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What is a Contemporary Collection? Thoughts on the Walker Moving Image Commissions and the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection
The Walker Moving Image Commissions is an online series in which five artists responded to selections from the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection. Premiered in the Walker Cinema and released for a limited run online, the Moving Image Commissions were initiated in May 2015 with premieres of work by Moyra Davey and James Richards that focused […]
The Walker Moving Image Commissions is an online series in which five artists responded to selections from the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection. Premiered in the Walker Cinema and released for a limited run online, the Moving Image Commissions were initiated in May 2015 with premieres of work by Moyra Davey and James Richards that focused on Derek Jarman, followed by works by Shahryar Nashat and Uri Aran that responded to the influence of Marcel Broodthaers in February 2016. This first season of the Moving Image Commissions concluded with work inspired by Bruce Conner, produced by Leslie Thornton. All work streams online until May 31 2016.
The process of building a collection—whether art or another cultural form of hoarding—has perpetually shifting endeavors. Acquiring, commissioning, exhibiting, preserving, and loaning can be but a few of the practical tasks of any art collection. But folded into such activities is the similarly ongoing process of coming to terms with that same collection’s composition. Where has it come from? What does it contain? What else should be included? The answers to these investigations are continuous, and only become comprehensive and finite once a collection transitions into the state of archive. The Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection, which began in 1973, remains a space of expanding inquiry and acquisition.
An art collection often underscores the identity of an institution itself, and the Walker Art Center is no exception. A collection of works might indicate different tastes at different times, but every commissioned or acquired work always has the capacity to reconfigure a collection’s character. For the Walker, the outcome of such reconfigurations is often public—namely, the act of exhibition. But my commentary here is about what happens prior to such results. It is about what decisions are made before the public can encounter aspects of the collection. This text is also an attempt to reflect and give narrative—justification, even—to the end results: the recent work of the Ruben/Bentson Collection and our latest project, the Moving Image Commissions.
When I was first hired as the Walker’s Bentson Moving Image Scholar in early 2014, this new role necessitated a response to a number of major questions, not least the following: what and who is the Ruben/Bentson Collection for, how does it relate to contemporary art and life, and where does the “power,” interest, and influence of the collection reside? The answers to these questions are never static, but some had very literal immediate answers: the Ruben/Bentson Collection is, as Moving Image Senior Curator Sheryl Mousley describes:
a key facet of the Walker Art Center. The more than 1,000 titles, primarily the American avant-garde films from the 1950–1980s, while also including early silent films like the Lumière Brothers from 1894 to artist’s films from the past decade, are regularly featured throughout the museum.
In 2014, when such questions were being considered, the collection was available for research within the Walker’s on-site archive, and its importance resided in the pre-existing scholarship and exhibition both within and outside of the institution’s Minneapolis base. In short, access was specialized and tied to a physical space.
For a hybrid institution like the Walker—a space that is both a museological collection and a contemporary art center—these aforementioned answers needed to be reimagined, extended, and include greater access. Not content to passively wait for a specialist to come along with an interest in researching one of more than 1,000 titles, the Walker’s Artistic Director Fionn Meade, Mousley, and I together ventured that the Walker needed to find additional ways of metabolizing this collection of works. We wanted to actively ingest the collection’s substance, style, and idiosyncrasies into a contemporary mode of thinking, so that its importance might find new spaces of exhibition, inquiry, and effect. While the opening of the Walker Mediatheque (an on-demand cinema opened in 2015) dealt with digitizing and offering unprecedented access to the existing works in the collection, we still needed to address the issue of what should be added to the collection. Or, in the case of artists, who might want to work with us to develop new work for the collection.
Early on, Fionn, Sheryl, and I were keen to find sympathetic links between discrete elements of this historical collection that might have contemporary resonance and would embrace a contemporary form of access—namely, online streaming. No longer tied to the restricted privileges of a scholar being able to physically arrive at the Walker archive under the justification of research, we felt that the future works of the Ruben/Bentson collection needed to be distributed beyond its current capacity. We also wanted to use a broadcast medium that would engage the Walker as a generative hub, rather than purely a transmitter—a commissioner as well as a display platform.
We thought about the benefits of a traditional exhibition or cinema run—both time-limited projects that emphasize the “liveness” of a cultural work—and respected that such parameters are important. We didn’t want to abandon works of art to stream indefinitely, with the precarious and sometimes valueless status of online drift and anonymity. This wasn’t just a conceptual preciousness; it was informed by practical ideas of care for the work. We wished to avoid an imminent future of aging HTML architecture, broken links, and atrophying resolution quality. We decided six weeks, then, as the period in which the commission would stream online, and prefaced by a cinema premiere for each work.
When considering artists with whom we hoped to work build the Ruben/Bentson collection, we considered artistic practices in terms of adjacencies rather than hierarchies, shared methodologies rather than chronological categories, imagined legacies rather than contemporary peer context. Such a move was an explicit refusal to fill in any existing chronological “gaps” in the collection, of which there are many. (What a “gap” might mean in any collection is itself interesting; it is rarely neutral and often articulates the character of a collection. It marks the times and tastes in which is has existed.) Perhaps there was a way to attenuate such gaps, rather than retroactively patch it up into something encyclopedic, where an attempt at comprehensiveness might be read as an impossible attempt at objectivity. The Ruben/Bentson Collection remains partial, and it was from this partiality that we wanted to operate and use as an aspect of its persona, rather than a fault of oversight.
The three of us discussed what it might mean to extrapolate works that function in concert with one another, to create constellations of works, where “collecting,” “commissioning,” and “acquiring” could be thought of within the same breath. We hoped that the influence, inspiration, and inquiry of a “signature” artist within the collection might trigger a contemporary future for new works for an expanded collection. Swiftly identifying the extensive holdings of titles by Derek Jarman, Marcel Broodthaers, and Bruce Conner within the Ruben/Bentson Collection, we more organically considered the work of the following artists: Moyra Davey, James Richards, Uri Aran, Shahryar Nashat, and Leslie Thornton.
I’d like to say our selection of five artists was more deliberately organized, but in fact our formal conversations in meeting rooms during the working day more naturally flowed into informal conversations in cafes and primarily constituted contemporary artists whose work we had seen and continued to follow with excitement. We thought about formal coincidences, conceptual complements, shared attitudes between artists both past and present. Weren’t Moyra Davey’s writings and her recent videos—with their intimate approach to memoir and quotidian reflections on the capacity and psychic life of the human body—working in parallel to the activities of the late Derek Jarman, for example? What was that incredible, even impossible anecdote that Leslie Thornton relayed to me once about her father and grandfather’s role in the atomic bomb, and wasn’t Bruce Conner’s film of the nuclear bomb test Crossroads just restored? Sometimes our conversation was almost goofily formal; wasn’t Uri Aran table sculpture—replete with cookies and buttons—operating with a similar language to Marcel Broodthaers tables of eggs? How come Shahryar Nashat’s practice seemed to pivot on the notion of the “figure” with the same tenacity as Broodthaers obsession for the word?
Of course, the flow of conversation needed to be shared with the artists themselves. Could the collection provoke the creation of new works? Would they even like the collected artists we were linking them to? Integral to such conversations was the desire that any commissioning process be at least an interesting proposition to these five contemporary artist. We couldn’t make any assumptions, and so my invitations to the artists were very open, beginning initially with a suggestion of sympathetic parallels between their own work and that of the titles in the Ruben/Bentson Collection. In the very first invitation, a tentative email I sent to Moyra Davey on May 6, 2014, I wrote with some frankness about the contextual frame:
It is of course dependent on whether you have any interest in Jarman (though there are many Dereks to choose from)… The space of the diary as a test site and space of desire that constantly leaks into Jarman’s work feels highly relevant here.
The artists themselves had their own responses to the invitation, most noting their longstanding connection to the work. James Richards immediately accepted the invitation to respond to Jarman, noting the latter as a key influence while he doing his foundation degree at art school. Leslie Thornton, meanwhile, described the influence of Conner as an “enabling force. Not in imitation, more as point of departure, and a fundamental reassurance.” Davey chose to fold her shrewd analysis of the commissioning situation into the work itself, with an arch and open-ended question:
In his book Dancing Ledge, Jarman writes about hating the struggle—the struggle to paint, to be an artist, to have quick success. “Struggle” is a word I’ve used to describe a lot to describe my own experience. I used to disparage art made on demand. I thought you could tell that things had been solely made because there was a budget. And now I do almost only that. I’m doing it now. Jarman on commission. And I love it. But what of the art? Is it worse? Can you tell?
Prior to online broadcast, each of the five artists presented their commissioned work in the Walker Cinema, valuing the communal event of the cinema premiere as the launch for the works’ dispersed, multi-platform outing online. While some screenings allowed us to revisit and recontextualize the work of Jarman, Broodthaers, and Conner on the big screen, as well as in essayistic terms (I wrote an extended essay for each commission), it also produced unexpected relationships between the five commissioned artists. Most notably, Thornton and Richards went well beyond the format of screening-plus-conversation, and instead created a brand new video work in collaboration with one another, entitled Crossing, made for the Walker Cinema. In its nebulous status (not an official Moving Image Commission, but jointly authored within a new collaboration that sprang directly from the commissioning process), Crossing is a work that now requires us to think anew about the possibilities of a collection that is both expanding and responding to itself. Just as the character of the collection reflects the works it houses, the self-reflexivity of the Ruben/Bentson collection is and should be inspired by a work like Crossing, a video that exudes the pleasure of grasping for a new collaborative language, where one’s own tastes might flow in and out of that of another. Crossing presents the willing desire to enmesh distinct logics, to offer oneself up to another’s process in order to produce a new dialogue of speaking and visualizing a world where, as one of the artist’s describes, “something special can happen that goes beyond conscious expectation or design.”
Moving forward into considering the new sites, spaces, and artists for another round of the Moving Image Commissions, it is this kind of ambitious dialogue—enriched by the artists and their work—we must seek to fold into an expanding Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection. Season two, galvanized by this initial round, has begun in earnest and will be launched in 2017.
