“Some of the film’s inspiration is not so much the blockchain but, especially after a year of lockdown, the kind of intimacy and connection that technology can offer. So this is inspired by the more utopian ideas of what the blockchain or the internet can facilitate.”
View Doggie Clock in the K21 gallery here
Imagine a cuckoo clock, except it is in the shape of an adorable puppy sitting in a bathtub next to an analog timepiece. Bubbles and steam rise from the water, while the dog’s tongue and ears flap as the minute hand rotates around its prescribed circle. All seems innocent in this kitsch universe of kitchen collectibles. But suddenly, and for no detectable reason, the clock goes awry — the hands spin in different directions―before settling back into its metronomic regularity. This happens every once in a while; you can wait for the clock to misbehave, but you might just end up watching time’s inexorable passage. The doggy clock seems its own indecipherable inner logic. The timepiece is itself an intrepid traveler — having escaped from Mika Rottenberg and Mahyad Tousi’s new narrative feature film REMOTE, 2022.
Another era. Another pandemic. Five women, quarantined in different parts of the world — all fans of a popular South Korean dog groomer/performer — discover they are connected to the performer and with each other through a mysterious portal hidden in their homes. Exploring notions of human connection in a tech-infused world where interaction across cultural and linguistic barriers is the norm, REMOTE tells a satirical tale blending weird fiction and magical realism.
The finely crafted implausibility at the heart of REMOTE is a signature attribute of Rottenberg’s artistic practice combined with Tousi’s keen sense of narrative design and world-building. Over the past two decades, Rottenberg has combined remarkable, absurdist videos with related architectural installations and sculptures. Deeply interested in notions of labor and the different, inevitably subjective ways value is created, she visualizes wide-ranging modes of production — from potato harvesting and lettuce farming to pearl cultivation, cheese churning, and dough making (to name just a few examples). In her earlier videos, she built fetishistic environments in which individuals with extraordinarily attenuated physiques (people who, in real life, make a living off their extreme height or weight) use their own corporeal products — tears, sweat, hair, fingernails — in the manufacture of commercial items. The body as factory labors over an assembly line of nonsensical parts to create inessential goods.
More recently, Rottenberg’s videos suture scenes of labor from one distant part of the world to another through inexplicable thresholds: In Squeeze, 2010, an earlier collaboration with Tousi, Chinese women reach through portals to massage the forearms of Mexican field hands in California. In Spaghetti Blockchain, 2019, Tuvan throat singers perform on the steppes in Siberia, their ethereal voices washing over the production of matter at the Large Hadron Collider, near Geneva. And in Cosmic Generator, 2017, a hidden network of tunnels accessed through the Golden Dragon Restaurant in the border town of Mexicali inexplicably leads to a 99 Cents Store in Calexico and the vast plastic commodities market in Yiwu, China, that sources goods for both commercial sites. “Everything,” she once explained, “is in vibration and flux: there are no stationary things in nature. Even ideas are not stationary for me. There’s something about perpetual motion that is important conceptually.”1
Tousi is a multidisciplinary storyteller who has made an art form of not being pigeonholed in an industry determined to put artists inside boxes. His work spans mediums, genres, and platforms, ranging from conflict zone documentaries to VR installations to Hollywood films and TV shows. Earlier this year, he completed the second season of United States Al, a half-hour prime-time comedy he produces for CBS. These experiences are foundational to Tousi’s favored approach to storytelling and what he is most passionate about: to create and design “narrative experiences,” such as REMOTE. These narratives are enhanced and expanded through multiple platforms and mediums, in this case, a feature film, an NFT, and a web-based digital installation designed to reimagine value, work, and connection in a post-pandemic world.
Though they have collaborated before, this is the first feature film Rottenberg and Tousi have co-created. Like the portals and tunnels — the weird apertures that enigmatically connect disparate worlds, foreign cultures, and physical states — they are not particularly forthcoming about what we will see in REMOTE before it premieres. Therefore, the role of the doggy clock, which has now metamorphosed into an NFT, remains shrouded in mystery.
REMOTE will premiere in September and October, 2022 at the Busan Biennale, South Korea; L.A. MOCA; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal; X Museum, Beijing; and Artangel, London.
