Vanessa Renwick: Big Fields of Emptiness

Editor's note: We are pleased to inaugurate with an installment of the New Oregon Interview Series. Produced and written by Nora Robertson, the series will feature interviews with more than forty people who have influenced the evolution of Portland's creative culture, from artists to chefs to architects.

Vanessa Renwick, one of Portland's most respected artist-filmmakers, is making me tea on a weathered gas stove. We're sitting in her kitchen, where a metal ladder leads straight up to a sleeping loft.  There are a couple of dogs at her feet that look like they have some wolf blood in them, Renwick’s got jeans and a band t-shirt on and has short shaggy brown hair.  She gives the tea to me in a yellow glass cup with a saucer.  We’re occasionally interrupted by the sound of her chickens.

The house is a typical Portland early 1900’s frame house except she’s added a cob sauna with a green roof in the back.  Cob is a DIY building technique that uses mud and straw to make thick walls without much lumber, and it’s popular around here.  She’s converted her basement into an office and screening room with a painted concrete floor that feels like an art bunker.  The way she’s both embraced and reshaped her old house reminds me of her work.  Both have a tension between the old and new that ultimately reveal something about the place she’s making work in.

Her neighborhood is in Northeast Portland, an area that was historically African American but whose original community has been threatened by recent gentrification. Renwick has documented this and other changes in the rural and urban Northwest landscape on film in the over 30 years she’s been making short films and video installations about nature, violence, body, and landscape.  She often uses vintage 35mm cameras, which added gravitas to the demise of the Trojan nuclear power plant ("Portrait #2: Trojan") but also works with video, which is how she documented in sharp relief the story of outsider artist Richard Tracy ("Richart" with Dawn Smallman).

Her work has been shown at MOMA, The Andy Warhol Museum, The Museum of Jurassic Technology, New York Underground Film Festival, International Film Festival Rotterdam, the PDX Festival and Viennale (Vienna International Film Festival) among many others. In it, we often are confronted with the openness of space that is so abundant in Oregon, and what it takes to survive in those spaces. Renwick describes herself as a cinematic rabble-rouser.

Robertson: You make work that explores iconic images of the Northwest, especially of nature.  How did you start working with this subject matter?

Renwick: When I was growing up in Chicago, I was living right on Lake Michigan.  The lake was a huge part of me growing up even though I was growing up in this gigantic, concrete, crazy-fast city. I had a skull fracture when I was eighteen or nineteen years old.  All my senses got super heightened.  I could hear the air conditioner across the alley as if it was an airplane, like right inside of my head.  Everything was so super magnified, and I could also hear trees talking. I couldn't understand what they were saying, but a huge connection between me and trees happened then through that skull fracture. Once I was by Lakeshore Drive at night during a storm, and the noise of the trees moving with the rain actually gave me an orgasm. It started in my right ear, which is the side my skull fracture was on, and went through my whole body. I found myself drawn to these places of emptiness.  Coming to Portland and being in the Northwest made me really happy to be in all this nature, from the ocean to the [Columbia] Gorge to the high desert, all these incredible different open expanses.  I'm interested in the history of the places we live in.  That’s my subject matter as well.

Robertson: How did you come to move here to Portland?

Renwick: I actually lived here in '83 for two months. I was hitchhiking around for about nine months, and I got a job as a prep cook over at some Greek restaurant.  I was very bored in Portland. I went back to Chicago and then, in the late eighties, I was living in Knoxville, Tennessee, which was really hard on me. My then-husband was going to graduate school there, and there was no film community.  So then, after supporting him to get through graduate school for three years, it was my choice to decide where to live.  We were driving around in this teeny little Toyota Corona station wagon with two super young children and two dogs for months, just driving looking for a place to live. We were tooling around up here, and I blew a stop sign and hit a car.  I didn't have insurance because we learned how to drive in Tennessee, and they don't make you get insurance.  And don't tell you, you know, you should get insurance.  Nobody got hurt. Stupidly after the cops left, the guy said “I should have just said this was a hit and run.” I was like “Yeah that would have been great!”

