CHRISTOPHER ULIVO [on] DUSTIN DENNIS

Christopher Ulivo (aside as intro): I’ve known Dustin Dennis for about ten years. In that time we have worked on several projects together. He is, I believe, the least selfish artist I’ve encountered. He is genuinely curious about the world, observant, and thoroughly capable. I suspect he is working on a secret project. I imagine that it is dramatic and involves something like reanimating the dead or contacting extra terrestrials. Time will tell.

CU: Are you now, or have you ever been a ghost hunter?

Dustin Dennis: I tend to tread lightly when asked questions that start with the phrase “Are you now, or have you ever been a _______?”

I prefer unexplained phenomena enthusiast. I grew up reading about the Fox sisters in Hydesville, The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson and other cases investigated by Ed and Lorraine Warren or Hans Holzer. I think the term “Ghost Hunter” means something different today then when I was growing up. This term has become reserved for reality TV celebrities who hang out in old houses, staring at each other through infrared cameras. On two separate occasions I’ve made inquiries about abandoned sites of alleged mystery and have been asked if I were from either the Travel or Discovery channel.

My attraction to unexplained phenomena stems from the simple desire to see something I’ve never seen before, to hear a story I’ve never been told. This is not that unlike the drives that keep me returning to galleries, performance spaces or museums. Although, too often in either case I’m met with a nearly emptied room featuring various collections of soiled furniture, out-of-date reading material, or ambiguous debris leaning against a wall. In the context of visual art, my partner Amanda Lechner refers to this as “Tuttle-ing around”.

Although it’s not always directly featured in my work, sites of strange tales or unusual events are intriguing to me because they blur fact and fiction within actual geographic locations. Often these sites act as stages for rites of passage. Apparently for some teens, traveling to reportedly haunted locations must be a potent aphrodisiac. I’ve stumbled upon an unsettling amount of discarded underwear in a number of these places.

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Basement wash tub at the Lizzie Borden House, Fall River, MA. Kel Dennis & Dustin Dennis.

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Medical equipment at abandoned hospital. Kel Dennis & Dustin Dennis.

CU: Kentucky or Kansas, I forget?

DD: Which apparently forgettable state am I from? Is that what you’re asking? I’m from Missouri, but it’s certainly not forgettable. In fact, I recently finished a work entitled Show Me after the state’s unofficial motto.

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Show Me, 11″x11”, Digital Print. {2013} Dustin Dennis.

CU: I know, an ignorant question. Your version of Missouri looks like a rabid bat. Is he mad at ignorant outsiders like myself or is he trying to invade some other territory? The bat is out change the motto to the “I’ll show you!” state perhaps?

DD: That’s an intriguing, albeit perplexing observation and may have more to do with your political assumptions about the state of Missouri. I made this work after reading about the Ozark big-eared bat, a subspecies of Corynorhinus townsendii vacating the caves of southern Missouri. I am attracted to the idea of obfuscating symbolism through anthropomorphism. Narratives involving animals and locations shift easily because of degrees of familiarity, cultural predilections or disdains. I think the Ozark big-eared bat is fascinating, but bats often get a bad rap for being shifty nocturnal creatures that fly into old women’s hair and bite us in the dark. If I were approached by a libertarian because they “really got this work”, I’d want to stick around and hear why.

CU: Wrong again but wiser for it.

CU: How would you describe your method of inquiry? How has your artistic research evolved in the past 10 years since graduate school?

DD: I have a background in building sculpture. Lately I’ve been excited about making short films and building digital objects within the computer that feature narrative elements. I’m currently working on a few projects that are thematically different than previous work. One project is a short fictional film that involves birds of the Southwest.

After graduate school I co-directed a studio visit and critique group in New York City. I was fortunate to be able to surround myself with very talented, resourceful people. Members of this group would meet monthly and discuss current work as well as practical career tips and technical solutions. Occasionally residencies or galleries would host a discussion if a participant had a solo show up. I felt that the rigor and regularity of our meetings helped unlock some useful information about navigating various aspects of the contemporary art world. We were constantly inviting new artists to participate. This helped expand and fortify our social circles.

