyerl’s “Poor Image“) and the culture of remake, both of which this project pulled inspiration from. There’s something awkwardly miraculous and wonderful when users produce lo-fi remakes of their favorite pieces. Nowadays, as user-friendly software for image manipulation, high-end cameras and other production materials and equipment are available to a wide range of users, we all contribute in the power structures of content creation. I think it’s interesting to create an alternative to existing models-for example, working with non-actors in “KnockOff” or casting aspiring male models in BodySurfing. I’m curious about the new subjectivity enabled by re-performing cinema, injecting mainstream image creation with individual imperfections that expose the tactics of its production.

Working with those modes of content production and image making also means locating the power structures operating behind the entertainment industry. In the same way that the older Hollywood continuity editing system was a mirror to the Fordist mode of production, today’s editing methods and digital media postproduction mirror the information technology infrastructure of contemporary neoliberal society. I’m also fascinated with what Steven Shaviro located in mainstream blockbusters as “blocs of affect.” Movies are simultaneously symptomatic and productive of complex social processes, meaning they both reflect and actively constitute them. This includes not only monetary capital, but emotional capital as well. We could see those processes as formative forces, working copies and critiques, living alternatives, experiments in possible futures and embodiments of our deepest human fears and desires. Hollywood to me is a big laboratory, where ideas can be tested out with insane budgets and master skills, all the while formulating possible existences for the outside world.

SHEN GOODMAN How has that played out in your more recent solo work? You said that you’ve been working a lot with prosthetics and movie props.

BUDOR Once a movie’s production is done, it leaves this physical detritus—props, skin appliances, theatrical sets, storyboards—which carry the history and cultural significance of the film and become collectibles for memorabilia fans and film collectors. Identified by screen-matching (being able to recognize the piece in a specific scene) and Certificates of Authenticity (COAs) issued from film studios, the objects are valued according to their uniqueness, the craft of their production and how they were used in the film—by the main character in the foreground (called Hero props), or as screen-used stunt and background props, or finally as prototypes and production-made multiples. There’s a specific aura that’s similar to the valorization of art objects. I use those elements as raw materials, purchasing them from movie auctions and incorporating them in my work.

I’m interested in the technical processes behind the visual effects like prosthetics or make-up that are used to simulate bodily sensations or to transfer ethereal instances of emotion onto the screen. My recent body of work utilizes special effects materials that are commonly employed in the representation of pain or injury upon the screen. I worked with a special effects studio to reverse engineer the bruises that appear on characters in Blade Runner and Elysium, then placed them inside of transparent screens which exposed the “bone structure” of the television mounting systems behind them. Other pieces in the series feature multiples of skin prosthetics leftover from gory scenes in various horror movies. When extracted from that context they become beautiful and fragile abstractions of pain which expose the physicality of their cinematic illusion. These screen works each have view control filters (optical louver films) that cause them to change in appearance as the viewer walks around them in a physical space. Some “fade out” to black, others create a motion blur or chromatic aberration—all accomplished through analog optical techniques. In effect, the position of the viewer’s body in space plays or rewinds a digitalistic film transition to the work. I am hoping to integrate new advancements coming from 7D cinema and gaming—including haptic sound, motion control, tactile qualities/vibrations and olfactory elements—in order to further merge the viewer’s body with the piece.

An interesting thing about the bodies and effects active in cinematic space today is that as filmmaking has shifted from analog to digital over the last 20 years, production no longer takes place only on the surface of the image but also under its digital skin. As we understand the body as a product of encoded genetic information, we begin to understand images as digital files—mosaic arrangements (pixels) extrapolated from binary code. What has been happening in biotech and genetic engineering is then in some way parallel to the changes that digital postproduction brought to film—it’s not only that the surface of film is being affected, but that its DNA is being restructured through digital manipulation, CGI, motion capture performances and software-assisted effects. Postproduction extends before and after on a timeline, actually blurring the time of actual production—similar to the shift in post-Fordist societies from a specified time of production to flexible working hours and freelance lifestyles blurring the lines of work and leisure, as we actually work all the time now without even noticing it.

SHEN GOODMAN Labor and entertainment are also at the heart of your “Action Paintings” series (2014), right?

BUDOR For the “Action Paintings, I hired Helga again, this time to act as my stunt and body double in a series of three videos that produced indexical prop paintings. Each of the videos resembles the choreography and scenery of a blockbuster film—specifically The Hunger Games, Mission Impossible and The Bourne Supremacy—as does their respective color treatment and editing.

Throughout the videos, the stunt double and the main actor switch roles and bodies, constantly alternating between main actor and extra. In the videos Helga performs her “job”: action stunts such as falling down the hill, being hit by a car or being chased through forest, in abstracted takes on action-genre scenarios that constantly oscillate between immersing you in the situation and pulling you out. Scenes are being repeated ad nauseam, forcing viewers to think about scene construction and simulation. Helga carries a “blank” object—a newly stretched canvas—in each movie that could be a shield, weapon or stolen good. It’s inevitably marked by her activities, indexically documenting all her falls, cuts and other destructive actions. In the physical installment the prop canvases are sculpturally attached to screens, turning them to screen surfaces which become at the same time documents of their creation, or “making-of” videos.

SHEN GOODMAN That making-of aspect is really appealing. It’s funny, because in the art world people are often oohing and aahing over a secondhand spectacle aping contemporary production values as developed by these massive tech and entertainment corporations-be it a particular facility with Photoshop (that might never approach the level of someone like Pascal Dangin), or Jordan Wolfson’s recent animatronic piece at Zwirner, which seems to speak much more of the skills of Spectral Motion, the special effects and animatronics laboratory that produced it, than the artist’s. It seems that, at least on the level of the sensory and the spectacle, art is somewhat behind the corporate model of aesthetics, if only because artists don’t quite have the money to pull some sort of James Cameron-esque maneuver.

BUDOR Artists are double agents, having a need to partake in the economy but also feeling aversion to it taking control. Most commonly the level of skill becomes the actual source of power, because if we want to take part in these economies or criticize them, production techniques become the language that we use to create meaning, and to actualize our distorted forms of dominant visual media. For me, it becomes compelling to produce works that aren’t “about” something, but rather that are things, which transparently employ the actual apparatus behind the spectacle.

For me it is more interesting looking at those things at their source, where they grow and belong, and when using them in artwork being aware of complex politics and the meanings they transverse. To be quite sincere about it, I find it almost equally intriguing, if not more so, going to cinema and watching Catching Fire with other people than going to see a show at a museum. Such movies are part of our contemporary digital, post-cinematic “media ecology,” where they are dispersed as digital codes, constantly modulated and simulated, branding our most “inner” experiences. We can’t look at them simply as signs nor images any more, as they are no longer representational singular instances, but clusters of relations. They are not something “outside” of us, they become us, and if you don’t “remember who the real enemy is,” to quote The Hunger Games, it is difficult to position yourself towards it.