As I mentioned yesterday, there is a great performance festival taking place called IN>TIME. Organized by artist Mark Jeffrey, IN>TIME features both international and local artists exhibiting in 14 diverse venues across the city between the months of January and March. Bad at Sports will be posting a mini-series of interviews and essays about this festival, including an upcoming interview with Mark Jeffrey himself. This particular post is dedicated to two concurrent exhibits at threewalls that are also part of Jeffrey’s festival. On January 11th, Mary Patten’s performance/sound/video installation, Panel opened in the main space. Mathew Jinks’ began screening his new 73 minute, single-channel HD video, The Unreliable Narrator, in the project space. While these artists are distinct from one another, exhibiting independent projects, I was interested in facilitating a conversation between them, particularly as both negotiate film, performance, history and collaboration. These exhibits will be on view until February 23rd, with an artist talk from Jinks on January 31st at 7pm, as well as a performance, SCHIZO CULTURE: A Collaborative Reading, and publication release of the catalogue associated with PANEL. On February 9th, there will be another performance, SCHIZO PANEL, at 7 PM.
Caroline Picard: You both call on speculative fiction in your respective projects. What does it mean for each of you to employ the fantastic?
Mathew Jinks: The idea of alternate histories is very resonant for me, not necessarily in the reconstruction of various alternative spaces, but aiding in imagining that sense of an ‘other’ space that can be inhabited by a narrative. Fictive narratives do not interest me. They seem too comfortable as a source of abstract invention in some way, which I see as an escape from reality and a dead end street; a more complex and evocative device for me is to sow seeds of doubt, to introduce situations and characters with a set of dynamics which have been loaded from the start and see how they play out. The origination in my practice was at the point of departure from personal histories and the evolution of expansive political histories.
Mary Patten: Mathew’s articulation of alternate histories, his desire to “sow seeds of doubt,” the leaking or trespassing of “personal” histories into the territory of “the political” are all-compelling to me… and describe sensibilities or impulses that have shaped my own work for many years. It’s very difficult, maybe even pointless, to draw an easy divide between “fact” and “fiction,” despite persistent claims of “objective journalism” or “scientific truth.” This is well-trodden territory: what “we” (in the most capacious sense) collectively and cumulatively “know” is subject to constant revision and reconstruction. We understand that “facticity” doesn’t equal truth, and that what passes as fiction is not a series of falsehoods. One of the oldest cultural practices, the oral tradition — often taking the form of what we call fables or myths — has been a crucial element in constructing “history.” And yet “telling stories” is still a euphemism for telling lies.
“Speculative” introduces the possibility of wonder, a wandering imagination, the work of invention to heal or bridge inescapable gaps in any historical record. It is a kind of affective, archaeological process to make empirically un-provable connections between obscure, unknown or little-known histories. “Speculative” need not connote the fantastical, however — at least not in the “spectacular” sense. These words are funny… so interconnected, but full of paradoxes.
In the case of Panel, I was drawn to an obscure transcript, photocopied many-times over, given to me by the only participant still living, my friend Judith Clark, herself a survivor of a barely-remembered radical history, serving a 75-to-life sentence in Bedford Hills prison in New York State. (Judy’s story deserves its own independent telling; I would ask readers to please check out judithclark.org.)
Judy’s memory of the “panel on prisons and asylums” at Schizo Culture is that the three men – Foucault, Harp, and Laing – did most of the talking. That’s contradicted by the transcript, which is itself very odd, characterized by breaks and ellipses. We know from Sylvère Lotringer’s accounts that the entire Schizo Culture conference was rife with outbursts and interruptions, including this panel discussion, although that’s not evident in the transcription.
