Weeks in Review

December 9, 2013 · Print This Article

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Blogness! It’s  rolling out — some great contributions over the last few weeks, as you can see from the following compilation. Some great podcast action too, with  EXPO  panel  Josh Baer (Baer Fax), Forrest Nash  (Contemporary Art Daily), and Paddy Johnson (Art F City), and this week’s conversations with Takeshi Murata and Robert Beatty.

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Continuing his series about video games, Paul King writes about the sparse, enigmatic 140:

When  140 begins, you’re dropped into near silence. A single tone plays: low and bassy, it seems to emanate from the flat, monochromatic setting of the world. Your avatar is a lone recognizable shape: an unmoving square. Move to the left or right and transform into a circle; or jump into the air, turning briefly into a triangle before landing. 140’s protagonist-shape is instantly familiar, because it’s derived from a universal visual language. Those gentle geometric shapes are the stuff of childhood learning, the foundational building blocks of concepts such as color recognition, addition, and geometry. The square, rectangle, and triangle are a mark of simplicity, their functions instantly recognizable in motion. What’s wonderful about 140 is that every component of the game is at its most basic, most recognizable. The colors are just as sparse as the landscape, a single-color expanse that’s all right angles save for the occasional circle. Whatever origin the game’s character came from, the world came with it.

Maria with (n)IMBY Keepsakes at Our Lady of Guadalupe, 2012. Photo: Jenny Polak

Maria with (n)IMBY Keepsakes at Our Lady of Guadalupe, 2012. Photo: Jenny Polak

Juliana Driever talks to the NYC-based artist, Jenny Polak, who’s work, “ brings human scale to the urgent politics of immigration in the US.” When asked about the relationship between her art and activism, Polak replies:

Chicago was the first place I came to when I first arrived in the US, and the first thing I saw as I was driven from the airport was a huge demonstration about some art. (It was about “What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag?” – the work of my husband-to-be, Dread Scott.) This added tantalizingly to my sense that in the US art could influence public opinion, which I had given up hope of in England. My activism for a time was kind of separate from my art, but I was saved by the experiences of collaborating with Repo-History and the poster collective Resistant Strains on a few projects. Plus I had had a kid, and started working for architects and there wasn’t time anymore; then it was suddenly clear to me that those things (kid, architecture) were the sources and the connections I needed for a new activist art combo. I drew on my architecture background and my immigrant activist network and made a web project (HardPlace) for which detainees from across the country supplied sketches of what they knew of their invisible prisons, (photos being forbidden) and I traced them into strange digital 3D models where you could find a few tidbits of info that cumulatively conveyed an idea of the terrifying Kafkaesque system that was proliferating since the 1996 laws had passed. The Lower East Side Tenement Museum funded the project so that I felt able to team up with web designer Lauren Gill to deliver a project that got quite a lot of attention on the predicament of detainees and the dangerous direction US immigration policy was headed in – it was launched soon after 9/11 and detention was taking on a new definition in the public imaginary and in abusive reality. 

Adjunct, 2013

Adjunct, 2013

Portland Correspondent, Sarah Margolis-Pineo, talks to Anna Gray and Ryan Wilson. Margolis-Pineo begins evocatively, “I first met Anna Gray + Ryan Wilson Paulsen as they were carting a tank of helium into the desert,” and the interview goes on from there. At one point, Gray says:

And the systems and ethics around work, especially in this country, are really detrimental and limiting. We titled that banner Working Towards Non-Work, as we are trying to find a vocabulary for working and artistic activity that isn’t about productive ends, but about positively reproductive ones. There’s a lot expected of artists at this point in terms of levels of productivity in academia, in shaping the quirk and brand of a city, in participating nationally or internationally as a creative contributor, and in maintaining an exhibition and/or studio practice. How are other artists managing this workload, which by its very design seems to prevent the best work from being made?

