I have been lucky enough to sit in a dark room listening to Jeanne Randolph talk. I should mention that I say this very rarely about sitting in dark rooms listening to artists talk, but Jeanne made an artist talk into something of legend, while giving us a performance to live by. Holding a plastic grocery bag weighted with slides, she mounted the stage – we were both presenting at a 2017 art-writing conference in Calgary – in her talismanic bolo tie, her hair cropped, her eyes flashing. She fished through her lousy sack with a blind hand and pulled one out at random, popping it into a machine that hummed a hypnotic, drowsy – and for the room, nostalgic – whir. But nothing about this was soothing. Jeanne turned her attention to the screen and began to respond extemporaneously, breathlessly, seemingly as surprised as any of us by what she found. The slide collection had been mounting for decades, she said, and contained random photos from her travels, photographed artworks, items of depravity, obscurities, and it was all fodder for real-time thinking. She was electrifying. She tore into each new image, driving us through the reel as through the streets of her intelligence, across psychoanalytic theory, photography, critical theory, art, her own life. She charged everything with a devastating wit, which risked lulling the audience into a rhythmic giggle. She had no problem jolting us out of that. “It’s not fucking funny!” she screamed at one point – and she was right. The slide before us was, in fact, horrifying.
There wasn’t nearly enough time for this, we all wanted more. She was making us better. I was finally looking. But at the twenty-minute mark, a couple body men crowded the stage and pulled her off, her cowboy boots shrieking straight into the air.
As the lights came up, a critic visiting from Chicago beside me was gently panting. My eyes were wet but I couldn’t remember crying. What just happened? What had been transgressed? What had opened up?
In the three years since that talk I have fought for every moment with Jeanne. To be on a bad phone connection with her as she variously quips or spools her piquantry, is to stand in a shaft of light. Luckily her latest exhibition – at Paul Petro Contemporary – gave me another excuse. Here we discuss a show that marks a historic, eerie, familiar, and strangely unmoving architecture – the telephone booth – as it begins, finally, its slow-and-then-all-at-once descent into obsolescence. It also marks the last trip Jeanne took with her long-time partner, the beloved Winnipeg artist Bernie Miller, before he died. And we alight on how, in an empty gallery, amidst a pandemic, this mortal subject offers material presence and a space of containment within a vast, unpeopled landscape. However, for Jeanne that verges too close to sentimentalism, thank you; she’d rather you focus on a less manipulative paradox.
– Sky Goodden
I wanted to get a sense, first of all, of the role that the phonebooth has played in your life?
You know, at this point I can only experience it as architecture. I can’t remember a darn thing I ever did in a phonebooth.
So it’s not a site of memory-making.
Right. I was bewildered to realize that, when I would give small presentations or performances, and the audience could hardly restrain themselves wanting to tell me about hilarious or moving predicaments they’ve experienced phoning from a phonebooth, that I can’t remember phoning from a phonebooth once [laughter]. What that says about my life, I have no idea.
Well perhaps that you really are a homebody after all [laughter] …
No, I think I was using telepathy, is what it was. It never occurred to me to use a phonebooth! [laughter]
You were doing away with the middleman! Is the telephone booth a greater object of utility in the prairies?
I think it lasted longer as that. In my travels to track them down on safari, it became clear that many small towns only had one phonebooth, very centrally located. But of course one of the most remarkable things I did finally surmise is that the phonebooths would be in places that children might be in danger: shorelines, swimming pools, near highways. Their role as a safety device was really quite touching.
I’d be happy to hear about your travels. It sounds like you went from the tip to the tail of the province in this excavation. Were you alone?
I was with my beautiful partner Bernie Mille. This was the last road-trip we took before he died. And it was just a hoot. We rented a car, got out our maps and lists, the entire summer going hither and yon, to get them before they were gone, essentially. My man at the phone company knew they were being plucked out during my project.
It strikes me that even with the phonebooth forming a leitmotif, this project is about coming to know your home better. What are some of the takeaways you have about how your landscape feels and operates?
It is more of a patchwork quilt than you might surmise about country living. Each little village or area or even suburb truly had its own flavor. When you travel long distances sometimes it’s so disappointing how the highway into town looks like every other place. But we found, taking the side roads to smaller towns, that each had its own character. And though there would be spots in town, of course, that had the usual – the difference was noticeable. We didn’t have to stretch our perception to see how they had formed historically. It was quite, I would say, encouraging or inspirational – that social or architectural entities could coalesce and not be standardized. That was a worthwhile discovery.
You are a person who has a very strong relationship to objects and invests a notion of soul. What is soulful about the telephone booth, uniquely; or how would you distinguish its character?
First of all, it is a miniature architecture. And I’m one of those children who, as a little girl, always longed for the miniature tea set.
[Nodding] Yes, yes.
