Marlene McCarty

Marlene McCarty's monumental ballpoint pen drawings go interactive

Interview by Felix Ensslin and Sue de Beer

Sometimes an idea is very easy. You want to draw an owl and so you draw an owl. You want to make a taco and so you make a taco. There are some simple steps one can do to accomplish these kinds of things.

Sometimes, though, an idea is very hard. Such as when you have the idea to create a three-dimensional, virtual-reality, interactive teenage girl out of technology that's barely been invented yet.

Marlene McCarty, a New York artist and designer, had this idea. It began naturally enough, with a series of monumental ballpoint pen portraits she completed throughout the 1990s, featuring images of real-life teenage girls accused of killing their own parents. The portraits, shown around the world, garnered widespread attention for their cool, erotically charged depiction of teenage transgression, and for the mysterious relationship they struck between visual and narrative modes of representation.

Among the recurring subjects was a teenager named Marlene Olive, a child of 70s California glam rock, Satanism, and hard drugs, and the main character of the well-known 1985 true crime novel Bad Blood. As a fascinating, manipulative, and ultimately unreliable narrator of adolescent romance and parricide, Olive quickly captured McCarty's imagination and inspired the artist to bring her dark muse to digital life.

Thus began McCarty's artistic quest, a great white whale hunt leading to computer labs and new media conventions around the world, and finally, in 2004, to Basel, Switzerland, for the premiere of Phase One of Bad Blood, an interactive video installation starring Jessica Campbell as Marlene Olive. With the completion of Bad Blood Phase One, McCarty marked an important step in her artistic journey, though her ultimate goal of a three-dimensional, interactive character remains uncreated.

Dramaturge Felix Ensslin and artist Sue de Beer interviewed McCarty about Bad Blood at La Jules Verne, in the Eiffel Tower, delving into the artist's motivations for putting aside pen and paper in favor of new media, the power of traditional drawing versus moving images, and the limits of current technology in the telling of good, gripping stories.

Felix Ensslin: Marlene, with this project you just showed in Switzerland, you stayed within the thematic scope of your previous work, but moved from pen and pencil to new media materials. How did you go about making that transition?

MM It was kind of like a little convoluted path. After the drawings of teenage girls were finished, Killer Films suggested to me, "You have all this great narrative  material. You have all these stories, and texts, and situations, and cases. All these true crime characters. Don't you want to do like a small digital movie of one of these cases?" I kind of toyed with that for a little bit, and then, much to my detriment, I was like, "Why would I use digital technology to mimic traditional filmmaking modes? I don't have to just make a movie. I can do all this other stuff." To make the long story short, my idea was to create this three-dimensional, virtual-reality, animated character that an audience could interact with. Or in other words, to make one of the girls in the huge drawings stand up.

FE And how would the interaction work?

MM Good question. I didn't want the viewer to be clicking things and holding gadgets during the interaction. At most I wanted sensors that would be very unobtrusive and then, based on all kinds of monitoring–movement, blood pressure, reaction time–the viewer and the character would interact easily. It was all built on the idea of this teenage girl who was one thing to one person and one thing to another, and one thing to somebody else; the idea that she kept lying to the authorities about what happened, and about the events as far as the whole killing of her parents was concerned. All these variations on the story were going to be built into the program as narrative possibilities.

FE And how did you proceed from there, once you had the idea?

MM I started doing research. Killer Films and [plug in] in Basel both financed the early phase. They were great partners. So game and fearless. We went all over the place to see what might be possible. We went to Ars Electronica in Lenz, Austria, we went to MIT in Boston, we went to ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany, we went to EVL, which is the Electronic Visualization Lab in Illinois. And to the Virtual Reality Applications Center, VRAC, which is in Iowa. We also went to amazing technology conferences in both Baltimore, Maryland, and Stuttgart, Germany. At these we would just find out where people we were interested in were presenting, then go up and introduce ourselves.

FE And they were receptive?

MM The majority definitely were. Well. Or they'd offer great information like, you should talk to such and such. Then Annette (Schindler, of [plug in], Jon (Marcus, of Killer) and myself, we'd be off on another adventure. For instance, we were told to speak to the person who runs VRAC by someone at a conference. We made an appointment in Iowa. The director of VRAC was really interested in working on my project, but the president of the university found it to be pornographic and asked her not to do it. I tried to explain that it was art but the president couldn't get past the fact that you could see through clothes to a female body. Guess who it turns out seems to fund most of VRAC's projects?

SB FE look questioningly at McCarty.

MM (pause) The Army.

SB Gross.

SB Were you looking at video games at all when you were planning the piece?

MM Yeah, a little bit. And, to tell you the truth, the guys who drew Aki in Final Fantasy were going to draw Marlene.

SB I was wondering about Final Fantasy. That would have been perfect.

MM They were all lined up to do it. I had their shaders and renderers and...

SB Wow!

