"I realized that a large part of the Exit Strategy process was just coming to terms with my own experiences and feeling like I deserved to tell my stories. Making these works, and having the works programmed has been an opportunity to reconnect to myself, and to others."
Readers, I am going to get serious with this interview post with some self-disclosure. First, let me introduce you to Kym McDaniel.
Kym is an experimental filmmaker, media collaborator, choreographer and performer currently based in what is now known as Binghamton, NY. Her experimental films have shown at Slamdance, Chicago Underground Film Festival, Antimatter, and in group and gallery exhibitions including the Rochester Contemporary Art Center (NY), Whitney Humanities Center at Yale University, and Bow Arts Gallery (London), among others. She has an MFA inFilm, Video, Animation, and New Genres from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She currently teaches in the Cinema Department at Binghamton University.
It was a couple of years ago that I was first introduced to Kym McDaniel's work during a Cellular Cinema screening of short films. The program was curated by Ariel Teal and featured femme-identified filmmakers living or had formerly lived in Milwaukee.
I was immediately connected to Kym's work. It was her Exit Strategy series that appealed to me. I was interested in her ability to create consecutive works that explored the experiences of emotional and physical trauma, using video, movement, and her own body and voice to confront these themes. Not only could I relate to the premise of these films but I recognized the power of self-reclaimation found in the work.
"So how do I find my way out," Kym asks out loud in Exit Strategies. As someone who has personally experienced childhood abuse, I've asked myself something similarly. One thing trauma has made me feel is that I am alone. I have felt emotionally and physically trapped because of trauma. It disconnected me from own body, even as the trauma lived and breathed within me. Trauma stirred in my veins, in the crevices of every inch of my body. It compartmentalized in my brain. It found its way into my stomach, my shoulders, and my lower back. The emotional ramifications of the trauma I had experienced manifested into physical pain throughout my body. As a child and young adult, I hid my trauma, from myself and others, out of shame and disbelief. I lived knowing it was there. I lived trying to distance myself from it, quieting it to the point that it boiled underneath. It wasn't healthy.
Finding my way out of repression and silence, which I often used as a form of protection and safety, was difficult work. It's mind-body work. Motivations to this work came from deep hope, a desire to heal, and a place of exhaustion. I wanted to move past the pain and fatigue that went with being a victim of trauma. I wanted to find bodily interconnectedness. I needed empowerment to live beyond and find recovery.
So when I come across artists like Kym McDaniel I need to tell them how much their work matters to me. I need to be exposed to artists like Kym McDaniel because I need films like Exit Strategies. Art like this validates my experiences. This kind of art speaks to me and I know it does for others, because one thing I have learned over the years, is that I am not alone. Possibly you can relate?
I am lucky that Kim let me ask her some questions about Exit Strategies. It's not always the case that you get to ask people directly about the art they make.
And you know what else? Kym is returning to Minnesota! She will be curating a program of films in partnership with Cellular Cinema on March 15th. I will be there and you should be too! Check out more info on the event here.
Read and admire on!
Jes: Kym, I am so excited about your upcoming program with Cellular Cinema. Can you tell me more about it and what we should expect?
Kym: Thank you, I’m excited too. This program has been a real treat for me to curate because of it’s hybrid nature. I had the opportunity to integrate both of my worlds as a dancer and filmmaker.
The program is called The Language of Gesture, and includes both single-channel videos and live dances. Last fall I taught a class called Movement Media Collaborations, and one of their projects was to create a work about gesture. I was really inspired by their interpretations of what a gesture could be, and how the meaning of gesture changed in the different mediums of dance, film, and performance art. Their project prompt was an extension of my own work since gesture is a part of my creative process. I love when teaching and research have such a reciprocal relationship like that!
The works in the program investigate gesture in a way that is specific to each artist’s medium and voice. One thing that ties the works together is my passion for curating work by women and non-binary artists. I naturally gravitate towards the themes and stories shared in their works. Artists in the program include Chelsey Becher & Ivy Jerin Robertson (performance), Tasha Holifield (performance), Ariana Gerstein (video), Amielle Gibson (Super 8), M.O. Guzman (video), Terrance Houle (video), Marissa Jax & Maria Tordoff (performance), Chanelle Lajoie (video), Chloe Nagle (performance), Arneshia Williams (performance), and Nina Yuen (video).
I have been interested in your Exit Strategy project. As someone who has also experienced emotional and physical trauma, I have connected to the premise of the work. What’s next in this series?
Thanks for this question. It’s a privilege for me to connect with others in this way.
