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

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

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

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

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

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

–Gene Youngblood, from Expanded Cinema, 1970

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

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

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

thumbnail_Reflectors at Mono

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Nathaniel Dorsky, from Devotional Cinema, 2003

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

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

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

Guns, Isolation, and the Lives We Lead: Tim Sutton Discusses Dark Night

Tim Sutton’s Dark Night—screening April 14–16 in the Walker Cinema—shadows the lives of six people prior to a mass shooting in a cinema in order to open space for a critique of the culture from which mass shooting and violence is born. How does American culture encourage violence? Aiming to look beyond an overly simplistic investigation of gun culture, […]

Tim Sutton’s Dark Night 2016 Photo courtesy Cinelicious Pics

Tim Sutton’s Dark Night, 2016. Photo courtesy Cinelicious Pics

Tim Sutton’s Dark Night—screening April 14–16 in the Walker Cinemashadows the lives of six people prior to a mass shooting in a cinema in order to open space for a critique of the culture from which mass shooting and violence is born. How does American culture encourage violence? Aiming to look beyond an overly simplistic investigation of gun culture, Sutton observes the underlying effects of isolation and desensitization, and the longstanding media and entertainment bend toward violence. In a recent interview, he discussed how the film avoids politics to simply offer an observation, of  “people, the suburban landscape, and the intense power of the tools to which we all have access.”

Kelsey Bosch: What about the set of personalities portrayed in Dark Night interests you in regards to mass shooting?

Tim Sutton: The film watches people I felt made psychic sense in the landscape of a vague American suburbia. While they all add their dramatic part to the film’s story, they are archetypes of what makes up much of that environment right now—a Vet, a young immigrant, a troubled teen, skate punks, a social media addict, and an angry and confused young man who clearly should not have access to a gun. It’s a group of people connected only by their sense of disconnection to a greater community, and to a single and somewhat random event.

Bosch: One commonality between Dark Night‘s characters is the suggestion of mental instability. Is the lack of mental healthcare access a bigger problem in the United States than gun control?

Sutton: I’m not an expert on mental health issues—micro or macro—in America. I’m not an expert on gun control. The film’s essential concept is to offer a dark, observational lens on a specific corner of the culture we live in right now as an attempt to evoke in the viewer first a sense of deep dread followed by deep meditation.

Tim Sutton’s Dark Night 2016 Photo courtesy Cinelicious Pics

Tim Sutton’s Dark Night. 2016. Photo courtesy Cinelicious Pics

Bosch: Is there any danger in typecasting your actors, who largely play a version of themselves, as potential mass shooters?

Sutton: These are real people more or less playing dramatic or nightmarish versions of themselves—the shooter included. They don’t risk typecasting because they’re just people. That’s a real mother/son relationship we’re seeing. That’s a real vet making his way back from war… Their reality feeds a greater fiction which—to me, at least—creates layers and textures of complexity, rather than any cookie cutter or stereotypical results.

Bosch: Is the kind of boredom portrayed particular to the United States? What about our culture perpetuates boredom? Is boredom dangerous?

Sutton: Idle hands… No, to me the film is not about boredom. It’s about isolation, a lack of purpose or connection, and how we as individuals and as a society are filling that void.

Bosch: There isn’t mention of hunting culture in Dark Night. Why did you stray from that sect of gun culture?

Sutton: The people who go into public places and start shooting aren’t usually hunters. They are often disturbed people looking to make their mark on the world. Hunters, or sportsman as they are often called, quite often maintain legal usage and maintenance of their firearms. The film isn’t about that subset or the political platform they might support. The film is purposefully devoid of politics. It simply observes people, the suburban landscape, and the intense power of the tools to which we all have access.

Tim Sutton’s Dark Night 2016 Photo courtesy Cinelicious Pics

Tim Sutton’s Dark Night. 2016. Photo courtesy Cinelicious Pics

Bosch: Why focus on the lives of the characters (potential victims and shooter) prior to the mass shooting?

Sutton: Most media on this topic is about aftermath—about grief and shock and then investigation and finger-pointing and punditry. Dark Night is about the lives we lead.

Bosch: Suburbs were developed out of a desire for comfort and safety—a refuge from the violence and chaos of the inner city—how has the utopic suburb atrophied?

Sutton: I think there are likely a great many people in the suburbs living incredibly satisfying, engaging, creative lives on a number of levels. I hate to generalize. I do think that America is a culture—be it urban, suburban, or rural—that glorifies and promotes violence, that glorifies and promotes technology, and that glorifies and promotes generic urban and suburban design and development. And with all of this grand promotion comes an infinite amount of serious ramifications. Dark Night illustrates just one.

Hans Richter: Anti-Film and Radical Dada Abstraction

Hans Richter’s Rhythmus 23 (1923). Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection
Hans Richter’s Rhythmus 23 (1923). Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

Hans Richter’s Rhythmus 23 (1923). Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

A screening of Hans Richter’s early films, including Rhythmus 21 and Rhythmus 23, will take place in the Bentson Mediatheque at the Walker Art Center on April 6 at 7 pm. This free public event is made possible by generous support from the Bentson Foundation.

“To accept the paradox that the genuine and sincere can walk hand in hand, foot to foot, foot in mouth, and hand to foot with the spoofy, nonsensical, that is what makes the understanding of dada difficult.”   —Hans Richter

One day in early 1918, Tristan Tzara, then living at the Hotel Limmatquai in Zurich, knocked on the thin partition that divided his room from that of Hans Richter: he wanted to introduce Richter to the Swedish painter Viking Eggeling. “Eggeling showed me a drawing,” Richter recalls. It was a revelation: “I ‘understood’ at once what it was all about.” An explanation: theretofore intoxicated by the anarchic fervor of his Dadaist companions, Richter had spent more than a year producing anti-art at a prolific rate, painting and drawing in a stark, abstract style, working from spontaneous impulse and in an almost automatic fashion. He had eventually reached a conceptual dead end and, after consulting the Italian composer Ferruccio Busoni, had started describing his compositions in terms of contrapuntal music. Now Eggeling’s experiments—his “dynamics of counterpoint,” which “embraced generously and without discrimination every possible relationship between forms” (Richter)—presented him with a way forward.