As an adult, not silly enough to hunt for those, I collect miniature whiskey bottles. [laughter] But the miniaturization of it speaks to how profoundly modernism as an architectural dream penetrated that era. The phonebooth was designed in the 1950s in Bell labs, of course, and though I researched as much as I could, there is no designer listed. But it’s telling that, mid-century, the phonebooth would reflect the architectural values and the modernist optimism of progress that suffused North America at that time. What’s telling to me is that it stayed around. It didn’t become an object of fashion. Cameras evolved stylistically; certainly, cars evolved stylistically. [And] before the ubiquitous, modern telephone booth, phonebooths all had their own character. But what is one of the hallmarks of modernization is the goddamn standardization.
I have to ask about the before and after of this project, for you, personally; and in so many other senses, locally and globally. The very subject is a fault-line of deterioration. So what does it mean to have this exhibition erected in a silo, in a vacuum? Where you can’t visit the opening, not participating in a community as you celebrate the work?
There is a lot of poetic resonance in that – I would have to go out on the street and find a phonebooth to call Paul Petro to say thank you. [laughter] To tell you the truth, though, I really am one of those – is there a category of people? – who want the art to be there as art, as a social manifestation, a phenomenon that has gone into the world now, and its connection to me is gone? I mean, I love the people who come to an opening, to be bathed in intimacy and remembrance, but the best way I can express it is how an artist will say “he’s in the AGO now.” They’re not talking about the person; they’re talking about the artwork. So I separate out. I don’t identify with my work in that way. It’s in public, like a parking meter.
Right. And given the nature of this work, it might be a too-sentimental lever to pull on, that this work suddenly is more profound in its evocation of loneliness, given its subject and the light in which you captured it. Do you feel similarly to me in that regard, that you want to keep a frame around this as it was intended, and not fall into a sentimental reframing that might be available to you?
Certainly I wish that sentimental reframing would be … gone! [laughter] Loneliness is existential until there’s a pandemic.
I do relinquish how it’s interpreted, or how it’s put in the context of a pandemic, which is just an amazing coincidence. But that’s what it’s there for, for people to interpret and find in it whatever they can – and I hope it’s not just psychological, but is art-historical, or about the history of modernism, as an architecture or an ethos, etc.
There’s this great quote in one of your brief texts that accompany the images: “I thought I could portray the mid-century modern telephone booth as unmistakably alien in a quiet, woodsy environment. I’m not a photographer, that’s the problem, so I don’t know how.” I know there is something essentially you about that explication, that is modest and shirking, but of course this is provocative. Photography is the medium you chose to operate with, and you’re trucking on with it, by the sounds of it, even in isolation. What does this contradiction mean to you?
In the end, I don’t care? [laughter] It’s rather an accident. It becomes, in terms of my perfectionism or my seeking to articulate a paradox that may not even have existed except in my conjugation, an accident. And that’s more fun. So, insofar as the phonebooth evokes or doesn’t evoke anything that I thought I was doing, that’s marvelous to me. That accident or coincidence is quite exciting, actually. That’s a paradox. And it’s a thought experiment. The idea that I can make the phonebooth look alien when, for heaven’s sake, for 100 years the damn thing has been a totally familiar part of our environment. And furthermore, how can it look alien when it’s going to disappear? The only thing that’s gonna look alien is the photograph! I liked that I could make something familiar look alien because it was disappearing, but the truth is that it’s only the photograph that will be discovered in the future.
There is something resistant in you showing up, though, in order to catalogue but not idealize the subject. You had available to you – god knows, I know the prairies – very idealized views; you could have crouched down at the base of the booth and tipped your lens up and captured the empty bowl of that vast sky around it … [laughter][Laughter] Or … Manhattan!
That’s right! You write “I usually leave appealing features out of the longing to conjure.” Do you have to fight the desire to make something beautiful?
Well I think the question is, why the hell do some things appear beautiful to me and no one else??
You are speaking to a trope. Which, again, is everywhere in terms of advertising, but of course, art can use these rhetorical devices, as well. I think that’s why I love all those tropes. They don’t get in my head. It’s like they’re negative energy and I’m positive energy.
Lucky! Well, before we close off, it’d be good to know – how is this isolation treating you?
This isolation is the gift of the great goddess Minerva. I have never been so free to read, to let my psychotic imagination to tip-toe wherever it will. I’ve just finished another book under the aegis of isolation since March. I’m grateful for this historical moment. It’s like a writer’s residency.
And the malaise that’s affecting so many of us, the feeling that creatively we are like the desert, or like something that’s been exploded – neither of these are afflictions for you?
No, I’m not easily distracted. Except maybe to read. But in the daytime is the main meal, to read at night is my dessert. And I wasn’t raised to eat my dessert until the main meal was … fed to the dog under the table.
But I’m also lucky. I love my work, my professional work. I’m conducting my psychiatry practice by phone. I can spread it out over five days, two or three hours a day. And so what yawns before me is so much room to imagine, really. And, I’m getting pretty imaginative over here!