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Cellular Cinema on Experimental Moving image: An Interview with Founder Kevin Obsatz

After more than two robust years of experimental film, video, and performance programming, Cellular Cinema has established itself in the Twin Cities as one of the go-to alternative cinemas for exploring contemporary avant-garde moving image art. Typically hosted in the small theater at Bryant Lake Bowl, Cellular Cinema regularly welcomes guest curators from across the country, […]

Screen Shot 2017-02-22 at 11.10.36 AM

Photo courtesy Cellular Cinema

After more than two robust years of experimental film, video, and performance programming, Cellular Cinema has established itself in the Twin Cities as one of the go-to alternative cinemas for exploring contemporary avant-garde moving image art. Typically hosted in the small theater at Bryant Lake Bowl, Cellular Cinema regularly welcomes guest curators from across the country, featuring work of numerous nationally renown and local artists. Screenings are in 16mm, super-8, sometimes with multiple projectors, sometimes including live sound or performance accompaniment, as well as HD and SD video. The team includes Kevin Obsatz, Richard Wiebe, John Marks, and Sam Hoolihan. Founder, Kevin Obsatz meets with Bentson Archivist and Programmer, Ruth Hodgins, to discuss experimental cinema, the moving image community in Minneapolis, and future plans for Cellular Cinema.

Ruth Hodgins: Cellular Cinema describes itself as “a community dedicated to the idea that moving image art can be a realm of exploration, improvisation, and play on a small scale, using a wide range of tools, techniques, and technologies, unbound by the commercial considerations of mainstream narrative media.” How did you come to explore and take part in a community focused on alternative forms of moving image art?

Kevin Obsatz: When I was in Traditional Hollywood Film School, the professors were always stressing that everything needed to be clear all the time—every shot, every scene needed to convey very specific and intentional information and emotional content to the audience, so that everyone in the room was always on the same page, progressing through the movie. The laughs, tears, thrills, etc. needed to synchronize perfectly. And we, myself and the students I hung out with, would always argue in favor of ambiguity and a more subjective experience. A good working definition for me of experimental moving image is simply allowing everyone in the audience to have their own experience of the work, and not trying to control and optimize their reactions to each moment. I could go on and on about this, but that’s the main thing, I think.

Hodgins: You’ve been working in experimental moving image art for a number of years, as an artist, programmer, curator, and writer. How did you get started working across practices?

Obsatz: I have been working with video and then film and then video since my teens, and I’ve never been willing or able to limit myself to one particular format, medium or genre. I’ve worked in kind of classical narrative cinema and documentary as well, alongside small-scale experiments, but then I didn’t know what to do with them, who might want to see them, where I could show them. I discovered the experimental film community in Paris by accident when I was living there in the early ’00s. I think before anyone coined the term “microcinema,” Paris was already full of really tiny theaters, like 25 seats but still projecting 35mm film, and so I met a few people and found out about these literally underground film screenings, in these small basement theaters, and I was really impressed that they seemed to be thriving right alongside the new Harry Potter film or whatever. Exposure to that community also filled me in a little bit on the history of experimental film, particularly in New York in the ’60s and ’70s. I got an intro course just based on who people were talking about and what was screening as “classics.” So, in the relatively short time I was there, Tony Conrad came to do a performance, Michael Snow was there premiering a film, Adolphas Mekas, brother of Jonas—I didn’t really know they were a big deal, except based on the reactions of people at those screenings.

 

Photo courtesy of Cellular Cinema

Photo courtesy Cellular Cinema

Hodgins: Often Cellular Cinema is described as a community organization, bringing people together to experience new forms of cinema. What do you think are the benefits of viewing together as a group, rather than alone like many people tend to favor?

Obsatz: I’m extremely uninterested in watching experimental films alone, online. People send me links to work that I’m sure is fantastic, but I find sitting alone staring at art on my laptop screen really depressing. I originally got into filmmaking because of the social dimension, the way it prompts interaction with people, and I think it’s a really beautiful experience to watch films with people. I rarely go to a multiplex anymore because even though there are still technically other people in the theater, people tend to try their best to ignore each other. Whereas with Cellular Cinema, the room is full of filmmakers and experimental film enthusiasts, we’re watching the work of filmmakers who are often present as well, and interaction before, during, and after the screening is encouraged.

Hodgins: In addition to running Cellular Cinema you have your own art practice. Has Cellular Cinema helped create a dialogue for you as maker?

Obsatz: As a filmmaker, it’s so important to have opportunities to watch your work with a roomful of people. Outside of an academic setting, those opportunities can be reduced to a couple of festival screenings per year, or fewer… so I know that as an artist, just having a place to share work makes a huge difference in my motivation to start and finish projects, and probably in the overall quality of those projects as well.

Hodgins: On your website, Cellular Cinema is described as “the only regularly occurring event in Minneapolis or St. Paul that features short form, experimental contemporary moving image art.” How active is the experimental moving image art scene in Minneapolis over the last 5 or 10 years?

Obsatz: Honestly, I think I can only speak to the last few years. We started Cellular Cinema screenings in 2014, which is when I met Sam Hoolihan and John Marks, and they started their Mirrorlab collective and darkroom a few years before that. Probably there have always been cool people doing cool stuff, but I didn’t know how to find them, which was the main reason for starting the screenings.

Hodgins: You’ve discussed your experience in Paris frequenting microcinemas and being inspired by the community there. How did you find and activate a similar community of experimental moving image enthusiasts here in Minnesota?

Obsatz: That’s an ongoing process. Initially, I made the decision to get my MFA at the University of Minnesota largely because I didn’t know anyone else who was interested in doing the kind of work that I was doing. So access to the academic art community (art teachers and art students) was the starting point. But after that, Cellular Cinema itself has been the best way to find like-minded people. It gives me a great excuse to contact pretty much anyone and say, “Hey, we’re doing this screening, I heard about your work, are you interested in sharing something?” That’s harder to do as a random artist, whereas it’s so easy when you can invite people to screen their work.

Hodgins: In your manifesto, you describe Cellular Cinema’s goal: “We propose a methodology of cinema that is small in scale, self-contained in terms of resources, and unpredictably alive in terms of content and form.” What are the audiences you experience and expect at Cellular Cinema?

Obsatz: It has been important to me to not stress out about filling the house of 75 seats for each screening. I don’t want to harass anyone about coming, so I generally send one email and create an event on Facebook, and that’s it. As a result, the people who show up are often genuinely invested in experimental film, curious about what’s going on, willing to be challenged and surprised by the work, and generous and supportive of the artists. I think our smallest audience was probably ten, but we have completely filled the house on more than one occasion, and I’d say we average between 20 and 40 audience members.

Hodgins: Cellular Cinema is predominantly hosted in the small theater space at Bryant Lake Bowl. Are there other venues or organizations in the Twin Cities that you work with to help promote and encourage experimental moving image art?

Obsatz: One of the best things about starting Cellular Cinema has been the relative lack of competition on the experimental film front. Our website says “the only regularly recurring screening series of experimental film in Minneapolis,” and, as far as I know, that has been true for the duration of our existence thus far. I am happy for CC to be the hub for as long as that naturally occurs, and I want to use the audience and community we are building to support other experimental film events and opportunities. I’m really excited about what’s happening at the Walker these days with the Mediatheque and the Ruben/Benson Moving Image Collection, and of course I love the Trylon, though they focus more on feature-length and repertory programming. If I’m overlooking something, someone let me know! But other than a few annual festival-type things, that’s all I can think of.

Photo Courtesy of Cellular Cinema

Photo courtesy Cellular Cinema

Hodgins: You often collaborate with artists and curators from across the United States for screening events. Has Cellular Cinema travelled and worked with the experimental cinema community outside of Minneapolis? Did it affect how you’ve developed Cellular Cinema?

Obsatz: My experience in Paris helped me to see that this kind of community was possible, though Paris has the benefit of more artist and filmmaker traffic in general. I’m also indebted to the Echo Park Film Center in LA, which is (I think) 15 years old, and seems to have an excellent, sustainable model for community engagement, film-on-film making and screening, and a collectivist ethos. I am very intrigued by the communities and resources that seem to exist in Chicago and Winnipeg, though I haven’t explored either of those locales in great depth. One of the biggest surprises for me has been discovering that experimental filmmakers go on tour, like bands, and can find venues all across the Midwest for screenings. There’s like a circuit or network that includes Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison, Iowa City, Winnipeg, and now Minneapolis. We should formalize that as a network or association or something. Maybe that’s the next step.

