Illusion—even when we know that what we see is not real, we still experience it as real

Jeffrey Martin in his artist studio in studio 17
Jeffrey Martin

The margins of reality are difficult to define; reality is subjective. The artist wants to make this subjectivity  translucent—the artist wants to say, “There is no objective reality.” The media is constructing stories around us—some things are painted as real, while other things become invisible. 

Buildings, communities and identities appear and disappear—truck loads of broken bricks and heavy machinery deconstruct buildings and identities. Through tactical distractions our reality is controlled—whole groups of people become invisible—and we watch without seeing. “Can you see me?” “I am here.”

I’m back down on the third floor, one door away from Daniel’s space. This space has a glass door, wood floors, high ceilings, and one wall that still shows the old brick, but no windows. Three filmmakers work here. This is the second time these filmmakers have been displaced in less than two years. They were originally part of a film collective—18 people supported by the city—but even the city was unable to place them—so they branched off and now only three are together in this space. Jeffrey, Lucinda, Sara.

Three desks—on each of these desks sits a computer. The process of filming is not visible in the same way the process of a sculpture is visible—the only visuals are a black wall with index cards taped to it, framed posters from previous films, a whiteboard with notes. It is through the stories that filmmakers tell that images begin to develop.

Jeffrey Martin's Computer on Desk
Jeffrey’s computer on desk

Jeffrey does many things—‘curiosity’ is the overriding force behind his work—“Not a lot of rhyme and reason—the non-fiction has nothing to do with the fiction, which has nothing to do with the films…”  He writes fiction, non-fiction, and makes documentary films. These are films that might have been intended for one genre, but get picked up by another. An instructional ‘short’ called SHAVE is about the illusion that films create— it unexpectedly ends up in the Berlin’s Directors Lounge. What is the film exposing? Why did an art museum pick it up? A man is shaving and cuts himself—the blood is fake—the cut is not real—but as  he continues to shave and bleed—we see the dark liquid and know it is not blood—still we want to look away.

What we see is real—even when we question that reality, our bodies may not. We watch films, television, vines—our pulses rise—we laugh or turn in discomfort.

My Fool Heart framed film poster in Jeffrey Martin's studio
My Fool Heart framed film poster

The body has evolved to respond for survival—and though, on most days, the threats are no longer a matter of survival—the mechanism has not changed. If we see a rope curled in a corner and we believe it to be a snake—our adrenaline increases. Even when it is explained to be a rope—our body has already endured the stress—we have experienced it as a real threat.

“It comes to this—what I am willing to let go and let out?” Jeffrey talks about his films— there are some films that he has been sitting on for years. I picture metal boxes with reels of film piling up under his chair—he leans back and laughs at the strangeness of his own behavior—people are waiting for these films—but some of them are not ready for release. It is an intuitive process. Possibly, he is affected by the attention these films will eventually get, and his own desire to keep a quiet life. Perhaps it is the impulse to hold on to something, the way we might hold a child—knowing that we will eventually have to let the child go—that it will have a life of it’s own beyond our influence. The artist will spend hours, days, weeks, months transforming an idea into a physical object, and when it is released it will continue on,  beyond any original intentions—it will become subject to the subjective reality.

Jeffrey Martin's studio equipment
Studio equipment

There are layers—so many layers—of our psyche that determine our actions—it becomes hard to know why we do what we do. Someone once said it is not failure that we fear but success. Jeffrey’s works might be technically finished, but the artist cannot ultimately control how the viewer will experience the work—or into what context it may be placed. So he relishes his control over the release of the films.

Timing and context—maybe there is a right time. Jeffrey is persuasive—nobody says “No”—he can persuade anyone to do anything. With two degrees in philosophy, it never would have occurred to him to go to film school—and he makes the “never-ending film.” “Everybody knew about it, but nobody could see it—they thought it might be a hoax…it is too easy to misunderstand.” Jeffrey is talking about SHAVE, but maybe he feels this way about all of his films. “Do what you love…do what you want to do.” I get the sense that what is being guarded is this understanding, of how much is so easily misunderstood—that these films can never be finished or entirely edited to perfection because ultimately, they are subject to context.

When “Exit Through the Gift Shop” came out, Bansky was asked if the film was real and he answered “Yes” -it exposed the game of the art world. But if you think about translucence—when the game of reality is being exposed—the game that is  played on a large scale by politicians, governments and countries—if we tell you it’s real, you believe it—even if every part of your mind is screaming, “This is not real!”. the body has absorbed the information and has automatically responded. The illusion of reality can never be entirely exposed.

More about Jeffrey:

About STUDIO 17: The Artists’ Space by Alex Nichols

At the end of June—a community of over 70 artists—at the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District—must leave STUDIO 17 to make way for high-cost working space. This blog will catalog the end of this community above Thrift Town (on Mission &17th Street) and what it means. To understand what is being lost—I will spend the next two months carefully observing how artists work in their space—to give an intimate look at the inside of this community.

More about Alex Nichols:

Read more:

Feature on Alex Nichols and STUDIO 17: The Artists’ Space

How the journey began… STUDIO 17: The Artists’ Space by Alex Nichols

More Featured Artists:

Lucinda Buxton Martin

Rick D’Elia

Jeffrey Martin


Daniel Lichtenberg

Ellen Rosenthal

Lauren Marchetti

Adam Barry

Lexie Bouwsma

Denise Laws

Andy Vogt

Qinmin Liu

Truong Tran

Kate Nichols

Published on May 13, 2015

Published by Alex Nichols

Alex Nichols is a San Francisco based interdisciplinary artist and writer who deconstructs the experience of self, tracks the perceived and performs the narrated idea of self through a disarming physicality, rigor and humor. Her current projects utilize video, monologue, performance, and installation, reconstructing the physical boxes, strings and language of constraints.


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