Written By Yan Gu
Meredith Drum is an Assistant Professor of Intermedia at Arizona State University. I am grateful for this opportunity to create an interview with her. I encountered her work via her website, http://meredithdrum.com/ . Meredith Drum is a filmmaker who makes videos and animations. She not only loves making films, but is also fascinated with creating films as single-screen shorts and multi-screen installations. Drum is an activist who collaborates with dancers, architects, writers, urban planners, computer programmers and scientists.
The interview was recorded on November 2017 via Phone.
Yan Gu: What is your definition of feminist?
Meredith Drum: As a feminist I think about, and work toward, gender equality through activism, daily practice, professional life and creative work. I am concerned with the rights of individuals that identify as women, as well as individuals who are marginalized due to their gender identities. As a feminist I am aware of ancient and recent histories of gender injustice.
YG: Would you consider yourself a feminist filmmaker? Why?
MD: Yes. I’m a feminist every day, whether or not I’m producing artwork - this manifests in the way that I interact with others. It is a part of my everyday ethics. A number of the works that I’ve made have more of a focus on economic inequality and environmental degradation. But gender ethics are there as a way of working, even if not the central theme.
Art & Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon at ASU, April 01, 2017.
YG: Before you studied English Literature, then you studied Digital Arts and News Media at UCSC. So what led you to become a filmmaker?
MD: Actually I think this has to do with gender. I always wanted to be a filmmaker. But when I was growing up, in the 70s in a small city in North Carolina, I wasn’t aware of many women filmmakers. Yet I was exposed to a plethora of women writers. Although I wasn’t conscious of this at the time, I was afraid of becoming a filmmaker because I thought that I wouldn’t succeed. This fear has a lot to do with my personality, as I am a shy person, but the fear is also part of my inheritance as a woman. And thus it is a feminist issue.
YG: After you graduated from UCSC, what was your first job?
MD: My first job was working on augmented reality mobile media projects for the Scope Art Fair in Miami, New York and Basel. I was collaborating with artist Mitch Miller as well as programmer Phoenix Toews. Toews, one of my classmates at UCSC, is a talented digital artist who created a unique, GPS-based augmented reality software. Together the three of us created two business to release AR apps - Augmented Mountain and Outer Spaces AR.
YG: There is an animation named The Chthulu and the Final Girl that you made about a feminist topic. Could you define Chthulu?
MD: I borrowed the term from Donna Haraway, a brilliant writer and theorist, and Distinguished Professor Emerita at UCSC. The chthulucene is a term that Haraway uses to describe this era of changing climate - she also refers to the capitalocene - in contrast to the concept anthropocene, which is more commonly used. Her terms chthulucene and chthulu have numerous origins. For one, Haraway is referring to the chthonic, that which is of or relates to the underworld. She is also paying tribute to a spider, pima chthulu, who lives under stumps in Northern California. And I think she setting up a contrast with H.P Lovecraft’s cthulhu (note spelling difference). Lovecraft’s worldview is xenophobic, while Haraway’s praxis is generous and inclusive.
YG: In many of your works, you are reinterpreting modern technology to be used as traditional form of media, like you put a projection box around an iPad for “Story Problems”. So what inspires you to reinterpret these objects in those ways?
MD: I have spent many happy hours in cinemas; I love sitting in dark rooms watching a flickering screen in the company of other cineastes. But I also am interested in screens outside of those dark rooms. Our culture is addicted to smartphones and tablets. If you live in a city of any size there are digital billboards everywhere. I’m interested in placing cinema in public places but in such a way that allows for private viewing, a bit like the kinetoscope of early cinema - the projection box which provided an intimate show, just for you.
Installation of projection box for “Story Problems”.
YG: For Horse Seance, it was also shown in a different way that you put the iPad above the water. Can you talk about that?
MD: In 2016, I was one of a few artists invited to contribute to Marie Lorenz’s Flow Pool installation at Recess Gallery in NYC. We were invited by a group called Underwater NY. Lorenz modeled her smaller pool after a large hydrodynamics test tank, an instrument used to test marine vessels. Before I started producing my contribution, I considered what would compliment the continuous circulation of water. I came up with the idea of placing an iPad, looping an animation, on a raft. And the animation was made specifically for this piece. My intent was to honor life underwater in NYC, including ghost life, as this is an area of interest to me, and is the main focus of Underwater NY. I decided to return to a topic that I worked on when I lived in NYC - the history of a body of water in the Rockaways, Dead Horse Bay. From the 18th-century through the early 20th, the bay was a dumping ground for bodies from neighboring horse rendering plants. Dead horses were used to manufacture glue and fertilizer. My piece, a 2D animation, is a séance for those poor souls. The night when the other artists and I added our projects to Lorenz’s pool was very special. It felt like a ritual. My piece was the only digital object; the others were sculptural. My floating screen stood out, contrasting nicely with the other works.
