In late 2014, I invited artist, comedian, and filmmaker Alan Resnick to be a visiting artist in Humor and the Abject at BHQFU. Resnick is a member of storied Baltimore artist collective Wham City, and also a founding member its sub-collective, Wham City Comedy, with comedians Robby Rackleff and Ben O'Brien. Along with artists Dina Kelberman and Cricket Arrison, the Wham City Comedy boys also run a production company, AB Video Solutions, that has created work for IFC and Super Deluxe. They've also made music videos for groups including Dan Deacon, Beach House, Wye Oak, and Lower Dens. Various members of AB Video Solutions have collaborated on two of the most viral and notorious Adult Swim pieces ever, Unedited Footage of a Bear (2014) and This House Has People In It (2016). And if that's not enough, Wham City Comedy often goes on tour around the United States. Needless to say, Resnick is a terribly busy guy, and I was surprised and extremely thankful when he agreed to pay my class a visit for our final session of the semester.
He came up from Baltimore via bus with Kelberman and hung out for a couple of days, meeting students and giving an incredible artist talk in class. The first night that he was in town, we threw what amounted to a marathon screening of the entire alantutorial oeuvre, his wildly popular YouTube series. It took something like three hours--with necessary emotional breaks--to get through the entire narrative arc, during which "Alan" goes from extremely amateur tutorial uploader to manic kidnap victim and beyond. Resnick and Kleberman most hung out in the back room; he couldn't sit through the whole thing. I asked him if, when he started uploading the initially goofy series, he was intending to produce a dense metafiction. Resnick's response was respectful, but short. "I avoid talking too much about that," he said. "But the short answer is no."
Here's an example of one of the earlier, less pathos-riddled episodes, for the uninitiated:
Check out the alantutorial YouTube channel for get the entire story. The following evening was our formal class session. I must note that we were also privileged to have comedian Liza Dye join us via Skype for a short talk. Support Liza Dye's comedy, or you're a ghoul. Her scathing Beyoncé impressions have regularly earned her the ire of the Beyhive.
During his lecture, Resnick premiered Unedited Footage of a Bear, which none of us had any idea was even coming out. People were screaming. It was not only disturbing, but it was so well-produced that we were floored by its sheer spectacle. Generally, artist videos are understandably DIY in their production and aesthetics. We've got little support to make things any other way. Here though was an example of something operating at an entirely different level; it was immersive, at once a spot-on satire of both pharmaceutical ad campaigns and suburban horror flicks. I don't particularly love using the word uncanny, but Unedited Footage of a Bear certainly fit the description. It was upsetting because it was equally surreal and, in a way that was hard to swallow, maybe a plausible narrative?
When I caught up with Resnick recently, I asked him about how his process changes when he's doing something with a budget for Adult Swim, versus the slapstick and slapdash production of alantutorial.
"The best situation is one where the idea dictates what kind of tool you use, but for most people starting out it's the other way around, and that's not always bad. I really appreciate the limitations I had starting out making video," he told me.
Resnick went to SUNY Purchase and studied visual art. He described to me bouncing around between printmaking, sculpture, photography, eventually experimenting with video. He'd originally thought he'd become a cartoonist, having grown up on The Simpsons. But the influence of live-action programs like Mr. Show and Mystery Science Theater 3000 started to infiltrate his practice as he moved into producing more and more video work. By the end of his time at SUNY Purchase, he was primarily focused on producing what he called "funny videos... [and] getting a lot out of playing with that medium."
With access to only low quality cameras in school, Resnick recounts the challenge he faced as, "What's the most interesting thing I can do with this crappy camera, this low resolution, this ugly compression, this bad microphone?"
Like most inventive people, he began to accept that the limitations of these tools created opportunities for him to problem-solve and generate ideas he wouldn't have had otherwise. Not accepting the technical parameters of what he had at his disposal would have resulted in work that fell flat in multiple ways. "I remember, in college, watching kids trying to mimic the style of Hollywood movies," he told me. "But their videos came out looking like garbage. They didn't have any of the skills or tools they needed to create that look."
There's a fascinating progression to Resnick's approach as he moved his way through school and out into the world. From his first video in school, to his senior project that incorporated motion capture technology, to his initial work right after college as he relocated to Baltimore, there's evidence of the artist, filmmaker, and comedian developing a distinctly unique voice as he encounters new sets of technological tools and gains technical proficiency. In his present work, he acknowledges that access to larger budgets, high quality equipment, and a crew has been instrumental in fully realizing certain ideas.
