GUEST POST BY RACHEL MASON
Note: this is the last in a series of three posts guest-blogged by artist Rachel Mason centering on fellow artists, makers and exhibitors in NYC.
A few years ago I came across Cleopatra’s (or the idea of it anyway) because of a project that Lisa Cooley was organizing with the artist Frank Haines. (An incredible artist) She talked to me about doing a performance, which I thought would have been a lot of fun, but for one reason or other it didn’t end up happening and I ended up thinking that Cleopatra’s was a rock club or maybe a theater. I had no idea it was a gallery.
I started hearing more and more about this gallery space run by several women in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. When I finally ventured over to 110 Meserole Avenue, I experienced the reality of Cleopatra’s. It’s about 15 x 35 square feet and in addition to having a space in Greenpoint, earlier this year they expanded to a space in Berlin. There’s something about Cleopatra’s that I found instinctively exciting. I haven’t met Erin yet, as she lives in Berlin and runs the space there, but if she’s anything like the two Bridgets (Finn and Donahue) and Kate McNamara, who are the original women of Cleo’s, then I have complete confidence in what she must be doing too.
First off, the fact that they can do all this using a collective approach is a feat. My experience with collaborations is limited to playing in bands. Its a miracle when it functions and flourishes. Theirs is a story of early commitment–apparently they took on a 10 year lease never having met in person! Kate and Erin met at the lease-signing!
Even though all three women come out of the art world, and still are very much employed by it, their own approach really seems to me to be to try out a variety of ideas with regard to what it means to create an exhibit, as revealed by their recently closed exhibition by Montserrat Albores, Lynne Cook: Three Shows, which, as they state on their website, “aims to unravel the curatorial practice of Lynne Cooke.”
At first I didn’t understand what I was looking at when I went to the gallery, but then Bridget Finn opened up a black folder with pages and pages of emails and handwritten notes, markings on slide sheets, invoices, catalog essays, personal letters. These are the inner-workings of a museum curator’s world. This is how huge retrospective shows happen. The project, organized by curator Montserrat Albores, presents the archive of materials that Lynne Cooke amassed in presenting “Three Shows” from the years 1993, 1999, and 2007.
There was a moment when I thought that the most fascinating thing about the gallery was how many projects seemed to negate the gallery, like Tyler Coburn’s show, which after three years of existing in several other forms finally became a gallery show. Published as a short story and then made into a radio episode, and then finally, and lastly, landing as a gallery show.
But then I realized with this show, that you can’t just look at anything online really- the gallery has hard copies there for you to peruse, like an old-fashioned library. There isn’t any way to document it and put it online, even though its information ultimately came through the internet (like emails and airplane ticket records). You have to go to the gallery to see printouts if you want to see how much On Kawara’s artist fee is, or the original artist’s proposal to the museum director. How do these things happen? What gets the ball rolling? (Chantal Ackerman’s proposal was over 10 pages long!).
Alberes’s show is about a show, which is about a show, which will travel and become another show- and maybe a catalog, a book, or who knows. Its layers of meta- make perfect sense for a space like Cleopatra’s and I’m excited to see how they continue to play with the idea of being a gallery.
This summer I had the chance to work with them- which is what led me to write this piece. The two events they invited me to participate in were FLOAT, a curated show of performances at Socrates Sculpture Park and Eye In The Sky at the Re-Institute upstate in Millerton, NY.
Most people that perform have to check and cross check about 4 times all of the tedious technical details and the smallest thing can completely derail a show…and I was a little nervous heading out to the Re-Institute that there could be problems at this huge outdoor barn with multiple on-going performances happening all at once, but when they said “the PA is going to function and it will work and there will be someone there when you get there”, they meant it. They made these things happen. Even if that meant one Bridget (Finn or Donahue) hoisted an extension chord over a barn door while another directed 50 people over to a campground and somehow all the pieces come together including a gigantic yurt, by Chris Verene, who is presenting it again at Postmasters Gallery in NY.
I just want to express an appreciation of what I’ve seen as incredible and genuine teamwork… and how rare that is… and I feel like the artists and art which get created within Cleopatra’s reflects this thrilling spirit of excitement and comeraderie.
I think its why the gallery is a success and will continue to be one, and has been an incredible launchpad for artists and artists love them. I also think that they are redefining what a gallery is. And I think it is the future.