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Reflections of Samarkand courtesy of Jeriah Hildwine:

I should say now that I have never been to Samarkand (in present-day Uzbekistan), and that my views of it have been shaped almost entirely by its mythical role in Clive Barker’s novelGalilee. A quick bit of slacker research, though, reveals the essential nature of that city to match Barker’s description pretty well. Situated on the Silk Road, Samarkand was a city of wonders, the ultimate crossroads, a center of commerce as well as of art and culture. People came from thousands of miles to experience the wonders of the city itself, but more so, to meet and trade with one another.

Don Baum

Britton Bertran talks money, art and relevancy:

The art economy in Chicago – specific to the visual art market – is busted.  It doesn’t work and hasn’t worked for a long time.  Yes, this a provincial observation as we are in a global society, but ask any commercial gallery owner in Chicago that’s not one of the Mighty 5, and they’ll tell you the same.  Yes, more and more people who aren’t in Chicago are paying attention to us as a viable location.  Chicago is a place that has artists who make (and made) great work and some non-Chicagoans are even buying art from here (good luck in Miami y’all!).  But when it comes to a localized presence, we are somewhere near the bottom of the attention totem pole.  Where would you place visual art on the Chicago matrix of culture that includes Theater, Music, Dance, and yes, Food?

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Alyssa Martinez interviewed Bad at Sports’ comics correspondent, Sara Drake, about her shadow puppet collective, PUPHouse. Drake, at one point offers the following:

When I was small, my dad always used to say, “What makes a good animal, a good animal?” This was meant to be soothing after some brutal animal world fact on television, a pet death, watching viruses destroy human cells on bring your daughter to work day, etc. It meant, what ensures that animal survives? Is being brutal or dark, something that a human animal might consider bad, a part of what defines that animal?  “What makes a good human, good at being human?” This is how I move around in the world ad. infinitum.

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August Evans considers  surrealism David Lynch, Maya Deren and others :

Any attempt to place the weight of genre upon an artists’ movement like Surrealism presents problems, considering the aims of the first (and possibly only) surrealists were to explode the bourgeois order. Indeed, these initial surrealist films achieved something very unique, specific, and particular to the artists’ movement out of which they emerged. Toby Sussman deems these early films “the pinnacle of the Surrealist films…the representation of the total passion of a human event pushed beyond previously known limits…resulting in a beautiful new world of images existing somewhere between the amorphous intractability of dreams and the cold acceptance of everyday consciousness”.

Tatyana Tenenbaum, Archeology/Archiving, 2011. Photo by Andy Vernon-Jones.

Tatyana Tenenbaum, Archeology/Archiving, 2011. Photo by Andy Vernon-Jones.

Hannah Verrill posted her lat installment in the Process Notes series. Here Verrill talks to Tatyana Tenenbaum, who offered a note from her performance, Private Country:

Techno-Minimalism… TuneYards and Gang Gang Dance.  Moving out of the “new complexity” (or, as my 78-year old composition professor would say, “the new stupidity.”) Moving towards audience immersion, sensory experience, spectacle as visceral sensation—where spectacle departs from tried-and-true convention—where it began as something primal, something essential to the human experience, ritual as catharsis, religious ritual, art as ritual/ and /or / religion.  Contemporary pop counter culture as ritual. || None of this writing is suitable for an audience but perhaps I will try to articulate it further. || WHERE FORM MEETS  – – – } FUNCTION, and this becomes aesthetic.  Everything dependent.  Everything related.  Everything a choice.  Proliferation of media means theater becomes one-dimensional in the conventional sense.  Prosceniums are officially flat, not adapted to a world that frequents the 3-D movie theater.  Antiquated.  Dull, irrelevant?  Or just self-conscious in their flatness?  

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Stephanie Burke’s TOP 5!

