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 Robinsonâ€™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 â€œthe biggest, darkest, loudest theater possible.â€ So we wonâ€™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 doesnâ€™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 Iâ€™m working with my own footage, it takes me a lot longer to detach from the material, and know what to ditch.Â With found materials, Iâ€™m already approaching them with enough distance to know more quickly whether or not they will work.Â 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.Â Part of this is also about setting boundaries â€“ 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.Â With These Hammers Donâ€™t Hurt Us â€“ 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.Â 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.Â In regards to Final Cut, I donâ€™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).Â 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 Iâ€™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.Â Within lot of the more famous uses of flicker â€“ or any formal technique for that matter â€“ the effect was explored as an entity unto itself, deployed through a very specific, or mathematical structure.Â So while Tony Conradâ€™s The Flicker or Paul Sharitsâ€™ 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.Â 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?
Itâ€™s all about what we allow ourselves project emotion and meaning onto, whether thatâ€™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.Â Iâ€™m not interested in the â€œsave the princess/universeâ€ narrative of games, but rather the attaching of logic and motivation to completely abstract situations.Â So guiding characters through video games is in a sense not unlike navigating a complex film.Â All of my pieces follow a narrative arc of one form or another, with establishment, rising action, climax, etc.Â 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 itâ€™s working – mechanically, commercially, and emotionally.Â 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.Â I see karaoke as a very emotional, sometimes spiritual exercise â€“ wherein the Word is recited, is often known by heart, and summons a certain amount of heartfelt projection.Â 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.Â So the gathering and editing processes then become about trying to figure out how to convey that feeling.Â The sound design is really the most important part of this, and the most finicky, in that things donâ€™t really work until theyâ€™re just right.Â 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?Â 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 artistsâ€™ work online, and was taking the online viewing experience with the necessary grain of salt.Â 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.Â And if not, then they would otherwise never see it, so they might as well see it online.Â This is not the case for all kinds of cinema, but I think my films do hold up reasonably well online.Â 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 itâ€™s done well I think it can bridge the disconnect between film and art audiences.Â 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.Â There is no one history of cinema, or of experimental cinema, so every artist connects the dots in their own way.Â In connecting my dots for the purposes of teaching, Iâ€™ve gotten a lot closer to the work of certain artists, such as Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger, who Iâ€™ve admired for a long time, but appreciate more and more with every viewing.Â But I wouldnâ€™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.Â I was never in a proper band, but did play drums, and once recorded a pretty great cover version of Salt-N-Pepaâ€™s â€œPush Itâ€ with two high school friends.Â 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.Â I went to college thinking I would concentrate on photography, or maybe film editing, but was pretty quickly seduced by experimental cinema.Â I didnâ€™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. Â FJORDS Volume 1Â 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, whoseÂ Ellen McSweeneyÂ 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?Â
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,Â how conscious you are of trying to expand contemporary classical/string music’s audience.Â
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? ShouldÂ string quartetsÂ 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?Â
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.
I lived in San Francisco once. It sometimes feels distant now because I have even lived another place between there and here. San Francisco occupies an interesting place in the American imagination. Even though high rents and a sort of institutionalized and self-aware weirdness pervade much of the city, it is still, in fact, filled with oddballs, Peter Pans and visionaries. Its role in American culture is as a provocateur, a laboratory and a refuge. I think this is true and the city certainly thinks it’s true.
It was stirring, then, to see so much of San Francisco last week at Northwestern Universityâ€™s Block Cinema screening of Stories Untold, one of over 20 different programs of (mostly) shorts under the umbrella of the Radical Light project. The project, whose full name is Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-2000, encompasses a large, brimming book, those 20-some programs of experimental media and a gallery exhibition at the Berkeley Museum of Art. The monumental exhibition was facilitated by curators/editors/programmers Steve Anker (now the Dean of the School of Film/Video at California Institute of the Arts, once of the San Francisco Cinematheque), Kathy Geritz and Steve Seid (Film and Video Curators at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive,). Over the course of a decade, the three scholars and exhibitors wove together a history of alternative and experimental media notable for the quality, diversity and energy of the work.
