Blogs Crosscuts Walker Film

New Frontier at Sundance Film Festival: 10 Years of Changing Boundaries

To commemorate ten years of innovation and experimentation at the New Frontier at Sundance Film Festival Program, the Walker’s Sheryl Mousley and Shari Frilot, New Frontier chief curator, offer this illustrated survey. Celebrating its 10th anniversary, the Sundance Institute’s New Frontier program has provided the highest level of curation in this emerging field since 2007. Virtual […]

Blast Theory, A Machine to See With, documentary, 2011. (© Walker Art Center)

Blast Theory, A Machine to See With, documentary, 2011. Photo: © Walker Art Center

To commemorate ten years of innovation and experimentation at the New Frontier at Sundance Film Festival Program, the Walker’s Sheryl Mousley and Shari Frilot, New Frontier chief curator, offer this illustrated survey. Celebrating its 10th anniversary, the Sundance Institute’s New Frontier program has provided the highest level of curation in this emerging field since 2007. Virtual Reality: The New Frontier runs at the Walker Art Center on Sunday, June 12 through Thursday, June 16 and is presented in collaboration with the Sundance Institute’s New Frontier program and Northern Lights.mn.

As I walked around Park City, Utah, in January 2011, I listened to directions over my cell phone from a calm voice with a slight British accent: “Stand nearer the curb as you are in a close-up”; “Look for the Union Bank on the right side of the street”; “Cross over toward the entrance, look at the teller window but go past to the lobby.” I did what I was told, but was I acting or actually being asked to rob a bank? Was I in a movie or about to be arrested?

I was participating in a work titled A Machine to See With by Blast Theory, an artist collective from England, presented in the New Frontier section of the Sundance Film Festival. It was a ticketed event, yet—unlike going to the cinema—once you handed over your cell phone number you were placed in the artists’ hands. While you were never actually being filmed, as you learned later, so much of what we believe about cinema came into play vividly, as if it were a real movie. We trust cinema until we are pushed past our own boundaries, to a new frontier. As we go into uncharted territories, we ask, Can we trust our vision, our understanding of the cinematic experience?

A broadly realized project, New Frontier is curated by Shari Frilot as a convergence of film, performance, new media and technology. Showing artists from around the world, it has become recognized widely for its cinematic innovation.

New Frontier, now celebrating its 10th year, transformed an existing programming section at Sundance that had been called simply “Frontier.” Always known for pushing forward more experimental work, Sundance was formed in 1985 by Robert Redford, who has been the steadfast champion of independent filmmakers. Focusing mainly on narrative features made outside the Hollywood system and documentaries that define the complexity of our social and political world, Frontier became the category meant to expand these traditional forms of cinematic storytelling. The name also served as a code for the audience to readily identify a film that experimented with nontraditional narrative, boldly radical styles or challenging storylines. The programmers had a place for films that did not fit easily within the evolving the idea that this category actually became a corral of sorts for renegade artists.

By 2007 the Sundance programmers found filmmakers and moving image artists expanding the boundaries even further as they worked within the ideas of the cinematic but did not play by filmmaking rules.

That year, Sundance announced the New Frontier initiative. Shari Frilot explained it as follows:

“New Frontier on Main was a hybrid space drawing from the art gallery scene, microcinema culture and the seductiveness of the DJ lounge atmosphere and then designed to look and feel very distinctive from the rest of the Festival. We wanted to cultivate an artistic and social environment to disarm people when they entered the space. It was a way of unlocking inhibitions and encouraging audiences to think about opening themselves up to the new rules and cinematic suggestions which the New Frontier artists are inviting you to consider.”

Quickly recognized for bringing the art world and the film festival world together, New Frontier tracked the developing performative cinema movement, the fast-paced tech advances and visual artists who used moving images as part of their work. It became a festival inside a festival.

