50–55 minute conversation, or the time it takes to try something new.
For documentary filmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon and artist Lauren Lee McCarthy, seeking out the difficult and unfamiliar within the deeply personal are at the heart of their practices. In the following conversation, they reflect on their approach as teachers, which strikes a delicate balance between meeting students where they are and encouraging them out of their comfort zones. They argue that an open mind and willingness to fail are more valuable lessons than hard skills and final projects, and above all make it clear that the most compelling project is the process of figuring things out along the way.
Jessica Ferrer: How do you use artmaking to teach and learn? How is the process of making art similar or different to when you’re teaching students?
Elaine McMillion Sheldon: I’m happy to just jump in with the idea that comes to mind first about when teaching anyone, which is making them comfortable with change and our idea of failure. Like the first idea may not be the final idea, and understanding the evolution of an idea, that’s learning to me. I think some people think of the creative process as something that doesn’t actually have structure built around it but is something that’s like a gift given to certain people, and I don’t really come from that line of thinking, partly because I grew up in a kind of working class family who just put their heads down and worked every day. And so I’ve treated the art practice, the education and learning, and the teaching practice the same way: I put structures around myself and hope that magic will seep in if I put my head down enough, whereas I think other people have a different relationship.
So I guess the biggest guiding principle to me if I’m teaching anyone is letting them get comfortable with [the fact that] even though this is a brilliant idea right now, it’s gonna evolve, and to embrace that change and lean into it because the idea will only get stronger [that way], whether it’s more reading, more trial and error, more experiencing other work, being in nature for a bit longer, or whatever it might be.
Lauren Lee McCarthy: I really like that answer. I would think about the flip side, too, in my practice, and say, I start by making work about the things that are most confusing to me, that I don’t understand, that I’m struggling with, or that aren’t making sense — whether that’s something in me or something I see around me or in the world. And so then making is a way to understand it, but really just to play with it in some sense, to give myself different angles into it. And hopefully give the other people that come to the work the same kind of different angles.
When I’m working with students I think it’s similar. I’m encouraging them to go towards the things that they don’t know or understand already, and seeing if the artmaking and the learning process can be the same thing. What if the project is not the thing at the end of the process, but that whole process of learning and making it? Is it possible [for that to] be the project or end result?
I start by making work about the things that are most confusing to me, that I don’t understand, that I’m struggling with, or that aren’t making sense — whether that’s something in me or something I see around me or in the world.
Elaine: Yeah, I love that. To piggyback on that, it’s always been incredible to me how each artist and student — as they’re learning in the process of making or having an end goal in mind — accumulates, basically, an archive.
I know that a lot of your work, Lauren, is about a lot of different things, but if you think about this sort of network effect of technology, and how each project in essence is sort of creating its own network, it’s like its own brain in so many ways. And the more you feed those disparate ideas, juxtapositions, all these things that make the idea more interesting, that’s the essence of learning. Being hungry for finding another rabbit hole that’s going to result in sound being used differently in your film or in a point of view or a tone that may be your way in.
I live and work in the region that I was born in, Appalachia, so I’m a big advocate for how you don’t have to go far away to find things that matter to you, that you can invest your life in and improve the little plot of garden that you were put in. I’m always encouraging people to keep their eyes and ears open, and going back to what Lauren said, the things they have questions about.
I always want to encourage students to do things where they’re not completely set on how they feel about it because that’s not going to be interesting. They’re not wrestling with anything if they already know how they feel about it. But that requires you to be out in the world, and COVID has certainly made that difficult with teaching. Overhearing conversations at the diner or a park, those things when people are out and about, became a real void in my life. It was very depressing to be lost in my own head and not have the outside world to seep into in that way. As a documentary filmmaker, that’s what feeds the soul: other people’s experiences and lives, and being witness to them. So I think it’s absolutely essential that you’re following your nose towards something you have questions about. And being a lifelong learner is like the best thing you could teach any student of anything, right? The goal is to constantly stay curious and find your own little path through this vast number of questions we have about the world.
[ID: Film still of an elderly white man wearing a winter jacket with the hood up. He holds a long wooden rod in a gloved hand and looks down and out of frame.]
As a documentary filmmaker, that’s what feeds the soul: other people’s experiences and lives, and being witness to them. So I think it’s absolutely essential that you’re following your nose towards something you have questions about.
Lauren: Yeah, it makes me think about when I was in college. I studied computer science and when I got out I realized that I didn’t really learn any programming languages, or that’s what I thought while it was happening. It was very theoretical. When I finished, I realized I could figure [different programming languages] out, and then I kind of understood like, oh, okay, it wasn’t about teaching specific programming languages, it was about teaching you how to figure things out.
