“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose. It is a seeking that (s)he who wishes may know the cosmic secrets of the world and they that dwell therein.”
ZORA NEALE HURSTON (from Dust Tracks on a Road 1942)
Hanna Kim and Addee Kim
The Bulldozer and the School House (2010)
First Encounter: Mysterious YouTube invitation 16 months about ago. Subsequent Viewing Pattern: Whenever I really need to show off — or remind myself that twelve year old girls are my primary target audience and always will be.
Our digital world makes it possible for a young person to flip open a camera, (re)record their world, and replay, remix, remake dang near anything they’ve seen or imagined. Now one would think that this immediacy of materials would create a flatness, a dull mimicry. But as evidenced by The Bulldozer and The Schoolhouse, by Hanna and Addee Kim (cousins), that’s simply not the case. Their re-enactment of my 4K film Remote Viewing (which was a re-enactment a story told by Rev. James Seawood shifts the narrative focus from the spectator to the worker. In my film this figure is so fused with the machine that he is inexhaustible and mute. In the Kim video, the driver of the bulldozer has a name: Sherman. Sherman requires lunch breaks. Sherman really needs a better boss that doesn’t bully him into shoving schoolhouses into trenches. Shame on me for not extending the same empathy to my perpetrator, the bulldozer operator, as I did to the mother and child who witness the burial of their schoolhouse. It’s a lesson I won’t soon forget. When I asked Hanna Kim (Addee Kim cannot be bothered with email, she’s busy raising funds to buy herself a proper video camera) why they’d decided to re-make my video they said that they thought it would be cool to prove that you don’t need a $50,000 camera (I shot with the Redcam) to make good art. I couldn’t agree more.
Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum
A Short History: Starring Asme as Herself (2007)
Toni Morrison said that she wrote poetry because all she needed was a pencil and a paper to do it at a time in her life when the a room of her own and the time to occupy it was not a secured. Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum found her way to stop motion animation as a means to fleshing out the epic journey and origins of, Asme, the protagonist in her 2D works. In A Short History Starring Asme as Herself, Phatsimo-Sunstrum’s multipled gestures and exchanges occur in a fecund landscape over the stretch of days. The economy of her piece echoes the precision and discipline wielded by poets applying pencil to paper.
First Encounter: Cinematexas 2006. Subsequent Viewing Pattern: Bi-annual rotation plus undergraduate screening at least twice every academic year.
I just want to say that if Jabari Hall-Smith and his fantastic make-up designer, Ogechi Chieke would please just make Lil Big Hed part deux I would be eternally grateful. I need to know how things worked out! Hall-Smith’s African aestheticized experimental animation, green-screen debauchery, and anti-modernist kaleidoscopic applications of color have strong ties to pop culture, as well as a clear link to the spiritually informed animated explorations of Harry Smith. The tradition of making new myths for people who lost (or abandoned) their old ones is a very fine American tradition indeed. The ubiquity of green screen invites cynicism from most movie consumers, but there are some who appreciate the economy of simple magic. Thanks to Jabari, I wholly embrace the feathered lime glow of green screen edges as a reminder that the wizard behind the curtain may have more to offer than mere escape. The green screen is not a locatable space. It never grounds the subjects before it, rather it uproots, dislocated, and sends them floating in an algae of pixels. The green screen is the digital non-site, to every videomaker’s site. Location, location, location.
Turf Feinz: Dancing In The Rain (2009)
First Encounter: Studio visit with Sadie Barnett at UCSD. Subsequent Viewing Pattern: Once (or twice) a week.
One rainy day, at MacArthur and 90th in Oakland, California, we watch young gods at work and play. The Yak Films posse travel the world constructing street choreographies and battles for their Canon 7D. What astounds me about Dancing In The Rain is the way in which these four dancers apply the improvisation strategies perfected in the late sixties by creative musicians like Roscoe Mitchell and Alvin Ayler through the well-trained body’s ability to perform succinct ideas, acute feeling, and vivid images. Each of these young men has crafted a style that amplifies the power of their own bodies while drawing from a the same history and lineage of African-American vernacular dance so gorgeously documented in Zora Neale Hurston’s films shot some fifty years before the advent of hip hop.