So then even though we didn't have to, I said, why don’t we just stay here and then I’ll deal with this.  I’m really happy I blew that stop sign. I just ended up here again, and it was actually a pretty exciting time in the late eighties in Portland. It might have been exciting in the early eighties, and I just didn't connect to that community that was in Portland, couldn't find it, and was too much of a loner or something. But in the late eighties when I moved here things were way more exciting. I met so many incredible people through working at Powell’s. I ran the small press and journal section there and a small press reading series, the Dewclaw.  Once a month, I had people come to read and some of those authors ended up moving to Portland because they liked it so much. That was a great job. I always call Powell’s the cream of the crop of the shit jobs.

When Renwick got to Portland the first time in the early '80s, Portland was building on the momentum of a small but fecund film scene from the decade before. There was a film program at PSU and a regional film festival at the Portland Art Museum, but largely the scene was not dominated by any one entity, something that is still true today.  Instead, there was and is a culture of independent filmmakers supporting each other.  Director Penny Allen made the 1979 underground classic Property starring the poet Walt Curtis with the assistance of now noted filmmaker Gus Van Sant and cinematographer Eric Edwards. Van Sant made Mala Noche, based on a novella by Curtis, in 1985; Bill Plympton was nominated for an Academy Award with infamous animation short “Your Face” in 1987; and Matt Groening created The Simpsons in 1987.

Coming back to Portland right when a new synergy between the indie and national film scenes was developing, Renwick began to make a body of work exploring urban and wild space, and the emptiness created from destroying existing structures.

Her video installation "Clearcut" depicted the felling of the Lovejoy columns during a period when Northwest Portland was transforming.  The area had been one of the largest skidrows on the West Coast in the late 1800’s and retained a roughness to the neighborhood that was captured well in Van Sant’s Mala Noche. In the 90’s, the area was developed into what is now the Pearl District, an upscale arts and creative industry district. Renwick’s 2006 film on the destruction of the Trojan power plant, “Portrait #2: Trojan” (shot by Eric Edwards), chronicled each small beat of the explosions that turned a landmark of nuclear energy into bits of dust along the Columbia river.  Her 2009 film “House of Sound” eulogized a popular, long-established North Portland record store that folded under neighborhood gentrification. In these and many other pieces, there is a haunting sense almost of what has been lost by the place itself.

Robertson: Your piece "Clearcut," about two neighborhoods in Northwest Portland that were changing, seemed to parallel clear cuts in the wilderness and in the landscape of Portland.

Renwick: The Broadway Bridge used to go all the way to Seventeenth Avenue before the Pearl District got built.  When the Lovejoy [Viaduct] came down, it was almost as if a dam had broken.  Then all the development was able to happen. I was sad that those columns were getting cut down since they had those images by Tom Stefopoulos painted on them, that everything was going to change drastically from those being cut down.  Almost like trees getting cut down and cleared, and then a city appearing.  I remember I was walking through the rail yards and that whole field of emptiness which was a gigantic expanse of space right in downtown Portland, and I wrote in my journal, “walk through fieldenjoy before dry-walled.” I could see it was all going to get filled in, and this big empty space was going to be gone.

The Lovejoy Columns—Gus Van Sant and Elliot Smith, all these different people used them, and hundreds of photographers have taken pictures of them. I think it was a really special place to a lot of people, and the House of Sound as well was an incredible community space for a lot of people.  I often think, “Why am I making art like this? What does it matter, everything changes, Portland used to be underwater, Eastern Oregon used to be a sub-tropical crazy jungle, it's like “who cares if this stuff is changing?” I don't know what it is that makes me want to keep some kind of image of it for future people to look at.

Besides openness and loss in the urban and wild landscape, Renwick’s work often explores parallels between how people and animals survive.  For example, an installation drawing on 16mm film from wildlife cinematographer Bill Landis that she made for a show in Core Sample, "Hunting Requires Optimism," was about the success rate of wolves in catching what they hunt, which is about ten percent.

Core Sample was a two-week art festival in 2003 that brought together a representative group of Portland talent and pulled it off largely through volunteerism and the oversight of arts and architecture critic Randy Gragg. Gragg also convinced Amtrak to provide a special train to bring down a group of critics who were in Seattle for a West Coast exhibition, “Baja to Vancouver” This lent a new gravity and sense of ambition to the shows curated for Core Sample.  Renwick and Michael Brophy, a painter of iconic landscapes that she knew from Powell’s, curated “The Hunt,” a group show that included her installation “Hunting Requires Optimism.”  Renwick lined up ten old refrigerators that opened up to little TVs playing video of wolves chasing and failing to catch their prey, and one fridge which was just empty, but howling when you opened it up to see what was inside.  In only one did you see them bring down an elk and finally feed themselves.

