Zombies Take Toronto with Support of Video Art Fellowship

Zombies in Condoland

“Zombies in Condoland”

Horror Make-up 2006, video by Beckley Roberts

“Horror Make-up” 2006, video by Beckley Roberts

Staring Contest with Brad Pitt 2008, video

“Staring Contest with Brad Pitt” 2008, video

Associate Professor of Fine Arts Jillian Mcdonald’s Zombies in Condoland, a performance piece that will encompass an entire Toronto city block as part of the Nuit Blanche all night arts festival on Oct. 4, may be her biggest project yet. It is already getting national attention in Canada with articles in The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star.

As with many of Mcdonald’s works, she will rely heavily on audience participation. Volunteers will act as cast and crew providing make-up, wardrobe, lighting, direction, and of course, zombies for scenes of a horror film. Passersby will be invited to join in.

“It’s open to participation. I don’t have a cast,” Mcdonald explained. And while she will actually be filming a variety of traditional zombie scenes – car chases, zombies rising from the dead, chasing victims, and the like – the point of the project is not to produce a film, but for the non-professional actors to experience “the spectacle of a film shoot.”

The project is supported in part by a 2008 New York Foundation for the Arts Video Art Fellowship.  Mcdonald was one of 144 NYFA Fellows, selected from over 4,500 applicants.

p>Mcdonald’s project was commissioned by one of four curators of Nuit Blanche who saw her animation, Zombies in Condoland. The curator thought her proposed large-scale performance piece of the same name would be a great fit for the city where the zombie walk tradition began six years ago, and which has provided the backdrop for several well-known zombie films including Diary of the Dead.

And like Williamsburg, which Mcdonald used as the backdrop for the original animation, Toronto is experiencing a tremendous boom in the construction of luxury condominiums.

“The thing about Toronto is that the condos are monsters. They are 80 stories tall or 100 stories tall,” Mcdonald said.

Mcdonald began her career performing on stage, but was never very satisfied with the distanced artist-audience relationship.

“I wanted a much more naturalistic and free flowing relationship with more exchange,” Mcdonald explained. So in 2001, she started a series of projects where she put herself in public situations, “really as an opportunity to engage in dialogue.” In one called “Seams” she sat in the window of a lower Manhattan storefront and invited passersby to come in, talk to her about their personal fears and anxieties, entrust her with a piece of their clothing, and return at a mutually agreeable later date at which point she would return the article of clothing after she had embroidered a personal message into it.

“I make work where there is a sense of exchange, and where people are active participants without whom there would be no artwork,” Mcdonald explained.

In another audience-accessible piece called “Horror Make-Up” Mcdonald transforms herself into a zombie by applying make-up during her regular daily subway commute. The video, which shows the reactions of her fellow subway riders, can be seen along with many of her other video projects on her Web site, www.jillianmcdonald.net.

So, why horror?

“It started with a question,” Mcdonald explained. “I couldn’t figure out why people liked horror. It was never a genre that was particularly interesting to me in the past.” So she started watching iconic horror films and trying to dissect them from a critical distance.

“I started noticing things about them, isolated elements that were interesting to me, and the answer became less interesting to me than the question,” she explained.

In “The Screaming” Mcdonald turns the female powerlessness cliché often found in horror films on its head by inserting herself in some popular films and rather than turning and running from the antagonists, she screams back at the monsters, and by the end the monsters are running away and blowing apart.

“There’s a lot of humor in horror,” Mcdonald says, “and absurdity. I find it to be a rich source of inspiration, between the endless sequels, the characters, and the self-referentiality.”

Mcdonald plays on that last idea in a project she created this summer of a ”slasher stalking” using iconic horror film characters Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers,  Leatherface and Jason Voorhees caught in an endless chase scene. She completed the project using another portion of the NYFA grant during a five-week artist residency at Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin County, California.

Many of Mcdonald’s projects include some form of the narrative technique of ”looping” to cause suspense. In “Zombie Loop” a two-channel video, the viewer finds himself situated between projections on opposing walls.

“If you look one way, the zombie is running toward you, and if you look the other way, the victim is running away. So the audience becomes both antagonist and protagonist,” Mcdonald explains. “The zombie never catches the victim and the victim never gets away.”

In a new piece called “Staring Contest with Brad Pitt” Mcdonald has inserted herself (as she often does) into the film Meet Joe Black, in order to have a staring contest with Brad Pitt’s character. Because the film loops, neither ever wins and neither looks away.

Mcdonald has been teaching at Pace since 2002, including courses on flash animation, video animation, design for the internet, and basic digital design. She also co-directs and curates the Pace Digital Gallery.