There is a really fantastic comics festival going down this weekend at Columbia College. Edie Fake and Neil Brideau have been putting it together for the last several months, as is evident from the ambitious vision and extensive programming. It’s like a world-class event with some phenomenal talent, old and new alike. A couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to email back and forth with them about what the festival is about, what’s going down and how it relates to the pulse of the Chicago comic scene.
Caroline Picard:Â I can’t believe thatÂ CAKEÂ is just around the corner â€” what made you all decide to put something like this together? Why this year? What’s it been like to organize?
Edie Fake:Â Yeah -Â CAKEÂ is coming up so fast – it’s really exciting! Our initial impulse was that the alternative comics community in Chicago is so large and vibrant, it didn’t make sense tonotÂ have a comics festival to celebrate it. We’d been to other amazing small press festivals of different flavors: TCAF in Toronto, Stumptown in Portland, SPX in Bethesda, BCGF in New York, APE in San Francisco… and it’s awesome to see these festivals harnessing the energy of a city’s scene and putting it in conversation with artists from all over.
This year is shaping up as an amazing year to debut a show likeÂ CAKEÂ – there’s a ton of outstanding comics coming out right now, and I’m blown away by the talent we’ll be hosting. We’ve gotten to watch the Chicago Zine Fest (CZF) really take off in the past few years too, which is really encouraging.
Organizing for this year’sÂ CAKEÂ meant laying a lot of groundwork for the festival to continue – so it’s been a long and wild ride at times. We’ve got a tight core of five organizers now and an auxiliary committee of about 20 other folks and that sort of manpower really helps make everything more manageable. It actually makes putting it together pretty fun.
CP:Â In many ways I feel like your efforts in organizing community zine and comic-events is this incredible way of drawing out and publicizing vital energy that tends to lie below the surface. I feel like there is a ton of natural comic-energy at the moment, but I also feel like my awareness is tied to community opportunities for discussion and public engagement (like CAKE) that you and others are creating. Can you talk a little bit about what that’s been like? And maybe the tension (if there is one) between insular community-creativity and public accessibility?Â
Neil Brideau: I think over the past few generations comics have really come into their own. Â They’re being accepted more by the larger cultural world, and I think that helps cartoonists break out of their shells a little bit. Â Most ofÂ CAKE’s exhibitors are in their late twenties and early thirties, and I feel like this generation is a lot more social than their immediate predecessors. Â There’s this stereotype of the alternative comics artist toiling away in their studio not getting any financial or critical compensation for what they love, and feeling sorry for themselves. Â But I see our peers really celebrating their creative process and the creative process of others. Not that there aren’t a lot of nights spent alone in a room inking pages of comics very few people will read. Â I think Chicago too, in general is really welcoming of DIY and small-run creativity. Whether it’s the Night Market, or the CIMM Fest, or the Chicago Zine Fest, or Printers Ball, or house shows that DIYCHI is putting together, Chicago seems to be an incubator for lo-fi production and celebration of that production. Â I think cartoonists in Chicago react to that energy, and are more social and community-oriented animals.
CP:Â Is there a way that you would characterize the comic-making energy and interest in Chicago at the moment? Do you have a sense for how that compares to other cities?
EF: Comics in Chicago have been a pretty big deal for a while – but I think we’re in a golden time right now. There’s a lot of overlapping community here. The Trubble Club is a great example of folks meeting up and drawing, sharing about what they’re making and influencing each other’s work. We’ve got micropresses like Sarah Becan’s Shortpants Press and printshops like Spudnik and try-anything stores like Quimby’s. Lyra Hill’s performative reading series Brain Frame is expanding whatÂ comics are and how they’re presented. We’ve also seen totally off-the-chain events happen here recently like Hilary Chute’s star-studded Comics: Philosophy and Practice conference. This city values great comics like no place else- the scene here is really open, supportive and interactive. People here really up the ante for each other.
CP:Â I feel like we should talk aboutÂ CAKEÂ too, of course! What kind of things can people expect? Are there certain events that stand out as highlights for you?
