You’ve never heard of Judith Louise Marone, an employee of a Kroger Grocery Store in her early sixties, but then, she had never heard of Joseph Pablo Sobel until meeting him in the magazine aisle. Starting from a quick video of her in front of the magazines as she replies to one question he asks her, the project developed over the course of the next year and a half into what became a 26 minute digital video simply titled Judy. Thats a nice chunk of time to get to know someone, interacting with them through each season, for an entire year plus, showing the audience the transformation of perfect strangers who by chance became entwined in each others lives. Boy meets girl with a bit more realism.
Judy had never confronted the failings and missed opportunities in her life until meeting Joe and agreeing to be the subject of a video project for his graduate work (and later became his thesis). Through several close ups and voice overs, we learn about Judy’s desires and fears, her failings and deeper secrets. She confronts bad habits, personal hurdles and dark childhood memories. She invites Joe and his camera into her home at its most disorganized – completely covered in an intricately woven sea of clutter, with little more than a path to navigate and a spot to sit on the couch. Although at times her monologues become more like therapy at the expense of narrative, her honesty, bravery and stage presence cannot be denied some credit. It is hard, also, not to reflect on your own shortcomings as well, confronting fears of failure while watching her at what she remarks is “the lowest point of her life.”
About halfway through the film, Joe starts inserting himself into the narrative. From the months of interviewing and time spent together, a relationship has formed between the two, and now Judy’s thoughts delve less into her problems and more into their relationship. While she seems much happier, things are not perfect. Instead of reflecting on her past, the topic has moved to their present, even reflexively focusing on the film itself. Life happens on camera, and maybe because of the camera. She constantly fluctuates between referring to Joe in the 1st and 3rd person, even though it is obvious he is always behind the camera, that this is his life too that he is filming.
This presents him equal to his subject, investigating how connectivity between anyone is possible. That Judy is much older than Joe is important: the film starts as she celebrates her 60th birthday and by the time we learn of a brewing romance, they are on their way to celebrate his 25th. The tendency to view this as somewhat shocking allows the truth behind their relationship to be questioned, particularly as it relates to film and the creation of narrative by stressing the creator and creation of the film. Most obvious is when they kiss on camera, though not unreal, it looks entirely scripted. Questions linger to the status of their relationship, as we only hear Judy speak of it, and her thoughts change with every shot. Joe does not speak until the end, and so his opinion carries with it a great deal of importance. In the final shot, the camera is pointed down at a table with a microphone and recorder on it, with only her feet and his arm in the edges of the shot. Joe tries to remember what he had said only moments before. In restating the line over and over, leaving it incorrect (“What the f*** did I just say?”) reaffirms the present over the past, that the past can be redeemed by the present by moving forward.
Tom Friel: What led you to make this work? How is it a departure from previous work?
Joe Sobel: I was an illustration major making paintings before I was a photographer. I nestled myself into the studio from open to close. Drawing nude models and being one myself probably led me to subtly explore the subjection in looking and the gaze. It was such a closed and an immersive feeling that I enjoyed heavily.
I like that word “departure.” In the nautical usage of the word it signifies an east to west distance between two points traveled by ship. When I decided to switch my major to photography, which I need to thank Christine Flavin for, my photography professor at Northern Michigan University. I went on a picture taking expedition (Distortions, 2009-2010) that comprised 200+ individuals that were more or less mentally or physically disabled. They were shot whenever I was downtown or on a breezy Lake Superior walk. The intention was to show how subjective a photograph could be by severing its objectivity. At this point I was taking a photo history class and was kind of amazed by the fact that this medium of picture taking had such a political difference in its upbringing from Edgar Allen Poe, Lady Elizabeth Eastlake, Charles Baudelaire, Emerson to Valery, Benjamin and Roland Barthes. It questioned its historicity and shined light on such disparities like class and gender. So coming full circle, I don’t want to create this mythology about me of how painting kept me inside away from prevalent issues and photography allowed me to create a documentary work, but that is basically how it went.