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We closed out with an interview between LAMPO and the Post Family. When asked how LAMPO got stared, Alex Fenchel answers:

When I started things in ‘97 I had no special expertise in music. I was a fan. I’d been listening to weird stuff since high school and going to shows since college. I liked that moment of discovery, especially live, with other people around and the artists there. I wanted to make that happen. I had no background producing events, and I learned as I went along. In retrospect, the lack of experience was helpful. I didn’t know what I was getting into or why I shouldn’t do it. But I wasn’t a complete fawn. I had spent some time around art museums through a couple of internships. I began thinking as much or more about the artists, rather than just the audience, recognizing that Lampo could offer extra support for their work. And I believed producing beautiful design would help make each project special. Alisa and I first met when Lampo was just about a year old. So, design was almost always integral to the idea.

 

 

 

Reading Lampo: An Interview with Andrew Fenchel and Alisa Wolfson

December 6, 2013 · Print This Article

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Guest post by Alex Fuller

Chicago’s Lampo is a nonprofit organization that has been presenting experimental music and intermedia projects since 1997. Over that time, Lampo also has maintained a strong focus on design in its printed promotional materials. Running through January 17, the Post Family is showing a mini-survey of Lampo design work, drawn from the sound organization’s 15-year archive. The Post Family’s Alex Fuller speaks with Andrew Fenchel and Alisa Wolfson from Lampo:

Alex Fuller: How did Lampo get started?

Andrew Fenchel:  When I started things in ‘97 I had no special expertise in music. I was a fan. I’d been listening to weird stuff since high school and going to shows since college. I liked that moment of discovery, especially live, with other people around and the artists there. I wanted to make that happen. I had no background producing events, and I learned as I went along. In retrospect, the lack of experience was helpful. I didn’t know what I was getting into or why I shouldn’t do it. But I wasn’t a complete fawn. I had spent some time around art museums through a couple of internships. I began thinking as much or more about the artists, rather than just the audience, recognizing that Lampo could offer extra support for their work. And I believed producing beautiful design would help make each project special. Alisa and I first met when Lampo was just about a year old. So, design was almost always integral to the idea.

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Fuller: Much of the sound you present is electronic. Why was print appropriate for the design work vs. digital?

Fenchel: Most of the things we’ve produced have a practical function. Posters and postcards are promotional. Program notes are educational. From the beginning Alisa and I also talked about a secondary idea, considering the stuff as artifact. Print is what is left over. It extends the identity of the organization and documents the work. But beyond that, I also had something sort of poetic in mind. That might not be the right word. I’m very interested in the relationship between the live experience, the memory of that experience, and the tangible printed remains. We brought that present and past idea into our design. Like any time-based event that happens and then is over and done, there is the act of reading the words on the poster, and then later an understanding that now it has been read, or red — a color we use a lot. It was kind of a private joke.

Alisa Wolfson: Graphic design is something I do for work. Like Andy said, we met when Lampo was just starting. So, we began our relationship looking at and talking about design and ephemera. We wanted to make things for Lampo and felt a responsibility to the artists to do that. We also both love Fluxus and were inspired by its focus on live performance and dedication to capturing the moment through print. And, print it was and will be. It’s the family business

Fuller: How do you curate the Lampo program?

Fenchel: Lampo is structured as a series of select programs, to keep things special for the artists and the audience. I try to create relationships between events, within and across seasons, but I’m not interested in being didactic about those connections. They’re not secret, but I prefer to be suggestive and not say more. My goal is to keep the program varied but linked. It’s a fun challenge, like a puzzle. What is most important to me is that we work with artists who will be able to take advantage of the invitation, and whatever resources and energy we can offer, to do something they might not otherwise be able to do.

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Fuller: Has the graphic identity changed over time? 

Wolfson: I remember doing some early weird type experiments to try to make a proper Lampo logo. They all felt manufactured and over designed. Then we started working with Helvetica. For the system and look, we both agreed a tight set of guidelines would help us create authentic pieces that would be true to our idea of Lampo. We wanted something matter-of-fact. We never wanted to mimic sound through visuals. Instead, we started with a limited set of elements, and we continue to work with these in different variations, as we also add new ones or evolve them.

