A Hallucination That Is Also a Fact: An Interview with Mary Helena Clark

May 15, 2012 · Print This Article

The world of moving images is fraught with comparisons to magic, to illusions. It is our inheritance and it’s where photographic work gets its heat. Mary Helena Clark’s films work because she understands the perpetual strangeness of seeing “real life” projected on a screen. She understands how to craft a vision of that reality that is highly subjective while still being attuned to the audience’s desires, expectations and baggage. And, in so doing, her works subvert our expectations of the veracity of moving images, while at the same reaffirming the vitality of the well-timed magic trick.

The works feel like they are entirely on her terms. We experience them as we do a well-crafted magic act: the illusions’ realities owe as much to their deception as to the pleasure of being deceived. Built from varied sources—both crafted and borrowed—her films are collages in the best sense. The materials are simultaneously autonomous and inextricably entangled. They are deeply mysterious while bound to reality. And, like so many works of this kind, they give—capably and generously—as much as we’re willing to take.

She has screened widely and in many of the finest contexts the experimental film community offers. Having just completed her MFA at the University of Illinois Chicago, it is fitting that she has a capstone show of her work at Roots and Culture on May 27th. Many of the works will be screening in their native 16mm and though I may not be allowed be to say as much, there may very well be secret works screened interstitially. 

The Plant from Mary Helena Clark on Vimeo.

To begin, I was hoping you could share a bit about where you come from and what brought you to this kind of work. What were you like as an 18 year old? Did you arrive at experimental film through low-budget horror films? Punk shows? Color field comic books? And, relatedly, who were the makers and what was it they made that created that shift in your brain to begin making (or thinking about) experimental film?

I wish I could say something cool but the more honest answer is poetry. I wrote poems and a few plays and set up a darkroom when I was in high school. And then went to film school never having made any films. Robert Todd was my first teacher who showed me experimental film and taught me how to shoot 16mm and use an optical printer. I thought I would eventually make narrative films and that experimental work was a way of mastering images and building a vocabulary but it became my preferred language.

I feel like a lot of your work deals with tromp l’oeil and different types of illusion. While your images are very photographic—that is to say that instead of being computer generated, heavily processed, etc. they bear a tight indexical relationship to their subjects—but they don’t always feel real, whatever that means. Will you describe your relationship to illusion? What types of images appeal to you in the process of creating and gathering them?

I like that magic tricks still work even when you know the moves.

For me, an illusion gives you the best of both worlds. Fantasy and an awareness of its production.

In Sound Over Water, I wanted to shift the interpretation of a single image—a flock of birds— through fluctuating abstraction. By re-photographing and hand processing the images, the “read” changes. It’s ambiguously figurative—schools of fish, crashing waves, light on water—and then ends with the series of photographs acting as document, accentuating the gap between actual and perceptual.

I want to make cinema that is both trance-like and transparent: that operates on dream logic until disrupted by a moment of self-reflexivity, like tripping on an extension cord.

The man at the end of By Foot-Candle Light is completely beguiling. His performance begins somewhere between a portrait and a screen test, but then gets so lovably weird.

 When I first saw this I had a feeling that this was your father and that you had invited him into your studio to chat and play around and once the camera started rolling, he slowly began to goof. There’s a really amazing intimacy in that moment because his eyes are locked on the lens and as his behavior gets stranger, there’s more interaction on the camera’s end. I’m almost reticent to have you blow this mystery by giving the back-story of this performance (and the film more broadly), but I think that too gives an interesting indication into your process.

I had the good fortune of meeting Paul Russell when he came to audition for the role of a hypnotist in another unmade film. I was trying to recreate a story my friend told me about a hypnotist coming to his middle school. He told me that a very shy and very pretty girl was picked from the audience as a volunteer. My friend’s crush on her grew as he watched her fall into a trance and “see” snow for the first time. He described this sublime scene of this girl spot-lit on stage, arms raised, turning in unseen flurries. I thought, “That’d be a nice film!” but by casting call I knew the whole project was too precious. So I filmed the auditions and conflated the making of the movie with the dream you might have had.