I thought that was specific to tech, and then when I started teaching in an art program, I realized it was the same thing. The students, of course, are looking for the skills or the portfolio pieces, and, you know, we try to provide that, too. But I think the thing that I feel like we’re really trying to teach them is again, how to learn, how to figure things out. And maybe in contrast to a computer science program, the way of learning [in art], the methodologies and approaches of figuring things out, are different, but it’s the same kind of lesson. How do you get excited about that? How do you feel confident in your ability to be in a space where you don’t understand it, and yet you can still move through it, and start to understand and learn about it?
Elaine: And I think that’s the ultimate work of human beings on the planet today because AI answers our questions, right? We don’t need answers, necessarily. We actually need questions. So part of learning and part of educating is encouraging others to ask new questions or maybe asking the same questions but looking at things a different way, whatever it might be, because answers are at our fingertips. Machine learning is getting really smart. I think that for humans of the future, it’s more important that we learn how to ask questions than it is to always answer them, and be comfortable with the ambiguity.
The whole idea about learning hard skills, too, is interesting with everything changing so quickly, whether it’s programs, cameras, etc. I’m a self-taught filmmaker in the sense that I went to school for writing and photography, but I taught myself the moving image. And I did that just by the process of making bad stuff over and over and over, and looking at it, and watching other stuff, and understanding what I wanted to take from practitioners like Maya Deren, and how she uses cinema in a way that’s different than a more traditional Scorsese, or someone like that. So understanding rhythm or understanding how, actually, the moving image is more similar to music and other time-based arts, and less similar to photography and painting.
Anyway, I say all that because the hard skills have changed so much since I’ve been doing this for going on twelve years now, and I’m always hesitant to really push hard skills. You have to know them to make the work — understanding the exposure triangle is important, understanding the gear you’re using is important — but I feel like YouTube is full of that, right? That’s the learning that bros have taken over on YouTube, like showing you the aperture. [laughs] But what you really want to do in an educational setting, and I’m not just talking about university or academics, but all learners and early learners, is asking the right questions and developing taste, style, and tone, and all those things that machines don’t do for you.
I grew up in a family who were coal miners. Those jobs have been replaced by machines, and so I’ve seen my own family be replaced by machines in a big way, and I’ve often thought about how my iPhone now makes these silly little short films out of photos that I take. I don’t even make them, it just comes up with them, and I’m looking at it, and I’m like, actually they’re pretty well edited, you know? It’s like I’m seeing some part of my life being replaced by machines, too, and I just think it’s a really interesting thing not to fear, necessarily, but to learn how we work, how we learn, how we educate ourselves to constantly grow with that technology. So yeah, the hard skills question is always a balance when you’re in an educational setting.
[ID: Fisheye view of a man sitting at a table with posters on the wall behind him. Writing on the floor says, “As long as the software runs, the party will never end.”]
Jessica: I’m curious if there are any sort of skills or things you’ve learned that feel a little left field, like they’re not part of your art practice strictly? And it could veer into hobbies or weird interests that you’ve taken on, that you’ve found really helpful but have nothing to do with your formal research. Is there stuff like that that you find informs your work, or do you plan for that sort of thing when you’re working?
Lauren: Uh oh, I’ve managed to convince myself that anything I want to do is part of my art practice, especially and including just hanging out with people. [laughs] I’m like, I’m working, it’s cool, let’s go for a walk! But seriously, I think that paying attention to the things that are drawing your attention is part of the practice…so I do a lot of convincing myself that I’m interested in this thing so I’m gonna do it and it will probably lead to something. And the other thing, kind of to my detriment, is that I don’t have a lot of lines between my art practice and my life. I have some that I try to hold, especially when it comes to other people, but for myself, I’m interested in what happens when you break that [line] down as much as possible without losing your mind. So then art also becomes a tool for understanding and living my life.
Your question is a funny provocation for me because there’s nothing really that I can think of that I’m doing that would feel left field to me, although maybe with the projects themselves sometimes I find myself completely left field? Sometimes I think I’m telling people it’s an art project because if I didn’t they might think that I need some help? [laughs] Or they think that anyway, you know, sometimes the art can be…there’s sort of a domain of normal behavior until the art can be a way of moving out of that a little bit, an excuse, a framing, or even a hiding spot?