The works were created to be modular, but I hope #1-6 will be able to screen as one in festivals and/or other pop-up, DIY, or independent venues. They are single-channel videos, but I think of them as performative, so having them screen as one feature is another dimension of their performative life cycle for me. I also started seeing the works as episodic chapters in my life and recovery. When screened together, they embody oneself piecing together aftermath and moving forward as one entity.
When I watched #1-6 together last week, I couldn’t believe how fast the hour went! I realized these works represent 1/100 of my experience as someone in physical / emotional / sexual / spiritual recovery. There’s a sense of empowerment in that idea that I am the only one who truly knows what I have gone through. And, on the other side of that- an empowerment in sharing the series and having the privilege of connecting with an audience. I’ve been reading the book Blogging in a Postfeminist Age by Jessalyn Keller and she talks about a “pedagogy of hope” … I’ve been thinking a lot about what a pedagogy of hope means, and I think sharing the series as one feature is part of that hopeful process for me.
I am curious to know more about how making this work has been healing for you. Could you talk more about that?
When I started making the videos, the intention was to release embodied shame in the hopes that my chronic physical pain would lessen. The initial experiment of the project has grounded me over the last several years. Why is this story essential to tell, how does it relate to shame? How is this video considered an exit out of shame? Will telling this story facilitate a release so I can integrate a dissociated part of my psyche into my body?
The first time I watched the movie Thelma by Joachim Trier I was crying…There is a quote about the movie by Sheila O’Malley that says, “[the movie’s] engine is the emotional awakening of an extremely repressed girl, a girl who finds emotions so stressful it ruptures the fabric of her reality.”
To step outside my habits of repression, shame, and silence in order to create these works was a huge risk. I used repression and silencing as methods to keep myself safe when I was younger, but now as an adult, I realized those techniques were actually keeping me a victim. It was (is) a risk for me to be vulnerable. After I created Exit Strategy #1 and #2, I started translating this risk of vulnerability from within the series to my “real” life. The series became more than just making art, but about how to feel and cope with being human. This was something I had not allowed myself to do for almost 20 years.
I think I chose dancing as my original medium because I could express myself with choreography and the body, and I never had to talk about my experience directly. But, I kept getting injured. All of my feelings were bound inside me: physicalized emotional pain. When I first started working in video and tried voiceover, I couldn’t handle hearing my voice... I kept receiving critique to stop whispering! But I was only whispering because I couldn’t speak any louder. Since all of the strategies have a voiceover (except #4), I see how far I have come. I imagined my voice being a key I could use to free memories trapped inside my chronically ill body. But I’ve also learned this isn’t enough – I needed to transform my narrative of victimization. I needed to reclaim my own memory, and change the ending to stories I had kept in my body for so long.
I realized that a large part of the Exit Strategy process was just coming to terms with my own experiences and feeling like I deserved to tell my stories. Making these works, and having the works programmed has been an opportunity to reconnect to myself, and to others. The experience has been validating, bittersweet, and healing. I think a part of the series is about how I feel disconnected from my body, and how disconnected I feel to others, and the amount of pain, loneliness, and destruction that alienation has caused me. Connecting with others kinesthetically and empathetically has been an unexpected outcome and healing...
My Alexander Technique teacher, Luc Vanier, introduced me to a quote by Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind that is often on my mind about process. The quote in part is “In a fog, you do not know you are getting wet, but as you keep walking, you get wet little by little.” This is what healing has been like for me. I could not foresee the impact of this work on my identity and my transformation… it is not until later (or when I’m crying about Thelma) I see how the works have aided in my process of recovery and healing.
Thanks for sharing, Kym. It’s powerful to see how Exit Strategy as a series has not only created connection with others for you but that the creation of the works has supported your own voice and ability to tell your story. I think that means a lot, especially when it comes to using art as a way to process through events and experiences from our lives. It’s very relatable.
On different note: I have admired how you incorporate curation into your art practice. How do curatorial practices advance or add to what you do? Do you have recommendations for others who want to extend or expand this approach into their work? How do you manage to curate and develop the art projects that you have?
I view curation as an extension of my collaborative practice... not only between me and another artist, but how each piece collaborates with other works in the program. I think curation is a way to test out how themes work with one another and how the audience responds to a framework I have facilitated. I grew up playing competitive chess and curation feels a lot like chess to me. Piecing together moving parts and following a strategy with a goal in mind.