By foot-candle light from Mary Helena Clark on Vimeo.

My read on By Foot-Candle Light is that it’s a lot about performance. The startling and (when watched in a proper theater, incredibly effective) opening shot prepares us for an invisible star. The probing lights next take us into a mysterious cave, through a detour of what appears to be a high school dance troupe performance and into a snow-covered birch forest. The white snow gives the illusion that the trees are floating in the air or that the ground has been physically removed from the image. The grain of the trees and the grain of the celluloid undulate and breathe. Then, another illusion: the introduction of footsteps in snow. Through the dream logic of cinema, these cut to your own feet, silent in your studio. There’s applause, the mysterious man appears and, with the shushing of the crowd, his magic eye tricks begin. Does this read resonate? Can you offer some insight into how you think about performance, both in and out of films, and if/how the roving, subjective camera (and attendant lights) performs for the audience?

You got it! This is the film where the periphery becomes the focus. It’s everything that circulates around the main performance, brought up stage in the film. So yes, I wonder if the spotlight has enough pluck to be the lead. It’s sort of like a travelogue trance film à la Maya Deren. I am thinking as much about the audience as I am the performer (or absence of one). How does the texture of the film/video change our situation as viewers? When seen “on the big screen” the opening shot performs another space, other moments of the film are about teleportation. And where do we arrive? In the filmmaker’s studio. I guess that’s my take on the sweaty leap from bed, it’s all just a dream!

And The Sunflowers pairs still images of floral wallpaper with a guided meditation soundtrack, with marvelously subtle textural pulsing in the form of analog video artifacts. As the voices pulls the viewer more deeply into a hypnotic state, another layer larger, realer flowers emerge.

The effect is very hypnagogic, both hallucinatory and subdued. I have a Christopher Wool poster that I’ve played boggle with for hundreds of hours. That wallpaper felt like it’s absorbed a lot of spaced-out eye hours. The pacing in that work is notable because it doesn’t feel excessively durational (or about duration, let’s say), but it does provide the slowness necessary to give us that intimate zoned feeling.

Your work frequently fuses disparate elements, both shot and found. Do you consider them collage films? Do you have an interest in collage as a way to think about your work?

I do. I like how the phrase collage film implies an individuality to the elements of the film even after they’ve been brought together and chopped up and manipulated. They’re still these discrete things with their past lives. I like finding sounds and images that seem perfectly self-expressive, but they’re just found! And then use them with footage or recordings I’ve crafted. There’s comfort in knowing it can all make sense, that my meaning can live on top of the material’s particular history.


You were telling me a bit about your thesis and about the way you’ve adapted Franco Moretti’s notion of clues within detective novels to function as a model for thinking about avant-garde cinema. I know it’s hard to condense however many dozens of pages into a paragraph, but I’m hoping you could talk a bit about this idea and how your research has impacted the way you think about the work you made before reading it (as if, perhaps, these were clues that reveal what your work has become) and the work you’ve been making since.

It’s a wonderful conceit from Moretti’s Signs Taken For Wonders… The clue as the key to the “semantic ambiguities” created by the criminal. That in a detective novel the revelation of a clue creates new meaning to an object or event. (Moretti’s example is the band in the Sherlock Holmes’ story The Speckled Band being deciphered as band, then scarf, then snake). As a filmmaker, I am interested in the slip between signifier and sign and the multiplicity of meanings allowed when a 1:1 relationship is broken. In this noir-ish light, the world is filled with puzzles, confusing the senses, reducing a crowd to color, a dog to a syllable, darkness to infinite space. I think my earlier movies were looking for the hidden and mysterious and my newer films have a sensitivity to what’s in plain sight. Or at least that’s what I hope for. It’s the difference of staring at one’s wallpapered bedroom or taking a walk.