The poster dimensions were determined by how many we could efficiently make on a standard press sheet. The skinny proportion of those posters became a standard we still use in other pieces. Silkscreen was practical and appealing because it was fast and had a really beautiful, tactile quality. To get saturated fields of color, we had to leave a small border around the poster edge. That border then carried through to other pieces, even when not required by the printing technique. We stuck with Helvetica. Type was often all caps, centered, not fussy. The palette was limited too. Andy loves word play. As he mentioned, different shades of red dominated early on, a wink to “reading” in the past tense. Later we expanded to oranges, browns and blues — colors we saw on bricked up Chicago buildings against a perfect Midwest sky.

These days we’ve moved away from silkscreen. We have added plaid as a formal element, an everyday reference to math and pattern. And we introduced a new Lampo Folio series, where we produce large-format booklets to document certain past events that have a more visual component. The way we continue to cycle elements in and out and add new ones is something like the way the Lampo program is curated, too.

Fuller:  The show celebrates more than 15 years of beautiful graphic design and challenging sound art. What was the experience like unearthing your archives?

Wolfson: It was fun and strange and exciting. I feel like I’m such a different person now, but it’s great to see everything together as a group, and really cool to realize what we’ve done. I know we both look forward to doing more.

 

“Reading Lampo” is on view at the Post Family, 1821 W. Hubbard, through January 17. Visit lampo.org and thepostfamily.com for more information. This Saturday, December 7, the Lampo fall season continues with a performance by ex-Emeralds member Steve Hauschildt at the Graham Foundation. 

Alex Fuller is one of seven partners in the studio/gallery/blog called The Post Family, founder of 5 x 7 publishing and a Design Director at the Leo Burnett Dept. of Design.

All photos courtesy of Mike Schwartz.

 

Top 5 Weekend Picks! ((12/6-12/8)

December 5, 2013 · Print This Article

1. Boy, Pig, Power at PeregrineProgram

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Work by Doug Ischar.

PeregrineProgram is located at 3311 W. Carroll Ave. Reception Sunday, 1-4pm.

2. THE COLLECTORS / VISITATION RITES II at The Franklin

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The Collectors features work by Corinne Halbert, Chris Lin and Ryan Richey. Visitation Rites II is curated by Chris Smith and E. Aaron Ross.

The Franklin is located at 3522 W. Franklin Blvd. Reception Saturday, 6-10pm.

3. Balcony at Roots & Culture

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Work by Holly Murkerson and Neal Vanderbergh.

Roots & Culture is located at 1034 N. Milwaukee Ave. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.

4. Chicago Style at David Weinberg Photography

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Work by Zacharias Abubeker, Matt Austin, Matthew Avignone, Clarissa Bonet, Kate Bowen, Dan Bradica, Molly Brandt, Billy Buck, Debbie Carlos, Claire Demos, KK Depaul, Todd Diederich, Thomson Dryjanski, Jackie Furtado, Daniel Hojnacki, Kelly Kristen Jones, Kimberly Kim, Natalie Krick, Megan Lee Miller, Meg T. Noe, Jessica Pierotti, Jonathan Pivovar, Josh Poehlein, Greg Ruffing, Justin Schmitz, Christopher Semel, Rafael Soldi, Sonja Thomsen, Michelle Wang, David Weinberg, Nicole White, Krista Wortendyke, Victor Yanez-Lazcano and Gurl Don’t Be Dumb.

David Weinberg Photography is located at 300 W. Superior St. Reception Friday, 5-8pm.

5. Suncatcher at Roman Susan

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Work by John Marks.

Roman Susan is located at 1224 W. Loyola Ave. Reception Saturday, 7-9pm.

