Like so many in our worlds, Brett Kashmere’s engagement with art spans making, writing, teaching, curating, editing and organizing. Perhaps more impressively, he’s good at each of these. His subjects often pertain to history, collective identity, sports and the ways they articulate and actualize each other. His essay film Valery’s Ankle (embedded below) is deft and provocative, mixing personal history, social questions and rib-rattling editing toward a peek beneath the pads into Canadiana. His latest project, From Deep, signals a switch to the basketball court and the United States. At the same time, it maintains an interest in fan-culture, hybrid forms and a commitment to rigor without opacity and invention without pretension.
Raised in Canada, Brett has lived in Pittsburgh (while teaching at Oberlin) for the last several years. He is known perhaps equally for his own filmmaking as he is for his critical writing, his work editing INCITE Journal of Experimental Media (medium disclosure: I have a piece in the next issue) and his curatorial pursuits. INCITE does an excellent job of publishing works both scholarly and playful (a G-Chat conversation between Jesse McLean and Jacob Ciocci, for instance) without privileging either or presuming one form might have a monopoly on all types of insight.
As part of the exhibition Spectator Sports (opening this Thursday!), Brett will be screening his work and discussing it with Lester Munson at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago on Tuesday, April 23rd. Graciously, he never brought up the name of this publication in relation to his own work.
You’ve curated, written about and made films about Canadian identity. I have dual (US and Canadian) citizenship. Half of my family is Canadian and I’ve spent a decent amount of time in Canada and thinking through the issue of Canadian identity. No identity is fixed and national identity can be as useful or as destructive as any other unwieldy, essentializing concept. That said, I’m hoping you might elaborate a bit on where your thinking is on the issue now and how it’s changed in that last many years of living in the States.
I agree – national identity is an abstract, complex construction, a symbolic category, which serves both good and bad purposes. As someone who works a lot with sports as a subject, it’s disturbing to see how they’re often used, in ways subtle and overt, to stir up nationalist sentiment and prop up dangerous ideologies. I’m thinking of that famous quote from Ronald Reagan: “Sport is the human activity closest to war that isn’t lethal.” He meant that as an endorsement. On the other hand, sports provide a common, everyday, shared experience that has deep (often under-acknowledged) reverberations and significance. I’m most interested in its relationship to place and community, as a kind of folk culture that is potent and tribal, rather than as an instrument of national identity.
I finished Valery’s Ankle shortly before immigrating to the U.S. in 2006, to upstate New York. At first it didn’t seem that much different than living in Canada, though the Iraq War certainly cast a shadow over everything during that period. It was a dark time. There was a distinct feeling of uneasiness, which I attributed to the political circumstances, and that did seem to dissipate somewhat after Obama’s election (replaced by a different, more manufactured form of paranoia).
The longer I live in the U.S., the less I feel connected to Canada but the more I come to recognize differences between the two countries. Part of that understanding is intuitively felt, and part of it has to do with core principles and attitudes rather than anything related to day-to-day life. When I think about what it means to be Canadian, I often come back to the question: “Where is here?” For Northrop Frye, that was the central question of Canadian identity. Our sense of self is determined by external factors, the things beyond us, which we don’t control. Whereas in America, identity seems determined from within – “Who am I?” – and rooted in those founding American ideas of personal liberty and freedom.
I’ve only ever watched Valery’s Ankle on home screens. In particular, I’ve enjoyed being able to watch it on my laptop and scan through it, returning to certain parts and skipping over others while thinking about the work and this interview. In this changing media landscape, there are lots of new opportunities for works to be experienced. Typically for works that do not originate with intentions for the small, portable screen, we maintain an understanding that this isn’t how they’re supposed to be experienced, but this is what we have. UbuWeb recently tweeted “UbuWeb is a photograph of a painting.” For video works whose form is shifting and fluid (are there people who really think a new export with a different codec is an inauthentic copy?), this is a little more complicated. I have been speaking recently with others who (in this mode of speaking) identify as a fellow makers of “dense video work,” and are excited by the potential of video for the home, for the computer, because it allows the chance to view and re-view. With works in the essay tradition, this seems to be an even greater boon.
A common response I hear about my work is that it’s dense. I use a lot of text layers and sources, onscreen and through voice-over, and the editing style is usually fast – I like a constant flow of images and ideas. I’m not interested in making conventional documentaries that you can watch once, process the information, and arrive at a satisfying conclusion. Even though it’s unlikely and probably unreasonable, I embrace the idea of making work that will reward multiple viewings. So in that sense, the home computer, the small portable screen, offers a lot. I’m glad you find value in returning to certain parts, in shuttling back and forth. I prefer that its reception be productive and relational, not merely consumptive.
Then again, I consider the filmmaking that I do to be part of a cinematic tradition, best suited for the theatrical screening context. The conditions of that experience are still important to me: the large image, the fixed starting and endpoints, the focused attention, the darkened space, the social dimension. But more and more, I find that situation to be limited and unsatisfying, at least for the kind of work that I make. I would like for it to circulate more freely, and across platforms; to be more available to more people than the one-time theatrical screening allows. I’m not sure that YouTube is the answer, in terms of the mindset that’s required for viewing a longer essay film or video. But perhaps the work can exist in different forms, as a modular construction, and the platform determines the version of the piece that you see.
In perhaps a similar vein, how does your work in curating and writing impact your filmmaking practice? Does the skillset of the curator align with the culling and positioning of archival materials? Does critical writing engage the same part of your brain as making critically-engaged films?
I tend to think of curating, writing, and filmmaking as distinct and separate parts of my life, linked together by expertise in editing. They definitely impact one another, sometimes consciously and sometimes in coincidental or supplementary ways. My work as a curator and a writer, for instance, has influenced my approach to filmmaking, which I’d describe as a research-based practice. From Deep, the project that I’m working on now, about the cultural history of basketball, feels at times like a curated film. It relies on the editing together of hundreds of discrete elements, including movie clips, music videos, TV commercials, video game footage, and so on, which are interwoven with self-shot “moving snapshots” of the game. I can easily imagine an exhibition on the same topic, or a book. But I don’t think those forms would connect or communicate in the same way, the way I prefer. The moment-to-moment conjunction of image and language, which provides the central tension, the collision and mix of ideas within a set period of time, being able to control the entire experience and where people enter the work, those factors require that it be a film or a video.
In terms of the overlapping skill sets, my working knowledge of film/video production helps when I write about and curate moving image artwork. I understand the technical aspects and logistics of film and digital media, and I know what to pack when I’m presenting a screening to avoid technical problems and troubleshoot. But crafting narration for a film is quite different than writing a critical essay or a curatorial text. Writing voice-over requires constant revision, to get the timing, sound and flow of the words right and it can’t be too complicated. It’s one of the final stages, so often the sequence lengths are already set and the text has to fit into predetermined blocks. It’s about concision – how to say the most with the least. But being able to write critically helps in the pre-production and post-production phases, in the preparation of grant applications and the development of secondary writing about projects.
In Valery’s Ankle, you declare your interest in asking questions (over providing answers). Have the intervening seven years answered some of these questions? Have you found this interrogative mode of making to be productive or frustrating to audiences?
Posing questions is a useful rhetorical device, a way of opening things up. I’m interested in the anti-authoritative perspective, in the amateur or fan’s point-of-view, and in Foucault’s notion of counter-memory. Many of the questions that I ask in Valery’s Ankle can’t really be answered, and aren’t meant to be. If they provide an opportunity for individual reflection, or if they provoke a discussion, that’s great, that’s the ultimate goal. I don’t think the mode is frustrating for audiences. I’m careful about building in different entry points and levels of engagement. Accessibility is important to me, and so are variety and surprise. I like to frequently shift between a first-person mode of address, the subjective, and a more straightforward presentation of facts and evidence: Here is where I’m coming from (my frame of reference) – here are some things you may not know about (forgotten or overlooked histories, silences of memory) – here’s why I think they’re important (the argument). The viewer can decide for herself whether the argument has merit, whether the connections I’m making are sound, and whether I’m to be trusted as a reliable narrator.
The things that I struggle with are: How to synthesize the personal with the formal investigations? What is important as information? What does the viewer need to know in order to follow the work? Where is the point of convergence between local and universal experience? I also work from a basic assumption that every record (every fact) has a b-side. There’s the side that is marketed and sold, but the other side is usually more interesting.
For all of its formal inventiveness and engagement with the expressivity and history of non-fiction filmmaking, Valery’s Ankle is still an immediately watchable film. The questions that it poses are quite literally posed and the gestures you make toward an expanded notion of nonfiction film (perhaps the space between documentary and essay) fit and flow seamlessly. Will you speak a little about questions of legibility and the ways a background in “experimental” media can impact other types of making? Am I just “in too deep[ly]” to see that this work is secretly difficult for non-specialized audiences to enjoy?
