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Stasis & Motion: An interview with Sam Hoolihan, John Marks, and Crystal Myslajek

One of the most exhilarating things about working on a new commission with moving image and sound artists is that nothing can be taken for granted. The image, the sound, the audience, the performance, the screening are all open to consideration and then reconsideration just moments up to the release. How the work is made […]

Sam Hoolihan, John Marks, and Crystal Myslajek's Reflectors, 2015. Photo courtesy of the artists

Reflectors, by Sam Hoolihan, John Marks, and Crystal Myslajek, 2015. Photo courtesy the artists

One of the most exhilarating things about working on a new commission with moving image and sound artists is that nothing can be taken for granted. The image, the sound, the audience, the performance, the screening are all open to consideration and then reconsideration just moments up to the release. How the work is made and, crucially, how the work will be presented is up for debate with each detail being scrutinized for that ultimate score. These issues are currently being unraveled by Minneapolis artists Sam Hoolihan, John Marks, and Crystal Myslajek, who over the last eight months have been collaborating on a new commission of Expanded Cinema for the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection, to be premiered in the Walker Cinema on April 20, 2017. Stasis & Motion is an experiment in visual and acoustic space that is both a new artwork and a performance of multiple-projection coupled with live sound and music. The artists work in the sphere of Expanded Cinema, a set of principles first established in 1970 by theorist Gene Youngblood, which refers to film and video that question the traditional one-way relationship between audience and screen to incorporate the context in which they’re being watched.

We have come to see that we don’t really see, the “reality” is more within than without. The objective and the subjective are one.

–Gene Youngblood, from Expanded Cinema, 1970

In Stasis & Motion the flow of printed images through the 16mm film projectors, coupled with a live sound performance, explores new relationships at work in the environment, both physical and metaphysical, and significantly, as a paradigm for an entirely different kind of audiovisual experience: one that converges a new commission with an ambition to create a collective group consciousness. Permanent artwork and impermanent environment are at the forefront of the artists’ awareness, with the integrity of the cinematic space of upmost concern. Together with the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection, Walker archives, and the events production team at the Walker, the artists have chosen to present their work along with film and sound sourced from the Walker’s holdings, referencing not only artists of general historical importance but also works influential to the artists’ particular process and outlook. This dual or referential process of creative practice in tandem with programming comprehensively demonstrates a supportive, cohesive vision, for both the artist and the space, which in turn attempts to represent the values of Expanded Cinema that are core objectives of Hoolihan, Marks, and Myslajek.

The film titles Tails, by Paul Shartis (1976); Alabama Departure, by Peter Bundy and Bryan Elsom (1981); and Studies in Chronovision, by Louis Hock (1975) are followed by excerpts from a recording of Deep Listening  by Pauline Oliveros that was performed in the Cowles Conservatory, in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden on May 20, 1990. These titles precede the commission and will be projected/played from the projection booth. This may seem like an obvious detail, but in contrast, the newly commissioned prints will be on multiple projectors, running from the middle of the cinema space, activated by Hoolihan, with live sound on stage performed by Marks and Myslajek. The choice for projecting in the middle of the space was a crucial detail for the artists. Exposing the function and process that creates the image is significant, but additionallyand equally vitalthe cadence of the projectors’ sound creates a continuous tempo and functions somewhat like a rhythm section. By way of contrast, the sound performance is primarily a combination of free-form, arhythmic electronics and vocals; in this way, the projectors work in tandem as instruments, providing a mechanical-metrical underpinning to the live performance. Here I enjoy the fact that before Hoolihan became a filmmaker he was a drummer, and perhaps that instinct never quite disappeared.

The symbiosis of practice, process, and space is at the heart of this new commission and performance, and while it’s hard for me to say much more about the particulars of what you will hear, see, or even “feel,” Hoolihan, Marks, and Myslajek did find time between composing sounds, shooting film, and programming to speak about their practice, ideas and inspirations.

thumbnail_Reflectors at Mono

Reflectors, by Sam Hoolihan, John Marks, and Crystal Myslajek, 2015. Photo courtesy of the artists.

Ruth Hodgins: For the event Stasis & Motion on April 20, you’re premiering a new commission together with select titles from the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection. What are the links between the collection and your practice? Has the curatorial process influenced you?

Sam Hoolihan, John Marks, and Crystal Myslajek: The commission relies deeply on the interconnectedness of moving image and sound; this can be felt plainly in Alabama Departure, by Peter Bundy and Bryan Elsom (1981). Further selections from the collection more subtly support the thread of interconnectivity to foundations in moving image and visual art, such as Studies in Chronovision, by Louis Hock (1975), or with sound and meditation as in the live recordings of Pauline Oliveros when she visited the Walker on multiple occasions. These choices both support and influence the commissioned work by connecting the historical with contemporary.

Hodgins: The title Stasis & Motion is a paradox. Is this opposition somehow reflected in the new commission and performance?

Hoolihan, Marks, and Myslajek: It refers to tension. A liminal space between two ends of a spectrum–light and dark, sound and silence. We are shooting mainly double-perforated black-and-white reversal film. The double-perforation allows us to shoot the entire roll, then flip it and run it through the camera a second time backwards and upside-down; in field without returning to the darkroom to reel it back. Some rolls are sent through the camera a third and fourth time. This process gives us unexpected layers of images, textures, and patterns that build tones and depth in the composition similar to the structure of a musical composition. The resulting images overlap and often work against themselves, creating a simultaneous impression of stasis and motion.

Hodgins: Your practice is a combination of sound, music, live performance, film, and projection. How do you choose the materials and processes that you work with?

