The world of moving images is fraught with comparisons to magic, to illusions. It is our inheritance and it’s where photographic work gets its heat. Mary Helena Clark’s films work because she understands the perpetual strangeness of seeing “real life” projected on a screen. She understands how to craft a vision of that reality that is highly subjective while still being attuned to the audience’s desires, expectations and baggage. And, in so doing, her works subvert our expectations of the veracity of moving images, while at the same reaffirming the vitality of the well-timed magic trick.
The works feel like they are entirely on her terms. We experience them as we do a well-crafted magic act: the illusions’ realities owe as much to their deception as to the pleasure of being deceived. Built from varied sources—both crafted and borrowed—her films are collages in the best sense. The materials are simultaneously autonomous and inextricably entangled. They are deeply mysterious while bound to reality. And, like so many works of this kind, they give—capably and generously—as much as we’re willing to take.
She has screened widely and in many of the finest contexts the experimental film community offers. Having just completed her MFA at the University of Illinois Chicago, it is fitting that she has a capstone show of her work at Roots and Culture on May 27th. Many of the works will be screening in their native 16mm and though I may not be allowed be to say as much, there may very well be secret works screened interstitially.
To begin, I was hoping you could share a bit about where you come from and what brought you to this kind of work. What were you like as an 18 year old? Did you arrive at experimental film through low-budget horror films? Punk shows? Color field comic books? And, relatedly, who were the makers and what was it they made that created that shift in your brain to begin making (or thinking about) experimental film?
I wish I could say something cool but the more honest answer is poetry. I wrote poems and a few plays and set up a darkroom when I was in high school. And then went to film school never having made any films. Robert Todd was my first teacher who showed me experimental film and taught me how to shoot 16mm and use an optical printer. I thought I would eventually make narrative films and that experimental work was a way of mastering images and building a vocabulary but it became my preferred language.
I feel like a lot of your work deals with tromp l’oeil and different types of illusion. While your images are very photographic—that is to say that instead of being computer generated, heavily processed, etc. they bear a tight indexical relationship to their subjects—but they don’t always feel real, whatever that means. Will you describe your relationship to illusion? What types of images appeal to you in the process of creating and gathering them?
I like that magic tricks still work even when you know the moves.
For me, an illusion gives you the best of both worlds. Fantasy and an awareness of its production.
In Sound Over Water, I wanted to shift the interpretation of a single image—a flock of birds— through fluctuating abstraction. By re-photographing and hand processing the images, the “read” changes. It’s ambiguously figurative—schools of fish, crashing waves, light on water—and then ends with the series of photographs acting as document, accentuating the gap between actual and perceptual.
I want to make cinema that is both trance-like and transparent: that operates on dream logic until disrupted by a moment of self-reflexivity, like tripping on an extension cord.
The man at the end of By Foot-Candle Light is completely beguiling. His performance begins somewhere between a portrait and a screen test, but then gets so lovably weird.
When I first saw this I had a feeling that this was your father and that you had invited him into your studio to chat and play around and once the camera started rolling, he slowly began to goof. There’s a really amazing intimacy in that moment because his eyes are locked on the lens and as his behavior gets stranger, there’s more interaction on the camera’s end. I’m almost reticent to have you blow this mystery by giving the back-story of this performance (and the film more broadly), but I think that too gives an interesting indication into your process.
I had the good fortune of meeting Paul Russell when he came to audition for the role of a hypnotist in another unmade film. I was trying to recreate a story my friend told me about a hypnotist coming to his middle school. He told me that a very shy and very pretty girl was picked from the audience as a volunteer. My friend’s crush on her grew as he watched her fall into a trance and “see” snow for the first time. He described this sublime scene of this girl spot-lit on stage, arms raised, turning in unseen flurries. I thought, “That’d be a nice film!” but by casting call I knew the whole project was too precious. So I filmed the auditions and conflated the making of the movie with the dream you might have had.
My read on By Foot-Candle Light is that it’s a lot about performance. The startling and (when watched in a proper theater, incredibly effective) opening shot prepares us for an invisible star. The probing lights next take us into a mysterious cave, through a detour of what appears to be a high school dance troupe performance and into a snow-covered birch forest. The white snow gives the illusion that the trees are floating in the air or that the ground has been physically removed from the image. The grain of the trees and the grain of the celluloid undulate and breathe. Then, another illusion: the introduction of footsteps in snow. Through the dream logic of cinema, these cut to your own feet, silent in your studio. There’s applause, the mysterious man appears and, with the shushing of the crowd, his magic eye tricks begin. Does this read resonate? Can you offer some insight into how you think about performance, both in and out of films, and if/how the roving, subjective camera (and attendant lights) performs for the audience?