Process Notes: Part 2 with Tatyana Tenenbaum

December 5, 2013 · Print This Article

Guest Post by Hannah Verrill

Tatyana Tenenbaum is an interdisciplinary artist whose work examines sound and movement within a shared perceptual, historical, and dramaturgical framework. Her most recent piece, Private Country, premiered this past October at The Chocolate Factory in New York City after a working process that spanned several years. 

I met Tatyana back in early 2006 when we were both studying at Oberlin College in Ohio.  We became fast art friends and began collaborating soon after meeting.  As I try to make sense of the past, it occurs to me that we connected so immediately because both of us were experiencing a shift in our creative frameworks.  I had grown up inside of dance and was beginning to reach outside of it to sound, video, and installation.  Tatyana had grown up inside of music composition and was beginning to explore the body and choreography.  We met somewhere in the middle and continue still to learn from each other’s artistic endeavors. 

In an effort to get inside of Tatyana’s process of working towards Private Country, while being unable to physically witness it, I staged a kind of experiment that Tatyana graciously pursued with me through written correspondence.  If the result is messy, with bursts of clarity—so it goes, as with any process.  Thank you for bearing with us.

Hannah—Tatyana, I’m asking you to pull up discrete moments, notes, from the making of Private Country.  These can be messy and detailed as if they were occurring in the present moment.  Is this even possible?  I’m certainly unsure.  Time does its thing, right?  Certain moments will come up for air while others are swept out to sea.  Or this is how I imagine it at least.  The director Anne Bogart writes that if the theatre were a verb, it would be  ‘to remember’. I’ll exit here and cue your entrance. 

Tatyana—I’ll begin here:

          Note 1 

Techno-Minimalism… TuneYards and Gang Gang Dance.  Moving out of the “new complexity” (or, as my 78-year old composition professor would say, “the new stupidity.”) Moving towards audience immersion, sensory experience, spectacle as visceral sensation—where spectacle departs from tried-and-true convention—where it began as something primal, something essential to the human experience, ritual as catharsis, religious ritual, art as ritual/ and /or / religion.  Contemporary pop counter culture as ritual. || None of this writing is suitable for an audience but perhaps I will try to articulate it further. || WHERE FORM MEETS  – – – } FUNCTION, and this becomes aesthetic.  Everything dependent.  Everything related.  Everything a choice.  Proliferation of media means theater becomes one-dimensional in the conventional sense.  Prosceniums are officially flat, not adapted to a world that frequents the 3-D movie theater.  Antiquated.  Dull, irrelevant?  Or just self-conscious in their flatness?  

H—If I simplify a working process as having two tracks, the track that is concerned specifically and directly with the project, and the track that filters everything else happening in one’s life and still lends itself to the current work at hand, it seems like this process note would fall into that latter category.  And it’s a messy situation! But this stuff is so important, right?  I mean when looking back at how a work was made, or rather, why it was made.

This idea of flatness in theater as an outgrowth of the proliferation of media.  How does this kind of thinking—it almost reads as despair—propel you forward in the midst of project that is mining your personal history with musical theater?  How do you choose to contend with the flatness? 

T—The question of flatness in a theater excites me.  The idea of frontality excites me too. In the canon of musical theater, it’s almost a motif unto itself. I think, consciously and unconsciously I wanted to amplify this motif. 

T drawing

For Private Country I chose to seat most of the audience on risers as in a “proscenium front” and a small handful in a single row on the edge of stage left.  Ezra and I continued this seating line on the upstage left.  It was as if the audience on that edge was disappearing into the horizon line, until they became the performers. A lot of action happened on the diagonal that joined those two audience lines.  However, the obvious weight of the frontally oriented audience was of interest to me.  It was like giving one thing an 80% value and something else a 15% value… 5% went to the mystery. Towards the end, I second-guessed this configuration—for the obvious reason that it would make those viewers on the side become apart of the visual space.  But removing them somehow made the frontality less powerful. There needed to be something to rub up against.

Tatyana Tenenbaum, Private Country, 2013. Photo by Brian Rogers.

