Alberte Pagán

BILL BRAND interviewed

Getting Inside the Frame

BILL BRAND interviewed

Getting Inside the Frame

Bill Brand interviewed by Alberte Pagán

[published in A Cuarta Parede in three parts on 22, 24 and 26 July 2019] [miña tradución ao galego aquí; traducción de A Cuarta Parede al español aquí]

The films of Bill Brand (born in Rochester, New York in 1949) are about how to read, about spectatorship and about the politics of vision. They navigate between abstraction and recognition. His earlier analytical (structural) films like Moment, Demolition of a Wall or Touch Tone Phone Film tended towards the frame as the shortest durational unit (as a “moment”). But even in Moment Brand, perhaps unconsciously, found a way of getting inside the frame by means of the five panels from the tire ad that divide the screen.

From Works in the Field and Split Decision to his latest videos Orchard-Market and Huevos a la mexicana Brand has consistently explored the possibilities of fragmenting the frame by using grids that allow him to juxtapose symbiotically two spaces and two temporalities. By splitting the screen space he brings about a questioning of our ability to read and recognize the image(s). The origin of this may be found in Zip-Tone-Cat-Tune, where the filmmaker uses a Zip-A-Tone technique to mask the image and turn the grain (the pixel in electronic cinema) into an image-unit. The same visual complexity is achieved in his later videos by other means—In Double Nephrectomy and Interior Outpost, both part of the series Suite, Brand projects images on his own body, merging both surfaces; and in Skinside Out and Swan’s Island, both co-made by Katy Martin, paint is applied on skin, blurring the shape of the human body.

Brand’s films navigate between abstraction and recognition, but also between the analytical and the lyrical, between the political and the personal, and between the popular and the experimental. Some of his films have an evident Pop flavor—Zip-Tone-Cat-Tune uses dot patterns usually associated with comic books; An Angry Dog is a hand-held animation made from a Cracker Jack toy; and the advertising panels in Moment function like a found object in Pop art. Other popular and commercial basic optical tricks can be found in It Dawn Down and in his public artwork Masstransiscope, both of which work like a zoetrope.

Movement in cinema is an optical illusion. Bill Brand’s films are full of delusive tricks, made either in-camera or on the optical printer. The artist is a shaman, as the Kwakiutl shaman in The Trail to Koskino: His First Hunt, who, despite knowing it’s all about tricks, desires to master the magic of these tricks. There is an ethnographic drive behind this film, as behind the Malaysian footage in Works in the Field, a critique of capitalist colonialism.

In Tracy’s Family Folk Festival the folk tradition meets the avant-garde; in Split Decision a soap opera gets trapped in a structural film. Both films use a changing grid through which the image fights to assert itself. Chuck’s Will’s Widow becomes a eulogy of Brand’s father, whose ashes are spread in the Adirondack mountain woods, through frenetically swirling shapes that “pulverize” space, as J. Hoberman put it.

Coalfields is a conscious step into political cinema. Bill Brand had already made an agitprop film, Texas Farm Workers March for Human Rights. And he would continue exploring social issues in Home Less Home, a first-person narrated film where the personal and the political merge, as in I’m a Pilot Like You, a more observational kind of documentary.

The materialism of his earliest movies—including the shutter-like holes of the stove in The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and the empty film reel spinning in It Dawn Down—gave way to the personal, lyrical and intimate Suite, a series of five films in which Brand addresses his personal and family history and the body—his body—as landscape, as canvas and “as a site of both beauty and abjection”.

His latest productions are home movies, landscape films, travelogues (Mexico, Uruguay) and personal diaries, sometimes under the shifting shapes of his signature traveling mattes, as in Ornithology 4.

Bill Brand’s films can be watched here.

Filmography of Bill Brand

Organic Afghan (1969, 4’, color, sound)
Tree (1970, 8’, b&w, sound)
Always Open/Never Closed (1971, 13’, color, silent)
Pong Ping Pong (1971, 25’, film and sound environment)
Zip-Tone-Cat-Tune (1972, 8’, color, silent)
Moment (1972, 25’, b&w, sound)
ACTS OF LIGHT (1972-74, 55’, color, sound)

Includes 3 films:
Rate of Change (1972, 18’, color, sound)
Angular Momentum (1973, 20’, color, sound)
Circles of Confusion (1974, 15’, color, sound)

Touch Tone Phone Film (1973, 8’, b&w, sound)
Demolition Of A Wall (1973, 30’, b&w, sound)
CARTOONS (1974-75, 40’, color and b&w, sound and silent)

Includes 7 films:
Before The Fact (1974, 6’, color, sound)
An Angry Dog (1974, 5’30’’, color, silent)
It Dawn Down (1974, 5’30’’, color, silent)
The Central Finger (1974, 5’30’’, color, silent)
The Autobiography Of Benjamin Franklin (1975, 4’, color, silent)
New York State Primaries (1975, 5’30’’, color, sound)
Still at Work (1975, 4’, color, sound)

The Trail to Koskimo: His First Hunt (1976, 35’, color, sound)
Texas Farm Workers March For Human Rights (1977, 7’, color, sound)
Works In The Field (1978, 40’, color, silent)
Split Decision (1979, 15’, color, sound)
Chuck’s Will’s Widow (1982, 13’, color, silent)
Tracy’s Family Folk Festival (1983, 10’, color, sound)
Coalfields (1984, 39’, color, sound)
Home Less Home (1990, 75’, color, sound)
I’m a Pilot Like You (1999, 40’, color, sound, co-directed with Ruth Hardinger)
SUITE (1996-2003, 29’, color, sound)