Having a background and an ongoing interest in experimental film has definitely shaped my approach. I don’t consider the work that I make now to be part of that tradition, even though it circulates in that world. I feel like that background does give me some license, or drive, to mess with the tropes and conventions of documentary. Alternately, the appearance of documentary provides cover for the more formal investigations, the manipulation of the image and so on. Creative nonfiction is probably the most accurate description, but it’s more of a literary term. It hasn’t quite crossed over into film and video, even though a lot of my favorite work– by practitioners such as Jackie Goss, Harun Farocki, Michael Moore, Chris Marker, Barbara Hammer – fit that categorization. Also, I don’t believe the work is automatically difficult for non-specialized audiences to enjoy. That hasn’t been my experience. It doesn’t give viewers enough credit. The public screenings that I’ve attended often elicit homogenous, guttural groups reactions to the visceral and/or humorous parts; that kind of bonding amongst strangers can have a powerful effect.
Lately, I’ve been motivated by a couple of overlapping concepts: Brecht’s notion of a theatre (or a cinema) of pleasure and instruction, and the idea of “edu-tainment,” which I associate most with the hip hop artist KRS-One. I’m trying to find ways to bridge accessibility with critical inquiry. I don’t want to make straightforward work about sports – there’s already a lot of that out there, like ESPN’s 30-for-30 series. I enjoy those films – they’re well produced and fun to watch, but once they’re finished I never think about them again. It’s institutional storytelling. The one exception that comes to mind is Brett Morgen’s documentary about the O.J. Simpson chase, which stands out because of its unusual form: a found-footage compilation that presents the events of one day – June 17, 1994 – with no commentary. It’s a mesmerizing piece, and a reminder of how much the media landscape has changed since then. The 24-hour news cycle really begins right there, with those long helicopter shots of O.J.’s white Ford Bronco navigating the L.A. freeways.
Speaking of specializing audiences, how have hockey fans (in particular Canadian ones with long enough memories) reacted to Valery’s Ankle?
In many ways, hockey fans have been the best, most accepting audience for Valery’s Ankle. Part of that is by design. I’ve presented the video in a lot of places across Canada, in a lot of different contexts – from academic hockey conferences, to big city and small-town film festivals, university classes, art galleries, microcinemas, sports bars. The sports bar is almost an ideal setting for me, because I work with a formal language that most people understand, the language of sports broadcasting. If you’ve ever watched a hockey game in a bar you’ll know that nothing captures mass attention like a hockey fight, even though, nine times out of ten, they’re the most banal things to watch: a couple of guys clutching one another and spinning in slow circles for two minutes. Valery’s Ankle pulls you in with the fighting, the spectacle, but then it flips things around. It starts posing questions about our common assumptions of hockey violence. For instance, when, and why, did fighting become an accepted part of the game? What is the deeper meaning behind the trophy for most sportsmanlike behavior in hockey?
The people who are old enough to remember the 1972 Canada-Soviet Summit Series either don’t remember the slash – Bobby Clarke’s intentional breaking of the Russian star Valery Kharlamov’s ankle – or never knew about it. The visual evidence scarcely exists – it happened quickly, with no camera close ups. The image quality is poor. No one is truly surprised by it, though, as Clarke had a brutal bully reputation, but the general response is one of embarrassment for the sanctioned dirty play, and the fact that the Canadian men’s bodies were so out of control. If there’s a negative reaction, it’s usually from people who don’t think I go far enough with the critique; that I leave too much out. The violence touches a nerve.
I’ve received a lot of wonderful notes and messages over the years, saying to the effect that Valery’s Ankle has changed, or modified, their opinions about hockey and its relationship to their identity. The video has acted as a bridge piece (peace bridge?) between artist friends and their dads, who wouldn’t normally have much tolerance for experimental work. Just yesterday, I received an email, out-of-the blue, from an established Canadian filmmaker, a person I’ve never met but have great respect for, who wrote: “my 15-year old son and I watched Valery’s Ankle and he thought it was ‘awesome’; me too! thanks for providing that perspective with such calm passion, along with the great hockey images.” I can’t really ask for anything more than that.
Will you tell our readers a bit about your most recent project and what they’ll experience at the Museum of Contemporary Photography?
The MoCP will be showing a couple of my pieces as part of their upcoming exhibition, Spectator Sports (April 12–July 3, 2013). In addition to the video essay Valery’s Ankle, there is a newer work titled Anything But Us Is Who We Are, which is comprised of two parts: a burned LeBron James Cleveland Cavaliers jersey, framed and mounted on the wall, and a live video game feed of James (in Cavs uniform) holding a basketball at center court in an otherwise empty arena, waiting to be activated, perhaps in a moment of indecision, contemplation, or awaiting orders from the viewer/fan/agent/gamer. The game controller is displayed in such a way that you can’t actually use it.
For me, the piece was a way of exploring and coming to terms with the limitations, but also the agency, of fandom. The bond between fans and players is so tenuous, so illusory, and typically one-sided. In his great book Black Planet: Facing Race during an NBA Season, David Shields writes that “Fans want to think it’s us against them… and that the players on ‘our’ team are in cahoots with us, in some difficult-to-define way – difficult to define, since their contempt for us is so manifest.” LeBron’s decision to leave Cleveland for the Miami Heat in 2010 demonstrates the volatile nature of this relationship. It was such a charged moment, because as fans, we like to believe the players play “for us” and that we’re part of the team, or at least recognized by and important to the team. But this isn’t really the case. They play for themselves and each other, and we invest symbolic meaning in a multimillion-dollar corporate enterprise.
Nonetheless, when a cherished star leaves town, it’s hard for those fans not to feel betrayed. Complicating this is the fact that nearly all of the NBA’s owners, team executives, and paying customers are white, while nearly all of the players are black. The struggle to possess and control the subjects of our sporting affection is such a potent metaphor. In many ways, sports have been at the vanguard of social change in America. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the racial integration of baseball in 1946, followed by NBA’s integration in 1950, preceded the racial integration of schools in 1954. Athletes like Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos did a great deal to bring awareness to racial inequality, and helped to erode the structures of racism that were inherent at the time. When Obama was campaigning for president in 2008, he deliberately played up his interest in basketball, to make himself more relatable (the professor could hoop, too).
In addition to the exhibition, I’m doing a public event on April 23rd at the museum. I’ll be screening excerpts from my in-progress feature documentary From Deep, and discussing the culture of basketball with Lester Munson, a writer and legal analyst for ESPN, who also teaches journalism at Northwestern.
I was a tremendous basketball fan at one point. I have dozens of books and VHS tapes on the subject and still find myself accidentally stuck in the mental morass of John Starks’ number of Dikembe Mutombo’s full name on occasion. Will you talk a bit about the personal shift you made from being a hockey kid to a basketball one and about the larger societal shifts in fandom? Why make a film about basketball instead of baseball (our supposed national sport) or football (our apparent cinematic/televisual national sport)?
That transition, from hockey to basketball, occurred during my teenage years. Typical of Canadian boys during that time, I started played competitive minor hockey at age 5. After ten years of full-time play and grueling travel, I realized hockey wasn’t the sport for me anymore. Part of it was the danger, the fear of serious injury, since I was the smallest kid on the team. But a larger part of it was an evolving sensibility – I just wasn’t into the small-town, country-and-western, hockey-obsessed prairie culture. By then I was listening to rap, fascinated by graffiti, urban style and expression, and following the NBA. This was a golden age for basketball: Jordan was just reaching his prime, Magic and Bird were still in the league (this also around the time that Magic revealed he had HIV); the video game NBA Jam was a huge success. Then there were the 1992 Olympics and the Dream Team, which took basketball to an even bigger stage internationally. I was also really into Skybox basketball cards, which had those amazing computer-generated abstract backgrounds, and also the Arsenio Hall show, which often had rappers and basketball players as guests. Michigan’s Fab Five were bringing hip hop fashion and swagger to college ball. It was all cool, and fun and exciting. Basketball hoops were suddenly popping up on driveways everywhere. A tremendous shift was occurring. The world got much larger, seemingly overnight.
Although, unlike baseball or football, basketball is less rooted in American myth, it is, in my opinion, the 21st century American sport. It is certainly more global and easier to play: You don’t need a lot of equipment or a lot of space, it can be played outdoors or indoors (all weather), by yourself or in almost any sized group. It’s democratic. Everyone does everything on the court – there aren’t highly specialized roles, as with baseball or football. I like those sports and enjoy watching them but I never really played them growing up. So basketball was the natural next step for me, as a subject to explore. I’ve been thinking that my next project might be about football, though. With all of the recent studies that have come out about head injuries in football and the long-term effects of repeated concussions, it seems to be facing a major crossroads. The game, and the NFL, will have to adapt to this new science or it will become obsolete. It’s an interesting parallel to where the U.S. is at in right now in its history, as an international power trying to maintain its primary place in a changing global landscape. The idea of the masculine warrior athlete, and of sports as a gendered institution, a “school for masculinity,” is no longer contemporary, or relevant. It’s time to evolve.
Switching gears to some of your other endeavours, is there a specific niche you’re hoping for Incite to fill? How are you approaching print/web publishing decisions? What are some historical forebears whose output has influenced the project?
As an undergraduate film student, I loved flipping through back issues of Film Culture and Millennium Film Journal and smaller, more idiosyncratic hand-bound journals like Spiral. Those publications had a big impact on me, as did Jonas Mekas’ “Movie Journal” columns. The way he mixed criticism, advocacy, community building, and poetic language into his writing was inspiring. I knew from that point forward that I wanted to start a journal. My favorite types of writing have always been artist statements, manifestos, personal essays, letters and filmmaker responses to their colleagues’ work.