In attempting to re-stage a little-known but somewhat exotic event, I wanted to resist any impulse to reconstruct or “narrativize” the episode in any kind of “realistic” way. I didn’t want a performance designed to dissolve the distance between the “original” event and its contents, both very marked by that moment of the mid 1970s, and yet eerily (and depressingly) prescient of our current traumas of the “societies of control”: diagnosis, punishment, imprisonment, and torture. I didn’t want to blend or unify these four amazing characters and social actors, two of whom (Foucault and Laing) possess an iconicity shimmering with all kinds of aura, with the people reading and inhabiting their words now. I am compelled by both the “connects” and “disconnects.”
CP: You share an interest in collaboration, but also work independently. How do you negotiate the role of an author who is also dedicated to fostering relationships in your work?
MJ: I have always felt uncomfortable in a lonely practice, with the idea of the studio Artist who appears after years of hermetic work with a portfolio under the arm. I began working for other artists in Chicago because I had always been a part of a DIY scene which to me was about skill sharing and enabling others to achieve their goals whilst you achieved yours, doing this I witnessed the evolution of a work through multiple creative minds first hand and this stayed with me. I introduce performers and artists into my works to have them re-interpret my ideas, for them to take the work in directions unknown to myself or to the work. It is quite stressful in many ways to work with others, although I am not precious about my projects I do have creative demands and I like to try to keep the overall affect of the work under my thumb. In return I try hard to become a tool for them to use, whether I am recording sound as I did for Mary’s Piece, working as a Cameraman for Kirsten Leenars, or doing sound for Melika Bass. I simply try to gel with the process at hand.
The most important elements of my practice that I feel need to be under my control I will do myself, The Unreliable Narrator was shot, edited and mixed by myself, with voiceover recordings, studio shoots, post image production all done in my studio. I decided to use a colorist to step up my game a little and he really did a great job, I wanted some animation work for the chapter titles and again I used a great animator Han Han Li — the big key for this work was to employ a Producer, Parveer Singh Sohal. Without Parveer’s connections in India the work would not exist, so that was an integral decision. I needed access. But Parveer is not a Producer, he is a Graphic Designer and so there were many discussions about what I needed and what he was bringing to the project.
MP: Mathew’s discomfort with the notion of a lonely, hermetic studio practice and artistic identity is of course very much in sync with my own ideas, feelings, and history… although not without risks — losing oneself in the collective, for example. A good friend who shares a similar collaborative history once commented that it’s possible that no one will know or remember that her labor and creativity helped form some of these projects, since individual authorship is so often dissolved… I’m obviously not talking here about the art world’s current embrace of “relational practices” and the career building that goes along with that. But as I’ve said elsewhere, I continue to be drawn to collaborative ways of working, such as the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials Project, because it’s urgently needed, and impossible to realize by a single or even a handful of authors. Most importantly, collaborations embody the kind of collective labor and passion necessary to any project that’s trying to make change.
As you, Caroline, and Mathew make very clear, the project of film and videomaking, like so many art forms, is necessarily collaborative… Chris Marker makes this point beautifully during the ending credits of “Grin without a cat” which he dedicates to the anonymous and unnamed artists and technicians without whose clips, shots, sequences, and documents that epic film would have never been realized, seen, or distributed. To that point, I would like to acknowledge the thoughtful labor, participation, and support of performers Darrell Moore, Mikal Shapiro, Matthias Regan, and Mark Jeffery; Directors of Photography Yoni Goldstein and Meredith Zielke; Mathew for such great sound engineering; Alex Brown for assisting with camera; Ilan Gutin for helping with the large prints; and the lovely, hardworking, and brilliant Joey Carr who has worked as producer, compositor, and hardware/software engineer.
CP: You call on various histories, whether philosophical or psychological traditions, fortune telling traditions, — is it possible to collaborate with disciplines? Or do you think about the way you engage those traditions differently?
MJ: This is a wonderful question; tradition by nature is a stubborn legacy and confronting it head on is an antagonistic strategy. If you lay the threads down together: personal history and its discipline of remembrance, familial oral history, musical traditions as in Jazz, Cheiromancy, Homeopathy, Metallurgy, then these lines will touch and intersect like magnets picking up each other. It is a naïve want to reshape these lines to any sort of permanence. I think of Francis Alys work, The Collector — with the magnet on wheels that he pulls behind him collecting metal from the street as he goes — the street will fill up once again with shards and paperclips. Francis creates a moment of being present, and it’s this re-presenting and laying down with traditions in new almost aleatoric ways.