Includes 5 films:
My Father’s Leg (1997-1998, 3’, color, silent)
Gazelle (1998, 3’30’’, color, sound)
Double Nephrectomy (1998, 4’, color, sound)
Moxibution (1999, 9’, color, sound)
Interior Outpost (2003, 9’, color, sound)


Skinside Out (2002, 10’, color, sound, co-directed with Katy Martin)
Swan’s Island (2005, 4’, color, sound, co-directed with Katy Martin)
Mistakes, Out Takes and Good Deeds (2006, looped, color, silent, 3 projector film and video installation)
Susie’s Ghost (2011, 7’, color, sound, in collaboration with Ruthie Marantz)
Rampla Juniors (2011, 16’, color, sound)
Down The Alley (2011, 8’, color, sound)
Sicómoro (2011, 5’, color, sound, text by Carolina Noblega)
Ornithology 4 (2015, 4’ loop, color, silent)
Orchard-Market (2016, 16’, color, silent)
Autopsy (2017, performance and video projection)
Huevos a la mexicana (2018, 13’, color, sound)
August Garden (2019, 5′, color, sound)

INTERVIEW

I spoke with Bill Brand in A Corunha, Galiza on June 8, 2019 during the tenth (S8) Mostra de Cinema Periférico. Some of the statements he made during his master class (June 8) and the presentation of his films, as well as during the Q&A after the screening (June 6), have been incorporated into the following interview. On July 8, 2019 Bill Brand revised the interview and kindly answered some further questions by e-mail.

ANALOG PRESERVATION

You are both a filmmaker and a preservationist.

I am a filmmaker and do archival preservation. Both activities involve discovering, inventing and solving puzzles. With both I try to understand how things work and investigate the underpinnings of knowledge and perception.

My first films were 8mm and 16mm animations. Frame by frame filmmaking led me to begin doing rephotography and optical printing. In 1976 I acquired a JK optical printer. This allowed me to go back to the 8mm and Super 8mm format because I could then blow up these small formats to 16mm. This is how I started my company BB Optics. It should have been named BB Opticals but we thought BB Optics sounded more like Bebop, like jazz.

I’ve only recently started using digital tools extensively for preservation, maybe in the last five or six years. The things you can do with the digital intermediate process are amazing. There are a lot of advantages to it, in terms of quality, for recovering faded color or for stabilizing the image if the sprocket holes are damaged. When a digital intermediate goes back to film it reacquires specific film qualities of light, texture, and depth as well as grain and even the instability associated with the registration of a film, which is not so perfect. I can probably make a 16mm blow up now using the digital intermediate that is closer to the original film than what I could have done in the past with an optical printer.

You have been using computers in the creation of your films almost from the beginning. How did you get involved in computers?

I started working with computers in 1969, and started making films with computers in the early 1970s. I first got involved in computers when I was a high school student, because I was very good in Math and Science, and in my city of Rochester, New York, each high school selected one student to visit IBM and learn about this new thing called computers. At that time you could only enter programs into the machine with punch cards. Each line of code was written as holes in an approximately 8 cm x 16 cm card. They taught us a little bit of FORTRAN, and gave us a challenge to write a program to solve a quadratic equation. That was my first introduction to computers. But then, more significantly, maybe four or five years later, I started using computers in my filmmaking. I was beginning to try to make films that would treat the grain or something like the grain as a frame. I had already made Zip-Tone-Cat-Tune, and I was trying to think how I could make the circles move like grain rather than being static like a grid. I began arranging dot-stickers on paper and animating them so they would move around. When I met the video artist Bill Etra, who co-invented the Rutt/Etra Video Synthesizer, he said, “Oh, what you are trying to do is something computers do, and I have something called a mini-computer”, this was before PCs, “and I’ll let you use it”. It turned out he was working with a program developed at Bell Labs by Lillian Schwartz and Ken Knowlton called EXPLOR. And he did occasionally let me use his computer, which eventually we connected to an IBM mainframe computer in the basement of a hospital in New York in order to output the results on film.

Bill Brand shooting mattes off a computer in 1977. Still from an 8mm film by Katy Martin. (Photo courtesy of Bill Brand.)

It was very difficult because I wasn’t an experienced programmer and I didn’t have much time with Etra’s mini-computer. But I knew a little bit of FORTRAN and I began to program the computer to make what I had been trying to do by hand. It took me three years of programming first in FORTRAN and then with an early version of C to produce a series of 16mm film masks I could use with my optical printer. The computer graphics were very primitive by today’s standards. Small white squares in a grid were slowly displayed on a black and white monitor and I filmed the monitor with a 16mm animation camera one frame at a time.

So that’s how I got into using computers in my films, just for that purpose. I was a little afraid of activity because I thought that programming was so interesting that I might get lost in it, and I would never get out. So I worked with the material I’d created but stayed away from computers for a few years. But in 1984 I started using computers again for making data bases and for word processing when IBM released their personal computer. Up until then, I had been using a calculator to make scores for the light changes on the optical printer. Once I had my own computer, I wrote a program in Basic to do all those calculations automatically. I was still using a calculator to score the optical printer when I made Split Decision and Works in the Field even though the high contrast mattes had already been made with a computer.

ZIP-TONE-CAT-TUNE

In Zip-Tone-Cat-Tune you use a grid of dot patterns for the first time. It’s like a sketch of your later films Still at Work, Works in the Field or Split Decision.

