Experiencing Medium(s), Archiving Medium(s): John Q’s The Campaign for Atlanta: an essay on queer migration

June 27, 2013 · Print This Article

Introducing Essays

Atlanta-based idea collective John Q premiered its work The Campaign for Atlanta: an essay on queer migration at the Atlanta Cyclorama on Friday, May 17, 2013 and Saturday, May 18, 2013. The performance, an essay as John Q calls it, insists on exploring the phenomenon of queer migration into urban spaces, Atlanta being one of them. Using the space, movement, and pictorial qualities of the Cyclorama along with archival materials of queer filmmaker Crawford Barton, native to Resaca (about an hour north of Atlanta), later based in San Francisco, John Q essays (used here as a verb) a narrative of history, creative production, queerness, and geography.

In the broadsheet for the performance, John Q lists the definitions for essay as a noun:

“1. a short literary composition on a particular theme or subject, usually in prose and generally analytic, speculative, or interpretive. 2. anything resembling such a composition: a picture essay. 3. an effort to perform or accomplish something, attempt.” [1]

Used as a verb, essay can mean: “to try; attempt” and “to put to the test; make trial of” [2] or “to put to a test” and “to make an often tentative or experimental effort to perform” [3]. Derived from Middle French noun essai, derived from the verb essayer, which comes from Late Latin exagium which means an act of weighing, the word “essay” refers to something active, performative. [4]

Similar in roots to “essay,” “assay,” as a noun refers to

  1.  archaic: a trial, attempt
  2. the examination and determination as to characteristics (as weight, measure, or quality)
  3. analysis (as of an ore or drug) to determine the presence, absence, or quantity of one or more components; also: a test used in this analysis
  4. a substance to be assayed; also: the tabulated result of assaying [5]

As a verb:

  1. a. to subject (a metal, for example) to chemical analysis so as to determine the strength or quality of its components; b. to bioassay
  2. to examine by trial or experiment; put to a test
  3. to evaluate; assess
  4. to attempt; try [6]

The two words, though originating in similar if not same roots (assay originates in Anglo-French), now aren’t used interchangeably (in a simple online search, I came across forums discussing if the two are interchangeable – this is a big deal). At some point, the Latin word which expressed the action of weighing and measuring was split into the action of weighing in thought and weighing concrete objects. How are these two distinct from each other, though? Does the decision to weigh a concrete object necessarily come from a weighed thought experiment, or vice versa? John Q’s weighing of the Cyclorama, the site of the performance, a 42 x 358 foot panoramic painting of the Civil War’s Battle of Atlanta, a complex of history, politics, and space, straddles multiple methods of investigation and examination, perhaps similar to the divided essay/assay. Paired with the Cyclorama is the weighing of Crawford Barton’s archive. As Wesley Chenault of John Q states:

In some ways, the provenance of the Crawford Barton collection did similar work as the Cyclorama in that it allowed us to think about his life in other ways, as patterns of movements and migrations between rural and urban spaces, not primarily as it related to San Francisco. Through letters, films, and more, Barton’s personal papers document his connections to Resaca and Atlanta, archival traces that map over the military campaigns that occurred in both areas. Atlanta, as Sherman understood over a century before, is a city defined by its relevance as a transportation hub in the Southeast. For many, it has long served as a nexus, where motilities of bodies, desires, and histories converge.  Crawford’s correspondence from his time in the city, for example, illustrates how one young gay white man navigated the sexual landscape of the mid-to-late 1960s. Placing Crawford in the Cyclorama, then, allowed the collective to attempt – thus the essay form – to explore not just notions of movement and migration, but also the ways in which they relate to identity, place, archives, and memory. [7]

Description

The performance can be broken down broadly into three parts:

  1. Beginning: the standard Cyclorama narrative while the audience goes through the standard revolve around the painting
  2. John Q takes over the narrative, delivering its essay while the audience continues to revolve in the space while the programmed lights highlight particular aspects of the painting
  3. John Q’s members, one by one, leave the theater and move into the auditorium, inviting the audience members to join them for screenings of Crawford Barton’s films.

The ending space of the performance (the auditorium) is generally the starting point for a tour of the Cyclorama: a video presentation of a Civil War reenactment. In the script of the essay, John Q states: “During a regular visit to the Atlanta Cyclorama, the presentation would begin with an interpretive film in the auditorium and then move here into the space of the painting. Tonight we ask you to navigate the space of the Cyclorama backwards with us, moving metaphorically against the grain of history and exploring, perhaps for the first time in public, a sampling of the film work of our current queer subject, Crawford Barton.” [8] Later, John Q states: “Instead of following Crawford’s biography to its end, we bring you back to his migrations.” [9]

John Q. Campaign for Atlanta. Photo by Cory Locatelli. Courtesy of the City of Atlanta.

John Q. Campaign for Atlanta. Photo by Cory Locatelli. Courtesy of the City of Atlanta.