Miwa Matreyek, This World Made Itself, live performance, 2014. Photo: Gayle Laird © Miwa Matreyek

Miwa Matreyek, This World Made Itself, live performance, 2014. Photo: Gayle Laird © Miwa Matreyek

In the area of performative cinema, we might ask: Is film inherently performative? Blast Theory used our belief in what an actor does on screen to get the audience to participate. Live performance’s long history onstage as well as staged happenings opened the door for Sam Green (January 2010) to make a live documentary film, Utopia in 4 Parts. Using the stylistic form of documentary film (although the work is actually more like early educational television with an authoritative voice-over, images created or culled from history, and a soundtrack to build emotional connection to the topic), Green shook up the system by never actually making a film but instead performing his text live. The audience watched him edit the images pulled from his laptop onto the screen, all to a live musical score by Dave Cerf.

In This World Made Itself, Miwa Matreyek used rear projection to create a stage space (2014). The projector, sitting about 20 feet behind the screen, provided the audience a large-screen cinema feel. This space also gave Matreyek room to move between the projector and screen to form larger- than-life silhouettes made by her body movements interacting with the filmic images.

To further reshape the concept of performative cinema, choreographer Bill T. Jones took on 3D cinema to interpret After Ghostcatching for the 2011 New Frontier, and performance artist Jacolby Satterwhite perched himself above the 2014 festival scene, watching us even more than we were watching him at the New Frontier opening event. The past 10 years have seen exhilarating changes in technology. Some film projects become an interactive experience via technology. As an example, Eve Sussman’s whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir is both a feature film and a nonending story that edits itself in front of your eyes via an algorithmic program and multiplied tagged clips. A word in one scene will trigger what is chosen for the next scene; a movement across the screen will trigger another. The film is based on a tale set in mid-century Eastern Europe but is never the same sequence of events and so never the same story.

Still from whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir, 2009-2011, Eve Sussman | Rufus Corporation Collection Richard J. Massey, New York

Still from whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir, 2009-2011, Eve Sussman | Rufus Corporation. Collection Richard J. Massey, New York

Another example of how technology morphs film and performance is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s hitRECord.org, an evolved film production company that assembles an independent social media community that comes together to crowdsource the making of films under Gordon-Levitt’s direction. These films are exhibited in various ways, almost always incorporating Gordon-Levitt’s performance, as well as activating and incorporating crowdsource-produced elements generated during the exhibition. hitRECord.org is a unique cinematic expression that is at once social media discussion, crowdsourced production and performance. It completely ruptures conventional narrative traditions.

New Frontier looks as much at artistic practice as at final projects when following the struggles, love, fun and risks artists use to create work that opens up the boundaries. So we ask: Do we need a frontier? Many artists consider themselves sans frontières, without disciplines, without boundaries to push. The more definition, the more there is to resist. I have been in Park City for all 10 years of New Frontier. In fact, I started to go to Sundance in 1992 and have only missed a few years. Having seen this evolution, I know that it is more comfortable for some artists to stay within the frame of film. After all, this is a film festival. But just as I recently changed the name of the Film/Video department at Walker Art Center to Moving Image, it is time that the format-driven names film and video give up their ghosts. Film once equaled cinematic experience, and video was for artist installations; but those terms have grown tired and out of date. Now we have per- formative cinema, whether filmed or live; versions of 3D that go beyond watching projections while wearing glasses in the dark; the Oculus Rift sense of virtual reality where you turn your head and body to see a full 360 degrees and know the action might be behind you; or the reshaping of on-screen strategies by the video-game-playing generation of artists.

I asked Shari Frilot her thoughts about her 10 years with this exciting program:

“We brought the worlds of film, performance, visual art and technology under one roof in a social setting to reinvigorate the conversation about the potential for the cinematic image, and we had hoped that something larger than the sum of its parts would emerge. And emerge it did—gestural forms of editing film, audiences authoring the film itself through active participation, video games that are documentaries, performances that double as simply the act of living in an immersive digital environment, and a powerful reincarnation of Virtual Reality, a fully immersive medium that hybridizes video and theater to deliver a deeply convincing sense of liberty and presence in the moment.”