The book teems with interesting essays, artist pages, personal reflections and histories and, ecstatically, loads of ephemera from various screenings. Cinema is an event and even when large institutions are involved (SFMOMA, SFAI, KQED and BAM/PFA all having played interesting roles in the development of Bay Area media), the works and culture in Radical Lightâ€™s purview are scrappy, marginal and rule-defying. Flyers from shows, dispatches from seminal organizations and photographs enliven the text and remind young guns that the culture has always been suffused with polymathsâ€”artists as curators as critics as janitors as flyer-makers as audiences as artistsâ€”and that making a show is as simple and as complex as making a show.
On Thursday February 16th, the excellent Conversations at the Edge series at the Gene Siskel Film Center brings Steve Anker and the New Preservation/New Prints program. The program features works from 1906 to 1984. A number of these films and some of their makersâ€”for me, at leastâ€”fall under the â€œseen about but havenâ€™t seenâ€ category. Making this an even bigger treat is that these films have been well preserved and new prints have been struck. For all the great benefits of increased online visibility of canonical (and forgotten) experimental film history, the joy of seeing these works in a proper cinematic context and in their correct format is immense. You can watch Oh, Dem Watermelons by the recently deceased Robert Nelson below, but youâ€™re better served just tasting it here and letting your interest be sated by real thing.
One week later, CATE brings us George Kuchar: HotSpell. I love Kucharâ€™s work, especially the video diaries he began to make in the 1980s. Ed Halter wrote this lovely piece on Kuchar for Artforum and I think it perfectly sums up what makes his work so endlessly watchable. The work is funny, smart and messy. Itâ€™s about cinematic representation and camp and biography and the weather while still mostly being about that moment. Halter nails it nicely: â€œcinema Ã la Kuchar pivoted on the dialectic between overblown fantasy and schlumpy reality, the films always working double time as documentaries of their own making.â€
Then, on Friday the 24th, Chicago Filmmakers hosts Radical Lightâ€™s Found Footage Films program. The Bay Area has had a long entanglement with collage and appropriative filmmaking. This program is of particular interest to me now because of the (seeming,) (current,) wholesale mainstream embrace of borrowed images. The ease of digital editing and prevalence of moving image media has enabled entire new folk arts of super-cuts, stretched videos and detourned mass media. Bring a teenage friend whoâ€™s never heard of Craig Baldwin or who canâ€™t imagine what a debate about sampling would even be and see if the worksâ€™ radical histories can still be felt.
(Thad Povey‘s Thine Inward-Looking Eyes)
I had the privilege of helping bring some of Radical Light to Portland last year and with it Steve Seid. Among the great joys were meeting Loren Sears (the book is almost worth its price just for the picture of him from Bolinas in 1973 sitting cross-legged in his Video Van, a mobile video editing and processing station replete with patterned rugs and a lingering hippie/techno-utopian/media shaman vibe that feels quintessentially Bay Arean), having the chance to learn even more secrets than were divulged in the book and, if it isnâ€™t too horn-tooting to admit, to participate in Seidâ€™s reading by doing a performative reading as Kuchar, one of the few impressions I can do. Kucharâ€™s presence was all over last weekâ€™s screening and remains one of the many vital personalities Radical Light teases into the large, varied, tangential and fascinating tape-stry of a half century of inventive cinema.
Jesse McLeanâ€™s work as a filmmaker and artist is deeply engaged in issues of spectatorship, empathy, and the televisual and cinematic experiences that forge these connections. I first became aware of Jesseâ€™s work when I saw her video The Eternal Quarter Inch at the late PDX Festival. I was completely taken by the work. It was elegant and intelligent, simultaneously wry and sincere, and, most of all, the way it was paced and the atmospheres it created felt both sophisticated and highly personal. I have since spent a great deal more time with her work (both through her website and the invaluable Video Data Bank) and have found a continuation of these initial themes and impulses. Her art continues to deepen as it broadens.
Her work has been shown widely at spaces like Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, threewalls, Venice Film Festival, Migrating Forms at Anthology Film Archives, Director’s Lounge in Berlin, FLEX, Chicago Underground Film Festival, LUMP gallery/projects and Space 1026 and won the Overkill Award at the 2011 Images Festival and the Barbara Aronofsky Latham Award for Emerging Experimental Video Artist at the 2010 Ann Arbor Film Festival. the Next week her newest film Remote will be showing at the prestigious International Film Festival Rotterdam. Magic for Beginners is in competition at the Stuttgart Filmwinter Festival and will also screen as part of Transmediale in Berlin, Germany. In February she will be installing a version of Remote in the Front Room space at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis. She has a residency at the Wexner Center in Columbus, OH in March where she plans to continue production on a new piece. She lives and works in Chicago and teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Can you say a bit about your background? What got you interested in this type of moving image production? What kinds of work were you making at 18? 25?