The films present the Castro, the famous queer district in San Francisco, and of travel. Minimal in their composition and editing, the films are observational in nature; unedited,  perhaps unscripted, they seem to hold the lives of those featured in the films. Resaca, GA, Barton’s hometown also happens to be “the site of one of the first battles in the Civil War military Atalanta Campaign.” [10] What seemed to draw John Q to Barton’s work was the potential to examine his migration to the Castro from rural Resaca in a larger phenomenon of migration, queer migration, and differentiations of space. One of the films depicts men running through golden fields, bare-chested. While watching this moving-image, I was struck by a deep-seated fear – something that causes one to run, to run fast and far away. Especially after witnessing a scene of carnage, destruction, and death represented in the Atlanta Cyclorama, the potentially and possibly joyful images of rural play take on a more morbid atmosphere. Are these fields that of “amber waves of grain” – fields that speak to the national project of America; the fantastic golden countryside? I have to ask then, if these fields aren’t filled with joy, what then are they filled with and why are these men running? Is this moving-image representative of the larger phenomenon of queer migration that prompted John Q to realize this project? What does this mass movement to urban centers mean for America’s rural spaces?

The essay John Q presented during the second turn of the painting starts with General Sherman’s ability to really see geography and an aside about Napoleon’s extensive map collection, both juxtaposed with Borges’ map the size of the place it represents, an absurd exercise of cartography. At one point, John Q points out to the audience that how the painting is viewed is highly controlled:

“In the first turn around the Cyclorama, controlled light directs your attention to the scenes under discussion. The seating apparatus itself takes you on a turn that controls what spaces draw your attention and when. The narrative is set. Your gaze over this space has been determined in advance. It is a visual, pre-cinematic form, which presents the unfolding of geography and history as seemingly inevitable.5 You are a witness to History.6” [11]

One thing to consider, however: can my experience be completely controlled by another, unseen forces, or composition? Do the spinning gears and directed lights completely focus my attention to the spot I’m supposed to? Can I close my eyes, turn my head – experience this painting differently from the way it’s presented to me? This ability, to close the eyes, refuse to look at the space indicated, has much to offer the archival work that John Q does in its public projects and the ways in which they invite the audience to engage with the particular archives presented. In an interview with Julia Brock for History@Work: A Public History Commons from the National Council on Public History, they describe the way they view their work as public scholarship and what this means for its reception, particularly what their take on “public interventions” is. Joey Orr explains that “The learning that takes place in a publicly constructed project is not unidirectional and can never be predicted in advance, so I do not assume our job is to wake people up. I do hope some of our work intervenes in a more street-level, quotidian way into the spaces where people are carrying out their everyday lives.” [12] Andy Ditzler further adds: “I don’t think any of us see ourselves as ‘educating the public,’ partly because we’re members of the public as much as anyone else, and as much as we’re artists or scholars.” [13]

John Q. Campaign for Atlanta. Photo by Cory Locatelli. Courtesy of the City of Atlanta.

John Q. Campaign for Atlanta. Photo by Cory Locatelli. Courtesy of the City of Atlanta.

Experiencing Medium(s)

One aspect of John Q’s performative project is to examine the ways in which we experience painting, video, and installation: how we see; how we navigate the space that shapes and contains them. The painting, though it may appear to be a static entity that can be simply viewed and understood from any time or perspective, is shown to be extremely vulnerable to time and space, the order in which it is viewed in relation to the re-enactment video that is usually shown to the audience before moving into the space of the Cyclorama, facing the gigantic circular painting. When asked further about their take on intervening in a “normal” visual experience, Orr explained that the project is interested in

“how might we visualize the past in ways that foster different kinds of relation to place and history. How might we deal in fragments, the quotidian, memory, and weak theory instead of proliferating the kinds of power that seem structurally reinforced by forms like battle paintings and cycloramas … We understood from the outset that many people would not be familiar with the visual culture theory we were invoking, and this might mean that the connection between how landscape is visualized in cycloramas and how it is visualized through the lens of Crawford Barton’s camera would somehow seem strange. These two very different modes of visuality begin to reflect one another, though, in the context of a critical contemplation of how we do the work of invoking the past.” [14]

In Husserl’s essay “The world of the living present and the constitution of the surrounding world external to the organism,” he writes that space is a “system of places.” [15] In the case of the space of the Cyclorama, there is a multitude of places that coalesce in this one site. It is the site of John Q’s performance, the place of itself in this present moment, the place of the Civil War Battle of Atlanta, Illinois’ cornfields where it was commissioned, Resaca – where the Atlanta Campaign began and the birthplace of Barton, the migration telos for a queer community of which John Q speaks, a pre-cinematic place that records the history of technology in its 360o turn. The Cyclorama itself and its revolving proscenium seating affords the audience explicitly multiple perspectives; an exaggeration of the way we perceive and make sense of the world: “The entire present world which appears as actual is rather a totality of perspectives for me.” [16] For Husserl, there is phantom space, a transcendent space that gives space itself while still being able to change through time and with our changing orientations and perspectives, thus perceptions. The Cyclorama is constituted by this phantom space, but also by a plethora of phantom bodies: soldiers, civilians, slaves, Crawford Barton, migrating queer individuals and communities.