Right. That was the first work where I was trying to explore the ideas of getting inside the frame, because in my previous films I was re-ordering the frames, like in Moment, which scrambles backwards and forwards in time, or in Demolition of a Wall, where I show all 720 permutations of six frames from the falling wall. Both films explore time and motion where the frame is the limiting dimension, and both films play with the directionality of the moving image in time and space, complicating notions of forward, backward, left and right. I had been thinking of the frame as the smallest unit of time and space, but then I thought, “Maybe there’s something smaller than that. Maybe the grain could be both a frame containing an image, and at the same time be what we would now call a pixel—a basic unit of an image in space”. Zip-Tone-Cat-Tune was my first film following this idea. In it I used a grid of dots from an animated Zip-A-Tone or Ben-Day pattern over a photographic image of a cat in positive and negative. I added freeze frames and colorized the b&w footage with filters so that the space, time and motion between the positive and negative images are in tension, structured like harmonic rhythm in a Baroque musical composition.

Score for Zip-Tone-Cat-Tune. (Photo courtesy of Bill Brand.)

These films remind me of Kurt Kren’s 31/75 Asyl (1975), where he masks the objective of the camera to create a patterned grid through which he films different temporalities of the same landscape. Do you know this film?

I know the film now, but not then. The film that inspired me actually was a film by Robert Huot called Spray [1967], where he sprayed paint on clear leader which looked like swirling patterns of dots on the screen. I was watching Huot’s film and that’s when I started thinking, “What if the dots were not just solid but inside each was a fragment of an image?” In Zip-Tone-Cat-Tune I tried to imitate the random movement of the paint drops in Huot’s film, but the grid of dots was too limited, so after making it I looked for ways to accomplish this. Bob is now a good friend and, as BB Optics, I have preserved many of his films including Spray.

The European, mainly British, filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s were looking to the USA. Were you aware in the USA of the work being done at the London Film-Makers’ Co-op?

I eventually learned about the London Film-Makers’ Co-op and European avant-garde filmmakers. I didn’t start making films until 1969, but in 1973 I was invited to the London Film Festival, and I met Malcolm [Le Grice, also present at the S8 Mostra] and other European filmmakers. I was amazed. I was so impressed with the Film-Makers’ Cooperative in London that when I went back to Chicago—I was a graduate student at the Art Institute—I started Chicago Filmmakers based on that model. Chicago Filmmakers was initially called Filmgroup at N.A.M.E. Gallery.

INSTALLATIONS

You have also made installations.

Installation was part of my practice from very early on. In 1971 I made a piece called Pong Ping Pong where I built a crazy machine that rotates a mirror and projects an image 360º around a series of screens in a circle like a kind of Stonehenge. The audience either sits in the middle or moves around inside and outside the circle of screens. The image on the film—two people playing ping pong—was also shot through the mirror machine. I mounted the camera on a dolly and shot through the mirror machine while I circled around and around the table with the camera looking toward the center. So when the film is projected through the mirror machine sitting in the center of the circle, the image is projected out instead of looking in, and the space is inverted. The circle of screens, each a triangular prism, looks something like a giant gear, similar to the gears on the machine that I built to rotate the mirror.

Pong Ping Pong drawing. Bill Brand, ink on paper, 18″ x 12″, 1971.

I made another installation when I was in college studying with Paul Sharits. He was my most important teacher and while still his student I collaborated on his first “locational” installation piece Sound Strip / Film Strip [1972]. This involved four Super 8mm loop projectors with the images turned 90 degrees on their side, one next to the other, so together they looked like a film strip. The piece was commissioned for the opening exhibition of the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, Texas.

And then you have this public artwork, Masstransiscope [1980], which is like a giant Zoetrope, but with a difference. Where is it exactly?

Masstransiscope is installed in the New York Subway, in Brooklyn. It references early cinema. It’s a permanent public artwork that is mounted on a decommissioned platform in the subway tunnel between the DeKalb subway stop and the Manhattan Bridge. It can be seen from the B and Q trains traveling toward Manhattan. The piece is a 300-foot long painting that looks like an animation when seen through a wall of slits from the moving train. With a Zoetrope, a viewer sees a sequence of images mounted inside a spinning cylinder through slits in the cylinder. With Masstransiscope the process is reversed with the images and slits remaining in place while the viewer moves past on a moving train. For many years Masstransiscope was an orphan work because it was unclear who was responsible for it. Nobody commissioned me to do it but got help from an organization called Creative Time. For a few years I maintained it myself but eventually I couldn’t keep it up. So for 20 years the images were all covered with graffiti and the lights didn’t work. Now Masstransiscope is restored and has become an official part of the collection of public art of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority. They maintain it but I still keep my eye on it and let them know if I see a problem.

COALFIELDS AND POLITICAL FILM

Coalfields is a portrait of a black lung miner activist; Home Less Home analyzes homelessness. What leads a structural filmmaker to make political and social films?

With structural film, especially coming out of England, with Peter [Gidal] and Malcolm [Le Grice], but also with Paul Sharits and others in the US, there was always a notion that structural film was political. So as I reached a limit of minimalism as a way of exploring that, I wanted to bring in personal and political content to the ideas about politics that we believed were imbedded in structural film’s approach to materiality and critical analysis of the image. I approached this through two strains in my work. The first one was, “Can I bring in a personal lyrical element?” With Chuck’s Will’s Widow and some earlier films I brought in emotional qualities, personal expression and lyricism to that notion of materiality. For the second strain I thought, “OK, what if I actually put into these formal ideas explicit social and political content?” And that’s where Coalfields came from.