Leslie Thornton’s They Were Just People (2016) is the third installment in the Moving Image Commissions, a series that addresses works by key artists in the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Collection. They Were Just People will be presented on the Walker Channel from April 8 through May 31, 2016. It will also be screened April 9, 2016 […]
Leslie Thornton’s They Were Just People (2016) is the third installment in the Moving Image Commissions, a series that addresses works by key artists in the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Collection. They Were Just People will be presented on the Walker Channel from April 8 through May 31, 2016. It will also be screened April 9, 2016 in the Walker Cinema, alongside films by Bruce Conner and the world premiere of Crossing (2016, video, 25 minutes), a new moving image collaboration between Thornton and previous Moving Image Commission artist, James Richards.
Operation Crossroads, the nuclear bomb test conducted by the United States Joint Army/Navy Task Force at Bikini Atoll in July 1946, was one of the most documented events in 20th-century history. The explosion was caught on film, shot at multiple slow-motion speeds, and captured in 50,000 still images. During the test, 1.5 million feet of black-and-white film stock was exposed, and the comprehensiveness of the documentation triggered a global shortage of film stock.
Afterwards, eyewitnesses of the event struggled to describe their visual experience of the explosion. In an official report of Operation Crossroads, its author, William A. Shurcliff, wrote: “One reason why observers had so much trouble in retaining a clear impression of the explosion phenomena was the lack of appropriate words and concepts. The explosion phenomena abounded in absolutely unprecedented inventions in solid geometry. No adequate vocabulary existed for these novelties.”
Thus the documentation of Operation Crossroads became the primary material through which a new vernacular and narrative for the event could be established. Indeed, the official pictorial record of Operation Crossroads refers to cameras as the “star witnesses” of the event, citing an aerial camera with a telephoto lens capable of taking a legible photograph of a wristwatch from a quarter of a mile away. After two months of “verbal groping,” a conference was convened to agree upon a set of 30 special terms, which settled upon words such as: dome, fillet, side jets, bright tracks, cauliflower cloud, fallout, air shock disc, water shock disc, base surge, water mound, uprush, and aftercloud.
It is this original film documentation from the event that American assemblagist, painter, and filmmaker Bruce Conner (1933–2008) used to create the longest film of his career—CROSSROADS (1976), a bravura piece of cinema that examines the Bikini Atoll explosion over 36 minutes. In preparation for making the work, Conner successfully petitioned the US Defense Department for its declassified yet unreleased film material, and appropriated the footage to compile a work saturated with visual ruptures and editorial sutures. The artist’s careful sequencing creates a vision of horrific enchantment. At points, effect and experience seem indistinguishable from each other, and the violent plumes of water produced by the huge underwater explosion of the second test at Bikini flood the cinematic frame to the point of abstraction and eventual obliteration.
Commissioning sound for his films for the first time, Conner worked with two musicians, Patrick Gleeson and Terry Riley. While both soundtracks are equally eerie, Gleeson developed a score that aped diegetic sound for the first half of CROSSROADS, replete with bird sounds and distant thunder, and Riley created a radically different, dreamy, composition for organ.
Despite its charged material,CROSSROADS elides any singular political comment, serving instead as a complex meditation on memory, death, and the attempt to find a visual vocabulary that is both appalling and hypnotic. It is a work that deals in and makes sequences out of a space of incomprehension. The nuclear bomb was, after all, the absolute terminus of communication, not simply in terms of eyewitnesses’ verbal incapacity, but also as an action that carried the threat to wipe out life from which all language could possibly emerge.
This vexed relationship between documentation and processes of comprehension is a key aspect of CROSSROADS and of Leslie Thornton’s new video They Were Just People (2016), the last installment in the first season of Walker Moving Image Commissions. They Were Just People was produced in direct response to the influence and inquiry of Conner’s film. Thornton has described the late artist’s work as an “enabling force, a point of departure, a fundamental reassurance.” Like CROSSROADS, Thornton’s video also dwells on forms of abstraction in barbaric acts and the melting away of material into voids. But rather than focusing on the energetic and decisive moment of a single horror, her work builds from a slow dread—the persistent half-life of violent histories.
They Were Just People is a video that draws together a stereoscopic image of the La Brea Tar Pits in California (where one shot is the slowly blistering surface of the asphalt lake, and the other is a prismatic refraction of the same image rendered as a kaleidoscopic image) and an oral account that describes the distressing moments of human trauma in the immediate aftermath of the atomic bomb explosion in Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945. This latter found sound comprises a largely unedited interview with “Miss Palchikoff,” a Russian-born medical missionary, whose impassive language of administration gradually reveals itself as a series of appalling abstractions of human suffering.
Thornton sought to place the sound of They Were Just People in a highly ambivalent register—an effect given off by Palchikoff’s even and matter-of-fact tone, which temporarily masks the shocking scene she describes. Consequently, the viewer’s experience of sound vacillates between the feeling of eavesdropping on a banal conversation and what the artist calls the slow “horror of listening.” The grainy quality of the found sound is significant here. Just as one physically strains to make out the details of the oral account despite the archival chafes and abrasions to the record, the nurse’s descriptions provoke a disgust of the imagination. What this eyewitness has to say, and the administrative ease and comprehensiveness with which she says it, is likely at odds with the eavesdropper’s desire to hear completely. (The artist noted that she only removed a few sections that she found “too gruesome, too unbearable.”) Through both form and content, the difficulty of comprehension is embodied.
At points too, the artist mirrors and intensifies the experience of listening, finding visual metaphors within her stereoscopic image which perfectly illustrate Palchikoff’s highly visual descriptions of “head swellings” and “water blisters.” With its oily pustules popping on the surface to reveal momentary holes revealing only darkness, the oozing pit at La Brea is dense and engulfing. Its bubbling translucency is momentary, its sluggish activity relentless. The pit becomes the over-expressive counterpart to a narrative of violence and, rendered as a pair of eyes, the image stares back at the viewer, unblinking. Thornton describes her stereoscopic technique (one which she has used in her work previously, though she argues it is used here to the greatest effect) as “a mechanical gaze, but it seems so full of life to me, so intimately ocular, related to the way a binocular as a technical extension of our eyes isolates and frames.” The image of the pit is both an image of a void and its technological abstraction—a metaphor for the ineffability of the bomb and its refraction through the language of administration.
In her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), philosopher Hannah Arendt reflected on the capacity for comprehending traumatic events, noting:
Comprehension does not mean denying the outrageous, deducing the unprecedented from precedents, or explaining phenomena by such analogies and generalities that the impact of reality and the shock of experience are no longer felt. It means, rather, examining and bearing consciously the burden that our century has placed on us—neither denying its existence nor submitting meekly to its weight. Comprehension, in short, means the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality—whatever it may be.
The idea that comprehension might both face and resist reality is a close summation of the tactics of CROSSROADS and They Were Just People. That the material of horror would come to Conner and Thornton as readymades is symptomatic of the periods both artists live through. Here, Arendt’s “shock of experience” is found footage and found sound, respectively, where each is carefully redeployed with additional manipulations of duration—expansively, in terms of historical relationships, and specifically, through the material qualities of the edit and the cut. But while CROSSROADS is a careful sequence that exhaustively examines the test explosion from multiple angles, speeds, and scales, The Were Just People is a comparatively enervated piece. With sparing edits and interventions, it possesses the paradox of slow alarm. “There is a bomb that goes off in the experience of the piece,” emphasizes Thornton. “You are in an accident.”
The speed of both works is fundamental in considering not simply their relationship to one another, but to the subject both seek to articulate: the duration of a weapon and the experience of it. In their book A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1980), theorists Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari discuss the constitutive parts of a weapons system or “assemblage,” arguing that the primary component of such a system is speed: “The more mechanisms of projection a tool has, the more it behaves like a weapon, potentially or simply metaphorically.” Deleuze and Guattari’s assessment is compelling in both assessing how technology might describe a weapon and its effects and as a commentary on how the very apparatuses of image capture might come close to resembling the characteristics of a weapon itself (where cinema, too, is a “mechanism of projection”). It is this porosity between the technologies of annihilation and technologies of description that lend CROSSROADS and They Were Just People the capacity to represent and incite horror—in short, it is their access to the shock of comprehension.
Technology, and its capacity for harm and pleasure, has long been a source of productive and personal fascination for Thornton. Her most iconic work, Peggy and Fred in Hell (1985–2012) is a post-apocalyptic tale suffused with Cold War anxieties, which the artist describes in relation to her own formative experience of living in the world of the atomic bomb. Thornton’s reference to an autobiography of nuclear foreboding is not to be taken lightly. Indeed, it is a useful indicator for the primary impulse of They Were Just People. Interwoven into this new video is Thornton’s complex emotional response to her own family history. Both the artist’s father and grandfather (unbeknownst to each other at the time) were engineers in the Manhattan Project, and it was Thornton’s father who encased and fastened the last screw in the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Before loading it into the plane, he wrote his name, his father’s name, and his mother’s name on the bomb casing—an inscription of familial dedication, legacy, and authorship. For the artist, then, this is a deeply personal origin story with consequences—one that recalls Deleuze and Guattari’s haunting refrain, “Weapons and tools are consequences, nothing but consequences.” But They Were Just People is not simply about how technology (whether tool or weapon) is a complicit witness in events. It is also about how its ghostly recall and capacity for cultural distortions might bear the shock of comprehension.
Leslie Thornton’s They Were Just People is the third installment in the Moving Image Commissions, a series that addresses works by key artists in the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Collection. They Were Just People will be presented on the Walker Channel April 8 through May 31, 2016. It will also be screened April 9, 2016 in the […]
Leslie Thornton’s They Were Just People is the third installment in the Moving Image Commissions, a series that addresses works by key artists in the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Collection. They Were Just People will be presented on the Walker Channel April 8 through May 31, 2016. It will also be screened April 9, 2016 in the Walker Cinema, alongside films by Bruce Conner and the world premiere of Crossing (2016, video, 25 minutes), a brand new moving image collaboration between Thornton and previous Moving Image Commission artist, James Richards.
“What violence can I do to an audience?” This was the question that confronted artist Leslie Thornton as she was making her new video, They Were Just People (2016, video, 10 minutes). Responding to the influence and inquiry of American assemblagist and filmmaker Bruce Conner (1933–2008), Thornton’s new work is a chilling exploration of the purpose and repurposing of memory during wartime.