Underlying this space is the seemingly coincidental, the encounter that occurs during times of travel. John Q arrived at the Cyclorama and Barton through what would seem to be mere coincidental experiences that then led them down particular paths, which were manifested in the performative essay. Following the notion of “intervention” mentioned above, the surrealist found object presents itself as a model of surprise, the uncanny, and coincidence. Resaca, GA, only about an hour’s drive away from Atlanta, becomes an uncanny figure – simultaneously familiar and strange. One of the films of Crawford Barton’s John Q presented is of a car journey, passing by signs that advertise Georgia Peaches. The passengers of the car smile and look into the camera.

Crawford Barton. Film still. Courtesy of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society.

Crawford Barton. Film still. Courtesy of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society.

Ross McElwee’s film Sherman’s March follows a different path than General Sherman’s March to the Sea, begun in Atlanta, which is the end point of the Atlanta Campaign and the site of the Cyclorama. [17] Initially a project that intended to follow Sherman’s destructive path, McElwee ends up following women he becomes intrigued with and attached to; a journey back home to the South. Desire, violence and war, and geography become entangled in the movement through the space of the South. Ross McElwee is attempting, trying, experimenting with what love may be for him in a time of nuclear proliferation, the subtitle of the film and recurring theme that continues to creep into his thoughts and dreams. Pat, the woman introduced to him by his parents who becomes somewhat of an obsession for him, an ambitious actress who is herself searching and trying to become what she wants to be, takes McElwee to Atlanta. There, McElwee describes Atlanta post-Campaign; it was a city composed of children, women, and elders – supposedly a weakened and helpless place without its male influence.

What are cities, urban spaces? What do they mean to us? What are we to make of Atlanta? A southern metropole, remnant of war? What of the space surrounding the city? The space between Atlanta and other US cities? John Q’s use of the Cyclorama signals the ways in which urban space becomes a nexus of lives, loves, losses, and travels. Not only does the performance question who is allowed the position of contemporary flâneur, [18] but also who must take up this position and where. The performance shows us that the metropole and its varying representations hold within them an entanglement of histories, memories, and modes of visuality and experience. 

Notes:

[1] John Q Broadsheet

[2] http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/essay

[3] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/essay

[4] Ibid.

[5] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/assay

[6] http://www.thefreedictionary.com/assay

[7] Personal interview with John Q, June 16, 2013

[8] John Q, The Campaign for Atlanta: an essay on queer migration, 2013.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Personal interview with John Q, May 30, 2013.

[11] John Q, The Campaign for Atlanta: an essay on queer migration, 2013. Here, they footnote [5] Jonathan Crary’s Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture and Anne Friedberg’s “The Mobilized and Virtual Gaze in Modernity: Flâneur, Flâneuse” and [6] Alison Griffiths’ Shivers Down Your Spine: Cinema, Museums, and the Immersive View.

[12] http://publichistorycommons.org/library/brock-john-q-interview/

[13] http://publichistorycommons.org/library/brock-john-q-interview/

[14] Personal interview with John Q, June 3, 2013

[15] Edmund Husserl, “The World of the Living Present and the Constitution of the Surrounding World External to the Organism,” trans. Frederick Kersten and Lenore Langsdorf, in Husserl: Shorter Works, eds. Peter McCormick and Frederick A. Elliston (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 250.

[16] Ibid., 239.

[17] Ross McElwee (dir.), Sherman’s March: A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation (1986).

[18] Susan Buck-Morss, “The Flâneur, the Sandwichman, and the Whore: The Politics of Loitering,” New German Critique, vol. 31, no. 2 (April 1989): 217-236.




HIGH FIVE: Anahita Ghazvinizade’s film nominated for Cannes

May 10, 2013 · Print This Article

I caught this on the Red Eye —

Anahita Ghazvinizadeh and Yoni Goldstein the cinematographer of the film "Needle." (Orr Mennirom / May 10, 2013)

Anahita Ghazvinizadeh and Yoni Goldstein the cinematographer of the film “Needle.” (Orr Mennirom / May 10, 2013)

SAIC student from Iran nominated for Cannes award SAIC student’s short film nominated for Cannes award It’s only been two years since Anahita Ghazvinizadeh moved from Iran to the U.S. to pursue a film-focused master’s in studio art at the School of the Art Institute Chicago, but the 23-year-old filmmaker already has racked up a nomination for the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious Cinéfondation Prize.