INCITE was founded in 2008 with the goal of reinvigorating the culture, community, and discourse of experimental film, video art, and new media. P. Adams Sitney made a comment around that time, in an interview with Scott MacDonald, decrying the lack of new writing about experimental film and video, at a time when it was going through a huge creative resurgence. That was a major catalyst.
From the beginning, INCITE has embraced a plurality of forms and approaches, combining the spirit, eclecticism, and individuality of zines and artist books with the review process and editorial methods of academic publishing. In addition to scholarly articles, INCITE regularly prints manifestos, aesthetic statements, artist projects and drawings, archival documents, “G-chats,” diagrams, collage-essays, and so on.
Through the integration of print and online platforms, we attempt to distribute our publishing activities as widely as possible while also providing a material trace, a tangible legacy. It’s important to me that we publish an annual printed issue. But those take so much time to produce, and are dependent on volunteer time. The current issue that we’re working on right now, Exhibition Guide, has over 50 contributors. We decided a few years ago to create an online interview series (“Back and Forth”), which would allow us to have an active publishing presence between issues. We have a couple of other web initiatives planned, including a reprint series of important texts that are difficult to find or no longer available, with new contextualizing information; and a “work bench” series, which will feature annotated documentation of artists’ studios and editing spaces. And we’re close to finishing our first artist monograph, on the work of the pioneering Canadian media artist David Rimmer. It was edited by Mike Hoolboom, and will be available as an e-book on our website as well as in a print-on-demand edition.
Matt Wolf is a non-fiction filmmaker whose work finds inspiration and subject matter in the lives and work of other artists. His debut feature film, Wild Combination, profiled the elusive musician Arthur Russell. Russell’s prolific recordings (mostly unreleased and in continual flux) and performances ranged from minimalist new music to disco to country-tinged power pop in his too short life. Through a variety of recent releases of these lost and found gems over the past half-decade and Wolf’s poignant, sensitive documentary, Russell’s profile has raised.
I absolutely adore Arthur Russell and was ecstatic to see Wolf’s documentary when it made its way around the festival circuit in 2008. Documentaries about artists, to my eye, are rarely successful at generating the heat and intensity of their subjects. Perhaps conventional logic dictates that the documentarian’s duty is to present the material in a straight-forward and information-driven mode. The very impulses toward idiosyncrasy, subjectivity and innovation that drive the work of these artists are often lost in the translation to a different context.
Wolf’s work is vital because of the care he takes to ensure that his formal, conceptual and aesthetic decisions reflect—though subtly—the works and lives of his subjects. The pacing is delicate and deliberate without feeling slow. The shared emphases on biography, work and social context entwine to produce fleeting documents of artists who have passed but whose influence still grows.
I Remember, which was released last year, profiles the artist and poet Joe Brainard. Brainard is best known for his poem cycle of the same name and for his work in collage, painting and assemblage. For the piece, Wolf has constructed his own collage of found footage and archival images of Brainard with a swirling conversation between a recording of Brainard’s own reading of I Remember and the poet Ron Padgett offering a very personal biography of his best friend.
Wild Combination is available on DVD and iTunes. I Remember will screen at the Ann Arbor Film Festival and Images Festival soon and can be streamed online or rented through Video Data Bank. Wolf’s latest film, Teenage, premieres this April at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Because it seems a good a place to begin as any, I’m hoping you might tell us a bit about your background—where you grew up and were educated, the types of jobs you’ve held to help you make work and, most important, your evolution as an artist. When did you realize you wanted to make films? Did you begin by being in bands or making paintings or was filmmaking always the goal?
I grew up in San Jose, California. I was a teenage gay activist, and I thought that I’d grow up to work in politics. I was on Good Morning America, lobbying my legislatures and stuff like that, but I also wanted to be an artist. I got obsessed with ‘90s queer independent films and directors like Todd Haynes and Derek Jarman. And then I started discovering video art and experimental films by people like Sadie Benning and Kenneth Anger. I was inspired to become a filmmaker, so I enrolled in film school at NYU.
It didn’t really occur to me how traditional and industry-oriented NYU would be. But I stuck it out, and eventually had the filmmaker Kelly Reichardt as a professor, which was really inspiring. During college, I got involved in the art world. I was writing art reviews for magazines, and most of my friends were visual artists. So when I finished school, I worked in a painter and video artist’s studio. Slowly I got some opportunities to make short documentaries about artists first for the public art organization Creative Time, and later for the New York Times. It was around this time that I started making my first feature Wild Combination.
My first experience with your work was through Wild Combination. Arthur Russell’s music has long meant the world to me and I was excited that someone had chosen to make a film about his life. To me, one of the most effective strategies in the film is your use of time-specific camera and media formats for your “reenactment” shots. Be-walkmaned Arthur on the ferry is shot on VHS tape, while Iowa is captured in luscious super-8. More so than the interviews, these moments tie us to the spaces, places and feelings of those periods. Can you talk a bit about the process of creating those reenactments? Do you, in your own mode of remembering (and as a filmmaker), see your own past in such aestheticized forms?
Making “fake archival footage” is one of my main filmmaking interests. I love working with found footage, but I like creating my own vintage-looking material too. My new film Teenage, which is coming out this Spring is a pretty expansive look at the birth of youth culture. In the film, I’ve made recreations that are shot in the style of period home movies. I shot scenes with vintage 16mm camera bodies and uncoated lenses, used experimental printing techniques to further degrade the footage, and then even organically got dust, scratches, and dirt on the films. Viewers shouldn’t necessarily be able to identify this stuff as original, staged footage. A lot of people will think it is archival.
The first moving images I ever saw of Arthur Russell were these de-saturated, extreme close up shots of him performing cello. They were shot on an old VHS format. I knew that was the material, texture, and feeling I wanted my film Wild Combination to have. I’m always trying to make films that have a cohesive form to them, even if I’m drawing on eclectic material. The recreations I film are a kind of visual glue that tie all the elements together.
Arthur Russell didn’t have immense media exposure from which you could draw footage, but there are numerous tapes of him performing that could be utilized. To what degree was the film shaped around the footage you were able to find? Were there scenes you were unable to include but that demonstrated something about Arthur you wanted to show? Also, I was struck by how many of the credits for this footage belonged to other legendary downtown figures (Phil Niblock, Jean Dupuy). This shouldn’t be too surprising considering where they were shot or his audience, but I’m curious if this lent itself to another kind of collaboration or, at least, an opportunity to reflect on the rhizomatic, entwined structures of artistic community.
There was a tiny amount of documentation of Arthur. If I had been a more experienced filmmaker, I probably would have said there’s not enough archival material to make this film. But that limitation proved to be a really productive challenge for me, and it helped me think more creatively about the filmmaking. It contributes to this sense of mystery about Arthur, the subject who is absent from the film. But really, I’m using every existing filmed recording of Arthur that exists. It was cool going to Phil Niblock’s loft to pick up a VHS tape, and the Kitchen’s archive was very generous in helping me access Jean Dupuy’s wonderful video documentation of Arthur performing “Eli” from the performance event “Soup and Tart.”
Arthur Russell and Joe Brainard share certain similarities. They were both born far from the coasts but found their way to the cities (and New York, in particular) about as quickly as they could. They both operated on the fringes of their particular scenes but were well-loved by their peers and small but devoted audiences. They were both gay and casualties of the AIDS crisis. I’m curious what about these figures (beyond the incredible work they produced) drew you to them.
Lately I’ve been thinking of those two as “gentle gays.” They both had a certain intensity and self-deprecating quality to them, but they also seemed like incredibly sweet people with a sensitive demeanor. I’m really interested in telling the stories and exploring the biographies of artists who died of AIDS. I think a lot about what New York and our world would be like if so many brilliant queer people hadn’t died prematurely. In some senses I imagine myself as a peer to them today.
I’m interested in the artistic inheritances of queer art (in particular from the 1970s to the 1990s) to makers in the present. Because of the tragic ravages of the AIDS crisis, so many of that era’s great makers’ lives ended much too soon. The question is broad and will be necessarily subjective, but I’m hoping you might have some thoughts on these questions of inheritance, lineage and historicization.
This is all stuff I think about a lot. Being queer is an important part of my identity. But often times I don’t really connect to contemporary gay politics. Queer culture from the past is what resonates with me the most. I’m not entirely sure why that is, but I know I’m not alone in that feeling.
Regarding these questions of inheritance, there is an incredible book I would recommend: Sarah Schulman’s Gentrification of the Mind. It’s a memoir about the AIDS crisis and ACT UP movement, and Sarah discusses how AIDS lead to the gentrification of Manhattan. She reflects on gentrification not just as phenomenon in cities, but a phenomenon of consciousness.
I imagine one of the pleasures of making documents/portraits of artists is the chance to interview and work with their peers. Are there artists through whose interviews you’ve felt a particular closeness or whose way of talking about your subject was particularly illuminating? Did the chance to have a relatively narrow topic (one artist) allow for a conversation that touched on other, broader topics (I imagine talking to Philip Glass about Arthur Russell is easier than talking to Philip Glass without a subject at hand)? What sorts of lessons about artistic kinship and community have you learned through these interviews?
