Using breath from mouth to ear:
“I’m going to write something on your back and you have to guess what it is.”
Using gesture from finger to back:
“I need to know if you feel it too.”
They’re two teenage girls and they’re getting ready for the prom and one is wearing a marching band uniform. We’ll see that uniform again, in another movie, but everything will be different. For now, Jennifer Reeder needs us to feel it too. I had the privilege of working with Reeder for the last two years, while she served as my advisor at UIC. I am the beneficiary of her attention and support, her acerbic and absurd sense of humor, her immense intelligence and her ceaseless fierceness. She insists on vulnerability, even as so many of our interactions are goof sessions.
Her work—primarily in video, primarily for the cinema—is teenage girls, it’s pop noir, it’s language heavy, it’s singing Madonna to an ET figurine, it’s death metal brides in a graveyard on a toy camera, it’s impeccably pencil-rendered vulvae in the halls of a school, it’s electromagnetism of the heart, it’s an all-girl choir singing Judas Priest. It also looks and sounds more and more like the way movies look and sound. It is thankfully and unrepentantly feminist, deeply personal and idiosyncratic. And, luckily for Chicago readers, she’s doing a big hometown show tonight at the Gene Siskel Film Center as part of the integral and much beloved Conversations at the Edge program.
When I’m doing what I’m so often doing, when I’m doing what I’m doing right now, when I’m trying to convince people of the merits of someone’s work, to convince someone to attend a show, I say that Reeder’s movies feel like movie movies, but better. That even people who don’t like a lot of what they think I like will like her movies. That they’re smart and funny, surprising and deeply feeling, that they’re clever and daring. I heard something recently that felt insightful for a lot of creative practices. A comic said that sketch comedy privileges the joke over the character and will always sell the character out for the joke, whereas most episodic or narrative comedy privileges the character over the joke, such that every joke must feel real or at least, let’s say, diegetic. I was thinking about how this idea could be resonant in a number of forms while rewatching Reeder’s work. Deploying, as she invokes, bathos, she is able to maintain emotional credulity while covering and uncovering new layers of humor, trauma and complexity.
Her work has been screened and exhibited at venues like the Venice and Whitney Biennials, Ann Arbor Film Festival, Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen, New York Film Festival, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, PS1, Pacific Film Archive, Rotterdam Film Festival, Chicago Underground Film Festival, Vienna Short Film Festival and many, many more. She’s won countless awards, grants and other —including being named one of Chicago’s Top 50 Artists’ Artists by Newcity—while maintaining a vigorous teaching practice as an Associate Professor and the Head of the Art Department at the School of Art and Art History at UIC. She is represented by Andrew Rafacz Gallery in Chicago and distributes her videos through the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre, shortfilmagentur, LUX and independently. She earned her MFA from SAIC and her BFA from Ohio State University in her hometown of Columbus, Ohio. She is the mother of three boys and lives in Indiana.
As your work has progressed, its resemblance to conventional cinema—to what people think we mean when we say we make movies—has grown. Do artists too often limit their potential for engaging wider audiences by sticking to niche forms and the safe spaces those enable? Has making work that looks right enabled you to sneak in more of your own idiosyncratic ideas and stories? Is convention camouflage?
I set out to make very functional films, but honestly, narratives are very challenging. I compare my process to sewing. If I set out to make a fully functioning pair of pants but cannot get the pockets right, I sew them shut. BOOM, no pockets on these pants. Then I put super striking patches on the knees (or something) and hope that no one notices the pocket situation. Other times, the “experimental” parts of my narratives are much more directed and intentional from the get go. I start out making this move to pocketless pants because, ya know, people expect pockets and it’s more satisfying on my end to do the unexpected. I do appreciate so much, however, that these more conventional narratives I have been making over the past several years have reached a larger audience. I have a solid fan base of film lovers and programmers who fully support and encourage the wonky way I tell a story.
We’ve talked before about multipronged ways of moving culture towards a greater sense of inclusivity and social justice. Shows like Modern Family or Will and Grace—with their mainstreaming of gay culture, or, more precisely, with their insistence that obviously and already mainstream culture includes people who are gay—are important in that they provide hungry brains stories that include a wider variety of represented protagonists. At the same time, there’s a need for more radical cultural shifts, ones that at their cores those shows and the machinations through which they’re made are at odds with. As an educator and cultural producer, how do you balance these concerns? Are there, perhaps, times in our lives when it makes more sense to fight for same-sex marriage and others when it makes sense to dismantle marriage? Do we need more television shows with more people or fewer TVs?