Thornton began making They Were Just People as a dark response to CROSSROADS (1976), Conner’s spectacular film of the 1946 Bikini Atoll nuclear test. Part of the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection, CROSSROADS comprises 27 different takes of the test explosion. This latter black-and-white 35mm film is drawn from appropriated footage, an astonishing reworking of the US Defense Department’s documentation of the nuclear test explosion. Conner had successfully petitioned for the declassified but then-unreleased footage of Operation Crossroads. When permission was remarkably granted, he created a complex sequence of the moments immediately before, during, and after the explosion, setting the work to two separate scores by composers Patrick Gleeson and Terry Riley.
While CROSSROADS remains a bravura spectacle of repetition, annihilation, and abstraction, Thornton’s response adopts a slower speed of horror, locating and inhabiting a sluggish dread. They Were Just People combines Thornton’s own manipulated footage of the La Brea Tar Pits in California with an oral account describing the horrific moments after the US dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945. Conner’s work obsessively searches for the exact moment where the world was violently and permanently changed; Thornton’s video is concerned with the persistent half-life of violence.
They Were Just People is also an intensely personal film for Thornton. Much of the techniques and materials used in the video have appeared in different forms of her work before, or samples have lain dormant in her archives for some time. Interwoven into the core impulse of her work is Thornton’s biographical material and her complex emotional response to her own family history. Both the artist’s father and grandfather (unbeknownst to each other at the time) were engineers in the Manhattan Project, and it was Thornton’s father who fastened the last screw in the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Thus They Were Just People is tethered not just to the ambivalence of the artist’s own relationship to the material contained within the video, but also to the capacity for moving images to be a conduit for speaking about and providing critical resistances to histories of violence.
They Were Just People is a work that constantly looks back, both conceptually and formally. The image is, after all a stereoscopic one—a pair of eyes. On the left Thornton shows a shot of the lumpish bubbling asphalt lake in La Brea, while on the right she presents a prismatic reinterpretation of the same footage as if seen through a kaleidoscope. Together, they are simultaneously seeing and distorting. “It is a mechanical gaze, but it seems so full of life to me, so intimately ocular,” Thornton has noted to writer Kevin McGarry of her double image technique. “It is related to the way a binocular as a technical extension of our eyes isolates and frames.” The image appears to speak of vision and its lack, a manipulated and refracted surface that is suffused with abstraction. The bubbling tar pit is a material that persistently refuses to reveal itself; oily blisters pop on the surface to reveal momentary holes that show only darkness, dense and engulfing.
Thornton pairs her double image of the asphalt lake with an oral account from the Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs. The artist described first listening to the archival sound recording as if she was eavesdropping on someone discussing their day-to-day activities—an effect given off by the flat matter-of-factness about the female speaker’s tone. But the evenness of the woman’s voice only temporarily masks the content of what is said. A largely unedited extract of an eyewitness account by “Miss Palchikoff,” a Russian-born medical missionary, the archival interview probes the immediate aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing. As Palchikoff’s impassive language of administration gradually reveals itself as a series of appalling abstractions of human suffering, Thornton’s (and by turn the audience’s) simple act of eavesdropping becomes, in the artist’s words, a “horror of listening.”
In They Were Just People, “What violence can I do to an audience?” is a question about atomizing experience in order to question culture’s capacity to simulate horror as a form of critique, to point at and use abstraction as a way of examining events that beggar description. “There is an ineffability in the form of address,” Thornton says of her work and comparing it to Conner’s work, there is “an undercurrent that is broad, and at times grave, in its referencing. It is below the surface, registering in the back of the mind.”
They Were Just People is a commission by the Walker Art Center with major support provided by the Bentson Foundation.
Uri Aran’s new video, Two Things About Suffering (2016, video, 16 minutes), presented on the Walker Channel from February 18 through March 18, 2016, is part of the second set of Moving Image Commissions; Aran’s work responds to the rich conceptual legacy of Belgian poet, filmmaker, and artist Marcel Broodthaers (1924—1976). They said to us Thou shalt not kill […]
Uri Aran’s new video, Two Things About Suffering (2016, video, 16 minutes), presented on the Walker Channel from February 18 through March 18, 2016, is part of the second set of Moving Image Commissions; Aran’s work responds to the rich conceptual legacy of Belgian poet, filmmaker, and artist Marcel Broodthaers (1924—1976).
They said to us
Thou shalt not kill and they
deserved to die themselves.
Thou shalt love Thy neighbor.
They drew rafters
inside the A’s and on top of the T’s
They made images
They told us we were children,
They kept us from reading the texts,
since there is not a line which does not condemn them.
plugs the eyes,
they filled my language with Jazz and jazz
is cotton stuffing. Silence! Silence!
Children and fishes
they will throw us into the sea
they will throw us into prison
They have lost their faces.
—Marcel Broodthaers, Untitled Poem (translated by Paul Schmidt)
Uri Aran’s new video work, Two Things About Suffering (2016), features an early scene in which two men walk side by side. The space in which they walk is curious. Enclosed but cavernous, natural light yet high brick walls, it resembles the bowels of an industrial ruin—a little too tall, a little too narrow. As the pair of men pace together, the more verbose of the two speculates grimly about “the conditions in which we are expected to act.” His roguish companion, without warning or much care for what has been said, takes the other’s fist and pretends to have the latter punch himself. The scene cuts before the action is completed, leaving the viewer to consider the conundrum central to Two Things About Suffering: the ways in which one is conditioned—through environment, language, and intervention.
At first glance, these conditions in which the characters are expected to act appear binary: the men perform two monologues that refuse to enter into dialogue, yet are spoken in parallel; they play out a minute Beckettian drama, switching a small work light on and off as if to refer to themselves passing in and out of character; there is a day scene, there is a night scene; there is a performance scene, there is a downtime scene. So too does the title refer to the duality of the work. “I wanted the title to sound like a lesson. Maybe these figures are two forms of suffering,” ventures Aran. “They ‘walk the yard.’ They are two fish in a tank. The space is so deep and so high they could be two men inside the belly of a whale.”
A yard, a tank, a whale. Such an allegorical impulse has been a defining feature throughout this New York–based artist’s body of work. Aran’s practice repeatedly trades on the uncanny combinations of things—of surrogates and substitutions, as well as the ability to say two things at once. His exhibition By Foot, By Car, By Bus (2012), for example, included a video of a man telling a story into a studio microphone. Each time he came to the end of the story, he reformulated his tale from the beginning, creating imperfect iterations anew. Much like Aran’s Two Things About Suffering, the video was a double-tongued piece—a recursive serpentine loop that reveals itself through repetitions and revisions both familiar and unfamiliar.
The casting of Two Things About Suffering operates out of a similar engagement with the notion of “familiarity” and the structures of acquaintance. Aran uses his identical twin brother—jazz musician, Dan Aran—as an analog or shorthand for gestures the artist recognizes as his own, while drawing the rest of the cast from musicians with whom his brother regularly works. The configuration of these people is a nesting of prior relations both social and professional, while the content of the work seeks to penetrate the conditions through which individuals participate in the collaborative act of drama. Although it aggressively resists a narrative impulse, Two Things About Suffering can be described as the sum performance of competing powers between familiars: of ambition, mimicry, ability, the desire to stop, and failure to do so. “Familiarity” is, after all, not just a principle that that describes conditions of intimacy. It is about technique, mastery, even the supernatural.
Formally trained as a typographer in Israel prior to studying art in New York, Aran is well-versed in the containment of meaning, how it might be laid out aesthetically, as well as how phrases, styles, might leak into one another. “The infinite possibilities of producing meaning through the interplay of sign and signifier—I address this aspect of language through repetition, re-organization, and quotation,” says Aran. “English is the language of the West and of Pop—you can’t escape it. The way it’s received is so mediated that it feels quoted.”
Aran’s Walker Moving Image Commission has its own quotations, not just within its circular dialogue and repeated gestures, but also within its script and the material of performance. The script is drawn from two sources: Richard Boleslavsky’s Acting: The First Six Lessons: Documents from the American Laboratory Theatre (1933) and Aran’s own antagonistic and highly critical notes he jotted down in the margins while reading the book. The video material, meanwhile, is documentation of an earlier performance he presented in Rome as part of the artist’s exhibition project, Multicolored Blue (2015). Aran treated it as if it were found footage, disregarding the original intentions of the initial live performance and the documentation it produced, and instead tackled its current container: video.
Two Things About Suffering inquisitively probes the frame, using comic pans and zooms to capture the actors’ glances straight to camera. The minor technical movements form the basic punctuation or rhythm of the scene; a nod, a tick, an error or an intervention creates its own patterns and events within a score of semi-rehearsed, semi-improvised actions. Aran also challenges the appropriateness of the “outtake” as valid material, where the “in-between” of performance becomes an event itself, tipping the genre of the sober chamber play into that of a slapstick comedy. “I wanted to use the material again, to deal with its inadequacies—to use these figures, the work, the actions to kick it back into the light.” But Aran’s “light” is not necessarily the space of clarity. It is purely an effect or quality that might better reveal that which is already present.
Two Things About Suffering is, in many ways, a conscious undoing of material. The video plays out in three sections: walking the yard; a “downtime” scene, where the actors sit and light matches in the artists’ studio (“I wanted them to play with fire, to have something bigger than themselves in the scene”); and the final ballroom scene, which initially plays out as if a dream but is interrupted, obscured, and cancelled by the digitally overlaid stock image of a roast chicken. Invoking the comic desires of cartoon character Wile E. Coyote, the wholesome sentimentality of an American chicken dinner, or the abject image of a dead animal, this absurd image forcefully rejects any kind of unconscious meaning of the performance. Flattening out the screen with an incongruously hovering chicken, Aran makes it clear there is no psychology to be understood “underneath” this performance, or apart from it. There are simply two things that exist within the same container: a performance and its intervention; two trapped men and a dead animal; inappropriate actions and unexpected ones. Aran’s surrealist gambit is a terminal gesture that forces the performance towards a conclusion, and yet persists for one final comic turn: the retinal burn of a chicken appearing in the dark glow of the cinematic fade out.
