Blogs Crosscuts

Ballroom is Not for Sale: Fatha Jazz Bordeaux on Twin Cities Ballroom

In 1990 Madonna released her hit single “Vogue,” a highly stylized homage to New York’s underground ballroom scene and an accompanying music video featuring choreography by legendary voguer Willi Ninja and José Gutiérrez and Luis Camacho of the House of Xtravganza. The single buoyed voguing into the mainstream, acquainting millions of Americans with modes of dance and performance innovated by LGTBQ […]

Fatha Jazz Bordeaux, Motha Couture Bordeaux, Gia Marie Love, Sara Jordenö, Semaj Bordeaux & Company and others at Walker Art Center July 21, 2016: Photography by Angela Jimenez

Fatha Jazz Bordeaux with Motha Couture Bordeaux, Gia Marie Love, Sara Jordenö, Semaj Bordeaux & Company and others at the Walker Art Center, July 21, 2016. Photo by Angela Jimenez

In 1990 Madonna released her hit single “Vogue,” a highly stylized homage to New York’s underground ballroom scene and an accompanying music video featuring choreography by legendary voguer Willi Ninja and José Gutiérrez and Luis Camacho of the House of Xtravganza. The single buoyed voguing into the mainstream, acquainting millions of Americans with modes of dance and performance innovated by LGTBQ African-American and Latino performers, while granting only minimal credit to its pioneers. The hit single also severed voguing from key cultural context including the fact that Madonna likely originally encountered ballroom at a fundraiser for AIDS research.

That same year some of the dancers who inspired Madonna, including Willi Ninja, appeared in filmmaker Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning, a portrait of New York ballroom that focused on the houses of Xtravganza, Ninja, and LeBeija. The documentary expanded beyond the act of voguing to capture ballroom’s other categories, including “realness, and the lives of its participants.

While introducing terms like “voguing,” “throwing shade,” and “fierceness” into the popular vernacular, these depictions of ballroom culture ultimately did little to spread sustained awareness of ballroom’s extraordinarily political history and even less to redirect urgently needed social and economic resources to its participants.

Yet, despite appropriation and parody, ballroom culture has also remained a vibrant site of community-building and support. Central to this world are houses, self-made social units that function like families, share names frequently adopted from fashion and mythology, and give emotional support to their members.

While New York still remains the United States’ most well-know site of ballroom, communities have also developed throughout the country and abroad—including Minneapolis where, since  2010, the scene has been spearheaded by Fatha Jazz Bordeaux. Surveying ballroom’s past and future, Fatha Jazz reminded Crosscuts that while visually spectacular, the ball is only a fraction of what ballroom is all about—and that its most vital elements are the intensely supportive network it creates in the face of societal abandonment.

In conjunction with the Walker Art Center’s July 21 Cinema of Urgency screening of KIKI, Fatha Jazz Bordeaux sat down with Crosscuts to discuss ballroom as a historically rich site of creativity, support, camaraderie, and political dissent.

The House of Bordeaux. Photo courtesy Fatha Jazz Bordeaux

Many popular culture representations of ballroom—from Paris is Burning to recent depictions in the news and media—have drawn increased attention to ballroom, walking, and voguing. But these depictions only offer a glimpse into the ballroom and the communities that engage there. What do you wish more people knew about ballroom?

People know ballroom for the performances and actual balls that happen, but a lot of people don’t know that ballroom encompasses all of the things that make up a culture: it has its own language, its own public and community figures, its own history and ancestors. The ball itself is only about 20 percent of ballroom.

I’ve seen ballroom save lives. As someone who works in social service, I know that relationships are so important as it is to have strong connections to a community and positive role models. For me, it stopped me from feeling alone and isolated while trying to navigate my life as an LGBT person of color. I was at a point where I wanted to kill myself for being so different, for being outside of the norm. It showed me that there are people out here like me who are doing the things that I want to do and are able to do it as their true and genuine selves.

A lot of young LGBT people and LGBT people of color do not have access to positive imagery. We see statistics that say that LGBT people are flourishing, that they have higher incomes, but those statistics exclude communities of color. When you look at communities of color, especially transgender communities, the disparities are so incredibly wide—the bottom of the bottom with regards to income and access to resources—and when the mainstream appropriates our culture they always show drug use, alcoholism, promiscuity, and negligence. A news story about a ball in North Carolina showed a transgender woman throwing a table and people fighting. My house, the House of Bordeaux, strives to provide a different image, to show young people you can be fabulous and fierce and not engage in risky behavior.

Appropriation also often doesn’t give proper credit. It steals language, faces, and imagery from the community. One of the things I teach my house members is how to protect themselves, legally and financially. If people want your intellectual property, they should pay you for it, so you are benefiting from it just as they are benefiting from you.

Do you mind speaking about some of the history of ballroom?

Ballroom emerged in response to a history of oppression. It’s as much a response to our state of being as Black Lives Matter or the NAACP. People might shun me for saying that, but ballroom was a response to an epidemic. It was a response to people being isolated, belittled, discriminated against, not allowed to participate, not being seen as human beings, being deprived of opportunities, and having to deal with extreme neglect from our communities.

It emerged in response to youth being forced onto the streets because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression and in response to communities that should embrace young people allowing them to die.

Ballroom has so many ancestors, and I am constantly learning about individuals who made huge strides. Willi Ninja. Andre Mizrahi, who revolutionized vogue after Willie Ninja. The Houses of Avant-Garde, Andromeda, and Aphrodite, the houses that helped develop ballroom in the Midwest. There are also many living legends that haven’t had the opportunity to be honored as they’ve paved the way, Jack Mizrahi, Tommy Avant-Garde, Dr. Ayana Christian, and Aisha Prodigy, to name a few.

A community member participates in a Vogue Performance at the Walker Art Center July 21, 2016. Photo by Angela Jimenez

A community member participates in a vogue performance production at the Walker. Photo: Angela Jimenez

Though balls differ depending on the city and participating houses, some characteristics frequently reoccur. How are balls usually structured?  

Most Balls start at 2, 3, or 4 am, and being late is almost part of the fabulousness of it. If you show up on time you might be there before the promoter. Originally this was to ensure the safety of participants. I remember going to balls in Chicago at a community center that started at 2 am, after the straight event was cleared away. However, sometimes if you did an event at 2 am you risked crossing paths with the preceding straight event, and sometimes there were altercations and the use of homophobic slurs. Starting later also accommodated the schedules of community members and major ballroom figures who worked in clubs and as drag performers or as sex workers. It allowed people to join the ball after they got off work—to handle their livelihood and then engage with a community of peers and mentees.

Balls are typically structured like a competitive fashion event with categories. The categories are typically listed in advance in promotional materials, and some categories such as Vogue, Realness, and Runway regularly reoccur, as well as various fashion categories.

I think that Realness is the most responsive and unintentionally politically charged category. It is a category in which people compete based on their ability to “pass” in different roles: gender roles, gender-specific roles, roles in society. For a community in which people are regularly told they aren’t masculine or feminine enough it’s empowering—it’s an act of taking back.

When you think about Butch Realness or Trans-Man Realness or Femme-Queen Realness (a term that refers to women of trans experience) these categories allow people who have been discriminated against for their gender identity to come to a place where their identity is celebrated. In a society that says I can never be who I am, ballroom says you can, that you have made it, that you can compete and win as your gender identity, and provides validation. It’s still a competition, and you have to have a thick skin, but I’ve seen ballroom connect people.

Realness can also include other roles: Executive Realness is a category I particularly love. It’s not as famous outside the ballroom because it’s not one of the things that the mainstream can easily appropriate. In this category, you pass as an executive and it empowers people. It features LGBT African-American and Latino-American men who have not been accepted or represented or perceived as executives. Men who were told they were too flamboyant for that world. This category says: “Yes, these men can look and pass as an executive just like you; their identity does not disqualify them.” The category of Schoolboy Realness does the same thing: it shows that you can pass as a high school or college student.

For a long time voguing has been the most well known component of ballroom culture. What does voguing mean to you? 

In a way voguing is our political campaign, it’s the thing that makes us socially acceptable and the category that’s most easily digested by the mainstream. It’s the biggest part of the ball, and that’s okay. I love voguing. It is a beautiful art form that encompasses dance, movement, and athleticism. Voguing is a sport that requires dedication and tenacity. I know people who vogue and train six to eight hours a day.

Madonna put a face on it with Willi Ninja in her music video, and now you see vogue everywhere. You see Beyoncé do fallouts and see performers from a wide array of backgrounds, including youth dancers and cheerleaders, incorporating vogue into their routines. It’s the most recognizable piece of ballroom, and even though it is sometimes appropriated or made fun of, it’s incredibly significant and is something that a lot of people take inspiration from.

 

Semaj Bordeaux & Company performs at the Walker Art Center July 21, 2016: Photo: Angela Jimenez

Houses provide support and networks within the ballroom community, and are a central part of balls. How would you describe the structure of houses and the role that they play in ballroom?

A lot of the roles in ballroom mirror “mainstream society.” Houses are a family dynamic with a twist. They have mothers, fathers, and kids or children. The mother is usually the most revered person in the house and the nurturer of the house; they may have the most fashion sense and make sure that the wardrobe and different elements of performance are in place. The position is not gender-specific: just because you are a female-bodied person or a female-presenting person or a person with a female identity does not mean that you have to be a mother. There are many male figures who are house mothers.

The mother of my house [the House of Bordeaux] is a male figure who presents as male and identifies as male. He is the house mother. He is the one that my kids are able to talk to about deeply personal problems; he is the one they go to first for advice and nurturing. The father of the house is the disciplinarian—the one to make sure that people are governing themselves according to house rules.

Adults can be the house’s children. The children are not a specific age. Instead, the term describes your maturity and role in the house. They look to the parents for support and advice. They become like your real children, and you give them guidance as they navigate the world of LGBT and identity and connections.

You are the father of the House of Bordeaux. How would you describe your house?

The House of Bordeaux is family first. A lot of houses are centered solely around ballroom, but mine is not. I want Bordeaux to be a network that has visibility and an impact in the community that we are active in. Our pillars are education, sexual health and awareness, and leadership. I’m all about leadership development.

I run my house to focus on community building and relationship building. We have a strong commitment to education. One of my house rules is that you have to have a high school diploma (or be working towards one) or a GED. When people want to join my house but do not have these things, their brothers and sisters help them. I see the education as a requirement instead of a barrier.

I see each house member as a walking representation of Bordeaux. In my house we talk about Bordeaux Behavior as how you behave in public, how you interact with people, and your appearance. When people say they are a Bordeaux they align that with an individual who helps get jobs, helps community networks, and strengthens local businesses. We are building an enclave and purposely choose members from across professions and backgrounds. We have someone ready to go to med school. We have educators. We want to have our own businesses. We branch out of our family into industry. We want the logo to be associated with more than the social aspect of our lives. I always tell people, “I don’t want you to have spent five to 10 years as a Bordeaux and have nothing to show for it but some trophies.”

Before moving to the Twin Cities you lived in Chicago. What were your initial experiences with the ballroom scene there?

From youth until young adulthood ballroom was my life and my community. It was a safe space to come out. I came from a very religious background and grew up in a community in Chicago that often felt very homophobic. My grandfather was a minister, and I didn’t see positive images of Black LGBT people. I actually didn’t know Black people were gay until I went to high school.

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Community member, ballroom participant, and the Twin Cities’ first Butch of the Year, Cartier Bordeaux lost her life to gun violence. Photo courtesy Fatha Jazz Bordeaux

I was introduced to ballroom by one of my friends, and I saw people who went to church with me and lived in my neighborhood and grew up having the same experiences I did. It was a community where we could be ourselves and connect and have camaraderie. The balls were not even the main part for me—it was the family, the community, and not feeling alone.

After moving to the Twin Cities you spearheaded a local ballroom movement. Tell me about some of the balls you planned here.

In 2010 I went to a ball for Twin Cities Black Pride. It was [the organizers’] intention to host an event that would bring the community together. I thought about the ballroom scene in Chicago and how you could learn how to vogue and do runway, but how they also had an educational component: help with homework, testing, and assistance with resumes. After beginning to navigate the youth networks in the Twin Cities, I approached Jason Jackson at the University of Minnesota. At the time he was involved with a group called Tongues Untied, and we decided to throw a ball that would connect young people to support organizations, educational resources, and agencies. He introduced me to William Grier of the Minnesota Youth & AIDS Project, who is now Mother Couture Bordeaux.

At Pride that year we hosted a pre-ball on the Power to the People stage. I found people who had done ballroom before and brought them to the stage and let other people know that anyone could do this. That is one of the things that I love about ballroom: that if you have the willingness to learn, almost anyone can do it.

When you hear there is going to be a mainstream runway show, you think of a particular body type, particular faces, and the ability to connect to high-end fashion. This is all completely disregarded in Ballroom Runway, which is the category I walked in. It doesn’t matter if you’re tall enough or slim enough; in fact, you are celebrated for being a person outside that body type. There are lots of major ballroom categories that are filled with plus-sized people. It is all about the craft of runway. That was an element of ballroom I really wanted to bring to the Twin Cities, to transform it from a spectator city to a performing city.

In July 2011 we hosted the Candyland Ball at Café Southside. Over 100 people showed up, and we had to expand to a thrift store space. All of the Bordeaux prospects helped me get the store ready for the ball. My balls are dry events (no smoking or drinking) because I want youth and teenagers to be able to come into a safe space and engage with adults and community organizations. It was a major success, so I partnered with Twin Cities Black Pride to the host Black Cinema Ball in September at the VFW on Lyndale.