Richter and Eggeling lived and work together for the next three years, at Richter’s parents’ home in Klein-Koelzig near Berlin, producing countless drawings which they arranged and rearranged endlessly, trying to find relationships, trying to create rhythm. They arrived at what they called “scrolls,” and in the process developed, as Standish D. Lawder notes, “a new artistic syntax in which the eye traveled a prescribed route from beginning to end,” ultimately leading them to film, “the logical medium to extend this dynamic potential into actual kinetic movement.” Their efforts to secure funding and technical support for making films form a convoluted story, but in 1921 Hans Richter eventually realized Rhythmus 21. This, a landmark in avant-garde filmmaking, was so radical in its abstraction that it broke with almost every precedent of cinema, presenting the spectator with only rectangles of black and white in motion. (More on this later.) From his years with the reckless denizens of the Cabaret Voltaire to a long partnership with the almost absurdly regimented Eggeling (whose all-encompassing philosophy of “linear orchestrations” even prevented him from eating eggs and milk in the same meal: they were “too analogous”), Richter had achieved a balance between spontaneity and order. In Richter’s words, it was “a kind of controlled freedom or emancipated discipline, a system within which chance could be given a comprehensible meaning.”

Hans Richter’s Preludium, section of a scroll drawing (1919)

Hans Richter’s Preludium, section of a scroll drawing (1919)

This association with Eggeling is interesting in that a search for “comprehensible meaning” is not a topic that comes up very often in discussions of Dadaism. From very early on, Richter and his fellow Dadaists, in Zurich as well as in Berlin and elsewhere, presented Dada as a movement of negation, subversion, paradox, and agitation. “Dada not only had no programme, it was against all programmes” (Richter). The nihilism of Tzara’s “Dada means nothing” is perhaps the most potent distillation of Dada’s anti-everything stance, and the more iconic examples of Dada work—Duchamp’s urinal, a moustache on the Mona Lisa—serve to underline the ironic disruptions that were intended above all as a rejection of common sense, bourgeois taste, and the prevailing attitudes in contemporary art and literary criticism.

Beyond this initial reading, however, we can (perhaps) begin to discern some kind of cohesion; a deeper investigation reveals that this acerbic spirit of negation carried political implications, at least of some kind. In Berlin, John Heartfield and George Grosz proclaimed, “Down with art! Dada is on the side of the revolutionary proletariat!” In Zurich, Hans Arp declared that his tactics “were designed to bring home to the bourgeois the unreality of his world and the emptiness of all his endeavors, even including his profitable nationalism.” For his part, Richter saw Dada’s “provocations” as “a means of arousing the bourgeoisie to rage, and through rage to a shamefaced self-awareness.” And it is worth noting, as Richter does in his attempt to portray “the climate in which Dada began,” that in 1916, Lenin and his entourage were living across the street from the Cabaret Voltaire; the Zurich Dadaists repeatedly crossed paths with Lenin in the library, and Richter recounts seeing him speak in Berne. (Richter’s wry recollection: “It seemed to me that the Swiss authorities were much more suspicious of the Dadaists, who were after all capable of perpetrating some new enormity at any moment, than any of these quiet, studious Russians.”) Whether Lenin had any direct influence on Dadaist thought is, of course, unlikely. But the episode is illustrative of the broader intellectual climate of Zurich and indeed Europe: revolutionary leftist thought was not unknown to the Dadaists, and their proclamations and polemics seem to reflect this.

However that may be, it is clear in Richter’s case that an abhorrence of blind faith in rationality, and the wars that it engendered (Richter, it is worth noting, was injured and subsequently discharged from the army during the First World War), were a primary factor in his gravitation toward Dadaist practice. He explains at length:

Pandemonium, destruction, anarchy, anti-everything—why should we hold it in check? What of the pandemonium, destruction, anarchy, anti-everything, of the World War? How could Dada have been anything but destructive, aggressive, insolent, on principle and with gusto? In return for freely exposing ourselves to ridicule every day, we surely had a right to call the bourgeois a bulging haybag and the public a stall of oxen? […] We would have nothing more to do with the sort of human or inhuman being who used reason as a juggernaut, crushing acres of corpses—as well as ourselves—beneath its wheels. We wanted to bring forward a new kind of human being, one whose contemporaries we could wish to be, free from the tyranny of rationality, of banality, of generals, fatherlands, nations, art-dealers, microbes, residence permits and the past.

This, in effect a critique of modernity, goes a long way in explaining Richter’s attraction to anti-art. Raoul Hausmann: “Anti-art withdraws from things and materials their utility, but also their concrete and civil meaning; it reverses classical values and makes them half-abstract.” Objects of no value, garbage, shoe strings, a urinal—elevated to the canvas or the gallery wall they are ironically re-contextualized, given “meaning,” or rather the illusion of meaning, in an attempt to undermine received notions of taste and importance. However fleeting the effect, anti-art attempted to circumvent the mechanisms by which bourgeois society incorporated disparate artistic elements into narratives that painted over affronts to public decency and neutered threats to political stability: Dadaist art could never be a source of national pride; it could never be appropriated as state propaganda. (In the early days of the Cabaret Voltaire, retrospectives of earlier modernist artists—Klee, de Chirico, Feininger, Marc, and others—were made possible for the reason that Richter points out: “It was the always resourceful Tzara who discovered that the belligerent nations were only too anxious to compete with each other in neutral Switzerland, even if only in the field of culture […] From Italy, Germany and France Tzara received works which were normally almost unobtainable, post free, as propaganda material—and used them as propaganda for us.”)

