Same Difference: A Conversation with Artists James Woodfill, Jaimie Warren and Matt Roche[uds-billboard name=”wdd”]
Over the past several years, Kansas City has modeled how a combination of young artistic networks, public support and a community of established, mid-career artists can create a sustainable and vital artistic center. To that end, I sat down for a roundtable discussion with the artists James Woodfill, Jaimie Warren and Matt Roche to talk about how Kansas City informs their work and how the creative discourse of their projects – both infinitely collaborative and rigorously individual – offers a template of what it means to be a contemporary artist in Kansas City.
Warren and Roche together form the nucleus of Whoop Dee Doo, an artist collaborative project made up of equal parts performance, sculptural artifact and theater, presented under the framework of a fake public access television station. James Woodfill has worked in Kansas City for several decades on both public and studio-based art and design projects. He currently teaches painting at the Kansas City Art Institute.
Corey Antis: You’ve all been making art in Kansas City for a long time – how did you start? What brought you here?
James Woodfill: I’m from a small town in Missouri and I started college at MU in Columbia, MO as a pre-law student. I transferred to the (Kansas City) Art Institute and managed to carve out a sustainable existence as a studio artist. More recently, my career has developed into overlapping areas – studio work, public art and design and teaching.
Jaimie Warren: I went to the Art Institute, and when I got out of college we started a gallery space and had a million people helping – it was very supported. I feel like in the beginning, Whoop Dee Doo started because Kansas City felt to me like a very make-your-own-entertainment kind of place. Like, there’s nothing to do on a Friday night so me and my five friends would dress up like insane gothic people and go crash a country western night at the Beaumont Club or something. Just entertaining ourselves because there’s nothing to do and it’s fun. So that’s kind of how it began.
Antis: One of the things I was interested in asking you about was how you felt about having such a particularly strong impact in Kansas City.
Warren: I’ve always felt that Kansas City was very supportive of me – that was something that allowed a project like Whoop Dee Doo to happen with a lot of ease, you know? So many people volunteering and collaborating.
Antis: Can you talk a little bit about how certain elements developed? Characters, or different kinds of characters, or the variety show atmosphere?
Warren: Well, I feel like I’m kind of a behind-the-scenes organizer where Matt has really been the director of the way everything looks and amazing at really caring about everyone involved, utilizing their talents and figuring out how to place people in terms of what they’re doing. And it’s changed so much over the years– so many people have been involved. A lot of them not with art backgrounds, but he’s found their skills and meshed them together well.
Woodfill: It’s a really interesting thing because you’re kind of coming at it from this postmodern history of spectacle, right? I mean, the origins of it, when it first started. That stuff came out of this playfulness, as I saw it at the time, dismantling the authority art was trying to have.
I think what I’m interested in is this kind of weird condition in Kansas City where culturally there’s this general thing of art. And in bigger cities or more elaborate art scenes, this is just a particular kind of voice within the larger spectrum of art.
Matt Roche: Yeah.
Antis: In that vein, I’m interested in where you all think this understanding is – not just in reference to the larger contemporary art world but in Kansas City in particular.
Roche: I think that would be really hard…it would be really difficult. I don’t think I know.
Woodfill: I think that question stems from this noticeable shift over the years – this shift of art as entertainment. As opposed to a more traditional gallery show. Whoop Dee Doo and maybe more generally Charlotte Street and the Urban Culture Project in general have blurred those lines – not intentionally and not in a bad way – but it’s more of a challenge to establish expectations for a more traditional show in Kansas City because expectations are geared towards that idea.
Roche: Well, for me personally when we started doing the project, in addition to the public access stuff, I was really into horror hosts, you know? Like in Chicago there was Svengoolie…in Kansas City there used to be one before my time named Crematia Mortem. In any city there would be someone who would introduce the horror movies on a Friday night. And it was the same sort of low-budget value kind of thing. I was also really into the idea of spook shows, which disappeared by the 60s. Just this idea that the spook shows put together this goofy, scary show around a horror movie. So they found this accidental thing where they produce something that I think was really interesting as a way to make money. That market is gone now, that thing doesn’t exist, but I was interested in the idea of us producing something new.
Woodfill: Were they live shows?