H— I know you grew up inside of the musical theater canon, and I often wonder about kids who grow up with a certain knowledge or familiarity with an art form.  When you approach the form later on, is the desire (or need) for invention within the form always a critical point of interest? 

 T—I want to say that I was always drawn to the absurd.  I was also some form of outsider.  I couldn’t even get a role in my town’s community theater production because I was too shy… so I started writing my own musicals, and I found power in that.  It was the most un-self conscious re-production of convention… to the downbeat.  I mean, without knowing what I was doing, I was channeling so much history (I had grown up with it).  So it made it easier, later on, to comment on that canon.  I had already begun archiving and indexing those conventions as a child.  It was my way of making sense of that world.  Part of unearthing that is realizing what that absurdity means to me now—what it is bumping up against.  


          Note 2

Reading The Old Way by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas.

 The first mention of art and “artistic genius” [within the society of the Ju/Wasai Bushmen of the Kalahari] was in regards to hunting.  She feels that the creative energies are played out in this arena, and points out that the first art in caves was to commemorate big hunts.  She describes, also, the storytelling and oral myth making around hunting.  When she gives an example of the style of storytelling, it is all in the present tense: “I creep forward, I creep.  He jumps!  He is just that far.”

H—How did these ideas “play out” in the arena of Private Country?  Why do you feel that the sport of hunting sparked artistic expression?  And what about the present tense, why make note of that? What feels important about an expression of the past happening as if it is in the present?

 T— I think I was drawn to these old ethnographies (I also read John McPhee’s “Coming Into the Country,” a collection of contemporary ethnographies of Americans living back-to-the-land style in rural Alaska) because I was trying to understand where this compulsion to depict ourselves came from.  

 “I creep forward, I creep.”

When I am temporally engaged in an art practice, I feel it in the present tense.  But when I analyze it, contextualize it, or write about it, I do so by separating it from my daily life practice.  There is an “otherness” that develops; this classic division between art and life.  So maybe I was searching for the root of that otherness.  

The hunting bit—it surprised me.  And then, it made sense.  The oldest stories are hero myths.  And these stories exist without a written language.  I find it interesting now because I have been engaged in this memorization practice within my own work.  Even though I take notes on my texts as they develop, I never treat the written word as having authority over the lived moment.  I re-write the material over and over again in rehearsal, changing things as I forget or alter subconsciously.  I’ve always been drawn to memorization.  I used to listen to stories on audiocassette and memorize them.  I had this one children’s series called “The Great Composers.”  I used to listen to it over and over again.  It became, in effect, a completely oral tradition, a series of hero myths, westernized, classicized, internalized, plagiarized,and canonized…

tapes!

          Note 3

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H—When and how does the impulse to archive arise for you? Is it in the very instant?  In which case I imagine you living a kind of double life; being while simultaneously acting like archeologist.  Asking yourself which moments need to be recorded, preserved.  Or is it an afterthought?

T— I think archiving is a constant.  Some of the text I used in Private Country was originally sourced in 2005 from an interview with an archeologist.  I first set that as a vocal composition in 2006… later I started experimenting with recitation of the memorized composition in a very resonant space, which is where I was first able to hear my own pitch fluctuation in my speaking voice… I developed a practice around that recitation and that began to open up the process I used with my ensemble to create these spoken-sung passages for Private Country.  So I was still using part of the original text 8 years after I first acquired it.  Now that I’ve let go of that text, I’m still using the musical phrasing that I found with it to structure new ideas…that’s an example of how archiving or my relationship to my archive is happening constantly inside of my process. 

 

Tatyana Tenenbaum, Archeology/Archiving, 2011. Photo by Andy Vernon-Jones.

Tatyana Tenenbaum, Archeology/Archiving, 2011. Photo by Andy Vernon-Jones.

    

          Note 4

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H—Working with your brother, archiving moments in your relationship—do you work with that as raw or already composed material, or both? 