When I was living in Milwaukee, my curation practice started because I needed to keep my choreographic practice alive when I was in grad school for film. I would put on shows in the summer when I had a break from grad school. I was able to connect and build a platform for dancing, friends, and artists in the area and beyond.
I think a recommendation would be to think about the relationship of power, privilege, and oppression when you are in a role of power, like a curator. I think about who is visible and invisible in our society, culture, and art world. I also believe that art shouldn’t be separated from the artist. I want to support people who are doing the work and aren’t personally or professionally hurting the community.
Are there any particular challenges you face as an artist?
Getting paid for my work. Paying other artists for their work I’m curating when I don’t have a specific funding source. Believing in myself and my work. Not having health insurance, and/or the possibility of losing health insurance. Finding good mental health support when you’re moving around/can’t afford out of network/don’t have health insurance. The student loans. The instability, not knowing what’s next professionally/artistically. Finding time to make work in the sea of other responsibilities. Being a woman in this industry. Negotiating the idea that rejection does not have a relationship to my worth. Dating other artists. Dating non-artists. Honestly maybe just dating in general.
What do you love about being an artist?
Ultimately, I became an artist because I had to… being an artist is too difficult unless you are so in love with creating there is no other option… I love creating a life rooted in discovery, surprise, and self-expression. I love learning how my work informs me about myself, and feeling like my work is making an impact or helping someone else. I love the excitement of integrating movement, writing, and images into a practice, and meeting new minds through teaching/curation/choreography. I love being in collaboration with another artist and creating a work together that I never would have made on my own. I love the friends I have met along the way who understand me (and give me critique!). I’m grateful for the opportunity to have met my mentors who have changed my life.
What artists do you admire?
Chantal Akerman, Anne Charlotte Robertson, Dani ReStack, Wu Tsang, Zeinabu irene Davis, Trisha Brown, Pina Bausch, Stephanie Barber, Nazlı Dinçel, Carolee Schneemann, Will Rawls, Maggie Nelson, Yvonne Rainer, Numa Perrier, Roxane Gay, Robyn, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. My graduate committee at UW-Milwaukee was amazing. I was able to work with Carl Bogner, Lori Felker, Kelly Kirshtner, Jesse McLean, and Cecelia Condit.
Where can we find you online?
My website is www.kymmcdaniel.com, and my instagram is @kymcdaniel
Is there anything else you would like to share?
The quote I mentioned earlier about walking in the fog can be located here. Thank you for letting me think about these questions and sharing this event!
Thank you so much, Kym, for being part of my interview series. I look forward to the event on March 15th.
All images courtsey of the artist.
Did you know that I am starting a new cinema program in St. Paul for women and non-binary/gender non-conforming filmmakers? I am! Moonplay Cinema’s first event is June 28th. Our first screening will open with a program of short films and conclude highlighting the work from Kiera Faber. You can learn more about Kiera in an interview I did with her last year.
Submit to screen with Moonplay here.
Contribute to our first season’s crowdfunding campaign here.
"I love that I can explore and cope with all the things that I am feeling and dealing with by making something, even if that thing doesn’t speak to anybody other than me."
If you haven't seen one of John Akre's films you've been missing out. Luckily, I am here to introduce you to him. John's one of my favorite local artists. I admire how he combines community and history in his art. He has a traveling animation studio where he creates spontaneous cartoons with the public. He also makes books, comics, and draws daily (making a monthly video featuring those drawings). On top of this he also organizes MinnAnimate, a festival creating a place for animation in Minnesota.
John is an animator and videomaker who has been playing around with movies since he was nine. He is always trying to figure out different ways to combine documentary and animation, and also how to make a living while doing the things he loves (I can relate to that!). He is a teaching artist who works with all ages of people through COMPAS, Film North, and other organizations. He teaches animation at Hamline University and is married to Beth Peloff (another artist I admire), an animator and videomaker, and they work together as Green Jeans Media (how cool is that?!).
Enjoy learning more about John. There's a lot of great videos of John's to watch too. Admire on!
Jes: Hi John! I am so excited I can ask you some questions. First off, can you tell readers about your films and how you first started making animation?
John: Hi Jes, thank you so much for asking me! When I was nine I started collecting and projecting 8mm films, and on my 10th birthday the father of a friend of mine gave me his wind-up 8mm camera. I immediately set to work with paper cut-outs on my bedroom floor spending weeks making a stop motion film. This film came back from the lab completely black because I wasn’t using any light other than the one on my bedroom ceiling, which was pretty dim. But I tried again, with more light, and had more success. At the same time I also started making goofy movies with my family and friends, stopping the camera to make one person change into another and making them move without moving their legs - animating people.