Hans Richter’s Dada Kopf (c. 1918)

Hans Richter’s Dada Kopf (c. 1918)

What does this mean for the Dada film? After all, the most useful Dada expressions of anti-art—the ready-made, the found object, the newspaper advertisement, the impromptu happening—were also, perhaps not coincidentally, the most inexpensive to achieve and the easiest to disseminate to a broad public. The question of a Dadaist cinema is therefore immediately complicated by two concerns: the financial constraints of the technology and the limitations of the theatre space itself—in terms of visibility, accessibility, and possibilities for radical transformation or repurposing. Perhaps the most memorable illustration of the latter problem was the premier of René Clair’s Entr’acte in 1924. Screened during the intermission of Francis Picabia’s ballet Relâche, the artists (Clair; Picabia, who wrote the film’s outline; and Erik Satie, who wrote the score) intended for the film to be supplemented by the sounds of the audience coughing, talking, and mulling around in the theatre or exiting before returning for the second half. Greatly to their disappointment, the audience stayed seated and watched the film in attentive silence.

Though Clair was never a Dadaist, his Entr’acte was screened a year later in Berlin, in conjunction with Léger’s Ballet mécanique and Richter’s Rhythmus films, at what Thomas Elsaesser has called a “Dada film soirée.” The relative scarcity of such “Dada” film screenings, however, suggests that the Dadaists were simply more interested in other forms of expression (painting, poetry, music) and different modes of public exhibition. Moreover, the fact that the very category of Dada cinema is so tenuous—could film in fact be “Dadaist”?—is made all the more so by Richter’s repeated claims that during the early 1920s he had very little interest in film at all:

I didn’t really get into films until 1927, because I always considered films only an exercise, an extension, a realization of the problems which I had met in painting. In 1919, I realized the promise of movement in the scroll drawings. But I wasn’t interested in movement per se. I was interested in painting: but painting had led me to problems of dynamism, dynamism led me to kinetic problems, and kinetic problems could ultimately be realized only in film. Although I started making films in 1921, I still was mostly interested in them as solutions to the problems that I had met in painting. It took me a while to get into the films themselves.

What then, if anything, are we to make of Rhythmus 21?

In the first place, it is helpful to remember that Richter’s own definition of Dada was rather elastic, and certainly never dogmatic. The following comment is typical: “Though Léger was never a Dadaist, his Ballet mécanique is 100% Dada.” Likewise Richter’s summation of Entr’acte: “It bends over backwards to laugh over and with the paradoxical happenings, dada!” Manifestos aside, the film is Dada; never mind the context of its first screening, the scandal it may or may not have caused; forget the intentions of the filmmaker, if indeed the filmmaker was even a filmmaker: it is the film itself which is Dada. Unsurprising, then, that in his capacity as filmmaker, Richter’s Dadaisms, his negations, his playfulness, his critiques, took place entirely within the context of the medium. Unlike Picabia and Clair, he appeared uninterested in creating a spectacle around the film’s screening, in inviting the audience to disrupt or otherwise interact with the film. He did not sprinkle salt and pepper, or throw pins and thumbtacks, directly onto filmstrips (as Man Ray did), nor did he seem otherwise interested in unconventional manipulations of the technical apparatuses of the film. Richter, who was not a filmmaker, simply made films.

Hans Richter’s Rhythmus 21 (1921). Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

Hans Richter’s Rhythmus 21 (1921). Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

Fitting, then, that Germaine Dulac has described Richter’s early films as “pure cinema,” and P. Adams Sitney has highlighted their “frank use of purely cinematic materials.” Whether or not Richter had intended to achieve cinematic purity, the aesthetics of Rhythmus 21 and Rhythmus 23 are so radically abstract that they force the viewer to confront the films precisely as light on a screen, i.e. precisely as cinema. Richter was clear about his intention: “The forms that emerge are neither analogies nor symbols nor means to beauty.” The black and white rectangles which expand and contract, advance and recede, which at times challenge the viewer’s very conception of the screen’s boundaries, do not stand in for anything. Rather, they express (as Richter calls it) a feeling, engendered by the tension of forms, the continual re-contextualization of cinematic space on screen. The fact that the viewer today can still feel the rhythm of Richter’s experiments is a testament to the expressive power of a cinema stripped bare, creating tension and movement with only the most elemental particles of the cinematic apparatus: dark and light, contrasted over time.

Hans Richter’s Rhythmus 21 (1921). Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

Hans Richter’s Rhythmus 21 (1921). Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

Perhaps a more interesting speculation: it is through an understanding of the way in which film was commonly understood—as an art form and as a technology—that best explains Richter’s disinterested attitude toward the medium. Standish D. Lawder: “Like the other pre-war miracles of technology that signaled the arrival of the future—the automobile, the airplane, the wireless—the film too was regarded as a scientific wonder and, at the same time, a deeply poetic experience.” (Naturally one is skeptical to believe that Richter held the same opinion.) Lawder continues that the advent of the scientific film, pioneered by the likes of Marey, “extended the powers of vision into the normally invisible and the geographically remote,” happily contributing to the forward march of technological progress, medical innovation, and territorial conquest. What’s more, the larger film production companies in Europe and the United States soon picked up on the commercial appeal of such films; the public was fascinated by—to take one example—the success of the French microbiologist Jean Comandon, who in 1909 used microphotography to capture bacteria and microbes, presenting “images of organic forms in movement [which were] palpably real, that is, objectively verified by moving photographic images of a biological, if not spiritual, inner life.”

