Sitting at Pettirosso yesterday across from Greg Lundgren, I see a glimmer of apprehension in his eyes, even though he dives right in to our conversation. I want to talk with him about CHAT, his 83-minute-long film about a cam girl that screened at Northwest Film Forum on July 18. He has no plans to show it again anytime soon, so if you didn’t see it then, you may have missed your chance.
The film depicts an entire session with a chat girl, complete with lots of tits, topless violin playing, a Kramer-esque gay nextdoor neighbor and an altercation with the SPD. Lundgren is a little nervous because, bluntly put, he’s a white man making a film about sex work. In today’s political/artistic climate—especially in Seattle—red flags go up when male privilege wants to tell us something about sexuality and women.
But Lundgren’s work has almost always been, in some way or another, about sex and death. This is the Lundgren of Lundgren Monuments, a studio that makes cast-glass tombstones and artist-designed urns. He’s also the Lundgren behind the Hideout, Seattle’s 9-year-old art bar crammed floor-to-ceiling with paintings by local artists. He’s the guy behind Vital 5 Productions, the resurrected Vito’s, Walden 3 and he’s one third of PDL. The Lundgren who constructed a large, sculptural sex toy named “Cliff” for the exhibit Touch Me: I am Violent at Vermillion Gallery this past February.
It’s now been two weeks since CHAT screened, and here we are in a fairly empty Pettirosso on a sweltering July afternoon to talk about about the latest leg of his artistic career. He’s sipping an icy mug of Rainier while I wrap my lips around a flute filled with bubbly.
Amanda Manitach: This is your first feature length film, right?
Greg Lundgren: Yeah, I used to make a lot of shorter films in the late ’90s.
What were those?
About sex and death and art.
Were they pornos?
No. I’ve made a couple of those too though, for private consumption of course.
What was the inspiration for CHAT?
I had a friend who was a chat girl and she introduced me to this chat website. It was unknown to me—that sort of thing isn’t my go-to for Internet raunch. I was fascinated by the medium, by the way that it’s formatted. Because in traditional pornography there’s always this fast forward button. You can always get to the part you want to get to. In chat, it’s all in real time.
Was it Chaturbate?
Yeah. I like it because it’s full of diversity, a kind of indie site. People are doing it because they want to, and it affords them all this power: If someone’s rude or demanding, they’ll cut them off. If they don’t tip, they tell them to tip. But it’s also really lethargic. It’s a very slow strip tease. It might be two hours between someone being clothed and being naked. It requires patience. So I began looking at it like a film format. It occurred to me to adopt that format and write a script for it. I look at pornography in general as this multi-billion dollar industry that’s really poorly operated. No story lines, not great actors usually, but they make tons of money. Repurposing that seemed interesting to me.
The idea of making a movie in one take was also interesting. I love the silence, the tension of empty space. That being said, if I didn’t know Rosalie—if I didn’t have the right actor for it—I would never have moved forward with it.
I heard conflicting background stories about the actor. Going into the film, someone said she actually was a professional cam girl. On the way out I heard she was an actor from the East Coast.
She’s a nurse in Baltimore, Maryland and I picked her because she’s very smart, comfortable in her own skin, very curious. I wanted to portray someone who was powerful, making all the decisions on her own terms. Who was nobody’s victim, not forced to do anything, not the victim of abuse growing up. There are certainly proven cases where this has happened with sex workers. However, I think it’s important to portray women as sexual creatures who are powerful and not—as is commonly portrayed in the sex industry—as damaged.
Had Rosalie done chat before?
No, this was her very first experience.
While she was being filmed, was she chatting with you the whole time?
Yes, with me and Megan Dodge. We shot in Megan’s apartment and we were actually on Skype giving directions, prompting conversations, wanting her to respond naturally. It was a bit of Wild West directing. I wasn’t really in control of it.
I thought it was real. And I was never bored. Though my boyfriend said he dozed off at least once. I think because we’re used to the cadence of texting and waiting and communicating that way via devices, the pace seemed natural. Also, it helps that there were boobs the whole time.
One thing I’m not afraid of is the silence. I really like the built-in pauses—whether it’s for narrative tension or testing the audience, it’s authentic to real chat rooms. She just sits and stares at the camera. It doesn’t turn me on. It’s amazing that there will be 2,000 people watching this girl in real time. I’m fascinated by the dynamic of the relationship: I have something you want, but I’m not going to just take off my bra in the first five seconds. I’m going to make you wait for two hours. Then if you tip me enough, you may get something.
It was interesting to me that this happened at the same time the Yellow Fish Epic Durational Performance Festival. There’s a lot of art happening right now that involves patience, where the viewer is just sitting there, usually without any climax, reward or narrative arc. It reminded me of that. Except there is a tease, a promise of climax, with this.
The promise of sex or nudity (or violence for that matter) will always keep people sticking around, in film or anywhere.
I was expecting a little more raunch from you actually. It was a little tame.
