Artist’s Notebook:
Rhett Jones

April 14, 2014 | Marina Galperina

ANIMAL’s feature Artist’s Notebook asks artists to show us their original “idea sketch” next to a finished artwork or project. This week, Brooklyn-based artist Rhett Jones talks about his feature film The Villains inspired by Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise, Marshall McLuhan and the proliferation of DIY new media. He also premieres the project’s next stage as a Search Engine Generated Artwork that supplements unique sequences of found footage throughout the film, each time you watch it online.

The Villains is theft. At least, that’s what many would say. It’s a film that pastes together a mass of culture and takes its cue from the ways we circulate media, without regard for attribution. I wanted to make a film with characters that were like the people I knew, and to address the political changes occurring due to the ongoing proliferation of DIY media and tech.

The Villains; La Chinoise

The first “theft” was a structure; an homage to… an adaptation of… Whatever you want to call it. I like to call it “a jumping-off point.” Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise was my jumping off point. It’s about a group of students in 1968 Paris who start up a Maoist revolutionary cell in their parents’ apartment, while the folks are away on vacation.

I don’t necessarily agree with everything I say. – M.M.

Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either. – M.M.

Zealous, political activism is usually absurd, if for no other reason, because the people participating don’t have a sense of humor about themselves. My characters aren’t concerned with Mao. They’re concerned with media and its political organizational potential.

The Villains; La Chinoise

Maoism may be problematic in itself, but what happens when the zealots are passionate and prosthelytizing about a method of organization, rather than a particular ideology? My media apostles needed a deity. A figurehead, like Mao.

The artist’s marked-up copy of McLuhan’s War And Peace In The Global Village

The only man in media theory that could possibly qualify for that sort of quotable, revolutionary leader was Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan preferred to focus on the medium itself, rather than the ways man uses it or the content the medium delivers. Or something like that. He’s contentious. We can argue over it, if you wanna buy me a drink.

The basic formula of The Villains adaptation approach

My main theme is the extension of the nervous system in the electric age. I do not say whether it is a good or bad thing. To do so would be meaningless and arrogant. – M.M.

At the same time that I was outlining the McLuhan stuff and the La Chinoise stuff, I was reading about “flash mobs” popping up in random cities for the sole purpose of destruction. Kids would send out a mass text, show up in a corner store and wreck it. It seemed like a nice correlation to the theme of organization without purpose; a hammer without a nail — in direct opposition to the seemingly positive organizational purposes of the internet that had manifested in WikiLeaks, the Arab Spring, etc.

Innumerable confusions and a feeling of despair invariably emerge in periods of great technological and cultural transition. -M.M.

I wanted to address that dichotomy — the dichotomy between purposely destroying a convenience store and overthrowing a dictator. Well-intentioned young men and women, arrogant and often unlikeable — these would be the characters. They fall victim to change in direction; they lack a destination. I thought it was interesting to see revolution as simply a revolt without an end game. Society was functioning like a start-up:

Literacy… dissolved the tribal magic by means of its stress on fragmentation/specialization, and created the individual.  -M.M.

How do you do this aesthetically? I focused on Fragmentation. Digital imagery gets exponentially better all the time. If you’ve been alive through the last couple of decades, you’ve witnessed the growth of the digital image from a noticeable collection of pixels to a much denser collection of pixels. The fragmentation is so advanced, it no longer appears to be fragmented; the seams are deceptively imperceivable, like the spaces between our own fragments — our cells, our atoms.

The Villains post-production process

The Villains rotates between Hi-Def Video and intentionally degraded, pixelated footage throughout. It’s an inconsistent Audio/Visual experience, like a radio being tuned in and out.

Appropriately, the first scene’s score is Stockhausen’s Zentrum / 1st Center Deutschland-Lied, composed with a radio being tuned in and out. The whole film comes in and out of focus and reflects the fragmentation of the characters’ relationships.

Pre-production materials (excerpt)

The production phase of the project was helped considerably after we received fiscal sponsorship from the New York Foundation for the Arts. Having their endorsement lent us some legitimacy as far as enlisting our crew, actors and funders. Considering my application to NYFA mostly consisted of an example scene featuring my less than Oscar-worthy acting, I’d say being accepted was a minor miracle.

Production stills shot on Polaroid (the only actual film used during the making)

After shooting, we began a looong editing process that was more than a little complicated by having to find hundreds of found footage clips that lend the film texture and counterpoint throughout. The fact that my editor and I were both actively involved in Occupy Wall St. during this time also meant that we might be in the middle of a late night editing session only to be interrupted by a text calling for help at Liberty Square. I think time at Occupy was very useful for the edit though. The parallels between OWS and The Villains are numerous and we’d often find ourselves pointing out characters from the film walking around us in real life.

It isn’t enough to just make a film these days, or a book, or a sculpture. It has to be a multi-media experience. Books have trailers; sculpture has digitally altered documentation; everything has a social media component. The Villains attempts to use these requirements as advantages. We’re trying to utilize social media networks — Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook — to further the work itself, instead of to just promote it. The most significant example is YouTube.

Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication. – M.M.

If you watch the film on The Villains website, every instance of found footage is accompanied by timed pop-up windows with related footage. These pop-ups are running a pre-programmed search term relating to the footage in the movie — “baby plays with iPad,” “man destroys office,” “Anthony Weiner’s dick.”  A random result is chosen by the program and pops up over, near and on top of the movie. As a result, no two people see the same film. The long term goal is that The Villains constantly updates itself.

As it is on its own, The Villains is a movie rooted in its specific time, i.e. two years ago. I hope found footage associations take on new and relevant meanings for as long as I’m around to maintain it. In the future, “baby plays with iPad” will be a video of a baby crushing an iPad with their telekinetic abilities. Mark my words.

The Villains is free. Here. Watch it. Download and Torrent it. Remix it. Every time someone says “media,” replace their dialogue with “fart.” That would make me happy. Like the hyperlinks throughout this text, it should be a movie of tangents and digressions. Maybe you hate every scene but one; our Tumblr features every scene as a separate post. Our Instagram for video features the whole movie in 15 second bites. Our Instagram for photos features a still for every cut in the film. Every character has a Twitter feed. We are “Google translate-ing” it into as many languages as we can and god knows what some of those subtitles will really mean. It’s all a process of fragmentation.

Since understanding stops action, we can moderate the fierceness of this conflict by understanding the media that extend us, and raise these wars, within and without us.  -M.M.

Who are The Villains? I don’t know. All the characters in the movie are pretty selfish. Maybe they’re the villains. Maybe the villains are the people who want to use the tools of progress to drive us all apart. Maybe the villains are the people who want to own every thought you have, every detail of your life and every artwork anyone makes.

The Villains attempts to give viewers a generative experience that is theirs alone, isolating the viewer, while making them special. It tells a story of idealists who can’t seem to accomplish anything, mostly because they can’t work together. Some would call it theft. Some appropriation. I think of it as a repayment to the internet and the art running through it. It’s not a movement, a manifesto or a product. It’s not just a film, or video, or website. And it’s not for sale.


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Artist’s Notebook: Brenna Murphy
Artist’s Notebook: Jonathan Monaghan
Artist’s Notebook: Andrew Ohanesian
Artist’s Notebook: Saoirse Wall
Artist’s Notebook: Melissa F. Clarke
Artist’s Notebook: Nicolas Sassoon
Artist’s Notebook: Eva and Franco Mattes
Artist’s Notebook: William Powhida
Artist’s Notebook: Don Hertzfeldt