With its circular gestures, goofy interventions, and melancholic self-consciousness, Two Things About Suffering recalls Marcel Broodthaers’s declaration that art “is a prisoner of its phantasms and its function as magic.” The Belgian artist added, “I choose to consider Art as a useless labor, apolitical and of little moral significance […] Urged on by some base inspiration, I confess I would experience a kind of pleasure at being proved wrong. A guilty pleasure, since it would be at the expense of the victims, those who thought I was right.” Doomed unto itself, art will continue to perform the conditions of its own entrapment, always hoping for something outside of itself. It seeks and fails to connect with political power, and is reduced simply to a performance of certainties, hopes and doubts. “In this video, I wanted these two characters to act as if there was meaning,” says Aran. The subjects pass time, play to camera, and wait for the artist’s permission for the period of performance to stop, while being caught up in the absurdity of such an impossibility. Recalling his source material, Aran notes that “the funny thing about ‘method acting,’ and even the idea of the ‘Actor’s Studio,’ is that it acts as if there is something outside.”
An obsessive assemblagist dedicated to exposing the operations through which meaning could be applied as well as nullified, Broodthaers often put his things into what curator Dieter Schwarz describes as “conditions of equivalence.” His work puts objects, symbols, and text together in order to expose their structural qualities and values that were, for him, both economic and cultural, though not necessarily truthful. “This equivalence does not work toward an aesthetic or logical condition of tautology. Rather, it addresses the mutual insufficiency of both the written and the visual presentation,” argues Schwarz. Referring to his “egg paintings,” for example, Broodthaers declared his work thus: “I return to matter. I rediscover the tradition of the primitives. Painting with eggs. Painting with eggs.” The artist’s statement, the objects displayed, and the environment in which the statement and object come together allude to the use of yolk in painting pigment, as well as the history of folk art. Here, the order and the repetitions of words which appear to operate with meaning both place and displace Broodthaers’s references and influences. “Painting with eggs” does and does not equal “painting with eggs.” In such transparent deceptions Broodthaers hints at another subject: the performance of dependencies of meaning. His medium is neither object nor text but rather, as Schwarz describes, “a rhetoric that will deprive us of our certainty of being ably to verify a statement’s truth.”
Aran’s prankish relationship with physical theater and its perverse interventions into the scripted word directly emerges from this cultural inheritance, specifically the latter’s summation of art as captive to its own illusions. Two Things About Suffering perfectly demonstrates such a paradox as a mise en abyme—a space of absolute recursion. It is at once hopeless and hopeful. Just as the first two words that open the video are a miniature drama of the title itself—“Please help”—Aran’s work doesn’t seek authenticity. It desires to simultaneously show a story and its difference—the inconstant glimmer of revision in process.
Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission Shahryar Nashat’s Present Sore (2016, video, 9 minutes), presented on the Walker Channel from February 18 through March 18, 2016, is part of the second set of Moving Image Commissions; his piece responds to the rich conceptual legacy of Belgian poet, filmmaker, and artist Marcel Broodthaers. In 1983, when feminist scholar […]
Shahryar Nashat’s Present Sore (2016, video, 9 minutes), presented on the Walker Channel from February 18 through March 18, 2016, is part of the second set of Moving Image Commissions; his piece responds to the rich conceptual legacy of Belgian poet, filmmaker, and artist Marcel Broodthaers.
In 1983, when feminist scholar Donna Haraway began writing “A Cyborg Manifesto,” her landmark essay that would come to redefine forms of gender classification and the conditions of what it is to be human, she speculated upon describing the limits of physicality. “Why should our bodies end at the skin?” Haraway’s question was not an attempt to create a definition but an extension. Rather than articulate a body’s limit, this was a provocation to imagine an array of new possibilities—possibilities that would dilate the idea of the body beyond the purely descriptive notion of flesh and bone, and reposition physicality within a discussion of power and identity. Three decades on, her provocation remains integral to considering how one’s most absolute form—one’s own body—is presently described through culture and aesthetics, subjected to law, and conditioned by access to and use of technology.
Reflecting upon what the “ideal body” might look like in the 21st century, artist Shahryar Nashat’s new Walker Moving Image Commission, Present Sore (2016), engages Haraway’s question by constructing a moving image of a human form whose mobility, physicality, and sensuality are comprehensively mediated by a series of objects and technologies that Nashat loosely groups under the term “prosthetics.” Clothes, exfoliants, lubricants, artificial limbs, money, medication—these are contemporary industrially made objects that are displayed upon, attached to, or ingested into the body on a metabolic level. Akin to the ways in which classical painting would seek to augment the persona of a human figure with attributes, emblems, or allegorical objects, the human form in Present Sore is so completely embedded (and occasionally obscured) within this array of objects that it surfaces only through its interaction with the synthetic; the artificial is ingested into or presented as an extension of the human form.
“I don’t think Greco-Roman, muscular, or athletic qualities represents the body that is in any way ideal, but rather the body that demonstrates itself through its dependencies and vulnerabilities,” says Nashat of the work. “I’m interested in how expressions of injury, difficulty, and dependency expose certain qualities and values of contemporary life.” Present Sore thus seeks to articulate elements that might constitute a body’s “aliveness.” It supposes that the body can never be fully described in perfect isolation, but rather through a composite of objects that signify discomfort and pleasure, as well as attempts to control such experiences. Starting at the feet and ending at the head, the human figure in Present Sore is, in the artist’s words, “gentrified”—an active participant in the replacement and displacement of values within a given site, which is, in this case, the cultural body.
“We know nothing about a body until we know what it can do,” write theoreticians Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in their 1980 essay “Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Imperceptible.” “What its affects are, how they can or cannot enter into composition with other affects, with the affects of another body, either to destroy that body or to be destroyed by it, either to exchange actions and passions with it or to join with it in composing a more powerful body.” Here, the composition of the human figure is not a container of an individual’s agency, but rather something externally constructed and enabled. Capacity is thus determined from the outside; the body is governed by the force of others, their violence or tenderness, and by rules about what it can be or should do.
It is significant that Nashat’s video was commissioned in response to the ongoing legacies of Belgian conceptual artist Marcel Broodthaers (1924–1976). Throughout his work, Broodthaers’s repeatedly used the term “figure” (which he commonly abbreviated “fig.”) to indicate the double role of an object, calling attention to the difference of an object observed and an object as an image.
He would often deploy his own adaptations of friend and artist René Magritte’s notorious painting The Treachery of Images (1928–1929) and its depiction of a pipe next to the phrase “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”). Broodthaers was not so much interested in an expression of lack between meaning and symbol but rather sought to foreground the infidelity of and impossibility of embodied meaning. Curator and art historian Dirk Snauwaert’s definition of “figure” provides a useful parallel to thinking about Present Sore’s representation of the contemporary human body—its resistances to interpretation, as well as its vulnerabilities. Snauwaert describes “figure” as:
the stage of observation when things are on the point of being named, when the object is about to be connected with a concept. Figure thus implies seeing, observing, but not yet explaining. Unlike the symbol, which is recognized and defined within a discourse, the figure is open and unconstructed. In this respect it corresponds to a work of art, which is open and ambiguous as well, and operates by evading definition. Figure cannot be reduced to a single meaning.
Where Broodthaers assembled a sophisticated rebus of a practice constituted through poetry, graphics and film—one engaged in exposing the indiscriminate and varied attachment of meaning to images and words—Nashat’s relationship to image-making calls attention to the similarly promiscuous and often queer relations between the desire for a body and desire for the image of a body. The latter’s art presents an often contrarian space, where sensuality is both performed and interrupted, displayed, and redacted. In its complex editorial structure, for example, Present Sore’s rapidly switching screen wipes and composite images of the human body paradoxically pushes the eye away from the subject it seeks to comprehend. The combination of the lingering camera and the restless cut work to simultaneously animate and suppress visual cognition of the figure. No longer caressing the body with a subjective gaze, even the viewer’s eye is reduced to the mechanism of scan, running into the black margins of the image. Thus the represented body remains plural and inexplicably embedded within objects and moving parts.
Incorporating mediums of sculpture, photography, installation and moving image, Nashat’s work of the past decade has singularly committed itself to looking at the human body, asking: what are the cultural trappings that make a body desirable, heroic, pornographic, or vulnerable? What are the modes of access, regulation, conditioning between an eye and the body it comprehends? In his later videos especially, Nashat’s camera probes forms both organic and man-made for attributes that could be described as hominal—the texture that might resemble skin, the bend and flex of a substance that appears animate, a gesture that appears human and is not or, inversely, a human gesture that appears mechanical.
Frequently, his works use representations of visual pleasure as a substitute for the other senses of the body. Short video works like One More Time With James (2009) depict two men in a high-end perfumery performing a transaction that is, in essence, denied to the viewer (purchasing a fragrance) but rendered instead as a glassy dreamscape, while Hustle in the Hand (2014) comprises the theatrical presentation of a grazed arm to the camera, where the act of injury is suppressed in favor of a fixation on the aesthetics of a human wound. In each of Nashat’s works, physical theater is uneasily presented as high artifice, consciously and sometimes painfully aware of how its sensuality is fetishized for the camera. Diegetic sounds of human action are eliminated to make way for the feigned authenticity of foley effects, while human movement is exaggerated to the point that chance gestures are repeatedly looped to appear premeditated or inevitable, recalling the abstracted advertising imagery of conceptual artist and filmmaker Peter Roehr (1944–1968).
Present Sore is the most aggressively constituted image of Nashat’s work to date. It is a conglomeration of hard wipes, a dissonant database of sounds, and a forensic image of a single body that has in fact been rendered from many individuals (including stunt men, actors, sex workers) whose different skin tones and ethnic heritages appear graded into a uniform median color. “Organic, digital, mediated, injured, veteran,” lists Nashat, “any kind of body is now available for representation.”
Even intimacy is shown as an effect produced via camera. What might in isolation be considered archetypal expressions of emotional closeness in film—a close-up of the body, discreet hand gestures and touching, over-the-shoulder camera positions—are mechanized through loops and discordant foley. And on a structural level, physical intimacy with the viewer is fabricated through the 90-degree rotation of the widescreen aspect ratio into 9:16, a format most commonly experienced through hand-held mobile devices. Not simply the primary portrait format of the 21st century, Present Sore’s aspect ratio is a frame optimized for holding the image in proximity to one’s own body. It is the ubiquitous yet private “user” view for most moving images today.