You got it! This is the film where the periphery becomes the focus. It’s everything that circulates around the main performance, brought up stage in the film. So yes, I wonder if the spotlight has enough pluck to be the lead. It’s sort of like a travelogue trance film à la Maya Deren. I am thinking as much about the audience as I am the performer (or absence of one). How does the texture of the film/video change our situation as viewers? When seen “on the big screen” the opening shot performs another space, other moments of the film are about teleportation. And where do we arrive? In the filmmaker’s studio. I guess that’s my take on the sweaty leap from bed, it’s all just a dream!
And The Sunflowers pairs still images of floral wallpaper with a guided meditation soundtrack, with marvelously subtle textural pulsing in the form of analog video artifacts. As the voices pulls the viewer more deeply into a hypnotic state, another layer larger, realer flowers emerge.
The effect is very hypnagogic, both hallucinatory and subdued. I have a Christopher Wool poster that I’ve played boggle with for hundreds of hours. That wallpaper felt like it’s absorbed a lot of spaced-out eye hours. The pacing in that work is notable because it doesn’t feel excessively durational (or about duration, let’s say), but it does provide the slowness necessary to give us that intimate zoned feeling.
Your work frequently fuses disparate elements, both shot and found. Do you consider them collage films? Do you have an interest in collage as a way to think about your work?
I do. I like how the phrase collage film implies an individuality to the elements of the film even after they’ve been brought together and chopped up and manipulated. They’re still these discrete things with their past lives. I like finding sounds and images that seem perfectly self-expressive, but they’re just found! And then use them with footage or recordings I’ve crafted. There’s comfort in knowing it can all make sense, that my meaning can live on top of the material’s particular history.
You were telling me a bit about your thesis and about the way you’ve adapted Franco Moretti’s notion of clues within detective novels to function as a model for thinking about avant-garde cinema. I know it’s hard to condense however many dozens of pages into a paragraph, but I’m hoping you could talk a bit about this idea and how your research has impacted the way you think about the work you made before reading it (as if, perhaps, these were clues that reveal what your work has become) and the work you’ve been making since.
It’s a wonderful conceit from Moretti’s Signs Taken For Wonders… The clue as the key to the “semantic ambiguities” created by the criminal. That in a detective novel the revelation of a clue creates new meaning to an object or event. (Moretti’s example is the band in the Sherlock Holmes’ story The Speckled Band being deciphered as band, then scarf, then snake). As a filmmaker, I am interested in the slip between signifier and sign and the multiplicity of meanings allowed when a 1:1 relationship is broken. In this noir-ish light, the world is filled with puzzles, confusing the senses, reducing a crowd to color, a dog to a syllable, darkness to infinite space. I think my earlier movies were looking for the hidden and mysterious and my newer films have a sensitivity to what’s in plain sight. Or at least that’s what I hope for. It’s the difference of staring at one’s wallpapered bedroom or taking a walk.
Orpheus (outtakes) is meant to function, at least nominally, as a series of outtakes from Cocteau’s Orpheus. Part of what makes that such an exceptional film is its reliance on relatively simple special effects to convey grand symbolic ideas. Certainly these were relatively sophisticated techniques in 1949, but their power today is imbued with an at least elementary concept on the audience’s part in how they were made. The work and its effect (so to speak) are uncanny because they are still grounded in reality, because their artifice is simultaneously total and naked. When we look at a computer-generated alien, all its variables are controlled by the makers: its relationship to reality essentially lacks context. Your outtakes maintain the film’s knack for the uncanny and magical. The direct rayogram of the chain gives us a feeling of falling or of a large chain falling, always just out of reach. And yet it is simultaneously a chain and we know how it got there.
Yes. Again it’s plainness in illusion that interests me. Méliès made people disappear by turning the camera on and off and I think the simplest tricks are a nice reminder of the ease with which the mysterious can be conjured. André Bazin has that great quote about photography ranking “high in the order of surrealist creativity because it produces an image that is a reality of nature, namely a hallucination that is also a fact.” Nice, right? I think of this quote when watching the chain rayogram in Orpheus (outtakes) that you mentioned. The image made by the object’s own outline on the film creates a flattened, rhythmically pulsating pattern. Sometimes it reads as a chain and at others a braid or a spine, but I am most interested in the vacuous space or the “rabbit hole” the object implies.