I’m trying to think of the most left field thing…Oh! I mean one thing is whenever there’s a weird system, I’ll often try to engage with it. So for a while I was a Taskrabbit, which is like a gig worker app. But I would be really specific about the tasks that I would take, and I mostly liked to do the ones that were like waiting in line for people. In New York, people wanted someone to stand in line at a restaurant where they don’t take reservations and then they would have you text them when you’re at the front, and they would come and take your spot. Or in Los Angeles, you’d sit and hold a little spot on the beach for someone. And so in those times I would kind of sit there, stand there, and then just imagine that I was them because then it didn’t feel so bad, like I was cheating all these people, instead I’d be like no, I actually am the person, so maybe that’s one example of something left field.
I lived in a very strange world pre-growing a human where I thought naps were something to be ashamed of and now I embrace them because I’m a better person after I take one.
Elaine: Yeah, like you said, it’s hard to separate art and life, and I actually don’t really desire to either because I find the creative process to be helpful in all parts of my life. I’m a new mom. I just had a kid a year ago, and that has been a huge lesson in the creative process. The creative process, as I define it, is one in which things get messy, and you find your way through them, and then you come out on the other side having a sort of different experience than the one you thought you were having, and then as soon as you get comfortable there you get uncomfortable again, and the thing changes again…That’s been being a first time mom over the past year; of being like oh, I mastered this and then saying, no, you haven’t, this is completely different day to day. And so if anything, it has made me embrace the “art life” more — as uncomfortable as I am with that phrase — in all parts of my life.
I have a little scratch pad I write these random lines on, things that strike me. I take a lot of random audio recordings, like I hear a train or a bird and I’m just standing there, and it seems like a real tangent but it’s not. Or like staring at trees or cross-stitching or watching lots of movies or yoga. These things don’t seem separate to me. They’re in some ways outlets or releases from other things, and they all are required to have a healthy enough brain to sleep.
Sleep is the big one. I take a lot of naps. I embraced naps when I was pregnant, because I was always tired, and I lived in a very strange world pre-growing a human where I thought naps were something to be ashamed of and now I embrace them because I’m a better person after I take one.
Food! I cook. I see cooking as creativity. When I’m out on a walk, I get really excited about the ingredients I have at home to make a piece of something we eat. That feels creative. I don’t follow recipes. I just like to throw stuff together. All of these things are all related to filmmaking for me. None of them can be separated.
I think the problem with it is — Curren, my partner, and I were talking about how most engineers don’t work for free like artists do on projects. Like if you asked a person who builds a bridge to do it in-kind, to build a bridge for three years before you might finance it, which is how we work as filmmakers, they’d be like you’re insane, I’m not doing that — and so the problem is when you get something you really like in one of those release moments. Then you start thinking, well, what can I do with it, and then your brain wants to turn everything into a project and then it’s like well, I can’t sustain myself with that, and I just hate that.
I’m trying to teach my brain to just be present and allow that thing to just to be in my life and never see the light of day, and it’s okay. That’s something. And it’s been easier to do that since I deleted all of my social media. I did that, and I no longer had a way to constantly feed the world these random things. I started doing them for myself and they started having a different feel, but it took two years to make my brain heal from the idea of posting something and getting reactions to it. It is just a very strange thing.
For the film I’m working on now, I have someone building a casket. I’m not sure if that casket is going to be used in the film but I surely want it. It’s like making these little shrines and collaborating with people where I just know if their brain is closer to my brain in this project, something good will happen. I don’t know what it is, but I have a feeling. Those things can feel very tangential, but they’re not. That was a tangent…[laughs]
[ID: A film still of two sets of hands reaching up into the air with a green, wooded background just out of focus behind them.]
I guess what I’m saying is if I’m talking to students and thinking about how to encourage them, I think recently I’ve also been more aware of asking how do you build a process for yourself that is sustainable, that has some pleasure in it also, or has care.
Jessica: No, it’s lovely. I’m hearing from both of you this idea of play, and a generosity with yourself about what you’re interested in and allowing yourself to pursue it. It’s a really important thing and relates to the next question that I wanted to ask: What attitude or mindset do you encourage yourself or your students and audience to consider when you’re trying to learn something new? You’ve talked about this a little bit so it’s all right to move on if you want, but if there’s other stuff, too, I would love to know more.
Lauren: Well, I was just thinking, I mean this is sort of in response to your question, and also thinking about what Elaine just said…but maybe it’s a little less about the mindset of learning, and more about what are you walking towards? In my practice or in my life, I used to always go towards the thing that seems the hardest, and I thought that was necessary to make the work.