When I went to film school in Bozeman, MT I fell in love with documentary and, aside from drawing and scratching directly on film, I left animation behind. In my late thirties, because of some heart issues I was born with, I had a heart attack, and that made me think about whether I was really doing what I wanted to do with my life. I ended up starting to draw again, and trying to figure out how to do animation in this age of computers.
In my movies I combine stop motion animation with computer animation and usually try to bring in some humor. The influence of Walt Disney and the Disney studio is so overwhelming in the field and art of animation, and that is okay, but I am always trying to imagine what animation would be like if that studio wasn’t so influential, so I look to the work of pre-Disney animators for guidance. I also have a portable stop motion set-up that I carry around on my bicycle to create stop motion animation with whoever might come by at public events. I am really interested in cities, what they look like, how they change, and particularly what happens when people really get out in the streets and together in buildings and share this special kind of city life.
I am interested in how you first started combining documentary and animation. When did this approach first start? Do you remember your first project where this intersection occurred? How has it grown since?
When I was in college in Montana, in 1986, I took a one-day workshop with camcorder documentarian Skip Blumberg, and after that all I wanted to do was make one-on-one video documentaries. I found a home in public access television, teaching video production and creating video documentaries, and completely stopped drawing and making any kind of animation.
When I returned to animation in my early 40’s, I tried to think about ways to combine frame by frame work with my documentary work. Some of the first animation projects that I did digitally were these “face films” in which I would ask people questions and take a series of photos of them and then I would synchronize those photos with their response to my question. I also made a long movie of a train trip I did of the U.S. and Canada by drawing animated loops about the trip on post it notes and photographing them on the train windows. I was doing this all about 15 years ago.
The animation station idea came about when I heard that one of the first Open Streets in Minneapolis was looking for artists to do interactive art activities on the street. I thought I might try to take my stop motion equipment onto the street and see what might come out of it, and then I combined the animation with interview responses, like I did in those earlier face movies. Now I’m making some documentaries about artists who I know that are mostly filmed with the camera but might have some animated elements. I’ve also started exploring some of the family things I have collected, particularly scrapbooks and photo albums, and trying to make animated collage films with them.
Can you explain how you prepare for events like this and what it looks like for someone passing by? How do you get people to participate?
I am a very introverted person, so it first takes me trying to mentally prepare to engage with other people, which is difficult for me, but also so rewarding when it happens. Although we build the movie frame by frame, I use software that allows me to repeatedly play the movie that we are working on, and it grows as we add more to it. So, people walking by can see what has already been done, and that helps them to see how it works. I think that just getting a chance to see how that slow animation process works and builds, and that it all looks a little goofy, can make it enticing for people to participate in. I give lots of people my spiel about how it works and not everyone wants to participate, but everyone pretty much leaves smiling. Plus, I just get so hyped up because as an introvert I kind of need to do that to be out in public and I think people either get scared away or as hyped as I am. I often have art supplies like paper and scissors, or chalk if I am outside on the street, and all those art supplies can be very enticing too, at least I think so.
MinnAnimate is a great festival that you started. What kind of advice do you have for individuals who are looking to start their own screening programs?
I almost think it might be necessary to make your own screening program if you make your own films. The truth I’ve found is that there are a lot of screenings and film festivals out there, but almost all of them are not going to want to show my movie. I submit my movies to dozens of film festivals and screenings every year and get in way less than 10% I started MinnAnimate partly because I wanted to show my own films, so I include one of my movies in with all the others I collect every year, which is great in itself, because it’s like making a little family or community of movies. I particularly enjoy the process of sequencing or ordering the films, so that the collection of them has a narrative arc about it. And these days, you just need to figure out a space to do some kind of screening, and a way to let other people know about it. I’m never exactly sure how it all seems to come together every year, but it does, and getting a chance to meet all those other animators and the people who come to watch makes the work and the stress way more than worth it. The only advice I have is just to think that you can do it.
Are there any particular challenges you face as an artist?
You can feel free to cut this one if it doesn’t fit in, but it’s more a challenge I face as a human being, which I am much more than I am an artist. But when I was around 13 years old I saw a car run over a dog while I was standing on a busy street waiting for a bus. I decided at that moment that I was never going to drive, and I still respect that decision - I have never had a driver’s license. I think that if you have a city where the majority of trips are taken by car, which is almost every city in the U.S., you have a city that is all about cars. If the majority of trips in your city are not taken by cars, by walking, by transit, by biking, by skateboarding, and so on, you have a city that’s all about people, which is thankfully what the majority of the cities in the world are like. I think it’s a real challenge to live in a city that’s all about cars, just a challenge to maintain sanity. I would just like to go on a podium for a second and ask everyone before they take a trip by car if they really need to do that, or if there might be other options. And with climate change, it seems like reducing that fossil fuel burning is also a pretty good idea too.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on driving, John. I totally share some of your opinions. I do drive a lot and I would love to change that. Next question: What do you love about being an artist?