Hodgins: If someone wants to attend Cellular Cinema for the first time but is new to viewing experimental moving image art what would you tell them to expect?

Obsatz: When I host a screening for an audience without much prior experimental film experience, I always say, “You don’t have to like anything.” I had an audience member once tell me that he found that enormously liberating. The point of art is not for everything to be pleasant and likable. We have mainstream cinema and television for that.

Hodgins: You’ve had a very busy first couple of years. What do you have planned for Cellular Cinema over the next year?

Obsatz: It’s funny how quickly a year’s worth of programming fills up when you only have one event per month. I just spoke to someone who is doing experimental film programming weekly in North Carolina, and that sounds incredibly stressful to me. But, we already have some amazing guests booked through the first half of 2017, and we’re starting to think about the fall already. We have a new Mobile Microcinema that we’re starting to take on road trips around the cities and eventually further afield, and I applied for funding to start a quarterly Microcinema/Experimental Film Review—but I just found out that application was rejected. I would also really like to expand our programming range to invite more international filmmakers… but that might require an actual budget. For now we’re making do on essentially zero money; box office revenue goes to the artists, and various resources like projectors, projectionists, and admin are all donated. On one hand it would be cool to grow bigger, but on the other I really like the scale we’re at now—we’ve been able to do so much with so little, thanks largely to the generosity of guest filmmakers and curators.

Introducing INDIgenesis: Indigenous Filmmakers, Past and Present

“We are in the beginning of a new era in Native cinema, a place where our ancestors are given life, our voices rise, and we return to our traditional ways of being through the lens.” —Missy Whiteman This month the Walker Cinema presents INDIgenesis: Indigenous Filmmakers, Past and Present, a series of films and talks, which begins with […]

Missy Whiteman’s The Coyote Way: Going Back Home, 2016. Photo credits Missy Whiteman

Missy Whiteman’s The Coyote Way: Going Back Home, 2016. Photo: Missy Whiteman

“We are in the beginning of a new era in Native cinema, a place where our ancestors are given life, our voices rise, and we return to our traditional ways of being through the lens.” —Missy Whiteman

This month the Walker Cinema presents INDIgenesis: Indigenous Filmmakers, Past and Present, a series of films and talks, which begins with a screening of The Daughter of Dawn—a silent film from 1920 featuring members of the Comanche and Kiowa tribes—and culminates in a discussion with those documenting the ongoing activism surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock. Filmmakers will be present throughout the run of INDIgenesis to discuss their work. INDIgenesis builds upon the legacy of the Two Rivers Native Film and Video Festival and is programmed in collaboration with Whiteman (Northern Arapaho and Kickapoo Nations), a writer, filmmaker, and digital media consultant whose films incorporate indigenous languages,teachings, and values as a means of documentation, revitalization, and preservation.

Missy Whiteman

Picture the classic western The Searchers set in Nunavut. Find yourself in the Minneapolis neighborhoods of Missy Whiteman’s newest film. Pay tribute to American Indian Movement peace warrior John Trudell, and enjoy the Pines’ music video on which he and Whiteman collaborated. Join an exploration of ancestry and language in a program of shorts, learn the Ojibwe tale of the Seven Fires Prophecy, and more.

For information about discounted tickets for individuals and groups, please contact Alison Kozberg (Alison.kozberg@walkerart.org) at least one business day before the screening.

 

The Daughter of Dawn, directed by Norbert A. Myles

Screening: March 3, 7:30 pm

“A buried American treasure.” —NPR

Shot in the summer of 1920 in southwest Oklahoma, the film features more than 300 members of the Comanche and Kiowa tribes. Their personal objects were integrated into the story of two suitors vying for the affections of the Kiowa chief’s daughter. 1920, US, silent with live musical score, 87 minutes.

Tickets: $10 ($8 Walker members, students, and seniors)

 

Mekko, directed by Sterlin Harjo

Screening: March 4, 7:30 pm

Mekko infuses street-smart realism with Native American mysticism to create a quietly haunting portrait of fringe dwellers and castoffs.” —Hollywood Reporter

A thrilling redemption quest inflected with shades of the supernatural, Sterlin Harjo’s third feature follows a recent parolee who encounters Bill, a malevolent figure he suspects might be a shape-shifter. 2015, US, 84 minutes.

Tickets: $10 ($8 Walker members, students, and seniors)

 

The Searchers (Maliglutit), directed by Zacharias Kunuk and Natar Ungalaaq

Screenings: March 10–11, 7:30 pm

Maliglutit never puts a foot wrong. Kunuk’s filmmaking is consistently impressive.” —Playlist

This reimagining of John Ford’s classic western of the same title, gorgeously set in Nunavut circa 1915, follows an Inuk man who searches for the invaders who destroyed his home and kidnapped his wife. Soundtrack by Tanya Tagaq. 2016, Canada, in Inuktitut with English subtitles, 94 minutes.

Tickets: $10 ($8 Walker members, students, and seniors)

 

Short Films Program: DNA//Memory: Storytelling and Cultural Heritage, introduced by director Lyle Corbine

Screening: March 11, 2 pm, Free

Using storytelling to address erasure and preserve traditions for future generations, these short films beautifully express filmmakers’ examinations of ancestry, language, and history. Program includes Shimásáni by Blackhorse Lowe, Anishinabemowin Nagishkodaading by Eve Lauryn-Lafountain, Shinaab by Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr., Smoke that Travels by Kayla Briët, Four Faces of the Moon by Amanda Strong, and I’ll Remember You as You Were, Not as What You’ll Become
by Sky Hopinka.

 

The Coyote Way: Going Back Home, introduced by director Missy Whiteman

Screening: March 16, 7:30 pm, Free

This sci-fi docu-narrative follows Charlie, who is forced to choose between joining a Native street gang or going on an epic pilgrimage. Featuring an entirely Native American cast, the film was shot in the Minneapolis neighborhoods of Phillips and Little Earth. 2016, US, 30 minutes.

Pre-Screening Conversation: Join us in the main lobby at 5 pm before the screening to explore themes and stories from Whiteman’s film through interactive activities presented by the Little Earth Arts Collective.

 

INAATE/SE/ [it shines a certain way. to a certain place./ it flies. falls./], introduced by directors Zack and Adam Khalil

Screenings: March 17, 6:30 pm; March 18, 7:30 pm

This experimental documentary explores the Ojibwe story of the Seven Fires Prophecy, which has been interpreted as predicting the arrival of the Europeans in North America and the destruction they caused. Bold, smart, and unflinching, the film examines the relationship between tradition and modern indigenous identity. Copresented by the Augsburg Native American film series. 2016, US and Canada, 75 minutes.

Tickets: $10 ($8 Walker members, students, and seniors)

 

Trudell, introduced by director Heather Rae, preceded by the music video for “Time Dreams”

Screening: March 24, 7:30 pm, Free

“A thought-provoking and graceful portrait of a tenacious peace warrior whose frankness is his greatest weapon.” —Boston Globe

This intimate portrait of poet and American Indian Movement leader John Trudell is the result of 12 years of extensive research and features interviews and archival footage. He passed away in 2015, and the screening pays tribute to his life and influence. 2005, US, 80 minutes.

Serving as a grace note to a life of inspiration, activism, and preservation of the human spirit, the music video for the Pines’ “Time Dreams” is the result of a collaboration with John Trudell, Missy Whiteman, and the musicians. The song is the closing track on the Pines’ 2016 album Above The Prairie.

 

Discussion and Screening: Views from Standing Rock, with filmmakers Heather Rae and Cody Lucich in Person

Screening: March 25, 7:30 pm, Free

Cody Lucich’s AKICITA 2017 Photo courtesy Heather Rae and Cody Lucich.

Cody Lucich’s AKICITA, 2017. Photo courtesy Heather Rae and Cody Lucich

Filmmakers Heather Rae (Trudell), and Cody Lucich discuss documentary filmmaking, activism, and representation and present footage from AKICITA, a forthcoming documentary about the global, indigenous uprising born at Standing Rock in North Dakota.

