Summer Reading Series #3: On Mike Heynes: video art, animation, and activist critique

Still from To be continued (2015) Mike Heynes

Video and installation artist Mike Heynes has a kind of perfect pitch for recognising the extraordinary nuances hidden within anachronistic pop culture, spanning low budget movies, children’s claymation, trash television, music videos, underground comics, punk graphics, movie titles, kit models, miniature train sets, and action figures (among many other things). But alongside this, Heynes is an (ir-)reverent student of experimental film and video and its heritage, particularly such West Coast American figures as George and Mike Kuchar (video diaries), Bruce Conner (collage aesthetic), and Craig Baldwin (experimental narratives from found footage). There’s a fair dose of Kenneth Anger’s countercultural obsessiveness and John Waters’ dark campiness influencing the mix as well. And Heynes’ interest lies often in how the undercurrents of our never-ending sea of popular culture wash ashore deceptively magical detritus, such that even as cycles of cultural production become less representative of the current mainstream it never completely disappears.

In Heynes’ earlier videos, scales, colour, and sound are wildly variable, as miniature toys of different makes, models, and origins compete as actors in a bizarro-world repertory company (toys consistently reoccur in Heynes’ projects, shifting from starring to supporting roles). Heynes has also made sculptural installations featuring fantastical dioramas. In the short video Toxic, a monstrous toddler toy of gigantic proportions is held at bay by G.I. Joe-style soldiers, punctuated by loud graphics: How can they stop him? Obliterate? Or medicate? The video is the average length of an old-fashioned pop 45, 2 minutes and 25 seconds, and simultaneously resembles a trailer for a more lengthy undertaking. In his Schlock! Horror! Death of a B-Movie Empire (2005), Heynes stitches together the composite elements of old school horror movies, mixing live action campy action with stop motion animation once again, but as a damning criticism of the increasing hegemony of the “Wellywood” aesthetic, rather than the low-fi NZ cinematic ventures of the past (ironically the earliest efforts of Peter Jackson exemplify this, such as Bad Taste (1987) or consider Jackson’s childhood obsession with both King Kong and Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion spectaculars). More titles for imaginary (but quite enticing films) lurk within: “Satanic Cult of the Zombie Motherfuckers” anyone? I’m keen.

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Mike Heynes, SCHLOCK! HORROR! Death of a B-Movie Empire (2005)

Heynes’ practice has strong affiliations to a number of underground aesthetic and fringe ventures of New Zealand, often exemplified by its avid and vibrant music subcultures, such as the legacy of Dunedin’s Flying Nun records, and the ongoing rock and roll mania of bands associated with the Stink Magnetic label. Heynes credits the influence of stop-motion animation in early NZ music videos including those by legendary musician and artist Chris Knox, which have a charming, low-fi aesthetic: op shop meeting bedroom clutter. Heynes’ works also bear affinity to those of artists like Ronnie van Hout, whose clever and idiosyncratic perspective also emerges more from NZ’s subterranean music scenes than its visual arts establishment. And as mentioned above, figures like Craig Baldwin whose use of found footage, reconstructed and sutured together has resulted in some remarkable films, and has also allied itself with the kind of appropriationist/mash-up/remix efforts of figures such as the band Negativland, who were the focus of Baldwin’s documentary Sonic Outlaws (1995). Heynes calls attention in his own practice to the methods behind the madness of big and small-scale film and video making, demonstrating as a counter-critique that the attempts to make seamless, computerized entertainment fodder today betray all the seams and fissures that are being avoided. In turn, Heynes asserts the power and pleasure of the dodgy edit, the ridiculously artificial, the concertedly amateur. Of course the very act of taking this on involves a prodigious amount of skill and clearly focussed intent.

But does the so-called retro stay merely retro when creatively revitalised, or dare I say it, reanimated? What might Heynes’ Dr. Frankenstein-style hybrid zombie remixes of our ancient nightmares and utopian dreams of the future tell us today? I think they fit in well with an ongoing archeology of the past yet emerge from a generational standpoint that well predates hipster hunting and gathering, in part exemplified by its very real attachment to and affiliation with a DIY ethic and its socio-political ramifications. To some degree, one could say that Heynes’ process manifests the detail-orientated focus of a fan/curator/historian with the rebellious energy and contrarianism of any good artist. Heynes has in addition been an educator for many years, both teaching animation and offering skilled technical support to art students just getting the barest grasp of options that lie ahead of them. He has also the key awareness that the technical format must fit the task needed, rather than to rush blindly toward the default visual norms that become standardised all too quickly. That is to say, low tech and old tech can still be operational in our digital, increasingly high tech mainstream surroundings. Moreover, interrogating the ways in which media forms have intersected with specific ideologies of production and dissemination has been a primary area of interest throughout Heynes’ practice.

