Still Moving

September 9, 2013 · Print This Article

I was missing the earth so much that I watched a 98 minute movie of the light changing from day to night high up in the Sierra Nevadas. The trees are beautiful in the way trees are, but not too showy. There is no discernible movement in the frame beyond the changing position of the sun and the automatic shutter of the camera slowly trying to adapt. I was missing the earth and I was thinking of duration and those were things I would have been thinking and feeling even if I hadn’t been at the final day of the Onion City Experimental Film and Video Festival. But I was and those were things to think and feel about.

James Benning‘s Nightfall is a curious piece. His works are often challenging structurally, but saying the logic of this one is simple is like saying the simple logic of this is one. We watch the trees and they are still. We watch the light and it changes slowly. It would change more slowly, but the camera is doing what it can to keep up. Fauna haunts the aural space and I thought I even heard what sounded like human sounds. Mostly I floated in and out of the cinematic space (the seats, the people around me, my thirst, someone else quenching theirs, the size of the rectangle, the quality of this light) the represented space (the trees are so beautiful, there are fourteen main trees, there are an additional dozen supporting trees, the light coming through the branches looks like someone I know, the light through these branches looks like a stranger) and the space between (could I sit on the stump I’m imagining for this long?, when was the last time I spent this long seated with my head facing one direction?, when was the last time I spent this long seated with my head facing one direction outside?, how much better must this be to be there instead of here?, how has the concept of nature become so abstracted from [my own, at least] daily life?, what is that phrase about seeing forests and trees?, is this based on that?).


I do well with so-called durational works. Maybe it’s because I meditated as a child or have a very (let’s not say hyper-) active interior life (though my suspicions are that everyone does) or because my durational muscle has been honed through years of grueling training. Whatever the reason, I found Phil Solomon’s Empire to be satisfying, beguiling and eminently watchable. Immediately after the screening, I asked Patrick Friel, the festival’s director, if there would be another chance to watch it. Empire is a 48 minute remake of Andy Warhol’s film of the same name. Instead of, or maybe in the stead of, an indexical film in which the titular State Building takes center stage, Solomon’s video takes place in Grand Theft Auto’s Liberty City. Time passes quickly—two minutes in the game representing an hour in the world—even if slowness is the dominant feeling.

I was going to and still might write through Empire, telling you everything that happens. I might make a newspaper of it and then scan that and put it on a thousand flash drives and throw them from the top of a scale replica of the Empire State Building (from Liberty City). I don’t have it in front of me, so my memory will have to suffice. This is another type of reenactment, of bootlegging, covering or translating. The first thing I remember is the glistening, glittery reflection of the sun in the water that I chased long after it had gone. There is slow but continuous garbage flying toward us: perhaps someone printed out my newspaper. Airplanes appear regularly about an eighth of the way across the screen. They fly a straight line and disappear once they pass by (or seemingly hit) the unharmed protagonist. At a certain point light orbs pass from one side of the screen to the other, while the building abides. The sky changes, drastically. The different buildings turn on and off at different times. The sun. The wind is mostly steady and a truly delicate lull. The moon. I saw no cars. The splotches of fog that signaled incoming weather were terrifying. The rain almost shook me to my core with anticipation. I don’t ever play video games but I feel like I should, like I’m missing some of the critical ways that culture is moving. Sometimes I read about video games so I won’t be an alien in the senior home.

I had seen Empire before, on a monitor. I probably watched for a few minutes. I chuckled because I know about Andy Warhol and know about Phil Solomon and know about video games and know about the new media one-liner and know about duration and know about simulation and am a sensitive viewer with a rich interior life. But I probably watched it for a couple of minutes at most. I am an advocate for the space of the cinema. I think it’s ok for a work of art to be bossy and tell me to sit still and watch the whole thing until the lights come up. No talking, no texting. I also love talking and texting, but I know sometimes that makes listening and watching and being present and letting the mind wander a lot harder. I’m not telling you these things because I don’t think you know them, I’m just telling you them because this is my turn to be bossy. Even if we’re both talking and texting during the production and reception of this text.




EDITION #15

August 12, 2013 · Print This Article

Work by Jen Stark at the Chicago Fashion Outlet.

Art Exhibition Opens at Rosemont Outlet Mall

An opening like no other took place on the last day of July at the freshly minted $250 million dollar Fashion Outlets of Chicago in Rosemont. Featuring 11 artists curated by miami based Primary Projects, the Fashion Outlet and newly formed collective, The Arts Initiative, did it up luxury outlet mall style at the preview of the various murals and installations throughout the mall. With work by Jen Stark, Jim Drain, Cody Hudson, Daniel Arsham and Bhakti Baxter, the art contained within might make this the edgiest mall ever.