Representation matters! Since the beginning, since White Trash Girl (1995-97), I have made work with some sort of justice component. My protagonists have agency. The enormous popularity of shows like Orange is the New Black and Transparent, confirm that general audiences want and need to see themselves and their friends/family reflected back from the small screen. I do not understand what still motivates lots of film and TV makers to actively ignore diversity in terms of casting and storyline.
In a way that is totally unsurprising, I am always drawn to your use of text on screen. A Million Miles Away (2014) makes use of emojis, subtitles that read occasionally as transcriptions of characters thoughts and other times like a rogue radio signal piped in through diving braces on crooked teeth. Tears Cannot Restore Her: Therefore, I Weep (2010) prominently features a classroom sign language interpreter détourning a lecture on electromagnetism into an intimate and crushing tale of love gone awry (or maybe just love gone away). As much as your films are filled with visual nuance and striking characterizations, I often think of your work in writerly terms. What about the screen seems so keen on rendering multiple modes of address?
During an emotionally charged conversation in real life, there also exists these multiple layers of iteration. There is what you say out loud, and what you are thinking when you say it and what you have written to someone else prior about what you will say. Then there is how the other person interprets what you have said and speculates about what you might actually mean and how later they retell the conversation without precise accuracy (adding parts or leaving parts out). I fill my films with many layers of translations, as you pointed out, because it’s how I unpack communication and interactions in my real life. Perhaps not everyone does this, but it cannot be just me, right?
Does the film exist on paper before you begin to shoot or do those extra-textual moments come in the editing room?
The extra language (texts, subtitles, etc.) exists in the script from the beginning. Often the actual words change during post as the temperature of a scene changes from script, through production to post.
Another striking component of your films—and one that extends into a gallery practice potentially—is the way that customized objects find their ways onto the screen. Keychains, ringtones, aprons and t-shirts, either purchased or constructed, telegraph something additional about the characters as well as providing another textual mode of address. Sometimes they signify subcultural statuses, sometimes they feel like gifts from someone off-screen and might not even fit right. Can you talk about these choices?
Art direction matters—this includes the props and wardrobe which are specific and intentional. The art direction is another layer of narrative language, a sub-plot even. It operates as bathos does in literature. A stupid image or phrase on a coffee mug visible in an emotionally revealing scene can disrupt the narrative in a charged and challenging way—injecting humor or absurdity or magic even into an otherwise pretty deadpan exchange. This happens in real life also. It is what makes “a serious talk” tolerable. I cannot resist a visual prank.
As your work has shifted to take more of the forms and processes of recognizable conventional productions, you’ve increased the number of people with whom you work. To what degree do you conceive of these productions as collaborations? Is there a way that working with so many more people on set changes how you think of the works? Are there auratic or affective overlaps in the jobs of director, parent and teacher?
I have worked with the same crew (Steven Hudosh, Chris Rejano and Paul Dickinson) over a few films now and the same editor (Mike Olenick) for over 10 years. These films are like relationships. I have to fall in love with the film then eventually break up with it to move onto the next film. It’s an emotional process and I need to surround myself with people I trust and who trust me back. I listen to everyone’s opinion from the script writing stage through post-production and distribution, but ultimately the final decisions are up to me. This could change with a different kind of financing model. There is a kind of collaboration in the scoring (music), because I depend on the composer (Jenne Lennon) to directly translate my notes in terms of how I want to film to sound. I appreciate what trained actors bring to set. I allow the cast to know and play their characters on their own terms, but I do not allow for improvisation. The dialogue is very specific. Don’t mess with my dialogue! Ok, and yes, I am quite parental on set. I am bossy but more mom bossy than boss bossy—lots of hugging and head patting, for real.
What is Tracers Book Club? How do the various spaces Tracers inhabits function together or separately? What can exhibitions do that online fora or real-life discussions cannot? What is lost or gained by making art in a group, orienting more toward making an argument or experience than originating from authorship?
Tracers (www.tracersbookclub, www.feministasfuck.org) is a free form collective dedicated to promoting feminism as a means toward social justice. Over this past year, we have had two gallery exhibitions in addition to many other events like a mini-conference (a day of panel discussions about intersectionality), two iterations of a radical crafting fair called “FEMINIST PARKING LOT,” films screenings, rock concerts, a youth poetry workshop and informal conversations (often around a book or presenter). Each event attracts a different audience. Feminism is personal and so Tracers makes an effort to offer lots of ways to get your dose. As we gain momentum, we are likely to expand the range of events. We are not a one size fits all kind of operation. If we are committed to inclusive, which we are, we must super-size the options. A narrowly actualized social justice mission is not very just in my opinion.