Keeping in mind Richter’s critique of modernity, is it such a stretch to see the link between these early experiments in microbiology and the devastating chemical weapons of the First World War? It is not for nothing that Richter singles out “microbes” (working here, one is inclined to think, as a metonym for science employed as a means to achieve destructive ends) in his litany of modern barbarities/banalities. Whatever the case may be, the fact is that in Richter’s abstract films, nothing is “objectively verified.” Neither the complexities of the microbial world nor the complexities of the combustible engine were of interest to Richter behind the lens. Quite the contrary: “My abstract films are as simple as can be. They are dances and, as such, very simple, naive ones.” Naïveté, simplicity, rhythm, feeling. Or, as Pitney observes, the films “articulate a purely cinematic temporality … which either excludes or subverts mimetic representation.” And is it not precisely the ultra-refined mimesis of scientific film, the hackneyed and moralizing mimesis of commercial narrative film, against which Richter unequivocally set himself and his anti-art? Writing of his abstract films, Richter makes the point clear:

Not to be content with picture-postcard views, not to find the usual love scene, the happy-ending with virtue rewarded, the same old arrangement of legs, arms, heads in plush drawing-rooms and royal courts—but, instead, to see movement, organised movement, wakes us up, wakes up resistance, wakes up the reflexes, and perhaps wakes up our sense of enjoyment as well.

In discarding photographic reality, Richter deprived his films of perhaps the one thing that moviemakers and moviegoers treasured most: the representation of external reality on screen. And in doing so, Richter was perhaps more subversive than even the most scandalous of Surrealist cinéastes. By reducing his films to simple geometries of black and white, to the building blocks with which representation is achieved (gradients of dark and light), Richter in effect exposed cinema as an illusion, discarded everything that might appeal to popular taste, rejected the notion of filmic “reality,” and yet still managed to create kinetic, highly dynamic cine-paintings whose titular rhythm is difficult not to detect—managed, that is, to create films whose “organised movement” would arouse a heightened awareness, activate critical faculties, and encourage resistance to the banal, the melodramatic, the insensitive.

Hans Richter’s Rhythmus 23 (1923). Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

Hans Richter’s Rhythmus 23 (1923). Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

Abstraction, which for Richter arose as “a reaction to the general disintegration of the world around us,” is in these films employed in the most austere manner. But it must be remembered that the corollary to radical abstraction was, for Richter, the possibility for artistic advancements in the wake of the dismemberment of accepted forms:

This dissolution was the ultimate in everything that Dada represented, philosophically and morally; everything must be pulled apart, not a screw left in its customary place, the screw-holes wrenched out of shape, the screw, like man himself, set on its way towards new functions which could only be known after the total negation of everything that had existed before.

Whether Richter’s abstract films constitute a total negation of the history of cinema up until 1921 is, of course, impossible to state with certainty. But it is perhaps fair to contend that they come rather close to doing so. Even more likely is the notion that, having realized abstraction in film to such a radical degree, the artist freed himself to move into the realm of photographic reality, which indeed he did in the aptly titled Filmstudie from 1916. Richter continued to make films into the early 1960s and, over the course of a long life (eventually dying in 1976), he wrote endlessly, often reflecting on his Dada years, always insisting on the contemporary relevance of what the movement meant. Whatever bearing his early abstract films had on his later cinematic endeavors, it is clear that he brought to them his polemical spirit and an astute eye for subversive forms. Dismantlement and regeneration, he understood, worked dialectically: every so often a vicious, derisive laughter was needed to clear the air for new ways of seeing and new modes of expression.  “The spirit of dada, whatever it is called,” he wrote in 1957, “is bitterly needed today. Is needed to brace us against the fatal world we presume to understand when we blow it to pieces; […] against the new mystics and the older nonmystics; against the serious concrete-blockbuilders and against the busy cloud magicians; against the world planners and the plumbers, the cheaters and the humorless in art, in film-art, in everything.” A life-long Dadaist, it seems Richter never tired of asserting the importance of art’s ability to poke fun at anybody and everybody who took the world too seriously—an assertion that today seems as necessary as ever.

Introducing INDIgenesis: Indigenous Filmmakers, Past and Present

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

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

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

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

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

Missy Whiteman

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

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


The Daughter of Dawn, directed by Norbert A. Myles

Screening: March 3, 7:30 pm

“A buried American treasure.” —NPR

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

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


Mekko, directed by Sterlin Harjo

Screening: March 4, 7:30 pm

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

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

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


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

Screenings: March 10–11, 7:30 pm

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

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

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


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

Screening: March 11, 2 pm, Free

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


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

Screening: March 16, 7:30 pm, Free

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Screening: March 24, 7:30 pm, Free

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

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

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


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

Screening: March 25, 7:30 pm, Free

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

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

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

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

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

James Richards and Leslie Thornton, Crossing, 2016

James Richards and Leslie Thornton, Crossing, 2016

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

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

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

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

Leslie Thornton, They Were Just People, 2016

Leslie Thornton, They Were Just People, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Richards and Leslie Thornton, Crossing, 2016

James Richards and Leslie Thornton, Crossing, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Request and Antisongs book 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lovesong’s Longing: An Interview with So Yong Kim

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

Yo Song Kim's Lovesong 2016 Photo courtesy Strand Releasing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yo Song Kim's Lovesong 2016 Photo courtesy Strand Releasing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zhao Liang’s Behemoth 2015 Photo courtesy Grasshopper

Zhao Liang’s Behemoth 2015. Photo courtesy Grasshopper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zhao Liang’s Behemoth 2015 Photo courtesy Grasshopper

Zhao Liang’s Behemoth 2015. Photo courtesy Grasshopper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Storylines/Bloodlines: Robert Redford and Grandson Talk Family, Film, and the Power of Narrative

Like many family patriarchs, Dylan Redford’s grandfather, now 80, is a wealth of stories. He speaks of growing up in a diverse, working-class LA neighborhood, heading off to college in Colorado, time “on the bum” as an itinerant art student in Europe in the 1950s, and facing an array of work and family triumphs and challenges. But, unlike […]

Dylan Redford with father X and grandfather Robert, c. 1994. Photo courtesy the Redford family

Dylan Redford reads a Catwoman comic with grandfather Robert and father James, c. 1994. Photo courtesy the Redford family

Like many family patriarchs, Dylan Redford’s grandfather, now 80, is a wealth of stories. He speaks of growing up in a diverse, working-class LA neighborhood, heading off to college in Colorado, time “on the bum” as an itinerant art student in Europe in the 1950s, and facing an array of work and family triumphs and challenges. But, unlike many of our grandparents’ tales, in this case, such stories told and retold among family are supplemented by far more public ones: those shared with millions on movie screens worldwide.