And then I got myself into some projects that were just really, really hard and kind of painful. I don’t regret them, but immediately after I did a project that was about trying to walk towards pleasure, and it felt really good.
So one thing that I learned from that is that my tendency is always to want the thing that’s the hardest or the most intense. Maybe I don’t necessarily need to intentionally seek that out because I am probably going to go in that direction anyway. What if what I’m inserting more intentionally is trying to find the pleasure in it? And that really led to a process of reimagining my process. I’ve really been trying to learn from other people, so when I hang out with other artists, I just ask about their process, or I’ll sit and watch videos of artist talks, and any time I hear someone say something that sounds like it would be fun to do in my process, I’m stealing it or borrowing it. [laughs]
I guess what I’m saying is if I’m talking to students and thinking about how to encourage them, I think recently I’ve also been more aware of asking how do you build a process for yourself that is sustainable, that has some pleasure in it also, or has care. Or as Elaine was saying about your mind and body, treating it like an instrument so that even if you are pushing it to really intense places, you have other things built in to recover and take care of yourself after that or people around you that you really enjoy being with who can help support you through some of the difficult pieces.
So when I hear people limiting themselves in the classroom, I gently nudge them the way someone did to me, because for me it was revelatory. It seems so simple but at that age no one had ever really pushed me to think about that, and I think that’s what’s most important in learning.
Elaine: Yeah, I think it comes down to growth versus fixed mindset. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the book Mindset, it’s a psychology book, and I think it was mostly written for coaches and parents, and I don’t even know how I found it, but I found it probably in 2015 when I was making Recovery Boys. I just sat sobbing, reading it, because I realized that I had limited my life to that point so much because of a fear of doing something poorly.
I was that typical student that always did everything. I just showed up on time. I was sort of that model student, but I wouldn’t take risks, and that was revealed to me when someone once asked me to play volleyball. This is so ridiculous, but I was like, I’ve never played volleyball, I’m not playing volleyball, I’ll make an ass of myself. I said out loud, “I can’t play volleyball,” and that person (my father-in-law) said to me, “Have you ever tried?” And I was humiliated because I hadn’t, and I’m thirty years old at that time or so, and what was I so scared of?
This book revealed to me that the environment in which I was raised really made me lean into this fixed mindset that my traits and my abilities were stable and unchanging, and that the ones that I was handed out by whomever were the ones that I got, and I could learn a little bit, but really I should stay in my lane. I don’t know if that’s a product of culture or what, but I have been embracing a growth mindset where the abilities are not set. I’ve been seeking out: What does the resistance to the sad things of this world today, which I’m often confronting with my camera, look like? If I look for the joy on the opposite side of that? If I look for the reinvention within a desperate landscape?
So when I hear people limiting themselves in the classroom, I gently nudge them the way someone did to me, because for me it was revelatory. It seems so simple but at that age no one had ever really pushed me to think about that, and I think that’s what’s most important in learning. I therefore feel like I’m much more capable of helping people who are stuck in that way because it’s vulnerable when someone calls it out. You don’t want to be told straight up that you can do this. You want to be gently nudged because you feel very vulnerable, and you feel very silly to have limited yourself, and you look back on your life, and you think about all the things that you limited, and what experiences could you have had? Who could you have met? Where could you have gone had you not had this set idea that you were a stable unchanging person with these set amount of skills? So I think that’s so important, Lauren, you know, to seek pleasure and to see growth in that pleasure is really an incredible part of the process.
Jessica: In addition to holding positions as professors at universities, you’re both committed to ensuring access to anyone who might be interested in learning outside or beyond that traditional setting. How have those two seemingly juxtaposed spaces for learning informed your understanding and approach to teaching in general? And I think in particular, with this thing of growth versus fixed mindset, I’m curious about how that works in both of those environments that seem very distinct to me.
Elaine: I will just chime in with one thought — Lauren’s going to say something brilliant that’ll make me think expansively — but they do feel like two different groups to me. Oftentimes, the kids I’m working with in the coal fields or elsewhere have a very fixed mindset because they’ve sort of been raised — like I was — to stay in your lane. This is what you’re good at, stay in your lane. And I’m asking them to get out of their lane, and look at all these other lanes, like just try it. Just step over here; it’s safe, it’s fine, you’re not gonna get hit by a car, you know? Whereas in the university setting, they have chosen to be there and have been told in some way that they’re good enough to be there. That’s not always true for the kids and adults I’m working with in normal, everyday, non-academic settings. Oftentimes it is about building confidence that they can try these things, and it doesn’t have to be their life but it can be an interesting outlet. [That’s] not to say there aren’t people in the university setting with a fixed mindset, but generally they’ve been sort of anointed already, you know? It’s a space in which they have done something to get there, and so they have this feeling of potential growth ahead of them, whereas someone in their daily life may not necessarily have that privilege.
