Seeing with Three Eyes: An Interview with Fern SIlva

February 11, 2013 · Print This Article

Even though we call them motion pictures, moving images, movies, not everything committed to celluloid or quicktime has motion at its locus. In the idiosyncratic, stirring body of filmic work that Fern Silva has produced—and will be screening five recent works to inaugurate Conversations at the Edge’s spring season this Thursday—movement is integral. The sumptuous and silent Passage Upon the Plume (2011) finds its rhythms in the coupled vertical impulses of hot air balloons and baskets being lured up and down the faces of buildings. Concrete Parlay (2012)—his latest as well as the source of the evening’s title—uses the trope of the magic carpet ride to guide us through cities and bodies and concepts both foreign and domestic. 

Showing a preference toward making/taking footage while traveling, the films are filled with nods to the histories and aesthetics of home movies, ethnographic film and experimental film. Through a variety of collage-techniques and sophisticated sonic strategies, the works retain an alluring density that compels repeat viewings. Beyond the density, they have great levity and are propelled by their own internal rhythms. Busted pop songs and radio fuzz keep the party moving even if its attendants may not be sure where. 

Fern holds a BFA from Massachusetts College of Art and an MFA from Bard College. He teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago (where I am an MFA candidate). His films have shown widely in film festivals, galleries and museums and in 2010 he was named one of the “Top 25 avant-garde filmmakers for the 21st century” in Film Comment. Concrete Parlay: An Evening with Fern Silva takes place this very Valentine’s Day at the Gene Siskel Film Center at 6:00 pm. Fern will be in attendance and ready to answer any lingering questions you may have. Perhaps something about a minidisc player and a bullet.

I am always interested in learning more about an artist’s background and the ways (subtle and overt) that one’s biography shapes one’s artistic output. I’m hoping you might say a bit about where you’re from, the first films you saw (experimental and otherwise) that impacted your aesthetic sense or made you want to make your own work. 

I was just listening to this Terry Gross interview with Tyler Perry on NPR and a large topic of conversation was his biography and how it influenced his creative process and now manifests itself into his films. I absolutely identified with him and his experiences. I’ve never seen a Tyler Perry movie although I think Why Did I Get Married is a great title for a film, but I do agree with him in making films through catharsis and hopefully having an audience face them that way. George Kuchar says something like, make sure to have a past otherwise your future will be bleak in his message to the people of the future. This is something that I’ve been thinking about lately, humorously.

I grew up in Hartford, CT which at the time was very depressed and dangerous but just like my parents who had immigrated from fascist Portugal, there were other immigrants who were also fleeing from dictatorships and war-torn countries at that time in the 70’s. Not sure why they went to Hartford though. My class all throughout grade school was like a mini-UN, we were from everywhere and the US at the same time and fairly confused about our identities and being American. Most of us were just learning English and were back in our respective motherlands once we got home after school. Sharing stories and cultural experiences with one another heightened my curiosity for travel. I wasn’t really allowed to watch movies or go to the theater until I was a teenager, if I saw any movies, they were mostly in school.

I do remember going to a yard sale with my mom when I was a kid and buying what may have been a foot of 16mm film with the image of a china girl on it. The guy told me it was a movie but I had a hard time believing that since I had no knowledge of how film worked and the image itself was so still and there were just multiple frames of it. I did carry it with me for a while asking random strangers who the actress was and the name of the movie I was holding. Little did I know, she was in every movie in one way or another. I lost it once when I went to a friend’s house and ripped open a VHS tape of Howard the Duck to make comparisons and noticed no images on the tape. I was perplexed and then just moved on to continuing to paint and draw. So to fast forward, it wasn’t until later in high school after experimenting with other things that I started to watch lots of movies and so filmmakers like Dreyer, Cocteau and Vertov were very influential in my interest to pursue films closely. Our public library somehow had an amazing collection so often I’d come home with stacks of VHS tapes and watch at least two features a day. I soon after learned about artists making work on a more personal and creative level like Brakhage, Deren, and Mekas but it wasn’t until I started going to MassArt and spending time with Saul Levine, Mark Lapore and Ericka Beckman that a profound impact would be made on my pursuit to be a filmmaker. I remember feeling a sense of euphoria, many times, during multiple screenings and wanting more.        