A scene from: The Color of Pomegranates (1969)
First Encounter: Home from Virgin Records, Los Angeles, 1994. I wandered the DVD sacks looking for something mysterious for my nascent collection. I choose two films I’ve never seen, but only read about: Ganja and Hess, by Bill Gunn, and this film from the great Parajanov. Subsequent Viewing Pattern: Christmas and Easter.
Deliberate gestures. Rituals. Costumes. Landscape. Architecture. Books. Animals, Tapestries, Seashells, Water, Wool, Earth, Orbs. Flat, and so deep. The Color of Pomegranates is a film about a poet whose life and work intertwined in their quest for ecstasy and insight. Sergei Parajanov tells more truth about memory and language through his cinematic tableaus than any documentary ever could. A vignette can encapsulate a lifetime of love. A flat frame is a wormhole through time. The proscenium of architecture holds history, script, and the eternal reach of the creative impulse. Every object links to a word, every word links to a memory, every memory returns us to ourselves. Alejandro Jodorowsky also uses the flat to disrupt the real. He is cinema’s trickster magician. Maestro Parajanav is the healing shaman of the flat and one of my most valued teachers.
“Pukusana-Tractor (after C. Smith)” (2010)
First Encounter: Summer 2007. Weeks and I argue about “modernism. “ I claim to distrust the textureless purity of thought in that realm. Weeks applies the principles in service of objects and ideas that materialize his hopes and desires for his home country of Peru. He has faith. I have doubts. These conversations are long and productive. Subsequent Viewing Pattern: I just got these films, two weeks ago and I watch them everyday.
Land Art, Smithson, Heizer and their ilk are sacred ground for many artists. We reflect, refer, and pay homage to the fearless gestures that still mark regions of the West and Southwest. So when I tell my friend, Ishmael Randall Weeks, that I need to take this work on, I must contribute my own homage and more urgently my own criticisms regarding the ecological naiveté the absence of any consideration of people, memory and land. I want to revise the earthwork’s vapidity of form, stridently liberated from content. Ishmael Randall Weeks responds to this challenge to things he – we both – hold dear. This program has pleasure of sharing two cinematic documents from Weeks. Shot on 16mm on the nether regions of Lima,Peru, these films, Volquette, and Pukusana-Tractor are beholden to the ways that conceptual artists deployed celluloid to create documents of gestures and actions before Sony Portapaks© were readily available. However Weeks responds to our contemporary longing for and loss of celluloid doing more than capturing and documenting his actions. He deploys cinematic syntax inserts visual commentary, and replaces the observational position of the document-film with the subjective and empathetic point-of-view of a dreamer who would like nothing more for one of those trees to grow roots deep enough to find the water that region so desperately needs..
Darfur: Life in the Bush with the SLA (2009)
First Encounter: Stumbled on this video while using Google© as an oracle. Google: school house,, black, tree, south — and I find this video. Subsequent Viewing Pattern: On serious repeat until the installation of Remote Viewing was complete.