I’m with you on the deepening poetry of Cocteau’s special effects. Our awareness of his trick photography empowers them more. In Orpheus mirrors are portals to the underworld. He used tanks of water to make the “glass” a permeable surface. It’s an elegant solution for the visual effect and complicates the metaphor. In my (outtakes) I use the hole punch common on 16mm film leader as a mouth of a tunnel. We see the flash of the punch mark then the circle slowly grows to engulf the frame. It is the first instance in the film where the artifacts (dirt, scratches, lettering) become representational. The film looks to its physical condition to point to the liminal state.
In re-watching Orpheus (outtakes) I realized that I was asking you many of the same questions as the contestants on that 1950s game show from which moments of your audio are taken. They ask (and no one answers): Are you in motion pictures? Are you a comedian? Do you also appear on the stage? Do you go back as far as the silent movies? So, to further literalize this chain: will you address the role humor plays in your work? Why Buster Keaton? Why the game show?
The cartoon references like the tunnel or the blinking eyes in the dark are funny to me but also sad, goofy and lonely. A figure with no voice, no visible body, only eyes looking out where no one can see… I think it’s easy to find some stoner existentialism in these Looney Tunes tropes. Inky black voids. I love that stuff…
Why Buster Keaton? He’s always been my favorite. He’s the master of turning the everyday object into mutable forms. His engagement with the world is totally physical and pure magic.
Why the game show? The first time I heard Buster Keaton talk was on an episode of What’s My Line when he was the mystery guest. He seemed so anachronistic and alien. When I decided to riff on Cocteau’s Orpheus, I thought he should play a part since he moved (precariously) between the worlds of silent and sound cinema. And what makes more sense then a silent film star acting in a film about the underworld where it is very, very dark?
How is a filmmaker like a hypnotist?
In my case, both use the mode of direct address. You are getting sleepy. You are sitting in a darkened room. I’m always thinking about the moment of reception, and pointing to that moment as a way of implicating the audience.
SITE Santa Fe, my home city’s premiere contemporary art exhibition space, has a good track record with moving images. Among the many stand out pieces in the Klaus Ottmann-curated 2006 biennial Still Points of the Turning World was Carsten Nicolai‘s immersive mind-melter Spray (you can watch a reasonably unsatisfying version of it here, though I might only recommend that if you can Honey I Shrank Myself to the point of feeling completely overwhelmed by the intensity and ferocity of the image). With 2008 came a marvelous retrospective of pioneering video artist Steina. Last year’s biennial was devoted to works in film and video and featured an embarrassment of riches to braid cinematic and gallery concerns, including Cindy Sherman’s lone stop-motion animation, a stray Raymond Pettibon animation, a stereoscopic dance film by Bill T. Jones and OpenEnded Group and a meticulous tabletop installation by Jennifer and Kevin McCoy which reenacts (as you watch and as figurines of the artists watch [as you watch them]) the indelible tracking traffic jam scene from Jean-Luc Godard’s Week End.
Which is not to say much beyond that an internationally recognized contemporary arts space is doing its job and doing it well. Time-Lapse, the current exhibition (through May 20th), to crib liberally, “challenges the notion that an exhibition is a fixed entity with artworks that remain consistent throughout the time the exhibition is on view.” Changes are made throughout the show ensuring that “no two days will be the same.” I can report on the day I was there, at least.
Since 2007, Mary Temple‘s Currency project has involved drawing a portrait image drawn from a news site and fusing it with an accompanying text built from the image’s caption and its headline. The works are scanned each day and posted digitally on her website (and to twitter) and physically on the walls of SITE.
Byron Kim‘s decade-plus Sunday Painting series couples weekly cloud paintings with diaristic texts. They’re quite lovely and give a sense of the ordinariness of his days (kids’ soccer woes, lots of meals, sending paintings to Santa Fe), the slow passage of time and the continual flux of something like a sky. I enjoyed imagining the graphite texts on the clouds taking the place of his attempts to anthropomorphize and concretize the abstract churning billows: it looks a demon riding a circus elephant, no, wait, it looks like chicken parmesan for dinner and, oh shoot, I forgot to call Jerry, it’s ok, I’ll see him tomorrow.
