Blogs Crosscuts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Lovesong’s Longing: An Interview with So Yong Kim

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

Yo Song Kim's Lovesong 2016 Photo courtesy Strand Releasing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yo Song Kim's Lovesong 2016 Photo courtesy Strand Releasing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zhao Liang’s Behemoth 2015 Photo courtesy Grasshopper

Zhao Liang’s Behemoth 2015. Photo courtesy Grasshopper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zhao Liang’s Behemoth 2015 Photo courtesy Grasshopper

Zhao Liang’s Behemoth 2015. Photo courtesy Grasshopper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contemportentary: The Archive Is a Port in the Squall

CONTEMPORTENTARY is a playlist curated by Hannah Piper Burns from the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection and on view in the Walker’s Bentson Mediatheque during the months of January and February. It is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Joanne Klein, who liked to say, “Has the mind you expanded shrunk to fit the times?”  We […]

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Antoni Muntadas, Video is Television?, 1989. Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

CONTEMPORTENTARY is a playlist curated by Hannah Piper Burns from the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection and on view in the Walker’s Bentson Mediatheque during the months of January and February. It is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Joanne Klein, who liked to say, “Has the mind you expanded shrunk to fit the times?” 

We need cinema right now, because we need a moment. And not just any moment: We have been in the streets, with candles and signs, and sometimes tear gas and broken glass. We have been in public, sizing each other up and/or just trying to blend in, weaponizing our small talk and surveilling each other’s tantrums. We have been in the feeds with our index fingers like inchworms infinitely scrolling and clicking, and clicking, and sharing, peripatetic, our tabs proliferating in the windows. We have been on either side of the protest lines, screaming and brandishing conflicting signs. Now we need a moment in the dark to be alone together, in a different kind of covenant, with a different kind of discourse. In a way, we are all alone in the dark together already.

I need a moment. I have whiplash from the breaking news cracking across my timelines, and I can’t tell if I’m being served or summoned by the algorithms. I’m really starting to feel differently about the arc of history and I know it’s not just me, baby. I’m coming down with a bad case of that time warp feeling. Things seem like they are moving very, very quickly, but we’re hurtling towards an inevitability, rather than a possibility. These are times characterized by bombardment—of opinions, emotions, narratives, calls to action, commodities—within greater systems of control that operate in various states of visibility. This demanding abundance grating against the creeping, camouflaged austerity is the white noise whine that we have had to learn to live with.

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Miranda Pennell’s You Made Me Love You, 2004. Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

I turned to the archive with a mind to find works that might whine back, in the key of my own emotional maelstrom. I have been curating film and video for the better part of the last decade—programming film festivals and touring with screenings—but I have never made selections from a repository like the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection at the Walker Art Center. I approached the archive as I would an oracle, looking for new ways to look at my own reality. I came away with an array of movies that echo my processing of this post-truth, casually brutal, winkingly authoritarian, rapidly accelerating present tension. At first, I framed my selections in hauntological terms:

Each of these movies is a ghost that haunts our contemporary condition. As a collection, they zigzag across the decades and conjure the morass, the cacophony, the nihilism, the absurdity, the dissonance, and the violence that we have internalized. That we have normalized. The howl of the wind is the growl of an engine is the groan of orgasm is the moan of anguish. The gaze refracts back. The body is a political act. The ghosts are screaming through the screen. Can you hear them?

But then I started thinking about the energy I felt moving through the works, the charge I was trying to harness, the breath behind that screaming. It was pain. Ghosts can be seen as pure pain made manifest. The body may rot away, but suffering is what anchors a spirit to the material world. This playlist is about fitting the suffering of the now into the continuum of cinema, with movies that act as the medium between the now and the then as well as between ourselves and others.

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Kenneth Anger, Scorpio Rising, 1964. Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

So if these works are challenging, discomforting, or destabilizing, it is because I am discomforted and destabilized. We all should be. Comfort gets us nowhere anymore, and by the way, there is just as much comfort to be found in outrage as there is in pleasure.