Where the Work Is: Walker Moving Image Commissions Three Years On

Initiated in 2014, the Walker Moving Image Commissions invited five artists to create a new work to premiere online from June 1, 2015 to May 31, 2016. These works respond to the inspirations, inquiry, and influence of key artists in the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection. Mason Leaver-Yap, who produces the series, discusses their work with two […]

James Richards and Leslie Thornton, Crossing, 2016

James Richards and Leslie Thornton, Crossing, 2016

Initiated in 2014, the Walker Moving Image Commissions invited five artists to create a new work to premiere online from June 1, 2015 to May 31, 2016. These works respond to the inspirations, inquiry, and influence of key artists in the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection. Mason Leaver-Yap, who produces the series, discusses their work with two of the artists—Leslie Thornton and James Richards—and the legacy projects that have emerged since.

Over coffee recently, a curator friend described the way in which she repeatedly worked with the same group of artists as a kind of “monogamous” curating. She wanted to point to the idea of sustained contact with artistic dialogue as a curator’s belief in artistic practice as a whole, rather than the far shorter commitments of exhibition-making. What she was suggesting was a time commitment in the extreme: her proposition was a life of working with a slowly expanding constellation of interconnected artists and makers, seeing their practice expand and shift in parallel with the twists and turns of their life and hers.

My friend set her working method in opposition to the oft-institutional desire to work with a different artist each time—one where opportunities are spread across numerous artists so different audiences are exposed to a breadth of work, styles, and forms. While the institution must welcome change, difference, and variety, my friend said she was all too conscious that the “cult of the new” so often verges on fetish. In attempting to describe similarities to monogamous curating, she drew comparisons with some of the artists that I have either written about multiple times or worked with repeatedly and some I’ve since commissioned as part of the Walker Moving Image Commissions: Leslie Thornton and James Richards.

Resistant perhaps to the terms “monogamy” and “curating,” as well as a fear of the appearance over proprietorial claim over specific art practices, I initially balked at her suggestion. But her analysis of what it might mean to intentionally limit one’s working sphere in order to deepen the conversation with an artist’s commitment to art-making in different phases, modes, and periods made me acknowledge the ways in which following specific artists’ practices over an extended period time is a way of staying dialed in to their motivations of making work, and also—I hope—being better placed to support the work when the opportunity to work together rises again.

Leslie Thornton, They Were Just People, 2016

Leslie Thornton, They Were Just People, 2016

While this conversation with my friend was taking place, I was already in dialogue with American artist and filmmaker Leslie Thornton regarding her most recently completed video They Were Just People (2016). I had noticed Thornton’s stereoscopic format of this work—which focused on footage of the La Brea tar pits, doubled to resemble a pair of eyes staring back at the viewer—many years prior. She had used this stereoscope in a 2011 New York exhibition project to depict the bodies and eyes of animals.

I had been following Thornton’s work for some years after being introduced to her videos and early films by another artist I had started working with in 2007—British artist James Richards. Richards’s interest had been that of an ardent Thornton fan. He had begun publicly screening her videos alongside his own, and he encouraged me to do the same. Thornton’s work was dark, complex, and beautiful, so, with Richards’ infectious enthusiasm, we both began including her films in events together. By 2014, with the advent of the Walker Moving Image Commissions, I was keen to invite them both to make individual works for the series.

Thinking through the reappearance of formats, previous techniques, and archival materials for They Were Just People, I asked Thornton about her tactics of reuse, and specifically of her binocular format. She told me it had taken her years to understand what she wanted to achieve with that kind of stereo vision, and that the “deep content axis” she had been seeking from the format had finally fallen into place in They Were Just People. The format had worked not with the depiction of animals, nor with the shooting of new footage, but with her old videos of the sluggish La Brea Tar Pits that she had kept in her personal archive of videos for years. Paired with something else from her archive—the audio of an eyewitness account that describes the moments after the US dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945—the technique’s density of allusions had cohered in an instant. They Were Just People had appeared as a short, sharp shock, all with her preexisting material.

I was struck by this idea of drawing on previous constellations of material, footage, ideas, and how it related to an idea of commitment that my friend had outlined over our coffee—a constellation not just of materials but of affinities between artists. I was highly conscious that Richards was an artist who had produced one of the earliest Walker Moving Image Commissions (Radio At Night, 2015), had introduced me to Thornton’s work some seven years ago, and continued to develop his own work in explicitly in relation to Thornton’s. These factors were central to my mind when inviting Thornton to premiere They Were Just People as part of a contextual screening program in the spring of 2016.

I had wanted to frame the public presentation of Thornton’s new video in a way that was both comprehensible to the influences of the work (one of the starting points for considering the piece had been artist Bruce Conner’s 1976 film CROSSROADS, for example), but also took into account the genesis of that video work in relation to the ideas it encapsulated and the broader practice it was emerging from—wanting to show work alongside They Were Just People by means of creating a conversation between different works and the new commission. Sharing such intentions with both Thornton and Richards, they jointly suggested they make a work together that would follow the cinema screening of They Were Just People.

We initially thought their format could take that of the exquisite corpse—an additive composition derived from the Surrealist parlor games. Yet what Thornton and Richards ended up making was the video Crossing (2016), a video work whose complexity and collaboration far exceeded the basic premise of a call-and-response compilation. Crossing was made from collapsing together the personal archives of both artists’ footage and audio.

James Richards and Leslie Thornton, Crossing, 2016

James Richards and Leslie Thornton, Crossing, 2016

“We exchanged fragments online, adding chunks of sounds, or additional clips of digital effect, and then passing back for the other to add on more,” said Richards of a process that was, by equal turns, collaborative and self-reflexive. “We built up short ‘phrases’ or ‘sentences’ of previously discrete clips that somehow worked together in interesting ways. It was a process of developing a grammar of existing images. I think there is something cannibalistic about the project; we were re-digesting ourselves in the exchange.”

An intensely worked video, Crossing was finally rendered and completed in the back of a Minneapolis taxi on the way to the Walker Art Center for its cinema premiere. It was an art work that emerged from each artists’ unreasonable commitment to practices other than ones own—something wryly reflected in the alternative title that both artists gave the work: Abyss Film.

In addition to its various titles, Crossing has since taken on new tweaks, edits, and versions since the Walker screening last year. Presented as part of the forthcoming Whitney Biennial (March 17–June 11, 2017) and also Jaguars and Eels at Julia Stoschek Collection Berlin (February 5–26 November, 2017), the video continues to circulate. Of the work, Thornton reflected, “Even if the ‘surplus’ was our own, actively produced and acquired, it was latent in a way, just waiting for something to happen.”

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

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

Concurrently to Crossing, another conversation around “surplus” had spawned between myself and Richards, again in relation to his original Walker Moving Image Commission, Radio At Night. We had been discussing the idea of making a book together, beyond the scope of the Walker, though still in relation to work he was developing for exhibitions that would feature Radio At Night. There was a certain paradox in transposing Richards’s durational practice (one that was primarily composed of moving image work and number of audio installations) into the static format of the printed page. And so, in an effort to embrace this conflict, we probed the possibility of using Radio At Night as a “score” for the book. Rather than represent the work simply in video stills, we would transcribe the movement between images and sound and use the tempo and feel of the video as a structuring principle.

Richards had previously described the beginning of Radio At Night as if it were “pumped out as if from a small bandwidth, personal but distant,” and so we decided that the first section of the proposed book should also follow that same tone. We matched the moments of density and drama in Radio At Night with similar timing and proliferation of images within the structure of the book.

This way of assembling the book as a transposition gave us scaffold on which to hang our other various contents, contributions and collages. It put in motion a certain democracy in relationship to the images we used. Some were found, some were personal images shot on the phone, others were screengrabs, or perhaps they were sent by friends. We wanted to equate the usefulness of off-hand and private images with that of “professional” documentation, largely in an effort to pose the question, “where is the space of the work?”

The world of making art is all encompassing for the artist, so we wanted to find ways of using the book to create an aperture onto that world—something that mirrored that intimate and even claustrophobic relationship to making artwork that would also be a way of speaking about the world one inhabits, wants to reflect, and also to affect. With the cover of the book taking on the guise of a score sheet, James Richards’ Requests and Antisongs, was published in late 2016, as an unlikely descendent of Radio At Night.

Request and Antisongs book 4

Requests and Antisongs (Sternberg, 2016), Eds. Mason Leaver-Yap and James Richards

The Walker Moving Image Commissions began in 2014 with a fairly simple premise: to create artist’s moving image works that would stream online for the same duration as that of an exhibition or a movie—between four and six weeks.