Darfur: Life in the Bush with the SLA sounds like a grand expose of the trials and tribulations of rebel soldiers. But instead it’s a six minute walkabout through a camp during sunrise. The camera hovers above its subjects forcing them to look up into the lens or past it to invite the photographer, Jan-Joseph Stok to sit and have tea – which he refuses. Apparently it’s illegal to run with rebels in Darfur, but Stok was there nonetheless; and he created this document as a way of revealing camp life. There is a strange invasiveness in the way the camera approaches the men and boys it records. I wonder if this ability to push a camera into personal space comes easier when one is daily confronted with the possibility of death. I am grateful for this document even while my film school training forces me to question the relationship between the Framer and the Framed. In Darfur trees are the only shelter refugees have. Hide from the bombs under trees. Teach school under trees. Drink tea under trees. Once can assume they might die under a tree. The soldiers in Stok’s video pray, drink tea, mend weapons, chop onions, wash clothes, and wait for the next encounter with death for their next encounter with the janjaweed. Murder is boring. High angle photography on rebel soldiers is disturbing. I’m not saying they should be framed as heroes, but I do wish that the camera had been set down and the cup of tea had been accepted. However, it’s because that didn’t happen that I’m drawn to this video. This video makes implications about what it means to witness. I believe that responsibility and obligations of the witness are great. And the video makes me complicit in the failure of its testimony. In The Vanishing (a piece in The Kitchen exhibition)I re-enacted Stoks’ tracking shots as a way of trying to make up for being such an impotent witness.
First Encounter: Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture Connor One Studio of Mary Simpson.
Zora Neale Hurston’s work has been recuperated, analyzed an celebrated by dozens of formidable scholars. Rather than frost over their good work with my mediocre ramblings, I prefer to offer you a tease of a very fine and immanently readable article by Elaine S. Charnov. But I want to share a short list of the cinematic devices deployed by Ms. Hurston that I so covet and wish were more deeply ingrained in my own repertory:
- a certain cheeky intimacy
- a friendly, demanding and admiring demeanor the way in which the openness of her subjects indicates that they understand very well that she appreciates them
- her empathy
- her ability to exist in a state of wonderment – which permitted her camera to float away from the voyeurism of anthropological practice and into the realm of personal cinema.
Thank you, Ms. Hurston.
”… The fact that Zora Neale Hurston took motion pictures and that some have survived is, in itself, remarkable. What is even more remarkable is that in the course of a single year of experimenting with the camera, Hurston essentially anticipated a variety of issues that would be central to the field of visual anthropology. In considering filmmaking as a mode to “document culture,” recent scholars have raised some critical questions about the history of the discipline–are films “objective” or “subjective” documents? Must a filmmaker be only an observer of or a participant in the community? Where does a filmmaker stand, literally and philosophically, with regard to the community that she is documenting?”
Click here to read Elaine S. Charnov’s entire essay.
First Encounter: Watching Schneider in the Skowhegan print lab examining fresh print of an exquisite still life. Subsequent Viewing Pattern: I’m always looking for ways to pull the interior out and place the figure in land so that emotional space becomes geographic space. Carrie knows how to do that. So I make her show me all her stuff.
A wall of blond hair descends into a luminous glass of frothy ale, and so begins our tumble into a place where everyone has their part to play but it’s not clear if we (or they) know why we’re playing. In Slow Dance, Carrie Schneider makes longing and the space in-between a full and aching subject that surrounds her figures. Carrie’s photography practice serves her well as a filmmaker and may explain her ability to carve interior space out of the mundane and the overlooked. But it does not explain her uncanny instincts for pacing and dramatic surprise. All of the characters in Schneider’s film are strangely reassuring in that we know, though it may be difficult, that they will abide. Things will go on. People will continue to try to fill the in-between with some part of themselves.
Being Black (2009)
First Encounter: Two months ago while looking for clips of Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason to share with my grad students. We click on the mysterious link and proceed to bug out. Subsequent Viiewing Pattern: I can’t stop showing this piece to anyone who will watch. Thankfully I have undergrads as a captive audience.
There are two videos on Reggie Thomas’s YouTube® page. The other clip appears to be a download from a smart phone. Being Black, however, is as clear of a conceptual art video as they come. Durational videos provide art consumers with the titillating suspense and voyeurism denied us in other forms, practices, and medias. But this video produces an altogether different kind of excitement. Because as Reggie Thomas endures, so must I. And that is why I love this work. Thomas uses the Cheshire trope, so popular in art and cinema as a signifier for shifting and mutable aspects of black masculinity, without giving us the pleasure of child-like associations and escape. He grimaces at us, and we must endure. Empathy, agony, frustration and desire (to be seen, to be recognized) that is beyond words. Beyond Words.
