RACHEL MASON. PHOTO COURTESY OF KERWIN WILLIAMNSON.
Rachel Mason has finally come to terms with calling herself a musician. The performance artist, who has shown her sculpture, films, and multimedia exhibitions everywhere from The New Museum to the School of the Art Institute in Chicago to the Henry Gallery in Seattle, is currently on the road promoting her latest work: The Lives of Hamilton Fish. Ambitious in subject and experimental in form (even for Mason), The Lives of Hamilton Fish is a rock opera based on the coincidental deaths of two men with the same name—one a murderer executed at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, and the other a New York politician and descendent of a Revolutionary War hero—who died one day apart, in January 1936. In the film, Mason plays a newspaper editor who fantasizes about the two men’s lives, weaving their stories entirely through songs, which she performs herself. The 21 tracks of The Lives of Hamilton Fish is currently streaming on Bandcamp, but the full film will be shown tomorrow night, July 21, at Anthology Film Archives in New York. Mason will then perform songs during a live showcase at Joe’s Pub on July 26. Below, we are pleased to premiere a clip of the film, specifically for the track “Werewolf of Wysteria.”
“It was a new thing to make a feature film, but it wasn’t so much a new thing at all to do a multimedia event,” Mason says. “Being in that world of performance art, I’ve been doing this for years. What was new for me was to really try to make a feature film.”
Prior to her New York shows, the artist and musician was kind enough to speak over the phone (from a somewhat faulty connection in Hollywood Hills) about her project, the value of rejection, and the dauntless attitude needed to make experimental art.
RACHEL MASON: Hi, Rachel?
RACHEL HURN: Yes, how are you?
MASON: Good. It’s so funny how many Rachel’s there are.
HURN: Yeah, it’s like, “Hi Rachel, this is Rachel. How are you, Rachel?” It’s awkward. Anyway, about your film, was a lot of it shot in New York?
MASON: Entirely. This is one of those films that I never would have made if I’d stayed in L.A. It’s 100 percent inspired by the New York region; it’s a completely regional film. I wasn’t sure after I’d made it if anyone outside of New York would get the references or if that mattered. But the very first show was in Hong Kong, and I realized, “Okay, it managed.” It’s a story that started with Sing Sing prison, where I discovered that a really frightening psychopath named Hamilton Fish had been executed.
HURN: How did you come across that story?
MASON: I was a volunteer at Sing Sing because they have this amazing art program called Rehabilitation Through the Arts. I had read a book by Ted Conover, he went undercover at Sing Sing, and I was so fascinated by the prison’s history in general. I wrote to Ted to ask how I could get involved at Sing Sing, and he said, “You know, I think there’s an art program you can look up.” When I looked up the program, they said they’d love to have an artist teach. It was possible at that moment in my life to go up once a week. I did that for five years.
I was [then] invited to be in an art exhibition that was at this place called the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art and the curator had asked if I could think of something local that I could do for an art exhibition. I simply had a book about the different people who were executed at Sing Sing. It’s an absolutely fascinating history of horrible executions, like the Rosenbergs. But the oldest person ever executed there was this man named Hamilton Fish, and I did a little research, and what I discovered was so disturbing that it lead me to keep researching. I ended up looking up the date of the execution, and discovered that he had died on the same day as this other Hamilton Fish, which is just so bizarre.
HURN: What made you feel like you could make a connection beyond that coincidence?
MASON: I didn’t immediately have anything in mind. I was sort of struck by inspiration when I had a meeting, a chance encounter, with Hamilton Fish V, who happens to be the living descendent of the other Hamilton Fish that died the same day as the killer. Right after I met him I got the idea for this song. It just popped into my head as I was riding my bike home from the meeting. It could have been that I had spent so much time researching these things that it just hit me, and I wrote the song called “The Duel.” Eventually I changed the name to “Two Strangers.” It’s basically a kind of overture, the whole story in a nutshell.
