Like so many in our worlds, Brett Kashmere’s engagement with art spans making, writing, teaching, curating, editing and organizing. Perhaps more impressively, he’s good at each of these. His subjects often pertain to history, collective identity, sports and the ways they articulate and actualize each other. His essay film Valery’s Ankle (embedded below) is deft and provocative, mixing personal history, social questions and rib-rattling editing toward a peek beneath the pads into Canadiana. His latest project, From Deep, signals a switch to the basketball court and the United States. At the same time, it maintains an interest in fan-culture, hybrid forms and a commitment to rigor without opacity and invention without pretension.
Raised in Canada, Brett has lived in Pittsburgh (while teaching at Oberlin) for the last several years. He is known perhaps equally for his own filmmaking as he is for his critical writing, his work editing INCITE Journal of Experimental Media (medium disclosure: I have a piece in the next issue) and his curatorial pursuits. INCITE does an excellent job of publishing works both scholarly and playful (a G-Chat conversation between Jesse McLean and Jacob Ciocci, for instance) without privileging either or presuming one form might have a monopoly on all types of insight.
As part of the exhibition Spectator Sports (opening this Thursday!), Brett will be screening his work and discussing it with Lester Munson at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago on Tuesday, April 23rd. Graciously, he never brought up the name of this publication in relation to his own work.
You’ve curated, written about and made films about Canadian identity. I have dual (US and Canadian) citizenship. Half of my family is Canadian and I’ve spent a decent amount of time in Canada and thinking through the issue of Canadian identity. No identity is fixed and national identity can be as useful or as destructive as any other unwieldy, essentializing concept. That said, I’m hoping you might elaborate a bit on where your thinking is on the issue now and how it’s changed in that last many years of living in the States.
I agree – national identity is an abstract, complex construction, a symbolic category, which serves both good and bad purposes. As someone who works a lot with sports as a subject, it’s disturbing to see how they’re often used, in ways subtle and overt, to stir up nationalist sentiment and prop up dangerous ideologies. I’m thinking of that famous quote from Ronald Reagan: “Sport is the human activity closest to war that isn’t lethal.” He meant that as an endorsement. On the other hand, sports provide a common, everyday, shared experience that has deep (often under-acknowledged) reverberations and significance. I’m most interested in its relationship to place and community, as a kind of folk culture that is potent and tribal, rather than as an instrument of national identity.
I finished Valery’s Ankle shortly before immigrating to the U.S. in 2006, to upstate New York. At first it didn’t seem that much different than living in Canada, though the Iraq War certainly cast a shadow over everything during that period. It was a dark time. There was a distinct feeling of uneasiness, which I attributed to the political circumstances, and that did seem to dissipate somewhat after Obama’s election (replaced by a different, more manufactured form of paranoia).
The longer I live in the U.S., the less I feel connected to Canada but the more I come to recognize differences between the two countries. Part of that understanding is intuitively felt, and part of it has to do with core principles and attitudes rather than anything related to day-to-day life. When I think about what it means to be Canadian, I often come back to the question: “Where is here?” For Northrop Frye, that was the central question of Canadian identity. Our sense of self is determined by external factors, the things beyond us, which we don’t control. Whereas in America, identity seems determined from within – “Who am I?” – and rooted in those founding American ideas of personal liberty and freedom.
I’ve only ever watched Valery’s Ankle on home screens. In particular, I’ve enjoyed being able to watch it on my laptop and scan through it, returning to certain parts and skipping over others while thinking about the work and this interview. In this changing media landscape, there are lots of new opportunities for works to be experienced. Typically for works that do not originate with intentions for the small, portable screen, we maintain an understanding that this isn’t how they’re supposed to be experienced, but this is what we have. UbuWeb recently tweeted “UbuWeb is a photograph of a painting.” For video works whose form is shifting and fluid (are there people who really think a new export with a different codec is an inauthentic copy?), this is a little more complicated. I have been speaking recently with others who (in this mode of speaking) identify as a fellow makers of “dense video work,” and are excited by the potential of video for the home, for the computer, because it allows the chance to view and re-view. With works in the essay tradition, this seems to be an even greater boon.
A common response I hear about my work is that it’s dense. I use a lot of text layers and sources, onscreen and through voice-over, and the editing style is usually fast – I like a constant flow of images and ideas. I’m not interested in making conventional documentaries that you can watch once, process the information, and arrive at a satisfying conclusion. Even though it’s unlikely and probably unreasonable, I embrace the idea of making work that will reward multiple viewings. So in that sense, the home computer, the small portable screen, offers a lot. I’m glad you find value in returning to certain parts, in shuttling back and forth. I prefer that its reception be productive and relational, not merely consumptive.
Then again, I consider the filmmaking that I do to be part of a cinematic tradition, best suited for the theatrical screening context. The conditions of that experience are still important to me: the large image, the fixed starting and endpoints, the focused attention, the darkened space, the social dimension. But more and more, I find that situation to be limited and unsatisfying, at least for the kind of work that I make. I would like for it to circulate more freely, and across platforms; to be more available to more people than the one-time theatrical screening allows. I’m not sure that YouTube is the answer, in terms of the mindset that’s required for viewing a longer essay film or video. But perhaps the work can exist in different forms, as a modular construction, and the platform determines the version of the piece that you see.
In perhaps a similar vein, how does your work in curating and writing impact your filmmaking practice? Does the skillset of the curator align with the culling and positioning of archival materials? Does critical writing engage the same part of your brain as making critically-engaged films?
I tend to think of curating, writing, and filmmaking as distinct and separate parts of my life, linked together by expertise in editing. They definitely impact one another, sometimes consciously and sometimes in coincidental or supplementary ways. My work as a curator and a writer, for instance, has influenced my approach to filmmaking, which I’d describe as a research-based practice. From Deep, the project that I’m working on now, about the cultural history of basketball, feels at times like a curated film. It relies on the editing together of hundreds of discrete elements, including movie clips, music videos, TV commercials, video game footage, and so on, which are interwoven with self-shot “moving snapshots” of the game. I can easily imagine an exhibition on the same topic, or a book. But I don’t think those forms would connect or communicate in the same way, the way I prefer. The moment-to-moment conjunction of image and language, which provides the central tension, the collision and mix of ideas within a set period of time, being able to control the entire experience and where people enter the work, those factors require that it be a film or a video.
In terms of the overlapping skill sets, my working knowledge of film/video production helps when I write about and curate moving image artwork. I understand the technical aspects and logistics of film and digital media, and I know what to pack when I’m presenting a screening to avoid technical problems and troubleshoot. But crafting narration for a film is quite different than writing a critical essay or a curatorial text. Writing voice-over requires constant revision, to get the timing, sound and flow of the words right and it can’t be too complicated. It’s one of the final stages, so often the sequence lengths are already set and the text has to fit into predetermined blocks. It’s about concision – how to say the most with the least. But being able to write critically helps in the pre-production and post-production phases, in the preparation of grant applications and the development of secondary writing about projects.