In rewatching your work for this piece, I found so many little moments that felt synecdochic, like they expressed something big about your entire practice in a small way. I know that you aren’t making work simply about your work—the equivalent of an advertisement for an ad firm—but over the course of your career, you seem to be honing in on a series of concerns. One of the most exciting is the continual and ever-changing challenge of communication and connection. In addition to shared concerns and themes, the reuse of props and costumes gives a hazy continuity to your work. Do you think of these works as being fully distinct or part of a much larger project? Are there ideas that you’ll have that you have to abandon because they don’t work within the scope of your current activities? Since we’re dealing with and in the world of narrative cinema, is there a Reeder universe, nestled somewhere near the speculative and psychic universe of John Hughes? Are the unnamed sites for these recent works in one unnamed town?
Ok, so yes, it’s all intentionally connected—stacks upon stacks of parallel universes. I feel as though I am making the same film over and over and over again. This tic is related to my need to provide multiple translations of narrative language within a single scene. I must keep prodding, “did you get that? Here let me put it another way. Ok, now, did you get it that time? Let me try again.” It’s an obsession with being heard and understood. I appreciate that my films are recognizable as mine. My favorite filmmakers are the auteurs. I am at a loss to understand how some filmmakers make entirely distinctive moves from one film to next. Ya know, like Ang Lee made both The Ice Storm and Hulk. No thank you.
What can the admittedly porous worlds of experimental and independent cinema learn from each other?
The experimentals should be less afraid of being liked/popular and the indies should be less afraid of taking some artful risks in terms of the form. It’s like the jocks versus the nerds. The jocks should get weirder and the nerds should get tipsy and make some prank phone calls.
What is your process for working with actors? Is there a sense that an actor is being instrumentalized—walk over here when the camera gets here, say these words in this order, wear this shirt and face this way—or is there a consideration of and conversation around the more mystical way that a person can embody another person? What has directing taught you about performing? How has your approach to directing actors changed from your White Trash Girl days to now?
The performers in WTG were all amateurs (including myself). No one could act, which is why all the “dialogue” is in the form of a voice over. Plus all the physical action is hyperbole—it’s like a live action comic book. Overdoing it was the only way to do it. My direction to the performers in WTG was like, “haul ass and then pretend to vomit.” In the past several years, I have worked primarily with trained professional actors, which is lovely. These are people who know how to transform themselves into another person—it’s a magic trick really. I am in awe when it works.
I am particular about my dialogue, as I mentioned, so I am known to ask for many takes of a scene (or even a specific line) until I hear it the way I want to hear it. I actually think that I hold my breath during some on-camera exchanges. I get very anxious behind the monitor but I have gotten much better at bringing performances out of the actors. They need to know who I think the character is and why I think they are doing what they are doing (after all I wrote it, I should know). Its all about defining the motivation and clearly communicating the emotional temp of a scene. So for instance in the film I just shot (Blood Below the Skin, currently in postproduction), a young woman has the lines, “you want a best friend? I can get you a best friend. I can get you a best friend forever, but you have to be ok with the pain and the blood.” She was not saying it right and so I eventually told her to say the lines as though she was talking about a dead body…..”you want to hide a dead body? I can help you hide a dead body….” It worked. Gone are the days of simply yelling, “haul ass,” but I don’t miss those days.
If my math is right, White Trash Girl is nineteen years old—right on the precipice of leaving its teenage years. When was the last time you revisited the character and that work? How do you think of her relating to your current work?
I still screen WTG occasionally. I have not made a WTG tape since 1997 but I am still very much making films about unruly women and the midwest. The trajectory from WTG to the current work is very clear and direct for me. It’s the same film over and over again, just now with better acting, better equipment and better fonts.
I’m hoping you’ll say more about why so much of your work centers around teenage girls? Are they both the subject and audience for the work?
In my opinion, no other group of humans is more misrepresented in cinema (in all of media really) than the teenage girl. We are a culture obsessed with female youth and we get it wrong every time. I am just trying to set the record straight or at the very least offer up an alternative—a disruption. I write scripts from observation and my own experiences. There is a kind of art therapy component to my filmmaking process—a lullaby that the adult me hands back in time to the teen me. It’s a retroactive survival strategy. Indeed my primary audience is the teen girl but these recent films seem to appeal to a much wider audience which is a surprise and fantastic. My dream is to pitch an idea to Nick at Nite for an edgy, racy (complicated) teen girl TV show (both for and about). Or better yet, a series of David Lynch-esque after school specials—weird but accurate and entirely in celebration of the teenage girl.