In December I hosted the Safe Sex Ball for World AIDS Day at the Heart of the Beast theater and worked with the Minnesota AIDS Project, Youth & AIDS Project, African-American AIDS/HIV Task Force, and Sisters Camelot. All of the categories were related to protection and safe sex. One category was to be the face of a safer sex ad campaign.

Ballroom here was a community that was developed on the foundations built by ballroom leaders, by drag queens and houses. Teaching balls have allowed the community to grow together and learn together. Since the Twin Cities ballroom community was so young and so small it was able to begin as an inclusive ballroom. It is one of the most culturally and socioeconomically diverse ballrooms I have ever encountered and brings together so many people: professors, social workers, youth, homeless youth homeless adults. It was my vision for Twin Cities ballroom to show the best parts of ballroom to unite communities without wrongful appropriation.

Fatha Jazz Bordeaux: Photograph courtesy of Fatha Jazz Bordeaux

Fatha Jazz Bordeaux: Photo courtesy the artist

One of the fights that ballroom constantly faces is the inclusion of female-bodied participants and masculine-identifying participants who are not cisgendered male, the inclusion of butch-identified, female-bodied persons, men of trans experience, women of trans experience, and cisgender women. As a cultivator of ballroom and a female-bodied, masculine-identifying person, I wanted to create a community that included me.

The House of Bordeaux has faced so much discrimination, but since Twin Cities ballroom emerged recently without the same history, we were able to create a space where more people were celebrated in the ballroom scene.

The image of ballroom has been misappropriated and misused, but I think there is still a great need for it. People are starving for it. Look at where we are now. Look at the recent events unfolding. It’s a way to engage a community that is hurting, that is angry. Ballroom brought so much joy and so many positive outlets for people. It’s pertinent for it to resurface at a time such as this.

New Frontier at Sundance Film Festival: 10 Years of Changing Boundaries

To commemorate ten years of innovation and experimentation at the New Frontier at Sundance Film Festival Program, the Walker’s Sheryl Mousley and Shari Frilot, New Frontier chief curator, offer this illustrated survey. Celebrating its 10th anniversary, the Sundance Institute’s New Frontier program has provided the highest level of curation in this emerging field since 2007. Virtual […]

Blast Theory, A Machine to See With, documentary, 2011. (© Walker Art Center)

Blast Theory, A Machine to See With, documentary, 2011. Photo: © Walker Art Center

To commemorate ten years of innovation and experimentation at the New Frontier at Sundance Film Festival Program, the Walker’s Sheryl Mousley and Shari Frilot, New Frontier chief curator, offer this illustrated survey. Celebrating its 10th anniversary, the Sundance Institute’s New Frontier program has provided the highest level of curation in this emerging field since 2007. Virtual Reality: The New Frontier runs at the Walker Art Center on Sunday, June 12 through Thursday, June 16 and is presented in collaboration with the Sundance Institute’s New Frontier program and Northern Lights.mn.

As I walked around Park City, Utah, in January 2011, I listened to directions over my cell phone from a calm voice with a slight British accent: “Stand nearer the curb as you are in a close-up”; “Look for the Union Bank on the right side of the street”; “Cross over toward the entrance, look at the teller window but go past to the lobby.” I did what I was told, but was I acting or actually being asked to rob a bank? Was I in a movie or about to be arrested?

I was participating in a work titled A Machine to See With by Blast Theory, an artist collective from England, presented in the New Frontier section of the Sundance Film Festival. It was a ticketed event, yet—unlike going to the cinema—once you handed over your cell phone number you were placed in the artists’ hands. While you were never actually being filmed, as you learned later, so much of what we believe about cinema came into play vividly, as if it were a real movie. We trust cinema until we are pushed past our own boundaries, to a new frontier. As we go into uncharted territories, we ask, Can we trust our vision, our understanding of the cinematic experience?

A broadly realized project, New Frontier is curated by Shari Frilot as a convergence of film, performance, new media and technology. Showing artists from around the world, it has become recognized widely for its cinematic innovation.

New Frontier, now celebrating its 10th year, transformed an existing programming section at Sundance that had been called simply “Frontier.” Always known for pushing forward more experimental work, Sundance was formed in 1985 by Robert Redford, who has been the steadfast champion of independent filmmakers. Focusing mainly on narrative features made outside the Hollywood system and documentaries that define the complexity of our social and political world, Frontier became the category meant to expand these traditional forms of cinematic storytelling. The name also served as a code for the audience to readily identify a film that experimented with nontraditional narrative, boldly radical styles or challenging storylines. The programmers had a place for films that did not fit easily within the evolving the idea that this category actually became a corral of sorts for renegade artists.

By 2007 the Sundance programmers found filmmakers and moving image artists expanding the boundaries even further as they worked within the ideas of the cinematic but did not play by filmmaking rules.

That year, Sundance announced the New Frontier initiative. Shari Frilot explained it as follows:

“New Frontier on Main was a hybrid space drawing from the art gallery scene, microcinema culture and the seductiveness of the DJ lounge atmosphere and then designed to look and feel very distinctive from the rest of the Festival. We wanted to cultivate an artistic and social environment to disarm people when they entered the space. It was a way of unlocking inhibitions and encouraging audiences to think about opening themselves up to the new rules and cinematic suggestions which the New Frontier artists are inviting you to consider.”

Quickly recognized for bringing the art world and the film festival world together, New Frontier tracked the developing performative cinema movement, the fast-paced tech advances and visual artists who used moving images as part of their work. It became a festival inside a festival.

Miwa Matreyek, This World Made Itself, live performance, 2014. Photo: Gayle Laird © Miwa Matreyek

Miwa Matreyek, This World Made Itself, live performance, 2014. Photo: Gayle Laird © Miwa Matreyek

In the area of performative cinema, we might ask: Is film inherently performative? Blast Theory used our belief in what an actor does on screen to get the audience to participate. Live performance’s long history onstage as well as staged happenings opened the door for Sam Green (January 2010) to make a live documentary film, Utopia in 4 Parts. Using the stylistic form of documentary film (although the work is actually more like early educational television with an authoritative voice-over, images created or culled from history, and a soundtrack to build emotional connection to the topic), Green shook up the system by never actually making a film but instead performing his text live. The audience watched him edit the images pulled from his laptop onto the screen, all to a live musical score by Dave Cerf.

In This World Made Itself, Miwa Matreyek used rear projection to create a stage space (2014). The projector, sitting about 20 feet behind the screen, provided the audience a large-screen cinema feel. This space also gave Matreyek room to move between the projector and screen to form larger- than-life silhouettes made by her body movements interacting with the filmic images.

To further reshape the concept of performative cinema, choreographer Bill T. Jones took on 3D cinema to interpret After Ghostcatching for the 2011 New Frontier, and performance artist Jacolby Satterwhite perched himself above the 2014 festival scene, watching us even more than we were watching him at the New Frontier opening event. The past 10 years have seen exhilarating changes in technology. Some film projects become an interactive experience via technology. As an example, Eve Sussman’s whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir is both a feature film and a nonending story that edits itself in front of your eyes via an algorithmic program and multiplied tagged clips. A word in one scene will trigger what is chosen for the next scene; a movement across the screen will trigger another. The film is based on a tale set in mid-century Eastern Europe but is never the same sequence of events and so never the same story.

Still from whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir, 2009-2011, Eve Sussman | Rufus Corporation Collection Richard J. Massey, New York

Still from whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir, 2009-2011, Eve Sussman | Rufus Corporation. Collection Richard J. Massey, New York

Another example of how technology morphs film and performance is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s hitRECord.org, an evolved film production company that assembles an independent social media community that comes together to crowdsource the making of films under Gordon-Levitt’s direction. These films are exhibited in various ways, almost always incorporating Gordon-Levitt’s performance, as well as activating and incorporating crowdsource-produced elements generated during the exhibition. hitRECord.org is a unique cinematic expression that is at once social media discussion, crowdsourced production and performance. It completely ruptures conventional narrative traditions.

New Frontier looks as much at artistic practice as at final projects when following the struggles, love, fun and risks artists use to create work that opens up the boundaries. So we ask: Do we need a frontier? Many artists consider themselves sans frontières, without disciplines, without boundaries to push. The more definition, the more there is to resist. I have been in Park City for all 10 years of New Frontier. In fact, I started to go to Sundance in 1992 and have only missed a few years. Having seen this evolution, I know that it is more comfortable for some artists to stay within the frame of film. After all, this is a film festival. But just as I recently changed the name of the Film/Video department at Walker Art Center to Moving Image, it is time that the format-driven names film and video give up their ghosts. Film once equaled cinematic experience, and video was for artist installations; but those terms have grown tired and out of date. Now we have per- formative cinema, whether filmed or live; versions of 3D that go beyond watching projections while wearing glasses in the dark; the Oculus Rift sense of virtual reality where you turn your head and body to see a full 360 degrees and know the action might be behind you; or the reshaping of on-screen strategies by the video-game-playing generation of artists.

I asked Shari Frilot her thoughts about her 10 years with this exciting program:

“We brought the worlds of film, performance, visual art and technology under one roof in a social setting to reinvigorate the conversation about the potential for the cinematic image, and we had hoped that something larger than the sum of its parts would emerge. And emerge it did—gestural forms of editing film, audiences authoring the film itself through active participation, video games that are documentaries, performances that double as simply the act of living in an immersive digital environment, and a powerful reincarnation of Virtual Reality, a fully immersive medium that hybridizes video and theater to deliver a deeply convincing sense of liberty and presence in the moment.”

For 10 years, New Frontier has been on the forefront of visual awareness. At its very foundation it is about learning new ways of seeing and giving artists space and time to hone their work and change the way we see Moving Image.

Story is how we understand ourselves, our society and the world around us. But story doesn’t exist until it is shared through the mediums we use to communicate—our communication architecture. Today that architecture, which affects the form and practice of storytelling as much as the content itself, stands on the verge of a massive paradigm shift, one that will impact storytelling at a scope and scale that is breathtaking.

—Sheryl Mousley

• • • •

2007

The inaugural year of New Frontier was presented in 2007 in the basement of the Main Street Mall (Park City, Utah), directly across the street from the signature Egyptian Theater, so that art, film and technology would converge in Park City for the first time. This experiment in festival exhibition generated palpable excitement and not only blossomed to become one of the major points of interest at the Sundance Film Festival but also inspired the creation of an Institute-wide initiative. In 2011, the Sundance Institute established artist development programs for New Frontier artists that include the Story Lab, Artist Residency, granting, alumni support and Day Labs.

A view inside New Frontier at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. (© 2008 Sundance Institute. Photo by Rachel Thurston.

A view inside New Frontier at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. © 2008 Sundance Institute. Photo: Rachel Thurston

 

Media artists R. Luke DuBois and Shu Lea Cheang were featured in the 2007 festival as two examples of art-world figures who were innovating technology in their studios in ways that would resonate powerfully with the changes in communication architecture to come. Lynn Hershman Leeson was a returning film- maker and media artist pushing the boundaries of form and content.

DuBois worked on the vanguard, developing algorithmic compression technologies to explore ideas of canon and historical progress in popular culture. His work, Play, melds every Playboy magazine centerfold since 1953 into a dynamic collective portrait of idealized feminine beauty as it has changed over the last half century, and his film, Academy, melds every Best Picture winner, in its entirety, into a single 70-minute film.

Cheang led the cutting edge of crowdsourcing narrative filmmaking with her interactive multimedia installation MobiOpera, which invited festival-goers to check out mobile phones in order to jointly script and shoot a narrative “soap-travaganza.” Soapisodes were uploaded into a timeline and presented at a MobiSlam party to bring the authors together to jam their footage.

Shu Lea Cheang, MobiOpera, collective public cinema, 2007. (© Shu Lea Cheang)

Shu Lea Cheang, MobiOpera, collective public cinema, 2007. Photo: © Shu Lea Cheang

That same year, Lynn Hershman Leeson would present the first feature film offered to the denizens of the cybersociety Second Life. Her film, Strange Culture, played to both Park City and Second Life audiences and was discussed collectively in a Q&A organized across the live/virtual divide.

2008

Traditional boundaries between artistic forms continued to be challenged by the artists in the 2008 edition of New Frontier. Cinematic images engaged architecture in Jennifer Steinkamp’s Mike Kelley Trees, which transformed the basement lounge into a magical forest of digitally generated trees that twisted and turned in a toroidal electronic wind.

In an adjacent gallery, experimental game developer Eddo Stern gave Sundance audiences the chance to consider storytelling as they engaged with a work that integrated gaming and haptic feedback. Darkgame was a two-player game that worked with various forms of sensory deprivation to advance character development.

The same year, Cory Arcangel in collaboration with Paper Rad blew up pop art in a one-night-only film and live music performance that broke down consumer- sized ideas and colors with lucid, OCD-tripping, Nintendo-like worlds and “The Bruce Springsteen Born to Run Glockenspiel Addendum.” It would be the first time an artist presented work at the festival via Skype.

2009

The power of computing started to manifest changes in how stories were told in the 2009 edition of New Frontier. Renowned MIT Media Lab scientist John Underkoffler was responsible for the computing visualized by Tom Cruise in the film Minority Report. Underkoffler’s new company, Oblong Industries, created the first operating system based on a gestural interface, called gspeak, and unveiled the video editing app Tamper, which allowed filmmakers not only to edit clips with hand gestures but also to take apart and reassemble visual elements of the clips into an entirely new composition, reintroducing the act of production into the post- production process.