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Tony Oursler, Grand Mal, 1981. Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

If they are absurd, it’s because reason has no place in our new resonance-based economies of attention, so why shouldn’t we just push through the low-level tragedy of irony and into the glorious, discordant realm of the absurd? Absurdity is the alchemy that transforms anguish into resistance. It’s the epiphany that when meaning can no longer be made, it must be un-made.

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Leslie Thornton, Strange Space, 1992. Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

If they are vulnerable almost to the point of confrontation, it’s because so many vulnerabilities have been reified and revealed. The zeitgeist openly mocks open vulnerability, lumping it in with its dismissal of “special snowflakes,” “safe spaces,” and “political correctness.” That bullying impulse has now ascended to the highest echelons of power, so it’s a considerable act of courage to turn the other cheek or roll over to show off a soft underbelly in the face of it.

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Peggy Ahwesh and Keith Sanborn, The Deadman, 1989. Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

If they are profane, like Kenneth Anger’s flashy fashy fashionable fetishizing of toxic masculinity or Peggy Ahwesh and Keith Sanborn’s stripped-down, balls-to-the-wall adaptation of a Bataille text (complete with unsimulated sex), it’s because I think it’s time to Make Cultural Gatekeepers Disgusted Again. Turnabout is fair play. The grants aren’t going to be coming through anymore anyway and besides, the more threatened they feel by unrepentant, revolting resistance, and the more they debate and try to legislate the perceived obscenity and blasphemy in art, the less time they have to otherwise destroy the world. Artists can and should push their envelopes into public art spaces with their abject, unapologetic, indecorous best, because in order to keep freedom of expression for all and not just for some, we need to keep putting it to the test.

In the cinema, there is no clickbait. There are no think pieces; there is no comments section. The discourse is not at your itchy, angry fingertips here in the dark, away from the targeted ads (and the target audience) and the endless superlative listicles and the weirdly distributed network of everyone you know, and the deluge of their banalities and their extremes. It’s a space to feel your subjectivity again, unhooked from the monetizable response industrial complex. It’s a space to let media mediate, between you and your core, without the roar of commentary. It’s a space to process individual and collective pain, so that when the lights come back on, it has transformed for us.

2016: The Year According to Charles Atlas

When Merce Cunningham’s dance company performed Ocean less than a year before the iconic choreographer’s passing in 2009, Charles Atlas was there. Coproduced by the Walker Art Center and the Cunningham Dance Foundation, the ambitious work featured 14 dancers performing in a massive granite quarry near St. Cloud, Minnesota, accompanied by 150 musicians—all of which Atlas captured with five cameras. A Cunningham […]

Charles Atlas. Photo: Lori E. Seid

Charles Atlas. Photo: Lori E. Seid

When Merce Cunningham’s dance company performed Ocean less than a year before the iconic choreographer’s passing in 2009, Charles Atlas was there. Coproduced by the Walker Art Center and the Cunningham Dance Foundation, the ambitious work featured 14 dancers performing in a massive granite quarry near St. Cloud, Minnesota, accompanied by 150 musicians—all of which Atlas captured with five cameras. A Cunningham collaborator since the early 1970s, and pioneer of videodance, Atlas is participating in the Walker-organized exhibition Merce Cunningham: Common Time, opening February 8 at the Walker and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, where his 2010 multi-channel installation MC9 will receive its US premiere. On March 9, he’ll return to introduce a selection of his films in the Walker Mediatheque, and he’ll be part of another ambitious collaboration March 16–18: in Tesseract, former Cunningham dancers Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener create a hybrid of live dance, 3-D video, and live film segments, edited in real-time by Atlas.