Lauren: I think that’s a really good point. I notice something similar in terms of the students that I teach at UCLA. The fact that they are there means that at least someone in their life told them, this is a space that I believe you can enter. I think about that a lot because UCLA is a public university, but it’s actually very competitive to get in. It’s just a lot of applications. I’m happy to be able to teach at a school that is state-funded, and not a private school, but I also see how many people living in LA can’t have access to an institution that is funded by their state and in their city.
You can make tools available, you can make resources available, but you also need the support networks or the person who believes that you belong in a space.
The work that I do in open source is trying to make tools that help people learn to code and make art with code, and trying to make that more accessible to people who might not be in a college or high school classroom, for example. That’s kind of where the project started and the question of access is really central to it. So what are all the different barriers to access? When working in an art and technology field, just having equipment is a big barrier. But I think because we set the intention of it to really be thinking about access from the get-go and asking what happens if you build a tool really centered on those values, where we keep coming back to them anytime there’s a technical decision to be made, or a design or community decision, we go back and ask, who are we prioritizing or privileging in terms of access? What are the barriers? How does this next decision we’re making shift that in any way?
It has meant learning a lot about access barriers that are sort of invisible to you when they are not barriers to you. So thinking about language, thinking about different modes of learning, thinking about internet access, thinking about computer access or phone access, thinking about disability, the ability to see the screen or to hear the feedback that’s coming from the program, neurodivergent ways of thinking. How do you teach coding in those contexts? And what do we do about the fact that when you think about a tech-based space, the majority of people in it are Western white men? How do people enter that space if they don’t feel represented in it?
Those are some of the different angles that I think about with that project, but I think that also feeds into questions in the university, too. Who comes into those spaces? Then it goes back to what Elaine has said also, which is that you can make tools available, you can make resources available, but you also need the support networks or the person who believes that you belong in a space. That tends to be one of the biggest barriers, because it can be so internalized, too, to the point where you might be telling someone this, but they already have another narrative for what they believe is possible.
And so I think we’ve really tried to embrace the internet as a way of breaking that down and really tried to surface some of the first experiments that people were doing to say, this is making art. This is writing code. Maybe it’s three lines long, but the important thing isn’t the really complicated code art piece, it is about this act of sharing. The fact that you can make a relatively simple drawing with code and maybe make a tutorial or a video showing how you did it and someone else might build on that. It’s that community of sharing and being part of it that is the thing more than the output. I think that’s one strategy. I think I went on a long tangent. Hopefully I addressed some parts of the question. [laughs]
[ID: A woman in a blue dress sits on a bed lit by spotlights and surrounded by devices.]
I don’t believe in the top-down story or top-down media. I spend more time listening to grassroots organizing and understanding the day-to-day questions that they’re asking.
Elaine: I love what you’re saying about meeting people where they are with the needs that they have and their own desires, and not just formalizing an educational system without people and their needs in mind. And that goes back to asking questions that are relevant to communities that you’re educating.
I remember ten years ago when I went to McDowell County, West Virginia, to make this project called Hollow. A large part of it was training individuals from the age of four to sixty-four to shoot video content, photography, or an archive of their community. Mostly it was a lot of camera training. This was a county that had lost more than eighty percent of their population; it went from 100,000 to less than 20,000. It was the place that fed America’s ridiculously large appetite for energy, fueled the Industrial Revolution, wars, all these things with the coal that was mined, and then was abandoned. America never looked back, people left, and the people that stayed are parachuted on by outside media to be made into stereotypes. So the people that live there are pretty skeptical if you come in with a camera, even if you grew up next door. Asking the right questions and building that local trust became really essential.
I remember asking a sixteen year-old kid, what do you want for your community? That’s such a big question; it’s just such a ridiculous question to ask. But this is a county where most homes along the North Fork River don’t have any sewage control; they have straight piping into the rivers. This is a county where if you pour some water out of the tap and put a beet in it, the beet will be drained of its color. This is a county where the mountaintops are still gone from the coal that was mined, and there’s flash flooding. This is a county where if there’s a power outage, you often don’t get power back for several weeks. This is a county where people, when they don’t have access to water, will bathe in the above ground pools in their yard. It doesn’t have access to just basic things we should have access to in America.