Sundance filmmaker Cory McAbee was experimenting with creating a narrative that could show on cellphones and proposed the episodic series Stingray Sam, meant to be exhibited on small screens. This musically inspired project recounted the adventures of two space convicts as they earn their freedom in exchange for rescuing a young girl held captive by a genetically designed figurehead from a very wealthy planet. The project was accepted on script alone and was an unqualified hit at the festival.

Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar introduced Sundance audiences to the craft of creating narrative through data visualization with their work We Feel Fine, which explores human emotion on a global scale. Every few minutes, the program takes sentences that include the words “I feel” or “I am feeling” from all blogs that have just been published and visualizes them in ways that let viewers see what any part of the world is feeling at any given moment.

2010

By 2010, the festival had witnessed a massive collapse of the independent film business as indie shingles in the studio system shuttered and financing for independent film dried up. Before this juncture, New Frontier had been regarded as a kind of marginal cool art experiment. Now festival audiences were entering the venue in an active search for alternative ways of moving forward with the art, craft and business of independent storytelling.

Documentarians Sam Green and Dave Cerf took cues from the music business, which had switched from selling albums to selling concert tickets, and created the live-performed documentary Utopia in Four Movements, in which Green and Cerf performed live narrative and soundtrack to accompany a PowerPoint presentation of images and footage to tell the story of the history of the utopian impulse.

Sam Green and Dave Cerf, Utopia in Four Movements, live documentary, 2010. (© Sundance Institute)

Sam Green and Dave Cerf, Utopia in Four Movements, live documentary, 2010. Phott: © Sundance Institute

The actor Joseph Gordon- Levitt presented a new brand of production company that was part crowdsourced media workshop, part social network and part live performance. hitRECord.org operated a production studio at the venue and invited audiences to collaborate with Levitt to create short films that would then be presented at the festival in an interactive revue hosted by the actor.

Arizona farmer Matthew Moore took cinematic storytelling out of the exhibition space and into the local grocery store. Lifecycles reconfigured the produce section of the Fresh Market grocery store in Park City by showing time-lapse films of crops growing alongside the bins of the very same crop being sold at the store, transforming audiences’ relationship to the produce they bought and consumed.

2011

The 2011 edition of New Frontier was presented at the historic Miners Hospital and featured 18 works—art installations, performances and transmedia projects. Filmmaker/creative technologist duo Chris Milk and Aaron Koblin presented two works at the festival: the HTML music video The Wilderness Downtown <www. thewildernessdowntown.com/> and The Johnny Cash Project, a participatory web-based project that invites audiences to create individual drawings that are woven into a collective, animated music-video tribute to Johnny Cash, set to his song “Ain’t No Grave.”

Filmmaker/transmedia storyteller Lance Weiler blurred the boundaries between R&D and festival exhibition with a multi-platformed story that tracks the spread of a mysterious zombie virus affecting adults as it spreads from its small rural town origins to Park City.

Pandemic 1.0, a continually evolving transmedia storytelling experience that unites film, mobile and online technologies, props, social gaming and data visualization, allowed audiences to step into the shoes of the pandemic protagonists anytime during the day.

Animator/performance artist Miwa Matreyek presented two cinematic performance works—Dreaming of Lucid Living and Myth and Infrastructure—integrating Matreyek’s original animation with the artist’s live shadow play to create breathtakingly beautiful images that told a penetrating tale of the relationship between the domestic realm and the larger surrounding environment.

2012

2012 marked a major shift in how technology would affect the moving image, but no one knew it just then. Former Newsweek correspondent Nonny de la Peña developed a groundbreaking brand of journalism that made news reporting a fully immersive experience (Hunger in Los Angeles). The head-mounted display that she developed with 18-year-old intern Palmer Lucky would be the first prototype for the reincarnation of virtual reality.

Collaborators Chris Johnson and Hank Willis Thomas, in collaboration with Bayete Ross Smith and Kamal Sinclair, reimagined the social network with Question Bridge: Black Males, a work that allowed black men to speak for themselves and to one another from a safe, personal space. In this inspired exquisite corpse project, the interviews that the men recorded and uploaded in solitude were then edited together by the collective and installed to play as a forum discussion between the men.

The National Film Board of Canada’s Bear 71 would break ground, gaining worldwide attention to the art and craft of transmedia documentary storytelling. Audiences follow an emotional narrative of a bear trying to survive in the Canadian Rockies as online participants join the interactive forest com- munity in which the tagged Bear 71 roams.

2013

The desire to create fully immersive media forms was trending rapidly among artists, with various forms of expression emerging on the deeply networked media landscape. Klip Collective, who began projecting on tables in the 2007 edition of New Frontier, created What’s He Building in There?, a large-scale 3D projection–mapped film that transformed the entire frontal exterior of the New Frontier venue, which that year was a retired lumberyard.

Klip Collective, What’s He Building in There?, video projection, 2013. (© Sundance Institute)

Klip Collective, What’s He Building in There?, video projection, 2013. Photo: © Sundance Institute

Inspired by the international science collaboration of 1761, which observed the transit of Venus, Lynette Wallworth created the visually stunning Coral: Rekindling Venus, a networked, augmented-reality, full-dome film presentation that was presented in planetariums worldwide. This epic project featured original deep-sea photography and music by Antony and the Johnsons.

Blending augmented reality, social media satire, IRL (“in real life”) performance and hip hop music video, Yung Jake was himself net art incarnate. Crafting a fluid and elusive identity that mainly lived as a conversation between himself and the various screens in his environment, Yung Jake’s work Augmented Real posed questions about identity in an age when most people were looking at their digital screens as much as at each other.

2014

In 2014, New Frontier moved back to the Main Street area (sharing a building with the festival box office) and debuted Oculus Rift’s first development kit, offering festival audiences a showcase of four VR works, including the multiplayer game EVE: Valkyrie by CCP games; the music video Sound and Vision by Chris Milk; the app VR Cinema, where the 3D New Frontier shorts screened; and Clouds, a VR version of the interactive documentary about the world of creative code by James George and Jonathan Minard.

Chris Milk and Aaron Koblin, The Johnny Cash Project, animated music video, 2011. (© Sundance Institute)

Chris Milk and Aaron Koblin, The Johnny Cash Project, animated music video, 2011. Photo: © Sundance Institute

Media artist Doug Aitken presented a 2,000-square-foot pavilion installation designed in collaboration with architect David Adjaye that was installed in the Main Street area. The Source is an immersive, multi-platformed, generative documentary exploring the nature and source of creativity. The work was presented as a rhythmic, six-channel projection installation, a living archive website and short films presented in various screens throughout the festival.

The media performance art of Jacolby Satterwhite defies categorization, incorporating live vogue dancing, sculpture and various original CG animations depicting hallucinogenic and outlandishly sexual landscapes and storylines. His bold and hallucinogenic work burns with originality, desire and conceptual density. Satterwhite evokes a universe where sexuality runs hungry and wild through the psychobioelectric matrix in search of transformation and liberation.

2015

In March of 2014, Facebook would buy Oculus for $2 billion and by June, Samsung would develop Gear VR, Google would release Cardboard, Sony would prototype their Morpheus headset and a veritable gold rush to develop a commercial VR camera would ensue. The technology seemed on the precipice of transforming cinematic storytelling, so we made a decision to focus on VR for the 2015 edition and show the diversity of approaches and artistic practices that were engaging the new medium. Works included Vincent Morisset’s groundbreaking Way to Go; Rose Troche and Morris May’s Perspective; Chapter 1:The Party; and Chris Milk’s stunning Evolution of Verse. Fox Searchlight had even produced its firstVR experience, Wild, with Directors Felix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael, also the first of its kind to feature widely recognized Hollywood stars.

Chris Milk, Evolution of Verse, VR, 2015. (© Chris Milk)

Chris Milk, Evolution of Verse, VR, 2015. Photo: © Chris Milk

VR would bring the world of the cinematic closer to the gaming industry than ever before, so we decided to showcase the hottest piece of game storytelling I had seen that year, 1979 Revolution, a groundbreaking documentary about the namesake event, the Iranian Revolution, told as a game designed for iPad and Oculus.

After the 2015 edition of New Frontier, the field of VR exploded and would begin to transform both the entertainment and publishing industries, as much as it was affecting the gaming and medical industries. Cinematic storytelling entered a bold new world.

The 2015 festival proved to be a watershed event that connected the world of cinema to the medium of VR. Billion-dollar projections were being forecast for the industry, and VR companies, who once saw their future in games, began to talk publicly about the importance of VR storytelling. World-class musician Björk was creating a new album to be presented entirely in VR, and The New York Times gave away 1 million Google Cardboard goggles to its subscriber base. The media landscape was undeniably changing.

2016

The 2016 edition of New Frontier, which marked the 10th anniversary of the exhibition, reflected how strongly storytellers were embracing VR. We featured a slate of 44 artists, 30 of which were VR experiences, ranging from documentaries to animation to live-action narrative. We developed an independent architecture within New Frontier at Sundance to showcase this burgeoning VR production and highlight its downloadable/mobile nature.

Following the form of the medium, we also created the Sundance VR app for Android so that audiences outside of Park City might access the work.

Amid the landing of the VR tidal wave, New Frontier still needed to do its job at the festival to showcase and provoke continued innovation realized at the crossroads of film, art and technology. The 2016 edition presented the work being done in several important media labs around the world, including the 5D World Building Media Lab who were integrating VR and haptic environments, as well as advancing new forms of Augmented Reality storytelling in their developing storyworld, Leviathan.

Staying true to continuing to bring together diverse forms under one roof, several immersive projection works were presented, including Kahlil Joseph and Kendrick Lamar’s stunning two-screen work, Double Conscience.

Kahlil Joseph and Kendrick Lamar, Double Conscience, installation, 2014. (© Kahlil Joseph, Kendrick Lamar. Photo © Chayse Irvin.)

Kahlil Joseph and Kendrick Lamar, Double Conscience, installation, 2014. © Kahlil Joseph, Kendrick Lamar. Photo © Chayse Irvin

Both the MoMA and Walker Art Center organized exhibitions saluting the achievement of New Frontier at Sundance that would run throughout the year. The success of the show prompted the relentless question from the press corp: “How has New Frontier changed?” But nothing had really changed. New Frontier was doing exactly what it had started to do in the basement of the Main Street Mall in 2007, which was find the artists who were working with cinematic language—regardless of whether they were working in the art world, or with technology, or in journalism or in performance—and bring them under one roof at the Sundance Film Festival and see how cinema culture could expand in ways we couldn’t have ever thought of before.

“New Frontier at Sundance Film Festival,” by Sheryl Mousley and Shari Frilot, was first published in Leonardo, 49:2 (April, 2016), pp. 109–112. © 2016 by the International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology (ISAST). Reprinted courtesy of The MIT Press. The original published article can be found here.

What is a Contemporary Collection? Thoughts on the Walker Moving Image Commissions and the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

The Walker Moving Image Commissions is an online series in which five artists responded to selections from the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection. Premiered in the Walker Cinema and released for a limited run online, the Moving Image Commissions were initiated in May 2015 with premieres of work by Moyra Davey and James Richards that focused […]

James Richards, Radio at Night, 2015, video. Walker Moving Image Commission

James Richards, Radio at Night, 2015. Walker Moving Image Commission

The Walker Moving Image Commissions is an online series in which five artists responded to selections from the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection. Premiered in the Walker Cinema and released for a limited run online, the Moving Image Commissions were initiated in May 2015 with premieres of work by Moyra Davey and James Richards that focused on Derek Jarman, followed by works by Shahryar Nashat and Uri Aran that responded to the influence of Marcel Broodthaers in February 2016. This first season of the Moving Image Commissions concluded with work inspired by Bruce Conner, produced by Leslie Thornton. All work streams online until May 31 2016.

The process of building a collection—whether art or another cultural form of hoarding—has perpetually shifting endeavors. Acquiring, commissioning, exhibiting, preserving, and loaning can be but a few of the practical tasks of any art collection. But folded into such activities is the similarly ongoing process of coming to terms with that same collection’s composition. Where has it come from? What does it contain? What else should be included? The answers to these investigations are continuous, and only become comprehensive and finite once a collection transitions into the state of archive. The Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection, which began in 1973, remains a space of expanding inquiry and acquisition.

An art collection often underscores the identity of an institution itself, and the Walker Art Center is no exception. A collection of works might indicate different tastes at different times, but every commissioned or acquired work always has the capacity to reconfigure a collection’s character. For the Walker, the outcome of such reconfigurations is often public—namely, the act of exhibition. But my commentary here is about what happens prior to such results. It is about what decisions are made before the public can encounter aspects of the collection. This text is also an attempt to reflect and give narrative—justification, even—to the end results: the recent work of the Ruben/Bentson Collection and our latest project, the Moving Image Commissions.

When I was first hired as the Walker’s Bentson Moving Image Scholar in early 2014, this new role necessitated a response to a number of major questions, not least the following: what and who is the Ruben/Bentson Collection for, how does it relate to contemporary art and life, and where does the “power,” interest, and influence of the collection reside? The answers to these questions are never static, but some had very literal immediate answers: the Ruben/Bentson Collection is, as Moving Image Senior Curator Sheryl Mousley describes:

a key facet of the Walker Art Center. The more than 1,000 titles, primarily the American avant-garde films from the 1950–1980s, while also including early silent films like the Lumière Brothers from 1894 to artist’s films from the past decade, are regularly featured throughout the museum.