In Valery’s Ankle, you declare your interest in asking questions (over providing answers). Have the intervening seven years answered some of these questions? Have you found this interrogative mode of making to be productive or frustrating to audiences?
Posing questions is a useful rhetorical device, a way of opening things up. I’m interested in the anti-authoritative perspective, in the amateur or fan’s point-of-view, and in Foucault’s notion of counter-memory. Many of the questions that I ask in Valery’s Ankle can’t really be answered, and aren’t meant to be. If they provide an opportunity for individual reflection, or if they provoke a discussion, that’s great, that’s the ultimate goal. I don’t think the mode is frustrating for audiences. I’m careful about building in different entry points and levels of engagement. Accessibility is important to me, and so are variety and surprise. I like to frequently shift between a first-person mode of address, the subjective, and a more straightforward presentation of facts and evidence: Here is where I’m coming from (my frame of reference) – here are some things you may not know about (forgotten or overlooked histories, silences of memory) – here’s why I think they’re important (the argument). The viewer can decide for herself whether the argument has merit, whether the connections I’m making are sound, and whether I’m to be trusted as a reliable narrator.
The things that I struggle with are: How to synthesize the personal with the formal investigations? What is important as information? What does the viewer need to know in order to follow the work? Where is the point of convergence between local and universal experience? I also work from a basic assumption that every record (every fact) has a b-side. There’s the side that is marketed and sold, but the other side is usually more interesting.
For all of its formal inventiveness and engagement with the expressivity and history of non-fiction filmmaking, Valery’s Ankle is still an immediately watchable film. The questions that it poses are quite literally posed and the gestures you make toward an expanded notion of nonfiction film (perhaps the space between documentary and essay) fit and flow seamlessly. Will you speak a little about questions of legibility and the ways a background in “experimental” media can impact other types of making? Am I just “in too deep[ly]” to see that this work is secretly difficult for non-specialized audiences to enjoy?
Having a background and an ongoing interest in experimental film has definitely shaped my approach. I don’t consider the work that I make now to be part of that tradition, even though it circulates in that world. I feel like that background does give me some license, or drive, to mess with the tropes and conventions of documentary. Alternately, the appearance of documentary provides cover for the more formal investigations, the manipulation of the image and so on. Creative nonfiction is probably the most accurate description, but it’s more of a literary term. It hasn’t quite crossed over into film and video, even though a lot of my favorite work– by practitioners such as Jackie Goss, Harun Farocki, Michael Moore, Chris Marker, Barbara Hammer – fit that categorization. Also, I don’t believe the work is automatically difficult for non-specialized audiences to enjoy. That hasn’t been my experience. It doesn’t give viewers enough credit. The public screenings that I’ve attended often elicit homogenous, guttural groups reactions to the visceral and/or humorous parts; that kind of bonding amongst strangers can have a powerful effect.
Lately, I’ve been motivated by a couple of overlapping concepts: Brecht’s notion of a theatre (or a cinema) of pleasure and instruction, and the idea of “edu-tainment,” which I associate most with the hip hop artist KRS-One. I’m trying to find ways to bridge accessibility with critical inquiry. I don’t want to make straightforward work about sports – there’s already a lot of that out there, like ESPN’s 30-for-30 series. I enjoy those films – they’re well produced and fun to watch, but once they’re finished I never think about them again. It’s institutional storytelling. The one exception that comes to mind is Brett Morgen’s documentary about the O.J. Simpson chase, which stands out because of its unusual form: a found-footage compilation that presents the events of one day – June 17, 1994 – with no commentary. It’s a mesmerizing piece, and a reminder of how much the media landscape has changed since then. The 24-hour news cycle really begins right there, with those long helicopter shots of O.J.’s white Ford Bronco navigating the L.A. freeways.
Speaking of specializing audiences, how have hockey fans (in particular Canadian ones with long enough memories) reacted to Valery’s Ankle?
In many ways, hockey fans have been the best, most accepting audience for Valery’s Ankle. Part of that is by design. I’ve presented the video in a lot of places across Canada, in a lot of different contexts – from academic hockey conferences, to big city and small-town film festivals, university classes, art galleries, microcinemas, sports bars. The sports bar is almost an ideal setting for me, because I work with a formal language that most people understand, the language of sports broadcasting. If you’ve ever watched a hockey game in a bar you’ll know that nothing captures mass attention like a hockey fight, even though, nine times out of ten, they’re the most banal things to watch: a couple of guys clutching one another and spinning in slow circles for two minutes. Valery’s Ankle pulls you in with the fighting, the spectacle, but then it flips things around. It starts posing questions about our common assumptions of hockey violence. For instance, when, and why, did fighting become an accepted part of the game? What is the deeper meaning behind the trophy for most sportsmanlike behavior in hockey?
The people who are old enough to remember the 1972 Canada-Soviet Summit Series either don’t remember the slash – Bobby Clarke’s intentional breaking of the Russian star Valery Kharlamov’s ankle – or never knew about it. The visual evidence scarcely exists – it happened quickly, with no camera close ups. The image quality is poor. No one is truly surprised by it, though, as Clarke had a brutal bully reputation, but the general response is one of embarrassment for the sanctioned dirty play, and the fact that the Canadian men’s bodies were so out of control. If there’s a negative reaction, it’s usually from people who don’t think I go far enough with the critique; that I leave too much out. The violence touches a nerve.
I’ve received a lot of wonderful notes and messages over the years, saying to the effect that Valery’s Ankle has changed, or modified, their opinions about hockey and its relationship to their identity. The video has acted as a bridge piece (peace bridge?) between artist friends and their dads, who wouldn’t normally have much tolerance for experimental work. Just yesterday, I received an email, out-of-the blue, from an established Canadian filmmaker, a person I’ve never met but have great respect for, who wrote: “my 15-year old son and I watched Valery’s Ankle and he thought it was ‘awesome’; me too! thanks for providing that perspective with such calm passion, along with the great hockey images.” I can’t really ask for anything more than that.
Will you tell our readers a bit about your most recent project and what they’ll experience at the Museum of Contemporary Photography?
The MoCP will be showing a couple of my pieces as part of their upcoming exhibition, Spectator Sports (April 12–July 3, 2013). In addition to the video essay Valery’s Ankle, there is a newer work titled Anything But Us Is Who We Are, which is comprised of two parts: a burned LeBron James Cleveland Cavaliers jersey, framed and mounted on the wall, and a live video game feed of James (in Cavs uniform) holding a basketball at center court in an otherwise empty arena, waiting to be activated, perhaps in a moment of indecision, contemplation, or awaiting orders from the viewer/fan/agent/gamer. The game controller is displayed in such a way that you can’t actually use it.
