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What is a Contemporary Collection? Thoughts on the Walker Moving Image Commissions and the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

The Walker Moving Image Commissions is an online series in which five artists responded to selections from the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection. Premiered in the Walker Cinema and released for a limited run online, the Moving Image Commissions were initiated in May 2015 with premieres of work by Moyra Davey and James Richards that focused […]

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

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

The Walker Moving Image Commissions is an online series in which five artists responded to selections from the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection. Premiered in the Walker Cinema and released for a limited run online, the Moving Image Commissions were initiated in May 2015 with premieres of work by Moyra Davey and James Richards that focused on Derek Jarman, followed by works by Shahryar Nashat and Uri Aran that responded to the influence of Marcel Broodthaers in February 2016. This first season of the Moving Image Commissions concluded with work inspired by Bruce Conner, produced by Leslie Thornton. All work streams online until May 31 2016.

The process of building a collection—whether art or another cultural form of hoarding—has perpetually shifting endeavors. Acquiring, commissioning, exhibiting, preserving, and loaning can be but a few of the practical tasks of any art collection. But folded into such activities is the similarly ongoing process of coming to terms with that same collection’s composition. Where has it come from? What does it contain? What else should be included? The answers to these investigations are continuous, and only become comprehensive and finite once a collection transitions into the state of archive. The Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection, which began in 1973, remains a space of expanding inquiry and acquisition.

An art collection often underscores the identity of an institution itself, and the Walker Art Center is no exception. A collection of works might indicate different tastes at different times, but every commissioned or acquired work always has the capacity to reconfigure a collection’s character. For the Walker, the outcome of such reconfigurations is often public—namely, the act of exhibition. But my commentary here is about what happens prior to such results. It is about what decisions are made before the public can encounter aspects of the collection. This text is also an attempt to reflect and give narrative—justification, even—to the end results: the recent work of the Ruben/Bentson Collection and our latest project, the Moving Image Commissions.

When I was first hired as the Walker’s Bentson Moving Image Scholar in early 2014, this new role necessitated a response to a number of major questions, not least the following: what and who is the Ruben/Bentson Collection for, how does it relate to contemporary art and life, and where does the “power,” interest, and influence of the collection reside? The answers to these questions are never static, but some had very literal immediate answers: the Ruben/Bentson Collection is, as Moving Image Senior Curator Sheryl Mousley describes:

a key facet of the Walker Art Center. The more than 1,000 titles, primarily the American avant-garde films from the 1950–1980s, while also including early silent films like the Lumière Brothers from 1894 to artist’s films from the past decade, are regularly featured throughout the museum.

In 2014, when such questions were being considered, the collection was available for research within the Walker’s on-site archive, and its importance resided in the pre-existing scholarship and exhibition both within and outside of the institution’s Minneapolis base. In short, access was specialized and tied to a physical space.

For a hybrid institution like the Walker—a space that is both a museological collection and a contemporary art center—these aforementioned answers needed to be reimagined, extended, and include greater access. Not content to passively wait for a specialist to come along with an interest in researching one of more than 1,000 titles, the Walker’s Artistic Director Fionn Meade, Mousley, and I together ventured that the Walker needed to find additional ways of metabolizing this collection of works. We wanted to actively ingest the collection’s substance, style, and idiosyncrasies into a contemporary mode of thinking, so that its importance might find new spaces of exhibition, inquiry, and effect. While the opening of the Walker Mediatheque (an on-demand cinema opened in 2015) dealt with digitizing and offering unprecedented access to the existing works in the collection, we still needed to address the issue of what should be added to the collection. Or, in the case of artists, who might want to work with us to develop new work for the collection.

Shaharyar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Shaharyar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016, detail. Walker Moving Image Commission

Early on, Fionn, Sheryl, and I were keen to find sympathetic links between discrete elements of this historical collection that might have contemporary resonance and would embrace a contemporary form of access—namely, online streaming. No longer tied to the restricted privileges of a scholar being able to physically arrive at the Walker archive under the justification of research, we felt that the future works of the Ruben/Bentson collection needed to be distributed beyond its current capacity. We also wanted to use a broadcast medium that would engage the Walker as a generative hub, rather than purely a transmitter—a commissioner as well as a display platform.

We thought about the benefits of a traditional exhibition or cinema run—both time-limited projects that emphasize the “liveness” of a cultural work—and respected that such parameters are important. We didn’t want to abandon works of art to stream indefinitely, with the precarious and sometimes valueless status of online drift and anonymity. This wasn’t just a conceptual preciousness; it was informed by practical ideas of care for the work. We wished to avoid an imminent future of aging HTML architecture, broken links, and atrophying resolution quality. We decided six weeks, then, as the period in which the commission would stream online, and prefaced by a cinema premiere for each work.

When considering artists with whom we hoped to work build the Ruben/Bentson collection, we considered artistic practices in terms of adjacencies rather than hierarchies, shared methodologies rather than chronological categories, imagined legacies rather than contemporary peer context. Such a move was an explicit refusal to fill in any existing chronological “gaps” in the collection, of which there are many. (What a “gap” might mean in any collection is itself interesting; it is rarely neutral and often articulates the character of a collection. It marks the times and tastes in which is has existed.) Perhaps there was a way to attenuate such gaps, rather than retroactively patch it up into something encyclopedic, where an attempt at comprehensiveness might be read as an impossible attempt at objectivity. The Ruben/Bentson Collection remains partial, and it was from this partiality that we wanted to operate and use as an aspect of its persona, rather than a fault of oversight.

The three of us discussed what it might mean to extrapolate works that function in concert with one another, to create constellations of works, where “collecting,” “commissioning,” and “acquiring” could be thought of within the same breath. We hoped that the influence, inspiration, and inquiry of a “signature” artist within the collection might trigger a contemporary future for new works for an expanded collection. Swiftly identifying the extensive holdings of titles by Derek Jarman, Marcel Broodthaers, and Bruce Conner within the Ruben/Bentson Collection, we more organically considered the work of the following artists: Moyra Davey, James Richards, Uri Aran, Shahryar Nashat, and Leslie Thornton.

Leslie Thornton, They Were Just People, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Leslie Thornton, They Were Just People, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

I’d like to say our selection of five artists was more deliberately organized, but in fact our formal conversations in meeting rooms during the working day more naturally flowed into informal conversations in cafes and primarily constituted contemporary artists whose work we had seen and continued to follow with excitement. We thought about formal coincidences, conceptual complements, shared attitudes between artists both past and present. Weren’t Moyra Davey’s writings and her recent videos—with their intimate approach to memoir and quotidian reflections on the capacity and psychic life of the human body—working in parallel to the activities of the late Derek Jarman, for example? What was that incredible, even impossible anecdote that Leslie Thornton relayed to me once about her father and grandfather’s role in the atomic bomb, and wasn’t Bruce Conner’s film of the nuclear bomb test Crossroads just restored? Sometimes our conversation was almost goofily formal; wasn’t Uri Aran table sculpture—replete with cookies and buttons—operating with a similar language to Marcel Broodthaers tables of eggs? How come Shahryar Nashat’s practice seemed to pivot on the notion of the “figure” with the same tenacity as Broodthaers obsession for the word?

Uri Aran, Untitled, 2011

Uri Aran, Untitled, 2011

Marcel Broodthaers, Panel with Eggs and Stool, 1966

Marcel Broodthaers, Panel with Eggs and Stool, 1966

Of course, the flow of conversation needed to be shared with the artists themselves. Could the collection provoke the creation of new works? Would they even like the collected artists we were linking them to? Integral to such conversations was the desire that any commissioning process be at least an interesting proposition to these five contemporary artist. We couldn’t make any assumptions, and so my invitations to the artists were very open, beginning initially with a suggestion of sympathetic parallels between their own work and that of the titles in the Ruben/Bentson Collection. In the very first invitation, a tentative email I sent to Moyra Davey on May 6, 2014, I wrote with some frankness about the contextual frame:

It is of course dependent on whether you have any interest in Jarman (though there are many Dereks to choose from)… The space of the diary as a test site and space of desire that constantly leaks into Jarman’s work feels highly relevant here.

The artists themselves had their own responses to the invitation, most noting their longstanding connection to the work. James Richards immediately accepted the invitation to respond to Jarman, noting the latter as a key influence while he doing his foundation degree at art school. Leslie Thornton, meanwhile, described the influence of Conner as an “enabling force. Not in imitation, more as point of departure, and a fundamental reassurance.” Davey chose to fold her shrewd analysis of the commissioning situation into the work itself, with an arch and open-ended question:

In his book Dancing Ledge, Jarman writes about hating the struggle—the struggle to paint, to be an artist, to have quick success. “Struggle” is a word I’ve used to describe a lot to describe my own experience. I used to disparage art made on demand. I thought you could tell that things had been solely made because there was a budget. And now I do almost only that. I’m doing it now. Jarman on commission. And I love it. But what of the art? Is it worse? Can you tell?

Moyra Davey, Notes on Blue, 2015, production still

Moyra Davey, Notes on Blue, 2015, production still. Walker Moving Image Commission

Prior to online broadcast, each of the five artists presented their commissioned work in the Walker Cinema, valuing the communal event of the cinema premiere as the launch for the works’ dispersed, multi-platform outing online. While some screenings allowed us to revisit and recontextualize the work of Jarman, Broodthaers, and Conner on the big screen, as well as in essayistic terms (I wrote an extended essay for each commission), it also produced unexpected relationships between the five commissioned artists. Most notably, Thornton and Richards went well beyond the format of screening-plus-conversation, and instead created a brand new video work in collaboration with one another, entitled Crossing, made for the Walker Cinema. In its nebulous status (not an official Moving Image Commission, but jointly authored within a new collaboration that sprang directly from the commissioning process), Crossing is a work that now requires us to think anew about the possibilities of a collection that is both expanding and responding to itself. Just as the character of the collection reflects the works it houses, the self-reflexivity of the Ruben/Bentson collection is and should be inspired by a work like Crossing, a video that exudes the pleasure of grasping for a new collaborative language, where one’s own tastes might flow in and out of that of another. Crossing presents the willing desire to enmesh distinct logics, to offer oneself up to another’s process in order to produce a new dialogue of speaking and visualizing a world where, as one of the artist’s describes, “something special can happen that goes beyond conscious expectation or design.”

James Richards and Leslie Thornton, Crossing, 2016

James Richards and Leslie Thornton, Crossing, 2016

Moving forward into considering the new sites, spaces, and artists for another round of the Moving Image Commissions, it is this kind of ambitious dialogue—enriched by the artists and their work—we must seek to fold into an expanding Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection. Season two, galvanized by this initial round, has begun in earnest and will be launched in 2017.