Orpheus (outtakes) is meant to function, at least nominally, as a series of outtakes from Cocteau’s Orpheus. Part of what makes that such an exceptional film is its reliance on relatively simple special effects to convey grand symbolic ideas. Certainly these were relatively sophisticated techniques in 1949, but their power today is imbued with an at least elementary concept on the audience’s part in how they were made. The work and its effect (so to speak) are uncanny because they are still grounded in reality, because their artifice is simultaneously total and naked. When we look at a computer-generated alien, all its variables are controlled by the makers: its relationship to reality essentially lacks context. Your outtakes maintain the film’s knack for the uncanny and magical. The direct rayogram of the chain gives us a feeling of falling or of a large chain falling, always just out of reach. And yet it is simultaneously a chain and we know how it got there.

Yes. Again it’s plainness in illusion that interests me. Méliès made people disappear by turning the camera on and off and I think the simplest tricks are a nice reminder of the ease with which the mysterious can be conjured. André Bazin has that great quote about photography ranking “high in the order of surrealist creativity because it produces an image that is a reality of nature, namely a hallucination that is also a fact.” Nice, right? I think of this quote when watching the chain rayogram in Orpheus (outtakes) that you mentioned. The image made by the object’s own outline on the film creates a flattened, rhythmically pulsating pattern. Sometimes it reads as a chain and at others a braid or a spine, but I am most interested in the vacuous space or the “rabbit hole” the object implies.

I’m with you on the deepening poetry of Cocteau’s special effects. Our awareness of his trick photography empowers them more. In Orpheus mirrors are portals to the underworld. He used tanks of water to make the “glass” a permeable surface. It’s an elegant solution for the visual effect and complicates the metaphor. In my (outtakes) I use the hole punch common on 16mm film leader as a mouth of a tunnel. We see the flash of the punch mark then the circle slowly grows to engulf the frame. It is the first instance in the film where the artifacts (dirt, scratches, lettering) become representational. The film looks to its physical condition to point to the liminal state.

In re-watching Orpheus (outtakes) I realized that I was asking you many of the same questions as the contestants on that 1950s game show from which moments of your audio are taken. They ask (and no one answers): Are you in motion pictures? Are you a comedian? Do you also appear on the stage? Do you go back as far as the silent movies? So, to further literalize this chain: will you address the role humor plays in your work? Why Buster Keaton? Why the game show?

The cartoon references like the tunnel or the blinking eyes in the dark are funny to me but also sad, goofy and lonely. A figure with no voice, no visible body, only eyes looking out where no one can see… I think it’s easy to find some stoner existentialism in these Looney Tunes tropes. Inky black voids. I love that stuff…

Why Buster Keaton? He’s always been my favorite. He’s the master of turning the everyday object into mutable forms. His engagement with the world is totally physical and pure magic.

Why the game show? The first time I heard Buster Keaton talk was on an episode of What’s My Line when he was the mystery guest. He seemed so anachronistic and alien. When I decided to riff on Cocteau’s Orpheus, I thought he should play a part since he moved (precariously) between the worlds of silent and sound cinema. And what makes more sense then a silent film star acting in a film about the underworld where it is very, very dark?

How is a filmmaker like a hypnotist?

In my case, both use the mode of direct address. You are getting sleepy. You are sitting in a darkened room. I’m always thinking about the moment of reception, and pointing to that moment as a way of implicating the audience.




The Link to Reality Stretches but Doesn’t Break: An Interview with Jesse McLean

January 17, 2012 · Print This Article

Jesse McLean’s work as a filmmaker and artist is deeply engaged in issues of spectatorship, empathy, and the televisual and cinematic experiences that forge these connections. I first became aware of Jesse’s work when I saw her video The Eternal Quarter Inch at the late PDX Festival. I was completely taken by the work. It was elegant and intelligent, simultaneously wry and sincere, and, most of all, the way it was paced and the atmospheres it created felt both sophisticated and highly personal. I have since spent a great deal more time with her work (both through her website and the invaluable Video Data Bank) and have found a continuation of these initial themes and impulses. Her art continues to deepen as it broadens.

