William Wegman, Cat Kron

William Wegman talked with Cat Kron about his video work on November 30, 2011. Cat was inspired by his body of work with dogs, and hoped to get advice on making video with dogs and on pets generally. She wasn’t disappointed.

With gratitude to William and Christine Wegman for their assistance. With gratitude to William and Christine Wegman for their assistance.

Hi, is this William Wegman?

This is Bill.

Oh hi, can you hear me ok?

I can.

Great, how long do you have?

How long do you need?

I don’t know, maybe half an hour?

Let me go to another room then. Hang on a sec.

Ok.

Hello?

Hi Bill.

I’m better now.

Ok great. If you can’t do a half an hour that’s totally fine. We can just do a couple of questions.

Christine said I have some things backed up but we’ll see how it goes. If they don’t show up then we’re fine.

Well if we get close just let me know and I’ll cut it off.

Ok.

So, we had the screening of your work last week at Know More Games Project Space, or actually, two weeks ago. But it went really well. I mostly showed some of your early videos from ’70 to ’76, and my co-presenter screened William Wegman’s Mother Goose. It was funny, I was watching a video this morning that you did maybe ten years ago. And it sounded like the exact same soundtrack as your earlier video. And then I realized that I had the earlier video on in the background, minimized, and I hadn’t noticed. But it was interesting that the pacing was remarkably similar– that I didn’t notice it for that long.

Yeah. It’s sort of ingrained I guess. What’s surprising is that I haven’t done more video, since I seem to like doing it. It’s very challenging. To put it mildly. Stressful. Thinking of it, thinking of putting yourself at that sort of risk– which is all imagined. Putting yourself on the spot. It’s different from starting a painting or doing a photo for me.

Your video is very performative. But it does seem very effortless.

That’s because of editing. We take the painfully bad ones out.

Did the early video have as much editing?

Well, I would work a whole year and at the end of the year I would select 20 minutes that I liked. So there was hours of stuff that, maybe I erased it on the spot, maybe I left it for consideration but I would take a long time before I decided which ones would hold up enough to show them. When you’re only going for 20 minutes a year, it gives you a lot of latitude.

I was struck by the feel of that recent video I was watching just now from the late nineties, that had a certain resonance to things that I associate with seventies video, like Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen. Not the subject matter at all but the “stripped-down”ness of it, and the didacticness. Do you do that intentionally?

Just a second, someone slammed a door.

Do you have an aesthetic in the videos that’s intentionally “minimal” or sparse like early video, or is something else at play there? Because that’s how I was reading it, but I might be projecting?

Well, that sort of primitive video– there’s only so much that worked and I was always looking at the monitor to know what’s going on and I think that has a way of toning it. You’re talking really to yourself, I’m looking at myself and whatever I’m dangling in front of the camera, and I’m thinking of what to say simultaneous to recording it, rather than reading from a script. I think that’s what makes the tones and the, sort of monotones, what makes them consistent. I might sometimes attempt to change– to be more expressive or “odd” or whatever but for the most part it’s just the natural stream that comes from a consciousness of that moment of being recorded.

I was listening to a comedy podcast [What the Fuck with Marc Maron] and somebody said that the funniest work– and your work is really funny– is often somehow the saddest work too. Or melancholy, at least. So I was wondering how your dogs fit in. Because they seem to have a very different relationship to the camera than one of anxiety or stress, because they’re just doing what comes naturally. How do the dogs operate in the video, as opposed to in the photographs?

Ok well my first dog, Man Ray, who was pretty much the video dog and the photo dog, really liked games. And was a very “busy busy busy” type of dog. My newer dogs are more still. And my second dog Fay [Ray] was really not good at video because she was so wary of lights and sounds. And she was very fragile and vulnerable. She loved to work but– Man Ray, you know, I used to play games with him. And the first games that I thought of that would come naturally to him involved retrieving. But also his focus made him good, and the fact that he was grey. And stoic. All of that played in. It was very different than when I was on alone. If I’m in there with him you’re really looking at him. I guess the best example would be Spelling Lesson, where I set him up, kind of stringing him along with language that played into his normal routine. It’s the video where I’m asking him to spell beach correctly. Beach was a big word, we having lived in California for his first few years. But then other works with him with language where I tried to get different responses– sometimes I would use his sense for retrieving, or the fact that he stared at me wherever I went. His eye motions.

Was that because you trained him or was that the kind of dog he was?

That’s the kind of dog he was. And I started with him very young. He was six weeks old when I started to work with him. It was something that he knew very well. And I always thought people that worked with dogs– there was a guy that ran the gas station that had a Shepherd– the dogs just sort of adapt to whatever you do.

But it wasn’t like he was that performative naturally.

He was naturally engaged in retrieving. And with pointing, so his sense of stillness and the Pointer Retriever aspect helped. But for me what I was drawn to was his animal look– still, grey, and solid, spooky– all of that made the videos something I would want to keep thinking about.

I think stoic, what you said before, is apt. Was Man Ray in William Wegman’s Mother Goose? Or was that after him?

Oh, no, the Mother Goose was something I did with Fay’s offspring. She had three puppies, Battina, Crooky, and Chundo, that I used throughout their lives. The daughter that I kept of Fay’s was Batty, and Batty’s son Chip was sort of the star of Mother Goose.

Oh, ok. Because the dog that played Mother Goose seemed very stoic in that same way, and the other one, Chip, who played Simon Goose seemed a little more fidgety.