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer‘s Pulse Index is a far-sighted palmist’s new best friend. The interactive installation records the fingerprints and heartbeats of visitors and plays them back on a series of screens. The video of the most recent print takes on gargantuan proportions and knocks the next most recent down a scale. This in turn knocks the next and the next down until eventually each kid is knocked off the bed, like so many nursery songs. His Microphones is also interactive, featuring a microphone with an embedded speaker. Upon speaking (or singing) into the spotlit microphone it responds with a past visitor’s speech (or song).
Most impressive to me was Eve Sussman and Rufus Corporation‘s whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir. Like past works by Sussman and her team, art history loans the title (White on White) to this heady, recombinant algorithmic noir. The film is edited/constucted in real time through an artisinally-crafted computer algorithm using 3,000 film clips, 80 voice-overs and 150 pieces of music. The quasi-narrative is in continual flux with constant new collisions of image, text and sound. The wall text carefully credits all involved (the Rufus Corporation) in a bold expression of the collaborative nature of the project.
Its clever technological sophistication is evinced through a flatscreen showing the coded processes by which the combinations we’re watching arise. Though I am not a programmer (nor did I speak with Jeff Garneau, the team’s programmer), I was able to glean that the image, text and musical sequences have a variety of tags associated with them. The computer hunts for other like tags in choosing the next clip. In so doing, our concept of the elliptical and subjective strategies of poetic cinematic representation are both challenged and satisfied. When trees as a metaphor transition into literal trees, the decision making process feels honest and human. Indeed, that the film is set in a dystopian future city and has so many hallmarks of a hazy science fiction essay allows the narrativiness greater space to root itself in our brains. I don’t even know that all people are aware that the film is continually changing.
Less successful, I felt, were the looping films in the Time Capsule Lounge. As I’ve said before, the “recontextualizing” of works meant to be experienced in a linear and trajective manner in a cinematic space to the looping, gallery space is rarely successful. The lounge is not without its charms, though including a curated library of time travel books and a series of special performance events programmed by amorphous dynamo local art collective Meow Wolf.
Somewhere in and outside of all of this was the March 2012 web-exhibition. Conceptually indebted to Seth Siegelaub‘s catalogue March 1969 (a.k.a. One Month), the website featured a different work by a different artist each day of March. As now, the (physical) gallery is showing a playlist that takes you through the month. And though this screening mode for many of these works might garner the same criticism of the loops shown elsewhere, that this component of the exhibition is acting as a catalogue of an internet-based show feels distinct and justified to me. The website now is mostly links to the artists featured (and not the specific pieces) but is still an excellent grouping.
March 20, 2012 · Print This Article
I arrived 11 hours late to the movie. I asked the ticket-man if I’d missed anything. Yeah, he said, you missed the really dirty parts.
Jesse Cain‘s Parts and Labor is 13 hours. It is his hands replacing the engine of a car, piece by piece. The work is shot in sparkling HD, with steady close-up shots. The compositions are arresting. The depths of field are shallow. His hands, the moving parts, the parts his hands are moving shift in and out of focus as he works. It is a durational film, certainly. It is the length of time it took him to perform the action–over two years. The labor dictates the form, the length, the shape.
Parts and Labor showed in a traditional theatrical space, the mainstay Anthology Film Archives. People were welcome to come and go as they pleased (as one might during any other movie), and did. Audience members left to eat a meal, to drink a drink, perhaps, even, to perform their own labors.
The film is tremendous. My brain was abuzz with the ways we can ensure the cinematic experience is maintained when moving images are brought into visual art contexts. The world of art has never been so formally or materially diverse, of course, but not all presentation strategies are utilized equally. I am continually surprised and annoyed by curators, artists and exhibition-makers’ insistence on showing films and videos with integral trajectories on a loop. There are, obviously, makers whose works are meant to be looped and meant for gallery contexts. I don’t know how effective Tony Oursler‘s puppet projections would be on a screen, in a traditional cinematic environment (actually, I bet it’d be amazing). There are also, of course, pieces that can function (and change meaning, etc.) through a variety of exhibition strategies. However, for works meant to be seen in their entirety (and, as obvious as it sounds. starting at the beginning and ending at the end), it’s a travesty to not even allow audiences the chance to experience them in their intended state.