YG: In Fish Stories Community Cookbook, I notice that lots of people you are visiting are Chinese or kids. So how do you select the people you want to collect the information from them for the fish story? Based on race or age or what they do?
MD: That’s a good question. We were, my collaborator Rachel Stevens and I, were contacted by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC), and invited to create a community art project as part of an initiative called Paths to Pier 42. Rachel came up with the idea of a cookbook, and we both wanted to focus on the relationship between the neighborhood’s terrestrial life and the aquatic life of the East River. We decided to build our piece around the multi-species practice of fishing, including cooking and eating fish. Thus we created Fish Stories Community Cookbook. From the beginning LMCC had specific ideas for us. They wanted us to work with a number of neighborhood organizations in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. We spent time with several organizations, including an afterschool program within an apartment complex in Chinatown; that program is open to any kid that lives in the area. Yet primarily the students were first generation Chinese. And we collaborated with a housing organization that serves Chinese elders. This group was especially excited to talk to us, through an interpreter, about family experiences of fishing and cooking fish - in China, as well as in NYC. Another organization we visited provides services for Jewish seniors, and another focuses on Latinx residents. The Lower East Side is a vibrant, densely populated and incredibly diverse area. Certain cultures have flourished, and are flourishing there. And they have maintained, over many years, a strong sense of distinction, even within close contact with other, very different, groups. Rachel and I were fortunate that the organizations were open to us. I think that LMCC’s initiative aims to help document, celebrate, strengthen this diversity. Rachel and I hope that our cookbook contributes to those commendable aims.
YG: What projects are you currently working on?
MD: I’m working on some digital animations, including a new one about gun violence, and another about gender representation in virtual worlds. I would like to create a collaborative, community-based animation in the near future, but I don’t know yet what to do. I find that when collaborating technology can get in the way. Thus I’m thinking about ways to collaborate with digital tools without the tools causing problems.
YG: It seems like you work in both New York and Arizona; so how do you schedule your time since these two places are so far away?
MD: I lived in NYC for 14 years before moving to Arizona, thus much of my work is still centered in NYC. I live in Arizona because I am an assistant professor of art at Arizona State University - a job that I love. Because professors are allowed a fair amount of time to do our research, I am still able to spend significant time in NYC.
Meredith working in NYC.
YG: From all of your projects, which one are you most proud of?
MD: It’s the collaborative work that I feel the best about. I really enjoyed working on Fish Stories, because it wasn’t just Rachel and me - many, many people contributed to that book. I also enjoyed working on the documentary about AIR Gallery. And I loved working on a project about environmental justice in Louisiana. At heart I am a collaborative artist. I find that feminist are often interested in sharing authority within democratic structures. So I prefer collaborating with other feminists.
YG: You mentioned about collaborating, it reminds me about one of your film named Taking Residence: A History of A.I.R. Gallery which shows all the female works. How many female are founders of that gallery?
MD: AIR Gallery was founded in 1972 as the first all-women, artists-run gallery in the U.S., by Barbara Zucker and Susan Williams, with Nancy Sparrow, Howardena Pindell, Agnes Denes, Daria Dorosh and many others. Ana Mendieta was a member later. The gallery is still going strong, and remains an important and powerful institution. I feel that a women’s gallery is still needed. As just one example of the inequities of the art world, look at sales at major auction houses - work by male artists is still sold for much higher amounts than work by women. Even though there have been many positive changes over the last forty years, gender inequities are present and powerfully inhibiting. In consort with other feminist organizations, the members of AIR are helping to equalize the field. I was happy to make this documentary about AIR because I love learning about, and supporting, feminist art history.
YG: Is it similar to the film industry?
MD: Yes, absolutely, I was reading last night about Carolee Schneemann. It’s amazing how women who are in their seventies or eighties now, like Schneemann, didn’t have any role models, with the precious exception of Maya Deren, and a very few others. I felt that I had few role models growing up, but I was comparatively lucky as I had many, many more than Schneemann and her peers did - and this is thanks to Schneemann and her peers! I laud the brave women who broke through to success as artists and filmmakers before me. I am lucky, we are all very lucky, that these fabulous women preceded us and broke those barriers.