Watching Melika Bass‘ semi-narrative films often feels like living in someone else’s dreams: utterly inaccessible at many levels, but fueled by recognizable if nebulous desires, and structured by logics that make actions seem uncannily self-evident, no matter how strange.
Bass has been quietly making rigorous and rigorously strange films for a decade, and in 2011 she created an installation for MCA’s 12X12 based on her film Shoals, comprised of relics from the shoot that extended Shoals’s imaginary pastoral-gothic world in the ambiguous space of a contemporary white cube gallery. She recently was commissioned to make a film for Sigur Rós, Varðeldur, conceived as a character study of “an unstable entity in a haunted vessel,” a gloss that can describe many of her half-created characters, both absolutely unknowable and archetypically suggestive of the heroes of fables and the antiheroes of fairy tales.
I first saw Bass’ film at The Presence of Absence show at Hairpin this spring, and then several weeks ago at Doc Films’ presentation of her work. We emailed back and forth about scavengers, the fantasy of regionalism, and making epic films as a constellation of scrappy moments.
MW: Are your characters living in a real world– are they real, or are they dreaming?
MB: They are real to themselves, but many of them are also indoctrinated in some way — into some kind of belief system, self-perception, and power dynamic. The quasi-hypnosis of these characters is a bit of Stockhausen Syndrome, but also something that mirrors the movie watching experience, or any kind of assembly-based experience (religious or otherwise). There is something fascinating about the adaptability of humans to any kind of situation, and our ability to find a logic in the most half-baked schemes, and perform all kinds of ritualistic behavior everyday because of those values.
MW: There’s lots of dream logic at play, almost a psychoanalytic feel.
MB: Interesting…what do you mean by psychoanalytic?
MB: I like this question. I am fascinated by how we cognitively create our own logic, justification, explanation, rationalization for the phenomena we experience. Perhaps these characters you are describing are an extreme example of this, in that these normal, and at their root survivalist behaviors, they have turned into an overt system of value or belief or labor, and are living their lives ritualistically because of it, ensnaring others alongside them. The surrealistic flavor is not something that I plan, but juxtaposition and absurdity are for me, a kind of normal.
Always an observer in my own family, I’ve always had the experience of not understanding causal relationships between observed events or behaviors in others, and wanting to. Even though there is an impenetrableness to understanding and knowing why people behave as they do, there is also the freeing, openness of multiple possible meanings. I hope these characters are both absurd and unnerving in their sincerity, and their authority. Perhaps ideally, just by experiencing the films and being lulled by them, viewers can sit in an surprising place of empathy for these characters, and the embrace the questions and ambiguity of their situations.
MW: How do you think about the relationship between characters in your different films? Are they part of a kind of extended strange family?
MB: I don’t think of the characters in my separate films as sharing territories, or that they know each other. But they do all occupy a kind of archetypal fantasy realm where I feel they might live in bubbles adjacent to each other, perhaps one lives up the river from another, but in another country, or 100 years after. There is the fact that I cherish the fact that the objects in my films cross over to the worlds of the other films. For me this is a practical production decision (I keep all my props and costumes, have a small, Chicago apartment basement storage and so recycle), but it’s also an extension of all this speculative fiction…the idea that many of thecharacters in my films (especially Songs from the Shed, Shoals, and Waking Things), are all scavengers of sorts, creating their own meaning (which asks to be deciphered or observed) from rituals based on the materials they have, and also via their bodies, and in moments, language or song. The objects are worn and carry as much history and potential narrative as these gestural bodies; materials and characters may have equal ‘value’ in that way, though I’d have to think more about that…
MW: But then when I write that I wonder, are these characters in your films even full character studies? In both Nanty and Shoals, the characters are left undeveloped and mysterious, almost archetypal on purpose. What kinds of figures are they to you? What is revealed and hidden about them in your films?
