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The Wars on Drugs and Terrorism Intersect: Do Not Resist’s Craig Atkinson on Police Militarization

“They need to stop giving these boys these toys, ’cause they don’t know how to handle it.” These words, spoken by a young black woman on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri in August of 2014, set the tone for Do Not Resist, a documentary film by Craig Atkinson. The woman’s comment was recorded just after a phalanx of riot-geared […]

Still from Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist (2016). Photo courtesy Vanish Films

Still from Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist (2016). Photo courtesy Vanish Films

“They need to stop giving these boys these toys, ’cause they don’t know how to handle it.”

These words, spoken by a young black woman on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri in August of 2014, set the tone for Do Not Resist, a documentary film by Craig Atkinson. The woman’s comment was recorded just after a phalanx of riot-geared officers marched through clouds of tear gas to clear demonstrators out after curfew. The shooting death of Michael Brown by white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson not only sparked new debates about the use of lethal force by police, but it also led to a nationwide discussion on the increased use of military-style weapons, equipment, and tactics by law enforcement officers.

In conjunction with the Walker’s August 18 screening and panel discussion around Do Not Resist, Minnesota Public Radio reporter Brandt Williams connected with Atkinson to discuss the film and the questions it poses, in small town city councils and in the halls of Congress, about the militarization of police departments. Law enforcement officials say they need better tools to protect themselves and the communities they serve from danger. But does the police force in a town of under 30,000 people need a 24-ton, mine-resistant vehicle? Why is the federal government using the same airborne surveillance technology the military uses to spot terrorists for domestic disturbances? And what is next?

Brandt Williams: The film opens in Ferguson after Michael Brown is shot and killed. We see storm clouds brewing, and the police are armored up as protesters go by. Have you ever been in that kind of environment before?

Craig Atkinson: I’ve shot other protests and protests that turned into police exchanges, but this was our first opportunity to see the military equipment that had been given by the government.

Williams: In that first scene, you got some up close and personal video of these officers, including one scene where, after one night of activity, it’s almost like they’re athletes leaving a playing field, where they bump shields together. How did you get that video?

Atkinson: That all was taking place on the street. What we found was that the media that showed up in Ferguson would leave around 10 or 11 pm to go home and follow these stories, but we didn’t have any other deadlines, so we were able to stay out with the officers until 4 or 5 in the morning. And because not many other people were there, we just put ourselves in a very close position. By simply waiting until the end of the exchange we were able to get material that a lot of people haven’t seen before.

It was interesting to go home the next morning and watch the news, and the accuracy of what we found being portrayed was very different from what we saw waiting until the end of the night and seeing how things played out. It was an eye-opening experience to see the discrepancies between what actually took place and what was being reported.

Still from Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist (2016). Photo courtesy ro*co films international

Still from Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist (2016). Photo courtesy ro*co films international

Williams: In the film, you go from Ferguson to a scene with Dave Grossman, a well-known police trainer. Your father was a police officer, right?

Atkinson: Yes. My father was a police officer for 29 years outside of Detroit, and he was actually a SWAT officer for 13 of those years.

Williams: How did you father feel about policing, and can you compare the type of policing he did with seeing Grossman using terms like “superior and righteous violence” and saying, “You are men and women of violence.” Did your father feel like he was a “man of violence”?

Atkinson: It was quite surprising to attend a Dave Grossman seminar. We arrived at a place in our project where we thought it would be good to show how police were actually being trained. Grossman is the number-one trainer in America, not only for US Special Forces, but also for law enforcement across the country. He has taught at West Point, and his books are required reading at the FBI Academy. What we found during the six-hour seminar was language I’d never imagined our domestic police forces would be receiving. Things such as: “You’ll get sued at some point in your career. At times you can be sued for not using deadly force. If you stand by when there’s an active shooter and not use deadly force, you can be held for dereliction of duty. But don’t be afraid of being sued. Everyone gets sued; it’s just a chance for overtime.”

Things that were getting a chuckle from the crowd were really conveying a message to police officers that it’s fun to use deadly force. It’s something you might actually enjoy. It’s this whole mentality of controlling a city, rather than identifying as partners and protecting and serving a city. A young officer in a police academy, 21 or 22 years old, receiving this type of messaging, I think it’s going to have an influence. An officer could be coming into the police academy and identifying as someone who’s supposed to protect and serve, or as a peace officer, or someone who’s there to aid the community in a time of crisis, rather than coming in as “a man or woman of violence.”