GUEST POST BY RACHEL MASON
Note: this is the second in a series of three posts guest-blogged by artist Rachel Mason centering on fellow artists, makers and exhibitors in NYC.
I ran into Mary Boom! at one of Louis V.E.S.P.’s Live TV Tapings in New York. Little did I know that Mary, or Bradford Nordeen, was about to be someone I would see a lot more of in the coming year- endlessly curating and creating events through Dirty Looks, his monthly platform for queer experimental film and video. Many of which I couldn’t attend, because… there were simply too many! He is an obsessive devotee of cinema made by gay, lesbian and trans artists- and he works tirelessly, to exhibit titles by those practitioners that he finds essential, to gaining a greater understanding of the queer canon – at least that’s how I see it – and we are the wealthier for it. I am so delighted to have seen some of the film and video work that I might have never seen otherwise, had it not been for Bradford knocking on doors, picking up reels and loading projectors, hosting rooftop screenings of Marie Menken, the Kuchar brothers, Joseph Cornell and Matthias Müller, and having galleries like Participant and PPOW Gallery get on board and offer their spaces as forums for this amazing and under-screened work.
I wanted to ask Bradford how he came to celebrate this work, do what he does and share more insights into Dirty Looks.
Rachel Mason: How did the idea for Dirty Looks come about ?
Bradford Nordeen: Dirty Looks was born out of my academic research. I had been writing at great length on the filmmaker Luther Price and, at first, I recreated his installation, Meat, 1990, at the Brooklyn alternative space, Louis V E.S.P. in order to gauge audience responses. Then I got my hands on another one of Price’s films, all of which are difficult to find, A, 1995, and incorporated that into a West Coast program that toured Los Angeles and San Francisco. I was invited by Robert Smith – almost immediately when the screenings hit Facebook – to present the program at the gallery that had just transitioned from Envoy Enterprises to NP Contemporary Art Center, and in talking with Robert to prepare for that screening, I guess we sort of realized that there was no regular, New York city programming to focus exclusively on queer experimental film – a film form that I think epitomizes queer subjectivity directly, as a structural counterpoint to more dominant methods narrative filmmaking. So I said, “then I’ll do it!” But everything really came together when I started working with Lia Gangitano at Participant Inc, who hosted Dirty Looks first and has been instrumental in every step of the process
RM: What did you envision it to be and how has it been manifested- or changed from that vision?
BN: From the start, Dirty Looks has always been conceived in very organic terms. I wanted the series to develop its own model and not force my ideas on it too greatly. It’s about the audience engaging with the work. Initially that meant folks laughing and having uncanny flashbacks for our first program, where we pitted the early short films of Curtis Harrington (Fragment of Seeking, On the Edge) alongside one of his Dynasty episodes. Dirty Looks’ mission, from the get-go, was to position historical artists or texts alongside more contemporary output, to showcase a lineage of queer aesthetic or narrative experience. And people REALLY embraced that – I think there’s a lot of really passionate people in New York right now who are trying to excavate these legacies – from the organizers and enthusiasts of the Queer/Art/Film program at IFC to the Que(e)ry Librarian Dance Parties. Like them, I’ve really taken to working with the artists and co-hosts in a very collaborative capacity. Co-organizing events with TRANSLADY FANZINE, Little Joe Magazine, [ 2nd floor projects ], SF and Queer Text reading series at Dixon Place, we’re all engaged in queer education and these creative legacies and we bring our own experience to the table, which is really thrilling – and audiences pick up on that too. It’s really so rewarding.
RM: What are a few memorable Dirty Looks Moments!?
BN: So far it’s been a really great year. Our first ever screening (this January) took place in the thick of a blizzard, and still, we ran out of chairs. When we were at Participant, during f. p. boué’s show, Infinite Instant, he had constructed this tiered pyramid that you could climb on and 20 or so folks used it for seating, first for the very architectural lesbian pirate epic, Madame X, and then for our mash-up program of Michael Robinson and Jack Smith. For the latter screening, an seemingly horrible circumstance turned wonderful when the soundtrack for the film turned up missing – which is how Jack really intended these works, to be layered with a live mix of records that he would basically DJ in the back of the room. Of course, Jack is not with us anymore, so I frantically contacted Jerry Tartaglia who restored the films in the 90s for some musical suggestions and the result was shocking and uncanny. Whole sound cues carried through from this random sound assemblage – I really felt like Jack was in the room. More recently, we successfully launched a Kickstarter campaign in which nearly 100 supporters helped us raise funds to continue the series. On the heels of that success, we hosted a terrific screening – our biggest yet – on the rooftop at Silvershed, showing films by the Kuchar brothers. Though it had been on the schedule for sometime, I got a call from the brothers’ SF gallerist (with whom we were collaborating on the event publication) and she informed me that the screening was scheduled for their 69th birthday! So, as befits their sensibility, we got ice cream cake and friend and filmmaker, Marie Losier, phoned them up so the entire rooftop could wish them a happy birthday. That was magical, especially since George passed away the following week.