MB: Even though I come out of a literature and theatre background, in my filmmaking I’m pretty committed to utilizing what to me are uniquely cinematic aesthetic tools that are centered around observation. So for me that’s movement, light, sound, texture, scale, duration, etc. I am very interested framing a character in terms of behavior that suggests but does not explain inner life of motivation, desire, etc. Perhaps on a way it is something like portraiture, or creating a kind of attention in the viewer to physical details, energies, and action in figures. . .language of course interests me too, but primarily in the way that its performative and coded also. I want to play with narrative expectations and actual cognitive narrativizing that we do all the time, in movies, and in life, as a way of ordering or making sense of things. This is one of the reasons I also rarely move the camera, and embrace the fragmentation of montage, a static frame, and a detailed soundtrack; I am hoping to slow folks down a bit, and in a way introduce a way of seeing, hearing, experiencing, and gathering of information that is a kind of adding up of parts, that also includes sitting with ambiguity and becoming an ‘active viewer’ while also being absorbed into the world/window of the film. This tension is a kind of experiential realism for me.
MW: One quote I loved from Shoals was when Chris [Sullivan]/the cult leader/doctor/teacher asks one of the girls to place a group of random objects into intuitive groupings. He asks her to find the “binder”– “an associative connection that brings them form and work, maybe.” It strikes me that this could be a way of thinking about your films. What do you see as the binders that connect the scenes and movements of individual films together?
MB: That’s interesting. Yes, for the films I think binders could be the these surrogate families or self-made communities and their culture-making which borders on religion, and then the situations in the films themselves, which play on our cognitive need for causal order and meaning-making. In some ways this is something that Chris’s cult leader character is providing, although obliquely and absurdly. In this scene, for this lesson or indoctrination to occur, he’s asking Kelly’s (Emily’s character) to create her own meaning, a kind of teaching on the one hand and a sort of illusion of her using her own choice freely. This intersection of Catholicism, grammar school, psychological testing, and Eastern philosophies were all the elements I wanted his character to be combining. An attempt at utopia buoyed up by language that suggests knowledge or expertise, but has a lot of holes in it.
MW: I want to ask about atmosphere and place. In other interviews, you’ve talked about growing up in a sort of gothic southern atmosphere– are you recreating particular geographical or temporal atmospheres?
MB: I grew up in Richmond, Virginia (a place obsessed with its history) and Asheville, North Carolina, where the mountains and rain are lush in the Summer and chilling and blue-grey in the Winter. That part of Appalachia is shadowy and flinty and earthy and grubby and full of life and perseverance. I love it but it can be quite scary.
This gets back to your earlier question. In the realm of fully-developed characters or archetypes, I may lean toward the latter because I am pretty fascinated with stories of self-identity based on history. Many times in America, in a family, that’s a history of immigration, or someone being defined by their job, where they lived, or a particular personality trait. People get mythologized so quickly and easily and stories about family are stories we tell ourselves about who we are, who we want to be, should be, or don’t want to be. It seems particularly complicated in the US because while we are so fixated on making our own way, and re-making ourselves all the time, we still define our selves in relation to these stories of our own history in one way or another. There are stories in my own family that I have always loved hearing or finding out about that I entertain as defining me in one way or another. You can call it cultural heritage, or think of it psychologically, or based on gender roles, class, but there’s an anthropology to a family and the culture that gets created in it by ritual behavior and the stories it authors about itself. I think all the films I’ve been making lately are exploring these ideas.
MW: Regarding the relationships between these films, you said something really intriguing to me at the Hairpin center about Nanty that I wanted to ask more about in starting. If I remember correctly, you were saying that you pictured it being part of an epic modular project pieced together with grants you get here and there. I was impressed by this for a few reasons: first, that you are so scrappy about using the ad hoc way that artists are funded (and, though I don’t know as much as I should about it, probably video artists in particular) to your advantage, and, second, that you can work this way and think this far out in terms of discrete but interlocking projects. How far off am I on this idea of yours? Can you talk more about your plans for future work and the kind of different pieces you would imagine making/how they might relate?