EF: It’s going to be a jam-packed weekend! We’ve got over 200 artists exhibiting comics and a full slate of panels, screenings and conversations. We tried to set up events that we thought were a vital part of comics that we hadn’t seen happen before, like a panel on silkscreened comics and how the printing technique changes and expands the shape of comics. Ryan Sands, who’s an incredibly interesting and edgy editor is presenting a slideshow/mixtape of stuff he’s excited about and it just might be like seeing the future. The Eyeworks Animation Festival has curated a great program of work that highlights the overlap of comics and cartoons along with a q&a with Amy Lockhart, Marc Bell, Jim Trainor and Jo Dery. We’ve also got artist and comics historian Joe Tallarico leading a discussion on comics and fine art between two tremendous local art monsters, Paul Nudd and Karl Wirsum.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, too – we’ve really been able to do a lot our first year out, including putting out an anthologyÂ CAKEÂ Book with ITDN Group and an art show in conjunction with Morpho Gallery’s downtown Annex. It’s going to be a great time.
CP:Â Aren’t some people debuting comics too? What’s that like? (I’ve never been to something where comics â€” and multiple comics â€” debuted, but I imagine it’s some kind of custom? haha. I sound like such a goober.)
NB:Â Oh yeah! Debuts are a great tradition at alternative comics shows. Self- and small-press publishers often use comics fests as anchors to plan their publishing schedule. Making a comics fest likeÂ CAKEÂ as the first time someone can get their hands on a comic helps create a buzz for their publication, the creators are excited to get it in people’s hands, and a lot of attendees seek out new work, knowing their the first folks to get their eyes on the comic! Â So celebrating these brand new books are events within the larger event ofÂ CAKEÂ and those celebrations add to the excitement that already exists within this convergence of tons of comics creators showing off their gems of self expression.
We have over 25 new titles debuting atÂ CAKE, which we’ve been announcing on our website, one at a time. Being the one who posts them on the site, I’ve been bubbling with anticipation about some of the stuff coming out. Â My list of comics I need to get my hands on is already really big. Â A few that stand out to me are:
–Suck It Up by Krystal DiFronzo, who enthusiastically performed a portion of the comic (which involves a character puking out her stomach to consume her lunch) at the most recent Brain Frame performance at Happy Dog
–July Diary by Gabrielle Bell, published by Uncivilized Books. Â Gabrielle is a great cartoonist who drew a comic everyday last July, which is now collected in this book.
–The Adventure School for Ladies Comics Intensive, is putting together a book during their two-week session, which takes place right beforeÂ CAKE, so their book will be hot off the presses!
–Weather by Gabby Schulz -who also goes by the name Ken Dahl. Â Secret Acres is publishing a comic featuring his character, Gordon Smalls, who is a great vehicle for Gabby’s social commentary on american consumerism.
For more information about CAKE and all its illustrious events, please visit their website.
In 1934 a weather observatory positioned on New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington
Â measured the highest wind speeds ever recorded on the earth’s surface.Â 231Â mph. It would seem the recorded record has recently been broken, but I don’t think that makes the idea of 231 mph wind gusts (even one) any less terrifying. The Mt. Washington Weather Observatory is unique not simply because of the close eye it keeps on some of the world’s worst weather
but also because it was first of its kind and remains one of the few observatories to maintain such a human presence. It is also the site for Jacqueline Goss
‘ newest and longest film to date, The Observers
. Jackie has been making fascinating, research-driven (mostly) animated essay films and new media works for more than a decade that have screened widely and received positive, thoughtful attention. In each, she evinces a strong interest in the ways codes and maps and systems of measurement shape our human experience. Her interests lie at the intersection of the quantitative and the sublime while her wry, trenchant intellect serves as an able guide through these strange, conflicting worlds. I encourage readers to become viewers (and stay readers) with both the 100th Undone
and There There Square
, embedded beneath the interview.
The Observers, though, is different. Or, at least, it looks different. It’s more than an hour long, it was shot on color 16 mm film, it’s peopled by something approaching actors and it exists very much in the real world. There are shared themes, certainly, but Jackie’s personality is less palpable in it, sharing space with her collaborators and the sheer might of natural phenomena. The film’s insistence on observation allows us long (and longing) glimpses at human labors, modes of measurement, the tasks of observation, an observer’s connections with others and others’ times, isolation, the natural spectacle, hints of narrativity and the cyclicality of years, of weathers. If that feels like a list, it is one written on a mÃ¶biusÂ strip and has room for many more inscriptions.