RM: Tell us about Mary Boom….
BN: Mary Boom!, actually. Mary was a character that I developed as a joke for Scott Kiernan and Ethan Miller’s Manhattan Neighborhood Network variety show E.S.P. TV. Scott needed a host and I came back at him – in what I thought would be a joke. I said, “well, I’ll do it, if I can host it as Robin Byrd.” Byrd is this New York icon, probably on par with Los Angeles’ Angelyne. She’s been hosting this cable access sex show since the early 80s. Well, in truth, they’re still running the same programs shot from like 83 -87, or something, so it’s this strange time capsule you stumble upon when you’re flipping through channels, where this druggy sex maven is interviewing dated porn stars and fondling them. My lark had the justification of being “medium-specific,” since this was cable access being shot on VHS, and I felt that she was a snarky metaphor for the contemporary art market. So, of course, Scott’s response was, “COOL!” I called her Mary Boom!, a play on Mary Boone with a little bit of Joseph Losey’s trashy Tennessee Williams adaptation Boom!, starring Elizabeth Taylor, thrown in for good measure. So she’s kind of this messy, horrible power gallerist who takes stabs at dated art terms like “Identity Politics” without really bothering to understand them. And people really love her. She’s got FANS. Though Ms. Boom!’s kind of hit hard times now. She used to have a big Soho gallery and one of her recurring jokes addresses her “downgrade” to the Lower East Side. There’s talk – with Mary’s assistant, Coco – of doing a spin-off show that’s more structurally based on Byrd’s interview format, called ArtBoom!
RM: What do you think are some of the differences between more contemporary queer work and that of older generations – working in film.. and maybe we should be specific about eras here.. film, video, and now digital video…
BN: Well, I would say, first and foremost, the gallery factors SO much more into contemporary film/video/DV than it has in the past. It’s always been there, of course, but I think there’s currently a greater opportunity for moving image work to get out there, to get seen, to even make a couple dollars off of this format – and here I’m speaking to the avant-garde or experimental film, not feature-length Queer cinema á la Gregg Araki, Todd Haynes, Rose Troche, etc. – which, in the past was not as readily the case. Also, academia and the internet have left really indelible imprints on contemporary queer output, and that, I think, is important to acknowledge. I mean, Ryan Trecartin is a youtube artist. I can’t see someone like Michael Robinson making his films without the kaleidoscopic format of internet, either, however nostalgically his works hark back to recently-outmoded media formats like video and, let’s face it, film. Someone like Ming Wong or even Conrad Ventur – whose work we exhibited in the Female Trouble program – takes a very academic approach to documentation and historiography – Ventur is presently refilming the surviving subjects of Andy Warhol’s screen tests, and Wong re-enacts classically melodramatic or “feminine” film scenes with racial hitches to these otherwise white sources. Both of these artists work in crisp video, so that medium tends to aesthetically pique their critiques. I think that many of the adept “older generations” are nimble and are, if not adjusting to the times, altogether, allowing their historical perspectives to inform their current work. Someone like Luther Price is never going to pick up a RED camera and start editing in Final Cut, but Luther is mining archival 16mm footage, re-editing it as he always has, but also immolating it in even more profound ways: burying it, marring it, handpainting it, so this already nostalgic format becomes fecund in its ability to evoke a distant or psychic past. That said, George Kuchar picked up a video camera when he was 45 and changed the game as far as video art was concerned – long after his early film works. Recently, he was excited to start working with digital 3D cameras, so it’s a really case-by-case basis!