This will happen.
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 producedâ€”and will be screening five recent works to inaugurate Conversations at the Edge’s spring season this Thursdayâ€”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)â€”his latest as well as the source of the evening’s titleâ€”uses the trope of the magic carpet ride to guide us through cities and bodies and concepts both foreign and domestic.Â
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.Â
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 artistâ€™s background and the ways (subtle and overt) that oneâ€™s biography shapes oneâ€™s artistic output. Iâ€™m hoping you might say a bit about where youâ€™re from, the first films you saw (experimental and otherwise) that impacted your aesthetic sense or made you want to make your own work.Â
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. Iâ€™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 Iâ€™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 70â€™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 wasnâ€™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 friendâ€™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 wasnâ€™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 Iâ€™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 wasnâ€™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. Â Â Â Â Â
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 youâ€™re teaching and Iâ€™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 weâ€™re watching. For example, when I show Meshes of the Afternoon, Iâ€™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 Witâ€™s End. Sometimes, Iâ€™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, theyâ€™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 Iâ€™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 youâ€™re going and when? How do you see travel functioning metaphorically for aesthetic/cinematic experiences (or, even, do you)?
Iâ€™m interested in travel as much as Iâ€™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, Iâ€™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 otherâ€™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 LuÃs Vaz de CamÃµes in Servants of MercyÂ (2010) and I know that you have been engaged in various ways with poetry and poetics. Iâ€™m hoping you might elaborate on these relationships and also how you see you work functioning in a poetic dialogue.Â
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 â€œparallel poetryâ€, but it seems as if itâ€™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 Iâ€™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 CamÃµes 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 wonâ€™t translate so well in English but it went along the lines of â€œLuis de CamÃµes can see better with one eye than we can see with three.â€
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 youâ€™re using and they function theyâ€™ll play, both conceptually and emotionally?
I record all of my sound during the shooting process. Lots of it. All of the time. But itâ€™s never in an abusive sense. I house it, store it, label it and pay close attention to it. My approach to recording sound is different from shooting in the way that I collect hours and hours and hours of it and will often create foley in post-production and build libraries. In some ways I obsessively collect it. I love how malleable it can be sometimes and how specific it can be other times. All of this through multiple forms of manipulation creates a certain flavor I seek in my sound/image relationships. Even the songs, pop plays everywhere and I always stop and record it wherever I go with the means that I might use it. For a long time I was recording with a mini-disc player, up until recently. It finally stopped working after a bullet got lodged in it through my pocket. It actually saved my life.
In conversations weâ€™ve had, youâ€™ve gone into great length about the necessity of sitting and watchingâ€”both actively and ambientlyâ€”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 Iâ€™d like you to share it. Did you always work this way? Is this one of the (useful) limitations of 16mm?Â
Well overall, I think itâ€™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. Itâ€™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 Iâ€™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. Itâ€™s an ongoing process on how I get to that point and it always changes so itâ€™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 didnâ€™t shoot much, I still donâ€™t really. Iâ€™ll usually use 2/3 to 1/2 of my footage for the final edit and sometimes Iâ€™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.
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 Universityâ€™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 Lightâ€™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 polymathsâ€”artists as curators as critics as janitors as flyer-makers as audiences as artistsâ€”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 makersâ€”for me, at leastâ€”fall under the â€œseen about but havenâ€™t seenâ€ 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 youâ€™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 Kucharâ€™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. Itâ€™s about cinematic representation and camp and biography and the weather while still mostly being about that moment. Halter nails it nicely: â€œcinema Ã la Kuchar pivoted on the dialectic between overblown fantasy and schlumpy reality, the films always working double time as documentaries of their own making.â€
Then, on Friday the 24th, Chicago Filmmakers hosts Radical Lightâ€™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 whoâ€™s never heard of Craig Baldwin or who canâ€™t imagine what a debate about sampling would even be and see if the worksâ€™ 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 isnâ€™t too horn-tooting to admit, to participate in Seidâ€™s reading by doing a performative reading as Kuchar, one of the few impressions I can do. Kucharâ€™s presence was all over last weekâ€™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.
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.
â€œBoth in form and in function, Ryan Trecartinâ€™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 lifeâ€ (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.
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