Tatyana Tenenbaum, Private Country, 2013.  Photo by Brian Rogers.

Tatyana Tenenbaum, Private Country, 2013. Photo by Brian Rogers.

 

T—So, Ezra and I really played out our relationship on and off stage.  It started with our original conversations… I asked him to help me as “dramaturge”, because I thought he was in a unique situation to act as one.  We fought, we played, we analyzed.  No matter what, we couldn’t escape our Brother/Sister roles within the piece.  And as far as I was concerned, we didn’t have to.  Because we basically made the duet and then worked on it for a year and a half—the progress was internal.  We built up a mythology within what we were doing.  It was supposed to be spare, raw, but also dense with history and context. 

Note 5 (revised sibling dialogue)

 

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On that note, we find an ending.

 

Hannah Verrill is an artist living and making work in Chicago, Illinois.

 

Lynch’s “Surreal” Universe: Genre or Artists’ Movement?

December 4, 2013 · Print This Article

GUEST POST BY AUGUST EVANS

 

“Cinema is a wonderful way of expressing dreams.”       -Phillipe Soupault, founding surrealist

 

Here in Bloomington, IN, the December midnight screening series at the renowned IU Cinema, “More Human than Human,” is poised to screen David Lynch’s prequel (and conclusion) to the cult television series, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.

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                                                       Photo Courtesy: lynchnet.com

The IU Cinema describes Lynch’s 1992 film as “part neo-noir, part family melodrama, part surreal horror movie.” The descriptor “surreal” comes up more often than not in describing most any Lynch project–from an early film like Eraserhead, to a later work like Blue Velvet, or in any general summary of Twin Peaks–to a more recent foray into the song and accompanying film, “Crazy Clown Time.”

As much as the term “surreal” is used to describe the Lynchian universe, I wonder how such constant use might be making “surreal” into a Lynch-like genre, as equally identifiable as noir:

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Photo courtesy: Noir Film Festival Dubrovnik

But in the way that we identify the above as a decidedly noir photo still, what qualities make a film “surreal,” other than there being something bizarre, non-linear, oddly juxtaposed about it?

Lynch has come to be known for his “surrealist films”. His Wikipedia page claims he’s developed his own unique cinematic style, dubbed ‘Lynchian’, characterized by dream imagery and meticulous sound design. The surreal, and in many cases, violent, elements contained within his films have been known to “disturb, offend or mystify” audiences.”

But even though Lynch’s films are unmistakably surreal, are they surrealist?

Surrealist cinema, with origins in Surrealism, a movement that coincided with the birth of motion pictures, whose originators grew up alongside the first films, defines itself as being unable to be defined by style or form, ever-shifting and incongruous.

Only three films were actually ever designated “exclusively surrealist productions,” created in the throes of the movement and in keeping with its tenets: Germaine Dulac’s La coquille et le clergyman (original scenario by Antonin Artaud), Luis Buñuel’s L’âge d’or, and what might be deemed the quintessential surrealist film, Buñuel and Salvador Dalì’s Un chien andalou.

Though not necessarily “better” than any blatantly produced generic film, Un Chien Andalou is undoubtedly “different” than such films created under the commercial conditions and restraints of Hollywood. There is no doubt that the film was self-consciously produced, and subsequently consumed, against the mainstream generic model. Film theorist Steve Neale suggests Un chien andalou “flaunted the genre system predominant in Europe at the time it was made…the genre ‘narrative feature film’, and the genres of the contemporary European art film…Buñuel, claimed it was not even an instance of avant-garde filmmaking, but rather ‘a desperate appeal to murder.”

http://vimeo.com/18540575

Surrealism strikes me as an ideology akin to an artists’ movement, rather than a publically discussable genre. As Luis Buñuel wrote, the group sought “to explode the social order, to transform life itself,” an aim far more expansive than a simple generic label.

