VDB Asks... Animal Charm

Emily Eddy
animal charm

Animal Charm is the collaborative project of Richard Bott and Jim Fetterley, sound and media artists. Assuming a deconstructive take on propriety, Animal Charm began creating videos as an act of Electronic Civil Disobedience. Diving the dumpsters of video production companies and scrounging through countless hours of industrial, documentary, and corporate video footage, Animal Charm often edits the tapes in live mix performances. By re-editing images derived from a wide variety of sources, they scramble media codes, creating a kind of convulsive babble that disrupts conventional forms with subversive messages.
1. Can you tell us something about your background?
RB: I was born in Kentucky but mainly grew up in Florida near the Everglades in the 1980s. My exposure to something like art was magazines like Thrasher and Maximumrocknroll. Also the art on the punk and hardcore albums I was into, like Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, and the like. I dropped out of High School in 1988, then was in Job Core in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky (graphic novel forthcoming), then went to the Early College Program at SAIC in the summer of 1989. That is where I met my Animal Charm Artner, Jim Fetterley. We were 16/17-years old, living in the Herman Crown Center in the Loop. I went home to Arkansas where my parents had bought a RV park in the Ozarks and proceeded to make my whole portfolio that winter, drove up to Chicago and got admitted, and started art school the next year at 17-years old. Went to art school. Went to Europe. Came back and started Animal Charm with Jim after being so inspired by what was going on in sample-based and computer music in the early 1990s. 
JF: I was born and raised in Rockford, Illinois by my single mother who spent her days cleaning houses and her nights bartending. My Aunt lived with us as I was growing up so it felt like I was raised by two moms, but it was more like living with Marge Simpson’s two older sisters, Patty and Selma. Kids in the neighborhood thought my mom and aunt were a couple, and they weren't, but I would make it more complicated by replying, “but that’s not possible — only my aunt is gay!”
2. What inspired you to become an artist? To use video?
RB: I always could draw and recombine things that did not belong together. That was always my humor before I knew anything about high art, or anything more contemporary than Van Gogh. It was punk and experimental music first, along with drawing. My first day at SAIC I was early and wandering the halls. A woman in the elevator said “first day?" She ran the Video Data Bank at the time. She said, “come with me”, and sat me down in a room with tapes (this was 1991). She hooked me up with Survival Research Labs, Ant Farm, William Wegman, and Vito Acconci vids. It flipped me. I was on the video/film wavelength right away. Maybe a little more film at first; Tom Palazzolo was an amazing film mentor at the school back then, and still to this day I thank him for his guidance. 
JF: I had a 7th grade art teacher, Mr. Swanson, who showed our class Salvador Dalí and other surrealist paintings and the images just all went so well with becoming a teenager, I thought — I want to do that! To use video! I specifically remember the first night I scanned our TV tuner and it landed on a new cable channel, MTV. The music video that was playing was Men at Work Who Can It Be Now. I watched for hours, and soon started inviting friends over to watch this new channel with me. Many music videos often had a garage surrealist sensibility, and it also made being a teen more tolerable. By the time I ended up at art school, I wasn’t watching MTV so often, but the art films that were being shown and taught all looked vaguely familiar, at least in style. Learning that the film and video art that I was being introduced to was directly related to and bastardized by many of the music videos I’d devoured on MTV and Night Flight a few years earlier made making art with video all the more accessible and natural.
3. Did you have formal art training/schooling?
RB: Yes, I attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, class of 1994, and that included an exchange program at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam 1993-94. Many moons later I attended University of California San Diego to receive my MFA in 2010.
JF: My favorite classes from junior high onward were art classes, mostly painting and drawing. I attended SAIC in the late late 1980s/ early 90s. I went for painting and drawing — and still paint and draw for fun — but for training, we didn’t have to declare a major, and I spent most of my time in experimental film and video art classes. It was not so much formal art training as much as it was how to experiment and think critically about art and culture. There was a small Art & Technology department with interactive media classes, access to HyperCard, and rumors of a utopian networked technology that would soon make all our global village video dreams come true!
4. How do you balance life and art? Are you able to make a living through creating art?
RB: I have always had to do some kind of day job or work alongside my art production. My first two jobs after graduating SAIC were driving a tourist trolley around downtown, and selling futons in Greektown. In the mid '90s I worked at a local internet service provider; this was a job that I actually learned something in, and I try to have that balance now as well. I had the pleasure of teaching video art classes at University of Southern California in 2017, and I'm thinking about taking up more of that in the future.
