Bravery, Panties, and Devil’s Tower: The Rumpus Interview with Laurel Nakadate


laurel6Laurel Nakadate is a photographer and filmmaker from New York City. Her work washes us in discomfort and awkwardness because she believes these to be places of profound instability and serendipity. She has made, for instance, a series of films in which she goes home with older, lonely men who approach her. Once home with them, Nakadate films everything that happens. I stumbled across one of these videos on youtube and it took the top of my head off with its bizarre blend of childishness, fetishizing, and documentary. I called Laurel up and we talked for a couple hours one Friday afternoon in March. (Her new film, by the way, is Stay the same never change. Her show of videos and photos–“Fever Dreams at the Crystal Motel”–opens in New York on May 7 and in Los Angeles on June 6.)

Rumpus: This is the age of million-dollar films. Do you spend a lot creating yours?

Laurel Nakadate: My budget is usually gummy bears and panties.

Rumpus: I have a friend who despises the word “panties.” Gives her shivers. You have no qualms with it?

LN: I like the word panties. It’s a childish word, which automatically makes it great.

Rumpus: Are you back in New York City now?

laurel2LN: Yep. I’m sitting on a working child’s pony ride while talking to you on the phone. You know the kind they have in parks? It’s a vintage one.  I’m guessing from the 70’s.  It’s black with a white mane and feet.  It has a red saddle and bridle and wild gold eyes. It came from Los Angeles.

Rumpus: How did you come by that?

LN: I got it for a show I did. I had people watch the films from the back of a pony. I was kind of thinking of the American west and riding through the landscape of the American west.

Rumpus: Is it attached to the floor?

LN: It’s on a platform. It moves around. But it’s ridiculous. I have such a small space so the pony is the main event. There’s a desk, a bed, and a pony. That’s why I’m sitting on it now.  There aren’t too many options in my apartment, and it allows me look out the window.

Rumpus: Did you do much photography before you got into video work?

LN: I started as a photographer and I went to art school to be a photographer. I studied with traditional photographers like Bill Burke and Jim Dow at the Museum School in Boston. I made a photo documentary about girls at women’s schools. Wellesley, Smith, and Mt. Holyoke.  It focused on the parties they threw and the boys bussed in from Harvard and the University of Massachusetts who got drunk with them and helped them pass the four years. I used that work to get admitted into Yale’s MFA in photography program, but as soon as I got there I started making videos. Sometimes I feel like it’s a hybrid form of artmaking. There are a lot of photographers who are working in video now. It can only be good for artists from one genre to dig up something in another.

Rumpus: What about video drew you in so?

LN: I wanted to tell stories that moved.  Nothing stays the same, and that’s why photography is important.  The world flickers and changes, and that’s why video is important.

Rumpus: Do you work all the time? Do you ever shut it off?

LN: After I finished editing the film [Stay the same never change] I couldn’t do anything for a couple months. I couldn’t even take a cell phone picture. That was the first time I’d felt that way in years. But that passed. Right now I’m working on a lot of new stuff. In general, no, in my life there’s never been a time when I’m not working.

Rumpus: When you walk down the street, what do you like to look at?

LN: I just got back to the city. I’ve been on tour for a long time. I went to Utah for Sundance, Berlin, North Carolina, Portland, Syracuse, Los Angeles, all over. So I’ve been looking at people’s faces a lot. I’m like the creep who’s always looking for teenage girls on the street whose faces I might want in my film. I’m young enough to be able to do that. It’s easy to do that in a city, but on the other hand most people don’t want to talk to you, so it’s not that easy. I also like looking in bakery windows at cupcakes. I love cupcakes.

Rumpus: Why?

laurel1LN: A cupcake is like a great pop song. The whole world in less than three minutes. And it’s impossible to have a bad cupcake. In New York you walk everywhere. So I’m always looking, always on the eternal search for the perfect cupcake. I take them very seriously. It’s like hunting and gathering for me.

Rumpus: Have you found any faces you like recently?