In 2014, when such questions were being considered, the collection was available for research within the Walker’s on-site archive, and its importance resided in the pre-existing scholarship and exhibition both within and outside of the institution’s Minneapolis base. In short, access was specialized and tied to a physical space.

For a hybrid institution like the Walker—a space that is both a museological collection and a contemporary art center—these aforementioned answers needed to be reimagined, extended, and include greater access. Not content to passively wait for a specialist to come along with an interest in researching one of more than 1,000 titles, the Walker’s Artistic Director Fionn Meade, Mousley, and I together ventured that the Walker needed to find additional ways of metabolizing this collection of works. We wanted to actively ingest the collection’s substance, style, and idiosyncrasies into a contemporary mode of thinking, so that its importance might find new spaces of exhibition, inquiry, and effect. While the opening of the Walker Mediatheque (an on-demand cinema opened in 2015) dealt with digitizing and offering unprecedented access to the existing works in the collection, we still needed to address the issue of what should be added to the collection. Or, in the case of artists, who might want to work with us to develop new work for the collection.

Shaharyar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Shaharyar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016, detail. Walker Moving Image Commission

Early on, Fionn, Sheryl, and I were keen to find sympathetic links between discrete elements of this historical collection that might have contemporary resonance and would embrace a contemporary form of access—namely, online streaming. No longer tied to the restricted privileges of a scholar being able to physically arrive at the Walker archive under the justification of research, we felt that the future works of the Ruben/Bentson collection needed to be distributed beyond its current capacity. We also wanted to use a broadcast medium that would engage the Walker as a generative hub, rather than purely a transmitter—a commissioner as well as a display platform.

We thought about the benefits of a traditional exhibition or cinema run—both time-limited projects that emphasize the “liveness” of a cultural work—and respected that such parameters are important. We didn’t want to abandon works of art to stream indefinitely, with the precarious and sometimes valueless status of online drift and anonymity. This wasn’t just a conceptual preciousness; it was informed by practical ideas of care for the work. We wished to avoid an imminent future of aging HTML architecture, broken links, and atrophying resolution quality. We decided six weeks, then, as the period in which the commission would stream online, and prefaced by a cinema premiere for each work.

When considering artists with whom we hoped to work build the Ruben/Bentson collection, we considered artistic practices in terms of adjacencies rather than hierarchies, shared methodologies rather than chronological categories, imagined legacies rather than contemporary peer context. Such a move was an explicit refusal to fill in any existing chronological “gaps” in the collection, of which there are many. (What a “gap” might mean in any collection is itself interesting; it is rarely neutral and often articulates the character of a collection. It marks the times and tastes in which is has existed.) Perhaps there was a way to attenuate such gaps, rather than retroactively patch it up into something encyclopedic, where an attempt at comprehensiveness might be read as an impossible attempt at objectivity. The Ruben/Bentson Collection remains partial, and it was from this partiality that we wanted to operate and use as an aspect of its persona, rather than a fault of oversight.

The three of us discussed what it might mean to extrapolate works that function in concert with one another, to create constellations of works, where “collecting,” “commissioning,” and “acquiring” could be thought of within the same breath. We hoped that the influence, inspiration, and inquiry of a “signature” artist within the collection might trigger a contemporary future for new works for an expanded collection. Swiftly identifying the extensive holdings of titles by Derek Jarman, Marcel Broodthaers, and Bruce Conner within the Ruben/Bentson Collection, we more organically considered the work of the following artists: Moyra Davey, James Richards, Uri Aran, Shahryar Nashat, and Leslie Thornton.

Leslie Thornton, They Were Just People, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Leslie Thornton, They Were Just People, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

I’d like to say our selection of five artists was more deliberately organized, but in fact our formal conversations in meeting rooms during the working day more naturally flowed into informal conversations in cafes and primarily constituted contemporary artists whose work we had seen and continued to follow with excitement. We thought about formal coincidences, conceptual complements, shared attitudes between artists both past and present. Weren’t Moyra Davey’s writings and her recent videos—with their intimate approach to memoir and quotidian reflections on the capacity and psychic life of the human body—working in parallel to the activities of the late Derek Jarman, for example? What was that incredible, even impossible anecdote that Leslie Thornton relayed to me once about her father and grandfather’s role in the atomic bomb, and wasn’t Bruce Conner’s film of the nuclear bomb test Crossroads just restored? Sometimes our conversation was almost goofily formal; wasn’t Uri Aran table sculpture—replete with cookies and buttons—operating with a similar language to Marcel Broodthaers tables of eggs? How come Shahryar Nashat’s practice seemed to pivot on the notion of the “figure” with the same tenacity as Broodthaers obsession for the word?

Uri Aran, Untitled, 2011

Uri Aran, Untitled, 2011

Marcel Broodthaers, Panel with Eggs and Stool, 1966

Marcel Broodthaers, Panel with Eggs and Stool, 1966

Of course, the flow of conversation needed to be shared with the artists themselves. Could the collection provoke the creation of new works? Would they even like the collected artists we were linking them to? Integral to such conversations was the desire that any commissioning process be at least an interesting proposition to these five contemporary artist. We couldn’t make any assumptions, and so my invitations to the artists were very open, beginning initially with a suggestion of sympathetic parallels between their own work and that of the titles in the Ruben/Bentson Collection. In the very first invitation, a tentative email I sent to Moyra Davey on May 6, 2014, I wrote with some frankness about the contextual frame:

It is of course dependent on whether you have any interest in Jarman (though there are many Dereks to choose from)… The space of the diary as a test site and space of desire that constantly leaks into Jarman’s work feels highly relevant here.

The artists themselves had their own responses to the invitation, most noting their longstanding connection to the work. James Richards immediately accepted the invitation to respond to Jarman, noting the latter as a key influence while he doing his foundation degree at art school. Leslie Thornton, meanwhile, described the influence of Conner as an “enabling force. Not in imitation, more as point of departure, and a fundamental reassurance.” Davey chose to fold her shrewd analysis of the commissioning situation into the work itself, with an arch and open-ended question:

In his book Dancing Ledge, Jarman writes about hating the struggle—the struggle to paint, to be an artist, to have quick success. “Struggle” is a word I’ve used to describe a lot to describe my own experience. I used to disparage art made on demand. I thought you could tell that things had been solely made because there was a budget. And now I do almost only that. I’m doing it now. Jarman on commission. And I love it. But what of the art? Is it worse? Can you tell?

Moyra Davey, Notes on Blue, 2015, production still

Moyra Davey, Notes on Blue, 2015, production still. Walker Moving Image Commission

Prior to online broadcast, each of the five artists presented their commissioned work in the Walker Cinema, valuing the communal event of the cinema premiere as the launch for the works’ dispersed, multi-platform outing online. While some screenings allowed us to revisit and recontextualize the work of Jarman, Broodthaers, and Conner on the big screen, as well as in essayistic terms (I wrote an extended essay for each commission), it also produced unexpected relationships between the five commissioned artists. Most notably, Thornton and Richards went well beyond the format of screening-plus-conversation, and instead created a brand new video work in collaboration with one another, entitled Crossing, made for the Walker Cinema. In its nebulous status (not an official Moving Image Commission, but jointly authored within a new collaboration that sprang directly from the commissioning process), Crossing is a work that now requires us to think anew about the possibilities of a collection that is both expanding and responding to itself. Just as the character of the collection reflects the works it houses, the self-reflexivity of the Ruben/Bentson collection is and should be inspired by a work like Crossing, a video that exudes the pleasure of grasping for a new collaborative language, where one’s own tastes might flow in and out of that of another. Crossing presents the willing desire to enmesh distinct logics, to offer oneself up to another’s process in order to produce a new dialogue of speaking and visualizing a world where, as one of the artist’s describes, “something special can happen that goes beyond conscious expectation or design.”

James Richards and Leslie Thornton, Crossing, 2016

James Richards and Leslie Thornton, Crossing, 2016

Moving forward into considering the new sites, spaces, and artists for another round of the Moving Image Commissions, it is this kind of ambitious dialogue—enriched by the artists and their work—we must seek to fold into an expanding Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection. Season two, galvanized by this initial round, has begun in earnest and will be launched in 2017.

In Which Hip-Hop Ends Up Saving Itself: On Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style

Considering its status as a founding document of one of the twentieth century’s defining cultural phenomena, it would be easy to forget Wild Style’s origins in the high art ferment of New York’s 1980s Downtown scene. Sampled and interpolated for decades by everyone from “conscious” rap standard bearers Black Star to commercial giants like the […]

Wild_Style_Ahearn_02_PP

Wild Style mural with Fab 5 Freddy and Rock Steady. Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style, 1983. Photo courtesy Martha Cooper

Considering its status as a founding document of one of the twentieth century’s defining cultural phenomena, it would be easy to forget Wild Style’s origins in the high art ferment of New York’s 1980s Downtown scene. Sampled and interpolated for decades by everyone from “conscious” rap standard bearers Black Star to commercial giants like the Beastie Boys, Charlie Ahearn’s 1983 filmwhich screens in the Walker Cinema April 30 as part of the series Downtown New York: 1970s and 1980s Art and Filmserves as a creation myth for a culture that reconfigured popular aesthetics and birthed one of the most ubiquitous musical styles in the world. Yet both project and filmmaker display deep roots in a particular cinematic moment, when consumer-grade technology democratized filmmaking craft and a group of DIY Manhattan artists set out to depict their world.

During the 1970s and ’80s, low rents in the historically working-class neighborhoods of Lower Manhattan attracted artists of all stripes, generating punk, New Wave, an innovative loft performance scene, and the first establishment-vetted street art. Alongside these innovations in the fields of music and the plastic arts came a renewed interest among artists in filmmaking. This group included Amos Poe, Vivienne Dick, James Nares, Lizzie Borden, and Ericka Beckman, among others. With the advent of cheap, single-system Super 8 camerasor, in Ahearn’s case, a 16mm Bolexmany of these artistsfrequently with no formal filmmaking trainingfound themselves able to make feature-length, narrative films with minimal crew and a miniscule budget. In general, these films weren’t intended for large-scale distribution, but rather peer review, starring minor celebrities from the local art scene and shown in independent venues like the New Cinema on St. Mark’s Place.

In her book The (Moving) Pictures Generation: The Cinematic Impulse in Downtown New York Art and Film, Vera Dika traces a loose movement towards exploring the “cinematic” among the practices of several artists working within the context of “Downtown New York” starting in the ’70s. Dika primarily situates these artists’ work in response to that of Andy Warholwhose films (notably the Screen Tests shot between 1964 and 1966) appropriate Hollywood tropes to their own endsand the formal experiments of the mid-century avant-garde. While many of the artists working in the Downtown scene borrowed from Warhol’s parody and appropriation, as well as the practical and critical examples of the avant-garde, this new generation was less interested in critiquing the pop ideologies promoted on TV and film or engaging in postmodern deconstructions of film medium and practice. Rather, as Dika contends, the Downtown filmmakers’ project is one of “reanimation” or “return,” in which “cinematic concerns are readdressed, and Warhol’s work, as well as that of other pertinent artists, is often reevaluated or critiqued.” The Downtown artists of the ’70s and ’80s are notable for their move away from  avant-garde abstraction and towards representative images, with a widespread re-engagement with narrativeas if, having spied the limits of the confrontational, conceptual work of the preceding generation, they felt compelled to submit these very reference points to the same spirit of scrutiny in which they were made. The resulting films are tongue-in-cheek and abrasively metathe product of the same culture that birthed punk and its progenybearing layered references to previous film movements that often spill into humorous, chaotic parody.

Director Charlie Ahearn, 2007. Photo courtesy Vasily Konstantin.

Director Charlie Ahearn, 2007. Photo courtesy Vasily Konstantin

Ahearn, who moved to New York City in 1973 to participate in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Studio Program, was a singular presence within this ironic, even antagonistic milieu, a sincere and inquisitive cultural explorer who was deeply familiar with, yet skeptical of, the Downtown scene. Like many of his contemporaries, Ahearn was inspired by the DIY ethic and palpably durational quality of early Warhol. Yet, his feature films marked a strong departure from contemporary projects, both in his embrace of non-ironic narrative and his willingness to take the camera outside the insular world of Manhattan art, which he described as “a kind of apartheid.”

In the late ’70s, Ahearn became involved in the artists’ group Collaborative Projects (or, simply, Colab), a loose collection of artists with a shared interest in political and activist art. As part of Colab, Ahearn helped produce All Color News, a reportage program made in a cinéma vérité style that broadcast images from the New York streets over public access TV. This kind of experimentation soon led him onto the turf of his Wild Style star Lee Quinones: the Alfred E. Smith Houses, where he would shoot 16mm films of residential life and return a week later to project them on the walls of the project. When a group of neighborhood kids asked him to make a kung fu movie based around the martial arts school where they studied, Ahearn happily agreed, initiating an ad hoc community collaboration that would result in his first feature: The Deadly Art of Survival (1979).

“It wasn’t a political process in the sense that we were joining political parties and going to protests. But it was definitely stepping outside the art world and making things independently that in some way reflected the outside world,” Ahearn told me. “[This] later came to things like the Real Estate Show or the Times Square Show, which combined aspects of art-making with ideas about opening up the subject matter and the venue and the audience for art, which is something I was very interested in doing.”