“I was really surprised and very happy,” Ghazvinizadeh said. “We worked really hard on this film, but I wasn’t expecting that it would get into a great festival like Cannes.”

Ghazvinizadeh’s 21-minute short film, “Needle,” the story of a preteen girl getting her ears pierced, was one of 1,550 entries from 277 schools all over the world.

She said the nomination has been doubly rewarding because it recognizes the first film project that she completed in the U.S. after moving from Iran. Before “Needle,” Ghazvinizadeh had already completed a short film called “When the Kid was a Kid” and co-written a feature film, “Mourning,” in Iran, but “Needle” was the first project she made in the U.S. (read more)

 

Needle – Trailer from Anahita Ghazvinizadeh on Vimeo.




Whistling in the dark with the Nightingale

March 21, 2013 · Print This Article

Christy LeMaster is the powerhouse behind the Nightingale, a Chicago microcinema dedicated to screening experimental film. It’s a welcoming and unpretentious space thanks to her generosity and openness. The Nightingale engages in inclusive conversation surrounding the production, distribution and consumption of new work, but at the heart of everything it does, beats the fans, makers, viewers, colleagues and friends it’s cultivated. LeMaster’s ingenuity, sweat equity and contagious enthusiasm has kept the place humming for the past several years, and now— poised to celebrate a milestone anniversary— she was kind enough to recount the Nightingale’s gradual growth in scale and scope; discuss the film she’s currently making; and give us a teaser regarding the new website she’s developing, a project which will vault the community built in her brick and mortar space into the ether of the internet with the hopes of connecting and supporting even more filmmakers, cinemas and cinephiles.

 logo_nightingale

TLN: April 5 marks the five-year anniversary of the Nightingale. Can you recap the activities and structure of your space over the last few years and let us in on what’s next?

CL: You say “5 years”, and it seems like it’s been so much longer; and at the same time, it feels like it’s happened at light speed. When I started the Nightingale it seemed like access was the issue; there was more work being made than was screened, and seeing one’s work in front of an audience should be the bedrock of artistic development. The city just seemed hungry for it. When I first began talking about starting a microcinema, people just rushed in to help. So I decided to do as many screenings as I could, and to not be overly precious about the idea of curation. There seemed to be a need for a community screening room as well as an experimental cinema; we got requests to be an auxiliary venue for other arts organizations; to screen social-issue documentaries; to host youth-media showcases; and to feature work from all the city’s art schools. And so the momentum became its own practical logic: What do we need right now? What do we have that we can use? Who is coming to town? What is the rest of her work like? Those sorts of questions often propelled me forward more often than “What should we be showing?” Luckily, generous and gifted people keep showing up to help. Patrick Friel has been presenting every month for years; Jon Cates and Nick Briz brought us UpgradeChicago for awhile; My dear friends Doug and Chloe McLaren have been managing tech concerns and special event details for years; Sally Lawton showed up a year ago asking to help out with screenings, and is now involved in every aspect of the place. It all happened pretty organically. I would ask for help as needed and people helped. The place runs entirely on a gift economy and volunteer labor. With exception of special events and multi-artist shorts programs, we always pay artists out of the door and spend the rest until it’s gone. For the most part we break even.

When I started, I gave the project a sunset date of five years so I could re-assess if I was happy doing the work and if the space was still needed. And here we are. I think it is still useful to do, but I am being pulled by other projects. So I am handing off. The main bulk of the work will be managed by five programmers/keyholders: Patrick Friel, Emily Kuehn, Jesse Malmed, Chloe McLaren, and Doug McLaren. They will all have autonomous use of the space. We have structured the new system around transparency. We have put all of the tools for running the space online, and gathered a group of volunteer staff to assist the programmers. And we are taking this moment to refresh the space in lots of other ways too. We will soon launch a kickstarter to get a new projector. We are overhauling the website and changing the look of the space. I am excited for the transition. It seems really natural. I can’t wait to see what happens next. I hope to still organize programs occasionally and think about the space in a more macro way.

TLN: The Nightingale has managed to transcend its programming by acting as an informal hub of community building. I know intentional communities, post-nuclear family structures and Utopias are all part of your research interests, can you tell us more about how they relate to the activities of your micro-cinema and your own arts practice?

CL: Early on, I decided on a few small details that have become our rituals— we make pretty tickets for every screening, we always have a raffle, we host a big potluck every year and film a trailer.