For 10 years, New Frontier has been on the forefront of visual awareness. At its very foundation it is about learning new ways of seeing and giving artists space and time to hone their work and change the way we see Moving Image.

Story is how we understand ourselves, our society and the world around us. But story doesn’t exist until it is shared through the mediums we use to communicate—our communication architecture. Today that architecture, which affects the form and practice of storytelling as much as the content itself, stands on the verge of a massive paradigm shift, one that will impact storytelling at a scope and scale that is breathtaking.

—Sheryl Mousley

• • • •

2007

The inaugural year of New Frontier was presented in 2007 in the basement of the Main Street Mall (Park City, Utah), directly across the street from the signature Egyptian Theater, so that art, film and technology would converge in Park City for the first time. This experiment in festival exhibition generated palpable excitement and not only blossomed to become one of the major points of interest at the Sundance Film Festival but also inspired the creation of an Institute-wide initiative. In 2011, the Sundance Institute established artist development programs for New Frontier artists that include the Story Lab, Artist Residency, granting, alumni support and Day Labs.

A view inside New Frontier at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. (© 2008 Sundance Institute. Photo by Rachel Thurston.

A view inside New Frontier at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. © 2008 Sundance Institute. Photo: Rachel Thurston

 

Media artists R. Luke DuBois and Shu Lea Cheang were featured in the 2007 festival as two examples of art-world figures who were innovating technology in their studios in ways that would resonate powerfully with the changes in communication architecture to come. Lynn Hershman Leeson was a returning film- maker and media artist pushing the boundaries of form and content.

DuBois worked on the vanguard, developing algorithmic compression technologies to explore ideas of canon and historical progress in popular culture. His work, Play, melds every Playboy magazine centerfold since 1953 into a dynamic collective portrait of idealized feminine beauty as it has changed over the last half century, and his film, Academy, melds every Best Picture winner, in its entirety, into a single 70-minute film.

Cheang led the cutting edge of crowdsourcing narrative filmmaking with her interactive multimedia installation MobiOpera, which invited festival-goers to check out mobile phones in order to jointly script and shoot a narrative “soap-travaganza.” Soapisodes were uploaded into a timeline and presented at a MobiSlam party to bring the authors together to jam their footage.

Shu Lea Cheang, MobiOpera, collective public cinema, 2007. (© Shu Lea Cheang)

Shu Lea Cheang, MobiOpera, collective public cinema, 2007. Photo: © Shu Lea Cheang

That same year, Lynn Hershman Leeson would present the first feature film offered to the denizens of the cybersociety Second Life. Her film, Strange Culture, played to both Park City and Second Life audiences and was discussed collectively in a Q&A organized across the live/virtual divide.

2008

Traditional boundaries between artistic forms continued to be challenged by the artists in the 2008 edition of New Frontier. Cinematic images engaged architecture in Jennifer Steinkamp’s Mike Kelley Trees, which transformed the basement lounge into a magical forest of digitally generated trees that twisted and turned in a toroidal electronic wind.

In an adjacent gallery, experimental game developer Eddo Stern gave Sundance audiences the chance to consider storytelling as they engaged with a work that integrated gaming and haptic feedback. Darkgame was a two-player game that worked with various forms of sensory deprivation to advance character development.

The same year, Cory Arcangel in collaboration with Paper Rad blew up pop art in a one-night-only film and live music performance that broke down consumer- sized ideas and colors with lucid, OCD-tripping, Nintendo-like worlds and “The Bruce Springsteen Born to Run Glockenspiel Addendum.” It would be the first time an artist presented work at the festival via Skype.