Sam Vinz, Claire Warner and Aron Gent under the Friend’s With You inflatables installation at the Chicago Fashion Outlet.

A collision of Chicago’s and Miami’s most noteworthy in the arts, attendees danced the night away under the deft entertainment of DJ Sinatra and many many top shelf bars.

Friend’s With You’s Sam Borkson and fellow artist, Jim Drain, lovingly embrace at the reception.

Curious what was in the gift bag? A hat from Roxy, an iPhone 5 case from Coach (too bad I’m still only on that 4), a “The Arts Initiative” water bottle, a leather cuff from Ports, a security neck pouch from Samsonite, a “Fashion Outlets” pen and even a scarf from The Limited. Totally killer.

Drain’s completed mural.

Definitely recommend (even sans the gift bag).

Reading is Fundamental

  • Wait, I thought it was 2013!? If you like your iPhone and the internet, you would probably enjoy this sweet little read from the Summer 2013 issues of Artforum, 2011: Michael Sanchez on Art and Transmission. This recommendation comes from a bar, but is better than that makes it seem.
  • Trends Totally Trending: Not often is a gossip column the subject of gossip, but What’s the T? was recently featured in Art Info’s “In the Air: Art News and Gossip” spot for EXPO CHICAGO’s partners and special exhibitions. That’s right! WTT? is going IRL. We hope you’re as excited for The Expo Register as we are. Stay tuned y’all.
  • Total badass gets her due: Who knew that Ileana Sonnabend was so completely rad? She asked for a Matisse instead of a wedding ring. I mean, really. Thankfully, this piece by Kelly Crow for the Wall Street Journal sheds light on the major gallerist and collectors fascinating past. Sonnabend fans will be pleased to know that the MoMA just released plans for “Ileana Sonnabend: Ambassador for the New,” an exhibition which will feature some of Sonnabend’s most noteable discoveries and longtime friends.

Time to Slip at Gallery 400

We heard a rumomr that the upcoming TIMESLIP film screening is not to be missed. Featuring 11 films by 10 makers, the screening is curated by Jesse Malmed and includes work by Jillian Mayer and Lucas Leyva, J.J. Murphy and Hollis Frampton.

From the horses mouth: This is going to be great. Time travel in the expanded field. Time-based media in the multiverse. Dream baby, trypp central, 2 Live Crew (seri), ducks, Adam and Eve, Judy Garland, hella headies, the first computer film, time tunnels, and on. And, like your mind, this is FREE. Surprises guaranteed.

Screening from 7:30-8:30, Thursday August 22nd at Gallery 400.

Who Wore it Better, Better?

Ron Ewert and Mike Kloss of the Hills at MCA First Friday last week VS Yuri Stone and Zachary Kaplan at Medium Cool on Sunday.

The Weatherman Report

John Marin, Movement, Sea, Sky, and Ledges, 1940, Watercolor on paper, 15 1/4 × 20 3/4 in

Demdike Stare

Empty Bottle, Full on Bass

A Miami Techno Transplant’s take on the Demdike Stare Concert last Saturday

I’m here reporting from the Empty Bottle, celebrating my Chicago life’s one week anniversary the way I prefer to spend all mildly festive occasions, by melting my brain with whiskey and dark techno. Tonight I’m all excited because I get to see one of my favorite bands live for the first time: DEMDIKE STARE. The duo is well known for merging occult, black magic vibes with droning electronics and sparse, off kilter beats. Demdike Stare have evolved their sound throughout the years from super dark horror movie vibes to dark worldly ragas and, finally, their latest releases reflect maturation of all these sounds with a bit of straight forward dark techno tastefully sprinkled in.

Needless to say, I’m fucking pumped.

I arrive at the venue “Miami time” which turns out to be just when shit starts everywhere. My circadian rhythm must be super on point today and I show up just as the first act, Stave, is going on. The set is some heavy industrial tech vibes. I am feeling it. A cigarette. Duane Pitre is up next delivering on some soothing melodious drone incorporating guitar loops and electronics. Lots of people are talking and not really listening but the vibe is right and everyone’s sonic palette is cleansed.