For me, the piece was a way of exploring and coming to terms with the limitations, but also the agency, of fandom. The bond between fans and players is so tenuous, so illusory, and typically one-sided. In his great book Black Planet: Facing Race during an NBA Season, David Shields writes that “Fans want to think it’s us against them… and that the players on ‘our’ team are in cahoots with us, in some difficult-to-define way – difficult to define, since their contempt for us is so manifest.” LeBron’s decision to leave Cleveland for the Miami Heat in 2010 demonstrates the volatile nature of this relationship. It was such a charged moment, because as fans, we like to believe the players play “for us” and that we’re part of the team, or at least recognized by and important to the team. But this isn’t really the case. They play for themselves and each other, and we invest symbolic meaning in a multimillion-dollar corporate enterprise.
Nonetheless, when a cherished star leaves town, it’s hard for those fans not to feel betrayed. Complicating this is the fact that nearly all of the NBA’s owners, team executives, and paying customers are white, while nearly all of the players are black. The struggle to possess and control the subjects of our sporting affection is such a potent metaphor. In many ways, sports have been at the vanguard of social change in America. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the racial integration of baseball in 1946, followed by NBA’s integration in 1950, preceded the racial integration of schools in 1954. Athletes like Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos did a great deal to bring awareness to racial inequality, and helped to erode the structures of racism that were inherent at the time. When Obama was campaigning for president in 2008, he deliberately played up his interest in basketball, to make himself more relatable (the professor could hoop, too).
In addition to the exhibition, I’m doing a public event on April 23rd at the museum. I’ll be screening excerpts from my in-progress feature documentary From Deep, and discussing the culture of basketball with Lester Munson, a writer and legal analyst for ESPN, who also teaches journalism at Northwestern.
I was a tremendous basketball fan at one point. I have dozens of books and VHS tapes on the subject and still find myself accidentally stuck in the mental morass of John Starks’ number of Dikembe Mutombo’s full name on occasion. Will you talk a bit about the personal shift you made from being a hockey kid to a basketball one and about the larger societal shifts in fandom? Why make a film about basketball instead of baseball (our supposed national sport) or football (our apparent cinematic/televisual national sport)?
That transition, from hockey to basketball, occurred during my teenage years. Typical of Canadian boys during that time, I started played competitive minor hockey at age 5. After ten years of full-time play and grueling travel, I realized hockey wasn’t the sport for me anymore. Part of it was the danger, the fear of serious injury, since I was the smallest kid on the team. But a larger part of it was an evolving sensibility – I just wasn’t into the small-town, country-and-western, hockey-obsessed prairie culture. By then I was listening to rap, fascinated by graffiti, urban style and expression, and following the NBA. This was a golden age for basketball: Jordan was just reaching his prime, Magic and Bird were still in the league (this also around the time that Magic revealed he had HIV); the video game NBA Jam was a huge success. Then there were the 1992 Olympics and the Dream Team, which took basketball to an even bigger stage internationally. I was also really into Skybox basketball cards, which had those amazing computer-generated abstract backgrounds, and also the Arsenio Hall show, which often had rappers and basketball players as guests. Michigan’s Fab Five were bringing hip hop fashion and swagger to college ball. It was all cool, and fun and exciting. Basketball hoops were suddenly popping up on driveways everywhere. A tremendous shift was occurring. The world got much larger, seemingly overnight.
Although, unlike baseball or football, basketball is less rooted in American myth, it is, in my opinion, the 21st century American sport. It is certainly more global and easier to play: You don’t need a lot of equipment or a lot of space, it can be played outdoors or indoors (all weather), by yourself or in almost any sized group. It’s democratic. Everyone does everything on the court – there aren’t highly specialized roles, as with baseball or football. I like those sports and enjoy watching them but I never really played them growing up. So basketball was the natural next step for me, as a subject to explore. I’ve been thinking that my next project might be about football, though. With all of the recent studies that have come out about head injuries in football and the long-term effects of repeated concussions, it seems to be facing a major crossroads. The game, and the NFL, will have to adapt to this new science or it will become obsolete. It’s an interesting parallel to where the U.S. is at in right now in its history, as an international power trying to maintain its primary place in a changing global landscape. The idea of the masculine warrior athlete, and of sports as a gendered institution, a “school for masculinity,” is no longer contemporary, or relevant. It’s time to evolve.
Switching gears to some of your other endeavours, is there a specific niche you’re hoping for Incite to fill? How are you approaching print/web publishing decisions? What are some historical forebears whose output has influenced the project?
As an undergraduate film student, I loved flipping through back issues of Film Culture and Millennium Film Journal and smaller, more idiosyncratic hand-bound journals like Spiral. Those publications had a big impact on me, as did Jonas Mekas’ “Movie Journal” columns. The way he mixed criticism, advocacy, community building, and poetic language into his writing was inspiring. I knew from that point forward that I wanted to start a journal. My favorite types of writing have always been artist statements, manifestos, personal essays, letters and filmmaker responses to their colleagues’ work.
INCITE was founded in 2008 with the goal of reinvigorating the culture, community, and discourse of experimental film, video art, and new media. P. Adams Sitney made a comment around that time, in an interview with Scott MacDonald, decrying the lack of new writing about experimental film and video, at a time when it was going through a huge creative resurgence. That was a major catalyst.
From the beginning, INCITE has embraced a plurality of forms and approaches, combining the spirit, eclecticism, and individuality of zines and artist books with the review process and editorial methods of academic publishing. In addition to scholarly articles, INCITE regularly prints manifestos, aesthetic statements, artist projects and drawings, archival documents, “G-chats,” diagrams, collage-essays, and so on.
Through the integration of print and online platforms, we attempt to distribute our publishing activities as widely as possible while also providing a material trace, a tangible legacy. It’s important to me that we publish an annual printed issue. But those take so much time to produce, and are dependent on volunteer time. The current issue that we’re working on right now, Exhibition Guide, has over 50 contributors. We decided a few years ago to create an online interview series (“Back and Forth”), which would allow us to have an active publishing presence between issues. We have a couple of other web initiatives planned, including a reprint series of important texts that are difficult to find or no longer available, with new contextualizing information; and a “work bench” series, which will feature annotated documentation of artists’ studios and editing spaces. And we’re close to finishing our first artist monograph, on the work of the pioneering Canadian media artist David Rimmer. It was edited by Mike Hoolboom, and will be available as an e-book on our website as well as in a print-on-demand edition.
It’s been a busy week both on and off Bad at Sports. A number of our contributors were at CAA and I, for my part, took my hat (and new best friend) on the Carl Sandburg train to Macomb, Illinois for an overnight trip to Western Illinois University. I happened to give a talk there about (among other things) transcription and translation which no doubt has colored the way I’m thinking about the last week on Bad at Sports. In looking back and taking stock on what was posted, so we ready ourselves for the new week ahead with its ever lengthening days. My sense of this week is that it was about windows and frames and the transmission of ideas. It’s about education and the power that stories have over us, to affect change and muddy whatever assumptions might be otherwise taken for granted.