In Which Hip-Hop Ends Up Saving Itself: On Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style

Considering its status as a founding document of one of the twentieth century’s defining cultural phenomena, it would be easy to forget Wild Style’s origins in the high art ferment of New York’s 1980s Downtown scene. Sampled and interpolated for decades by everyone from “conscious” rap standard bearers Black Star to commercial giants like the […]

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Wild Style mural with Fab 5 Freddy and Rock Steady. Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style, 1983. Photo courtesy Martha Cooper

Considering its status as a founding document of one of the twentieth century’s defining cultural phenomena, it would be easy to forget Wild Style’s origins in the high art ferment of New York’s 1980s Downtown scene. Sampled and interpolated for decades by everyone from “conscious” rap standard bearers Black Star to commercial giants like the Beastie Boys, Charlie Ahearn’s 1983 filmwhich screens in the Walker Cinema April 30 as part of the series Downtown New York: 1970s and 1980s Art and Filmserves as a creation myth for a culture that reconfigured popular aesthetics and birthed one of the most ubiquitous musical styles in the world. Yet both project and filmmaker display deep roots in a particular cinematic moment, when consumer-grade technology democratized filmmaking craft and a group of DIY Manhattan artists set out to depict their world.

During the 1970s and ’80s, low rents in the historically working-class neighborhoods of Lower Manhattan attracted artists of all stripes, generating punk, New Wave, an innovative loft performance scene, and the first establishment-vetted street art. Alongside these innovations in the fields of music and the plastic arts came a renewed interest among artists in filmmaking. This group included Amos Poe, Vivienne Dick, James Nares, Lizzie Borden, and Ericka Beckman, among others. With the advent of cheap, single-system Super 8 camerasor, in Ahearn’s case, a 16mm Bolexmany of these artistsfrequently with no formal filmmaking trainingfound themselves able to make feature-length, narrative films with minimal crew and a miniscule budget. In general, these films weren’t intended for large-scale distribution, but rather peer review, starring minor celebrities from the local art scene and shown in independent venues like the New Cinema on St. Mark’s Place.

In her book The (Moving) Pictures Generation: The Cinematic Impulse in Downtown New York Art and Film, Vera Dika traces a loose movement towards exploring the “cinematic” among the practices of several artists working within the context of “Downtown New York” starting in the ’70s. Dika primarily situates these artists’ work in response to that of Andy Warholwhose films (notably the Screen Tests shot between 1964 and 1966) appropriate Hollywood tropes to their own endsand the formal experiments of the mid-century avant-garde. While many of the artists working in the Downtown scene borrowed from Warhol’s parody and appropriation, as well as the practical and critical examples of the avant-garde, this new generation was less interested in critiquing the pop ideologies promoted on TV and film or engaging in postmodern deconstructions of film medium and practice. Rather, as Dika contends, the Downtown filmmakers’ project is one of “reanimation” or “return,” in which “cinematic concerns are readdressed, and Warhol’s work, as well as that of other pertinent artists, is often reevaluated or critiqued.” The Downtown artists of the ’70s and ’80s are notable for their move away from  avant-garde abstraction and towards representative images, with a widespread re-engagement with narrativeas if, having spied the limits of the confrontational, conceptual work of the preceding generation, they felt compelled to submit these very reference points to the same spirit of scrutiny in which they were made. The resulting films are tongue-in-cheek and abrasively metathe product of the same culture that birthed punk and its progenybearing layered references to previous film movements that often spill into humorous, chaotic parody.

Director Charlie Ahearn, 2007. Photo courtesy Vasily Konstantin.

Director Charlie Ahearn, 2007. Photo courtesy Vasily Konstantin

Ahearn, who moved to New York City in 1973 to participate in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Studio Program, was a singular presence within this ironic, even antagonistic milieu, a sincere and inquisitive cultural explorer who was deeply familiar with, yet skeptical of, the Downtown scene. Like many of his contemporaries, Ahearn was inspired by the DIY ethic and palpably durational quality of early Warhol. Yet, his feature films marked a strong departure from contemporary projects, both in his embrace of non-ironic narrative and his willingness to take the camera outside the insular world of Manhattan art, which he described as “a kind of apartheid.”

In the late ’70s, Ahearn became involved in the artists’ group Collaborative Projects (or, simply, Colab), a loose collection of artists with a shared interest in political and activist art. As part of Colab, Ahearn helped produce All Color News, a reportage program made in a cinéma vérité style that broadcast images from the New York streets over public access TV. This kind of experimentation soon led him onto the turf of his Wild Style star Lee Quinones: the Alfred E. Smith Houses, where he would shoot 16mm films of residential life and return a week later to project them on the walls of the project. When a group of neighborhood kids asked him to make a kung fu movie based around the martial arts school where they studied, Ahearn happily agreed, initiating an ad hoc community collaboration that would result in his first feature: The Deadly Art of Survival (1979).

“It wasn’t a political process in the sense that we were joining political parties and going to protests. But it was definitely stepping outside the art world and making things independently that in some way reflected the outside world,” Ahearn told me. “[This] later came to things like the Real Estate Show or the Times Square Show, which combined aspects of art-making with ideas about opening up the subject matter and the venue and the audience for art, which is something I was very interested in doing.”

It was at the Times Square Art Show, a huge 1980 exhibition organized by Colab, that the seeds for Wild Style were initially planted. Intrigued by the posters for The Deadly Art of Survival that he’d seen around town, Fab 5 Freddy (Fred Brathwaite)the graffiti artist, rapper, and general Downtown scenester who would go on to produce and co-star in Wild Styleintroduced himself to Ahearn and mentioned his desire to make a film that combined the graffiti scene with the culture of rap, breakdance, and DJ work that was blossoming in the South Bronx. A Brooklyn native, Brathwaite had already begun to cultivate connections within the hip-hop world, including a friendship with the graffiti artist Quinones (whom Ahearn admired, but had met only briefly), and over the following year, he and Ahearn immersed themselves in this culture, attending hip-hop parties in the Bronx and getting to know the people and places that would eventually populate their film. Shot in 1981 and edited over the following two years, Wild Style received a nationwide releasethe exception among the early Downtown film oeuvrein November of 1983.

Although it is commonly regarded as a sort of time capsule, in addition to its documentary riches—lengthy performances by Cold Crush Bros and Grandmaster Flash, breakdancing from the Rock Steady Crew, graffiti footage from the train-bombing renaissance of the early street sceneWild Style also offers a coherent, if somewhat itinerant, story, one that displays a striking prescience regarding the themes that would define the film’s legacy. Quinonesalready somewhat known in the gallery world, having shown at White Columns in New York and Galleria La Medusa in Romeplays a graffiti writer with the tag name Zoro, an outlaw of the South Bronx street scene, equally skeptical of his peersled by an estranged love interest (played by the graffiti writer Lady Pink)and the various representatives of the high art world who seek to promote (and perhaps exploit) his talent. These tentative encounters with fame and fortune make up the film’s narrative backbone, and in the outdoor concert that serves as the film’s climax—performed on a stage decorated with a giant Zoro muralAhearn offers an alternative to the potentially problematic assimilation of street culture into the artistic mainstream.

“What I was trying to do in the movie is to create a series of audiences,” Ahearn said: affluent art collectors at a Manhattan party, a genuinely interestedif slightly cluelessjournalist researching the graffiti scene (played by Downtown film veteran Patti Astor), and the mostly black and Latino crowds who gather for the community concert at the end. “I was trying to have [Lee] express the idea that through hip-hop and graffiti there was a transformation of communities. And that that was a really positive thing.”

Rammellzee and Rock Steady at the Amphitheater. Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style, 1982. Photo courtesy Martha Cooper.

Rammellzee and Rock Steady at the Amphitheater. Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style, 1982. Photo courtesy Martha Cooper

Over the following decade, the fate of both Wild Style and the hip-hop culture it so lovingly depicted was decidedly less utopian than how Ahearn had envisioned it. Breakdancing, fueled by international exposure to Wild Style and subsequent films including Style Wars (1983), experienced a fad period in the mid-’80s, but faded from the spotlight. While some graffiti artistsamong them Quinones and Lady Pinkbuilt lasting careers, the era’s true stars were Downtown artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring who incorporated tropes of street graffiti into a conceptual practice firmly rooted in existing fine arts narratives. Meanwhile, buoyed by acts like Run-DMC, LL Cool J, and the Beastie Boys, hip-hop music marked a steady ascent towards the pop status it retains to this day, Wild Style’s pioneers largely forgotten by the grim logic of an increasingly profitable industry. Meanwhile, Ahearn’s filmwhich failed to garner a significant audience outside of New Yorkfaded from the cultural memory without a home video release. For the director, the rest of the decade is epitomized by the fate of Keef Cowboy (Keith Wiggins), a founding member of the highly influential Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, who died in relative obscurity in 1989 after years of crack addiction.

But true to DJ culture’s tendency to recycle and repurpose, Wild Style’s story was far from over. At the start of the 1990s, references to the film began to reappear in rap music. Most notable among these is “Genesis,” the opening track of Nas’s Illmatic record, widely considered one of the best rap albums of all time. Sampling DJ Grand Wizard Theodore’s “Subway Theme” from the Wild Style soundtrack and featuring dialogue from the film, Nas’s biblically-titled introduction cemented Ahearn’s modest film within the origin story of what is arguably the most influential musical genre today. In the end, hip-hop saves itself.

Stay Ready: Lizzie Borden on the Post-Revolutionary Future of Born in Flames

Released in 1983 during Reagan’s presidency and Ed Koch’s tenure as mayor of New York City, Lizzie Borden’s futurist, science-fiction feature Born in Flames (1983) imagines political activism ten years after a “social-democratic war of liberation.” The film was shot using somewhat guerrilla documentary techniques, includes found footage from international news and is set to […]

Honey in Lizzie Borden's Born in Flames. Courtesy of Lizzie Borden and Anthology Film Archives, New York

Honey in Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames. Courtesy of Lizzie Borden and Anthology Film Archives, New York

Released in 1983 during Reagan’s presidency and Ed Koch’s tenure as mayor of New York City, Lizzie Borden’s futurist, science-fiction feature Born in Flames (1983) imagines political activism ten years after a “social-democratic war of liberation.” The film was shot using somewhat guerrilla documentary techniques, includes found footage from international news and is set to music by Red Krayola and the lesbian rock group The Bloods. Unconcerned with technological advancement or alien worlds, Born in Flames uses the conceit of a “future” to expand the political imagination, considering both the limitations of progressive rhetoric and the possibilities of ongoing activism. Featuring performances by Adele Bertei, Florynce Kennedy, and Kathryn Bigelow, Born in Flames was described by Riot Grrrl Kathleen Hanna as a “blueprint for feminist change.”