So it was a conscious step.

Very much a conscious step. From the beginning I knew that I wanted to deal with the politics of labor in relation to landscape, and once Fred Carter became a subject, also with disease, race and the body. Coalfields puts documentary and explicit social-political content through the matrix of my visual ideas.

Coalfields has language both in subtitles and in spoken text as well fragments of interviews. The subtitles are mostly poetry by Kimiko Hahn. I shot the film in West Virginia where coal is dug from the ground. One of the themes in the film is black lung disease, caused by coal dust in the mines. This is introduced in the film through a retired coal miner who helps other miners who have the disease get government benefits. The United States used to have very good benefits for miners with this disease but when the Ronald Reagan’s conservative government came in 1980 they initiated an effort to cut back on these benefits. And Fred Carter, the retired miner and black lung advocate, was prosecuted by the government in its effort to undercut the black lung program. The government thought Carter was vulnerable, in part because he is African American. But the film tells this story obliquely and mostly in a poetic manner. More broadly, the film is about the body, landscape, the land and the politics of vision.

Were the poems by Kimiko Hahn especially written for the film? Or taken from her books?

I commissioned the writing from Kimiko for the film and she later published the longest text as a poem in one of her books.

How did you create the visual grid?

I made Coalfields on an optical printer using customized travelling matte technique. There are always four layers, two layers of matte and two layers of picture. Many of the matte shapes are drawn by hand, but some are actually pieces of coal or rock they dug out of the mines. Matting—or what you call “the grid”—is a technique that I developed over many years starting in the early 1970s. For Coalfields I made drawings and cardboard cutouts from the drawings. The process for making the film was to animate these cardboard cutouts in a random pattern. I shot them with high contrast film and then through several steps produced pairs of high contrast mattes. The mattes would have clear areas on every other frame on the A roll and other clear areas on the opposite frames on the B roll. And then on the optical printer I would sandwich each matte with a picture reel and copy it frame for frame in the camera. If I had developed the film at this point, the unexposed areas on the negative would be clear, and we’d only see image on every other frame. But instead of developing after I finished the A roll, I wound back the film and exposed the film again in the camera. On the second pass, I copied to the unexposed frames the images from B picture seen through the B matte. So you have A fragments and B fragments, and if you saw them together they would fit perfectly like a puzzle. There is never any overlap. They don’t fill the whole frame, there is always areas of black (or clear on the negative) which allows the shapes to change position every frame. In Coalfields the A and B fragments are on alternating frames and never appear on the same frame. It’s only in your mind that you see them together.

And then you made a social documentary, Home Less Home.

After Coalfields I said, “Let me start with a subject and see what form it takes”. I was very interested in homelessness, which was very present in New York in the late 70s, early 80s, and I began studying it. I remember telling my friend who later became the editor for the film, “I don’t want to make a documentary”.

Are you talking about Zoe Beloff?

No, no. Zoe was the photographer. I’m talking about Joanna Kiernan. Joanna is a good friend, and I asked her to listen to my ideas so she could help me make a plan for the film. She said, “Don’t worry about that, you couldn’t make a documentary if you wanted to”. So I didn’t worry about it and I ended up making a documentary.

Works in the Field (“an essay on reading” in your own words) includes Malaysian found footage of people cropping rubber. Where did you find this footage? Were you consciously questioning notions of colonialism and capitalism? Are there any images filmed by you?

I found the Malaysian film and a few other educational films in a trash bin on the street. With Works in the Field I wanted to take apart the foundations of Renaissance perspective and explore its relationship to conventional film language. The film is an inquiry into the nature and meaning of the “document” in cinema. What gives the picture its authority as document, as truth? I thought all this had a political dimension.
I was certainly consciously questioning colonialism and capitalism but looking for how the structure of conventional cinematic storytelling supports, makes invisible and normalizes the mechanisms of exploitative economic/social relations. At the same time, I could see that the photographic-cinematic composition of these educational films are well made and are disturbingly compelling; they carry an ephemeral emotional truth. The images seen through the computer generated grids, I filmed myself—mountain landscapes, Manhattan cityscapes and images from magazine covers and television news.

FIRST STRUCTURAL FILMS

You started doing animation, Organic Afghan, as a college student. What made you study film? What made you do animation?

At the time film was not taught at Antioch College, the school I attended. I was an art student in a liberal arts college. I was studying anthropology and other things, but I was an art major. I was taking drawing and painting, sculpture and printmaking and photography, but there was a student film club and I saw people making films. I didn’t know much about cinema, I wasn’t particularly interested in telling stories, but maybe because I came from Science and Math, filmmaking was attractive to me. Kodak introduced the Super 8 film format in 1965 and after a few years cameras and film stock became very inexpensive. So I bought a Bell & Howell 8mm camera and some film which only cost only 2 dollars a roll, including processing and I began making films. My camera could shoot single frames and I started doing animation with objects and cut outs and clay and wax. I soon started working in 16mm as well. I completed my first 16mm film, Organic Afghan, in 1969. I just brought all the art I was studying, including sculpture and painting, into this complicated new medium, and I started animating three dimensional and two dimensional objects.

And then you made a metrical film, Tree. Did you have a score before shooting? Was it edited in camera?

No, it wasn’t edited in camera and although I didn’t have a score before I shot, I did later make a score for editing. I discovered the tree in a farm field and I went back to it several times to film it. I prepared myself for shooting in different ways each time. Once I just sat and looked at the tree for an hour before I started shooting. I gathered footage without an overall plan.