Roche: They would be live shows. And they would depend on whatever the public interest in spooky stuff was at the time. Like in the 20s it was spiritualism, psychics and sitting around a crystal – that kind of stuff.
Warren: Kind of a magic show.
Roche: Yeah, then later, it was more like horror and a little more gore-themed. That was what the audiences wanted to see, that’s what they wanted out of the movies. I thought it was interesting that there was this type of show that now can’t exist because there’s no market for it. So when we started to do this in a gallery, it seemed interesting to me to produce something that was sort of a form of entertainment that wouldn’t be able to exist otherwise because there’s no market for it outside of putting it into this art context. And as time has gone on, we’ve had opportunities for really interesting installations.
Antis: It’s interesting that it’s almost like you’re taking a model that previously existed with a reference point, something that grew around something else, but that once you remove that, it becomes some kind of other structure. It’s missing its phantom limb.
Roche: Yeah, it’s been this shift where we use the gallery setting to put this certain type of entertainment show into existence and now we’re using that entertainment venue to get the deeper, more artistic elements seen and appreciated.
Antis: And that nostalgia for that other space ends up creating another context.
Warren: I think our ideal venue is also more like KCPT. We’ve been talking about potentially doing something on local PBS, where it’s filmed and it’s seen by not just an art audience, but by actual kids and parents in their homes.
Roche: I think there are a number of venues for it where there are serious pros and I think the gallery setting is great for us, like it has been. If we were doing what we do in a theater it would be easy to ignore a lot of the elements that I think are the real driving ideas behind the show. But you put it in a gallery, I think people are more open to look for those elements. Doing it in that setting has been really good for people to just get accustomed to the general context behind the show. It’s at a point now where since it’s had to prove itself in a gallery setting, other people are more open to looking at it as a serious project, maybe on KCPT.
Warren: One of the things that it’s done is also is in a local sense, is it’s set up kind of a precedent within the Urban Culture Project and Charlotte Street to move more towards performance or to be more inclusive of performance and less discriminatory between art performance and music. La Esquina is way more of a cross-disciplinary space.
Roche: We were the first show at La Esquina.
Antis: Really? You inaugurated the space?
Roche: We did. We put our stink on it.
Antis: Jim, can you talk a little bit about local space and your work in Kansas City?
Woodfill: Yeah. You were talking about using the gallery space not because you’re totally concerned with entering into a specific art historical dialogue within that context but because it’s a useful context and there aren’t any others that seem to be work better.
Warren and Roche: Yeah.
Woodfill: I’ve had this luxury in Kansas City of working in what I guess would be sales galleries that really don’t sell work because nobody’s buying. And being able to do installation work and more theatrical kinds of installations that kind of break down. I learned that there’s a craft to putting on a show. So it’s not just about the objects that you make, it’s about the situation that you establish in that space and that time, and that’s become central to my work.
Antis: Does that have to do with the specificity of material? Does that go into how you make those choices?
Woodfill: I guess so. There’s a show that I did called Rehab at Review [Studios, Inc]. And I built up this cityscape of all of these different kinds of structures, and a corridor down the middle, but this whole thing was in the middle of the room and you could walk around the whole thing and for me it was like giving access to the back of the house, or going backstage. And understanding what’s holding up the walls. I like where you’re using the idea of fiction, I’m trying to break it down, by giving you that back of the house view. Sometimes that back of the house view is in front of you, shifting around and showing you the guts of the thing in the first place.
Antis: It’s a way of building a point of view.
Woodfill: Well, it’s giving access.
Antis: When you construct that perspective that access seems to come from abbreviating something or adding some kind of fake detail. It draws a parallel between what’s a residue of the performance and what might be some kind of affect. It seems that in your work it’s about how you introduce that dysfunction into the experience.
Woodfill: Right. It’s like there was a tendency for a long time in video work, when it just started, you’d have big tvs, building podiums with a hole in it so that just the screen showed…kind of clean it up and put it in that modernist white box. And every time I saw an installation like that I said to myself “you’re not trickin’ me I know there’s a tv back there.”
You know? It’s like I never understood that. If you look through my installations, they’re kinetic, you see where the cords are coming from, you see where they’re plugged into. The cords themselves often become part of the drawing in the space.
