It’s been five years since multimedia artist/filmmaker Jillian Mayer went viral with the 63-second short film I Am Your Grandma. The video has screened at many respectable film festivals and exhibited at scores of notable art galleries. It will finally make its official Art Basel Miami Beach premiere during the annual fair’s 2016 outdoor short-films program, Best Dressed Chicken in Town. The two-hour program will take place at SoundScape Park, where films dating as far back as the '60s will be screened with more contemporary shorts. They will be shown nightly at 8 p.m. November 30 through December 4 on the 7,000-square-foot projection wall of the New World Center.
The Miami-based artist spoke with Miami New Times via Skype from New York City, where her Slumpies — colorful fiberglass sculptures designed to prop people up while they view their cell phones — premiered alongside the totemic Mylar balloon structures of Adam Parker Smith in the exhibition “Social Structures” at Art-in-Buildings.
She says she remembers 2011 as a time when PR companies were not making conscious efforts to create viral campaigns on the internet, which taints the intrinsic value of what it means to go viral. "Over the past couple of years, people have been able to quantify or attribute qualities to work to help ensure more success online,” she says. “You have much more access to tips and how to do anything, so there's definitely a surplus of information, so in a weird way, I think this hypertransfer of media might be less pure... It seems people already have expectations for the outcome before something is even made because they want to understand how they fit in the branding world even before it exists.”
I Am Your Grandma is a sort of internet version of a message in a bottle to her "future unborn grandchild," as stated in archaic yellow digital script against a bright-blue background. The story begins with a then-24-year-old Mayer looking straight into the camera, saying “One day, I'm gonna have a baby,” and then singing/speaking “And you will call her mom/And that baby will have a baby/And you will have this song to know that/I am your grandma.” In the middle of these verses, edits in the images reveal Mayer transmogrified, as her voice is affected by a robotic, echoey vocoder. Her hair and makeup go from basic and banal to alien and cartoonish, a tacky futuristic vision defiant of contemporary style.
This is but a taste of why so many YouTube viewers found the video so compelling, as it went on to be spoofed by other users and even appeared on several cable TV shows. She says of why it works: "Formulaically, I can attribute some of its success to its quick editing; a fast-paced pop song; clear, identifiable message; short length; direct-to-camera relationship from the performer. But I basically think the message seemed to resonate with people. We have wills that we leave that redistribute items, and I think that the way we leave media changed in the last ten years.”
As zany and archaic as Mayer's film seems, there is also sweetness, poignancy, and an undercurrent of mortality. Death and its resonance in life often creeps into Mayer’s work, including routine collaborations with Lucas Leyva, with whom she also helps run the Borscht Film Festival. In #Postmodem, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013, children at a playground make declarative statements of their inevitable doom using clichéd references such as “One day, I will shake off this mortal coil.” A year earlier, in their groundbreaking film The Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke, which also premiered at Sundance, Luther Campbell is a man caught in a loop of existential crisis because he has witnessed his own death. (It was inspired by Chris Marker’s famous short film La Jetée.)
“There’s a couple of things we know, and one of them is that we will most likely die,” Mayer notes with a laugh.
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Her other concern is the internet and digital technology and their roles in storing memories. “If we had many lives at the same time, I'd probably collect them all,” she says and laughs again. “I'd just have more hard drives. I think that I, like many people who use humor as a device, we make perverse jokes out of ultimate human truths that we have to deal with.”
Mayer has traveled the world with her short film, from art exhibitions to film festivals. She even notes that it might have traveled to more locations without her than she may see in her mortal life. In the meantime, she has continued to create, including other subversive YouTube videos and sculptural works. In addition to the inclusion of Grandma during the Art Basel Miami Beach short-films program, Mayer will participate in other area exhibitions.
Pérez Art Museum Miami is hosting a solo exhibition of her Slumpies, which runs through January 22. December 2, Mayer will participate in the ABECEDARIUM symposium at PAMM from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. November 29 through December 3, she will be part of the group show “Life Is Beautiful” at Laurence Dreyfus. Finally, December 4, a series of her latest shorts, called Day Off, will screen behind Faena Miami Beach from 2 to 4 p.m. in Juan Gatti's Time Capsule geodesic dome on the beach.
Mayer notes that her work comes from an emotional place, true to the moment of creation, and overall her works are connected by that. “I only think that my pieces really make sense if you’ve seen other ones that kinda contradict them," she says. "Even though I deal with technology and the internet and how humans are affected by that as we go, I do think my work represents a very emotional side, a very human side of that reaction.”
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @HansMorgenstern.