So I’m thinking of infrastructure when I’m talking to him, you know? I’m thinking I’m an MFA student and I’m from the West Virginia coalfields, but I’m learned from my MFA and I’m back home, and I’m like, what do you want for your community? And he’s like, you know a Taco Bell would be nice. And I was just beside myself, like Elaine, you’ve got to reconnect with daily life. This art project of yours is going to be completely irrelevant if it is not speaking with and for the people, and not just about the people.
That project was an incredible experience, and I’m very grateful to have had it so young in my life because it made me a completely different media artist. I don’t believe in the top-down story or top-down media. I spend more time listening to grassroots organizing and understanding the day-to-day questions that they’re asking. I say all that because I was teaching people these media literacy skills: how to use a camera, how to read this particular article and understand how to actually fact check it. These were the skills that I thought were important for people to learn through this project.
And now we’re living at such a different time because I remember talking to people about how important it was to see yourself reflected — in a community that’s been the strap and center for any international media that wants to make America look like backwards hillbillies, they go to McDowell County — how important it is to reclaim your own image, how important an image is, how damaging an image is, and untangling that. This was in 2012, when not everyone had access to recording themselves the way we do now, and we were able to engage with people who captured such incredibly raw moments of their daily life that I, with a camera, wouldn’t have had access to. I think that time is actually lost because now we share so much of our lives, we curate our own lives, so the wellness and that vulnerability that came from truly using the camera as a mirror for your own community and not a mirror for the public through social media or other forms is gone. It was just an incredible time and space to be making that work and engaging with people to make that work because it feels like everything changed after that moment.
Video is so accessible, which is good and bad, I’m not saying that it’s only a bad thing, but it was sort of the last time in which people weren’t oversaturated with images of themselves. Seeing a mirror of yourself is no longer the issue. The issue now is that there are all these mirrors. There are funny mirrors, and now we’ve got too many. So there’s this sort of curation issue now, but I guess what I’m saying is, working with that community taught me to listen before I ever start instructing. To never come in with this top-down idea of what needs to be done or how it’s going to get done, but actually build in listening before the instruction ever begins.
[ID: Film still of the prow of a boat on a calm river. Lined with lush trees, the river stretches out ahead into fog-covered hills.]
Lauren: It makes me think about a project I had mentioned earlier. It started out as this project about helping people learn to code. I think it was clear to us from the beginning that the learning part is the important part, but then I realized the learning is not just in learning to code, it’s this continuous process of learning. The ways that the project grows are through people coming into it and teaching the other contributors and collaborators because they have a different perspective and way of understanding.
One of the things that was interesting with this project in contrast to some other things happening in software spaces, is often there are forums where people can go and ask questions about how to make something. In those online spaces, a lot of the more basic questions will get shut down with like, “You should you know,” or “This is a dumb question.” There’s this acronym, RTFM, or “Read The Fucking Manual.” People literally just write that and then not answer the question. That just seems so backwards to us because I think the people that are learning are actually the ones that have the most to teach me if you’re trying to design and build a tool in a community.
It’s like, what are the problems that you encounter right off the start? What are the confusing things? Can you teach me about that? Because that’s pretty hard for me to access as someone who knows it really well and is in the middle of it. And so we really tried to focus on those entry points. The people that are just starting to learn the thing are the people that can actually be the ones to teach us where the thing goes next.
Elaine: And assuming the manual is available to all?! It’s one thing that I became very aware of when I went to get my MFA. I didn’t know what questions to even ask, you know? When they’re like, what questions? The literacy of where’s the manual? Is there a manual? And what are my options? There’s a buffet before me and I can’t even tell what the options are, because I don’t know the right questions to get there.
It goes back to asking the right questions, but how do you even know, to begin with, if you’ve never seen the manual? It’s this mystical thing and someone’s just telling you to read it…We assume because everything is at our fingertips that we have access to the information we need, but oftentimes we don’t know how to get to that information, right? It’s not as simple as just reading the manual, so I love that.
I’m often using humor as a way to access hope because, like you said, we’re all gonna die, but can we laugh a bit along the way? And can that be a way of processing some of the things that are more difficult or a way of bonding over them?
Jessica: I’m curious about your relationship to optimism while navigating serious, difficult, and complex subject matter. I’m thinking of Elaine talking just now about Hollow and then Lauren with your project Later Date. There’s this hopefulness alongside uncertainty, whether it’s about time, relationships, or the future. So first, how do you maintain a sense of optimism, if you do? And is optimism something that you feel you’re trying to teach, too, or is that less relevant? Where does that fit in as you’re coming into a space as a teacher?
