My friend Tennessee Jones-Phillips is an artist whose work spans themes of surveillance, voyeurism, and the internet, using as medium video, performance, photography and illustration. Her recent project L0ve2Watch is a new media piece which combines the feeling of digital overload with the desperation and solitude that comes with desire. Amongst other things we speak about the perks of watching others, Insecam, theremins, Nam June Paik and video art. We start our conversation with a tarot reading which says it’s all going to come up roses.
JONES-PHILLIPS: It’s not about being told, it's … you're asking I think it's like a higher self because whatever I read off the cards is what I want them to tell me and I'm just probably not saying it out loud. I probably already read that shit off you, but the cards are making it easier for me to articulate it and tell you and show you.
ESIEN: Yeah. You’ve already intuited it.
ESIEN: So, I want to talk about surveillance? Well, I guess I'm wondering whether you’re interested in self surveillance or the surveillance of others?
JONES-PHILLIPS: A little bit of both. I guess I'm curious about surveilling others. Because I want to be reassured.
ESIEN: Interesting, you want to be reassured?
JONES-PHILLIPS: Yeah. Knowing what other people are dealing with, going through, have the same questions that I do, makes me feel like this shit isn't all for naught.
ESIEN: That's real. That’s also partly why we like gossip, social media, reality TV because we want to see if we're doing OK. You posted some of the footage you’ve been collecting the other day. When did you start watching those videos? And what are they?
JONES-PHILLIPS: Okay, um, Insecam is a website where CCTV streams go to like, die. Someone made a website I'd say, 10,15 years ago that puts all online streaming onto one site. [*Tennessee loads up Insecam and scrolls through the streams*]. It’s a really intensive archive, I would say, or database. You can search by place, cities, time zones.
Fig 1: Streamed footage of horses from Insecam shared on Jones-Phillips' instagram (@internet.female)
ESIEN: So these are all live?
JONES-PHILLIPS: Yeah, they’re live. These ones are all live cameras in the United States. Americans love to protect their property.
ESIEN: I’m confused as to how these get linked up to this website.
JONES-PHILLIPS: Oh, because they’re streamed so they're not CCTV. CCTV is closed circuit. These are like CCTV but streamed onto whatever platform. It’s digital not analogue.
ESIEN: Okay, that makes sense.
JONES-PHILLIPS: I like to look at this one. This one here. It's a post office. And then another one I like to look at is this one, it’s a horse but a spider made its home in front of the camera so I can't really see the horse as much, but it was a great one. Like really good horse content.
ESIEN: From what I've seen you have two different practices in that you do a lot of video. But then you also do the sort of kaleidoscope photography. Was that a previous era that you're now moving past? Or are those just two different things that you're developing?
Fig 2: SimulacrumE153 (2021) by Tennessee Jones-Phillips
JONES-PHILLIPS: I like to circle back, collaborate with myself. I'll draw something, forget about it, years or months later I'll go back to it and put it in a new piece. So even the video I just posted [surveillance footage of Hungarian cranes feeding with ethereal music overlayed], I was using music I’d made playing on my friend’s theremin in November. I thought that the theremin would sound really nice on top of this intimate moment between these birds, this bird feeding its kid.
ESIEN: And what’s a theremin?
JONES-PHILLIPS: Oh it's one of the only musical instruments you do not touch. You play the electrical fields in the air. [*Tennessee plays the video with the theremin music*].
ESIEN: It kind of reminds me of Plantasia (1976).
JONES-PHILLIPS: Plantasia definitely has theremin. Plants like high frequency music.
ESIEN: When did you start using video?
JONES-PHILLIPS: I always loved recording myself. My mom gave me this digital camera, and I would run around with it and be like, “Hi”, and take pictures of myself. I was always a video girl. Just documenting the self. I was so vain. My aunt would always tell me how vain I was because I would sit in front of a mirror for hours. And she'd be like “you love yourself too much”. And I’d just be like “its not even that! I just need to remind myself that I'm real”.
ESIEN: Yeah, I was similar. And I don't think it was vanity even though it was perceived as vanity. When you're young, your face changes so much and so quickly that you really do look different all the time. I think it’s partially that. I was telling you the other day about that Nam June Paik documentary [Moon is the oldest TV (2023)]. It was interesting because it touched on how still now, video art is one of the things that galleries are still figuring out how to sell.
Fig 3: A still from Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TV. Photograph: Sundance Institute
JONES-PHILLIPS: Galleries don't know how to buy or sell them. They know how to show them, put them on a fucking TV, project them on the wall. But then, do you sell a DVD? Do you sell a USB chip? Like, what do you do? And then how does someone authenticate that kind of thing? Is there only like five copies? But it's digital so there could be literally 1000s in a second.
ESIEN: Do you think the DVD or the USB is the way?
JONES-PHILLIPS: Well, I don't know. Some people sell them in addition to a physical piece of work. I think that’s the way to do it, make it into a physical piece. Have them buy the installation and then the film comes with the installation.
ESIEN: Oh, so as in like it would almost be sold on a television set.
JONES-PHILLIPS: Exactly. You could make a movie and have it perpetually in the TV. The only way you can watch it is through the television.