In an intimate conversation, Redford discusses the power of storytelling with his grandfather, actor, director, and Sundance founder Robert Redford. Narrative is a theme near and dear to the Redford family: Dylan—an artist, gallerist, and the Walker’s Bentson Research Associate—follows in the steps of his grandfather and his father, documentary filmmaker James Redford (whose film Rethinking Dyslexia takes Dylan as its subject). In advance of Redford’s November 12 Walker Dialogue with critic Amy Taubin, he and Dylan discuss celebrity, the role of painting in the film star’s life, and his announcement that he’ll soon be retiring from acting.

Dylan Redford: I’ve been thinking lately about just how important storytelling is in our family—how one of the things you really instilled is the sense that storytelling could make a difference, could change the world. Where did that come from?

Robert Redford: That all started when I was a little teeny kid. When I was growing up in a working-class neighborhood in Los Angeles, nobody had much, and so therefore it was really about how you heard—and told—stories. I was a very rambunctious kid and I was always up late, and so to calm me down, my dad would tell me a story before bed. Most of the time, he would make one up, and it had a huge impact on me, storytelling. Then there was a radio program in the 1940s on Saturday morning called, Let’s Pretend, which was all about storytelling and really had an impact on me. As I grew up and moved into the business myself, that obviously was going to be a huge component.

It became such a big part of my life that when I had a family, I felt the need to carry that tradition forward, so I would tell my kids—Shauna and Jamie and then Amy—stories. I would try to impress on them how important storytelling was, so we’d be having dinner and I’d say, “Okay, what’s your story today? What happened today that is a story for you?”

Dylan: But you didn’t always tell stories through film. There’s this whole part early in your career when you were a painter. I’m wondering how you think about those years in relation to storytelling and to the impact on your subsequent filmmaking.

Robert: I started out as an artist when I was 18 or 19 years old. I wanted to get out of this country and experience different ways of seeing the world. So I went to Europe, but I went as an artist. I was increasing my skill set and exploring storytelling through painting. Doing that, I realized how much I loved it. Later, when I became an actor, I suffered for four or five years not being sure I wanted to be in that business because I so wanted to be an artist. I just wanted to paint and sketch and tell stories by drawing.

Robert Redford in Rome, c. 1956. Photo courtesy the artist

Robert Redford in Rome, c. 1957. Photo courtesy the artist

Then I realized: why can’t I combine the two?—which led me to be a director. Ordinary People was my first venture into directing. I didn’t know the technical language of filmmaking, so I said, “Okay, I’m going to do my own storyboard,” because I had to explain to the crew and the technical people what I wanted. I knew what I wanted it to look like, so I would sit down and draw it for the cameraman or the production designer. Once I did that I realized: I’m not losing the artist side of me. I’m pulling it together with the performing side.

Dylan: Do you ever think about returning to painting?

Robert: Yeah, a lot—and a lot lately because I’m getting tired of acting. I’m an impatient person, so it’s hard for me to sit around and do take after take after take. At this point in my life, age 80, it’d give me more satisfaction because I’m not dependent on anybody. It’s just me, just the way it used to be, and so going back to sketching—that’s sort of where my head is right now.

So, I’m thinking of moving in that direction and not acting so much. I’ve got two acting projects in the works: Our Souls at Night, with Jane Fonda, a love story for older people who get a second chance in life, and Old Man with a Gun, a lighter piece with Casey Affleck and Sissy Spacek. Once they’re done then I’m going to say, “Okay, that’s goodbye to all that,” and then just focus on directing.

Dylan: That’s big news! It reminds me of a story you’ve told, and I would love to hear it again—the story about you sleeping on the beach outside the Cannes Film Festival.

Robert: Of course. I was 18 or 19, and I was in Europe, living hand to mouth, staying in youth hostels, and hitchhiking from here to there. I was leaving Paris. I was on my way to Florence, Italy, to go to a different art school. It was wintertime and it was really a tough hitchhiking trip, but I finally got out of Switzerland, and as I ascended into France and arrived in Cannes, it suddenly was a little warmer.

I still had no money. I had no place to stay and it was a very wealthy area. They had these piers right along the shoreline, and I decided I would park myself in the sand there. The pier was a shelter and I decided to undo my bag and make my own little bed there with my clothes and my sleeping bag and so forth.

Robert Redford with director Sydney Pollack before the screening of Jeremiah Johnson at the Cannes Film Festival, May 6, 1972. Photo: Jean Jacques Levy, AP

Robert Redford with director Sydney Pollack before the screening of Jeremiah Johnson at the Cannes Film Festival, May 6, 1972. Photo: Jean Jacques Levy, AP

While I was lying there, I could see behind me the Hotel Carlton, which was this really swank hotel in Cannes. I would look up there and see the lights and hear the voices. I’d hear the gaiety and the music and people laughing. I was thinking to myself, “Jesus, what is it like? What must that be like to be in that building, wearing a tuxedo and dancing and having a high old time?”
Sixteen years later, I’m an actor and I’ve made a movie, Jeremiah Johnson, and Sydney Pollack and I are invited to the Cannes Film Festival. So I go and suddenly I’m put up in the same hotel. I’m in the room and waiters are coming in bringing champagne and bringing hors d’oeuvres in their white coats and so forth. I’m putting on my tuxedo, ready to go down for the premiere, and I step out on the balcony to watch the crowds down below, the cameras flashing, and the noise. And then I look beyond that to the piers. I said, “Jesus.” I suddenly remembered myself lying underneath that pier, wondering what it would be like to be in this building that I was now in.