MB: I am currently working on a project called Summerstock, which I imagine as a long-form, film work that will evolve and branch out with each iteration over the next few years. Initially, I had conceived of the project simply as a feature film (typically 70-90minutes), but my experiences in making installations in the last several years, and the current transitional state of independent feature filmmaking, have lead me to embrace what ultimately is a more exciting structure — a constellation, a web of interconnected nodal sections. My hope is that the overall long form will change as I continue each stand-alone piece, which is also connected to the others in terms of character, place, materials, or any other points of relationship I’ll be exploring. The dream here is that I can find funding or shoe-string methods to work as I keep making each piece, and that the venues and environments for exhibition or screening will also add an ephemeral and experiential quality to those pieces as well. The first part I made and exhibited in May as part of the Presence of Absence show, and think of like an Introit. It’s a 10minute film installation Nanty, which introduces a key figure in the project, and hints at her situation. The next part of this project will premiere in Chicago in a solo exhibition at Iceberg Projects on Nov. 3, and run through December.
Thematically, the next part of SUMMERSTOCK will be both a film and an installation… It will offer a tension of inner and outer landscapes, the use of the voice to reveal and conceal, and it’ll be set in a familiar but unknown place — a hybrid of specificities of place and people. Regionalism is a fantasy, and I think travels well. I am excited to stage this piece site-specifically at Iceberg, it’s such an elegant and intimate space.
Today Richard had the good fortune to e-mail interview friend, former colleague, mischief maker, and all around giant of consciousness Colleen Becker.
Colleen Becker is an American writer and academic living in London. Her published work spans fiction and non-fiction genres, including flash fiction, academic articles, journalism, art reviews, and essays, and she has read at numerous venues including Princeton University, the Tate Modern, and Foyles Bookshop. She holds PhD, MPhil and MA degrees from Columbia University and a MA from NYU, and she is a 2013-14 Visiting Fellow at the University of London, School of Advanced Studies, Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies. She has text based artwork included in an exhibition at the Anatomy Museum, King’s College London. “Translation Games”Curated by Ricarda Vidal (KCL) and Jenny Chamarette (QM) which runs from 31st July to 2nd August 2013
Richard Holland: Colleen Becker, welcome to Bad at Sports!
Colleen Becker: Thanks! I’m so happy to participate in this interview!
RH: You are currently, among a vast number of other titles and pursuits, a visiting fellow at the University of London, School of Advanced Studies, Institute for Germanic and Romance Studies. What are your researching?
CB: I’m doing a post-doctoral fellowship within IGRS’s Centre for Cultural Memory. Broadly speaking, my area of research is the cultural history of German nationalism. My project is titled: “The Art of Becoming a Nation: Turn-of-the-Century German Visual Culture,” and if you’re still reading, I will be examining and positioning artifacts of visual culture as manifestations of identity that memorialize understandings of the self in relation to others, from the individual act of depicting one’s own or another’s milieu to the collective feat of representing an entire community in both political and visual terms.
RH: What are “Translation Games”?
CB: “Translation Games” is the brainchild of curators Ricarda Vidal (King’s College, London) and Jenny Chamarette (Queen Mary, London), who were interested in exploring the concept of translation through various textual, auditory, and visual media. They hired me to write a flash fiction piece of 250 words, with a conventional narrative structure (beginning, middle, end). My story “What We Made” formed the basis for a game of “Chinese Whispers” (“Telephone” in American English), in which only a couple of the artists or foreign language translators received the original text while all of the others worked off of received “translations.” Interestingly, the first textile designer who read my work was dyslexic and misread the story before passing it along to the other textile artists—so, even the original version was “lost in translation.”
RH: The Anatomy Museum, sounds dirty, what is the Anatomy museum and is it a contemporary art venue, or is in more like the Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago which is *not* and art venue but has the occasional show to be quirky?
CB: I have a soft spot in my heart for the Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago. During my most memorable visit, a swarm of flies hovered menacingly over the vitrine of Pompeian gynecological instruments.
The Anatomy Museum is part of King’s College, which is Ricarda’s affiliated institution. It has a creepily fascinating Victorian history as an anatomy theatre, but it’s not a contemporary art space per se.
So the project takes language, in this particular case a short story that you have written, and through the process of translation and retranslation the text evolves into a new form, is that a fair summary of the core idea? Yes.