Roche: Yeah, like if you got a chance to see the inner workings of the magician’s trapdoor and how it works with the sawing-a-lady-in-half sort of trick, there are so many people that are impressed by the ingenuity in the way they created that and how it’s put together and the fact that the magician somehow breaks down this equipment and puts it in a car and goes from city to city. That stuff can be so much more interesting than the trick itself.
Woodfill: But that’s an acknowledgement that there’s something else revealed. There’s still something unknowable.
Antis: How do you actively engage that in the work? Not just as a circumstance but as an active condition?
Woodfill: I don’t know that you draw lines for it, you just respond. I don’t know.
Roche: It does seem like it could be tricky. I find it interesting that on the Beach Boys album Smile, you can find all the studio recordings where you’re listening to each audio or each vocal harmony track recorded – that is really interesting to me. But then, going back a step further, you wouldn’t have wanted to listen to those guys taking vocal lessons for two years before. I think there’s a thing where someone can overstep and show the part that, really, that’s the practice and that’s the part that you keep to yourself. That’s not the work that you’re trying to present.
Antis: Do you think that that’s also a consequence of the scale of Kansas City?
Woodfill: Yes. I also think it’s the consequence of the scale because I’m from a small town and came to Kansas City later. Those same kinds of conversations happen in a small town in a very multi-disciplinary way.
In the 80s, there were only a handful of working artists here, two galleries and really no opportunities. The great conversations that you had always involved at least enough of a rigorous art-historical dialogue, but it also involved someone who was working as a sales manager somewhere, and someone who was an attorney, or an architect. Because there wasn’t that density, it became multi-disciplinary just out the nature of the situation. Not because art history drove it in that direction, just because that was the way it was.
Antis: Jaimie, in your individual work, you said that you were working on other projects. How do those relate to the city and your place in it?
Warren: Well, Jim was bringing up rarity in objects, and I think maybe KC has recently begun to bring out the hoarder in me. I’m reusing objects all the time, finding different uses for them. I recently got one of the studios from Studios Inc., which was an amazing opportunity – to have a space like that for three years. And that’s really brought out the desire to work in a larger scale, because now I’m able to. The recreations I’m making I see more as homages to characters or celebrities or pop culture icons or artists that I’m inspired by, or things that I’m influenced by or that I grew up with. But like Whoop Dee Doo, they take a lot of collaboration. I think with Kansas City I’m allotted the time and the space to be able to do something like that that would probably be a lot more difficulty elsewhere.
Woodfill: Your work also seems amazingly good-natured to me.
Warren: Well, it’s in good spirits…
Woodfill: Yeah! It’s not cynical and I think that’s an interesting condition.
Antis: There’s a sincere sense of humor in both bodies of work. With your work Jim, it seems that it’s a wry humor, where the vernacular is put with something that is ultra-finished. Whoop Dee Doo seems to use humor as an entry point to have conversations between different generations of the audience, the members, the participants. Every show begins with a dance party.
Woodfill: There’s that print of yours Jaimie…it’s the two people that are kind of bent over backwards on the bench…
Warren: Oh yeah.
Woodfill: Every time I see that print, I’m like “oh yeah, it could be kind of seen as some sort of devastatingly ironic commentary on some counter-culture party thing, but it’s not! It’s just good-spirited.
Warren: Yeah, with my work and with Whoop Dee Doo too there always elements that could be controversial, but you can tell it has good intentions and a sense of humor.
Roche: Yeah, it’s just stuff that comes about naturally. I was there when that picture was taken. It was Chloe and Dustin, and it was just because they were trying to get the thing to go back and one of the pictures happened just then. It’s just documenting so much stuff…I mean, for me, I would have no reason to have my camera out because two people were just sitting on a bench.
Woodfill: There’s no ulterior motive.
Antis: But there are also challenging or uncomfortable things that come up in all three bodies of work, a change in the tone of voice.
Woodfill: I’m not so sure that’s the case with my work but I know what you’re getting at.
Antis: How would you characterize it? Is it a coldness that could be read into that work?
Woodfill: An aloofness maybe.
Antis: When you’re all working in series then, how you make adjustments to that tone in your work?
Woodfill: I probably make far fewer adjustments in my work than one might think.