I was in the second semester of my first year at Cranbrook and for the most part I was already thinking about thesis, which was about a year away…. I was producing work in critiques surrounding the effects of subjugation, power and exploitation; enslaving qualities, that John Tagg would attribute to photography as “tool[s] of repression that signify and objectify the other.” I guess I took the more serious, out dated approach to picture making and conveying, but they were subjects I really had a problem with. Maybe somebody can see the correlation of how photography gave a nation its cultural identity and how somebody like Judy could get a role in my first filmic endeavor.
The film Judy was more of an extensive project. I still used a lens based medium but instead of the interaction and snapshots being so immediate through stills, the condition of time and moving image was key. (She said it was divine intervention but I don’t believe that. This is one disagreement out of many that separates us from being compatible. If you asked her she would tell you we are complete opposites. Ironically, this is what I was looking for.)
TF: The idea of cultural identity via photography is important to note, with Walker Evans being a prime example. Film has taken over this condition in terms of supporting American Mythologies. Photography has led to seeing the subject as equal to the viewer. I think in this way your documentary, focusing on an average person and explicitly shown as equal to you still has a closer relation to photography than to film documentaries, which serve to mythologize the person.
JS: And that’s the thing about film, even photography sometimes. It’s that intention to hone in on somebody and once you do that, boom- they’re like quasi-famous. Plus, it makes the subject feel wanted in that way. That way of recording can be quite humanistic and rewarding, but apprehending at the same time…. I am really glad you mentioned Evans because like him, and unlike him, August Sander had a huge role, too. [Sander had the] ability to capture these people from all kinds of different backgrounds in a time of complete destruction. Evans, too, but if you didn’t know the history, you’d think that Sander’s photographs would be completely genuine. Most of his subjects paid him to portray them how they would want to appear in the future. But he didn’t name his subjects, leaving them with an uncertainty as to which ones were commissions and simply ones of his own expressive aims. The clothes they chose to wear were more truthful than the expressions on their face. He ended his seven-volume book with the face of his son who was murdered by his jailers of that time. So because it’s a blend of truth and metaphor, and talking about American mythologies, I find a correlation in Walker Evans’ set of portraits he took with a Polaroid camera in the ‘70s, a couple years right before his death. They are wholly private, taken without an ounce of calculation versus his earlier, public aims in objectivity and eye of the photographer.
TF: You have had a steady screenings of this work since graduating this past spring. (Congratulations, of course!) Is the ideal place to show the work film and video festivals, or more traditional art galleries? Since the space and type of event where it is screened alters your audience and how it is perceived (closer to the fine art world or documentary and film culture), how are you trying, and are you trying, to dictate it’s future?
JS: Have you seen Miranda July’s newest film, The Future? Even though she is so odd and interesting, doesn’t she seem like a brand to you? It’s almost like people put on a sort of
mimesis of her in the morning. I don’t know, man. I know she can’t help it but still. Maybe we’re in a cultural identity crisis or something.
I think restricting it to a specific audience is limiting, and taking the Joseph Beuys approach is a little more satisfying on this issue. Context matters indefinitely, yes. If you place it in a whole bunch of different scenarios and environments, each one is going to have a multitude of interpretations. Just like the artist and subject is in contrast, so is the film in its environment and vice versa. Although a film is inevitably inside itself referencing the outside maybe it doesn’t matter if we position that kind of ontology that way. I think it’s an interesting idea that a film, especially one made for projection no matter where it is, is a displacement for the viewer; novel introductions. It’s this mediation between somebody and their environment that matters most for me. It’s like, they’ve decided to come here instead of somewhere else. Oh! Now I see Judy’s point in divine intervention; but I still disagree with her.
TF: Haven’t seen it but I think I know what you mean. Overall, I like her work though. I imagine there were a lot of hands in that film, as it is nearly impossible to get a feature length film out otherwise. So, just from seeing the trailer, which I doubt she is responsible for, as well as a few clips, it looks like a lot of current indie dramas: dry jokes, physical action replaced by rapid fire dialogue and frail people with big hair. So its more that is branded by a system that bases everything on archetypes.
Do you mean that by watching a film, we choose to enter an environment within the one we are physically in, and this is different from a home viewing experience, or am I missing the point?
JS: Well, yeah. Instead of being in your private home you’re somewhere else. I guess it’s as simple as being in a space you’re not familiar with, or maybe being confronted by it or something.