RH: Are you familiar with Alvin Lucier’s “I am sitting in a room”? Lucier made a recording himself narrating a text, and then playing the recording back into the room, re-recorded it. The new recording is then played back and re-recorded, and this process is repeated over and over again. All volumes of space have characteristic resonant frequencies, the repeated recording and re-recording eventually acts to, in essence, filter out the language and what is left is a set of frequencies emphasized as they resonate in the room. Finally the words become unintelligible, replaced by the pure resonant harmonies and tones of the room itself like a signature. This project seems like the language version of Lucier’s piece. If you were to translate and retranslate over and over, do you eventually end up with the resonant frequency of the translator or of the text itself, common tonal elements that could not be lost in translation?
CB: Thank you for the enormously flattering comparison! In addition to the physical works of art, the story and its translations also have been performed a number of times. At a workshop in early July, for example, Ricarda and Jenny grouped artists and translators together and we read the text all at once, or in orchestrated sections, and the result was a living Tower of Babel. There is a certain musical quality, and rhythm, to each group reading, which is possibly best experienced by viewing the video of the performance. “What We Made” was translated into several different languages, and then retranslated back into English, which changed the length of the text in each instance. So when the translated versions were read out loud at the same time as the original version, the distinctions between them were quite noticeable.
RH: In addition to the linguistic part of the project, the text is re (and re-re- and re-re-re- etc.) interpreted through varieties of art media as well. I wonder how the 27th re-re to the 27th iteration of the work will relate to the original text.
CB: Curiously, the common elements you described in the previous question were more obvious in the works of art. Even though artists were working from received translations, rather than the original text, we noticed that they all seemed to convey a similar mood, attitude, or tone, also found within the story.
RH: You have had an impressively diverse and fascinating career as an author, a critic and an academic. Over the course of this career have you found that, to speak in clichés, your ideas are at times lost in translation, and somehow fail to make the leap from what we assume to be a common symbolic language (text)utilized to convey ideas to each other? In the face of, for example, an English fluent reader missing the point of an English language text, when your work has been translated in to other languages it must be a source of concern that your ideas are additional steps away from the original meaning and stand a reduced risk of reaching the target audience in pure form.
CB: It’s a challenge for any writer, working in any genre or format, to precisely convey their ideas to their audience. I’ve always been fascinated by what happens at the intersection of intention and reception; there’s a bit of alchemy, in my view. Maybe I’m being pessimistic, but I doubt there’s any such thing as pure or unmediated communication. On the other hand, I’m a thorough editor and unflinching critic of my own writing.
RH: Is the answer then to sit everyone down and explain your ideas specifically? I suppose that assumes a world where the person listening is *actually* listening and not checking twitter on their phone.
CB: It’s the writer’s responsibility to connect the dots, but also to communicate in terms that are appropriate for the intended audience. When you publish something, you don’t know how it’s going to be received and there’s no accounting for other peoples’ attentiveness, or lack thereof. But I think the best writers are able to hold their readers’ attention for the duration of their engagement with the work.
RH: How did you become involved with this project?
CB: Ricarda remembered me from the Shortness at Tate Modern conference, which she organized along with Irini Marinaki and Konstantinos Stefanis. She approached me about writing a text for Translation Games.
RH: You were a participant in the “[V]ery short conference and a very long dinner” called SHORTNESS AT TATE MODERN, along with DJ Spooky, Jonathan Allen, Matthew Steven Carlos, Steven Connor and others. You spoke under the auspices of being a “flash fiction writer”. I like the idea of short conferences and long dinners. What is flash fiction and what was the focus of the conference?
CB: Flash fiction is a story written in 1,000 words or less. The most famous example is Ernest Hemmingway’s “For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn,” which is the entire narrative. I’m fascinated by the way in which subtext provides as much, or even more, of the story to the reader. More so than other genres, flash fiction operates at the interface between the writer and the reader.
Shortness At Tate Modern had two components: conference papers presented in an auditorium and a long dinner in an upstairs room that was interrupted by various performances, demonstrations and interventions. That’s where I read my short story “B&I,” which is set in Chicago. I was pretty nervous about presenting to an audience that included DJ Spooky, since I’m an admirer of his and I had taught his work to undergraduates at Barnard the previous year.