It is, then, with great excitement that I believe the 2012 Whitney Biennial has pulled it off. Along with Elisabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders, the show’s curators, Thomas Beard and Ed Halter (who also run the recently moved and renovated Light Industry) have not only assembled an excellent calendar of screenings, but with the Biennial’s staff have done a wonderful job of presenting films in a museum in a way that honors the unique capacities of both of the traditional exhibition models. On the day attended (Friday), Jerome Hiler‘s quiet, beautiful Words of Mercury began every half hour, on the half hour. There is a sign at the tightened curtain requesting audiences wait until the next half hour to enter. There were still the types of conversations one might rather not hear during a screening, but those mostly died off within the first ten minutes. I sat near the front and absorbed very few of the stings of walk-outs. Noise from other rooms was minimal and Hiler’s hypnotic, textural superimpositions were given the space to breathe they needed.
One hopes other exhibition organizations will follow the lead of the Whitney in their exhibition of time-based works. Through very simple means (in many cases more suggestive and informative than anything else), viewers were able to see the works as they were intended. And, with a show as vast as the biennial, the time until the next screening just means a greater, longer consideration of works whose temporal strategies are less oblique.
It is not uncommon to find oneself dreaming of Michael Robinson‘s films weeks after having watched them. By that I mean it happened to me once. Specifically, it happened to one of us once. I (the other one) have not had that dream, but have had the opposite reaction. I felt I was dreaming amid some of Robinson’s films. The oneiric tradition within the cinema is as long and storied as it is obvious to most anyone who has spent time in “the biggest, darkest, loudest theater possible.” So we won’t go too far into it but to say that his works in film and video are highly atmospheric.
Sliding easily between original and wide ranging found footage, they are simultaneously direct in their concerns and beguiling in their approach. Much has been made of his ability to use arch kitsch (Full House, Little House on the Prairie) in ways that are both evocative and humorous. And while the use of mass media is considered in its irony, it doesn’t feel cheap.
Adroitly harnessing the techniques of past avant-garde film, Robinson adapts them to fit shifts in contemporary culture, taking the infant (and often infantile) form of YouTube mashups towards greater and stranger heights. And while the films are highly atmospheric and make terrific use of the form’s unique vocabularies, they each have specific trajectories. They are conceptual, with a small c and formal with a small f, allowing for great flexibility.
Originally from Upstate New York, Michael holds a BFA from Ithaca College, a MFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago and was a Visiting Assistant Professor of Cinema at Binghamton University. His work has shown in many prominent festivals and beginning tomorrow his films will be featured as part of the Whitney Biennial for the following four days, culminating with a conversation between Robinson and experimental filmmaker Peggy Ahwesh.
(Note: this interview was co-conducted by Benjamin Schultz-Figueroa)
You use both found and original footage. Can you talk about what changes and what remains the same when using the different methods for gathering images? For example, the difference between the production of If There Be Thorns, which is made of 16mm film you shot yourself, and These Hammers Don’t Hurt Us, which is all found footage.
When I’m working with my own footage, it takes me a lot longer to detach from the material, and know what to ditch. With found materials, I’m already approaching them with enough distance to know more quickly whether or not they will work. But the flipside is that I tend to not mangle or alter my own footage very much, so the picture editing process is usually more straightforward for the works I shoot myself. Part of this is also about setting boundaries – with a work like If There Be Thorns, I shot footage in a few different places over the course of a year, and then made the best of what I had. With These Hammers Don’t Hurt Us – there was a lot of specific types of material I wanted to find (CGI pyramids, mummies, ice dancers) and there seemed no reason to stop until I found it all. So the gathering process was also part of the editing process.
Can you describe your editing process? How does using Final Cut Pro (if that is actually what you use) influence your aesthetic? How do you navigate the abundance of options and effects to find the one which works?
The process is a little different for each piece, but generally it involves a ton of trial and error, figuring things out in small sections. In regards to Final Cut, I don’t actually use many of the pre-set filters, but tend to get the results I want through layering (copy and pasting the same shot on top of itself, methodically offsetting each one, and playing with the compositing). I learned 16mm film editing in college, and taught myself Final Cut afterwards, so I veer towards those aspects of digital editing which are meant to replicate a more visual, analogue experience.
Many of the effects that you employ (flickering or strobe-like editing, solarizing or inverting colors, multiple superimposed images) are stalwarts of avant-garde film, yet your use of these effects feels extremely unique. How do you see your use of such techniques in relationship to their use in the past? Are there art movements from the past that you feel influence your practice, or whom you feel your work responds to?