I love interviewing people—it’s one of the most stimulating and rewarding aspects of making a documentary. To me a good interview is a two-sided conversation, not just a series of questions. Through my work I’ve met a lot of really interesting artists and thinkers. I believe that any good biography transcends its subjects and is about other cultural histories, or larger ideas. For Wild Combination, the biography was a way for me to also explore the setting of downtown New York in the 1970s and 1980s, the intersections of pop culture and the avant-garde, as well as queer culture and the impact of AIDS.
I Remember is described as “a film about” while Wild Combination is “a portrait of” their subjects. Without dissecting hairs or whatever the phrase is, I’m interested in these small designations. Do you think of these works (and perhaps in contrast to other projects you work on) as being distinct in their processes? Or, perhaps, do you have ways of describing the shift between portrait, document, documentary, essay or non-fiction (or other categories) filmmaking? Are these terms useful in the construction and reception of your work?
Both projects are really portrait films. A portrait isn’t a definitive biography, it’s a selective and artistic treatment of a subject. I didn’t interview everybody that knew Arthur Russell or Joe Brainard—I make focused and somewhat selective choices about how I would present their stories. That’s how I can be specific in my filmmaking rather than general. To me, it’s about making creative non-fiction, rather than straight documentaries.
I Remember was commissioned by Nathan Lee while he was at Bard’s Center for Curatorial Studies. How did this come about? How does making work as a commission differ from other forms? Did knowing the work would exist in a museum exhibition (I’m assuming) before screening spaces impact the way you made it? Do you consider these works to be collaborations with your subject?
Nathan was really supportive, and gave me free reign to make whatever project I wanted. I had already started the Joe Brainard film, but needed an excuse (and some financial help) to finish it. I was excited about the opportunity to work in a gallery space, and to explore the documentary form in an elliptical, non-linear way. I felt like the structure of Joe’s poem “I Remember” speaks in circles, so it felt right that the film could play that way too. Truth be told, it’s only since screened in festival contexts, so I think it really is perceived more as a self-contained documentary, but I think it works in both contexts.
Your next major project is about teenagers. Can you discuss the project a bit?
Teenage is premiering in April at the Tribeca Film Festival. I worked with the author Jon Savage on the film—it’s inspired by his book of the same name. The film looks at the pre-history of teenagers, and examines youth culture from before WWII. It’s really about the role youth play in shaping the future, and how society oppressed and controlled youth before they were finally recognized as “teenagers.” It’s not a traditional historical film—the entire story is told from the point of view of teenagers. It’s been a major project that I’ve been working on for four years, so I’m excited for it to come out soon.
February 11, 2013 · Print This Article
Even though we call them motion pictures, moving images, movies, not everything committed to celluloid or quicktime has motion at its locus. In the idiosyncratic, stirring body of filmic work that Fern Silva has produced—and will be screening five recent works to inaugurate Conversations at the Edge’s spring season this Thursday—movement is integral. The sumptuous and silent Passage Upon the Plume (2011) finds its rhythms in the coupled vertical impulses of hot air balloons and baskets being lured up and down the faces of buildings. Concrete Parlay (2012)—his latest as well as the source of the evening’s title—uses the trope of the magic carpet ride to guide us through cities and bodies and concepts both foreign and domestic.
Showing a preference toward making/taking footage while traveling, the films are filled with nods to the histories and aesthetics of home movies, ethnographic film and experimental film. Through a variety of collage-techniques and sophisticated sonic strategies, the works retain an alluring density that compels repeat viewings. Beyond the density, they have great levity and are propelled by their own internal rhythms. Busted pop songs and radio fuzz keep the party moving even if its attendants may not be sure where.
Fern holds a BFA from Massachusetts College of Art and an MFA from Bard College. He teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago (where I am an MFA candidate). His films have shown widely in film festivals, galleries and museums and in 2010 he was named one of the “Top 25 avant-garde filmmakers for the 21st century” in Film Comment. Concrete Parlay: An Evening with Fern Silva takes place this very Valentine’s Day at the Gene Siskel Film Center at 6:00 pm. Fern will be in attendance and ready to answer any lingering questions you may have. Perhaps something about a minidisc player and a bullet.
I am always interested in learning more about an artist’s background and the ways (subtle and overt) that one’s biography shapes one’s artistic output. I’m hoping you might say a bit about where you’re from, the first films you saw (experimental and otherwise) that impacted your aesthetic sense or made you want to make your own work.
I was just listening to this Terry Gross interview with Tyler Perry on NPR and a large topic of conversation was his biography and how it influenced his creative process and now manifests itself into his films. I absolutely identified with him and his experiences. I’ve never seen a Tyler Perry movie although I think Why Did I Get Married is a great title for a film, but I do agree with him in making films through catharsis and hopefully having an audience face them that way. George Kuchar says something like, make sure to have a past otherwise your future will be bleak in his message to the people of the future. This is something that I’ve been thinking about lately, humorously.
I grew up in Hartford, CT which at the time was very depressed and dangerous but just like my parents who had immigrated from fascist Portugal, there were other immigrants who were also fleeing from dictatorships and war-torn countries at that time in the 70’s. Not sure why they went to Hartford though. My class all throughout grade school was like a mini-UN, we were from everywhere and the US at the same time and fairly confused about our identities and being American. Most of us were just learning English and were back in our respective motherlands once we got home after school. Sharing stories and cultural experiences with one another heightened my curiosity for travel. I wasn’t really allowed to watch movies or go to the theater until I was a teenager, if I saw any movies, they were mostly in school.
I do remember going to a yard sale with my mom when I was a kid and buying what may have been a foot of 16mm film with the image of a china girl on it. The guy told me it was a movie but I had a hard time believing that since I had no knowledge of how film worked and the image itself was so still and there were just multiple frames of it. I did carry it with me for a while asking random strangers who the actress was and the name of the movie I was holding. Little did I know, she was in every movie in one way or another. I lost it once when I went to a friend’s house and ripped open a VHS tape of Howard the Duck to make comparisons and noticed no images on the tape. I was perplexed and then just moved on to continuing to paint and draw. So to fast forward, it wasn’t until later in high school after experimenting with other things that I started to watch lots of movies and so filmmakers like Dreyer, Cocteau and Vertov were very influential in my interest to pursue films closely. Our public library somehow had an amazing collection so often I’d come home with stacks of VHS tapes and watch at least two features a day. I soon after learned about artists making work on a more personal and creative level like Brakhage, Deren, and Mekas but it wasn’t until I started going to MassArt and spending time with Saul Levine, Mark Lapore and Ericka Beckman that a profound impact would be made on my pursuit to be a filmmaker. I remember feeling a sense of euphoria, many times, during multiple screenings and wanting more.
Relatedly, you and I and many others have come of age at a time when many of the big names in (I hesitate to use this phrase but) the first wave of experimental film had either passed or were reaching that stage. Our mentors have primarily been a mix of those taught by that first generation of impactful makers and a mix of their progeny and the occasional glimpses of their ancestors. Now you’re teaching and I’m interested in a few questions around this: how do you imbue your classes with the vitality and interest of works that are (by now) fifty years old, how have the lessons of these older generations impacted your pedagogy and what do you think are the historical lessons we can glean from them?
Well nowadays a lot of the work from those canonical filmmakers that both you and I were exposed to in school are readily available through digital technology and even viewable on the internet so I often just have my students watch and write about them on their own time unless I have access to a print. I try to show as much work that I think is as important and less accessible, in comparison, during class time. Experimental films that were made 50 years ago can be as fresh as films being made now in a classroom setting. I like to show films that I found inspiring and share stories about the filmmakers who we’re watching. For example, when I show Meshes of the Afternoon, I’ll tell the story of when Maya Deren threw a fridge across the kitchen while she was possessed in her West Village apartment that Brakhage writes about in Film at Wit’s End. Sometimes, I’ll also come in with multiple films and sense the energy in the classroom and then make a decision on what I think everyone is ready for, they’ll all watch them at one point or another in class. Over all, I try to teach from a sociological standpoint as I feel a large part of cinema literacy lends itself to that very essence.
Much of your work is shot while traveling. It is also, in some cases, concerned explicitly with travel, movement and means of conveyance (magic carpets, hot air balloons). This is perhaps a broad question, but I’d like you to talk a bit about what travel means for you creatively and how you conceive of the traveling you do. To what degree do you seek out situations that you think might make for interesting filming opportunities? How do you choose where you’re going and when? How do you see travel functioning metaphorically for aesthetic/cinematic experiences (or, even, do you)?
I’m interested in travel as much as I’m interested in understanding the inevitable paths that living beings take for one purpose or another, either through immigration or migration or just plain leisure and the expectations and outcomes of those experiences. I also utilize travel as a means for self-examination that in turn allows me to disconnect from practical or theoretical assumptions of origin, priority, essence, etc. I always go into making a movie with an overall agenda but use the production stage as an exploratory process so that I can work intuitively. Having ideas and searching for their articulation continues throughout production up into the post/editing stages. Overall, outside of travelling and making films, I’m visiting friends and my interaction with them often informs the outcome of the films.