A pioneering figure in film and video for over four decades, Atlas has worked intimately with a range of artists and performers including Leigh Bowery, Michael Clark, Douglas Dunn, Marina Abramovic, Yvonne Rainer, Mika Tajima/New Humans, and Antony and the Johnsons. Here, in a list that references his history and relationships, he shares his perspective on the year that was as part of our series, 2016: The Year According to                              .

Ten things that have been bright spots for me in what has been the otherwise gloomy annus horribilis of 2016. These individuals have engaged me intellectually and spiritually and encouraged me with the work they have created.

1.

An Evening with DanceNoise

The performance duo of Anne Iobst and Lucy Sexton—who began making work in the 1980s—consider the effect of the AIDS epidemic on dance artists today. At St Mark’s Danspace they delivered a rousing, political feminist response that’s relevant, defiant and full of spontaneous joy.

2. 

to a simple rock and roll …. song

Photo: The Guardian

to a simple rock and roll … song at the Barbican. Photo: The Guardian

British choreographer Michael Clark mounted a show at the Barbican Theatre in London that’s part balletic perfection to the music of Erik Satie and part sexy rock and roll to the music of Patti Smith. Entertainment plus!

3. 

Yvonne Rainer’s The Concept of Dust

In her latest piece, this pioneering choreographer makes a piece that is part eclectic collage of movement, part spoken text, part nuanced consideration of mortality and aging. A rewardingly fresh work from a veteran.

4.

Silas Reiner’s Thinging

Subtitled Dance and Translation and the Work of Anne Carson, this former Merce Cunningham dancer presents a brainy and compelling combination of talking, thinking, and adventurous dancing.

 

5.

Stanley Love Performance Group’s Tapestry Truths

stanleylove

Stanley Love’s large company of performers of all sizes and skill levels dances in an installation of Martin Gustavsson’s large paintings with exhilarating effect. Watching this group always makes me want to move.

6.

Anohni’s Hopelessness

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ANOHNI composes songs: political, confrontational music sung with an angry angel’s voice, accompanied by exhilarating electronics.

7.

Late Greats

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The final albums of Leonard Cohen (Make It Blacker) and David Bowie (Blackstar): sustaining great artistic achievement until the very end.

8. 

Lady Bunny in Trans-Jester

ladybunny

At the Stonewall Inn, the drag performer and Wigstock cofounder presents an X-rated combination of beyond-hilarious comedy, jaw-dropping songs, and political rants. I consider Lady Bunny a living national treasure.

9. 

Lia Gangitano

baltropephemera

Alvin Baltrop, Pier Photographs, 2016. Vitrine detail.
Courtesy of The Alvin Baltrop Trust, Third Streaming, and Galerie Buchholz, New York. Photo: Rhona Yefman

Participant, Inc., the always excellent non-commercial space, presents multigenerational contemporary artists and historic tributes. In 2016, gallery director Lia Gangitano brought in a range of alternative art and and artists, including Alvin Baltrop, Peter Hendrick, Justin Vivian Bond, Eve Fowler, and Ellen Cantor.

10. 

Women of Progressive Opinion

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Internet radio hosts Stephanie Miller and Randi Rhodes and blogger Digby of Hullaballoo: these progressive voices sustain me on a daily basis when I am feeling overwhelmed by the increasing ultra-conservative media environment.

 

2016: The Year According to Ephraim Asili

e Ephraim Asili. Photo: Mireya Acierto/Getty Images Ephraim Asili is a filmmaker, DJ, and traveler whose work focuses on the African diaspora as a cultural force. His films have screened in festivals and venues all over the world, including the New York Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, Ann Arbor Film Festival, San Fransisco International […]

eNEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 09: Filmmaker, Ephraim Asili attends Projections: Program 9 during 54th New York Film Festival on October 9, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Mireya Acierto/Getty Images)