Robertson: Do you feel your work is really honest?

Renwick: I always try to be true. I really appreciate people who make political art.  When working on the wolf film, I'd go to all these wolf meetings and hear the opposing sides always saying the exact same thing over and over. The people who didn't want the wolves really didn't want the wolves, but then I'd show them documentation of my “Hunting Requires Optimism” piece with the refrigerators and you know, it broke through.  There's always this solid stance, “I don't want anything to do with anybody who likes wolves.”  They saw that I was talking about this fact that nine times out of ten wolves don't catch what they go after in this different way than your usual political documentary kind of thing that's just like,  “You should think this way.”  It definitely broke through to some people and made a connection. I think art that talks about political stuff can definitely enter people's psyches in a way that traditional media can't.

Robertson: Another thing I found really interesting about “Hunting Requires Optimism” was how it got at the ways human social values and the forces of nature in the environment meet or don’t meet.

Renwick: That actually came out from one of these wolf meetings. One of the biologists was talking about how nine times out of ten, wolves don't catch what they go after. That's like if you would go to your refrigerator nine times out of ten and it would be empty.  That's where the idea for that piece came from. I can't take all credit for figuring that one out, but I thought it was real funny to watch people just standing there looking like they are looking for beer in the fridge, which is the way most of us get our food.  It’s just such a placid way that’s unconnected to what food actually is, compared to these animals that are bounding through huge snowdrifts for miles and miles and miles chasing something.  They’re putting so much energy into trying to eat and survive.

Robertson: We’re out here where there's a lot of nature, which helps us be more contemplative, but that in a way ignores the violence of how life sustains itself.

Renwick: And how we do. And the entire world. It’s all violent. My friend [printmaker] Roger Peet was talking the other day about fear making our world a better place.  With animals, things are way better if you are on your toes than if you're standing around eating all the willows along the side of the river and don't have anything to worry about.  If you're on your toes, you're not able to eat all the willows. Then not everything [in the riparian area of the river] gets so damaged.  Fear is actually a really good thing.

I remember this guy outside Yellowstone. Some wolves supposedly ate some of his horses.  He was talking about the fear of his kids and his dogs being outside unsupervised. My first thought was, “You're living right on the border of a natural park, what did you expect?” And my second thought was, “Do you think people in the city don’t have to watch out for their kid and if their dog is going to get hit by a car?” You have to be responsible and be on the look out for what is out to get you anywhere where you're living.  You can't just expect, which I think a lot of people do, that the gun is going to solve everything.

Robertson: The way we’re talking about political art makes me think a little bit about Rick Lowe, a social practice artist in Houston who went around the community and figured out who the really low status members in this community were, like homeless guys, and created billboards of them in superhero costumes. It actually changed the community’s perception of them.

Renwick: I bet. That’s what I made the film Richart about, this outsider artist in Centralia, Washington [Richard Tracy].  He said, "With your editing you made me into a superhero, and now I have to live up to it." Although he was a superhero anyway.  Totally you can change perceptions of people through media.

In 1996, as Portland filmmakers were gaining more access to the national scene, filmmaker Matt McCormick founded Peripheral Produce, originally just as an underground screening series for the indie filmmakers he was discovering here. This grew into a video label distributing experimental film and video with to make this kind of work more accessible to the general public. From 2001 to 2009, Peripheral Produce organized the annual Portland Documentary and eXperimental Film Festival (PDX Film Festival), a week of non-narrative film and video from around the world. Artists represented by Peripheral Produce, like Miranda July, Bill Brown, Sam Green, and Naomi Uman, have been shown at Sundance, been included in the Whitney Biennial, and awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.  Renwick was a part of Peripheral Produce from its beginning and for a while held the record being in the most shows. McCormick’s curating and promotion of the artists on his label helped Renwick’s work gain a new level of exposure.

Robertson: You have been part of the video label Peripheral Produce…

Renwick: Matt McCormick searched out people when he moved to town here and found us.  Shows were happening every like two months. That was really important for me because I wasn't showing my work. He also put two videotape compilations of my work out, which definitely got my work out into the world.  I never would have done that if Matt hadn't come to town and started doing these shows.  I'm really grateful to him.   There was definitely a certain group of people who were participating in it all the time.  For years and years and years, he was always like, “We’re gonna have a show, are you going to have something in it?”  And I’d be like, yes.  And then I’d make something new. I work really well with deadlines.