Williams: I was also struck by the type of training that Grossman does. Is he affiliated with the Bulletproof Warrior training?

Atkinson: Yeah. Bulletproof Warrior training is a Dave Grossman creation. He says he teaches 300 days a year, and he’s been doing it for 18 years. Someone recently pointed out that the officer that shot Philando Castile had attended one of these Bulletproof Warrior training classes. When I went through this six-hour class and heard the rhetoric of fear that Dave Grossman communicates, it automatically signaled an area we should start looking into to find answers about why police officers are responding in violent ways to very mundane actions.

Still from Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist (2016). Photo courtesy ro*co films international

Still from Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist (2016). Photo courtesy ro*co films international

Williams: The film also touches on the Defense Department program that’s responsible for distributing military equipment to police departments. I was curious about the case in Concord, New Hampshire, where the city council was voting about the BearCat [a Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck]. Did that police chief give a reason for why he wanted this BearCat?

Atkinson: He cited the fact that there’s a growing threat of violence. He actually used language that identified a local protest group that was speaking out against the BearCat. He wrote it into the original grant proposal saying there are protest groups that we need to be cautious of and prepared for. The group protested the chief, and he took that language out of the grant proposal he submitted to DHS.

There are two major sources of funding for police equipment. One is the DOD program, the 1033 program, that’s been going on since 1997, and that’s the one that transfers surplus military equipment to law enforcement. The other one is the Department of Homeland Security grant. That’s the one that’s given $34 billion since 9/11 to local police departments to purchase equipment. In New Hampshire, you had a police chief submitting an application for a grant to Homeland Security, which then authorized a $250,000 grant to purchase a BearCat, which he took to the city council to get a vote on. It’s very hard for elected officials to not vote for something like this, because it’s ultimately proposed as something for officer safety.

Making this movie, we’d hear departments make claims time and time again that all this equipment was for officer safety or to fight terrorism, but in three years of ride-alongs we never had an opportunity to see it used on terrorism or anything like that. On a day to day basis, the equipment was used to raid houses, oftentimes for low-level drug offenses. Obviously, there are times when we need this equipment. Look no further than Orlando, where you had an active shooter situation and the BearCat was used to puncture a hole in the side of the [Pulse] nightclub to allow people to escape and eventually kill the person on the inside. Other opportunities abound where you might need the equipment. But what we kept finding was they’d say it’d be used for terrorism and they turn around and use it for drug search warrants, which were about seizing assets and where other motives seemed to be in play.

Williams: The use of MRAP [Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected] vehicles: you have these massive, 24-ton pieces of military equipment built to protect people from IEDs, and in the film we see one rolling down the street of some town in Wisconsin. Was there anything that surprised you about these examples? Did you ever just shake your head at that?

Still from Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist (2016). Photo courtesy ro*co films international

Still from Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist (2016). Photo courtesy ro*co films international

Atkinson: The entire project we were shaking our heads! We repeatedly saw instances that seemed completely excessive. One can make the case that a BearCat, which was design on an F-250 truck chassis and designed for domestic roads, would make sense for a law enforcement vehicle. But the MRAP is like 45,000 pounds, and some bridges in Fallujah would crumble under the weight of them. The max speed is 45 miles an hour. There was one police department in California that had picked one up from an army depot, and they were never told that the max speed should be about 45 mph because of the weight of the vehicle. Well, an officer was taking it back to the police department on the freeway, going 75 miles an hour. All four tires blow out, and he runs off the side of the road and hits a pickup truck in the oncoming lane and nearly kills the driver. There are these situations where you think, My god, why would we need an MRAP, that is designed solely to resist an IED. Why do we need it on the streets of Wisconsin?

Williams: Another part of the film that struck me is this kind of dark turn, looking toward the future of law enforcement–using tools and technology that a lot of us feel like we only see in science fiction. I was reminded of movies like Minority Report or the Terminator movies, when they’re talking about unmanned drones that can make decisions to take out targets without a human [involved] or predicting who is going to commit crimes. Where did you start hearing about this type of technology?

Atkinson: We discovered it in about 2014, when everyone started focusing on the military hardware coming back: the tanks and the weapons. We looked at the history of the program, which had been going on for 30 years, and realized: all that equipment was already out and it wasn’t coming back. The MRAPs were not coming back in. All the other equipment that was gifted to law enforcement wasn’t coming back in.