There is a long and fruitful history of poets and avant-garde filmmakers working together, reflecting on each other and informing each other’s practice. The mutual friend through whom we first met, Charity Coleman, is an excellent poet and thoughtful, passionate cinephile. You use poems by Fern(ando) Pessoa and Luís Vaz de Camões in Servants of Mercy (2010) and I know that you have been engaged in various ways with poetry and poetics. I’m hoping you might elaborate on these relationships and also how you see you work functioning in a poetic dialogue.
Charity makes great use of the word dreamy.
There is, or rather was, a long fruitful history of poets and artists alike working together in a way that at one point may have been called “parallel poetry”, but it seems as if it’s less common nowadays. Or, at least it seems that way between poets and filmmakers working contemporaneously on a sort of one-to-one level. As a personal filmmaker, the possibilities of working with other poets adjacent to filmmaking is something that I’m interested in continuing for as long as I make work. There are several poets or poems that I re-read before I start edits. For example I always read/listen to Of Being Numerous by George Oppen which is one of my favorites and once I get down the line a bit I listen to Reign in Blood by Slayer, always. Pessoa and Camões are two of the most celebrated Portuguese poets, I read them in Portuguese for practice when I was a child. There was a saying that won’t translate so well in English but it went along the lines of “Luis de Camões can see better with one eye than we can see with three.”
Your use of sound is really wonderful and startling. In particular, I think you do a really interesting of job of allowing the sound to complicate and mystify (rather than simply double or reinforce) the image. There are moments of (apparent) synchronization and others when the clarity of a sound, in particular its source within the diegetic space, begins to wander and, finally, leads to an entirely new set of image concerns. At what stage in your process is sound introduced? How do you select the songs you’re using and they function they’ll play, both conceptually and emotionally?
I record all of my sound during the shooting process. Lots of it. All of the time. But it’s never in an abusive sense. I house it, store it, label it and pay close attention to it. My approach to recording sound is different from shooting in the way that I collect hours and hours and hours of it and will often create foley in post-production and build libraries. In some ways I obsessively collect it. I love how malleable it can be sometimes and how specific it can be other times. All of this through multiple forms of manipulation creates a certain flavor I seek in my sound/image relationships. Even the songs, pop plays everywhere and I always stop and record it wherever I go with the means that I might use it. For a long time I was recording with a mini-disc player, up until recently. It finally stopped working after a bullet got lodged in it through my pocket. It actually saved my life.
In conversations we’ve had, you’ve gone into great length about the necessity of sitting and watching—both actively and ambiently—your footage dozens (if not hundreds of times) before beginning to edit. I think your process is unique (though perhaps discovering a unique process is the key to becoming a unique artist) and I’d like you to share it. Did you always work this way? Is this one of the (useful) limitations of 16mm?
Well overall, I think it’s important to study your footage and to really take it into consideration on every possible angle or direction at various speeds and single frames. It’ll often be months before I get my footage back from the lab so during that time I try to exercise by memory and often edit in my head from what I remember. Once I do get it back, I feel the need to burn it into my brain so that I’m constantly thinking about its possibilities to exist as a sort of encapsulation of multiple thoughts, sounds, and images from a specific period of time. So I have to watch it at least a hundred times before I start cutting. It’s an ongoing process on how I get to that point and it always changes so it’s hard to gauge. One thing I can say is that it becomes a ritual in itself. I always did this to one degree or another but it was because I didn’t shoot much, I still don’t really. I’ll usually use 2/3 to 1/2 of my footage for the final edit and sometimes I’ll be close to 1/1. I also edit while I shoot, sometimes marking rolls, rewinding them and popping them back in. The last movie I made, I got my film back and then decided to shoot some more in a controlled studio, this is something I might be interested in exploring in the future, adding overtly fictional elements to accentuate a certain theme.
This is a question about structure, about (non-)narrativity and about collage. Or, maybe, this is a prompt to hear your thoughts on these words together and perhaps in that order and most certainly in reference to your own work.
All of those words mean the same thing to me.
Julie Perini is endlessly curious. Her practice revolves around moving images, but utilizes a full quiver of strategies toward an equally far-ranging set of goals. The work–like Julie herself–is smart and funny, willing to try new things and thoughtfully self-aware. Even as she becomes more established in her role as a maker, organizer and writer, her curiosity and restlessness of form push her into new and challenging situations.
Graciously and unexpectedly, her responses in this interview touch upon several ideas I have been thinking through recently: the perceived mind/body split, the role of one’s hands in the realm of the digital and how to align the political, personal and aesthetic in ways that open up experience instead of closing it down.
Where do you come from? Specifically, how many parts of New York have you lived in and what initially keyed your interest in making art? Making videos in your basement? DIY shows in other people’s basements? An aggrieved political sense from infancy?
I moved around New York State from birth until age 29 in the following order: Poughkeepsie, Ithaca, Brooklyn, Buffalo, Oswego. There were brief stints in Florence, Italy and Juneau, Alaska in there too. I was a quiet kid and a voracious reader of books. As soon as I was able, I was writing my own stories and poems. I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. I was also a musician in various high school ensembles and in bands with friends and yes, the late 90s independent music phenomenon was a big eye-opener for a disaffected youth like me in the suburbs. What little interest I had in the type of music I was learning in school disappeared when I realized other kids like me were making music in their bedrooms with friends that didn’t have to be perfect and you could sing about stuff that was funny or actually mattered to you. I also made videos with friends using clunky VHS equipment my early adopter parents had, often for school assignments, like the hour-long docu-drama Nam: The Homefront, 1964-69.
Also I went to the public library often and took out VHS tapes of classic Hollywood films. I loved the clever banter between people like Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey; those movies were so much better than the junk Hollywood was offering up in the 80s and 90s. I went off to college at age 18, wandered into a campus screening of The Red Shoes, had my socks knocked off, and keep going to see odd films at Cornell Cinema like work by Sadie Benning and Jennifer Reeves. I was hooked. At that time, Cornell only had two 16mm film classes that you had to sit on a wait list to get into, so I went to Ithaca’s public access station to learn how to use analog video editing equipment. I’ve been teaching myself how to use whatever equipment is available ever since.
You mention that some of your interest in engaging with community-oriented and more overtly political work stems from your own experiences with the FBI in Steve Kurtz of the Critical Art Ensemble‘s investigation. I know about this from reading things at the time and later seeing Lynn Hershman Leeson’s interesting film about the same. Can you detail your experiences a bit more and discuss how they impacted your making?
Lynn interviewed me for that film (Strange Culture) but I didn’t make the final cut. It’s a long story, but for now I can tell you this: In the summer of 2004 after my first year of graduate school at the University of Buffalo, the FBI issued me a subpoena to appear before a federal grand jury to testify as a witness for the bio-terrosism investigation of Steve Kurtz of Critical Art Ensemble (CAE). My part in this story is particularly amusing because the main reason that I can see the authorities called me in was because they found a note I’d written Steve that contained a line that said, “State smashers need to stick together.” So I explained what state smashers are to a Grand Jury. In an effort to understand why the community of artists around me in Buffalo was being scrutinized in this way, I read a lot of books about the history of the FBI, like Ward Churchill’s Agents of Repression, and this quickly led me to other resources about state repression of dissidents in the US. The FBI has been successful at halting the development of progressive groups like the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and the American Indian Movement for example; these are facts that are well documented and well known. So this research provided me with a context for understanding why the government found CAE’s work so threatening. This wasn’t anything new.
At the time, this experience impacted my practice by making it difficult to focus on anything except the case and keeping my professor out of prison. In an effort to push past this creative block, I began shooting video with a small DV camera throughout the day in an unplanned, uncensored way. I followed most whims that I had and ended up making a lot of performance videos and diary material. I was inspired by people I’d been reading about from the Civil Rights Movement and resistance movements in the 60s and 70s like Assata Shakur, Fannie Lou Hamer, and so on. I figured that if they do what they did in their efforts to change their worlds (endure torture, ridicule, solitary confinement, etc.), I could push past my own personal boundaries and dance in public or whatever it was I had set my mind to do. After a few months, I reviewed a lot of this material and either used it to make finished short pieces or re-created some of what I had shot to make finished pieces. This became my graduate school thesis, Experiments in Immediacy. And this is still the main way that I make work – I follow whims, experiment a lot, and then review the resultant documentation and fashion it into finished works. I have an artist talk that I do called “Shoot First & Ask Questions Later” that discusses this approach.
Part of what would seem to distinguish Relational Filmmaking from other filmmaking practices is an emphasis on process over the final product. I think this is a commonality throughout your work: you are very overt in your direct communication with viewers. You speak and write directly to the viewer in many of your pieces and the way your materially-invested films are titled and presented very plainly addresses the process of their making at the outset. I’m hoping you might talk a bit about whether you conceive of these works as, on some level, being documents of the process of their making and about the relative directness of your speech/text throughout your work. Is clarity an important condition of Relational Filmmaking? Of politically-engaged art more broadly?