I’m really interested in issues around interdependence. I think in the wake of the implosion of the nuclear family, we’re all sort of floating into new models of how to take care of each other. I heard a woman say once, “co-dependence is no joke in a world without interdependence,” and that’s really led my interest. It was always more important that the Nightingale be accessible instead off curatorially perfect. And for a long time I didn’t think I had an art practice, I just thought I had projects. But over the last couple years I’ve started to see that all of my projects are concerned with the same issues— how do people establish interdependence outside of traditional means; heteronormative relationships, institutions of church or work? I think a lot of us arts organizers in Chicago are remaking a small corner of the world in a vision that we value. Utopia is social critique. We aren’t interested any more, it seems, in removing ourselves from society entirely, but a lot of people we know are working very hard to rebuild small parts of society from the ground up. The Nightingale is my vision of an interdependent cinema, and a lot of my other projects are concerned with the same dynamics. I’m working on a movie about utopias where I invite different arts organizations in Chicago to re-enact an intentional or utopian community from American history; I’m researching sacred harp choirs because of how they use performance as collaborative practice. I’ve been thinking about how to be a good collaborator for 10 years, and I’m only now applying it pragmatically.

TLN: Your network of colleagues and collaborators extends well beyond the city of Chicago, which makes you the perfect person to take on the build out of Splitbeam, an online resource you dreamt up and secured funding to implement. Tell us more about the project, its function and its design.

CL: It turns out that the experimental cinema community is pretty small; Splitbeam is an idea that I had over the last years at the Nightingale— I wanted a resource where I could see what other microcinemas were doing, and right now experimental moving image makers are working on a sort of punk-rock model where you book your own shows; we’re not really relying on media to travel independently of the artist very often. Splitbeam is a web directory of microcinemas, independent and alternative cinemas, and it houses a modular, open distribution that is meant to take some of the administrative burden off of curators and artists. I am lucky to be working on it with my good friends Nick Briz and Michael Castelle; Nick is doing the front-end design and Michael is handling the database, and I am taking on the research and organization. We received a generous grant from the Propeller Fund and used it to hire Sonnenzimmer to create a visual concept for the site. We’re going to work on it hard this summer and hope to launch in the Fall of 2013.

Interview conducted over email March 2013.

 




The Garden of Productive Memory: A Conversation with Mary Patten & Mathew Jinks

January 19, 2013 · Print This Article

Lotringer's notes, semiotexte archives.

“Panel,” Lotringer’s notes from the Semiotexte archives, digital prints.

As I mentioned yesterday, there is a great performance festival taking place called IN>TIME. Organized by artist Mark Jeffrey, IN>TIME features both international and local artists exhibiting in 14 diverse venues across the city between the months of January and March. Bad at Sports will be posting a mini-series of interviews and essays about this festival, including an upcoming interview with Mark Jeffrey himself. This particular post is dedicated to two concurrent exhibits at threewalls that are also part of Jeffrey’s festival. On January 11th, Mary Patten’s performance/sound/video installation, Panel opened in the main space. Mathew Jinks’ began screening his new 73 minute, single-channel HD video, The Unreliable Narrator, in the project space. While these artists are distinct from one another, exhibiting independent projects, I was interested in facilitating a conversation between them, particularly as both negotiate film, performance, history and collaboration. These exhibits will be on view until February 23rd, with an artist talk from Jinks on January 31st at 7pm, as well as a performance, SCHIZO CULTURE: A Collaborative Reading, and publication release of the catalogue associated with PANEL. On February 9th, there will be another performance, SCHIZO PANEL, at 7 PM.

2

“The Unreliable Narrator,” Single channel video still, Mathew Jinks, 2012.

Caroline Picard: You both call on speculative fiction in your respective projects. What does it mean for each of you to employ the fantastic? 

Mathew Jinks: The idea of alternate histories is very resonant for me, not necessarily in the reconstruction of various alternative spaces, but aiding in imagining that sense of an ‘other’ space that can be inhabited by a narrative. Fictive narratives do not interest me. They seem too comfortable as a source of abstract invention in some way, which I see as an escape from reality and a dead end street; a more complex and evocative device for me is to sow seeds of doubt, to introduce situations and characters with a set of dynamics which have been loaded from the start and see how they play out. The origination in my practice was at the point of departure from personal histories and the evolution of expansive political histories.

Mary Patten: Mathew’s articulation of alternate histories, his desire to “sow seeds of doubt,” the leaking or trespassing of “personal” histories into the territory of “the political” are all-compelling to me… and describe sensibilities or impulses that have shaped my own work for many years. It’s very difficult, maybe even pointless, to draw an easy divide between “fact” and “fiction,” despite persistent claims of “objective journalism” or “scientific truth.” This is well-trodden territory: what “we” (in the most capacious sense) collectively and cumulatively “know” is subject to constant revision and reconstruction. We understand that “facticity” doesn’t equal truth, and that what passes as fiction is not a series of falsehoods. One of the oldest cultural practices, the oral tradition — often taking the form of what we call fables or myths — has been a crucial element in constructing “history.” And yet “telling stories” is still a euphemism for telling lies.

“Speculative” introduces the possibility of wonder, a wandering imagination, the work of invention to heal or bridge inescapable gaps in any historical record. It is a kind of affective, archaeological process to make empirically un-provable connections between obscure, unknown or little-known histories. “Speculative” need not connote the fantastical, however — at least not in the “spectacular” sense. These words are funny… so interconnected, but full of paradoxes.