2009

The power of computing started to manifest changes in how stories were told in the 2009 edition of New Frontier. Renowned MIT Media Lab scientist John Underkoffler was responsible for the computing visualized by Tom Cruise in the film Minority Report. Underkoffler’s new company, Oblong Industries, created the first operating system based on a gestural interface, called gspeak, and unveiled the video editing app Tamper, which allowed filmmakers not only to edit clips with hand gestures but also to take apart and reassemble visual elements of the clips into an entirely new composition, reintroducing the act of production into the post- production process.

Sundance filmmaker Cory McAbee was experimenting with creating a narrative that could show on cellphones and proposed the episodic series Stingray Sam, meant to be exhibited on small screens. This musically inspired project recounted the adventures of two space convicts as they earn their freedom in exchange for rescuing a young girl held captive by a genetically designed figurehead from a very wealthy planet. The project was accepted on script alone and was an unqualified hit at the festival.

Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar introduced Sundance audiences to the craft of creating narrative through data visualization with their work We Feel Fine, which explores human emotion on a global scale. Every few minutes, the program takes sentences that include the words “I feel” or “I am feeling” from all blogs that have just been published and visualizes them in ways that let viewers see what any part of the world is feeling at any given moment.

2010

By 2010, the festival had witnessed a massive collapse of the independent film business as indie shingles in the studio system shuttered and financing for independent film dried up. Before this juncture, New Frontier had been regarded as a kind of marginal cool art experiment. Now festival audiences were entering the venue in an active search for alternative ways of moving forward with the art, craft and business of independent storytelling.

Documentarians Sam Green and Dave Cerf took cues from the music business, which had switched from selling albums to selling concert tickets, and created the live-performed documentary Utopia in Four Movements, in which Green and Cerf performed live narrative and soundtrack to accompany a PowerPoint presentation of images and footage to tell the story of the history of the utopian impulse.

Sam Green and Dave Cerf, Utopia in Four Movements, live documentary, 2010. (© Sundance Institute)

Sam Green and Dave Cerf, Utopia in Four Movements, live documentary, 2010. Phott: © Sundance Institute

The actor Joseph Gordon- Levitt presented a new brand of production company that was part crowdsourced media workshop, part social network and part live performance. hitRECord.org operated a production studio at the venue and invited audiences to collaborate with Levitt to create short films that would then be presented at the festival in an interactive revue hosted by the actor.

Arizona farmer Matthew Moore took cinematic storytelling out of the exhibition space and into the local grocery store. Lifecycles reconfigured the produce section of the Fresh Market grocery store in Park City by showing time-lapse films of crops growing alongside the bins of the very same crop being sold at the store, transforming audiences’ relationship to the produce they bought and consumed.

2011

The 2011 edition of New Frontier was presented at the historic Miners Hospital and featured 18 works—art installations, performances and transmedia projects. Filmmaker/creative technologist duo Chris Milk and Aaron Koblin presented two works at the festival: the HTML music video The Wilderness Downtown <www. thewildernessdowntown.com/> and The Johnny Cash Project, a participatory web-based project that invites audiences to create individual drawings that are woven into a collective, animated music-video tribute to Johnny Cash, set to his song “Ain’t No Grave.”

Filmmaker/transmedia storyteller Lance Weiler blurred the boundaries between R&D and festival exhibition with a multi-platformed story that tracks the spread of a mysterious zombie virus affecting adults as it spreads from its small rural town origins to Park City.

Pandemic 1.0, a continually evolving transmedia storytelling experience that unites film, mobile and online technologies, props, social gaming and data visualization, allowed audiences to step into the shoes of the pandemic protagonists anytime during the day.

Animator/performance artist Miwa Matreyek presented two cinematic performance works—Dreaming of Lucid Living and Myth and Infrastructure—integrating Matreyek’s original animation with the artist’s live shadow play to create breathtakingly beautiful images that told a penetrating tale of the relationship between the domestic realm and the larger surrounding environment.