I got interested in filmmaking through my mother, who had studied art and filmmaking and also through my friend Sonia Yoon. Sonia encouraged me to take my first filmmaking class in high school. At that time I was convinced Iâ€™d be an animator. I attended Oberlin College and studied art, which didnâ€™t include video or media at the time so I spent my junior year in New York City, working at a production house that specialized in childrenâ€™s television commercials and attending New York University. I was also exposed to independent cinema and art house cinema. I watched a lot of Jim Jarmusch films, which I think is evidenced by my aesthetic choices at that time. I was shooting black and white, 16mm reversal and editingÂ on a Steenbeck. After school I worked in the movie industry in an effort to learn more about cinema. Iâ€™m not sure that happened but I learned a lot about what I didnâ€™t want to do. Iâ€™m certain this directly contributed to my interest in appropriation.
Eventually I found my way back to Pittsburgh and took more classes at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, which has this rich history of supporting and promoting Avant-garde cinema. It was only then, in my mid-twenties that I became exposed to this entire other world of filmmaking and art. I had seen some Len Lye films in college and mistakenly stumbled into Dog Star Man, which I had no context for, but that was about it.
Those years in Pittsburgh were formative for me. I used to attend this microcinema called Jefferson Presents, run by friends of mine, and that was the beginning of my education in experimental film history. I was still shooting actual film and I didnâ€™t even know how to edit video. I only learned about video reluctantly as a potential job skill. In Pittsburgh I also reconnected with Jacob Ciocci, who I knew from college and was now attending Carnegie Mellon for grad school. He showed me a tape his art collective Paper Rad had made and it really inspired me to start mixing sources and embrace my undeniable interest in popular culture.
Can you describe your process for making works like theÂ Bearing Witness TrilogyÂ andÂ Magic for Beginners? Are there certain ideas youâ€™re trying to express or moods youâ€™re trying to achieve and then you seek the footage? Or, more commonly, do the themes and ideas of the pieces reveal themselves through the process of seeking footage, editing it and watching and re-watching?
I usually begin with an idea, often itâ€™s an incredibly broad theme, like fandom or fear, and then I look for material and ways to make it more specific. Sometimes Iâ€™ll encounter material that gets the ball rolling. For example, Iâ€™d had the idea for the elimination breakdown sequence inÂ Somewhere only we knowÂ for at least two years before I started that piece. It wasnâ€™t until I saw on the news that an earthquake had disrupted a taping of Judge Judy and Big Brother that I got interested in actually making the piece.
Magic for BeginnersÂ always felt like a bit of a self-portrait, thatâ€™s why I thought to use my school pictures. Initially the Heidi footage was conceived as another method of self-portraiture, but the footage operated differently. Heidi becomes more the mediated protagonist, offering up an emotional response to everything the narrators are talking about, basically being lulled in and subsequently let down by media.
The actual Heidi tape is incredibly corny, but there is this amazing dream sequence where Heidi runs towards the camera with her arms outstretched. The camera is retreating and the shadow of the cameraperson running away from her is visible on the grassy field. She wakes up before she can be embraced. For me this image is the heart of the piece, it really summed up everything I was going for.
You use a number of techniques that in the hands of other makers sometimes constitute a whole workâ€”Iâ€™m thinking about the YouTube-originated fan renditions of My Heart Will Go On or the montage of reality television contestants awaiting their â€œmoment of truthâ€â€”but you incorporate them into larger, fuller works. The videos of which those sequences are a part have interesting and satisfying trajectories.