Despite the alleged revolution, Born in Flames’ New York remains plagued by racism and gender inequity and is tightly controlled by a government that labels any dissent as counterrevolutionary. The film focuses on the intersecting stories of four women’s organizations: pirate radio stations Radio Ragazza, Phoenix Radio, the armed coalition the Women’s Army, and the establishmentarian editors of the Socialist Youth Review.

Born in Flames was Borden’s second feature, completed after Regrouping (1976), an experimental documentary about feminism, and before Working Girls (1986), a frank depiction of a day in the life of a sex worker that won Special Jury Recognition at Sundance. Recently restored by Anthology Film Archives, a 35mm print of Born in Flames screens at the Walker on April 30 as part of Downtown New York: 1970s and 1980s Art and Film. In her interview with Crosscuts Lizzie Borden discusses independent cinema, feminism and political filmmaking.

After attending college at Wellesley you moved to New York during a period of intense artistic creativity. What attracted you to filmmaking?

I initially wanted to be a painter but had studied art history, and felt I knew too much about it, so everything I did felt derivative. There was a vibrant art scene downtown at the time and I met some amazing artists, such as Joan Jonas, Sol Lewitt, Richard Serra, Vito Acconci, Trisha Brown, and Yvonne Rainer, although I felt that women artists, particularly performance artists who used their naked bodies in performance (such as Carolee Schneemann and Joan Jonas) weren’t taken as seriously as male artists.

While artist-filmmakers such as Vito Acconci were making films in Super 8, I became seriously interested in filmmaking after I saw a retrospective of Jean-Luc Godard’s work. I thought it was amazing because I was writing criticism and painting and Godard’s films showed that you could tell a fictional story along with an essay or agitprop at the same time. I can’t remember exactly when I saw Battle of Algiers (dir. Gillo Pontecorvo, 1967), but that was also a huge influence. I didn’t want to make a documentary because I wanted to have more control, although everything I’ve done has resembled a documentary in some way.

There has been recent interest in science-fiction as a rich basis for exploring race, gender, and political power and a renewed interest in works such as Born in Flames and the writings of Octavia Butler that do precisely that. What was the inspiration for Born in Flames, and why did you choose to set the film in the future?

Everyone was collaborating in those days. I met Kathryn [Bigelow] and Becky [Johnston], who were in the Whitney’s [Independent Study] program at the time, through Vito Acconci; Becky was one of his interns. They both used my loft, which I’d turned into a kind of working space: Becky for a film set; Kathryn borrowed my car for her first short film, The Set-Up (1978). Through Kathryn, I was tangentially involved with the group Art & Language. I was reading a lot of Marx and Emma Goldman and thinking about communism and anarchism.

I began to wonder: even if there was some kind of social democratic revolution, would a “woman question” still exist? Would women still fight systematic discrimination? I was also becoming politicized by feminism—the second wave—and increasingly alienated by the art world, even though there were female artists, such as the Guerrilla Girls, protesting male dominance. At the same time I was questioning my sexuality. I became more and more disturbed by the lack of diversity, not just in the art world, but in the worlds of performance art, music as well—the whole downtown “scene.”

So creating the premise—a world after a social-democratic cultural revolution—emerged from these circumstances. I didn’t want to attempt to write a script, since I wanted to discover what different voices of diverse women would say. I needed to draw women into this “fictional” universe. I found Jeanne Satterfield, who plays Adelaide Norris, at the McBurney YMCA, Honey through a woman I pulled out of a lesbian bar. I went uptown to find straight Black women with kids. Hillary Hurst belonged to a lesbian performance group. Most of the women were non-actors, although some had some theater experience. Some of the men were performers—Ron Vawter, who plays a FBI agent, was a member of the Wooster Group. Eric Bogosian was from theater and appeared in his first film role. And Mark Boone, Jr., who since went on to star in Sons of Anarchy. But most of the key women play themselves—Adele, Honey, and especially Flo Kennedy. What I loved was bringing women together from different worlds. Now I wish I had been able to draw in more Latinas and Asian women, but I think the language barrier was too daunting then.

Had I gone to film school I never would have made the film because they would have said: You’re crazy—you have a premise but not a plot. It’s not a documentary; you don’t know if you’ll ever find your story; it’s impossible. But I worked in a dialectical way, responding to the material I shot, “writing” on the editing table, and a story emerged with each group being faithful to its own language. It’s part documentary, part fiction, within a fictional pseudo-science-fictional world that looks like documentary but isn’t.

Florynce Kennedy in Lizzie Borden's Born in Flames. Courtesy of Lizzie Borden and Anthology Film Archives, New York

Florynce Kennedy in Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames. Courtesy of Lizzie Borden and Anthology Film Archives, New York

Born in Flames is unique in depicting, multiple, occasionally conflicting interpretations of feminism. What goals framed your depictions of gender and feminist activism?

I wanted to show images of women who stood for positions without psychoanalyzing individual women or creating psychological portraits of them. Instead it’s about how groups are pushed to act—from peaceful protest to more violent acts. But I wanted the women to have personality at the same time, not just be figureheads delivering rhetoric. Hopefully this worked, and to the extent it does, it’s because women like Adele, Honey, Jeanne, and Flo have personalities that shine through. But the film is definitely agitprop rather than psychological. It’s about collaborating toward a shared goal—a radio station working with a newspaper and the Women’s Army, etc., so alliances can be formed to tear down barriers.

You worked on Born in Flames for nearly five years, and the film is truly independent in its mode of production, financing, and distribution. How did you go about making the film?

Born in Flames ended up costing $40,000, but I never had that much money at one time— I made it in increments of $200. I would rent cameras and Nagras for $25 at a time until I eventually bought a camera and Nagra for the duration of shooting. Ed Bowes, who plays the editor of the Socialist Youth Review in the film, helped set up the “action scenes,” like stealing the U-Haul trucks. He taught me to do a three-light set-up so I could shoot some things myself in my loft. I had a Steenbeck editing table in my loft, which I rented to NYU students for $25 per 8-hour shift and everyone used it. I remember Amos Poe and Deborah Harry passing through at one point. Downtown New York was like the Wild West, a stage set. The graffiti, the burned-out buildings. And it wasn’t hard to find people to help. There was a real community in terms of getting equipment and people to help shoot. But in terms of story evolution, that took time, the “story” grew slowly as I edited and pieces were added. I’m just so grateful that Adele, Honey, Pat Murphy, Jeanne, Sheila —the key players—had the belief and patience to stick with it for so long.

When Ulrich Gregor, from the Berlin Film Festival, saw it at my loft on the editing machine, he said if it could be done by the time of next festival—a few months away—it would be included. So I finished, or I could easily have gone on for another year. I was kind of relieved, Berlin was the exactly the right place for it. Then it played at the Women’s Film Festival in Sceaux and won the first prize, which was phenomenal.

Adele Bertei in Lizzie Borden's Born in Flames. Courtesy of Lizzie Borden and Anthology Film Archives, New York

Adele Bertei in Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames. Courtesy of Lizzie Borden and Anthology Film Archives, New York

The film has an incredibly powerful soundtrack. How did you connect with Red Krayola and The Bloods and engage them in the project?

Mayo Thompson (the leader of the band, Red Krayola) was involved with Art & Language, so I asked him to write a song. He wrote “Born in Flames.” I loved the title so much, I used it for the title of the film, which I was originally going to call “Les Guerilleres” after the book by Monique Wittig. Adele [Bertei], Isabelle in Born In Flames, decided to sing “Undercover Nation” in the film, and I ended up using it a lot. Adele was part of the downtown punk scene. I’d known her for years before making the film. She’d been in Beth and Scott B’s movies and performed at the Mudd Club, CBGB, and many other clubs. Various other tracks came from here and there.

I didn’t want Born In Flames to be a boring art film, so I wanted a driving, rhythmic track to run simultaneously with speeches, so they didn’t have to be listened to. I hoped the words could work subliminally. The film is about a multiplicity of voices, so even if you hear some words it’s enough. The message, such as it is, is about the need for action.

Born in Flames was recently restored by Anthology Film Archives and has screened regularly. What do you think about the film today?

I’m just happy it is being seen by a younger audience. In the screenings where I’m present, I see both young people and people who may have seen the film when it first came out. I want to hear from the younger generation about why the film interests them now. Perhaps it is because many issues addressed in the film haven’t gone away. Economic issues, Sandra Bland, the murders of black men, women’s issues, gender issues, etc. Maybe the film resonates in ways I’m not aware of… I’d love to discuss them. Things haven’t changed as much as they should have—in some way are worse. I live in West Hollywood, which is the closest to the Village as you can get in terms of a good neighborhood for the LGBT community. But in Hollywood, a mile away, when Tangerine was filmed, a transgender assault happens every couple of months. I’m incredibly angered and saddened by the fact that it has been more than 30 years since I made the film and there’s even more rampant police brutality, increasing homelessness, poverty. The jails are a mess, drug treatment centers are non-existent, abortion is inaccessible in places, suicide is up… I could go on and on. It’s been decades and we need to fight harder than ever.

born-in-flames-poster

From Archive to Art House: Two Ruben/Bentson Films Mark Metrograph Opening

In March 2016, a new independent movie theater opened its doors on New York City’s Lower East Side with two films from the Walker Art Center’s collection among its initial screenings. A two-screen cinema complemented by a restaurant, candy shop, and bookstore, Metrograph will present a wide palette of curated selections—from French New Wave to American […]

In March 2016, a new independent movie theater opened its doors on New York City’s Lower East Side with two films from the Walker Art Center’s collection among its initial screenings. A two-screen cinema complemented by a restaurant, candy shop, and bookstore, Metrograph will present a wide palette of curated selections—from French New Wave to American exploitation and classic documentary—alongside first-run screenings of new independent and foreign titles. Appearing in the the new theater’s inaugural program are two prints from the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection: William Klein’s Broadway by Light (1958) and The French (1982).

William Klein’s Broadway by Light, 1958. Photo courtesy William Klein

The Walker’s 35mm print of Broadway by Light preceded Metrograph’s screenings of Taxi Driver last month as part of a metatextual series called “Surrender to the Screen,” which highlighted works depicting the act of film-going. Klein’s debut effort in the medium, Broadway by Light is a 12-minute sequence of filmic verse that takes as its subject the electrified light displays of its eponymous locale: theater marquees (bearing titles like Winchester ’73 and Four Boys and Gun), scrolling news tickers, sparkling cola billboards. Paired with Maurice Le Roux’s semi-dissonant, staccato score, the director cycles through these glowing icons of urban nightlife at a rhythm that is both mesmerizing and somewhat abrasive.