It was at the Times Square Art Show, a huge 1980 exhibition organized by Colab, that the seeds for Wild Style were initially planted. Intrigued by the posters for The Deadly Art of Survival that he’d seen around town, Fab 5 Freddy (Fred Brathwaite)the graffiti artist, rapper, and general Downtown scenester who would go on to produce and co-star in Wild Styleintroduced himself to Ahearn and mentioned his desire to make a film that combined the graffiti scene with the culture of rap, breakdance, and DJ work that was blossoming in the South Bronx. A Brooklyn native, Brathwaite had already begun to cultivate connections within the hip-hop world, including a friendship with the graffiti artist Quinones (whom Ahearn admired, but had met only briefly), and over the following year, he and Ahearn immersed themselves in this culture, attending hip-hop parties in the Bronx and getting to know the people and places that would eventually populate their film. Shot in 1981 and edited over the following two years, Wild Style received a nationwide releasethe exception among the early Downtown film oeuvrein November of 1983.

Although it is commonly regarded as a sort of time capsule, in addition to its documentary riches—lengthy performances by Cold Crush Bros and Grandmaster Flash, breakdancing from the Rock Steady Crew, graffiti footage from the train-bombing renaissance of the early street sceneWild Style also offers a coherent, if somewhat itinerant, story, one that displays a striking prescience regarding the themes that would define the film’s legacy. Quinonesalready somewhat known in the gallery world, having shown at White Columns in New York and Galleria La Medusa in Romeplays a graffiti writer with the tag name Zoro, an outlaw of the South Bronx street scene, equally skeptical of his peersled by an estranged love interest (played by the graffiti writer Lady Pink)and the various representatives of the high art world who seek to promote (and perhaps exploit) his talent. These tentative encounters with fame and fortune make up the film’s narrative backbone, and in the outdoor concert that serves as the film’s climax—performed on a stage decorated with a giant Zoro muralAhearn offers an alternative to the potentially problematic assimilation of street culture into the artistic mainstream.

“What I was trying to do in the movie is to create a series of audiences,” Ahearn said: affluent art collectors at a Manhattan party, a genuinely interestedif slightly cluelessjournalist researching the graffiti scene (played by Downtown film veteran Patti Astor), and the mostly black and Latino crowds who gather for the community concert at the end. “I was trying to have [Lee] express the idea that through hip-hop and graffiti there was a transformation of communities. And that that was a really positive thing.”

Rammellzee and Rock Steady at the Amphitheater. Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style, 1982. Photo courtesy Martha Cooper.

Rammellzee and Rock Steady at the Amphitheater. Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style, 1982. Photo courtesy Martha Cooper

Over the following decade, the fate of both Wild Style and the hip-hop culture it so lovingly depicted was decidedly less utopian than how Ahearn had envisioned it. Breakdancing, fueled by international exposure to Wild Style and subsequent films including Style Wars (1983), experienced a fad period in the mid-’80s, but faded from the spotlight. While some graffiti artistsamong them Quinones and Lady Pinkbuilt lasting careers, the era’s true stars were Downtown artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring who incorporated tropes of street graffiti into a conceptual practice firmly rooted in existing fine arts narratives. Meanwhile, buoyed by acts like Run-DMC, LL Cool J, and the Beastie Boys, hip-hop music marked a steady ascent towards the pop status it retains to this day, Wild Style’s pioneers largely forgotten by the grim logic of an increasingly profitable industry. Meanwhile, Ahearn’s filmwhich failed to garner a significant audience outside of New Yorkfaded from the cultural memory without a home video release. For the director, the rest of the decade is epitomized by the fate of Keef Cowboy (Keith Wiggins), a founding member of the highly influential Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, who died in relative obscurity in 1989 after years of crack addiction.

But true to DJ culture’s tendency to recycle and repurpose, Wild Style’s story was far from over. At the start of the 1990s, references to the film began to reappear in rap music. Most notable among these is “Genesis,” the opening track of Nas’s Illmatic record, widely considered one of the best rap albums of all time. Sampling DJ Grand Wizard Theodore’s “Subway Theme” from the Wild Style soundtrack and featuring dialogue from the film, Nas’s biblically-titled introduction cemented Ahearn’s modest film within the origin story of what is arguably the most influential musical genre today. In the end, hip-hop saves itself.

Stay Ready: Lizzie Borden on the Post-Revolutionary Future of Born in Flames

Released in 1983 during Reagan’s presidency and Ed Koch’s tenure as mayor of New York City, Lizzie Borden’s futurist, science-fiction feature Born in Flames (1983) imagines political activism ten years after a “social-democratic war of liberation.” The film was shot using somewhat guerrilla documentary techniques, includes found footage from international news and is set to […]

Honey in Lizzie Borden's Born in Flames. Courtesy of Lizzie Borden and Anthology Film Archives, New York

Honey in Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames. Courtesy of Lizzie Borden and Anthology Film Archives, New York

Released in 1983 during Reagan’s presidency and Ed Koch’s tenure as mayor of New York City, Lizzie Borden’s futurist, science-fiction feature Born in Flames (1983) imagines political activism ten years after a “social-democratic war of liberation.” The film was shot using somewhat guerrilla documentary techniques, includes found footage from international news and is set to music by Red Krayola and the lesbian rock group The Bloods. Unconcerned with technological advancement or alien worlds, Born in Flames uses the conceit of a “future” to expand the political imagination, considering both the limitations of progressive rhetoric and the possibilities of ongoing activism. Featuring performances by Adele Bertei, Florynce Kennedy, and Kathryn Bigelow, Born in Flames was described by Riot Grrrl Kathleen Hanna as a “blueprint for feminist change.”

Despite the alleged revolution, Born in Flames’ New York remains plagued by racism and gender inequity and is tightly controlled by a government that labels any dissent as counterrevolutionary. The film focuses on the intersecting stories of four women’s organizations: pirate radio stations Radio Ragazza, Phoenix Radio, the armed coalition the Women’s Army, and the establishmentarian editors of the Socialist Youth Review.

Born in Flames was Borden’s second feature, completed after Regrouping (1976), an experimental documentary about feminism, and before Working Girls (1986), a frank depiction of a day in the life of a sex worker that won Special Jury Recognition at Sundance. Recently restored by Anthology Film Archives, a 35mm print of Born in Flames screens at the Walker on April 30 as part of Downtown New York: 1970s and 1980s Art and Film. In her interview with Crosscuts Lizzie Borden discusses independent cinema, feminism and political filmmaking.

After attending college at Wellesley you moved to New York during a period of intense artistic creativity. What attracted you to filmmaking?

I initially wanted to be a painter but had studied art history, and felt I knew too much about it, so everything I did felt derivative. There was a vibrant art scene downtown at the time and I met some amazing artists, such as Joan Jonas, Sol Lewitt, Richard Serra, Vito Acconci, Trisha Brown, and Yvonne Rainer, although I felt that women artists, particularly performance artists who used their naked bodies in performance (such as Carolee Schneemann and Joan Jonas) weren’t taken as seriously as male artists.

While artist-filmmakers such as Vito Acconci were making films in Super 8, I became seriously interested in filmmaking after I saw a retrospective of Jean-Luc Godard’s work. I thought it was amazing because I was writing criticism and painting and Godard’s films showed that you could tell a fictional story along with an essay or agitprop at the same time. I can’t remember exactly when I saw Battle of Algiers (dir. Gillo Pontecorvo, 1967), but that was also a huge influence. I didn’t want to make a documentary because I wanted to have more control, although everything I’ve done has resembled a documentary in some way.

There has been recent interest in science-fiction as a rich basis for exploring race, gender, and political power and a renewed interest in works such as Born in Flames and the writings of Octavia Butler that do precisely that. What was the inspiration for Born in Flames, and why did you choose to set the film in the future?

Everyone was collaborating in those days. I met Kathryn [Bigelow] and Becky [Johnston], who were in the Whitney’s [Independent Study] program at the time, through Vito Acconci; Becky was one of his interns. They both used my loft, which I’d turned into a kind of working space: Becky for a film set; Kathryn borrowed my car for her first short film, The Set-Up (1978). Through Kathryn, I was tangentially involved with the group Art & Language. I was reading a lot of Marx and Emma Goldman and thinking about communism and anarchism.

I began to wonder: even if there was some kind of social democratic revolution, would a “woman question” still exist? Would women still fight systematic discrimination? I was also becoming politicized by feminism—the second wave—and increasingly alienated by the art world, even though there were female artists, such as the Guerrilla Girls, protesting male dominance. At the same time I was questioning my sexuality. I became more and more disturbed by the lack of diversity, not just in the art world, but in the worlds of performance art, music as well—the whole downtown “scene.”

So creating the premise—a world after a social-democratic cultural revolution—emerged from these circumstances. I didn’t want to attempt to write a script, since I wanted to discover what different voices of diverse women would say. I needed to draw women into this “fictional” universe. I found Jeanne Satterfield, who plays Adelaide Norris, at the McBurney YMCA, Honey through a woman I pulled out of a lesbian bar. I went uptown to find straight Black women with kids. Hillary Hurst belonged to a lesbian performance group. Most of the women were non-actors, although some had some theater experience. Some of the men were performers—Ron Vawter, who plays a FBI agent, was a member of the Wooster Group. Eric Bogosian was from theater and appeared in his first film role. And Mark Boone, Jr., who since went on to star in Sons of Anarchy. But most of the key women play themselves—Adele, Honey, and especially Flo Kennedy. What I loved was bringing women together from different worlds. Now I wish I had been able to draw in more Latinas and Asian women, but I think the language barrier was too daunting then.

Had I gone to film school I never would have made the film because they would have said: You’re crazy—you have a premise but not a plot. It’s not a documentary; you don’t know if you’ll ever find your story; it’s impossible. But I worked in a dialectical way, responding to the material I shot, “writing” on the editing table, and a story emerged with each group being faithful to its own language. It’s part documentary, part fiction, within a fictional pseudo-science-fictional world that looks like documentary but isn’t.

Florynce Kennedy in Lizzie Borden's Born in Flames. Courtesy of Lizzie Borden and Anthology Film Archives, New York

Florynce Kennedy in Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames. Courtesy of Lizzie Borden and Anthology Film Archives, New York

Born in Flames is unique in depicting, multiple, occasionally conflicting interpretations of feminism. What goals framed your depictions of gender and feminist activism?

I wanted to show images of women who stood for positions without psychoanalyzing individual women or creating psychological portraits of them. Instead it’s about how groups are pushed to act—from peaceful protest to more violent acts. But I wanted the women to have personality at the same time, not just be figureheads delivering rhetoric. Hopefully this worked, and to the extent it does, it’s because women like Adele, Honey, Jeanne, and Flo have personalities that shine through. But the film is definitely agitprop rather than psychological. It’s about collaborating toward a shared goal—a radio station working with a newspaper and the Women’s Army, etc., so alliances can be formed to tear down barriers.

You worked on Born in Flames for nearly five years, and the film is truly independent in its mode of production, financing, and distribution. How did you go about making the film?

Born in Flames ended up costing $40,000, but I never had that much money at one time— I made it in increments of $200. I would rent cameras and Nagras for $25 at a time until I eventually bought a camera and Nagra for the duration of shooting. Ed Bowes, who plays the editor of the Socialist Youth Review in the film, helped set up the “action scenes,” like stealing the U-Haul trucks. He taught me to do a three-light set-up so I could shoot some things myself in my loft. I had a Steenbeck editing table in my loft, which I rented to NYU students for $25 per 8-hour shift and everyone used it. I remember Amos Poe and Deborah Harry passing through at one point. Downtown New York was like the Wild West, a stage set. The graffiti, the burned-out buildings. And it wasn’t hard to find people to help. There was a real community in terms of getting equipment and people to help shoot. But in terms of story evolution, that took time, the “story” grew slowly as I edited and pieces were added. I’m just so grateful that Adele, Honey, Pat Murphy, Jeanne, Sheila —the key players—had the belief and patience to stick with it for so long.

When Ulrich Gregor, from the Berlin Film Festival, saw it at my loft on the editing machine, he said if it could be done by the time of next festival—a few months away—it would be included. So I finished, or I could easily have gone on for another year. I was kind of relieved, Berlin was the exactly the right place for it. Then it played at the Women’s Film Festival in Sceaux and won the first prize, which was phenomenal.

Adele Bertei in Lizzie Borden's Born in Flames. Courtesy of Lizzie Borden and Anthology Film Archives, New York

Adele Bertei in Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames. Courtesy of Lizzie Borden and Anthology Film Archives, New York

The film has an incredibly powerful soundtrack. How did you connect with Red Krayola and The Bloods and engage them in the project?

Mayo Thompson (the leader of the band, Red Krayola) was involved with Art & Language, so I asked him to write a song. He wrote “Born in Flames.” I loved the title so much, I used it for the title of the film, which I was originally going to call “Les Guerilleres” after the book by Monique Wittig. Adele [Bertei], Isabelle in Born In Flames, decided to sing “Undercover Nation” in the film, and I ended up using it a lot. Adele was part of the downtown punk scene. I’d known her for years before making the film. She’d been in Beth and Scott B’s movies and performed at the Mudd Club, CBGB, and many other clubs. Various other tracks came from here and there.

