Laurel Nakadate began using art to connect with strangers before the internet—or even the ubiquity of cell phones—could do it for you. She has never been afraid to break the rules. As a student at Yale in the early 2000s, Nakadate began making videos with random older men she met in chance encounters. She did the things young women are cautioned not to do with exactly these people: play dead, pose in your underwear, eat birthday cake, or dance to Britney Spears unaccompanied in your bedroom. These early films are unsettling, provocative, and weirdly hypnotic—you are watching something intimate and infinitely lonely. Nakadate has continued to pursue and shape loneliness throughout her career, enacting situations in which it is shared or revealed, often through discomfort.
While Nakadate serves as the actress, director, and producer in all her films, she is not their subject. It's not the cute girl dancing in the cab of a parked semi you're looking at: It's the guy in the seat next to her. Nakadate moves beyond a Lolita-led consideration of naivety and recklessness by forcing you to pay attention to people who would otherwise be invisible.
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Since these projects, the artist has harnessed the boons of big data and instant connectivity to meet more strangers—though this time it's ones she's related to. In 2013 she began Relations, a still photography project in which she tracked down distant DNA relatives and arranged to meet them for the first time at night in a location of their choosing. Nakadate—who has made a lot of her work on the road—traversed nearly 37,000 miles in 31 states to meet men, women, and children of wide-ranging religious, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Taken all together, Nakadate's work proposes a new way of looking at strangers—whether what you share is a great-grandparent or the physical space of a brief encounter—as the family you never knew you had.
BROADLY: You're best known for your early video work, showing intimate interactions with single, older men you met in chance encounters. Tell me about those early videos, Happy Birthday and Oops—how they started for you, and what they taught you about the kind of work you wanted to make.
I started making those videos in the fall of 1999 when I was a graduate student at Yale. I didn't have any friends in New Haven, and I found myself wandering around the city, looking for people to talk to, to spend time with. I found myself wanting to document those interactions. I was interested in creating worlds on video with those strangers. I think it's less that that work taught me something unknown than that it reinforced my desire to make work about human interactions, chance encounters, complicated relationships, and the desire to connect and also loneliness.
I think it's important to remember that that work was made before the internet was what it is today. Very few people were online in the way that we are now. All of that work was made in person, in real-life interactions, without any mediation by screens. It was made in a more naïve world, when chance encounters meant more than perhaps they do now, in an age of easy access and global, fleeting connections via computers. That work was made at a time when a human standing in front of another human was really the most common way to meet.
A lot of your work plays with power and vulnerability. Putting yourself in a situation where you have no control—going over to strange men's houses—but acting as the director and telling these men what to do. How do you think about that balance or imbalance?
I never really thought of the men as strange. I found them intriguing and wanted to be around them. I wanted to learn about them. I've always been interested in the lives of others; these men were deeply human and interesting to me. I feel that I did have control; I arrived with a video camera, and everything was being recorded. Directors always collaborate with their subjects, and those videos are no different. We each brought something to the performance. Each of us was there of our own free will, and each of us had the freedom to either participate or leave whenever we wished. Whenever two people are in a room, there is an unsteady balancing act of what we have and what we want—that desire teaches us about who we are and how we will choose to interact with the world. I was interested in that desire, that balancing act, that human longing and possibility. So I suppose it was less about imbalance for me than it was about possibility.
You star in most of the videos. What's your relationship to your "onscreen" persona?
The girl in the videos knows what she is doing. I created her in order to take her out into the world and allow her to make sense of the situations I placed her in. I created her for the work, for the performances. She is vulnerable, naïve, ridiculous in her girlishness, and yet knowing, brave, and somehow familiar. She is not the director of the videos.
Tell me about your background. What got you taking pictures?
Photographs have the ability to describe and record. Time changes everything, and because of that it is important to make pictures. They are records of scenes, people, lives that disappear even as they're recorded. I was given a 35 mm camera when I was in second grade, and soon after knew that I would be a photographer. I was interested in the private worlds I created on film. I was drawn to the ways the camera served as witness. The camera gave me permission to look and to stay.