Making music has always been a side project for me, with art being my focus. I show my work in galleries primarily. There was a gallery in Philadelphia, they knew that every now and then I’d perform a music set, and I would mention, “Oh, I have this song called ‘Hamilton Fish,’ and I’ll sing it for you.” I would throw in some songs that were related to this project and tell this little story, and they said, “Hey, would you want to do an exhibition that was entirely about that whole project?” The idea came to me to do a series of videos of Hamilton Fish songs, and I called it “The Deaths of Hamilton Fish.” I did an exhibition in a gallery, and everyone who saw the show was so intrigued that it really inspired me. It was such a great spark to take it more seriously and do something that would be available to a broader audience outside of just the art world. Even though the film eventually became something that’s very much like an art film, it’s a musical film, and it actually exists as something that’s been shown at festivals and all kinds of places outside the typical realms art institutions.
HURN: Tell me about the showing at Anthology.
MASON: The entire film is being shown at Anthology Film Archives on July 21. I am so honored to be shown there. This is one of my first major film screenings in New York, and it’s such a historic place. But I have shown it in the art world. I did a show that was put on by Art in General and that was more of a live performance art event. This is going to be much more of a focused film screening. The week following, July 26th at Joe’s Pub, I’m doing a musical performance of just the songs from Hamilton Fish. I have a live band joining me, and a guest singer, M. Lamar, who is going to be singing two of the film’s songs.
HURN: You’ve been on the road quite a bit this year, right?
MASON: Yeah, the reason I’m in L.A. right now is I just did a showing at LACMA, and before this I was in Europe; I did some showings in Cologne and London. I’m also going to be showing it at the Henry Art Gallery and I’m in discussion with some museums in Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston.
HURN: Are you finding that you’re building up momentum and getting more excited as you show the film, or is it hard to sustain the excitement? How is traveling for you and your work?
MASON: At every showing I’ve done, the audience has been so receptive. At first I was not getting into film festivals—I did also apply to some pretty mainstream film festivals that don’t tend to pick art films and I didn’t really know what I was doing… I felt kind of demoralized with a huge pile of rejections.
When I started showing it, the reaction and the audience turnout at every single venue was pretty much universal: every showing [was] completely sold out or packed, just tons of interest, really great write-ups, and not doing a lot for that—not making a huge effort to get the word out. There was this grassroots interest in the film. In a way, it was an indication for how many rejections I’d gotten, and it also gave me this feeling that the audience at large, the world of audiences who watch interesting films, is wider and more diverse, open, and accepting to something unusual than what a lot of film festival programmers would assume. A lot of the responses I got from festivals were, “Well, this isn’t going to work as a film. It’s not going to be something people will just watch.” And that’s the opposite of my experience.
In Albany, for instance, I would say that 90 percent of that crowd was over the age of 60 and the mayor came to that screening. In L.A., it was written up in The Los Angeles Times, the L.A. Weekly, pretty much all of the major papers. The audience was huge. I was just blown away, truthfully, and I don’t have any major distributor. It’s just me.
HURN: It’s kind of crazy, and it’s sort of the same with books. I wish more mainstream publishers would realize that audiences and readers are actually very interested in experimental work.
MASON: Yeah, and things that are new, like someone you haven’t heard of! That’s what blows my mind. I should say, I’m now being known more and more as a musician. Even this week I’m going to be releasing a back catalogue. I have 11 albums, and I’m finally coming to terms with saying, “Yes, I do make music.” I never had any desire to penetrate that world, because it just seemed impenetrable. I’ve already struggled with one field, which is art. But I realized if something is good and interesting and new, I’m dying to hear it. I don’t want to just hear the next major, mainstream release. There’s so much interesting stuff being done. It is also the role of journalists to have their ear to the ground and let people know about other things that they might not get through Sony Records. Even the indie film festivals are not really so indie anymore.
I think my next project is going to be informed by how this was so weird, and I pulled it off. I think that’s a better place to be in. The rewards when you figure it out are so cool. People love that.
HURN: Thank god people still somehow have the drive to make weird shit. It’s very easy to get bogged down by the rejection and to feel like, “Maybe I should be trying something else.” It’s great that your next project is also a film. So you haven’t been—
MASON: —destroyed by this experience? [laughs] The thing that has spurned me on is to see that people believe in my project. The film festival circuit was like, “This doesn’t add up to a film. Reject,”‘ but the world itself is like, “This isn’t a film that plays by the rules of other films, cool. This is so weird and interesting and we can go along for the ride and be on a journey.” That’s been my total enjoyment of it. I see that I’m doing something that people enjoy.