I didn’t want Born In Flames to be a boring art film, so I wanted a driving, rhythmic track to run simultaneously with speeches, so they didn’t have to be listened to. I hoped the words could work subliminally. The film is about a multiplicity of voices, so even if you hear some words it’s enough. The message, such as it is, is about the need for action.

Born in Flames was recently restored by Anthology Film Archives and has screened regularly. What do you think about the film today?

I’m just happy it is being seen by a younger audience. In the screenings where I’m present, I see both young people and people who may have seen the film when it first came out. I want to hear from the younger generation about why the film interests them now. Perhaps it is because many issues addressed in the film haven’t gone away. Economic issues, Sandra Bland, the murders of black men, women’s issues, gender issues, etc. Maybe the film resonates in ways I’m not aware of… I’d love to discuss them. Things haven’t changed as much as they should have—in some way are worse. I live in West Hollywood, which is the closest to the Village as you can get in terms of a good neighborhood for the LGBT community. But in Hollywood, a mile away, when Tangerine was filmed, a transgender assault happens every couple of months. I’m incredibly angered and saddened by the fact that it has been more than 30 years since I made the film and there’s even more rampant police brutality, increasing homelessness, poverty. The jails are a mess, drug treatment centers are non-existent, abortion is inaccessible in places, suicide is up… I could go on and on. It’s been decades and we need to fight harder than ever.

born-in-flames-poster

From Archive to Art House: Two Ruben/Bentson Films Mark Metrograph Opening

In March 2016, a new independent movie theater opened its doors on New York City’s Lower East Side with two films from the Walker Art Center’s collection among its initial screenings. A two-screen cinema complemented by a restaurant, candy shop, and bookstore, Metrograph will present a wide palette of curated selections—from French New Wave to American […]

In March 2016, a new independent movie theater opened its doors on New York City’s Lower East Side with two films from the Walker Art Center’s collection among its initial screenings. A two-screen cinema complemented by a restaurant, candy shop, and bookstore, Metrograph will present a wide palette of curated selections—from French New Wave to American exploitation and classic documentary—alongside first-run screenings of new independent and foreign titles. Appearing in the the new theater’s inaugural program are two prints from the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection: William Klein’s Broadway by Light (1958) and The French (1982).

William Klein’s Broadway by Light, 1958. Photo courtesy William Klein

The Walker’s 35mm print of Broadway by Light preceded Metrograph’s screenings of Taxi Driver last month as part of a metatextual series called “Surrender to the Screen,” which highlighted works depicting the act of film-going. Klein’s debut effort in the medium, Broadway by Light is a 12-minute sequence of filmic verse that takes as its subject the electrified light displays of its eponymous locale: theater marquees (bearing titles like Winchester ’73 and Four Boys and Gun), scrolling news tickers, sparkling cola billboards. Paired with Maurice Le Roux’s semi-dissonant, staccato score, the director cycles through these glowing icons of urban nightlife at a rhythm that is both mesmerizing and somewhat abrasive.

Klein—a  New York native who has lived in Paris for the past half-century—made Broadway by Light soon after the publication of his photography book Life is Good & Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels, and comparisons between the two works abound. Life is Good stood out, in 1956, for its blunt, impressionistic style. Featuring unconventional framing and intense close-ups, Klein’s dynamic, frequently blurry New York street scenes evoke the frenetic pace of city living. Broadway by Light is a similarly visceral affair, employing extreme zooms, overlaid images, and reflected light to create a kaleidoscopic light play. Considered by many—including Klein himself—to be the first film of the pop art movement, Broadway by Light levels a critique at the baroque excesses of American marketing culture, while unabashedly indulging in its seductive vocabulary. Though an American expatriate and effective satirist, Klein is no scold. He doesn’t begrudge the viewer the pleasures of the screen, but instead places these fantasies in context—as the film comes to a close, Broadway’s winking displays are obliterated by the greatest light show of all: the rising sun.

In the years following Broadway by Light, Klein transitioned to feature-length films—many documentaries, but also several narrative works firmly planted in the satirical realm. It is for his 1969 film portrait Muhammad Ali, The Greatest (later re-titled Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee) that Klein is likely best known. Always adept at gaining access to exclusive subjects—according to the filmmaker, it was a casual encounter with Malcolm X that paved the way for his extensive relationship with Ali—Klein received free rein to film the French Open tennis tournament in 1981. Fascinated by the tournament scenes not readily available to the broadcast viewer, for The French—a 16mm print of which Metrograph has on loan from the WalkerKlein took his camera into the locker rooms, broadcast booths, and banquet halls of the Stade Roland Garros athletic complex in Paris, amassing piles of footage over the course of the two-week tournament.

William Klein The French 1981

William Klein’s The French, 1981. Photo courtesy William Klein

In today’s corporatized sports world, it’s hard to imagine a filmmaker receiving this kind of access. Interactions between players and the media are contractually micromanaged to protect team and league brands and filtered through a hegemonic linguistics of cliched optimism. Pro sports’ culture of platitudes has achieved such ubiquity that when a player departs from the expected script—as Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch famously did in the days leading up to Super Bowl XLIX—it makes national headlines. Viewed from this contemporary context, the utter naturalness of Klein’s backstage vignettes feels, paradoxically, almost unreal: men’s runner-up Ivan Lendl’s bashful refusal to undress, following a match, until Klein’s cameras are shut off; Chris Evert (women’s #1) and Virginia Ruzici (#5) crammed side-by-side onto a players’ lounge easy chair, giggling at the clownish antics of the unseeded Romanian Ilie Năstase before their brutal head-to-head match (which Evert handily won in two sets).

This is part of what makes The French—which screen April 29–30, as part of Metrograph’s “Welcome to Metrograph: A to Z” series—such a riveting sports documentary. Rather than falling back on conventional journalistic techniques (Klein conducts almost no interviews), the director endeavors to disappear into his environment. In line with the basic principles of contemporaneous documentary movements like cinéma vérité and Direct Cinema, Klein eschews any real thesis, instead hopscotching between the dozens of mini-narratives his camera happens to find: a ball boy triumphantly snatching Björn Borg’s racquet in the moments following his men’s tournament winner, an ongoing spat between all-time great John McEnroe and a referee, an awkward birthday party for women’s three seed Andrea Jaeger.

Yet, despite the cerebral quality of Klein’s immersive, gonzo-adjacent approach, the director doesn’t shy away from the drama inherent to his favorite sport. In addition to being an eye-opening look into the off-court world of pro tennis, The French is also as a generous, if incomplete, documentation of the 1981 tournament, proceeding chronologically through long stretches of match coverage, which the director cleverly pairs with live commentaryfrom both the broadcast booth and the standsand dutiful shots of the scoreboard. Klein’s love for the sport is palpable, and it’s only in play that he allows himself a more hands-on, affective approach, complete with Wes Anderson–level frames/second numbers and gratuitous shots of the Coupe des Mousquetaires.

Both a close examination of the bureaucratic and promotional systems that buttress the drama unfolding on court and a sincere tribute to a handful of incredible athletes, The French is a startlingly original take on the world of professional tennis. Yet, alongside Broadway by Light, it has failed to find a lasting audience. Unlike Klein’s narrative films, which were released on DVD by The Criterion Collection in 2008, both of the director’s works showing at Metrograph this spring are not readily available for home viewing. Through this collaboration, these vividly rendered, yet unsung titles from the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection will reach audiences in what promises to become a major hub of New York independent film culture.

For Midwestern cinephiles unable to make it to the Metrograph screenings, The French can be watched in its entirety in the Walker’s Mediatheque screening room during regular museum hours.

Comprehensive Horrors and Technological Consequences: Bruce Conner and Leslie Thornton

Leslie Thornton’s They Were Just People (2016) is the third installment in the Moving Image Commissions, a series that addresses works by key artists in the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Collection. They Were Just People will be presented on the Walker Channel from April 8 through May 31, 2016. It will also be screened April 9, 2016 […]

Leslie Thornton, They Were Just People, 2016

Leslie Thornton’s They Were Just People (2016) is the third installment in the Moving Image Commissions, a series that addresses works by key artists in the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Collection. They Were Just People will be presented on the Walker Channel from April 8 through May 31, 2016. It will also be screened April 9, 2016 in the Walker Cinema, alongside films by Bruce Conner and the world premiere of Crossing (2016, video, 25 minutes), a new moving image collaboration between Thornton and previous Moving Image Commission artist, James Richards.

Operation Crossroads, the nuclear bomb test conducted by the United States Joint Army/Navy Task Force at Bikini Atoll in July 1946, was one of the most documented events in 20th-century history. The explosion was caught on film, shot at multiple slow-motion speeds, and captured in 50,000 still images. During the test, 1.5 million feet of black-and-white film stock was exposed, and the comprehensiveness of the documentation triggered a global shortage of film stock.

Afterwards, eyewitnesses of the event struggled to describe their visual experience of the explosion. In an official report of Operation Crossroads, its author, William A. Shurcliff, wrote: “One reason why observers had so much trouble in retaining a clear impression of the explosion phenomena was the lack of appropriate words and concepts. The explosion phenomena abounded in absolutely unprecedented inventions in solid geometry. No adequate vocabulary existed for these novelties.”

Thus the documentation of Operation Crossroads became the primary material through which a new vernacular and narrative for the event could be established. Indeed, the official pictorial record of Operation Crossroads refers to cameras as the “star witnesses” of the event, citing an aerial camera with a telephoto lens capable of taking a legible photograph of a wristwatch from a quarter of a mile away. After two months of “verbal groping,” a conference was convened to agree upon a set of 30 special terms, which settled upon words such as: dome, fillet, side jets, bright tracks, cauliflower cloud, fallout, air shock disc, water shock disc, base surge, water mound, uprush, and aftercloud.

Still from Bruce Conner’s CROSSROADS, 1976

Still from Bruce Conner’s CROSSROADS, 1976

It is this original film documentation from the event that American assemblagist, painter, and filmmaker Bruce Conner (1933–2008) used to create the longest film of his career­—CROSSROADS (1976), a bravura piece of cinema that examines the Bikini Atoll explosion over 36 minutes. In preparation for making the work, Conner successfully petitioned the US Defense Department for its declassified yet unreleased film material, and appropriated the footage to compile a work saturated with visual ruptures and editorial sutures. The artist’s careful sequencing creates a vision of horrific enchantment. At points, effect and experience seem indistinguishable from each other, and the violent plumes of water produced by the huge underwater explosion of the second test at Bikini flood the cinematic frame to the point of abstraction and eventual obliteration.

Commissioning sound for his films for the first time, Conner worked with two musicians, Patrick Gleeson and Terry Riley. While both soundtracks are equally eerie, Gleeson developed a score that aped diegetic sound for the first half of CROSSROADS, replete with bird sounds and distant thunder, and Riley created a radically different, dreamy, composition for organ.

Despite its charged material,CROSSROADS elides any singular political comment, serving instead as a complex meditation on memory, death, and the attempt to find a visual vocabulary that is both appalling and hypnotic. It is a work that deals in and makes sequences out of a space of incomprehension. The nuclear bomb was, after all, the absolute terminus of communication, not simply in terms of eyewitnesses’ verbal incapacity, but also as an action that carried the threat to wipe out life from which all language could possibly emerge.

This vexed relationship between documentation and processes of comprehension is a key aspect of CROSSROADS and of Leslie Thornton’s new video They Were Just People (2016), the last installment in the first season of Walker Moving Image Commissions. They Were Just People was produced in direct response to the influence and inquiry of Conner’s film. Thornton has described the late artist’s work as an “enabling force, a point of departure, a fundamental reassurance.” Like CROSSROADS, Thornton’s video also dwells on forms of abstraction in barbaric acts and the melting away of material into voids. But rather than focusing on the energetic and decisive moment of a single horror, her work builds from a slow dread—the persistent half-life of violent histories.

They Were Just People is a video that draws together a stereoscopic image of the La Brea Tar Pits in California (where one shot is the slowly blistering surface of the asphalt lake, and the other is a prismatic refraction of the same image rendered as a kaleidoscopic image) and an oral account that describes the distressing moments of human trauma in the immediate aftermath of the atomic bomb explosion in Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945. This latter found sound comprises a largely unedited interview with “Miss Palchikoff,” a Russian-born medical missionary, whose impassive language of administration gradually reveals itself as a series of appalling abstractions of human suffering.

Thornton sought to place the sound of They Were Just People in a highly ambivalent register—an effect given off by Palchikoff’s even and matter-of-fact tone, which temporarily masks the shocking scene she describes. Consequently, the viewer’s experience of sound vacillates between the feeling of eavesdropping on a banal conversation and what the artist calls the slow “horror of listening.” The grainy quality of the found sound is significant here. Just as one physically strains to make out the details of the oral account despite the archival chafes and abrasions to the record, the nurse’s descriptions provoke a disgust of the imagination. What this eyewitness has to say, and the administrative ease and comprehensiveness with which she says it, is likely at odds with the eavesdropper’s desire to hear completely. (The artist noted that she only removed a few sections that she found “too gruesome, too unbearable.”) Through both form and content, the difficulty of comprehension is embodied.

