The Anals Of Extreme Animals: An Interview With Jacob Ciocci And David Wightman

Extreme Animals is the long-running multimedia and performance project of artist-musicians Jacob Ciocci and David Wightman. Since 2002, their uniquely hyperkinetic blend of music, video collage, animation, and live performance has engaged with the anxieties we have come to associate with participatory culture and networked experience. The duo has performed at Deitch Projects, The Museum of the Moving Image, and The MOMA as well as underground music venues across North America. Their most recent collection of videos, The Urgency, was released on VHS by Thunder Zone Entertainment in late-2013. A DVD edition followed in 2014 courtesy of Undervolt & Co. Graeme Langdon recently caught up with the duo to discuss the history of their work, its evolution, and its reception.

“Questions of the Ages.” Music is a Question With No Answer. Audio Dregs, 2010.

B O D Y: Jacob was also active with the multimedia collective Paper Rad during Extreme Animals’ early days. Was Extreme Animals meant to build on the ideas you were exploring with Paper Rad? How do you conceive of the relationship between the two projects during that period?

David: Extreme Animals was surely connected to a lot of ideas and practices that were present in Paper Rad: Sonic Youth, staying hydrated, “some galleries don’t have walls”, etc… But there were other things that were different: interest in classical music, the bro lifestyle, academia, linkin park, etc.

Paper Rad was a family and Extreme Animals were/are friends. Though I’m starting to feel that Jacob is actually my brother. I should make a Venn diagram for this with each member of Paper Rad’s interest overlapping with each member of Extreme Animals interests but I won’t.

On the Paper Rad Tours (“The Year of The Troll” and “Summer of HTML”) there would be 4 or 5 bands made up of a rotating cast of 4-6 people. Like the Paper Rad website all these bands were different but you could tell that they were coming from the same place of inspiration.

B O D Y: I was wondering if you two could tell us something about your collaborative process. Do you begin with an idea and then look for material and compose around that, or does the process begin with a piece of source material or a musical motif?

David: The pieces usually begin with the music and the videos are constructed around the music. But I think both of us are always looking for material that we can work with and archiving it. Putting it in folders on the desktop.

Jacob: (an actual desk top though, we would never use a computer desktop that is whack.)

With the early stuff I think me and David would play each other songs we liked (usually pop songs) and then David would go off and write compositions on his midi keyboard. We would then route those midi files into my keyboards, drum machines and feedback loops. I would figure out how to improvise vocals over the midi files and David would figure out how to improvise on a drum kit to the tracks.

Now I think we definitely have a more diverse approach. Sometimes David comes in with ideas, sometimes I do. Sometimes now it’s an audio sample. There have been 2 recent examples of us using David’s knowledge of Western classical music as a starting point (“Meditations on a Theme” by Thais and “Canon in D” by Pachelbel). I think there must have been an example where the video idea came first but I can’t think of one… We do a range of different “sets” now, each one where we are thinking about different contexts.

B O D Y: One thing that is interesting about your multifaceted practices is the way in which they comprise work within a great variety of milieus. The two of you have taught, curated, and exhibited for such institutions as UCSD, Carnegie Melon, Rhizome, and Eyebeam, but you also DJ, make music videos, and maintain a project like Extreme Animals, which has performed in such museums as the MoMA and the Museum of the Moving Image as well as DIY spaces. What does it mean to you to work across these different contexts?

David: I think it’s important to us because we have always existed in different fields. We grew up submerged in these different worlds—going from boys choir to punk shows. I don’t think that’s unusual or special anymore. To isolate these “milieus” (I like that, gonna steal it ☺) makes sense and is easier to manage but seems a little insincere, almost like a lost opportunity. Maybe that’s a little dramatic.

Jacob: It’s just who we are. We have both always been really interested in all the different approaches to music and culture. Equally inspired by academia and pop culture. Equally inspired by punk and Miley Cyrus (which is the new punk). We’ve also always had this weird under-dog tendency, where we like to insert ourselves into situations where we don’t quite belong, to maybe prove ourselves? It might go back to that first tendency we had in high school to play in parking lots. Anyway, often we feel like the outsiders: outsiders in the noise scene, outsiders in academia, outsiders in pop music. We fit somewhere in between all of these spheres—which sometimes feels like we don’t fit in anywhere—but that can actually be a really liberating feeling (depending on one’s self-esteem on any particular day).