I remember saying to myself, “Hey, guess what? I’m in this building, and you know what? It’s not so good. It’s not anything like what I thought it was. It’s a pain in the ass.”

Clearly, it would be too one-note to say just the whole thing is a pain in the ass. It’s got some pretty attractive parts to it, but when you add it all up, it became a real labor. It became real labor to struggle in the marketplace against the odds, against all the elements that go against you. Let’s put it this way: it isn’t what I thought it would be.

Dylan: What did you think it would be? Can you remember what you thought it what be, versus where you ended up?

Robert: Yeah, very shallow. It was a very shallow, immature thought because I hadn’t been there. I hadn’t been on that side of the equation. I had not been in a luxurious place. I had not been in a place where there was a lot of money, so I just imagined it was a pretty terrific place and that life must be really great. Then when I got there, I realized it wasn’t as great as I thought.

Dylan: I’ve always wondered how you feel about your celebrity status. I remember the time when I was in fourth grade and you came to my school for Grandparents’ Day. That was a real moment for me, where I was like, “What is going on? This is my grandpa. Why is everyone so interested?” Just total confusion.

I remember this one girl came up to me and handed me a note. She was like, “This is a note from my grandmother that she gave to me to give to you to give to your dad to give to your grandfather.” It was like, “What is going on here? Is this like all grandparents? Is there some sort of communication between grandparents that’s going on that I don’t know about?” It’s remained a pretty wild thing to me.

Robert: I’ll bet it did. I remember that Grandparents’ Day and realizing, “Jesus, Dylan and Lena, they don’t know. They’re probably wondering what the hell is going on here, because I’m going to Grandparents’ Day but I’m suddenly not a grandparent. I’m a celebrity.” People would come up to me and they wanted autographs and I’m thinking, “Wow, this feels very uncomfortable.” It was very disturbing.

Dylan: Well, I’ve talked with Lena [Dylan’s sister] and the cousins about how lucky we all feel to have you as our grandfather and as someone in our lives who is so open and honest and willing to give advice and to tell stories. It’s always felt to us that you are first and foremost our grandfather. Maybe that’s not the case for other celebrity families. It’s always felt like there’s the outside world that has its own thing and then there’s our family, which feels really special. I think it’s something that you’ve clearly put a lot of thought and effort into making.

Robert: That’s correct, I did. I put a lot of thought into: “How can I raise a family and not let outside stuff intrude?”

Robert and Dylan Redford, c. 1994. Photo courtesy the Redford family

Robert and Dylan Redford, c. 1994. Photo courtesy the Redford family

Dylan: How did you deal with celebrity personally, aside from concerns about family?

Robert: I had to devise my own way to not have celebrity affect me—to not have it distort my own perspective on things or distort my own personality, or where I would start to take myself too seriously. I had to learn that humility was going to be a major component that I wanted to keep in my life.

I could see it coming when I first started to get recognized. Around the time of Butch Cassidy [1969] I was suddenly catapulted into a higher category of being recognized on the street. I was seeing my name in print, and it really got to me in the beginning. I started to take myself seriously, and I remember thinking, “I’d better be careful here. I’d better be careful not to lose myself with this because now all this attention is being paid to me.”

I created three categories for myself around the idea of success. The first stage is that you become an object. Slowly, you’re not being just you anymore. You’re becoming an object to other people who don’t really know you, and if you’re not careful, you go to the next stage and move from being treated like an object to beginning to see yourself as an object. If you’re not careful there, the third and final category is you will become an object and you’ll completely lose yourself.

I put those three categories up and said, “I’m going to be really careful.” If I started getting too much attention, I’d have to pull back and say, “Hold it. Don’t go further down this road. Just remember, don’t take yourself too seriously. Other people may be taking you seriously, but don’t you take yourself seriously.” That kept me in balance.

Dylan: Let’s talk about Sundance. It’s interesting to me that you were having all this success in Hollywood, in the mainstream, but that you also felt like it was important to really incubate independent filmmakers and, in some ways, to create an alternative route to the mainstream. I’m wondering about that instinct, because that’s not often the way most celebrities have dealt with their position or power: “Well, how can I channel this into helping other people?” Was that a cognizant thing for you? Did you feel like you had this position of power and you wanted to somehow use it for the better good or to help these other filmmakers?

Robert: Yeah. The mainstream did control the marketplace at that time. Its criteria was pretty well set. They would tell stories, but they wanted to feel that those stories were going to be commercial, and as a result, the mainstream began to tell stories that were pretty much all the same. American culture was so much red, white, and blue from the 1940s on, and the studios were following that lead so that things were just very red, white, and blue—meaning commercial. They would make films that they were pretty sure would sell tickets.

That was fine. I was very much a part of that. I was very much a part of the studio system. But I felt that there were other stories to be told that were more in the gray zone, where life was more complicated, so I started Sundance. To be able to do it myself, I would make a deal. I’d say to the studio, “Look, if I make this film, it’s a high-budget film, would you let me make a smaller film that’s more offbeat and at a lower cost?” They’d say, “Yeah, as long as it’s under a million, five. Go ahead.” That led me to make films like The Candidate, Downhill Racer, and Jeremiah Johnson.

While I was doing large studio films, I was also able to make these smaller films that I thought would give me more satisfaction because they were different stories to be told. But it was just me doing it. It needed to be expanded and so I thought, “What about other people like myself?” That’s what led to the idea of Sundance.

Dylan: How did it feel to exist in these sort of in-betweens, not wanting to fully exist within the Hollywood zone but also remain independent? Was that a difficult position to hold?

Robert: It was. There was misunderstanding in the beginning that by starting Sundance and having it be in Utah, not Hollywood or New York, that I was like an insurgent. I was like some guy aiming to take down Hollywood by starting something different and new. It wasn’t that at all. I really just wanted to broaden the landscape. Because I was part of the mainstream. I made some films I’m very proud of in the mainstream, and I liked it, but I thought, “There are other ways to tell stories, so why don’t we just create this category and then add it to the main one?”

