Rare Atmospheres: An Interview with Michael Robinson

March 6, 2012 · Print This Article

It is not uncommon to find oneself dreaming of Michael Robinson‘s films weeks after having watched them. By that I mean it happened to me once. Specifically, it happened to one of us once. I (the other one) have not had that dream, but have had the opposite reaction. I felt I was dreaming amid some of Robinson’s films. The oneiric tradition within the cinema is as long and storied as it is obvious to most anyone who has spent time in “the biggest, darkest, loudest theater possible.” So we won’t go too far into it but to say that his works in film and video are highly atmospheric.

Sliding easily between original and wide ranging found footage, they are simultaneously direct in their concerns and beguiling in their approach. Much has been made of his ability to use arch kitsch (Full House, Little House on the Prairie) in ways that are both evocative and humorous. And while the use of mass media is considered in its irony, it doesn’t feel cheap.

Adroitly harnessing the techniques of past avant-garde film, Robinson adapts them to fit shifts in contemporary culture, taking the infant (and often infantile) form of YouTube mashups towards greater and stranger heights. And while the films are highly atmospheric and make terrific use of the form’s unique vocabularies, they each have specific trajectories. They are conceptual, with a small c and formal with a small f, allowing for great flexibility.

Originally from Upstate New York, Michael holds a BFA from Ithaca College, a MFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago and was a Visiting Assistant Professor of Cinema at Binghamton University. His work has shown in many prominent festivals and beginning tomorrow his films will be featured as part of the Whitney Biennial for the following four days, culminating with a conversation between Robinson and experimental filmmaker Peggy Ahwesh.
(Note: this interview was co-conducted by Benjamin Schultz-Figueroa)

You use both found and original footage. Can you talk about what changes and what remains the same when using the different methods for gathering images? For example, the difference between the production of If There Be Thorns, which is made of 16mm film you shot yourself, and These Hammers Don’t Hurt Us, which is all found footage.

When I’m working with my own footage, it takes me a lot longer to detach from the material, and know what to ditch.  With found materials, I’m already approaching them with enough distance to know more quickly whether or not they will work.  But the flipside is that I tend to not mangle or alter my own footage very much, so the picture editing process is usually more straightforward for the works I shoot myself.  Part of this is also about setting boundaries – with a work like If There Be Thorns, I shot footage in a few different places over the course of a year, and then made the best of what I had.  With These Hammers Don’t Hurt Us – there was a lot of specific types of material I wanted to find (CGI pyramids, mummies, ice dancers) and there seemed no reason to stop until I found it all.  So the gathering process was also part of the editing process.

Can you describe your editing process? How does using Final Cut Pro (if that is actually what you use) influence your aesthetic? How do you navigate the abundance of options and effects to find the one which works?

The process is a little different for each piece, but generally it involves a ton of trial and error, figuring things out in small sections.  In regards to Final Cut, I don’t actually use many of the pre-set filters, but tend to get the results I want through layering (copy and pasting the same shot on top of itself, methodically offsetting each one, and playing with the compositing).  I learned 16mm film editing in college, and taught myself Final Cut afterwards, so I veer towards those aspects of digital editing which are meant to replicate a more visual, analogue experience.

Many of the effects that you employ (flickering or strobe-like editing, solarizing or inverting colors, multiple superimposed images) are stalwarts of avant-garde film, yet your use of these effects feels extremely unique. How do you see your use of such techniques in relationship to their use in the past? Are there art movements from the past that you feel influence your practice, or whom you feel your work responds to?

I suppose I like everything I’m doing to feel a bit transparent (flicker feels like flicker, slow motion feels like slow motion) and part of that transparency involves nodding to the traditions of film and video art, while hopefully steering things elsewhere.  Within lot of the more famous uses of flicker – or any formal technique for that matter – the effect was explored as an entity unto itself, deployed through a very specific, or mathematical structure.  So while Tony Conrad’s The Flicker or Paul Sharits’ T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G, are psychologically very rich and in no way purely formal films, the technique itself is at the core of these works.  My films use effects and techniques as emotional cues, or as narrative elements in and of themselves, guiding and contributing to the atmosphere or thrust of a piece without actually being the heart of it.

You mention an interest in the narrative aspects of video games (in particular of the Super Nintendo generation). I found this instructive as a potential entry into what elements of narrative (might) exist in your work. The hazy, indefinite but cyclical nature of “story” seems related. Can you talk a bit about both the influence a generation of games had on your practice and also how you conceive of narrativity within your work?