RH: You recently did a reading at Foyles Bookshopin London, the write up of which referenced you are working on your second screenplay. Aren’t the 8 degrees, lovely family, multiple book projects, art projects and being a Huffington Post correspondent enough? Screenplays? I recently completed my work on Angry Birds Star Wars (admittedly playing it not developing it, but it was hard work to defeat Darth Pig). Now, c’mon, you are just embarrassing the rest of us. What is your most recent screenplay about? We have a huge Hollywood studio exec. fan base.
CB: I wrote a feature-length screenplay a couple of years ago, marketed it, and stirred up enough interest to motivate me to write another one. At the moment, I’m writing a contained location action-thriller.
Usually, I work on fiction and non-fiction projects in tandem, exploring concepts and narratives through different genres. Some things that work in fiction just don’t pan out in non-fiction and vice-versa. Lots of projects remain unfinished, or are discarded along the way but that doesn’t bother me since I usually manage to recycle ideas. I’m easily bored, and it’s easier for me to accomplish tasks when I’m slightly distracted so I tend to toggle back and forth between projects. When I lose my focus with one thing, I go to the other, and then back again.
And, yeah, I wake up every morning and think to myself: How can I make Richard Holland feel like less of a person today?
RH: Very popular choice, there is a support group out there, I think they give out grants.
CB: Something to look forward to! Some of what you’re responding to is my effort, as a former full-time mom, to find some means of engaging myself intellectually while remaining present for my children. When you’re pushing a kid on a swing for forty minutes straight, it’s useful to occupy your mind with thoughts of something other than pushing a swing. A story or an article that’s already been threshed out in your mind comes much quicker to the page.
RH: What are you working on currently?
CB: I’m focused on the academic work described above, speaking at the GSA conference this fall, and putting together a seminar at IGRS for next spring titled “Emotional Response in Historical Practice: Methodological Approaches to Representing Collective Experience.” I’m also publishing an article about Aby Warburg, historiography, and metaphors of German national identity in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Art Historiography. Through “What We Made,” an independent publisher approached me about writing long-format fiction and so in my spare time I’m also rewriting a novel I had roughed out a few years ago in addition to working on the screenplay.
RH: Thank you for joining us! We need to get together for an audio interview the next time we end up in relatively the same city. Thanks!!
CB: It was my pleasure! These were great questions!
RH: I’ll pass along the compliment to my writing staff.
Work by Joshua Albers and Yhelena Hall.
The Mission is located at 1431 W. Chicago Ave. Reception Friday, 5-7pm.
Work by Silvia Malagrino, Joshua Albers, and Jesus Duran.
The Franklin is located at 3522 W. Franklin Blvd. Reception Saturday, 8-11pm.
Work by Madhuri Shukla.
Roman Susan is located at 1224 W. Loyola Ave. Reception Saturday, 7-10pm.
Presentation by Claudine Isé.
Humboldt Park Branch, Chicago Public Library is located 1605 N. Troy St. Reception Saturday, 3-4pm.
Work by Dave Pressler.
Vertical Gallery is located at 1016 N. Western Ave. Reception Saturday, 6-10pm.
A link to the following essay was sent to us in response to The Letter to Goldsmiths that I posted last week. I have only included the very beginnings of the post, but you can carry on reading the rest if you follow the link at the end, (before the end notes).
All of human culture competes for our limited attention and resources, evolving and mutating over time. Everyone plays a role in shaping this behavior, although its clear some key players have more control. Each observation and action is an opportunity to contribute to the reproduction or demise of a thing or idea. The observer changes what it observes, and moreso when content producer and consumer are one in the same.
The Internet has accelerated the pace of feedback between creation and response, and one of the results has been a continued embrace of novelty and irony. Capital, currency and power are running rampant without checks and balances from truth, knowledge and beauty. Its time to more fully embrace directness, earnestness and sincerity. This applies to not only what we make and do, but what we support indirectly through our actions.
The following essay is a deconstruction of, and argument against, the post-internet condition. Specifically, I want to address the over use of irony, novelty, attention as currency, persona as product and the embrace of the spectacle of society.
The first four sections are meant as an introduction to the core argument, and offer a broader context which is often overlooked in such discussions of the post-internet condition. Supplemental notes and sources have been included which provide clarification, tangental ideas and some quotes where appropriate.