That an art institution might simply appear demonstrate a program of working with an artist once—on a show, a screening, or the commissioning of new work to present online—sometimes obscures the relationships that occur both prior and after that event. Yet the intensity of working towards a single institutional project inevitably finds other ways of replicating itself, deepening engagements and coherences far beyond the scope of a single project. Videos turn into collaborative installations, books, and exhibitions elsewhere. This constellation perhaps does indeed indicate a kind of “monogamistic curating,” as my friend coined it. And yet I find both empathy with and resistance to such a term. I continue to hope that we expand the encounters with artists, less out of fetish for one or more, but of an unruly curiosity that seeks to offer up a stage for ideas beyond one’s own thinking.

Season two of the Moving Image Commissions will launch in summer 2017, presenting new work streaming online from artists Marwa Arsanios, Yto Barrada, Pauline Boudry/Renate Lorenz, and Renée Green.

A Community to Think Through: The Origins of the Bentson Critical Group

The Bentson Critical Group (BCG) is a monthly discussion forum that explores ideas around the history and contemporary development of artists’ moving image practice. Hosted by the Walker Art Center since 2015, the BCG is comprised of academics, programmers, and artists who work with moving image in the Twin Cities, and who have begun to present […]

Frank and Caroline Mouris, Frank Film, 1973. Walker Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

Frank and Caroline Mouris, Frank Film, 1973. Featured in the Mediatheque BCG playlist The Politics of the Domestic, Walker Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

The Bentson Critical Group (BCG) is a monthly discussion forum that explores ideas around the history and contemporary development of artists’ moving image practice. Hosted by the Walker Art Center since 2015, the BCG is comprised of academics, programmers, and artists who work with moving image in the Twin Cities, and who have begun to present their research and discussion via a series of curated film programs in the Walker Mediatheque. The founder of the BCG, the Walker’s Bentson Moving Image Scholar, Mason Leaver-Yap, describes the origins of this group and the interlinked conditions and ambitions that informed its structure.

On Saturday February 25, at 7 pm in the Mediatheque, a selection of BCG members will take part in a screening and open discussion in relation to the artistic practice of Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers. The event  “…I’m not a filmmaker,” a panel discussion, is an opportunity for the group to share ideas, questions, practice, and scholarship that they have been investigating in the monthly forum with a wider public audience.

The medium of artists’ moving image is intrinsically relational and networked. It continually seeks out other people, both in terms of resources for its production as well as its exhibition and distribution. Conversations (which are themselves another form of distribution) that naturally flow in and around such work are surely one of the greatest strengths of the medium. But following, instigating, and sustaining such dialogue—not simply around individual videos, films, or installations, but also an ongoing critical approach to the medium as a whole—is still something that an art institution must endeavor to engage with and make public.

The formal and highly institutionalized formats of a public symposium, panel debate, or Q&A session have useful but salient limits to conversation. Often, these formats self-select knowledge (where an art organization gets to choose works and speakers on behalf of a presumed audience—and often prioritize speakers’ commentary over audience response). These forums, by dint of their public nature, also miss out on more intimate dialogue: that well-observed comment that we hear from a friend as we exit the cinema, what we discuss over a coffee after seeing an exhibition together, the conversation shared in the back of a cab about what should be shown more, less, better at the Walker.

How, then, does a single curator, programmer or scholar (perhaps seated upstairs in an office, or else working remotely from Europe) listen and usefully react to the casual but well-informed conversations that are already taking place inside of the Walker cinema, galleries, and café, as well as beyond its walls? And how does the Walker recognize and foster these intimacies without being overly prescriptive and generic in its programming? These were some of the first and perhaps most urgent questions that emerged when I was asked to make recommendations on how to best open up the Walker’s moving image holdings, the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection, to a wider audience.

Aware that the Twin Cities has long housed a thriving and highly active contemporary art community—whose work with the moving image continues to span nonprofit film festivals and monthly cinema screenings, as well as a number of art college courses dedicated to and including modules in film and video—it was clear that the Walker didn’t need to instigate a conversation but find a way of listening to what was already there. We knew students already had their own discursive forums as part of their studies, but what programs were serving those teaching students, programming the film festivals, and showing their work within the city?

In the fall of 2014, during an academics and educator’s symposium, the Walker Moving Image department put out an open call to artists, programmers, and educators (essentially all those no longer in full-time education). Under the heading of “The Bentson Critical Group,” the invitation announced the Walker’s intention to host a peer-led discussion and screening group that would meet at the Walker once a month to explore ideas around moving image practice. As a material basis for discussion, we offered to give the group access to the Bentson Collection to screen in the Walker Mediatheque. The group was not under pressure to work towards any single outcome, though we were open to finding ways that the group could publish its ideas and present its projects for an audience. The only remit of the BCG was to find ways of talking across and circumventing the usually siloed institutional knowledges and skills around moving image, and share ideas across a community that is united by the medium of artists’ moving image and its history.

The openness of this format and its fluidity was strongly influenced by specific precursors. While of course the role of a self-organized education group is nothing new (and owes much to the structures of consciousness-raising groups and action learning), the BCG specifically stemmed from looking at two learning initiatives developed by LUX, a British distribution agency for artist moving image: firstly, the Associated Artists Programme that was headed up by artist and writer Ian White, and secondly, the Critical Forums initiated by Benjamin Cook. Both of these education initiatives had sought to create mutually supportive contexts that centered on creative and intellectual development. While comprised of artists, both the AAP and the Critical Forums discouraged artists from showing their own films and videos, and instead it applied critical discourse as the main subject for discussion.

While the initial meetings of the BCG included a range of individuals from various disciplines including teachers (involved in both high school and college-level education), public programmers, and filmmakers, what everyone had in common was the impulse of learning. Whether showing people how to confidently develop and project 16mm film without intimidation, demonstrating different technologies used for video animation, or teaching the history of experimental film, each individual was in some senses a teacher. The consequence was an instant desire to exchange knowledge. But unlike the traditional pedagogical structures of teacher-student, the BCG held the tension of a leaderless group that had no fixed outcome as a productive paradox. This was a project that was always bound to seek its own autonomy and develop a self-sustaining dialogue across disciplines, a dialogue that would hold artists moving image at its heart.

The intentions and ideas about what the BCG should be and do emerged from the group’s parallel discussions of showing and discussing artwork from the Bentson Collection. One of the key activities that surfaced from the group was the collective curation of a set of film programs, which would recontextualize and focus attention on specific works from the Benton Collection. Presented as publicly accessible playlists within the Walker’s newly renovated Mediatheque, the BCG programs presented ways of rethinking works in relation to one another and their political and cultural relevance to our present moment. In December 2016, the BCG launched Politics of the Domestic, its first public playlist (still on view in the Mediatheque), a program of short experimental films from the 1960s to the present day that questions the impact of advertising and design on our everyday lives. Its recent program Infrastructures launched at the beginning of February, exploring the visible and invisible infrastructures that undergird our experiences of the built environment. And soon the BCG will present members’ own works and ideas as part of “…I’m not a filmmaker,” a panel discussion about personal works and scholarship that challenge and expand upon Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers’s filmic practice.

As someone who has always worked remotely for the Walker (I am based in Glasgow and Berlin, commuting to the Walker twice a year), my proximity to the group and its activity was, by equal turns, problematically and productively distant. In the time since its very first meeting in 2015, the BCG has become a full self-organized entity, and so my description of it—or indeed any singly authored voice that attempts to encapsulate the thoughts and actions of a collective—should always be understood as a limited position from which to describe the BCG’s current composition and working methods.

As one of the Walker members of the BCG recently noted regarding my task of trying to write this very text, it is a challenge to write “about a collective experiment designed to grow organically and remain somewhat fluid and undefined, not to mention writing about something you haven’t been able to actively participate in.” And so, with this limitation nonetheless braided with joy, I can say that the merits of the BCG cannot be fully articulated by descriptions of it, but by its actions, projects and presentations.

 

Lovesong’s Longing: An Interview with So Yong Kim

So Yong Kim’s fourth feature film, Lovesong, weaves a delicate tale of two women navigating the shifting terrain of adulthood while they tease out a new intimacy within their relationship. Kim brings her own restrained touch to this variant of the road trip classic genre, expanding it beyond the formulaic to a sharp examination of longing […]

Yo Song Kim's Lovesong 2016 Photo courtesy Strand Releasing

Yo Song Kim’s Lovesong, 2016. Photo courtesy Strand Releasing

So Yong Kim’s fourth feature film, Lovesong, weaves a delicate tale of two women navigating the shifting terrain of adulthood while they tease out a new intimacy within their relationship. Kim brings her own restrained touch to this variant of the road trip classic genre, expanding it beyond the formulaic to a sharp examination of longing and broken connections. The natural chemistry between Sarah (Riley Keough) and Mindy (Jena Malone), their nuance and gesture, gives voice to all the unexpressed emotions simmering beneath the surface. Every flickering smile and tentative touch recalls one’s own nearly there romances.