When I made children’s videos, for Sesame Street and so forth, I made them more or less how you would make little movies, as opposed to my early video. We had a crew. We had lighting. We had sound, editing, post-production. That seemed to me a whole different category of my work.

Which do you prefer?

Well I think that my special abilities came out in the earlier works. I think that I really enjoyed making those later videos. But I don’t feel like I was particularly good at it. I think some of the pieces are good. But the early stuff is more unique, in terms of the history of recorded motion.

I know that those early pieces are really influential to a lot of people. I was thinking, when I was watching the one with Man Ray and the glass of milk– I think it’s called Drinking Milk.

Yeah.

And I was thinking of it in terms of the Jack Goldstein piece where he films a glass of milk [A Glass of Milk, 1972], and then he upsets it from off camera. And he’s banging on the table to get the milk to spill off, but all you see is the glass. They both seem to come from some sort of Minimal sensibility–

Yes–

–But, disrupting it. I was wondering how you thought about how those simple scenes are structured?

Well I remember during that time I did some experiments where I edited some television comedy footage into my videos, and that the difference was that the other work had live sound, the laugh track, captions and so forth. So the minimal aspect of my work, yes, that’s what really comes through. My period in art happened during the larger Conceptual, Minimal period, so that was where I came from. But I think that the humor, and the linearity to some extent, that sort of beginning and end, made my work different. And so it moved in with the Postmodernist period I suppose, historically.

That was my impression of it. Doing something that upset the Minimal/Conceptual arc somehow.

But at the time I was looking at people like Sol LeWitt, Carl Andre. Then also I was looking at Bruce Nauman who made those early video pieces. So what was different between my work and Nauman’s was that his were not edited to be short. They extended over the whole length of the reel, and repeated. Video work that had a beginning and end was not really what was happening in the late sixties and early seventies so much, that I can recall. People who were working with video were pretty much making television works, like Nam Jun Paik, or sound wave kinds of things, electronic middling and so forth.

Was anybody else doing it funny the way that you were?

Not from the very beginning, that I can recall. There were probably some eight millimeter filmmakers– like I’m thinking of the Kuchar Brothers [George and Mike Kuchar]. There were probably some film world people that were making shorts that were pretty hilarious but with video itself it seemed to be–

Yeah, experimental work seemed pretty dry. Like I’ve seen a lot of Structural film from that time that’s not very funny at all.

Also I think that if you said the word video in 1973 most people would flee. Video tended to be a little indulgent and that was something I decided to avoid. Self indulgence and tedium.

But there’s even something funny about boredom, when it’s Man Ray sitting there. I don’t know if he was bored or not, but the anticipation from his perspective is pretty funny.

That’s true.

Do you think dogs get bored the way people get bored?

I do, but not when they’re working. I think that’s why I work with them, because it keeps them engaged. I remember one year I didn’t work with Man Ray, I just did drawings. I remember I decided in 1978 that I didn’t want to work with him. He was really pissed off. He would come into the room and just groan. Because he loved to work, you know? Not working just kind of shut him down. So I started working with him again. But I didn’t want to have to rely on a dog, in case I didn’t have one again. I didn’t want to set myself up for a career of ten years. I didn’t think I was gonna get another dog, to keep it going, which I did, but it was three or four years after Man Ray died before I got another dog.

Oh really?

Yes.

But you’ve had dogs ever since, is that right?

Yes, since then they’ve been pretty much continuous and overlapping.

And do you think of the video practice as related to the photographic practice or are they separate?

I think the videos are more like the drawings. The photographs from the early seventies started out as little thumbnail sketches, and I would get the props and set it up and develop it. Whereas the video is more spontaneous, kind of off the wall. It’s very audio driven too. It’s very dependent on the language and the play of the words and the sounds. Very few of the pieces, although there are some, work silently.

There’s the Curtain Piece [Dress Curtain].

Right, there’s probably some that work silently, but the other two and a half hours are about the audio playing off of the video. Right now I’m working on a video projection for the Everson Museum that will be projected on the Everson building in Syracuse [part of the Lightworks’ Urban Video Project]. I have to have it done in January. But it’s really hard for me, I’m used to driving things through sound, like in those Sesame Street videos– all that yakking, and music and so forth. It’s taken me awhile to get something that I think is compelling without the component of sound. I’ve been using my new dog Flo. She’s only eight months. I’ve been working with her since she was eight weeks, and she has phenomenal abilities I think in film and video. So I’m making stuff for her.

Do you ever get dogs that turn out not to be natural performers?

Well Fay wasn’t so great in some of the videos but she did ok in that Sesame Street one. So, I can make anything work, pretty much. I haven’t done video in a long time. It’s kind of nice to get back to it.

I love your video.

Yeah, we talked about that right from the beginning. It seems strange that I don’t do more, since I know that it could be good. I think maybe it’s because no one has asked me to do it, in a way. Whereas before, I had a sort of built in audience for it. I was showing it. In the early seventies, my videos would be projected and crowds would be watching it. And now I don’t really seek that out or have that.

I noticed your videos, not just in our screening but in almost an identically themed screening that I hadn’t been aware of, another dog related screening in England. So I wonder if there’s something about the present moment for those works. I think partly it’s probably because a lot of people are inspired by the videos and they’re trying to do something similar. Your videos are kind of like haikus though.

Oh?

In that they’re simple, but easier said than done, I would think. In that they’re simple, but easier said than done, I would think.


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