Blogs Crosscuts Ruth Hodgins

Ruth Hodgins is the Bentson Archivist and Programmer working at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. She oversees the care, use, and scholarship of the historic Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection. Prior to the Walker, Ruth was the Distribution Manager at the Video Data Bank at the Art Institute of Chicago between 2013 - 2016. As a programmer and writer, Ruth has contributed to a range of public programs including Loop Gallery in Seoul, The Glasgow School of Art, University of Illinois Chicago, Oberhausen Film Festival, Headroom at Iowa University, The Daily Serving, Roman Susan Gallery, Chicago, and Dinca Vision Quest Film Festival, Chicago.

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Gene Youngblood, from Expanded Cinema, 1970

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

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

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

thumbnail_Reflectors at Mono

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Nathaniel Dorsky, from Devotional Cinema, 2003

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2017-02-22 at 11.10.36 AM

Photo courtesy Cellular Cinema

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

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

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

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

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

 

Photo courtesy of Cellular Cinema

Photo courtesy Cellular Cinema

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Courtesy of Cellular Cinema

Photo courtesy Cellular Cinema

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

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

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

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

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

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

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