Video artist Steve Reinke's narrators are getting closer to the real thing (whatever that means)

Canadian artist Steve Reinke's videos are designed to be open letters to his viewers. Over the last three decades, Reinke has built an award-winning international career by composing playful but intense short videos that combine carefully selected found footage, his own recordings and pensive, philosophy and poetry-infused narratives (usually voiced by Reinke himself).

Chicago-based Canadian artist plays with authenticity in his videos

A still from A Boy Needs A Friend, a film by Canadian artist Steve Reinke, who is based in Chicago. (Steve Reinke)

Canadian artist Steve Reinke's videos are designed to be open letters to his viewers. Over the last three decades, Reinke has built an award-winning international career by composing playful but intense short videos that combine carefully selected found footage, his own recordings and pensive, philosophy and poetry-infused narratives (usually voiced by Reinke himself).

A Boy Needs A Friend is actually more personal... these masks and positions are a bit closer to me than usual.- Steve Reinke on how his videos' narrators have evolved

​Reinke's videos can be read as personal scrapbook entries, lectures (Reinke is also a professor at Illinois's Northwestern University) or as wholly imagined flights of fancy, but they always convey a profound sense of longing; sexual, intellectual or romantic. Reinke is on one very long voyage of self discovery, and we get to watch.

His latest work, A Boy Needs A Friend, is classic Reinke.

Reinke's narrative is at times meditative, but at other times, simply rude. His tone is often caustic and self-deprecating and yet the video is gleefully buoyed by tales, and scenes of rough and ready sex. Combining interrupted music, vintage cartoons and documentary footage, plus Reinke's own recordings — of a friend getting a tattoo in a very private place, of Paris strolls caught on telephone camera, of his husband mid-coitus — A Boy Needs A Friend is part archive, part crazy-quilt confession and very entertaining.

Catching Reinke just before he left his Chicago home to attend the screening of A Boy Needs A Friend at the Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin (a.k.a. the Berlinale) I found him, as always, cautiously blunt. Reinke has never been at ease with exact answers. Nor should be his audience.

How do you assemble your works? Text first then footage, or footage first, or a combination of both?

Sometimes the text comes first and I have to search for the image or make an animation. But finding compelling footage first and then using writing as a way to explore it — to find out why it is interesting — happens just as often. Mostly I work in chunks, crafting the chunks into chapters, moving stuff around. Sometimes I just come across the footage, which is great. But increasingly, it is really quick to do specific searches for online stuff. Sometimes the British artist James Richards sends me great clips, like the baby and dog making out in the new piece.
 


A Boy Needs A Friend is part of your series Final Thoughts. What is the Final Thoughts project?

Final Thoughts is name of my ongoing series of video essays. Thought replaces thought — shifting, contingent — in a chain that finds an endpoint only in my death. Rather than being diaries, though each is quite personal, the "thoughts," like diaries, contain a lot of the quotidian. But Final Thoughts is not meant primarily to document my day-to-day life.

The video subtly mocks — and also validates — our culture's mania for the "authentic."

In most of my work, I've mocked and played around with any notion of authenticity. A Boy Needs A Friend is actually more personal, closer to a kind of confessional mode [than previous works]; though never one that would presume that the artist/narrator has any solid, authentic core, just a cycling through various masks and positions. But these masks and positions are a bit closer to me than usual.

The "carnivorous leopard urine" section plays around maybe most clearly with this — the claim to have determined someone's psychic core by looking at them, yet having that projection still hold possibilities that might be true. The passport section does this, too.



In your early works you played a kind of gadabout, a gay ingénue. Now you're a 50-something wise daddy!

Yep, the persona has changed, often from work to work. The stuff from 10 or 15 years ago, like Anthology of American Folk Song often had an unstable voice, sometimes personal, sometimes cold. Starting from 2014, the narrators have become more grounding, with more charm and humour, but also a kind of looseness and a willingness to speculate, philosophize, spin nonsense.

Has your method of recording your own voice changed with "the persona," as you put it?

I used to use a voice over booth, but now I just have a mic at my desk. I rehearse the texts half a dozen times, getting the pauses and intonation down. Then I record — usually in one take, maybe two. I often keep little mistakes and the sound of breath and spit. I want to seduce viewers with my voice, seduce them and slap them around, although the slapping is more often through images and non-vocal sound. 

You're mellowing, perhaps?

I do feel a bit different. I have become much warmer, more emotional (though still not terribly emotional) and social, even occasionally outgoing. For me the video is more about intimacy and queer intimacy. Most of my actual friends, for instance, are women and have no place in this video. The video has my husband and some sex buddies, but not really many friends or friendships.

How has living most of the last 20 years in the United States changed your practice?

Hmm. I never wanted to live in America, but I couldn't get a job in Canada. Likewise, if I had to live in America, I wouldn't have chosen Chicago, but I keep getting jobs here. And now I have property, tenure and a husband who loves Chicago, so I'm stuck here. One of the nice things about being a young artist in Toronto was that marginal practices (that is non-commercial) like audio art and experimental film/video seemed central to the scene. In America video art — unless it's in a fancy gallery — can be dismissed as quaint. I also like Canadian audiences more as they get the work — the sense of humour and literary ironies, the McLuhanesque aphorisms — better than other audiences.

A Boy Needs A Friend. Directed by Steve Reinke. 23 min. Feb. 13-14, Feb 21 at the Berlin International Film Festival, Berlin, Germany.

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