Recording The Narrative, A Conversation With Nicole Antebi

photograph of nicole antebi by colin dickey . 2011

Stacy Elaine Dacheux: On a global scale, do you think art has a story, and if so, what might it be?

Nicole Antebi: I would say that art has many stories: some global and over reaching, some spurs that dissolve at their ends.  I teach an online art history course that spans from prehistoric to contemporary in one month.  The textbook would have you believe that 30,000 years of the story of art and artifact are contained within its covers.

The absurdity of the class and its premise has grown on me over the years.  I now see the class as a beautiful illustration of the problem with history and storytelling–  How much to tell? How much to leave out?

I only wish the textbook matched the absurdity of the class even more. Maybe nine volumes instead of one– like Laurence Sterne’s copious novel, Tristram Shandy, where the narrator attempts to tell every detail of his life, which requires constant story revision, and comically postpones his birth until Volume III.

But, your question is not “how” that story is or should be told– your question is “what” that story might be.

If I were to go out on a plank and throw a net over all the artists I know, I might be able to tease out a few broad story threads with a nod to the generous spirit of our times; however, the rest would be a story taking place in revision.

Hatfielding from nantebi on Vimeo.

Stacy: Oh, Nicole. I like the idea of art itself being a global story of revision or double-vision. It’s confusing the narrative of us, and we are confusing it even more with multiple eyes that cannot converge. Nothing is good enough. Nothing is right. Also, your comments make me think: maybe art plays the part of clown jester to historical revisionism, its king. Rauschenberg erasing a deKooning and calling it art is not only an anthropological dig in relation to the ego of art history, but it is also a farcical “dig.” Revising is not always a serious ordeal. It can be funny, satirical, or light.

Tell me more about how your personal story fits into this global narrative of revision or art?

Nicole: I’m liking both the playful and critical metaphor of “digging” here. Anthropology is certainly a site within this narrative.  Words cast out through the editing process, mounting rubbish, our waste— all of this “stuff” tells us so much about our culture and ourselves.

Revision, or what I’m going to file under the heading “Forms of Failure,” is particularly interesting in the example of Camilo Ontiveros’ recent project at the Hammer, the title of which I can’t remember.  He had set out to transport a one-meter cube of soil from Nayarit, Mexico to the Hammer where it would sit upon a low pedestal.  But, on display, what you find instead is the pedestal alone in the center of the room holding up nothing– a narrative in limbo, a failure of form embodying the story of its origins. Instead of an object on view, you must read the wall which will tell you that his soil was confiscated at the border.

Incomplete, the narrative is still in the process of revision, or looked at another way, it does tell the story of international boundaries which are an artificial construct and consistently challenged by the natural world indiscriminately passing over and through lines made to obstruct bodies.  Complete or not, I like the honesty of this piece.

I’m a little weary of work that is overly confident in it’s completion in the same way that overly charismatic people always seem to be selling you something.  In my own work, I’m also looking for where to “dig”–  which site will yield the most material and yield another excuse to make things? Where are the places you go to “dig”?

La Frontera from nantebi on Vimeo.

Stacy: Yes, Nicole! I agree. I saw a storytelling show with a friend one time. The theme of which was sharing embarrassing stories, all of which were delivered with utter performer confidence– which immediately secretly enraged me. So, I can relate to what you are saying about honesty. I am a difficult audience at times, especially when narrative is concerned. I don’t trust something that is too well delivered. I like the mess– it holds a certain emotional relevancy or frequency that feels like intimacy to me. Without it, at times, I worry we are showing off more so than communicating. It’s almost as bad as false modesty, which I despise the most. I am not a morose type, but I do think art should always feel a little horrible, and I guess this is what I am always trying to dig at when making my own work.

Tell me about your video pieces and how these narratives come about for you?

Nicole: I made my first video in 2007, as documentation of a piece performed at the Salton Sea.  The place seemed almost unreal to me.  The Salton Sea is so messy with ecological problems. It has no obvious solutions. Yet, it’s also so vital to bird populations. It was this paradox which echoed the larger complexities of California’s water history.  A holding pattern teetering between having too much and not enough water.

For the performance, I built a small, pathetic version of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty constructed out of cardboard and filled with dead Tilapia, gathered from the shoreline of the Sea.  My version of the Jetty disintegrated within 20 minutes.

At the time, I was reading about how Smithson finally decided to build his iconic earthwork at the Great Salt Lake.  He had researched lakes in California– the wreckage, detritus, and algae blooms in his descriptions reminded me of what I encountered at the Salton Sea. This is how the project came together.

A few years later, I made my first animation: a fantastical biography of William Mulholland, suggesting that the chief water poacher of the LADWP, until 1928, may have in fact been “UISCE” (pronounced whiskey)– the half man, half horse Irish trickster who searches for unsuspecting riders to drown in inland bodies of water.

This project led to other biographies of the grandiose and destructive ways in which water has been conjured in the west.  I like using animation to explore these histories because it is well-suited for expressing transgressive boundaries (human/non-human, fantasy/reality) and bringing to life histories of which there is no original documentation.