So I was like: even if they make reform, what’s coming next? And what we saw was a lot of the surveillance technology that was returning from Iraq and Afghanistan was making its way back. What we saw was people that would retire from the military and go into the private sector and take the technology with them, essentially. We saw technology companies approaching law enforcement and suggesting tools to use, oftentimes making them sign nondisclosure agreements so police personnel couldn’t inform the community of what they were actually using. It was private companies approaching law enforcement, offering very high power tools, and law enforcement would start using them without any policy directive on how they’re going to be deployed or what rules they should be governed by. So it was very much like private companies were dictating how the police were policing in their own communities.

We saw this throughout 2014, and we realized what we really were filming was the transition between the war on drugs and the war on terror as it related to domestic law enforcement. Because the war on terror has been fought, and is being fought, with a lot of technology—surveillance technology, obviously. We know all about the vacuuming up of the email communications of the entire web for defense companies and security agencies to analyze at a future date. Well, we came across technology providers that were taking the same IBM platform that the NSA uses to gather up all our communication and offering it to law enforcement for a $1,000 a year subscription. It’s the exact same platform the NSA uses. That may be very effective in fighting terrorism, but there was no policy in place to govern how local law enforcement, which doesn’t have the oversight that the maybe NSA even has, were to use this technology on local populations.

Still from Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist (2016). Photo courtesy ro*co films international

Still from Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist (2016). Photo courtesy ro*co films international

Williams: The Philando Castile shooting here in Falcon Heights in July was very unique because we had live video streaming from the scene right after the shooting. During protests in the wake of officer-involved shootings of African Americans, there has been a lot of the use of Twitter and other social media to get the word out about the conduct of officers at these demonstrations. It seems like there’s almost a technology race between folks trying to document police and police trying to control that particular message—from social media to body cams. When you talked to law enforcement officials, did they talk about using social media and other technology to control their message and how they’re portrayed?

Atkinson: A lot of the younger officers are very technology-capable and adopt technology quickly, and older officers across the country are very slow to react.

Obviously social media has played a huge role in a lot of the protest community being able to get their message out. One thing we saw that I want the protest community to be aware of is the fact that a lot of these police officers are gathering up all the Twitter communication and analyzing it and putting algorithms on it. They’re creating sophisticated models in order to create accounts and influence the discussion that’s happening on Twitter. There are comprehensive ways to influence a Twitter discussion by botting and using your own discussion feeds to interject on a conversation that’s already happened. We saw police officers going online and interacting with protesters in a way that you would consider to be trolling, and the only goal was to keep them from doing their protest duties. The person would be consumed with having to block accounts or deal with racist posts on their accounts and having to delete posts, and they’d spend hours of their day dealing with these trolls, when in fact it was police officers on the other end trying to influence the discussion. I don’t know if it’s individual officers who are doing that or if it’s a top-down approach.

You mentioned body cameras. They have been looked to as a panacea to fix policing. But one thing we realized is that technology companies are already figuring out how you could have a body camera relay back to the squad car, which would have wifi that would relay back to the department, and you could have real-time facial recognition in all of the police cameras. This solution that was thought to give citizens police oversight, and to protect officers against wrongful claims against them, now a technology company has stepped in to provide a solution that would give a significant advantage to the police department.

Williams: There was the discussion in the film of the FBI conducting surveillance flights over Ferguson at the request of police. Most people may figure, “Well, I’m not doing anything wrong, so why should I worry if the police are searching. They’re just looking for the bad guys.” Do you get a sense that people’s attitude has changed about, or do they just not realize the reach that law enforcement has these days?

Atkinson: I think that mentality is starting to shift a bit, because we’re beginning to understand the breadth of data that’s being collected. Look no further than the insurance industry. Previously, in order to be the biggest insurance company you’d have to insure the greatest number of people. But with the data that the industry has been able to collect on patients over the years, they realized that computer-modeling technology could help them figure out who’s likely or unlikely to get sick. So the idea is to insure the people who were unlikely to get sick and _not_ insure the people who were likely to get sick. Date is being collected and analyzed more and more in ways than give a significant advantage to corporations who own the data, against the very people they collected date from. But users are constantly giving data to corporations, and they’re getting some services, but the number of services that they’re getting are by no means the same value of the data that they’re contributing. Google, Facebook, they all turn around and use our data in ways that generate significant revenue for themselves, and oftentimes it can be a disadvantage for the users who are the ones that provided the data in the first place. This is happening across the board.