Her work has been shown widely at spaces like Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, threewalls, Venice Film Festival, Migrating Forms at Anthology Film Archives, Director’s Lounge in Berlin, FLEX, Chicago Underground Film Festival, LUMP gallery/projects and Space 1026 and won the Overkill Award at the 2011 Images Festival and the Barbara Aronofsky Latham Award for Emerging Experimental Video Artist at the 2010 Ann Arbor Film Festival. the Next week her newest film Remote will be showing at the prestigious International Film Festival Rotterdam. Magic for Beginners is in competition at the Stuttgart Filmwinter Festival and will also screen as part of Transmediale in Berlin, Germany. In February she will be installing a version of Remote in the Front Room space at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis. She has a residency at the Wexner Center in Columbus, OH in March where she plans to continue production on a new piece. She lives and works in Chicago and teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Can you say a bit about your background? What got you interested in this type of moving image production? What kinds of work were you making at 18? 25?

I got interested in filmmaking through my mother, who had studied art and filmmaking and also through my friend Sonia Yoon. Sonia encouraged me to take my first filmmaking class in high school. At that time I was convinced I’d be an animator. I attended Oberlin College and studied art, which didn’t include video or media at the time so I spent my junior year in New York City, working at a production house that specialized in children’s television commercials and attending New York University. I was also exposed to independent cinema and art house cinema. I watched a lot of Jim Jarmusch films, which I think is evidenced by my aesthetic choices at that time. I was shooting black and white, 16mm reversal and editing­ on a Steenbeck. After school I worked in the movie industry in an effort to learn more about cinema. I’m not sure that happened but I learned a lot about what I didn’t want to do. I’m certain this directly contributed to my interest in appropriation.

Eventually I found my way back to Pittsburgh and took more classes at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, which has this rich history of supporting and promoting Avant-garde cinema. It was only then, in my mid-twenties that I became exposed to this entire other world of filmmaking and art. I had seen some Len Lye films in college and mistakenly stumbled into Dog Star Man, which I had no context for, but that was about it.

Those years in Pittsburgh were formative for me. I used to attend this microcinema called Jefferson Presents, run by friends of mine, and that was the beginning of my education in experimental film history. I was still shooting actual film and I didn’t even know how to edit video. I only learned about video reluctantly as a potential job skill. In Pittsburgh I also reconnected with Jacob Ciocci, who I knew from college and was now attending Carnegie Mellon for grad school. He showed me a tape his art collective Paper Rad had made and it really inspired me to start mixing sources and embrace my undeniable interest in popular culture.

Can you describe your process for making works like the Bearing Witness Trilogy and Magic for Beginners? Are there certain ideas you’re trying to express or moods you’re trying to achieve and then you seek the footage? Or, more commonly, do the themes and ideas of the pieces reveal themselves through the process of seeking footage, editing it and watching and re-watching?

I usually begin with an idea, often it’s an incredibly broad theme, like fandom or fear, and then I look for material and ways to make it more specific. Sometimes I’ll encounter material that gets the ball rolling. For example, I’d had the idea for the elimination breakdown sequence in Somewhere only we know for at least two years before I started that piece. It wasn’t until I saw on the news that an earthquake had disrupted a taping of Judge Judy and Big Brother that I got interested in actually making the piece.

Magic for Beginners always felt like a bit of a self-portrait, that’s why I thought to use my school pictures. Initially the Heidi footage was conceived as another method of self-portraiture, but the footage operated differently. Heidi becomes more the mediated protagonist, offering up an emotional response to everything the narrators are talking about, basically being lulled in and subsequently let down by media.

The actual Heidi tape is incredibly corny, but there is this amazing dream sequence where Heidi runs towards the camera with her arms outstretched. The camera is retreating and the shadow of the cameraperson running away from her is visible on the grassy field. She wakes up before she can be embraced. For me this image is the heart of the piece, it really summed up everything I was going for.

You use a number of techniques that in the hands of other makers sometimes constitute a whole work—I’m thinking about the YouTube-originated fan renditions of My Heart Will Go On or the montage of reality television contestants awaiting their “moment of truth”—but you incorporate them into larger, fuller works. The videos of which those sequences are a part have interesting and satisfying trajectories.

