Interviews

“Everything I Do Has the Smell of Digital”: Lorna Mills on Her Art

The Canadian artist Lorna Mills talks about image circulation, digital ownership, and how she obsessively mines the internet for her art.

Lorna Mills, “Mountain Light/Time” (2016), animated GIF, installation at Times Square, New York City (all images courtesy Lorna Mills)

Lorna Mills is a Canadian artist whose videos and screen installations obsessively mine internet culture and reflect contemporary anxiety. Her recent collaborative project Ways of Something presents a remake-as-critique of the late John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, a text and 1972 BBC television series that represented a larger shift toward feminist perspectives of art history based in material, economic, and cultural concerns. For Mills’s project, over 100 artists were invited to supplement one-minute segments of Berger’s original audio and subtitles with their own visuals. The resulting piece was most recently shown in New York as part of the Whitney Museum exhibition of video work, Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905–2016.

This year, Mills will be part of Transfer Download, a survey of immersive multi-channel video installations by contemporary artists, curated by Kelani Nichole, which is traveling to HeK in Basel and Chronus Art Center in Shanghai. She also just released a new digital work this month via Bcc:, a subscription-based platform curated by Decoy Magazine that commissions artists to create e-mail-based pieces.

Scrolling through Mills’s website (appropriately named “LornaMillsImageDump”) is a bit like experiencing a warped and nauseating version of the internet or a frantic Tumblr feed — because much of Mills’s work uses GIFs and animations, there is motion everywhere on the screen, and one piece tends to bleed into another. The resulting sense of immediacy and chaos is disturbing, compelling, and at times amusing. A bulldog in a baby swing happily prepares to break out of its pixelated confines; a video trip around a mountainside invites the viewer’s stomach to drop. I find myself reacting physically to what is explicitly (and forcefully) internet site-specific. To explore further some of the themes and images that permeate this oeuvre, I spoke with Mills about image circulation, digital ownership, and the connections between digital and physical bodies.

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Kevin Heckart, Ways of Something, episode two, minute one

Mira Dayal: You started the Ways of Something series in 2014 as a largely collaborative project in which artists contributed video to accompany John Berger’s original soundtrack and subtitles. How has your work on the series affected your own practice? Which contributions most surprised you in their reinterpretations of the text?

Lorna Mills: There really wasn’t any big effect on my own work, other than considering a longer timeline for an animated GIF collage. That was only because I had a good reason to build up the collage within a space of 60 seconds rather than presenting all the elements simultaneously, as I generally do.

I was surprised by most of the contributions, but the most unexpected minute was in episode three from Evan Roth, who used footage from a Pirate Bay press conference while Berger spoke about a world without scarcity that contradicts the history of private property.

MD: I was struck in reviews of Dreamlands by the emphasis on distraction in a show about immersion, particularly given the premise of Ways of Something — is there a similar tension in your work when you describe it as “obsessive?”

LM: Yes, definitely. I’ve always had a strong sense of focus, but at the price of eliminating most distractions when I’m concentrating. This makes me a very bad listener. Yet, paradoxically, I seem to work best with background noise — in fact I thrive on it. So much of my work involves isolating and dissociating elements from their original contexts, but leaving evidence that they are from elsewhere.

MD: Part of the nature of working with the internet as a medium is this obsession with distraction. Are there any divisions between your “working” time and distracted browsing? Does any part of your process involve working with physical materials?

LM: No, I always consider myself working when I’m online. And yes, I do work with physical materials. I do a lot of projects that involve scanning, altering, and printing.

MD: How, if at all, do you differentiate between the effects or purposes of those physical processes versus their digital counterparts?

LM: I actually don’t differentiate their purposes at all; everything I do has the smell of digital wafting into the air around it.

MD: Your “Mountain Light/Time” installation, which was featured in Time Square’s Midnight Moment art programming, seems to have been another critical installation for you. In that work, you noted that the timing of the GIF was calibrated to correspond with a deep inhalation and exhalation, a connection to the body that I see throughout most of your work. It’s a bit less frenzied here. Was this approach intended to counter or heighten the existing spectacle of lights and crowds at Times Square? It creates a nice mental image of a massive, disconnected crowd breathing together.

LM: I wish I could say that everything in that work was considered for the Times Square program, but it wasn’t. The work was originally created for the Moving Image Fair and was submitted to the Times Square Arts Alliance for their consideration. I’m glad of this, because I would have been tempted to make something more complex that might have been lost in the context of Times Square. The piece worked because it was simple and because of the yellow light that flooded the square when it played. That set it apart from all the visual cacophony of the electronic billboards.