MM ...and the modelers. I had the whole bit. I had 'em all. It was interesting. You see, as an artist I have no access to, like, high-level art things. I can't just walk into MOMA and say, "Hi, can I talk to the director of Painting and Sculpture? I have a piece..." But with "New Media" I was able to just naively talk my way into meeting with people who are really upper echelon. And I was just like, wow! I don't have that ability in the art world.

FE Do you think your project activated an interest that was present in that community?

MM I think partially. I think different people responded to different things. You know, truthfully, I think the main modeler who had worked on Aki was kind of like, wow, a sexy young girl...

SB But that is why it is so perfect to choose the people who do Final Fantasy–because the beauty archetype is so pedophilic.

MM Exactly. I think from his level it was the motivating  factor. But I think in the case of the Virtual Reality Applications Center the director was kind of challenged because there has never been a 3-D figure rendered to that extreme level of detail that you could then interact with. I mean, it's just never been done. So I think there was a technological challenge that presented itself, particularly to the Virtual Reality Applications Center and EVL, specifically a couple of grad students from EVL, so that was a different kind of thing. I think also just the idea of working with narrative was such a radically different approach to content that they were intrigued.

FE (laughs) As opposed to military content?

MM Military, and cars. The car industry, actually Mercedes Benz, is another big funder.

(A waiter comes by and presents the plates)

MM & FE Thank you.

WAITER Bon appetit, madame. (Plates are clinking) Madame? (questioningly to Marlene)

MM Merci. (pause) Anyway, so that's where we were, and that kind of in my mind is still what the project is about. It's just that we ran into massive financial problems, you know? I mean I tried really hard to keep my head up and say like, you know, it's the same cost as a really low-budget movie. I really tried to keep everybody motivated using that line. But the problem is that an independent movie has a distribution structure, so if you invest money in a low-budget movie, even if it's a failure, there's a little bit that's gonna come back. Whereas in this project, there is no guarantee anybody will receive any payback on their investment. You know, for a while I even lived the fantasy that somebody like a collector or a tycoon from the new media business world would come along and just think it was a really cool project and want to fund it, just to see if it could happen.

SB Did you research at all like how the Christos fund their projects or was it just too much?

MM That was kind of too much.

SB ...secretarial work...

MM ...and, oh God, Sue I have already spent so much secretarial time that I just don't... I'm sure you understand. I just don't...

SB Yeah.

MM Such work is actually what kind of like took the wind out of my sails.

SB Because at a certain point you aren't making the art anymore, you are just problem-solving a low-budget film that will never get distributed.

MM I was basically doing tons of producer work in addition to the work already being done by Annette and Jon. Which is fine, but long story short, you know, almost all the new media people I talked to were interested in the three-dimensional interactive project, but no one had the ability (read: money) to bring it into being. Then I was talking to Carl Goodman from the American Museum of the Moving Image, and he was like, you know, there are all these artists who do get really expensive projects funded, but what they generally do is they build the project in stages. They start at a low level, fund that, then raise a little bit more money and fund that, so I kind of followed suit. I broke down the project into three stages.

FE So what we are dealing with now is Stage One?

MM So this is Stage One. It was suddenly relatively easy to raise money for this small step but I have to say that it is really difficult because the product's not what I want. You know in my mind it's like, it's barely even a sketch. You can't do any of the things I envisioned. It is so far away from a 3-D physically immersive character. But I have to say, also, it has been an interesting experience, because even though the video was shot with twelve days of shooting compressed into four, and we were on this stage at the end of a runway with planes that kept taking off, the thing that was still the most difficult was the technology. Frankly, technology never quite lives up to what it is touted to be.

FE But one could raise the question about whether in some sense that doesn't matter, because the true interactivity is on the viewers' part. That is what produces a reaction within the piece, as it were. So it's not an issue of using "interactive" technology.

MM That is what's driving me back to drawings.

FE This is very good. Because the answer might be that it comes back to that: what's really interactive is the psychic structure, if you wish, its activity and content and its impact on the process of reception.

MM It is completely like the projection of me as viewer onto that, the drawing, and what that is, back onto me, and then you can get even a little more tangled up and say, like, I as the artist am involved, because then I can project onto this thing, which then projects onto the viewer, which is kind of this weird triangulation.

FE Well, maybe I brought that up too early because you were still giving us the narrative of how you got there.

MM And that was totally where I was going. In this piece the programming was done with Andreas Krach in Basel, who is great. He's really creative. He's not the kind of guy you think of when you think of a programmer. He is really this brilliant guy and I had been talking to him for like a year. I got him and this other guy who turned my little story into kind of like a monologue script together. We all met in Basel. We met in New York. Everybody was kind of like, working together. And the narrative, or monologue, was written to conform to the possibilities of things that could happen technologically. It was supposed to be, anyone that interacted with the piece could change the direction of that monologue as well as be addressed and confronted by Marlene, the character.  But by the time it was built, it was clear that the proposed technology was not as sensitive as we had been led to believe. Marlene's reactions had to become so simplified that the piece lost a lot of the hoped-for sensitivity in a way, and became a little cruder. And now the personal interactions are a much simpler way out. You see this girl, you can traverse her three different stories, depending on where you are within the space and how you react. She does at times actually acknowledge that you are there, but it is much simplified.