Tonight, I am excitedly headed to Every house has a door’s performance at Links Hall, They’re Mending the Great Forest Highway. I’ve seen an iteration of the piece once already, and am looking forward to seeing it again. Goulish posted an essay about it here last Sunday, including a couple of amazing youtube videos with some excellent dance moves.
The week began with Jesse Malmed’s interview with contemporary filmmaker Fern Silva. Among other highlights, Silva talks about teaching film. “Experimental films that were made 50 years ago can be as fresh as films being made now in a classroom setting. I like to show films that I found inspiring and share stories about the filmmakers who we’re watching. For example, when I show Meshes of the Afternoon, I’ll tell the story of when Maya Deren threw a fridge across the kitchen while she was possessed in her West Village apartment that Brakhage writes about in Film at Wit’s End.” (Reconfirming my perhaps over zealous love for Deren). There is also a lovely moment, so brief as to almost be missed where Fern states that structure, (non-)narrativity and collage are all the same to him. Monday went on with another description of class dynamics from Shane McAdams. There was a subsequent dispatch from Gene Tanta on Tuesday, where he described a performance workshop with Irina Botea and 13 other performers. He asked each of them (and got five responses) “What does your work protest?” I reposted one response
“Our work focused on the impact of this replacement (of old windows with multiple-layer double-glazed windows) on the people who purchase them. In Romania, this transition is advertised and widely acclaimed as being more than just necessary – but the defaultupgrade, perfect for every house. While questioning this widespread idealistic belief that Termopane are the right (almost the only valid) choice, we pursued in deconstructing its “promises”. And since you referenced Adorno’s claim that art documents history, one of the key aspects this work documented is how the perfect isolation, the safety promised by the Termopane comes with an unexpected turn: isolation means protection, security, intimacy but it also raises questions regarding responsibility and anxiety. These new guidelines of the private space influence people’s social and psychological behaviors, by means of a rather unnoticeable slow process of adaptation.” Ioana Gheorghiu
The way that windows and cameras and frames tie in together always makes me happy.
Mary Jane Jacobs covered a lot of ground, as she reflected on an a Grant Kester essay in Engagement Party: Social Practice at MOCA, 2008-2012, and interviewed Kyungwon Moon and Joonho Jeon. The biggest moment for me comes at the beginning of Jacobs’ post, when she announced that TAMMS Super Max Prison was officially closed on January 4th of this year, in no small part due to the hard work of artist Laurie Jo Reynolds who took up residence at the Sullivan Galleries this past fall. Abby Satinsky goes on to provide a bibliography for “Creative Placemaking,” while musing on the complicated scenario artists are faced with as they move into and revitalize depressed neighborhoods, a subject discussed at length in a recent conference, The Art of Place-making.
Jeffrey Songco interviewed performance artist Renne Rhodesabout her background in dance (among other things) during which they discuss Rudolph Laban’s “Labnotation” — as a means to score dance moves — an image of which you’ll see above. As I have been thinking a lot about transcription lately, and since so many of this week posts focused on the transmission of knowledge or experience, this seemed like a particularly lovely moment. The image of those static, abstract footprints(?) have been in my head every since. That they would somehow convey movement in time and space is beyond me. Sam Davis follows suit with a suite of videos that try to articulate what FUNK really is — namely “it’s about juicing a feeling.”
I rounded out the week with a post about Sofie Calle’s Address Book (which is now available in English). She seems always to be providing windows into private worlds, activating the aura of an individual, in this case Pierre D. who has recently passed away (thereby enabling her to release her findings about him). It seems like a macabre kind of dictionary in a way, and reminds me of Graham Greene’s biographer who was allegedly hired by the author to follow in his rather debauched footsteps, at the expense of the biographer’s family. I ended the week with a post about a sound performance at LAMPO by Hong Chulki and Choi Joonyong, — which like so many of LAMPO’s events effectively blew my mind. Maybe even more than this little red comb which I purchased for a mere 5cents at a Macomb antique mall.
February 11, 2013 · Print This Article
Even though we call them motion pictures, moving images, movies, not everything committed to celluloid or quicktime has motion at its locus. In the idiosyncratic, stirring body of filmic work that Fern Silva has produced—and will be screening five recent works to inaugurate Conversations at the Edge’s spring season this Thursday—movement is integral. The sumptuous and silent Passage Upon the Plume (2011) finds its rhythms in the coupled vertical impulses of hot air balloons and baskets being lured up and down the faces of buildings. Concrete Parlay (2012)—his latest as well as the source of the evening’s title—uses the trope of the magic carpet ride to guide us through cities and bodies and concepts both foreign and domestic.
Showing a preference toward making/taking footage while traveling, the films are filled with nods to the histories and aesthetics of home movies, ethnographic film and experimental film. Through a variety of collage-techniques and sophisticated sonic strategies, the works retain an alluring density that compels repeat viewings. Beyond the density, they have great levity and are propelled by their own internal rhythms. Busted pop songs and radio fuzz keep the party moving even if its attendants may not be sure where.
Fern holds a BFA from Massachusetts College of Art and an MFA from Bard College. He teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago (where I am an MFA candidate). His films have shown widely in film festivals, galleries and museums and in 2010 he was named one of the “Top 25 avant-garde filmmakers for the 21st century” in Film Comment. Concrete Parlay: An Evening with Fern Silva takes place this very Valentine’s Day at the Gene Siskel Film Center at 6:00 pm. Fern will be in attendance and ready to answer any lingering questions you may have. Perhaps something about a minidisc player and a bullet.
I am always interested in learning more about an artist’s background and the ways (subtle and overt) that one’s biography shapes one’s artistic output. I’m hoping you might say a bit about where you’re from, the first films you saw (experimental and otherwise) that impacted your aesthetic sense or made you want to make your own work.
I was just listening to this Terry Gross interview with Tyler Perry on NPR and a large topic of conversation was his biography and how it influenced his creative process and now manifests itself into his films. I absolutely identified with him and his experiences. I’ve never seen a Tyler Perry movie although I think Why Did I Get Married is a great title for a film, but I do agree with him in making films through catharsis and hopefully having an audience face them that way. George Kuchar says something like, make sure to have a past otherwise your future will be bleak in his message to the people of the future. This is something that I’ve been thinking about lately, humorously.
I grew up in Hartford, CT which at the time was very depressed and dangerous but just like my parents who had immigrated from fascist Portugal, there were other immigrants who were also fleeing from dictatorships and war-torn countries at that time in the 70’s. Not sure why they went to Hartford though. My class all throughout grade school was like a mini-UN, we were from everywhere and the US at the same time and fairly confused about our identities and being American. Most of us were just learning English and were back in our respective motherlands once we got home after school. Sharing stories and cultural experiences with one another heightened my curiosity for travel. I wasn’t really allowed to watch movies or go to the theater until I was a teenager, if I saw any movies, they were mostly in school.