Any attempt to place the weight of genre upon an artists’ movement like Surrealism presents problems, considering the aims of the first (and possibly only) surrealists were to explode the bourgeois order. Indeed, these initial surrealist films achieved something very unique, specific, and particular to the artists’ movement out of which they emerged. Toby Sussman deems these early films “the pinnacle of the Surrealist films…the representation of the total passion of a human event pushed beyond previously known limits…resulting in a beautiful new world of images existing somewhere between the amorphous intractability of dreams and the cold acceptance of everyday consciousness”:

whitehorse                        Still from Twin Peaks: Fire Walks with Me      Photo Courtesy: lynchnet.com

 

Contemporary Czechoslovakian filmmaker, Jan Švankmajer, has called himself a “militant surrealist.”And yet, in his 2007 essay about the filmmaker, Jan Uhde calls him “one of the most significant living directors of non-mainstream and experimental film animation,” and cites Surrealism only as “a major influence” on Švankmajer’s film style. The first surrealists were nothing if not a collective, making Švankmajer’s participation in an actual group a notable link.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SqGAZgtDiBU

The experimental films of Maya Deren could certainly fit into this category as well. Deren combined her interests in dance, voodoo and subjective psychology in a series of perceptual, black and white short films. As an independent distributor, Deren exhibited and presented lectures on her films across the United States, Cuba and Canada. In 1946 she booked the Village’s Provincetown Playhouse for a public exhibition. Deren titled the exhibition: ‘Three Abandoned Films – a showing of Meshes of the Afternoon, At Land & A Study in Choreography for the Camera’. Deren took the word ‘abandoned’ to refer to Guillaume Apollinaire’s observation that a work of art is never completed, just abandoned. Whilst the title was ironic, the exhibition was successful.

Yet Deren actively rejected categorization as a surrealist, refused the definition of her films as formalist or structuralist. To label her films as surrealist brings up the same situation of Lynch’s distancing himself from the term in interviews, and summons the origins of the artists’ movement, people who based a huge amount of their identities on their active alignment with an ideology via Breton’s definitive manifestoes. Indeed, Deren’s request that her films shall not be called surrealist clashes logically with the crucial foundations of the artists’ movement, especially in considering how actively its practitioners self-identified as surrealist.

It seems to me that surrealism exists as a state of mind rather than a genre-form. Both dada and surrealism have been defined by their adherents as attitudes of thought as opposed to formalist or strictly cohesive artistic styles, and the artists were therefore committed to obtaining new effects by experimentation, recording accidental events resulting from improvisation.

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Photo courtesy: lynchnet.com

Michael Richardson writes, “the surrealist necessity is to make Marx’s demand for the ‘transformation of the world’ and Rimbaud’s demand to ‘change life as one and the same thing.” The Surrealists’ belief that “poetry should be made by all not one” required broader societal change and helps explain the movement’s close identification with various shades of left-wing thought. The publication of numerous, often difficult, sometimes perplexing, manifestoes should be understood within the context of the turbulent politics of the interwar years.

Excluding Å vankmajer, few filmmakers take such rare and raw revolutionary risks today. The essence of surrealism, refusing to be here but always elsewhere, makes me wonder whether a film like Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me should be included among those forerunners. Though the film teems with dreamlike, non-linear imagery, it contains its share of gratuitous nudity and standard plot turns. To align with the originary notion of surreal, the film should explode the social order, force the viewer somewhere new and perplexing. Whether Fire Walk with Me explodes any staid order, I have yet to know. What I do know is there is something very different about it, which may be enough to count as surreal.

 

August Evans has written in Mexico, Sweden, and Aix-en-Provence, France, where she taught English before returning to the U.S. to complete her Masters of Humanities degree at the University of Chicago. She has taught college English and Humanities in Chicago, and studied fiction writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Currently she is an MFA candidate at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her fiction and book reviews may be found in HTMLGiant, Melusine, and Monkeybicycle.