I’m in the ally evening out my buzz and the walls start to pulse. Demdike-fucking-Stare. I run inside. They spend the beginning of the set evolving drones, feeling out the crowd, reacting. What does the spirit of the crowd say? Probably something like, “TECHNO!” The bass kicks into 4/4 and as the crescendo of the track “Dysology” hits everyone knows its getting serious. The visuals that accompany their live set become more frantic. The main themes of the video include babes and esoteric rituals, everyone approves. Just as my mind is about to transform into pure jelly, the set ends abruptly, like all good things in life. And everyone goes home to dream about robots and witches. The End.

The view inside of Praire Production.

Medium Cool and Partly Cloudy.

Shame on you if you didn’t make it out to Sunday’s Medium Cool Art Book Fair, we know you heard about it. Rising like a pheonix, the fair was organized by Ria Roberts and brought out the most delicious coffee-table eye-candy ever seen in the West Loop.

These button’s were seriously trending.

Limited edition poster by Carson Fisk-Vittori

Fashionistas, Chelsea Clup and Ben Foch modeling the necklaces by Vincent Uribe and Noël Morical they picked up at LVL3’s booth.

Trendsetter, Hamza Walker, models sunglasses (obviously) by Josh Reames from the LVL3 booth.


Issue Press‘s booth featuring a “Book Box” vending machine, manned by George Wietor.

Sofia Leiby‘s SCRAP HEAP booth featured scraps and ephemera from Chicago artists’ studios.




EDITION #11

June 17, 2013 · Print This Article

Tony Tasset is watching you.

Painting the town red

Everyone knows that going to a museum or a gallery is usually more trouble than it’s worth. What, with all the disapproving glances, heady talk and questionable wine selections. Wouldn’t it be easier just to look at art while you shop? Or during your morning commute to the Loop?

Citizens of Chicago, have no fear. Murals and public commissions are popping up all over (and around) the city. Just this past week the CTA announced the seven artists commissioned to beautify North Side Red Line stations. Lynn Basa (renowned public artist and my former boss) posted this mock-up for her Byzantine glass mosaic that will adorn the Argyle stop on facebook. Basa, who [literally] wrote the book on public art commissions mentioned to me this weekend that she is elated to be creating a public work in her hometown.

Basa mock-up for the Argyle station.

As if the CTA commissions weren’t enough, some of my very favorite Miami artists from Jim Drain to Bhakti Baxter have been descending on the town of Rosemont to complete murals in a new mall scheduled to open sometime this summer. For reasons beyond my comprehension, the ever-relevant New York Times devoted print space to this “ambitious” project. What’s the T? has heard that the mall will also feature an Alvaro Ilizarbe piece that is “his sistine chapel” and worth the trip to the mall-seum. See you there?

Chicago artist, Josh Reames, working on the Drain mural.

Threewall’s ‘Power of Ten’ was a party for way more.

Screw Basel and Venice, the Threewalls 10th anniversary benefit this weekend was on point! The Power of Ten at Salvage One had everything – food, drinks, crazy antiques and baubles, steampunk-style old-timey tin-types, circus performers, drink, dancing, a silhouette cutting artist, music, drinks, and even some art.

Even though we still don’t know where they’re moving (do they even know where they’re moving to?!), here are ten fabulously done-up attendee’s in honor of the power of ’10′:

Threewalls Programming Director, Abby Satinsky with artist and curator, Anthony Romero. Abby’s dress is just killer and La Croix continues to trend.

Auction guest curators and Chicago fashion icons, Ben Foch and Chealsea Culp of New Capital with Threewalls Director Shannon Stratton.

Formerly featured on Who Wore it Better, the daper Daniel Tucker and Anthony Stepter.

Artist Jason Lazurus flanked by up-and-comers Raven Munsell and Jesse Malmed. LOVING the seersucker suit!

Totally Trending

Face paint was definitely a big winner at the ACRE Block Party last Saturday, June 8th.


The Weatherman Report

Mary Heilmann , San Gregorio, 2012 Oil on canvas (15 x 12 inches) Image provided by hyperallergic.

SMALLTIME ARCHIPHILE:

Roberto Clemente Post Office

Consistently referred to as the worse post office in the world, the Roberto Clemente Branch of the USPS in Logan Square is a wonderfully ‘brick’ building, not in material but in shape. Thats not to say it’s shaped like a brick, but the bricks become different shapes. I say this because brick is on display, not for what it wants to be – sorry Lou Kahn – but for what it tries to simulate. It’s like when Neo sees Agent Smith shrouded in binary code – parts to whole, whole to parts, but without the make-up.