I do remember going to a yard sale with my mom when I was a kid and buying what may have been a foot of 16mm film with the image of a china girl on it. The guy told me it was a movie but I had a hard time believing that since I had no knowledge of how film worked and the image itself was so still and there were just multiple frames of it. I did carry it with me for a while asking random strangers who the actress was and the name of the movie I was holding. Little did I know, she was in every movie in one way or another. I lost it once when I went to a friend’s house and ripped open a VHS tape of Howard the Duck to make comparisons and noticed no images on the tape. I was perplexed and then just moved on to continuing to paint and draw. So to fast forward, it wasn’t until later in high school after experimenting with other things that I started to watch lots of movies and so filmmakers like Dreyer, Cocteau and Vertov were very influential in my interest to pursue films closely. Our public library somehow had an amazing collection so often I’d come home with stacks of VHS tapes and watch at least two features a day. I soon after learned about artists making work on a more personal and creative level like Brakhage, Deren, and Mekas but it wasn’t until I started going to MassArt and spending time with Saul Levine, Mark Lapore and Ericka Beckman that a profound impact would be made on my pursuit to be a filmmaker. I remember feeling a sense of euphoria, many times, during multiple screenings and wanting more.
Relatedly, you and I and many others have come of age at a time when many of the big names in (I hesitate to use this phrase but) the first wave of experimental film had either passed or were reaching that stage. Our mentors have primarily been a mix of those taught by that first generation of impactful makers and a mix of their progeny and the occasional glimpses of their ancestors. Now you’re teaching and I’m interested in a few questions around this: how do you imbue your classes with the vitality and interest of works that are (by now) fifty years old, how have the lessons of these older generations impacted your pedagogy and what do you think are the historical lessons we can glean from them?
Well nowadays a lot of the work from those canonical filmmakers that both you and I were exposed to in school are readily available through digital technology and even viewable on the internet so I often just have my students watch and write about them on their own time unless I have access to a print. I try to show as much work that I think is as important and less accessible, in comparison, during class time. Experimental films that were made 50 years ago can be as fresh as films being made now in a classroom setting. I like to show films that I found inspiring and share stories about the filmmakers who we’re watching. For example, when I show Meshes of the Afternoon, I’ll tell the story of when Maya Deren threw a fridge across the kitchen while she was possessed in her West Village apartment that Brakhage writes about in Film at Wit’s End. Sometimes, I’ll also come in with multiple films and sense the energy in the classroom and then make a decision on what I think everyone is ready for, they’ll all watch them at one point or another in class. Over all, I try to teach from a sociological standpoint as I feel a large part of cinema literacy lends itself to that very essence.
Much of your work is shot while traveling. It is also, in some cases, concerned explicitly with travel, movement and means of conveyance (magic carpets, hot air balloons). This is perhaps a broad question, but I’d like you to talk a bit about what travel means for you creatively and how you conceive of the traveling you do. To what degree do you seek out situations that you think might make for interesting filming opportunities? How do you choose where you’re going and when? How do you see travel functioning metaphorically for aesthetic/cinematic experiences (or, even, do you)?
I’m interested in travel as much as I’m interested in understanding the inevitable paths that living beings take for one purpose or another, either through immigration or migration or just plain leisure and the expectations and outcomes of those experiences. I also utilize travel as a means for self-examination that in turn allows me to disconnect from practical or theoretical assumptions of origin, priority, essence, etc. I always go into making a movie with an overall agenda but use the production stage as an exploratory process so that I can work intuitively. Having ideas and searching for their articulation continues throughout production up into the post/editing stages. Overall, outside of travelling and making films, I’m visiting friends and my interaction with them often informs the outcome of the films.
There is a long and fruitful history of poets and avant-garde filmmakers working together, reflecting on each other and informing each other’s practice. The mutual friend through whom we first met, Charity Coleman, is an excellent poet and thoughtful, passionate cinephile. You use poems by Fern(ando) Pessoa and Luís Vaz de Camões in Servants of Mercy (2010) and I know that you have been engaged in various ways with poetry and poetics. I’m hoping you might elaborate on these relationships and also how you see you work functioning in a poetic dialogue.
Charity makes great use of the word dreamy.
There is, or rather was, a long fruitful history of poets and artists alike working together in a way that at one point may have been called “parallel poetry”, but it seems as if it’s less common nowadays. Or, at least it seems that way between poets and filmmakers working contemporaneously on a sort of one-to-one level. As a personal filmmaker, the possibilities of working with other poets adjacent to filmmaking is something that I’m interested in continuing for as long as I make work. There are several poets or poems that I re-read before I start edits. For example I always read/listen to Of Being Numerous by George Oppen which is one of my favorites and once I get down the line a bit I listen to Reign in Blood by Slayer, always. Pessoa and Camões are two of the most celebrated Portuguese poets, I read them in Portuguese for practice when I was a child. There was a saying that won’t translate so well in English but it went along the lines of “Luis de Camões can see better with one eye than we can see with three.”
Your use of sound is really wonderful and startling. In particular, I think you do a really interesting of job of allowing the sound to complicate and mystify (rather than simply double or reinforce) the image. There are moments of (apparent) synchronization and others when the clarity of a sound, in particular its source within the diegetic space, begins to wander and, finally, leads to an entirely new set of image concerns. At what stage in your process is sound introduced? How do you select the songs you’re using and they function they’ll play, both conceptually and emotionally?
I record all of my sound during the shooting process. Lots of it. All of the time. But it’s never in an abusive sense. I house it, store it, label it and pay close attention to it. My approach to recording sound is different from shooting in the way that I collect hours and hours and hours of it and will often create foley in post-production and build libraries. In some ways I obsessively collect it. I love how malleable it can be sometimes and how specific it can be other times. All of this through multiple forms of manipulation creates a certain flavor I seek in my sound/image relationships. Even the songs, pop plays everywhere and I always stop and record it wherever I go with the means that I might use it. For a long time I was recording with a mini-disc player, up until recently. It finally stopped working after a bullet got lodged in it through my pocket. It actually saved my life.
In conversations we’ve had, you’ve gone into great length about the necessity of sitting and watching—both actively and ambiently—your footage dozens (if not hundreds of times) before beginning to edit. I think your process is unique (though perhaps discovering a unique process is the key to becoming a unique artist) and I’d like you to share it. Did you always work this way? Is this one of the (useful) limitations of 16mm?