Rachel Mason’s work has been shown at the Detroit Museum of Contemporary Art; the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle; the James Gallery at CUNY; the University Art Museum in Buffalo; the Sculpture Center in New York; Andrew Rafacz Gallery; Marginal Utility Gallery; The Hessel Museum of Art at CCS Bard and at Occidental College. She has performed at venues that include the Kunsthalle Zurich; the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit; The New Museum; Park Avenue Armory; Club Tonic; Art in General; La Mama; Galapagos; Dixon Place; and Empac Center for Performance in Troy. She has written and recorded hundreds of original songs and performs large scale experimental plays involving dancers, musicians and other artists with her band and theater troupe Little Band of Sailors. Rachel has been featured in publications that include the New York Times; the Village Voice; the Los Angeles Times; Flash Art; Art in America; Art News; and Artforum.
GUEST POST BY HEIDI NORTON
I live in Humboldt Park and as of lately I am way into observing, assessing, and mentally noting changes in the trees. The seasons have me thinking about cycles– nostalgia is creeping in. As the lush green turns to yellow, and the yellow to red, my mind wanders back to Rob Carter’s stop motion video and installation of the Nest. Rob’s solo exhibition Culte was recently on view at EBERSMOORE (relocating to 350 N Ogden, Suite 100, January 6, 2012) earlier this fall. I was mesmerized by Rob’s show so much, I saw it twice (see why below). He was gracious enough to give me some of his time to talk plants, architecture, and crowds among other things.
Heidi Norton: Architecture seems to be an important focus within your practice. Within “Culte,” you create an architectural hybrid of the tennis stadium in Queens, Flushing Meadows, the site of the US open and the facade of a Gothic cathedral. Talk about the significance of the actual space – the interior architectural and exterior architecture – that these pieces reference. Why this particular stadium? Does the ground around the stadium play a role? Does it have a historical reference? Why Gothic architecture?
Rob Carter: Frequently my work begins with an architectural juxtaposition and this video has several. The stadium seating is indeed composed of a series of shots I took from each quadrant of the Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing, Queens. However there is little significance to that fact as I have made the playing surface, and therefore the game, very ambiguous: it is an elongated octagon of perfectly mown grass or perhaps Astroturf. The idea is that this is a fairly universal stadium for a universal unspecified sport – the video’s audio track uses the sounds of chanting fans from all over the world representing the theatre and community of sport. Likewise, the outside architecture is made up of Gothic architecture from a variety of European cathedrals, though most are from England and France. All the elements are photographic prints that have been resized to fit on one architectural model structure – they form a building that is fractured (sometimes the outside is made of interior images) and complete – almost believable. To some extent it represents the mega-churches that have formed a significant part of the development of Christianity in North America. These buildings and their ‘organizations’ naturally draw interesting comparisons with the entertainment, fervor, and ritual of sports stadium events. I have been interested in these overlapping cultural themes for several years – how the need for sport and religion divide and unite our cities, both architecturally and as a communal experience.
I chose to unify the exterior of my stadium with one style of architecture. Gothic architecture is not specifically religious architecture, but it has become most closely associated with Christianity through the Gothic cathedral masterpieces of the 12th–15th century. I have a longstanding relationship with these types of buildings – family summer holidays always included multiple visits to cathedrals and churches all over the UK and Northern France, so I have a strong personal connection with it and despite all those church visits I also still love it. Plants and the natural world have many associations with Gothic architecture and carving which makes a coherent juxtaposition with the plants that surround this particular building in my video. Simplistically the representation of nature in Gothic architecture, as it evolves over the centuries, shows the natural world in all its detail formed in solid stone, as well as an emerging order and purity that attempts to stand above the baseness of nature. Though the style evolves into the more rectilinear forms of the Perpendicular style, the association with nature, with plants, flowers, trees and foliage is always imbedded and celebrated within the buildings. The ground around the stadium did have other incarnations but I felt it worked best as a void or barren earth that isolated the building from the reality of urbanism (no roads or car parks), but that also tied the architecture to the ground. After all soil is essentially broken up particles of stone.
Heidi Norton: In graduate school, I made a piece about spectatorship and crowd power. I was very interested in the idea of absorption and the spectacle–the crowds and the event and/or the thing being consumed. I investigated groups of people of varying sizes within sporting events, church congregations, cheer leading competitions, etc. Please talk about the parallels between this type of absorption and the plants growth mediated through the camera and stop motion. Are these people chanting “mantras” or life to the plants?