At the school we used to have an occasional event where the people making films would gather in the theater to look at each other’s footage. I went to one of these encounters to show my footage and there were just hours of other people making pictures of trees, and I said to myself, “This is not enough”. Influenced by our newly hired teacher Paul Sharits I devised a metrical scheme for editing the footage. I was learning new ideas about art form Paul. Until then, I didn’t think that the Science and Math side of me could be part of art or could be used in art making, because all my other teachers had taught that art is all unconscious, you have to put away rational thinking. But Paul was very analytical. So given permission, I just very naively came up with a very elaborate rational editing structure and made the film Tree. You know, I was very young, and I remember being upset that when people watched the film they didn’t know exactly what the structure was.

Always Open/Never Closed seems to me like a parody of all those Californian trance films or psychodramas.

Actually I was in California studying for one semester at the San Francisco Art Institute. But Always Open/Never Closed wasn’t a parody of California trance films or psychodramas and was probably influenced by them. But at the time, I was thinking more about conceptual art. I had made Tree, which was all about cutting things into very small pieces emphasizing the cut. I was trying to figure out how cinema worked and I’d been studying montage and Eisenstein’s ideas of collision. So to work against that, I made a film with dissolves. In the East Coast, in the New York area, when you brought your film to the laboratory and ordered a fade or a dissolve, you had to pay for each one. But when I got to San Francisco I found out that they were free. So I made Always Open/Never Closed with continuous dissolves. I also had learned about color printing in film and about color timing. So I shot in black and white and then asked the timer in the laboratory to print the b&w original to color film stock and time it so the colors shifted continuously through the spectrum. This film is a kind of trance of everyday life. The timer was really into the challenge of the film but the lab owner was very angry with me, and afterward started charging for fades and dissolves.

ACTS OF LIGHT

With regard to your trilogy Acts of Light you said that “film is not about motion but about change”. Was all that continuous and subtle color shifting in Rate of Change, the first film of the trilogy, also made in the laboratory?

Yes. I took the idea of continuously shifting color I had tried with Always Open / Never Closed and I said, “Well, I’ll go back to basics and make a film where there is no picture”. In fact I put nothing through the camera, there’s no original, and I said to the lab, “Take some leader and time it according to this score”. Rate of Change is pure change. I thought of the film as axiomatic.

Angular Momentum: “relational change”.

Is it the same with Angular Momentum [second film of Acts of Light] bar the lateral scratching?

It’s not the same, actually. In Angular Momentum I was doing the lab work. This film, which is about relational change, was made in an optical printer that I had built. But for this film too I also followed a precise score. I had this revelation that for every image in film, some of the emulsion is scraped away, either by the action of light or physically with a scratch or scrape. If you have all of the emulsion containing all of the cyan, yellow and magenta dye, it is black. And if it is all scraped away, it’s white. Every color is somewhere in between. I decided to use red, green and blue color separation filters so that with light I can selectively scrape away some of the emulsion from each layer and can generate all the colors. That was the idea, but then I had to figure out how would I organize my selection of colors? I had begun to study contemporary music and I’d learned about the composer Conlon Nancarrow who wrote music for the player piano with which he could superimpose sliding tempi and create rhythmic patterns that would change. And I thought I could do something like that in film, so the score is musical in that sense. In Zip-Tone-Cat-Tune I was trying to make Baroque music but Angular Momentum was more like contemporary music.

What about the third installment of the trilogy, Circles of Confusion? Was it filmed out of focus? Was it edited in camera?

I shot the superpositions in camera. When I made Zip-Tone-Cat-Tune I didn’t yet know about the optical printer. I made something that worked like an optical printer by using a semi-transparent mirror and a retroreflective front screen. I had a projector that could advance frame by frame so I could shoot a single frame off the screen. But if the camera and projector weren’t perfectly lined up I’d get an uneven exposure that made a circle—we called it a “hot spot”. So I decided to use that defect in a positive way. I put color filters in the projector light (projector with no film in it) and projected onto the front screen while I handheld the camera pointed through the semi-transparent mirror. The interference of the camera and projector shutters gave me the pulsing and the improvisational and gestural movement of the camera caused the circle of light—the “hot spot”—to move in response to the misalignment of the camera. I ran the film through the camera three times, once for each primary color.

If Rate of Change is about continuous change and Angular Momentum is about relational change, then Circles of Confusion is about irrational change. I was making my way systematically through minimalist to post-minimalist ideas, a film with no film and no pictures, to a film of all colors, and then with Circles of Confusion to a film that was gestural and irrational.

Moment: “automobile time”.


MOMENT AND STRUCTURAL FILM

Moment is one of the classics of structural film in which the formal structure perfectly matches the visuals [a rotating advertising sign seen from the rear]. Where was it filmed? Was the soundtrack recorded live?

Moment was filmed in Ohio where I attended college. The soundtrack wasn’t recorded at the time of filming. I had seen the rotating sign at a service station from inside the office so I was looking at it from the back. Later I returned and filmed the sign from the back side. After I developed the film I rephotographed off a rear screen with a proto-optical printer.

The image is a 2½ minute sequence that I rearranged six times in reverse order, cutting it into smaller and smaller fragments until I reached the smallest possible fragment—a single frame. I was thinking about time and information for the image and I said, “What if I did the same kind of thing to sound?” So I went to a different service station and recorded some sounds. I chose six audio segments and edited the ¼-inch reel to reel tape with a razor blade following an analogous procedure to what I had done with the picture.