SB I was thinking about "Choose Your Own Adventure" when I saw it. Do you remember the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books?

MM No.

SB I think they were only around for a short time, but I started thinking about them when I was thinking about role-playing games, adventure games. Like the video game Eternal Darkness, where you play the game three times, three different ways and the decisions you make while playing change your parameters. But in the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books you would make a decision at the bottom of each page and it would flip you forward.

MM Oh, so it's kind of like hypertext?

SB But it was before that technology, and because it was in a bound book format, it had to be kind of simplified and there were only four places where you could wind up.

MM Which is kind of what happened to this first sketch of this first thing.

SB What I liked about that as a reference, was that "Choose Your Own Adventure" was a pulp literary format, and the origin of some of the texts of your drawings are things like Aphrodite Jones' "True Crime" novels, and I felt that that was really something that is at the heart of your work in general–this tabloid world of interest in someone's personal life that is extremely voyeuristic. I want to say it is kind of in the "talk show" realm, where you are seeking the thrill of being in someone else's extreme situation. And that world is less present to me in your drawings because your drawings are so haunting to me, they crush me. I think because the interactive piece is more discursive, I was more strongly reminded of that kind of world. Which I thought was an interesting shift.

MM The only disagreement is that I find the drawings almost more voyeuristic than the video because the drawings leave a lot more to your imagination.

FE I think the drawings produce a much more multidimensional narrative experience between themselves and the viewer. Between the figures within the drawing, if you talk about the groupings, but also the singles. In some sense the video, because you are aiming at a technologically intense interactivity, a technologically defined interactivity, it kind of closes that. The video's voyeurism can come close to watching something like ESPN high school cheerleading. It's closed off.

MM I would like to say that one thing I do totally agree with is that it does come close to that kind of reality TV, that kind of experience.

SB Which is not an intimate experience. It's a very safe experience.

MM I don't know which one is more voyeuristic.

FE Okay, sure, definitely. It depends on how one understands voyeurism. But let's use a different vocabulary. It's much less alive. Within the drawings is the ambiguity of something that is alive, that is present, that is polyvalent.

MM Yes, but the drawings are enlivened by the viewer, by the viewer entirely. Because it is very possible, if you don't take a minute with them, you can completely pass them by. Whereas the video is struggling to enliven itself, using the viewer as kind of a source point. It is struggling to enliven itself.

FE The video always asks, "Do you know that I am here?" but the drawings don't care if you are here. I mean, you can engage them. That's alive. Its ambiguous in the way you relate.

SB The drawings are so large, so that there is something about them that is undeniable. But there is something about the combination, I mean the muted color palette, and they are so big that when you are close to them they also become very schematic, and so you want to have a more intimate relationship to them. You move closer to them, they break apart, you stand back from them, they are a complete image, but then you have to move closer again to read the text. There's this thing between denying, and not being able to deny the drawings. When we went to see your show at Brent Sikkema, Felix and I were talking about it afterwards because he had only seen them in reproduction, like on this tiny page, and he was really moved by them, and he said, the thing about those drawings is the eyes. Those eyes are dead. And they haunt you, and there is this blank. You never give them a shine in their eye, it is always this eye of a newly dead person.

MM One aspect of the video that I do find interesting is that it's completely sort of an accident. I just have to keep thinking to myself that this is an experiment, and that this is not the totally refined perfection, it is not. And I have to say that it has been really difficult to kind of like, embrace that. And I am kind of wandering here for a bit, but the art world is so into presenting the finished, final, masterpiece thing, and this video is not. It's not the final masterpiece epic.

FE To play devil's advocate: It's the reverse. Namely the finished "masterpiece" has been on display since 1995 and you are taking the video to sort of kick those drawings in the butt. But this comes across as if I am denigrating this experiment; I am not. I am not at all. I am very interested in that video. Because it is in some sense a risk. I mean these drawings are difficult, ambiguous, difficult also for a commercial gallery context. Hard for an audience who isn't just other artists or art critics. These drawings, they are a "masterpiece." They capture something that I personally have rarely seen in any other way, and I don't know how or what the mechanism is, what the thing about them is, but...

MM I think the thing about them is repression.

FE Repression?

MM I do. I think the figures are so repressed. I mean, even though the figures are involved in very sensational acts, the sensationalism is not visible. The only aspect that can at all be capitalized on in that situation is...

(The waiter comes by and says something to Marlene about her not finishing her meal.)

SB I would like to say that Marlene is blushing.

FE For the second time. The first time was when I said that the drawings were a masterpiece.

MM (laughs) There's that interactivity.

About This Story

  • Interviewee: Marlene McCarty
  • Interviewerss: Sue de Beer, Felix Ensslin
  • Published Online: Jan 13, 2012