MP: I consider myself a visitor, a curious student, an interloper or trespasser in many disciplines, an auto-didact, or rather someone who has learned from many teachers and texts, “negative” as well as exemplary…
CP: How do you all think of beginnings and endings? Are those narrative touchstones useful to you?
MJ: No, I instinctively move away from creating narrative structure, arcs and so forth. I find the idea of conclusion quite arrogant in non-fiction. The episodic device is interesting because it introduces the idea of the ‘false start’, or the hidden track at the end of an album, or the prologue as in Bergman’s Persona, or ‘rewind’ in Jamaican dance hall, the stutter. This is why gallery installations are so useful: people enter and leave as they wish; this is a very considered position for my work, the ideal position.
MP: There are no real beginnings. We’re always starting in the middle, picking up someone else’s traces and tracks… For me, in the realm of ideas, relationships, as well as many projects over the years, there are so many interruptions and breaks… things are “left for now” and unfinished or deferred. I find it much more habitual to abandon something, rather than “end” it. Like Mathew, I am drawn to the episodic, to “false starts” and “stutters”… but when Mathew talks about resisting narrative arcs, I think he is perhaps referring to “mainstream” or what we used to call “Hollywood narrative cinema”… for me, there are so many wonderful, rich and complicated examples of “narrative fiction” that escape these constraints – the films of Robert Bresson and Chantal Akerman, for example, but also so many more – in cinema and literature, in expanded forms of the essay, in experimental non-fiction and media forms…
CP: How do you conceive of utopia? Is such a thing possible? Is it a condition of being? Or a place?
MJ: More than a construct, a Modernist ideal, pathological, LSD induced? I never conceive of utopia. Utopia and dystopia to me are devices, but they are not very interesting devices. They suggest spaces of utter happiness or utter sadness and isn’t that a psychological state? Bi-Polar? There is no tension in these extreme spaces and it is too easy to create heroics from such static dynamics. This is exactly what popular culture thrives on. The fine-line-in-betweens, and the slippage that occurs within those minimal gradations is what art production responds to. The entertainment industry responds to those other extremes. Even in a spiritual sense — in Buddhism, for instance, elements are in a balance, whereas in cults, the utopian ideals are offset by the leader sexually prowling its herd for ultimate control. Conceiving of utopia maybe undermines an art making practice? Desire is a more interesting space to work from for me. It has the same goal as utopia — the perfect space — but it is much more psychologically complex. Desire is fixated on process, and the moment. There is presence in desire without conclusion.
MP: Unlike Mathew, I don’t think that utopian impulses can be reduced to mere devices, or that they are necessarily tied to dangerous heroic narratives… maybe this is just a difference of language, because I find that his conception of desire as a transformative force is very akin to what I would call utopian longings.
Until fairly recently, it’s been fashionable to dismiss “utopia” because of its attachment to so many terrible and failed agendas that promised brave new worlds and then delivered totalitarianisms. We know now that we should dislike and mistrust master narratives, totalities of certainty, and teleological schemes. However, I am drawn to utopian impulses not just because I was formed through my engagement with them – to the point of political lunacy, perhaps – but also perversely because they have been a despised or at best suspect category for so long.
Contemporary social movements and revolts against globalized capital, the fleeting “occupys,” the movements of the squares, the queer utopias of so many interesting artists today, all embody what people call “prefigurative politics”: “Be the change you want to make.” The emphasis is on the here and now, against telos, embracing not only possibility, but doubt. Recognizing that we, and all matter, is/are in a constant state of becoming, that small and invisible shifts and changes are always (potentially) occurring, whether or not they are seen or recognized… this is what intrigues and provokes me. Brian Massumi is an extremely useful thinker and writer here.