I am glad you picked up on this and asked about it. All of my work tries to strike a balance between process and product. Sometimes I feel like I hit a sweet spot with that balance and at other times I feel like things lean bit too much to one side. So I wouldn’t say that I prioritize the process over the product since I am invested in creating careful and considered experiences for viewers as well as designing meaningful processes. Yes, I do conceive of much of my work as being a document of its own making, or a record of its own making (thanks Peter Gidal). The handmade films in particular seem like records of what happened to them as they came into being. And yet, much of the processes that made those films are not recorded; a viewer wouldn’t know for how long I’d left Collaboration with the Earth in the ground, for example. This leads us to the titles and text. I decided to use text to tell quick stories at the beginning of each film, narrating the process behind each production. I think of this way of presenting material as a kind of Joseph Kosuth or Martha Rosler move, where I show viewers the same process in two different representational systems. This phase I’m describing is where one of the great joys of moving-image-making lies for me: looking at the results from experiments and figuring out how to shape them into something for someone else to view. I have to make decisions about the extent to which I let people in on the process and the extent to which I allow narrative or formal considerations to influence the final piece. I rely on text a lot to do that but I am always trying to find new ways strike that balance. Installation is pretty exciting to me right now because objects and materials communicate in an entirely different way from verbal language.
In terms of direct address, that partly comes from some of my earliest experiments with 16mm film in the late 90s. At that time what I thought was the most fascinating thing about film was that it could make a viewer feel something physically or even do something unconsciously. Horror films for example, make me cover my eyes with my hands during super scary parts; I can’t control it. Some really gross films make me vomit a tiny bit in my mouth. Amazing. So in the 90s I made short horror films, usually about people who had a vexed relationship to food. For example, in one film food inappropriately comes out of a character’s body parts like his ears and nipples. I am still interested in creating a sense of reaching out through the screen and directly touching a viewer. A lot of documentary filmmaking does that and so does advertising. I think of my use of direct address, which is mainly through text/titles and sometimes through a subject talking directly to the camera (usually me), as a way to openly acknowledge the relationship between the art object (the video, the film) and the viewer. Mainly to acknowledge that the relationship is there, it’s happening. There is something immediately funny to me about being this explicit.
Who are other Relational Filmmakers? Do you feel that this constitutes a “movement” or is the purpose of your manifesto a way to clarify your thinking on your own work?
The purpose of the manifesto was mainly to clarify my own way of working. I do not think it’s a movement although I bet we could find enough makers out there whose work isn’t adequately described by Bill Nichols to write an essay that argues there’s a trend towards relational work. Lately I have wanted to keep the tenets of the manifesto but change the name. The “relational” term seems to float fine in filmmaking circles but other types of artists and art people recoil; it seems to carry with it a lot of late 90s baggage that I don’t really need. I’ll get back to you when I find a better name.
What can Social Practitioners teach filmmakers and vice versa?
Good question. Filmmakers can teach social practitioners what they’ve learned over the past 100+ years about the ethics of working with human subjects as well as some techniques for effectively assembling and presenting visual/audio documentation of events. Social practitioners can remind filmmakers about the importance of being present and aware when creating an artwork with other people.
Will you talk a bit about 34 Years of Whiteness: Race & Ethnicity in the Work of Julie Perini? Why whiteness instead of womanness? Why whiteness instead of educatedness? Why whiteness instead of Americanness? Does whiteness in this context convey all those other types of privilege?
The Whiteness talk is a lecture I did a few months ago at the close of a show I had up at Place Gallery in Portland. It was inspired by an artist talk I had been at this past fall by a Native American woman. She talked about the use of family stories, tribal traditions, and indigenous language in her painting, sculpture, and installation. She both explained what motivated her to make work in the first place – preserving and celebrating her heritage – and she unpacked the symbols that recur throughout the work. I had this aha moment while I was sitting there: “Why don’t I ever give a talk like this? One where I talk about the influence of my family, my race, etc.? I give artist talks all the time and they are usually about some new process I’ve developed or some formal boundary I’m pushing here or there.” Then it all started to flood quickly into my consciousness, what a talk about race in my work would look like. In a moment I pretty much reviewed my entire creative output and reframed it through a racial lens. It was a big moment.
Think about it – the reason I had never given a talk about race in my work the way this Native American artist was doing was simple: I am a member of the dominant racial group in the US. Here, white people are just people: we are the standard, the norm, the universal. Our race is invisible. The lecture was an attempt to make whiteness more visible by pointing out the ways that my previous work constructed images of whiteness, of white people, of the white race, of white privilege. Since whiteness is invisible, particularly to white people, I needed a lot of help to see it and several friends of mine who are people of color graciously helped me out. You can imagine how awkward, beautiful, and hilarious these conversations were. “So, um, I am sure that this video I made shows some stuff about what it means to be white but I’m not sure exactly how it does it. Would you mind looking at this for me…?” I believe that our identity is expressed in all of the work we make, whether we intend it to be there or not. Art does more than merely express identity, but identity is in there every time.
The Whiteness talk was one of the best things I have done in years. The audience who came was filled with people interested in talking about identity in and around art. We had a great conversation. People want to talk about things like race; there just aren’t a whole lot of spaces where it seems safe to do that. All of my work is about heightening my own awareness in some way and now this Whiteness lecture is helping me to be more aware of myself as a white person. And while I am certainly informed about and interested in ideas about intersectionality, right now I have a lot of work to do to understand the more nuanced histories of white people and white art in the United States. I think it would be great to have a whole series of talks like you mention in your question – Gender in the Work of Julie Perini, Nationality in the Work of Julie Perini, Class…, Ability…, and someday: All Axes of Identity in the Work of Julie Perini. Great idea!
Your day job is as an Assistant Professor at Portland State University. Can you talk a bit about how teaching has impacted your practice?
When I’ve got a good group, an awesome class meeting makes me want to run out into the street, or home, or to my studio, to make stuff.
You have a new project your raising funds for now. I’m hoping (first) you might take this moment of pixel megaphone, blog soap box to turn readers into donors and (second) I’m wondering if you have any thoughts about crowdsourced fund-raising. Will Kickstarter endure or will we joke about it in five years? Is it a key component of new relational art? Should we resent the middlemen? What is this project about?
Sure! The Gentleman Bank Robber: The Life Story of Rita Bo Brown is going to be a short portrait documentary of Bo Brown, one of the members of the George Jackson Brigade. The GJB was a revolutionary group from Seattle in the 1970s that carried out a lot of militant actions – ie; bombings – to protest the Vietnam war, to show solidarity with workers on strike, and so on. The group often robbed banks to fund their activities, and Bo became known as “The Gentleman Bank Robber” because she demanded funds from bank tellers in a polite manner. She dressed so butch that the authorities were looking for a man for a long time before they figured out they should be looking for Bo. Eventually the GJB all did prison time for their actions but now they are all out. The GJB were like The Weather Underground but unlike the Weatherman who were mostly white, the GJB was a mixed sexuality, mixed race, and mixed gender group. I met Bo through a friend of mine here in Portland, Lydia Bartholow. Lydia has wanted to record Bo’s life story for a long time, to have more documentation of radical history from working class butch dykes like Bo. I am more than happy to help out with that project, so here we are. Our friend Erin McNamara is also working on the project. We are running a kickstarter campaign right now to raise money to fund our travel to Oakland, CA where Bo lives. We want to spend a week with her, interviewing her and her friends, documenting her life, and so on. I can’t say right now what the final product will look like but it may be more straightforward than most of my other work. Bo is so awesome, super down-to-earth and sweet but also hard as nails and brilliant, that I am psyched to be able to spend a week with her like this. We are about halfway to our fundraising goal – please feel free to support The Gentleman Bank Robber!
In regards to crowd-sourced fundraising, this is the first online fundraising campaign I have ever done. It seems like it is good for a few reasons: (1) you can raise funds very quickly, (2) you generate excitement about your project and build a community around it before you even make it, and (3) you can get funds from people who don’t live near you. The first two were true before the internet and the third was true but more cumbersome to pull off. The main drawback seems to be that it’s just plain annoying; I probably receive several kickstarter requests every week. I do not know what the future holds for crowdsourcing like this. I think we should ask Canadians what they think. Artists there seem to have an easier time accessing state funding to support their work. I heard that Kickstarter now channels more funding to the arts in the United States than the NEA does. That is not a good sign.
This relates as much to your own practice as it does to my interest in how artists conceive of their careers and the infrastructures they use to bolster their work. You’ve recently gone through a number of residencies (and have just begun another at Yaddo). How do these specific spaces and contexts inform your work? Does the Relational Filmmaker’s Manifesto dictate this kind of site-specificity?
In one way, this relates to your teaching question. I have a humanities/social science background, so teaching in art departments and art schools for the past several years has been like going to school all over again. I did not recognize it at the time, but during my undergraduate years there was this subtle idea in the air that thinking was what was difficult, important, and valuable; that’s what we did at school. Making was this base thing that happened someplace else. It was a manifestation of the unfortunate but common mind/body split we see everywhere in our culture. I’ve been unlearning that lesson slowly. And after several residencies where I’ve been able to have some heart-to-hearts with people who work with clay, paint, textiles, language, sound, and so on, my respect for artists and appreciation for what all artists do has grown tremendously. Artists practice fusing their minds and bodies so that they can act in creative, expressive, and investigative ways with materials, tools, forms, and ideas. Incredible.