Antis: Do you just make another thing?
Woodfill: I mean I change things all the time but it’s always contingent, it’s always at a moment. This idea of making paintings is weird for me because it is that one thing in my studio right now, but if I take that and go put it in a gallery it’s something else. It’s always in relationship to everything else and I no longer can perceive the painting inside itself. It’s always broader or situational.
Antis: Jaimie, you had that self-portrait at the Kemper Museum, and it was in the same show as the Cindy Sherman [film still]. It created such a great play between the two portraits. It’s impossible not think about character in those works…how do you adjust the roles you get to play?
Warren: I always want to answer it with Whoop Dee Doo instead of my own stuff! That is definitely changing constantly. With my own stuff I still feel that I have a lot to learn with what I want to do, and I think working with Whoop Dee Doo is helping me figure out what my end goal is with my work.
The story I always tell is that I was submitting images after I graduated college to be in a magazine, and there were a couple self-portraits in there – out of like a hundred images, there were maybe two – and they said “I want to see more of these.” And I said, “well, I don’t take self-portraits,” so then I looked in my archives and saw that I was doing hundreds of them, all the time and not realizing it. So it was a natural thing to me, how I entertained myself. And then over time it developed more and more – like the photograph with the red face [in the Kemper Museum], it was me taking a sort of entertainment into different places, being able to travel. That was in Japan, and I was kind of becoming these different characters. So I would work on these really tiny budgets to do these recreations and try to insert myself into these different groups, though with good intentions. I didn’t really know what I was doing out there, except that I was trying to entertain myself about different things.
Antis: It seems like a live-action collage.
Warren: Yeah, it was weird, but it felt almost exploitative at the same time. I didn’t feel quite right. I did something similar in India more recently, where I was inserting myself into environments that didn’t really make sense. But they’re meant to have good or interesting reactions. In an ideal world this is about switching people’s day up and making them laugh. Which isn’t always the case. Like, I was in India and here’s this insane-looking bleach-blond woman running around in a giant floral dress. But that’s definitely switching up their day and there were kids that were very entertained by it, but I still felt that it had to be more developed than that. I know what I was doing was very loaded in and of itself. I think that has its own significance.
Antis: That ambiguity is consistent in your work.
Warren: Yeah, exactly. It depends on how far we dove into it. Sometimes we would make a scene, just to see what would happen, to experiment. It seemed like a mix of people who absolutely loved it, to people who were extremely confused, to people who were being a little angry about it, or maybe offended, but not quite sure.
Woodfill: And are you photographing all of this?
Warren: Yeah, but not crazy. Subtly…a little bit of video, a little bit of photo.
Woodfill: So many of the photos read like documentation of a caught situation.
Antis: There’s a snapshot quality to it, as if you just walked into the frame. It just happens to be there. It’s on the threshold between acts. We’re not really sure if we’re in on a joke or not.
Roche: Yeah, I think it gives those photos more depth when you have that bizarre scenario set up for a photo essentially, but then you just get a few snapshots when you can get it, because it allows you when you see it to create this entire story. If it’s obvious that you just went there to get a photo, then the backstory is that they just went there to get a photo.
Woodfill: Those photos don’t translate well into quick internet images. They have their resonance as the formal result. And that moment, where you’re not sure if it’s a document or you just love this beautiful image or they’re responding to the formal qualities of it…that’s where it has that ambiguity. It transcends any of the intentions. It becomes this new moment of an experience for me.
Antis: There’s a thread here where all of the work insists on the viewer being there to experience the real subtleties of the work. Yet all of the work exists in some form in reproduction – Whoop Dee Doo puts shorts and clips of performances online. Can you talk about the experience of being in that place and viewing it as a document?
Roche: The stuff that ends up online really is that we’re filming our kids’ recital. Those videos really aren’t meant to represent what Whoop Dee Doo is.
Woodfill: They’re home movies.
Roche: Yeah, essentially. And I feel that the experience live…there’s very little of what you experience live online. When you see it online it seems just like a weird tv show, while what we’re trying to create live is this a recreation of what a kid might think a tv show would be. If they went to Pee Wee’s playhouse, they wouldn’t think it’s a set. We’re trying to use that whole fake tv show concept to get people in the audience involved. It’s that thing that when you’re holding a microphone, everyone listens. For whatever reason, people will just step outside of themselves and get more involved if they think they’re part of something.