I suppose I like everything I’m doing to feel a bit transparent (flicker feels like flicker, slow motion feels like slow motion) and part of that transparency involves nodding to the traditions of film and video art, while hopefully steering things elsewhere. Within lot of the more famous uses of flicker – or any formal technique for that matter – the effect was explored as an entity unto itself, deployed through a very specific, or mathematical structure. So while Tony Conrad’s The Flicker or Paul Sharits’ T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G, are psychologically very rich and in no way purely formal films, the technique itself is at the core of these works. My films use effects and techniques as emotional cues, or as narrative elements in and of themselves, guiding and contributing to the atmosphere or thrust of a piece without actually being the heart of it.
You mention an interest in the narrative aspects of video games (in particular of the Super Nintendo generation). I found this instructive as a potential entry into what elements of narrative (might) exist in your work. The hazy, indefinite but cyclical nature of “story” seems related. Can you talk a bit about both the influence a generation of games had on your practice and also how you conceive of narrativity within your work?
It’s all about what we allow ourselves project emotion and meaning onto, whether that’s pushing a stone in the right direction to unlock a door in a Zelda game, or the exchange of keys, knives and doppelgangers in Meshes of the Afternoon. I’m not interested in the “save the princess/universe” narrative of games, but rather the attaching of logic and motivation to completely abstract situations. So guiding characters through video games is in a sense not unlike navigating a complex film. All of my pieces follow a narrative arc of one form or another, with establishment, rising action, climax, etc. I would be completely lost without that arc.
Can you talk about your use of popular music? Do you see an analog between instrumental karaoke versions of songs and heavily processed visual media? There was a period of time in avant-garde cinema during which popular music was eschewed, but that seems finished. Young(er) artists often feel more adroit at using elements of popular culture in ways that are unironic without being saccharine or humorless. They–you–are able to harness the power of these cultural artifacts without ceding control to them.
Pop music, like most television, is a really strange thing when you take a step back and think about what it is, and how it’s working – mechanically, commercially, and emotionally. Despite that, there is an undeniable power to things like melody and refrain, particularly when they manage to carry some lasting cultural influence or imprint. I see karaoke as a very emotional, sometimes spiritual exercise – wherein the Word is recited, is often known by heart, and summons a certain amount of heartfelt projection. In using instrumental tracks in my films, I like the idea that some audience members will be forced to sing along in their heads, or at least have some kind of sense memory triggered.
There’s a phrase that I remember being attributed to Guy Maddin on the poster for Jim Finn’s Interkosmos which has always stuck with me: so full of rare atmospheres. I’ve thought of that phrase often while watching your films. More than conveying single ideas or attacking a problem, the works are very atmospheric. Can you discuss your process of making? Do notes for films come from trying to achieve a certain feeling? From having an amount of footage that you’re trying to unite?
I usually know what I want a given film to feel like, in terms of atmosphere, before I know what it will look or sound like. So the gathering and editing processes then become about trying to figure out how to convey that feeling. The sound design is really the most important part of this, and the most finicky, in that things don’t really work until they’re just right. I do take a lot of notes and make a lot of lists, relating to specific shots or edits, and attempting to get my head around broader ideas.
Switching gears slightly, let’s discuss distribution. Your films are available to be watched, in their entirety, on your website and on vimeo. They’re also distributed by VDB, have screened widely at festivals and, now, will be included in the Whitney Biennial. Did you ever have a question about having the work online? Do you conceive of your website/the web broadly as a screening space as opposed to simply a portfolio? Do you have an interest in making videos for gallery environments? Do you have an ideal viewing environment in mind when creating your work?
I hesitated to put my work online for a while, but then realized I was happily watching other artists’ work online, and was taking the online viewing experience with the necessary grain of salt. I trust that contemporary viewers of all kinds are doing the same, and that if someone is interested enough in something online, they will want to see it out in the world too. And if not, then they would otherwise never see it, so they might as well see it online. This is not the case for all kinds of cinema, but I think my films do hold up reasonably well online. I have shown my work installed in a black-box gallery mode a few times, and I am interested in exploring that more, because when it’s done well I think it can bridge the disconnect between film and art audiences. But still, the ideal environment to see my work is the biggest, darkest, loudest theater possible (preferably sold out).
Can you talk about your approaches as a professor? Has teaching altered the way you think about your own work, the history of cinema or, potentially, its futures?