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Studio Fuse NYC

CU: I really enjoyed being a member of Studio Fuse. Was it intentionally set up to be a cross between a twelve-step program weaning us off of graduate school and a séance to commune with spirits from a more romantic past New York art world?

DD: Studio Fuse began as an experiment. Groups of people who like to discuss art naturally gravitate toward one another.

CU: Any yet they don’t usually last long or are less than inspiring.

CU: Why didn’t you get into movie making earlier and how has your previous work effected the way you are making movies now?

DD: When I visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I’ll often return to Jean Antoine Houdon’s sculpture “La Frileuse / Winter”, 1787. It’s a bronze sculpture of a nude woman with only a shawl over her head and shoulders. Her gesture is huddled tight, shivering, walking through the cold. The sculpture has a light absorbing black patina and makes the figure look vulnerable but haunting. I often find myself thinking it has a filmic quality, which is absurd because it was created before the invention of film. I’m responding to a story. I’m now interested in the differences of how narratives can unfold in a time-based medium.

CU: I love that the characters in your film Untitled work alone. They are convincingly contemporary as are the settings but they get to be creatively wicked without needing collaborators, corporations or giant laboratories which seems ‘old fashioned’. –Was this film, on some level, an allegory of your vision of a perfect working space? –Am I way off, here?

DD: The film isn’t an allegory of my perfect working space, I’m as comfortable working within a group as I am by myself. We learn that the two protagonists in Untitled are involved in actions that are reliant on one another. Their combined efforts culminate into a plot that unfolds through observing their mysterious scientific processes. The characters work both autonomously and collaboratively on their creative mission. I planned this film with two specific actors in mind who are themselves talented visual artists and close friends. While some of my projects require concentrated work alone, I’ve enjoyed the collegial environment while making this short film.

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Untitled, film still, 4 Minutes 41 Seconds. {2013} Dustin Dennis.

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Untitled, film still, 4 Minutes 41 Seconds. {2013} Dustin Dennis.

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Untitled, film still, 4 Minutes 41 Seconds. {2013} Dustin Dennis.

CU: We both speak of Ray Harryhausen as if he were some artistic genius, Is he? Would he would have been better off making projects on his own, without a studio or live actors to deal with? Did he need the B movie aura to shine?

DD: Artistic genius? Absolutely. Harryhausen worked on a number of films that weren’t considered B movies. Would he be better off making his own work without film studios? That’s hard to know. We can only appreciate the work he’s left us. Harryhausen might have been less known without the attention and backing from working on projects for film studios. That’s not to say he wouldn’t have continued making awesome work.

CU: What story would you commission Harryhausen to create if you could?

DD: I recently saw Patrick Stewart and Ian Mckellen in Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”. I’d want Harryhausen to do the special effects for a buddy movie staring these two that combines the premise of “The Time Machine” and “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”.

CU: My good god, I am so sad that doesn’t exist.

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS

CHRISTOPHER ULIVO: {Born in Brooklyn during the fateful summer of 1977, it is likely Ulivo’s first sights were of a son of sam shooting, the great blackout and the filming of Saturday Night Fever.} He received his MFA from RISD, where he then continued to teach. He now lives and works in Goleta, California.

DUSTIN DENNIS: Dennis was born and raised in a small town outside of Kansas City, Missouri. He holds a Bachelors of Fine Arts from the Kansas City Art Institute and in 2005 received an MFA in Sculpture from the Rhode Island School of Design. He has since exhibited digital, print, and sculpture work in New York, Rhode Island, New Mexico, California and Michigan. Dustin is a founding Director of Studio Fuse, an expanding art blog and studio community. He currently lives and works in New Mexico.

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