I love that I can explore and cope with all the things that I am feeling and dealing with by making something, even if that thing doesn’t speak to anybody other than me. It’s a way to get things out and release the things that might be bringing me down. That act of creation is really euphoric for me.
I think that creating beautiful things out of the stuff of our life is innate in us, and that if we don’t have creative outlets we’re lacking something profound. I’m glad I am able to access those things in myself.
Are you working on anything new?
Of course - I’m always working on ideas or making things. I do at least one silly drawing a day and am working on a few movie projects. Late last year I shot a few hours of video of an artist friend who has since passed away, so I have been grieving him by editing that video and creating animation inspired by him. I have an animated feature project (my fourth) that I hope to have finished some day, but I’m not sure in what year that day will be. I’m also starting to work on another animated short in a series I have been making called, “Hats of the New American Cinema,” which is kind of a set of silly tributes to these experimental filmmakers of post-WWII U.S. I also am getting ready to do a big participatory animation installation at Art-A-Whirl this year with support I received from the Minnesota State Arts Board.
What artists do you admire?
My parents told me that one of the first words I could say was “Louis.” I was born in late 1962, and in 1963 one of the biggest hits on the radio was Louis Armstrong’s recording of “Hello Dolly.” There was something about that voice and song that still calms me and makes me happy, and my parents said that whenever that song came on the radio I would get so excited and just say “Louis” over and over. So of course, they got me that record, and I would always play it when I was feeling sick or sad and I’d immediately feel better. Armstrong and other jazz artists, particularly John Coltrane and Sun Ra, have inspired me my whole life, giving me a sense of the spiritual and struggle and hope and improvisation.
I wasn’t much older when I saw the oddest and most amazing thing on TV and when I asked my mom what it was she said, “Charlie Chaplin.” I still remember that moment, and I still am so moved by the work of the silent comedians Chaplin and Buster Keaton, filmmakers who improvised their movies, making them without written scripts. Later I discovered the German Lotte Reiniger and the Argentinian Quirino Cristiano, pre-Disney animators who showed me how to make animated films with paper cut-outs and daring and little else. I also love to read, and among the many many writers I love is Raymond Queneau, who experimented in what text can do but also had a pretty strong sense of humor about it. Maya Deren, Jonas Mekas, and Stan Brakhage were experimental filmmakers who embraced the fact that they were amateurs, that they made movies because of love, and that idea always guides me. My eyes were opened up to the community building possibilities of animation by the independent animator Helen Hill.
When they were at the Walker Art Center I got a chance to say hello both to Agnes Varda, one of my guides to the world of handheld documentary, and Joanna Priestly, who inspired me to take animation into the outdoors. And there are so many local and contemporary animators and filmmakers who I learn something from all the time that I would be hesitant to name, because there are so many and I would hate to leave someone out. And every time I work with young people, whether kindergartners or college students or any age in between, I learn new things about what we can do and how we can live, I just plain get inspired. And my favorite artist of all is my wife, Beth Peloff, who not only makes amazing movies herself but is always willing to give me useful notes to make my own work better.
Lately I’ve been trying to make about one film a year or so about an artist I know, generally people in their fifties and sixties, like me, who are just keeping on keeping on. I just like to hang out with my camcorder while they do what they do, because it is all so inspiring.
First, I am jealous that you were able to meet Agnes. Second, I really love Beth’s work. I am definitely going to ask her if I can feature her on this blog! John, where can we find you online?
My website is www.johnakre.com. There are literally hundreds of short movies there you can watch. I also post a picture once a day on instagram under johnmakre. And you can find out about the Sloppy Films Animation Station on Facebook at SFAnimationStation.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Thank you so much for doing this, Jes. I really appreciate it when people watch one of my movies and then have questions about it, or just have questions about what I do. Having to write or speak about it makes me think about it, and thinking about it gives me a chance to figure out what I really am doing. And I really appreciate you creating these illuminating and inspiring profiles!
All images courtesy of the artist.
Artists I Admire is a series of interviews with artists I think highly of.