So it was the sign what triggered your ideas.

Yes, it was the sign. I was standing there, looking at the back side, where the order of sign’s panels are reversed left to right but each panel within itself is normal. I thought, if there had been a large enough number of rotating vertical panels instead of only five, the sign from the back would have looked like a continuous mirror image of what you’d see from the front. I’d studied Math and I was thinking about calculus and I thought, “What number of panels represents the limit where the image no longer looks fragmented?” In film, the temporal limit is set by the frame, 24 per second. Moment reveals the frame as film’s limiting unit while suggesting that other systems with different limits are also at play.

But, through the rotating panels, you also split the frame in six vertical sections.

That’s right. The pictorial frame is split by the vertical sections of the rotating panel. I extended the spatial analogy to divide the temporal flow similarly by rearranging the order of film frames, so we’re seeing not only an incremental reversing of left and right, but an incremental reversing of the temporal flow from forward to backward. And then there is also the content of the advertising display valorizing the history of automobile tires. So this brings in another kind of time—automobile time—which suggests thinking about historical time more generally and the limits of how we see this order of things.

Was the score made beforehand?

Yes, I followed a score to rephotograph the film on the proto-optical printer I’d built. I knew exactly how many frames to advance on the projector and camera while shooting and how many frames on the projector to wind back between shots.

Score for Moment.

There is a strong link between primitive cinema and experimental cinema. You went back to Lumière in Demolition of a Wall. What is there in Lumière that is so attractive to experimental filmmakers like Peter Tscherkassky, Siegfried Fruhauf, Al Razutis, Thom Andersen, Malcolm Le Grice and yourself?

I don’t know if my ideas about this were original or whether I acquired them from other people who were thinking the same things. Cinema was invented as a tool for scientific investigation but it also created a new spectacle alongside the stereoscope, the diorama and the magic show. Perhaps we all share an understanding that when storytelling became the dominant way the medium was used, it left behind other potentials—other ways of seeing and other ways of thinking besides through stories. We all have the urge to find the origin of something and say, “Let’s go back to the beginning of film, and find out what was left behind, and follow the paths that were not taken”.

Touch Tone Phone Film is a narrative sketch in a structural frame. There is a beginning of a narration in many of your films, as if you really wanted to tell stories but didn’t dare.

I don’t have much facility or need to tell stories. “The phone rings and someone crosses the room to answer it” is all the story I needed. I didn’t think I had much at stake in telling more or less than this. I was beginning to use an optical printer, and one thing you do when you work with an optical printer is that you do a lot of testing of exposures. I was also learning about music synthesizers, the early analog synthesizers that use voltage control where one feature of a sound can be used to control a different feature. For instance, you can take a pitch and use it to control the envelope of a sound, which is the way the sound forms. At that time, telephones mostly used rotary dials that made pulses equal to the number selected, but a very unusual new kind of telephone was starting to come in use that had push buttons that created tones where the pitch represented a number. So, thinking about music synthesizers, I decided to make a film where telephone numbers controlled the exposure of the optical printer lens.

When the film stops in the gate of the projector the frame—and the movement—becomes frozen. When the film moves, it slides in the gate, as if the sprocket holes were ripped, and the movement of the woman disappears behind the sliding of the film. In a way it is a film about the cogwheel and the sprocket holes.

I did cut off the sprocket holes in order to pass the film through the optical printer gate unregistered. But even as an unregistered blur, the image still represents the time passing. Telephones are very strange for me, because when you pick up the telephone and you begin to speak to someone in some other place, your mental space changes. This is why I think telephones are very dangerous in cars, because you’re mentally no longer in the space where you are driving, you are in another space. And I always found that feeling of dislocation very disturbing. So when the telephone rings and I’m going to answer it, I feel very tense. So in some ways this is a film about this tension, this extended anxiety about getting to the telephone, answering it, and suddenly finding myself somewhere else.

It reminds me of Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962).

I hadn’t yet seen Marker’s film, but it is a flattering comparison.

THE CARTOONS

The Cartoons series is full of “riddles and jokes about structural film concepts”, as you put it. In Before the Fact Saul Levine and a woman repeat a recorded phrase spoken by Levine time and time again until its meaning gets lost. Some off screen voices give instructions. Whose are these voices?

Before the Fact was actually a film we made with students as a class exercise. It’s my off screen voice giving directions to Saul on screen. One of the students was operating the camera calling out the film footage but I don’t remember his name. I was teaching with Saul in Binghamton, New York and the school had an Éclair sound sync camera and a Nagra tape recorder, which was very unusual at the time. They also had a continuous processor so you could develop film and they had a dubber so you could transfer a ¼-inch audio tape to 16mm magnetic film. I thought, “What if we make a film and do everything in one class?” So we loaded the camera and the tape recorder and I came up with this very structural film idea of having Saul and the woman mimic Saul’s sentence that we had previously recorded on a cassette tape and which the man sitting next to Saul repeatedly played back [“But it’s a lot of stuff, I mean, that film touches on a lot of stuff”]. It was a game that was quite spontaneous.

There was no postproduction? You shot one take and that was the film?

Right.

Kind of Andy Warhol with his Auricon camera, which could record synch sound?

Right, exactly. There was no editing. It was a one-take film. I was not thinking I was making a serious film, I was not thinking I was making even a film. But then I liked it and after I had completed some of the other Cartoons I decided that this should be a Cartoon too.