Paradoxically, there’s a lot of interest in reclaiming utopian thinking now because of how hopeless and scary the world has become, how reduced and flattened to information, to bits and bytes everything seems… and all the ways that capitalism forecloses the imagination and desire, except as an instrument of and for the commodity, no pleasure outside of consumption… or the deadliness of an actuarial life, with its endless assessment debits and credits…
CP: What does it mean to come from somewhere? What role does memory play in that reality?
MJ: The transition is interesting, to come from somewhere to go to somewhere else, and the translation from one meaning to another. There is a great deal of nostalgia and longing for previous inhabited spaces, especially if you have been formed by them in some way; that complicates memory. A new space can act as a lens from which to view the previous space and this is truly a unique position. You no longer belong to that place but the memories are attached to you, somehow the filtration from one’s current position gives a sober screen. I think it is essential but painful, and again that tension of knowing you need separation while at the same time being in touch with a sense of longing is the drive for this ‘other’ space to be imagined in my work.
MP: Again, we return to the problem of origins…Years ago, I made a piece provoked by Courbet’s “The Origin of the World.” I was very influenced by Linda Nochlin’s pivotal essay on that infamous painting, and the difficulty, if not impossibility, of locating an originary point — whether in relationship to that picture, which existed in several versions, disappeared, and re-surfaced over a long stretch of time… as well as the funny ridiculousness of imagining the universal vulva-cunt as the origin of us all, the Great Mother… how much better to use the term “beaver”? or just ordinary women’s names: a succession of beavers…
A more recent project was instigated by the notes, translated from Arabic into English, allegedly written by Mohammed Atta in preparation for the hijackings and attacks of September 11, 2001. When I read these, all sorts of problems immediately presented themselves. Was this an actual document? Were the notes, in fact, “found”? or were they a fiction, invented to “prove” a rationale as incomprehensible as the acts that followed? Was this a reliable translation?
The idea that translation is often slippery and inexact, and sometimes impossible, is widely acknowledged. Yet we like to pretend that complete transparency is within our reach, that vast differences of culture, language, and history can be breached, if only the right tools, technologies, and “mindsets” are available. And translation, like everything else, has undergone a renewed politicization in this ever-encapsulated world.
In a lot of my work, I explore spaces and distances between a “here” and a “there,” a presumed “center” and its “periphery,” to work off the grid to the point of falling off a map completely. I work with images drawn from public, although possibly ephemeral archives – things like newspapers, outtakes, margins of the margins – to fictionalize them, at the same time as undermining the authority of “authentic” or alleged autobiography. Like Mathew, I’m preoccupied with the instability of memory, very enamored of the idea, the necessity of the unreliable narrator… or the mute, opaque, or invisible one.
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.”
This week: Patricia Maloney rocks Kansas and interviews Plug Projects. PLUG PROJECTS is a curatorial collaboration by five Kansas City artists who share the mission of bringing fresh perspectives and conversation to the local art community.
Our goal is to energize artists and the public at large by exhibiting challenging new work, initiating critical dialogue, and expanding connections of artists in Kansas City as part of a wider, national network of artists.
November 1, 2011 · Print This Article
Portland filmmakers, educators, programmers and film advocates Alain LeTourneau and Pam Minty are in the midst of a Midwest and east coast tour with their avant-doc Empty Quarter. The work is a decade in the making but even beyond that knowledge there is something very large feeling about it. Perhaps this weight is due to the scope of its subject: the three southeastern counties of Oregon (Lake, Harney and Malheur), its wide-ranging citizenry and their activities both quotidian and transformative. I imagine the openness with which a viewer can interact with the piece, though, has more to do with how large and multivalent it feels.