Elaine: I don’t think I try to teach optimism, but I am certainly looking for it. For me, optimism comes down to if it’s a story worth telling. I’m a storyteller, so if we know the ending, and we’re all gonna die, and there’s no point in any of this, there’s got to be some narrative arcs, right? That overcoming of challenges is interesting. It’s more real than just seeing things as black and white.
Recently, I’ve been interviewing these incredible social justice nuns up in the hills of Mingo County, West Virginia. They’ve been there since the 1970s, and they’re super radical nuns who believe that hope is an active word. It’s a word in which we go out and we make it. It’s not sitting back and waiting for things to get better, it’s actually working towards those things, and I think that spirit is what I’m fighting for. And I’m looking for people that believe in that because I’m not overly optimistic about everything in the world, but I have to have my moments that keep that story. I see everything in story, and I’m always looking for the other side of the mountain.
But I don’t know if you can teach it. I don’t want to say it’s a fixed thing, so it’s not going back to the fixed versus growth mindset, but I think it’s more important to some people than others. It’s important to me, but I wouldn’t necessarily force it upon my students to find that. They may find other outlets or ways into a rather pessimistic view of something. I guess I’m saying that being hopeful doesn’t mean you’re ignorant to the realities, and it doesn’t mean that you’re just sitting back hoping they change. Hope is doing something.
Lauren: I think that’s a great way to frame it. For myself, I’m often using humor as a way to access hope because, like you said, we’re all gonna die, but can we laugh a bit along the way? And can that be a way of processing some of the things that are more difficult or a way of bonding over them? I did the Later Date project just after everything locked down, where it was so ambiguous, like is this for a week, a month, or the rest of our lives? And so we were making these plans for “later dates,” and the humor in it was that we had no idea what “later” was. So we’d plan out we’re gonna go here and maybe we should be wearing jackets, because it might be winter by then? Maybe it’s gonna take us a while to get there because we’ll be really old?
So that was one attempt. The other project that came to mind as you were asking about hope or optimism, is one I’ve been working on recently called Surrogate. That’s been a really difficult one for me personally. A big part of the project has been talking to a lot of people about their experiences with reproduction, fertility, the attempt at that, all the things that come up around it.
It’s not even necessarily done going out interviewing people, it’s more like when I share what I’m working on, everyone has a story, or a story of a friend or someone close to them that has really struggled with something related to these questions of making and raising people, navigating your relationship to kin and family, dealing with what happens when it doesn’t work out the way you had planned or hoped, because we really have so little control over so much of those processes. Some of the stories are really difficult, devastating, and just tough to move through, and I think a friend commented to me that this project is so heavy or sad or tragic or something, and I just didn’t see it that way. I was like, that’s not why I’m making this. I find this project really hopeful.
There’s a lot of difficulty that people have, but when people are telling me these stories, I don’t think they’re telling it to me like, here’s this tragedy that I went through or here’s this difficult fight that I had. The way I’m hearing their stories is like, here is how much I wanted to make a family, here’s how much I wanted to connect with this person, here’s how much I wanted to be there for my partner when we disagreed about something, here’s how we worked through it. I just found it really beautiful that we take on so much challenge in the pursuit of making a relationship with another person or other people. Or just the thought of being able to do that. I think in the struggle there’s something that is really…I don’t know. The fact that we’re all going to die and yet we struggle with each other anyway, there’s something there that’s very optimistic. I feel a lot of hope, or something, in that, in our desire to be human together.
There’s something about proximity. I’m a big fan of being close to the stories you tell. I think it’s something that we don’t value enough in my field of documentary. We still largely have an industry that’s built on people living really, really far away from the stories they tell.
[ID: The artist, masked, holds a phone that says, “Here.”]
Elaine: Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. When people look at films I’ve made about the opioid crisis or other things, the hope comes from the fact that these are universal stories, right? When you start gathering so many stories, you realize that there’s power in the number of people, there’s power in the solidarity of the struggle. And that is enough to move, because in that way, telling is healing. And so there’s this regenerative feeling of the telling, the asking of the question and seeing the person there, whether it’s recorded or not. To hear their story, and to show respect in that way, is healing, and it’s an exchange. You can’t just take, you have to give, too, and so you’re being healed in the process. That gives me hope: that sharing, that communication.
And I think sometimes if people aren’t inside on that process, they just see the topic. They just see the statistics, and they’re like, this is heavy. But you’re part of this regeneration of healing through this exchange with people, and like you said, it doesn’t always have to be recorded, and it doesn’t always have to be going out and interviewing.