In the case of Panel, I was drawn to an obscure transcript, photocopied many-times over, given to me by the only participant still living, my friend Judith Clark, herself a survivor of a barely-remembered radical history, serving a 75-to-life sentence in Bedford Hills prison in New York State. (Judy’s story deserves its own independent telling; I would ask readers to please check out judithclark.org.)

"Panel," 4 channel video still: Judy red black daydream, Mary Patten, 2013.

“Panel,” detail: Judy’s drift, digital compositing from silkscreen print, Mary Patten, 2013.

Judy’s memory of the “panel on prisons and asylums” at Schizo Culture is that the three men – Foucault, Harp, and Laing – did most of the talking. That’s contradicted by the transcript, which is itself very odd, characterized by breaks and ellipses. We know from Sylvère Lotringer’s accounts that the entire Schizo Culture conference was rife with outbursts and interruptions, including this panel discussion, although that’s not evident in the transcription.

In attempting to re-stage a little-known but somewhat exotic event, I wanted to resist any impulse to reconstruct or “narrativize” the episode in any kind of “realistic” way. I didn’t want a performance designed to dissolve the distance between the “original” event and its contents, both very marked by that moment of the mid 1970s, and yet eerily (and depressingly) prescient of our current traumas of the “societies of control”: diagnosis, punishment, imprisonment, and torture. I didn’t want to blend or unify these four amazing characters and social actors, two of whom (Foucault and Laing) possess an iconicity shimmering with all kinds of aura, with the people reading and inhabiting their words now. I am compelled by both the “connects” and “disconnects.”

"The Panel," Four-channel video still, Mary Patten, 2013.

“Panel,” combined stills from four-channel video installation, Mary Patten, 2013.

CP: You share an interest in collaboration, but also work independently. How do you negotiate the role of an author who is also dedicated to fostering relationships in your work? 

MJ: I have always felt uncomfortable in a lonely practice, with the idea of the studio Artist who appears after years of hermetic work with a portfolio under the arm. I began working for other artists in Chicago because I had always been a part of a DIY scene which to me was about skill sharing and enabling others to achieve their goals whilst you achieved yours, doing this I witnessed the evolution of a work through multiple creative minds first hand and this stayed with me. I introduce performers and artists into my works to have them re-interpret my ideas, for them to take the work in directions unknown to myself or to the work. It is quite stressful in many ways to work with others, although I am not precious about my projects I do have creative demands and I like to try to keep the overall affect of the work under my thumb. In return I try hard to become a tool for them to use, whether I am recording sound as I did for Mary’s Piece, working as a Cameraman for Kirsten Leenars, or doing sound for Melika Bass. I simply try to gel with the process at hand.

The most important elements of my practice that I feel need to be under my control I will do myself, The Unreliable Narrator was shot, edited and mixed by myself, with voiceover recordings, studio shoots, post image production all done in my studio. I decided to use a colorist to step up my game a little and he really did a great job, I wanted some animation work for the chapter titles and again I used a great animator Han Han Li — the big key for this work was to employ a Producer, Parveer Singh Sohal. Without Parveer’s connections in India the work would not exist, so that was an integral decision. I needed access. But Parveer is not a Producer, he is a Graphic Designer and so there were many discussions about what I needed and what he was bringing to the project.

"Unreliable Narrator," Single channel video still, Mathew Jinks, 2012.

“Unreliable Narrator,” Single channel video still, Mathew Jinks, 2012.

MP: Mathew’s discomfort with the notion of a lonely, hermetic studio practice and artistic identity is of course very much in sync with my own ideas, feelings, and history… although not without risks — losing oneself in the collective, for example. A good friend who shares a similar collaborative history once commented that it’s possible that no one will know or remember that her labor and creativity helped form some of these projects, since individual authorship is so often dissolved… I’m obviously not talking here about the art world’s current embrace of “relational practices” and the career building that goes along with that. But as I’ve said elsewhere, I continue to be drawn to collaborative ways of working, such as the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials Project, because it’s urgently needed, and impossible to realize by a single or even a handful of authors. Most importantly, collaborations embody the kind of collective labor and passion necessary to any project that’s trying to make change.

As you, Caroline, and Mathew make very clear, the project of film and videomaking, like so many art forms, is necessarily collaborative… Chris Marker makes this point beautifully during the ending credits of “Grin without a cat” which he dedicates to the anonymous and unnamed artists and technicians without whose clips, shots, sequences, and documents that epic film would have never been realized, seen, or distributed. To that point, I would like to acknowledge the thoughtful labor, participation, and support of performers Darrell Moore, Mikal Shapiro, Matthias Regan, and Mark Jeffery; Directors of Photography Yoni Goldstein and Meredith Zielke; Mathew for such great sound engineering; Alex Brown for assisting with camera; Ilan Gutin for helping with the large prints; and the lovely, hardworking, and brilliant Joey Carr who has worked as producer, compositor, and hardware/software engineer.

