Jaimie Warren, a photographer, multi-media artist, and organizer based in NYC has always had a distinctive perspective and persona throughout her work. Whoop Dee Doo is an artist-run project started by herself (after graduating at the Kansas City Art Institute in 2002) and Matt Roche called Whoop Dee Doo.
Beginning in Kansas City in 2006, this project and non profit’s core is now in New York City, where Jaimie’s practice is based. In 2006, the first show was pulled together in the Greenlease gallery at Rockhurst University with Anne Pierce. It was exhibition and a live taping of a variety show hosted by David Wayne Reed and Chadwick Brooks. Eighteen artists flew in to be part of it, and as the network of people grew, so did the project. They then received support from the Charlotte Street Foundation to do a series at La Esquina in 2007 as a part of the Urban Culture Project. During that time the group was also asked to do a project with Deitch project in New York in 2008, which had multiple hosts. At that time they were collaborating with drag queens at the end of the Late Night Theatre (a theatre with incredible productions, remakes on movies, and these big themed parties hosted by Rod McGee which heavily influenced Whoop Dee Doo). After identifying struggles withinconsistent hosts, Jaimie and Matt Roche decided to be the regular hosts.
I spoke to Jaimie over the phone and learned about how it all started. After learning about all of the elaborate projects, travelling shows, the number of people involved from the start, and the plans that were developing, I asked Jaimie more about the project as it unfolded across many communities spanning the continent.
Julia Monte: As the project grew, what kind of changes were made, what was working well, and what were the challenges?
Jaimie Warren: Oh yeah, well a couple of endeavours we took on while in Kansas City were in 2009, -10, and -11… We had invested in having our own space, which was at 18th and Walnut, where we had a huge Whoop Dee Doo mural; which I guess just came down after many years a couple weeks ago. But, yeah, we got our own space, which meant we had a real financial commitment… and we also decided to become a non-profit. With the help of many of the Whoop Dee Doo artists and volunteers we were able to take the space, make it amazing, and do regulars shows that were free and open to the public; an idea that has been a big part of the program and what we wanted to stick with since we started in Kansas City.
So, there were big challenges, including having a board and trying to fundraise, etc. We had such incredible help from everyone involved in the project, but, really, the conclusion that we came to was that we didn’t want to be a big money maker where we are financially strapped to it. Even though we had all of this support, it was so much stress and so much time taken away from the project that it didn’t end up being the right structure for us. We really minimized the board and we stopped having that space after those few years. But it was great to have that space to come to and do a show whenever we wanted, have first friday events, and big parties. It was pretty unique and great time to be able to transform a storefront kind of space with so much support from Charlotte Street and from the local community to do regular projects and have help with making these live shows happen. Also, to have so many people that were willing to come with us and do this project in so many different cities, which is and has always kind of been this labor of love. So many people were able to take off work for weeks and work twenty hours a week and go crazy with us. It was great.
It is so great that you have a consistent amazing crew of people to work with! Could you speak about the role of performance within a community, interaction with youth and how it aligns with your–or rather, has become an art practice of yours?
Whoop Dee Doo has definitely been a huge influence on my personal work. When I was coming out of college at the (Kansas City) Art Institute my focus was self portraits and sort of snapshot aesthetic images of these bizarre, midwestern vignettes. Portraits of myself were heavily inspired by the drag community in Kansas City, actually. I was doing a lot of costume work and inserting myself awkwardly into these midwestern scenarios, commenting on how we would all entertain ourselves in Kansas City as a smaller arts community. I left that practice for several years to work on Whoop Dee Doo and then I was awarded a studio with Studios Inc., which was insane… it was three years in this giant studio for free, and I was really encouraged to create my own costumes, sets, and props. Because of Whoop Dee Doo, I was becoming comfortable with my ability and inability to make arts objects.
You know, I had been working with kids so much and had become comfortable with all of these varied skill levels, so I became more comfortable with what I was creating. One of the young artists that Whoop Dee Doo had been working with since he was fifteen, Lee, was helping me a lot on these early self portraits with these handmade wigs and latex prosthetics. I then started doing these smaller scale self portraits. Those started growing into recreations of photoshopped paintings from art history and gradually became community experiences where I was recreating these scenes with two friends, and then four, and then all of a sudden there was twenty. The last large scale work that I did was a recreation of a Fra Angelico Predella that was a music video to “That’s What Friends Are For” by Stevie Wonder and Dionne Warwick. There were all of these characters singing in harmonization with each other, making this Medieval painting come to life, and everyone was in costume. It was a great “goodbye” and “thank you” piece to Kansas City, for me, before I moved to New York four years ago.