Collage is very appealing to me. Actually, art is appealing because it allows for encyclopedic thinking and a blending of disparate interests. In Somewhere only we know, the piece that features the reality television contestants being eliminated, I knew that I could make a piece composed of just those scenes that would be conceptually tight and broadly appealing. I struggled against that impulse, though. You can see lots of terrific super cuts on YouTube. Not to be dismissive because those edits are great but I hope that my work can go to other places beyond clever arrangement. I wanted the piece to become more complicated because I was more concerned with the way emotions are played out both onscreen and within the home viewer than highlighting elimination scenes. I also wanted to blend different portrayals of reality, thatâ€™s why the POV footage of someone running across a field is mixed with the footage ripped from cable and the Internet. Not only did collaging those sources allow me to confuse the identity of the protagonist but also it begins to unseat a familiar viewing position. The footage I shot seems less real that the codified reality shows.
You seem to be interested in empathy and in the role televisual culture can play in both forging and denying empathy.
Empathy is the most important human characteristic and the closest way we have to understanding another personâ€™s experience. Most of the worst things we do to one another arise from a lack of empathy. Empathy in media, especially pop culture media, is thorny territory, not just because there is so much manipulation and stylization but also because we develop relationships with idealized versions of ourselves, creations that are both glorified and vilified. Are the relationships unreal because the creations are fictive? Even if the developed relationship is questionable, is the emotion ingrained somehow also invalid?
Iâ€™m fascinated by photography and think itâ€™s one of the strangest inventions, especially in relation to empathy. Once a picture is taken, the link to reality stretches but doesnâ€™t break. An empathetic response to the image can be garnered but itâ€™s more unreliable. Obviously, the effect photos can yield is amazing, Iâ€™m thinking about Jason Lazarusâ€™ Too Hard to Keep archive as an example of this power. The photos in the archive couldnâ€™t be kept because what they trigger is too real, even though they are just images. They couldnâ€™t be destroyed, either. This makes me think of a quote from Andy Warhol that I used in Magic for Beginners, â€œPeople are the only things that know how to take up more space than the space they are actually in. Before media there used to be a physical limit on how much space one person could take up.â€
When Iâ€™ve described your work in the past, after describing certain elements of the workâ€”the Christian rock band, the obsessions with fan culture, the reality TVâ€”one salient feature that I always feel I have to inject is that it doesnâ€™t feel mocking or cruel. Needless to say, the work is filled with humor and thereâ€™s an obvious level of criticality to these phenomena, but youâ€™re able to create an atmosphere in which a viewer feels empathy with the subjects. Have you consciously made changes to works that felt flippant? Do you try to forge a connection with your footage before you work it into a piece?
I am comfortable riding the line between sincerity and irony but I never set out to ridicule. I frequently use material that has been deemed â€œobvious targetsâ€ by some and I find pleasure in attempting to distill some sincerity from these sources. I know that money drives the creation of much of popular culture. I did work in the movie industry, which can be a rather rough business and certainly not the most creative environment. What Iâ€™m looking at is the other side, the connection of the viewer to this material and the use of affect. There is a great deal of power in mass media but the level of manipulation is so grotesque as to be impressive. Popular culture works terrifically on me; I have a particularly embarrassing memory of sobbing uncontrollably on a plane during Toy Story 3. This kind of emotional response never happens to me in â€œreal lifeâ€. So I would never ridicule my subject, because Iâ€™m a fan, too. But Iâ€™m also a skeptic.
The kaleidoscope section of Eternal Quarter Inch and the Oneida flicker section of Magic for Beginners are powerful to watch. Even in their simplicity, theyâ€™re propulsive, enrapturing and visceral in that way that certain types of cinematic experience only are. Theyâ€™re also both tempered by a return to the other ideas of the pieces, and, incidentally, weâ€™re dropped into a more skeptical world, one that reveals the artifice behind the magic. Iâ€™m interested in the way this reflects on the history of experimental film and in what it means to make work within a historical trajectory without getting lost in familiar territory. Does the flicker filmâ€™s power now need to exist within a larger intellectual or critical framework?
I wouldnâ€™t say that. I guess if you were interested in forwarding cinemaâ€™s conceptual and material progression you probably wouldnâ€™t make a 16mm flicker film. Youâ€™d probably be making a movie using Microsoft Word or something. Arnulf Rainer by Peter Kubelka is still an intense experience. Is it still a novelty? No, but I doubt that was the sole intention. Flicker and strobe are still excellent ways to experience the phenomenological through cinema. I love that these kinds of visual tactics draw you in, and you become a different kind of viewer, more of a participant. I certainly have used these kinds of strategies to enact a more visceral response to what is onscreen.
