Plastique Life

In July, there was the beginning of a frank, raw and enlightening discussion on the GDC listserv about depression, medication and feelings that everyday people go through in light of the actions of Rick Tharp. Through the listserv, Jennifer Romita shared insights and mentioned a gallery show titled Plastique that she held in Halifax. They’re well thought out images that continue the discussion about individuals, and how they deal with their cultural environment. After viewing the images on her web site, I asked her if she would be interested in sharing some of her thoughts about the show. She agreed, below is the e-mail discussion that followed.

Michael Surtees: When you had your show, what type of reaction did you receive from viewers? What were they saying to you afterwards?

Jennifer Romita: Some of the people who attended were impressed by the technical accuracy of the imagery and said that regardless of the surreal subject matter, the people looked convincing. Others were disturbed by the show and found it difficult to look at the work. A lot of the people who’ve see these images try to assign their own interpretation to it and I think that’s great because it says to me that it’s struck a chord with them. I’ve been contacted by everyone from anti-capitalist activists to mannequin fetishists, all with their own unique view of what the work represents to them. Fortunately, there are very few people who have been unmoved by it.

MS: How have things changed since you started this project? For instance, have you eliminated any conveniences?

JR: I wouldn’t say I’ve eliminated anything extra because my husband and I are what I would call functional minimalists. We try to leave a smaller than average Eco-footprint, we minimize the amount of “stuff” we buy and try to live clutter free but of course it’s sometimes difficult. I live by a few guidelines like if I bring something into my home, I part with something. I ask myself if I really need the purchase in the first place or if I can go without. Similarly if I haven’t used an object or even seen it in over 6 months, I give it to someone who can use it. Dave and I alternate between working in offices and working from home so we have an internet connection and our computers but neither of us has owned a television in over 5 years. We prefer to cook most of our food in an oven or on the stove rather than microwave it. No, we don’t have a microwave either.

MS: You mention “the potential of connection all around us” in your artist’s statement, could you elaborate? What type of connections are you suggesting? Are there patterns out there that people are missing?

JR: This is such a huge question and I’m not sure I can answer other than from my point of view. I believe there are patterns in the way people communicate with one another that allow us to easily create connections with one another. Empathy is one of the most important tools we have that can teach us to see these patterns, signs or signifiers when it comes to dealing with people but it has to happen both ways. Messages have to have senders as well as receivers or the message becomes lost. These connections become difficult to establish or maintain however when people live in their own bubble and aren’t open to possibilities. There is also something to be said for recognising good chemistry and having a healthy sense of when to move on.

Similar patterns (in my experience for what it’s worth) exist in every layer of our lives and function to give us a sense of place within what is real for us. I can’t describe what that means for each person nor would I try to.

MS: When does striving for perfection turn unhealthy?

JR: When a person starts purging the food they eat or starving themselves to achieve a body only airbrushing can offer. When a person over-eats or drinks and abuses their body as a substitute for affection or self respect that may be missing from their lives. When a person relentlessly shops for things they’ll never use while chasing after the temporary feeling of elation that consuming brings them. When our behaviour or beliefs alter our brain chemistry to the point where some of us get sick and others self-destruct. When a person decides to abuse another in an effort to hide their own flaws rather than facing and dealing with them. When a person marries, buys a house and has kids because someone else expected them to not because it was something they wanted. When a person racks up debt they can never hope to pay off to get another degree so they can amaze people they probably don’t even like. There are varying degrees of unhealthy happening here and this is a hand-full of the more common examples.

I think that most of us fail to realise that there is nothing wrong with having imperfections. With six billion people on our planet it’s impossible for all of us to adhere to someone else’s idea of what each of us should be without making some unhealthy compromises. I believe it’s important that we each have a reasonable idea of who and what we want to be.

MS: Can products have soul?

JR: No. This is one of the reasons we have branding. Some people believe they identify more with their favorite brands than with their own families or friends. I think people try to attribute soul-like qualities to products so they’ll stand out in a saturated marketplace but in the end they are just products regardless of how the branding makes one feel. All I want is a product that does what it’s supposed to when I need it.

I consider myself lucky to be trained in the area of visual communication because it’s instinctive for me to pick apart everything in front of me on a store shelf. Of course my design training is a double-edged sword because I am sometimes charged with an advertising campaign to promote such things but since I primarily freelance I have considerable influence in the ethical direction of my work. In the end, I don’t think branding is all bad but it is changing the landscape of our value systems and priorities in very big ways.

MS: What does being human and healthy mean to you?

JR: To me, being human means building communities of people who can celebrate and share the pleasure and pain of living. The saying goes, “No man is an island” and it’s true; humans are social creatures and we all need family, whether they’re blood relatives or people we choose. We need support systems to cope with the negative just as much as we need people close to us to nurture the positives. Isolation is unhealthy and is counted among the more serious of symptoms in sufferers of Clinical Depression. Sometimes isolation is the cause of Depression, other times it’s the result of it. Either way it’s important to be self-aware, aware of those around us, of how we interact with one another and who we bring into our personal sphere.

MS: Has religion played a role in your motivations for this project?

JR: Religion no, spirituality yes. When I think of religion, I think of the organized religions of the world and that’s not directly a part of my work. I think that a search for spirituality through human contact and connection is a more universal theme here. Throughout history organized religion has served as a unifying force to bring people together in the spirit of a common vision. With our cultures becoming less religious and more secular, people are searching for a different sense of community and grasping at those options more readily available in contemporary times.

MS: What are you working on next?

JR: I have a few projects in development. One of them is an exploration of the relationship and person, how both change through the passing of time and how they can be altered depending on their personal histories. I’ve also recently established a collaborative relationship with a photographer, Steve Richard, to strengthen the photographic element of my efforts. We both focus on people and social interaction so I’m looking forward to seeing where this takes us.

Beyond that I’m not sure. Each series or individual piece tends to feel from the one previous to it so time will answer that question.

MS: Thanks, I think we’ll have to continue this conversation at a later date.

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