Vanessa Renwick has to head out at 9.30 a.m., she says—she’s off to go shoot dog balls. And no, not the kind you use for playing fetch.
“It’s been very hard to find dog balls,” says Renwick, a Portland-based filmmaker. “When we first shot the scene, the guy who was supposed to meet us at Ristretto backed out. So I’ve been doing talent for balls.”
To be fair, the footage Renwick is about to collect—of an unneutered American bulldog, if you were curious—is a very small piece of Next Level Fucked Up, a multi-channel video and sound installation opening March 26 at the Portland Art Museum. In a red-lit room, visitors find a mountain of TV monitors playing video loops: distressed elephants pace at the zoo. Cats kill songbirds. Portland homes get demolished. Voodoo Doughnut founder Tres Shannon complains about eyesore apartment buildings. Earthquakes rumble. Oil trains burn. Typhoons churn.
“It’s a light dusting of fucked-upness,” says Renwick, in what feels like considerable understatement. "An avalanche of awful," she adds. A Chicago-born artist who’s lived in Portland since the late ‘80s, Renwick is known for work that engages political, environmental, and often unpretty themes. She’s created a cinematic eulogy for a black-owned record store on North Williams Avenue, as well as a piece about wolves that employed 10 vintage refrigerators to convey a message about the food chain and predator/prey relationships.
Next Level Fucked Up is, by any measure, an incongruous, overwhelming blitz of bad things. But it’s funny, too. The idea initially hit Renwick while she was at Sushi Ichiban—a conveyor-belt sushi joint—with friend and photographer Corey Arnold. “There was a lot of heavy shit going on, as there is everywhere all the time, just impending doom of earthquakes, and maybe the crazy building had started ramping up, and we were bitching about all sorts of shit,” Renwick says. “And then I suddenly remembered this photo I had seen on Corey’s website.”
That photo? A shot of a baby seal in southern California with a (proportionally) large plastic ID tag implanted into its head—Renwick describes the cute little creature as looking like a tiny taxi. (Check out Arnold's photo for yourself.) “That’s when I came up with the term ‘next level fucked up,’” she says.
Most of the video loops highlight human intervention in the natural world, from the mildly misguided to the catastrophic. There’s a bit about the screwy ways we breed traits into bulldogs that render the animals unable to mate normally, and a disaster reel with footage of forests fires and melting glaciers.
But there’s humor to the piece, too. The dog balls, of course, as well as a dog poop motif: visitors sit on beanbag chairs upholstered with fabric printed with dog poop bags. (It bewilders Renwick that people bother to pick up their pet’s waste and then just leave it by the sidewalk or on the trail.)
And, Renwick insists, there’s a current of hope. The installation culminates with wall-size projections of the Painted Hills in eastern Oregon, which she has overlaid with quotes from Saul Bellow (example: “Damn you anyhow, reality!”). For an extra touch, she’s added audio from the Double Rainbow guy. You know the one—the dude who may or may not be tripping while filming a double rainbow in Yosemite, on the verge of tears as he yawps about the splendor and grandeur of it all: “Oh my god! What does this mean?!?!”
The Painted Hills, Renwick says, help remind us that change is perpetual.
“It’s just, like, forever and ever and ever, the fucked-upness,” Renwick says. “But then I asked this geologist about when the Painted Hills were underwater, and he was like, ‘70 million years, give or take 20.’ And I was like, give or take 20 million years?! When I think about that, it calms me down a teeny bit.”