Another Cartoon is The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. That’s quite a title!

Ha ha. It’s so stupid. Benjamin Franklin… When I was a child I read a series of books about American inventors, like Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. In those books Benjamin Franklin was considered an inventor, and somehow in these books the inventors always made their inventions to save their parents from some calamity. When I moved to New York the first loft where I lived had a wood stove, called a Ben Franklin stove [based on one of his inventions]. It had an air vent that looks like a three blade film shutter. The film is a joke about the stove as film projector with a shutter. I guess the fire is the light bulb.

I’m also puzzled by the title The Central Finger, a film with a single image—a spinning mannequin hand.

It is [he gives the middle finger]. I had just learned about conventional lighting, you know, the key light, the fill light, the back light. So I lit the hand like a stage, like a Hollywood movie. And then I mounted the hand off center on a record player, a turntable. With my camera mounted on a tripod I panned back and forth to keep the hand in the middle of the frame so you couldn’t see that I was panning. It was a game of trying to keep it in the center. And of course this was after I had seen The Central Region [1971], by Michael Snow. It’s very stupid.

There are many puns in the titles of your films, as in Still at Work, where you use a still photograph of your workplace.

Right. One location in Still at Work is my studio, which is the still photograph. And the other was Sarah Lawrence College, my new workplace where I was teaching. I filmed the students mounting sections of the still image from my studio on a glass door at the school. You know, I preserved that film recently, and I can’t figure out how I made it. I don’t remember. I didn’t yet have my own optical printer—I think I used the one at Pittsburgh Filmmakers—it must’ve been an aerial image optical printer where I could keep the film still while advancing the matte. This way the circle mattes change every frame, but the image of the students is step printed with every fourth frame repeated four times emphasizing that the moving image too is a series of stills. It’s very funny to be the archivist of my own films.

The avant-garde can be very serious. Do you think there should be more humor in experimental film?

Well, I don’t think it’s so serious.

Some of it.

Some of it, yes. Mine aren’t that funny, anyway. But with the Cartoons I was trying to find my way to the next set of ideas and was trying to be playful. I got the idea of the cartoon because when I had visited London for a film festival I went to a museum where I learned that a cartoon is a drawing used to sketch out a painting. So I thought, I’ll call these “cartoons” because they are like sketches out of which I can generate ideas for future films. They are more playful than they are funny, I think.

Split Decision.

Even your narratives, like Split Decision, can be very funny. Did you write the script for that?

Yes. I wrote the script with Bruce Hanford. And we had a big fight and that was the end of that.

Was there no room for improvisation? Did everybody know their dialogues?

I think it was mostly written out. It’s a terrible script. It has all the earmarks of a young artist. It has too many ideas. But I was trying to break out of what I thought was expected of me. I wanted to do things that made me uncomfortable so I tried to tell a story, write a script, direct actors, have a crew. These are things I had never done before. I felt like I had to do all of this to be a real filmmaker even if I did it in my own peculiar way, taking apart narrative and conventional story telling tropes. Carolee Schneemann plays the part of Tracy, the skeptic. She says it’s the only film she ever enjoyed acting in. So at least she had fun!

SUITE, SUSIE’S GHOST AND PERSONAL FILM

You have made structural films, narrative films, social and political films, and more recently in Suite you get more personal and free, even filming your own body.

My work in the seventies was mainly abstract. It became associated with structural film, where we were investigating the physical material of the medium and the perceptual and mechanical attributes of the system of the medium. This was sort of the end of high modernism. For Angular Momentum I physically scraped the emulsion off black leader and then in an optical printer, with color filters, I made continuously changing colors. With Moment I was exploring systematic arrangements of the frames in time. With Zip-Tone-Cat-Tune I began thinking about the grain as possibly not just a unit of the image, what we now call pixel, but as possibly a frame, so it can be both a unit of the image and a frame for the image. And I created elaborate scores for some of these films.

After I made Works in the Field and Split Decision I found that the Cartesian grid was an overdetermining image and was too limited expressively. So even by the end of the 70s I was interested in finding a way to continue that line of work but where the expressive gesture of the camera was an important element. On the side I was always shooting sketches, making much more lyrical and poetic kinds of images. I was very impressed with [Stan] Brakhage, you know, the way he could use just an 8mm camera and make these pictures that were so powerful. And I wanted to have that but I didn’t really subscribe to his… [long pause, looking for the right word]

Romanticism?

Yes. So I was thinking, “Is there a way I could include emotions and gesture and poetic lyricism in the analytical ideas of structural film?” That’s where all this crazy stuff that I did came from. Coalfields was kind of a culmination of this way of thinking, because it is very emotional and lyrical, but it’s also political, and the politics is both in the form and in the subject matter. And from there, you know, I made the homeless documentary [Home Less Home]. And there the challenge was, “What if I just start with the subject and trust that I’ll invent a form that is appropriate to the subject?” I just can’t drop all the ideas that are in me. In some ways it came out much more conventional than I had anticipated. Home Less Home was very engaging to make but it was also very expensive and time consuming. I didn’t know that I could make another film that way, so I returned to a more personal and smaller scale kind of filmmaking.

Suite is a series of five videos where I use my own body as a way to address personal and family history and a genetic disease [Polycystic Kidney Disease] that all my siblings have inherited but not me. My wife Katy Martin sometimes filmed me under my direction. After completing Suite Katy and I deliberately collaborated as co-directors in Swan’s Island and Skinside Out, which grew out of Katy’s mixed media and performance work where she literally becomes both canvas and painter. In Skinside Out images filmed in the studio are juxtaposed with footage of a construction barge along the Hudson. The film looks for what lies within, beyond the surface.