TF: How much of the film is scripted, where you may be filming Judy responding to a previous undocumented conversation, or giving her time to think about the questions you may ask, and how much of her responses are completely of the moment?
JS: Most of the time her responses would be of the moment but I would insert myself in there somewhere like asking her to repeat things, or telling her to stand in a specific place. Throughout the editing process I repeatedly went back and forth, deciding whether or not I wanted to let the viewer in. I do have to thank Liz Cohen (Artist in Residence in Cranbrook’s Photography Dept.) and some of my classmates for this.
The scene you are asking about where we were inside the dressing room right before her cut and tint? I think that’s the scene you’re alluding to? Where she takes her shirt off and changes? This one is particularly interesting. A week before this I really wanted a formal, well lit and composed picture of Judy. The only stipulation I told her was that she’d have to be unclad. I mean, right off the bat, out of the gate, she staunchly declined. Maybe it was because I asked her to do it in the bathroom, or her room that turned out to be her sister’s… Anyway, this led to this scene where she literally pulled me in and closed the door. I kept asking her what we were doing, obviously with the thought in my mind that she was going to change, but no answer. It’s almost like she knew it was going to be a really good one and wanted to surprise me. I take it as a mixture of good and bad. Judy was explaining how I did her wrong a couple of nights prior to this and because of that, she invited me in this way, cause she felt bad, in a victimless way. Either way we talked it out, and I got her to curse.
Considering there was no official script I was the one who needed to work spontaneously in almost every way, but she gets the credit mostly. To her, I was the male behind the camera. The times they were scripted were when Judy and I were going through something emotional, or when things didn’t exactly sync up. Judy then would cast out and talk about it. There would always be an underlying skepticism between both of us that made it unnerving and exciting at the same time. It’s not easy to wholeheartedly trust another human being, especially if you find them in the magazine aisle of a grocery store. But it worked. I was lucky enough to find such a spellbinding and talented individual such as Judy.
TF: Your role as both documentary filmmaker and as subject is continually in flux. What is the impetus for this approach?
JS: Unlike Leigh Ledare where his mother is his subject for 8 years, it was a developing relationship between Judy and me, so I needed to have a presence. A relationship is not a relationship unless both people try, Tom. Coincidentally, Ledare is showing at WEILS Contemporary Art Center in Brussels until November. I just got an email from e-flux.
Like him, I wanted to show both of our vulnerabilities through difference and what that meant to the viewer. Whether it be provocative, sensual, romantic, disgusting… whatever it may be, my role was to be individually constructed, set up to be portrayed in a specific manner. It’s like when you were an infant and your mother placed you in front of a mirror and told you that it was in fact you. There are mirrors, and reflections and misperceptions.
TF: I think this point comes through very strong in the work. We have such rigid cultural ideas about how we should behave, and class, gender, sex and age play a huge part in this.
JS: For sure. And in a way, we are obligated to play this part. Otherwise we’d be subjects for another photographer in another time, so-to-speak. You just have to abide, because we didn’t choose where and when to be born and into what situation. The cards of life, man. They’re kind of dealt already, but I have this stubbornness in refusing to believe that.
TF: The explanatory letter by Judy that is posted on your website offers viewers an additional view to her thoughts to the project, allowing her to clear up immediate responses to the work as misconceptions. (The first and possible most obvious question “are you exploiting Judy?” with the firm answer of “NO” from her.) Is this sense of transparency, which is conveyed throughout the film, ultimately one of the most important elements of this project? Or does it emphasize a collaboration of mutual trust between the two of you while creating the film?
JS: Having the letter come after the film was really good because it did clarify a few things. The writing is something different from the film all together, though. The issue of exploitation is meant to be there and I am supposed to be questioned. I was scolded, too. This was a primary reason in picking and sticking with Judy. So yeah, Tom, you are right in that the terms were explicated earlier and it was a mutual understanding. It eventually turned out to be an inverted investigation of power, work, exploitation, gender and sex that she understood. Did I answer that correctly?
Joe Sobel is a recent graduate of Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, MI, having received an MFA in Photography this past spring. He has shown his work throughout the US as well as China, England, Poland, and most recently, Scotland. “Judy” is currently on view at the Detroit Center for Contemporary Photography, in the Russell Industrial Building until Sept. 8.
