Q&A with Janet Biggs

Cult MTL talks to extreme-seeking video artist Janet Biggs about danger, extreme weather and how to make those into art.

Still from “Fade to White,” kayaking in sub-zero waters.

Brooklyn-based video and performance artist and photographer Janet Biggs‘ new exhibition was launched Oct. 3 at the Montreal Musée d’art contemporain, as part of the ongoing Montréal/Brooklyn multi-gallery exposition. The exhibit includes three videos from Biggs’ The Arctic Trilogy, as well as her most recent piece, A Step on the Sun (2012).

Biggs’ work explores extremes, especially of intense physicality and environmental limitations, which necessarily accords it an existential dimension. Her Arctic Trilogy chronicles an exploratory journey near Svalland (north of Norway). “Fade to White,” one part of the trilogy, shows the super-duper handsome Arctic explorer Audun Tholfson kayaking, and these images are spliced with seemingly ageless and androgynous countertenor John Kelly singing a Baroque aria, highlighting the limits of masculinity as ever more far-flung parts of the world become mapped and tamed, as well as showing the ends of the earth and solitary figures who scrappily inhabit them.

Cult MTL talked to Janet Biggs about danger, extreme weather and how to make those into art.

Emily Raine: There is something very performative about your art, in the fact that you have to put yourself in awkward, unusual or dangerous places and positions to document your subjects, and the final product shows what lengths you are willing to go to for your work. Do you consider that a part of your project, conceptually?

Janet Biggs: I’ve hung off the back of a truck in a specially made chair that hung inches above the ground at more than one hundred miles per hour. I’ve paddled kayaks in the Arctic under huge glacial walls with polar bears swimming nearby. I have squeezed through glacial ice caves so tight that I couldn’t get my head up to see with my headlamp, and have descended into Arctic coal mines where methane fires ignite with
terrifying regularity.

There is clearly a performative side to my work that has to do with me physically and psychologically pushing myself or assuming some kind of risk in order to capture the images and action needed for a piece. By taking risks and challenging myself in the production of my work, I strive to understand my subjects’ choices and motivations as well as and their struggle to define and defend a sense of self in environments where assumptions about self and reality are continually challenged.

ER: Does danger or a desire to confront new fears ever come into play when you are conceiving your next piece?

JB: My exploration of the addictive nature of risky behavior is primarily as a witness to someone else’s action and off-camera, although this part of my process is compelling enough that I often find myself looking for new challenges.

My thrill-seeker side aside, I think the most difficult and demanding part of this work has been in the studio when I’m editing. I have had to learn to accept when a project has reached a point where I feel that the project itself, rather than me as the artist, dictates decisions about the direction taken. This is a rare and sometimes terrifying moment where control is relinquished to passion.

ER: There’s often an existential feel to your pieces, as people confront extreme physical states or environments, basically alone. Do you think there something about extreme situations that forces that sort of inward turn?

JB: I am drawn to environments that are elemental and extreme, the ends of the earth. Locations that represent empty lands and blank spaces are ripe for personal interpretation. I use these landscapes as surrogate characters or equal subjects to the individuals who struggle to maintain a sense of self within it. Social time is destabilized by the power of nature and encourages introspection. My subject’s willingness to take risks and endure isolation often allows them to attain an extreme state of being. They reveal both their vulnerable fragility as well as their manifest strength.

ER: What do you hope to inspire when people see your work?

JB: I am interested in the huge effort required to forge and sustain a sense of personal integration, a sense of self. I have also consciously studied and presented images of gender in an attempt to destabilize conventional gender roles and expose the artifice and effort required to uphold these traditional notions.

I hope my work will inspire people to ask new questions about power hierarchies, social structures, individual relationships to personal potential, desire, and free will. ■

Janet Biggs’ work will be on display at the MAC (185 Ste-Catherine W.) until Jan. 6 2013.

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