In the interview below, Mika Rottenberg and Mahyad Tousi discuss their collaboration and Rottenberg’s earlier work:
Your videos always seem to be based on elaborate interlocking systems that in the rational world have nothing to do with one another. In Squeeze, for instance, lettuce farming, massage therapy, latex production, and the manufacture of cosmetic blush are interlaced in a narrative that weirdly makes sense in the alternate universe you constructed. How do you approach building the storylines for your work?
Mika Rottenberg: It’s all connected in one way or another…I see it as a map or a kind of fictional building I design. So it’s a sculptural, three-dimensional thinking that then gets transformed into a time-based work of video. The narrative is constructed around this blueprint of a fictional space and visualizes the connections between social, emotional, psychological, and fantastical factors. There’s always a couple of logical associations that for me justify having them live together, but it’s more of a catalyst than the core. I’d hope viewers make their own logic and connections.
The relationship between the corporeal and the mechanical is paramount in your art. What connections do you see between bodily production (sweat and tears, for example) and the production of goods? Is this about unaliented labor in the Marxist sense?
MR: For sure, especially in the earlier works. Marx’s theory of labor and value was a big inspiration. I experienced his analysis of the creation of value from the point of view of an artist who makes things that have no use value and allowed my own interpretation. I’ve always been fascinated by his idea of commodities containing the “dead labor” of everyone who was involved in their making, so it’s almost a kind of spiritual interpretation.
Your videos appear to give form to immaterial sensations like an itch or a sound or a smell. Is that a conscious goal of your work?
MR: I like the experience of the work to be both visceral and cerebral, so this kind of reaction is one goal. I’m interested in bodily reactions to phenomena, as well as the more analytical awareness of how our bodies are seduced and manipulated by things, such as texture, color, and sound. I’d like the first reaction to be physical, but there has to be a conceptual hook, a kind of push and pull…
Many of the protagonists in your videos are physically extraordinary: they are alternately extremely tall or large or have unusually long hair. The narratives seem to evolve from their remarkable presences. Do you create your storylines and then cast accordingly or do particular people and their bodies function as creative catalysts for your videos?
MR: This is more true for my earlier work. In those cases, the protagonists are mainly people who use their body’s extraordinary ability, size, or shape in a way that adds extra value to the physical attribute they possess. I then utilized that attribute in my fictional “machines” in a way that makes that attribute very valuable to the work. So I was interested in that alchemy…for example, creating a space for someone who is extremely tall. That height might become an obstacle in some situations, but in this situation (and in the work they perform in their real life as fetish models), it accumulates more value.
Your videos are most often exhibited in tandem with sculptural environments that enhance the viewing experience. What is the relationship between your videos and space? Between videos and materials? Between space and narrative?
MR: Spaces that are designed for humans to inhabit and behave in are always interesting to me. A lot of the videos start from designing these malleable spaces that are a mix of interior psychological space and a physical space, so echoing some of that in the gallery space makes sense. In a way, it’s framing and preparing for the experience. It’s like the entrance room to a movie theater, a space that’s in between fact and fiction, a kind of twilight zone…
With Spaghetti Blockchain, you reference cryptocurrency in the title. What did you see in the blockchain that relates to the incredible web of references you weave in the video: an ASMR factory, a potato farm in Maine, Siberian throat singers and the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland? Is it about computation or transparency or abstraction — or none of these?
MR: I was first intrigued by the very broad sense of materialism or “new materialisms”: the way humans exploit and manipulate matter but also are composed of and controlled by its physics. The throat singing was especially interesting to pair with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and the blockchain, because one aspect of it is to allow communication over great distances, utilizing the way sound waves travel and creating these special sounds that travel well through these distances. So it’s like an ancient internet, or even blockchain, because of the peer-to-peer kind of line that’s created between the singers. I was also very interested in this new kind of matter that technology provides and a new decentralized currency that propels itself. Another movement that directs the video is macro to micro: from the tiniest particles that occupy the internet, or the LHC, which is the largest machine ever known to be constructed by humans, to the tiniest particle it was built for, the Higgs boson.
The NFT you’ve created for K21 — the misbehaving doggy clock — is related to your new feature film, REMOTE (2022). Does the film derive some inspiration from the blockchain as well?