Ephraim Asili. Photo: Mireya Acierto/Getty Images

Ephraim Asili is a filmmaker, DJ, and traveler whose work focuses on the African diaspora as a cultural force. His films have screened in festivals and venues all over the world, including the New York Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, Ann Arbor Film Festival, San Fransisco International Film Festival, Milano Film Festival, Trinidad and Tobago International Film Festival, MoMA PS1, LAMOCA, and the Boston Museum of Fine Art. As a DJ, Asili can be heard on his radio program, In The Cut, on WGXC or live at his monthly dance party Botanica. Asili currently resides in Hudson, New York and works as a full-time visiting artist in the Film and Electronic Arts Department at Bard College. Here, as part of our series, 2016: The Year According to                              , he shares his perspective on the year that was.

What a year it has been. So many wonderful people have passed away. Negativity, violence, and anxiety seem to be the order of the day. The Donald won the election. On the plus side, we were able to stop the pipeline—for now. A Tribe Called Quest released a new album, and my only child has reached the age of 13. With all that’s going on in the world and as we brace for the long road ahead, I wanted to focus my selections on some of the books, films, records, and artists that have kept me inspired this year. The selections are in no particular order.

1.

Malick Sidibé (1935–2016)

Malick Sidibe, Sur les Rochers a la Chaussee, 1976, via Jack Shainman Gallery

Malick Sidibé, Sur les Rochers a la Chaussee, 1976, via Jack Shainman Gallery

Before I ever considered touching a camera I was into records and deejaying. I remember going to a record shop one day and spotting a book of Malick Sidibé’s photos on the checkout counter. At the time Afro Beat music was reemerging and West African style was spreading all around town. I knew very little about photography at the time and had never seen images of “Africa” quite like that. I flipped through a few times, went home, and considered buying a camera. It would be years before I actually did.

2.

Brett Story’s The Prison in 12 Landscapes

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I had the chance to see this film in a festival back in March. I was amazed by the way it weaved between documentary and essay, activism and criticism, geography, history, and cinematic meditation. The Prison in 12 Landscapes offers much needed insight into some of the more subtle and not so subtle aspects of the United States prison industrial complex.

3.

Mumia Abu Jamal’s We Want Freedom

 

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October 15, 2015 marked the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party. Dec 9, 2016 marked 35 years since Mumia Abu Jamal was arrested for, and many believe falsely accused of, the death of a Philadelphia police officer. Leading up to that day, Mumia had been a prominent journalist, and as teenager helped to form the Philadelphia chapter of the Black Panther Party. Originally published in 2004, We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party was reprinted this year, commemorating the anniversary of these two important events. “As calls that Black live matters grow louder; Mumia connects the historical dots between contemporary struggles and the Panthers’ demand for the ‘immediate end to police brutality and the murder of Black people.'” Chapter 7—”A Woman’s Party”—is particularly insightful.

 

4.

John Morrison’s Southwest Psychedelphia

swp-album-cover

In one way or another I try to keep a deep connection to Philly, my hometown. Lately I’ve been staying connected by listening to my copy of this Cosmic Hip Hop Beat Tape by John Morrison. It’s been a staple in the studio and during travel for awhile no . I’m down with the new cassette movement, the medium is the message and all that…

5.

The Ladies of Broadside Press

broadside

It’s not always about what’s new in the world but what we discover for ourselves. I spent a lot of my summer researching Broadside Press, searching for original copies of the books, and I even spent few weeks shooting a film inspired by the poets published by Broadside. I found the poetry of the Black Women of Broadside to be especially moving, provocative and as relevant as ever.

6.

Peter Hutton (1944–2016)

Peter Hutton. Image: Harvard Film Archive

Peter Hutton. Image: Harvard Film Archive

Peter Hutton was a great friend,teacher, and mentor to myself and many others. He was a unique and humble filmmaker and as far as I’m concerned one of the best to ever do it. His presence will be missed for some time to come.

7.