Kim’s first feature, In Between Days, debuted at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, where it received a Special Jury Prize for Independent Vision. In advance of the February 10–12 screenings of Lovesong in the Walker Cinema, Kim discussed her personal philosophy of filmmaking, the practical realities of making a film come alive and how a single scene helped her short film develop into a feature.

Hayleigh Thompson: Lovesong focuses on the evolving relationship between two friends who reconnect at different points in their life. Knowing that a lot of your work has autobiographical elements, what was it that initially drew you to explore this unique love story?

So Yong Kim: I’m drawing from a crush experience I had while I was in college. I think emotionally it’s very true to that memory, but the events are quite different. It’s emotionally connected to me. I think that now that I’m getting older I have a certain sense of regret about some things that I didn’t act on or didn’t follow through with. I think I just wanted to explore decision making: how you make your decisions to get to where you are.

We initially did part one as a short film to see if I could do a short film about this road trip between two friends. I wasn’t really sure at that time if the film could be a feature. So we shot it with two friends who were not busy at the time and got some people together with a little bit of financing for that. We shot mainly around the house we were living at the time in Pennsylvania, very rural, about two and a half hours northwest of the city. We shot this film in six days, and I wasn’t really sure if it was going to be even a narrative short.

I wanted to make something mainly because I was waiting to cast this other film that I wrote, which is about an aging mother. It was getting to the point where I felt like I wasn’t making or telling any sort of story. I was going through these doubts in my head: Am I even a filmmaker, a storyteller? So then I just got people together and wrote a “scriptment,” a half script and half treatment, for part one which was a road trip between two friends from college at slightly different stages after college. One is married, while the other is still a fun-loving free spirit. I didn’t know until we got the footage that we could really do a feature.

Thompson: You have previously worked with both Riley Keough and Jena Malone. As a director who also functions as a writer and an editor, how important is casting for you when working on a new project?

Kim: I feel like in many ways your job as a director is 80 percent done if you can cast the perfect, most incredible, talented actor. Right? But it could also be a complete non-actor too who fits the story and can bring the film alive. I think that’s really, really amazing. At the same time, if you are one of the A-list directors, like P.T. Anderson or Scorsese, you can call people and ask them to be in in your film. But many filmmakers, like myself, are at the mercy of casting directors or people who know somebody who might know somebody and you have to go through that process. You don’t always get your number-one choices, but on Lovesong I was really lucky to be able to get these two actors who had their time free. Jena had four days open that summer, and Riley had six days exactly, and they overlapped three and a half days. I begged Jena and Riley and I got really, really lucky. You just do your best to get the best people to be part of your creative process.

Thompson: You mentioned that this film was originally based on a “scriptment,” meaning it was more loosely written than your previous work. How did this change the filmmaking process for you?

Kim: The scriptment was all I had time for. On my two previous films, I spent a year and a half or two years to write the script exactly how I would like it to be, but this was something that I felt like, why don’t I just let that control, obsessive thing go, and then really focus on just sketching out these scenes that are broad brush strokes. Then once we were on set some of the crucial scenes had dialogue in it, but then I have to say when Jena and Riley took the scene off the page it was so much better. They were just so good. It was so inspiring. I loved it. It was magical for me.

Thompson: You also work as your own editor. Did the looser framework change the editing process for you?

Kim: It does, but then it doesn’t. In Between Days, my first film, was with two non-actors. I would say their lines to them and they would repeat them, but then they went go off the book a lot of the time, too, so we experimented a lot. I think from that point on I really learned you have to mold your material. I’ve gotten used to finding gems in the material to make the film and the story come alive.

You know the scene when they are on the Ferris wheel? That was the key moment for me—also the drinking game scene at night—but that moment when they are going on the Ferris wheel and they are just looking at each other and screaming, that was the moment where I was like, “Oh, I have to make this film into a feature!” This is such a gift. It’s like magic. If I could just have this moment, three of these moments, then I have a movie. I had that one in part one, and the drinking game a bit, and the whole night club stuff. You have that one gift and you have go for it! Go, go, go, go, go!

Yo Song Kim's Lovesong 2016 Photo courtesy Strand Releasing

Yo Song Kim’s Lovesong, 2016. Photo courtesy Strand Releasing

Thompson: Throughout the film you focus on Sarah’s face, prioritizing shots of her reactions rather than showing those speaking to or around her. Was this something that arose on set or in the editing process?

Kim: I think since In Between Days Brad [Rust Gray] and I have our own way of going through the emotions of the characters and what it means to be with a character and be really intimate with a character in the scene. I don’t think it’s so much about seeing people on screen talk; it’s about what kind of reactions you get from the person who is listening or might not be listening or thinking about something else. So in any given scene it’s a lot about the scene before that came to this moment when these two people are talking and the scene afterwards. How that character gets affected by what has been told to them or how extensively they allow themselves to be exposed or vulnerable or what have you. So I find that often times when people are talking, it’s more important when they are not talking, perhaps. It depends on the content. I think that’s the general, very broad, general philosophy Brad and I have in putting the scene together and the edit and also building the whole film.

Thompson: One of the most pivotal discussions between Sarah and Mindy takes place entirely in voiceover. Would you say this is the culmination of the philosophy that you were talking about?

Kim: Yes. It is, actually. [Laughs]  That moment there, I call it the magical walk at the end because this is like something that I think in my head but not necessarily something people would gather. The reason I ended up with that approach at the end, when they are doing the magical walk, is because Riley was quite sick that day, so we were very limited about much and how many times we could do that whole entire section. I ended up doing a lot of the walks not thinking that was going to have their talk over the image of them walking, but by the time we landed on the rock where they’re supposed to have this discussion together it was like fighting the battle of the light going down and then also her flu. So then, in the edit, I put that magical walk together with them talking and then seeing the expressions on their faces. Thankfully it worked but it was not something that I planned.

Thompson: A primary theme throughout your filmography, and Lovesong in particular, seems to be liminality—from Sarah and Mindy’s shifting relationship to their constant travel, even the way characters seem to float on the periphery of the frame. Is liminality something you find yourself consciously focusing on?

Kim: Yes. My husband and I move from city to city like every four years, so we’ve been kind of nomads. I had a very nomadic childhood. I always find it so interesting that feeling of not quite belonging. Wanting to belong is such a human quality. I think that’s one of the human natures that we all have.That’s definitely, for me, what is worthwhile exploring, because I think it’s something we all try to ignore or face or tackle or understand no matter what phase in life you might be in. You might be in a relationship but you still feel like, “Whoa, we are going through a transition, we are not here or there.” I think it’s such a common human experience. I have to say, though, now that I’m getting older, I’m not any better at understanding it. [Laughs]

Hell’s Paradise, Shattered Landscapes: Zhao Liang on Behemoth

From shattered landscape to hospital bed to the ghost towns of paradise, Zhao Liang’s latest film, Behemoth, is a complex reflection on the cost of industrialization. Led into the iron mines of Mongolia by the poetry of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, Zhao confronts viewers with the empirical realization of industrial-capitalist idealism. The imbalances are vast. Through this passage […]

Zhao Liang’s Behemoth 2015 Photo courtesy Grasshopper

Zhao Liang’s Behemoth 2015. Photo courtesy Grasshopper

From shattered landscape to hospital bed to the ghost towns of paradise, Zhao Liang’s latest film, Behemoth, is a complex reflection on the cost of industrialization. Led into the iron mines of Mongolia by the poetry of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, Zhao confronts viewers with the empirical realization of industrial-capitalist idealism. The imbalances are vast. Through this passage emerge questions: for whom is this empty paradise built? Is the human and environmental price worth the pursuit of the ideal? Thus begins our own journey of reflection and self-examination.

Zhao’s work has been exhibited at a number of Walker events, including the 2010 Expanding the Frame series, the 2009 exhibition Zhao Liang: Heavy Sleepers, 2003’s How Latitudes Become Forms, and as part of the 2002 Dig.It Festival of Digital Media. In advance of Behemoth’s February 3–5 screenings in the Walker Cinema, Zhao discussed his experiences in the mind, the film’s symbolism, and its relation to his visual art.

