Swimming in Dreams: In Conversation with Jenny Fine

By August 17, 2021

I first met Jenny Fine a year ago during an inaugural residency hosted online by Vinegar Contemporary in Birmingham, AL. We had group discussions and breakout sessions and I became fascinated by her multimedia work, performances, and uncanny use of spray foam. As the year rolled on and traveling remained a gamble of one’s health, I watched from afar as Fine’s most recent show Synchronized Swimmers opened in North Carolina. Unable to travel there, I plunged into the visuals and videos made available on Fine’s Instagram and ultimately had a mythological beach trip within them. Like most new acquaintances we have never met in person, and only slowly am I beginning to meet artists who I’ve become a fan of via the internet in real life. I finally spoke to Jenny Fine one on one when I conducted this interview via Zoom. We have yet to meet in person and I hope to experience her work in 2022 but for now, like much art I’ve fawned over in the past year, the experience is entirely online. This interview has been edited for clarity and publication.

Performance still of Synchronized Swimmers, Flat Granny underwater, at Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, dimensions vary. Image courtesy of the artist.
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Emily Llamazales: Most recently Synchronized Swimmers was on view at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA) in Winston-Salem, NC, but Wiregrass Museum of Art in Dothan, AL took on the original exhibition and now the show is touring. What was that process like? And where will it be heading next?

Jenny Fine: The images for this project have been floating around in my head since I was a child swimming in my grandmother’s backyard pool. Although at the time, I did not know what those images would become, if anything. They just kept calling. In 2014 after closing my first immersive installation, A Procession in My Mind, I wrote a proposal to Creative Capital to fund my next project, Synchronized Swimmers. My proposal made it to the final round but, in the end, was not funded. If you’ve never gone through their granting process, it’s a year-long undertaking of writing to define, envision, and answer fundamental questions about your project including building a budget. When my proposal was unsuccessful, I didn’t want the idea and the work I had put in to die. So, I decided to shop the project out myself. I sent the exhibition/grant proposal to curators and institutions that I already had connections with. Not everyone I contacted answered yes, but several institutions did, each of which has worked to support the evolution of the project while on public display at their institution. Taking the leap to send my unsolicited project proposal to curators and institutions across the Southeast forged new ground and further reach for my practice.

The project opened at Wiregrass Museum of Art in 2020—who funded the production and debuted the original installation. Most recently, the project was exhibited at Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art and this opportunity granted an evolution in the immersive installation’s form, scale, and collaborative performances. I’m looking forward to creating two new immersive versions of this evolving installation over the next year. In the Summer of 2022, the next version of Synchronized Swimmers will be on display at Gadsden Museum of Art and in Fall 2022, the show will move to Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham, Alabama. At both institutions, I will focus the narrative on integrating local histories and will enlist both trained and untrained performers to embody and animate the photographic space.

Video courtesy of the artist. Sound composition by Taylor Shaw.

EL: Much of your earlier photographs were constructed by directing family members into place when your grandmother was still alive. But after her passing, you constructed “Flat Granny” out of compiled photographs of her figure, having people perform in front of the camera, donning this granny costume. Most of your photographs were staged interactions. Can you talk about unzipping the photograph? Or how you are reconstituting sound, space and live performance within the still image?

JF: Yes, absolutely. That’s it. As an undergrad, I was always complaining that the photograph wasn’t enough. Because in the moment, all of this magical stuff was happening before the camera, most of which was being cropped out or flattened by the camera. What I am trying to do with the installation work is to reverse the camera’s crop, returning space, time, and sound to the static images stored neatly in the family photo album. In attempting this feat, my work becomes an act of collapsing the past and the present.

With an installation like Synchronized Swimmers, I see the work simultaneously with the viewer because I’m making something so large in scale, in pieces and parts, following an internal vision that is ever responding to materials I scavenged for the project, mostly trash, found in the landscape around me.

Going to bed, I would be swimming in my dreams, beginning in the familiar place of my grandmother’s pool…

EL: How was your experience working with the performers at SECCA? You seemingly took on the role of directing performers with differing skill levels and adapting the costumes to diverse bodies.

