In her work with both still and moving images, Sara Cwynar examines the ways in which our lives are mediated through whizzing image circulation and the reproduction of cut-up and reassembled images. As she puts it, “We built an idealized image world on top of the real world and we live in it.” Cwynar’s Red Film (2018)—the third film in a trilogy with Soft Film (2016) and Rose Gold (2017)—considers the consumerism that permeates our lives through the process of studio staging, bridging analog nostalgia with our contemporary economy of endless choice. All three films, as well as Sara’s multilayered photographs, are explored in annotated transcripts, texts, and vivid images in her extraordinary new book Sara Cwynar: Glass Life. Recently Sara and I spoke about Red Film, in which the viewer is confronted with cosmetics, cars, and art in a production line of beauty and desire.
Join us for other screenings in the Hyundai Card Video Views series, which considers artists’ engagement with a technology that has become central to our daily lives.
–Lucy Gallun, Associate Curator, Department of Photography
Lucy Gallun: In Red Film there’s a prevalence of red—in cosmetics, in a car, and also in art—but the references to the color are more complicated. Can you talk about some of the connections between red and consumer objects, or with capitalism in a larger sense?
Sara Cwynar: The use of red as a connector actually came about halfway through editing the film. At first, I was just trying to get this crazy wash of signifiers and images and language, and recreate a feeling of being stuck in a world of options and choices and things to buy and things to look at.
And then I decided that it needed a structuring conceit of some sort, and so I started pulling out the red as a visual connector. I was thinking about it more in terms of how we can’t know whether what we’re looking at is true. Does one person’s “red” look the same to another person?
And then I began trying to connect the arbitrariness of color—how color gets translated through commodities, and how color fades and changes over time—with ideas of value, and how the things that we decide are suddenly valuable are fickle and changeable. And I realized that a lot of things that seem solid, like the color red, which seemingly is always the same and is easily recognizable, actually contain a lot more meaning and potential for change than one might immediately think. So red became a visually seductive and pleasing way to talk about heavier philosophical ideas.
Sara Cwynar. Still from Red Film. 2018
The film includes dancers who sometimes appear together or in distinct roles. They flow through the space, and they also help sequence the film. How do you see their relationship to the pacing and to some of the other elements, like the objects?
The dancers were supposed to be the main part of the film, and then in the end I felt that you got more of a sense of what I was trying to talk about by having these bodies occasionally punctuate the objects in the image world. I was thinking about how a body shoots you right into a sense of scale; how when we see an actual person we suddenly know where we are.
The dancers appear infrequently because they’re meant to take the whole thing into the realm of the real world. But part of the point is that all the worlds are real, and the digital world has become just as much our world as anyplace else.
You yourself appear in this work. Your face turns purple as you hang upside down while addressing the camera. As viewers, we witness your discomfort, watching the literal pressure building up inside your head. In employing this sensation, and in the inclusion of your body and your voice as narrator in this film and others, are you in some way recounting personal experience?
A lot of the film is about the idea that we think we can know something about inside character by looking at the outside. And about some age-old connection between beauty and truth that we just apply to people without having any basis for that connection. And the film is also sort of about the norms and standards as they get applied to real people, and how these norms come to us as images and as pieces of information through news and social media and all of the other media we consume. This is presented as a freedom but becomes more of an obligation to subscribe to certain norms of beauty and of buying and of who we’re told we're supposed to be under capitalism.
In the more personal parts of the film I’m talking about how crushing it can feel to have so much choice, and to have so many versions of who you could be presented to you every day. And how we reproduce ourselves over and over again in this obligatory way on Instagram and other social media. I didn’t feel like I could do this with anyone but myself. Given that I could speak upside down for only about 30 seconds without it becoming quite painful, I wanted to convey a sense that everything is unsustainable. So yeah, there’s something in there that I think just comes through.
Sara Cwynar. Still from Red Film. 2018
You composed the script in part through cut-up pieces of appropriated quotations, an approach you’ve described before as “regurgitation.” This way of using language feels akin to the way that you deal with images.
I’ve described this in the past as language being reproduced like objects in a factory. It goes back to the theme of the film, which is a feeling of endless choice that’s actually just a predetermined set of choices that capitalism and the powers that be have structured for us to choose from.
Language falls into these categories, too, and even theory can become kitsch. So I’m using a lot of theory that tries to distill the world down into snippets of things that can be understood and handed over to someone else. And I think that this is kind of a market, too, and kind of how images function.
One of my main goals in life is to make theory accessible and to talk about it. Not out of some crusade to make people understand theory, but just because I think there’s so much there that doesn’t need to be said in the complicated ways that it gets said, which is part of the obscuring way that theory—like art or commodities—makes itself seem important. So the film is also trying to talk about these things in an easily digestible way.
Sara Cwynar. Still from Red Film. 2018
Speaking of art, in this film you bring in not just cosmetics and other consumer objects, but also fine art. Through inclusion of art reproductions or Cézanne-branded cosmetics, for example, we are confronted with the idea that Western fine art history has informed a sense of “value.” Is this an ongoing cycle, one in which we are all participating in, even now in this conversation?
John Berger was already complaining about this in the 1970s. In Ways of Seeing there’s a whole chapter about how the markers of fine art get recycled and used as advertising, or are used to confer importance to a watch or, I don’t know, a toothbrush. In many ways, none of this has changed. I think it’s just become even more intense. I mean, more intense, and, in a nice way, more democratic: today the markers of value swirl around and attach to different things and anyone can use them.
On Instagram or in a Google image search, everything gets equalized. And in Red Film, I’m touching a Rubens painting which is worth a lot of money, and just trying to bring it down to my level. I made an earlier film, Soft Film, that used stuff from eBay and was kind of trying to talk about how something could seem so important to one person and mean nothing to another, and how value gets arbitrarily decided upon in that world. I think the same could be applied to fine art.
For example, on eBay I found a jewelry box from a brand of fake gold jewelry from the 1970s and 1980s called Cézanne. I think it still exists, and in trying to find more of it, I found the makeup line. It’s pretty obvious how using the name of a famous French painter to sell makeup fits into the themes of the film, but I was just so delighted to find it.
On June 17, join artist Sara Cwynar and curator Lucy Gallun for an online conversation about Cwynar’s new book Glass Life.
Media and Performance at MoMA is made possible by Hyundai Card.
Major support is provided by the Jill and Peter Kraus Endowed Fund for Contemporary Exhibitions.
Generous funding is provided by the Lonti Ebers Endowment for Performance and the Sarah Arison Fund for Performance.