There was the promise. She said she would take her panties off, but she never does. She has her top off for 45 minutes—you kind of get to know her. You get to see her in an up close and personal way….almost to the point it loses its power a little bit.
For sure. It reminds me of readings I’ve gone to by Vanessa Place, a conceptual writer and defense attorney based in LA. She appropriates pretty horrible or borderline-traumatic texts from court documents or things like rape jokes or the transcripts from air traffic control communications that happened during 9-11. She reads them for up to a half an hour and the progression of emotional response in the listener is fascinating. At first it’s shock or disgust, or maybe nervous laughter, empathy. But eventually something happens where emotional response plateaus and the pure rhythm and form of language takes over. It becomes almost meditative, glossolalic, in spite of the content. Something similar seems to happen here. The titillation wears off.
What else are you working on?
I’m writing another one-shot film.
What do you like about that?
I like the real time. I like the challenge of it. I feel movie-making now is so hyperactive. A million takes. A million scenes. The special effects and CGI. A million things just to keep people’s attention. I don’t like giving people a million chances to get their lines right. I think the improvisational one-take gives a chance for the actors to experience a sense of humanity and authenticity. I’m definitely influenced by Kids, by Harmony Korine, Larry Clark and in a lot of ways Andy Warhol. That idea of watching someone sleep, or of watching long, drawn-out conversations that don’t go anywhere. When I was younger I didn’t understand the power of those films. But so few people dedicate time to actually capturing real life. We use the camera to capture these highly-contrived, fantastical, manipulated ideas of reality.
So what will this next film be about?
My current project is based on one of the worst dreams I ever had, like three weeks ago. It was super paranoid: being chased by some sort of ghost government, that sense of knowing something you’re not supposed to know. The Michael Hastings case really affected me. I really like the idea of capturing the last two hours of Michael Hastings’ life. What does that look like if he rewires a video camera so that it live-streams into the Deep Web because he knows he’s going to be killed and he makes sure that his death will be filmed and the truth get out?
[Intermission here due to the arrival of a small plate of mixed olives, half an artichoke heart and another round of drinks.]
I was recently talking with another journalist who bemoaned the fact that Seattle’s art is not sexy. Not that he wants shock or sexually gimmicky art. There’s just not much sex, period. I hadn’t exactly thought of it in those terms, but it’s true.
There’s a trend in the art in Seattle where everyone’s attempting to right all the wrongs of our cultural path—our sexism, racism, misogyny. There’s all these things we need to be correct about or sensitive about.
I think the artist’s job is not to be politically correct but to be honest. To say what’s on his or her mind, even if it’s ugly or unpopular. I think that’s what the general public looks to artists for. You’re supposed to be the fool. But the environment in Seattle is really judgmental and condemning and that’s a scary thing. I love the territory of sex. It’s something that’s part of all of our lives: the blue collar part of our lives, the white collar part of our lives, the young, the old, the prepubescent. However, it’s something that if you don’t do it right, you get your nuts nailed to the wall. As an artist, it creates a climate of holy shit I’ve got to be really careful about what I say, about what I do, because if I don’t, I’ll be crucified for it. I think that’s an unhealthy thing for a creative community to feel.
My fuck sculpture, “Cliff,” I named “Cliff” because if I’d left it untitled, I was afraid that too many people would think it was a “woman” made by a white guy. A white guy who’s fucking a thing that can’t move, that can’t defend itself. Then all the sudden I’m a misogynist because I made this sculpture that has a hole in it. I named it “Cliff” to take that power away. But I didn’t see it as a man or woman. I saw it as a sculpture. You’re fucking a sculpture. But I was really afraid of how people would perceive that.
As a woman, there are things that you can make that I can’t make.
I’m acutely aware of that. I generally don’t censor myself, which is a luxury.
It’s interesting to consider. If, for instance, Susie Lee had made CHAT, how differently would it be perceived?
There would probably be more overtly feminist language or discourse around it.
I do consider CHAT to be a feminist film.
But if it were made by a woman, that would be taken for granted.
And if I made Siren—with Jed [Dunkerley] and Jason [Puccinelli]—for women, I’d get grilled. That’s how the world is. But this is the thing: I want everybody to feel comfortable making the art they want to make and not feel intimidated by social pressure or by powers that be. There’s a tendency right now to think we’re the most politically progressive city in America, leading the front on all these issues like gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana, and there’s a tendency to think that as the most progressive city in America we have to be a role model for all these other cities. That we have to architect our identity and be careful not to appear transgressive or regressive. There are parts of me that love that idea, but for the first time in my life, moving to New York sounds really exciting, because you can go there or to Los Angeles and make anything you want with complete authenticity and sincerity. I don’t want to shock just to shock people, but I like the things that make your heart beat fast.
But here there is often what feels like a culture police. A morality police. And if you do something that steps outside the culture police rules—which I’m not even sure I fucking know—then you’re subject to tsk tsk. It’s like there’s a bomb in the room. If I pull the wrong wire it’ll go off. That’s where I am—but I think that’s where I want to live.