From the Archives: interview w/Seattle artist John Criscitello

This interview was originally published in November 2011 in conjunction with the solo exhibition of 
John Criscitello's video art. 

Check out John on vimeo!

John Criscitello was born in Ithica, New York and currently lives and works in Seattle. He is a multi media video artist who has exhibited internationally in numerous group and solo exhibitions. Criscitello uses both original and found footage, layering audio to create meditative and hypnotic experiences where the familiar and indiscernible mix.

Kira Burge You call yourself a "multi media video artist". Could you explain how you define that term and what your practice entails?

John Criscitello I work across all sorts of media from painting and drawing to digital work, as well as video. I never really identified with just one medium.

KB On November 3rd we will have a chance to see two pieces, Sun King and Borderline/Bombshell that share a common thread of examining violence within popular culture, but in very different ways. I view them as on the same continuum, almost at opposite ends. How do you relate these two pieces?

JC I have visited themes of violence in my work for a very long time. I am interested especially in American forms of violence; explosive violence and senseless violence, the sort that we have really perfected.

Several years ago, I was making paintings based around the crime scene photos of the Manson Family murders. I remember when I was a child flipping through the book "Helter Skelter", and in the middle of the book there is a series of crime scene photos. Images of the murders where the body is whited-out, almost like chalk outlines around a body and I remember being curious of what was behind the white. All that was left was this figurative shape, a literal and figurative void where this person used to be. It wasn't until many years later that I saw the real photos without the redacted elements, and it's strange, but I found the whited-out images to be more shocking than the complete, unblocked photos.

We are so desensitized to violent imagery that the only thing left to shock us is our imagination.

Sun King is an earlier piece made during a time where I was using footage that I had shot in my studio. I was working with children and props, and I found myself struck by how the boys, of course, would go directly for the guns and the girls for the dress-up stuff and horses; really gender specific play.

Out of the hours of footage captured in my studio of these children, the sequence of the boy and the gun... I think you can see how powerful he [the boy] feels as he brandishes the toy weapon.

Borderline/Bormbshell is newer work. I am back using found footage and working more in After Effects, creating more ambient abstract pieces.

KB Borderline/Bombshell equates sex with violence; something that popular culture does often. How is what you're doing different than say the music videos played on MTV of the blond bombshells featured in your piece?

JC Well, I am dissecting the moving image; playing with it. Slowing it down, taking bits of it out of context and recontextualizing it.

I am of the first generation of Sesame Street and MTV viewers... and our experience was sort of one of wonder, and there was a lot of new rapid editing and cut styles being used at that time. In a way those video editing styles sort of set us, including myself, up for having a short attention span. And always being in a state of waiting, waiting to see what would come next.

And probably because of that exposure to that sort of rapid edited video I am very interested in how long I can hold my viewers attention. Using either overly long segments or with many very rapid cut edits.

I am always amazed at the power that video has to hold the viewers attention. Even when there is nothing happening, because we [as viewers] will wait, and wait... thinking, expecting that something will happen. And since video is a time based medium this is an inherit element of suspense built-in.

KB In Borderline/Bombshell you co-opt imagery of iconic women who are considered sex symbols in our culture and distort them through fragmentation and effects. Could you speak to your interest in using such recognizable pop icons?

JC I started Borderline/Bombshell with a close look of the iconic moving image of Marilyn Monroe singing Happy Birthday to President John F Kennedy; it's such a haunting little piece of film. It was shot at Madison Square garden just three months before her [Monroe's] death and it was very dark, so the spot lights that were on blew-out or overexposed all the whites. And because of that everyone appears sort of ghostly. Once on stage she removes her fur to an audible gasp from the audience, and she's wearing that sparkling dress that she was sewn into. She looks like a shimmering phantom, almost not even there... a faint trace of light in the darkened room, but also standing there in all her sexually powerful glory.

So, I was thinking about how each generation elevates a blonde female to goddess status, and then I caught a glimpse of a Lady Gaga video. I took the clip of her lounging and humping the air, it's such a strange dislocated gesture of sexuality, sort of having sex with herself.

I think I then started playing around with audio and added the very slowed down intro to Madonnas "Borderline" and took short clips of her from another video. Made her red and demonic and then the piece really started to take shape with addition of more audio of war sounds and gunshots.

KB I am impressed with your ability to express violence through editing techniques and use of post-production filters in Borderline/Bombshell. I wonder if this is something that cam automatically or took some time to develop?

JC My style has developed very slowly over time. I was always interested in found footage, and like Borderline/Bombshell some of my early work does have a really disorienting rapid cut editing style. Actually, a lot of people made comments that it made them feel sick to watch that work. And since, I've been working towards a more minimal approach.

An example of work that made people feel sick:

KB You are different than many of the contemporary artists using video today, who often see video as more of a tertiary aspect of their practice. Have you always made video or did you come to art making through another medium?

JC I self identified as an artist from a very early age, and back then that meant two things, painting and sculpture. I have very little formal training, just some basic studio art classes. I am a completely self-taught video artist.

I began to see the possibilites of using video in the late 1980s as part of a group of underground punk rock musicians and artists that were all close friends of mine. My dear friend Jamie Welwarth had a VHS camera, sort of a rare thing at the time. It was a time when not everyone had a camera at their disposal at all times on their phones, and I would shoot the people hanging around. Exploits in performing, being in bands, sex, drug use, etc. It was sort of a post-punk low-rent Warholian Factory sort of scene with all the assorted hangers-on and crazy people doing insane things. There is scant that remains of the video from that time.

I had no way to edit the video, so I would shoot in sequence. At the time I was creating a short film of sorts. And then I managed to get a residency at Sculpture Space in New York, where I really used video as part of an installation, essentially recording my own performance art with assorted props paired with found audio. And still I had no way of editing, so I would just let the radio play. It was a real chance operation, but I captured some amazing moments.

I am happy as a more mature artist, having had the experience of working with nothing and working outside an academic setting. It was very minimal, whatever I could scrounge up, literally dig in the trash for. It taught me how to be very resourceful.

KB Transformation, shifting the primary context by use of filters and distortion is a theme throughout all your work; do you ever take that one step further, transforming the original content to a point of transmutation?

JC I think Gustons Lullaby and Over Your Dead Body are a good example of transmutation, where the original source has been taken to a new realm to become something completely new. The source image from Gustons Lullaby is a child's mobile, like the sort that would hang over a crib. The source video and audio for Over Your Dead Body believe it or not, is the music video of Missing Persons performing "Words".

Watch Gustons Lullaby and Over Your Dead Body.

KB I'm very interested, Sun King is a very innocent piece exploring a child's interaction with a toy gun. From where did you source the music?

JC I love when things fall into place with a bit of luck. Sometime when I am editing I will just start throwing random audio into the time line to just see what it looks like with something playing underneath. Most of the time those scratch tracks get replaced with new audio, but I was listening to a tribute to the Beatles "Abbey Road" album, where all the songs are being performed by other artists, and I a version of "Sun King" into the timeline. And it just worked perfectly, even the time was exact. So there it was. (The band performing is Gomez.)