Mining Narratives: A Conversation with Dana Osburn by Allison Hewitt Ward


I think that narrative is important in my work because that’s the way I enjoy media. I enjoy a good story. I want to tell a good story.

Art Practice Participant Dana Osburn is an explorer, demolitionist, architect and annotator in the field of media and culture.  Her work has untangled the narratives at work in television archetypes, small town politics and the persona of “the artist”. Dana took a break from preparing for her third and final summer in the MFA Art Practice program to talk with AP Staff Member Allison Hewitt Ward about her work, world of media and technology that informs it, and how it’s changed since she began her MFA studies. 

AHW: I’d like to start by noting your ambivalence about artist interviews. For your video work Art21: Dana M. Osburn, you created a shot-for-shot remake of the Art:21 segment on Eleanor Antin with yourself—or a very particular performance of yourself—in the starring role. Can you tell me a little more about this piece and your thoughts on art production and selfhood?

Art:21: Dana M. Osburn

DO: There’s something about formulaic TV that I’m really into. Discovering that Art:21 was a simple formula felt like a big accomplishment. I watched every episode and I broke it down to the key elements of how Art:21 constructs a persona of the artist that’s digestible and approachable. It’s supposed to make contemporary art friendly to the “lay person”. 

It’s so bizarre to me that they would do it this way, because people often feel like they can’t participate in the enjoyment of contemporary art because it’s so aloof, or it’s so removed from their concerns, or they feel like they have to have this prerequisite background in theory, or they think that it’s elitist. This formula that Art:21 came up with was so ass-backwards in trying to dispel those stereotypes. 

Each segment tends to begin with a story of how the interviewee was always born to be an artist. They bring up the weird things they did as a child that they later realized were indicative of their status as a visionary. Then there’s an interview with somebody who’s maybe related to or friends with the artist, but who’s not part of the art world. That person always tells stories about the artist being an eccentric but loveable other. I really took issue with that presentation of each artist as a person endowed with a special knowledge that they were put on this earth to bestow to those people below them. It was just really pretentious.

The important thing for me was that I turned the lens onto a project I was making in earnest. Art:21:Dana M. Osburn focused on the production of an interdisciplinary installation. I showed them together, which I really felt was important to lend some credibility to what I was doing. At the end of the day I was still trying to participate in the art world, and I had to own up to that. 

AHW: In your past work you’ve appropriated, deconstructed and repurposed elements and characters from television and popular media, notably your work about Law & Order: SVU’s Captain Cragen. (I was heartbroken when he left the show). 

DO: I haven’t brought myself to watch it yet. I can’t do it yet, I have to wait until after I finish my thesis project.

AHW: Oh no, did I just spoil it for you?

DO: Oh no, please, I love spoilers. I’m pro-spoiler. I can understand why people don’t want them and I respect others’ wishes, but for me the fun is less in being surprised by the events that unfold in front of me than it is in seeing the choices that the production makes in getting you to that episode’s revelation and what conventions get reused and whether they’re being reused in a way that is self-reflexive or simply regurgitation.

AHW: It seems like it lets you watch TV more critically.

DO: Yes, but it’s also more indulgent because I know what characters are going to die at the end of the episode.

AHW: How have media and television shaped your practice?

DO: I don’t want to fall into the Art:21 pattern, but one thing that was truthful about the fictive persona that I used for that project is that I really have been reimagining these characters and doing little fan-fictions all along. After about the seventh grade, our family didn’t have broadcast television, but when we got the Internet in our home I started reading fan-fiction and writing my own.

We rented movies on the weekends. There was one video store that had cool movies. My Dad made friends with the owner and we’d get deals on stuff from the back. That wasn’t the porn. The porn was in the front. Looking back, I realize that a lot of my psychology is probably rooted in those trips to the video store.

As a professional, I look at media because I’m really in the Stuart Hall pro-pop-culture camp. It’s weird that there are still folks who believe that pop culture is unilaterally bad. Do they really think people are that stupid? That’s what it amounts to for me. I think maybe they’re holding on to a belief that there’s a heroic intellectual who’s going to rescue society from its ills. But the tools for emancipation already exist. The internet is an incredible platform for read-write communication, but it’s simultaneously being shaped by its users and corporate interests. The question becomes, then, to what/which? extent users can exercise agency in this system and push back when corporate interests fail to benefit them.