"The idea of sneaking a fake medicine commercial onto television requires enough production value to match that familiar aesthetic," he pointed out. But he's also quick to counterpoint that working professionally isn't without its own limitations. Two years after Unedited Footage of a Bear first aired, he was working with a similar budget for This House Has People In It, but he ended up having to employ an entirely different approach.
"The idea required us to use shitty security cameras. Taking away some of the visual production value meant we put that money other places," Resnick explained. "Specifically, we gave ourselves more days of shooting, more time for the actors to try things, more time to explore ideas. That was great because for me the hardest thing about jumping to larger budgets initially was having a limited amount of time to capture what you need. There are a lot of crew members to pay everyday, so it's not easy to add more time onto a shoot... I enjoy working intuitively, [but] strict shooting schedules don't give you that much time to explore ideas that aren't written on the page."
Juggling new approaches to creating video work is no small task, but Resnick has spent most of the last several years in a constant juggling act. He seems to thrive on it.
"For some reason I segment my life and my brain," he told me. "Part of the year I'm working strictly on video, part of the year strictly on performing and touring [both solo and with Wham City Comedy], part of the year strictly on animation and 3D graphics. When I'm in one mode, I almost completely forget I ever did the other thing."
It's to the public's benefit that Resnick never seems content to remain still for too long. He regularly posts and updates his projects, and a few choice cuts include his Johnny Bubble animations for Super Deluxe from 2016 and Live Forever As You Are Now, a 2013 video work turned ongoing web-based piece housed on a custom, participatory site built by Dina Kelberman. Wham City Comedy also goes on tour nearly every single year, and their live shows are anything but run-of-the-mill standup comedy. I had a chance to catch their tour this summer in Brooklyn with Lorelei Ramirez as the supporting act. It was a completely bonkers affair. Wham City Comedy has a rapport that can't be faked, resulting in a show that features high energy collaborative sketches, somewhat upsetting "crowd work," individual sets, and lots of video and tech.
"As a group we have known each other a very long time," he told me. "We were fans of each other's individual work before we ever collaborated... Our familiarity with each other's instincts means we understand what we are each trying to make, and it's easy for us to give notes and collaborate. Some of our videos and performances are 100% collaborative and some are more single-minded, but we always have some input [with one another]... We usually give each other notes on what was and wasn't working. By the end [of the tour] it's a very different performance."
Resnick's got plenty of irons in the fire on upcoming projects, and as he's moved his way up the production and budget ladder, he's still been able to maintain a sense of humor about having to keep mum on the majority of them. That's just how it works when funding and contracts get involved, what Resnick describes, while laughing, as "the annoying stage."
One thing that I appreciate about Resnick is that he's always been proud to have cut his teeth in Baltimore. I've had several opportunities to spend some time in the city over the last few years, visiting Open Space's annual Prints & Multiples Fair, seeing shows at galleries like Springsteen, Platform (good luck on your future endeavors, Abby and Lydia!), and Terrault. Last summer I had the privilege of joining The Contemporary's Artist Retreat where I met members of the collective BALTI GURLS, Kimi Hanauer of Press Press, Tanya Garcia of Hyrsteria Zine, and so many other awesome artists, writers and organizers. Each time that I'm there, I'm energized by the generosity of the community and what feels like genuine support for one another. There are so many artist-run spaces, local exhibitions, conversations, and parties ever time I visit that I've developed a real admiration for the scene. When I show up to something, I see so many familiar faces, something that I'm not accustomed to in places that I haven't actually lived. Surely, I'm comparing apples and oranges here and I apologize for that, but it reminds me a lot of what made me fall in love with Portland a decade ago. While that spirit has been choked out of Portland by myriad factors, it seems that it's still present in Baltimore. Regardless of where any of these great people I've met in Baltimore end up in the future, it's evident that the city itself has been catalytic in their development and growth. And they're quick to tell you so.
"Baltimore is a great place to make something," he told me. "There are tons of weirdos trying stuff, and they will give you the time to try something new. There is an energy around making things, so it's not hard to find help."
Three cheers for the weirdos.
Follow Alan Resnick on Twitter: @alaresnicks