Laurie O’Brien is a visual artist, teacher, and culture maker. She has just launched in Bushwick her Peephole cinema project , a free public cinema showing short, experimental silent films 24/7, through a dime-sized peephole. In this interview with Art Spiel O’Brien talks about her experience as an artist and educator, her love of animation, and the story behind her project.
AS: In July 27th your Peephole Cinema project launced in Brooklyn. Tell me about the genesis of this project.
Laurie O’Brien: I started this project in San Francisco in 2013 as way to expose and support experimental animators and bring something unexpected to my old neighborhood ––The Mission––where artist and galleries were and still are quickly disappearing. San Francisco has changed and there are so many free and strange projects that are now gone. As an animator myself, I was disappointed that the only people attending and being exposed to short experimental films were those attending film festivals and the audience members were all animators. I am inspired by alternative galleries and untraditional ways of looking at film. I love the unexpected, strange, and delightful.
Since I no longer live in San Francisco, I formed a collective who could help me keep the cinema going. It has been playing non-stop since 2013. My San Francisco collaborator, Sarah Klein, does a great job of curating new filmmakers and works with local projects and guest curators. She keeps the project serious and I am so grateful to her.
There is also a Peephole Cinema installed in Los Angeles behind Automata, a gallery that I have deep ties with. Automata has a particular interest in “intimate viewing situations” – a perfect fit for the second installation of the Peephole Cinema Los Angeles in 2014 which has been also playing non-stop.
AS: Can you elaborate on the featured films?
Laurie O’Brien: The three short films that are playing right now in Brooklyn feature work that explores digital representations of the female and gender queer body. The filmmakers’ hybrid selves are depicted through transfiguration, repetition, and the relocation of body parts.
All three films transcend a singular and unified self in very different ways. They explore a pervasive paradigm shift our era that questions the limits of a cohesive and fixed identity and human body.
By viewing these films through a peephole in a public space, we are confronted directly with tensions around the gaze, public and private, authorized viewing, intrusion and voyeurism.
I have a background and fascination with stop-motion animation and experimental puppet performance and so dislocated bodies, multiple selves, and the uncanny has always been a personal interest of mine. The filmmakers all approach the digital body in very different ways but in all the films, the body is being transformed and is central to all their work. To me, this topic is one of the most sociologically and artistically radical and interesting transformations of our era––all the more so when you view the film through a public peephole.
AS: Tell me a bit about your curatorial process.
Laurie O’Brien: I am primarily an artist and the curatorial aspect of the project is always a little uncomfortable for me. Though I will curate the first show, I prefer to choose “guest curators” that will change every two months for the next 3 years. Giving the curatorial choices to someone else has been really rewarding. I have been exposed to films and filmmakers that I never would have found myself – the project is more inclusive and reaches a wider and more diverse audience.
I have three rules for the guest programmers: the films must be under 1 minute and silent; they must not promote some larger project (stand alone as short films); and they must work as non-narrative. This tends to attract a lot of experimental film and animation, which is my particular love.
AS: Peephole Cinema brings a unique viewing experience in a public domain. What would you like viewers to take away from this experience?
Laurie O’Brien: First, I love it when the everyday person discovers the Peephole Cinema as they happen to be walking by on the street. They see a glow, they inspect, and are rewarded with a short film. Many people don’t have the patience to view the films through a peephole. To some, it may feel uncomfortable or vulnerable to view the films this way and so I ask the viewer to think about this feeling and how it relates to the films – our impatience, our judgments, and especially our voyeurism.
My hope is that the audience is confronted directly with tensions around the gaze -public and private, authorized viewing, feelings of intrusion and voyeurism. The very first movie theaters, kinetoscope parlors, were essentially a series of Peepole Cinemas. The popularity of movie theaters confirmed a communal viewing preference but now we are back to the solitary viewing of video on our phones and computer screens. This is interesting to think about in terms of how are we viewing moving media now?
I always appreciate it when people tag us on Instagram –that is the only way that I know the project is appreciated.
AS: Let’s go back to you. Tell me a bit about your background and some influential experiences in your art journey
Laurie O’Brien: I have lived in New York for 10 years and in Bushwick for the last 6 years.
My serious art journey started at my graduate school, CalArts. It was magical, collaborative, playful and rigourous. I was primarily making small video installations, puppet performance and stop-motion animation. It was there that I began to collaborate with others and curate shows as part of my art practice- making work with alternative and precinematic viewing devices like dioramas and small video installations. I was also introduced and became influenced by pataphysics, the science of imaginary solutions, at CalArts. For example, I was raised on the magic of two Los Angeles projects: the Museum of Jurassic Technology and the Machine Project—two indescribable projects started by CalArts alums –with a particular sensibility that is hard to find in NYC.
AS: What is Pataphysics and how does it enter your work?
Laurie O’Brien: From Wikipedia “pataphysics as an idea that the virtual or imaginary nature of things as glimpsed by the heightened vision of [art] poetry or science or love can be seized and lived as real.”