JF: No, not entirely, not even close, but yes — if I redefine what making a living means. I learned pretty quickly that making money by creating the kind of art I was interested in was not going to be easy or even possible for me. Creating art and earning something other than money has been my experience. What that something other is, is harder to define, maybe it’s an ethos, or a social wealth that I have earned, I don’t really know… it’s definitely not measured in dollars and cents. I was initially drawn to the history of video art and really liked the early idea that certain video artworks are not meant to be commodified — it was to be used as an infinitely reproducible medium to deconstruct and complicate the art market. Art and the culture of money surrounding it never made me feel comfortable. I had a major problem with the cla$$ I came from, filled with embarrassment; it was so different to the excesses and wealth that I was exposed to by coming to Chicago and going to art school. I was jealous, I felt inadequate, and I concluded that there was no way to compete with students that came from backgrounds where money was not a problem. It was all so confusing and overwhelming at first, but I was eventually exposed to art and video works that spoke to all these issues of class and culture. I found the Video Department to be the most interesting place to learn. I looked at the technical skills that I was learning there as a way to possibly make a living. Money, or not having any, was an obsession of mine while going to school. Filling out the financial aid paperwork and learning that the cost to go to school for one semester was more than what my mother earned in a whole year was a complete shock and instant lesson in cognitive dissonance. My final undergrad project involved printing out clip art onto bounced check statements that I had collected with the same passion others reserve for collecting art, comics or vinyl. Starting in my second year at SAIC, I was an intern at Kartmequin Films and went to work full-time with them once I was done with school. Learning about their particular history and involvement in art and activism in Chicago was well timed with my disillusionment with art school. I have since always had to balance working a full-time job with creating art on the side, or during working hours, but always felt like searching for work that allowed me to be involved in the film or art communities of my choice. I currently work as a the Museum and Theater Technical Director at the Hammer Museum. I have a little bit more of a complex understanding of class as it relates to art now, but still haven’t found a way to work full-time in the studio only creating art to make money.
5. What influences or motivates you in the world?
RB: Waveforms, Mystical powers, Enigmas. Something larger than human schemes and plans. Also just seeing something new. That conjuring that occurs with part chance operation and part radical subjectivity.  
JF: The unknown or the impossible to comprehend is a huge motivator for me recently. Nature only makes sense if you accept all of these other assumptions about reality – but the more I think about nature or reality, I realize I do not quite understand that either. I like to think I am motivated by all that there is out there to learn. I recently took a workshop with Jonas Bers on how to build a Cheap, Hacky, Audio/ Video (CHA/V) synthesizer for under $10 bucks — it was really inspirational and taught from the histories of Dan Sandin’s open source Image Processor, and its "Distribution Religion." It was also taught in the context of the Videofreex and the communities that carry that same video torch today, like Signal Culture and the venue the workshop was held at in LA, Coaxial. I also attended a film projection workshop hosted by AMIA, the Association of Motion Image Archivists — nuts and bolts basics about film projection and being a good steward for a finite amount of celluloid film prints, and the best practice for handling and projecting them. Most of my recent motives have also been filtered through the responsibility of caregiving for my mother for the past seven years. Caregiving is really a lot about becoming comfortable with various states of waiting and preparing for something bad to happen. This crisis management and coordination of the chaos involved in navigating and facilitating her healthcare has become quite helpful in my own understanding of my own place in the world, and what to look forward to or dread about the possibility of living a long full life. Better start saving NOW~
6. What artists or movements are you following right now?
RB: Hmm this is hard. I have seen and read so much over the years I feel sometimes I should just stop and really try to ingest or understand what I have already been exposed to. So I could put here some long list of things that have already influenced me. I honestly have a hard time following contemporary art because it seems the whole art “world” is so self-referential and producing the same variants over and over. There is nothing really to follow. It’s almost like, “what Instagram accounts to you follow?" I don’t even know anymore. I can’t remember much from the constant flow of similar placeholders flying by. 
JF: I was really touched by the performance I saw Jonas Bers give at Coaxial after the CHA/V workshop he taught. I am trying to follow up on seeing more works by the makers of what I saw at Young Projects, like the collaboration, AES+F. Their 3-channel video installation The Last Riot from 2005-07 has now generated into multiple iterations, including a 32-channel video installation of the same name — it’s all extremely timely with the activity and persecution of Pussy Riot and other artists’ political actions in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
7. What was the last exhibition you saw?
RB: Made in L.A. 2018 at the Hammer Museum, Philip Rich : Drawings 1965–67 at the as-is.la Gallery.
JF: I went to Young Projects in Los Angeles to see Sredstvo Kool (Medium Cool): Contemporary Video Work from Russia.
8. What has been the best screening experience of your work?
RB: Back in the early 2000s, it was a screening/ performance for Craig Baldwin’s Other Cinema at Artist Television Access in San Francisco. We were doing a live set of video mixing, singing, costume wearing and all kinds of debauchery. We kept blowing the power, and we had all kinds of video cords running above the audience from the projection booth to our gear down on the floor with the audience. It was chaos but hilarious, and so much understanding of the space and the people in it — like a family taking the piss out of each other and loving each other at the same time — in the middle of a bundle of cables, Old Milwaukee, and squawking images and sounds. 
