Survivalist Art: Interview with Jillian Mayer


Jillian Mayer is an artist and filmmaker living in South Florida. Through videos, online experiences, photography, telephone numbers, performance, sculpture and installation, Mayer’s work explores how technology affects our experience of environments and identities. DIY instructional YouTube videos and “slumpies” (tech inspired ergonomic sculptures) have become her satirical trademark in the art world. Her latest show at there-there gallery in LA integrates survival and “prepper” communities into her ongoing enquiry with tech singularity and internet cultures. Through the figure of the “prepper,” the artist negotiates the collapse between the geographical and cultural conditioning of the apocalypse, pointing to the creative opportunities in contemporary realizations of inherent doom. Mayer appears to be flicking through a speculative discourse that ridicules both the class-based logic of accumulation and, simultaneously, an object-oriented History of Art. A nod to the post-human via vibrant matter is played out through the metaphor of an absent-functioning human society, where the “prepper” displays the practical steps required for embodied survival. Here, Emer Grant talks with the artist about her new work through the aesthetics of doom and its relationship to tech, climate change gentrification and g’d up bugging out.

Emer Grant: I first thought of the apocalypse in your early work How to Hide From Cameras, a piece that went viral as a signature of “counter-surveillance makeup” and camouflage—your proposition for resistance from the all-seeing tech eye felt dystopian, and by default, apocalyptic to me. Could you talk a little bit about the relationship between the apocalypse, tech, and surveillance?

Jillian Mayer: How to Hide From Cameras came after a project I made called I AM YOUR GRANDMA. Both are short videos that became very popular online. I think this is because I saw myself in people’s remakes, as memes, as graphics on t-shirts, etc. I AM YOUR GRANDMA, was a rather fast and loud piece that adopted formulaic pop strategy to garner its audience. I’ve noticed a flow in my own output that usually lends itself to a loud piece followed directly by a quiet one. As I became more aware with theories and advancements related to the technological singularity, I wondered what the body was of best use for, and if consciousness would be able to be uploaded to the internet in a responsible and meaningful way. What would actually be saved and what would indefinitely be lost. All this to say, one particular thought kept circling in my mind, “How can one exist without the burdens of doing so?” Essentially, can I be here but function as a ghost? How to hide while existing? I have also considered how our contemporary world is recorded and uploaded. If and when the apocalypse comes, who will be the person with the best coverage of it? Will the apocalypse come in scalable metrics? Will we have analytics for it? Who will be left to be the audience?

In this new body of work there is a jump towards affect not just on the individual, but on the physical environment. I know you are based in Miami, and there is a site specific reference with a city that literally is on a sell-by date. Could you talk about your approach to place (physical and digital) and why there is a site-specific reference that applies to these works, i.e. rising sea level?

My latest work looks at apocalypse art and mythos, prepper mentality, evacuation gear, resources, and value. It is a peculiar thing making products for doomsday, nevertheless artworks. But related to that, isn’t it a funny thing to making anything for “the end?”

But also, what is doomsday?
How do you know it’s really here?
How do you know this is the finale?
And can one carefully select items and will training help after all?
Was all that preparation just a shared hobby to ease anxieties? The “as best we can” approach to community building?
And what happens if you are the only one to survive? Just you, alone.

Regarding physical place/space: As an object-maker, I need some type of space, space to work and maybe space to show the outcomes. Space is literally decreasing as water level rises because I live in a coastal region. The land washes back into the ocean and our government and tourism bureau pump sand from the sea 6 miles back to shore, to give the illusion of beaches. I often think about how land is real but borders (among many other huge agreed upon subjects) are unreal (like money and calendars). From these negations I became more and more interested in the culture of preppers and survivalists. I love the idea that community is built around people preparing for disasters, emergencies, and collapses. People from the subculture are able to find large online communities for their shared interest, attend training camps and expos with lots of new products for surviving.

So from place to products and their communities, can we talk about product placement in art? You identified the preppers, but could you speak more about the imagined viewer of these works. Who are they? And, if such a thing exists, how do you counteract or even approach notions of exclusion with the apocalypse?

Excess is a quality of abundance, but necessity is a symptom of dire situations. I often think about what a person needs, wants, and when they get those confused. Mass disasters democratize communities (i.e. everyone is now displaced, everyone needs water). Even in the saddest of situations, humans carry on. I think we are optimistic beings that are programmed to try and survive. This is why when you are hungry, you get up and try and find food. More than likely, you don’t just sit there deteriorating.

Disasters don’t wipe out cultures and groups, they create pivot points that allow people to have new experiences…storms aren’t doing this on purpose, they are just storming.

If you are an art collector and perhaps you own a Claes Oldenburg Spoon or a Louis Bourgeois Spider Sculpture, you own a very expensive and highly valued piece of art. This art is likely to be insured. If a tsunami wave hits your villa, the best use of this art might be to stand on top of it to try and survive the storm surge. It’s new value in this immediate circumstance is a tool to help you to survive. Literally no use different from the farmer who is standing on their tractor. But what if I could make work that could have self-awareness to know that this current state (and weather cycle) is unstable, to realize that there is no permanence? What if a sculpture could also function as a boat? Wouldn’t that be the responsible use of my time as an object-maker?

So there is a critical apocalyptic lens that is being developed through a neo-materialist approach? I was also thinking about how there’s an inverse logic to “poverty porn” that is starting to appear with preppers, an “apocalypse porn” for want of a better term, where Silicon Valley execs conjure up floating Islands, offshore, escapist, tax-evading exit strategies, fully g’d up on the idea that society has failed. Is it the same kind of “survival of the fittest,” or how do you differentiate?  

I see agility as a material and I think this comes through in all of my work. Things like 3D printers and patent laws excite me. I dream of 3D printers that print 3D printers and the unspoken sexiness of AI bots speaking to each other in languages unintelligible by humans.

The future is often regarded in the aluminum-casted, slick, robot-led world of sterile connectivity. But we can see from looking back at retro-futurism, how bulky that curved steel is, how the illusion of the future becomes so antiquated in hindsight.

In that same vein, I think of the future a bit more dystopian, when the gas has been depleted that powers the machines, when the vines have grown over the walkways that lead to buildings full of hard-drives, when the seed depositories are fruiting trees that should have never existed in the same space, and the babies of the wild boars of Fukushima do as they please.


SURVIVALIST ART opens at there-there in LA, CA on April 7th