Kelsey Bosch: You cite Dante’s Divine Comedy as a major influence for this film. When did you first read it, and how did it impact you?

Zhao Liang: It was during my shoot at the mine that I actually started reading the Divine Comedy. The first time I saw the continuous lifeless mine crater I felt like I had arrived at hell. Every time I came to these mines I would update my WeChat moment: “Back to hell again.” My producer, Sylvie Blum, reminded me to read the Divine Comedy, so I started it. I found the description of hell—going down level by level—so similar to the mines I saw. Afterward, I picked the structure of Divine Comedy to structure my film.

Bosch: Were you able to develop relationships with the people you filmed and hear their perspective on the environmental and humanitarian concerns addressed in Behemoth?

Zhao: We do have communication. The mine workers know that they are destroying the natural environment, but they also think it’s fairly natural to do so, since those mine resources are there for utilization, otherwise it would be a waste. More importantly for them, it is to make a living that they do such dangerous, dirty, and tired work.

Bosch: After your experiences at the mine, where do you see the global economy headed?

Zhao: I’m not so good at global economic problems, but my first reaction to those scenes is that human beings are cutting their own throats to ruin themselves. If we think deeply, we have to ask: have human beings gone on a wrong path? Was there any other possibility since the invention of the steam engine? Or has the dark side of the profit chain prevented the development of solar energy? Those are all my guesses. But I’m sure that the greed of human beings brought about the situation today.

Zhao Liang’s Behemoth 2015 Photo courtesy Grasshopper

Zhao Liang’s Behemoth 2015. Photo courtesy Grasshopper

Bosch: There are a number of visual symbols in Behemoth: red/blue screens, darkness/lightness, fire, and, most notably, the mirror and the “shattered” landscape. It reminds me of Maya Deren’s Meshes in the Afternoon, in which the cloaked figure with a mirror face follows Deren, or The Blood of a Poet by Jean Cocteau, in which the mirror was a sort of porthole between reality and surreality. What about the mirror and/or reflection interested you in regards to Behemoth?

Zhao: In the film, I used several colors to represent the three realms: red and black represent the hell, gray represents purgatory, and blue, ironically, represents paradise. The pneumoconiosis patients who carry the mirror represent the poet Virgil, who leads Dante.

The naked guy in the broken mirror represents “me”—and is also Dante himself. The mirror being carried on the back and the broken mirror echoed each other.

The black frame symbolizes death. The broken mirror also symbolizes broken mountains and rivers. The mirrored image is also an illusory image as well as one of self-reflection.

Bosch: You developed a rich soundscape in Behemoth, between sounds of industry and the human body. Can you describe the soundscape you experienced while filming and how it influenced the work?

Zhao: Sounds are a vital part of this nondialogue film. I often became confused by some sounds while shooting, such as the huge noise of shattered ores. You start to think it’s very rhythmic electric music after hearing it for a while; you might even want to dance. The sound of iron flowing from the iron mine factory and the sound of explosions all gave me unlimited imagination. During post-production, besides designing the sound contrast of silence and noise, I also asked the composer to incorporate some of the live-recorded industry noise into the environment sound track. It sounds like music but is very obscure.

Bosch: You’ve participated in Walker Art Center’s Expanding the Frame program and seem to cross back and forth from more experimental or installation-based moving image art and cinematic features. How do you approach these different formats, and what interests you about each? Do you work in other media as well?

Zhao: Besides film, I’m more interested in video arts because I can express myself more freely. Since graduating from fine art school I have been working in contemporary art, and making film was a coincidence. In the ’90s, China was seeing dramatic changes, even daily. We were immerged in new social problems more frequently than ever than before, so I wanted to record everything while the official media was busy boasting or lying. To record reality feels like rescuing your treasure from a fire disaster. After 20 years, I feel like the documentaries and video art I made are somehow not so well connected. I want to enjoy the making of films as much as I do making video artworks. Behemoth is my first try.

Contemportentary: The Archive Is a Port in the Squall

CONTEMPORTENTARY is a playlist curated by Hannah Piper Burns from the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection and on view in the Walker’s Bentson Mediatheque during the months of January and February. It is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Joanne Klein, who liked to say, “Has the mind you expanded shrunk to fit the times?”  We […]

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Antoni Muntadas, Video is Television?, 1989. Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

CONTEMPORTENTARY is a playlist curated by Hannah Piper Burns from the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection and on view in the Walker’s Bentson Mediatheque during the months of January and February. It is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Joanne Klein, who liked to say, “Has the mind you expanded shrunk to fit the times?” 

We need cinema right now, because we need a moment. And not just any moment: We have been in the streets, with candles and signs, and sometimes tear gas and broken glass. We have been in public, sizing each other up and/or just trying to blend in, weaponizing our small talk and surveilling each other’s tantrums. We have been in the feeds with our index fingers like inchworms infinitely scrolling and clicking, and clicking, and sharing, peripatetic, our tabs proliferating in the windows. We have been on either side of the protest lines, screaming and brandishing conflicting signs. Now we need a moment in the dark to be alone together, in a different kind of covenant, with a different kind of discourse. In a way, we are all alone in the dark together already.

I need a moment. I have whiplash from the breaking news cracking across my timelines, and I can’t tell if I’m being served or summoned by the algorithms. I’m really starting to feel differently about the arc of history and I know it’s not just me, baby. I’m coming down with a bad case of that time warp feeling. Things seem like they are moving very, very quickly, but we’re hurtling towards an inevitability, rather than a possibility. These are times characterized by bombardment—of opinions, emotions, narratives, calls to action, commodities—within greater systems of control that operate in various states of visibility. This demanding abundance grating against the creeping, camouflaged austerity is the white noise whine that we have had to learn to live with.

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Miranda Pennell’s You Made Me Love You, 2004. Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

I turned to the archive with a mind to find works that might whine back, in the key of my own emotional maelstrom. I have been curating film and video for the better part of the last decade—programming film festivals and touring with screenings—but I have never made selections from a repository like the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection at the Walker Art Center. I approached the archive as I would an oracle, looking for new ways to look at my own reality. I came away with an array of movies that echo my processing of this post-truth, casually brutal, winkingly authoritarian, rapidly accelerating present tension. At first, I framed my selections in hauntological terms:

Each of these movies is a ghost that haunts our contemporary condition. As a collection, they zigzag across the decades and conjure the morass, the cacophony, the nihilism, the absurdity, the dissonance, and the violence that we have internalized. That we have normalized. The howl of the wind is the growl of an engine is the groan of orgasm is the moan of anguish. The gaze refracts back. The body is a political act. The ghosts are screaming through the screen. Can you hear them?

But then I started thinking about the energy I felt moving through the works, the charge I was trying to harness, the breath behind that screaming. It was pain. Ghosts can be seen as pure pain made manifest. The body may rot away, but suffering is what anchors a spirit to the material world. This playlist is about fitting the suffering of the now into the continuum of cinema, with movies that act as the medium between the now and the then as well as between ourselves and others.

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Kenneth Anger, Scorpio Rising, 1964. Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

So if these works are challenging, discomforting, or destabilizing, it is because I am discomforted and destabilized. We all should be. Comfort gets us nowhere anymore, and by the way, there is just as much comfort to be found in outrage as there is in pleasure.

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Tony Oursler, Grand Mal, 1981. Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

If they are absurd, it’s because reason has no place in our new resonance-based economies of attention, so why shouldn’t we just push through the low-level tragedy of irony and into the glorious, discordant realm of the absurd? Absurdity is the alchemy that transforms anguish into resistance. It’s the epiphany that when meaning can no longer be made, it must be un-made.

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Leslie Thornton, Strange Space, 1992. Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

If they are vulnerable almost to the point of confrontation, it’s because so many vulnerabilities have been reified and revealed. The zeitgeist openly mocks open vulnerability, lumping it in with its dismissal of “special snowflakes,” “safe spaces,” and “political correctness.” That bullying impulse has now ascended to the highest echelons of power, so it’s a considerable act of courage to turn the other cheek or roll over to show off a soft underbelly in the face of it.