For those of us who have followed your work for a while, this may feel like a departure of sorts. Not too long ago I described (the bulk of) your work as “research-driven, animated documentaries and essay films.” This film, however, looks and feels very different. It’s shot on 16 mm, there are real people playing other real people in it, there’s almost no animation at all (and when there is it feels like the camera has simply rested on these images as it has on other “data visualizations” such as a thermometer) and your own presence feels displaced by that of a camera. Can you talk a bit about this shift?
Well, a lot of it has to do with having a kid which made me feel somewhat isolated and longing for a collaborative adventure with people I trusted and admired artistically. Having a baby also killed off part of my brain too, I think, and made my previous work feel kind of “book report-y.” I wanted to make something that appealed to the senses first with the brainy stuff maybe a little more in the background.Â Having said that, I don’t think it’s a huge departure: like most of my work, it’s still about the ways humans and their measuring systems come up against an immeasureably complicated and idiosyncratic world.
I think animation is very interior, very connected to writing for me and live-action is always, on some level, a documentary– something happens in front of a camera that is documented. I expect I’ll go back to animation soon, but this project was so much about waiting for something to happen, to point the camera at the land and sky and wait for it to perform in some surprising way and it always did. In Stranger Comes To Town I was starting to get to that by using World of Warcraft and I’d like to find other ways of courting the unexpected in animation.
The film is very much about isolation, about the solitary work of scientists measuring, tracking and bearing witness to unbelievably difficult weather conditions. What about the intersections of human labor and the intensity of this landscape made this subject so interesting to you? This is to say, why not a film about Mt. Washington without people?
Mount Washington, NH and the Weather Observatory interest me particularly because I grew up in the shadow of that mountain and WEATHER is the ur-text for people I grew up around. When I started talking to the real observers who work there, I was surprised by how differently their narrative of the mountain differed from mine. For instance, the world record for highest wind speed ever on the planet was held by Mt Washington until just two years ago. A month after we finished shooting, a typhoon in Australia took the record. I was bummed out about it, having lost this little bit of notoriety but the observers seemed to feel ok about it â€” their line was â€œWeâ€™re just glad someone was there to get the data.â€ I realized their narrative is on one level much more quotidian than mine â€” theyâ€™re thinking about the micro: changes from hour to hour in wind speed, pressure, visibility, temperature â€” but also much longer: they know the mountain and its weather is going to be around a lot longer than we are and that gives them a certain perspective. I feel like thatâ€™s part of what the film is about.
One strand that seems to run through all of your work (most of which, Chicagoans should note, can be found at Video Data Bank) is an interest in different types of measurement, in codes and in the ways subtle and not so subtle boundaries and data affect people. Can you describe your interest in measurement, the aesthetics of data and so forth?
I never really formed a philosophy about this stuff but it just seems to have become the dominant refrain of my work. I think it may be something very basic about my temperament: that I long to know and experience the unquantifiable, but am also pleased and comforted by order and information. I don’t think I’m alone in that- it’s probably a tenet of being human. I do love stories about people who try to quantify, measure, and map but get their goals messed up by all the color and noise of the world.
In the production notes for the film you note (happily) that Dani Leventhal performs without affect and later you consider how to compose shots to avoid the feeling of artificiality. You also mention that you “fear telegraphing emotion!” I’m hoping you might expand on these concepts a little and describe, now that the work is complete, how you feel about the balances you’ve struck between artifice or construction and observation.
I’m pretty happy with it. There’s a shot in the film of Dani in bad and her eyes sort of travel up. All I did is hold my finger in front of her face and move it up and said, “Watch this.”Â That’s about an emotional as I let her get.Â When my Mom watched the movie and saw that shot, she said “Good acting!” So I felt like I had gotten something right. I do feel like the pitch is right. My least favorite experience as a film viewer is watching someone like Sean Penn go to town on a scene emotionally while the narrative grinds to a halt. I’m way more into Bresson’s approach where the actor doesn’t act, and the filmmaker has to bring the emotional cadence to the scene by making choices about light, composition, sound, and duration.
Still, I’m no Bresson and there are little moments in The Observers
that make me flinch. I wish Katya Gorker
didn’t frown quite as much (though that’s kind of what her face does!)
Many people have asked why we didn’t just use the real observers but instead used “actors.” Part of it was just the practicality of not wanting to bug them –they’re pretty busy.Â But it also gave me much more control to try things out.Â Obviously the stuff with the box is a fiction for instance. And I wanted to have some sort of fictional tension between the two observers even though they never meet.
