Artist Mika Rottenberg Turns Her Attention to Hollywood and Collaboration

Artist Mika Rottenberg talks about her debut feature film, her influences and the role of humor in her work.

Annie Armstrong

Mika Rottenberg's Untitled Ceiling Projection (video still), 2018. © Mika Rottenberg. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

While many still live in denial of the reality of our current global pandemic, artist Mika Rottenberg has dived headfirst into the crisis. The artist, known for her cheeky, whimsical video art and installations, is challenging fans of her work to consider a near future during another pandemic in her upcoming feature-length film. Rottenberg took up the project (working title: Remote) when lockdowns began and is hopeful for an in-person premiere in September 2021 at Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. Curious to hear how someone could possibly remain so productive in isolation, we gave the artist a call at her upstate New York studio.

I’m so excited to hear that you’ll be releasing a feature-length film, even though I know almost nothing about it! What can you tell me? First of all, it’s a collaborative project, co-created with Mahyad Tousi. He’s an old, dear collaborator and friend, and also a multimedia storyteller and writer. A collaborative project is something I love doing and also feels like the right thing to do at this time—to connect with people and create things together. It has a narrative, which is something I’ve been dreaming about doing for some years now. So, this is an opportunity to expand my work in that direction.

It’s set in the near-future. Is that right? We’re still debating the exact date, but probably the thirties. It’s centered around Nayala, a woman who used to live in Brussels and is now probably in New York. So, everything changes. It’s during a future pandemic. The building that she’s living in is this solar punk-designed building. There’s monitoring of her footprint and her daily consumption and all that. So, that’s gonna be one layer. At the same time, she’s a fan of a Korean dog-grooming show, and through this show, she connects with four other women who are locked-up in other parts of the world, and together they discover this portal into this ancient internet that’s part of preverbal communication that brings the universe into a different stage.

Who else’s video art are you inspired by? Someone I love is Meriem Bennani. She is such a star. There are a lot of women that do great video work. I’m probably forgetting some that I really like. This film, though, was heavily influenced by Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. It’s interesting, because that film happens in the isolation of her small apartment. So, we started thinking about being remote through the lens of Jeanne Dielman, and we even have one-to-one borrowing of framing. It’s Jeanne Dielman during a pandemic in the future.

I think of your work as having a great sense of humor, but this year has been really marred by a lot of destruction and death. Has it been difficult for you to keep a sense of humor? Not really. I grew up in a place that had a lot of violence and existential crises all the time [Israel]. So, humor is actually a way to deal with that: it’s not because everything is funny, it’s the opposite. But there are certain things I feel like could never be funny. I think humor is a way to deal with things that are new and unfamiliar—when you don’t know what the reaction is. It’s a way to engage with reality. It’s a way to bring things down to earth, and not make them monumental. This film is definitely aiming to be funny. Sort of a Being John Malkovich humor. Or goofiness. I think it’s always the funny moments within these situations that aren’t funny at all. I think Jeanne Dielman and Being John Malkovich are two big influences. But visually, it’s going to be its own thing.