My approach is really just to expose students to the things I love, and to the histories that have been important to me, and hope that they might find inspiration there too. There is no one history of cinema, or of experimental cinema, so every artist connects the dots in their own way. In connecting my dots for the purposes of teaching, I’ve gotten a lot closer to the work of certain artists, such as Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger, who I’ve admired for a long time, but appreciate more and more with every viewing. But I wouldn’t say that teaching has altered my work, or my overall views on cinema.
What are your artistic roots? Did you always know you wanted to make films? Were you in ska bands? Were you in ski bands? Did you study painting or make plays?
As a kid, I loved to draw and paint, and gravitated towards photography and music as a teenager. I was never in a proper band, but did play drums, and once recorded a pretty great cover version of Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” with two high school friends. Around that time I also went to a very lovey-dovey Catholic summer camp, where all the campers were frequently made to hold hands in circles and sing sad pop songs (Natalie Merchant, Tori Amos, etc.), which obviously had a lasting effect on me. I went to college thinking I would concentrate on photography, or maybe film editing, but was pretty quickly seduced by experimental cinema. I didn’t see it coming, but it was a perfect catchall for my various impulses.
This interview was co-conducted by Jesse Malmed and Benjamin Schultz-Figueroa, an artist, theorist, and independent curator based out of Brooklyn, New York.
This weekend, Chicago’s Poetry Foundation plays host to FJORDS, an exciting multimedia adaptation of Zachary Schomburg‘s book of poems of the same name. A collaboration between Manual Cinema and the Chicago Q Ensemble, the production features all manner of performed silhouette, shadow puppetry, and multiply-sourced projections with an accompanying score. Composer, musician, and Manual Cinema member Kyle Vegter wrote the score for the Q Ensemble, a forward-thinking and collaboratively-minded string quartet.
The Poetry Foundation shows are mostly sold out (though day-of tickets may be available at the door). Schomburg’s tumblr hints that an encore show may take place on Monday. I’ll update this article if/when more specifics are revealed. Tour dates can be found here.
Schomburg’s poems have been published all over and with good reason. FJORDS Volume 1 will be released by Black Ocean on March 5th. Additionally, he is one of the three editors behind the small poetry press Octopus Books, co-programs the Bad Blood reading series in Portland, and teaches at Portland State University.
I was privileged to experience Vegter’s site-specific composition/installation for the Chicago Composer’s Orchestra in the Palm House of the Garfield Park Conservatory in December of 2011. The work utilized the tremendous room, with subtle, textural tones mirroring the space’s. His work with Manual Cinema (Julia Miller, Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, Ben Kauffman, and Vegter) has included the much heralded Ada/Ava and The Ballad of Lula del Ray. This is their first collaboration with the Chicago Q Ensemble, whose Ellen McSweeney I interviewed about the collaborative process.
Please describe the kind of work you typically do.
As a quartet, we perform a combination of contemporary music — often by Chicago composers, like Kyle — and works from the classical string quartet repertoire, like Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Shostakovich. That’s the stuff we got all our advanced degrees studying.
Our process is pretty simple: we’ll rehearse several pieces of music intensively, just the four of us, for a period of months before presenting it to the public. Occasionally we’ll play for coaches (master teachers/mentors) to help us take the performance to the highest possible level.
While collaborating for FJORDS is definitely the most “outside the classical music box” project we’ve ever been part of, collaboration is a part of our mission statement, so it’s very much in line with that our priorities are and the direction we want to go in.
Please describe how this project came to be and how you became involved.
Kyle and I first met while working together on a concert for Homeroom — I played one of his pieces. I later interviewed Kyle for my blog and we became friends! My first Manual Cinema experience was The Ballad of Lula Del Ray. I was completely enchanted. I was so mesmerized by the show that I had absolutely no idea what was happening; for example, I didn’t realize the puppets were being manipulated live. So I’ve been a fan of their magic-making for a long time.
When it occurred to me that Chicago Q could actually collaborate with Manual Cinema, I called Kyle out of the blue one day and basically said, “We have to do this!” It turns out it was the perfect time for them to start thinking about it, as they were looking to do a more music-centered project. We started meeting together — all nine of us! — to talk about what the collaboration would look like. It just goes to show you that sometimes it’s work making that call
I think when Kyle told us about Zach’s book, FJORDS, the project really just started to take off. All the creative minds of Manual Cinema were drawn in by his work and started to create amazing worlds around it. On our end, we began to get to know Kyle and his music better.
