Matt and Nikki Swift celebrate 20 years of near-continuous filming

Andy Downing
Nikki Swift

Nikki and Matt Swift celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary on Dec. 16, and now, a month later, the couple has assembled the career-spanning “Exploration, Experimentation, Exploration, Explanation,” which opens at the Vanderelli Room today, Jan. 10.

Going into the exhibition, the intent was never for the two to create a document of their time together, though the collected work manages to do precisely that.

“When you come into the main space, there’ll be a 50-inch screen, and I’ve created a 30-minute loop that is kind of a show manifesto. It starts with this image of a dark road and us coming out of it, and then the image digitally breaks up and there are single phrases that appear on the screen and come at you, and it’s literally our life, 1999 to now,” said Matt, who joined Nikki for an early January interview in Victorian Village. “So right up front it’s like, look, this has been 20 years and it’s the good and the bad. It’s worker’s comp, bankruptcy, graduating from school, getting a master’s degree — every element.”

For both Matt and Nikki, video work has long existed as an exploration of self, with the two influencing one another in sometimes subtle ways. Nikki, who in person comes across as more reserved, has a strong hand as an editor and is the more dedicated gearhead — traits that have helped sharpen Matt, who is more immediately outgoing and has a tendency to dream up concepts. As a result, even solo works bear some influence of the other, while still maintaining each artist’s individual intent and vision, which should be evident in the retrospective works that will stream on a series of televisions installed within the Vanderelli Room.

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Following a scooter accident, for example, Matt started to utilize video as a sort of endurance challenge, filming for long stretches as he worked on his recovery, the weight of the camera stressing the still-healing tendons in his arms.

Throughout her art career, meanwhile, Nikki has embraced the film medium as a means of coping with the early death of her mother, often incorporating elements of found audio or video footage. One early piece, which will be featured in the exhibit, builds around a series of answering machine messages left by Nikki’s mother, recorded while she was in the hospital in her final days.

“She was calling me every morning, and I wasn’t supposed to answer because I was 15 and home alone, basically, and so she would say, ‘Nikki, pick up the phone,’ and then I could go pick up,” said Nikki, whose father died when she was three weeks old (the artist became a ward of the state following her mom’s death, eventually moving in with her aunt and uncle in Iowa). “I saved that tape because it was the last recording of my mom’s voice, and my first major piece was from that. And so a lot of my pieces are about dealing with that trauma. I’m not as aggressive in my presentation anymore, necessarily, but I like to torment my viewer.”

A later creation features a love letter Nikki wrote to the car she inherited from her mother, and which she had to part ways with on the 20th anniversary of her mom’s death. “So [Nikki] wrote this letter and then made this film about it, and we’re in [the video] washing the car, and then there’s all of this old footage,” Matt said. “[Nikki] was always that person in school who had a camera in your face … and that has continued. We film everything everywhere we go.”

This has been true since the two met in 1999 and filmed Matt singing a cappella for 45 minutes in the middle of the oval on Ohio State’s campus, seated and largely ignored by passersby.

Equipment discoveries have continued to fuel this sense of discovery, allowing the two to uncover new wrinkles in their artistic processes. After purchasing a snaking endoscopy camera used to diagnose plumbing issues, for instance, Matt took it to Park of Roses, dragging it behind him through grassy fields and watery creek beds (the camera is waterproof), creating an ant’s eye view of the environment. Still shots from these explorations might turn up in a photo wall within the Vanderelli Room.

Another new installation Nikki created specifically for the exhibit is an expansive cellphone tree constructed using more than three dozen of the handheld devices, most donated, which will stream looping snippets of video filmed either by the phone’s individual owners or by Nikki and Matt (one scene finds the two artists climbing around inside a massive cardboard box that previously housed a new washing machine). As with much of the pair’s work, it functions on numerous levels while remaining in constant conversation with the concept of technology.

“It’s the only way that I have been able to become a filmmaker,” Nikki said. “Because we have this tech in our pockets, it is far more affordable now to where almost anyone can become a filmmaker. I think that access is critical.”

“We’re not as big of collectors as some artists, where they’ve got these warehouses full of equipment,” Matt said. “But we are collectors, and we have a small section in our basement where we have wire recorders, reel-to-reel recorders. … But we collect that stuff because eventually it comes to, ‘Oh, now we can use that.’ We have this 30-inch CRT TV that we’ve been holding onto forever, and it’s going to make an appearance in this show, and then afterwards we’ll have to decide, does this continue to live or not?”

Though technology has an undeniable influence on the pair’s work, it’s always employed as a means of exploring the most fundamental, flesh and blood issues.

“I think that human connection is really important,” Matt said. “Something we believe strongly in is that this is a great way to communicate. There’s not a single person who should not be making video. Even if you don’t plan on being a filmmaker or a film artist, just turn this thing on (holds up his cellphone) and talk into it. Document your room, your life or anything that you do. … Just go out into the world and find those things that resonate.”

The Vanderelli Room

6-10 p.m. Friday, Jan. 10

218 McDowell St., Franklinton

“Exploration, Experimentation, Exploration, Explanation”