You can watch “Judy” in its entirety on Joe’s website: www.joesobel.com
All images from “Judy”, by Joe Sobel. Digital video, 25 min 50 sec, 2011-12
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.”
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: Bad at Sports humbly presents Yael Bartana. We speak about her film work, identity struggles, the history of war and power, and just how an Israeli comes to represent Poland in the 2011 Venice Biennial.
Bio from Experimental Television Center
Yael Bartana was born in 1970 in Kfar-Yehozkel, Israel. She has a BFA from the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, an MFA from the New York School of Visual Arts and participated in the Rijksakademie artist-in-residence program from 2000-2001. She has had solo exhibitions in many countries including Germany, Israel, Australia and Japan and has won various prizes such as the Anselm Kiefer Prize (2003) and the Dorothea von Stetten-Kunstpreis (2005).
Her work focuses mainly on the relationship between ritual and identity in Israeli society, looking at the practices that constitute identity, especially in its relation with traditional and contemporary notions of gender, place and ethnicity. In most of the pieces Bartana uses documentary footage shot in public or semi-public spaces at collective events that contribute to identity formation, such as shooting drills for trainee female soldiers or the carnivalesque festivities of the Jewish holiday Purim. Bartana currently lives and works in Amsterdam and Tel Aviv.
At first, C. Scott Willis’ latest film “The Woodmans” appears to be a film documenting Francesca Woodman, who at the age of 22 took her own life and left behind a body of exquisite photographs. Instead, it is a rare portrait of an artist family, all of which have been successful, in their own right. This is not the first documentary on Francesca Woodman. In 2000 Elisabeth Subrin created the film, “The Fancy” in which she models a linear time line by “[reorganizing] information from the catalogues in order to pose questions about biographical form.” But unlike Subrin, Willis had an all access pass to Woodman’s diaries, photographs, some of which have never been exhibited, and her family – the three together trace the artist’s early life and death.
Growing up in an artist household – mother Betty a ceramist who has shown at the Met and father George, a painter who has exhibited work at the Guggenheim – both Francesca and her brother Charlie spent much of their time in and out of their parents studios. “Our children learned that art is a very high priority; you don’t mess around. They learned this is a very serious business at an early age,” George Woodman says as he sits near one of his paintings. The family spent time between Colorado and Italy with Francesca and Charlie switching back and forth between schools. As an act of defiance as a teenager, Francesca enrolled in the Abbot Academy, a boarding school in Massachusetts – her father gave her a camera to take with her.
Francesca quickly began photographing herself and her friends, often in the nude. Willis interviewed childhood friends who expressed their perplexity at the time. But, George and Betty were not phased by her daughter’s comfort in front of the camera; “I looked at Francesca’s photographs almost more as formally what they were rather than getting myself tied into knots over the subject matter. I don’t see them as autobiographical but I guess in some way all the work we make is autobiographical; it’s about us,” explains Betty.
Between the years 1975 – 1978 she created some of the iconic photos we know today while an undergraduate at the Rhode Island School of Design. After graduating she moved to New York where she briefly worked as a fashion photographer’s assistant. The use of her journal as a partial narrator gives an intimate look into her troubling final years. Towards the end of her life she struggled to create work and seemed dissatisfied with the lack of notoriety she was receiving.
Towards the end of the film we see the family continuing with their artistic practices. When asked how the loss of their daughter affected their work Betty says that they have each “dealt with it in different ways.” Although Betty took a break from creating work George shifted his practice to photography – creating unsettling images of young naked women that resemble his daughter’s work.
Willis is really able to build a great tension – the film can really make you feel uncomfortable at times. Preconceived notions of a privileged artist family can be hard to avoid. Although I feel as a director he strived to present his subjects in the best light they do not always come off that way. The inevitable jealousy of Francesca’s fame comes up several times in the film. Handling the estate themselves, the family has seen her work eclipse theirs. But candid statements of their frustration humanizes the family who come off a bit disconnected at times. While sitting near the family’s pool George expresses his concerns, “She was so good; she made my own work look kind of stupid…I wouldn’t mind getting a bigger slice of cake myself.”