AHW: If you look back to a lot of early- and mid-20th Century cultural criticism you find a prevalent idea that on the one hand there was mass media, an impenetrable monolith, and on the other there were spectators who consumed it and were, to some extent, produced by it. But now we’ve become active participants in the creation of spectacle. You talked about read-write culture, that is, one in which consumers of media can also be producers. Do you see emancipatory prospects in this situation?

DO: Absolutely. I’m really optimistic. I kind of take issue with this idea that pre-internet was being a read only culture.

It’s something that comes up a lot. Even reading Adorno is frustrating at times because the spectator was a spectator, but they did have some limited power to impact what they were seeing. It’s driven by capitalism. They voted with their dollars. Nielsen Ratings are a big neon sign pointing out proto-read-write culture. 

They could put a box on your TV and you could be a Nielsen family, and everything that you watched was recorded and what those Nielsen families chose to watch influenced programming that was being made in a very direct way. It wasn’t like people were making their own programming, but we’ve always had some form of influence over broadcast media. 

AHW: If it doesn’t sell it’s not going to be produced.

DO: At least in a capitalist environment. 

But to go back to your actual question about our present circumstances, I’m doing my new film almost entirely on my iPhone, and I don’t have to be very savvy to do that. It has the almost the same quality as the gigantic Sony camera that I was hauling around four years ago. Today, I can tape, edit and publish in about a minute. I can easily broadcast my work on Facebook, where my 400 friends can see it instantly. I think that’s an incredible power, because you don’t have to rely on expensive equipment or training. There’s no one telling you what appropriate story structure is or that if you don’t follow David Mamet’s rules for screen writing you can’t contribute to broadcast media. You can broadcast without those things. 

AHW: How do you see the role of narrative in your work and in relationship to this read-write, social media culture? In the Art:21 video you presented a somewhat fictitious personal narrative. In other work you’ve created fictional narratives about pop culture figures. In your recent film, McClintock for Mayor, you engaged a variety of narratives. How do you see narrative functioning in those different contexts?

DO: Narrative is what drives the way we communicate on social media. One of the reasons why Facebook is so popular and successful, compared to the other networks, is that they created a way to format this ad-hoc input—the things people share—into a narrative. That’s what they’re continuing to do with the way that they’re changing their algorithms and the News Feed. They’re trying to craft a narrative. 

AHW: They’re also inserting products, or advertisements, into that narrative.

DO: Absolutely. That’s why I’m sort of in between optimism and criticality when it comes to mass culture. At the end of the day everything has been in the service of sales. 

I think that narrative is important in my work because that’s the way I enjoy media. I enjoy a good story. I want to tell a good story. I find narrative engaging. 

It feels a bit weird to say that my work is about playing with narratives. Everybody’s work is about playing with narratives. My project is about looking at the layers of narrative at work. There’s this master narrative of American exceptionalism that we’re still trying to purge from our collective consciousness. There are broadcast narratives: archetypal characters that have survived since antiquity, being written about in fan fictions. There’s also the narrative of your lived experience. You’re telling of that narrative might differ from another person’s, or from Facebook’s or from Google. A Google search of yourself can create a pretty wild personal narrative. 

Excerpts from McClintock for Mayor

AHW: In McClintock you combine personal elements with a story about a political race in your hometown of Pottsville, Pennsylvania. Is documentary the right word for that work?

DO: At first I was resistant to calling it a documentary, but I’ve been reading some of Scott MacDonald’s work in which he describes what he calls the “Ethnographic Personal Documentary.” I think McClintock falls into that category.

AHW: That approach engages an important aspect of interdisciplinary practice that’s sometimes overlooked: it’s not just a matter of using different media, it’s a matter of engaging with fields and discourses that aren’t necessarily included in  ‘art’ discourses. I think you that did in McClintock by documenting and unpacking a political race and the complex issues surrounding it. You took apart those layers of narratives. Can you speak more to that?

DO: Phil McClintock and Scott Thomas, the two twenty-something candidates vying for the republican nomination for the mayor’s office, were so focused on presenting this big-kids, national stage-level narrative.

Shortly after I moved to New York I got a text from a friend in Pottsville that said “Guess who’s running for Mayor of Pottsville… Phil McClintock.” I knew instantly that I had to go there and I had to bring a camera. I didn’t know where the project was going to go, but I had to be there, whether he was going to participate in it or not. He’s my high school ex-boyfriend, I can’t expect him to trust that I’m going to portray him in a very positive way. In his defense, I didn’t. 