The Urgency. Thunder Zone Entertainment, 2013; Undervolt & Co., 2014.
The Urgency. Thunder Zone Entertainment, 2013; Undervolt & Co., 2014.

B O D Y: I have also enjoyed your writing, which often extends or elaborates upon the ideas that characterize a lot of your work with Extreme Animals. Could you talk more about the potential of blog-writing for you as a form of creative expression?

Jacob: Writing for the Internet is really immediate and if you time it right (in terms of when you release the writing) I find it can actually reach a lot of people and shift conversations in ways that our music and videos don’t. The last 2 blog posts I did I made sure to piggy-back on some event in popular culture as an entrance point into things I had already been thinking about. So I used the model of like “link bait”—“check out this weird thing that just happened”—and then I tried to open up the conversation to fit my agenda. I really like writing about culture, because it’s all I think about (besides money and food). I want to make a video essay compiling all my writing where the script for the video is my writing. Like Dan Graham’s Rock My Religion but updated to deal with my life.

B O D Y: In an especially interesting blog post Jacob unpacks the co-influence that has characterized the relationship between art and popular culture to critique the fault that some found in Rihanna and Azelia Banks’ appropriation of Seapunk aesthetics. In his view, the offended creative scene was always-already appropriating up and down to birth an original iteration of things we’ve already seen, so, to take umbrage at the appropriation of its aesthetics seems ridiculous. It is natural that someone whose work relies quite heavily on appropriation would take this position, but Jacob also suggests that the offended artists were appropriating an antiquated notion of subculture in order to constitute a specious coherency that would allow them to safeguard their aesthetic. In this, Jacob seems to be suggesting that the ways in which we have tended to assemble identities are incommensurable with the endless availability and speedy circulation of cultural production that characterizes networked societies, but I wonder if you could elaborate here. It is inevitable that a scene that operates on the Internet surrenders control over its already-appropriated imagery, but must they also surrender the ways in which they appropriate and the ways these activities are meaningful to them?

Jacob: Style, creativity and personal expression are always related to politics and economics but can easily be divorced from the conditions of their production and thus change their meaning based on subtle or not-so-subtle changes in context. This is not new: the Internet did not start this. One could argue that capitalism makes this possible—I don’t know what does it because I’ve only ever lived inside capitalism. What I do know is that the Internet has changed this process in some ways, but in other ways has not changed this process. I think the last part of your question is very interesting because you seem to be framing it in almost a personal or emotional way (with the word “surrender”). That leads me to think that perhaps it is a personal decision, that one could “decide to believe” despite outwards definitions of what already-appropriated aesthetics or imagery means (i.e. “I don’t care that my style has been co-opted, for me it’s still authentically me”). We always have a choice—we can choose to go against the grain at any given moment, but don’t expect it to be easy…

B O D Y: In reference to Paper Rad’s multimedia output Jacob once said “We’re not just gonna do gallery shows, we’re gonna go on tour and then release a book [in order to] saturate or infiltrate the sphere as much as possible.” I was wondering if Extreme Animals, which has released albums, video compilations, and various other objects, is motivated by a similar interest in the proliferation of work. What does Extreme Animals think about “the product,” as an appreciably concise object of exchange or aesthetic contemplation? Is there an ideal format for Extreme Animals or a way in which you would like people to view your work as a body of work?

David: Format is something that I think the whole music industry is struggling with. And of course our situation is more complicated with video being so connected. We just released a DVD + digital download on Undervolt & Co., a new “label” for experimental video. Before that we released a VHS (with classic, white puffy case) including a “zine” insert on Thunder Zone Entertainment. Neither of these release strategies is complete and perfect on its own but I’m very glad that this work has come out and is available.

I think if we keep making work like we do now the best solution is to keep releasing it on various (almost conflicting) media. Like the content of the work, it’s conflicting—VHS and Youtube rips, samples and “original” music. It’s slipping through your fingers like sand. “Nothing is real.” Come to the shows; buy a DVD if you want ☺.

Jacob: The ideal format for Extreme Animals is to do exactly what we are doing already (DIY shows, museum shows, self-released items, t-shirts, social media) but to be paid 1 million dollars for each object or show instead of 40 dollars. Just Kidding. I recommend reading Seth Price’s essay “Dispersion” in relation to the notion of distribution and dissemination of artistic ideas in culture. Or the related text by Bettina Funcke “Pop or Populus.”