JF: I didn’t give the performers much direction, and I think that that’s part of it. Typically I met the group of performers about an hour before the performance, and only had time to give a brief guided tour of the exhibit, describing each costume, role, and character. I’ve not really had the opportunity to work with professional dancers with skilled bodies until now. In the past, I have mostly worked with whoever wants to volunteer. As I move forward, I’m really hoping to continue the opportunity to work with both trained and untrained performers from the hosting community because as artists themselves the dancers have no hesitancy in jumping in and doing their thing. I want the performers embodying the work to bring their own interpretation to the work, how does your body move in this big clunky costume? And with some of the dancers at SECCA, I had them in this tarp. I call them bobbers.

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EL: Ah yes, the bobbers are incredible.

JF:  Well, that’s because the dancers were incredible. This was my first opportunity to work with trained dancers. SECCA has a partnership with the University of North Carolina School of the Arts Dance department. These highly skilled dancers were able to animate the tarp in incredible ways and for long periods of time.

EL: The sound too. The way the tarp was animated by their bodies, mixed with the crashing wave sounds from the plastic’s movement and meshing with the soundscape in the room. Everything from the tarp movement was beautiful.

JF: A lot of my reliance on performers is my inability to create kinetic sculpture—it is both about attempting to embody a moment with what you have around you, a discarded tarp or paint scavenged from the side of the road. I tried to paint the tarp, but oh my god, there was paint everywhere flaking off from it. It wasn’t seamless and the curator suggested I try fabric. And I was thinking, but fabric won’t make that wave-like sound when animated. The sound was a total accident—and I must say it is incredible.

The surrounding sound in the installation was composed by Taylor Shaw. I told him a little bit about the project and airdropped a few audio files to him that I had captured over the last decade of swimming with my nephews. In a few hours, Taylor made three unique soundtracks that were played in loop and placed throughout the installation, so that the audio would be unique to the viewer depending on their location in the space.

Video courtesy of the artist. Sound composition by Taylor Shaw.

EL: What experiences did you draw on to inform your vision of this multi-media installation?

JF: Originally this narrative is about the self. It’s about my grandmother telling stories and growing up in the south. I have all sisters, and there’s a lot of feminine energy in my family and the dynamic has really been a matriarch. My grandmother was in her mid-sixties when she learned to swim. She had an in-ground pool installed in her backyard and it was then that my grandmother, my sisters, and I began our love affair with water. Her backyard pool became our most frequented place of play. When the rain came, she would rush us out of the pool to stand under the metal umbrella. She was a retired Geography professor and would pass the time by telling us stories about the people and history that came before us. When the rain stopped, we’d jump back in the pool with all this imagery in our brains. Going to bed, I would be swimming in my dreams, beginning in the familiar place of my grandmother’s pool, but then the deeper I swam her pool became the ocean. In moving through this underwater state, and thinking about these narratives, this work becomes about southern culture and the narratives that create our identity; the water becoming a vector for cultural exchange.

EL: When talking about memory–and a lot of this work is honoring your grandmother’s memories and your memory of her–photographs are often said to strip away at our own memory because they provide that physical representation, or association with a time and place, and therefore our ability to commit that moment to memory lessens. Do you think that’s kind of informed your own memory of your grandmother?

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Installation view of Synchronized Swimmers, Round Granny in the coral reef at Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, dimensions vary. Image courtesy of the artist.

JF: I think it was Radio Lab’s episode on memory that said something like, every time you access a memory, you change it. There is no pure memory. When you remember something, you add some little nuance to it, but you forget the reality of that lived experience. The only pure memories are in the minds of those who can’t remember—which is so interesting, especially since my grandmother Fine had dementia. She used to say, “Of all the things I’ve loved and lost, I miss my mind the most.”

Sociologically women are considered the keeper of memory. My grandmother would sit there reciting stories, and what she was actually telling us is who we are, who we’ve come from. Considering the fallibility of memory, calls into question the reality of who we believe we are as a people. The slippery nature of identity and the power of the stories we are told are deeply embedded in my work.

EL: In the Long March, I had multiple people telling me to keep a calendar or a log of what I do every day–that is just sort of the role of women. Keeping history.

JF: A lot of the time the piecing together of history is coming from journals and daily calendars. I’m thinking also about quilting circles or spinning yarn; communal women’s work set to the pace of stories. When I was photographing my grandmother early on, I didn’t really know how to use my camera. She was a teacher, so she understood how patient one had to be with learning. While I read the light meter and manually focused the camera, she told me stories from her life. The act of releasing the shutter and winding the film was set to the pace of her story—in that way my photography and the narrative became inextricably tied. It’s not just about the light hitting the frame, it’s about everything that’s going on, setting up the shot and spending time with her.

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