Portrait of the Artist: Jennifer Elster
“Portrait of the Artist” is a series by photographer Claudine Williams, whose studio specializes in fine art portraits as well as professional branding. The Q&As are with people in the arts and culture industry — actors, musicians, painters, writers — with photos to suit each artist.
Jennifer Elster is an experimental artist, director, performer and the founder of The Development, a underground, multifaceted studio based here in the city. Her work can be seen online at ChannelELSTER.com, on Instagram at @JenniferElster and in private viewings at her gallery by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org. She lives in Tribeca.
Tell me how you describe yourself and what your work is about?
I’m a thinker. An artist. A writer. I am known for being very direct in my work. My two solo art exhibitions were “The Wake the Fuck Up Show” and “The Retrospective of an Extroverted Recluse” and I am now finishing a film series called “…In the Woods (and Elsewhere).” I’ve been working on the film series for 14 years. I’m very private. Just listen, this is how private I am [Jennifer locks a large bolt on the door and laughs]. You’re going to make me want to do a video!
What things in your life influence the art you create?
I am influenced by my life, my upbringing, my childhood. I’m influenced by my relationships as well as a constant pursuit for the ultimate truth, meaning always cutting through to get to the absolute of what is going on. I like to cut down to the raw core of everything — of the truth, of love, of the struggle with love and all the pursuits in life that are meaningful.
9/11 has been a huge influence in my life. Often trauma is an influence in one’s work. I named my company The Development because everything is in development. I’m constantly working through things. That is my priority in all work. My priority is that I’m working through to become the best person I can become while inspiring other people to maybe “wake the fuck up” or “let’s look at this in a different way” or “let’s retouch humanity and in a really beautiful tender way.” I enjoy bringing people to the limits of things.
Where were you on 9/11?
On September 11, 2001, my husband and I lived across the street from the World Trade Center on the 34th floor. We had an unobstructed view of the towers. I went out on the terrace and saw the plane coming right at me. The proximity was devastatingly surreal. The first plane hit and immediately the debris came down and we were covered. And there is a whole traumatic story there, but in the end, obviously, we were fortunate. We lost much of our historical belongings in our safety deposit box, our car, all of our furniture. Our things were destroyed and we were displaced for four months.
It was a very traumatic experience to be in a war crime. We were front row witnesses to one of the worst things that has happened in America. If you look at “The Retrospective of an Extroverted Recluse” it is specifically about warfare and protecting ourselves. I’m very concerned about America’s security and I’m very concerned about the security of the world.
Can you clarify what you mean by you’re concerned about security?
A lot of my concern is the nuclear crisis that we find ourselves in. I find it really concerning that there are a number of people who have access to nuclear codes, and they are all really dangerous. So that’s concerning. Other pressing issues are our cyber security. I run initiatives under my advocacy organization Nonpartisan Peace. I wrote an initiative with Gloria Steinem on behalf of supporting net neutrality and I did an art campaign, and that was an important thing to me. If we lose our access to an even playing field on our internet, which we have, we will start to see the repercussions. My current initiative, #ProtectOurVote2020, was created to protect our vote against foreign adversaries hacking our voting systems, and the dire need for immediate improvements to our voting computing systems in order to safeguard the vote.
Tell me about your performance at the New Museum.
Jennifer: Sure, that was a one-night group performance curated by Heide Hatry. Jonas Mekas did a fantastic piece on Allen Ginsberg. Jonas has since passed. He’s a very important figure in our culture as he was one of the main spearheads for experimental film. I projected a vid-eo art piece called Unknown and performed two experimental art songs, and there were a number of other artists that did performance art pieces as well. They spoke about the times we find ourselves in. What I love about that moment is that it’s complete anarchy within an institution.
When did you work with Yoko Ono?
We did a session together at Sear Sound. I wrote the vocalizations and she performed them. It’s from my upcoming film series, I created “…In the Woods (and Elsewhere)” that I am finishing up. The series features Terrence Howard, Dave Matthews and Questlove.
Is there a story behind this piano?
This was my grandfather’s piano. He passed away a couple of years ago at a 101 years old. He was the lead harpist at the Met for about 39 years. He left his piano to us. It took six months to refurbish it. Coincidentally it was expected to arrive, after I already set the date, of the opening of The Retrospective of an Extroverted Recluse. So I had his piano there for that opening. That show was motivated by being concerned about our nuclear crisis threat, but it was also about me grieving through my grandfather’s death. It was a beautiful tribute to him.
I had musicians playing his piano that night, like Sugar Vendil and Trevor Gureckis, and Mariko Anraku from The Metropolitan Opera played the harp, while I performed. They were fantastic and it was a wonderful night. I also used the piano on my recently recorded album, and I do performances in The Development underground with it.
If you could just use adjectives, which would you choose to describe your work?
That’s so funny to think about. Definitely, one thing I would say is my work is direct. Raw. Precise. Perfectionist. I don’t want to say perfect, I’d say perfectionist. That’s the word that I think of in all aspects of my life. I am a perfectionist. I would rather work on something for 14 years and take that long to do it, and to do it the way that I want to do it. Relentless is another good word. And I’m spontaneous, even though it seems like a conflict. I am also brave and I’m a warrior. I really care about people and all living things and I want to help make the world a better place. That is one of the objectives of my life and it’s something that presses on me all the time because I see so many areas for improvement.
Can you tell me about the time you worked with David Bowie?
When I was in my early beginning, I was a stylist. I wasn’t into fashion as much as I was into creating characters, creating things. So when I worked on this project with Bowie, he had the whole outline of what he wanted to do. We conversed on it, on a very deep psychological level, going to all different places, which was totally fun and exciting because he’s awesome, and was awesome to work with. The project was for his 1. Outside album. It was his whole album series and it was shot it in London. It was a very important moment in his life. The work was very good. It’s funny because I always work with people on their most experi-mental things.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in New York City. There was a time when I was younger and lived in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, alongside the Amish for a couple of years, when I was five and six. I also lived in Queens for some years, but mostly grew up on the Upper West Side.
Where do you go in the neighborhood?
I would say the number one staple in the neighborhood for me is The Odeon. We have been going there for 30 years or so. I remember it when I was really young, when Tribeca was completely different and there was nobody around. I also like Walker’s, and Bubby’s and their biscuits!!
So what’s next?
Right now I am opening up my underground gallery, The Development, for the first time. We will schedule private appointments. The other thing is I’m finishing up my film series. I’m very excited about this project because I think it’s a project that people really need right now. It’s something that’s very fun and it’s wild. Oh, and wild is definitely an adjective to describe my work. I’m definitely wild. Not that I try to be, it’s just what it is, yet in a fun way, not destructive. I’m not into being destructive. Anyway, it’s a fun, wild and very meaningful series and one that I’m very excited about bringing to the public. It’s meaningful for our times.