Relatedly, you and I and many others have come of age at a time when many of the big names in (I hesitate to use this phrase but) the first wave of experimental film had either passed or were reaching that stage. Our mentors have primarily been a mix of those taught by that first generation of impactful makers and a mix of their progeny and the occasional glimpses of their ancestors. Now you’re teaching and I’m interested in a few questions around this: how do you imbue your classes with the vitality and interest of works that are (by now) fifty years old, how have the lessons of these older generations impacted your pedagogy and what do you think are the historical lessons we can glean from them?

Well nowadays a lot of the work from those canonical filmmakers that both you and I were exposed to in school are readily available through digital technology and even viewable on the internet so I often just have my students watch and write about them on their own time unless I have access to a print. I try to show as much work that I think is as important and less accessible, in comparison, during class time. Experimental films that were made 50 years ago can be as fresh as films being made now in a classroom setting. I like to show films that I found inspiring and share stories about the filmmakers who we’re watching. For example, when I show Meshes of the Afternoon, I’ll tell the story of when Maya Deren threw a fridge across the kitchen while she was possessed in her West Village apartment that Brakhage writes about in Film at Wit’s End. Sometimes, I’ll also come in with multiple films and sense the energy in the classroom and then make a decision on what I think everyone is ready for, they’ll all watch them at one point or another in class. Over all, I try to teach from a sociological standpoint as I feel a large part of cinema literacy lends itself to that very essence.

Much of your work is shot while traveling. It is also, in some cases, concerned explicitly with travel, movement and means of conveyance (magic carpets, hot air balloons). This is perhaps a broad question, but I’d like you to talk a bit about what travel means for you creatively and how you conceive of the traveling you do. To what degree do you seek out situations that you think might make for interesting filming opportunities? How do you choose where you’re going and when? How do you see travel functioning metaphorically for aesthetic/cinematic experiences (or, even, do you)?

I’m interested in travel as much as I’m interested in understanding the inevitable paths that living beings take for one purpose or another, either through immigration or migration or just plain leisure and the expectations and outcomes of those experiences. I also utilize travel as a means for self-examination that in turn allows me to disconnect from practical or theoretical assumptions of origin, priority, essence, etc. I always go into making a movie with an overall agenda but use the production stage as an exploratory process so that I can work intuitively. Having ideas and searching for their articulation continues throughout production up into the post/editing stages. Overall, outside of travelling and making films, I’m visiting friends and my interaction with them often informs the outcome of the films.

There is a long and fruitful history of poets and avant-garde filmmakers working together, reflecting on each other and informing each other’s practice. The mutual friend through whom we first met, Charity Coleman, is an excellent poet and thoughtful, passionate cinephile. You use poems by Fern(ando) Pessoa and Luís Vaz de Camões in Servants of Mercy (2010) and I know that you have been engaged in various ways with poetry and poetics. I’m hoping you might elaborate on these relationships and also how you see you work functioning in a poetic dialogue. 

Charity makes great use of the word dreamy.

There is, or rather was, a long fruitful history of poets and artists alike working together in a way that at one point may have been called “parallel poetry”, but it seems as if it’s less common nowadays. Or, at least it seems that way between poets and filmmakers working contemporaneously on a sort of one-to-one level. As a personal filmmaker, the possibilities of working with other poets adjacent to filmmaking is something that I’m interested in continuing for as long as I make work. There are several poets or poems that I re-read before I start edits. For example I always read/listen to Of Being Numerous by George Oppen which is one of my favorites and once I get down the line a bit I listen to Reign in Blood by Slayer, always. Pessoa and Camões are two of the most celebrated Portuguese poets, I read them in Portuguese for practice when I was a child. There was a saying that won’t translate so well in English but it went along the lines of “Luis de Camões can see better with one eye than we can see with three.”