Well overall, I think it’s important to study your footage and to really take it into consideration on every possible angle or direction at various speeds and single frames. It’ll often be months before I get my footage back from the lab so during that time I try to exercise by memory and often edit in my head from what I remember. Once I do get it back, I feel the need to burn it into my brain so that I’m constantly thinking about its possibilities to exist as a sort of encapsulation of multiple thoughts, sounds, and images from a specific period of time. So I have to watch it at least a hundred times before I start cutting. It’s an ongoing process on how I get to that point and it always changes so it’s hard to gauge. One thing I can say is that it becomes a ritual in itself. I always did this to one degree or another but it was because I didn’t shoot much, I still don’t really. I’ll usually use 2/3 to 1/2 of my footage for the final edit and sometimes I’ll be close to 1/1. I also edit while I shoot, sometimes marking rolls, rewinding them and popping them back in. The last movie I made, I got my film back and then decided to shoot some more in a controlled studio, this is something I might be interested in exploring in the future, adding overtly fictional elements to accentuate a certain theme.
This is a question about structure, about (non-)narrativity and about collage. Or, maybe, this is a prompt to hear your thoughts on these words together and perhaps in that order and most certainly in reference to your own work.
All of those words mean the same thing to me.
The world of moving images is fraught with comparisons to magic, to illusions. It is our inheritance and it’s where photographic work gets its heat. Mary Helena Clark’s films work because she understands the perpetual strangeness of seeing “real life” projected on a screen. She understands how to craft a vision of that reality that is highly subjective while still being attuned to the audience’s desires, expectations and baggage. And, in so doing, her works subvert our expectations of the veracity of moving images, while at the same reaffirming the vitality of the well-timed magic trick.
The works feel like they are entirely on her terms. We experience them as we do a well-crafted magic act: the illusions’ realities owe as much to their deception as to the pleasure of being deceived. Built from varied sources—both crafted and borrowed—her films are collages in the best sense. The materials are simultaneously autonomous and inextricably entangled. They are deeply mysterious while bound to reality. And, like so many works of this kind, they give—capably and generously—as much as we’re willing to take.
She has screened widely and in many of the finest contexts the experimental film community offers. Having just completed her MFA at the University of Illinois Chicago, it is fitting that she has a capstone show of her work at Roots and Culture on May 27th. Many of the works will be screening in their native 16mm and though I may not be allowed be to say as much, there may very well be secret works screened interstitially.
To begin, I was hoping you could share a bit about where you come from and what brought you to this kind of work. What were you like as an 18 year old? Did you arrive at experimental film through low-budget horror films? Punk shows? Color field comic books? And, relatedly, who were the makers and what was it they made that created that shift in your brain to begin making (or thinking about) experimental film?
I wish I could say something cool but the more honest answer is poetry. I wrote poems and a few plays and set up a darkroom when I was in high school. And then went to film school never having made any films. Robert Todd was my first teacher who showed me experimental film and taught me how to shoot 16mm and use an optical printer. I thought I would eventually make narrative films and that experimental work was a way of mastering images and building a vocabulary but it became my preferred language.
I feel like a lot of your work deals with tromp l’oeil and different types of illusion. While your images are very photographic—that is to say that instead of being computer generated, heavily processed, etc. they bear a tight indexical relationship to their subjects—but they don’t always feel real, whatever that means. Will you describe your relationship to illusion? What types of images appeal to you in the process of creating and gathering them?
I like that magic tricks still work even when you know the moves.
For me, an illusion gives you the best of both worlds. Fantasy and an awareness of its production.
In Sound Over Water, I wanted to shift the interpretation of a single image—a flock of birds— through fluctuating abstraction. By re-photographing and hand processing the images, the “read” changes. It’s ambiguously figurative—schools of fish, crashing waves, light on water—and then ends with the series of photographs acting as document, accentuating the gap between actual and perceptual.
I want to make cinema that is both trance-like and transparent: that operates on dream logic until disrupted by a moment of self-reflexivity, like tripping on an extension cord.
The man at the end of By Foot-Candle Light is completely beguiling. His performance begins somewhere between a portrait and a screen test, but then gets so lovably weird.
When I first saw this I had a feeling that this was your father and that you had invited him into your studio to chat and play around and once the camera started rolling, he slowly began to goof. There’s a really amazing intimacy in that moment because his eyes are locked on the lens and as his behavior gets stranger, there’s more interaction on the camera’s end. I’m almost reticent to have you blow this mystery by giving the back-story of this performance (and the film more broadly), but I think that too gives an interesting indication into your process.
I had the good fortune of meeting Paul Russell when he came to audition for the role of a hypnotist in another unmade film. I was trying to recreate a story my friend told me about a hypnotist coming to his middle school. He told me that a very shy and very pretty girl was picked from the audience as a volunteer. My friend’s crush on her grew as he watched her fall into a trance and “see” snow for the first time. He described this sublime scene of this girl spot-lit on stage, arms raised, turning in unseen flurries. I thought, “That’d be a nice film!” but by casting call I knew the whole project was too precious. So I filmed the auditions and conflated the making of the movie with the dream you might have had.
My read on By Foot-Candle Light is that it’s a lot about performance. The startling and (when watched in a proper theater, incredibly effective) opening shot prepares us for an invisible star. The probing lights next take us into a mysterious cave, through a detour of what appears to be a high school dance troupe performance and into a snow-covered birch forest. The white snow gives the illusion that the trees are floating in the air or that the ground has been physically removed from the image. The grain of the trees and the grain of the celluloid undulate and breathe. Then, another illusion: the introduction of footsteps in snow. Through the dream logic of cinema, these cut to your own feet, silent in your studio. There’s applause, the mysterious man appears and, with the shushing of the crowd, his magic eye tricks begin. Does this read resonate? Can you offer some insight into how you think about performance, both in and out of films, and if/how the roving, subjective camera (and attendant lights) performs for the audience?
You got it! This is the film where the periphery becomes the focus. It’s everything that circulates around the main performance, brought up stage in the film. So yes, I wonder if the spotlight has enough pluck to be the lead. It’s sort of like a travelogue trance film à la Maya Deren. I am thinking as much about the audience as I am the performer (or absence of one). How does the texture of the film/video change our situation as viewers? When seen “on the big screen” the opening shot performs another space, other moments of the film are about teleportation. And where do we arrive? In the filmmaker’s studio. I guess that’s my take on the sweaty leap from bed, it’s all just a dream!
And The Sunflowers pairs still images of floral wallpaper with a guided meditation soundtrack, with marvelously subtle textural pulsing in the form of analog video artifacts. As the voices pulls the viewer more deeply into a hypnotic state, another layer larger, realer flowers emerge.
The effect is very hypnagogic, both hallucinatory and subdued. I have a Christopher Wool poster that I’ve played boggle with for hundreds of hours. That wallpaper felt like it’s absorbed a lot of spaced-out eye hours. The pacing in that work is notable because it doesn’t feel excessively durational (or about duration, let’s say), but it does provide the slowness necessary to give us that intimate zoned feeling.
Your work frequently fuses disparate elements, both shot and found. Do you consider them collage films? Do you have an interest in collage as a way to think about your work?