Despite these aggressive technological interventions upon the human body, at the very center of Present Sore lies not an archetype or composite, but a found object: Paul Thek’s 1965 sculpture, Hippopotamus from Technological Reliquaries, which is housed in the Walker Art Center’s permanent collection. Presented as an interlude from the juddering mechanics of the composite body, this dream sequence imagines an interior altogether different from the body scenes that bookend it. The symbolism of this dream space escapes contemporary mechanisms, and imports a different time into Present Sore—the period of the Thek work itself, one that is notably pre-AIDS but concurrent with another humanitarian crisis: the Vietnam War.
Thek’s Hippopotamus consists of a lump of flesh placed within the sanitizing and museological conditions of a transparent vitrine. Made in direct response to the political campaigns that supported American military intervention in Vietnam, Thek noted of the work:
I was amused at the idea of meat under Plexiglas because I thought it made fun of the scene—where the name of the game seemed to be “how cool you can be” and “how refined.” Nobody ever mentioned anything that seemed real. The world was falling apart, anyone could see it.
With Nashat’s highly selective camera positions and macro shots of Hippopotamus, this “interior” scene is not an escape from the pressures exerted upon the contemporary body, but an indication of the wound beneath. The negative and unseen space that Thek rendered in order to provoke the unspoken horror of war is here shown to persist within the contemporary body. This is an atrophied cultural wound that, like the term of the “figure,” remains open and unreconstructed—the present sore.
Marcel Broodthaers, Pipe et Formes Academiques, 1969–70 The second installment of the Walker’s Moving Image Commissions launch February 17 with premieres of Shahryar Nashat’s Present Sore and Uri Aran’s Two Things About Suffering in the Walker Cinema. Both works will be presented on the Walker Channel February 18 through March 18, 2016. “I am not a filmmaker,” Marcel […]
The second installment of the Walker’s Moving Image Commissions launch February 17 with premieres of Shahryar Nashat’s Present Sore and Uri Aran’s Two Things About Suffering in the Walker Cinema. Both works will be presented on the Walker Channel February 18 through March 18, 2016.
“I am not a filmmaker,” Marcel Broodthaers once declared. “For me, film is simply an extension of language. I began with poetry, moved on to three-dimensional works, finally to film, which combines several artistic elements. That is, it is writing (poetry), object (something three-dimensional), and image (film). The great difficulty lies, of course, in finding a harmony among these three elements.”
With works that span the mediums of installation, text, sculpture and 16mm film, the practice of Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers (1924—1976) is willfully resistant to singular categorization. Descriptions of his work demand either complete specificity to materials (one can refer to his assemblages of eggshells and mussels) or inconclusive platitudes (he is variously described as a “conceptual artist,” “assemblagist,” and “collagist,” though none of them seem to quite fit). So maybe it’s more useful to think of his work, as Broodthaers suggests, simply in terms of language—its translations, opacities, and symbolic power.
Acutely aware that the matter and the meaning of language were completely different, Broodthaers sought to expose the false affinities between the ways in which words attach to images. His work destabilized its sources through punning substitutions and witty redactions in order to reveal the contingencies and structures through which meaning is produced.
Broodthaers didn’t claim to be an artist until he was 40 years old, but throughout his twelve-year career as an artist he repeatedly used of the term “figure.” A word that can also casually stand in for “knowing” or “thinking” (“go figure”), he would often abbreviate the word into “fig.,” the indexical trope of user manuals, encyclopedias, and other forms of informational printed matter. Aware that “fig.” was a traditional means of exemplifying knowledge, he repurposed the term to call attention to the double role of an object—to show the difference of an object observed and an object as an image.
Broodthaers was not interested expressing the lack between meaning and symbol, but rather he sought to foreground the infidelity of and impossibility of embodied meaning. He would often deploy his own adaptations of friend and artist René Magritte’s notorious painting The Treachery of Images (1928–29) and its depiction of a pipe next to the phrase “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”). His works, and his films especially, are exercises in reading—not just reading carefully but becoming aware of the conditions under which one believes themselves able to read at all. As the artist said of his work, it is “something you have to want to figure out.”
Despite an artistic career that lasted just over a decade, the impact of Broodthaers’s complex and diverse legacy is still being figured out, not least in the Museum of Modern Art exhibition Marcel Broodthaers: A Retrospective. His examination of the social and economic conditions under which art is (or isn’t) constituted and valued has produced a rich cultural inheritance for contemporary artists working in the 21st century, especially those for whom the repurposing and transactions between language and object is key.
Last year, the Walker Art Center’s Moving Image department invited two artists to consider Broodthaers’ conceptual legacy: Shahryar Nashat (b. 1975) and Uri Aran (b. 1977). Like Broodthaers, both work across mediums of installation, sculpture, photography, and moving image. Their work is invested in exploring modes of translation through found and repurposed objects, images and sound. But while Nashat’s work has examined how the human body interacts with and is represented through material culture—using stand-in figures, prosthetic technologies, and appropriated objects to expose the dependencies of the contemporary body—Aran’s work explores the discord and substitutions that occur between meaning and memory. The latter’s meticulous and intimate assemblages—which often include repurposed objects, appropriated narratives, and customized display structures—lay bare the idiosyncratic systems of personal and cultural knowledge.
Nashat and Aran were commissioned to make moving image works that would premiere at the Walker Cinema before streaming online for free over one month, starting February 18, 2016. Part of the ongoing series of Walker Moving Image Commissions—launched last year with artists Moyra Davey and James Richards considering the inspirations of British filmmaker Derek Jarman—Nashat and Aran have produced works that operate less out of an explicit legacy of Broodthaers and more within the spirit of his cultural influence on today’s aesthetics.
Nashat’s Present Sore (2016, video, 9 minutes) is a composite portrait of the 21st-century body—a synthetic form whose sensuality is both constituted and mediated by inorganic substances: clothes, prosthetic technologies, pharmaceuticals, and money. Recalling Broodthaers’s notion of “figure” as something that might expose the contingencies between symbol and object, Nashat’s video combines rapid editing techniques, a discordant soundtrack composed of myriad digitized sources, and a video presented in 9:16 format—the now ubiquitous portrait format for all handheld devices.
Meanwhile, Uri Aran’s new work, Two Things About Suffering (2016, video, 16 minutes), draws from the artists’ previous productions. Working with his own recent performance documentation as if it were found footage, Aran manipulates his large cache of video material to create a new technical vocabulary replete with recursive loops, an operatic score, and improvised “outtakes.” Teetering between melancholia and slapstick comedy, Aran’s cyclical video echoes Broodthaers’ short films, particularly the black and white 1969 film La Pluie (Projet Pour Un Texte), where Broodthaers attempts to write with an ink pen in the rain. Two Things About Suffering is an absurdist and occasionally nihilistic attempt to perform the moment before language.
The first in a series of Moving Image Commissions premiered in the Walker during Cinema and released June 1 for a limited run online, James Richards new 8-minute film, Radio at Night (2015) responds to the legacy of late British filmmaker Derek Jarman. Here, Bentson Scholar Isla Leaver-Yap discusses the mechanical mediations of sensuality and flow. A painter, writer, queer political activist, and […]
The first in a series of Moving Image Commissions premiered in the Walker during Cinema and released June 1 for a limited run online, James Richards new 8-minute film, Radio at Night (2015) responds to the legacy of late British filmmaker Derek Jarman. Here, Bentson Scholar Isla Leaver-Yap discusses the mechanical mediations of sensuality and flow.
A painter, writer, queer political activist, and filmmaker, Derek Jarman (1942–1994) took a synthetic approach to his art. His dexterous approach to composition, as well as his ability to blend the painterly aspects of celluloid film with the nascent technologies of video, reveals his integrationist thinking. Jarman’s films especially are characterized by the sensual interplay of human figures and the environments they inhabit. Candidly probing representations of bodies, relationships and aesthetics, his legacy continues to have a profound effect on the creation and future possibilities of queer cinema.
Artist James Richards frequently cites Jarman as an inspiration for his own work, and Radio at Night is an explicit expression of the late filmmaker’s influence. Echoing Jarman’s collage techniques and inverted color palettes, as well as revealing Richards’ own embrace of sound as a complex force that might govern the behavior of an image, the contemporary artists’ new 8-minute video is a spectral meditation on the human figure as a space of sensual integration.
Radio at Night is a work suffused with openings, holes and voids: eyes, mouths, viewfinders, geysers (as well as violent openings: surgical incisions and bullet holes). Whether literal or metaphorical, bodily apertures are both the subject of the work and the tools for its reception. Here, sound and image relentlessly commune to remind the viewer of their materiality. These are substances that are, in essence, physical; they flow into our aural and retinal cavities prior to recognition, sense and interpretation.
“I wanted to create a sense of the material as something channeled,” says Richards of Radio at Night, “rather than something taken.” Channeling—perhaps more usefully reinscribed as “flow”—is central to the artists’ work, and especially to Radio at Night. “Flow” not only articulates the artist’s continuous circulation of sound and image throughout this work and others (Richards’ often recycles and adapts material from one video to the next, drawing from his growing stockpile), but also describes the absorption, integration and transmission of material. The diversity of Richards sources—home movies, pornography, instructional videos, spoken word records, and the artists’ own burgeoning collection of self-shot footage—are unmoored from their original contexts and synthesized into a different logic. And yet the appropriated material always retains a single element or trace residue for which it was first gleaned by the artist: a specific noise, gesture, color or mood.
The American artist Steve Reinke, a previous collaborator of Richards’, describes the latter artist’s approach to source material as one of “narrative and affect suspension.” Rerouted from their initial context, materials transition from one state to another, repurposed not into another narrative but an environment in which the original footage is a complicit collaborator. So, too, one is subjected to Radio at Night as one is subjected to an environment. In an environment, sound is resonant, while vision is evident. In the video, the former consistently dominates the latter; switches in tone precipitate cuts or inversions of video action, and tonal pauses remove the presence of the image altogether.
Philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy has described the relationship between sound and the body as a sonorous event: “a time that opens up, that is hollowed out, that is enlarged or ramified, that envelops or separates, that becomes or is turned into a loop, that stretches or contracts.” Nancy’s evocative and metaphorically anal description operates under the premise that one submits to a sonorous event. In other words, one can close one’s eyes, but not one’s ears. The sonorous event is an environment rather than a score and, in this way, it finds striking similarity to the intentions of ambient music, a genre that seeks to favor atmosphere over structure. For Radio at Night, this parallel is significant. Not only does its soundtrack give a nod to the ambient output of experimental music group and regular Jarman collaborators, Coil, but it also conceptually echoes Coil’s central inquiry, which was emblazoned on the sleeve of their 1984 debut album, How to Destroy Angels: “How sound can affect the physical and mental state of the serious listener.” Whether by accident or design, Coil emphasize sound’s power to affect materiality first, and perception second.
In Richards’ work, sound subjects the listener to specific acoustic architectures in order to influence the reading of onscreen images, especially those that indicate the human figure. In Radio at Night, as well as its precursor Raking Light (2014), the soundtrack includes familiar sounds of digital technologies that occur in close proximity to the body—namely, the sounds of “personal devices”: a small camera and its microphone scraping along the surface of a table, the noise of a hard drive “thinking,” a hard wind rushing into an unshielded microphone, for example. These sounds are frequently paired with the typically depersonalized imagery of instructional videos, documentary films, and medical photographs. Nearness and anonymity are thus bridged and paired. So too the title of the work infers such a hierarchy. In a reference to a text by Richards’ late friend and artist Ian White (1971–2013), the phrase “radio at night” captures the idea of an atmosphere authored by sound that is mediated and brought into being by technology. Radio is, after all, a transmission that is public in broadcast, and yet private in reception.
In contrast to his earlier output, which is largely characterized by sonic dissonance and the unhinged emotional turbulence that such atonality brings, Richards’ audio for Radio at Night operates out of a definitive engagement with musical harmony. The soundtrack is entirely composed in the key of C Minor, blending fragments of found sound with passages sung by a female vocal ensemble. (The artist commissioned the ensemble to perform excerpts from ‘The enemies of She Who call her various names’ a 1972 poem by American feminist, lesbian activist, and poet Judy Grahn. Excerpts of Grahn’s poems and voice have previously appeared in Richards’ Misty Suite, 2009 and Not Blacking Out, Just Turning The Lights Off (2001–2012). This C-minor key sustains a register of sonic coherence from beginning to end—from the opening scene, where a low thrumming sound of two interchangeable notes accompanies a constrained shot of trees inside a viewfinder, through to the complex and hypnotic arrangements of choppy samples that stutter together in the central section of the video. Radio at Night’s unified quality is not entirely hermetic, however. Like the open holes, cavities, and apertures it depicts on screen, the video itself is a porous structure: disparate materials become interchangeable within a rhythmic whole, sounds and images flow in and out as if elements of a bridge or chorus.
A feeling of seamlessness permeates Radio at Night. Disparate material is regulated and conditioned into coherence. Simple interventions—namely, Richards’ use of the imposition of the loop and the frame—skew a source’s original sense of scale or duration, and integrates a controlled mechanical process into physical mannerisms. (This is not to say that human gesture is purely rendered as a mechanized artifact, but rather the situation is reciprocal: the loop gives a human image to the mechanism.) “The video frame acts less like a window and more like a surface in which activities happen and are divided,” says Richards. “These are images pumped out as if from a small bandwidth, personal but distant.”
In his 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin described cinema as a function to “train human beings in the apperceptions and reactions needed to deal with a vast apparatus whose role in their lives is expanding almost daily.” Radio at Night emerges from and also depicts a contemporary moment in which the human figure is seamlessly blended with its technological environment. Here, apperception is not simply an instructive coping mechanism, but an aesthetically elevated form of visceral engagement that draws out emotional correspondences between unlikely entities: a “thinking” hard-drive that looks back at us, the melancholia of a crowd disappearing into the darkness. It is this space and sound between the physical moment and a perceptual one that Radio at Night attempts to render.
The first in a series of Moving Image Commissions premiered in the Walker Cinema and released online June 1 for a limited run, Moyra Davey’s new 28-minute film, Notes on Blue (2015) is a response to the late British filmmaker Derek Jarman. Here, Bentson Scholar Isla Leaver-Yap discusses the artist’s exploration of mortality, color, and identity. Moyra Davey’s Notes on […]
The first in a series of Moving Image Commissions premiered in the Walker Cinema and released online June 1 for a limited run, Moyra Davey’s new 28-minute film, Notes on Blue (2015) is a response to the late British filmmaker Derek Jarman. Here, Bentson Scholar Isla Leaver-Yap discusses the artist’s exploration of mortality, color, and identity.
Moyra Davey’s Notes on Blue begins with a frank explanation of how it came to be: “I began with a first note to myself,” says Davey as she walks back and forth in front of the camera. “I made a list. But I’ll start in the middle with Blue Ruin, a one-minute movie shot on outdated film stock about a woman at the end of the day, threading her bra out from under her t-shirt, while pouring shots of gin from the freezer.”
Braiding together disparate observations and personal accounts, Notes on Blue is an episodic meditation on blindness, color, and the life and work of British filmmaker Derek Jarman (1942–1994). From the opening scene of her 28-minute video and throughout the work, Davey continually folds time back on itself. In her prefatory monologue the artist establishes a new orientation; she states that the beginning is not actually the beginning at all, but the middle. The middle to which she refers is, meanwhile, an anachronistic fragment: Blue Ruin, a film storyboarded ten years ago, a year before the artist went blind in one eye.
Notes on Blue is the result of Davey’s enquiry and responses to the work and legacy of Jarman the filmmaker, gardener, political activist and, perhaps most significantly for Davey, Jarman the writer. At the invitation of the Walker Art Center last year, Davey began her commission by poring over the late filmmakers notes and journals. Jarman was a prolific writer, whose voluminous autobiographical books and personal sketchbooks occasionally spilled over into autofiction. His style of writing — intimate and uninhibited — is an intriguing complement to Davey’s own confessional and lyrical writing that often takes the form of short essays and personal notes, published in parallel with her exhibitions of photographic work or else employed as spoken-word monologues to her essay films, including Fifty Minutes (2006), Les Goddesses (2011), and, now, Notes on Blue. Davey amassed her personal reflections on Jarman, rewriting them into her own pre-existing texts, spawning new ones, and incorporating these alongside her own Super-8 and digital video footage both recent and old.
In Notes on Blue, Jarman’s experience with blindness as a consequence of AIDS is paralleled with Davey’s own blindness as a consequence of Multiple Sclerosis. Both draw on illness as a site of production, a catalyst for thought as much as a subject. Jarman’s blindness was the subject of his final film Blue (1994), a single continuous shot of Yves Klein’s International Blue (the color Jarman said he could see when he went blind), accompanied by a 79-minute autobiographical monologue. It is this Blue to which Davey’s work refers, occasionally paraphrases, and intersperses with her own typically wry reflections on illness: “My first reaction was relief I didn’t have a brain tumor and, like many patients, I enjoyed being the actor at the center of my own drama,” says Davey on finding the cause of her blindness. “Thus began a different way of life.” (Unsentimental and direct, both Davey’s responses and her invocation of Jarman’s are reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s own reflections in her book On Being Ill. As the latter wrote: “Incomprehensibility has an enormous power over us in illness, more legitimately perhaps than the upright will allow. In health meaning has encroached upon sound.”)
Together with an associative and personalized array of quotations, diary entries, and anecdotes, the reflective thrust of Notes on Blue also takes detours into the personal lives of American poet Anne Sexton, Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and British musician PJ Harvey. Each of these figures are amalgamated into Davey’s personal constellation of equivalences, and their words are suspended epigraphically within her own narrative — a spoken monologue that is itself mediated through a prerecorded audio prompt that plays over headphones worn by the artist as a form of aide memoire.
The structuring principle of Notes on Blue — the form of the personal note — is embedded both in the work’s title and its opening monologue. As something that always seeks to encapsulate an event or impression, the primary function of the personal note is to preserve and transport intimate observations about the present into the future; and, as the future becomes the present, the personal note becomes an archive. Maintaining some details at the cost of obscuring others, the personal note can be a compulsive form. Responding sympathetically to Roland Barthes’s apparent addiction to note-taking (a habit that regularly interrupted his conversations and walks with friends), Davey wrote in her 2007 essay “Notes on Photography and Accident,”
Reading and thinking about note-taking gives me a form of security, a thrill even. […] I’m drawn to fragmentary forms, to lists, diaries, notebooks and letters. Even just reading the word ‘diary’ elicits a frisson, a touch of promise. It’s the concreteness of these forms, the clarity of their address, that appeals and brings to mind Virginia Woolf’s dictum about writing, that “to know whom to write for is to know how to write.”
As Davey explains by way of Woolf, the inner logic of the personal note collapses reader and writer together. It excuses the need for linear narrative and permits content to jump between times and places. Subject matter is meanwhile arbitrarily bound together by physical proximity on the page as much as in the mind of its author. It is in this vein that Notes on Blue traverses its episodic sketches, purposefully constituting its own interior sense of time.
Davey’s preoccupation with noting and recording the quality of time and its effects has recurred throughout her expansive practice. Her art directly engages with the interplay between personal time and the narratives it produces, whether through her analogue photographs of fridge-freezers, clocks, or dust (all portraits of time accrued or suspended); videos that re-examine her formative family portraits and illustratively places them alongside the diarized lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and her family and lovers; or her short and informal collection of published texts that intersperse quotes from critics, poets and artists with her own reminiscences and responses. Integral to Davey’s inquiry, too, is the artist’s inhabitation of domestic time and space — a site that might offer respite from the industrialized clock of work time, as well as the potential to withdraw from social interactions that would inhibit personal reflection and interiority.