Collage is very appealing to me. Actually, art is appealing because it allows for encyclopedic thinking and a blending of disparate interests. In Somewhere only we know, the piece that features the reality television contestants being eliminated, I knew that I could make a piece composed of just those scenes that would be conceptually tight and broadly appealing. I struggled against that impulse, though. You can see lots of terrific super cuts on YouTube. Not to be dismissive because those edits are great but I hope that my work can go to other places beyond clever arrangement. I wanted the piece to become more complicated because I was more concerned with the way emotions are played out both onscreen and within the home viewer than highlighting elimination scenes. I also wanted to blend different portrayals of reality, that’s why the POV footage of someone running across a field is mixed with the footage ripped from cable and the Internet. Not only did collaging those sources allow me to confuse the identity of the protagonist but also it begins to unseat a familiar viewing position. The footage I shot seems less real that the codified reality shows.

You seem to be interested in empathy and in the role televisual culture can play in both forging and denying empathy.

Empathy is the most important human characteristic and the closest way we have to understanding another person’s experience. Most of the worst things we do to one another arise from a lack of empathy. Empathy in media, especially pop culture media, is thorny territory, not just because there is so much manipulation and stylization but also because we develop relationships with idealized versions of ourselves, creations that are both glorified and vilified. Are the relationships unreal because the creations are fictive? Even if the developed relationship is questionable, is the emotion ingrained somehow also invalid?

I’m fascinated by photography and think it’s one of the strangest inventions, especially in relation to empathy. Once a picture is taken, the link to reality stretches but doesn’t break. An empathetic response to the image can be garnered but it’s more unreliable. Obviously, the effect photos can yield is amazing, I’m thinking about Jason Lazarus’ Too Hard to Keep archive as an example of this power. The photos in the archive couldn’t be kept because what they trigger is too real, even though they are just images. They couldn’t be destroyed, either. This makes me think of a quote from Andy Warhol that I used in Magic for Beginners, “People are the only things that know how to take up more space than the space they are actually in. Before media there used to be a physical limit on how much space one person could take up.”

When I’ve described your work in the past, after describing certain elements of the work—the Christian rock band, the obsessions with fan culture, the reality TV—one salient feature that I always feel I have to inject is that it doesn’t feel mocking or cruel. Needless to say, the work is filled with humor and there’s an obvious level of criticality to these phenomena, but you’re able to create an atmosphere in which a viewer feels empathy with the subjects. Have you consciously made changes to works that felt flippant? Do you try to forge a connection with your footage before you work it into a piece?

I am comfortable riding the line between sincerity and irony but I never set out to ridicule. I frequently use material that has been deemed “obvious targets” by some and I find pleasure in attempting to distill some sincerity from these sources. I know that money drives the creation of much of popular culture. I did work in the movie industry, which can be a rather rough business and certainly not the most creative environment. What I’m looking at is the other side, the connection of the viewer to this material and the use of affect. There is a great deal of power in mass media but the level of manipulation is so grotesque as to be impressive. Popular culture works terrifically on me; I have a particularly embarrassing memory of sobbing uncontrollably on a plane during Toy Story 3. This kind of emotional response never happens to me in “real life”. So I would never ridicule my subject, because I’m a fan, too. But I’m also a skeptic.

The kaleidoscope section of Eternal Quarter Inch and the Oneida flicker section of Magic for Beginners are powerful to watch. Even in their simplicity, they’re propulsive, enrapturing and visceral in that way that certain types of cinematic experience only are. They’re also both tempered by a return to the other ideas of the pieces, and, incidentally, we’re dropped into a more skeptical world, one that reveals the artifice behind the magic. I’m interested in the way this reflects on the history of experimental film and in what it means to make work within a historical trajectory without getting lost in familiar territory. Does the flicker film’s power now need to exist within a larger intellectual or critical framework?

I wouldn’t say that. I guess if you were interested in forwarding cinema’s conceptual and material progression you probably wouldn’t make a 16mm flicker film. You’d probably be making a movie using Microsoft Word or something. Arnulf Rainer by Peter Kubelka is still an intense experience. Is it still a novelty? No, but I doubt that was the sole intention. Flicker and strobe are still excellent ways to experience the phenomenological through cinema. I love that these kinds of visual tactics draw you in, and you become a different kind of viewer, more of a participant. I certainly have used these kinds of strategies to enact a more visceral response to what is onscreen.