LN: Yes. I found a face last week. She lives in Syracuse. I’m going to shoot a film with her this summer in Hollywood, Florida. I met her and right away I knew hers was a face I wanted to have in my film. I said, “What are you doing in July? Feel like being in a movie?” She said yes. The screenplay is about a girl who has a profound relationship with her former third grade teacher. It’s about the ways he helps her grow into an adult. But then there are the obvious failures that happen when a girl (the actor is twenty-one, by the way) depends on a teacher for happiness. I love to use amateur actors because they don’t perform.

Rumpus: What do you mean?

LN: It’s more a conversation between people. Less of a Performance with a capital P. More raw.

Rumpus: Do you always have a camera on you?

LN: I do. At least a point-and-shoot, if not a video camera. When I’m traveling I tend to have a video camera and when I’m in New York I tend to have a point-and-shoot.

Rumpus: Do you ever develop your own film?

LN: I shot my undergraduate work on 35mm. I love the way it looks, but I haven’t shot film in a while. If you can avoid scanning, it makes your practice faster. Oh, and I shoot a lot of Polaroid, too. I have about five hundred Polaroids from my film that I hope to show soon.

Rumpus: Polaroid’s going extinct, no?

LN: I think so. But maybe not. I don’t know. Polaroid, you know, goes against everything that photography is now. You can’t make multiples. Only one exists. I love that.  By the way, while we’ve been talking I’ve now seen a total of three people I know walking on 8th street.

Rumpus: You just had the premiere screening of Stay the same never change. Do you get distressed about openings?

LN: No. I just pretend it’s not happening. I won’t look it in the eye. As soon as I do, I get scared. You gotta walk the plank at some point, but at first you gotta put blinders on or you’ll overthink things. I think it’s dangerous, by the way, to do a lot of talks about your art, to do so much talking and so little making. You get the wrong idea about yourself. I have very little interest in endlessly telling people about my artistic process. It sounds like throwing yourself against a wall and crying. It’s not interesting to most people. It’s interesting to yourself. But it’s your problem, not anyone else’s.

laurel4Rumpus: In your Believer interview you said, “I always thought there was something so beautiful about getting attacked and turned on by something we can’t see.” What do you mean?

LN: The amazing thing is that we live our lives with the hope that things will go right, that things will happen. And all along the way, we’re inspired by the unknown and the unnameable. The minute you can fully describe something it’s gone. The most amazing moments are when something horrible is about to happen or has just happened. The iceberg falling into the ocean. That aching moment. You can see the pieces, you can see how they fit together, but you can’t put them back together. Also, I’m drawn to moments of ambiguity, when things could go right or they could go wrong. I’m interested in discomfort. Discomfort is a place where we’re still close enough to comfort to understand our unhappiness. Most of the things we desire are things that can destroy us.

Rumpus: Are you turned on by danger?

LN: The act of looking is brave. Especially if you look at things you can’t handle. I think that most people do not look. If you’re really paying attention you could have your heart broken twelve times a day. Most of the time we aren’t looking.

Rumpus: But are you turned on by danger?

[Laughs] I’m not turned on by danger. I’m turned on by the narrow escape.

Rumpus: You’ve made these amazing films with somewhat random men you encounter in which you go home with them and do various odd things together. I have a bunch of questions. First, do you seek these men out, or do they approach you?

LN: In the beginning, they approached me. Now, sometimes, I start the conversation, but I still let them choose me. I never want to make videos with people who don’t want to make them with me. I don’t want to force people to take part. Only people who want to collaborate. And that’s important because otherwise, the videos wouldn’t work. Them choosing to take part is very important to the videos.

Rumpus: Do people accuse you of exploiting the men you film?

LN: Yes, I get that all the time. I think people like to have everything be perfectly morally clear. When the lines get blurred it worries them. I’m not worried. I don’t think the men are either. But I think that the videos bring up feelings in people that they don’t want to feel. Sometimes people get really mad. That’s okay. Sometimes it’s good to get mad, sometimes it clarifies where we stand. I think that art has the ability to challenge and push, and that’s great. That’s better than great… it’s necessary.

What sort of men have you made films with?