I want you to talk about your (recent) interest in the materiality of film. This seems like a relatively late discovery considering how long you’ve been making images move. I’m interested in how this more hands-on, process-engaged work has opened you up to new ideas. Part of what’s also interesting is that you bruise and beat the film such that–correct me if I’m wrong–the only time it’s ever actually projected, as such, is when it’s being transferred to a digital copy. How does film–as a physical thing–come to bear in other parts of your practice? What does it mean to be engaged in this specific form at this point in history? Have you taken an interest in the “materiality” of digital video, in its ones and zeroes?
Mingling with painters and sculptors for the past several years has made me way more open to both (1) working with materials with my hands and (2) seriously exploring formal elements. I learned about handmade film techniques through a workshop Pam Minty teaches at the Northwest Film Center and I immediately started to wonder what my usual repertoire of questions and strategies would look like as cameraless films.
I have taken an interest in the materiality of digital video, and analog video for that matter. I am constantly aware that these are all very different media created and transmitted through completely different means. I have not yet taken that fact to be the subject of a work but I appreciate that other folks like Evan Meaney are doing that, although he is doing that and much more.
What is the difference between creative activism (falling into something like living and acting politically as form) and political art? To me, one of the fundamental issues surrounding political art as well as documentary as a broader practice. How important are clarity, succinctness and overtness to communicating political ideas? Is there room for genuinely innovative and formally expressive work that is still oriented toward conveying a political idea? Compare, say, Frontline documentaries with those of Jackie Goss or Craig Baldwin or even Ken Jacobs, if the goal of a politically-engaged film is to convey a political idea, maybe formal innovation can get in the way? And if creating a complicated space in which a multiplicity of ideas and feelings and interpretations can flourish is a goal of much of contemporary practice, how does this muddle political meanings?
These are all useful questions you’re hitting on here, ones that have been considered for a long time either consciously or unconsciously by people with power and by people who want power. I think that Jen-Luc Godard quote makes sense here: “The problem is not to make political films, but to make films politically.”
Person Corporatehood. I said this aloud one day and let it sit for a minute or two, trying to figure out what it meant. I believe in this kind of thinking: create language, see if what it describes is useful, use it, make it. I said this and then I realized that Mike Merrill had made it. He’s a publicly traded person. People own shares in him and vote on matters of import to his life: dietary choices, romantic entanglements, whether or not to have a vasectomy, his professional and civic obligations and affiliations.
As an artist, this highlights a few key elements of what seem to dictate his practice and production. He is compulsively collaborative and instigates projects with varied social reaches and dynamic insider-outsider/collaborator-audience roles for others. He has an interest in how the aesthetics and language of business can be utilized in new forms. And, I think most important in appreciating what he does, he creates systems of rules–games–in which he and others interact, bump up against and work within these strictures.
His projects are manifold–and are not always described as art–but include the internet community/cultural nexus Urban Honking (which he co-founded in the early part of this century with YACHT‘s Jona Bechtolt and States Rights Records‘ Steve Schroeder and on which I also have a blog), its internet reality show the Ultimate Blogger (which ran three seasons), Team Video (which produces, as you might expect, TV), Allison Supper Club (site-specific meals) and, of course, KmikeyM, which is him as corporate entity, him as owned by you.
Let’s begin at the beginning. Can you tell us a bit about your biography? I recall that you were raised in Alaska. As a late-teen you joined the Army. In 2001 you co-founded Urban Honking. Can you fill us in on the in-betweens?
I grew up all over Alaska. Spent my youth in a place called Coldfoot, AK with very few other humans. Then when I was in 5th grade I finally got to go to school with other kids in Soldotna. In my junior year of High School we moved to Sitka, AK. Even when we were in the same place we moved around a lot. I don’t really have a “childhood home” and I haven’t been back to Alaska in many years. I’m sure that affected me somehow…
Growing up my Dad was a State Trooper and I thought I wanted to be a cop. I was just around it so much and would read books on pro-active vs. reactive policing, community policing, and all these other things my Dad had around. I really liked the systems and the thinking around those systems. I didn’t realize that there was a difference between that and the average police officer. So after High School I joined the Army as Military Police, thinking I’d do that, then go to college, and then eventually end up in some federal law enforcement agency. But I quickly hit a snag when I realized that to be a good cop you kind of have to be a bit of an asshole… I mean, you have to want to get into people’s business. That’s the job of the police! To place themselves in situations where they are not wanted, and to do so with authority and take control. That was not me. I wanted to read books about supply logistics (there is a lot of supply and logistics happening in the Army!) and play with the computer inventory systems. So I wasn’t a very good MP, and likely I wasn’t a very good soldier, so when I had an opportunity to get out, it seemed like the best option both for me and for the Army. I like to say we split on amicable terms. It was a mistake, but I don’t blame that on the Army, it was my mistake. Anyway, that experience certainly affected me. I joined at 18 and got out at 21. Pretty formative years.
When I got out I didn’t want to go back to Alaska and I had friends who were renting a house in Portland, so I told them to save me a spot and I moved to Portland in 1998. A few years and many projects later I was living with Jona and Steve and we started Urban Honking. God, there is so much more, but I feel like this got long and boring!
The context of this interview is that you are–as you sometimes present yourself–an artist. I don’t think in 2012 we need to have a discussion about why or why not your work can function as art. I am however interested in you talking about the kind of code switching and context-shifting that you present for different projects. What are the advantages of presenting your work as entrepreneurial or as art or as something like a series of goofs by a guy with web savvy?
For me the danger of presenting what I do, or rather, how I live, as art is that it’s too easy to dismiss. “Oh, that’s an art project. It’s not real life.” So while I feel like many of the individual projects can fall under an art category I don’t choose to place being a publicly traded person under that. In Portland I engage with a lot of different people. People who identify primarily as artists, or writers, or designers, or software engineers, or whatever. The beauty of the KmikeyM project is that it hits all those points. I need all those people! So I think the context-shifting actually happens very naturally. I talk code with the software people and concepts of control with the artists… of course, many people around me wear multiple hats, so it all blurs together. But in general I tend to categorize people in my head as how they interface with KmikeyM. The way it’s presented is in a constant state of flux.
Can you talk a bit about your time in the military? What elements of that experience have shaped your life as a maker/project-person?
Being in the Army taught me how to adapt to systems. The Army is very well regulated. There are rules for every single thing. A few of us more rebellious types realized at some point that the true power in a system like that isn’t rank… it’s the rules! The rules exist for everyone so even when it was not in our own best interest we’d bring up these rules about the things we were doing, just as a way to exert some sort of control. I think that experience was the start of this idea that social systems could be “hacked” just like computer systems. It’s the same thing… you just find ways to exploit the rules.
Where did the idea to become a publicly traded individual come from? What have some of the surprises of this project been?
I didn’t want to be the publicly traded person. I wanted to invest in the publicly traded person! The original idea came from etoy.com. They use a shareholder model but there is no market, which as a shareholder of etoy I found sort of frustrating when I saw the stock price go up! I wanted to sell and cash out! I talked about the idea for years before I met someone who had the skills and interest to make it happen, at which point I couldn’t say no.
A huge part of what makes your project so interesting is to watch you–as a human being with your own feelings, ideas and context–work up against the way you are required to by your share-holders and the rules of the elaborate game you’ve created. You are a registered Republican now but also have seemed to struggle within these confines, even endorsing Barack Obama’s reelection (while supporting Republicans for Obama). Can you talk about this decision, and, using this as an entry into this part of your life, discuss other instances in which you’ve been challenged by your shareholders’ decisions? How many of your shareholders are also friends?
Part of becoming a republican was certainly just to “mess with the system”. I find it pretty silly that something as polarizing in our culture as political party is determined by a form you get from the post office. You just check a box and off it goes… BOOM! Registered Republican. But then the reality sinks in… I’m a Republican. There is a history to it that’s pretty interesting and while the current version of Republican is pretty broken, the core of it is still solid. Right now I’m not a very good Republican, but I’m also pretty new at it! I’m learning more and getting better and working on finding ways to incorporate my new political beliefs into my life and projects. It’s a no brainer to support Obama and join Republican For Obama. He’s the best candidate. The idea of being party-loyal over nation-loyal is why politics is broken. Republicans supporting Obama is a sign that the current leadership isn’t pushing the right agenda.
As far as other challenges it’s not so much direct actions as it is an overriding sense that I need to keep things moving. I have a responsibility to them. It’s a relationship I’ve come to value more than most personal relationships (not all, not yet). It certainly helps that most of the people I personally care about are shareholders. That allows me to apply the love I have for my friends to the rest of the shareholders. These are people who chose to get invested in me. That’s huge! Who has that? I am incredibly lucky to have a community that supports me and pushes for me to be my best.
Why aren’t there more Republican artists?
Republicans don’t make art, they make money. It’s hard for me to talk about my party. We’re in a bad place right now. I’ve embraced the values of the Republican Party but I feel like my fellow Republicans are much too busy opposing the ideas of Democrats and so they ignore our true agenda. Plus religion got all wrapped up in Republicanism and that isn’t helping. We’re in a dark and confused place right now, but I think the fact that the best we could do was Romney is a sign we’re close to hitting bottom. At least I hope so. Republicans need to ignore Democrats and focus on being good Republicans. This is a bit of a tangent, but I think it’s related. Art is about creation and right now the Republican party is more focused on destruction of their opponents than creation of their own ideals.