Who is Susie in Susie’s Ghost? Is the film a documentation of your neighborhood?

Susie in the title refers to my older sister Susan who had recently passed. But the film is about other losses as well. I shot the film in TriBeCa, the Manhattan neighborhood where I’d lived since the 1970’s. I’d seen the neighborhood transform from an abandoned manufacturing district to an enclave of struggling artists to a fully gentrified neighborhood for the ultra wealthy. I made the film in collaboration with former student Ruthie Marantz who had grown up in this neighborhood. Her mother was my daughter’s elementary school principal during the same period I was Ruthie’s college professor. So we shared a connection to the place although from the perspective of two different generations. Ruthie and I each, for our own reasons, were experiencing feelings of loss in relation to the place. Without even talking about it, this became evident in improvisational video sketches we made. Eventually I asked her to improvise performances in the neighborhood landscape while I shot out-of-date 16mm film I had accumulated in my refrigerator. So in shooting up my remaining film-stock I was paying a tribute to a passing medium in the passing landscape during a time of other personal loss including the passing of my sister. Ruthie was dealing with her own passages and these entered the film through the shifting characters she created for the camera.

Many of my films are landscapes where the gesture of hand and eye through the camera carry an ephemeral emotion. With Susie’s Ghost I tried to include a figure in the picture where my framing of the landscape foregrounds as the primary carrier of emotion instead of receding as background for the figurative character. By foregrounding the graphic qualities of the landscape with my gestural framing of the camera, the figure slips into an unstable netherworld and becomes ghost-like, neither here nor gone.

Is this Susie the same sister you portray in Double Nephrectomy?

No. In Double Nephrectomy is my other sister Kathy.

In this film you project your sister’s scars onto your own body, as if you tried to identify with her or become her. What were your feelings at the time about your sister’s surgery? Sorrow, pain, guilt for being free of the disease she suffered from?

Your reading of the film is good. I was thinking about and feeling all the ways you mention. Double Nephrectomy is a double portrait made a couple of weeks after my sister received a living donor kidney from a friend. It’s a way of sharing the scars.

Do you keep many home movies at home?

Yes, I guess so. I never throw that stuff away, so I have all these 8mm films. But the real home movies are mostly video, and they are real home movies, you know, endless pictures of my children.

Huevos a la mexicana.


HUEVOS A LA MEXICANA

Your latest film, Huevos a la mexicana, was premiered at the (S8) Mostra de Cinema Periférico. It is a kind of home movie too.

It is a home movie made at the end of the analog film encounter “Hazlo tú mismo” in September 2018 in Mexico City, organized by Laboratorio Experimental de Cine (LEC) that had a year-long residency at Estudios cinematográficos Churubusco. On the last day of the encounter we all went to organizer Tzutzu Matzin’s hometown, Xochimilco, which is part of Mexico City but is a traditional indigenous village, and they have these canals like Venice. It’s a local tourist site. People come there to ride in these boats and they have parties and there’s food. What the organizers of the encounter did was that they gave people film and said, “Bring your cameras and we’ll have a treasure hunt”. The instructions for the treasure hunt were completely crazy. I didn’t bring my Bolex because it was too heavy. So I joined the group activity with my digital point and shoot camera. And the first thing to do when you go on a treasure hunt with your camera is you have to eat, right? And the official food for treasure hunting with a camera is “huevos a la mexicana”. We all ordered this. That’s why I named this piece like that. It really is a home movie!

But in Huevos a la mexicana you return to the techniques of Split Decision and Coalfields.

The technique comes from Coalfields. I finished Coalfields in 1984, and I thought I had finished with that technique. It took me maybe 10 years to develop these ideas and I wanted to move on. I made a feature documentary [Home Less Home], and I made a series of digital works about the body and family history [Suite]. But I found myself returning to these old ideas when digital video became higher quality and computers, some 6 or 8 years ago, became faster. I had always been interested in video, but the early video didn’t satisfy me. I needed something that was more detailed for the things I wanted to do, the way I was seeing the world.

So I guess I’m still interested in the way that I can complicate the visual field, and have the surface, the material, the image and the audience all moving in a very dynamic way. There is no single purpose, intention or meaning to the technique. I just follow a playful urge with the tools at hand. In Huevos a la mexicana I apply these old techniques in ways that are less conscious and more congenial, casual and playfully exploratory, trying to keep the spirit of the encounter. Since I have been recently trying to preserve Coalfields, I used this film as a case study in the (S8) Master Class for how to do preservation.

The abstract shapes in the grid in Huevos a la mexicana were first drawn on paper. Drawing has also been part of your artistic practice.

Yes, drawing has always been part of my practice and recently a more sustained activity. Some of the shapes in Huevos a la mexicana are drawn with ink on paper, some are animated objects, some are drawn with the mouse in the computer. What does abstraction mean? Because drawing is itself abstract, a two dimensional linear representation of some kind. And I realized that photography works because it’s an abstraction from drawing, it imitates the way drawing works. I am very interested in this relationship between photography, the lens and the marks on paper with pencil and ink. I was thinking back to the work I had made in the 1980s with films like Coalfields, and I thought, “What if I make abstract shapes with the ink on the xuan paper?” I started doing that, and I drew abstract shapes and animated them and composited it into the video, literally bringing the drawing back into the video with the hope that it would bring into the work some of its physical dimension.

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