Rosa John Rote Linie, 2015/2016, Super 8mm screened as digital video, color, silent, 3 min. Courtesy the artist

Rosa John, Rote Linie, 2015/2016, Super 8mm screened as digital video, color, silent, 3 min. Courtesy the artist

Artist Interviews

Rosa John Outlines Ambiguity as the Definition of Identity

Austrian filmmaker Rosa John muses on creating work from minimal elements, the idiosyncrasy of the camera, and the liberating power of ambiguity in our ongoing conversation series for McEvoy Arts at Home.

Guest curator and San Francisco Cinematheque director Steve Polta speaks each Wednesday with artists in the Screening Room exhibition certainty is becoming our nemesis, which was interrupted by McEvoy Arts’ temporary closure due to the coronavirus. The program is now available to view online in its entirety.

Steve Polta: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your current artistic concerns or projects? Where are you answering this Q&A from? 

Rosa John: I am a visual artist and filmmaker with a background in media studies, and I am based in Vienna, Austria. In my work I like to follow multiple paths, thematically and methodically. But my main project of the past few years has been a series of works concerning the idiosyncrasy of the camera. I’m interested in how the material and the visual co-depend. I am currently doing some interdisciplinary work on the materiality of the camera and the use of metaphoric language to grasp the logic of a camera. I am also working on finalizing my PhD project in which I am pursuing a media archaeological approach to the history of the camera. Specifically, I am investigating the history of the company Paillard Bolex and the Bolex H-16 camera and its implications on visual culture, particularly artists’ film.

SP: How does your film in this program relate to your ongoing practice or body of work?

RJ: The film Rote Linie (Red Line) incorporates elements like a performative and self-empowering way of filmmaking, the depiction of fragments of the human body, monothematic reduction, and perhaps also the visual balance of recognizable specifics and abstraction which are characteristic of my work. But it was not conceived as a conceptual addition to my body of work, it’s one in a variety of approaches or paths (as put above). Likewise, it’s not part of the previously mentioned project on the camera, but it does make use of camera-specific potentials. The film was shot on Super8, but I also work with 16mm or occasionally video. I love Super8, working with it is so flexible and playful and it opens up possibilities of very spontaneous filmmaking while still being film: a strip with tiny images on it. It is also a very simple film in the way that I worked with very basic means and by myself. I like to give myself that challenge to build something with minimal elements, things or people that are more or less already around.

Rosa John Rote Linie, 2015/2016, Super 8mm screened as digital video, color, silent, 3 min. Courtesy the artist

I think ambiguity is the only valid definition of existence or identity.

Rosa John

SP: As you know, certainty is becoming our nemesis is inspired by McEvoy Arts’ exhibition Orlando, itself inspired by Virginia’s Woolf’s 1928 novel and Sally Potter’s 1992 film adaptation starring Tilda Swinton. What, if any, is your prior relationship to the work of these artists?

RJ: I’ve encountered these artists and their work (particularly regarding Orlando) many years ago as an adolescent or young adult, and have been intrigued by all of them—but I never yet engaged with their body of work profoundly, like really delved into it, as I would definitely like to. All the more so I was very happy that you as a programmer saw a connection. Such incidents assure me to keep going even if one sometimes doesn’t know where a path leads to.

SP: The program explores themes of transformation, self-invention, and gender performance and suggests that ambiguity of identity can operate as an emotional survival strategy and act of defiance. Are these themes something you consider in your artistic process or as central to your work exhibited here?

RJ: I think ambiguity is the only valid definition of existence or identity. Every other sort of definition of the human identity just feels like cutting off air to breathe. Acceptance of ambiguity is just so liberating in so many regards of life. That’s my personal opinion or feeling or experience, and as such it probably plays into my work while not being explicitly about it. Just as I am a political person but don’t consider my work to be political art, or wouldn’t even insist to call it art, while I just want to make films, photographs, objects, arguments as a means of communication.

SP: In what way has your inclusion in this program (or in conjunction with the larger Orlando exhibition) impacted your view of the work itself?

RJ: To make a film or any work of art implies a lot of decisions and thoughts, some more explicable than others. In that regard I often argue with myself while I also think it is important for me to trust something beyond knowledge or understanding. A film or any work of art can and should open up different layers in different contexts. So I definitely reacted to the idea of body norms and transformation when making the film, but it came from a very personal place and the inclusion in the program shows me that it speaks to a larger frame of discourse. Also the gender aspect is intrinsic to the work, it’s not a coincidence that I used a lipliner for the body marking rather than any other sort of pen. But when I made that film I wasn’t even sure if I was ever going to show it to anybody. So I guess the inclusion in this particular program and exhibition also supports that approach of sharing. We might not be that different in our doubts and wishes after all.

Rosa John Rote Linie, 2015/2016, Super 8mm screened as digital video, color, silent, 3 min. Courtesy the artist

SP: How are you coping with the current public health crisis? How has it impacted your approach to art-making?

RJ: In the last weeks I’ve really felt a whole range of different sentiments, and then again there was not much time to give into these feelings as I am at home with a toddler and a preschool-aged kid during this lockdown, and they keep me occupied with the most ordinary things. And while my partner and I are splitting our efforts, it’s difficult to manage everyday tasks and also get work done. So far, I don’t think the current situation is impacting my personal approach to art-making, but it further challenges the circumstances that allow me to find the resources to make art. I do find comfort in a sort of general slow down and the questioning of values that is taking place, although I’m afraid it won’t have a lasting effect.

Besides that, experiencing art is a very sensual thing for me, and while all those current efforts in the digital realm are great, the situation only nourishes my need for haptic, site-specific, “odorant” encounters with art. 

SP: Lastly, what’s the last piece of art, media, or culture that exerted a profound impact on you?

RJ: I had several wonderful and informative experiences of art in the last few months (like retrospectives of Margaret Tait at the Austrian Filmmuseum, Maria Lassnig at Albertina, Constantin Brancusi at Bozar in Brussels). The most profound (and still ongoing) impact on me has come from the broad cultural discourse on climate change and ecological matters, which had developed so intently before the current public health crisis. It should prompt us to reevaluate ways of doing things that we have gotten so used to, to reevaluate what to wish for – and this concerns the art world just as much as everyone else.

You can watch Rosa John’s Rote Linie (Red Line) (2015/2016) here. For more from McEvoy Arts at Home, click here.

Rosa John

Rosa John is a visual artist and filmmaker based in Vienna, Austria.