Klein—a  New York native who has lived in Paris for the past half-century—made Broadway by Light soon after the publication of his photography book Life is Good & Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels, and comparisons between the two works abound. Life is Good stood out, in 1956, for its blunt, impressionistic style. Featuring unconventional framing and intense close-ups, Klein’s dynamic, frequently blurry New York street scenes evoke the frenetic pace of city living. Broadway by Light is a similarly visceral affair, employing extreme zooms, overlaid images, and reflected light to create a kaleidoscopic light play. Considered by many—including Klein himself—to be the first film of the pop art movement, Broadway by Light levels a critique at the baroque excesses of American marketing culture, while unabashedly indulging in its seductive vocabulary. Though an American expatriate and effective satirist, Klein is no scold. He doesn’t begrudge the viewer the pleasures of the screen, but instead places these fantasies in context—as the film comes to a close, Broadway’s winking displays are obliterated by the greatest light show of all: the rising sun.

In the years following Broadway by Light, Klein transitioned to feature-length films—many documentaries, but also several narrative works firmly planted in the satirical realm. It is for his 1969 film portrait Muhammad Ali, The Greatest (later re-titled Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee) that Klein is likely best known. Always adept at gaining access to exclusive subjects—according to the filmmaker, it was a casual encounter with Malcolm X that paved the way for his extensive relationship with Ali—Klein received free rein to film the French Open tennis tournament in 1981. Fascinated by the tournament scenes not readily available to the broadcast viewer, for The French—a 16mm print of which Metrograph has on loan from the WalkerKlein took his camera into the locker rooms, broadcast booths, and banquet halls of the Stade Roland Garros athletic complex in Paris, amassing piles of footage over the course of the two-week tournament.

William Klein The French 1981

William Klein’s The French, 1981. Photo courtesy William Klein

In today’s corporatized sports world, it’s hard to imagine a filmmaker receiving this kind of access. Interactions between players and the media are contractually micromanaged to protect team and league brands and filtered through a hegemonic linguistics of cliched optimism. Pro sports’ culture of platitudes has achieved such ubiquity that when a player departs from the expected script—as Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch famously did in the days leading up to Super Bowl XLIX—it makes national headlines. Viewed from this contemporary context, the utter naturalness of Klein’s backstage vignettes feels, paradoxically, almost unreal: men’s runner-up Ivan Lendl’s bashful refusal to undress, following a match, until Klein’s cameras are shut off; Chris Evert (women’s #1) and Virginia Ruzici (#5) crammed side-by-side onto a players’ lounge easy chair, giggling at the clownish antics of the unseeded Romanian Ilie Năstase before their brutal head-to-head match (which Evert handily won in two sets).

This is part of what makes The French—which screen April 29–30, as part of Metrograph’s “Welcome to Metrograph: A to Z” series—such a riveting sports documentary. Rather than falling back on conventional journalistic techniques (Klein conducts almost no interviews), the director endeavors to disappear into his environment. In line with the basic principles of contemporaneous documentary movements like cinéma vérité and Direct Cinema, Klein eschews any real thesis, instead hopscotching between the dozens of mini-narratives his camera happens to find: a ball boy triumphantly snatching Björn Borg’s racquet in the moments following his men’s tournament winner, an ongoing spat between all-time great John McEnroe and a referee, an awkward birthday party for women’s three seed Andrea Jaeger.

Yet, despite the cerebral quality of Klein’s immersive, gonzo-adjacent approach, the director doesn’t shy away from the drama inherent to his favorite sport. In addition to being an eye-opening look into the off-court world of pro tennis, The French is also as a generous, if incomplete, documentation of the 1981 tournament, proceeding chronologically through long stretches of match coverage, which the director cleverly pairs with live commentaryfrom both the broadcast booth and the standsand dutiful shots of the scoreboard. Klein’s love for the sport is palpable, and it’s only in play that he allows himself a more hands-on, affective approach, complete with Wes Anderson–level frames/second numbers and gratuitous shots of the Coupe des Mousquetaires.

Both a close examination of the bureaucratic and promotional systems that buttress the drama unfolding on court and a sincere tribute to a handful of incredible athletes, The French is a startlingly original take on the world of professional tennis. Yet, alongside Broadway by Light, it has failed to find a lasting audience. Unlike Klein’s narrative films, which were released on DVD by The Criterion Collection in 2008, both of the director’s works showing at Metrograph this spring are not readily available for home viewing. Through this collaboration, these vividly rendered, yet unsung titles from the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection will reach audiences in what promises to become a major hub of New York independent film culture.

For Midwestern cinephiles unable to make it to the Metrograph screenings, The French can be watched in its entirety in the Walker’s Mediatheque screening room during regular museum hours.

Comprehensive Horrors and Technological Consequences: Bruce Conner and Leslie Thornton

Leslie Thornton’s They Were Just People (2016) is the third installment in the Moving Image Commissions, a series that addresses works by key artists in the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Collection. They Were Just People will be presented on the Walker Channel from April 8 through May 31, 2016. It will also be screened April 9, 2016 […]

Leslie Thornton, They Were Just People, 2016

Leslie Thornton’s They Were Just People (2016) is the third installment in the Moving Image Commissions, a series that addresses works by key artists in the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Collection. They Were Just People will be presented on the Walker Channel from April 8 through May 31, 2016. It will also be screened April 9, 2016 in the Walker Cinema, alongside films by Bruce Conner and the world premiere of Crossing (2016, video, 25 minutes), a new moving image collaboration between Thornton and previous Moving Image Commission artist, James Richards.

Operation Crossroads, the nuclear bomb test conducted by the United States Joint Army/Navy Task Force at Bikini Atoll in July 1946, was one of the most documented events in 20th-century history. The explosion was caught on film, shot at multiple slow-motion speeds, and captured in 50,000 still images. During the test, 1.5 million feet of black-and-white film stock was exposed, and the comprehensiveness of the documentation triggered a global shortage of film stock.

Afterwards, eyewitnesses of the event struggled to describe their visual experience of the explosion. In an official report of Operation Crossroads, its author, William A. Shurcliff, wrote: “One reason why observers had so much trouble in retaining a clear impression of the explosion phenomena was the lack of appropriate words and concepts. The explosion phenomena abounded in absolutely unprecedented inventions in solid geometry. No adequate vocabulary existed for these novelties.”

Thus the documentation of Operation Crossroads became the primary material through which a new vernacular and narrative for the event could be established. Indeed, the official pictorial record of Operation Crossroads refers to cameras as the “star witnesses” of the event, citing an aerial camera with a telephoto lens capable of taking a legible photograph of a wristwatch from a quarter of a mile away. After two months of “verbal groping,” a conference was convened to agree upon a set of 30 special terms, which settled upon words such as: dome, fillet, side jets, bright tracks, cauliflower cloud, fallout, air shock disc, water shock disc, base surge, water mound, uprush, and aftercloud.

Still from Bruce Conner’s CROSSROADS, 1976

Still from Bruce Conner’s CROSSROADS, 1976

It is this original film documentation from the event that American assemblagist, painter, and filmmaker Bruce Conner (1933–2008) used to create the longest film of his career­—CROSSROADS (1976), a bravura piece of cinema that examines the Bikini Atoll explosion over 36 minutes. In preparation for making the work, Conner successfully petitioned the US Defense Department for its declassified yet unreleased film material, and appropriated the footage to compile a work saturated with visual ruptures and editorial sutures. The artist’s careful sequencing creates a vision of horrific enchantment. At points, effect and experience seem indistinguishable from each other, and the violent plumes of water produced by the huge underwater explosion of the second test at Bikini flood the cinematic frame to the point of abstraction and eventual obliteration.

Commissioning sound for his films for the first time, Conner worked with two musicians, Patrick Gleeson and Terry Riley. While both soundtracks are equally eerie, Gleeson developed a score that aped diegetic sound for the first half of CROSSROADS, replete with bird sounds and distant thunder, and Riley created a radically different, dreamy, composition for organ.

Despite its charged material,CROSSROADS elides any singular political comment, serving instead as a complex meditation on memory, death, and the attempt to find a visual vocabulary that is both appalling and hypnotic. It is a work that deals in and makes sequences out of a space of incomprehension. The nuclear bomb was, after all, the absolute terminus of communication, not simply in terms of eyewitnesses’ verbal incapacity, but also as an action that carried the threat to wipe out life from which all language could possibly emerge.

This vexed relationship between documentation and processes of comprehension is a key aspect of CROSSROADS and of Leslie Thornton’s new video They Were Just People (2016), the last installment in the first season of Walker Moving Image Commissions. They Were Just People was produced in direct response to the influence and inquiry of Conner’s film. Thornton has described the late artist’s work as an “enabling force, a point of departure, a fundamental reassurance.” Like CROSSROADS, Thornton’s video also dwells on forms of abstraction in barbaric acts and the melting away of material into voids. But rather than focusing on the energetic and decisive moment of a single horror, her work builds from a slow dread—the persistent half-life of violent histories.

They Were Just People is a video that draws together a stereoscopic image of the La Brea Tar Pits in California (where one shot is the slowly blistering surface of the asphalt lake, and the other is a prismatic refraction of the same image rendered as a kaleidoscopic image) and an oral account that describes the distressing moments of human trauma in the immediate aftermath of the atomic bomb explosion in Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945. This latter found sound comprises a largely unedited interview with “Miss Palchikoff,” a Russian-born medical missionary, whose impassive language of administration gradually reveals itself as a series of appalling abstractions of human suffering.

Thornton sought to place the sound of They Were Just People in a highly ambivalent register—an effect given off by Palchikoff’s even and matter-of-fact tone, which temporarily masks the shocking scene she describes. Consequently, the viewer’s experience of sound vacillates between the feeling of eavesdropping on a banal conversation and what the artist calls the slow “horror of listening.” The grainy quality of the found sound is significant here. Just as one physically strains to make out the details of the oral account despite the archival chafes and abrasions to the record, the nurse’s descriptions provoke a disgust of the imagination. What this eyewitness has to say, and the administrative ease and comprehensiveness with which she says it, is likely at odds with the eavesdropper’s desire to hear completely. (The artist noted that she only removed a few sections that she found “too gruesome, too unbearable.”) Through both form and content, the difficulty of comprehension is embodied.

