Rich Bott, half of the video-making duo Animal Charm, wishes he "had a quarter for every naked ass or every naked person in a fetal position" he saw while studying at the School of the Art Institute. "I had a total opposition to that kind of art, performances about 'myself and family'--therapy for rich kids."
Bott and his cohort, Jim Fetterley, credit the school with allowing them to experiment, but they often felt out of place. Bott recalls that many students "seemed to robotically latch onto something from art history that people were already doing, and learn some line of jargon about how to speak about it. Few seemed to be pursuing some personal idea or vision."
Fetterley, 27, and Bott, 26, are both from less-than-wealthy backgrounds: Fetterley's mom tended bar and cleaned houses while raising him alone in Rockford, and Bott's parents ran a trailer park in Arkansas. Fetterley recalls the single moms in his apartment building "sitting out back, drinking beer, bitching about the guys that left them and about the rich people in town. But I always had a hot meal every night and didn't realize we were as bad off as we were, until I tried going to the School of the Art Institute and realized my mother was making less than one year's tuition."
Discovering punk in their early teens encouraged their antipathy toward mainstream culture. Fetterley started painting jackets based on Misfits song titles--"Mommy, Can I Go Out and Kill Tonight?" A Dead Kennedys album inspired Bott to make "Reagan fuck you" photocollages.
The two roomed together through most of their school years and collaborated on art projects from the start. "We took all the garbage in the house and hung it on the wall," Fetterley says. "One night we came home drunk and decided to break everything that was glass in the garage--a TV, a bunch of bottles, storm windows." Bott recalls an outdoor performance that consisted of a movie loop projected onto the wall of a house next door while he "chased Jim around the yard blurting out noise on a trumpet." Fetterley responded with "two hours of somersaults." They also made a video, Fetterley says, "where we just had the television on and had the radio next to it, and we were playing with the sound of the radio and TV and changing channels, in a kind of in-camera editing."
As their interest in punk waned, they began to collect odd records--everything from Jackie Gleason singing to Rod McKuen reading poetry--and created original tapes from them. "I wanted to listen to something everyone would hate, and to understand it and love it," Bott says. "This material was much more deeply twisted" than the obvious shock tactics of punk. "Some of the music we grew up liking as teenagers was starting to get extremely commercialized," Fetterley says. But then even those odd records began to show up on CD anthologies and in publications like Incredibly Strange Music. "Records we bought for 60 cents, you'd see for up to 50 dollars," Fetterley says.
For the last two years Animal Charm has been making videos that are at once demented send-ups of mass culture and analyses of the ways it captivates us. Filmmakers have been making movies out of found footage for years, but Fetterley draws a distinction: experimental filmmaker Bruce Conner, for example, "likes the footage he's using." But some of the material Fetterley uses is so banal it inspires a "lack of feeling," he says. "It has that bland corporate-video lighting. It's like a lot of those ugly, sterile environments--it has a strip-mall aesthetic." Animal Charm's method is to take a "generic gesture or image and combine it with another to create a sort of light-a-match connection," Fetterley says. In Stuffing, a cartoon clip shows a pair of dolphins tossing a woman back and forth; this is intercut with a live-action shot of a monkey who seems to be watching. Bott compares the action to a sitcom gag, "like a guy slipping on a banana peel." The monkey stands for the viewer: he ends up being transformed into "a mesmerized animal."
In Working Together we see repeated images of photographers taking pictures almost head-on into the movie camera. "You don't see who they're photographing, or you're supposed to be who they're photographing," says Fetterley. We hear a sound like an animal squealing, casting the viewer--or whoever is being photographed--into the role of "an animal being beaten."
"Art should be taking a wrench and throwing it at this crap culture," Bott says. Rather than "just acting out your ideas in a predetermined fashion, the only way of reacting I can find is to make it into a crazy scramble." Fetterley recalls that one night he got into an argument with a friend, the owner of an Internet provider, who was planning to strike it rich. "The only way I could make him know how he made me feel was by drooling beer on myself, foaming at my mouth, getting really close to him, and asking, 'Do you understand?'"
Videos by Animal Charm will be shown in programs at the Chicago Underground Film Festival on Thursday, August 13, at 9 PM and next Friday, August 14, at 10:45 PM at the Theatre Building, 1225 W. Belmont. Admission is $6 per program. For more information, call 773-866-8660, or see the CUFF sidebar in the Section Two movie listings. --Fred Camper
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Stuffing"; "Working Together"; and Rich Bott and Jim Fetterley photo by J.B. Spector.