Laurel Nakadate

Laurel Nakadate is not your typical young lady. Her hobbies include invading the lives of lonely middle-aged men and coercing them in to everything from silly games to sexy role play; emulating a variety of methods of suicide, and pretending to get fucked. On camera. But in all serious arty-ness, Laurel’s performance work is a brutally honest exploration in different states of human vulnerability. Laurel has the courage to bare her body, and her soul to the camera and her audience. Highly touted by the Village Voice and the New York Times, we present to you the voice of Laurel Nakadate

“I’m interested in people who have no one to go home to.  I’m interested in the ways that some people choose not to form a family and have children.  They’re marginalized by society…and they’re so fascinating”

Format: Ok, so let’s talk about your background.
Laurel Nakadate: Well I grew up in Ames, Iowa, went to college in Boston, where I studied at the Museum School.  After that I did an M.F.A. in photography at Yale.  After graduation, I moved to New York, where I still live.

Format: How did you start documenting your peculiar video subjects?
Laurel Nakadate: As an undergrad I did a lot of straightforward documentary work.  One of the documentaries I shot focused on women’s colleges in Massachusetts.  The best known is probably Wellesley College.  Hillary Clinton went there.   The photos focused on their lives, their ambitions, and their parties – being girls and figuring out their lives.  While in grad school, I wanted to involve myself more in my work. I always loved performance art and documentaries so I started combining those ways of working.  I met  strangers, went home with them and became part of their lives, only for a few hours, or an afternoon.  We created a life on film together.

Format: I read in a previous interview that in your early days you would find your subjects phone numbers and stalk them using a reverse call display system.
Laurel Nakadate:  That was an early project, before cell phones were very popular.  I find that your home number is very personal, not that a cell number isn’t, but it has a different impact on you when someone calls you there.  They know where you are standing where you talk to them. So, when strangers gave me their numbers, like in the parking lot at Home Depot, let’s say,  I would call them at home and record their answering machine message.  It seemed strange and personal.  From there, I started making audio installations using their outgoing messages.  I would later arrange to meet them and work on a video project together. It wasn’t so much me stalking them but more about me following their trail of information.

Format: So it was more about you picking them up?
Laurel Nakadate: In the beginning, I would always let them pick me up because I wanted to be chosen. I wanted them to be interested in me. Lately, I will go up to someone on the street and say ‘you’re really interesting, I’d like to film you.’ But early on, it was definitely about them choosing me.

Format: Have there been any dangerous situations?
Laurel Nakadate: I’ve never been in a dangerous situation. I think it’s because I have really good instincts. I wouldn’t go to a home where I didn’t think it was OK to be at. I’m not drawn to people who are violent in a scary way. I’m drawn to those who are sad, lonely, in an interesting and human way.

Format: Do you feel like you’re affected by the trend these days of ‘user-generated content’?
Laurel Nakadate: I don’t really because I don’t see the person in the video as really me, its more a hybrid of personas, people I study, characters from pop culture, strangers. Also,  I started making these videos long before the ‘user generated phenomenon’ had become popular.

Format: How do you feel about the recent use of cell phones used to record videos?
Laurel Nakadate: Well I don’t use my cell phone for video that much, but  a few years ago, I did shoot some low-res videos of myself in Tokyo and of some animals at the zoo there. Even though the image wasn’t very sharp, it had a very humbling effect on me.  Something humble about the low res video and the little animals. I saw an albino squirrel this morning in Toronto and I thought that was really special. I wish I’d had a camera. He was playing with his little black friend, and I was thinking, why can’t humans be like that?

Format: What sort of questions keep you up at night?
Laurel Nakadate: It’s amazing to me that animals can go on vacation and then return home.  They can leave their homes and travel for a whole season and then come back to them like nothing happened.  The fact that technology moves so fast that as we speak this, we’re already out of date. I don’t know…the colour blue?