Leslie Thornton, They Were Just People, 2016

Leslie Thornton, They Were Just People, 2016

At points too, the artist mirrors and intensifies the experience of listening, finding visual metaphors within her stereoscopic image which perfectly illustrate Palchikoff’s highly visual descriptions of “head swellings” and “water blisters.” With its oily pustules popping on the surface to reveal momentary holes revealing only darkness, the oozing pit at La Brea is dense and engulfing. Its bubbling translucency is momentary, its sluggish activity relentless. The pit becomes the over-expressive counterpart to a narrative of violence and, rendered as a pair of eyes, the image stares back at the viewer, unblinking. Thornton describes her stereoscopic technique (one which she has used in her work previously, though she argues it is used here to the greatest effect) as “a mechanical gaze, but it seems so full of life to me, so intimately ocular, related to the way a binocular as a technical extension of our eyes isolates and frames.” The image of the pit is both an image of a void and its technological abstraction—a metaphor for the ineffability of the bomb and its refraction through the language of administration.

In her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), philosopher Hannah Arendt reflected on the capacity for comprehending traumatic events, noting:

Comprehension does not mean denying the outrageous, deducing the unprecedented from precedents, or explaining phenomena by such analogies and generalities that the impact of reality and the shock of experience are no longer felt. It means, rather, examining and bearing consciously the burden that our century has placed on us—neither denying its existence nor submitting meekly to its weight. Comprehension, in short, means the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality—whatever it may be.

The idea that comprehension might both face and resist reality is a close summation of the tactics of CROSSROADS and They Were Just People. That the material of horror would come to Conner and Thornton as readymades is symptomatic of the periods both artists live through. Here, Arendt’s “shock of experience” is found footage and found sound, respectively, where each is carefully redeployed with additional manipulations of duration—expansively, in terms of historical relationships, and specifically, through the material qualities of the edit and the cut. But while CROSSROADS is a careful sequence that exhaustively examines the test explosion from multiple angles, speeds, and scales, The Were Just People is a comparatively enervated piece. With sparing edits and interventions, it possesses the paradox of slow alarm. “There is a bomb that goes off in the experience of the piece,” emphasizes Thornton. “You are in an accident.”

The speed of both works is fundamental in considering not simply their relationship to one another, but to the subject both seek to articulate: the duration of a weapon and the experience of it. In their book A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1980), theorists Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari discuss the constitutive parts of a weapons system or “assemblage,” arguing that the primary component of such a system is speed: “The more mechanisms of projection a tool has, the more it behaves like a weapon, potentially or simply metaphorically.” Deleuze and Guattari’s assessment is compelling in both assessing how technology might describe a weapon and its effects and as a commentary on how the very apparatuses of image capture might come close to resembling the characteristics of a weapon itself (where cinema, too, is a “mechanism of projection”). It is this porosity between the technologies of annihilation and technologies of description that lend CROSSROADS and They Were Just People the capacity to represent and incite horror—in short, it is their access to the shock of comprehension.

Technology, and its capacity for harm and pleasure, has long been a source of productive and personal fascination for Thornton. Her most iconic work, Peggy and Fred in Hell (1985–2012) is a post-apocalyptic tale suffused with Cold War anxieties, which the artist describes in relation to her own formative experience of living in the world of the atomic bomb. Thornton’s reference to an autobiography of nuclear foreboding is not to be taken lightly. Indeed, it is a useful indicator for the primary impulse of They Were Just People. Interwoven into this new video is Thornton’s complex emotional response to her own family history. Both the artist’s father and grandfather (unbeknownst to each other at the time) were engineers in the Manhattan Project, and it was Thornton’s father who encased and fastened the last screw in the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Before loading it into the plane, he wrote his name, his father’s name, and his mother’s name on the bomb casing—an inscription of familial dedication, legacy, and authorship. For the artist, then, this is a deeply personal origin story with consequences­—one that recalls Deleuze and Guattari’s haunting refrain, “Weapons and tools are consequences, nothing but consequences.” But They Were Just People is not simply about how technology (whether tool or weapon) is a complicit witness in events. It is also about how its ghostly recall and capacity for cultural distortions might bear the shock of comprehension.

They Were Just People is a commission by the Walker Art Center with major support provided by the Bentson Foundation.

Moving Image Commissions #3: Bruce Conner and Leslie Thornton

Leslie Thornton’s They Were Just People is the third installment in the Moving Image Commissions, a series that addresses works by key artists in the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Collection. They Were Just People will be presented on the Walker Channel April 8 through May 31, 2016. It will also be screened April 9, 2016 in the […]

Leslie Thornton, They Were Just People, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Leslie Thornton, They Were Just People, 2016

Leslie Thornton’s They Were Just People is the third installment in the Moving Image Commissions, a series that addresses works by key artists in the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Collection. They Were Just People will be presented on the Walker Channel April 8 through May 31, 2016. It will also be screened April 9, 2016 in the Walker Cinema, alongside films by Bruce Conner and the world premiere of Crossing (2016, video, 25 minutes), a brand new moving image collaboration between Thornton and previous Moving Image Commission artist, James Richards.

“What violence can I do to an audience?” This was the question that confronted artist Leslie Thornton as she was making her new video, They Were Just People (2016, video, 10 minutes). Responding to the influence and inquiry of American assemblagist and filmmaker Bruce Conner (1933–2008), Thornton’s new work is a chilling exploration of the purpose and repurposing of memory during wartime.

Thornton began making They Were Just People as a dark response to CROSSROADS (1976), Conner’s spectacular film of the 1946 Bikini Atoll nuclear test. Part of the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection, CROSSROADS comprises 27 different takes of the test explosion. This latter black-and-white 35mm film is drawn from appropriated footage, an astonishing reworking of the US Defense Department’s documentation of the nuclear test explosion. Conner had successfully petitioned for the declassified but then-unreleased footage of Operation Crossroads. When permission was remarkably granted, he created a complex sequence of the moments immediately before, during, and after the explosion, setting the work to two separate scores by composers Patrick Gleeson and Terry Riley.

Bruce Conner, Crossroads, 1976.

Still from Bruce Conner’s CROSSROADS, 1976

While CROSSROADS remains a bravura spectacle of repetition, annihilation, and abstraction, Thornton’s response adopts a slower speed of horror, locating and inhabiting a sluggish dread. They Were Just People combines Thornton’s own manipulated footage of the La Brea Tar Pits in California with an oral account describing the horrific moments after the US dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945. Conner’s work obsessively searches for the exact moment where the world was violently and permanently changed; Thornton’s video is concerned with the persistent half-life of violence.

They Were Just People is also an intensely personal film for Thornton. Much of the techniques and materials used in the video have appeared in different forms of her work before, or samples have lain dormant in her archives for some time. Interwoven into the core impulse of her work is Thornton’s biographical material and her complex emotional response to her own family history. Both the artist’s father and grandfather (unbeknownst to each other at the time) were engineers in the Manhattan Project, and it was Thornton’s father who fastened the last screw in the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Thus They Were Just People is tethered not just to the ambivalence of the artist’s own relationship to the material contained within the video, but also to the capacity for moving images to be a conduit for speaking about and providing critical resistances to histories of violence.

Leslie Thornton, They Were Just People, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Leslie Thornton, They Were Just People, 2016

They Were Just People is a work that constantly looks back, both conceptually and formally. The image is, after all a stereoscopic one­—a pair of eyes. On the left Thornton shows a shot of the lumpish bubbling asphalt lake in La Brea, while on the right she presents a prismatic reinterpretation of the same footage as if seen through a kaleidoscope. Together, they are simultaneously seeing and distorting. “It is a mechanical gaze, but it seems so full of life to me, so intimately ocular,” Thornton has noted to writer Kevin McGarry of her double image technique. “It is related to the way a binocular as a technical extension of our eyes isolates and frames.” The image appears to speak of vision and its lack, a manipulated and refracted surface that is suffused with abstraction. The bubbling tar pit is a material that persistently refuses to reveal itself; oily blisters pop on the surface to reveal momentary holes that show only darkness, dense and engulfing.

Thornton pairs her double image of the asphalt lake with an oral account from the Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs. The artist described first listening to the archival sound recording as if she was eavesdropping on someone discussing their day-to-day activities—an effect given off by the flat matter-of-factness about the female speaker’s tone. But the evenness of the woman’s voice only temporarily masks the content of what is said. A largely unedited extract of an eyewitness account by “Miss Palchikoff,” a Russian-born medical missionary, the archival interview probes the immediate aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing. As Palchikoff’s impassive language of administration gradually reveals itself as a series of appalling abstractions of human suffering, Thornton’s (and by turn the audience’s) simple act of eavesdropping becomes, in the artist’s words, a “horror of listening.”

In They Were Just People, “What violence can I do to an audience?” is a question about atomizing experience in order to question culture’s capacity to simulate horror as a form of critique, to point at and use abstraction as a way of examining events that beggar description. “There is an ineffability in the form of address,” Thornton says of her work and comparing it to Conner’s work, there is “an undercurrent that is broad, and at times grave, in its referencing. It is below the surface, registering in the back of the mind.”

They Were Just People is a commission by the Walker Art Center with major support provided by the Bentson Foundation.

“It Gets Dislocated”: The Evocative Cinema of Chantal Akerman

In tribute to the late Chantal Akerman, the Walker presents the three-film series Chantal Akerman: 1950–2015, March 31 through April 3 in the Walker Cinema. Here, University of Minnesota English Professor Paula Rabinowitz reflects on Akerman’s art. A woman alone sits, sits alone repeatedly spooning white sugar from a bowl into her mouth. She stares […]

Chantal Akerman Photo courtesy Babette Mangolte

Chantal Akerman. Photo courtesy Babette Mangolte

In tribute to the late Chantal Akerman, the Walker presents the three-film series Chantal Akerman: 1950–2015, March 31 through April 3 in the Walker Cinema. Here, University of Minnesota English Professor Paula Rabinowitz reflects on Akerman’s art.

A woman alone sits, sits alone repeatedly spooning white sugar from a bowl into her mouth. She stares into space, a window frames her. A woman alone sits, sits alone methodically peeling potatoes onto old newspapers and placing them in a pot of water. She stares vacantly into space; her kitchen encloses her. A woman alone sits. She sits alone slowly slicing salami on a plate. She concentrates but is strangely absent from her monotone surroundings. A woman alone. Sits. In Paris. In Brussels. In Moscow. She is alone at her table with food she despises, but it is food she cannot stop handling—swallowing, paring, cutting. She uses the utensils of everyday life as if they were a hangman’s noose. This is deadly business, this business of filmmaking; this business of domesticity.

Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie 2015 Photo courtesy Icarus Films

Still from Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie, 2015 Photo courtesy Icarus Films

Films chronicling a death foretold. Her own; that of her mother? A woman alone sits. Where? She is a displaced person, this woman alone at a table, still as life. A still life, lived quietly, with rage. The anger so studied, so precise, so abstract and absolute, it can only turn in on itself, on herself. A self-direction aimed at what is there before her. What is it—this food that shames and consumes, cannot be consumed because it provokes such shame, such resignation? A woman alone. Sits. Awaiting what? What it is that we all sit awaiting as we slice and spoon and peel and stare from the table.

Chantal Akerman, may her name be praised, died of suicide on the eve of the screening of her fortieth-plus film, No Home Movie, at the New York Film Festival on October 5, 2015, a woman alone, in a Paris hotel room. She made movies of rooms, traveling among them with her paper bags full of letters from home. Who can know what she imagined would be seen when the final film she made of her beloved mother, Natalia, screened? Not just a woman sitting at a table? But surely just this: a woman in the thrall of an inexpressible love. She speaks to her daughter; she speaks through her daughter; she speaks of her daughter; she speaks in her daughter. Her daughter speaks of her and did so for almost half a century—beginning in her childhood kitchen “blowing up the world” in the 1968 Saute ma ville, which Chantal puns as saute ma vie, and finishing in her mother’s kitchen in No Home Movie.

Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie 2015 Photo courtesy Icarus Films

Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie, 2015 Photo courtesy Icarus Films

“It gets dislocated.” These are the first words spoken in Akerman’s close observation of her mother, the woman she found to be at the “center” of her films. She feared there might no longer be a subject without her. Her mother’s words come many long minutes into the film. First there is a fierce wind blowing the scraggly leaves of a tree in the foreground of a bleak but seductive desert landscape; it roars and the terrain expands as a dull beige, a beautiful consuming emptiness. Next a Brussels park: a man suns his bare back; behind his bench a bright greensward stretches and there are people and dogs doing what they do on a sunny day in a park. Then an interior garden surrounded by tall purplish bushes, a turquoise folding chair sits abandoned. Finally, we see her move elegantly through rooms we already know—the quiet bourgeois domestic space familiar from 23 Quai du Commerce—and she speaks: “It gets dislocated.” She’s speaking of her shoulder but these three words tell the story of Akerman’s work. This is no home movie: not a home movie in the usual sense of the genre; instead a no-home movie, a film about dis-placement, distance, and time. It gets dislocated.

Early on, Chantal and Natalia eat a meal together at the kitchen table; the holy ark that holds a woman, her food, her utensils, her submerged and unspoken stories—“Ma, mommy, mama, tell us a story,” pleads Chantal’s sister Sylviane late in the film—of what cannot be represented, like God, a past of horrors. They sit, eating meat and potatoes Chantal has cooked in their skins. Natalia has never made potatoes without first peeling them. She says they are delicious. Even before I saw this film, I knew that a potato peeler would be at its heart. Years ago, while visiting Washington, DC with my mother, we went at her insistence to the Holocaust Memorial Museum. My mother’s Parkinson’s Disease meant she moved awkwardly, and somehow in the dark crevices of the building, we lost each other. I ran through the hallways looking for her, passing through the railway car, running by the pictures, but even in my panic was arrested by one vitrine full of potato peelers—some beautifully forged, most mundane objects—each essential. Of course, every mother used one every day, and she would stash it into a pocket for the long train ride. It is not coincidence that Jeanne Dielman brutalizes the potatoes she peels sitting silently at her kitchen table. As Akerman remarks, echoing Theodore Adorno, at the end of Marianne Lambert’s documentary, I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman, after the camps, after the end of European civilization that was the Shoah, “There are things that cannot be shown.” But this does not mean that they are unrepresentable, rather, “through evocation, through time” these things can be made known, can be felt.

Marianne Lambert’s I Don’t Belong Anywhere: the Cinema of Chantal Akerman 2015 Photo courtesy Icarus Films

Chantal Akerman in Marianne Lambert’s I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman, 2015. Photo courtesy Icarus Films

Not a home movie, a no-home movie—an extension of the many previous no-home movies Akerman shot, of the weight carried by an everyday object, used or left unused, at a kitchen table. Waiting at home, for whom? The vacant son; the beautiful daughter; the anonymous john. Or merely waiting—in line for the bus in the cold dawn hours outside the block of Stalinist housing projects, or sitting dully on the hard benches of a Russian train station. The slow track capturing those who wait suggests they wait for more than bus or train. The interior enclosures extend beyond walls; even outdoors women are encased, in huge hats and heavy coats against the frozen dawn, surrounded by bundles on their way to work or to shop, waiting for the crowded and overheated bus to encase them, the windows steamed up with their hot breath. We see only that they wait. They line up or sit motionless as if the crematoria are their destination. We watch their waiting. And the time we must spend to see this long wait is a glimpse at our own deaths found in the long waiting that is life. It’s in the silent peeling, in the rigorous frontal camera work. Nothing is said of the violence palpable, yet unseen, unspoken, but there, close, closing in. Even when Jeanne Dielman ventures out, traversing Brussels, it is to shop at the butcher or green grocer. The outside exists merely to replenish the hated food that must be prepared within. Or when Chantal herself takes to the road in Je, tu, il, elle, where is she? Sitting in the cab of a truck, listening to the driver, stuck. Or when she reads her mother’s letters in Letters from Home, where is she? Her voice drowned out by the graffiti-covered subway screeching through the station. Displacement and movement become a kind of claustrophobia.

Akerman’s rigorous structural apparatus of the full-frontal camera fixing walls, doors and windows or the long slow tracking shots made across landscapes and through interiors are means to design order. But they too, in their address to our physical bodies as much as our emotions, are forms of chaos. The head-on stationary camera, which captures whatever passes before it, allows for aleatory and chance movements of bodies entering, leaving or partially present within still rooms. Stasis encloses chaos, an impossible attempt to keep it at bay.

Photo courtesy Janus Films

Still from Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du commerce,1080 Bruxelles, 1975. Photo courtesy Janus Films

“That’s why my mother’s like this,” because she ran away from Poland and was captured by the SS, because of Auschwitz, Akerman tells her mother’s caretaker; like so many Holocaust survivors, she left it unspoken. She ran away but not far enough, not to America or Argentina, remaining in Belgium and waiting, caught and sent back, to the camp. The past cannot be retrieved; yet it is never to be escaped. It hangs in the drapery and sheets drying on the balcony; it resides in the gagged inability to swallow food. Natalia chastises Chantal for subsisting only on one banana a day as a child. Chantal explains this was sufficient, that she was petrified of her grandmother and could never swallow again after choking on a meatball in her chicken soup. Later Natalia sits eating with Sylviane and begins to cough and choke; her younger daughter admonishes her to sit up and be more alert: “Eat. Breathe.” It’s unbearable, this carrying on, this living, this loving.

Chantal Akerman has been sending us clues all along—the preface to the 40-volume suicide note was written as a series of fragments when she was still a teenager, a child whose mother kept her indoors for fear of what might happen to her beautiful Jewish daughter who excelled in Hebrew school. But her father yanked her from that world of God and thus she spent her days staring out windows at the street life of Brussels. Those windows recur throughout No Home Movie—behind the chair where her mother naps, on the computer where the two speak words of love over Skype, between the camera and the kitchen, the panes reflecting Chantal and refracting Natalia, in the final gesture of Chantal closing the blinds in her room after she ties her shoes. Ties her shoes, even after her mother remembers her coming home from school disheveled from playground fights, with shoelaces undone.

Many critics, including Adrian Searle in The Guardian , have remarked that Akerman’s suicide has changed their perception of this film, and of her earlier work as well. But I see it differently; she’s been contemplating death and the body from the beginning, scattering the breadcrumbs for us to follow. Her work, like life lived in the shadow of violence, is an art of endurance. And this time, this time spent, is love.

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Chantal Akerman in Marianne Lambert’s I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman, 2015. Photo courtesy Icarus Films

Navigating Fact and Fiction: Chloé Zhao on Songs My Brothers Taught Me

For her debut feature, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, Chinese-born filmmaker Chloé Zhao turned her camera on the beautiful but impoverished Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota. Anchored by two young leads (Jashaun St. John and John Reddy) who bring to life a tender brother-sister relationship, Zhao’s cast was largely culled from within Pine Ridge, blurring […]

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Chloé Zhao’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me, 2015. Photo courtesy artist

For her debut feature, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, Chinese-born filmmaker Chloé Zhao turned her camera on the beautiful but impoverished Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota. Anchored by two young leads (Jashaun St. John and John Reddy) who bring to life a tender brother-sister relationship, Zhao’s cast was largely culled from within Pine Ridge, blurring the line between character and actor. Deploying an experimental, collaborative writing approach that drew heavily on the lives and personalities of the cast members, Zhao’s semi-improvised shoot yielded 100 hours of footage, which the director condensed and organized around the story of a young Oglala Lakota man’s plans to leave the reservation. Patient and respectful, even in its unflinching depiction of the crime and alcoholism that plague the community, this evocative, lyrical film explores the complicated relationships its subjects have with their troubled home.

In her interview with Crosscuts, Zhao talks about her DIY approach to the shoot, screening the film on Pine Ridge, and how to practice responsible filmmaking as a cultural outsider. Songs My Brothers Taught Me will screen in the Walker Cinema March 11–13.

I understand your first introduction to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation came through your course work as a political science student at Mount Holyoke College. This is obviously a place with a very potent political and cultural history. What expectations did you have when you first went to Pine Ridge, and what did you find when you got there?

I learned very little about Pine Ridge when I was in college studying politics. I was curious about Pine Ridge, about reservation life, and about the American West. So I went, and I really only learned about the place once I spent time there. I had no idea what to expect, but I found a world very different than my life back in New York City. I knew I desperately wanted to learn more about it.

As late as the summer of 2013, you had a polished, full-length script for a film set on Pine Ridge called Lee. But when financial realities made it impossible to proceed with the project until the following year, you decided to ditch the script and start shooting immediately, working on a much smaller budget with only a film treatment. Beyond obvious things like plot and character, how would this project have been different if funding hadn’t been a problem?

It would be a more traditional narrative story, more fast-paced, but it wouldn’t be as authentic. Even before funding fell through, I was feeling trapped by the script. Once we had nothing—no money, no pressure, almost no crew—we had to go with truth in front of the camera. Because truth was all we could afford. My job was to capture authentic moments Pine Ridge and my cast were giving me and try to navigate a story around it.