Woodfill: But there are some great artifacts!
Roche: We don’t want the stuff to be just lost. But I do like that a lot – when it’s lost. It’s something we’ve talked about doing – a totally fake Whoop Dee Doo – where the cameras are all fake.
Antis: There are several performance artists that don’t record their work – you’re either there or you’re not.
Warren: There’s also so much that happens in those shows that you can’t document. The environment that they step into is floor to ceiling, all the way around, so you’re immersed in this very surreal environment. And on top of that, you’re dancing to disco music with Celtic bagpipers and African dancers – just the wildest mix – there’s so much discovery about other people. I know that sounds kind of cheesy, but you can see it in people’s faces. They’re experiencing new people and all of them together just embracing the environment that they’re in. It’s insane.
Roche: And it’s part of the reason for the whole environment to also have costumes, and for me with the werewolf thing – to remove any familiarity. It puts everyone at the same level of awkwardness or unfamiliarity with their surroundings.
Warren: If you have a 4 year old watch a Civil War re-enactor saw off a fake foot with sausage guts everywhere, and then they’re lifting up the foot and dancing to “Boogie Nights” with it right after that, it’s insane. And that kind of stuff happens a lot in the show.
Roche: And there’s stuff that can make us tense, you know, like when we have an openly gay performer and there are people there with their kids…but no one’s ever walked out, no one’s ever gotten upset to the point where they’re done, you know?
Woodfill: You’re not drawing the community of people from the Kansas City area to those performances who would object to them.
Roche: That’s true.
Warren: Usually the whole audience is mostly performers, and their family…
Woodfill: And their kids.
Roche: The show we did in Baltimore recently was at a city arts gallery that was in the middle of a neighborhood that wasn’t an arts neighborhood at all. There were people just coming in from the community. Some people just saw it as free entertainment for their kids. It wasn’t an art group coming in to see the show. There’s this tension and this awkwardness going in, but when things start to really play themselves out in this nice, heartwarming way, there’s this relief and release.
Antis: We’re talking about a full-immersion environment. How you do you engage that in your work Jim?
Woodfill: For a show I did at Review, I had experienced this kind of thing where the show before people had kind of walked in the door, huddled back around the side and slowly immersed themselves in it, maybe, but mostly huddled back there and talked. So the next show I did at Review I had a 500 watt metal halo light that put you in the spotlight right when you walked in the space and your shadow made you immediately a part of the environment and you were stuck. And I played sound that was loud enough that made it hard to talk over. So I’m trying to figure out how to rearrange the activity of the space as well. And to choreograph the space. And insist that you’re interacting with the work instead of just coming in and spectating.
Roche: Yeah, I feel that a good installation piece should take people to a place they’ve never been before and it’s a totally different place when they come back and it’s gone.
Antis: Jim, you’ve spoken about precedent in that way. That you’re breaking down certain materials or platforms. How would you describe it?
Woodfill: Yeah. That idea of precedent as not just art historical precedent, but cultural precedent.
Antis: You mentioned it as a kind of legal precedent.
Woodfill: Right. And stare decisis is the way of assuming the original context and the intentions of a decision from an original context and then seeing if that’s applicable to a new context. And trying to maintain that relationship between event and context instead of simply this event. I’m not necessarily using materials for their meaning. I’m using them for some reason that I got intrigued with them. And I try to yank them out of their meaning. So the built environment of the Midwest – Kansas City – and its specific sense of porousness and density provoke relationships for me.
Antis: Are they metaphors for you?
Woodfill: No!…[brief pause]…Well, yes!
Antis: Where do you think Kansas City is headed?
Woodfill: It seems like a breathing exercise where a lot of things are happening and then it slows down again and thins out. But each time it builds up again, the discourse seems to get better. My hope is that the critical discourse that’s happening here continues to grow. We all love it here – we chose the city – but the reality is that it took me a good twenty years to find a way to excel at the work that I was doing – taking it outside of my studio – to take it out into the world. We can reformulate based on localities. I think the more that develops in a new discourse, the more we can see a new Kansas City.