Rob Carter: The plants are literally absorbing and consuming in order to survive and grow (the audio track also suggests this), so I am interested in this parallel with spectatorship. The subconscious need to belong – to engage, worship or be entertained en masse is a fascinating and important part of our societies. Your Graduate School piece sounds like an interesting project – I am most interested in ideas of the power of the crowd especially in connection with architecture and urban planning. To me the seedlings in “Culte” might refer more to the homogeneity that the crowd creates – how we lose our individual identity in the mass of a stadium crowd, and how despite their uniqueness the seedlings never have individual identity in our eyes. They are simply ‘programmed’ to absorb, nourish themselves and grow. In the circumstances of sport or religion the experience of singing, chanting or just shouting becomes an empowering experience but also one that, like plant growth, relies on order and timing. The voices are chanting many things in different languages, for varying sports and religions, but the auditory sensation is supposed to be something like a series of mantras – one that suggests physical and spiritual transformation – perhaps asking for the plants to burgeon.
Heidi Norton: Why zucchini? Was it important that the plant be a producer of something edible?
Rob Carter: There are a variety of species used, but the soil was predominantly sown with zucchini and pumpkin seeds. When I embarked on this 8-month process I was unsure what I was going to get but the idea was that the vegetables should simply symbolize two architectural motifs – the column and the dome. In my wildest dreams I hoped that a pumpkin might emerge and put a dome on my stadium and probably crush it (the seedlings growing through “The Nest” are mostly pumpkins for this some association). Given the very restricted growing area it was not surprising that this did not happen and as it turns out the zucchinis totally overwhelmed the pumpkin seedlings – so I created a kind of vegetable survival of the fittest arena. It was, as you suggest, important to have something edible produced because the video is partly about sustenance and human needs – about our desire to connect with others and to be ‘nourished’ spiritually. It also attempts to make reference to the religion of food as I see it today – the evolvement of food ‘movements’ (Locavorism, Organic, Slow Food etc) and their influence on the way we live and the fanaticism that often goes along with them. For some, it has become a quasi-religious basis for the way they live their lives, affecting the choices for daily life in ever more complex and sometimes contradictory ways.
Heidi Norton: “The Nest” was also on display at EbersMoore. My perception and understanding of the space was completely displaced when I saw the scale of the actual plants and model. I enjoyed this experience very much. Discuss the importance of exhibiting “the nest” and the significance of the camera’s point-of-view.
Rob Carter:In the course of making “Culte” I transformed my studio into some kind of bio-lab. It quickly became apparent that the apparatus of constructing the work was interesting and did something quite different from the video. This in itself has led me to a new work which will open in New York next year that will have all the apparatus of such a production in the gallery space including a larger scale seed-bed with plants growing and being photographed throughout the course of the exhibit. “The Nest” is something of a mini pre-curser to this. It is a remnant of the process of making the video – a relic of all those hours of growth; it also relocates the scale of the video for the viewer. What especially interested me in the remains of my studio garden was the way the plants had fused with this miniature piece of architecture – they now form a tangled web of plant matter that is both sinister and protective of the little paper sculpture. The new growth in “The Nest” represents both the beginning and end of the evolution described by the video. New pumpkin seedlings replace the evergreen playing surface and they are set-up to grow throughout the course of the exhibit. Here the seedlings grow in real time, but if you were to revisit the show the sculpture would have evolved and the architecture would be a little further obscured than on a previous visit. The sculpture asks the viewer to consider the camera’s point-of-view, and interpret how they have perceived the video. Having been seduced by the movement and sound, it should be something of a mental leap to then look at this pile of dead leaves, observe what is in it and consider the frustrating difference in the sense of time it suggests. The seedlings may feel even more static than they might otherwise – as ‘dead’ in time at the yellowed leaves that surround them.
Heidi Norton: Does nostalgia play a role in these works? Is the idea of youth, memory, and lived experience of relevance? The longing for life? The POV of the camera, the stop motion, talk about all of the things in relation to the work.
Rob Carter: I don’t think I had considered it as nostalgic. That said, there are many personal ways it connects to me and my ‘lived experience’. Stop motion and time-lapse photography has the ability to make the mundane uncanny and often wondrous. Many experience this (first) as children so the adult experience of viewing work using such techniques can be mediated by such memories. My videos tend to use stop motion/time-lapse in a fairly ‘pure’ form – “Culte” uses the techniques of the nature program, but shows more than the highlights – we never see the flower open, but we see everything else.
Heidi Norton: Was the nest a self-sustaining system? Why was it important to add an irrigation feature? How does the space and idea of the stadium change when the plant dies? For me, in the beginning the exterior appeared overgrown and at the end it was barren.
