Jesse Malmed

Local artist Jesse Malmed feels that his work bears a relationship to language that’s “somewhere between poetry and comedy.” His video pieces—which will be exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art this Tuesday at 6 PM in a show called Untitled (Just Kidding)—are filled with puns and formal jokes, not to mention appropriations of mainstream comedy, video games, and other materials that might be considered too silly to be included in the world of experimental cinema. The 18-minute short Wreading (2012), for instance, incorporates images of clouds from Super Mario Bros. 3 as well as Muzak versions of Top 40 pop songs. Do Voices (2013), which closes Tuesday’s program, is constructed around reenactments of scenes from the Robin Williams comedy Mrs. Doubtfire that various fans have posted to YouTube.

The works can be dizzying to take in, as they move rapidly between different audio-visual sources, sometimes overlapping different sources within the same shot. Malmed flips the tone of his work with the same speed. A piece will develop an air of reverie only to cut it down with a joke—or at other times, a joke will give way to a poignant reflection on the contemporary world. The opening segment in Tuesday’s program, How to have your / own television show! / (you already do) (2016), starts with several minutes of onscreen text that addresses the similarities between living in a surveillance state and appearing on TV. The overriding message is that, with cameras on every street corner and on everyone’s phone, we think of ourselves as audio-visual presences as much as we do people. Malmed interrupts these observations, however, with non sequiturs and puns. “The psychic convention brings out the most social media,” reads one intertitle.

“Within conventional cinema and television, I think the most formal innovation happens in comedy,” Malmed notes. “[With other genres], there’s this idea that you have to maintain narrative cohesion. With comedy there are these formal elements that happen more skillfully. So for me there’s this link between the malleability of the reality of the cinematic world [in experimental video] that has a lot to do with comedy.” This would explain the significance of a quote from pioneering TV comedian Ernie Kovacs in How to have (“Television is a medium because it’s neither rare nor well-done”), as well as the sympathetic portrait of Robin Williams that emerges in Do Voices.

“I used [Williams] as an example of this idea of iterations and various versions of a thing. In [Do Voices], there are bootlegs, imperfect translations, there are dubs, there are people filming things off of TV, people doing impressions of him. I was thinking of people doing impressions of an impersonator, and also the way that his impressions and his mania functioned as a kind of channel surfing through things. I wondered what was the smallest amount of a thing that makes an impression.”

Malmed also sees connections between his own practice as a maker of audio-visual collages and Williams’s performance style. “His performance was a kind of montage. In Mrs. Doubtfire, you know, there are scenes where he’s going between different roles in the same shots. The best parts of that movie is where he gets to play multiple roles and basically do what he did onstage, go between these six-second impersonations. It’s very much like in editing, where you can compile things from all over and put them together.”

From How to have your / own television show! / (you already do)

For Malmed, the process mirrors the development of language itself. (“I’m sort of hardwired to be aware of language as something that shapes our experience of the world,” he says.) A recurring theme of his work is the complexity of communication, the mix of big ideas and nonsense reflecting the strange mix of concepts that have shaped spoken language, written text, and audio-visual media. Perhaps the quintessential moment in Tuesday’s program occurs during Self-titled (Rough Cut) (2015-17), when a series of images of printed letters gives way to images of made-up symbols. Lectures on linguistics also factor into the mix in several of the pieces—a crucial line in Wreading is “Language is an event of the world.”

This is heady stuff, and the humor manages to throw the ideas into relief while contributing to their flow. “One of the ways that people theorize humor is looking at the psychoanalytic component of it,” Malmed explains. “People use humor as a way of keeping others in or out of their community—the inside joke being the ultimate example of that. Being able to get the joke reveals that the person [listening] has the same cultural knowledge [as the person telling it].” The shorts in Untitled (Just Kidding) are filled with inside jokes—my favorite being Malmed’s pairing of the theme from the sitcom Happy Days with a shot from a production of the Samuel Beckett play of the same name—but they rarely feel intractable. Malmed presents them in such a way that you’re always aware they’re inside jokes; you can appreciate his playfulness without necessarily knowing exactly what he means.

That playfulness reflects a rich tradition in American experimental cinema, harkening back to such artists as George Landow (aka Owen Land) and Robert Nelson. For Malmed it’s a way of questioning his own practice and keeping it fun. “What happens when experimental becomes codified as a genre instead of an approach?” he ponders. “Landow recognized very early what that meant from a genre perspective and was able to skewer experimental styles. I love that he was spoofing other experimental filmmakers.” In his own work, Malmed (like Landow) manages to be thoughtful even when he’s spoofing other artists, and this speaks to the complexity of his practice.