In Residence

How Frances Adair Mckenzie brings mundane objects like phone chargers to life

When Frances Adair Mckenzie says she's interested in 'stuff and things' she really means it. The multi-disciplinary artist is this week's Exhibitionist in Residence.

When Frances Adair Mckenzie says she's interested in 'stuff and things' she really means it

Multi-media artist Frances Adair Mckenzie is this week's Exhibitionist in Residence. (www.francesadair.com)

Frances Adair Mckenzie is a puppeteer, a poet, a painter and more, but there's something special, she says, about animation. The Montreal artist has created short films for the National Film Board (Une Petite Faim) and her immersive video installations have transformed galleries into operatic fantasylands (Party Like its 1699).

As Mckenzie tells CBC Arts, when she began to work with animation and digital manipulation, "everything became more alive!"

"As soon as you're an animator, everything you see becomes something that can be brought to life." You begin to see that every object has a story, a special set of characteristics, she explains.

I was so stressed out. My boyfriend had actually recorded me crying in my sleep.- Frances Adair Mckenzie on her reality show experience

You'll see exactly what she means, quite literally, when you view a selection of her work Sunday on Exhibitionists. Here, she tells CBC Arts about that collection of GIFs and films, which includes one work of art that wasn't made for TV — but on it.

As Seen on Reality TV

Wreath, which is featured on Exhibitionists, was created for 2014 Quebec reality show, Les contemporains. Mckenzie was one of the stars, the lone Anglophone on this Project Runway-style competition for emerging artists.

"Honestly, with the application, I didn't know that's what it was," she recalls. She had recently quit her day job, promising herself to pursue art full time. "All I had done was research emerging artist residencies, and that came up."

"I got to have a piece in the Musée d'art contemporain," she says, "I don't think there's any other way that would have happened that year." And each week, an established artist would work with the cast. One of those mentors, sculptor David Altmejd, is actually a performer in Wreath. (Look for the guy flexing his arms, Charles Atlas-style.)

"I would definitely say the benefits outweighed the enormous amount of stress," she says of the experience.

About that…

"That one, Wreath, was very strictly about being freaked out and stressed out because you're putting everything out there," Mckenzie says. "I stopped sleeping, I was so stressed out. My boyfriend had actually recorded me crying in my sleep, and that's the sound in the Wreath video."
 

Stuff and things

Would it be fair to call it a not-so-still life?

A Love Poem to Unnecessary Objects, one of the pieces appearing on Sunday's show, animates meaty human organs and a junk drawer's worth of colourful bric-a-brac. Snacks and tools and phone chargers, the sort of stuff Mckenzie keeps kicking around the studio, dance together with unexpected and unsettling character.

"It was honestly one of the first pieces I just made for myself," Mckenzie says. "I've spent a lot of time moving across the country. Any time it happens, I end up realizing within six months or something that we accumulate so many objects. I have all this junk. And that's part of my practice — accumulating weird flashy things," she laughs.

For A Love Poem to Unnecessary Objects, Mckenzie says, "I was exploring this idea of the hoarder and the things that we keep near us. What is the meaning of all these things we accumulate? I loved the idea that a hoarder is not necessarily someone who has a problem, they're just more in tune with the importance of every object. There's this idea that objects are singing and maybe the hoarder is the only one who can hear this song. So I got a bit romantic about that," she says. "That's why it's a love poem."

My favourite things

Wigs, fruit, rubber gloves: those ordinary objects get used repeatedly in Mckenzie's animations, like a theatre company of household objects. Fruit, for instance, frequently stands in for the human body. "It becomes humorous or funny, but we're still able to convey so much meaning through it," she says.

"I think one of the things that's important for me symbolically is the latex glove," she explains — and it's a star in all four pieces appearing on Exhibitionists. "It's interesting with that kind of material how many ways there are to read it," she says, "they're things that are supposed to protect yet also allow contact at the same time. I found that really intriguing."

The things she could never do without

As an artist, Mckenzie's absolute essentials are: a computer, a camera, Plasticine, paper, papier-mâché. "Other than that, I just like making. I think curiosity is the most important tool," she says.
 

Do it yourself!

"You just need exactly what you have in front of you and there's always a way to make something," says Mckenzie.

That statement's especially true if the thing in front of you is a computer. Of all the disciplines she works in, Mckenzie says digital video has been an especially freeing experience. She can build an entire show in her room, and her art's DIY aesthetic is, she says, a way of inspiring and empowering others to try it themselves.

As she puts it: "I want to show people that you can build anything."

Want more from Frances Adair Mckenzie? Visit her website and watch Exhibitionists online or Sunday at 4:30 (5pm NT) on CBC Television.

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