Please discuss, as you’d like, adaptation, adaptation as collaboration, and collaboration.
Funny enough, around the time that you emailed me, I wrote a blog post about why collaboration is so challenging, and so essential, for classical music ensembles. In our field, there’s a conservative attitude that if you’re playing a great musical masterpiece, you shouldn’t need anything else on the stage. There’s a fear that other elements will distract the listener from the greatness of the music. This project is working from the opposite assumption: that, if you do it right, we CAN marry elements of theater, poetry, and chamber music in a way that lifts them all up, as opposed to cheapening them.
One of the sad things about being a classical violinist is that you aren’t often treated as creative artist. You receive a score, and your job is to execute it as written. Sure, there’s some flexibility, and your technical knowledge and performance ability matter a great deal. But as performers, we often enter the picture after the creative process is over.
This project has started to defy that “post-creative” role a little bit. Kyle has been exceptionally open to our feedback and ideas about what he’s writing. And now that we’re rehearsing with Manual Cinema, in front of the screen, we are absolutely a part of the creative process. Because we know Kyle’s scores extremely well, we have strong ideas about what the mood of the music is, and how it can help increase the drama and emotional resonance of what’s on the screen.
When Q and Manual Cinema first sat down together, I declared that I wanted us to be creative partners, not mere technicians, as instrumentalists are often asked to be. That dream has totally come true and it’s an amazing experience so far.
What are the ideas, stories and interior logics of this work about which you felt most strongly? How important to you is it that certain elements of the source were carried through to the performance? What is most challenging/exciting about the wordless rendering of a poem?
We’ve really deferred to Kyle and MC on these fronts, and we weren’t really a part of the adaptation process.
Music and poetry have been working together for a long, long time. I find when I read a great poem, it’s a like a tiny capsule that evokes an entire world. There’s so much AROUND the text of the poem, so much just outside the boundaries of what’s been written. Music is a natural way to express that world that’s being evoked: the textures, feelings, colors. I think Kyle did an amazing job creating a musical world for each poem, and it’s a lot of fun for us to embody that world as we play our instruments.
Much of the revitalized Poetry Foundation’s mission is to “discover and celebrate the best poetry and to place it before the largest possible audience.” While this doesn’t specifically mention finding new forms and modes for poetry (as a way of enabling its position before a larger audience), I’m curious how conscious you are of trying to expand poetry’s audience. And, relatedly, how conscious you are of trying to expand contemporary classical/string music’s audience.
Absolutely. Expanding the audience for contemporary music/classical music/the string quartet is probably the most important part of our mission.
It’s amazing how much excitement this project has generated. People are really intrigued by the possibilities of the project. And I think there’s a tremendous excitement for us, for Zach, for MC to be engaged in something that’s very ambitious and very different for us. And it’s amazing how much we are all benefiting from the risks we’ve taken. All four shows are now sold out, and hundreds of folks — who might never have come to a regular string quartet concert — are going to be engaged with our playing. The project has been a huge learning experience for me about the power of working together as a team — not going it alone, but finding others to support you and work with you.
Should more string quartets tour? Should string quartets tour more?
Sadly we aren’t touring with the show — they’ll tour with the amazing recording of us that Kyle just produced! But we definitely would like to tour more. Turning our ensemble into a full-time job that can sustain us is a gradual process, but we’re getting there!
Another tidbit about touring: I think people in string quartets are a little fussier than rock bands. Sounding “perfect” and being at your best is a strong pressure in classical music, so we somehow think that touring should involve comfortable travel and accommodations. We should learn from the whole “band in a van” thing, get our hands a little dirtier, and we’d probably tour more.
What (historical) collaborations informed this project? Are there other productions involving/engaging poetics that you felt were especially useful?
I like knowing we’re in good company with that ensembles like Fifth House, who are very committed to “musical storytelling” and having huge success with it. I’m inspired by some of the more off-the-walls collaborations that eighth blackbird has done. Obviously, the Kronos Quartet were a huge breakthrough force; all the crazy stuff they’ve done over the past few decades has paved the way for classical ensembles to venture into new territory, both musically and theatrically.
But honestly, I’m still figuring out what our role is in this show. Are we in the pit at an opera house? Onstage movement artists with instruments? I think we’re making our own way, trying to figure out what’s going to create the best possible experience for the audience.