In many of Davey’s previous photographs and videos, her New York apartment has served as the private backdrop, where the residue of home living is observed and captured: lint is glimpsed gathering under furniture, incongruous patches of floor tiling are flattened out photographically in two dimensions, groaning bookshelves and stacks of old records provide their own indexical drama. But in Notes on Blue the space of the artists’ home is not simply a feature to be observed, but an architecture that is subjected to a domestic choreography. As Davey recites her monologue, she paces the corridors, moving back and forth between doors that swing open and closed as if she and the architecture are part of the same metronome, her movement demonstrating depth and space for the benefit of the screen. Rooms become a stage for the recitations of her personal notes, and Davey’s wandering is akin to didactic memory game of Roman Rooms. As the artist’s voice attentively heeds her audio prompts, so too her movement through the apartment finds its own rhythm and familiar, measured gravity. The home gradually takes on its own character, becoming an unlikely witness and container to histories that would otherwise remain separate.
Windows, too, are a key feature in Notes on Blue. They initially appear as occlusions to vision; their brightness casts the room in shadow, and the artist stands before the camera in murky silhouette. The intensity of the interior is amplified, and the brilliance of the outside is rendered a blank — an extremity of vision, or perhaps a lack. Such qualities recall the attitudes of Austrian architect Adolf Loos, who once remarked that a cultivated man does not look out of the window, “his window is ground glass; it is there only to let the light in, not to let the gaze pass through.” And yet, as Notes on Blue begins to unfold to include dream-like sequences that appear like tarot cards evenly distributed through the work — an abandoned bird’s nest, a dazzling moon, a dog vanished through jump-cut, a young woman wearing angel wings in a New Jersey train station, and an auspicious shot of construction laborers suspended between Davey’s apartment block and her neighbor’s — the apartment windows emerge as dilating apertures opening out onto the world, climaxing with a wide open shot of the city at dawn.
Notes on Blue is a work that is always attempting to gather an atomizing identity. Just as she compares Jarman to “Pasolini, by way of Fellini,” so too Davey’s own subjectivity is similarly distributed among her sources and influences. Her irrepressible stream of personal notes and lyrical associations occasionally tip the narrative over into the fantastic, where the spoken monologue and the images to which it is tied abrade each other in perpetual and productive tension. Towards the end of the film, Davey acknowledges that the shift between her use of the analogue technologies she once knew but is quickly forgetting and the digital ones she is struggling to learn has produced a “strange suspension” in her life. Notes on Blue shrewdly articulates this particular feeling of suspension by straddling different technologies, eras, mediums and ideas. Its common thread, then, is not only the figure of the artist — the conduit and protagonist who reorders events and materials into a personal pattern of correspondences — but the sustained register of intimacy, whose language composes a delicate treatise on the daily experience of aesthetics and mortality.
In high-contrast black and white, the opening scene of this film fades up on a large and airy room. A small man stands in the middle distance, dramatically spot-lit and faces a large sculpture that dwarfs him. A second man enters from a doorway at the end of the gallery, back-lit in silhouette, and whose […]
In high-contrast black and white, the opening scene of this film fades up on a large and airy room. A small man stands in the middle distance, dramatically spot-lit and faces a large sculpture that dwarfs him. A second man enters from a doorway at the end of the gallery, back-lit in silhouette, and whose confident voiceover booms out on the soundtrack as the two men turn to face each other on camera.
Voiceover: In the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a collection of paintings and objects by a man whose unique view of life has greatly influenced modern art.
[Cuts to diegetic sound]
Man: So here you are, Marcel, looking at your big glass.
Marcel: Yes. The more I look at it, the more I like it.
This highly staged opening scene is from the January 15, 1956 episode of NBC’s series Conversations with Elderly Wise Men, where the director of the Guggenheim, James Johnson Sweeney, interviews artist Marcel Duchamp.
Beginning with Duchamp’s The Large Glass (1915–23), the pair walks around the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s galleries, stopping in front of recent acquisition of the artist’s sculptures and paintings. They talk amiably about the parallel chronologies of Duchamp’s life and work, as well as his influences—Cubism, Impressionism, and his love of playing chess.
The dramatic Hitchcock-esque lighting and the pair’s stilted conversation (not to mention the program title I initially read as “Conversations with Elderly White Men” and which wouldn’t be a mischaracterization of the series as a whole) dates this interview as something of a conversational fossil in comparison with the online informality to which we have become accustomed in HuffPost Live interviews and Reddit AMAs. But even so, the Duchamp/Sweeney interview reveals as much about the function of the public presentation and broadcast of the “artist in conversation,” as it does Duchamp’s own recollections of his work.
What artists say in public—about their life, influences and their own readings of their work—has always been of great significance in museum and scholarly interpretation, even when what is said is completely contrary. (During a different interview with art critic Calvin Tompkins, for example, Duchamp suddenly reflected on the format of what they were doing together: “I don’t believe in talking. Here we have been talking for hours! But don’t believe what I say.”)
And yet the coaxing out of thoughts, and the broadcast of such reflection to a public, remains a central part of how museums bridge the interaction between artists and the audiences. The question of what it might mean to be a spokesperson for one’s own art is still an urgent one. And although this Duchamp/Sweeney interview is a rarity within the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection (a collection that is almost exclusively dedicated to the collection and preservation of artists’ moving image art works, not descriptions of them as this interview appears to be), the artist-in-conversation format nonetheless remains a central part of the Walker’s public programs, and is a cornerstone of the Walker Dialogues program that broadcasts its conversations within the Walker Channel.
Some artists are experts at the public talk format. Filmmaker Stan Brakhage, for example, was a master of monologging and especially of the elongated personal andecdote, where his articulate projection of his artistic vision through his own descriptions seemed as if it were a parallel broadcast and commentary on and with his work. But the pressure to “explain” or for the artist to function as an articulate ambassador to one’s art work is no easy task. For some, it is incompatible with making the work; for others, it simply becomes the work. German artist Martin Kippenberger’s various video interviews, for example, often appear to be standalone performance in themselves, which deny the format’s desire to talk about work by replacing it with another art work or a series of “public selves.”
In contrast to Brakhage and Kippenberger’s incorporation of the in-conversation as an extension of artistic narrative, Duchamp was traditionally professional; on the one hand there was the work, and on the other there was him talking about the work. In short, they were separate entities with distinct functions. That Duchamp gave so many public interviews was testament to his own capacity to speak about his work with great ease and accessibility to general audiences. His love of the formal qualities of the work and the pleasure of making something could be easily understood.
Although first broadcast by NBC in 1956, this Duchamp interview was recorded in 1955. The timing is significant: the recording took place in the same year in which the artist was officially recognized as a US citizen. Duchamp’s increasingly widespread recognition as a highly influential artist merged that year with the public identification of Duchamp as an American. And although it’s hard to tell from the polished sheen of this formal interview, there was also a particular intimacy between interviewer and interviewee; Sweeney (along with then-MoMA advisory director Alfred H Barr and art collector James Thrall Soby) attended as a witness to Duchamp’s naturalization ceremony. This film thus stands as a document of transition of an individual within a widening audience: it locates a moment of shifting national identity of an artist, and the acquisition of his work into a major American public collection. These things can be read implicitly as the “in conversation” has shifted from broadcast item to historical artifact.
Public in-conversations that occur with an audience present, as well as those simply recorded for an at-home audience, are deep resource documents for public and professional scholars and, like Duchamp on NBC, such materials can be read implicitly as well as explicitly, critically as well as illustrative. These conversations are, after all, crucial moments of public interface, which provide oral histories to the artworks we encounter, and sometimes even challenge the hierarchies between supporting interview and artwork. I’m reminded here of pianist Jason Moran’s 2005 sampling of an Adrian Piper interview, where Piper discusses the artists communication with their audience, as she explains, “If artists intentions and ideas were more accessible to the general public, I think it might break down the misunderstandings between the art world and artists and the general public.” It was not without a certain shrewd self-reflexivity that former Walker curator Bartholomew Ryan inserted Moran’s recording as an introductory soundtrack to his in-conversation talk between artists Liam Gillick and Hito Steyerl, the opening of which is captured in the clip below.
In its most basic form, the format of the artist in conversation traditionally looks a bit like that of a talk show. It comprises an interviewer (a professional interlocutor, or expert of some kind) and a subject (the artist). The third element—the public—doesn’t need to be present at the time of the conversation necessarily, but present or not, it is still the primary reason the conversation takes place at all. It is this public that provides the unspoken pressure for the conversation to “go somewhere”—to be engaging, surprising, argumentative or revealing.
The interviewer and the interviewee must become co-producers of their own social scenario. Both must piece together narratives, stitch together anecdotal evidence, partial memories, and occasionally confessional material that, when combined, allow the audience to slip between the feeling of eavesdropping on a one-on-one conversation while watching two people engage in something akin to a performance. It is this rather vertigiousness movement between intimacy and information, between dialogue and monologue, that gives the in-conversation its allure, not to mention the entertainment produced by accident and spontaneity.
But as the formal manners of Duchamp’s NBC interview have waned, the personalization of time and broadcasting has changed, and audiences have become increasingly sophisticated and responsive listeners. Artists, meanwhile, have increasingly taken control of their own mediation through the non-scarcity resources of online self-publishing. Questions, too, have been raised over the authenticity or productiveness of fatigue-based public conversations, like the Serpentine’s annual Marathon series (where artists, writers, scientists, film-makers, choreographers, theorists and musicians come together for a hectic schedule of non-stop talks and events).
The desire to cut out the middle-man interviewer has had great success in Reddit AMAs, though notably outside of the sphere of visual art discussion. But the logical extension of cutting out the middle-man is to undo the format completely—to begin a conversation not with the interviewer or even the artist, but the artwork. In many ways, that’s the dialogue that the artist seeks to establish with their work in the first place.
Friends, colleagues, and champions of each other’s respective careers, artist Stan Brakhage and curator Sally Dixon had a life-long relationship. Their history of swapping letters and sharing neighborhoods, as well as the gifting of works and other ephemera, clearly demonstrated that there was many routes through which Crystal Clips — the Walker’s as-yet unidentified 16mm film believed to […]
Friends, colleagues, and champions of each other’s respective careers, artist Stan Brakhage and curator Sally Dixon had a life-long relationship. Their history of swapping letters and sharing neighborhoods, as well as the gifting of works and other ephemera, clearly demonstrated that there was many routes through which Crystal Clips — the Walker’s as-yet unidentified 16mm film believed to be a Brakhage “work in progress” — could have passed between Brakhage and Dixon’s possessions.
