The Artist and Her Work: A Conversation With Feminist Filmmaker Josephine Decker

Josephine Decker is a feminist filmmaker with a spontaneous heart; she’s concerned with how women are viewed, how they act and how they messily propel themselves outside of traditional tropes. Whether it’s two girls reconnecting at a Balkan folk camp in Butter on the Latch or the farmer’s daughter grappling with isolation and lust in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, Decker’s narratives often end in sexual evocation and devastation more often than resolution.

Yet, over the phone, Decker is extremely personable and open: lighthearted in tone, easygoing, unassuming. The difference between the artist’s disposition and her work—which can be dark, moody and frenetic—is somewhat surprising. More surprising still is the fact that back in 2010, Decker was famously carried away by MoMA security guards for unexpectedly disrobing on the last day of Marina Abramovic’s installation, The Artist Is Present. (Today, she shakes off that incident with good humor.)

All of this leads to the question: Why do we ever expect artists to behave in a way that reflects their work? Decker, like her films, disregards artistic stereotypes by pushing her own personality forward, freely into a space of muddled hope and fear, where there is a wide spectrum of selves and possibilities to act out and upon. It’s a breath of fresh air.

In the following conversation, Decker and I discuss art, filmmaking, collaboration and the Marina Abramovic incident.

Stacy Elaine Dacheux: You were just in Berlin. What were you doing there?

Josephine Decker: [I was there for the] Festival Literatur. I shared my film Thou Wast Mild and Lovely and spoke on a panel with two other impressive feminists [author Laurie Penny and journalist Mona Eltahawy]. They are fighting for women’s rights across the world. It’s important to learn every single day about what is happening in the world to some degree. It was inspiring.

Will that influence your future projects?

Doesn’t everything? It makes me feel like I’m on the right track—working on engagement with world issues and the depths of who you are.

I watched your two films, Butter on The Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. I enjoyed them. They both embrace an ephemeral quality that balances unspoken beauty with dark twists of suspense, much of which lingers in a nightmarish way. I wonder, how does your own personal act of dreaming inform your art?

I try to write down my dreams almost every day. I think I’m making work that exists more in that world than the real world. I try to trust that. I’m drawn to narrative in general, but coming from it at a more multiplicitous angle—trying to tell a story but not in a way we are accustomed to stories being told. It’s difficult. You don’t have many road signs that say, “you are on the right track”—but people respond well to work that is unusual. I think that’s something we forget. A great story is a great story.

Yes, I think that in film, as in dreams, we want the gaps. The interpretation is where we fit into the film. Sometimes too much is explained in mainstream film, so it’s nice to have these quieter films to remind us to think about what we’re watching.

Have you ever changed your mind or made a decision based on a dream that you had?  

Not directly, [but] a lot goes on in the unconscious. In middle school, I had a dream that I danced with a boy that I liked, then I remember waking up the next morning and being like, I wonder if he knows? Does he know that we danced together? Feeling different about him. It’s interesting, having a dream about someone actually changes how you feel about them in the morning. It really does. Maybe that’s the point. Having a dream about being close to this guy allowed me to be more relaxed with him—like we’re sharing a secret, even though we’re not. What you put into the world comes back to you. Dreams are on our side like that.

I like thinking that you can be in a dreamlike state coaching yourself on how to be with someone.

Tell me about your new film, collective: unconscious, and what this project means to you.

Dan Schoenbrun is the producer. He got together five directors who he found dreamy in some way and asked us to make films based on real dreams. So each of us wrote down a dream, sent the dream to Dan, and he distributed them. You didn’t know whose dream you had.

Mine was pretty open-ended. I wanted to do a documentary about the first days out of prison because I was mugged four years ago at gunpoint, and it wasn’t scary at all. The guy was really young. I almost didn’t give him anything, but I did, because when someone’s pointing a gun at you, you just do. Turns out he had gotten out of prison the night before. He was 19. I thought, gosh, that’s the opposite of how it’s supposed to work out. Now, this story is prominent. Prison is a mess. It can destroy your life more than reform anything.

I’ve been curious about it. So, through the Center for Employment Opportunities, which works with formerly incarcerated individuals and re-entry back into society, we interviewed and got some interesting stories. I grew one [of my interviews] into more of a collaboration and [my interviewee] helped me direct a piece. So, the audio is all documentary. What you see is more like an animated documentary, but with live-action dancers interpreting the subject matter, which is pretty intense, so you can see it in a different light. I would love to make it a series.

So your documentary is based on this dream, which becomes a merging of interpretations. How would you define community or what does community mean to you?

I go every summer to The School of Making Thinking, which is an artist residency in Upstate New York. I do it once a year for a month. You can work on your own project alone or request someone else to help you dance in the backyard. There’s a house by the river. You can go swimming—anything you want. There’s a free spirit there. It’s not just about gathering, but growing as individuals by actively engaging with one another in art, and it’s rare. It’s nice that community is based on collaboration. I wish I made art all the time that way. It’s where I feel the most “at one” with community.

Describe the growth. Is it being challenged? Or, is it just being supported to be free? Maybe both?

I think being supported to be free is big. It’s people telling you, “Yes, your vision is good.” Asking hard questions and not being afraid to say, why this way? Sometimes, as an artist, you bring your vision into the world and it’s pretty much complete. There’s not much feedback. So it’s great to incubate projects that are still in process. I wrote both of my films and worked on this prison project there.

Is there a person or incident that gave you the courage to start making films? 

Two people. [Filmmaker] Joe Swanberg and Marina Abramovic.