MR: Some of the film’s inspiration is not so much the blockchain but, especially after a year of lockdown, the kind of intimacy and connection that technology can offer. There is a reference to NFTs in the movie because one of the main characters runs a live internet show set in the near future, where she and other performers monetize their labor by creating coins that viewers can collect in order to watch it. Coins can become valuable depending on how well the show does. So this is inspired by the more utopian ideas of what the blockchain or the internet can facilitate.
Mahyad Tousi: REMOTE takes place in a post-pandemic near future where many now-nascent tech concepts such as the blockchain, NFTs, and more have been woven into the fabric of life. In other words, it informs how stuff works in the background but it’s by no means what the story is about.
Mika, please describe your collaboration on this feature film (your first) with Mahyad Tousi. Have you worked together before? Is collaboration essential to your work?
MR: Mahyad and I worked together on several older videos, such as Squeeze and Cheese. Mahyad was the DP, but his involvement was greater than that. I’ve been wanting to collaborate in a deeper way ever since, because I loved his brilliant mind and persistence. For a while now, I’ve been wanting to explore a more time-based narrative in my work and make a feature film with a clear story. I’ve also been wanting to engage a writer, someone who’s more experienced with actors and that world, so that is how the collaboration was born. Collaborations are essential and are in a way my preferred way of operating right now, especially since this was made through the lockdown. Trying to foster this connection with another person through the isolation was a great rescue, but even without the lockdown, I think this is an important time to collaborate on this deeper level.
Mahyad, you are a producer for film and television. What attracts you to making moving image–based work for the art world? How does your engagement on the advisory board for the MIT Center for Advanced Virtuality impact your storytelling in relation to the metaverse? Is REMOTE a meditation on virtuality?
MT: I worked as a DP for many years before I produced a couple of features. I have loved working on all sorts of stuff, including shooting a few of Mika’s magical videos, starting with Cheese. I started to write and get into world building and serialized narratives fifteen years ago.
For me, ‘story’ transcends medium, format, and genre, which should serve the how and what part of a story you want to tell. Working in a single medium narrows the pool of ideas that I could take on. I’ve always resisted being cornered in that way as a creator but have not always been successful at convincing others to take a multiplatform approach. REMOTE is a meditation on whether technology and virtuality can lead to the discovery of long-lost magic. Thinking with a multiplatform perspective was critical to the world-building.
My involvement with the Center for Advanced Virtuality at MIT is an extension of my fascination with building narrative experiences. When we were developing this idea, we sought the advice of Dr. Fox Harrell who is the leader, heart, and soul of the Center and the most fascinating person I know who has been contemplating virtual futures that don’t suck as much as our present reality.
Can you summarize the “plot” of REMOTE? The title certainly evokes thoughts of living and working under lockdown conditions.
MT: Six very different women living across the globe discover each other when they realize they are connected like links in a mysterious and wonderful chain. They then set out to discover how and to what end.
What role does the doggy clock play in the film? Is it an integral part of the story or just an endearing prop?
MT: Positively both.
The NFT of Doggy Clock tells us the time but also goes off its temporal script. What prompts the doggy in a bubble bath to misbehave like a crazy cuckoo clock?
MT: That is the mystery at the center of the work.
Does REMOTE have a sculptural dimension? Can you imagine the doggy clock in real space?
MT: Yes, of course. The doggy clock is a real physical object that, along with the main set in the film, exists in both our reality and the reality of the story. Although we have not yet figured out how or if to integrate it into our presentation of the work. The Doggy Clock NFT is a way of expanding an aspect of these ideas beyond the limits of the film.
Can you describe the 360 viewing experience of the film? How will this work? Is it in addition to a screen projection?
MT: The Doggy Clock NFT is the first window onto the world of our film’s characters. We are also exploring building a web-based experience of the digital world presented in the film to stream the film and to explore narrative tangents on some of the ideas that informed this future.
REMOTE was commissioned by Artangel; the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark; and Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden; in association with Hauser & Wirth. The film was completed with support by MOCA’s Environmental Council, Los Angeles, US; Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, Canada; X Museum, Beijing, China; the Busan Biennale, Korea; and The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco, US.
1 Steven Zultanski, “Mika Rottenberg on Filming the ‘Vibration and Flux’ of Global Capitalism,” Frieze, April 21, 2021, https://www.frieze.com/article/mika-rottenberg-filming-vibration-and-flux-global-capitalism, accessed Nov. 2, 2021.