Post office exterior.

Usually used as a traditional building material, mostly flat and controlled through joining patterns, bricks do not become cylindrical columns, filleted edges, curves, almost tapestry like frames for tall beautiful window displays of people waiting two hours for a package, like at the RCPO. Opened in 1937, this building threw me for a loop because I dated it later, but the deco interior and amazing mural insice should have been more of an indication.

The mural in all it’s glory.

The changes in the bricks attitude is mad postmodern, but it was done at the mid-stage of American modernism, lending itself to the deco ideas of streamline. That would explain the curvaceous bod on this beauty, but not her brick dress. Beauty might be only skin deep, but when you use rounded bricks to complete a homogenous cladding of a building that could have been expressed in steel or another more plastic material, you’re trying to say something about normal buildings out there, namely ‘who cares what the brick wants to be.’

Located at 2339 N California Ave, Chicago, IL 60647

SLAC studios take hold on Milwaukee Ave

If you live in Logan Square you’ve probably been wondering what happened to that garrish pink bakery on Milwaukee Avenue near the Spaulding Blue Line stop. Unwilling to let it lay dormant, Gwendolyn Zabicki, founder and director of the South Logan Arts Coalition is putting this and other vacant storefronts on Milwaukee Avenue to use. SLAC’s studios will be open to the public with exhibitions featuring a total of 40 artists during the 2013 Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival, June 28-30th.

What’s the T? caught up with Zabicki and some of the SLAC artists for sneak peek of what SLAC has in store for MAAF:

Matthew Woodward with his work in the bakery turned studio.

Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival will also feature local favorites and newcomers such as the Trailer Park Proyects, Threewalls, The Comfort Station, Document, Reform Objects. We also heard the food is going to be the bomb.com.

SLAC continued…

Milwaukee Ave Arts Fest flyer at Reform Objects.

Natalie Krick in her SLAC studio.

Zabicki in the studio being occupied by Krick.

Location to Stationers

Summer Dreamin’

Location to Station: Help my ACRE homies fulfill their vision quest to super rad places like Cahokia. The artists are all super talented, and the “perks” for donating are real sweet.

ACRE Kitchen: ACRE does a lot of intangible things for the over 90 artists who visit the residency in Wisconsin each summer, but one of the most substantial and delicious parts of the program is feeding everyone twice a day. Anyone who’s been to ACRE knows the food is awesome, fresh, sustainable, all that jazz and the staff is tireless. Help ACRE help you! Plus it’s tax deductible. Hurry! There’s only a few days left!




Where Is Here: an Interview with Brett Kashmere

April 8, 2013 · Print This Article

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.

 




Illuminating the Gentle Gaze: An Interview with Matt Wolf

March 11, 2013 · Print This Article

Matt Wolf is a non-fiction filmmaker whose work finds inspiration and subject matter in the lives and work of other artists. His debut feature film, Wild Combination, profiled the elusive musician Arthur Russell. Russell’s prolific recordings (mostly unreleased and in continual flux) and performances ranged from minimalist new music to disco to country-tinged power pop in his too short life. Through a variety of recent releases of these lost and found gems over the past half-decade and Wolf’s poignant, sensitive documentary, Russell’s profile has raised. 

I absolutely adore Arthur Russell and was ecstatic to see Wolf’s documentary when it made its way around the festival circuit in 2008. Documentaries about artists, to my eye, are rarely successful at generating the heat and intensity of their subjects. Perhaps conventional logic dictates that the documentarian’s duty is to present the material in a straight-forward and information-driven mode. The very impulses toward idiosyncrasy, subjectivity and innovation that drive the work of these artists are often lost in the translation to a different context.

Wolf’s work is vital because of the care he takes to ensure that his formal, conceptual and aesthetic decisions reflect—though subtly—the works and lives of his subjects. The pacing is delicate and deliberate without feeling slow. The shared emphases on biography, work and social context entwine to produce fleeting documents of artists who have passed but whose influence still grows.

I Remember, which was released last year, profiles the artist and poet Joe Brainard. Brainard is best known for his poem cycle of the same name and for his work in collage, painting and assemblage. For the piece, Wolf has constructed his own collage of found footage and archival images of Brainard with a swirling conversation between a recording of Brainard’s own reading of I Remember and the poet Ron Padgett offering a very personal biography of his best friend. 

Wild Combination is available on DVD and iTunes. I Remember will screen at the Ann Arbor Film Festival and Images Festival soon and can be streamed online or rented through Video Data Bank. Wolf’s latest film, Teenage, premieres this April at the Tribeca Film Festival.  