Leslie Thornton, They Were Just People, 2016

Leslie Thornton, They Were Just People, 2016

At points too, the artist mirrors and intensifies the experience of listening, finding visual metaphors within her stereoscopic image which perfectly illustrate Palchikoff’s highly visual descriptions of “head swellings” and “water blisters.” With its oily pustules popping on the surface to reveal momentary holes revealing only darkness, the oozing pit at La Brea is dense and engulfing. Its bubbling translucency is momentary, its sluggish activity relentless. The pit becomes the over-expressive counterpart to a narrative of violence and, rendered as a pair of eyes, the image stares back at the viewer, unblinking. Thornton describes her stereoscopic technique (one which she has used in her work previously, though she argues it is used here to the greatest effect) as “a mechanical gaze, but it seems so full of life to me, so intimately ocular, related to the way a binocular as a technical extension of our eyes isolates and frames.” The image of the pit is both an image of a void and its technological abstraction—a metaphor for the ineffability of the bomb and its refraction through the language of administration.

In her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), philosopher Hannah Arendt reflected on the capacity for comprehending traumatic events, noting:

Comprehension does not mean denying the outrageous, deducing the unprecedented from precedents, or explaining phenomena by such analogies and generalities that the impact of reality and the shock of experience are no longer felt. It means, rather, examining and bearing consciously the burden that our century has placed on us—neither denying its existence nor submitting meekly to its weight. Comprehension, in short, means the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality—whatever it may be.

The idea that comprehension might both face and resist reality is a close summation of the tactics of CROSSROADS and They Were Just People. That the material of horror would come to Conner and Thornton as readymades is symptomatic of the periods both artists live through. Here, Arendt’s “shock of experience” is found footage and found sound, respectively, where each is carefully redeployed with additional manipulations of duration—expansively, in terms of historical relationships, and specifically, through the material qualities of the edit and the cut. But while CROSSROADS is a careful sequence that exhaustively examines the test explosion from multiple angles, speeds, and scales, The Were Just People is a comparatively enervated piece. With sparing edits and interventions, it possesses the paradox of slow alarm. “There is a bomb that goes off in the experience of the piece,” emphasizes Thornton. “You are in an accident.”

The speed of both works is fundamental in considering not simply their relationship to one another, but to the subject both seek to articulate: the duration of a weapon and the experience of it. In their book A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1980), theorists Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari discuss the constitutive parts of a weapons system or “assemblage,” arguing that the primary component of such a system is speed: “The more mechanisms of projection a tool has, the more it behaves like a weapon, potentially or simply metaphorically.” Deleuze and Guattari’s assessment is compelling in both assessing how technology might describe a weapon and its effects and as a commentary on how the very apparatuses of image capture might come close to resembling the characteristics of a weapon itself (where cinema, too, is a “mechanism of projection”). It is this porosity between the technologies of annihilation and technologies of description that lend CROSSROADS and They Were Just People the capacity to represent and incite horror—in short, it is their access to the shock of comprehension.

Technology, and its capacity for harm and pleasure, has long been a source of productive and personal fascination for Thornton. Her most iconic work, Peggy and Fred in Hell (1985–2012) is a post-apocalyptic tale suffused with Cold War anxieties, which the artist describes in relation to her own formative experience of living in the world of the atomic bomb. Thornton’s reference to an autobiography of nuclear foreboding is not to be taken lightly. Indeed, it is a useful indicator for the primary impulse of They Were Just People. Interwoven into this new video is Thornton’s complex emotional response to her own family history. Both the artist’s father and grandfather (unbeknownst to each other at the time) were engineers in the Manhattan Project, and it was Thornton’s father who encased and fastened the last screw in the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Before loading it into the plane, he wrote his name, his father’s name, and his mother’s name on the bomb casing—an inscription of familial dedication, legacy, and authorship. For the artist, then, this is a deeply personal origin story with consequences­—one that recalls Deleuze and Guattari’s haunting refrain, “Weapons and tools are consequences, nothing but consequences.” But They Were Just People is not simply about how technology (whether tool or weapon) is a complicit witness in events. It is also about how its ghostly recall and capacity for cultural distortions might bear the shock of comprehension.

They Were Just People is a commission by the Walker Art Center with major support provided by the Bentson Foundation.

Moving Image Commissions #3: Bruce Conner and Leslie Thornton

Leslie Thornton’s They Were Just People is the third installment in the Moving Image Commissions, a series that addresses works by key artists in the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Collection. They Were Just People will be presented on the Walker Channel April 8 through May 31, 2016. It will also be screened April 9, 2016 in the […]

Leslie Thornton, They Were Just People, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Leslie Thornton, They Were Just People, 2016

Leslie Thornton’s They Were Just People is the third installment in the Moving Image Commissions, a series that addresses works by key artists in the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Collection. They Were Just People will be presented on the Walker Channel April 8 through May 31, 2016. It will also be screened April 9, 2016 in the Walker Cinema, alongside films by Bruce Conner and the world premiere of Crossing (2016, video, 25 minutes), a brand new moving image collaboration between Thornton and previous Moving Image Commission artist, James Richards.

“What violence can I do to an audience?” This was the question that confronted artist Leslie Thornton as she was making her new video, They Were Just People (2016, video, 10 minutes). Responding to the influence and inquiry of American assemblagist and filmmaker Bruce Conner (1933–2008), Thornton’s new work is a chilling exploration of the purpose and repurposing of memory during wartime.

Thornton began making They Were Just People as a dark response to CROSSROADS (1976), Conner’s spectacular film of the 1946 Bikini Atoll nuclear test. Part of the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection, CROSSROADS comprises 27 different takes of the test explosion. This latter black-and-white 35mm film is drawn from appropriated footage, an astonishing reworking of the US Defense Department’s documentation of the nuclear test explosion. Conner had successfully petitioned for the declassified but then-unreleased footage of Operation Crossroads. When permission was remarkably granted, he created a complex sequence of the moments immediately before, during, and after the explosion, setting the work to two separate scores by composers Patrick Gleeson and Terry Riley.

Bruce Conner, Crossroads, 1976.

Still from Bruce Conner’s CROSSROADS, 1976

While CROSSROADS remains a bravura spectacle of repetition, annihilation, and abstraction, Thornton’s response adopts a slower speed of horror, locating and inhabiting a sluggish dread. They Were Just People combines Thornton’s own manipulated footage of the La Brea Tar Pits in California with an oral account describing the horrific moments after the US dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945. Conner’s work obsessively searches for the exact moment where the world was violently and permanently changed; Thornton’s video is concerned with the persistent half-life of violence.

They Were Just People is also an intensely personal film for Thornton. Much of the techniques and materials used in the video have appeared in different forms of her work before, or samples have lain dormant in her archives for some time. Interwoven into the core impulse of her work is Thornton’s biographical material and her complex emotional response to her own family history. Both the artist’s father and grandfather (unbeknownst to each other at the time) were engineers in the Manhattan Project, and it was Thornton’s father who fastened the last screw in the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Thus They Were Just People is tethered not just to the ambivalence of the artist’s own relationship to the material contained within the video, but also to the capacity for moving images to be a conduit for speaking about and providing critical resistances to histories of violence.

Leslie Thornton, They Were Just People, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Leslie Thornton, They Were Just People, 2016

They Were Just People is a work that constantly looks back, both conceptually and formally. The image is, after all a stereoscopic one­—a pair of eyes. On the left Thornton shows a shot of the lumpish bubbling asphalt lake in La Brea, while on the right she presents a prismatic reinterpretation of the same footage as if seen through a kaleidoscope. Together, they are simultaneously seeing and distorting. “It is a mechanical gaze, but it seems so full of life to me, so intimately ocular,” Thornton has noted to writer Kevin McGarry of her double image technique. “It is related to the way a binocular as a technical extension of our eyes isolates and frames.” The image appears to speak of vision and its lack, a manipulated and refracted surface that is suffused with abstraction. The bubbling tar pit is a material that persistently refuses to reveal itself; oily blisters pop on the surface to reveal momentary holes that show only darkness, dense and engulfing.

Thornton pairs her double image of the asphalt lake with an oral account from the Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs. The artist described first listening to the archival sound recording as if she was eavesdropping on someone discussing their day-to-day activities—an effect given off by the flat matter-of-factness about the female speaker’s tone. But the evenness of the woman’s voice only temporarily masks the content of what is said. A largely unedited extract of an eyewitness account by “Miss Palchikoff,” a Russian-born medical missionary, the archival interview probes the immediate aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing. As Palchikoff’s impassive language of administration gradually reveals itself as a series of appalling abstractions of human suffering, Thornton’s (and by turn the audience’s) simple act of eavesdropping becomes, in the artist’s words, a “horror of listening.”

In They Were Just People, “What violence can I do to an audience?” is a question about atomizing experience in order to question culture’s capacity to simulate horror as a form of critique, to point at and use abstraction as a way of examining events that beggar description. “There is an ineffability in the form of address,” Thornton says of her work and comparing it to Conner’s work, there is “an undercurrent that is broad, and at times grave, in its referencing. It is below the surface, registering in the back of the mind.”

They Were Just People is a commission by the Walker Art Center with major support provided by the Bentson Foundation.

“It Gets Dislocated”: The Evocative Cinema of Chantal Akerman

In tribute to the late Chantal Akerman, the Walker presents the three-film series Chantal Akerman: 1950–2015, March 31 through April 3 in the Walker Cinema. Here, University of Minnesota English Professor Paula Rabinowitz reflects on Akerman’s art. A woman alone sits, sits alone repeatedly spooning white sugar from a bowl into her mouth. She stares […]

Chantal Akerman Photo courtesy Babette Mangolte

Chantal Akerman. Photo courtesy Babette Mangolte

In tribute to the late Chantal Akerman, the Walker presents the three-film series Chantal Akerman: 1950–2015, March 31 through April 3 in the Walker Cinema. Here, University of Minnesota English Professor Paula Rabinowitz reflects on Akerman’s art.

A woman alone sits, sits alone repeatedly spooning white sugar from a bowl into her mouth. She stares into space, a window frames her. A woman alone sits, sits alone methodically peeling potatoes onto old newspapers and placing them in a pot of water. She stares vacantly into space; her kitchen encloses her. A woman alone sits. She sits alone slowly slicing salami on a plate. She concentrates but is strangely absent from her monotone surroundings. A woman alone. Sits. In Paris. In Brussels. In Moscow. She is alone at her table with food she despises, but it is food she cannot stop handling—swallowing, paring, cutting. She uses the utensils of everyday life as if they were a hangman’s noose. This is deadly business, this business of filmmaking; this business of domesticity.

Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie 2015 Photo courtesy Icarus Films

Still from Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie, 2015 Photo courtesy Icarus Films

Films chronicling a death foretold. Her own; that of her mother? A woman alone sits. Where? She is a displaced person, this woman alone at a table, still as life. A still life, lived quietly, with rage. The anger so studied, so precise, so abstract and absolute, it can only turn in on itself, on herself. A self-direction aimed at what is there before her. What is it—this food that shames and consumes, cannot be consumed because it provokes such shame, such resignation? A woman alone. Sits. Awaiting what? What it is that we all sit awaiting as we slice and spoon and peel and stare from the table.

Chantal Akerman, may her name be praised, died of suicide on the eve of the screening of her fortieth-plus film, No Home Movie, at the New York Film Festival on October 5, 2015, a woman alone, in a Paris hotel room. She made movies of rooms, traveling among them with her paper bags full of letters from home. Who can know what she imagined would be seen when the final film she made of her beloved mother, Natalia, screened? Not just a woman sitting at a table? But surely just this: a woman in the thrall of an inexpressible love. She speaks to her daughter; she speaks through her daughter; she speaks of her daughter; she speaks in her daughter. Her daughter speaks of her and did so for almost half a century—beginning in her childhood kitchen “blowing up the world” in the 1968 Saute ma ville, which Chantal puns as saute ma vie, and finishing in her mother’s kitchen in No Home Movie.

Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie 2015 Photo courtesy Icarus Films

Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie, 2015 Photo courtesy Icarus Films

“It gets dislocated.” These are the first words spoken in Akerman’s close observation of her mother, the woman she found to be at the “center” of her films. She feared there might no longer be a subject without her. Her mother’s words come many long minutes into the film. First there is a fierce wind blowing the scraggly leaves of a tree in the foreground of a bleak but seductive desert landscape; it roars and the terrain expands as a dull beige, a beautiful consuming emptiness. Next a Brussels park: a man suns his bare back; behind his bench a bright greensward stretches and there are people and dogs doing what they do on a sunny day in a park. Then an interior garden surrounded by tall purplish bushes, a turquoise folding chair sits abandoned. Finally, we see her move elegantly through rooms we already know—the quiet bourgeois domestic space familiar from 23 Quai du Commerce—and she speaks: “It gets dislocated.” She’s speaking of her shoulder but these three words tell the story of Akerman’s work. This is no home movie: not a home movie in the usual sense of the genre; instead a no-home movie, a film about dis-placement, distance, and time. It gets dislocated.

Early on, Chantal and Natalia eat a meal together at the kitchen table; the holy ark that holds a woman, her food, her utensils, her submerged and unspoken stories—“Ma, mommy, mama, tell us a story,” pleads Chantal’s sister Sylviane late in the film—of what cannot be represented, like God, a past of horrors. They sit, eating meat and potatoes Chantal has cooked in their skins. Natalia has never made potatoes without first peeling them. She says they are delicious. Even before I saw this film, I knew that a potato peeler would be at its heart. Years ago, while visiting Washington, DC with my mother, we went at her insistence to the Holocaust Memorial Museum. My mother’s Parkinson’s Disease meant she moved awkwardly, and somehow in the dark crevices of the building, we lost each other. I ran through the hallways looking for her, passing through the railway car, running by the pictures, but even in my panic was arrested by one vitrine full of potato peelers—some beautifully forged, most mundane objects—each essential. Of course, every mother used one every day, and she would stash it into a pocket for the long train ride. It is not coincidence that Jeanne Dielman brutalizes the potatoes she peels sitting silently at her kitchen table. As Akerman remarks, echoing Theodore Adorno, at the end of Marianne Lambert’s documentary, I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman, after the camps, after the end of European civilization that was the Shoah, “There are things that cannot be shown.” But this does not mean that they are unrepresentable, rather, “through evocation, through time” these things can be made known, can be felt.