For me, yes, I am using these strategies in concert with other ideas and tactics. I think originality is overrated, but I do think about what my works mean now and how it relates to what is happening in contemporary art and cinema. I think access and availability have led a lot of artists to combine not only different sources but also different strategies in one piece. Personally, I crave the multi-valence of art, both in form and content.

A lot of these works speak to a sense of spiritual or magical lack and the measures we take to have these experiences. In the end, the stories told in Magic for Beginners end in disappointment: the mystical experience only occurred as a fleeting feeling, not as material fact. The magic of Photoshop is revealed as artifice. The sway of pop music’s simple, repetitive slogans are shown to even more inane than we’d feared when all strung together.

My work is about both the power to and the failure of mediated experiences to bind us together. I temper the experiences that are procured through media in an effort to understand why they are so effective.

I’m fascinated by the works that were exhibited as Invisible Tracks. The source materials for the works were all recent photographs from Iraq, but in many ways the true subject of the works is Photoshop, how it is used and misused in constructing images (documentary, editorial, artistic, etc.) and the small processes by which these changes are made.

I think the works are interesting also because they seem to be an attempt at expressing how an anthropomorphized Photoshop conceives of the world of images. I’m wondering why you chose photographs from Iraq (instead of, say, Afghanistan or Canada) as the source.

I’m glad you think the true subject is Photoshop and how it is used to construct images. These pieces get mixed responses; many viewers want a deeper connection with the images from me, for example, if I had gotten the images directly from veterans stationed in Iraq. But the subject of the work was more directed towards the strangeness of access. At the time I started this work you couldn’t read the paper without seeing an image related to the war in Iraq. Squeezed in between ads and text the images not only got lost but also diminished. One morning I had this fleeting thought that I could take an image of a destroyed site and rebuild it in Photoshop. I was intrigued by this creepy idea and so the project began and kept expanding. Using these particular images was a way for me to reactivate the material for myself, to try to get out of a passive viewing space.

What we see through the mass media outlets is tightly controlled and I believe that what we see has a lot to do with how we perceive a remote location, like Iraq. If you think a country is nothing more than a pile of grey debris, it’s easier to care less about its inhabitants. During the process of collecting images I became fascinated by the different ways that images are now disseminated. In that war, for example, you had embedded reporters but other means, like Flickr, for military personnel to get their own images out there. While I was gathering material, I kept finding pictures of people (Iraqis, American military, etc.…) in swimming pools in Iraq. They were so surprising and unfamiliar. The color palette is too vivid and the people look too happy.

I wouldn’t advocate for any blockage of media outlets but I do think it’s worthwhile to examine our relationship to the material we glean. Our relationship to news-related imagery is especially vulnerable as we expect it to be truthful. We can accept a Photoshopped advertisement but not a manipulated image of a destroyed site. I think this is also why these pieces bothered some people; for them, the material demanded a more familiar political stance or a determined polemic. But it’s easier to collect these images and deconstruct them than it is to form a considered relationship with them. And I think that’s political enough.

Onto newer works, you recently exhibited Trust Falls and Remote. It’s tempting to see these as marking a transition into a different kind of making or, at least, a shift in emphasis. Most obviously, these are both videos that you shot and, I would imagine, were firmly developed conceptually before production. Second, they feel like they’re meant to loop. Remote has a trajectory, certainly, but that trajectory feels more like a spiral than a line. Unlike most cinematic uses of suspense, there’s no release. How did you conceptualize this work? What about the aesthetics of suspense and horror drew you into wanting to make your own version? And, why did you choose to shoot this work instead of relying on found footage?

I did feel like Magic for Beginners was the end of a series. That piece has so much exposition that I wanted to make something quieter and more spacious. I have a tendency to resolve everything and after Magic for Beginners, I felt like I needed to push myself to do something different. I had been developing a long-form, experimental horror narrative that would have necessitated a cast and crew. I began working with Lori Felker as my cinematographer and we shot material so that I could edit a trailer for fundraising purposes. I shelved the project but was captivated by the material she had shot. I could distance myself from the footage and treat it like more like an appropriated source. I was excited about recontextualizing the material by combining it with other sources, something I’d been doing with appropriated sources for years. That was how Remote began. I did some additional shooting with Mike Gibisser and eventually I shot footage, too.

