Michaela O’Brien

Michaela O’Brien is a documentary artist who recently graduated with her MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina this past May. Her work focuses mainly on photographic still images as well as moving images, and the interplay between them. Michaela previously worked at non-fiction and documentary media outlets as an Associate Producer, Cinematographer, Production Manager, and Archival Researcher. Her work includes documentary broadcast specials for outlets such as the Investigation Discovery Channel and award-winning audiovisual installations and interactive videos for a variety of acclaimed museums. Her photographic and moving image works have been featured in galleries and film festivals nationwide. Michaela has been a teaching assistant for the Arts of the Moving Image department and the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke and received her BA in Sociology and International Studies from Boston College and has studied filmmaking and photography at The New England School of Photography and the New England Institute of Art and she is a 2015 Flaherty Film Seminar Fellowship recipient. Today we share her series, Love Valley.

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Love Valley

Founder Andy Barker’s boyhood dream of a cowboy haven is home to a population which hovers at about 100 people. Ellenora, his now 94-year-old Alzheimic widow, preserves a record of his utopian aspirations in a rarely accessed, dusty, wood-planked room where cabinets are filled with reels of film, medium and large format photographic negatives and piles of scrapbooks.

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In this .2 square mile community, reenactment forms an important aspect of social life even as nostalgia contends with everyday realities. Residents attempt to shape and reshape the township around their founder’s vision of a Western town full of “good, clean fun.” In Love Valley, men, women, children, and animals each tussle for a place somewhere between an idealized past and an elusive future.

My time living on Main Street resulted in this fragmented narrative of frontier freedom.  This assemblage is an oblique museum, an impulse to document, and a document of that impulse.  In Love Valley, the complete story is eschewed for the remains: a constellation of biblical and patriotic gestures, and what lies at the heart of it all, the desire to start over.


AB: Howdy Michaela! We are very excited to talk to you about your project!

M: Thank you for having me!

AB: So, let’s just jump right into this thing.  Can you talk about the experience of discovering “Love Valley” and then the process of immersing yourself in it?  I’m sure you had to spend some time making friends and earning trust in such a tight-knit community.

M: I first read about Love Valley on the Visit North Carolina tourism website, it was listed in the quirky section of ‘Things To Do.’ I was immediately suspicious of the name and curious about what love had to to with a western reenactment community, so I journeyed to the foothills. I found myself challenged to dissect the complexity of this separatist landscape heavily rooted in a nostalgia for an elusive period of American history.

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AB: What purpose do the archival images and screen prints serve within this project?

M: When I discovered the depth and latitude of the Love Valley archives I was astounded. The archival images are often images of presentation and successes — kisses, trophies, ‘good, clean fun’, men dominating land and animal. These images then juxtaposed with detailed and oblique contemporary images causes one to question the impetus for documentation and what one chooses to document. The screen prints translate pieces of text and imagery from archival newspapers, scrapbooks, and ephemera. They serve as punctuation points in the storied attempt at utopia and the many challenges to its intentions.


AB:  So we know this is your graduate thesis project for Duke University’s MFA program and you will be graduating in May…congrats!  What does it feel like to have completed your MFA and (the dreaded question) what do you plan to do next?

M: The thesis editorial process was a wonderful growing experience for me and I learned a great deal about creating alternative narratives within an installation space. I feel excited for what is next and happy that I found a program which allowed me to navigate varying mediums within and across documentary, experimental, and computational genres. I will continue with fieldwork in Love Valley, as I have some new avenues I would like to explore. I am also beginning to create a photo book based on this work. In the Fall of 2016 I will teach a photo book course at Duke and I am super excited for that!


AB:  Congrats on all your success!  Before we let ya square-dance on out of this rodeo, let’s talk about the filmic element to this project.

M: For the installation I decided to separate the filmic elements into three separate pieces: a single channel HD video loop, a split screen vertical loop made from 8 and 16mm film, and a three channel HD video loop with 5.1 surround sound set within a darkened room. The films progressively explore the fragmented narrative of memory, socialization, and settlement. The editorial styles of the films allows viewers to consider the improvisation and repetition of storytelling and history. I will be working on weaving these films into a multi-channel experimental documentary.


AB:  You’re a total badass Michaela, thank you for sharing your thesis work with us!

M: Thank you Aint-Bad!


To view more of Michaela’s work, please visit her website.