ANIMAL’s feature Artist’s Notebook asks artists to show us their original “idea sketch” next to a finished piece. This week, London artist Jesse Darling talks about feeling, talking, and making the Superhero Series.

This starts with a conversation and ends with a prototype. The process is continuous. All my ‘concepts’ come about as a way of thinking through stuff I’ve experienced: if you feel something, do something – and think later. I have to remind myself sometimes, as I slowly get educated, not to ask myself what I’m doing until I’m done, whereupon I can project all kinds of agendas into my own work and extrapolate a whole narrative and then act like I came up with it in the first place. The unconscious body is smart and acts out its inescapable traumas whether you like it or not, so the best you can do is just set up the conditions for something to happen and trust that it will.

This work is a few years old now but I’m putting it here because I feel like I’m returning to these ways of working. All texts & image macros come from my notes, stuff I was reading at the time. The conversation was with my friend Anna Zett, an artist with a very different kind of process, and she was going to make a movie with greenscreen and wanted me to be in it. I guess we were both feeling like we needed some kind of superpower to survive what we were each going through at the time. Like so much else, this conversation is undocumented and should remain that way.

Basics of superhero drag: cape; undergarments as clothing; ability to travel without feet touching ground. Capes aren’t shit without a cool headwind so we bought an electric fan to keep us buoyant. Our costumes basically consisted of roller skates and colored duct tape and dudes’ undergarments and cheap pink silk. In front of the greenscreen we just made stuff up, directing each other. For me, watching the footage, it was like we’d been channeling the archetypal clown duo – the straight man and the slapstick sidekick. The electric fan became a third figure or stooge: Anna’s character was like the Little Prince in love with the flower, and I was on some clash of the titans medusa sea monster fight to the death shit. We agreed that the footage was our common property, so Anna made her movie and I made mine.

Superhere [excerpt], animated gif

Our superheroes were these trashy hypermodern queer figures occupying a space between earth and heaven, between genders and worlds, and the greenscreen became a symbol of this eternal virtual suspended present.  Like superheroes are all waiting for a city to be projected behind them in postproduction and give meaning to their flying drag, but in our case we were just hanging around in optimistic limbo or aimless futurity. Plus it looked really good to me, that acid green. My movie was a two-channel projection called Superhere: like an accelerated dasein, but also over and above the here and now.

digital sketch for an installation

I was thinking about superheroes: mutant hybrids whose defect is their superpower. I started thinking about Superman and Wonder Woman and how they serve the empire. How Batman is basically just a rich neurotic cop. And I thought maybe the superhero is like the ideal worker/soldier for the age of militarized postindustrial globalization or whatever, like anyone could be a superhero if willing to bear the heavy responsibility of their own weaponized alterity. A heavy burden, too: superheroes all seem to be pretty unhappy people despite having superpowers and the keys to the city. Maybe it was because of our respective sorrows and feelings of powerlessness that we were drawn to superheroes in the first place.

Digital collage/notes/installation shot, Superhero Series

I was thinking about the conflation of apocalyptic rhetoric, imperialism, industrialization, violence, complicity. I’m always thinking about that stuff but I don’t have words for it except the words themselves and objects that stand in for what they represent.

I made Superhero Machine – a protoype for an installation in which several of these might stand together like a crowd of caped ghosts. The thing ended up looking like a BDSM rig, with a metal headpiece and chinstrap on a chain and two big wooden rings like Olympic kit from the Riefenstahl days. The fan was a big powerful chrome thing on a plinth built to look like a Southern Baptist lectern, or something that POTUS might use. It looked like Fordism incarnate; it looked like the American dream. Without which, after all, we would have no superheroes. I’m afraid there are no high-res images of the installation as it was intended to look, but someone took a pic as I was trying out the ergonomics of the thing. You’ll have to imagine the rest.

Superhere, Jesse Darling (excerpt)

Superhero Machine [prototype], installation shot

Previous Artist’s Notebook selects:

Artist’s Notebook: Tristan Perich
Artist’s Notebook: LaTurbo Avedon
Artist’s Notebook: Emilie Gervais
Artist’s Notebook: Faith Holland
Artist’s Notebook: Nate Hill
Artist’s Notebook: Jennifer Catron and Paul Outlaw
Artist’s Notebook: Angela Washko
Artist’s Notebook: ULTRAFUTURO