Uisce Beatha from nantebi on Vimeo.

In my most recent animation, Geography of Reclamation: An Essay in Three Parts, I use animated images in tandem with archival audio.  I call this type of video art an animated essay.  It locates the changing term “Reclamation” through the work of Floyd Dominy (Dam evangelist and head commissioner of the Bureau of Land Reclamation), David Brower (Director of the Sierra Club) and Robert Smithson (Influential Land Artist who coined the term “Earthwork”).   Each of these figures make a case for the utilitarian and sometimes aesthetic function of their respective projects.  The video is as much about “the case for wildness” as it is for art making.

Stacy: Do you feel that these nonfictional figures are somehow similar to actors, stepping in to take over your own personal narratives in the video– one that perhaps you don’t fully understand or know how to express otherwise? My friend Richard Froude came up with this theory in relation to literary hybrid texts, and I’ve been fascinated by the idea ever since. For instance, what is the connection between you and Mulholland? You and Smithson? How do these figures serve you? I guess I’m thinking about your work as a dream, and if in the dream Mulholland and Smithson appear– what do these figures signify to you as the dreamer who put them there?

Nicole:  I’m not entirely comfortable thinking of these historical figures as being either actors (people I have chosen to cast in fictional roles) or adversely, characters I’ve constructed to perform these roles. I was recently on a panel where the moderator somewhat mischaracterized my film Geography of Reclamation as “drawing inspiration from three men.” It was definitely a problem for her that I was highlighting these male figures and not invoking women artists and environmentalists of the same period. I wouldn’t say that I draw inspiration from these figures– they are, for me, placeholders or markers that together serve to tell the story of power and reclamation in the twentieth century. Their stories are their own– and the film weaves together their monumental imprint on the landscape of the west. For better or worse, we are still trying to decide the future of these projects and legacies left behind in their absence.

Geography of Reclamation: An Essay in Three Parts from nantebi on Vimeo.

I think I’ve always been interested in excavating subjects, figures, etc. who represent a kind of monumentality and whose stories are largely fixed–I want to know if there is anything left to say on these overwritten subjects. I am neither a historian nor a journalist, so I do allow myself certain liberties with their stories and a bit of magical thinking (which is an important facet of the history of water in the west) to surface in these stories.  This is where the dreaming comes in– and for me, this history, the history of the west is a kind of Lynchian dream, flickering between what it wants to be and the reality of what it actually is.

Stacy: Maybe this woman on the panel asking about gender in your work felt betrayed by the usage of “reclamation” in such an ephemeral way? I want to think about this some more because it’s really interesting– that specific word and how it can evoke spirits from not only history’s past, but also our own personal pasts. To me, dreams always feel like a certain reclamation of our own personal geographies, or a way to experience what we cannot confront or conceive of in the waking world– a reclamation of the self.

Have you seen this documentary?

What are your thoughts on this?

Nicole: In my film The Geography of Reclamation, I tried in part to locate the term “reclamation” both historically and geographically.  The word and it’s wrung out meanings from another time is really just another form of excess or waste. What to do with these floating meanings that were once so useful in forwarding a certain notion of progress?

I like the connections you are making here between reclaiming “the excesses of our waking life” and using it as material in our unconscious life and perhaps just the opposite.  The dream does seem to function like a receptacle, collecting all the residue of the day–anxieties, desires, etc. We filter these findings into a narrative authored in real time by the self.  Although I’m not someone who recalls dreams very easily, I am generally wowed by the unconscious as an instant imaging /writing device– like a camera that comes ready-made with the film you were planning to make.

Stacy: Oh, what a beautiful sentiment. Can we actually build this contraption,  this unconscious camera of sorts, together sometime?

Nicole: Absolutely! We just need someone who is good with synapse circuitry.  We should enlist Ted Serios as our patron saint of unconscious cameras.  He was an out of work bellhop who drew a crowd by claiming to psychically imprint Polaroids with his thoughts, he called the images “thoughtographs.”

Stacy: Perfect. I’ll dust off my ouija board and we’ll be ready to go. Thanks so much for talking to me, Nicole.


Dividing her time between Los Angeles and Santa Cruz, Nicole Antebi works mostly in video, installation, and animation.  She recently developed a series of animated documentaries about historical figures who brought water to the west in grandiose and destructive ways. Water, CA: Creative Visualizations for a New Millennium, co-edited with Enid Baxter Blader, is an anthology/website which was the focus of a 2011 exhibition and festival at the Crocker Art Museum and will be the basis of an upcoming exhibition at the Armory Center for the Arts, entitled Facing the Sublime in Water, CA, opening October 6, 2012. Other projects include: Pitch Battles, a multimedia performance at Machine Project with Colin Dickey and Chris Kallmyer; Ever Green, an exhibition embedded within Lara Bank’s Portable Forest at Monte Vista Projects; and And the Whale Said…, an impressionistic retelling of Moby Dick as a puppet show on a capsized ship at Machine Project (co-produced with Linda Wei).


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