Going On [GNARLS BARKLEY] (2008)
First Encounter: Three years ago while shopping on itunes. Subsequent Viewing Pattern: Whenever I encounter a fellow afro-futurist and am within typing range of the internet. Lately I’ve stopped watching it because I got tired of hearing people tell me that I should’ve made this video.
Well, Canadian-born Wendy Morgan DID make Going On for Gnarls Barkley, and I am so glad she did. Here’s the thing – when I emailed Morgan (over two years ago) asking her for a projectable copy of Goin On for the afro-futurism class I was developing, she replied, “Sure you can have a copy for your class, but what’s Afro-futurism?” I wanted to reply, “Girl, watch your video! You’re schoolin’ us on it’s sexy aesthetics, cooperative politics, and romantic speculations!” But instead I promised her a copy of the syllabus. (It’s coming Wendy, I promise!) Shot on location in Jamaica this video features a delicious mix of dancehall genius, choreographed by ShoTyme, performed by the SASHI EMPIRE crew as led by the charismatic dancer Kemar, and supplemented with the blithe presence of Mystic, his fellow traveler through the portal and into the unknown.
The dance ring, first introduced in the Hurston Films and repeated Morgan and Parajanov alike, this form links us to our past, connects us to our future and maps our way to creative allies, teachers, and thinkers. Morgan halves the frame rate of the ecstatic gesture of arms raised, step-in-unison, tilt-head-to-right just long enough for the vulnerability and grace of each dancer’s body to register before they march onwards with fierce determination. And by doing so she makes my heart skip a beat every single time I watch this pleasure package. I’m clearly not the only one loving on this video because Morgan’s fate as an afro-futurist was sealed with her intoxicating debut video for Janelle Monáe. Check it Maybe, dear reader, when you get a chance, you can help settle (or fuel) the argument about the hooded and mirror-faced figures in Tightrope? They clearly look like Maya Deren’s spectres, but they follow Ms. Monae around like the figures in Space is the Place! So which is it, Wendy? Maya Deren or Sun Ra? Or maybe, given the imagination, spunk, and generosity of Morgan’s work, we shouldn’t have to choose.
1. The UNICprod YouTube page offers no explanation for this video. It is simply titled, Janjaweed. But why do people not run? The choppers overhead in theory are Russian made Sudanese Government-owned. And yet they only survey the village, they do not drop bombs. The videographer is afraid, and hiding, quite dramatically, while people around him appear calm, curious even. I do not trust what I see. I think the choppers are American. I think the men on horseback are defenders of the village. I think the videographer is a witness to something he/she does not understand. Yes, the Oracle (google) misleads – not by giving mis-information, but by failing to provide all the information we need to decipher the images that crystallize in the fog of information we sift. American helicopters have seen everything that has happened to the people of Sudan. Americans are witnesses. And we have done nothing.
2. The woman, she limps. Women only walk the way she walks when they are wounded between the legs. What causes such a wound? Childbirth? (Where is her baby?) Female genital mutilation? Rape? I wonder, and I worry. With all of the crimes being in committed in Sudan, what crime has been committed against this woman?
3. The women of Sudan (and the men) wear bright synthetic turbans, shawls and wraps. I suspect it makes it easier for them to see each other against the barren yellow landscapes populated by horses, helicopters, people and trees. This woman wears a chromakey green skirt, and a forensic tape pink hijab. In the gallery, imprisoned on a flat screen, she must limp up the hill over and over, while a green screen stands stoic like a tombstone, and a forensic grid fails to find any bones. She dissolves. But I can still hear her footsteps: step,drag, step, drag.
My Father and I Dance In Outer Space (2011)
First Encounter: Sixteen years ago in West Oakland On the set of Drylongso. Subsequent Viewing Pattern: I am compelled to screen an Ogunji video every seven months or so.