So think about big data entering policing. A lot of the statistics that are being analyzed are from Comstat. Dave Grossman says in footage that I didn’t include in the film, “Every police chief in the country knows that you can make the crime data say whatever you want it to say.” Police officers have known for years that they’ve been fudging the numbers on this Comstat data, because it’s an accounting technique where you account for certain crimes one way instead of another, and it makes it looks like the crime rate is going down. It’s been happening over the course of the last decade that Comstat has been used across the board to gather police statistics. My fear is that if you’re using this Comstat data, which I feel is compromised, to analyze and do significant deep studies on, and then go out and determine whether someone should be let out of prison or not or to predict if a child is likely to commit a homicide by the age of 18. Those predictive analytics may be very helpful, but if they’re based off of data that’s inaccurate, I think we’ll find ourselves in a situation where there will be more unjust predictions than just. We need to figure out whether this data we’re putting into police predictive models is sound, reliable data. Or are we just finding the answers that we’re already looking for?

Still from Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist (2016). Photo courtesy Vanish Films

Still from Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist (2016). Photo courtesy Vanish Films

Williams: In the film [FBI director] James Comey speaks to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, stating, “Monsters are real.” Do you get the sense who these monsters are? As you mentioned, a lot of the equipment isn’t being used to fight terrorists; it’s being used to serve search warrants to find weed or guns.

Atkinson: When Comey mentions that in the film, he’s referring to terrorists like ISIS. When I speak to police officers, they say they’re preparing for terrorists. The thing is, when we went out on a day to day basis, it wasn’t terrorists. It was local citizens, often in low-income neighborhoods. Police officers may have the best interests and may truly feel that monsters are lurking—and quite honestly some of these officers do have to go up against situations where things become extremely violent and there are active shooters and it can seem like that—but I think there needs to be a separate application of force standard for local communities versus having this level of equipment that you keep saying is for terrorism applied in the exact same way.

Williams: Looking at the events of last month, we saw police officers shot in Dallas and Baton Rouge, and in both cases the assailants used high-powered rifles and military training. How do shootings like this change the discussions around the militarization of police?

Atkinson: Quite simply, I think it’s a reminder that there are incidences where you absolutely need this equipment. It very clearly illustrates that police officers are oftentimes put in positions where they need to have a significant amount of protection.

Williams: In Dallas, the police used a robot with an explosive on it to kill an assailant. Had you heard about this before?

Atkinson: No, that was a first. The thing with the Dallas shooting was that in the hours before they used the robot, the police had released photos of another individual who was at home and saw his face on the news. He wasn’t a suspect; he’d been home all night. Well, he ran out of the house and found the nearest police officer and identified himself, and he was taken into custody and later released. I’m not saying the person in the Dallas shooting wasn’t the proper guy and didn’t end up getting what he deserved. I’m saying it’s a new threshold we’re crossing when we’re basically offering a summary judgment on this individual, sending in a robot with an explosive to kill a guy. What if the guy who was misidentified was the person who was accidentally killed by the robot? It’s a scary threshold to cross that we’re using summary judgment in the filed in a very new way. How many steps away is it to have a robot make a decision for itself?

Williams: What are the key questions you hope people who see the movie come away with, and do you think this should lead to a larger discussion, not only about the militarization of the police, but even their role in crime-fighting today?

Atkinson: Hopefully the film opens up the discussion about training. There are a lot of young officers who come in to do what the profession is presented as—to protect and serve. And I think these young officers are highly impressionable. I’m hoping we identify ways to give them the tools they actually need the most in the field. When I’d go on ride-alongs over the last three years, more often than not we were being called for domestic violence situations or for people having mental health crises. More often than not, they need to be able to de-escalate the situation. I saw them, often times, grossly unprepared for de-escalating the situation. However, if the situation turned into violence, they were very well equipped to handle that. One, I hope the film starts that discussion.

Two, no matter who gets elected in the next presidential election, I think the discussion is going to move toward federalizing the police force. That is something we need to be cautious of, because look at who has provided the equipment to law enforcement that has created this environment of over-militarization. The federal government. I think it would be the wrong choice to turn around and hand law enforcement to the influence that has gotten us away from the community policing model which we all thought we were operating on, before events like Ferguson woke us up to the fact that we’d gone a different direction.