B O D Y: Musically, Extreme Animals melds metal and contemporary radio pop. For me, this mix conjoins a genre that has traditionally signified darkness, menace, dread, and something else whose commercial function has tended to involve the sublimation of anxieties of this sort. And yet, this mixture does not feel ironic, it feels natural, a comfortable pairing. What are you aiming for with this admixture of source material? Are there other musical influences or references that you would like to talk about?

Jacob: I am interested in what “Angst” means in 2014. Pop Music on the surface doesn’t have a lot of angst in it right now (in comparison at least to how it was defined in the 90s, with Metallica, Alice and Chains or Nirvana running the air waves). So we are juxtaposing this older “ANGRY BRO” form of Angst within a contemporary musical and cultural landscape. Our video “Surfing/Suffering” is all about this. It’s about the female tween consumer and iphones. About trying to find what angst means within a situation like that. It’s also a metal/hardstyle remix of Miley Cyrus’ “Party In The USA,” a song made to promote a brand of clothing sold at big box stores. Angst is still with us—it’s staring us right in the face but it’s just got a different filter on it…

David: Yeah so there’s a tension in language but a lot of connections in these “contrasting” genres that we work with. Metal and classical music presents another example. I remember in a recent conversation Jacob said “Metal is classical music with the distortion.” Ha ha, well ok.

B O D Y: The ways in which negativity and affirmation commingle across networked participatory media to facilitate exposure is something Jacob explores in a recent blog post about Internet trolling. “By making fun of something, by hitting ‘share’ on something you think is bad, you are still consuming that thing—in fact, on some level, I would argue you are still enjoying that thing,” he writes. However, I wouldn’t want to over simplify here as Jacob has also written about the problematic nature of virality. There is a great deal of negativity or despair or anxiety in your work with Extreme Animals, but this work is also characterized by and facilitates a good deal of joy. How do you reconcile these disparate emotions?

Jacob: Living in contemporary America as a close-to-middle-class creative person is simultaneously joyous (borderline utopian in one’s experience of comfort, access to media, and relative privilege) and confusing, mysterious, and dark. The infinitely intersecting, expanding and contracting fields of human activity known as “Contemporary Culture” are so fascinating to study that they do produce a sense of joy. But at the same time, I find that Culture is almost always built upon exploitation, inequality, and the imprisonment of the human spirit. That every creative utterance contains hidden within it on some level some very terrifying ghosts. It is my job as an artist to try to face these ghosts.

David: One thing I like about a lot of DIY shows is that people are enjoying it on all these different levels. There are people in the front furiously dancing (losing their minds), there are people a little further back standing and watching attentively, and then there are people in the back twirling around in circles—almost playing, really “exploring the space.” And maybe there are people in the very back with their arms crossed, not even enjoying the show, ha ha. There are multiple points of engagement—that’s great! I like to think that our music references this model in a lot of ways.

“Am I Evil?” The Urgency. Thunder Zone Entertainment, 2013; Undervolt & Co., 2014.

B O D Y: The recently released Urgency VHS is packaged with a pamphlet that includes a short essay that distinguishes between “Futuristic Artists” and “The Boxes.” The former are creative workers who are defined by their apparent autonomy, individual fearlessness, and the social and economic wealth that accrues around them against the machinations of The Boxes. On the other hand, The Boxes allege to function against the individualizing and alienating success of the Futuristic Artist to remind us that our world is a product of collective creativity and concept generation. For The Boxes, the Futuristic Artist represents a myth that must be shattered if we are to acknowledge our shared stake in the survival of humankind and address the exigencies of our era; but for the Futuristic Artists, The Boxes create mystifying and artificial connections that can only be maintained by war and the destruction of the natural world. Now, there is a comic titled “Shape Masterz” in the Paper Rad book, B.J. & da Dogs, that makes repeated reference to Boxes. Can you elaborate on what these concepts mean to you and how they have evolved in your work?