I’ve read that you mined your actors’ real lives to construct the film’s narrative, such as in the scene where Jashaun returns to the site of her father’s death, filmed at the actress’s actual home, which had unexpectedly burned down during production. You’ve said John Reddy even considers his character to be about 80 percent actually him. How did this deliberate blending of fiction and biography change the stakes of the film for you? Would you use this strategy again on your next film?

This was an important method specifically for Songs. One, because we had no money to do anything else. Two, because, by staying close to real life, I can help myself, an outsider, to make a film from inside. I’ll definitely use what I’ve learned for my future projects.

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Chloé Zhao’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me, 2015. Photo courtesy artist

I’m intrigued by Eléonore Hendricks’s character, Angie. If I’m reading her correctly, she’s one of the story’s only characters not originally from Pine Ridge; when we first meet her, she’s pointing a camera at your co-lead, Johnny Winters. Was your own position as an outsider to Pine Ridge something you consciously chose to explore in this film? Was Angie a locus of this kind of thematic work?

Yes. Angie was, like myself, one of the many photographers, filmmakers, and journalists who pointed their lens towards the reservation. The lucky ones ended up learning something about themselves along the way. She left in the end, like all of us did. It was those who remained [that] we celebrate in this film.

Following stops at Sundance and Cannes, Songs My Brothers Taught Me made its premiere on Pine Ridge this past summer. What kinds of reactions did you get from members of that community?

A lot more laughter. They got the jokes more. People generally really enjoyed it. I had parents coming up to me to say that it was hard for them to watch at some point, because it reminded them that they need to take more care of their young ones. There were good conversations afterwards. I can’t wait for DVD/VOD, so everyone on the reservation can see it.

You’ve said you’d like to make your next film in the Midwest, as well. Do you have any ideas about the direction that project might take? What did you learn making Songs that you expect to apply to your work in the future?

I have two films in development, both set in the Midwest and also the West. I live in Colorado now. The biggest lesson I’ve learned from Songs is to follow my curiosity. Because it usually leads me to the right people and places.

A Yard, a Tank, a Whale: The Conditions of Uri Aran’s Two Things About Suffering

Uri Aran’s new video, Two Things About Suffering (2016, video, 16 minutes), presented on the Walker Channel from February 18 through March 18, 2016, is part of the second set of Moving Image Commissions; Aran’s work responds to the rich conceptual legacy of Belgian poet, filmmaker, and artist Marcel Broodthaers (1924—1976). They said to us Thou shalt not kill […]

Uri Aran, Two Things About Suffering, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Uri Aran, Two Things About Suffering, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Uri Aran’s new video, Two Things About Suffering (2016, video, 16 minutes), presented on the Walker Channel from February 18 through March 18, 2016, is part of the second set of Moving Image Commissions; Aran’s work responds to the rich conceptual legacy of Belgian poet, filmmaker, and artist Marcel Broodthaers (1924—1976).

They said to us

Thou shalt not kill and they

deserved to die themselves.

Thou shalt love Thy neighbor.

 

They drew rafters

inside the A’s and on top of the T’s

They made images

They told us we were children,

They kept us from reading the texts,

since there is not a line which does not condemn them.

Belles lettres

plugs the eyes,

they filled my language with Jazz and jazz

is cotton stuffing. Silence! Silence!

Children and fishes

they will throw us into the sea

they will throw us into prison

They have lost their faces.

—Marcel Broodthaers, Untitled Poem (translated by Paul Schmidt)

Uri Aran’s new video work, Two Things About Suffering (2016), features an early scene in which two men walk side by side. The space in which they walk is curious. Enclosed but cavernous, natural light yet high brick walls, it resembles the bowels of an industrial ruin—a little too tall, a little too narrow. As the pair of men pace together, the more verbose of the two speculates grimly about “the conditions in which we are expected to act.” His roguish companion, without warning or much care for what has been said, takes the other’s fist and pretends to have the latter punch himself. The scene cuts before the action is completed, leaving the viewer to consider the conundrum central to Two Things About Suffering: the ways in which one is conditioned—through environment, language, and intervention.

At first glance, these conditions in which the characters are expected to act appear binary: the men perform two monologues that refuse to enter into dialogue, yet are spoken in parallel; they play out a minute Beckettian drama, switching a small work light on and off as if to refer to themselves passing in and out of character; there is a day scene, there is a night scene; there is a performance scene, there is a downtime scene. So too does the title refer to the duality of the work. “I wanted the title to sound like a lesson. Maybe these figures are two forms of suffering,” ventures Aran. “They ‘walk the yard.’ They are two fish in a tank. The space is so deep and so high they could be two men inside the belly of a whale.”

A yard, a tank, a whale. Such an allegorical impulse has been a defining feature throughout this New York–based artist’s body of work. Aran’s practice repeatedly trades on the uncanny combinations of things—of surrogates and substitutions, as well as the ability to say two things at once. His exhibition By Foot, By Car, By Bus (2012), for example, included a video of a man telling a story into a studio microphone. Each time he came to the end of the story, he reformulated his tale from the beginning, creating imperfect iterations anew. Much like Aran’s Two Things About Suffering, the video was a double-tongued piece—a recursive serpentine loop that reveals itself through repetitions and revisions both familiar and unfamiliar.

The casting of Two Things About Suffering operates out of a similar engagement with the notion of “familiarity” and the structures of acquaintance. Aran uses his identical twin brother—jazz musician, Dan Aran—as an analog or shorthand for gestures the artist recognizes as his own, while drawing the rest of the cast from musicians with whom his brother regularly works. The configuration of these people is a nesting of prior relations both social and professional, while the content of the work seeks to penetrate the conditions through which individuals participate in the collaborative act of drama. Although it aggressively resists a narrative impulse, Two Things About Suffering can be described as the sum performance of competing powers between familiars: of ambition, mimicry, ability, the desire to stop, and failure to do so. “Familiarity” is, after all, not just a principle that that describes conditions of intimacy. It is about technique, mastery, even the supernatural.

Uri Aran, Two Things About Suffering, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Uri Aran, Two Things About Suffering, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Formally trained as a typographer in Israel prior to studying art in New York, Aran is well-versed in the containment of meaning, how it might be laid out aesthetically, as well as how phrases, styles, might leak into one another. “The infinite possibilities of producing meaning through the interplay of sign and signifier—I address this aspect of language through repetition, re-organization, and quotation,” says Aran. “English is the language of the West and of Pop—you can’t escape it. The way it’s received is so mediated that it feels quoted.”

Aran’s Walker Moving Image Commission has its own quotations, not just within its circular dialogue and repeated gestures, but also within its script and the material of performance. The script is drawn from two sources: Richard Boleslavsky’s Acting: The First Six Lessons: Documents from the American Laboratory Theatre (1933) and Aran’s own antagonistic and highly critical notes he jotted down in the margins while reading the book. The video material, meanwhile, is documentation of an earlier performance he presented in Rome as part of the artist’s exhibition project, Multicolored Blue (2015). Aran treated it as if it were found footage, disregarding the original intentions of the initial live performance and the documentation it produced, and instead tackled its current container: video.

Two Things About Suffering inquisitively probes the frame, using comic pans and zooms to capture the actors’ glances straight to camera. The minor technical movements form the basic punctuation or rhythm of the scene; a nod, a tick, an error or an intervention creates its own patterns and events within a score of semi-rehearsed, semi-improvised actions. Aran also challenges the appropriateness of the “outtake” as valid material, where the “in-between” of performance becomes an event itself, tipping the genre of the sober chamber play into that of a slapstick comedy. “I wanted to use the material again, to deal with its inadequacies—to use these figures, the work, the actions to kick it back into the light.” But Aran’s “light” is not necessarily the space of clarity. It is purely an effect or quality that might better reveal that which is already present.

Two Things About Suffering is, in many ways, a conscious undoing of material. The video plays out in three sections: walking the yard; a “downtime” scene, where the actors sit and light matches in the artists’ studio (“I wanted them to play with fire, to have something bigger than themselves in the scene”); and the final ballroom scene, which initially plays out as if a dream but is interrupted, obscured, and cancelled by the digitally overlaid stock image of a roast chicken. Invoking the comic desires of cartoon character Wile E. Coyote, the wholesome sentimentality of an American chicken dinner, or the abject image of a dead animal, this absurd image forcefully rejects any kind of unconscious meaning of the performance. Flattening out the screen with an incongruously hovering chicken, Aran makes it clear there is no psychology to be understood “underneath” this performance, or apart from it. There are simply two things that exist within the same container: a performance and its intervention; two trapped men and a dead animal; inappropriate actions and unexpected ones. Aran’s surrealist gambit is a terminal gesture that forces the performance towards a conclusion, and yet persists for one final comic turn: the retinal burn of a chicken appearing in the dark glow of the cinematic fade out.

Uri Aran, Two Things About Suffering, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Uri Aran, Two Things About Suffering, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

With its circular gestures, goofy interventions, and melancholic self-consciousness, Two Things About Suffering recalls Marcel Broodthaers’s declaration that art “is a prisoner of its phantasms and its function as magic.” The Belgian artist added, “I choose to consider Art as a useless labor, apolitical and of little moral significance […] Urged on by some base inspiration, I confess I would experience a kind of pleasure at being proved wrong. A guilty pleasure, since it would be at the expense of the victims, those who thought I was right.” Doomed unto itself, art will continue to perform the conditions of its own entrapment, always hoping for something outside of itself. It seeks and fails to connect with political power, and is reduced simply to a performance of certainties, hopes and doubts. “In this video, I wanted these two characters to act as if there was meaning,” says Aran. The subjects pass time, play to camera, and wait for the artist’s permission for the period of performance to stop, while being caught up in the absurdity of such an impossibility. Recalling his source material, Aran notes that “the funny thing about ‘method acting,’ and even the idea of the ‘Actor’s Studio,’ is that it acts as if there is something outside.”

An obsessive assemblagist dedicated to exposing the operations through which meaning could be applied as well as nullified, Broodthaers often put his things into what curator Dieter Schwarz describes as “conditions of equivalence.” His work puts objects, symbols,  and text together in order to expose their structural qualities and values that were, for him, both economic and cultural, though not necessarily truthful. “This equivalence does not work toward an aesthetic or logical condition of tautology. Rather, it addresses the mutual insufficiency of both the written and the visual presentation,” argues Schwarz. Referring to his “egg paintings,” for example, Broodthaers declared his work thus: “I return to matter. I rediscover the tradition of the primitives. Painting with eggs. Painting with eggs.” The artist’s statement, the objects displayed, and the environment in which the statement and object come together allude to the use of yolk in painting pigment, as well as the history of folk art. Here, the order and the repetitions of words which appear to operate with meaning both place and displace Broodthaers’s references and influences. “Painting with eggs” does and does not equal “painting with eggs.” In such transparent deceptions Broodthaers hints at another subject: the performance of dependencies of meaning. His medium is neither object nor text but rather, as Schwarz describes, “a rhetoric that will deprive us of our certainty of being ably to verify a statement’s truth.”