Looking back, I think the first way that I first engaged with (you and) Urban Honking was through the Ultimate Blogger contest/show. My friend and sometime roommate Tim Donovan was a contestant on the second season and ended up doing quite well (I think he was either second or third). I loved that project. I’m also surprised in looking back at how much the internet has grown and how different a project like this would be now. Not only would it seem absurd–since “blogger” no longer even sounds like a funny word–but it’d be on Hulu or something. This kind of project exemplified something exciting about “cyberspace” that certainly still exists in large quantities but is not the dominant way “users” interact with “content.” The dream of streaming video for many was a citizen-created media–something like YouTube but without the TV clips and without the targeted advertising. How did Ultimate Blogger come about? What kind of lessons were learned from that project? What were some of its surprise consequences?
It’s funny to think back about that project. We were creating video on the web before YouTube existed! I was never part of the DIY music scene of the northwest but I think this was my version of that. After we made Urban Honking it because clear that the internet allowed us to compete on the media sphere with major corporations. Jona could design things that looked better than most media companies! We started to imagine not just this little web magazine but a whole media empire. And eventually we created that empire, but instead of slowly expanding we just created each new piece one after the other. So we got into blogs, then TV, then radio… We never made any money and it was never a business, it was about creating these things. Ultimate Blogger worked so well because Steve and Jona and I each contributed to it. It was great collaboration and the most intense and fun thing I’ve ever done. We did three seasons and each time it almost ruined our friendships! It got pretty intense, but we kept doing it again. Being able to lose yourself in something that big is pretty addictive.
Can you talk about the social aspect of your work? Urban Honking is a web community, Allison Supper Club and Whiskey Friends are real life social clubs–themed hangouts, let’s say–that have online components. KmikeyM offers your friends and investors a chance to make decisions about your life in a social environment. A number of your projects are also collaborative. Do you conceive of your role in these as an instigator?
I don’t think it’s quite instigator, but that’s probably close enough to true. Most of these things were created because I wanted to do them and no one else was creating them, and it would be my dream to hand them off and have someone else run them. But they are collaborations and they work best when everyone is involved. I’m more collaborator than instigator. Or maybe I’d say reluctant instigator. Which isn’t to say I don’t like it, but I sometimes worry about coming off as a bit of an asshole when I’m telling everyone what to do all the time.
A lot of the plot of the third season of Ultimate Blogger 3 is about your relationship with Steve Schroeder and your characters’ divisive feelings (“like the Three Stooges always fighting and stuff–but there are only two of them”) as they relate capitalism, corporate sponsorship and “selling out.”
These themes persist in your work and seem to be better and better honed as you grow and work through them. This is vast, but will you describe your relationship with capitalism? How has it shifted over the years? How has constructing economic matters into projects altered these relationships? What can other artists learn from markets?
First off, capitalism isn’t bad. The reason we see so much bad shit happening in capitalism is because people are violating the rules and we’re overly obsessed with short term profits above all else. That’s a poor formula for success. I think we’re post “selling out” and I’m glad because that was a boring argument. Economics is the dominant system, so for me it makes sense to start playing around and replicating that system. There is an element of real danger in dealing with people’s actual money. People have to trust me with their money, and that’s hard for some people. But I think it’s more fun when the stakes are real. I’m not sure yet if there are lessons for other people… well, that’s not exactly true. I have an idea for a short e-book I want to sell about doubling your money and tripling your happiness. I can’t really spill the beans here or no one will pay for my e-book.
Going through your old videos, there are the internet remnants of a project called 7×7 in which you and some friends/collaborators each limited your diet to seven foods/drinks. As the contest wears on, you are seen sabotaging your competition by bringing their favorite (and forbidden) consumables. You discuss (to us, to you) the necessity of agonism, how unless tested and reified through temptation and debate.
You say that being good without the presence of bad is meaningless. And, further, being good without being tempted to be “bad” is meaningless. Does this still impact your work? How do you think of provocation as it relates to your work?
You can’t have good without evil! I think that is true. Or I guess, you wouldn’t know what good is without evil. This is especially true in a story. Plus, I like being the villain. I’m good at it. The “heel” as it’s called in professional wrestling. A hero is only as strong as his nemesis. Batman has the Joker, Kennedy had Nixon, and God has the Devil. I’ve long thought I need my own nemesis, but I haven’t found anyone yet…
How is art like a game? How does thinking of the world in terms of rules (which may be bent or exploited) shift your behavior and your social expectations? Do you think of the constraints and rules of these games in similar terms to how a poet or artist may make constraint-based works? Can rules be freeing?
Yes. Absolutely! You can’t create something without rules. The first rule is a purpose. You can’t take meaningful action without purpose, and once you define a purpose you have a measure to judge your actions. Does it take you closer to the purpose or further from the purpose? It’s more fun when the rules are set by someone else, because then you can start to push the edges and find the holes. Videogames are a good example of this. There is no cheating in a videogame. Even “cheat codes” aren’t cheating because they exist in the game! They were programmed in! They are part of the rule set. It’s not that different in real life. Everything is “allowed” but there are consequences. You can lie to everyone you meet, but in the long term that’s not going to pay off. You can punch someone in the face, but then it’s going to be hard to be friends with them later (plus you might go to jail). So we ease back from those extremes and we think about ways to accomplish our goals in a longer term way. And then you realize that there is really no positive outcome for you in punching that asshole in the face or even starting a year long campaign to ruin them. As much as I like to play the villain the logical conclusion is that there is no future in villainy. If you are smart enough to be a good criminal you are smart enough to know not to be one. Long term planning makes everyone play nice. God, that was quite a tangent..
You only wear Brooks Brothers. This makes you relatively immune to the whims of fashion, gives people another thing to say about you and keeps you looking sharp. You’ve also written recently about your loyalty to other brands. In so doing, you’re building the Mike Merrill brand. You’re more identifiable now than ever and you’re theoretically freed to spend your time in ways other than deciding which socks to buy and which stocks to sell. Will you discuss these branding strategies, how this is impacted by your personal corporatehood and, perhaps, how these relate to the concept of the “profile” and identity?
It’s frustrating to me that you have these amazing designers for the web or visually creative people who put so much time in their work but don’t think about their own “personal CSS”. Dressing better has been a goal for a long time, and for the KmikeyM brand that is a suit and tie. I’m a corporate person and there is a uniform to that look. Going head to toe Brooks Brothers was a way to inoculate myself to fashion (though it’s also given me a greater appreciation for it). Also, being on the west coast, and especially in Portland, it does set me apart and while that was initially difficult I’ve learned to enjoy it. My philosophy isn’t that everyone should dress in suits (but c’mon, that would be amazing!) but rather everyone should dress with purpose. Wearing a suit is a strange thing to get accustomed with. Normal dress these days is jeans and t-shirt. The jeans are heavy and the t-shirt is light. A suit reverses this. The suit pants are light and the shirt, tie, and jacket are the weight. So people feel uncomfortable in suits because it distributes the weight opposite of what we’re normally wearing. But eventually you adjust and find yourself feeling weird when you aren’t wearing a tie. And then you get bored with normal ties and figure out how to tie a bowtie… and it continues from there. The look evolves, but the rules help maintain a certain consistency. Brand loyalty is problem solving. You create a rule for yourself that says when it’s time to buy X, I’ll buy it from Y. No more thinking about the best X. That problem is solved. We create systems for problems we don’t want to think about.
You and Alex Mahan organize a project called Guerrilla Happy Hour in which you and Alex station yourselves at bars that don’t have happy hours (all of them in Chicago, incidentally) and offer any friend who buys a drink a dollar (of your own money). How did this come about and what are your goals in this project? How do you square this with your “pay what it costs” philosophy?
Guerrilla Happy Hour came about because Alex and I work downtown and often get a drink together. Drinking is a social activity, and the more people involved the more fun it is. GHH creates an event out of it. It’s like a party and people want to come to a party. For us it’s pretty cheap… $25 each in dollar coins. No big deal. If you think about it in terms of throwing a party then $25 is pretty cheap! And that’s an investment. Great ideas come from drinking with smart people. Alcohol loosens lips and soon you find yourself planning great epic projects together! Also, it’s a great way to meet girls.
For the past four years, you’ve co-authored the 2020 tumblr, which takes as its scope the future and the way science, technology and society in these speculative futures are (re)presented. Let’s pretend you’re creating these studies and grand claims instead of circulating them. What do you see for 2020? How will our relationships with each other and with commerce shift?
Being an optimist I look forward to the future. If anything, I lament being born too soon because I know I’m going to miss out on some amazing shit! The thing about 2020 is that the year was chosen based on the cyberpunk genre. It’s this idea that the near-future is all mega-corporations and augmented humans and science basically moving too fast and creating a whole new reality… while at the same time it’s the same old story of the haves and have nots. My vision of 2020, or 2050, or whatever, is that it will be totally normal. Only the past is alien, because you start to think, “How did they live without plumbing? Or cars? Or the internet?” The future normalizes everything. We have these major breakthroughs happening all the time and no one pays attention to them because they aren’t yet products we can buy. And once they are products we crave them, so they aren’t scary anymore.