Format: What sort of issues do you tackle in your work?
Laurel Nakadate: I’m concerned with human relationships and the way that we succeed and fail at them, as well as the problems that men and women have in communicating with each other. I think its something you could study your entire life. Like, look at Woody Allen. That’s been his shtick for his entire career and it’s been a really amazing one. I don’t think there’s any reason why he shouldn’t continue doing that. I think that’s a pretty good model.

Another example, I just saw the Michael Cera movie, “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.”  Unfortunately, I walked out partway through, but this one line where Nora  asking Nick to be her boyfriend, if only for a minute, really struck me, it was a really lovely line.  One minute can really mean a lot.  Life is really short so every minute counts.

Format: How important is the aesthetic in your work as opposed to the content?
Laurel Nakadate: I think that aesthetics are really important, but so is content, so it comes down to finding a balance. I think the feeling needs to be beautiful, even if it’s ‘ugly beautiful,’ or scary or sad, it needs to have beauty in it.

Format: Yeah, I feel the juxtaposing of the elements is very important, even if it’s just a green blanket and an orange one bundled together on a bed like in one of your shots.
Laurel Nakadate: I think about it a lot actually, like the landscapes of my shoots. I try to get a combination of really tragic beauty and it sort of aches to the point that it can mirror one’s relationship with the world. That’s what I look for.

Format: What is your fascination with lonely, middle aged men?
Laurel Nakadate: I’m interested in people who have no one to go home to. I’m interested in the ways that some people choose not to form a family and have children. They are marginalized by our society, but they’re still very valuable people. I’m interested in how the audience might judge them.

Format: Do you have mentors of your own?
Laurel Nakadate: I love the  photography of Diane Arbus, Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin, Robert Frank, his photo book ‘The Americans’ is so profound.  It’s a book of photos he took as he travelled across America in the ‘50s.  Diane Arbus met strangers and made sense of their lives by making these intimate portraits.  She risked herself and her mental stability in order to do that work .

I love a lot of documentary work.  I like the Maysles, they make great movies.  They have this one film called ‘Grey Gardens.’  Its about these two women and their madness and relationship and their beauty, its very inspiring.

Format: Have any of your subjects had any fame rub off on them?
Laurel Nakadate: A couple of the guys in New York get recognized sometimes, so they’re really happy about that.  But a lot of them I shot in Nebraska and so, they don’t get recognized much. it is what it is.

Format: Can you talk about the relevance of sexuality in your work?
Laurel Nakadate: I do try to make myself vulnerable in my work, but I never mean to be crass or vulgar. It’s more a feeling of melancholy that I’m conveying.

Format: By looking at some of your stills, the average guy might think you’re just copying American Apparel ads.
Laurel Nakadate: That’s so funny because American Apparel wasn’t even a company when I started doing this back in 2001. It’s like they want to be this user-generated company, when it’s really the owner taking dirty shots of his employers. I think that’s genius and amazing. I’d love to be in an AA ad. I also think it’s really interesting how they often use mixed girls.

Format: Well I think mixing cultures generally creates beautiful results, be it people, art or anything really.
Laurel Nakadate: Oh yeah, totally. It’s always better to mix things. Who goes to Jambo Juice and just gets a banana shake? Come on, it’s always banana strawberry, or banana, mango with spirulina, you know? [laughs]

Format: What is coming up in the future?
Laurel Nakadate: Laurel Nakadate I wrote, shot and directed a feature-length movie that’s coming out in 2009.  It’s called “Stay The Same, Never Change.”  It deals with the themes of loneliness, family, teenagers, love, awe and hopefully – beauty.  I think it’s a really great look at the lives of these people in Kansas City.  I casted a bunch of amateur actors.  I’m not physically in it, but hopefully it still feels like my work.  These characters are just trying to live their lives as best as they can.  They’re dealing with the insecurity, feelings of isolation, and loneliness that you go through when you’re caught in the middle of nowhere.

Jesse Ship
I'm currently Managing Editor of this little web mag here.
Jesse Ship

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