Aran’s prankish relationship with physical theater and its perverse interventions into the scripted word directly emerges from this cultural inheritance, specifically the latter’s summation of art as captive to its own illusions. Two Things About Suffering perfectly demonstrates such a paradox as a mise en abyme—a space of absolute recursion. It is at once hopeless and hopeful. Just as the first two words that open the video are a miniature drama of the title itself—“Please help”—Aran’s work doesn’t seek authenticity. It desires to simultaneously show a story and its difference—the inconstant glimmer of revision in process.

Figure and Wound: The Human Body in Shahryar Nashat’s Present Sore

Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission Shahryar Nashat’s Present Sore (2016, video, 9 minutes), presented on the Walker Channel from February 18 through March 18, 2016, is part of the second set of Moving Image Commissions; his piece responds to the rich conceptual legacy of Belgian poet, filmmaker, and artist Marcel Broodthaers. In 1983, when feminist scholar […]

Shahryar Nashat, 'Present Sore', 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission.

Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Shahryar Nashat’s Present Sore (2016, video, 9 minutes), presented on the Walker Channel from February 18 through March 18, 2016, is part of the second set of Moving Image Commissions; his piece responds to the rich conceptual legacy of Belgian poet, filmmaker, and artist Marcel Broodthaers.

In 1983, when feminist scholar Donna Haraway began writing “A Cyborg Manifesto,” her landmark essay that would come to redefine forms of gender classification and the conditions of what it is to be human, she speculated upon describing the limits of physicality. “Why should our bodies end at the skin?” Haraway’s question was not an attempt to create a definition but an extension. Rather than articulate a body’s limit, this was a provocation to imagine an array of new possibilities—possibilities that would dilate the idea of the body beyond the purely descriptive notion of flesh and bone, and reposition physicality within a discussion of power and identity. Three decades on, her provocation remains integral to considering how one’s most absolute form—one’s own body—is presently described through culture and aesthetics, subjected to law, and conditioned by access to and use of technology.

Reflecting upon what the “ideal body” might look like in the 21st century, artist Shahryar Nashat’s new Walker Moving Image Commission, Present Sore (2016), engages Haraway’s question by constructing a moving image of a human form whose mobility, physicality, and sensuality are comprehensively mediated by a series of objects and technologies that Nashat loosely groups under the term “prosthetics.” Clothes, exfoliants, lubricants, artificial limbs, money, medication—these are contemporary industrially made objects that are displayed upon, attached to, or ingested into the body on a metabolic level. Akin to the ways in which classical painting would seek to augment the persona of a human figure with attributes, emblems, or allegorical objects, the human form in Present Sore is so completely embedded (and occasionally obscured) within this array of objects that it surfaces only through its interaction with the synthetic; the artificial is ingested into or presented as an extension of the human form.

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Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

“I don’t think Greco-Roman, muscular, or athletic qualities represents the body that is in any way ideal, but rather the body that demonstrates itself through its dependencies and vulnerabilities,” says Nashat of the work. “I’m interested in how expressions of injury, difficulty, and dependency expose certain qualities and values of contemporary life.” Present Sore thus seeks to articulate elements that might constitute a body’s “aliveness.” It supposes that the body can never be fully described in perfect isolation, but rather through a composite of objects that signify discomfort and pleasure, as well as attempts to control such experiences. Starting at the feet and ending at the head, the human figure in Present Sore is, in the artist’s words, “gentrified”—an active participant in the replacement and displacement of values within a given site, which is, in this case, the cultural body.

“We know nothing about a body until we know what it can do,” write theoreticians Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in their 1980 essay “Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Imperceptible.” “What its affects are, how they can or cannot enter into composition with other affects, with the affects of another body, either to destroy that body or to be destroyed by it, either to exchange actions and passions with it or to join with it in composing a more powerful body.” Here, the composition of the human figure is not a container of an individual’s agency, but rather something externally constructed and enabled. Capacity is thus determined from the outside; the body is governed by the force of others, their violence or tenderness, and by rules about what it can be or should do.

It is significant that Nashat’s video was commissioned in response to the ongoing legacies of Belgian conceptual artist Marcel Broodthaers (1924–1976). Throughout his work, Broodthaers’s repeatedly used the term “figure” (which he commonly abbreviated “fig.”) to indicate the double role of an object, calling attention to the difference of an object observed and an object as an image.

Marcel Broodthaers 'Je hais le mouvement qui déplace les lignes de Charles Baudelaire', 1973

Marcel Broodthaers, Je hais le mouvement qui déplace les lignes de Charles Baudelaire, 1973

He would often deploy his own adaptations of friend and artist René Magritte’s notorious painting The Treachery of Images (1928–1929) and its depiction of a pipe next to the phrase “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”). Broodthaers was not so much interested in an expression of lack between meaning and symbol but rather sought to foreground the infidelity of and impossibility of embodied meaning. Curator and art historian Dirk Snauwaert’s definition of “figure” provides a useful parallel to thinking about Present Sore’s representation of the contemporary human body—its resistances to interpretation, as well as its vulnerabilities. Snauwaert describes “figure” as:

the stage of observation when things are on the point of being named, when the object is about to be connected with a concept. Figure thus implies seeing, observing, but not yet explaining. Unlike the symbol, which is recognized and defined within a discourse, the figure is open and unconstructed. In this respect it corresponds to a work of art, which is open and ambiguous as well, and operates by evading definition. Figure cannot be reduced to a single meaning.

Where Broodthaers assembled a sophisticated rebus of a practice constituted through poetry, graphics and film—one engaged in exposing the indiscriminate and varied attachment of meaning to images and words—Nashat’s relationship to image-making calls attention to the similarly promiscuous and often queer relations between the desire for a body and desire for the image of a body. The latter’s art presents an often contrarian space, where sensuality is both performed and interrupted, displayed, and redacted. In its complex editorial structure, for example, Present Sore’s rapidly switching screen wipes and composite images of the human body paradoxically pushes the eye away from the subject it seeks to comprehend. The combination of the lingering camera and the restless cut work to simultaneously animate and suppress visual cognition of the figure. No longer caressing the body with a subjective gaze, even the viewer’s eye is reduced to the mechanism of scan, running into the black margins of the image. Thus the represented body remains plural and inexplicably embedded within objects and moving parts.

Incorporating mediums of sculpture, photography, installation and moving image, Nashat’s work of the past decade has singularly committed itself to looking at the human body, asking: what are the cultural trappings that make a body desirable, heroic, pornographic, or vulnerable? What are the modes of access, regulation, conditioning between an eye and the body it comprehends? In his later videos especially, Nashat’s camera probes forms both organic and man-made for attributes that could be described as hominal—the texture that might resemble skin, the bend and flex of a substance that appears animate, a gesture that appears human and is not or, inversely, a human gesture that appears mechanical.

Frequently, his works use representations of visual pleasure as a substitute for the other senses of the body. Short video works like One More Time With James (2009) depict two men in a high-end perfumery performing a transaction that is, in essence, denied to the viewer (purchasing a fragrance) but rendered instead as a glassy dreamscape, while Hustle in the Hand (2014) comprises the theatrical presentation of a grazed arm to the camera, where the act of injury is suppressed in favor of a fixation on the aesthetics of a human wound. In each of Nashat’s works, physical theater is uneasily presented as high artifice, consciously and sometimes painfully aware of how its sensuality is fetishized for the camera. Diegetic sounds of human action are eliminated to make way for the feigned authenticity of foley effects, while human movement is exaggerated to the point that chance gestures are repeatedly looped to appear premeditated or inevitable, recalling the abstracted advertising imagery of conceptual artist and filmmaker Peter Roehr (1944–1968).

Shahryar Nashat, 'Present Sore', 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission.

Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Present Sore is the most aggressively constituted image of Nashat’s work to date. It is a conglomeration of hard wipes, a dissonant database of sounds, and a forensic image of a single body that has in fact been rendered from many individuals (including stunt men, actors, sex workers) whose different skin tones and ethnic heritages appear graded into a uniform median color. “Organic, digital, mediated, injured, veteran,” lists Nashat, “any kind of body is now available for representation.”

Even intimacy is shown as an effect produced via camera. What might in isolation be considered archetypal expressions of emotional closeness in film—a close-up of the body, discreet hand gestures and touching, over-the-shoulder camera positions—are mechanized through loops and discordant foley. And on a structural level, physical intimacy with the viewer is fabricated through the 90-degree rotation of the widescreen aspect ratio into 9:16, a format most commonly experienced through hand-held mobile devices. Not simply the primary portrait format of the 21st century, Present Sore’s aspect ratio is a frame optimized for holding the image in proximity to one’s own body. It is the ubiquitous yet private “user” view for most moving images today.

Despite these aggressive technological interventions upon the human body, at the very center of Present Sore lies not an archetype or composite, but a found object: Paul Thek’s 1965 sculpture, Hippopotamus from Technological Reliquaries, which is housed in the Walker Art Center’s permanent collection. Presented as an interlude from the juddering mechanics of the composite body, this dream sequence imagines an interior altogether different from the body scenes that bookend it. The symbolism of this dream space escapes contemporary mechanisms, and imports a different time into Present Sore—the period of the Thek work itself, one that is notably pre-AIDS but concurrent with another humanitarian crisis: the Vietnam War.

Shahryar Nashat, 'Present Sore', 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission.

Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Thek’s Hippopotamus consists of a lump of flesh placed within the sanitizing and museological conditions of a transparent vitrine. Made in direct response to the political campaigns that supported American military intervention in Vietnam, Thek noted of the work:

I was amused at the idea of meat under Plexiglas because I thought it made fun of the scene—where the name of the game seemed to be “how cool you can be” and “how refined.” Nobody ever mentioned anything that seemed real. The world was falling apart, anyone could see it.

With Nashat’s highly selective camera positions and macro shots of Hippopotamus, this “interior” scene is not an escape from the pressures exerted upon the contemporary body, but an indication of the wound beneath. The negative and unseen space that Thek rendered in order to provoke the unspoken horror of war is here shown to persist within the contemporary body. This is an atrophied cultural wound that, like the term of the “figure,” remains open and unreconstructed—the present sore.

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