Unstaged Events: Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera Gets a Hip-Hop Score

Though distinguished by native tongue and nationality—not to mention nearly a century—filmmaker Dziga Vertov and musician Spencer Wirth-Davis have a lot more in common than might be immediately apparent. One is a legend of his craft, a technical pioneer whose kinetic stylized montage influenced the course of cinema, while the other boasts a comparatively modest […]

Though distinguished by native tongue and nationality—not to mention nearly a century—filmmaker Dziga Vertov and musician Spencer Wirth-Davis have a lot more in common than might be immediately apparent. One is a legend of his craft, a technical pioneer whose kinetic stylized montage influenced the course of cinema, while the other boasts a comparatively modest resume, as one of the more prolific and sought after beatmakers in the Twin Cities. Yet their equally innovative methodologies demonstrate a shared spirit of formal experimentation, a patient willingness to seek out the most elemental, potent iteration of their chosen craft. A veteran of the Twin Cities hip-hop scene who makes instrumentals under the name Big Cats, Wirth-Davis will perform his original score to Vertov’s silent ode to city living Man with a Movie Camera on August 22, in the final installment of the Walker’s Summer Music & Movies 2016: Living on Video series (local punk favorites Bruise Violet will open the outdoor event in Loring Park). Although the two artists work in different media, their output is more than complementary. Rather, their pairing marks a strange sort of cosmic collision, a meeting of two artists whose practices speak in eerie parallel and attest to the enduring questions confronted by one making art in an increasingly technologized world.

Still from Dziga Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Photo: Photofest/©Amkino Corporation

Still from Dziga Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Photo: Photofest/©Amkino Corporation

Born Denis Kaufman in the city of Bialystok in the Russian Empire (located in modern day Poland), Dziga Vertov adopted his professional name (the surname derived from the Ukrainian verb “to spin” and the given name an onomatopoeia referring to the noise of a camera crank turning) shortly before becoming a filmmaker. As Vertov described it in remarks to the Association of Workers in Revolutionary Cinematography in 1934, his first encounter with filmmaking came not as a director, but as an actor. In a short clip shot outside of a Moscow summer home, Vertov jumped one-and-a-half stories from the top of a grotto to the ground below. He described his amazement, upon later watching the footage, at how the scene, shot in relative close-up, provided a hyper-detailed study of the moment’s emotional minutiae: in turn revealing fear, indecision, resolution, and, finally, surprised self-satisfaction, as the actor prepared for and successfully completed his leap. Seduced by this quality of representational precision, Vertov embraced a seemingly paradoxical approach to art-making in which effect and technical manipulation were treated as tools to be used in the service of realism, the mode in which Vertov believed the cinema enjoyed a particularly privileged position.

Accordingly, Man with a Movie Camera delivers a bounty of special effects, which although no longer novel, still stir up an easy feeling of wonder when paired with Vertov’s images—unstaged, everyday vignettes, in settings ranging from the city street to the movie house. Split screen and double exposure create kaleidoscopic cityscapes and action-filled visual collages; slow motion grants athletic feats awe-inspiring clarity; stop motion animates a movie camera, extending its legs to totter around the screen before settling down to the ground like a dog to sleep.

Yet the defining stance of Vertov’s career—and equally the conceptual impulse that brings it into dialogue with Wirth-Davis’s work—was his antipathy to cinematic narrative conventions. Part of the core cohort associated with the seminal period of Soviet cinema—alongside the likes of Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin—Vertov’s first filmmaking experience came producing newsreel propaganda in support of the Red forces during the Russian Civil War, a practice that continued following the formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1922. In ’22 and ’23, Vertov published a series of manifestos, calling for a revolutionary cinema to match the nation’s new social order: one purged of “foreign matter—of music, literature, and theater.” This fundamentally socialist project advocated a specific model of documentary filmmaking, termed “Kino-eye” by Vertov and the other members of the “Council of Three” (Vertov’s wife, the film editor Elizaveta Svilova, and his cameraman brother Mikhail Kaufman). Rejecting the narrative and psychological forms inherited from literary precedent, with Kino-eye Vertov sought to create a more perfect record of real life—a goal he considered only possible through the medium of film, with its capacity for capturing the lived moments of regular citizens from across the Soviet state.

“Kino-eye plunges into the seeming chaos of life to find in life itself the response to an assigned theme,” Vertov wrote in the 1929 essay “From Kino-Eye to Radio-Eye.” “To find the resultant force amongst the million phenomena related to the given theme. To edit; to wrest, through the camera, whatever is most typical, most useful, from life; to organize the film pieces wrested from life into a meaningful rhythmic visual order, a meaningful visual phrase, an essence of ‘I see.’” In the wide-eyed early years of cinema, this goal was more than symbolic. In “WE: Variant of a Manifesto,” published in 1922, the “kinoks”—as Kino-eye’s acolytes referred to themselves—stated a lofty intention: finding a “film scale” by which to “organiz[e] the necessary movements of objects in space as a rhythmical artistic whole.”