I do. I like how the phrase collage film implies an individuality to the elements of the film even after they’ve been brought together and chopped up and manipulated. They’re still these discrete things with their past lives. I like finding sounds and images that seem perfectly self-expressive, but they’re just found! And then use them with footage or recordings I’ve crafted. There’s comfort in knowing it can all make sense, that my meaning can live on top of the material’s particular history.
You were telling me a bit about your thesis and about the way you’ve adapted Franco Moretti’s notion of clues within detective novels to function as a model for thinking about avant-garde cinema. I know it’s hard to condense however many dozens of pages into a paragraph, but I’m hoping you could talk a bit about this idea and how your research has impacted the way you think about the work you made before reading it (as if, perhaps, these were clues that reveal what your work has become) and the work you’ve been making since.
It’s a wonderful conceit from Moretti’s Signs Taken For Wonders… The clue as the key to the “semantic ambiguities” created by the criminal. That in a detective novel the revelation of a clue creates new meaning to an object or event. (Moretti’s example is the band in the Sherlock Holmes’ story The Speckled Band being deciphered as band, then scarf, then snake). As a filmmaker, I am interested in the slip between signifier and sign and the multiplicity of meanings allowed when a 1:1 relationship is broken. In this noir-ish light, the world is filled with puzzles, confusing the senses, reducing a crowd to color, a dog to a syllable, darkness to infinite space. I think my earlier movies were looking for the hidden and mysterious and my newer films have a sensitivity to what’s in plain sight. Or at least that’s what I hope for. It’s the difference of staring at one’s wallpapered bedroom or taking a walk.
Orpheus (outtakes) is meant to function, at least nominally, as a series of outtakes from Cocteau’s Orpheus. Part of what makes that such an exceptional film is its reliance on relatively simple special effects to convey grand symbolic ideas. Certainly these were relatively sophisticated techniques in 1949, but their power today is imbued with an at least elementary concept on the audience’s part in how they were made. The work and its effect (so to speak) are uncanny because they are still grounded in reality, because their artifice is simultaneously total and naked. When we look at a computer-generated alien, all its variables are controlled by the makers: its relationship to reality essentially lacks context. Your outtakes maintain the film’s knack for the uncanny and magical. The direct rayogram of the chain gives us a feeling of falling or of a large chain falling, always just out of reach. And yet it is simultaneously a chain and we know how it got there.
Yes. Again it’s plainness in illusion that interests me. Méliès made people disappear by turning the camera on and off and I think the simplest tricks are a nice reminder of the ease with which the mysterious can be conjured. André Bazin has that great quote about photography ranking “high in the order of surrealist creativity because it produces an image that is a reality of nature, namely a hallucination that is also a fact.” Nice, right? I think of this quote when watching the chain rayogram in Orpheus (outtakes) that you mentioned. The image made by the object’s own outline on the film creates a flattened, rhythmically pulsating pattern. Sometimes it reads as a chain and at others a braid or a spine, but I am most interested in the vacuous space or the “rabbit hole” the object implies.
I’m with you on the deepening poetry of Cocteau’s special effects. Our awareness of his trick photography empowers them more. In Orpheus mirrors are portals to the underworld. He used tanks of water to make the “glass” a permeable surface. It’s an elegant solution for the visual effect and complicates the metaphor. In my (outtakes) I use the hole punch common on 16mm film leader as a mouth of a tunnel. We see the flash of the punch mark then the circle slowly grows to engulf the frame. It is the first instance in the film where the artifacts (dirt, scratches, lettering) become representational. The film looks to its physical condition to point to the liminal state.
In re-watching Orpheus (outtakes) I realized that I was asking you many of the same questions as the contestants on that 1950s game show from which moments of your audio are taken. They ask (and no one answers): Are you in motion pictures? Are you a comedian? Do you also appear on the stage? Do you go back as far as the silent movies? So, to further literalize this chain: will you address the role humor plays in your work? Why Buster Keaton? Why the game show?
The cartoon references like the tunnel or the blinking eyes in the dark are funny to me but also sad, goofy and lonely. A figure with no voice, no visible body, only eyes looking out where no one can see… I think it’s easy to find some stoner existentialism in these Looney Tunes tropes. Inky black voids. I love that stuff…
Why Buster Keaton? He’s always been my favorite. He’s the master of turning the everyday object into mutable forms. His engagement with the world is totally physical and pure magic.
Why the game show? The first time I heard Buster Keaton talk was on an episode of What’s My Line when he was the mystery guest. He seemed so anachronistic and alien. When I decided to riff on Cocteau’s Orpheus, I thought he should play a part since he moved (precariously) between the worlds of silent and sound cinema. And what makes more sense then a silent film star acting in a film about the underworld where it is very, very dark?
How is a filmmaker like a hypnotist?
In my case, both use the mode of direct address. You are getting sleepy. You are sitting in a darkened room. I’m always thinking about the moment of reception, and pointing to that moment as a way of implicating the audience.
It is not uncommon to find oneself dreaming of Michael Robinson‘s films weeks after having watched them. By that I mean it happened to me once. Specifically, it happened to one of us once. I (the other one) have not had that dream, but have had the opposite reaction. I felt I was dreaming amid some of Robinson’s films. The oneiric tradition within the cinema is as long and storied as it is obvious to most anyone who has spent time in “the biggest, darkest, loudest theater possible.” So we won’t go too far into it but to say that his works in film and video are highly atmospheric.
Sliding easily between original and wide ranging found footage, they are simultaneously direct in their concerns and beguiling in their approach. Much has been made of his ability to use arch kitsch (Full House, Little House on the Prairie) in ways that are both evocative and humorous. And while the use of mass media is considered in its irony, it doesn’t feel cheap.
Adroitly harnessing the techniques of past avant-garde film, Robinson adapts them to fit shifts in contemporary culture, taking the infant (and often infantile) form of YouTube mashups towards greater and stranger heights. And while the films are highly atmospheric and make terrific use of the form’s unique vocabularies, they each have specific trajectories. They are conceptual, with a small c and formal with a small f, allowing for great flexibility.
Originally from Upstate New York, Michael holds a BFA from Ithaca College, a MFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago and was a Visiting Assistant Professor of Cinema at Binghamton University. His work has shown in many prominent festivals and beginning tomorrow his films will be featured as part of the Whitney Biennial for the following four days, culminating with a conversation between Robinson and experimental filmmaker Peggy Ahwesh.
(Note: this interview was co-conducted by Benjamin Schultz-Figueroa)
You use both found and original footage. Can you talk about what changes and what remains the same when using the different methods for gathering images? For example, the difference between the production of If There Be Thorns, which is made of 16mm film you shot yourself, and These Hammers Don’t Hurt Us, which is all found footage.