Rob Carter: I don’t think that the lushness is unattainable but it is fleeting. “The Nest” has a very basic irrigation system that required a simple collaboration between artist and gallery – they had to keep my sculpture alive for the course of the show. The surrounding dead plants reinforce how temporary and futile this is; the new seedlings are exposed as an effect and a symbol of potential without the possibility of reward. They themselves represent the true narrative – the story that none of us can escape from. However, I tend to look at this work in terms of cycles of life… cycles and overlappings of culture, community and tradition too.
Heidi Norton received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2002. She lives and works in Chicago. Norton has presented solo exhibitions in Chicago and San Francisco. Group exhibitions include How Do I Look at Monique Meloche Gallery, The World as Text at the Center for Book and Paper Arts, Snapshot at Contemporary Art Museum in Baltimore, and the Knitting Factory in New York. Norton was published in My Green City (Gestalten) in 2011 and her spring show Not to See the Sun, at EbersMoore was reviewed in Frieze, September 2011. Currently she is collaborating with writer Claudine Ise in a seasonal column for Bad At Sports called Mantras for Plants. Norton is represented by EBERSMOORE gallery in Chicago. She is faculty in the photography department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
November 1, 2011 · Print This Article
Portland filmmakers, educators, programmers and film advocates Alain LeTourneau and Pam Minty are in the midst of a Midwest and east coast tour with their avant-doc Empty Quarter. The work is a decade in the making but even beyond that knowledge there is something very large feeling about it. Perhaps this weight is due to the scope of its subject: the three southeastern counties of Oregon (Lake, Harney and Malheur), its wide-ranging citizenry and their activities both quotidian and transformative. I imagine the openness with which a viewer can interact with the piece, though, has more to do with how large and multivalent it feels.
Empty Quarter is formally divergent from conventional documentaries in several obvious ways: its format—from camera to projector—is luminous black-and-white 16 millimeter film; the scenes are composed of lengthy, single shots for which the camera is fixed; the subjects—landscapes and the workers, families and machinery that people them—exist without a narrator’s context, without an onslaught of subtitular text; during those intervening interview portions where direct human voices are heard the screen is completely black (save for those occasional scratches or imperfections the film print will accrue as it makes its way through projectors across the country). It is, as such, in the tradition of other makers who take as their subject the real world. As a documentary, its polemic is apolitical (so far as parties are concerned), but deeply humanistic and with a strong feeling for the strange, beautiful landscape and the industries, families and outside communities with which they function.
Because the film is so open in its presentation, questions relating to urban and rural divides, race and ethnicity within agricultural sector and regions, land stewardship and labor are all invoked. While Pam and Alain were in Chicago screening the film (one hopes they’ll find time for us again on their spring tour of the film), we were able to speak at length about the decade long process of its making, the bold formal elements of the work and the nature of their collaboration.
It seems silly, but sometimes the easiest way to digest works that are formally inventive or distinct is to first think about those differences as an entry into the work. Empty Quarter is a documentary, but will never be described as such without a tag like experimental or essayistic or landscape or avant before it.
Alain LeTourneau: Empty Quarter attempts to create a cinematic experience closer to lived experience. That is, raw and undigested. The viewer would move through and make meaning of the spaces and activities presented. We wanted the relationship to the audience to remain open, allowing the audience to participate on some level. If we had presented a series of opinions or arguments, the viewer would be left in a position of agreeing or disagreeing with the information presented. As a portrait of a place, Empty Quarter is a series of recorded observations. The viewer can enter in to and inhabit the shots/scenes taking away a set of personal reactions, which can then be shared with other audience members, friends and perhaps family. The cinematic experience is intended to extend or ripple out into people’s lives, becoming part of public life.
One of the most striking (and I think best) choices you made in this film is the use of black during the interview segments.
Pam Minty: While all image-based shots are set to sync sound, audio interviews with residents from the area are set to black screen. Our intention in this approach is to give the audience the space to listen in a focused way not competing with the function of visual observation. Many of the issues discussed were repeated across several interviews, so it seemed more appropriate to allow unmitigated sound to convey these shared experiences, opinions and concerns. To some extent, the use of long visual takes informed the choice to give equal or similar weight to collected audio recordings. There was a decision in post-production to mix sync voices more prominently in an attempt to replicate being in the environment and give the audience the opportunity to experience what grabbed our attention most.