Many of Heynes’ works, despite their fascination with pop cultural excess, exhibit a lean, intensely concentrated quality that sometimes might be the inevitable by-product of the laborious process of stop motion (i.e., vastly time consuming to create a short work) but also it ties in well with an aesthetic which manifests a short and sharp wicked humour. Again as in the best rock and roll songs Heynes can present a killer magnum opus in fewer than 3 minutes flat. I am exceedingly fond of Punk Shane a captivating story told with dolls, vivid marker placards, a c. 1982 video arcade, and mini BMXs. Didn’t we all have the sketchy, cooler older friend/acquaintance/sibling that made us envious of his/her ever-dubious exploits? Taking the form of a Thor/wrestler-like figurine emblazoned with punk logos (Dead Kennedys, Sex Pistols) Shane is a disturbing everyday anti-hero. Punk Shane was my hero/He left school at 14/name like a movie star/He acted up for me and my friends/We met at the shopping mall... Robbing the cricket club and sharing the proceeds with the young “pussies” that admire him. A bit of a dickish role model to say the least, doll Shane becomes the star of a spot-on suburban critique.

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Mike Heynes, Punk Shane (2000)

Heynes’ work has moved into a quieter, more subtle area of exploration in recent years, as reconfigured train model sets become the setting of an uninhabited ghost town, the effect of which often seeming like some post-apocalytic travels into a spare, strange environment: Could it be middle America or rural New Zealand? ... Central Europe maybe, or some preposterously conjured Fantasyland? In relation to the “uncanny’ aspects of ghost town, the artist has noted that: “In 1906, German psychiatrist Ernst Jentsch first described the uncanny ‘as something one does not know one’s way about in.’” This bears an intriguing resemblance to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s statement in his book Philosophical Investigations that “A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way around.’” At any rate, this viewer’s own navigation through the desolate streets of ghost town was an eerie experience. Just as with To Be Continued... (2015) in which soap operas are evoked via the use of dioramas featuring drunken festivities, classic cars, gaudy motels, conspiratorial behaviour, everyday deceit and drudgery, voyeurism, violence, and other dastardly acts, another epic which unfolds in only seven minutes.

A key aspect of Heynes’ practice is the targeted, critical inspection of cultural genres, from sci-fi, fantasy, music video, and horror to the melodramatic posturing of the episodic soap opera. Typological patterns in pop culture intrigue due to their relative rigidity and consistency, just waiting to be détourned and subverted in the name of art, or indeed sheer pranksterism. Some of Heynes’ most recent works have involved the reconfiguration and remaking of now-superseded Hollywood studio logos of the 1990s, including Universal’s globe and TriStar’s pegasus, by this very act bringing them forward into sharp focus rather than as a parenthetical, often overlooked entry point to a film, yet also bringing them back down to size, as instead of high gloss motion graphics, Heynes creates them with his characteristic hands-on animation techniques. Heynes’ work in process brings to mind a seminal early Postmodern film installation by Jack Goldstein, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (1975), which consisted of the incessant looping of the MGM lion’s roar, with no subsequent feature to follow in its wake.

The irony now is that while Goldstein in an earlier era was arguing for the significance of a more cinematic-style approach to contemporary artworks, now such works are ubiquitous, and Heynes’ practice reminds us of the political historical trajectories that lead us to the present moment. Most specifically these works emerge from Heynes’ examination of the multinational trade agreements that unleashed a flood of entertainment from elsewhere onto Aotearoa NZ’s screens but failed to protect the country’s own film and video production base. Heynes comments that: “The re-made logos are deliberately shonky, critiquing a persistent presence overshadowing our local identity. As a nation we are missing the collective experience of seeing ourselves reflected on television in a meaningful way...” I would add that Heynes’ project seems equally critical of the eerily amnesiac and atomised viewer-spaces we now frequent: viewing streaming video files via our smartphones, tablets, and laptops, drastically severed from the classic modernist modes of shared cinematic or televisual spectatorship. This critique could make for dark, drab, and disconsolate results, but on the contrary, Heynes’ abundance of stylistic flair and wit makes his work always remarkably watchable, and ultimately empathetic rather than alienating.

- Martin Patrick

Mike Heynes' installation News of the Uruguay Round is at Enjoy Gallery, Wellington, 17 February-12 March 2016
See Mike Heynes' page on CIRCUIT, http://www.mikeheynes.com/