Your use of sound is really wonderful and startling. In particular, I think you do a really interesting of job of allowing the sound to complicate and mystify (rather than simply double or reinforce) the image. There are moments of (apparent) synchronization and others when the clarity of a sound, in particular its source within the diegetic space, begins to wander and, finally, leads to an entirely new set of image concerns. At what stage in your process is sound introduced? How do you select the songs you’re using and they function they’ll play, both conceptually and emotionally?

I record all of my sound during the shooting process. Lots of it. All of the time. But it’s never in an abusive sense. I house it, store it, label it and pay close attention to it. My approach to recording sound is different from shooting in the way that I collect hours and hours and hours of it and will often create foley in post-production and build libraries. In some ways I obsessively collect it. I love how malleable it can be sometimes and how specific it can be other times. All of this through multiple forms of manipulation creates a certain flavor I seek in my sound/image relationships. Even the songs, pop plays everywhere and I always stop and record it wherever I go with the means that I might use it. For a long time I was recording with a mini-disc player, up until recently. It finally stopped working after a bullet got lodged in it through my pocket. It actually saved my life.

In the Absence of Light, Darkness Prevails

In conversations we’ve had, you’ve gone into great length about the necessity of sitting and watching—both actively and ambiently—your footage dozens (if not hundreds of times) before beginning to edit. I think your process is unique (though perhaps discovering a unique process is the key to becoming a unique artist) and I’d like you to share it. Did you always work this way? Is this one of the (useful) limitations of 16mm? 

Well overall, I think it’s important to study your footage and to really take it into consideration on every possible angle or direction at various speeds and single frames. It’ll often be months before I get my footage back from the lab so during that time I try to exercise by memory and often edit in my head from what I remember. Once I do get it back, I feel the need to burn it into my brain so that I’m constantly thinking about its possibilities to exist as a sort of encapsulation of multiple thoughts, sounds, and images from a specific period of time. So I have to watch it at least a hundred times before I start cutting. It’s an ongoing process on how I get to that point and it always changes so it’s hard to gauge. One thing I can say is that it becomes a ritual in itself. I always did this to one degree or another but it was because I didn’t shoot much, I still don’t really. I’ll usually use 2/3 to 1/2 of my footage for the final edit and sometimes I’ll be close to 1/1. I also edit while I shoot, sometimes marking rolls, rewinding them and popping them back in. The last movie I made, I got my film back and then decided to shoot some more in a controlled studio, this is something I might be interested in exploring in the future, adding overtly fictional elements to accentuate a certain theme.

This is a question about structure, about (non-)narrativity and about collage. Or, maybe, this is a prompt to hear your thoughts on these words together and perhaps in that order and most certainly in reference to your own work.

All of those words mean the same thing to me.




Radical Lights

February 7, 2012 · Print This Article

I lived in San Francisco once. It sometimes feels distant now because I have even lived another place between there and here. San Francisco occupies an interesting place in the American imagination. Even though high rents and a sort of institutionalized and self-aware weirdness pervade much of the city, it is still, in fact, filled with oddballs, Peter Pans and visionaries. Its role in American culture is as a provocateur, a laboratory and a refuge. I think this is true and the city certainly thinks it’s true.

It was stirring, then, to see so much of San Francisco last week at Northwestern University’s Block Cinema screening of Stories Untold, one of over 20 different programs of (mostly) shorts under the umbrella of the Radical Light project. The project, whose full name is Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-2000, encompasses a large, brimming book, those 20-some programs of experimental media and a gallery exhibition at the Berkeley Museum of Art. The monumental exhibition was facilitated by curators/editors/programmers Steve Anker (now the Dean of the School of Film/Video at California Institute of the Arts, once of the San Francisco Cinematheque), Kathy Geritz and Steve Seid (Film and Video Curators at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive,). Over the course of a decade, the three scholars and exhibitors wove together a history of alternative and experimental media notable for the quality, diversity and energy of the work.

The book teems with interesting essays, artist pages, personal reflections and histories and, ecstatically, loads of ephemera from various screenings. Cinema is an event and even when large institutions are involved (SFMOMA, SFAI, KQED and BAM/PFA all having played interesting roles in the development of Bay Area media), the works and culture in Radical Light’s purview are scrappy, marginal and rule-defying. Flyers from shows, dispatches from seminal organizations and photographs enliven the text and remind young guns that the culture has always been suffused with polymaths—artists as curators as critics as janitors as flyer-makers as audiences as artists—and that making a show is as simple and as complex as making a show.

