During a visit to the Walker in 2003, artist Jem Cohen presented a three-screen video work, Chain X Three, which linked anonymous scenes of corporate architecture ranging from malls to fast-food restaurants to parking lots. With this month’s presentation of Chain, the feature-film version of that work, we revisit a conversation between Cohen and assistant film/video curator Dean Otto from September 2003.
When you were at the Walker screening Benjamin Smoke in 2000, you and codirector Peter Sillen spent your days shooting film around Minneapolis. I remember you saying that you shoot almost every day and almost always while you’re traveling. Did you have this project in mind when you were getting footage, or is this something that developed out of what you shot?
There are usually a couple of years when something is in the back of my mind fermenting, and I shoot to draw the project out. Because I often shoot for pleasure, without a set plan or agenda, the original idea may be sparked by some footage, rather than the other way around. I mean, it’s been more than six years now since the first footage that I consider to be part of the Chain project appeared.
At what point did you realize that project was the one you would be working on with that footage?
Well, I think it came out of my work doing city portraits—places that had a regional character that was strong, but endangered. So I was often having to frame things out: a billboard or a new skyscraper or a franchise hotel or a mall encroaching on some extraordinary neighborhood. I’d be shooting a beautiful street in Prague in the middle of the night and I would have my back to the new McDonalds that was ruining the view in that direction. After contending with that, often by documenting the very thing that was disappearing, I began to feel that I had some kind of obligation to deal with this new world and to face these issues head on. I forced myself to put those things that I had long avoided square into the center of the frame and to examine the changes.
It’s very poignant that you’re presenting this work here because the first indoor mall in America was Southdale in Edina, Minnesota. With the explosion in the number of corporate mergers, it seems as if a small number of corporations are dictating architecture through branding and franchising, and there is a real comfort that people feel through corporate identity.
That’s an integral part of the project: it isn’t about any one thing, but that is as important as any other theme in there. Corporations are faced with this endless, brutal game of trying to create the impression of novelty while really destroying difference. It’s kind of devastating, but it’s really important that we take a closer look at it. I can’t believe I came to the Midwest and didn’t get out to the Mall of America—the über mall.
You’ve said that you plan to rework this piece. How will the next stage come together?
The next stage is a narrative feature. There is a certain amount of overlap in terms of the landscapes themselves, but it will be a very different thing. The feature, which is just called Chain, is about two women who are navigating these landscapes. So it drops you into their lives. In the feature version, I’m going in deep on two of these narrative touchstones. One character is the Japanese businesswoman who appears in Chain X 3, the other is a young woman, working poor, who lives off of the residue of a mall.