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Peggy Ahwesh and Keith Sanborn, The Deadman, 1989. Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

If they are profane, like Kenneth Anger’s flashy fashy fashionable fetishizing of toxic masculinity or Peggy Ahwesh and Keith Sanborn’s stripped-down, balls-to-the-wall adaptation of a Bataille text (complete with unsimulated sex), it’s because I think it’s time to Make Cultural Gatekeepers Disgusted Again. Turnabout is fair play. The grants aren’t going to be coming through anymore anyway and besides, the more threatened they feel by unrepentant, revolting resistance, and the more they debate and try to legislate the perceived obscenity and blasphemy in art, the less time they have to otherwise destroy the world. Artists can and should push their envelopes into public art spaces with their abject, unapologetic, indecorous best, because in order to keep freedom of expression for all and not just for some, we need to keep putting it to the test.

In the cinema, there is no clickbait. There are no think pieces; there is no comments section. The discourse is not at your itchy, angry fingertips here in the dark, away from the targeted ads (and the target audience) and the endless superlative listicles and the weirdly distributed network of everyone you know, and the deluge of their banalities and their extremes. It’s a space to feel your subjectivity again, unhooked from the monetizable response industrial complex. It’s a space to let media mediate, between you and your core, without the roar of commentary. It’s a space to process individual and collective pain, so that when the lights come back on, it has transformed for us.

2016: The Year According to Charles Atlas

When Merce Cunningham’s dance company performed Ocean less than a year before the iconic choreographer’s passing in 2009, Charles Atlas was there. Coproduced by the Walker Art Center and the Cunningham Dance Foundation, the ambitious work featured 14 dancers performing in a massive granite quarry near St. Cloud, Minnesota, accompanied by 150 musicians—all of which Atlas captured with five cameras. A Cunningham […]

Charles Atlas. Photo: Lori E. Seid

Charles Atlas. Photo: Lori E. Seid

When Merce Cunningham’s dance company performed Ocean less than a year before the iconic choreographer’s passing in 2009, Charles Atlas was there. Coproduced by the Walker Art Center and the Cunningham Dance Foundation, the ambitious work featured 14 dancers performing in a massive granite quarry near St. Cloud, Minnesota, accompanied by 150 musicians—all of which Atlas captured with five cameras. A Cunningham collaborator since the early 1970s, and pioneer of videodance, Atlas is participating in the Walker-organized exhibition Merce Cunningham: Common Time, opening February 8 at the Walker and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, where his 2010 multi-channel installation MC9 will receive its US premiere. On March 9, he’ll return to introduce a selection of his films in the Walker Mediatheque, and he’ll be part of another ambitious collaboration March 16–18: in Tesseract, former Cunningham dancers Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener create a hybrid of live dance, 3-D video, and live film segments, edited in real-time by Atlas.

A pioneering figure in film and video for over four decades, Atlas has worked intimately with a range of artists and performers including Leigh Bowery, Michael Clark, Douglas Dunn, Marina Abramovic, Yvonne Rainer, Mika Tajima/New Humans, and Antony and the Johnsons. Here, in a list that references his history and relationships, he shares his perspective on the year that was as part of our series, 2016: The Year According to                              .

Ten things that have been bright spots for me in what has been the otherwise gloomy annus horribilis of 2016. These individuals have engaged me intellectually and spiritually and encouraged me with the work they have created.

1.

An Evening with DanceNoise

The performance duo of Anne Iobst and Lucy Sexton—who began making work in the 1980s—consider the effect of the AIDS epidemic on dance artists today. At St Mark’s Danspace they delivered a rousing, political feminist response that’s relevant, defiant and full of spontaneous joy.

2. 

to a simple rock and roll …. song

Photo: The Guardian

to a simple rock and roll … song at the Barbican. Photo: The Guardian

British choreographer Michael Clark mounted a show at the Barbican Theatre in London that’s part balletic perfection to the music of Erik Satie and part sexy rock and roll to the music of Patti Smith. Entertainment plus!

3. 

Yvonne Rainer’s The Concept of Dust

In her latest piece, this pioneering choreographer makes a piece that is part eclectic collage of movement, part spoken text, part nuanced consideration of mortality and aging. A rewardingly fresh work from a veteran.

4.

Silas Reiner’s Thinging

Subtitled Dance and Translation and the Work of Anne Carson, this former Merce Cunningham dancer presents a brainy and compelling combination of talking, thinking, and adventurous dancing.

 

5.

Stanley Love Performance Group’s Tapestry Truths

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Stanley Love’s large company of performers of all sizes and skill levels dances in an installation of Martin Gustavsson’s large paintings with exhilarating effect. Watching this group always makes me want to move.

6.

Anohni’s Hopelessness

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ANOHNI composes songs: political, confrontational music sung with an angry angel’s voice, accompanied by exhilarating electronics.

7.

Late Greats

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The final albums of Leonard Cohen (Make It Blacker) and David Bowie (Blackstar): sustaining great artistic achievement until the very end.

8. 

Lady Bunny in Trans-Jester

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At the Stonewall Inn, the drag performer and Wigstock cofounder presents an X-rated combination of beyond-hilarious comedy, jaw-dropping songs, and political rants. I consider Lady Bunny a living national treasure.

9. 

Lia Gangitano

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Alvin Baltrop, Pier Photographs, 2016. Vitrine detail.
Courtesy of The Alvin Baltrop Trust, Third Streaming, and Galerie Buchholz, New York. Photo: Rhona Yefman

Participant, Inc., the always excellent non-commercial space, presents multigenerational contemporary artists and historic tributes. In 2016, gallery director Lia Gangitano brought in a range of alternative art and and artists, including Alvin Baltrop, Peter Hendrick, Justin Vivian Bond, Eve Fowler, and Ellen Cantor.

10. 

Women of Progressive Opinion

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Internet radio hosts Stephanie Miller and Randi Rhodes and blogger Digby of Hullaballoo: these progressive voices sustain me on a daily basis when I am feeling overwhelmed by the increasing ultra-conservative media environment.

 

2016: The Year According to Ephraim Asili

e Ephraim Asili. Photo: Mireya Acierto/Getty Images Ephraim Asili is a filmmaker, DJ, and traveler whose work focuses on the African diaspora as a cultural force. His films have screened in festivals and venues all over the world, including the New York Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, Ann Arbor Film Festival, San Fransisco International […]

eNEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 09: Filmmaker, Ephraim Asili attends Projections: Program 9 during 54th New York Film Festival on October 9, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Mireya Acierto/Getty Images)

Ephraim Asili. Photo: Mireya Acierto/Getty Images

Ephraim Asili is a filmmaker, DJ, and traveler whose work focuses on the African diaspora as a cultural force. His films have screened in festivals and venues all over the world, including the New York Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, Ann Arbor Film Festival, San Fransisco International Film Festival, Milano Film Festival, Trinidad and Tobago International Film Festival, MoMA PS1, LAMOCA, and the Boston Museum of Fine Art. As a DJ, Asili can be heard on his radio program, In The Cut, on WGXC or live at his monthly dance party Botanica. Asili currently resides in Hudson, New York and works as a full-time visiting artist in the Film and Electronic Arts Department at Bard College. Here, as part of our series, 2016: The Year According to                              , he shares his perspective on the year that was.

What a year it has been. So many wonderful people have passed away. Negativity, violence, and anxiety seem to be the order of the day. The Donald won the election. On the plus side, we were able to stop the pipeline—for now. A Tribe Called Quest released a new album, and my only child has reached the age of 13. With all that’s going on in the world and as we brace for the long road ahead, I wanted to focus my selections on some of the books, films, records, and artists that have kept me inspired this year. The selections are in no particular order.

1.

Malick Sidibé (1935–2016)

Malick Sidibe, Sur les Rochers a la Chaussee, 1976, via Jack Shainman Gallery

Malick Sidibé, Sur les Rochers a la Chaussee, 1976, via Jack Shainman Gallery

Before I ever considered touching a camera I was into records and deejaying. I remember going to a record shop one day and spotting a book of Malick Sidibé’s photos on the checkout counter. At the time Afro Beat music was reemerging and West African style was spreading all around town. I knew very little about photography at the time and had never seen images of “Africa” quite like that. I flipped through a few times, went home, and considered buying a camera. It would be years before I actually did.

2.

Brett Story’s The Prison in 12 Landscapes

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I had the chance to see this film in a festival back in March. I was amazed by the way it weaved between documentary and essay, activism and criticism, geography, history, and cinematic meditation. The Prison in 12 Landscapes offers much needed insight into some of the more subtle and not so subtle aspects of the United States prison industrial complex.

3.