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“The Unreliable Narrator,” Single channel video still, Mathew Jinks, 2012.

CP: You call on various histories, whether philosophical or psychological traditions, fortune telling traditions,  — is it possible to collaborate with disciplines? Or do you think about the way you engage those traditions differently?

MJ: This is a wonderful question; tradition by nature is a stubborn legacy and confronting it head on is an antagonistic strategy. If you lay the threads down together: personal history and its discipline of remembrance, familial oral history, musical traditions as in Jazz, Cheiromancy, Homeopathy, Metallurgy, then these lines will touch and intersect like magnets picking up each other. It is a naïve want to reshape these lines to any sort of permanence. I think of Francis Alys work, The Collector — with the magnet on wheels that he pulls behind him collecting metal from the street as he goes — the street will fill up once again with shards and paperclips. Francis creates a moment of being present, and it’s this re-presenting and laying down with traditions in new almost aleatoric ways.

MP: I consider myself a visitor, a curious student, an interloper or trespasser in many disciplines, an auto-didact, or rather someone who has learned from many teachers and texts, “negative” as well as exemplary…

"Panel," Production still, Mary Patten, 2013.

“Panel,” Production still, Mary Patten, 2013.

CP: How do you all think of beginnings and endings? Are those narrative touchstones useful to you? 

MJ: No, I instinctively move away from creating narrative structure, arcs and so forth. I find the idea of conclusion quite arrogant in non-fiction. The episodic device is interesting because it introduces the idea of the ‘false start’, or the hidden track at the end of an album, or the prologue as in Bergman’s Persona, or ‘rewind’ in Jamaican dance hall, the stutter. This is why gallery installations are so useful: people enter and leave as they wish; this is a very considered position for my work, the ideal position.

MP: There are no real beginnings. We’re always starting in the middle, picking up someone else’s traces and tracks… For me, in the realm of ideas, relationships, as well as many projects over the years, there are so many interruptions and breaks… things are “left for now” and unfinished or deferred. I find it much more habitual to abandon something, rather than “end” it. Like Mathew, I am drawn to the episodic, to “false starts” and “stutters”… but when Mathew talks about resisting narrative arcs, I think he is perhaps referring to “mainstream” or what we used to call “Hollywood narrative cinema”… for me, there are so many wonderful, rich and complicated examples of “narrative fiction” that escape these constraints – the films of Robert Bresson and Chantal Akerman, for example, but also so many more – in cinema and literature, in expanded forms of the essay, in experimental non-fiction and media forms…

CP: How do you conceive of utopia? Is such a thing possible? Is it a condition of being? Or a place? 

MJ: More than a construct, a Modernist ideal, pathological, LSD induced? I never conceive of utopia. Utopia and dystopia to me are devices, but they are not very interesting devices. They suggest spaces of utter happiness or utter sadness and isn’t that a psychological state? Bi-Polar? There is no tension in these extreme spaces and it is too easy to create heroics from such static dynamics. This is exactly what popular culture thrives on. The fine-line-in-betweens, and the slippage that occurs within those minimal gradations is what art production responds to. The  entertainment industry responds to those other extremes. Even in a spiritual sense — in Buddhism, for instance, elements are in a balance, whereas in cults, the utopian ideals are offset by the leader sexually prowling its herd for ultimate control. Conceiving of utopia maybe undermines an art making practice? Desire is a more interesting space to work from for me. It has the same goal as utopia — the perfect space — but it is much more psychologically complex. Desire is fixated on process, and the moment. There is presence in desire without conclusion.

"The Unreliable Narrator," Video still, Mathew Jinks, 2012.

“The Unreliable Narrator,” Single channel video still, Mathew Jinks, 2012.

MP: Unlike Mathew, I don’t think that utopian impulses can be reduced to mere devices, or that they are necessarily tied to dangerous heroic narratives… maybe this is just a difference of language, because I find that his conception of desire as a transformative force is very akin to what I would call utopian longings.

Until fairly recently, it’s been fashionable to dismiss “utopia” because of its attachment to so many terrible and failed agendas that promised brave new worlds and then delivered totalitarianisms. We know now that we should dislike and mistrust master narratives, totalities of certainty, and teleological schemes. However, I am drawn to utopian impulses not just because I was formed through my engagement with them – to the point of political lunacy, perhaps – but also perversely because they have been a despised or at best suspect category for so long.

Contemporary social movements and revolts against globalized capital, the fleeting “occupys,” the movements of the squares, the queer utopias of so many interesting artists today, all embody what people call “prefigurative politics”: “Be the change you want to make.” The emphasis is on the here and now, against telos, embracing not only possibility, but doubt. Recognizing that we, and all matter, is/are in a constant state of becoming, that small and invisible shifts and changes are always (potentially) occurring, whether or not they are seen or recognized… this is what intrigues and provokes me. Brian Massumi is an extremely useful thinker and writer here.