As I mentioned before, Crystal Clips had been found among Dixon’s gift to the Walker of Brakhage 16mm and 8mm film cans. The original film can bore a typed-up sticky label with the title, a largely anonymous piece of information without any handwritten marks, although the wear and discoloration on the tape matched that of the neighboring Brakhage containers. The 16mm film, meanwhile, had been transferred to an archive-safe can and stored in the Walker’s archive freezer so as to minimize the inevitable degradation to which all objects (celluloid or otherwise) are subject.
After Crystal Clips was pulled from the archive freezer and spent three days thawing out, I went down to the Film/Video archive, a temperature-controlled room in the Walker’s basement, to meet Caylin Smith, the Bentson archivist. While Caylin unpacked the film, she pointed out a handwritten note she’d found accompanying the film. The paper was clearly the same type Sally Dixon often used in her own notes, and the writing — a list of films, which presumably was meant to correspond to the contents of the reel — likewise matched Dixon’s hand. Also included was a yellow Post-It written in the hand of Walker Archivist Jill Vuchetich, which most likely recorded a comment made by Sally Dixon at the time of the gift’s acquisition.
Caylin booked a screening slot with Joe Beres, the Walker’s Film/Video projectionist, so we could see the film in the cinema. We’d have to wait for a quiet gap between the Walker’s regular print checks (when projectionists inspect the quality of the film or video material as it comes in from a distributor and prepare it for the public screening program) and the regular public screening schedule.
Caylin suggested we look at the Crystal Clips reel by hand. She carefully unspooled the film on a light-box. It clocked in at approximately 50 feet long, so it was clearly a short film, likely no longer than three minutes. Entirely black and white, and without a sound-strip to signify accompanying audio of any kind, Crystal Clips resembled the kind of compilation reel that keen cinema enthusiasts could order from public distributors such as Blackhawk Films. The contents of the films varied slightly from the accompanying blue note, and I recorded it thus from its interspersed title cards:
Dr E.J. Marey, Studied in Animal Motion, c. 1887, France
Charles Urban, The Electrolysis of Metals, 1910, Great Britain
Georges Melies, The Dreyfus Case (Clearing the court-toom), c. 1900, France
Victor Turin, Turksib, 1929, USSR
Clearly a personalized edit of a longer reel, I wondered whether it had in fact been a teaching aid of some kind, rather than artistic material put aside for a “work in progress.” This educational use seemed possible, given that Brakhage’s first engagement with Dixon was via her invitation to lecture in Pittsburgh.
I took a few reference photographs on my cell phone before the film was spooled up to pass on to the cinema and returned to the Walker’s main archive room to look through Dixon’s correspondence folders and consult publications of Brakhage’s writings and lectures held in the Walker’s library next door.
As is generally known, not to mention heavily evidenced through their correspondence, Brakhage and Dixon both regularly taught the history of cinema. Dixon taught during her role as Carnegie’s film curator, while Brakhage lectured at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and later as the distinguished professor of film studies at CU Boulder, retiring from his post only a few months before his death in 2003. (Brakhage also taught a master class when he was at Film in the Cities, while Dixon was director.)
Whether from Dixon’s curatorial position or Brakhage’s artistic one, they both contextualized their own work in the field of artists’ film within a highly individual canon: they would discuss their work and the work of Kenneth Anger, James Broughton, and Jonas Mekas, as part of a historical trajectory of artists’ film that began with the Lumière Brothers, Hans Richter, and Georges Méliès. But the significance Brakhage and Dixon both attached to teaching artists’ film came not only of a desire to share their work in context, but also to fill what they saw as a vacuum of understanding around the arts, and how the artists’ film was a key part of that under-served discussion. As Brakhage lamented in a conversation with Mekas much later in 2000,
All the arts, what we traditionally call the arts, have suffered from this breakdown of terminology, this lack of serious critique. Here is a discipline far older than any other we know of human beings, but when it’s taught in public schools, in fact in colleges, it’s taught as a playground for finger painting and for expressing yourself.
Brakhage was a skilled historian and teacher. His courses were wide ranging, and included Painting and Film, Biographical Film, Avant-Garde Cinema, Documentary Film, and Transcendental Film. He lectured extensively on early cinema, with idiosyncratic style and underscored by romantic lyricism and unabashed bias. (His presentation on D.W. Griffith, for example, begins: “They named him David: and he was to grow up to become a giant and slay himself.”) In Dixon’s personal papers, I found a copy of writer and poet Guy Davenport’s introduction to a public Brakhage lecture which beautifully describes the discursive nature of the latter’s lecturing style:
He is going to climb this mountain by wrapping it with his footprints; he will come down again when he is halfway up, climb another mountain by way of digression, and then go back up the first one. He shows us that to be interested in anything we must be interested in everything. This kind of mind is not an American tradition. We are raised to respect conviction rather than analysis, persuasion rather than interpretation. Brakhage uses up the average man’s portion of speculative thought every day.
Analysis and interpretation was arguably key to both Brakhage’s and Dixon’s teaching styles, as they sifted through, ordered, and presented what was then a nascent history of artists’ moving image and established a context for their own practices.
In the library, I read a first edition of The Brakhage Lectures (since reissued as a free pdf by Ubu Editions). Brakhage delivered these lectures at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the Fall/Winter semester of 1970–1971. As Ian Robertson’s afterword to the publication records, Brakhage screened 43 films, and it is this list of film works that were a key source in cross-referencing the films listed in the Crystal Clips reel and its accompanying note.
Dixon, meanwhile, included some of the titles of Crystal Clips at the workshops she presented at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, where she was an instructor. In “Personal Film,” a 1976 course that she evocatively described as “a vision workshop,” Dixon walked her students through her own interpretation of artists’ film, where the surrealist shorts of Salvador Dalí and Francis Picabia were followed by screenings of work by her contemporaries: Bruce Connor, Marie Menken, Jonas Mekas and, of course, Brakhage. Dixon always sought to succinctly define the operational and practical characteristics of artists’ intentions: the Lumière Brothers “specialised in actualities, views”; Edison “specialized in theatrical and staged scenes”; while Méliès was concerned with “fantasy, fiction, illusion.”
But all three, Dixon explained to her students, depicted how,
the materialist mind of the nineteenth century had their [sic] eyes open onto the world. Any interesting visual phenomenon, commonplace or exotic, was material for the early short films. They were “gathering in” a world newly opened by improved transporation, intentions and communications. They were seeing both “out” and “in.”
Dixon’s notion of “gathering in” images and knowledge via travel and communication seems to me an apt description of Brakhage’s and Dixon’s own roles as primary disseminators of a new history of artists’ moving image work. And within this scenario, Crystal Clips had significant practical uses to both the artist and the curator. Both Brakhage and Dixon referenced these particular works frequently in their lectures and personal notes.
The assigning of provenance to work is fraught with obstacles both practical and legal. While it’s not necessarily my place or responsibility to verify provenance, I can make some reasonable estimations based on the following: Dixon believed Crystal Clips to be from Brakhage when she gifted it on to the Walker; the discoloration of the can and the reel was similar to the degradation of her other Brakhage works; and Brakhage frequently donated works, books, and other ephemera that he though would be useful to her. The material on Crystal Clips itself, meanwhile, looked to be an extracted copy of a larger and more general reel that presented the history of early film. While examining the back catalogue of the Huntley Archives, another film distributor of early cinema, I found a reel with a similar composition of films. Crucially, the intertitles from Crystal Clips matched the typography of the Huntley reel, the latter of which was in general circulation for educational and reference purposes.
Emily Davis, a former Walker researcher who is now Senior Research Associate for the Time-Based Media Collection at the Carnegie Museum of Art, was in touch with Dixon following the acquisition of Dixon’s gift and archive, of which Crystal Clips was a part. Keen to get her opinion, I sent Davis some of the snapshots I’d taken of the filmstrip, and she generously fed into my research. Speculating that the film was a reversal print, she shrewdly noticed that the filmstrip showed evidence of a “printed-in” splice:
In other words, evidence that the source material has a splice. If that’s true, this would lead me to think that this is a contact print of a “working print.” Stan could have complied the “working print” or he could have simply printed this copy for Sally, another aspect to think about.
Once Joe the projectionist had found us a cinema slot, the Walker Film/Video department — Caylin, Sheryl Mousley, Dean Otto and Kate Rogers — assembled in the cinema to view Crystal Clips. Joe pointed out the traces of optical printing, while Dean noted how “dupey” the print looked — possible evidence of a small-scale reprinting, rather than something more industrial. In the cinema, it was clear that Crystal Clips was not a Stan Brakhage “work in progress” but most likely a custom-printed educational reel, shared between two friends who were also teachers.
Despite the fact that the image is now heavily deteriorated, Crystal Clips races through the invention of cinema as a new visual culture in three compelling minutes. It specifically foregrounds the intersection dramatic narrative and technology — from the breakthroughs of E.J. Marey’s sequenced photographs of animal locomotion, to the construction landscapes of the Turkestan–Siberia Railway captured in Viktor Turin’s Turksib.
As a film, Crystal Clips provides an illustrative role. Its historical contents rely on a guide, on supporting notes delivered by another voice that might unpack and describe the dense excerpts of cinematic innovation.
But as an artifact within the Bentson Collection, Crystal Clips reveals something else. The work and expertise that goes into something as simple as following up a small note like “may have been compiled by Stan Brakhage / work in progress” not only shows the collaborative endeavor of archival research, but also exposes the informal networks through which artists’ moving image circulates both then and now: through the casual passing of hands, out of a common syllabus or a mutual interest, and a desire to share and exhibit an experience beyond one’s own intimate circle of enthusiasts and specialists.
The films included on the Crystal Clips reel were critical tools that Brakhage and Dixon deployed in order to carve out the basis for what we now consider to be the development of artists’ moving image in the western world. Despite the fact that both had initially shown relentless boldness to compare their work and the work of the contemporaries with the great technologists of early cinema, their narrative is nonetheless sustained, amended, and expanded today. And, regardless of provenance or authenticity, the circulation of artists’ moving image has always relied on acts of generosity. As Brakhage himself noted:
I like to share films with people. I think I’ve behaved in the same way that a person would if they saw some precious thing drifting out to sea. You try to rescue it.