Well, I met a man who said he was an artist. But he couldn’t afford a model to draw. So I volunteered. But part of the deal was that I could videotape us.  I filmed him drawing me. It was about him watching me, but ultimately about the audience watching him watching me. So he draws me in my underwear. It’s a film that talks about power and looking, and how we fetishize other people, and how we take control of other people. But it’s also about a relationship. I trusted him enough to draw me and he trusted me enough to tape us. I made another film called “Oops.” It was filmed with three different men I met through chance encounters. We danced to Britney Spears’s “Oops, I did it again.” You know that one? By the artist Britney Spears. Anyway. I memorized the dance moves off of MTV. Then we danced together, me and the men. I chose men who didn’t have children or wives. So there was this tenderness they allowed me that they weren’t used to offering or accessing. Without having a real reason to dance, they did. There was this tenderness they offered up in the making of that video. They could and could not be the important male figure in my life that they wanted to be. For me, it was about these strange and awkward moments human beings have. It was about men wanting to give me something they emotionally don’t have to give.

Rumpus: What were they wanting to give?

I think they wanted to do it “right.”  They wanted to perform for me the “right way.” But neither of us really knew what that was. Just like in relationships. You try so damn hard to make everything work, but it’s always a mystery. And that’s why we love so hard and keep trying – mystery of the unknown, wanting to crack the case, to be the exception.

Rumpus: You call it tenderness. Do you think it was also lust?

LN: Tenderness and lust are just immature little brothers of love. Yes of course it was lust… but I’m not sure how evolved or resolved that lust was.

What do you tell them you’re doing when you say, yeah, I’ll go with you, but I’m taking this video camera with me? How do you explain that?

LN: I would always say I’m doing a video project. About dancing or birthday parties. Of course, the video becomes more than that. It goes deeper than that. But it’s not a lie. It’s a starting point. I present the thing we’re going to do as a simple starting point. They all know it’s an art piece and that it’s all going to be recorded. And I have never had an experience where one of these men tried to take advantage of the situation. If they were guilty of anything it was of being lonely. It was never that they were violent or dangerous.

Rumpus: Were you ever afraid?

LN: I’m always afraid going into strange places, but I also choose carefully and listen to my instincts. These were men I could trust. I’m a pretty good judge of crazy versus sad. I prefer sad.

When you’re with these men the room must be so charged.

LN: It’s full of a strange energy, yes. At some point it’s like, here we go, and it takes off. You just fasten your seatbelt and let it go. The videos create their own lives and create their own energy. The performance is its own world and it’s bigger than the performers themselves. I see the videos as documentations of the performances.  Everything’s a performance though, right? And everything’s a document, right?

What do you feel in that room, in these strange situations with the camera rolling?

LN: Discomfort. Awkwardness.

You seem drawn to discomfort.

laurel7LN: Discomfort and awkwardness are places where you feel things. I’m a big advocate for being happy. We can choose to live in a happy bubble. But part of being happy is understanding how sad things can be. I feel like I’m at a place in my life where I’m really strangely happy, and in awe of how great the world can be, and I think that’s because I have gone through periods of looking at the world through a really melancholy lenses. It’s all just flip sides of the same coin. There’s such an energy created when the world is turned upside down, and when things are good again it’s nice to take note. Then it goes away. Change. Change means friction. Friction happens where things aren’t quite right, when everything is separating, when nothing is the same. Later you piece it back together. Heartbreak is when you’re just far enough away from what you desire that you can feel it. Change is the Pangaea moment. I feel like I’m at this point in my life where I have created this place, this island in the ocean, and I’m happy there.

Awkwardness is an interesting thing to me. I think a lot of artist-types, for instance, would describe themselves as socially awkward.

I think most interesting people are socially awkward even if they’re able to hide it most of the time. If Henry Darger hadn’t been a shut-in would we love him so much? Any act that we do in private is amazing and profound because it is private. You don’t have to worry about being socially awkward in the privacy of your own home… well, unless I show up.

Then what?