Relatedly, you mention the notion of editing that is “often predictable (in an avant-garde fashion).” There are a variety of what we might call experimental or avant-garde techniques that filmmakers use much in the same way a conventional film might use their own codes. I think some of these reflect more a shared interest in, say, observation or in a slowed pacing (or, conversely, in an ecstatic, incomprehensible mesmerism) than they do a reliance on specific techniques to telegraph the work’s “experimental” characteristics. How important to you is it that these techniques be used in unpredictable ways? To what degree do these aesthetic signifiers help to situate viewers and their experiences such that, in this case, they don’t angrily require a less oblique narrative or are able to maintain a heightened criticality with regard to the veracity of the images?
Well I think you’re asking how do you pace it so people don’t get pissed off by the duration of the shots or have too much time to consider what’s fake about it? You’re right — some people hate this film because it’s a “nothing happens” filmÂ I love “nothing happens” films but I often tire of the predictability of the edit.Â For instance, I remember watching James Benning’s “8 1/2 x 11” and, even though I love that film, I could predict every single edit point. Character leaves frame. Beat. Cut.
That’s OK — but I wanted to try not to do that — It’s hard! Kelly Reichardt helped me a lot by looking a early cuts of The Observers and pointing out every time I did it.Â If every shot or scene has the same arc, it’s fatiguing.
(an excerpt from The Observers)
The Observers is showing, on a loop, in the Sullivan Galleries here in Chicago until the 19th. Though the film functions cyclically enough that one could watch it twice in a row and find interesting intersections between the seasons, their observers and our own observations (and is bookended visually by these physical, home address style numbers on the observation deck), it’s over an hour long and does have a specific thrust. Can you talk about this mode of exhibition and, more broadly, how you want your work to be experienced?
Originally I did conceive of it as a loop– that you wouldn’t know which came first: winter or summer.Â The knots-tying and the drawing of the knots got reduced a lot in the edit, but if a viewer looks carefullyÂ you see that D’s knots are there when Katya is drawing, and you see K’s drawing when D is tying.Â So somehow they are communicating and it’s impossible to know which came first.Â The data interlude kind of stymies that read because it is so linear. But I love that it’s showing as a loop because that’s the real narrative of the mountain and what they do.
The cast and crew for this film are very small. It comes as no surprise given your background and milieu that your cinematographer Jesse Cain is also an experimental filmmaker or that your sound recordist/composer Holland Hopson‘s other work can be situated within an avant-garde context, but why did you choose two moving image makers as your on-camera talent?
Well these are four people I like and admire so much and wanted to work with. I didn’t set out to “cast” filmmakers — Dani and Katya just seemed right to me tempermentally and physically — I knew they could handle the mountain and they both are so interesting-looking to me. It also meant I didn’t have to explain so much what I wanted — they just got it.Â Dani especially just always did the right thing at the right time with her body.Â In Walter Murch’s book In the Blink of an Eye, he talked about how Gene Hackman always intuited the edit as an actor and blinked where the shot should end.Â Dani’s kind of like that. She just “got” the pace of it.
Finally, if you could, please describe the shooting conditions of the film. I literally put on a second pair of socks when re-watching the work because the howl of the wind was making me shiver. Reading the production notes imbues the film with a kind of heroic quality. Was the intensity of the process an important component of your return to photographically-based image making?
Maybe more important to a return to collaborative filmmaking. I wanted us all to experience something together, to be stuck somewhere together, and to have to help and trust each other. In the winter stuff, we were rarely cold because we were prepared, but the wind was so overwhelming, we had to scream at each other or gesture to each other to make ourselves understood. It was hard, hard work but thrilling.Â Sometimes we’d scream at how beautiful the sky was. In some way the summer was harder because there were more people around and it kind of ruined the romance of isolation, but we knew that would happen and that’s part of the film. But we were still a team.Â At one point Jesse got sick and we had to rally and carry on without him. At that moment, I was super glad I had three other capable artists with me. I hope to work with all of them againÂ I’m ready to carry somebody else’s tripod through 80 mph wind!
Jesse Malmed is brand new to Chicago. This is his second blog post for Bad at Sports. His activities as an artist and curator can be tracked at www.jessemalmed.net.