On Thursday February 16th, the excellent Conversations at the Edge series at the Gene Siskel Film Center brings Steve Anker and the New Preservation/New Prints program. The program features works from 1906 to 1984. A number of these films and some of their makers—for me, at least—fall under the “seen about but haven’t seen” category. Making this an even bigger treat is that these films have been well preserved and new prints have been struck. For all the great benefits of increased online visibility of canonical (and forgotten) experimental film history, the joy of seeing these works in a proper cinematic context and in their correct format is immense. You can watch Oh, Dem Watermelons by the recently deceased Robert Nelson below, but you’re better served just tasting it here and letting your interest be sated by real thing.

One week later, CATE brings us George Kuchar: HotSpell. I love Kuchar’s work, especially the video diaries he began to make in the 1980s. Ed Halter wrote this lovely piece on Kuchar for Artforum and I think it perfectly sums up what makes his work so endlessly watchable. The work is funny, smart and messy. It’s about cinematic representation and camp and biography and the weather while still mostly being about that moment. Halter nails it nicely: “cinema à la Kuchar pivoted on the dialectic between overblown fantasy and schlumpy reality, the films always working double time as documentaries of their own making.”

Then, on Friday the 24th, Chicago Filmmakers hosts Radical Light’s Found Footage Films program. The Bay Area has had a long entanglement with collage and appropriative filmmaking. This program is of particular interest to me now because of the (seeming,) (current,) wholesale mainstream embrace of borrowed images. The ease of digital editing and prevalence of moving image media has enabled entire new folk arts of super-cuts, stretched videos and detourned mass media. Bring a teenage friend who’s never heard of Craig Baldwin or who can’t imagine what a debate about sampling would even be and see if the works’ radical histories can still be felt.

(Thad Povey‘s Thine Inward-Looking Eyes)

I had the privilege of helping bring some of Radical Light to Portland last year and with it Steve Seid. Among the great joys were meeting Loren Sears (the book is almost worth its price just for the picture of him from Bolinas in 1973 sitting cross-legged in his Video Van, a mobile video editing and processing station replete with patterned rugs and a lingering hippie/techno-utopian/media shaman vibe that feels quintessentially Bay Arean), having the chance to learn even more secrets than were divulged in the book and, if it isn’t too horn-tooting to admit, to participate in Seid’s reading by doing a performative reading as Kuchar, one of the few impressions I can do. Kuchar’s presence was all over last week’s screening and remains one of the many vital personalities Radical Light teases into the large, varied, tangential and fascinating tape-stry of a half century of inventive cinema.




Ryan Trecartin Speaks at SAIC and Screens at Conversations at the Edge

April 14, 2010 · Print This Article

Still from Sibling Topics (Section A) (Ryan Trecartin, 2009). Courtesy the artist and Elizabeth Dee Gallery.

Lots of Ryan Trecartin action happening ’round these parts tonight and tomorrow night. First up, Trecartin’s artist’s talk at the School of the Art Institute on Wednesday (tonight). The following Thursday night at 6pm SAIC’s Conversations at the Edge series screens two pieces from Trecartin’s latest project, Trill-ogy Comp (2009-10): Sibling Topics (Section A) (2009) and P.opular S.ky (section ish) (2009). Trecartin will introduce the films that will be screened. Full details on both events below:

Ryan Trecartin – Visiting Artists Lecture

Wednesday, April 14, 6:00 p.m. – Artist Talk (FREE admission)
SAIC Columbus Auditorium, 280 S. Columbus Dr.

“Both in form and in function, Ryan Trecartin’s video practice advances understandings of post-millennial technology, narrative, and identity, while also propelling these matters as expressive mediums. His work depicts worlds where consumer culture and interactive systems are amplified to absurd or nihilistic proportions and characters circuitously strive to find agency and meaning in their lives. The combination of assaultive, nearly impenetrable avant-garde logics and equally outlandish virtuoso uses of color, form, drama, and montage produces a sublime, stream-of-consciousness effect that feels bewilderingly true to life” (Kevin McGarry).