I reached out to Phil and said “Congratulations on announcing your race.” He takes it seriously. On the one hand, it’s ridiculous, but on the other hand it’s better than what a lot of other folks our age are doing: hanging out at the hosey (the fire station and site for local social events) and hitting on their young pregnant wives…hitting on meaning beating on physically. There’s a high rate of alcoholism and domestic violence. There are a lot of kids in foster care. Really screwed up things happen to kids in that area.

AHW: I understand Pottsville is a mining town. Is that correct?

DO: There were lots of mines. One is still open. Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania was the heart of anthracite coal mining in America. It was on the largest anthracite coal vein in, I believe, the Western Hemisphere, at least in the United States. When it was discovered, anthracite coal was the coal of choice because it was cleaner burning and at the time it was more economical. Later, bituminous (softer) coal in West Virginia became more economical. 

AHW: You know your coal.

DO: I was indoctrinated into coal history. During the late 19th and early 20th century Pottsville was a very moneyed place. All of John O’Hara’s stories are about Pottsville. Gibsville is Pottsville. I grew up on Norwegian Street, which, in Gibsville, is called Scandinavia Street. His stories are a window into what the town was like at the turn of the century. Old money, new money, there was all this money, but there were destitute immigrants. First, the Irish worked the mines. Then the further up the mountain you go in Schuylkill county, off Root 61, the more poor the coal mining towns got. There are more eastern European immigrants. Now it’s more Mexican, Central American and South American immigrants moving in to work in the factories in Hazelton. There’s resistance against that.

AHW: There seemed to be a lot of fear coming from many of the locals that you interviewed for McClintock. 

DO: There’s so much fear. I feel like the work xenophobia really comes to life in Pottsville. They’re even afraid of people from Reading, Pennsylvania. They say, “people from Reading are moving up here and dirtying up our town.” Well, the town is dirty already.

There were lots of mines. Phil’s grandfather was a coal miner and a factory worker. He and his brother opened up a coal mine. If you weren’t rich and you’re from the county, you’ve got some family member who worked in the mines. And as a result, you’ve got some family member who witnessed some very traumatic events, because mining is incredibly dangerous. No human should be subjected to that kind of labor. In the film, Theresa McClintock, Phil’s mother, just talked casually about her father’s stories about the mines. There was a mine fire and they couldn’t identify the bodies of the victims, so they laid them out in front of the hosey. 

AHW: How has your work changed since beginning your MFA?

DO: I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I approach my thesis summer. McClintock for Mayor was a big departure for me. I was using my own life. I didn’t have that sort of buffer, that separation from the material that I had when I was working with media and television. I didn’t have that safety net. That’s what it had really become, the appropriation and the parody, a sort of safety net. While hugely interesting for me, it was keeping me from really understanding what it was that I was even doing this for. That may seem hyperbolic, but those are the terms that this program holds you accountable to. The stakes, all of a sudden, seem very high. You feel like, “I really am making this because this is my survival.” I don’t know how long it will take me to come back from that, but I’m kind of looping back around now and taking what I’ve learned from this project. I had moments making this documentary when I felt like I couldn’t show it, like it wouldn’t be ethical. I really suffered through making it in a way that I previously would never have anticipated feeling about creating a product for public viewing. I would say that the main thing that I’m taking away from this experience has been the importance of, I don’t want to say sincerity, but something like that.

AHW: There has to be some middle ground. We started this conversation talking about the artist as genius and the cult of the individual, but at the other end of the spectrum there’s the idea that we can be completely objective and separate disembodied brains, which is also problematic. We’re all individuals. We bring our personal experiences, on some level, into everything we do.  You’re exploring the fertile ground between those two poles. 

DO: I just met with my mentor, Carolee Schneemann. She’s been a huge influence in my thinking. She just will not allow me to decide what something’s going to be before it’s emerged on it’s own. 

I think that I can go back to media and working with media and sort of look at it through a more personal lens. And in that way I can take more ownership of what I ‘m doing. Before, I was sort of wagging my finger at folks that criticized things I liked. Now I feel like I have a stronger belief in what I’m doing. I have more confidence that my work is worthwhile. That’s something that has changed since coming to the MFA Art Practice program. 

I was sort of holding onto this idea that maybe being an artist is completely masturbatory. But there’s got to be something to it if we continue to have artists. I feel more confident that I can participate in an ongoing discourse that’s not masturbatory at all, one that’s going to help shape the way that we engage with each other. My lofty goal is to be a part of conversations that bring about this sort of emancipation of the spectator that Rancière heralded and that we continue to inch toward. I hope to be able to be a part of that conversation for the rest of my career. 

Cover image: Still from McClintock for Mayor. Find more of Dana’s work on Instagram and Youtube.