///Deconstructing the Image-Object ///Wading in the Wake of Symbolization
It’s clear that our time and attention is limited, and there’s too much going on in the world to pay attention to it all, especially now. Countless people are fighting for our attention and trying to convert this energy into political, social and economic power. Even inanimate things themselves can be thought of as competing for our attention (1)(2). This competition for attention has been turned into a highly skilled craft by plants, animals (1.5)and culture at large, which is especially evident in the battlefield of consumer products and advertisements.
This competition can be understood in terms of Attention Economics (A) which describes the finite nature of human attention in contrast to the vast and exponentially growing access to information. However, it may be more accurate to describe this situation as an attention based ecology rather than an economy. This ecology is an evolutionary system of richly complex interactions between limited resources (human attention), competing agents (corporations, other people, algorithms, ideas, aesthetic styles, cultures, objects themselves) and countless internal and external forces. The time between publishing information and audience response has nearly collapsed since the dawn of the Internet, further exacerbating this situation. The rapid feedback loop between production and consumption, when considered as a whole, can be thought of as vast synthetic brain evolving its ability to engage with humans and understand how we think (3). (read more)
(1) This can be seen in the material-semiotics of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s (B) concept of the rhizome, the world as a horizontal networked structure of relations that seeks equilibrium and is constantly shifting. Michel Foucault, Donna Haraway and much of traditional ‘eastern’ philosophy also speak on this subject. The fields of cybernetics and chaos theory are scientific approaches to this subject, and I’ll address them later on. (1.5) I’d also recommend Michael Pollans “Botany of Desire” regarding the coevolution of humans and plants.
(2)Also in Bruno Latour’s Anthropological Matrix(C) which describes the world existing as a web of hybrid things that are both subject and object, between nature and culture, between agency and raw material. In the Anthropological Matrix all things are both real and imagined, both nature and culture. Latour has also extensively written about Actor-Network-Theory (ANT) (D) which describes existence as a network of ‘actors’ (human or nonhuman, essentially everything) engaged in a series of relationships. ANT disrupts the concept of differentiated individuals acting in the world and states that these things are really the sum of many other actors which reinforce each other.
(3) See Kevin Kelly’s inspired book “What Technology Wants”, and authors like Oliver Reiser, Buckminster Fuller, Dane Rudhayar, Sri aurobindo, N.A. Kozyrev, Teilhard de Chardin, Jose Arguelles, et al.
After losing his job and apartment on the same day a couple of years ago, Los Angeles-based street artist Gune Monster says he contemplated a suicide. Instead, he picked up a marker and begin drawing the toothy, ghoulish figures that would eventually become the hallmark of his alter ego.
First, he drew about 50 stickers a day. The number quickly climbed to upwards of 350 hand drawn, colored and cut stickers , many of which would eventually make their way onto the poles, benches and other public spaces scattered around Los Angeles. Larger murals would eventually follow as the street artist’s ambitions grew.
“Murals change people’s lives” he says. “They change your opinion of the wall. It changes it from being some ratty wall that’s got some tag or some weird penis that’s got some hair to an amazing, beautiful mural that’s got a hummingbird flying through the sky with birds and mountains.”
Gune Monster also feels that creating murals offers developing graffiti artists an opportunity to mature by forcing them to openly confront the public with their work in a more much more personal and direct way.
“You’ve no longer going out at night” he says. “You’re no longer hiding in a gallery. You’re no longer putting up stickers. You are now in daylight, in the public, being judged by everybody that sees you. And that’s when you’re at that point where you’re confident enough to spread your art.”
Gune Monster returned to his hometown of Kansas City this past June to live mural at the City Ice Arts Building — a converted warehouse in the city’s arts district that houses a collective of local artists and artisans. Though he wasn’t able to paint at the Kansrocksas Music Festival (the event was cancelled), his new clothing line and projects in Los Angeles, Miami, New York and Las Vegas continue to keep this elusive artist fully occupied.
Check out his website for more great images of his work.
Words by Carolyn Okomo, a Kansas City, MO-based writer.
Images by Dave Dumay of City Ice Arts and Carolyn Okomo.