Chris Harris’s Halimuhfack

christopher_harris

I’ve had several opportunities to watch Chris’s film this year. I love the way that he layers sound and image to address concerns about representation and psychic memory. The film is mesmerizing, musical, magical—an exemplary work of Black Cinema.

8.

Kimberly Brown, “On My Knees,” D’oke (Remix)

kimberlybrown

Maybe its because I visited both Chicago and Detroit during 2016, but I’ve become increasing obsessed with House Records. Especially 12-inch singles. Kimberly Brown, a former member of Sounds of Blackness, sounds amazing on this record! If the election has got you down this one will get you up!

9.

David Rimmer at NYFF Projections

Still from David Rimmer's "Variations on a Cellophane Wrapper" (197)0)

Still from David Rimmer’s Variations on a Cellophane Wrapper (1970)

I had the pleasure of seeing some recently preserved David Rimmer films at the festival. One of Rimmer’s films, Variations on a Cellophane Wrapper, was very influential in the making of one of my recent works. I had never seen his work projected before. The prints were breathtaking. Wow! The other Rimmer films in the program were Canadian Pacific I and Real Italian Pizza.

 

10.

A Fluid Frontier

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I spent some of 2016 in Southern Ontario where I had the opportunity to learn about and visit many of the places where enslaved Africans escaped to during slavery in the United States. More Blacks died crossing the Detroit River than any other location on boarder separating the United States from Canada. Many former slaves risked their lives crossing back and forth between the States and Canada to free family and loved ones. The collection of essays that comprise A Fluid Frontier chronicle some of these stories and highlight other aspects of the Underground Railroad along both sides of the Detroit River.

 

11.

The Space Age Is Here To Stay

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The important work of Sun Ra and his Arkestra have been a influence in my life for some time now. My first film was made in collaboration with some of the remaining members of the group. A few months back Modern Harmonic Records released a compilation of rare vocal recordings by the group. I love anything featuring June Tyson, and many of the lyrics seem like they were written for today’s political climate. Perhaps they were.

12.

Kerry James Marshall: Mastry

Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Painter), 2009

Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Painter), 2009

In all honesty I have not gone to see this show as of the writing of this list. That being said, I will have seen it before the publication of this list. I love Marshall’s work and have for some time how. I have no doubt that it will rank high in my experiences from 2016.

Honorable Mentions

Ava DuVernay’s 13th

Adam Curtis’s Hypernormalization

2016: The Year According to Mariah Garnett

Mariah Garnett mixes documentary, narrative, and experimental filmmaking practices to make work that accesses existing people and communities beyond her immediate experience. Using source material that ranges from found text to iconic gay porn stars, Garnett often inserts herself into the films, creating cinematic allegories that codify and locate identity. She is currently in production […]

mariah-garnett-less-contrast

Mariah Garnett mixes documentary, narrative, and experimental filmmaking practices to make work that accesses existing people and communities beyond her immediate experience. Using source material that ranges from found text to iconic gay porn stars, Garnett often inserts herself into the films, creating cinematic allegories that codify and locate identity. She is currently in production on her first experimental feature film, Trouble, about her relationship with her Northern Irish Father, who fled Belfast in the 1970s after being profiled on the BBC for his “mixed” Catholic/Protestant relationship.

A prolific artist, she had solo exhibitions at the Metropolitan Arts Center (Belfast, UK) and ltd los angeles (Los Angeles) in 2016, and her work has shown at MoCA, REDCAT, White Columns, Ann Arbor Film Festival and in the 2014 Made in LA Hammer Biennial. Here, as part of our annual 2016: The Year According to                               series, she shares her top personal, political, and cultural moments of 2016.

1.

Bowie.

This year started with my biggest idol dying, which was perhaps an indicator of the soul crushing 12 months ahead, but it also led to a mass online eulogizing of his life. My favorite discovery to come out of this was this video of him as a teenager talking about protesting for the rights of boys to have long hair.

2.