JF: Animal Charm had an opportunity to play live at a midnight screening at REDCAT when it first opened in 2003, and I remember really enjoying this. Steve Kurtz Waiting played as part of Paul Chan’s programmed series Charged in the Name of Terror at Sundance and that was exciting, especially when Paul directly addressed any potential FBI agents that he believed were undercover in the audience.
9. What are you working on right now?
RB: I just had a daughter (her name is Mabel), so I have been working on that for the last 5 months. Also Animal Charm is currently working on a music video for the comedian Eric Andre’s music project BLARF. It’s cut-up sample-based music, so we are sourcing VHS, YouTube, etc., and making video collage pieces for two songs on the LP. 
JF: I have taken an interest in building DIY kits of a couple video synthesizers for live visual music — like the CHA/V or the 3TrinsRGB1+C by Gijs Geiskes. For me, soldering and testing analog video circuits is soothing and relaxing and something I can do at the kitchen table — no real project goals yet, but it’s a process that’s satisfying in the moment. I am always trying to list and follow up on documentary Ideas I want to follow through with — on subjects I haven’t heard much about, don’t quite understand, haven’t been covered in a way I’d like to see, or are personally affecting me. The San Fernando Valley has a relatively unknown problem of a serious feral cat infestation and I currently live in the shock of discovering our neighborhood is under siege of cat feeders vs. those that view them as pests — like 10-pound furry roaches. Also, I have been trying to makes sense of this whole “Less Wrong” movement, that I can’t quite wrap my head around — or find good journalism about — but it’s growing, and comes up in conversation more and more often recently. It’s usually when I encounter that feeling of “what’s that?” and then can’t find any good info, I take note as a potential documentary subject. I will then usually try to combine all the above interests into a kluged project: Image Processed Feral Cat Videos Documenting my naïve understanding of Rationality and Artificial Intelligence — all presented as a confounding Expanded Media experiment. Animal Charm is doing a music video for comedian Eric Andre’s music project, BLARF, the album is appropriately called Cease and Desist. Keep an eye out, distributed by Stones Throw this fall — it should be released and served cease and desist papers soon — no samples of audio or video were cleared.
10. How do you start a piece? How do you know when a work is complete?
RB: Over the years we have developed a couple different types of work, so I will outline each. In the early years, we were making mainly single channel works. This was 1996, and nonlinear editing had just been introduced, at least to us, via Jim’s job at Kartemquin Films. So we would load up a hard drive with clips of audio and video from VHS tapes from the thrift store and library, then start assembling them much like you would a physical thing on the timeline. Keep in mind this was a brand new ability, and one we had done with just audio programs prior. But this ability to cut footage and copy-paste, re-arrange, and shuffle was mind blowing. So we would do a session all night, and when the sun came up lay off a master to VHS. So these pieces were really a kind of associative chance operation at first (we were big on John Cage). Then the thing would start to take its own form. 
JF: Please see above answer. I never really know when a work is complete; it’s usually a race between an absolute DEADLINE, or my loss of interest in pursuing it any further occurs.
11. What are you currently reading? Watching?
RB: Reading: I have been letting the Goodwill bookstore determine some of my reading. Found some titles there by Jack Kerouac, Kurt Vonnegut, and Phillip K. Dick. Also reading Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations. I also read something daily from Zen Flesh Zen Bones. Watching: I just watched a 4k remaster of Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie at the Egyptian Theater here in LA, that was pretty epic. Also re-watched Jaws the other night; it had been 38 years since I saw it last. That was an interesting experience. The first time was on ABC’s Saturday Night Movie, probably in 1980, when I was 8-years old, on a cathode tube television set. This time was on my laptop on Amazon Prime in 2018 when I was 46-years old. 
JF: I am currently reading You Can’t Win, an autobiography by burglar and hobo, Jack Black. Also, just picked up a book recommended at the projection workshop called Seeing the Light: Optics in Nature, Photography, Color, Vision, and Holography. I am about to start re-watching the season 1 of the BBC4 black comedy series Flowers in order to prep for watching season 2 soon. I am also watching the new Kartemquin series on STARZ, America To Me. I like finding “four-walled” cinema screenings around town, where the filmmaker pays to have their film distributed in a limited run, at a single screen where they usually can’t find any distribution. Some serious surprises come from this type of random viewing; Papa and Surfer: Teen Confronts Fear are two of my favorites of this non-genre specific screening genre. Speaking of genre — Beyond Fest is coming up and it’s perfect for the Halloween season.
12. Room for final thoughts:
RB: Will art ever live outside the confines of mediated careful ego-based choices again? Are people going to liberate themselves or entrench themselves deeper into narcissistic self-obsession? I think these broader cultural concerns affect the art being created and promoted. Even broader stroke — will we ever reach a non-sustainable place where electricity can’t even power these art video, film, light-based work?
JF: Thanks for reading!