Though it seems to hard to imagine this film functioning otherwise the use of black & white seems to work on a number of levels here. It does something to heighten the notion of the work as intentionally produced (as art, as artifice), which seems counter to so much of how most documentaries are made, but it also seems to reinforce the work’s place in a historical trajectory.
AL: 16mm black and white can blur the distinction between seasons, times of day, and tends to focus one’s attention on the activity or landscape being framed, without presenting itself as “reality”. The black and white images are presented as a document or observed record. The texture or grain is also quite wonderful, the way it creates shimmering, almost impressionistic images, unresolved and lower in quality than color.
The whole film is filled with beautiful, evocative images. But without giving too much away, I feel like the final shot (above) is so elegant, so well paced and so well constructed that both times I’ve seen the work someone from the audience has asked whether or not it was choreographed. In itself, it’s an interesting question because the question is not whether the drivers of the farm equipment were directed, but choreographed, but also seems a good jumping off point to ask about how much was done to “direct” the participants in the film.
AL: The final shot in Empty Quarter came out of our experience of observing various patterns that occur in the process or routine of work, whether manual or machine labor. The camera was positioned to present a kind of symmetry with movement in the image, and to unfold in a very subtle way.
PM: We’ve found that audiences have used those terms differently to respond to different images. When machines appear to be moving in a planned way, we’re asked about whether we choreographed the scene. Conversely, when people enter a shot, perform an activity, and (in general) leave the frame, people tend to use the term “direction” in how they phrase the question. Ironically, the most choreographed looking scene, the closing shot, was one in which we had the least ability to manipulate how the corn harvest activity unfolded. Alain’s intuition about when to begin filming in relation to how much film was in the magazine for the tilling of the last row of corn, was critical. Also, his choice to frame the shot as he did lent to the power of that shot. Had he centered the final row tilled, the trucks would not have been symmetrical as they left the frame left and right, and it wouldn’t have happened simultaneously. In a post-film Q&A, he’ll call it dumb luck, but as a witness to that moment, it really comes across as good decision making, being aware of the frame, and keen observation about how the process unfolds.
There’s always something inherently quixotic to the project of documentary. The idea of representing another’s lived experience is always an impossible challenge, but the idea of representing such a gigantic amount of space and the wide-ranging experiences of those who live and work there is even more vast. There are always those in the moving image world who argue for a utopian concept of total representation, of a 360-degree, interactive cinema, and compared to these, the thoughtfully-constructed, single-take scenes of a place seem to argue towards the specificity of your framing and the intent inherent to leaving so much out of the frame.
AL: Total or complete representation sounds like an impossible project. Additional funding would have allowed the film to be longer, maybe three hours, but whether the film would have benefited from this additional material is hard to say. I think we would have enjoyed the opportunity to continue recording and documenting the work, recreational activities and landscape of the area, but even given more material and longer run time, I think it would be difficult to say that we could provide an exhaustive view of the region. We certainly could have shined light on more of what happens in the area. For example, we had an offer to record inside a one-room schoolhouse in a remote part of Lake County, but the completion schedule and our budget would not allow us to incorporate this into the film.
There are a lot of political, social and ecological issues that are hinted at in the film. Compared to most films, or even to most conversations, the film feels balanced (not simply right-and-left, but front-and-behind, top-and-bottom). What lead you to give this film this seemingly non-political vantage?
AL: While Empty Quarter is not overtly political, I would not say it’s non-political or does not on some level engage political questions. The film certainly does not provide any kind of dramatic conflict that is eventually resolved or persuasive argument. In acknowledging our distance from the region and our urban detachment from rural lifestyles, our approach was more of simple observation, which seemed of greater value than a more traditional approach. Looking at—and listening to—the region in an effort to provide a means of thinking about its place in the social and economic fabric of American culture was a critical aspect of our interest in the project.
The same people that have told me the idea behind making a film is to a tell a story also told me that film is the most collaborative of art forms. This concept is obviously based on a large studio system in which hundreds of people do their parts to manifest the vision of a director. The history of avant-garde film, however, takes a central (if sometimes only implicitly or out of necessity) interest in the single artist, the lone maker. Somewhere between these poles lies your own dynamic. Can you describe the process of working as a couple? How do you conceive of our collaboration?
