Exclusive: Jet off in Jonathan Monaghan's Escape Pod

A deer being born from a sofa. A rocket ship to a Duty Free Store in the sky. An enlarged Faberge egg with a pair of testicles. These are just a few of the creations within artist Jonathan Monaghan’s new project, a film titled Escape Pod. As the inaugural work to his very first gallery show, Monaghan has honed every one of his formidable computer graphic skills and created a 45 minute trip into what he calls a ‘parallel world.’ As technology adapts further and further into our every day lives, Monaghan playfully toys with where our society could be headed just around the corner; a world where natural and organic life has been spliced with the mechanized sheen of innovation. Milk Made’s Jake Boyer chatted with Monaghan about the borderline between filmmaker and artist, the future of climate change, and the ‘God-like power’ that comes with 3D animation. And be sure to check out the exclusive clip from Escape Pod to see the deer-birthing for yourself.

So what can we expect from your upcoming gallery show?

Well, it’s called Escape Pod. It features a computer-animated film that’s about 40 minutes long, and it’s a very unique film. It doesn’t really have a beginning or end, it’s just a cycle. In the film we go through these different environments of wealth and power, and it’s very surreal and fantastical. We follow this very mythical, golden deer through these different environments.

Would you consider yourself a filmmaker?

I always call myself an artist first and foremost. Sometimes I call myself an animator. But I’ve always made my work in the context of gallery settings and museums because I like to install the work in a certain way and give it a sculptural quality. Most of the work doesn’t have that specific beginning or end, or have that specific cinematic format, so as a result, exhibiting it in a movie theater doesn’t quite make much sense. It’s best to be more enjoyed like an object. I sometimes think of them as windows into another world, as opposed to a film, if that makes sense.

When did you begin making these ‘windows’?

I got into the technology before I got into the artistic aspect of this. At an early age I started designing video game levels and things like that. I went to college to study computer graphics, with the hope of finding work in advertising, or to make Pixar movies, or to make video games. And all of my peers in that field wanted to do the same. There were no artists and there wasn’t much dialogue about contemporary art where I got my education from, but somehow I slowly crept into working in this way. I felt like I had something to say that I couldn’t say working on the commercial end of it, and I felt that having a kind of personal control over the work was important to me. So I started making work with the same skills and techniques that I had mastered on the commercial level but with a subject matter and context that was very different than the commercial end of it.

So did you have a moment where you thought, ‘oh I’m making art now, now I’m an artist?’

It wasn’t a specific moment, it was more of an evolution into it. It took about a year for me to decide that I didn’t want to be in the commercial realm. And it took a while before I started telling people that I wanted to be an artist, or tell myself that I wanted to be an artist. Certainly looking at the work of artists like Matthew Barney, whose surreal films were very influential to me, spurred that decision. Seeing that type of work operate in the contemporary art context was something that gave me a little more initiative to start working in that way.

Well you have technical background, and when you look at a film like Barney’s–it’s all very built around costumes and sets–while yours is built on broader aspects like interior design and architecture.

I feel like part of that comes from the process. When you start doing work in 3D animation, you start off with this empty space, literally this virtual void, and you have to begin to fill it with things. And everything that you put in there, you have to make a decision whether or not you want it in there, and what you want it to look like, so it’s this strange God-like kind of power that you have. Everything in there, you get to determine. I think that lends itself to a kind of architecture for me and lends itself to architectural spaces. I’ve always felt like there was this virtual empty void. It has this psychological quality to it, because you’re in control of it. Your imagination gets to run a little loose in a way.

I get the sense from Escape Pod that it is very much addressing climate change issues. Is that a factor?

Totally! I feel the work has always kept a finger on the pulse of the culture. I think one of the things that sent me to be an artist was that I had something to say about where we’re going and where technology is taking us. There was a very conscious effort to use technology to talk about how technology is affecting us and how it affects everything from our social relationships to how we operate.

How do you feel about our future?

Well that’s the thing, technology has a very controlling power over us and it affects our decisions and our relationships, but it’s not all fire and brimstone. I try to be a little more holistic about how I look at it. Looking at the interesting good aspects of it, but also all of the potentially more ominous aspects of it. And so I try to bring these feelings into these worlds. They’re parallel worlds. They feel like our world, but they’re very different; they have that connection in a way. So it’s this alternate reality where technology evolves and has a life of its own. There’s a simple nature to it. A lot of metaphorical birthing and things like that. A deer gets birthed out of a couch. It’s about how technology perpetuates itself; there’s a consuming quality to it.

Were you a big sci-fi fan? Are you a sci-fi fan?

Sure! I think anybody that has a technological background is interested in sci-fi, but I use sci-fi in the work as a metaphor for how we perceive ourselves with technology. There’s this very unnatural aspect about it that I kind of like.

I get the sense there’s a lot of dichotomy now between virtual art/digital art, and making “real” art. Do you find there’s a split between the two in the art world?

I don’t think there’s a significant dichotomy. I think, if you look at the history, there are things that have been called “new media art” and I think there’s certain values to using that sort of terminology, but I think if you look at young artists working today, the vast majority work across multiple disciplines, whether digital or analog. I think all of them are responding in some way to issues raised by the digital age, the age where our perceptions of reality are filtered through digital technologies nowadays. I just think I’m doing it in my own way.

What is the best advice you’ve ever been given, or received?

Well my dad always said, ‘If it’s not worth doing right, it’s not worth doing.’ I think if you look at my work, there’s a lot of this kind of neurotic perfectionism in it, the spaces are perfectly clean and clinical and smooth, the surfaces are very seductive. Part of it is a part of the process, but a lot of it is time and energy. I guess there’s this kind of obsessive, fetishistic element of perfection to a lot of my work. So maybe that’s where it comes from. I think it’s good advice. If you’re gonna do something, you should do it the right way.

Escape Pod will be on display from March 22nd to May 3rd, at the Bitforms Gallery, 131 Allen St, New York, NY

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