Wavepool – In a project like Swell, how often are you making images? When does it feel necessary?
Jeanne Donegan – It’s interesting you begin with that question actually; Swell is a very slow project. I think it’s something I’ll be working on for years. At the moment, my video work demands the most attention, but on the periphery, I continue to slowly add to Swell. For the past two years I had been taking these very quiet, still, sensual photographs that fell between the cracks of other projects. I had started to notice that much of what I was drawn to photograph shared this same kind of sensation of the “after” – residues, stains, marks – things that alluded to a prior action of intimacy. Once that thread came together for me, when to make the image became clearer. A lot of the photographs are taken in moments that feel very post coital, while others are actually results of an attempted video performance – either way there’s this sense of aftermath, so they start to blend together. It is definitely a slower making process, but is a calming project to return to when I’m getting caught up in a video piece. It’s nice to have both going at once.
Wavepool – Do you think video is just a more natural fit for your conceptual interests?
Jeanne Donegan – To some extent, yes. I still feel that some ideas end up making better photographs versus videos, however some pieces started to fall together when I began working in video. The dynamics of the video form allowed me to experiment with duration, movement, and gesture in a way that my photographs couldn’t – not to mention sound, which is something I’ve begun to pay closer and closer attention to. With video, I’m able to build a sense of anticipation and tension over a length of time, which felt really natural for exploring these varying degrees of climax.
Wavepool – Certainly. Can you sum up your interest in the climax for those who aren’t familiar with your practice?
Jeanne Donegan – Sure, I find that the climax – the orgasm – is such a motivating force that we will often do anything to achieve it. I became particularly interested in women’s sexual desire and pleasure. I think as a society we’ve gotten to the point where we can admit that women do enjoy sex just as much as men, but we’re still confronted with so many unrealistic interpretations of women’s sexual pleasure in media today. Sex scenes in films are constantly showing women coming at the same time as their male partners, when in reality most women don’t orgasm just from penetration. The female anatomy is so much more complicated and pleasure sensors can vary so much from woman to woman. However, women’s bodies have the potential to experience more intense and longer lasting orgasms than men. I think the power of female desire is complex and fascinating. With my video work, I was thinking about orgasm as a structure – the rise, the climax, the fall – but I also wanted to show varying degrees of that idea to try to convey its complexity. My video Sink, for example, is only about 2 minutes and has a very abrupt, unsatisfying ending. Whereas Milk, just under an hour long, is a tremendously sensual and slow process…even painful to endure at times, but that insatiability of desire to achieve climax propels it forward.
Wavepool – I’m always curious about the duration of video pieces and the attention span of viewers, especially with longer pieces like that. Is that on your mind when making a video piece? How do you cater to the wide variety of viewing durations that might take place for a single video?
Jeanne Donegan – This is definitely something I’m still traversing, especially coming from a strong photographic background where viewers often absorb a single piece in a matter of seconds. To ask someone to stay with you for an extended period of time can be a big request. At first this was somewhat disconcerting to me, the idea of someone walking away prematurely not because they didn’t like the piece, but because they were bored. But I think I’ve learned to embrace duration as an integral part of the work by recognizing that some things are worth waiting for. I could show the final moment of Sink, where the water overflows into my mouth, looped over and over but it means nothing without having waited painfully for this sink to fill with water and to watch that tiny ripple of a highlight bubble up on the edge before it spills. That anxiety of waiting and drawing out of tension is vital.
However, for much longer videos like Milk, it’s a little bit different. I applaud and appreciate anyone who would watch all 48 minutes of it haha but I think there’s something about approaching a piece like this, reading that it’s 48 minutes long, and allowing that knowledge to inform the way you see it. To spend even just a short time with the video and contemplate that this repetitive action continues for such a long length of time has some weight to it.
There’s this great performance piece by Marina Abramović & Ulay called Relation in Time, where they sit back to back with their hair tied together for 16 straight hours, and on the 17th hour an audience was permitted in to watch. And you question, why only that last hour? The author Thomas McEvilley refers to them as “…unmoving monuments, yet seething with inner life and sentience, will and activity.” – This is something that’s always stuck out to me, that the power of this performance exists not just in viewing that final hour, but in knowing what you’re seeing has been building for 16 hours before. That knowledge changes our interpretation of it without needing to see all 17 hours.
Wavepool – Have you done live performances yourself? If not, do you have any interest in giving it a shot?
Jeanne Donegan – I haven’t done any yet, but I’m definitely not opposed to it if the right idea came along. I do think there’s a level of control the camera gives me that I wouldn’t get with a live performance. I can shape the lighting, composition, and focus to isolate a particular action and make these videos that are sexual in content, as well as visually seductive. I recognize that I might feel differently if I was to try live performance but my background is so lens based, it’s hard for me to envision it otherwise. Though, my work has evolved and changed so much in the last few years, so I wouldn’t be surprised if live performance became part of my practice in the future.
Wavepool – What’s the ideal reaction you want a viewer to have when experiencing your work?
Jeanne Donegan – It’s important to me that the work leaves room to be read on multiple levels, and not close off varying interpretations. This is part of why I often use a very simple, blunt, one-word title – I’m always trying to find the absolute edge of just enough information to give, I find this can inspire more interesting discussion. I suppose the most ideal reaction I could hope for would be both physical as well as contemplative. I’d hope those feelings of tension, anticipation, and nervous excitement manifest themselves in the viewer as they watch the videos and ultimately, I want people to see women as sexually autonomous beings, and consider that their pleasure is powerful and complex.
To see more, please visit Jeanne’s website.