PM: Our earliest experience as collaborators in the production of Empty Quarter was simultaneous to beginning our work co-programming an experimental film series now operating under the name 40 Frames. In 2000, we moved into a warehouse space that could accommodate screenings as well as house our film production facility. As we wound down the production process and moved into post, we transitioned out of programming into the advocacy role we perform now with 16mm Directory, which is the primary activity of 40 Frames. We’re both working on independent films now as we distribute Empty Quarter. Once these projects are complete, we plan to collaborate on a second film on the subject of work.
Jesse Malmed is an artist and curator. He is brand new to Chicago and Bad at Sports. His work can be seen at www.jessemalmed.net.
Guest Post by Jeriah Hildwine
The Elmhurst Art Museum’s recent exhibition, “Michael Rea: Soirée” (July 8 – September 4, 2011) brought together a large grouping of this artist’s work. I caught the show just a couple of days before it closed, and it gave me a chance to reflect on Rea’s work.
Michael Rea is a sculptor, with a 2007 MFA from UW Madison, and is represented in Chicago by Ebersmoore. His past exhibitions have included a group show at Unit B in Pilsen, run by Kimberly Aubuchon, the Rockford Midwestern, and a solo show at Butcher Shop Dogmatic, run by Michael Thomas. That show led to his meeting Ed Marszewzki, who invited him to participate in the Version Festival and represented him through his artist management identity Reuben Kincade. In January 2010, Rea was included in a group show at Western Exhibitions, which led to a solo show at Ebersmoore, and representation by them. They showed his work at the Special Projects section of NEXT, and his solo show at Ebersmoore was in November 2010.
Rea makes things out of wood. For the most part, they’re stereotypically masculine sorts of objects: robots, weapons, and lots of references to nerd culture like Star Wars. The wood is left pointedly unfinished and has the look of a plain, light wood like pine, fir, or poplar. The surface and visible construction of the objects makes them very approachable, inviting. You want to hold them, to touch them. They are as much toys as they are works of art.
Rea’s show at EAM closed on September 4th, but his work didn’t have to stay in storage for long. “Tsavo Manhunters,” his lion-hunting mech, appeared shortly thereafter at the Chicago Urban Art Society, where it was included in the exhibition Wood Worked, curated by Chicago Urban Art Society’s Co-Founder and Chief Curator, Peter Kepha, along with CUAS Pop-Up Satellite Space Curator Kevin Wilson. Mike Rea’s work is virtually synonymous with the theme of Chicago artists working with wood, and would have been extremely conspicuous by his absence had he not been a part of that exhibition.
Not included in that show was Conrad Freiburg, who also does some very impressive woodwork, although he works in other media as well, and typically uses wood as a means to an end, whereas Rea uses it for its own sake. I think of these two artists in contrast with one another. Freiburg uses a variety of carefully chosen woods, the color and grain of each being selected for a specific purpose, and shapes them with a meticulous fit and finish to serve as beautiful vessels for some pretty far-out ideas. Rea on the other hand uses plain wood, typical hardware-store pine, and frequently assembles it with a less-is-more aesthetic, numerous dowels and half-rounds and slats cut and assembled into fantastic forms, but with their nature still clearly visible. In other areas (the clenched fist on “Suit for Stephen Hawking,” the lions’ heads in “Tsavo Manhunters”) small, shaped blocks of wood are assembled into complex forms, asserting their “woodenness” particularly by seeming so much the wrong material for the job.
Not that Rea’s commitment to wood is absolute. In “Olympia,” a sort of Star Wars/Nirvana scene in which Chewbacca appears to reenact Kurt Cobain’s in-bed suicide (with his trademark bowcaster in place of Cobain’s shotgun), burlap, rope, and yarn serve alongside the wooden bed and bowcaster. Chewbacca’s fur is brown yarn, and his missing head is replaced by a spray of strands of red yarn. Red yarn serves as blood in other of Rea’s works, including the hilariously titled, “My Anaconda Don’t Want None,” in which the eponymous snake (made of wood, of course) is cut into several lengths and impaled on a stake (suited to the exhibition, “Heads On Poles,” at Western Exhibitions). Each of the snake’s wounds is created by a mass of dripping red yarn.
We accept the yarn as blood, and ropes as coax cables, and so on, because of their context. The unpainted wood, the visible seams, and the milled mouldings give us permission to suspend our disbelief: they are honest enough about what they are, that we don’t fear being thought foolish for not questioning them.