Other & Father

2_belfast

I had my first institutional solo show at the contemporary arts center (the MAC) in Belfast, Northern Ireland last winter. It featured archival video of my dad and his girlfriend in the ’70s and my own re-enactment of the footage. At the opening, one of the gallery guards recognized my dad’s teenaged girlfriend! In fact, he’d dated her right after she and my dad broke up. That was a nice moment, and typical of Belfast too.

 

3.

Henry Taylor at Blum & Poe

henry-taylor-blumpoe

This show blew my mind. Blew it straight out of my head. It was basically perfect. To call it a painting show is both an understatement and totally what it was.

 

4.

Yosemite

yosemite

I went to Yosemite National Park this year in July for the first time. I don’t know what took me so long.

5.

Weirdo Night

weirdo-night

Best post-collective-trauma-catharsis-through-performance-art. Jibz Cameron aka Dynasty Handbag has been hosting a monthly “comedy” night at El Cid in LA for most of the year. Dynasty Handbag MCs and does a set or two herself, while hosting an array of local weirdos with acts. She is generous both in the space she gives to her guests and in the material she offers to her audiences. For some reason, maybe because of 2016, weirdo night kept falling right after awful events – like the Pulse nightclub shooting and the election. I am not entirely sure how she managed to pull this off, but she drew us out of our cowering little individual selves on nights when staying home probably seemed like the only option, expressed all of our fear and rage for us, and sent us on our way feeling a little less bad. It’s no coincidence the house was particularly packed on those nights.

 

6.
Moonlight

It was just so so so so so so good.

7.

Eve Fowler at Participant

eve-fowler_participant

I had the distinct honor of shooting and editing a black-and-white 16mm film for Eve Fowler, which opened at Participant on November 6. The film is a portrait of more than 20 women artists from Los Angeles and New York working in their studios. Visiting all of these women and observing them at work was very powerful. Highlights were filming artists getting reading for 2016 shows: Celeste Dupuy-Spencer finishing paintings for her show at Mier Gallery and Nicole Eisenman working on her Anton Kern show—although, really, I left each and every one of their studios with a new appreciation for what they do and how much they know.

8.

Bakersfield

8_bako

I got my first university teaching job this year at Cal State Bakersfield. Highlights: when a student did a performance for her crit modeled after Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, showing them Couple in A Cage, rediscovering Alex Bag’s Untitled Fall 95, and having Rafa Esparza come talk to my class about performance and his own work. Then we went out for “Basque food” and I ordered a “French fry salad.” It was right after the election and the place was filled with old white men who stared at us. It was the first time we had ever really had a conversation.


9. 

Re-watching Seinfeld

 

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I have found it to be extremely soothing in the face of current events.

10.

The protests at Standing Rock

standing-rock

Witnessing one of the most oppressed groups in the country take a stand against corporate greed and a militarized police force and the momentum they gained has been powerful. And finally acknowledgement and vindication from the highest level of government (though obviously far from over)—it’s a good note at the end of a terrifying year.

Next Month in the Walker Cinema: January 2017

This January the Walker Cinema proudly presents contemporary triumphs of international and independent film. Featuring Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea, a powerful portrait of the European migrant crisis and Notes on Blindness, a rich cinematic exploration of waning vision, this season at the Walker showcases the creative innovation that defines our times.   A Monster […]

walker-cinema-screening

This January the Walker Cinema proudly presents contemporary triumphs of international and independent film. Featuring Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea, a powerful portrait of the European migrant crisis and Notes on Blindness, a rich cinematic exploration of waning vision, this season at the Walker showcases the creative innovation that defines our times.

 

A Monster Calls, directed by Juan Antonio Bayona

Screening: January 5, 7 pm, Free

“An unforgettable, emotional experience … one that lets us grapple with our most basic human fears and worries, while lighting a beacon of hope that can shine through that darkness.” —The Verge

With his mother (Felicity Jones) ailing, 12-year-old Conor discovers an unlikely ally when he awakens a towering, twisted yew tree known as the Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson). Melding realism with the fantastical, the film follows the boy as the Monster teaches him to cope with loss. 2017, US, DCP, 108 minutes.