What is going on for you now in New York?
Since I have been in New York, I really have focused a lot on doing out of town residency projects where I am working with different communities and youth groups to recreate paintings from history and have them come to life as music videos. So, they have gotten really large scale comparative to the last Kansas City piece. The more I am doing them the more I am collaborating and letting them (the collaborators) make artistic decisions about what pop culture icons should be implemented into the work. It’s really reflective of the experience I want to get out of Whoop Dee Doo now; I am really wanting something equal to that when I am producing my own work. I’m making a lot of art objects by hand now, with accessible processes like paper mache, and, you know, it’s fun!
It sounds fun! And it looks like it, that’s for sure. What steps were made to reach out to the community and find artists and others to participate on set and also attend the performances?
It has been a pretty continual morph, the whole idea of the project and how it could be to entertain ourselves in Kansas City, having a supportive community… The idea of doing this was really welcomed. I had already been doing a lot of projects before this. I ran a gallery with other friends called Your Face that was in the Westside, for a while after graduating college, and then we were curating exhibitions through Charlotte Street at galleries called The Bank and the Paragraph Gallery, and those were new spaces when we started. Doing the continuous shows at La Esquina, we had so many people coming in willing to help with any aspect, big or small, and that was how the project was able to be! Then they became bigger, more challenging, and people were really committing themselves. There were probably ten to twelve artists who stayed on for many, many years. The cool thing about it was that we might do a project in Baltimore, and we have an intern there who we love and so we would fly them out to future shows in, say, Miami… It has always been
able to be such a flexible crew that is based all over the place with all this traveling involved. The core for so many years was in Kansas City, and now it is based more in New York, but we are still a Kansas City crossover project.
As Whoop Dee Doo travelled to places across that states, how were those communities reached out towards? Were the places where you had Whoop Dee Doo spaces people attended often?
Yeah, well, each project is a little different, and a big part of when we get asked to do a project is this, on average, we get asked about six months in advance. So, it sort of starts out by talking to the organization, whether it is a museum, a nonprofit, a gallery, a festival, or university, and depending on what they are looking for (like an involved installation with a show, or an organization that wants to be closer with their immediate community…) talking to them about that and what their ideal scenario is happens first and then we feel out what is possible.
In terms of the groups that we work with, they are often suggested from the organization we are communicating with. A big job of mine has always been outreach. We want to always have a wide range of groups that we work with. A lot of what I’m doing is phone calling people and explaining the project and the concept. One thing that has been super helpful is that we had some Art 21 PBS documentaries on the behind the scenes of what we do and that has made life so much easier when we do these projects because they had some really well done documentation on process of the show. Having it done through PBS has been so helpful because it explains to people who we are and what our mission is, which can be so hard to get across over the phone…
So often, a lot of your successes in diversity and outreach is just based on you talking to people about what it is you do?
Yeah. And that’s how it was for nine or ten years, getting people hooked on the idea over the phone and sending them video clips and images. We reach out to everyone we can find. The number one criteria for us is that they want to collaborate. It’s not really that we are looking for a super talented and amazing group to be on the show, it’s more like ‘whatever your talent is, if you will work with us and alter what you do to fit into the context of this strange kids community art fake tv show variety show sort of format,’ that is the ideal scenario. It could be anything! A local renaissance band, a high school band… anyone willing to collaborate. That could mean collaborating with a group of high school students and alter what we do for the show, or to do a unique collaboration with another performance group.
I love to talk about one we did in Portland, Oregon where we had a West African dance troupe, all twelve and thirteen year old girls, collaborate with a noise punk band called Million Brazilian. The girls took one of their songs and created a new West African style dance to it, and then after practicing together a bunch of times, it was a finale for the show. It is collaborations like that where you might have two groups that are working closely and form a new relationship to create something unique. Our whole show is collaborations like that.
Whoop Dee Doo’s set for Dirt Stay-cation in Portland, Maine.