Theodore Darst, Ways of Something, episode one, minute nine

MD: When your work is installed in a public space, there’s a sort of rupture from the intimacy of viewing the work on your own phone or laptop — a rupture that perhaps parallels that of physical work being transplanted from studio to gallery. You seem to have addressed this in your installations by swallowing the viewer in a space created through large-scale projections or dozens of individual screens. How do you begin to map out installations of your work? If you had unlimited space, time, and resources, what would be the ideal mode of installation?

LM: I am an unapologetic planner. I create renderings of the space and plot out the locations and scale as much as possible. I wouldn’t want unlimited space, time, and resources; it’s the limitations and context that make installations interesting. That said, I’d like to have more opportunities with large spaces. I enjoy spectacles now. I lacked the confidence to about think about larger scale in my earlier years as an artist, but now my ego has reached monstrous proportions and I am ready to fail in a big way.

MD: In your work in GIFs, you tend to remove the “backgrounds” of images to isolate a figure or subject, leading to some descriptions of the work as “deconstructive.” I think of these backgrounds as the contexts for the images, but in some ways the context has already been removed from any image found online. The visual effect is of a collage or landscape, but it’s slippery and decaying too. Why is this form of editing important to you?

LM: It’s a type of transparency, clearly pointing to the fact that the original images were made for other reasons, a way of being true to an image source.

MD: Right. You’ve also mentioned that Hito Steyerl’s “In Defense of the Poor Image” has been important to your work, and she questions even the relevance or motives of an “original” image, a single source. Every new version of an image is already poor, and the reference to its circulation is imbedded in its displacement. I was more wondering about that aspect of manipulating the image.

Lorna Mills, “Hand Job” (2014), animated GIF

LM: I actually do think the original image has some relevance (and I do puzzle over the motives of some of them). To repurpose something for all my fine art needs should acknowledge that there was an original purpose or reason for the image, even if the motives are lost in translation. For example, there’s a huge conversation around cultural appropriation, so displacement is not a neutral term.

MD: As your images proliferate on the internet, they rejoin their internet counterparts and perhaps become part of incidental collaborations. Your website is a sort of archive of the images you have made. How do you think of ownership over your work?

LM: I wonder if any artists working online think so much about ownership. They tend to think more about credit for the things they have done.  Ownership also suggests some sort of control over the work, and we know that isn’t always possible online.

MD: So is the archive for you a form of accreditation?

LM: I suppose, but I don’t worry so much about it day to day. Transfer Gallery published a GIF catalogue of my work recently and I think that serves as a more official form of accreditation.

A lot of my artist friends get very angry, and rightly so, when their work is lifted without permission for commercial reasons that they don’t benefit from. Sadly the advertising industry has shown very little preference for self-felating kangaroos or turtles humping shoes in perpetuity, so I have been unable to sue anyone for big money.

Lorna Mills, At Play in the Fields of the Lord, 2015 solo exhibition at Transfer Gallery, Brooklyn, New York

MD: You’ve also worked on several projects that are explicitly collaborative. Your upcoming email-based project for Bcc: at Decoy Magazine is “commissioned” by Bcc: subscribers, who will have exclusive access to the work. Have you circulated work in this mode before? Maybe you can tell me a little bit about the direction you’re taking for the Bcc: project.

LM: Yes, I have been invited to make work for exclusive email distribution in the past. I don’t work with concepts — it’s just a filthy little GIF that we are sending out with Bcc:.

MD: Do those projects feel any different to you since they won’t be re-circulated in the same ways as your other work? It gives you a specific audience to think about.

LM: Only in the sense that since an email is private I can perv out a bit more than I would on social media. I know that I enjoy all the filthy GIFs that my friends send me through private channels (but don’t send me dirty GIFs if you aren’t my friend).

MD: What else are you looking forward to?

LM: I’m showing a projection triptych at the Resonate Festival in Belgrade, curated by Nora O’Murchu, and delivering the closing keynote. I’ll probably talk about Nazi art because that’s what I always want to talk about, and the rest of the world seems to be catching up.

MD: Perhaps we can end with something you’ve read or seen recently that you’ve been thinking about as an influence for your work?

LM: I don’t read about art; I prefer to read about history. Sally McKay is the artist with the greatest influence on my work.

Lorna Mills’s project with Bcc: at Decoy Magazine was released during the last week of February. The Resonate Festival in Belgrade, Serbia takes places April 19–22. 

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