One of my early mentors was George Esper, and he was the bureau chief for the Associated Press during the Vietnam War. He always told me, in witnessing a ton of atrocities, when you get closer to something you just see it on such a level that you’re seeing individuals. The war is awful and terrible, and the footage tells us that, but he had this experience that was an individual experience. He could wrestle with the war and not be depressed while talking about it, yet hold reverence for the fact that it was awful.
The closer you get to tragedy or something difficult, you stop seeing it for the statistics and those big things that are overwhelming to people on the outside looking in saying, hey, why are you still in there, that’s sad. Hopefully, once you come out of it, you’re bringing a universal experience through an individual one, through an exchange one-on-one, through those things. George always told me to get closer to the problem. He was like, if you see something that you know people are running away from, that’s an opportunity to get closer to it.
Not everybody’s cut out for that. Lauren and I might have a higher capacity for those different types of suffering, but not all of my friends who are in this field do. I commend them for what they’re able to do in different ways. But I don’t see it as suffering the same way, Lauren, you were saying. It’s just not how you see it, because once you get closer to something, you just start seeing the layers of the human experience all wrapped up into this one thing that others see as statistical devastation.
There’s something about proximity. I’m a big fan of being close to the stories you tell. I think it’s something that we don’t value enough in my field of documentary. We still largely have an industry that’s built on people living really, really far away from the stories they tell. And we don’t see geography as one of the markers of identity that really breaks through the surface with people, that really builds relationships, that really makes films things that mobilize not in a surface level way, but in a way that actually moves populations to work with one another. Geography and proximity, those are central to my work. I can’t do this work being too far away from it, so yeah, getting closer is what gives me hope.
Jessica: Thank you so much. I love where this conversation has landed for the time being. We have a couple more minutes so I want to just check in and see if there’s anything else you want to share at this moment?
Elaine: I don’t know. This has been fun. You’re smart, Lauren. I like you. [laughs]
Lauren: Yeah, I just enjoyed this so much. I think, looking at your work, I was thinking about it beforehand, like that’s definitely a different pairing, you know? I think we do really different things even though I found your work very interesting, and now I think it’s clear why I find it interesting. I think we’re both thinking a lot about people and the ways you connect with and understand them. I just really enjoyed the conversation, thank you.
Elaine: Same. I think it’s a great example of why, when you’re instructing, you never want to push form too much. You want to push students to follow their own ideas because even if we meet here on the ideas, the products don’t look anything alike, right? They live in different spaces, and they have different audiences, and that’s why it’s so important to not have too many fingers on your students’ work or be too influential in some ways. Allow them to start with an idea and see where that grows. To see that for you it grows here, and for me it grows here. I just love that. I think if this conversation could be replicated in the classroom, we would see work that yes, has a similar seed, but is sort of blooming in different ways, manifesting itself in different mediums and forms.
Note: This is a transcript from a conversation that took place via Zoom in June 2022.
[ID: Elaine is a 30-something white woman wearing a blue-jean jacket and a marigold shirt. She is standing in front of a window where she lives in Knoxville, Tennessee. Her hair is long and brown and she is smiling.]
Elaine McMillion Sheldon
She // Her // Hers
Elaine McMillion Sheldon is an Academy Award-nominated and Peabody-winning documentary filmmaker. She has been nominated for six Emmy awards, is a 2021 Creative Capital Awardee, a 2021 Livingston Award Finalist, a 2020 John Simon Guggenheim Fellow, and a 2018 United States Artists Fellow. She is currently in-production on a feature-length documentary, King Coal, which has received support and funding from the Sundance Documentary Institute, Tribeca Film Institute, Catapult Film Fund, First Look Media, and the West Virginia Humanities Council. Sheldon’s recent notable films include Heroin(e), Recovery Boys, Tutwiler, and Hollow.
[ID: A Chinese-American woman with short dark hair standing in front of device sculptures.]
Lauren Lee McCarthy
She // Her // Hers
Los Angeles, CA
Lauren Lee McCarthy is an artist examining social relationships in the context of surveillance, automation, and network culture through performance, software, and installation. Her work consists of performances inviting viewers to engage. To remote control her dates. To be followed. To welcome her in as their human smart home. To attend a party hosted by artificial intelligence. In these interactions, there is a reciprocal risk-taking and vulnerability, as performer and audience are both challenged to relinquish control, both implicated, as each reformulate their own relationship to the systems that govern our lives.