I am deeply interested in the confusion of the imaginary and the real, imaginary worlds, the suspension of disbelief, puppets, and deception in contemporary art and conversations.
AS: In our recent conversation you mentioned a question that influenced you greatly. If I recall correctly it was related to your generosity as an artist. Can you phrase that for me and elaborate on what that meant to you?
Laurie O’Brien: In my 20’s I found and adopted a father who helped me financially and artistically. I told him one day “You have helped me so much, how will I ever repay you?” He told me, “to repay your debt, one day when you are my age, you must help young people like I helped you. You have a debt to the world.” Those words really hit me. They were definitely a gift. That is probably why I am an educator.
I think that there must be a path toward generosity as people age. I believe that children offer that path for many. They require selfless giving which is so good for people. If you are (or plan to be) child-free– like me–I think you must find a way to give or you get a little loopy as you age.
AS: How do you see “generosity” in art making context?
Laurie O’Brien: Although commonly thought of as selfish, artists are set-up for this kind path of generosity. I try to be attached to the act of making and giving and not to the results. I was influenced by a book, The Gift by Lewis Hyde, that reframed the concept of art exchange by his investigation of the gift exchange system of Native Americans and how different it is from the western/colonizer perspective. That is what we artists are all doing—we are making but we are also exchanging. That word “exchange” can mean so many things and it does not have to follow a traditional monetary exchange.
I am not sure that I succeed in my generosity ideals but I am always trying to reframe how I think about art. What can I give? I do see Peephole Cinema is a generous project—it is free, it is available to all 24/7, it is democratic art. But I am not a socialist and not always generous—in other parts of my life I find myself being fiercely capitalistic and selfish.
AS: You are an artist yourself, working with video, installation, performance and animation. Tell me a bit about your animations. Let’s take Eurydice for example – what gets you started? process? narrative?
Laurie O’Brien: I have a love of the tangible and hand-made and so my creative process almost always starts with cutouts, collage and arranging on paper. Eurydice started as a series of paper collages that was prompted by the writing of others. I was teaching a Photography Graduate class at RIT about collaboration. I organized for this class an exchange with Playwriting Grad Students at Brown and I also participated in the exchange with the professor and a long-time collaborator, Eric Ehn. Via Snail Mail, the Brown folks sent us words/stories and we made images from them. At the same time, we sent them images and they wrote stories that were prompted by the photos. Eric Ehn’s writing inspired me to make several collages which later evolved into an animation.
AS: Can you tell me more about your animation technique?
The source of all I do often starts with non-digital mediums. I work with both stop-motion, digital animation and video. I use After Effects to bring it all together. More recently, I have been working with very short content and GIFs.
AS: You are a full time art educator. Does teaching feed your art and art projects – if so, in what ways?
Laurie O’Brien: Teaching is the only job that I have ever had that does not take from my creative “well” but instead gives to my creative well. My students are a huge influence—they keep me on my toes. I teach in a large photography school, RIT, so my specialty, moving media, is often not initially the main focus of their work. Photography is no longer defined as still images. They get to explore the “everything else” that lens-based work could possibly be – students approach me with crazy ideas and new technology. I feel so lucky to get to explore all of this with them and also for myself.
Besides, my students are experts in things that I am not, they are extremely technically saavy and so I am constantly trying to keep up and keep ahead. For instance, Sam Cannon, one of the artists that I am showing right now at the Peephole Cinema Brooklyn, was a former student of mine who ended up focusing on very short films instead of still photography and she is doing so well with her niche.
Socially, many of my students are questioning their identity, a topic that strongly interests me. They are breaking the traditions of how we define and categorize sexuality and gender -this influences their art, my art, everything. I don’t think that I would be exposed to this so thoroughly if I wasn’t an educator.
My students challenge me technically, culturally and creatively. Sometime I fumble and that is okay.
AS: What’s in the working for you?
Laurie O’Brien: I am making a several stop-motion experimental narrative films. I am coming back to the stop-motion after doing digital work for years. Conceptually, I am interested in dual identites, alternate worlds, exchange, and deception. I am also working on very small video installations, video dioramas and tiny holographs. I often use peepholes and small viewing devices in my own work.
I am transfroming my studio, which is currently behind the Peephole Cinema, into a sort of “Peephole Gallery” with small art viewed through small openings in the walls. I am also working on a secret collaboration and my studio will transform into a project space open to the public in about a year.
Peephole Cinema Brooklyn a free public cinema showing short, experimental
silent films 24/7, through a dime-sized peephole in Bushwick.
Located at 97 Wilson Ave. (between Troutman & Starr)
Films will change every two months for three years.
You can view the films anytime day or night.
Filmmakers who re-materialize the body
Curated by Laurie O’Brien
July 27– August 31, 2018
More information about the project and films at peepholecinema.com
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Instagram @peepholecinemas #peepholecinema
Funded in part by a grant from SPACE