Shaped in Sound & Light: A Visit with Dani ReStackApril 30, 2018
“I thought I would live the rest of my life in Rosendale,” are the first words Dani ReStack says as we walk toward her home studio.
Beginning with an internship in 1997, Dani’s eleven-year, on-and-off relationship with Women’s Studio Workshop and the Hudson Valley is intertwined with two graduate degrees and countless moments of self-reinvention. It’s brought her back to create an artist’s book in 2009, curate Shoulder Land at WSW’s au•gust festival in 2015 and, last year, speak on behalf of gala honoree Ann Kalmbach. Today, in Columbus, OH where she is Assistant Professor at the Ohio State University, we visit her.
Hours of conversation begin (and coincidentally end) with a discussion of balsa wood. Dani and her fiancée, artist Sheilah Wilson ReStack, have used it to build three-dimensional spaces onto which they project looping videos. With a career that began in ceramics and sculpture before switching to film, Dani never lost her taste for constructing in wood and paper. The projects around the shared studio are made of fabric, plastic, and wood; it’s not the computer editing suite we would expect to find in their workspace.
Dani’s name is closely associated with her single-channel, cinematic films shown at MoMA PS1, the Wexner Center for the Arts, the Chicago Underground Film Festival, and other national and international venues. With a portfolio deemed anything from intensely intimate to unconventional, Dani introduces personal touchstones—her grandmother, her bike rides around Chicago—to the audience hoping to facilitate a mutual, if not visceral, understanding.
Maintaining this openness in the art world requires a committed optimism toward her own vulnerability. She’s filled with ideas of intersecting narratives following opossums (her legally changed middle name) to themes of macrocosmic realignment, and she’d love to make a full length feature—one day.
Presently, she bounces around the studio. There are drawers of work to see and we have the afternoon ahead of us.
At Penland in the mid-90’s, Kowkie Durst suggested Dani apply for WSW’s internship. She was rejected the first time, but the Workshop’s culture inspired her to try again. While “the bottom line is a man” in most organizational models, “there was [co-founder] Ann writing grants and mowing the lawn” at WSW.
In the mix of Dani’s long connection with the Workshop, she worked in the Art-in-Education program, managed the ArtFarm, and was Woody’s enthusiastic assistant. Her first major task as a staff member was setting up a permanent clay program. The storage basement was promptly tackled, decluttered, cleaned, and conquered. To fund the new studio, Dani founded the Annual Chili Bowl Fiesta, which continues to support WSW’s programming today. However, it was Dani’s time in this space which led her away from ceramics.
Clay has the ability to suggest allusions and build forms or sink patterns, with a purpose that ranges from trompe l’oeil accuracy to referencing its own utilitarian vocabulary. Any surface, object, or environment is possible as long as it is structurally sound. When Dani made a series of funnels to suspend from the ceiling, some would crack in the drying process or kiln. WSW co-founder Tatana Kellner, seeing Dani’s frustration, finally asked why she was using ceramic and not paper.
With this conversation, Dani realized her practice did not have to center on the subjugation of one chosen medium; she could pursue ways of making that complemented her ideas. Her interest, when she ultimately enrolled in Bard’s Film/Video MFA program, was not rendering the world, but capturing and transforming it.
“I can try to draw a figure. I can try to sculpt a figure, but I want more. I want to see continuous movement and hear sounds,” she explains. Referencing the staged brawl set to an action movie soundtrack in her recent collaborative project, she continues, “I cannot draw a sequence of running down the alley, smashing, and fighting…but I can do this with video.”
Back in the Columbus studio, Dani gestures to an abstracted, cut-paper pelican on the wall. It’s a remnant from her collaging into a projected image, a practice that began when she and Sheilah were separated by distance and Dani wanted her close.
Across the room are flat files: they hold records of friendships, long travels, and daily contemplation. She can look at a drawing and tell you exactly who the figures are or what film they accompanied. One series, depicting a lesbian horse breeder, was drawn in collaboration with Jared Buckhiester for their film Hard as Opal. Some drawings include journaled text and others visually detail relationships. All are made from fur, photographs, photo gels, oil sticks, and gestural charcoal marks on paper.
“Drawing has been a way to try and understand something, or unlearn something,” she says, pulling collages from the past eight or so years out of the top drawers. “Or just to communicate with something because I wasn’t talking to people.”
Art, from drawing to sculpture to video, has been a path to engaging in and defeating battles that Dani wages on her sense of self. She seems to work through the world with her eyes and ego partly exposed, and leaves behind a personal mark. At Bard, she examined the Zionist legacy of her Jewish upbringing through stages of anger and hope. She tried to find an objective frame to discuss her relationship to Israel, only to discover that it left her with less ground to explore.
“The conflict in Palestine and Israel is so deep and complex that I can’t take it on—there are historians and sociologists who can do this objectively. I’m not going to get my Ph.D. in global studies, but I can deal with it through my own lens.”
With film, Dani assembles spaces into which the audience may enter. In over a decade of video work, she has distilled countless hours of material into combinations of sound and light. She’s patterned shapes and colors and strung music across timeline to make experimental narratives. Just when an audience starts to measure their own breath against a scene’s white noise, she makes everything silent.
For three years Dani has produced work with Sheilah, including Strangely Ordinary This Devotion (SOTD) which premiered at the 2017 Whitney Biennial. SOTD’s characters—walking, talking, dancing, and fighting interrogatives geared towards the meaning of domestic existence—fall within a larger arc of midwestern magic rituals and environmental anxiety.
Their collaboration is not always one unified voice. Dani’s excited about the narratives they have composed and how they morph fictitious premises in their family’s image. Sometimes, it’s difficult to tell when she’s referring to the fictional plot or real life. Sheilah, whose work often crosses subjective inquiry with collective consciousness, is more interested in the formal compositions propelled by their chosen themes. At the moment, they’re troubleshooting how get a projected image of a kitchen to the arctic for their upcoming Future From Inside.
In the last moments of the conversation, we return to the balsa wood and materials she uses to stagger a projection across faceted surfaces. Dani’s noticed that, when cutting footage, she refers to herself on the screen in the third-person, as if the power she holds over her own image distances the two. To subvert the final authority of digital work, she finds ways to continue adding new perspectives post-production.
In May, she and Sheilah will begin a screening of Strangely Ordinary This Devotion with the performance Shameless Light at the Leslie Lohman Project Space. Dani’s acutely aware that, unlike her character on the screen, she will be totally, intuitively open to her audience. In fact, it’s her goal in a lead-by-example, exhibit-by-example manner of sorts. “Vulnerability is brave,” she says. “When teaching, I hope people believe their voice is worth putting out there.”