Mumia Abu Jamal’s We Want Freedom

 

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October 15, 2015 marked the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party. Dec 9, 2016 marked 35 years since Mumia Abu Jamal was arrested for, and many believe falsely accused of, the death of a Philadelphia police officer. Leading up to that day, Mumia had been a prominent journalist, and as teenager helped to form the Philadelphia chapter of the Black Panther Party. Originally published in 2004, We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party was reprinted this year, commemorating the anniversary of these two important events. “As calls that Black live matters grow louder; Mumia connects the historical dots between contemporary struggles and the Panthers’ demand for the ‘immediate end to police brutality and the murder of Black people.'” Chapter 7—”A Woman’s Party”—is particularly insightful.

 

4.

John Morrison’s Southwest Psychedelphia

swp-album-cover

In one way or another I try to keep a deep connection to Philly, my hometown. Lately I’ve been staying connected by listening to my copy of this Cosmic Hip Hop Beat Tape by John Morrison. It’s been a staple in the studio and during travel for awhile no . I’m down with the new cassette movement, the medium is the message and all that…

5.

The Ladies of Broadside Press

broadside

It’s not always about what’s new in the world but what we discover for ourselves. I spent a lot of my summer researching Broadside Press, searching for original copies of the books, and I even spent few weeks shooting a film inspired by the poets published by Broadside. I found the poetry of the Black Women of Broadside to be especially moving, provocative and as relevant as ever.

6.

Peter Hutton (1944–2016)

Peter Hutton. Image: Harvard Film Archive

Peter Hutton. Image: Harvard Film Archive

Peter Hutton was a great friend,teacher, and mentor to myself and many others. He was a unique and humble filmmaker and as far as I’m concerned one of the best to ever do it. His presence will be missed for some time to come.

7.

Chris Harris’s Halimuhfack

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I’ve had several opportunities to watch Chris’s film this year. I love the way that he layers sound and image to address concerns about representation and psychic memory. The film is mesmerizing, musical, magical—an exemplary work of Black Cinema.

8.

Kimberly Brown, “On My Knees,” D’oke (Remix)

kimberlybrown

Maybe its because I visited both Chicago and Detroit during 2016, but I’ve become increasing obsessed with House Records. Especially 12-inch singles. Kimberly Brown, a former member of Sounds of Blackness, sounds amazing on this record! If the election has got you down this one will get you up!

9.

David Rimmer at NYFF Projections

Still from David Rimmer's "Variations on a Cellophane Wrapper" (197)0)

Still from David Rimmer’s Variations on a Cellophane Wrapper (1970)

I had the pleasure of seeing some recently preserved David Rimmer films at the festival. One of Rimmer’s films, Variations on a Cellophane Wrapper, was very influential in the making of one of my recent works. I had never seen his work projected before. The prints were breathtaking. Wow! The other Rimmer films in the program were Canadian Pacific I and Real Italian Pizza.

 

10.

A Fluid Frontier

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I spent some of 2016 in Southern Ontario where I had the opportunity to learn about and visit many of the places where enslaved Africans escaped to during slavery in the United States. More Blacks died crossing the Detroit River than any other location on boarder separating the United States from Canada. Many former slaves risked their lives crossing back and forth between the States and Canada to free family and loved ones. The collection of essays that comprise A Fluid Frontier chronicle some of these stories and highlight other aspects of the Underground Railroad along both sides of the Detroit River.

 

11.

The Space Age Is Here To Stay

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The important work of Sun Ra and his Arkestra have been a influence in my life for some time now. My first film was made in collaboration with some of the remaining members of the group. A few months back Modern Harmonic Records released a compilation of rare vocal recordings by the group. I love anything featuring June Tyson, and many of the lyrics seem like they were written for today’s political climate. Perhaps they were.

12.

Kerry James Marshall: Mastry

Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Painter), 2009

Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Painter), 2009

In all honesty I have not gone to see this show as of the writing of this list. That being said, I will have seen it before the publication of this list. I love Marshall’s work and have for some time how. I have no doubt that it will rank high in my experiences from 2016.

Honorable Mentions

Ava DuVernay’s 13th

Adam Curtis’s Hypernormalization

2016: The Year According to Mariah Garnett

Mariah Garnett mixes documentary, narrative, and experimental filmmaking practices to make work that accesses existing people and communities beyond her immediate experience. Using source material that ranges from found text to iconic gay porn stars, Garnett often inserts herself into the films, creating cinematic allegories that codify and locate identity. She is currently in production […]

mariah-garnett-less-contrast

Mariah Garnett mixes documentary, narrative, and experimental filmmaking practices to make work that accesses existing people and communities beyond her immediate experience. Using source material that ranges from found text to iconic gay porn stars, Garnett often inserts herself into the films, creating cinematic allegories that codify and locate identity. She is currently in production on her first experimental feature film, Trouble, about her relationship with her Northern Irish Father, who fled Belfast in the 1970s after being profiled on the BBC for his “mixed” Catholic/Protestant relationship.

A prolific artist, she had solo exhibitions at the Metropolitan Arts Center (Belfast, UK) and ltd los angeles (Los Angeles) in 2016, and her work has shown at MoCA, REDCAT, White Columns, Ann Arbor Film Festival and in the 2014 Made in LA Hammer Biennial. Here, as part of our annual 2016: The Year According to                               series, she shares her top personal, political, and cultural moments of 2016.

1.

Bowie.

This year started with my biggest idol dying, which was perhaps an indicator of the soul crushing 12 months ahead, but it also led to a mass online eulogizing of his life. My favorite discovery to come out of this was this video of him as a teenager talking about protesting for the rights of boys to have long hair.

2.

Other & Father

2_belfast

I had my first institutional solo show at the contemporary arts center (the MAC) in Belfast, Northern Ireland last winter. It featured archival video of my dad and his girlfriend in the ’70s and my own re-enactment of the footage. At the opening, one of the gallery guards recognized my dad’s teenaged girlfriend! In fact, he’d dated her right after she and my dad broke up. That was a nice moment, and typical of Belfast too.

 

3.

Henry Taylor at Blum & Poe

henry-taylor-blumpoe

This show blew my mind. Blew it straight out of my head. It was basically perfect. To call it a painting show is both an understatement and totally what it was.

 

4.

Yosemite

yosemite

I went to Yosemite National Park this year in July for the first time. I don’t know what took me so long.

5.

Weirdo Night

weirdo-night

Best post-collective-trauma-catharsis-through-performance-art. Jibz Cameron aka Dynasty Handbag has been hosting a monthly “comedy” night at El Cid in LA for most of the year. Dynasty Handbag MCs and does a set or two herself, while hosting an array of local weirdos with acts. She is generous both in the space she gives to her guests and in the material she offers to her audiences. For some reason, maybe because of 2016, weirdo night kept falling right after awful events – like the Pulse nightclub shooting and the election. I am not entirely sure how she managed to pull this off, but she drew us out of our cowering little individual selves on nights when staying home probably seemed like the only option, expressed all of our fear and rage for us, and sent us on our way feeling a little less bad. It’s no coincidence the house was particularly packed on those nights.

 

6.
Moonlight

It was just so so so so so so good.

7.

Eve Fowler at Participant

eve-fowler_participant

I had the distinct honor of shooting and editing a black-and-white 16mm film for Eve Fowler, which opened at Participant on November 6. The film is a portrait of more than 20 women artists from Los Angeles and New York working in their studios. Visiting all of these women and observing them at work was very powerful. Highlights were filming artists getting reading for 2016 shows: Celeste Dupuy-Spencer finishing paintings for her show at Mier Gallery and Nicole Eisenman working on her Anton Kern show—although, really, I left each and every one of their studios with a new appreciation for what they do and how much they know.

8.

Bakersfield

8_bako

I got my first university teaching job this year at Cal State Bakersfield. Highlights: when a student did a performance for her crit modeled after Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, showing them Couple in A Cage, rediscovering Alex Bag’s Untitled Fall 95, and having Rafa Esparza come talk to my class about performance and his own work. Then we went out for “Basque food” and I ordered a “French fry salad.” It was right after the election and the place was filled with old white men who stared at us. It was the first time we had ever really had a conversation.


9. 

Re-watching Seinfeld

 

giphy

I have found it to be extremely soothing in the face of current events.

10.

The protests at Standing Rock

standing-rock

Witnessing one of the most oppressed groups in the country take a stand against corporate greed and a militarized police force and the momentum they gained has been powerful. And finally acknowledgement and vindication from the highest level of government (though obviously far from over)—it’s a good note at the end of a terrifying year.

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