Still from Dziga Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Photo: Photofest/©Amkino Corporation

Still from Dziga Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Photo: Photofest/©Amkino Corporation

While the kinoks arguably never realized such a scale, Man with a Movie Camera’s metered approach to montage is surely as close as they came. Vertov’s last silent feature, the film did not use the intertitles that were typical of the era, fully committing itself to a steady visual rhythm that suggests nearly beat-by-beat tracking for a would-be accompanist (indeed, live accompaniment was entirely the norm in this era of silent film). Funded by the state-sponsored Ukrainian film studio VUFKO and shot in various cities throughout the Soviet republics, the film depicts a day in the life of the proletariat denizens of the newly created state, Vertov’s fast-paced editing careening from setting to setting according to free-associative symbolic or visual links. Thus, a scene of a shampoo bath in a hair salon abruptly cuts to a woman washing laundry outdoors in a tub. This transitions to a shot of the lathered neck of a barbershop patron before the barber’s straight razor is replaced by an axe-blade being sharpened in close-up on a stone wheel. The images are deliberately quotidian, dated by their time and place, but striking in their naturalism (the kinoks placed a premium on realism in their filmed images, employing techniques ranging from a hidden camera to subject distraction to catch their “players” unawares). Athletes in action, crowds milling about in the street, bathers lazing casually along the seashore. Even as his subjects approach more existentially weighty territory—with stops in marriage and divorce courts; footage of a young man being loaded into an ambulance, seemingly mortally injured; even an onscreen birth—Vertov’s evasion of narrative and his and Svilova’s dynamic approach in the editing room retain the flesh-and-blood realism of the lives depicted on screen, the clumsy novelty and indelible hopefulness of a swiftly modernizing world.

If Dziga Vertov imagined a cinema for the future, that future is assuredly Spencer Wirth-Davis’s present. Though the political promise of the Soviet Union slowly devolved, leading to its dissolution in 1991, Vertov’s radical aesthetic vision proved prescient of contemporary trends in art and technology—particularly in Big Cats’s chosen field of hip-hop.

Hip-hop has always been a technology-driven musical genre. One finds its origins in the manual vinyl effects of dance party DJs in 1970s Bronx, New York, who employed twin turntables to blend and extend the drum breaks in funk, R&B, and disco records. With the introduction of samplers, drum machines, and increasingly sophisticated scratching and mixing techniques, hip-hop production quickly evolved from this party scene into a coherent genre in its own right, characterized by its complexly layered sonic collages. More recently, popular access to the internet, coupled with the widespread availability of laptop production software, have made it increasingly easy for artists to make and release music, letting seemingly niche acts like Odd Future and Lil B (among so many others) gain a toehold in the musical mainstream.

Big Cats’s transformation from hip-hop fan to working producer follows a similar trajectory. Though he had studied music from a young age—playing the bass in youth orchestras and jazz bands from age nine through high school—Wirth-Davis’s interests began to shift when he discovered hip-hop in his early teens, initially through the Bay Area turntablist group Invisibl Skratch Piklz, which he found on the internet. Piqued by the group’s sound, he began to explore the hip-hop community that had quietly started to gestate in the Twin Cities during the ’90s and early 2000s, centered on the Rhymesayers Entertainment record label. Immediately interested in the craft of turntablism, Wirth-Davis found inspiration in locals like DJ Abilities and his various emcee affiliates (Eyedea, Slug, et al). It was out of this creative community that Wirth-Davis’s first major hip-hop project, The Tribe & Big Cats!, took shape. Having graduated from the turntable set to the MPC, Wirth-Davis teamed up with local rapper TruthBe Told to put out a series of releases in 2010 and ’11 that coupled lush samples with nimble, biographical raps.

Throughout his affiliation with The Tribe & Big Cats!, Wirth-Davis maintained a traditional approach to production, in which short clips of music are lifted from other artists’ records and looped to create a repeating musical pattern, complemented by drum tracks and instrumentals. But when he was named the recipient of a sizable McKnight Artist Fellowship in 2011, he chose a different technique for the resulting record, For My Mother, released the following year. Tapping into his background in classical music and jazz, Wirth-Davis wrote a series of original compositions, which were then recorded in studio sessions involving more than a dozen musicians on live instruments. Approaching the resulting masters as he would another artist’s record, Wirth-Davis assembled the final album from samples extracted from these studio sessions. The final work inhabited a space of conceptual tension, with its deliberate composition and instrumentation process yielding a mass of material that was immediately put under the blade, becoming the raw ingredients of software-assembled electronic loops. It’s a process he has since repeated, both for solo projects and collaborations with rappers Toki Wright and Homeless, with an increasing emphasis on organic, improvised instrumentation, rather than the more structured—and more expensive—studio sessions of For My Mother.