Empty Quarter is formally divergent from conventional documentaries in several obvious ways: its format—from camera to projector—is luminous black-and-white 16 millimeter film; the scenes are composed of lengthy, single shots for which the camera is fixed; the subjects—landscapes and the workers, families and machinery that people them—exist without a narrator’s context, without an onslaught of subtitular text; during those intervening interview portions where direct human voices are heard the screen is completely black (save for those occasional scratches or imperfections the film print will accrue as it makes its way through projectors across the country). It is, as such, in the tradition of other makers who take as their subject the real world. As a documentary, its polemic is apolitical (so far as parties are concerned), but deeply humanistic and with a strong feeling for the strange, beautiful landscape and the industries, families and outside communities with which they function.
Because the film is so open in its presentation, questions relating to urban and rural divides, race and ethnicity within agricultural sector and regions, land stewardship and labor are all invoked. While Pam and Alain were in Chicago screening the film (one hopes they’ll find time for us again on their spring tour of the film), we were able to speak at length about the decade long process of its making, the bold formal elements of the work and the nature of their collaboration.
It seems silly, but sometimes the easiest way to digest works that are formally inventive or distinct is to first think about those differences as an entry into the work. Empty Quarter is a documentary, but will never be described as such without a tag like experimental or essayistic or landscape or avant before it.
Alain LeTourneau: Empty Quarter attempts to create a cinematic experience closer to lived experience. That is, raw and undigested. The viewer would move through and make meaning of the spaces and activities presented. We wanted the relationship to the audience to remain open, allowing the audience to participate on some level. If we had presented a series of opinions or arguments, the viewer would be left in a position of agreeing or disagreeing with the information presented. As a portrait of a place, Empty Quarter is a series of recorded observations. The viewer can enter in to and inhabit the shots/scenes taking away a set of personal reactions, which can then be shared with other audience members, friends and perhaps family. The cinematic experience is intended to extend or ripple out into people’s lives, becoming part of public life.
One of the most striking (and I think best) choices you made in this film is the use of black during the interview segments.
Pam Minty: While all image-based shots are set to sync sound, audio interviews with residents from the area are set to black screen. Our intention in this approach is to give the audience the space to listen in a focused way not competing with the function of visual observation. Many of the issues discussed were repeated across several interviews, so it seemed more appropriate to allow unmitigated sound to convey these shared experiences, opinions and concerns. To some extent, the use of long visual takes informed the choice to give equal or similar weight to collected audio recordings. There was a decision in post-production to mix sync voices more prominently in an attempt to replicate being in the environment and give the audience the opportunity to experience what grabbed our attention most.
Though it seems to hard to imagine this film functioning otherwise the use of black & white seems to work on a number of levels here. It does something to heighten the notion of the work as intentionally produced (as art, as artifice), which seems counter to so much of how most documentaries are made, but it also seems to reinforce the work’s place in a historical trajectory.
AL: 16mm black and white can blur the distinction between seasons, times of day, and tends to focus one’s attention on the activity or landscape being framed, without presenting itself as “reality”. The black and white images are presented as a document or observed record. The texture or grain is also quite wonderful, the way it creates shimmering, almost impressionistic images, unresolved and lower in quality than color.
The whole film is filled with beautiful, evocative images. But without giving too much away, I feel like the final shot (above) is so elegant, so well paced and so well constructed that both times I’ve seen the work someone from the audience has asked whether or not it was choreographed. In itself, it’s an interesting question because the question is not whether the drivers of the farm equipment were directed, but choreographed, but also seems a good jumping off point to ask about how much was done to “direct” the participants in the film.
AL: The final shot in Empty Quarter came out of our experience of observing various patterns that occur in the process or routine of work, whether manual or machine labor. The camera was positioned to present a kind of symmetry with movement in the image, and to unfold in a very subtle way.