Post-Screening Conversation: Join executive producer Bill Pohlad and Jim Burke, president of production for Focus Features, for a discussion about the film.

 

Fire at Sea (Fuocoammare), directed by Gianfranco Rosi

Screenings: January 13, 7:30 pm; January 14, 2 and 7:30 pm; January 15, 2 pm

“[Gianfranco Rosi] observes, with humility and precision. Instead of raising awareness, he cultivates alertness. ‘Fire at Sea’ occupies your consciousness like a nightmare, and yet somehow you don’t want it to end.” —New York Times

Poetically rendering the European migrant crisis, Fire at Sea explores life on Lampedusa, the Mediterranean island that has become a point of entry for African refugees into Europe. 2016, Italy/France, in Italian with English subtitles, 108 minutes.

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

 

Son of Joseph (Le Fils de Joseph), directed by Eugène Green

Screenings: January 20, 7:30 pm; January 21, 2 and 7:30 pm

“Shot through with an intensely pleasurable intellectual playfulness, this is the American-born French director’s most accomplished and surprising film to date, boasting his trademark thoughtfulness and precision, yet also being almost puppyishly easy to love.” —Indiewire

A stylized comedic delight that weaves biblical references to Abraham, Isaac, Mary, and Joseph into the present day, the film tells the story of Vincent (newcomer Victor Ezenfis), a rebellious teenager searching for the father he has never known. 2016, France/Belgium, in French with English subtitles, 115 minutes.

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

 

Notes on Blindness, directed by Peter Middleton and James Spinney

Screenings: January 27, 7:30 pm; January 28, 2 and 7:30 pm; January 29, 2pm

“The genius of the film is in allowing us to understand and visualize the world of blindness… A beautiful, accessible and thoughtful work of art.” —The Guardian

A striking adaptation of the audio diary theologian John Hull produced as he attempted to grapple with his loss of eyesight. The film is accompanied by the downloadable VR experience Into Darkness. 2016, UK, 90 minutes.

Enhanced Screening: Saturday, January 28, 2 pm. The filmmakers worked with one of Europe’s leading sound designers, Joakin Sundström, to create a rich, immersive soundtrack calibrated specifically for blind and sighted audiences.

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

 

2017 Film Independent Spirit Awards

Screenings: Tuesdays and Wednesdays, January 10–February 8; 6 and 8 pm

Members of the Walker and IFP MN are invited to free screenings of 21 films nominated for the 2017 Film Independent Spirit Awards, celebrating the finest achievements of today’s filmmakers. Exclusively for members, screenings of nominees in four categories—Best Feature, Best First Feature, Best Documentary, and the John Cassavetes Award—are offered weekly in January and February. Enjoy Pablo Larrain’s Jackie one week and Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight the next. Satisfy your need for screen-time with the binge-worthy O.J.: Made in America in a marathon showing from 11:30 am to 7:30 pm on Sunday, January 22.

Tickets: Copresented by the Walker, Film Independent, and Independent Filmmaker Project Minnesota, these events are only open to Walker and IFP MN members. Free tickets are available from 5 pm on screening nights on a first-come, first-served basis; two tickets per membership. Please bring your membership card. Walker Film Club and IFP MN members can also reserve two tickets in advance for each film. Please note: orders must be received by 12 noon on day of screening.

Walker Film Club: RSVP here.

IFP MN Members RSVP: rsvp@ifpmn.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dylan: Do you ever think about returning to painting?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kirsten Johnson in Darfur. Photo: Lynsey Addario

Kirsten Johnson in Darfur. Photo: Lynsey Addario

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

Dear Mr. Redford,

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

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

Still from Cameraperson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With great honor and appreciation,
Kirsten

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