Seeing Joe work and make movies for $10,000 each was really inspiring. [He showed me that] there’s no reason not to make a movie. We think, it’s so expensive, it’s so expensive, but actually—just do it. That’s what I learned by working with him. And I saw Marina at MoMA and I thought, she just throws herself against walls and dances till she passes out. Her pieces are successful when she physically fails. I think when you can approach failure as a collaborator, it’s a much more fun experience. I enjoyed getting to know her work. It was big in terms of not worrying about perfectionism and expectations around what you’re making.

You’ve had films screened at MoMA. How many years after the Abramovic incident was this? How did it feel to be back in the space?

Basically, I made a film with Zefrey Throwell, who was my boyfriend at the time. We co-directed a short film. It was weird. It wasn’t that long after, maybe a year and a half after that Marina Abramovic thing happened. I thought they would never let me back into the MoMA. So it was cool to show a short film at that cinema.

How did the project come about?

We made it for MoMA. Zefrey found out he could show whatever he wanted there for a night dedicated to his work. So he said, “Let’s make something for this!” It was great. We made it fast. It was exciting. Very organic. About our falling in love and difficulties we were having. Lots of excitement.

In general, how do you see the world of celebrity affecting performance art? Does it eclipse, muddle, heighten the original intention—or has it become the intention?

I don’t think people come into it to be celebrities. I really enjoy doing it. It’s a smaller part of my career. On a personal level, I make performance art, and I love it, but I don’t have much experience with celebrity, so I don’t know.

I guess “art star” would be a better word. Not like a movie star. Maybe just the idea of being a “known person”—like the caliber of Marina. How does that affect performance art itself? Does the performance innately, because of status, eclipse or muddle the intention?

I don’t think so. I think what Marina did for performance art was put it on the table as an art form people are taking more seriously. I mean, celebrity in performance art can only help performance art because it allows people to know performance art and its artists.

One thing I think about performance art is that it’s really spiritual. I mean, not all the time, but generally you are really plunging the depths of who you are and what you are grappling with. It’s important and intense work. If you get notoriety for that, it’s only a good thing. People should get famous for pouring their souls out on the table. I mean, that’s not how anyone really gets famous. Marina Abramovic has some clout now and she’s raised the awareness about that field.

Yeah, you get that feeling when watching The Artist Is Present documentary—she has to carry on with the performance, not just for her but for the nature of performance art itself, to keep legitimizing that field. Obviously we’ve come a long way, but I think there’s this idea that it’s not just you doing it alone. It’s about the community, and doing it for the community, which is a lovely thought.

She’s special.

Did you finally get to meet her after all?

I did! I was a Kickstarter backer for her MAI Institute. I got to meet her. She was really friendly and kind. Easy-going. I think she can come across as very intimidating, but I found her to be genuine and down-to-earth. I only met her once though.

Do you have any thoughts on James Franco or Shia LaBeouf’s performance art pieces?

Is there a reason why some people are resistant to accepting either as artists? Is it this feeling of not wanting people of a certain stature to have it all? Is the title of “artist” a sacred thing?

I don’t know! It seems like there is a lot of animosity, I guess. Why is anyone hard on anyone? It’s difficult for me to think of an artist I dislike. It’s difficult because if you’re making art, you’re trying something. You’re putting a part of you into the world and that’s important.

It’s a brave gesture regardless, to step outside of what you’re known for, and for whatever reason sometimes there’s a backlash because you maybe aren’t doing what is normally done.

It’s interesting. I see some artists—they were great when they were younger, but then they get lazy. They don’t need to win an audience. They have an audience. It’s a challenge. But then sometimes, when you have a name, you probably get asked to make more work than you have ideas. So it’s difficult. 

Why might performance art feel like a place for both hope and purpose?

As a filmmaker, you are constantly in the future. You are like, how does this work together? You are always checking in with the actors and keeping everything on track. In performance art, the kind I do, you can be 100 percent present—and that’s a huge gift. You find parts of yourself that come up all the time. It’s a relief. There is a lot of hope in the present, but not when you are trying to control either the past or the future.

It seems to me that there is also an inherent darker aspect of suspense or possible danger in performance as well, much of which has to do with audience participation. In the late 1960s, for “Cut Piece,” Yoko Ono invited the audience to cut away at her clothes, giving the audience permission to cross a boundary, and in this crossing or resistance to cross, art is made. What does this crossing of boundaries say about our own relationship to hope, purpose, art or an ability to draw lines?

Marina talks about this. In other societies there are rites of passage that help you with the pain or difficulty of moving from childhood into adulthood. Marina says she didn’t want to wait until she got in a severe car accident or lost a loved one to be able to mature as a person. In these moments of trauma, we grow. So, she wanted to create passageways for herself. It’s very important to challenge and be challenged, not just in art, but in life—taking a difficult job, having kids. These are the deeper teachings.

So for you, do these performances feel like traumas?

My immediate response is no, but I think sometimes they feel like the things I’m afraid to do. You are just exposed. There’s not as much context for what you are doing. As an actor, you are a part of a world that’s created around you. In performance art, you are creating that world. It’s not necessarily traumatic, but more like a passage or new way of looking.

Do you find yourself engaging in performance when you are looking for a passageway?

Maybe. I really want to do a long-distance barefoot walk. I think part of that is returning to nature. Maybe now is a time where I feel myself searching.

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Still from Josephine Decker’s film collective: unconscious courtesy of HimmelrichPR on Flickr, license under Creative Commons 2.0


Stacy Elaine Dacheux’s work has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, presented at Radio Picture Show, and published in Los Angeles Review of Books. Most recently, she had a fun appearance on IFC’s Comedy Bang! Bang!