When I’m working with my own footage, it takes me a lot longer to detach from the material, and know what to ditch. With found materials, I’m already approaching them with enough distance to know more quickly whether or not they will work. But the flipside is that I tend to not mangle or alter my own footage very much, so the picture editing process is usually more straightforward for the works I shoot myself. Part of this is also about setting boundaries – with a work like If There Be Thorns, I shot footage in a few different places over the course of a year, and then made the best of what I had. With These Hammers Don’t Hurt Us – there was a lot of specific types of material I wanted to find (CGI pyramids, mummies, ice dancers) and there seemed no reason to stop until I found it all. So the gathering process was also part of the editing process.
Can you describe your editing process? How does using Final Cut Pro (if that is actually what you use) influence your aesthetic? How do you navigate the abundance of options and effects to find the one which works?
The process is a little different for each piece, but generally it involves a ton of trial and error, figuring things out in small sections. In regards to Final Cut, I don’t actually use many of the pre-set filters, but tend to get the results I want through layering (copy and pasting the same shot on top of itself, methodically offsetting each one, and playing with the compositing). I learned 16mm film editing in college, and taught myself Final Cut afterwards, so I veer towards those aspects of digital editing which are meant to replicate a more visual, analogue experience.
Many of the effects that you employ (flickering or strobe-like editing, solarizing or inverting colors, multiple superimposed images) are stalwarts of avant-garde film, yet your use of these effects feels extremely unique. How do you see your use of such techniques in relationship to their use in the past? Are there art movements from the past that you feel influence your practice, or whom you feel your work responds to?
I suppose I like everything I’m doing to feel a bit transparent (flicker feels like flicker, slow motion feels like slow motion) and part of that transparency involves nodding to the traditions of film and video art, while hopefully steering things elsewhere. Within lot of the more famous uses of flicker – or any formal technique for that matter – the effect was explored as an entity unto itself, deployed through a very specific, or mathematical structure. So while Tony Conrad’s The Flicker or Paul Sharits’ T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G, are psychologically very rich and in no way purely formal films, the technique itself is at the core of these works. My films use effects and techniques as emotional cues, or as narrative elements in and of themselves, guiding and contributing to the atmosphere or thrust of a piece without actually being the heart of it.
You mention an interest in the narrative aspects of video games (in particular of the Super Nintendo generation). I found this instructive as a potential entry into what elements of narrative (might) exist in your work. The hazy, indefinite but cyclical nature of “story” seems related. Can you talk a bit about both the influence a generation of games had on your practice and also how you conceive of narrativity within your work?
It’s all about what we allow ourselves project emotion and meaning onto, whether that’s pushing a stone in the right direction to unlock a door in a Zelda game, or the exchange of keys, knives and doppelgangers in Meshes of the Afternoon. I’m not interested in the “save the princess/universe” narrative of games, but rather the attaching of logic and motivation to completely abstract situations. So guiding characters through video games is in a sense not unlike navigating a complex film. All of my pieces follow a narrative arc of one form or another, with establishment, rising action, climax, etc. I would be completely lost without that arc.
Can you talk about your use of popular music? Do you see an analog between instrumental karaoke versions of songs and heavily processed visual media? There was a period of time in avant-garde cinema during which popular music was eschewed, but that seems finished. Young(er) artists often feel more adroit at using elements of popular culture in ways that are unironic without being saccharine or humorless. They–you–are able to harness the power of these cultural artifacts without ceding control to them.
Pop music, like most television, is a really strange thing when you take a step back and think about what it is, and how it’s working – mechanically, commercially, and emotionally. Despite that, there is an undeniable power to things like melody and refrain, particularly when they manage to carry some lasting cultural influence or imprint. I see karaoke as a very emotional, sometimes spiritual exercise – wherein the Word is recited, is often known by heart, and summons a certain amount of heartfelt projection. In using instrumental tracks in my films, I like the idea that some audience members will be forced to sing along in their heads, or at least have some kind of sense memory triggered.
There’s a phrase that I remember being attributed to Guy Maddin on the poster for Jim Finn’s Interkosmos which has always stuck with me: so full of rare atmospheres. I’ve thought of that phrase often while watching your films. More than conveying single ideas or attacking a problem, the works are very atmospheric. Can you discuss your process of making? Do notes for films come from trying to achieve a certain feeling? From having an amount of footage that you’re trying to unite?
I usually know what I want a given film to feel like, in terms of atmosphere, before I know what it will look or sound like. So the gathering and editing processes then become about trying to figure out how to convey that feeling. The sound design is really the most important part of this, and the most finicky, in that things don’t really work until they’re just right. I do take a lot of notes and make a lot of lists, relating to specific shots or edits, and attempting to get my head around broader ideas.
Switching gears slightly, let’s discuss distribution. Your films are available to be watched, in their entirety, on your website and on vimeo. They’re also distributed by VDB, have screened widely at festivals and, now, will be included in the Whitney Biennial. Did you ever have a question about having the work online? Do you conceive of your website/the web broadly as a screening space as opposed to simply a portfolio? Do you have an interest in making videos for gallery environments? Do you have an ideal viewing environment in mind when creating your work?
I hesitated to put my work online for a while, but then realized I was happily watching other artists’ work online, and was taking the online viewing experience with the necessary grain of salt. I trust that contemporary viewers of all kinds are doing the same, and that if someone is interested enough in something online, they will want to see it out in the world too. And if not, then they would otherwise never see it, so they might as well see it online. This is not the case for all kinds of cinema, but I think my films do hold up reasonably well online. I have shown my work installed in a black-box gallery mode a few times, and I am interested in exploring that more, because when it’s done well I think it can bridge the disconnect between film and art audiences. But still, the ideal environment to see my work is the biggest, darkest, loudest theater possible (preferably sold out).
Can you talk about your approaches as a professor? Has teaching altered the way you think about your own work, the history of cinema or, potentially, its futures?
My approach is really just to expose students to the things I love, and to the histories that have been important to me, and hope that they might find inspiration there too. There is no one history of cinema, or of experimental cinema, so every artist connects the dots in their own way. In connecting my dots for the purposes of teaching, I’ve gotten a lot closer to the work of certain artists, such as Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger, who I’ve admired for a long time, but appreciate more and more with every viewing. But I wouldn’t say that teaching has altered my work, or my overall views on cinema.
What are your artistic roots? Did you always know you wanted to make films? Were you in ska bands? Were you in ski bands? Did you study painting or make plays?
As a kid, I loved to draw and paint, and gravitated towards photography and music as a teenager. I was never in a proper band, but did play drums, and once recorded a pretty great cover version of Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” with two high school friends. Around that time I also went to a very lovey-dovey Catholic summer camp, where all the campers were frequently made to hold hands in circles and sing sad pop songs (Natalie Merchant, Tori Amos, etc.), which obviously had a lasting effect on me. I went to college thinking I would concentrate on photography, or maybe film editing, but was pretty quickly seduced by experimental cinema. I didn’t see it coming, but it was a perfect catchall for my various impulses.
This interview was co-conducted by Jesse Malmed and Benjamin Schultz-Figueroa, an artist, theorist, and independent curator based out of Brooklyn, New York.