For me, yes, I am using these strategies in concert with other ideas and tactics. I think originality is overrated, but I do think about what my works mean now and how it relates to what is happening in contemporary art and cinema. I think access and availability have led a lot of artists to combine not only different sources but also different strategies in one piece. Personally, I crave the multi-valence of art, both in form and content.
A lot of these works speak to a sense of spiritual or magical lack and the measures we take to have these experiences. In the end, the stories told in Magic for Beginners end in disappointment: the mystical experience only occurred as a fleeting feeling, not as material fact. The magic of Photoshop is revealed as artifice. The sway of pop musicâ€™s simple, repetitive slogans are shown to even more inane than weâ€™d feared when all strung together.
My work is about both the power to and the failure of mediated experiences to bind us together. I temper the experiences that are procured through media in an effort to understand why they are so effective.
Iâ€™m fascinated by the works that were exhibited asÂ Invisible Tracks. The source materials for the works were all recent photographs from Iraq, but in many ways the true subject of the works is Photoshop, how it is used and misused in constructing images (documentary, editorial, artistic, etc.) and the small processes by which these changes are made.
I think the works are interesting also because they seem to be an attempt at expressing how an anthropomorphized Photoshop conceives of the world of images. Iâ€™m wondering why you chose photographs from Iraq (instead of, say, Afghanistan or Canada) as the source.
Iâ€™m glad you think the true subject is Photoshop and how it is used to construct images. These pieces get mixed responses; many viewers want a deeper connection with the images from me, for example, if I had gotten the images directly from veterans stationed in Iraq. But the subject of the work was more directed towards the strangeness of access. At the time I started this work you couldnâ€™t read the paper without seeing an image related to the war in Iraq. Squeezed in between ads and text the images not only got lost but also diminished. One morning I had this fleeting thought that I could take an image of a destroyed site and rebuild it in Photoshop. I was intrigued by this creepy idea and so the project began and kept expanding. Using these particular images was a way for me to reactivate the material for myself, to try to get out of a passive viewing space.
What we see through the mass media outlets is tightly controlled and I believe that what we see has a lot to do with how we perceive a remote location, like Iraq. If you think a country is nothing more than a pile of grey debris, itâ€™s easier to care less about its inhabitants. During the process of collecting images I became fascinated by the different ways that images are now disseminated. In that war, for example, you had embedded reporters but other means, like Flickr, for military personnel to get their own images out there. While I was gathering material, I kept finding pictures of people (Iraqis, American military, etc.â€¦) in swimming pools in Iraq. They were so surprising and unfamiliar. The color palette is too vivid and the people look too happy.
I wouldnâ€™t advocate for any blockage of media outlets but I do think itâ€™s worthwhile to examine our relationship to the material we glean. Our relationship to news-related imagery is especially vulnerable as we expect it to be truthful. We can accept a Photoshopped advertisement but not a manipulated image of a destroyed site. I think this is also why these pieces bothered some people; for them, the material demanded a more familiar political stance or a determined polemic. But itâ€™s easier to collect these images and deconstruct them than it is to form a considered relationship with them. And I think thatâ€™s political enough.
Onto newer works, you recently exhibited Trust Falls and Remote. Itâ€™s tempting to see these as marking a transition into a different kind of making or, at least, a shift in emphasis. Most obviously, these are both videos that you shot and, I would imagine, were firmly developed conceptually before production. Second, they feel like theyâ€™re meant to loop. Remote has a trajectory, certainly, but that trajectory feels more like a spiral than a line. Unlike most cinematic uses of suspense, thereâ€™s no release. How did you conceptualize this work? What about the aesthetics of suspense and horror drew you into wanting to make your own version? And, why did you choose to shoot this work instead of relying on found footage?
I did feel like Magic for Beginners was the end of a series. That piece has so much exposition that I wanted to make something quieter and more spacious. I have a tendency to resolve everything and after Magic for Beginners, I felt like I needed to push myself to do something different. I had been developing a long-form, experimental horror narrative that would have necessitated a cast and crew. I began working with Lori Felker as my cinematographer and we shot material so that I could edit a trailer for fundraising purposes. I shelved the project but was captivated by the material she had shot. I could distance myself from the footage and treat it like more like an appropriated source. I was excited about recontextualizing the material by combining it with other sources, something Iâ€™d been doing with appropriated sources for years. That was how Remote began. I did some additional shooting with Mike Gibisser and eventually I shot footage, too.