Marianne Lambert’s I Don’t Belong Anywhere: the Cinema of Chantal Akerman 2015 Photo courtesy Icarus Films

Chantal Akerman in Marianne Lambert’s I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman, 2015. Photo courtesy Icarus Films

Not a home movie, a no-home movie—an extension of the many previous no-home movies Akerman shot, of the weight carried by an everyday object, used or left unused, at a kitchen table. Waiting at home, for whom? The vacant son; the beautiful daughter; the anonymous john. Or merely waiting—in line for the bus in the cold dawn hours outside the block of Stalinist housing projects, or sitting dully on the hard benches of a Russian train station. The slow track capturing those who wait suggests they wait for more than bus or train. The interior enclosures extend beyond walls; even outdoors women are encased, in huge hats and heavy coats against the frozen dawn, surrounded by bundles on their way to work or to shop, waiting for the crowded and overheated bus to encase them, the windows steamed up with their hot breath. We see only that they wait. They line up or sit motionless as if the crematoria are their destination. We watch their waiting. And the time we must spend to see this long wait is a glimpse at our own deaths found in the long waiting that is life. It’s in the silent peeling, in the rigorous frontal camera work. Nothing is said of the violence palpable, yet unseen, unspoken, but there, close, closing in. Even when Jeanne Dielman ventures out, traversing Brussels, it is to shop at the butcher or green grocer. The outside exists merely to replenish the hated food that must be prepared within. Or when Chantal herself takes to the road in Je, tu, il, elle, where is she? Sitting in the cab of a truck, listening to the driver, stuck. Or when she reads her mother’s letters in Letters from Home, where is she? Her voice drowned out by the graffiti-covered subway screeching through the station. Displacement and movement become a kind of claustrophobia.

Akerman’s rigorous structural apparatus of the full-frontal camera fixing walls, doors and windows or the long slow tracking shots made across landscapes and through interiors are means to design order. But they too, in their address to our physical bodies as much as our emotions, are forms of chaos. The head-on stationary camera, which captures whatever passes before it, allows for aleatory and chance movements of bodies entering, leaving or partially present within still rooms. Stasis encloses chaos, an impossible attempt to keep it at bay.

Photo courtesy Janus Films

Still from Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du commerce,1080 Bruxelles, 1975. Photo courtesy Janus Films

“That’s why my mother’s like this,” because she ran away from Poland and was captured by the SS, because of Auschwitz, Akerman tells her mother’s caretaker; like so many Holocaust survivors, she left it unspoken. She ran away but not far enough, not to America or Argentina, remaining in Belgium and waiting, caught and sent back, to the camp. The past cannot be retrieved; yet it is never to be escaped. It hangs in the drapery and sheets drying on the balcony; it resides in the gagged inability to swallow food. Natalia chastises Chantal for subsisting only on one banana a day as a child. Chantal explains this was sufficient, that she was petrified of her grandmother and could never swallow again after choking on a meatball in her chicken soup. Later Natalia sits eating with Sylviane and begins to cough and choke; her younger daughter admonishes her to sit up and be more alert: “Eat. Breathe.” It’s unbearable, this carrying on, this living, this loving.

Chantal Akerman has been sending us clues all along—the preface to the 40-volume suicide note was written as a series of fragments when she was still a teenager, a child whose mother kept her indoors for fear of what might happen to her beautiful Jewish daughter who excelled in Hebrew school. But her father yanked her from that world of God and thus she spent her days staring out windows at the street life of Brussels. Those windows recur throughout No Home Movie—behind the chair where her mother naps, on the computer where the two speak words of love over Skype, between the camera and the kitchen, the panes reflecting Chantal and refracting Natalia, in the final gesture of Chantal closing the blinds in her room after she ties her shoes. Ties her shoes, even after her mother remembers her coming home from school disheveled from playground fights, with shoelaces undone.

Many critics, including Adrian Searle in The Guardian , have remarked that Akerman’s suicide has changed their perception of this film, and of her earlier work as well. But I see it differently; she’s been contemplating death and the body from the beginning, scattering the breadcrumbs for us to follow. Her work, like life lived in the shadow of violence, is an art of endurance. And this time, this time spent, is love.

I_Dont_Belong_Anywhere_Lambert_02_PP

Chantal Akerman in Marianne Lambert’s I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman, 2015. Photo courtesy Icarus Films

“Unseeable” Cinema: Peter L. Galison and Robb Moss Discuss Containment

Peter L. Galison and Robb Moss have a nose for the contemporary world’s most difficult questions. Following their 2008 documentary Secrecy, which endeavored to shine a light into the obscure world of classified government secrets, Galison and Moss’s new film, Containment, about nuclear waste storage, may set itself an even more ambitious task. With a hundred million […]

Peter Galison and Robb Moss’s Containment, 2015. Photo courtesy filmmakers.

Peter Galison and Robb Moss’s Containment, 2015

Peter L. Galison and Robb Moss have a nose for the contemporary world’s most difficult questions. Following their 2008 documentary Secrecy, which endeavored to shine a light into the obscure world of classified government secrets, Galison and Moss’s new film, Containment, about nuclear waste storage, may set itself an even more ambitious task. With a hundred million gallons of radioactive waste remaining from the Cold War arms race, and more being generated every year, the unsolved problem of safely storing these materials will have ramifications that stretch tens—and even hundreds—of millennia into the future. Splitting time between nuclear production and storage sites in South Carolina and New Mexico, and the regions surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan (which suffered a meltdown in 2011), Containment explores the problems—both practical and ethical—presented by the storage of hazardous waste. Approaching the topic from scientific, political, and civilian perspectives, Containment couples expert analysis with on-the-ground footage from the world’s nuclear hot spots to show both the gargantuan logistical challenges and moral urgency of this difficult issue.

Galison and Moss spoke with Crosscuts about collaborative filmmaking, “crazed future historians,” and their shared love of conceptual self-sabotage. Containment screens in the Walker Cinema on Thursday, March 17, as part of the Cinema of Urgency series.

What can you tell us about Containment’s inception? What originally drew you to this story?

Peter L. Galison: Robb and I had been collaborating for a decade—first, in teaching a course, bringing student filmmakers into scientific laboratories to think about the way the real work of technology, medicine, and science could be put on film. Then, finishing in 2008, we co-directed Secrecy, a feature documentary about the the moral, political, and technological controversies surrounding national security secrecy. Containment grew first out of work I was doing (in print) on the strange new lands that are at once our wild, biodiverse landscapes, and at the same time some of our most radiologically contaminated. I was utterly taken aback by the Department of Energy’s drive to mark one of these sites to warn the future against digging—for a period of 10,000 years. Robb and I began our discussions around this extraordinary, tragic, imaginative project.

Robb Moss: For me, the sheer fun of teaching with Peter led me to want to make a film with him, and we made Secrecy. Secrecy, of course, is a terrible idea for a film; there is almost nothing to see, and no one wants to talk to you. Filmmakers often start with a visual idea, something you can point the camera at, but in Secrecy there was almost no in-the-world material for the camera to see. As a way of imagining this secret world, we thought we might want to include animation into the mix and began working with the wonderful animator, Ruth Lingford. Secrecy premiered at Sundance early in 2008 and showed at the Walker later that year. We returned to use animation in a more extensive way in Containment.

Containment splits its focus between the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, the Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina, and the area surrounding the former Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan. What led you to choose these three locations?

Galison: We began with our focus squarely on the WIPP site. It was the only open, licensed, deep underground nuclear repository, and it was for that burial ground that the far-future markers had been designed. Then we thought the story really had to take into account the source of this waste: the detritus of nuclear weapons production that had taken place over decades at places like the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. Japan’s triple disaster—earthquake, tsunami, meltdowns—hit in March 2011, while we were already filming. Soon after that, we realized we had to confront the massive loss of nuclear containment that ensued, but it took two years or so before we were in a position to travel to Fukushima. But then we saw a way to finish the film around these three sites: the production of nuclear materials, the burial of this waste, and the catastrophic release, in the Japanese accident, of materials that left waste strewn over the land.

Moss: It was incredibly difficult to gain access to these three sites, but it was extraordinary to be at each of them. Being underground at WIPP was both beautiful and chilling: underground tunnels filled with miners excavating caverns in the salt (the location of the WIPP site was chosen because the salt was still intact—and therefore perhaps stable—after having been deposited some 250 million years ago). We filmed huge barrels of nuclear waste as they were emplaced in these caverns. Utterly sci-fi. At SRS, we walked over huge mounds of underground containers, called tank farms, consisting of 51 one-million gallon tanks filled with 39 million gallons of nuclear waste.

Peter Galison and Robb Moss’s Containment, 2015. Photo courtesy filmmakers.

Peter Galison and Robb Moss’s Containment, 2015

In addition to policymakers and experts in various nuclear fields, the film is peppered with interview subjects who bring more of a layperson’s sensibility to the topics at hand. How did you go about finding voices in the communities affected by these issues? What kinds of stories were you looking for?

Galison: From early on we wanted the film to get at the lives people lived around the waste. We wanted to know not only what the waste was and how it was managed, but also what life was like for someone who lived and worked with these materials on his or her mind. We talked and wandered with preachers and miners, cattlemen and politicians, housewives and scientists. We were less interested in polemics for or against nuclear power and more focused on people who lived and worked in and around these sites.

Moss: In particular, we were interested in the experiences of those who had lived around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plants before the radioactive releases. Watching them move about in their former, now radioactive homes, was both sad and unnerving.

You come from very different backgrounds academically—Peter, as an expert on the history of science, and Robb, with more experience as a filmmaker. Describe the collaborative process on this project. Did you find yourselves occupying distinctive roles, or was there quite a bit of overlap?

Galison: From the very beginning of our collaboration, we have worked to avoid separating roles. We both think about the big ideas of the film, we both get into the details of transitions, silences, music, animation, archives. We are both in the field at every shoot. Essential, truly essential, to the whole of our work is a third member of our team: our editor Chyld King. Many hours each week—over the many years of these two films (Secrecy and Containment)—we have shared an edit room: experimenting with different cuts, looking for ways to elicit the particularity of characters and places. It is one of the great privileges of my life that I’ve been able to work with Robb and Chyld over these last years.

You’ve talked about how on both Containment and Secrecy you set out to, in a sense, film the “unfilmable”—classified information in Secrecy and both invisible radioactive contamination and an unknowable future in Containment. What have these projects taught you about representing intangibles on film?

Galison: We have worked so hard to bring the invisible into visibility because we are convinced that unseeable abstractions are easy to let slide. If secrecy is unimaginable, if nuclear waste is so utterly out of our perceptual range, they vanish from our national awareness. This aim has brought us to unexpected places in our filmmaking: to deepening use of animation and graphic novel sequences, for example; to the use of artworks integrated into film; to back and forth between observational, site-specific filming with soundstage recording of interviews. I should say we both hugely enjoy the challenge of finding ways to put the imperceptible onto the screen.

Moss: In both films we dug ourselves into very deep conceptual holes that we had to dig our way out of. This meant years of trial and error as we found our way through the material. This is both the fun and agony of filmmaking.

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Peter Galison and Robb Moss’s Containment, 2015

Do you each have a favorite futurist scenario from your research into the WIPP site long-term nuclear waste warning plans? Some of them get pretty zany.

Galison: The scenarios sure did get zany—the futurists themselves were so astounded by the difficulty of their 10,000-year task that they slid into the absurd. One particular scenario that didn’t make it into the film in any detail involved a cult called “the Markuhnians” (a cross between Herbert Marcuse and Thomas S. Kuhn). The idea that crazed future historians of science—ignoring absolute scientific truth and hunting for lost mystic scrolls—might be responsible for the catastrophic release of nuclear materials particularly warmed my historian of science soul.

Moss: I am still partial to the Nickey Nuke scenario: a nuclear waste theme park that has families coming to see Nickey Nuke for 10,000 years, one that through endless fun, continuously transmits the warning not to dig into the waste. Amazing.

Ultimately, your film seems to raise a lot more questions than it answers. How optimistic are you about our future as it relates to the containment of nuclear waste? What do you hope audiences will take away from this film?

Moss: In some ways our film functions like the warning markers that we discuss in the film, and will probably fail for similar reasons. Perhaps we can raise some awareness of these issues in the present, and perhaps that is all we can do.

Galison: Is there hope? In a way I think the film, even the long-shot hope that we can warn the far-distant future, is an act of extraordinary hopefulness. True, to paraphrase Immanuel Kant, there are some tasks that are both necessary and impossible. Try to speak to a time nearly twice as far from us [in the future] as Stonehenge is in the past? How remarkable. We—who can barely plan beyond a fiscal quarter or a two-, four-, or six-year election cycle—trying for once to think about our planet in the long run. Do I think this or that particular scheme is a surefire method? Of course not. But pressured to think beyond the tiny radius of our individual lives, we might just create a precedent for caring about the planet that will mean something for those who follow.

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