Spencer Wirth-Davis, aka Big Cats. Photo: Gene Pittman, Walker Art Center

Spencer Wirth-Davis, aka Big Cats. Photo: Gene Pittman, Walker Art Center

“This process, once I did it, made a lot more sense for me. Having a background as a musician, knowing and working with a lot of musicians, this actually ended up giving me a lot more freedom than sampling other people’s work,” Big Cats said before a recent gig at First Avenue’s 7th St. Entry, opening for D.C.-based rapper Oddisee.

“If I have 30 minutes of sample material to pull from that’s all in the same vein or around the same idea, that gives me a lot more to work with than if I have these three seconds that I’m going to pull from a record,” he added.

Out of these sessions, featuring a fairly stable roster of musicians, including Eric Mayson, Lydia Liza, Nelson Devereaux, and Miguel Hurtado, Big Cats builds instrumentals that are both atmospheric and percussive, naturally suited to scoring a film (especially one as saturated with the mechanical rhythms of industry and transportation as Man with a Movie Camera). Today, Wirth-Davis’s sound is as indebted to the classical, jazz, and rock music he studied and played growing up as it is to the hip-hop culture he discovered as a teenager. Noting the repetitive quality inherent to classically sampled hip-hop production, Wirth-Davis aspires to make sampled music of a greater tonal range than is typical of the genre, creating soundscapes that match the sonic peaks and valleys of a film score. Samples drop in and out of the mix with regularity, and his music is stretched temporally, relative to most hip-hop production: its emotional peaks and valleys arriving minutes apart, rather than landing repeatedly within a sample that stretches for only a few seconds before it is looped.

“It’s okay to have quieter moments and it’s okay to have moments where there’s not necessarily a lot going on. But then to couple that with really loud, in your face, bass-heavy, energetic moments,” Wirth-Davis said. “Watching a film, you’re going to have moments where the music is barely there, and it’s just a bed under whatever’s happening. And then you’re going to have moments where the music really needs to accent whatever’s happening in that scene.”

While for Wirth-Davis, this method has more to do with function than theory, his experimentation with sampling processes provides an interesting contemporary counterpart to Vertov’s Kino-eye, a conceptual stance that championed authenticity in an art medium built upon a foundation of illusion. Vertov’s film craft strategy was rooted in the voracious documentation of “unstaged” life, an amassing of exhibits for eventual deployment in the examination of an “assigned theme,” a topic to be approached through direct examples—a sort of visual sampling—which, when strategically compiled through effect and editing, create a rhythmic approximation of a thing with its own visual logic. Big Cats’s plan for his Man with a Movie Camera score is strikingly similar: acclimate to the mood and rhythm of the film, assemble his team of studio improvisers, and, finally, write and experiment his way to a trove of raw musical footage to be whittled down into a series of perfect loops.

What’s striking about these two artists is their peculiar, even paradoxical, commitment to the “real” in their art—the lengths to which each is willing to travel in the interest of capturing his version of truth, even as their very methods seem to undermine such a pursuit. Vertov decries the illusive conventions of narrative, but peppers his films with indulgent visual spectacle. In the sound films that he made during the latter part of his career, he advocated an “unstaged sound” to match his “unstaged cinema,” lugging audio recording equipment into the field along with his cameras to capture the true sounds of his socialist subjects. Yet he made no argument as to coupling that sound with the onscreen image, allowing for both synchronous and asynchronous audiovisual pairings—the latter a jarring interruption to cinema’s seemingly objective eye. Meanwhile, Big Cats places a premium on improvisation and instrumentation in a genre built on the artificial repetition of extant material, building electronic tracks out of live improvisation, only to take them apart again in largely unrehearsed concerts featuring a set of musicians endlessly reimagining their own sampled selves. He chooses the total freedom of composition, yet remains loyal to the stylistic and sonic tropes of vinyl sampling (preferring, for example, to sample full band mixes, rather than single instruments, to retain the accidental “artifacts” that arrive as passengers of a sampled melody or drum part—a traditional, but now unnecessary, textural quality of classic hip-hop production).