 

Because it seems a good a place to begin as any, I’m hoping you might tell us a bit about your background—where you grew up and were educated, the types of jobs you’ve held to help you make work and, most important, your evolution as an artist. When did you realize you wanted to make films? Did you begin by being in bands or making paintings or was filmmaking always the goal?

I grew up in San Jose, California. I was a teenage gay activist, and I thought that I’d grow up to work in politics. I was on Good Morning America, lobbying my legislatures and stuff like that, but I also wanted to be an artist. I got obsessed with ‘90s queer independent films and directors like Todd Haynes and Derek Jarman. And then I started discovering video art and experimental films by people like Sadie Benning and Kenneth Anger. I was inspired to become a filmmaker, so I enrolled in film school at NYU.

It didn’t really occur to me how traditional and industry-oriented NYU would be. But I stuck it out, and eventually had the filmmaker Kelly Reichardt as a professor, which was really inspiring. During college, I got involved in the art world. I was writing art reviews for magazines, and most of my friends were visual artists. So when I finished school, I worked in a painter and video artist’s studio. Slowly I got some opportunities to make short documentaries about artists first for the public art organization Creative Time, and later for the New York Times. It was around this time that I started making my first feature Wild Combination.

My first experience with your work was through Wild Combination. Arthur Russell’s music has long meant the world to me and I was excited that someone had chosen to make a film about his life. To me, one of the most effective strategies in the film is your use of time-specific camera and media formats for your “reenactment” shots. Be-walkmaned Arthur on the ferry is shot on VHS tape, while Iowa is captured in luscious super-8. More so than the interviews, these moments tie us to the spaces, places and feelings of those periods. Can you talk a bit about the process of creating those reenactments? Do you, in your own mode of remembering (and as a filmmaker), see your own past in such aestheticized forms?

Making “fake archival footage” is one of my main filmmaking interests. I love working with found footage, but I like creating my own vintage-looking material too. My new film Teenage, which is coming out this Spring is a pretty expansive look at the birth of youth culture. In the film, I’ve made recreations that are shot in the style of period home movies. I shot scenes with vintage 16mm camera bodies and uncoated lenses, used experimental printing techniques to further degrade the footage, and then even organically got dust, scratches, and dirt on the films. Viewers shouldn’t necessarily be able to identify this stuff as original, staged footage. A lot of people will think it is archival.

The first moving images I ever saw of Arthur Russell were these de-saturated, extreme close up shots of him performing cello. They were shot on an old VHS format. I knew that was the material, texture, and feeling I wanted my film Wild Combination to have. I’m always trying to make films that have a cohesive form to them, even if I’m drawing on eclectic material. The recreations I film are a kind of visual glue that tie all the elements together.

Arthur Russell didn’t have immense media exposure from which you could draw footage, but there are numerous tapes of him performing that could be utilized. To what degree was the film shaped around the footage you were able to find? Were there scenes you were unable to include but that demonstrated something about Arthur you wanted to show? Also, I was struck by how many of the credits for this footage belonged to other legendary downtown figures (Phil Niblock, Jean Dupuy). This shouldn’t be too surprising considering where they were shot or his audience, but I’m curious if this lent itself to another kind of collaboration or, at least, an opportunity to reflect on the rhizomatic, entwined structures of artistic community.

There was a tiny amount of documentation of Arthur. If I had been a more experienced filmmaker, I probably would have said there’s not enough archival material to make this film. But that limitation proved to be a really productive challenge for me, and it helped me think more creatively about the filmmaking. It contributes to this sense of mystery about Arthur, the subject who is absent from the film. But really, I’m using every existing filmed recording of Arthur that exists. It was cool going to Phil Niblock’s loft to pick up a VHS tape, and the Kitchen’s archive was very generous in helping me access Jean Dupuy’s wonderful video documentation of Arthur performing “Eli” from the performance event “Soup and Tart.”

Still, Terrace of Unintelligibility by Phil Niblock, courtesy Audika Records

Arthur Russell and Joe Brainard share certain similarities. They were both born far from the coasts but found their way to the cities (and New York, in particular) about as quickly as they could. They both operated on the fringes of their particular scenes but were well-loved by their peers and small but devoted audiences. They were both gay and casualties of the AIDS crisis. I’m curious what about these figures (beyond the incredible work they produced) drew you to them.

