Skip to main content

Rachel Maclean on selfies, green screens, and art that reflects fantasy and reality

Rachel Maclean on selfies, green screens, and art that reflects fantasy and reality


How surrealism lets one creator get around political bias and personal agendas

Share this story

If you buy something from a Verge link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Rachel Maclean, Feed Me 2015

In 2012, Scottish artist Rachel Maclean made a 13-minute video inspired by a popular meme of the time. The project, titled LOLCATS, explores the evolution of cat worship by imagining a world in which a young cat obsessed with Britney Spears gets chased by cat cyborgs, flees to a sort of vaporwave cat heaven, and is eventually gutted by a maniacal cat surgeon. That isn’t exactly reminiscent of “I can has cheezburger,” but Maclean’s work is always a sidestep or two away from the routes suggested by her many references. “I quite like the idea of connecting with people on a familiar level, and then slightly warping or flipping that into the unfamiliar,” she says.

Maclean most frequently works in video because it lets her imagine moveable, collaged worlds that couldn’t exist anywhere else. Her films are shot entirely on a green screen, and she plays all the characters herself — sometimes dozens of them. This kind of creative control might not have been possible even a decade ago, but advances in technology have made equipment formally associated with Hollywood more accessible than ever.

I recently spoke to Maclean about working with green screen, the pressures of social media, and making art in an increasingly politically active world.

Rachel Maclean, Wot U Smiling About. Photo by Simon Liddiard

How did you choose the formats you use for your work?

I come from a drawing and painting background. That’s what I got my degree in. So I started out doing a lot with colors and painting and 2D stuff. And then partway through art college, I discovered green screen, where you can effectively collage with a moving image. And I always thought the limitation of film was that you were bound to things that existed in reality. [A green screen] allowed me to create fantastical or surreal environments within a moving image, and I’ve been adapting that style ever since.

So as your career went on, did technological advances affect the kind of work you do?

Absolutely, yeah. I think what’s exciting about being an artist now is that many technologies that would’ve been incredibly difficult to use maybe just 10 years ago, now are so accessible. I’ve taught green screen workshops to five-year-old kids… And also, green screen is so much the language of Hollywood movies, so it’s interesting to me to take from that language and subvert it, or talk about it through the same medium.

So making these absurd videos with a green screen lets you poke fun at more traditional films?

Yeah, I’m interested in all of the references in my work being recognizable. There might be things from fairy tales, popular culture, and politics. Things that connect people on a level that’s recognizable, but then messes with that a little, or makes it more uncomfortable. Stranger, funnier.

Rachel Maclean, Wot U Smiling About. Photo by Simon Liddiard

Your work is like when fantasy and reality intersect.

Yeah, there’s kind of a fantasy and banality to a lot of my videos, which I quite like. There’s a feeling of being able to move between those two worlds. Some of my work is a comment on the stereotype of film that comes out of Scotland, which is like, social-realist cinema, and films shot with non-actors. That’s the expectation. A lot of my work looked a bit at that tradition and flipped it into this world of fantasy, or manipulating our illusions.

I also see themes of vanity and consumerism, plus maybe some jabs at social media.

I’m really interested in the effect of social media, particularly on the younger generation. They’re growing up not only having to create this self that exists online, but maybe growing up as a baby whose parents put all this stuff about them online. You have this trace of yourself digitally that can’t be erased, and you have to manage and edit. I think there’s a kind of anxiety attached to that, and there’s a sense of self in reality, and a sense of the self you’ve created. There’s a kind of control that exists online.

There’s also an increasingly shameless culture of narcissism, where narcissism and the selfie is an acceptable thing. That level of self-obsession and individualism is shamelessly embraced in our culture. I’m interested in the effect of that, and how we use social media, and the effect it has on people’s lives.

That perception of manipulating yourself is, on a literal level, what you do in your work.  Because you play all the roles in your videos, you’re actually manipulating yourself.

When I was at art college, and the internet was maybe more in its infancy, I read a lot about cyber-feminism, and this utopian idea that as a woman, you could lose your body online and become whoever you wanted to be. It was sort of a body-less freedom. Now, it feels like the opposite of that, where it’s all edited images of your body, and that being quite restrictive. So yeah, I think my work explores both the freedom of being able to take on different genders and different identities and have that kind of fluidity, but also the restrictiveness of having a heavily edited and manipulated self.

Rachel Maclean, Feed Me 2015

Because you play all the characters in your work, as you take on new roles, does your perception of the work change?

Maybe yeah. I think sometimes you don’t really know who the character is that you’ve made until you get into the costume and you realize how nasty they are. I most enjoy playing grotesque, ugly characters. And I think as a woman, you don’t realize how much of your life you spend being anxious about the way you look, and feeling like you need to present yourself in your most beautiful form. So I think the pursuit of beauty in characters that are supposed to be beautiful feels much more restrictive than when you’ve just got the freedom to be grubby and ugly and horrible-looking. There’s a real fun to that. Seeing the world through those kind of characters is strangely liberating in a way I don’t think I expected.

All your characters live in these surreal fantasy worlds. Do you see those worlds as a dystopia or a paradise, or something in between?

Yeah, sometimes a world that feels more dystopian will be alongside a world that feels more utopian. There will be a sense of contrast between the worlds. I’m quite interested in the politics of now, especially with increasing inequality in Britain and America, inequality of wealth and polarizing political opinions. And with Britain and Scotland being presented with referendums where you have to vote yes or no, there’s this feeling of a binary in life, and a very divided society. That’s something I’m interested in reflecting, and hopefully revealing more of the complications of that. The world is never as clearly dystopian or utopian as you think.

Are you familiar with any cyber-twee musicians, like Poppy or PC Music? Their aesthetic is slightly similar to yours, but it’s only the shiny, bright side, and none of the darkness.

Yeah, I don’t know them very well, but there is a sense in which you don’t know if they’re being ironic, or they really are just cheesy pop stars. I had a really weird experience recently, because I’m showing this work at Tate Britain, and Katy Perry visited and tweeted about it. And she tweeted, or Instagrammed, that this character I’d made, that she identified with this character. [Ed. note: Looks like it was an Instagram story.] And it was really strange, because the character in part was based on her, and not really in a nice way. She was a quite narcissistic, nasty character.

Given the current political climate, do you feel any pressure to make your work explicitly political?

I don’t want my work to become explicit propaganda. The minute you make that clear, it prevents people from engaging with the work. I think people’s beliefs are strongly held enough that they’re able to block out a lot of what’s said to them, because of their bias. So there’s hopefully an ability to communicate that comes from not pinning your flag to the mast in terms of specific parties or agendas. Hopefully you’ve got the ability to communicate to a larger group of people that way.