For unknown reasons, I had become interested in the horror genre over the past few years. I’m drawn to the use of suspense and the visceral response horror films illicit. The original idea behind Remote was similar to what you stated, all suspense with no release. Initially I wanted to make suspense boring but somewhere in construction I got more intrigued by the effort of actually crafting a horror film. Suspense is still a main strategy at work but the piece also implies a presence that drifts through time and space.

Incidentally, Remote is comprised of both original and appropriated footage and audio. The soundtrack is completely fabricated, everything was added later. There is actually some original footage in Magic for Beginners but it gets read as appropriated. This confusion was interesting to me and I exploited it in Remote.

Trust Falls is another step into the empathetic potentials of cinema. Everyone—catchers and caught—seem to smile once the trusting fall. One woman is given a second chance after she initially catches herself. How large would this ideally be projected? Does cinema promise us we too will be caught? Do you have specific memories of a face looking back at you from a screen? What do you think the responsibilities of filmmakers are to their subjects? To their viewers? How many of the performers (?) in Trust Falls fell and caught?

I exhibited Trust Falls at Interstate Projects in New York. I was drawn to the phrase “trust falls” almost as much as the corporate, trust-building exercise. In the video, the subject is framed in a medium close-up, which is a shot composition that I’ve been interested in for some time because it is intimate without feeling too intrusive. I utilized this framing both in Magic for Beginners and Somewhere only we know.

Initially I thought I might project it quite large but it was too overwhelming and so the projection ended up being about four or five feet wide. It screened with Remote and the dense and foreboding soundtrack from Remote really affected the view of Trust Falls, which is silent.

In the piece, the subject stares outward, confronting the viewer and becoming another viewer in the process. This viewer leans back, falling into a cinematic void and trusting that outside, there is someone waiting to catch their image. Again, I was interested in suspense, in the moment right before the fall. I wanted to see how the emotions read onscreen. There were seventeen participants, I think? We had a few different catchers, but mainly Thad Kellstadt and Tim Nickodemus caught and this had a lot to do with availability. I had considered making everyone catch but physics eliminated this possibility.

The participants were on a slightly raised platform and instructed to wait before falling. I wanted the catchers to appear at the last minute and be slightly out of focus. I was concerned that if the participants fell into a black void it would actually be less compelling than seeing the catchers. No one involved in the shoot anticipated how joyous it would be when the tension was released. There was a round of applause after every fall.

You have an obvious interest in spectatorship, in how people watch things in groups and alone, and how these things are watched not simply (or always) as entertainment or education or, even, within the realm of conscious artistic experience. What are you own viewing habits like? 

I’ll go to microcinemas like The Nightingale and White Light Cinema and I always try to go see every visitor to the Conversations at the Edge series. I usually miss all the Hollywood films, but I’ll stream them later at home. I can watch a lot of movies, I remember when I was making Remote I was looking for a good shot of trees at night and watched eight horror films in a row. It’s kind of gross.

Sometimes watching films in a group is great but often the other people watching the screen, or the architecture of the space itself distract me. I do like the experience of being in an actual theater, partly because of the size of the screen and the quality of the sound system but more because there is something about being captive that allows you to drift in your own head. I work out a lot of ideas when I’m at the movies, or in the shower.

Relatedly, (how) has teaching changing changed your work?

Teaching forces me to be aware of what is happening in contemporary cinema and art and I appreciate the extra motivation to be informed. Without my teaching practice, I’d run the danger of being too cloistered. It’s hard work and I’m certain I’ll spend the rest of my life improving upon my teaching abilities, which is actually very appealing.

Mostly, though, my students are inspiring, not only in what they do but also what they know. I’ve learned a great deal from them. They are a steady link to what is happening in consumer technology, social media and Internet culture. Plus, my work is motivated by an interest in human behavior so getting to interact regularly with a shifting group of fascinating and creative people is not harmful to the artistic practice at all.