Paradoxically, there’s a lot of interest in reclaiming utopian thinking now because of how hopeless and scary the world has become, how reduced and flattened to information, to bits and bytes everything seems… and all the ways that capitalism forecloses the imagination and desire, except as an instrument of and for the commodity, no pleasure outside of consumption… or the deadliness of an actuarial life, with its endless assessment debits and credits…

FOUCAULT mirror-self, image courtesy of Mary Patten.

“Panel,” detail: Foucault’s mirror-self, serigraph monoprint, Mary Patten, 2013.

CP: What does it mean to come from somewhere? What role does memory play in that reality?

MJ: The transition is interesting, to come from somewhere to go to somewhere else, and the translation from one meaning to another. There is a great deal of nostalgia and longing for previous inhabited spaces, especially if you have been formed by them in some way; that complicates memory. A new space can act as a lens from which to view the previous space and this is truly a unique position. You no longer belong to that place but the memories are attached to you, somehow the filtration from one’s current position gives a sober screen. I think it is essential but painful, and again that tension of knowing you need separation while at the same time being in touch with a sense of longing is the drive for this ‘other’ space to be imagined in my work.

MP: Again, we return to the problem of origins…Years ago, I made a piece provoked by Courbet’s “The Origin of the World.” I was very influenced by Linda Nochlin’s pivotal essay on that infamous painting, and the difficulty, if not impossibility, of locating an originary point — whether in relationship to that picture, which existed in several versions, disappeared, and re-surfaced over a long stretch of time… as well as the funny ridiculousness of imagining the universal vulva-cunt as the origin of us all, the Great Mother… how much better to use the term “beaver”? or just ordinary women’s names: a succession of beavers…

A more recent project was instigated by the notes, translated from Arabic into English, allegedly written by Mohammed Atta in preparation for the hijackings and attacks of September 11, 2001. When I read these, all sorts of problems immediately presented themselves. Was this an actual document? Were the notes, in fact, “found”? or were they a fiction, invented to “prove” a rationale as incomprehensible as the acts that followed? Was this a reliable translation?

The idea that translation is often slippery and inexact, and sometimes impossible, is widely acknowledged. Yet we like to pretend that complete transparency is within our reach, that vast differences of culture, language, and history can be breached, if only the right tools, technologies, and “mindsets” are available. And translation, like everything else, has undergone a renewed politicization in this ever-encapsulated world.

In a lot of my work, I explore spaces and distances between a “here” and a “there,” a presumed “center” and its “periphery,” to work off the grid to the point of falling off a map completely. I work with images drawn from public, although possibly ephemeral archives – things like newspapers, outtakes, margins of the margins  – to fictionalize them, at the same time as undermining the authority of “authentic” or alleged autobiography. Like Mathew, I’m preoccupied with the instability of memory, very enamored of the idea, the necessity of the unreliable narrator… or the mute, opaque, or invisible one.

 




Episode 372: Catherine Sullivan

October 15, 2012 · Print This Article

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This week: After a dodgy intro we talk to Catherine Sullivan.

Catherine Sullivan was born in Los Angeles, California, in 1968. She earned a BFA from the California Institute of Arts, Valencia (1992), and an MFA from the Art Center College of Design, Pasadena (1997). Sullivan’s anxiety-inducing films and live performances reveal the degree to which everyday gestures and emotional states are scripted and performed, probing the border between innate and learned behavior.

Under Sullivan’s direction, actors perform seemingly erratic, seizure-like jumps between gestures and emotional states—all of which follow a rehearsed, numerically derived script. Unsettling and disorienting, Sullivan’s work oscillates between the uncanny and camp, eliciting a profound critique of “acceptable” behavior in today’s media-saturated society.

A maelstrom of references and influences from vaudeville to film noir to modern dance, Sullivan’s appropriation of classic filming styles, period costumes, and contemporary spaces (such as corporate offices) draws the viewer’s attention away from traditional narratives and towards an examination of performance itself. Sullivan received a CalArts Alpert Award in the Arts (2004) and a Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst (DAAD) Fellowship (2004–05). She has had major exhibitions at Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2007); Tate Modern, London (2005); Vienna Secession, Austria (2005); Kunsthalle Zurich (2005); Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford (2003); UCLA Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2002); and the Renaissance Society, University of Chicago (2002).

She has participated in the Prague Biennial (2005), the Whitney Biennial (2004), and the Biennale d’Art Contemporain de Lyon (2003). Sullivan lives and works in Chicago.

Image Credit:

production still
The Last Days of British Honduras
2011
16mm film,  47 minutes
Catherine Sullivan in collaboration with Farhad Sharmini