These may seem like impossible positions to assimilate, and perhaps they are. Yet, in a cultural landscape where musical pitch-correction technology serves to distort vocals rather than polish them and the source of record of our contemporary social lives comes with a built-in set of artificial photo filters, their work strikes a transcendent tone. In a world where parole officers play drug lords on wax and our children’s most vivid coming of age narratives play out in picturebook tableaux, one finds terms like “real” and “artificial” to be equally apt descriptors of the same phenomena.

On August 22, Big Cats and company will improvise their way through an unrepeatable series of repeated loops, one of an infinite set of variations on a composed score that will only ever exist live. An unstaged event—as Vertov would have it.

Close-Up: The Walker Remembers Abbas Kiarostami

Martin Scorsese once praised Abbas Kiarostami as representing “the highest level of artistry in the cinema.” Responding to those words several years ago, the Iranian director replied, “This admiration is perhaps more appropriate after I am dead.” Sadly, it now is: Kiarostami passed away in Paris on July 4, 2016 at the age of 76. In celebration […]

Abbas Kiarostami, 1998. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives

Abbas Kiarostami, 1998. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives

Martin Scorsese once praised Abbas Kiarostami as representing “the highest level of artistry in the cinema.” Responding to those words several years ago, the Iranian director replied, “This admiration is perhaps more appropriate after I am dead.” Sadly, it now is: Kiarostami passed away in Paris on July 4, 2016 at the age of 76.

In celebration of his legacy and commemoration of his passing, the Walker presents a memorial screening of Kiarostami’s 1990 film Close-Up tonight, July 28. The film was screened at the Walker in 1998, as part of  the Walker Dialogue and Retrospective series. Occurring shortly after the director won the Palme d’Or at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival for his feature Taste of CherryAbbas Kiarostami: In Retrospect welcomed the director as the series’ 25th guest.

But Kiarostami’s visit almost didn’t happen, as Bruce Jenkins, Walker film curator at the time (now a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago), recalled to me in an email:

One of the distinctive aspects of the Dialogues series involves the financial wherewithal to support visits by major international artists. Wim Wenders had come to the Walker from Germany; Jane Campion flew in from Australia; Chen Kaige traveled from China; and the Quay Brothers—Timothy and Stephen—made a rare trip from London to the Twin Cities. But no visit seemed to involve more planning or more problem-solving than one that brought the extraordinary Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami in February 1998 to the Walker.

The invitation had been made a year earlier and while it was received positively, the arrangements for his travel to the US were to prove both complicated (because of governmental restrictions) and costly. Since there was no official US presence in Tehran, travel visas could only be obtained abroad. Kiarostami had been able to do this in the past at the American Embassy in Paris, but a recent negative experience convinced the filmmaker that this was no longer a viable route, and he proposed canceling the trip.

That’s when we contacted Joan Mondale, who having recently returned from Japan had rejoined the Walker board, and asked her advice and help. Mrs. Mondale quickly got her husband Walter, the former ambassador to Japan (and vice president), involved. While neither Kiarostami nor the Walker ever learned the exact nature of his intervention, Kiarostami was given his visa in Paris without incident and flew from there to the Twin Cities, a bit baffled perhaps by the VIP treatment he had received en route to his Dialogue at the Walker.

At the Walker, Kiarostami discussed the entirety of his career—including Close-Up—with Richard Peña, then program director for the Film Society of Lincoln Center and chair of the selection committee for the New York Film Festival. A blend of documentary and fiction, Close-Up depicted the sensational real life event of Hossein Sabzian fraudulently impersonating the famous Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and lying his way into the life of a Tehran family. Speaking to the Guardian about Kiarostami, Makhalmabaf observed: “He changed the world’s cinema; he freshened it and humanized it in contrast with Hollywood’s rough version.”

Initially panned by Iranian critics, Close-Up—which was notable for its destabilizing use of realism, puncturing of the fourth wall and curiosity about small moments and secondary characters—eventually brought the director to international acclaim and is now widely celebrated as a cinematic masterpiece and ranked by BFI as one of the greatest films of all time.

Telling Peña about his first film, Bread and Alley (1970), Kiarostami noted that he opted to work with a non-professional boy and dog after unsuccessfully trying to find a seven year-old professional actor. The film was the first of eight shorts produced for the Centre for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults (Kanun) and aptly anticipated a career-long interest in portraying the seemingly mundane texture of daily life with humor, sensitivity and an eye for detail.

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.
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