Ryan Trecartin is the recipient of the first Jack Wolgin Prize in the Fine Arts (2009), presented by Temple University’s Tyler School of Art. He has had solo exhibitions at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, OH; Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna, among others. Organized by the Visiting Artists Program and Conversations at the Edge, in this special two-evening presentation, Trecartin will present selections from his newest body of work, Trill-ogy Comp (2009-10): K-Corea INC. K (Section A), Sibling Topics (Section A), and P.opular S.ky (section ish).

Screening admission $10 general public, $7 students, $5 members, $4 Art Institute of Chicago staff and SAIC faculty, staff, and students. Advance tickets available at GSFC box office or via Ticketmaster.

Ryan Trecartin: Conversations at the Edge

Thursday, April 15, 6:00 p.m. – Screening
Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

This evening, as part of a special two-part presentation organized by the Visiting Artists Program and Conversations at the Edge, Trecartin will introduce two pieces from his latest project, Trill-ogy Comp (2009-10): Sibling Topics (Section A) (2009) and P.opular S.ky (section ish) (2009). Ryan Trecartin, 2009, USA, HDCAM video, ca. 90 min.

CATE is organized by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Department of Film, Video, and New Media in collaboration with the Gene Siskel Film Center and the Video Data Bank.

Programs take place Thursdays at 6pm at the Gene Siskel Film Center (164 N. State / Chicago, IL / 312-846-2600), unless otherwise noted.




Interview | Amy Beste

February 16, 2010 · Print This Article

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Sterling Ruby, still from Transient Trilogy, 2005-9 (via CATE)

Amy Beste is a woman of many hats. “She is the director of public programming for the department of Film, Video & New Media at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where she organizes the visiting artist series ‘Conversations at the Edge’ at the Gene Siskel Film Center.” Has curated numerous screenings across the country; and is “currently working on a PhD at Northwestern University where she is writing a history of experimental and industrial/educational filmmaking in Chicago.” Amy was kind enough to take the out of her schedule and answer some of my questions about Conversations at the Edge’s current season.

There has been a lot of press about individual screenings from Conversations at the Edge but not very much about the program itself. Could you give a little background on how the series came to be?

Sure, the series Conversations at the Edge started in 2001 as an effort between the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s department of Film, Video, & New Media, the Gene Siskel Film Center, and the Video Data Bank to showcase innovative and experimental media and makers. The Film Center had long screened experimental film and video (its roots are, in fact, in an experimental film series from the 1960s called the Magick Lantern Society) and the Video Data Bank, and the Film and Video departments (now the Film, Video, & New Media department) had been hosting important media makers as visiting faculty from their inceptions. The series presented an opportunity for these different groups who were associated with SAIC to join forces and present a very dynamic series that showcased a range of aesthetic approaches, histories, and politics, while also providing a unique opportunity for direct conversation between media artists and a broad public audience.

How is the series curated? There is such a great balance of work. You have very well known artists such as Dara Birnbaum, up and coming artists such as Ryan Tricartin, but also artists that are not well known.

Thanks–we work hard to get that balance. I organize the series in very close consultation with the Video Data Bank and the department of Film, Video, & New Media which serve as the series’ curatorial advisory board–making suggestions for artists and programs—as well as a sounding board for each season’s overall shape. Read more




Tuesday’s Video Pick| Dara Birnbaum

February 9, 2010 · Print This Article

For this week’s pick we bring you Dara Birnbaum’s Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman, 1978-79. Birnbaum will be screening and speaking about her work at the Gene Siskel’s Conversations at the Edge on February 11th.

via Art Torents:
“In her video Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman, Dara Birnbaum created one of the first examples of appropriation imagery from mainstream television, something that is now quite common. Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman, features, as one might expect, Wonder Woman, the main character of the prime-time television programm of the same name which was based on an action-adventure comic book. Using actual sceans from the series, Birnbaum ‘plung[es] the viewer headlong into the ver experience of TV- unveiling TV’s steriotypical gestures of power and submission, of male and female egos.”