Lately I’ve been thinking of those two as “gentle gays.” They both had a certain intensity and self-deprecating quality to them, but they also seemed like incredibly sweet people with a sensitive demeanor. I’m really interested in telling the stories and exploring the biographies of artists who died of AIDS. I think a lot about what New York and our world would be like if so many brilliant queer people hadn’t died prematurely. In some senses I imagine myself as a peer to them today.

I’m interested in the artistic inheritances of queer art (in particular from the 1970s to the 1990s) to makers in the present. Because of the tragic ravages of the AIDS crisis, so many of that era’s great makers’ lives ended much too soon. The question is broad and will be necessarily subjective, but I’m hoping you might have some thoughts on these questions of inheritance, lineage and historicization.

This is all stuff I think about a lot. Being queer is an important part of my identity. But often times I don’t really connect to contemporary gay politics. Queer culture from the past is what resonates with me the most. I’m not entirely sure why that is, but I know I’m not alone in that feeling.

Regarding these questions of inheritance, there is an incredible book I would recommend: Sarah Schulman’s Gentrification of the Mind. It’s a memoir about the AIDS crisis and ACT UP movement, and Sarah discusses how AIDS lead to the gentrification of Manhattan. She reflects on gentrification not just as phenomenon in cities, but a phenomenon of consciousness.

Arthur Russell, courtesy Audika Records.

I imagine one of the pleasures of making documents/portraits of artists is the chance to interview and work with their peers. Are there artists through whose interviews you’ve felt a particular closeness or whose way of talking about your subject was particularly illuminating? Did the chance to have a relatively narrow topic (one artist) allow for a conversation that touched on other, broader topics (I imagine talking to Philip Glass about Arthur Russell is easier than talking to Philip Glass without a subject at hand)? What sorts of lessons about artistic kinship and community have you learned through these interviews?

I love interviewing people—it’s one of the most stimulating and rewarding aspects of making a documentary. To me a good interview is a two-sided conversation, not just a series of questions. Through my work I’ve met a lot of really interesting artists and thinkers. I believe that any good biography transcends its subjects and is about other cultural histories, or larger ideas. For Wild Combination, the biography was a way for me to also explore the setting of downtown New York in the 1970s and 1980s, the intersections of pop culture and the avant-garde, as well as queer culture and the impact of AIDS.

Still from I Remember.

I Remember is described as “a film about” while Wild Combination is “a portrait of” their subjects. Without dissecting hairs or whatever the phrase is, I’m interested in these small designations. Do you think of these works (and perhaps in contrast to other projects you work on) as being distinct in their processes? Or, perhaps, do you have ways of describing the shift between portrait, document, documentary, essay or non-fiction (or other categories) filmmaking? Are these terms useful in the construction and reception of your work?

Both projects are really portrait films. A portrait isn’t a definitive biography, it’s a selective and artistic treatment of a subject.  I didn’t interview everybody that knew Arthur Russell or Joe Brainard—I make focused and somewhat selective choices about how I would present their stories. That’s how I can be specific in my filmmaking rather than general. To me, it’s about making creative non-fiction, rather than straight documentaries.

I Remember was commissioned by Nathan Lee while he was at Bard’s  Center for Curatorial Studies. How did this come about? How does making work as a commission differ from other forms? Did knowing the work would exist in a museum exhibition (I’m assuming) before screening spaces impact the way you made it? Do you consider these works to be collaborations with your subject?

Nathan was really supportive, and gave me free reign to make whatever project I wanted. I had already started the Joe Brainard film, but needed an excuse (and some financial help) to finish it. I was excited about the opportunity to work in a gallery space, and to explore the documentary form in an elliptical, non-linear way. I felt like the structure of Joe’s poem “I Remember” speaks in circles, so it felt right that the film could play that way too. Truth be told, it’s only since screened in festival contexts, so I think it really is perceived more as a self-contained documentary, but I think it works in both contexts.

Your next major project is about teenagers. Can you discuss the project a bit?

Teenage is premiering in April at the Tribeca Film Festival. I worked with the author Jon Savage on the film—it’s inspired by his book of the same name. The film looks at the pre-history of teenagers, and examines youth culture from before WWII. It’s really about the role youth play in shaping the future, and how society oppressed and controlled youth before they were finally recognized as “teenagers.” It’s not a traditional historical film—the entire story is told from the point of view of teenagers. It’s been a major project that I’ve been working on for four years, so I’m excited for it to come out soon.

TEENAGE teaser from Teenage on Vimeo.