At a certain point some of the independent films crossed over into success, and once that happened then the studios said, “We’re missing something here.” They then created their own little sub-studios within their own trademark.

Robert Redford (front row, center) as a student at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Photo: UC-Boulder Alumni

Robert Redford (front row, center) with fellow members of the Kappa Sigma fraternity at the University of Colorado, c. 1955. Photo: UC-Boulder Alumni Association, Flickr

Dylan: One last topic: how did you come to have such a firm grip on your own story? I mean, throughout your career—as an actor and director and with Sundance—you’ve seemed so confident and sure of your own vision. But, if I remember correctly, it wasn’t always that way. In closing, can you tell me the mirror story, about your meltdown as an art student in Paris?

Robert: Well, as I mentioned earlier, I decided I was going to be an artist and I said, “Okay I’m done with the University of Colorado. I don’t want to be here anymore. I don’t belong in a classroom.” I had the encouragement of an art teacher who said, “You should go out and explore and just do your own thing.”

I went to Europe and signed up for an art class in Paris. The teacher was a guy named Henri Goetz, and he said, “Look, I will speak English and French for two weeks, but then after two weeks I’ll only speak French, so it’s up to you to learn enough French so you’ll be able to follow.” I was so impacted by him. He so impressed me that I began to paint in his class. After awhile I wanted to move out of Paris and continue my artwork in Florence.

I did, and I ended up living in this little room—just a room with a little bed and a bassinet and a mirror and a table. I really went into hermit mode and just painted and painted. Now when he came through on his way to Rome, he paid me a visit. I was all excited to show him what I’d been working on, and I did—and he was very disappointed. He said, “I don’t see you in this. I see me. You’re just copying my stuff.” It devastated me, just absolutely devastated me.

He went on his way, and then I was left alone. I sat in front of the mirror and I thought, “What do I really look like? I wonder what I really look like. The only way I’ve ever understood myself is by looking in a mirror, and when I look in a mirror I see me and I say, ‘Okay, I guess that’s who I am.'” I suddenly realized, “No. We look in a mirror and immediately we put on the face we think we should put on. We don’t really know what we look like.” So I decided: to find out what I really look I’m going to sit here in front of this mirror and look at me and just keep looking at me and see what happens.”

James, Robert, and Dylan Redford at the premiere of The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia, a documentary directed by James Redford with Dylan as its subject, October 25, 2012. Photo: Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for HBO

James, Robert, and Dylan Redford at the premiere of The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia, a documentary directed by James Redford with Dylan as its subject, October 25, 2012. Photo: Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for HBO

I did and then I started to really realize how ridiculous it was and I started to laugh. When I saw myself laughing, I suddenly realized, “That’s what I look like laughing.” That made me laugh even more, and the more I laughed the less I recognized myself. The more I laughed, the more I thought, “Wait, that’s what I look like when I’m laughing? That’s not at all what I thought.”

Then I really started to laugh at how ridiculous it all was. My laughter turned to tears, and I watched myself in the mirror going from laughter to crying until it became a complete meltdown. That was valuable for me because when I got through it, I realized, “Okay, stuff’s going on. Stop running around Europe trying to be a painter. Get back to America and restructure your life.”

Dylan: Just like we’ve been talking about of how can you figure out how to tell your own stories, how to find your own language that isn’t somebody else’s. It’s really trying to find how you relate to a larger conversation. What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses?

Robert: Yeah, who are you, really? In other words, you think you know who you are until you put yourself in a situation where you have to look at yourself beyond the point where you did before and you see another person there. Then you say, “Wow,” and then you get scared. It gets frightening.

The 25-film retrospective Robert Redford: Independent/Visionary concludes November 12 in a sold-out Walker Dialogue with Amy Taubin. 

“The Word ‘Sundance’ Means You to Me”: A Cameraperson’s Letter to Robert Redford

A documentary cinematographer for 25 years, Kirsten Johnson has trained her lens of a wide range of figures and in a staggering array of locales, from Edward Snowden (Citizenfour, 2014) to Jacques Derrida (Derrida, 2002), a survivor of the genocide in Sudan (Darfur Now, 2006) to Osama bin Laden’s driver (The Oath, 2010). Johnson’s new film, Cameraperson, weaves […]

Kirsten Johnson in Darfur. Photo: Lynsey Addario

Kirsten Johnson in Darfur. Photo: Lynsey Addario

A documentary cinematographer for 25 years, Kirsten Johnson has trained her lens of a wide range of figures and in a staggering array of locales, from Edward Snowden (Citizenfour, 2014) to Jacques Derrida (Derrida, 2002), a survivor of the genocide in Sudan (Darfur Now, 2006) to Osama bin Laden’s driver (The Oath, 2010). Johnson’s new film, Cameraperson, weaves together these experiences in a tapestry of footage that offers both an autobiographical portrait of the artist and an investigation into how “complex it is to film and be filmed.” As we conclude our Robert Redford retrospective—which celebrates his twin roles as actor/director and, through the Sundance Institute and film festival he founded, as community-builder for filmmakers—we share Johnson’s letter to Redford, sent in March 2016. It’s a fitting homage to a figure who for a half century has left an indelible mark on cinema, on both sides of the camera’s lens.

Dear Mr. Redford,

This weekend we screened Cameraperson as the closing-night film of the New Directors/New Films series at Lincoln Center and MoMA. When I introduced the film, I spoke, as I did when the film premiered at Sundance New Frontiers in January, about how this film is an act of acknowledgement. An acknowledgement of how films coming into being through the acts and contributions of so many people. When Tabitha [Jackson, director of the Sundance Institute’s documentary film program] texted me last night to let me know that you had asked about seeing the film, I marveled again at the way this film is alive in what it challenges and offers me to do. Now, it has generated the opportunity for me to acknowledge you and what your choices and generosity have meant for my life.