It’s all about what we allow ourselves project emotion and meaning onto, whether that’s pushing a stone in the right direction to unlock a door in a Zelda game, or the exchange of keys, knives and doppelgangers in Meshes of the Afternoon.  I’m not interested in the “save the princess/universe” narrative of games, but rather the attaching of logic and motivation to completely abstract situations.  So guiding characters through video games is in a sense not unlike navigating a complex film.  All of my pieces follow a narrative arc of one form or another, with establishment, rising action, climax, etc.  I would be completely lost without that arc.

Can you talk about your use of popular music? Do you see an analog between instrumental karaoke versions of songs and heavily processed visual media? There was a period of time in avant-garde cinema during which popular music was eschewed, but that seems finished. Young(er) artists often feel more adroit at using elements of popular culture in ways that are unironic without being saccharine or humorless. They–you–are able to harness the power of these cultural artifacts without ceding control to them.

Pop music, like most television, is a really strange thing when you take a step back and think about what it is, and how it’s working – mechanically, commercially, and emotionally.  Despite that, there is an undeniable power to things like melody and refrain, particularly when they manage to carry some lasting cultural influence or imprint.  I see karaoke as a very emotional, sometimes spiritual exercise – wherein the Word is recited, is often known by heart, and summons a certain amount of heartfelt projection.  In using instrumental tracks in my films, I like the idea that some audience members will be forced to sing along in their heads, or at least have some kind of sense memory triggered.

There’s a phrase that I remember being attributed to Guy Maddin on the poster for Jim Finn’s Interkosmos which has always stuck with me: so full of rare atmospheres. I’ve thought of that phrase often while watching your films. More than conveying single ideas or attacking a problem, the works are very atmospheric. Can you discuss your process of making? Do notes for films come from trying to achieve a certain feeling? From having an amount of footage that you’re trying to unite?

I usually know what I want a given film to feel like, in terms of atmosphere, before I know what it will look or sound like.  So the gathering and editing processes then become about trying to figure out how to convey that feeling.  The sound design is really the most important part of this, and the most finicky, in that things don’t really work until they’re just right.  I do take a lot of notes and make a lot of lists, relating to specific shots or edits, and attempting to get my head around broader ideas.

Switching gears slightly, let’s discuss distribution. Your films are available to be watched, in their entirety, on your website and on vimeo. They’re also distributed by VDB, have screened widely at festivals and, now, will be included in the Whitney Biennial. Did you ever have a question about having the work online? Do you conceive of your website/the web broadly as a screening space as opposed to simply a portfolio? Do you have an interest in making videos for gallery environments? Do you have an ideal viewing environment in mind when creating your work?

I hesitated to put my work online for a while, but then realized I was happily watching other artists’ work online, and was taking the online viewing experience with the necessary grain of salt.  I trust that contemporary viewers of all kinds are doing the same, and that if someone is interested enough in something online, they will want to see it out in the world too.  And if not, then they would otherwise never see it, so they might as well see it online.  This is not the case for all kinds of cinema, but I think my films do hold up reasonably well online.  I have shown my work installed in a black-box gallery mode a few times, and I am interested in exploring that more, because when it’s done well I think it can bridge the disconnect between film and art audiences.  But still, the ideal environment to see my work is the biggest, darkest, loudest theater possible (preferably sold out).

Can you talk about your approaches as a professor? Has teaching altered the way you think about your own work, the history of cinema or, potentially, its futures?

My approach is really just to expose students to the things I love, and to the histories that have been important to me, and hope that they might find inspiration there too.  There is no one history of cinema, or of experimental cinema, so every artist connects the dots in their own way.  In connecting my dots for the purposes of teaching, I’ve gotten a lot closer to the work of certain artists, such as Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger, who I’ve admired for a long time, but appreciate more and more with every viewing.  But I wouldn’t say that teaching has altered my work, or my overall views on cinema.

What are your artistic roots? Did you always know you wanted to make films? Were you in ska bands? Were you in ski bands? Did you study painting or make plays?

As a kid, I loved to draw and paint, and gravitated towards photography and music as a teenager.  I was never in a proper band, but did play drums, and once recorded a pretty great cover version of Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” with two high school friends.  Around that time I also went to a very lovey-dovey Catholic summer camp, where all the campers were frequently made to hold hands in circles and sing sad pop songs (Natalie Merchant, Tori Amos, etc.), which obviously had a lasting effect on me.  I went to college thinking I would concentrate on photography, or maybe film editing, but was pretty quickly seduced by experimental cinema.  I didn’t see it coming, but it was a perfect catchall for my various impulses.

This interview was co-conducted by Jesse Malmed and Benjamin Schultz-Figueroa, an artist, theorist, and independent curator based out of Brooklyn, New York.