Miranda July was in one or two things.  And then I worked with her on (July’s woman-only experimental video chainletter] "Joanie 4 Jackie" and shot some of her films too.  She was doing really interesting films. I remember shooting The Amateurist and she was just ad-libbing. I just had to stand there and bite my tongue. She was being hysterical. It was interesting because I shot a Sleater-Kinney music video for her and then through her Joanie 4 Jackie label, I was introduced to the work of other women that I never would have heard of.  She hooked me up. Kind of what Matt McCormick was doing, just broadening my knowledge of other filmmakers that I had no idea existed, and would never see their work without her doing that. Matt and Miranda coming into my life definitely spurred me on to make more work. They both did that for other people as well.

Robertson: Some people would say you can only get so big in Portland.  Do you think then that you really need to go to a major city for a while to make contacts?

Renwick: Well, I think definitely Todd Haynes [who moved here in 2000] and Gus Van Sant [a native Portlander] are worldwide forces, and they are both super approachable and kind and generous and mellow. Jon Raymond [also a native Portlander, and an editor of Plazm] or these people that live here are spreading out more, and yet they’re still really humble and appreciate Portland for what it is. I think you can definitely bust out. I do feel that I should get in a gallery in a city like Berlin or New York or Chicago, but I feel really content being here and working here. I think Michael Brophy says that too. He's just like “Everything's here that I need.  Why would I go anywhere else?”  The only thing it could help is that people don't buy many video installations in Portland, Oregon.

But people from out of town are blown away by how many people come to shows.  When Bill [Daniel, a filmmaker known in part for his work on hobo graffiti] and I did the Lonely Trainman show at the Hollywood, it sold out like four hundred fifty people, and people were turned away.  That is incredible for, you know, a local experimental film show, and unheard of in other parts of the world.

I think [art] is really appreciated here. I really couldn't ask for more than that. That people are really sinking into the atmosphere that I’ve created, and having touched their soul in some way is really all I want to do.

Robertson: You were in Berlin recently with the arts nonprofit Gallery Homeland’s EAST/WEST project. How did people respond over there to what you were doing?

Renwick: It was kind of interesting. A friend of mine was there and afterwards, she was like oh my god, I couldn’t believe the father of avant-garde German film was there. She said those people don’t usually come out to these things.  [People] were blown away by Richart because in Germany an outsider artist could not exist.  There’s all these really strict zoning laws on how your place looks.  They were like “There's no way anybody could be an artist like that in Germany because you wouldn't be able to surround your entire house with sculpture.”

Robertson: I think there's a lot that functions really differently in Europe. There's all this state support. I think we have such a scrappy DIY sensibility in Portland because we have no other way to do it.

Renwick: When Bush was elected in the second term, all these people I knew were like suicidally depressed and talking about getting out of the US.  I toyed with the idea briefly too, but then I was just like “No, man, the United States is incredible.”  There's this energy that is not in those other countries because they don't have such crazy history, and things are more handed to them. They get funding.  After a show, people are sitting around drinking beer and having a good time, but there's not this underlying raw deep down energy that I think exists in the United States. People are more alive here.

The other day I was at this opening and me and my friend were like, this feels like Portland in the early nineties right now— this super creative and raw and vibrant energy is still happening here.

We stop the recording and finish our tea.  The chickens outside settle down.  This energy and raw vitality available in Portland made possible collaborative efforts like Core Sample and the experimental filmmaker posse of Peripheral Produce. Through these DIY endeavors, Vanessa earned an audience for work that investigates incredibly different empty expanses and documents the appearance of wild space through the destruction of existing structures. People she portrays appear in isolation in places they have made eccentric themselves or that have long vanished. The way she contrasts the new and the old gives a sense of the effect of time and human interaction on landscape, that survival is transitory both in nature and in mundane human life. Ultimately, Vanessa Renwick's work provokes attention to a particular time and place, a more thoughtful examination of how we as people exist in the spaces we inhabit.

About This Story

  • Interviewer: Nora Robertson
  • Interviewee: Vanessa Renwick
  • Published Online: Feb 27, 2012