For unknown reasons, I had become interested in the horror genre over the past few years. Iâ€™m drawn to the use of suspense and the visceral response horror films illicit. The original idea behind Remote was similar to what you stated, all suspense with no release. Initially I wanted to make suspense boring but somewhere in construction I got more intrigued by the effort of actually crafting a horror film. Suspense is still a main strategy at work but the piece also implies a presence that drifts through time and space.
Incidentally, Remote is comprised of both original and appropriated footage and audio. The soundtrack is completely fabricated, everything was added later. There is actually some original footage in Magic for Beginners but it gets read as appropriated. This confusion was interesting to me and I exploited it in Remote.
Trust Falls is another step into the empathetic potentials of cinema. Everyoneâ€”catchers and caughtâ€”seem to smile once the trusting fall. One woman is given a second chance after she initially catches herself. How large would this ideally be projected? Does cinema promise us we too will be caught? Do you have specific memories of a face looking back at you from a screen? What do you think the responsibilities of filmmakers are to their subjects? To their viewers? How many of the performers (?) in Trust Falls fell and caught?
I exhibited Trust Falls at Interstate Projects in New York. I was drawn to the phrase â€œtrust fallsâ€ almost as much as the corporate, trust-building exercise. In the video, the subject is framed in a medium close-up, which is a shot composition that Iâ€™ve been interested in for some time because it is intimate without feeling too intrusive. I utilized this framing both in Magic for Beginners and Somewhere only we know.
Initially I thought I might project it quite large but it was too overwhelming and so the projection ended up being about four or five feet wide. It screened with Remote and the dense and foreboding soundtrack from Remote really affected the view of Trust Falls, which is silent.
In the piece, the subject stares outward, confronting the viewer and becoming another viewer in the process. This viewer leans back, falling into a cinematic void and trusting that outside, there is someone waiting to catch their image. Again, I was interested in suspense, in the moment right before the fall. I wanted to see how the emotions read onscreen. There were seventeen participants, I think? We had a few different catchers, but mainly Thad Kellstadt and Tim Nickodemus caught and this had a lot to do with availability. I had considered making everyone catch but physics eliminated this possibility.
The participants were on a slightly raised platform and instructed to wait before falling. I wanted the catchers to appear at the last minute and be slightly out of focus. I was concerned that if the participants fell into a black void it would actually be less compelling than seeing the catchers. No one involved in the shoot anticipated how joyous it would be when the tension was released. There was a round of applause after every fall.
You have an obvious interest in spectatorship, in how people watch things in groups and alone, and how these things are watched not simply (or always) as entertainment or education or, even, within the realm of conscious artistic experience. What are you own viewing habits like?Â
Iâ€™ll go to microcinemas like The Nightingale and White Light Cinema and I always try to go see every visitor to the Conversations at the Edge series. I usually miss all the Hollywood films, but Iâ€™ll stream them later at home. I can watch a lot of movies, I remember when I was making Remote I was looking for a good shot of trees at night and watched eight horror films in a row. Itâ€™s kind of gross.
Sometimes watching films in a group is great but often the other people watching the screen, or the architecture of the space itself distract me. I do like the experience of being in an actual theater, partly because of the size of the screen and the quality of the sound system but more because there is something about being captive that allows you to drift in your own head. I work out a lot of ideas when Iâ€™m at the movies, or in the shower.
Relatedly, (how) has teaching changing changed your work?
Teaching forces me to be aware of what is happening in contemporary cinema and art and I appreciate the extra motivation to be informed. Without my teaching practice, Iâ€™d run the danger of being too cloistered. Itâ€™s hard work and Iâ€™m certain Iâ€™ll spend the rest of my life improving upon my teaching abilities, which is actually very appealing.
Mostly, though, my students are inspiring, not only in what they do but also what they know. Iâ€™ve learned a great deal from them. They are a steady link to what is happening in consumer technology, social media and Internet culture. Plus, my work is motivated by an interest in human behavior so getting to interact regularly with a shifting group of fascinating and creative people is not harmful to the artistic practice at all.