2012

2012 marked a major shift in how technology would affect the moving image, but no one knew it just then. Former Newsweek correspondent Nonny de la Peña developed a groundbreaking brand of journalism that made news reporting a fully immersive experience (Hunger in Los Angeles). The head-mounted display that she developed with 18-year-old intern Palmer Lucky would be the first prototype for the reincarnation of virtual reality.

Collaborators Chris Johnson and Hank Willis Thomas, in collaboration with Bayete Ross Smith and Kamal Sinclair, reimagined the social network with Question Bridge: Black Males, a work that allowed black men to speak for themselves and to one another from a safe, personal space. In this inspired exquisite corpse project, the interviews that the men recorded and uploaded in solitude were then edited together by the collective and installed to play as a forum discussion between the men.

The National Film Board of Canada’s Bear 71 would break ground, gaining worldwide attention to the art and craft of transmedia documentary storytelling. Audiences follow an emotional narrative of a bear trying to survive in the Canadian Rockies as online participants join the interactive forest com- munity in which the tagged Bear 71 roams.

2013

The desire to create fully immersive media forms was trending rapidly among artists, with various forms of expression emerging on the deeply networked media landscape. Klip Collective, who began projecting on tables in the 2007 edition of New Frontier, created What’s He Building in There?, a large-scale 3D projection–mapped film that transformed the entire frontal exterior of the New Frontier venue, which that year was a retired lumberyard.

Klip Collective, What’s He Building in There?, video projection, 2013. (© Sundance Institute)

Klip Collective, What’s He Building in There?, video projection, 2013. Photo: © Sundance Institute

Inspired by the international science collaboration of 1761, which observed the transit of Venus, Lynette Wallworth created the visually stunning Coral: Rekindling Venus, a networked, augmented-reality, full-dome film presentation that was presented in planetariums worldwide. This epic project featured original deep-sea photography and music by Antony and the Johnsons.

Blending augmented reality, social media satire, IRL (“in real life”) performance and hip hop music video, Yung Jake was himself net art incarnate. Crafting a fluid and elusive identity that mainly lived as a conversation between himself and the various screens in his environment, Yung Jake’s work Augmented Real posed questions about identity in an age when most people were looking at their digital screens as much as at each other.

2014

In 2014, New Frontier moved back to the Main Street area (sharing a building with the festival box office) and debuted Oculus Rift’s first development kit, offering festival audiences a showcase of four VR works, including the multiplayer game EVE: Valkyrie by CCP games; the music video Sound and Vision by Chris Milk; the app VR Cinema, where the 3D New Frontier shorts screened; and Clouds, a VR version of the interactive documentary about the world of creative code by James George and Jonathan Minard.

Chris Milk and Aaron Koblin, The Johnny Cash Project, animated music video, 2011. (© Sundance Institute)

Chris Milk and Aaron Koblin, The Johnny Cash Project, animated music video, 2011. Photo: © Sundance Institute

Media artist Doug Aitken presented a 2,000-square-foot pavilion installation designed in collaboration with architect David Adjaye that was installed in the Main Street area. The Source is an immersive, multi-platformed, generative documentary exploring the nature and source of creativity. The work was presented as a rhythmic, six-channel projection installation, a living archive website and short films presented in various screens throughout the festival.

The media performance art of Jacolby Satterwhite defies categorization, incorporating live vogue dancing, sculpture and various original CG animations depicting hallucinogenic and outlandishly sexual landscapes and storylines. His bold and hallucinogenic work burns with originality, desire and conceptual density. Satterwhite evokes a universe where sexuality runs hungry and wild through the psychobioelectric matrix in search of transformation and liberation.

2015

In March of 2014, Facebook would buy Oculus for $2 billion and by June, Samsung would develop Gear VR, Google would release Cardboard, Sony would prototype their Morpheus headset and a veritable gold rush to develop a commercial VR camera would ensue. The technology seemed on the precipice of transforming cinematic storytelling, so we made a decision to focus on VR for the 2015 edition and show the diversity of approaches and artistic practices that were engaging the new medium. Works included Vincent Morisset’s groundbreaking Way to Go; Rose Troche and Morris May’s Perspective; Chapter 1:The Party; and Chris Milk’s stunning Evolution of Verse. Fox Searchlight had even produced its firstVR experience, Wild, with Directors Felix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael, also the first of its kind to feature widely recognized Hollywood stars.