PM: We’ve found that audiences have used those terms differently to respond to different images. When machines appear to be moving in a planned way, we’re asked about whether we choreographed the scene. Conversely, when people enter a shot, perform an activity, and (in general) leave the frame, people tend to use the term “direction” in how they phrase the question. Ironically, the most choreographed looking scene, the closing shot, was one in which we had the least ability to manipulate how the corn harvest activity unfolded. Alain’s intuition about when to begin filming in relation to how much film was in the magazine for the tilling of the last row of corn, was critical. Also, his choice to frame the shot as he did lent to the power of that shot. Had he centered the final row tilled, the trucks would not have been symmetrical as they left the frame left and right, and it wouldn’t have happened simultaneously. In a post-film Q&A, he’ll call it dumb luck, but as a witness to that moment, it really comes across as good decision making, being aware of the frame, and keen observation about how the process unfolds.
There’s always something inherently quixotic to the project of documentary. The idea of representing another’s lived experience is always an impossible challenge, but the idea of representing such a gigantic amount of space and the wide-ranging experiences of those who live and work there is even more vast. There are always those in the moving image world who argue for a utopian concept of total representation, of a 360-degree, interactive cinema, and compared to these, the thoughtfully-constructed, single-take scenes of a place seem to argue towards the specificity of your framing and the intent inherent to leaving so much out of the frame.
AL: Total or complete representation sounds like an impossible project. Additional funding would have allowed the film to be longer, maybe three hours, but whether the film would have benefited from this additional material is hard to say. I think we would have enjoyed the opportunity to continue recording and documenting the work, recreational activities and landscape of the area, but even given more material and longer run time, I think it would be difficult to say that we could provide an exhaustive view of the region. We certainly could have shined light on more of what happens in the area. For example, we had an offer to record inside a one-room schoolhouse in a remote part of Lake County, but the completion schedule and our budget would not allow us to incorporate this into the film.
There are a lot of political, social and ecological issues that are hinted at in the film. Compared to most films, or even to most conversations, the film feels balanced (not simply right-and-left, but front-and-behind, top-and-bottom). What lead you to give this film this seemingly non-political vantage?
AL: While Empty Quarter is not overtly political, I would not say it’s non-political or does not on some level engage political questions. The film certainly does not provide any kind of dramatic conflict that is eventually resolved or persuasive argument. In acknowledging our distance from the region and our urban detachment from rural lifestyles, our approach was more of simple observation, which seemed of greater value than a more traditional approach. Looking at—and listening to—the region in an effort to provide a means of thinking about its place in the social and economic fabric of American culture was a critical aspect of our interest in the project.
The same people that have told me the idea behind making a film is to a tell a story also told me that film is the most collaborative of art forms. This concept is obviously based on a large studio system in which hundreds of people do their parts to manifest the vision of a director. The history of avant-garde film, however, takes a central (if sometimes only implicitly or out of necessity) interest in the single artist, the lone maker. Somewhere between these poles lies your own dynamic. Can you describe the process of working as a couple? How do you conceive of our collaboration?
PM: Our earliest experience as collaborators in the production of Empty Quarter was simultaneous to beginning our work co-programming an experimental film series now operating under the name 40 Frames. In 2000, we moved into a warehouse space that could accommodate screenings as well as house our film production facility. As we wound down the production process and moved into post, we transitioned out of programming into the advocacy role we perform now with 16mm Directory, which is the primary activity of 40 Frames. We’re both working on independent films now as we distribute Empty Quarter. Once these projects are complete, we plan to collaborate on a second film on the subject of work.
Jesse Malmed is an artist and curator. He is brand new to Chicago and Bad at Sports. His work can be seen at www.jessemalmed.net.
This week we return to Chicago’s magic love and check in with a few local heroes, Rob Davis and Michael Langlois. Fresh from shows in New York and Berlin, they have returned home to a run of great exhibitions starting with the Cultural Center in January and rolling up to the current 12 x 12 at the MCA. They join us to chat about painting, perspectives on art history, collaboration and show making in the contemporary context, while always draping one hand back to tradition.
The outro has a guest commentator with a message for Joseph Mohan. After that there is a special surprise for those who hang about for end of the credits. Or maybe not. I thought it was funny. Read more