The audience that comes must change a lot, I mean everything sounds so elaborate and I am really enamoured with the whole production of Whoop Dee Doo and what people take away from it. Has Whoop Dee Doo been your main focus since it started in 2006? I am familiar a bit with your photography practice, and I know that you have already talked about how Whoop Dee Doo has influenced that, but I am sure it has also eaten up a lot of your time in the past eleven years, especially if people are booking these shows six months in advance!
I would say they are pretty even as we are only doing one, two, maybe three a year… And actually, we did a Highline series where we did one show every month on the Highline for six months, and even though it was considered one project, it was pretty time consuming, but also pretty amazing. I have been really lucky lately. It has been 50/50. Even if I have a whole lot of Whoop Dee Doo projects, my personal practice picks up when that drops out. The timing has worked out pretty good so far. I like to be able to switch it up and not prioritize one over the other. But definitely, if I had to choose I would go for Whoop Dee Doo.
You spoke a little about one of your favorite collaborations, but what was a favorite moment or performance of yours during the course of this project? I know it is a lot to think back through, but if there were one, what is it?
I’d say there are a lot of top moments, but I think my favorite show so far was in Portland, Maine a couple of years ago. We turned the space into a giant mud pit and we worked with ten kids from the Boys and Girls club who were middle school age… And the groups we worked with were a girls choir named Musica De Filia, a death metal band called Eastern Spell, and an accordionist who was called The Maine Squeeze. It was really wild. The installation was gross and weird and awesome looking, and the kids that we worked experienced a real turn around; they were really skeptical at first… we worked them for ten days and by the end everyone was in tears leaving each other, and they were so involved with every aspect like performing, coming up with ideas, making set pieces… some were making art objects for the first time in their life.
They come up with the idea where they (the kids) were in the mud pit and while the band Eastern Spell were the evil moles, they were going to be cute, adorable moles. They had choreographed a dance to a hip hop song called “Hit the Quan.” They came out in these cute mole costumes dancing, and then the evil moles ripped through a wall, everything turned scary, there was a steaming cauldron of stew, and the evil moles were performing death metal music while picking up the cute moles and putting them in this giant cauldron of stew to eat them… The girls choir had this song called “The Storm Is Passing Over” and they let us have a hidden indoor rainstorm where it would start pouring down on them halfway through while they were singing, it all happening in this mud pit. Everything just came together really well and it was so memorable because I feel like the project really affected the kids in a great way. But there are a lot of memories that are like that, so it is a hard call.
Oh no, I am sure it was so hard to choose a great moment from something that has ran for so long and has been rewarding in so many ways as well. If you were going to give advice to an artist wanting to start their own production, someone interested in performance perhaps, what would it be?
I would say that I have never been and probably will never be a real performer, but I feel like the audience can sense that I am trying my hardest and that’s what makes it at least bearable, and hopefully also fun to watch. That’s in terms of my own performing abilities, but the same goes for Whoop Dee Doo as a big community comprised of amateurs. So, I feel like if you work really hard and try, it doesn’t matter what your skill level is.
Another piece of advice I would share is that being a non-profit and having a board is not always the way to success per se. I feel like we almost borderline quit the project because it was so difficult and stressful to do everything we needed t
o do to raise money to have a normal living wage. But still, that being said, what we are doing is a labor of love and we just accepted the fact that it always will be, and at this point I think I have worked for myself on art projects… well I would say I haven’t had a normal job in six, or seven, or maybe eight years. I love that I can do that, but it has never stopped being a struggle. I mean, we are doing projects with MOMA in New York and SFMOMA in San francisco, Abrams Art Center, the Highline – like, really established organizations, but it’s still a huge struggle financially, which I am still comfortable and happy with. I guess I always thought that once I was reaching those kinds of organizations then that’s when you’re set, and that is not necessarily the case at all! So, if you want to be a freelance artist, and do these amazing projects, and work for yourself, as long as you can be prepared that you will not necessarily have your paid vacations and a 401K and a savings account and stuff like that… or even be able to live paycheck to paycheck.
Oh yeah, sure, so its like, ‘you better be happy,’ am I right?
Yeah, I wouldn’t give it up! I am very much content. I would way rather work on my own ideas than anyone elses’.