With My Father and I Dance In Outer Space, Wura-Natasha Ogunji has deepened and refined her endurance performance videos by stripping away everything that we don’t need, and providing us with everything we do need to feel unstable, uncertain, enthralled, and undone. The spirit dancer presents herself, and then proceeds to make a barren landscape with her footprints, moisten it with her sweat and breath. Based on my experience with the Malibu State Park Rangers, the intensity of the Ogunji Spirit’s sustained levitations will certainly aerate that yellow soil. If we return to this site in one month’s time, the Ogunji Figure may not be there, but I am certain, that scented chaparral shrubs, and desert cacti will. Rather than frame and validate the video’s signifiers enjoying direct linkage to Yoruban ritual and Ogunji’s heritage, the artist opens the video to grander possibilities and indeed extends her speculations beyond terrestrial identity into the speculative realm of the cosmological. The discomfort we feel as we sympathetically ache with the strain of Ogunji’s gorgeously choreographed performance is diminished by her application of distance and time. The figure’s placement in the landscape tells us one ting about this gesture while the sky above her tells us another all together. Long Memory. Clouds sweep over Ogunji faster than we can comprehend just as my Malibu clouds confounded my aperture many times over the course of an afternoon of building an inverted maypole and tearing it apart. The Ogunji Spirit is a regenerative force that finally stops because the work is done, not because its powers are exhausted. Just as I was happy to have Wura on my set building the delicate readymades that grace the finale of Drylongso, I am happy to have her videos with me now: Ogunji’s work never fails celebrate and test the confounding tension between the quotidian and the magical.
First Encounter with the Artist: San Francisco State University 1989. Subsequent Viewing Pattern: Every video art survey worth seeing includes a Jenkins piece. And I’m there to see it.
Ulysses Jenkins is one of the godfathers experimental video. Jenkins doesn’t edit; he gene splices. The grass valley switcher is his scalpel, and the cosmic collision of blackness, physics, American pathos, and earthy sensuality are the layers of tissue that he sews, heals, recuperates, and appropriates into interrogative devices for remembering the future and speculating on the possibilities of the past. Regarding Planet X, I offer you Jenkins’ own words:
Based upon the 6,000 year old Sumerian descriptions, our solar system includes a planet called “Nibiru”, which means “Planet of the Crossing”. The Sumerians’ description of this planet matches precisely the specifications of “Planet X” (the Tenth Planet), which is currently being sought by astronomers in the depths of our own Solar System.
This video interfaces the “Planet X” myth, the Katrina tragedy in New Orleans, Louisiana, and the proclamation of prophecy spoken by the avant-garde jazz musician, Sun Ra, who predicted that a disaster would befall African-Americans. This video serves as a reminder….”
Wild Seed (2008)
First Encounter: Somewhere in Texas. First time seeing a Kelly video was a bit like being abducted by aliens. And like most abductees, I assert that I am the better for being probed. Subsequent Viewing Pattern: Whenever we show together, whenever I can get her to send me her reel.
New Orleans and Octavia Butler. Nuff Said. In Lauren Kelley’s video, Wild Seed, a world built from toys, household materials and art supplies, with its self-conscious Alain Robbe-Grillet voice-over and shallow depth-of field landscapes featuring restless topiaries and Marienbad-meets-The_Shining labyrinths settles into a miasma of solipsistic dead ends, and obscured vistas. While all of Kelley’s cinematic and narrative strategies are familiar, it’s the alchemy of the elements that disturbs and destabilizes. In Wild Seed, like many of her longer videos, the video is forced to conclusion by cataclysmic and uncanny circumstances even though the meandering French voice-over has scarcely made its point. I suspect that the voice merely serves is to incubate a peculiar smothering sickness. Water drowns whether it’s bubble wrap or H20. Best we not forget it.
Framegrab from T MINUS TWO by Cauleen Smith