You often seek out loneliness: spending a week alone in love hotels in Japan (Love Hotel), or a month traveling alone on Amtrak (Trouble Ahead, Trouble Behind). Yes, those experiences resulted in particular works, but they must be more than just a means to an end. What does the condition of loneliness help you find in your work?
I think you're asking me about being in a position of loneliness in order to make work about loneliness. It was necessary to travel alone to make that work. Much art is made in isolation because isolation highlights longing, and longing is always a good starting point. Back when I was making that work, I often thought about the fact that we have to put our bodies somewhere, and there was something so lonely about that physical fact. Love Hotel was about that.
People have told me that my work feels very American. I've thought about this, and I think that what they are responding to is the presence of the American road and travel in the work. Road movies and cross-country photo projects are so American, and those are two genres that I've spent a lot of time working within. What I love about the road is how people can disappear and emerge again, reinvented. I love the transience and hopeful wandering of road life. I love how making work on the road is always surprising and how strangers can meet for fleeting moments that can change one another's lives in profound ways.
What's the editing process like? What are you looking for in footage, and how do you choose what to keep, to discard?
The editing process is almost non-verbal. It's more about finding an intuitive rhythm and a visual language. I often find it hard to edit with other people because the editing process for me comes from the gut and not from a place that can be easily articulated. Editing, for me, is more about dancing than it is about math.
Tell me about making Relations, the photo series from 2013. What made you want to track down distant relatives? How did you do it?
It came from the same desire to meet strangers and make records of our interactions as the early videos. After working in video for 14 years, I knew that I wanted to embark on an ambitious still photographic project. In 2011, I took a consumer DNA test called 23andMe. The following year, I began contacting DNA relatives through that site. I also tested my mother at AncestryDNA and did extensive research into my family tree in order to find even more "DNA relatives."
DNA relatives are people who share a common distant grandparent, though because of time, and the ways families grow apart, they are usually strangers to one another. Some of these DNA relatives are second or third cousins, some much more distantly related, perhaps only sharing a distant grandparent 100 years ago. I sent emails to these strangers, asking them to meet me at night, in order to make their portraits under the night sky, which would serve as records of our encounters. The result is hundreds of portraits of strangers standing in dark landscapes across America. I lit the portraits with only ambient light and a very short burst of flashlight. I used a flashlight because I wanted to capture the way we sometimes find one another in darkness. There was something sublime for me about standing in the dark with these strangers and sharing a bit of our lives under only moonlight, starlight, and that flash of flashlight.
I worked on those images for three years and traveled nearly 50,000 miles. The project allowed me to see parts of America I never would have gone to and to meet individuals I never would have met had my DNA not led me to them. I think of that project as a contemporary self-portrait, because I share a bit of DNA with each person I met and photographed.
How did people react to hearing from you? Did you meet anyone you still have a relationship with?
Everyone who responded was open to participating, and yes, I have become friends with many of my DNA relatives. I think of them as a sort of modern-day family.
Part of your identity as an artist—and certainly of your role in the videos—was as a "young woman": You were in your 20s making videos with guys in their 50s, and that was part of the content. How has getting older—and, more recently, motherhood—changed your identity as an artist, or a character, in your own films?
My experience of pregnancy and motherhood has been extremely human, and I can't imagine it won't inform my work significantly going forward. I think the more human the work is, the better. I've always been interested in making only the work that I can make at the time that I've made it. I'm interested in the expiration date, the urgent, only-now of it. I've always made work that challenges the time that I am experiencing. My career is 17 years old now, nearly of age, and I feel that gives me the freedom to explore anything. Growing as a person and an artist is exhilarating. I never wanted to freeze myself at a specific time in life—I've always wanted to explore what is immediately in front of me, what can only be seen from where I am standing.
All images copyright Laurel Nakadate, courtesy of Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York.