Hoolihan, Marks, and Myslajek: In our ever-accelerating media environment, we are more and more drawn to tools and processes that force us to slow down. We are hand-processing our film and using Bolex 16mm cameras that hold about three minutes of film at a time. The cameras don’t require a battery, so we need to wind up the spring to run it, and we get about 25 seconds of shooting per “wind up.” These technological limitations undoubtedly force us to look at things in a different way, change our point of view, and dictate the final form. This technique offers a chance to surrender and lose control of the process by allowing chance to play a part.

Hodgins: You worked in this manner on the earlier projects Reflectors and City Symphony in 16mm: A New Work for Expanded Cinema. Did the different projects and venues influence the next?

Hoolihan, Marks, and Myslajek: Our collaboration and these successive pieces are both sequential and granular. They’re part of a trajectory on which Stasis & Motion is our current location. Each project definitely influences the next, and each can be charted to a specific project or opportunity or presentation. City 3 was developed specifically for Northern Spark to be played continuously over eight hours, but went on to show in multiple venues and festivals. Reflectors was made for Mono No Aware in 2015, where we knew the venue, its offerings and limitations. Stasis & Motion is being created specifically for this program in the Walker Cinema space, though it will surely screen in many very different spaces in the future. Based on the live nature of our work, each project must in some way respond to the space that it is presented. This is critical to creating a platform for visceral or transformative responses from the viewer.

Hodgins: In your practice you celebrate both the materiality and immateriality of film and sound—the materiality by the process of cinema being visible, and the immateriality by creating a unique improvised event that will live in memory and expectation. Do you look for a convergence in the materiality and immateriality in your practice?

Hoolihan, Marks, and Myslajek: We’re interested in creating a nonverbal visual space composed of light, sound, texture, and movement. Therefore we are exploring notions of permanence and impermanence, which to us equate to your thoughts on materiality and immateriality. The images are permanently exposed onto film, when projected they are moving, and thus we are only exposed to them temporarily, making them impermanent. The sounds are composed, presenting an opportunity for reproduction making them permanent; they are then performed live, making their experience ephemeral, thus impermanent. There is an interdependent continuity between that which is concrete and that which is fluid. Again referencing the paradox of Stasis & Motion.

Hodgins: Typically projectors and projectionist are hidden in a booth. But in this performance you’ve decided to have both exposed. Can you tell us more about that decision?

Hoolihan, Marks, and Myslajek: We want the audience to have a visceral experience, similar to going to see a band. We consider the projectors to be like instruments, and as audience members we love to see the instruments in the room.

Hodgins: So, as with a band, the audience gets to see the set up and tools that you use. That is very different to experiencing moving images when the machinery is normally hidden. Does this relate to how you balancing the impact of the sound versus image in the performance?

Hoolihan, Marks, and Myslajek: It is important that the film and music sit together on the same plane, that neither exists to solely “support” the other. Generally, when music and sound are used with the moving image it is to support a character-driven storyline or a language-based idea. (Most narrative-based films use music and sound to force you to feel fear, suspense, love, etc. during a particular scene or transition.) On the other end of the spectrum we see projected images used a lot to support a live band or musical performance, used as a sort of ornament or wallpaper. For this project, we’re interested in creating a space where the music and films are equally weighed, with the hope that the audience can seamlessly float their attention and engagement between the moving images and sound throughout the piece.

Hodgins: What artists, artworks, and musicians have been influential to this project?

Hoolihan, Marks, and Myslajek: The approaches of Paul Sharits, Nathaniel Dorsky, and Louis Hock, are influential.

Sharits’s Shutter Interference (1975) brings about a commitment to the complete disassociation of filmmaking with the narrative paradigm. By creating simple color fields with four 16mm projectors, this work shifts these materials into a space where media can take on a sculptural form that asks for a more physical conversation between the artwork and the viewer.

Both Nathaniel Dorsky and Louis Hock do many things that we bring into our practice, however the most important aspects refer to a process of reduction. This could be explicitly reflected in the choice of a specific movement, color, or the relationship between light and dark spaces. These simple mechanisms, stripped of other contextual meaning bring about an instinctive response where the film can be only that—the film.

Not to respect the screen as its own self-symbol is to treat film as a medium for information. It is to say that the whole absorbing mechanism of projected light–the shots, the cuts, the actors–is there only to represent a scripted idea. But film at its transformative best is not primarily a literary medium. The screen or the field of light on the wall must be alive as sculpture, while at the same time expressing the iconography within the frame. Beyond everything else, film is a screen, film is a rectangle of light, film is light sculpture in time. How does a filmmaker sculpt light in harmony with its subject matter? How can light be deeply in union with evocation? How do you construct a temporal form that continues to express nowness to the audience?

–Nathaniel Dorsky, from Devotional Cinema, 2003

Pauline Oliveros’s practice of Deep Listening has impacted our approach to both sound and image making. Basically it refers to a form of engagement or presence with our surroundings for many reasons but in our view, most importantly to become closer to our environment. To somehow locate ourselves within a system of meaning—in a deeper way than any form of socialized identity. Like meditation, whether sitting in the studio with a synthesizer and making sounds or standing behind the camera in some random place, we are ultimately working towards expanding consciousness.

Deep Listening is a form of meditation. Attention is directed to the interplay of sounds and silences or sound/silence continuum. Sound is not limited to musical or speaking sounds but is inclusive of all perceptible vibrations (sonic formations). The practice is intended to expand consciousness to the whole space/time continuum of sound/silences. Deep Listening a process that extends the listener to this continuum as well as to focus instantaneously on a single sound (engagement to targeted detail) or sequences of sound/silence.

–Pauline Oliveros, from Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice, 2005

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