LN: Well, my intention is to make work about being uncomfortable. About being in a world that isn’t always the world you want to be part of. I talk a lot about the free fall, the moment in the scene where gravity takes over, and the beautiful awkwardness when gravity wins. Gravity is hilarious. Gravity always wins. And I think that fact alone levels everything. Slapstick amazes me, the folly of humans today, the Ponzi schemes, giving birth to eight babies at once, it’s amazing… And I know, it’s horrible to have your money stolen and all that, but those are amazing stories.

When you’re making a video with these men, is there a line you won’t cross?

LN: No touching unless invited. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. And, it’s all for the camera. Once we cut, the scene is over. Rules always make things better in art.

Rumpus: What were the parameters you placed on yourself for the videos you made with lonely men?

LN: Tell stories. With strangers. Find them. Go home with them. Turn on camera.

Rumpus: Do the men see the finished videos?

LN: Some of them have seen the finished videos. Most of them live so far away from where the work shows that it’s not possible. But that’s fine. The relationship with the men is about that moment, it’s about what happens in that moment, on camera. Not what happens after that.

Do you have relationships with these men off-camera?

LN: One of them I do. He’s sort of a recurring character in my work. I met him through a chance encounter. I’ve been shooting videos with him for a decade. I adore him. I don’t think it’s necessary, though, to maintain relationships with these men, just like it’s not necessary to maintain relationships with everyone we meet in our lives.

Have you read Lolita?


Rumpus: Do you like it?

I love it.

Rumpus: Who else do you like to read?

LN: I love fiction. I like reading short stories. Cupcakes, pop songs, Polaroids, and short stories. They all raise and answer questions in a short space. I like Lorrie Moore. Amy Hempel. Tim O’Brien. Raymond Carver. All the heartbreakers.

laurel5Rumpus: This picture of you against the barbed wire fence… Where is that taken?

LN: I took it at Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. It was part of a series called “Where you’ll find me.” I was doing portraits in the middle of nowhere, or in front of national monuments, in front of recognizable places. I wanted to portray profound experiences like suicide scenes or murder scenes or someone having convulsions in public places.

Rumpus: You’ve said before death is embarrassing. Why is death embarrassing?

LN: After you die, your body is just there. Isn’t it kind of embarrassing that your body is going to be there and you have no say or control over it? Somebody’s going to have to deal with it. I’ve always respected people who kill themselves and find a way to get rid of the body. Very clean. Lost at sea. I can see why they do that. There’s nothing left. Every time I hear that somebody died I think of their body, on a steel table in a morgue somewhere. I think of how they can do nothing about it.

Rumpus: You’ve also said elsewhere that you are “looking for someone who’s lonely and wants to try to create something with me.” That’s beautiful. It’s the statement of a collaborative artist, no?

LN: I think we’re put out into the world to forge relationships with people. Those can be as small as buying coffee from someone or as large as a marriage. The important thing is that we try to make connections or have experiences with other humans. Otherwise what’s the point of being on this earth? I think it’s a really good idea to be bumping into all kinds of people in all kinds of ways. So you make art with strangers. You give a reading. You move somewhere new and try to build a life. You grapple with humanity.

Is taking photographs and making videos your way of doing that?

Yes. It all goes back to heartbreak. If you can see a thing you don’t have anymore it’s very heartbreaking. To hold onto things longer than we actually can hold onto them is a desire. Writers and artists are trying to record these things they can no longer have. We’re a heartbroken lot. Taking pictures is a brave act in which you try to explain and remember a thing you can’t have anymore.

Isn’t art more than just recording something?

Yes, but everything is mediated. Everything is influenced by its maker. And happily, right? I’m so happy everyone leaves fingerprints on things whether they like it or not. Fingerprints solve crimes. They’re profound. They’re your best and worst friend and you were born with them and you can’t get away from them without a lot of pain and sandpaper. The act of recording requires you to look at and handle and touch things, so yes – art is more than just looking and recording.  It’s messy and time consuming and people might fall in love and get hurt.

Jesse Nathan is an editor at McSweeney’s and the managing editor of the Best American Nonrequired Reading. His poetry and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in jubilat, the American Poetry Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Nation. He was born in Berkeley, grew up in Kansas, and lives now in San Francisco. More from this author →