Jacob: I started using this metaphor of “The Boxes” in 2001 when I started to work with these 2 characters: Box Eyes and Little Dude. Little Dude is the wandering/lost soul and Box Eyes is the Master/Voice of Comfort. These 2 characters were my attempt to merge the new age spirituality I grew up around with the technology and art I learned about at Oberlin where I went to school. So I was trying to construct a frame for discussing contemporary spirituality within technology and consumerism. I’m still trying to do this!! The essays you are referring to are just newer versions of me exploring these same concepts, specifically me grappling with the idea of “The Professional Artist” (something I was definitely not thinking about in 2001). “The Professional Artist” to me is tied up with ideas of individual genius and ownership of objects and creative brands. All ideas that I have trouble comprehending but I am trying to get better at understanding.

B O D Y: The second half of the pamphlet that accompanies The Urgency is comprised entirely of sheet music for the song “The Puzzle of Life.” I find this amusing because the transcription recalls David’s classical music education, but the music represented comprises almost humourously simple metal motifs. For me there is a tension that results from the apparent incongruity of this way of writing “great” or canonical music and the actual genre of music transcribed. But, much like Cory Arcangel’s Paganini’s 5th Caprice, this transcription reminds us that classical music and heavy metal are similarly reverential genres, similarly invested in virtuosity and melodic complexity. Would you like to elaborate on your inclusion of the sheet music and its relation to the writing that precedes it?

David: In part it’s a nod to guitar culture. Guitar magazines will have transcriptions of whatever rock songs are popular at the time, even if they’re easy. Like three chord easy. But it is also a play on issues we just discussed on the format of this music and dissemination. Before the phonograph was a mainstay, the upright piano was popular and sheet music was dominant. So here’s a VHS by a rock band and, oh yeah, here is the score/chart.

Finally, a lot of our music starts in a notation program called Sibelius just because that’s an easier place for me to write. It’s a little easier to think harmonically and melodically there looking at the notes on the staff rather than looking at a midi piano role in a program like Ableton. So it was a way to share this unusual aspect of our band. Going back to this source level that’s hardly heard anymore, a peek behind the curtain, peeling back the layers of the onion.

B O D Y: One thing that frustrated me about the reception of Paper Rad’s work was the tendency to read the appropriation of material from old cartoons and dated pop culture through the lens of nostalgia, when I feel that the group’s fascination with kitsch and the outmoded is more productively read through Walter Benjamin’s engagement with the French Surrealists, who used the recently outmoded to problematize the ways in which we experience and derive meaning and comfort from the misleading novelty and newness that envelopes commodities in capitalist social contexts. For Benjamin, this apparent newness masks an ever-sameness that could help us to recall more primal desires (such as a classless society) and acknowledge their enduring relevance and fantastic potential. In his view, a confrontation with the recently outmoded or kitsch (like one finds in Surrealist art or literature) produces a shock or estrangement that awakens us to these desires. Now, this is how I’ve preferred to read Paper Rad’s use of junk culture, and I feel that this inclination continues with Extreme Animals (particularly alongside the repeated imperative that people “Wake up!”), but I wonder if you two feel the same about your use of recently outmoded popular culture and images of people frustrated with this obsolescence.

David: Yeah, that reception of PR and EA as nostalgia bummed me out too. Those symbols, if anything, were to show us the disposability and simultaneous immortality of junk culture. In a way it’s terrifying. There is this scene from one of our videos where an old cartoon king-like monster says, “nothing is forgotten, nothing is ever forgotten.” And then it goes into Paris Hilton interviewing Lady Gaga. This is what we’re talking about here. This is what we’re “all about.”

Jacob: I can speak for myself only (not for David or the rest of Paper Rad) but YES I see this new Extreme Animals stuff as an attempt to continue working with some of those Paper Rad ideas you mentioned above, but within a different cultural context. Paper Rad to me was about taking certain shared languages (of throw-away American culture: Saturday morning cartoons, BMX bikes, junk food, cheap toy synthesizers, the design and methods of early vernacular websites) and using these references to create an infinitely generative, almost utopian creative space. But it was never escapist to me—instead I do feel it was about trying to create the type of rupture you described above (articulated by Benjamin/Surrealists). It was about transposing onto this culture of consumption (80s/90s culture) some kind of hard to define radical spirit, which I do believe can exist inside consumerism (albeit ephemerally, or moment to moment). I am now trying to grapple with related ideas, but within a different cultural paradigm (energy drink culture, social media, and conspiracy theories to name a few of the newer references). But it’s the same basic concept: trying to find the cracks in the crumbling edifice of American Culture where the light begins to shine through…

— Interview by Graeme Langdon