Thank you for wanting to see the film. I am humbled by your interest and also thrilled that you will find in it so much of evidence of the ways in which you are intertwined in my filmmaking life. The film draws upon footage that I have shot as a documentary cameraperson over the last 25 years. One of the first films I shot was with the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. I was still in film school in Paris at the time and completely intimidated by him, but desperately hoping to impress him. I tried to chat with him when I could. At one point, he was so frustrated with the experience of being filmed that he threatened to throw the entire crew out of his home. The director, Amy Ziering (who at that time said repeatedly she wasn’t a director [!] and didn’t believe she was capable of being a filmmaker but had been a student of Derrida’s and believed he should be documented), begged that he let us stay. He replied, “Kirsten can stay with the camera if she stops talking.” And so I remained in his home with him and his wife, filming for the next eight hours without saying a word, and had the slow realization that it was possible to express an intellectual and emotional experience with the person I was filming through how I used the camera. I think of that silent day in his home as one of the inciting incidents of my life as a cameraperson. Derrida went to the Sundance Film Festival in 2002 and it was my first encounter with your world. The experience of attending that screening convinced me that I never wanted to stop engaging with the kind of vitality in conversation about film that I experienced there.

Still from Cameraperson

Liberian women came together to end the civil war in Pray the Devil Back to Hell. Photo courtesy the artist

2002 was the start of my Sundance life. The thick middle of the story includes multiple trips to both sides of the mountain. Along the way Sundance has sent me to Afghanistan, generously engaged me creatively with the finest of mentors, pulled me back from the brink of financial disaster multiple times, and hosted the party at which I bumped into Ira Sachs and we decided to embark (along with his husband Boris Torres) on the inspired plan of co-parenting children together (Viva and Felix age four). My one time really sitting down with you came when I attended the Sundance 2006 Director’s Lab. I had written a film based on my post-9/11 experiencing of falling in love with a Moroccan man who had to flee the US under questionable circumstances. You had us all for dinner and I brought you a small plate from Morocco. After years of working in documentary, all the while filled with the fear and desire to make a “film of my own,” having you sit at the table with all of us was such validation that one could and must keep holding on to the quivering hope at the core of filmmaking.

Among the many journeys Sundance has initiated for me, one was to the Skywalker Ranch for the Sound Design and Composer’s Lab in 2013. There I worked with the incredible sound mixer Pete Horner on the film that I had shot in Afghanistan. It was a film I was trying to salvage after one of the principle protagonists of the film, a teenage Afghan girl, had realized that she no longer felt safe appearing in the film. Cara Mertes, Bruni Burres, Kristin Feeley, John Cardellino, Rahdi Taylor, and the entire DFP [Documentary Film Program] team supported this film endlessly as it changed form (from 2009 onwards) and through a period when I think none of us believed a film would ever emerge. It was the film that became Cameraperson. And in that period when the one film was dying and the other emerging, you at the Institute had the inspired idea to hire Tabitha Jackson. (If she was writing this email, there would have already been a lot more great laughs by now!) When Cameraperson started emerging, I could barely articulate what it might be to anyone. But from the moment I met Tabitha and began describing the process of making the film and what I hoped it might be, she has never stopped looking at me with a sparkle and saying that such are the kinds of films she believes in and wants to support. Her role in the making of Cameraperson and the vision she has for supporting the “Art of Nonfiction” has been a critical to the completion of the film and the way it is being received in the world.

In August of this last year, as we were editing the film, I reached out to Pete Horner because our collaboration at the Lab had been so meaningful. He said that he was booked for the next year. When [Sundance curator] Shari Frilot called us the week after Thanksgiving to tell us New Frontiers had selected Cameraperson, the relief and gratitude I felt was overwhelming. We were on the brink of shutting the edit room because we were out of money and we knew that not getting into Sundance would mean that the chance of completing the film would be postponed at least another six months, if not postponed indefinitely—we were that on the edge. With the confidence that getting into Sundance inspired in us and in the funders, we were able to keep working with joy. We finished the edit and the mix in late December. Pete from Skywalker called December 30 and said he had a sudden opening the first week of January. Despite the fact we had already mixed and still didn’t have enough money to complete the film, I convinced our wonderful producer, Marilyn Ness, that we needed to go to Skywalker to mix again. Which brings me to the moment I had during the extraordinary week of collaborating with Pete and the exceptional editor Nels Bangerter.

Catherine Joy Johnson, the director's mother, in Cameraperson.

Catherine Joy Johnson, the director’s mother, in Cameraperson. 

We were mixing a scene in which my mom is getting blown over by the wind in Wyoming. Pete asked me to leave the room because he was getting so emotionally involved in layering the wind sounds that he wanted to work alone. I went for a walk and looked out at the big rocks and sequoia trees on the property and started thinking about the landscape George Lucas had chosen to set his working world in. Then I started thinking about you and the mountain. I though about all of the actors and directors and filmmakers who love our work, but how very very few of them specifically put their energy into imagining how to build a community and a structure that could support other people who want to live a life of making films, let alone did it and are still doing it. That is what you have done and are still doing every day. And I started thinking about all of the people I know and love who can be traced to you. And the list just kept getting longer and longer, and I thought of all the times, over and over, when Sundance has stepped in again and again when all our resources, both creative and financial, were completely drained, and somehow we felt filled up again and could continue. Over and over, you and the world you have built, have helped me overcome all of the obstacles and continue forward with hope and humility. It was a stormy day and it started to rain. I went back in to watch the scene you will find in Cameraperson of my mom being knocked over by the wind. That scene, which means so much to me, has you in it for me.

In the credits for Cameraperson, you will find a long list of people under the heading of the “Sundance Community and Fellows.” I did not list your name because it felt presumptuous to me because I do not know you personally. Now I regret that you will not see your name in the credits. What I hope that you do understand and feel is how you are in the film and how the word Sundance means you to me. And that I owe to and share with Sundance and you my filmmaking life.

With great honor and appreciation,

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