Chris Milk, Evolution of Verse, VR, 2015. (© Chris Milk)

Chris Milk, Evolution of Verse, VR, 2015. Photo: © Chris Milk

VR would bring the world of the cinematic closer to the gaming industry than ever before, so we decided to showcase the hottest piece of game storytelling I had seen that year, 1979 Revolution, a groundbreaking documentary about the namesake event, the Iranian Revolution, told as a game designed for iPad and Oculus.

After the 2015 edition of New Frontier, the field of VR exploded and would begin to transform both the entertainment and publishing industries, as much as it was affecting the gaming and medical industries. Cinematic storytelling entered a bold new world.

The 2015 festival proved to be a watershed event that connected the world of cinema to the medium of VR. Billion-dollar projections were being forecast for the industry, and VR companies, who once saw their future in games, began to talk publicly about the importance of VR storytelling. World-class musician Björk was creating a new album to be presented entirely in VR, and The New York Times gave away 1 million Google Cardboard goggles to its subscriber base. The media landscape was undeniably changing.

2016

The 2016 edition of New Frontier, which marked the 10th anniversary of the exhibition, reflected how strongly storytellers were embracing VR. We featured a slate of 44 artists, 30 of which were VR experiences, ranging from documentaries to animation to live-action narrative. We developed an independent architecture within New Frontier at Sundance to showcase this burgeoning VR production and highlight its downloadable/mobile nature.

Following the form of the medium, we also created the Sundance VR app for Android so that audiences outside of Park City might access the work.

Amid the landing of the VR tidal wave, New Frontier still needed to do its job at the festival to showcase and provoke continued innovation realized at the crossroads of film, art and technology. The 2016 edition presented the work being done in several important media labs around the world, including the 5D World Building Media Lab who were integrating VR and haptic environments, as well as advancing new forms of Augmented Reality storytelling in their developing storyworld, Leviathan.

Staying true to continuing to bring together diverse forms under one roof, several immersive projection works were presented, including Kahlil Joseph and Kendrick Lamar’s stunning two-screen work, Double Conscience.

Kahlil Joseph and Kendrick Lamar, Double Conscience, installation, 2014. (© Kahlil Joseph, Kendrick Lamar. Photo © Chayse Irvin.)

Kahlil Joseph and Kendrick Lamar, Double Conscience, installation, 2014. © Kahlil Joseph, Kendrick Lamar. Photo © Chayse Irvin

Both the MoMA and Walker Art Center organized exhibitions saluting the achievement of New Frontier at Sundance that would run throughout the year. The success of the show prompted the relentless question from the press corp: “How has New Frontier changed?” But nothing had really changed. New Frontier was doing exactly what it had started to do in the basement of the Main Street Mall in 2007, which was find the artists who were working with cinematic language—regardless of whether they were working in the art world, or with technology, or in journalism or in performance—and bring them under one roof at the Sundance Film Festival and see how cinema culture could expand in ways we couldn’t have ever thought of before.

“New Frontier at Sundance Film Festival,” by Sheryl Mousley and Shari Frilot, was first published in Leonardo, 49:2 (April, 2016), pp. 109–112. © 2016 by the International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology (ISAST). Reprinted courtesy of The MIT Press. The original published article can be found here.

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 […]

Wild_Style_Ahearn_02_PP

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.

I_Dont_Belong_Anywhere_Lambert_02_PP

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 […]

Songs_My_Brothers_Taught_Me_Zhao_01_Spirit_Awards_2015_PP

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.

Songs_My_Brothers_Taught_Me_Zhao_02_Spirit_Awards_2015_PP

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.

Next